Blink. It wasn’t much of a thought but it’s what the previous one—Needle—morphed into. There was a sharp cold needle pushing down Zed’s throat. Then it was gone. Then it was pushing up his nose. Then it wasn’t. Air. He realized the needle was air. Shafts of shallow breath piercing his body with cold. Needle. Different. Eyes. Dry. Blink... Awareness pushed through the shock and his staring eyes closed.
“Don’t die on me.”
A sound cut through the blissful relief of tears washing over his burning eyes. Another needle-breath subsided in a cough, and there were more sounds from the voice of Edward Nigma. On some level, Zed knew the sounds were words and they meant something, but nothing in his brain was capable of figuring out what.
“…nd try to stay calm.”
Zed opened his eyes again dully. Blink, then open. Blink. Then Open.
“Like the t-shirts say,” he croaked as his lips twisted into the lopsided grin of a buck-toothed bumpkin puppet. “Keep calm… and call… Batman.”
Bruce had gone to the Med Lab and popped three of the aspirin Alfred kept in an old-fashioned drugstore candy jar as if they were peppermints. They were rarely taken for something as mundane as a headache. It might not even be a real headache, Bruce thought as he returned to his workstation. The way it throbbed above his right eye the moment he looked at the At Large list, it was most likely a psychological reaction to the echoes in the day’s task.
Had it really been so long since he’d appeared at social events with women who didn’t know his secret? It was surreal, pulling up the menu for the overlay remembering this was once his routine. The panel on the side of the workstation already displayed a light map of the city with amber dots identifying locations associated with a rogue on the At-Large list: potential targets, suspected lairs, fronts, safe houses and persons of interest... He’d touch his finger to those that seemed the most promising and the amber light would become a Bat-emblem. The system would then recommend a patrol route, which he would accept and send to the Batmobile, or tag and send to the hologram map in the Batmobile hangar for tweaking before he left. That much hadn’t changed.
But there used to be a step before selecting the locations to patrol. The overlay he pulled up now, superimposing a new series of dots indicating events and hot spots over the highlighted map. Had it really been so long? When he and Selina started dating, he’d been struck by the novelty having someone in the room with him that he didn’t have to lie to. If he had to leave a party, he did; she’d know why and she’d cover. But he’d forgotten this part, before he ever walked into the event. Had it really been so long since he looked at the map to find green dots in the vicinity of amber ones so he could select places suitable for Bruce Wayne’s dates that would place him in the areas where Batman was needed? It was bizarre, the realization that this used to be his life, but the astonishment was quickly blotted as he saw amber and green sharing the same micro-square on the grid, the one dot nearly superimposed on the other.
Keep calm and call Batman.
It wasn’t the worst idea Eddie had ever heard, but he didn’t admit it. Instead he resumed his craft project until Zed became more interactive. After about twenty minutes, he started to cough more aggressively. Seeing it as a good sign, Eddie leaned over, helped him sit up and offered water by way of a garden hose.
“You gave me a scare,” Eddie said while Zed drank. “Thought you might kick on me. You were in shock, and the ever popular ‘keep the patient warm’ didn’t seem like a good idea, considering it’s already a steam room out there.” He waited until Zed was finished drinking, and then spoke with the composure and assumption of composure that can only be felt by two men who have faced Batman in Hell Month. “So, Zed, unless you’re a far stupider man than I’ve given you credit for, you have questions.”
Zed nodded, looked around what he assumed was the basement of the greenhouse, the row of guard-plants lining the wall like toy soldiers, the line of shrubbery along the other wall that seemed hostile, and a ball of pine needles waddling across a work table like a dark green porcupine. Yeah, he had questions. He decided to start with the most pressing:
“Why am I naked, and where are my clothes?”
“I guess that’s where I’d start too,” Eddie chuckled. “Your clothes are in that corner under the upside down planter. You do not want to put them back on when you’re strong enough to stand. You can wear this instead.”
Eddie handed over what appeared to be a toga made from a 50-pound bag of fertilizer—similar to one he wore himself, though Zed had been too concussed, confused, and numb with pain to process it.
“Plastic,” Eddie explained. “And you can belt it. Belts and shoes should be safe, but no socks. No cotton, you understand? Pammy, whom I shall henceforth refer to as Darth Ivy, has learned a new trick. You don’t want anything that grows from a seed in contact with your body. Trust me.”
Zed was no longer listening. As he reached for the toga, the skin of his arm sloshed with a mushy soreness. What had been an overall non-specific pain quickly localized. It began at the top of his chest, where the neck of his t-shirt began and extended to the edge of the sleeve, down his chest and all over his legs and feet. The skin was inflamed, with occasional dots of blood like mosquito bites that had not yet formed scabs.
“The hell happened to me?” he asked, trying to process it.
Eddie concealed a smile that Zed would not appreciate. It was figuring out the answer to that question that kept him going for the past several hours, and Eddie was grateful for it. Having a puzzle to tackle—What Happened to Zed?—had kept him focused and sane.
“As nearly as I can tell, Trogofibrosis,” he said calmly. “Chewed by fibers. You were attacked by your clothes. Darth Ivy has apparently found a way to reanimate plant tissue so she can control cotton, flax and hemp just like living plants.”
Zed processed the thought in a whisper of horrified awe that began with the letter F but never made it to the vowel. His eyes started to roll as the memories of the attack flooded in. The next thing he knew, Eddie was flicking his face with water.
“I’m ok, I’m ok,” he said crossly. “I remember now. She was split down the middle like Two-Face. I was kinda mellowed out in that green happy place, and all of a sudden there she was split down the middle. An’ I just flipped out and then—all over my body—an’ my head too.”
