When you begin training, you are formless. You
have expectations and no knowledge.
Given the parting barb, Bruce wasn’t surprised that Selina-Colette was at the rendezvous ahead of him. She’d presumably taken the FDR and bypassed the midtown congestion. Now she stood primping her disguised reflection in the glass and mirror of a York Street facade.
“I have purchased two ties,” he announced dryly, standing behind her and holding up a pair of slim bags as he met her reflected eye in the glass.
“Good,” she said over her shoulder—and Psychobat awoke. It was the tone of her early meows. So much understated satisfaction packed into a short, soft sound, because some little detail had just fallen into place. Something he’d said or done that meant everything was going according to plan… The muscles of his neck tightened as he realized the corner they were standing on, and Psychobat fumed at the great detective not putting together it the moment Selina named the cross street.
“Crispin’s,” he said as they began the short walk to the second oldest auction house in the city. “Why not Struann’s? That’s where you brought Doris.”
“I’ve taken her to both, but… this is us.” She pressed against him subtly as they pretended to look in the window.
“I see. Other couples have a special song, we have—”
“Goddamn right we do. There’s no avoiding the associations; we may as well embrace them.”
She grinned and they went inside. The doorman said Tommy should check his bags and pointed him to the coat check. When he returned, Selina was smiling expectantly and asked what he noticed.
“Nothing in particular,” he said, hoping he hadn’t missed a cue. Having a bag to check was clearly the aim of buying the ties, but—
“Aw well. I know it’s weird, but it pays off more often than you’d think. Beginner’s luck kind of thing.”
“Luck?” he hissed. “Luck?!”
“This is why I didn’t tell you beforehand,” she laughed. “I knew you’d kick.”
“How much of this training is going to include criminal superstition and nonsense?”
“It’s hunting, Tommy. Hunting involves luck: good if you’re the predator, bad for the prey.”
He considered that as a crimefighter. He was planning to start his early patrol at 14th Street tonight because of their earlier conversation about Fils Précieux. That could be viewed as luck for someone planning a drug deal across town at the Hudson air strip, and a bad break for someone pulling a job at Downtown Mutual.
“There’s a random aspect, I see that,” he admitted. “But little rituals that pretend to influence a chance occurrence are irrational. It’s—”
“Fun. It’s pronounced ‘fun.’ That’s why you buy a tie that you like. It’s silly and playful and probably not going to produce any leads, but it starts the day off on a light note and you come away with a nice tie. You’ll be a lot better at this when you loosen up. C’mon, Exhibition Room 1 has Rare Books and Manuscripts for tomorrow’s sale. Room 2 is Wine and 20th Century prints. Today’s auction starts at two. It’s an estate sale, so all kinds of diverse goodies. Maybe some of your favorites if your luck holds: old silver or Chinese jade.”
“Luck again,” he grumbled.
“Old Master Drawings are coming up next week. They’re not out yet but we can get a catalog before we go.”
“You’ll be thinking your costume gives you nine lives next.”
The grouchy crimefighter may have lingered as they walked the exhibition rooms, for Selina experienced an intense moment of déjà vu when she stopped at a 1946 bottle of Pétrus and suddenly felt Batman’s presence behind her.
“This is interesting, but not why we’re here,” he observed without a hint of a gravel, but Selina still gave a little shudder before turning.
“Whatever you were just thinking about when you came up to me, don’t,” she advised. “Now let’s get registered for today’s sale.”
Once they were settled in the main auction room, Selina gave him a few minutes to peruse the catalog before resuming.
“The exhibition rooms were about the merchandise, obviously,” she explained in a low whisper. “This room is not. This room is about the crowd. First impressions?”
Tommy appeared to look down at his catalog while he surveyed the crowd, then he leaned in and reported his conclusions as if he was talking about an item he might bid on despite its being a little beyond his price range:
“The woman in yellow is here to buy. So is the Asian couple in the first row, the balding older man in the fourth and the redhead next to him, but they’re not together. Dark glasses with the gold collar in the back is a broker, if she bids it’s for a client. And tall, thin, looks a bit like Jonathan Crane in a Helmut Lang, he is here for one specific thing and he doesn’t intend to leave without it. The blonde taking her seat now, that’s a trophy. Might or might not buy; it’s her first time decorating the house and she’s here for ideas. The older blonde in the pearls: also a trophy, also a ‘might buy,’ but mostly she’s here to be seen…”
“Okay, okay, you can read a room, no surprise there,” Selina smiled. “And you picked something worth tracking from the catalog?”
He pointed out a Georgian punch bowl with lion head handles that fit Tommy’s history with silver, but fearing it wasn’t sufficiently valuable, he also marked a gold-leafed terra cotta figure simply because he liked it.
“1905, after a Bertrand in the Louvre,” Selina noted, as well as something else: the figure’s conspicuously shapely calves and thighs. “You do like the legs,” she whispered, pressing her own into his. “I’m going after this,” she said, pointing to a Chinese porcelain cat. “Unless that kitty ate the Maltese Falcon with a cache of diamonds inside it, that’s a ludicrous opening bid. The only thing more ridiculous is the sales estimate. Something’s going on there.”
Over the top of Tommy’s glasses, the unmistakable eyes of The Batman met hers accusingly.
“You realize this is how it happens, that ‘special gift’ of yours, going after the one item that’s more than it seems and leads into a John LeCarre novel?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said primly.
“‘If there are wheels within wheels, I will somehow stumble onto that particular artifact, condo, gallery, whatever,’” he quoted. “It was the first thing you admitted when we started talking frankly.”
“I go after what’s interesting,” she said, pointing to the leggy terra cotta in his catalog as she added, “And so do you.”
The sale began. They each bought a small item from the first inexpensive lots—she: a plated, late-century tea strainer for Alfred, he: a Meissen salt cellar—and then they sat back and watched. Tommy’s punch bowl and the terra cotta were both won by the buyer he dubbed ‘Jonathan Crane in Helmut Lang’ while Selina’s cat was bought by Bidder #51, the woman in yellow.
The routine afternoon sale of an unexceptional estate had only two cashiers at the long table in the back of the auction room, and it was a simple matter to stage manage their exits so that each was in line to check out behind their respective target. Tommy got his target’s address by playing with his phone as he waited in line, fiddling with the stylus and sending a simple jamming pulse at the crucial moment to sabotage the cashier’s attempt to run the credit card. It failed once, twice… and the third swipe went through, but the Crispin’s SOP forced the cashier take a phone number and copy his driver’s license. Crane-in-Lang looked uncomfortable at the delay it was causing in the line, and Tommy was quick to put him at ease, mentioning that something similar happened to him once with airline tickets. With the amount being debited, credited and debited again several times, his card had been flagged and was declined that night at dinner, so it would be a good idea for Crane-in-Lang to give AmEx a call before he tried to use it again just to make sure everything was okay... It was just enough conversation for Tommy to glimpse the driver’s license when the cashier handed it back, and to read that Crane-in-Lang was P. J. DeSilva of 491 Riverside Drive.
Colette’s method was even more low-tech. She looked into the other woman’s handbag as her wallet came out… and cooed. Was that one of the Clé de Peau limited edition compacts? It wasn’t, but apparently the suggestion that it might be such a coveted item brought the thing out of the handbag and led to an examination of the compact, the shades of eyeshadow and miniature brushes it contained, and a spirited discussion of the color palettes available in the Clé de Peau originals—during which, Dotty Ambrose absently signed the credit card receipt for her overpriced porcelain cat and practically handed her purse to Colette while she juggled credit card and wallet, compact and make-up bag, receipt and claim slip, putting herself back together. She then stood there continuing to chat while Colette checked out, discussing, as nearly as Tommy could determine, a choice of art deco images you could get on the lid of your compact.
He had no excuse to stick around, so he took his own claim ticket and collected his bit of Meissen, and was nearly out the door when he remembered the ties and turned back. As he stepped into the coat check, a text told him to meet at the 89th Street cat lair.
Sensei shows us the basics, and with practice we begin
to move in the appropriate form.
“Do I even want to know what a Clé de Peau compact is?” he growled, entering the cat lair to find Selina sprawled across one of the animal print settees from her Queen of the Underworld reign at Vault.
“Jesus, Bruce, that’s the same tone you asked about the Rosenthal Rubies. Unclench, it was a good day.”