Eddie nodded vigorously.
“That threw me a curve. You weren’t wearing a hat, but you must have got bits of petals or something in your hair at some point, because your scalp got the same treatment as the rest of you. Those weird little bites and things.”
“Oh ick, no, the tea,” Zed cried, running his fingers manically through his hair.
“Why would you have tea in your hair?” Eddie asked, annoyed that he’d had a second riddle to solve without knowing it.
“It’s a long story,” Zed sighed. “So how screwed are we?” He was looking around the greenhouse as he said it, noting the number of flytraps and shrubs that surrounded them and that Eddie had a trowel and a pair of pruning shears set on the ground between them.
“The vines are the ones to watch out for,” Eddie said. “Particularly that one. And that thing with the yellow sprouts moves faster than you’d think. They don’t seem to mind my moving around the room, long as I don’t get too close to the door. We’re in the basement, by the way. I think 6th Avenue is that way.”
“Any point screaming for help?” Zed wondered.
With a grimace, Eddie said the police already answered one complaint shortly after Ivy’s attack plants dragged Zed in to join him. Both responding officers were male. Both were greened. She sent one back to file a report while the other… He trailed off and pointed to the ceiling where a man-size leaf-cocoon hung like a sausage.
This time, Zed’s awed but horrified whisper made it to the vowel before his eyes rolled.
Jason Blood hung up the phone with a curious smile. As a wizard, he had known his share of other wizards. Telepaths, ghosts, djinns, incubi, succubi, ghouls, wraiths, and of course an imprisoned chaos demon and Prince of Hell who was privy to all kinds of secret knowledge. But he had never known anyone like Alfred Pennyworth. He was much younger than Jason, they both knew it, yet Jason found himself consulting Pennyworth like a counselor and wise man. Something about him gave you the sense that he had the answers you needed and, being a benevolent spirit, he would tell you as long as you asked with respect and he deemed you worthy.
What Jason wanted was simple enough: Claire had asked him to dinner, and he was to bring the wine and dessert. The former could be bought anywhere, but the latter… Old memories whispered it should be a French pastry. The perfect moments with Claire, the first Claire, were all in Paris and without being conscious of the association, the images in his head when he thought of a sweet to finish off a romantic meal were those exquisite spirals of apples or pears in the windows of the French bakeries…
There were several places in the city where he could pick up an authentic tart au pommes, but it would certainly be more convenient if he could stop closer to Claire’s house in Bristol. A subject on which Mr. Pennyworth was more than informed. So Jason called, and Alfred said yes there was a French bakery in a hidden courtyard near the end of the high street. He gave directions from the florist that Jason knew, assuming Jason had followed his earlier advice with regards to Doctor Sabana and brought her a friendship bouquet. From anyone else, Jason would have found it presumptuous, but with Pennyworth, it seemed perfectly natural: Of course you’d done what he told you to the last time, of course it worked, so of course you were back for more suggestions.
Alfred further recommended, should Jason wish to stop in at Perdita’s Florals to bring Doctor Sabana flowers as well as wine and the tart au pommes, that he choose a scentless bloom on this occasion, as ladies are often moved to put such gifts on the table and we wouldn’t want the aggressive smell of gardenias making themselves conspicuous during the meal.
Jason agreed, fascinated and rather appalled. He’d heard Ninth Generation Magi conjure with less authority. A coventry of warlocks raising a storm of ifrits did not have the soft-spoken but insistent focus of will as Pennyworth recommending that Jason return his wine and any flower purchases to his car before proceeding to the bakery so he would have both hands free to handle the tart (an absurdly simple suggestion to anyone who did not realize the imbecilities Alfred had witnessed in relation to Bruce Wayne’s Fop performances and the depth of destruction that resulted.)
It was clear why the immersive theatre piece called The Queen of the Night came up as an event for Bruce Wayne to make an appearance with the Jetset Twins. It was equally clear why it was tagged as a potential target for theme rogues. At least it had been clear until Bruce looked up, having heard the clip-clip of Selina heels back from her Doris excursion. He turned to ask how it went and got as far as “Crisis avert—” when the question was blasted from his head by the sight of her in one of the sluttiest garments he’d ever seen. An ultra-short club dress—which was great with her legs—and open down both sides from her arm pit down to just above her hip, showing enough side boob to more than make up for the high neck.
“Do we have an undercover mission that I’ve forgotten?” he asked cautiously. “Or are you maybe… from an alternate universe?”
“I know, it’s really not my style,” she laughed, indicating the Batman-blue strip down the center rather than the cut that make her look like an air hostess on a space-shuttle in a 1970s sci-fi epic. “I took Doris shopping and we got very silly. She’s going to be a terrible influence on me.”
“Not necessarily,” Bruce said, tilting his head for a better view of her legs.
“I was thinking I’d return it, but keeping it for undercover is a good idea,” she conceded. “Gina would love it.”
Matches will love it, Bruce thought but didn’t say because PsychoBat had an observation.
“You wore it down here for a reason. What do you want that I’m not going to like?”
What had been a playfully girlish laugh deepened to a wickedly strident one of Catwoman in full villainess mode.
“You’re really not going to like it,” she said, shaking her head. “I want you to stay away from Struann’s tonight.”
“What did you do?” the fierce old-time gravel demanded.
“Nothing terrible, we just talked,” came the careless bad girl reply. “But Doris is very inquisitive. She’s probably going to be curious and go back tonight on her own, just to have a look around and poke into the things I told her about. I know I would. And with Eddie fresh out of Arkham, it’d be a shame if she got herself busted on her own.”