She’d removed the wig and her shoes and evidently made a pot of sencha, judging by the pot and cups that sat on the coffee table. Matches Malone’s thought would have been automatic, but Tommy’s reactions were not effortless (yet) and Bruce had to nudge his pride: Catwoman had noted his preference for green tea. That had to make a man stand a little taller. Catwoman knew about the Rubens. Unless she thought it was the Hachinohe job he’d pulled, which was just as impressive—
Batman’s awareness intruded. There was a soft hum from a printer in the corner. Every cat lair seemed to have a small office tucked in somewhere: an ornate antique desk, docking station for laptop and gadgets, and a standing safe that doubled as a printer stand. That was the source of the hum, and he walked over to see a photograph of Richard Flay at an ancient fundraiser slowly emerging to drop as the final printout onto a stack of Google Earth views of Riverside Drive. Selina told him to bring the printouts along with ‘that stuff on the desk,’ which turned out to be a stack of index cards and freshly clipped pages from the auction catalogue. By the time he got back to the sofa, his tea had been moved to an end table, leaving only a black and gilt statue of a seated Bast moved to a far edge of the long, low coffee table. It was almost as if the goddess was meant to watch over the proceedings, but before Batman could renew his grumbling about criminal superstition, Selina dispelled the impression:
“Think of this like one of the data wells,” she said, indicating the empty table top. “Arrange our bits and pieces just like your evidence, rearrange them, make notes, and see what starts to take shape.”
Bruce liked the sound of that but hid the reaction in a sip of tea.
“Today’s hunt was the auction house,” she said, placing a stock picture of the Crispin’s façade at the top of her canvas, and next to it, like half of a blackjack hand, she set the photo of Richard Flay. “Now, I had hoped Richard would be there today. He usually is, so we’re going to pretend. Using the same hunting ground too often creates common denominators that cops can pick up on…”
“You don’t say,” Bruce-Tommy murmured.
“The same person can also show up at a number of different events, so if you hit targets you found at a Crispin’s auction, the members’ restaurant at the museum, and Bruce Wayne’s cocktail party all in the same month, you’re probably thinking that’s three different leads from three different sources. But if Batman or, say, some theoretical policeman who isn’t a moron happens to get lucky and talk to this guy, it turns out he was at all three and there’s no telling what he might have noticed and pass along…”
“I didn’t realize you thought in those terms,” he said, eyes twinkling with the possibilities that had suddenly emerged. “Assume Coronet is aware of all the invisible complexities that Matches isn’t—”
“If I’m aware, he’s aware,” Selina said tersely.
“The interconnectedness of niches,” Bruce-Tommy went on. “The—”
“Less finesse, spit it out.”
“Money is a small world.”
“When you’re not making the guest list for a Wayne wedding, yes. Money is a small world, old money is a small town, and the Upper East Side is a village. Now break down the pros and cons for me.”
Bruce considered this, and spoke slowly as he thought it through:
“It’s a vulnerability… not critical but significant. There is overlap, as you said. Richard Flay is the art world, the charity circuit and social register; Barry Hobbs is the art world and Wall Street.”
“Oh there’s endless overlap there. The first thing any of them do after making a killing on derivatives is put together an instant art collection.”
“And overpaying every step of the way,” Bruce noted, experimenting with a bit of Fop Wayne’s contempt on Tommy’s lips and watching Selina’s reaction as he continued. “Driving up the price of any 19th Century French nude, trying to throw together in a week the kind of collection that took generations of—”
“Oh my god, you still haven’t gotten over that Gervex,” Selina laughed. “Okay first, less old money with an axe to grind, more disdain of a real art lover. You’re someone who appreciates Henri Gervex’s Rolla seeing it go to a wallet who looks on it as nothing more than a status symbol. It’s not that the buyer paid a lot; that would be fine if he loved that painting that much. But this idiot could have got exactly the same kick buying a vacation house in Useppa, instead he paid over twice the estimate—”
“Nearly three times the estimate,” Bruce corrected.
“Keeping it out of the hands of someone who might really appreciate it. You don’t care so much about the nouveau riche driving up the price; that works entirely in your favor. Next week you’re going to be the one selling, and the black market notices everything. But you can resent this troglodyte owning it when it’s nothing more than a piece of furniture to him.”
“I can do that,” he nodded. “You had a second note?”
“Not exactly. Nothing related to Wall Street collectors per se. I just wanted to mention… that painting specifically… I almost came to you about it. That summer, your relentless bitching about getting outbid on that Gervex was… spectacular, and much discussed. I figured if you wanted it that much, you’d probably pay high six figures to get it… you know… my way.”
“Oh really,” his lip twitched. “What stopped you?”