“We do not take things like that into consideration,” Bruce said, firmly but without Bat-gravel.
“Of course you do. You already did, giving them the whole night for their reunion after the Zeitgeist thing. Besides, you know you’re the real winner in that relationship. Eddie won’t exclude her from any part of his plans, and that means he can’t include the knowledge of your identity in those plans.”
Bruce’s lip twitched.
“Not a problem,” he said, pointing to the light map. “Batman’s docket is full tonight. Patrol route and pre-patrol Bruce appearance. Non-violent cat burglars casing a target without intent are not a priority.”
“Oh, you found a place for the Last Bimbo Hurrah?” she asked, coming closer to check out the workstation screen. He looked up at her with a raised eyebrow and she added, “Yeah, okay, that would have sounded better if I didn’t look like a Flash Gordon cocktail waitress. Forget how I’m dressed and impress me with the Bat-brain. Where are you taking Treasure and Trinket?”
“Lise and Lili,” Bruce corrected, punching a series of keys to start a slideshow on the main view screen. “To this: Queen of the Night.”
“The orgy?” Selina said.
“The ‘immersive supper club,’” Bruce quoted from the VIP invitation he’d received some weeks before. “Based on Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. ‘The evening involves feasting, drinking and a little bit of participation on your end, and an exclusive invitation to the post-show revelry.’ Should be tame.” The last ironic words were clearly spoken by the Fop and left Selina shaking her head slowly. That wasn’t why Bruce’s manner changed, however, as he tapped another key to move the slideshow to a side screen and brought up new information on the central monitor.
“It’s at the restored Diamond Horseshoe, originally the vaudeville showcase of Billy Rose. On its own, that’s not enough to entice Poison Ivy, but the Horseshoe is underneath the Roff Paramount Hotel, where the Lund Sisters are staying. Lund from the old Norse lundr meaning ‘grove of trees.’”
“Roff Paramount as in ‘restored by Leonard Roff,’ whom we have to thank for the Joker card in the Trophy Room,” Selina put in, and Bruce nodded.
“Correct,” he said. “Back to the Queen of the Night set up itself: the cocktail service is officially dubbed and advertised as The Mad Distillery, which might or might not pique Tetch’s interest. And—”
“And they have a stuffed white leopard, posed for the prowl and draped in jewels,” Selina said, pointing to the image that just popped up in the slideshow.
“Yes, Blake might take umbrage at that,” Bruce admitted off-handedly.
“He might,” Selina echoed with a gimlet look that said he wasn’t the only one.
“There’s also the guests,” Bruce sighed. “Every night of the run the audience is full of celebrities and socialites, any number of high profile individuals who could be on some rogue’s hit list at the moment. Ahem, yes, Alfred?”
Once again, the abrupt silence of the bats had alerted him to Alfred’s approach, but this time, Bruce was amused to see the glare of disapproval usually reserved for Matches Malone’s sports coat was aimed at Selina’s mini-dress.
“Begging your pardon, sir. Miss Selina has another visitor, a party of visitors in fact. A Mr. Zound and his associates are currently waiting at the front entrance in a rather regrettable van of Volkswagen manufacture. Shall one open the gate and admit them or inform them that Miss Selina is not at home?”
Claire Sabana’s kitchen, like the rest of her house and the similar dwellings in North Bristol, was small. It had never been a problem, cooking for one (or, to be honest, re-heating for one.) Her life was at the stables, training and managing Mr. Wayne’s magnificent string of polo ponies. She pitied anyone who might think that was sad. People like that didn’t love their job the way Claire loved being with horses. She felt alive and balanced and right. The best part of her day was that spent at “work,” and she’d never spent a lot of time and trouble fussing over the rest of it. She’d stop at Harriman’s Gourmet Pantry on her way home from the stables, pick up something already made from the deli, take it home, heat it up and that was that. Theoretically, she could do the same today, just pick up for two. She could. It would undoubtedly taste better than something she tried to make herself, but she felt she should make some effort. She had asked a man to dinner.
Claire was not a romantic, not in the usual sense. Maybe if you considered fantasies about riding the best horse ever bred across a vast unspoiled landscape or living at a time when great herds of wild horses ran free across the plains, then she was a romantic. But not when it came to people. She was friendly but had no friends, only acquaintances she had called friends for the first twenty-odd years of her life before realizing her mistake. And lovers never lasted. She didn’t dislike people, she just didn’t know what to do with them, what to talk about or how to connect. Which made that day at the polo grounds quite perplexing.
Perplexing, it wasn’t even a word Claire used. It was a Jason word. Jason Blood, who she had connected with, without quite realizing how. Jason Blood who seemed to like her and not like her at the same time. Claire wasn’t a romantic, she didn’t read books about aloof and cynical noblemen made bitter by some ancient betrayal but daring to love again when they meet a brilliant and vivacious young astronomer. But if she did read those books, Jason would fit her mental picture.
She made her usual stop at Harriman’s and Paul Harriman had just what she needed. Soup, entrée and potatoes, pre-made; the bread and cheese (and instructions) to make some nice parmesan toast to accompany it; lettuce and veggies to make a side dish and salad herself. Perfect. She would make an effort, but they would… they would have a good meal… either...