“Oh I don’t remember, something came up.”
“It doesn’t matter. Certainly not for Tommy purposes.”
“Just be careful. If you hear about some society type who can pay literally any price you ask and is passionate about losing some precious bauble at auction, he might be the perfect buyer if you steal the thing. Or he might be Batman.”
“You’re not saying that you suspected—”
“No, nothing like that. I was never within a mile of the truth. But, I told Alfred once, something about the foppish airhead never added up for me.”
He kissed her cheek—and then abruptly returned his attention to the coffee table.
“We haven’t made much progress with the crime board,” he noted, sorting through the printouts. “Let’s see how fast I can catch up... The source of the lead is at the top, like the dead body on a murder board” he said, pointing to the front of the auction house and Richard Flay. “Two potential targets are our suspects: the porcelain cat, and the punch bowl,” he announced placing them beside each other under Flay’s picture. “The cat is at the Ambrose Townhouse, Sutton Place—that’s her alibi…” That photo took its place under the cat. “The punch bowl along with the leggy terra cotta is on Riverside Drive…” The picture of the house went below the punch bowl, and the Google Earth satellite photo of the neighborhood beneath that.
“Good, we’re not making any decisions yet, but we’ll do rooftop recon tonight on both, from one block away.”
He said the last words with her, knowing Catwoman’s recon habits and compelled to make it known that he knew her recon habits. Then he pulled a brochure from his jacket.
“Actually I have a third lead. Your ‘beginner’s luck’ paid off after all. When I picked up my ties from the check room, look what was left behind from someone’s checked bag, made its way into mine.”
Next to the punch bowl, he set down the brochure for the Crispin’s Fine Art Storage Service. Selina began to giggle.
This period is all effort and intent. It is mastering
A typical first day student would let the details of the first hunting trip settle before attempting a second. He would recon the Sutton Place and Riverside locations tonight, make an appointment to view the Fine Art Storage facility later in the week, and spend the time in between researching the cat, the punch bowl, and what was known of the Desilva and Ambrose collections. But Bruce was not a typical student, and by the time they finished at the cat lair, it was the cocktail hour. So they window shopped their way to Bar Drôme while Colette speculated what kind of inducements could possibly be offered to tempt Catwoman—the Catwoman—to disclose her single most lucrative hunting spot in Gotham. Tommy guessed that Batman tricked her into it, and Colette told him he was picking up the check.
“So why is this place different from any other hotel bar?” he asked once they’d ordered.
Colette looked around and then shook her head.
“To be honest, I have no idea. Only in Gotham—only on the Upper East Side—could a bar named for a minor French river in a hotel named for a minor Greek goddess pull off Moroccan, European and Chinese décor, with a few animal prints thrown to keep the whole thing from looking random, charge more for a cosmopolitan than a lovely Dalwhinnie 15, and somehow make it all work. Olive jars, red lacquered walls, velvet curtains and leather floors, it pushes all the right buttons and I honestly have no idea why. But in about fifteen minutes, you’ll see it. The D&G wool three pieces start rolling in, and in two drinks, they want to sound impressive—to be overheard sounding impressive.”
“And that’s why we call this ‘hunting,’” he said, lifting his glass—but then, for just a fraction of a second, something was off. Something… like a pre-echo of the déjà vu from the auction house… But before it could solidify into the conscious instinct that always warned her when the Dark Knight was near, it vaporized into pleased surprise. Tommy was finally getting into the spirit of the project. “So we have fifteen minutes plus the first round,” he was saying with an enthused boyish charm that didn’t resemble the playboy or the fop. “Tell me what to expect? What’s a garden variety lead you pick up in a place like this?”
“Collateral,” she purred. “Stories that begin ‘Thirty years ago someone wanted to buy a vineyard.’ Or a radio station or a shipping company, and they financed it with a Cézanne.”
“Secured loans,” Tommy prompted, “You’re saying we’re here to eavesdrop on bankers.”
“Mostly, some insurance but mostly bankers. The new guy who just took over the account a few years ago… the old loan officer is retiring and now they’re the one going to the vault four times a year and confirming the thing’s continued existence. It’s quite a high.”
She added the last because Tommy looked skeptical, but his raised eyebrow meant a longer explanation was needed.
“The loans roll over,” she said like it was phone sex. “Nobody remembers they exist for the most part, they’re just line-items in a ledger somewhere. To everybody but you. This amazingly precious thing, this $30 million still life by Cézanne exists only for you. You are the only living soul who’s set eyes on it in a decade…” She let the thought hang in the air for an enticing moment, then concluded in a light, businesslike tone. “It’s a kink, one common to buyers of stolen art too.”
Tommy’s smile and head-tilt was ambiguous, as was the swallow he took of his drink.
“Great, we’re drug dealers now,” he said lightly.
“No, it’s more like we’re selling beeswax lip balm. If a few people are using it to get high, well…”
“I see.” His eyes met hers, and for a moment they were Batman’s, fiercely penetrating. “What about you? When you get your hands on one of these secret pieces, ever get a buzz?”
“Occasionally,” she admitted. “You knew that already, you’ve seen me a little buzzed. It’s rare, and there’s a much better chance when it’s more than a simple loan like the stuff we’re talking about. When the item is hidden away in that vault for a very particular reason…” she paused because his eyes had flickered to somewhere behind her several times. “See something interesting back there?” she asked.
“No,” he fibbed. Interesting was too strong a word. Instead he wrote three lines on a napkin and slid it across the table. “The times you were buzzed,” he stated, rather than putting it as a question.
She read—Manipur Ruby, Federated First Metro, Monet—and then glanced up to meet his stare.
“Not bad,” she admitted, reaching to take his pen and added “Figgy’s emeralds, Dancers in Blue” and slid it back. “There,” she said sweetly. Now, you have a complete list. The nights you encountered me, mid-job, and I was buzzed. Look around the room, and do what you just love to do, ~Great Detective~.” The last words were signed, but Bruce needed no more than the playful dare in her eyes to know what she meant.
“This line refers to Catherine the Great’s court necklace?” he asked, pointing to the emeralds, and she nodded. “And this one would be.”
“Dégas,” she said flatly.
He worked on the problem as they watched the coming and going of patrons and scrutinized the scraps of conversations they overheard. What was the common denominator in those five Catwoman heists… and what did that shared X-factor have to do with the clientele at Bar Drôme?
To succeed barehanded against an enemy who is armed,
unnaturally strong, or even possessed of magic requires only that you
control the space.
Tommy Coronet didn’t return to his flat that night. He and Colette parted ways after the bar, and Bruce made his way to the satellite cave under Wayne Tower through a subway maintenance tunnel. After patrol, Batman’s logs took precedence over any notes from Tommy’s hunting trips, and in the morning, Bruce Wayne had a Foundation photo op at Leslie’s clinic. He’d barely have time to get Tommy home to don his disguise before meeting Colette for lunch—fighting the Midtown/Downtown traffic both ways.
Of course he could, theoretically, go back to the Wayne Tower and disguise himself there. It would mean wearing the same clothes as yesterday, which Colette would notice, or dressing Tommy out of Bruce Wayne’s closet, which Selina would notice. He was beginning to envy Matches’s central location in Hell’s Kitchen… and to consider the awful truth that he made a rookie mistake settling downtown. Batman could not make a rookie mistake where Gotham was concerned, and neither could Bruce Wayne. But apparently Tommy Coronet could.
As he made his way downtown, he convinced himself it was a perk. He’d taken pains to create distinctions between Bruce Wayne and Batman, between Matches and Bruce Wayne. With Tommy, they occurred naturally… As he made his way back uptown, the rationalization began to fade, and as he fought his way through the lunchtime wave of bodies streaming from the 53rd Street subway station, he had to admit, he would have been better off at The Mark as Selina intended. Once he understood this hunting situation, he would have picked a location closer to his prey... As he approached the MoMA, he thought back to his earliest logs speculating about Catwoman living in the neighborhood when their first encounters occurred only a few blocks apart. She seemed too intelligent to steal in her own backyard, but she’d navigated the rooftops with surer knowledge than he did during that first high-rise chase…
He turned just short of the main entrance into the more discreet door labeled The Modern, remembering the shock when he discovered she really did live in the East 60s, practically the crossroads of the art and social worlds, jewelry stores and diplomatic circles that made up Catwoman’s territory. And he was appalled to learn that cat burglars far and wide favored The Mark when they came to Gotham precisely because one of their own had been tripped up using the hotel’s hair gel. It was inconceivable that otherwise intelligent men and women could be so careless. Now here he was, only a day into learning what the actual workday was like, wishing he was staying there himself.