Claire looked around as she walked back to her car and settled her shopping bags in the passenger seat. Something felt off, and it couldn’t just be the break in routine, bringing home so much more food than she was used to. It almost felt like she wasn’t alone. Not even like she was being watched, but like there was someone in the car with her. She shook off the feeling, or tried to, because obviously there wasn’t anyone there. Claire knew the difference between being alone—truly alone, completely alone—and being with a lot of living things who didn’t happen to be people. She shook her head once, sneaking a look in the rearview mirror and two in the side mirror. There was no one in the car, and not much activity on the street. She needed to get over these jitters. It was just dinner. Now, where was she?
Jason. He was abrupt and caustic most of the time, except when he laughed and smiled, and even then there was an edge to it. But it never stopped them from connecting. On the contrary, Claire found herself feeling free and easy with him the way she never did with people. She didn’t consciously associate it with horses, but it was as though the part of her that could read the mood of a difficult horse would look at Jason without even perceiving that gruff exterior he showed to the world. It felt… it felt damn queer driving home. That sense of something with her, intrusively watching one moment, passively waiting the next.
She looked in the rearview mirror more often than necessary for the rest of the drive, and every time, scanned the empty back seat. When she got home, she looked again while unloading her bags from the front. She felt like an absolute idiot, but at least she hadn’t opened the door and felt around the empty seat. She shook her head, muttered “quite perplexing” and then snickered as she went inside, adding “Cheerio, pip-pip. We must have the queen to tea.”
Seconds passed in silence. Then a dog barked in the distance. A car passed. Underneath her car’s front right fender, a bit of green rope covered in moldy goo dropped onto the top of the tire. It seemed to stretch out, unfurling leaves that had been stuck close to its body and revealing itself to be a creeper vine. It slithered down the length of the tire, then inch-wormed to the edge of the lawn where it seemed to gain strength from contact with the grass. Refreshed, it slithered with unnerving speed to the front porch where a pair of potted shrubs framed the front door. It curled around the base of one, like a snake bedding down for a nap around a flagpole, and silently communed with the larger plant.
To the world it might seem like the Z took very stupid risks. Zound had always been philosophical about it. Joker might kill you for wearing a brown shirt. He might kill you for not wearing a brown shirt. You could never tell, so there was no point worrying about it. Rogues were dangerous, sure, but they were just as dangerous to people who didn’t charge them for a tractor seat barstool, scissor lift end tables and a stainless steel sculpture of a shark. So why not?
The only Rogue they’d ever taken on in a borderline stupid way was Catwoman. There was no denying that Zound had challenged her; some might even say he’d threatened her. That would strike a lot of people as stupid. Catwoman could and would hurt you—but she also had a rep for being non-lethal and not particularly crazy. Zound was betting she would listen before scratching, and listen long enough to appreciate that the Z had been provoked. The gamble paid off, she almost seemed to respect him for it, and that’s why when the war came along, she wound up being the Z’s guardian angel.
That’s what he told himself the whole drive out to Bristol.
That’s what he told himself when they came to that big iron gate out of one of those Christopher Lee movies they’d watched under Maxie Zeus’s lightning machine.
That’s what he kept on telling himself when a butler—a friggin’ butler who was just about as intimidating as Christopher Lee—led them through a house that made the movie castle look like a roach motel. Zound would have liked to use the bathroom. If only Zowie, Zook and Zoiks weren’t following behind him while he followed the scary ass butler. If only he was alone, he’d definitely ask to use the john.
Nah. Better plan: if he was alone, he’d just turn around and leave. This was a bad idea. It was a bad idea. It was one thing to challenge Catwoman in a booth at the Iceberg Lounge. It was another thing entirely to show up at her house and—side boob.
He blinked. There she was, not Catwoman but as Selina Kyle and—and—Oh this was a very bad idea.
“Keep calm and call Batman,” Zed whispered, laying on his back and staring up at the wide ledge overhead that looked almost like a catwalk. From the guard plants’ point of view, he hoped he looked unconscious.
“Keep calm and call Batman,” Eddie replied softly. They touched knuckles in gesture of covert encouragement, and it was as if the act pressed the button on an invisible iPod and the Mission Impossible theme began to play. Zed began to convulse. Eddie looked panicked and jumped to his feet. He grabbed the garden hose, jabbering about getting him water. He ran to the sink to turn on the spigot, pulling the hose across the path of the three potted palms. With a howl and summoning all his strength, he pulled the hose taut, holding the palms back as Zed leapt up and climbed a steam pipe as fast as he could. Vines slithered after both of them at frightening speed, chittering like insects while they moved. The guard plants pushed against the hose and Eddie strained to keep them back, while a vine reached his foot and started snaking up his leg. He kicked and hopped rather than let go of the hose as clay pots started falling like bombs from above.
Another day Bruce would have listened in while Selina met with a foursome of known criminals in the morning room. Today he merely watched on the closed circuit while telephoning Lise and Lili. A Page Six pro like Bruce Wayne could not possibly pick up the Jetset Twins from Norway and escort them to an event in the basement of their own hotel, so he’d arranged a pre-show excursion and of course a car (from a service whose drivers frequently tipped the press.) They’d go out to Center548 in Chelsea, make a splash at Wine Riot: Gotham and then return to the Paramount for a well-photographed entrance to the subterranean nightclub.
Like riding a bicycle, he was able to relay this information to Lili in full fop mode while giving the video feed his full attention, accepting a chorus of giggly approval for kjære elskede Bruce while Batman analyzed every nuance of Selina’s deepening frown. She wasn’t angry when the men ogled her dress; he could see that. She was dismissive. She’d probably forgotten she was wearing the silly thing, and her manner matched his at the Watchtower waiting for a League meeting to get started. She looked the way he felt when O’Brian was being a clown, West and Raynor encouraged him, J’onn and Arthur were joking telepathically, and all he wanted was to put an end to the nonsense and get down to business. Then his attention wavered in a spate of alltid så morsomt kjære elskling elskede Brucie-ing, and when he looked back, there was the frown.
Selina’s face was a mask he could read as clearly as if the video had sound. Worried.
Before, she wanted the visit over so she could get back to the cave and get in some more teasing before he took off for his date (and probably so she could change out of that stupid dress.) Now she wanted them gone so she could brief him. Now she wanted to get started on the case, and her glance toward the camera said that “the case,” whatever it was, started with talking to him.
..::How we missed you at Cannes, Brucie elskling. The Villa Schweppes drops anchor by the Croisette. Music festival begins—Sebastien Tellier, Kavinsky—and we dance all night on the world’s biggest sailing ship.::..
Bruce hadn’t concerned himself with Selina’s earlier meeting. She met with Doris, said she was going out with Doris, and she came back with a new dress and tales of the auction house. Despite the last, it wasn’t necessarily a Catwoman matter. It could have been, it could have been rogue-related, Nigma-specific or otherwise, but it wasn’t necessarily so. Selina could have gone out with Doris strictly as a friend, and because they shared a common interest, their conversation turned to the auction house.
“Of course, saw your Instagram with Sky Ferreira at the after party,” he said glibly. “I’m looking at it right now,” he added with a glance at the bat Walapang hanging low over his workstation.
They shared a common interest, their conversation turned to the auction house. Doris was voracious for all the cat burglar insights she could get from Selina. She had an inquisitive mind and a novice’s enthusiasm. She would be eager to try out anything Selina mentioned, however casually, and Selina was perceptive enough to know that. Hence the warning.
..::Designed by Luca Dini, so of course we thought of you. So much onyx, all so black and shiny, we looked at each other and said ‘Kjære elskede Bruce!’ ::..
There was no certain information about Doris’s visit, if it was Rogue business or if it involved Riddler. Whatever it was, Selina didn’t think it was important at the time. She didn’t think it was anything to worry about until this meeting with the Z.
“Oh ‘Nameless’ is the name of the yacht. How silly of me. I always forget,” he fopped.
Ditto, there was no definite information that the Z matter that did worry her was somehow connected to the Doris visit, but it was too much of a coincidence to ignore. So how might Doris be connected to the Z in a way that didn’t seem alarming at first, but was now after shopping and the auction house?
..::The pier full of oysters and champagne, like La Gold Plage, but they had no beach, so they built one. Nothing to do but sit around until the sun sets, or until they run out of oysters.::…
The Z were dangerous. Connected to every name rogue, keepers of countless secrets, knew all about the hideouts and safe houses, installed half the deathtraps even if they didn’t design them – and the girl had a twitchy finger when it came to setting off explosives. All had at least henchmen-level fighting skills, at least one practical specialty like plumbing or electronics, and the one called Zooks had combat training.
“Of course, like they always say, ‘You can’t have too many beachside restaurants.’”
Selina had equipped the Z with Wayne Tech gear during the war. He’d have to access her workstation to get the tracking codes and… Grunt.
..::Until we finished the photo shoot at the villa with the golden statues, and then took us back to La Plage for mojito ice cream.::…
“Mojito. Ice cream,” he echoed absently.
Five units were given out. Only four were in the morning room now. The fifth was offline… and checking the historical data…
“Is Maryan Gandon still the chef there?”
…The fifth unit given to the Z had gone to the Prince Street location seized from Falcone that Selina had converted to a Cat Lair. It went there shortly after Selina left the manor with Doris this morning. Then it traveled to a number of other locations, then it was stationary and now it was offline while the remaining Z all came to see Selina.
“Well you mustn’t tell me all the stories now, darlings. I want to hear the whole thing tonight, from the beginning. See you then!” He hung up, scribbled an address and touched a control on the workstation to send it to the GPS hub. Seeing that the morning room was now empty, he raced up the stairs to intercept Selina in the clock passage.
“The missing Z is here,” he said, handing her the slip. “Whatever you and Doris had him doing, it took him into FloMa and he never came out. That address is only a block or so off the market. Do you want to go in alone or—I’ll cancel this thing tonight in a heartbeat if you want company?”
Zed could throw a mean fast ball, he said. But even though Eddie wasn’t completely clear what that was, he knew it meant from a regulation pitcher’s mound, not hunched over and balanced precariously on the ledge in a greenhouse basement. Still, it was the best idea they had—CRASH—assuming Zed could avoid hitting Eddie’s head instead of a guard plant—CRASH—HEY!—and—CRASH—somehow avoid falling himself—CRASH—not run out of pots—and—CRASH—somehow deal with the vines shimmying up the pipe.
Jason Blood’s scorn was as much a part of him as Etrigan, interwoven with the fabric of his soul. There was no month or year when a less cynical Jason ended and the crusty one began. If anyone suggested something so puerile as his having forgotten what happiness felt like, he would have dismissed them for the gullible imbeciles they were. He would allow that he was in love with Claire, a concession the gullible imbeciles would take as a victory, for credulous imbeciles thought love made one happy. Despite millennia of evidence and an episode or two of personal experience to the contrary, they would hold to that great lie like it was the last breath they would ever take.
Jason had no such illusions. He had none when he loved the first Claire and… well, what was the point in dwelling on it. Another child thrashing around in emotions she didn’t understand, and another mortal whose grave he lived to stand over, wanting to remember the best of her but dwelling only on her folly.
It’s Jason Thud you should be named.