He made his way down the curved hallway to “The Modern,” the Michelin 2-star restaurant within the museum. He glanced absently into the bar as the hostess greeted him… and stumbled giving the name on the reservation as he saw Barry Hobbs being shown into the dining room.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have a Waycahcronet. Sometimes we do get the name wrong. You said it was for 1:15?”
She consulted her book, and in the spirit of being helpful, Tommy looked over the top of the podium and pointed… “Ah, there it is. Coronet. Company name. My assistant often does that. So much easier to spell.” …and saw the worst case scenario on the seating chart. The Hobbs table was directly behind his. Either he or Colette would be back to back with Barry Hobbs throughout the meal, or Hobbs would be on the far side of his table with one of them in his direct line of sight. The hostess said his party was already seated, and Tommy followed her into the dining room to see that it was the former seating arrangement that had played out. Colette—wearing Selina’s caught-with-the-Romanov-Icons pout—was facing an empty seat with Barry Hobbs at her back. That meant the only danger was his recognizing her voice. Without the misdirection of the physical disguise, it was a possibility… but evidently one Colette anticipated because she added a different type of misdirection as she greeted him in French.
“Ah, Tommy, Tu es en retard, alors, j'ai commandé le vin.”
“You know he does speak French,” Tommy answered in that language before kissing her cheek with continental flare. Selina would reply, again in French, deepening her accent to a soft Parisian burr, and so they would continue throughout the meal.
“The way he pronounces catalogue raisonné, mise-en-scène, and Jacque Louis David? He has no ear at all,” she laughed. “I doubt he’d get three words together if he was listening, and all that matters is that he doesn’t recognize my voice from the board meeting. Long as we keep this up, I’m sure it will be fine… That said, it really might be time to reevaluate your thoughts on superstition. This has to be some kind of curse. Cat burglars aren’t supposed to fall in love and switch sides, and this is probably why. Nobody was dumb enough to do it before, so I’m the lucky one who uncovered the curse. They’ll probably name it after me.”
Tommy watched the back of Barry Hobbs’s head while she prattled. There didn’t seem to be any reaction to worry about. She was probably right—though Psychobat hated admitting it—that speaking French was a sufficient precaution. Still, the need to register some criticism prompted him to turn the bottle of wine ever so slightly to consider the label before pouring himself a glass.
“Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, that’s a broadminded choice for a French woman,” he noted.
Those who knew Tommy’s secret might have gleaned a hint of Fop Wayne in the remark, but Selina knew the difference between Bruce’s feigned snobbery and Psychobat’s sincere, hyper-critical analysis of her undercover habits.
“He can’t see what we’re drinking,” she pointed out. “And if he could, I’m a polite traveler. When in Rome—or in this case, the United States, drink their least objectionable wines. Now, let’s get down to what we’re here for.”
The last was said with a sweet smile meant to poke Psychobat in his all-business, no-time-to-flirt-with-the-cat-burglar eye, but it received only an approving grunt (that might very well have been meant for the wine).
“Despite the Michelin stars, this isn’t a foodie’s restaurant. There are two reasons to have lunch here: location and location. You’re either in the art world, or it’s a power lunch and you picked this place to impress whoever you’re meeting with. You have until we order to pick two tables of each type… Ooh, they have the foie gras tart today, yum.”
Once they’d ordered, Tommy had until the first course arrived to analyze his first table. He selected Barry Hobbs since, if he was going to play the superstitious criminal, it was Tommy who ran into the guy (literally) in Metropolis. Even Selina’s half-joking nods to Beginner’s Luck drew a rather portentous circle around Hobbs crossing his path again here in Gotham. Superstition aside, Catwoman had always let curiosity guide her, almost to a fault, and his curiosity was piqued as to what Hobbs might be up to… So there were two strong arguments on the side of building Tommy’s mindset as a thief—arguments Batman might still have overruled if not for his personal distrust of the man. Barry Hobbs admired Luthor. He was in Metropolis. Just as the Selinas and Tommys of the world followed their instincts as thieves, crimefighters followed their suspicions, no matter what trivial bits of happenstance gave rise to them.
“The fellow behind you,” Tommy said thoughtfully. “He’s my first pick. Here to impress. The suit says banker. Very successful one, but as far from the art world as you can get. Same with the woman he’s with. Even at this distance, that’s good jewelry but so conservative it’s painful. I mean why bother?”