Jason tried to respond, but got no farther than Et- when the ‘breathless’ Demon continued.
Or Jason Brood, now that sounds right.
Mourn her, Jason, mourn away. Never see the lie.
Stop right there or I’ll be stopping by the library on the way home for that new book on Norse Mythology, Jason thought savagely. I know how you like seeing pictures of Hella as depicted by mortals.
Etrigan snarled, but it seemed, surprisingly, that he would do no more. Jason was intrigued. It wasn’t the first time Etrigan relented when they fought about Claire. It was as if he poked out of habit, showed antagonism because it was expected, but secretly approved. Why a chaos demon, prince of hell and liar like Etrigan would approve of him and Claire, that was a troubling question.
Maybe… probably… Etrigan simply wanted Jason to have doubts. Yes, that was it. Now that he’d decided to tell Claire about Etrigan, Etrigan wanted to stop it.
“Our situation has not improved!” Zed yelled as the vines closed in, backing him into a corner.
“Tell me something I don’t know!” Eddie cried from below, pounding on a flytrap snapper with his fist.
Zed felt something hard at his back and reached around to feel what might have been a plastic tarp folded on a wooden shelf. At first he used it in its folded form to beat on the encroaching vine, and then as it started to unspool, he got the idea to unfurl it completely and thrash at the vines like a lion tamer. First it recoiled, then it reared up like a snake and started lunging at his throat after each thrash of the tarp.
“THE HELL, DID SHE MAKE THEM SMART? IT’S WAITING FOR THE RECOIL! IT’S TIMING ITS STRIKES!” he screamed.
“Don’t let it get around your neck!” Eddie advised from below.
“Ya think?!” Zed shrieked, then chanted quietly to himself. “Keep calm and call Batman. Keep calm and call Batman. Keep calm and call...” He spotted the light fixture. “Batman!” he cried.
“Where?” Eddie squeaked, head-butting a rose bush.
Twisting the tarp frantically into a loose almost-rope, he tied it around a—something metal made for some gardening purpose he couldn’t guess—and tossed it at the overhead light, lassoing it like the ugliest, luckiest and least-probable batarang in history. He swung down to plant both his feet in the center of the flytrap attacking Eddie, with all the force his 200-lb bulk could manage before the light fixture snapped and added an additional yank of gravity. He landed hard, shoulder first, and felt a sickening jolt as everything inside his chest seemed to slosh to the other side. Before he could react, something green picked him up from the floor, only to hurl him sideways into the wall and then smash him into the floor a second time.
“euh-ow,” was all he managed, his blurred vision clearing into what he knew was the last thing he would ever see: a cracked wall with a blurry streak across it. A fascinated calm descended as he realized the streak was his blood, and an icy acceptance as he realized the pressure around his middle was the same plant ready to smash him into it again.
Catwoman had never needed help dealing with the likes of Poison Ivy, and partnership with Batman wasn’t going to change that. The only reason to bring him along would be for fun, and it was much more fun making him go ahead with the Jetset Twins. He was so cute presenting her with that gift-wrapped feat of deduction—Way ahead of you, Kitten; here’s the address—and then proposing a reward (though he would never call it that) of cancelling the twins for an early night of Batmanning.
“You’re a big boy, Bruce. If you want to cancel on those silly women, you don’t need my permission. But don’t pretend it’s because Batman is needed.”
“It’s Pammy; it’s a coffee and cake run.”
“After all the pretty excuses I heard from you over the years, pretending that taking other people’s property isn’t criminal behavior, you couldn’t let me have this,” he graveled.
“Maybe if you’d let one go by now and then without arguing, I would have.”
“Because the last person to legitimately own the thing was buried with it six thousand years ago, I’m supposed to accept a rationalization like that?”
“They dropped everything and crossed an ocean for a last bit of fun before you’re off the market.”
“Heading to the Diamond District when you’re done with Isley?”
“Top of Shenoa & Co above the traffic cameras?”
“See you there.”
“Enjoy the show.”
In his pre-Z henching days, Zed had been knocked out once by Batman, once by Nightwing and once by Batgirl. He knew the shutdown before the hit, when some blessed defensive mechanism decided 'that’s going to hurt and you’d rather not be here for it' and switched off his awareness just a split second before contact. He was pretty sure the hits he didn’t feel from all those gloved fists were different from the one he didn’t feel now. He might have said it was because ‘this was the one that killed him,’ except he didn’t feel dead. His mouth was hanging open and he couldn’t close it. He tasted electricity, though he had no idea why he thought he knew what electricity tasted like. The whole right side of his head felt ridiculously heavy—though not smashed into a wall, so that was something. And as nearly as he could figure, that last hit he didn’t feel, the one that was supposed to smash his brains into the wall, wound up feeling like a sizzling jolt somewhere around his chest—though he no longer had a sense of any part of his body below the neck. It was all just a shapeless mass of hurt. If he had any specific awareness, he might have realized his arm was extended upward and his rump was bouncing over hard steps as Edward Nigma dragged him up out of the greenhouse basement with only one hand...
Eddie dragged Zed by his wrist. It probably wasn't good for him on top of his other contusions, but it only took one hand. Eddie kept his other hand free for the electrified weapon he held like a knife, stabbing at any plant he could reach. His nose twitched with psychotic satisfaction each time he made a leaf sizzle until he smelled fried plantains.
“Fatal. Nerd. I,” he pronounced laboriously as he dragged Zed’s bulk over the last three steps.
Then he let the arm drop, looked at the room before him, and panted. Fatal. Nerd. I. Just a few letters away from completing the anagram, but he was no longer sure what letters remained.