“Close,” Colette said. “I agree about the jewelry, that’s a bullseye. And of course you’re right about the banking angle. But you would have done some research into the social scene before you came to town, so you’d be able to recognize him from photos at museum openings and galas where he’s identified as a board member.”
“Not only at this museum, but at the Met,” Tommy said as if he’d absorbed the information and was integrating it on the fly. “Opposed that Man’s Reach thing with Superman… So a foot in the art world, but it’s still a power lunch; they’re still boring bankers—“
“Lose the contempt,” Colette cut in sharply. “Bankers made the Renaissance happen. And some have very nice art collections: everything well-insured, stolid, boring Gientzig keypads with their mother’s zip code as the pin.”
“Got it,” Tommy grunted, the same look in his eye when he was absorbing something new and rewriting his internal monologue in the moment. “Back to the pair we were discussing. They are both bankers, I stand on the theory that he brought her here to impress. His tenuous connection to the art world just makes it more of a chest-beating thing. As a board member, the museum is his home turf. He’s an insider and a big shot in this room.”
“Very good. And what if anything is useful there for us?”
Tommy considered it, and the woman. She was… not attractive. Apparently by choice. Severe, mannish hair wasn’t at all flattering to the shape of her face. Within a year or two of forty, one way or the other, her minimal make-up did nothing to downplay the signs around her eyes and mouth, while a seemingly constant frown accentuated it. That part could have been the relic of dental work or even a stroke, but everything about her body language said it was calcified bitterness. It was impossible to think she was on a date, and nearly as impossible to think Barry’s interest was of a personal nature. He must want to impress her for business reasons…
He shared the analysis, and Colette was polite.
“Impressive, but probably not useful. For our purposes, the crucial thing to figure out is if he wants to impress today, impress her specifically, or if that’s his basic resting pulse. Somebody who’s always trying to impress because they’re insecure, who uses art as a club to beat down the less cultured and connected, they’re going to have a collection that’s all about the names. Trite, safe, sure things. No sweet little Foujitas, tempera and silver leaf, portrait of a socialite and her cat, for this guy, no sir. Modigliani, Matisse and Picassos all the way.”
The waiter brought their starters, ending the time allotted to analyze the Hobbs table. With a final glance at the drab, blonde woman, Bruce considered his personal knowledge of Barry Hobbs. He was petty, selfish, mean, inclined to cheat if he thought he could get away with it, and carried a grudge. But he was not insecure. He wasn’t one to habitually impress, so that meant his interest was in that woman specifically.
He then turned the detective’s eye on Selina. Underneath the Tommy and Colette façades, he knew Selina’s tells and he knew the mention of the “sweet little Foujitas” meant something. He considered her view of the dining room… She’d seen the waiter coming with their food and that meant a change in topic. With the arrival of the first course, he was expected to go on to another table he’d identified, and with that thought flittering in her subconscious, the example of an artwork Hobbs wouldn’t collect was Foujita’s Portrait of Emily White. The painting hung in the Art Institute of Star City and Batman had tried for years to get through Oliver’s thick skull that it was a semi-probable Catwoman target.
Their table was against the glass wall that looked out on the plaza outside the museum’s entrance. Tommy pretended to watch the pedestrians for a moment, while he scrutinized the reflection of the room behind him and the tables Colette faced… He saw no one likely to have prompted the Foujita, so he turned casually to his other side and, reaching for the salt shaker, looked directly into the curved booth along the far wall that he’d only been able to glimpse with his peripheral vision.
“Art World, nine o’clock,” he said, digging into his salmon. “You could tell from the red and black number, or the woman with the nails, but in this case we don’t have to rely on deduction. The man on the left is Ian Scully, with the Neue Galerie until he closed the deal on the Klimt. Then went out on his own, opened Gallery Esprit on Madison. This is his meeting. At least one, maybe all of the guests are from out of town. My guess, the moustache is from Star City, specifically the Art Institute, and the others are or represent private collectors. They’re here to discuss lending pieces to an upcoming show at Esprit.”
His lip twitched.
“Which means that Emily White’s cat is coming to Gotham… “
To control the space and thus your attacker, you must
first control yourself.