He panted. And again, he looked.
The back room of the greenhouse, a space still teaming with plants, though at least this bunch didn’t seem hostile like the guards downstairs. He was pretty sure Darth Ivy was gone. The fight hadn’t been quiet. She would have heard if she was around.
S… Fatal Nerd I, he hadn’t used the S. That was it. That’s how to keep calm, keep his head clear. Solve the puzzle. Use the S.
The greenery up here really didn’t seem hostile. They just sat like ordinary plants. He wondered if he should just try to leave instead of searching for a way to call for help. It would be quicker.
Unless it didn’t work. Then it would be fatal (nerd I something-with-an-S.) He certainly didn’t have another fight in him. He was weak as a kitten, and Zed might very well be dead. (Dead Zed anagrammed as Dazed Ed, which was not calming at all.) He really couldn’t risk provoking this lot of flora, but maybe he could at least leave Zed unattended while he searched for a phone. He could certainly move faster that way.
Faster, F. There was only one F and he used it in Fatal. Shit. S. Did he use the S? Fatal Nerd I…
Why wasn’t it working? It always worked. Keep the mind occupied. That’s how to stay sane. Sane, S-A-N-E, all the letters he needed were in there. F-R-I-E-D P-L-A-N-T-A-I-N-S, minus the S-A-N-E so… Sane Lad Rift Nip!
Ha! Yes. Now where to find…
AHA! Padlocked box by the lemon tree. It looked exactly like the kind of lined footlocker a smart Rogue kept on hand to store Batman’s utility belt on those happy occasions when you captured the masked menace. Exactly where Darth Ivy would have tossed his phone and Zed’s.
Unlike Eddie, Zed, or Officers Rilus and Rochenko before her, Catwoman did not start by ringing the buzzer at the 28th Street entrance and letting herself into the greenhouse only after that got no response. She’d driven into town equipped for a break-in and parked in what she considered her Prowling Downtown Alley. The absence of the mask and an overcoat covering the rest of her costume were her only concessions to the daylight. She took a fire escape up to her usual roof, shed the coat, donned the mask, and made her way to the roof of a garden supply store Batman had tagged as “the prime observation point and staging area for either covert penetration of the greenhouse or a full-out assault.”
At least it had been a prime observation point. There was a lot more greenery blocking her view than on previous visits, but it was still better than going in blind. She lowered herself to the greenhouse roof and went to work on the standard Kittlemeier pressure panel blocking the most vulnerable window—when her comm went off just as the entire glass panel shattered around her. Shards flew everywhere. The instinct to throw both her arms up to shield her face did protect it, but it twisted her backward as she fell, causing her to land in the worst possible position: hard, on her back, and spread eagled in a bed of fragrant giant basil.
“Ahhlgh,” was the pained exclamation as the raw burning in her back vied with a blinding throb in her head. For a moment blackness threatened, but she shook it off—and just in time as she pieced together what made the glass shatter. It was one of Ivy’s particular laments that she couldn’t control ‘ancient trees’ with the same ease as she did her creeper vines, and it looked like she’d finally found a solution. A mass of at least thirty vines all twined up together on top of a big, shrub ‘trunk’ so they… or it… could act like a massive tree. How exactly it built up enough pressure to break the glass by ‘standing up’ was a question for later when her head wasn’t swimming. For now, the question of claws versus whip was all she could manage.
Claw swipes were letting its tendrils get uncomfortably close, but—swipe-swipe—they seemed to hurt the beast-tree more. Little bits of shredded stem flew everywhere after every swipe, and her hissed warning “Get close, lose leaves,” seemed more effective than it ought to be against a giant weed.
Still, the claw-swipes only delayed the inevitable, so combining a left-hand swipe with a vicious snarl, Catwoman managed to unfurl the whip with her right, squat and break into a sweeping, overhead cyclone strike. Huge chunks of vine fell where only leaves had before—which seemed to piss it off. The vine-monster became more aggressive, but undeniably smaller. That was a fair trade-off. Catwoman didn’t mind an aggressive opponent, it made it easier to kick its ass.
She became more aggressive too, switching between the overhead sweeps and forward slashes in a wide figure-eight. The muscles in her back were starting to hurt like hell where she’d hit in the fall, but she couldn’t let that slow her down now. She pressed forward, forcing the plant-beastie back, until it actually ducked its… ‘head’ to fit through the doorway.
“HEY, WHAT THE FUCK?!” sounded from the room behind it.
“Eddie is that you?” she called out, but couldn’t bother hearing the reply as the vines caught onto the idea of grabbing her whip. They were dragging her by it, closing the distance as she tried to dig in her heels and slow them, tried pulling back, using all her strength to get it free. Letting go meant losing her most effective weapon against this thing, and she’d have to leverage the act to do maximum damage.
She swallowed, then thrust backward with all her might to risk letting go with her right hand. She clawed frantically at the little pouch under the whip holster, retrieving a small pellet that was not meant to be used this way. She inserted it feverishly into the whip handle with her right hand while her left strained to keep the whip taut. The muscles were on fire from the wrist up to her neck, but she blocked it out, concentrating only on not piercing the pellet with her claw. Her heel broke and she skidded helplessly towards the vine-tree until she could regain her footing, while managing—she hoped—to get the little wheel at the base of the whip handle turned all the way to full.
Finally, she gave up. Pressing the small button on the handle and letting go, allowing the whip to snap back into the vine-tree with all the force of its pull—
-3- On impact, a blue arc of electricity sprung from the handle and darted back and forth between the pronged ‘cat ears’ on its tip. The shock was meant to disorient a 220-pound crimefighter wearing body armor, not an ungrounded plant-beastie within sizzling distance of Ivy’s cluster of steam pipes—
-2- Catwoman heard a crackling like indoor thunder and Eddie’s scream in the room beyond, where she couldn’t see because the doorway was blocked by a frying plant-beastie rearing up and thrashing around like a wounded bear—
-1- A tendril of which snapped out and grabbed her ankle in the last second before she dove away, delivering a punishing hint of the electrical charge that surged through her and into the ground—
—BOOM! The pellet meant to explode in the tumbler cavity of a Bartolo vault met the electric charge from the whip handle and blew electrified plant guts everywhere.
“Fuck,” Selina managed in an exhausted exhale as the strength left her arms and she collapsed into a failed pushup.
For a moment there was nothing. Then a high-pitched, distant tone that became ear ringing. That became the pounding of a heartbeat, a sudden awareness of blood pumping through her veins and then… the numbness rushed away as she took a sharp, deep breath. Light, sound and thought came crashing in: greenhouse, plants, plant bits, electric sizzling, electric sizzling vine of death, Eddie screamed, back hurt, whip lost, leaf bitch will feel PAIN!
Catwoman struggled to her feet, tears in her eyes, body soaking wet, both nipples on fire, and tingling in her legs. She looked around the decimated central room of the greenhouse, offering a silent prayer of thanks that the sprinklers hadn’t gone off. She stepped carefully over the still quivering remains of the vine-tree and into the back room where—
She hurried but continued to step carefully to the prone figure lying in the torrent of foul-smelling steam pouring from a ruptured pipe. He was breathing, but there were burns and bruises on his face and body that were becoming progressively and disgustingly purple from the steam. She dragged him clear of it, and in doing so, saw two things: he clutched a phone, holding it to his chest with both hands as if protecting it, and Zed was lying here too. He was in the very back of the room, against a wooden door. Catwoman went there first to see if he was breathing. Finding he was, she then eyed the door. She eyed the door knob, thinking how every moron in every horror movie ever made would turn that knob in defiance of all common sense. The urge to do it anyway was strangely powerful, knowing full well the biggest monster yet would be lurking there, and if she was lucky she would just barely get it shut in time.
She looked down at the phone she’d taken from Eddie. Zed’s phone. A text had been sent, with another half-typed but unfinished. She recognized the number, deleted the unsent message and, eyes fixed on the door knob once again, touched the screen to dial the number.
“You’re on your way?” she asked before he could speak.
..:: ETA nine minutes. ::.. came the delicious Bat-gravel.
“Make it fifteen and go back for some industrial herbicide. Or herbicide grenades. Or weed killer napalm. We’ve got a basement full of beasties.”
..:: ETA nine minutes. ::.. he repeated.
“Of course, you’re already packing a weed killer bazooka. Is there an ambulance on the way too?”
There was a brief pause, and then:
..:: There is now. ::..
“Meow. In that case, I won’t see you. Leaving here now to avoid the Q&A, but I’ll follow them to the hospital and stay with them.”
..:: Affirmative. Keep me apprised.::..
“Uh, no, I don’t think so.”
..:: Repeat. ::..
“I’m not going to call you in the middle of Queen of the Night. Any news will keep until Shenoa. See you then. By the way, the Lanscome penthouse that time, I gave you a shock with the whip handle. I’m very, very sorry about that.”
The aroma of baked apple and cinnamon filled Jason’s car as he turned onto the picturesque sycamore-lined street. Despite his earlier cynicism, associations of warm, homey pleasures accompanied them. It was decided: If, in the course of the evening, Claire’s invitation to dinner appeared to be an overture for sex, then he would tell her about Etrigan tonight before things got physical. If dinner was just dinner, then he would reciprocate. He would not ruin a romantic evening with revelations about curses and a chaos demon. He would invite her to dine with him next week and tell her then.
He came to a stop before Claire’s cottage, parked, and deftly unloaded the flowers, wine and tart au pommes with an efficiency that would make Pennyworth proud. Having no free hand to ring the doorbell, he murmured a sǻlvè ήεcяδmaлce, which got the job done just as well.
Or it should have. He heard it. But when Claire didn’t answer (and Etrigan snickered) Jason jostled his bundles and rang the button the regular way. Again there was no answer, but this time, he… felt Etrigan smile. A tiny spark of dread unfolded into a tiny flame.
What do you know? he thought sourly. What are you hiding from me?
Within his mind, a leathery clawed talon poked through the curtain of awareness and parted the veil it had drawn over Jason’s second sight.
“NO!” he shrieked, striking the door with a combination of magic and physical force—magic doing most of the work that pushed the door open, but the physical effort smearing the wood with an ochre-apple slime that made the scene within appear more violent.
Claire lay on the floor, eyes staring, her body contorted into the sickening posture of a Jilaiya sacrifice. The only immediate sign that she was alive was her hand twitching, and Jason rushed forward to find another. He bent over her, willing her chest to move, and to give mouth-to-mouth, perform CPR, or share life force if necessary. As he started to reposition, he pulled his hand back in shock. It was covered in a chunky white powder where he touched her blouse. Everywhere he touched the fabric, it had ceased to be cloth and broken down into this… fibrous… dusty… stuff.
“What is this?” he said with same the echoes of foreboding as Prior of Albi once asked about sorcery.
Claire convulsed, and Etrigan’s chuckle became a full cackle of demonic glee.
To be continued...