Tommy went through the motions of analyzing two more tables, but he had no doubt which of the four leads would be deemed “Cat-worthy.” When the entrees came, he’d slid his phone from his jacket and, hoping he didn’t sound too much like the Lund twins, declared himself “one of those tiresome people who simply must take a beautiful picture for Instagram.” Pretending to conduct a photoshoot with his stuffed chicken and chestnuts, he captured several discreet shots of the diners across the aisle, and had the printouts ready when Colette knocked on his door.
The incense burned, discreetly evoking Japan and the Rubens taken from the Odawara board room… The little dish of nougats sat next to her chair, whispering of jade and gold bars in Kowloon… and the photos, clippings and notecards from the first two hunting trips were tacked onto a white board which reproduced their arrangement at the Cat Lair. The coffee table was cleared, a blank canvas for tonight’s analysis…
Selina repeated the low whistle of her first visit as she took it all in.
“At the risk of puffing your ego into the blindly overconfident zone you think all criminals live in, this is pretty amazing. You’re a freakishly good student.”
Before long, photos of Gallery Esprit, the Portrait of Emily White, and clippings from Gotham Arts Quarterly had taken their place on the coffee table, while Tommy spouted details about Tsugouharu Foujita as he wrote out the index cards and arranged them under the heading picture of The Modern.
“At the height of his career, Foujita was more famous than Picasso at his,” he said, scrutinizing a clipping on the Star City curator and switching his position with a close-up of Emily’s cat. “Settling in the Montparnasse district when he finished his studies in Tokyo, fell in with the heavy hitters of Paris: Modigliani, Picasso, and Matisse… Got a lot more research to do, naturally—that should go here—but I was thinking a little rooftop recon might be in order before I go back to Google. I know it’s premature, but I was thinking…”
“I was thinking you were more interested in Barry Hobbs’s table than Ian Scully’s,” Selina cut in. “I know the way you get, and the way you sounded analyzing him compared to the others, I was sure you’d be leaning that way.”
The impulse to deny it didn’t feel especially like a crimefighter’s, but the satisfaction when Selina finally believed him did feel like a triumphant Psychobat.
The exhibit at Gallery Esprit and its expected feline guest star joined the possible targets from other hunting trips on the crime board, and Selina said it was just as well: the possibility of a theft with a cat tie-in warranted an important lesson. Assuming he was born Tommy Whatever, feeling his way as he went instead of benefiting from a teacher like Colette, he would have to be able to hit a new city, find information and get traction without any help or instruction.
Since that was something Bruce did all the time as Batman, he didn’t see the point of the exercise, and Selina said “Yes, exactly.” She told him to dress for the Iceberg and bring plenty of clean cash.
In the Void there is no technique. At this level,
technique is useless. You must forget all you have learned. You
must have learned so well that you can forget and still perform.
The first thing Bruce realized about maintaining a secret identity was the importance of surface reactions. As Fop Wayne he would meet people, unaware of their hidden agendas and criminal ties. He would blither about the helicopter transfer from Cannes as the only way to arrive in Monaco while Batman sniffed like a bloodhound for the scent of dirty money. He would amble through a story about the ultra-exclusive Amber Room at Jimmy’z while Batman followed the trail of forged Pacific bonds through a Falcone Ponzi scheme to the corporate money behind questionable loans from a German expat… to his goon firebombing a drug store. Bruce would be thrilled to meet a fellow car enthusiast and talk happily about Ferrari’s wind tunnel in Maranello, oblivious to his new friend’s move from drugs into guns and racketeering, and the trail of bodies he’d left tracking down a crate of cash that would tie him to the laundering front in SoHo…
Tonight’s operation must reverse that mental process. Tommy Coronet was new to Gotham. He might know how to conduct himself in the night markets of Cairo and the criminal haunts of Ladbroke Grove, but none of that prepared you for the Iceberg Lounge. Being true to the character he was creating, Tommy should strut in like a thousand brash criminals Batman had seen over the years, confident in his abilities and his experience. A sophisticated, well-traveled individual—not jaded, not cynical, but someone who’d seen the world: the penthouses and the gutters, the saints and the sinners. Being an intelligent man, he would realize his mistake within minutes, possibly within seconds, and he would do his best to fake it. It was a phenomenon Batman had seen many times but had a hard time absorbing: a man of the world trying to wrap his brain around this. He might fool a few transplants but every true Gothamite would see his bluff.
That was not an approach Batman would condone, not at the Iceberg. Tommy must simply know what Bruce knew, what Batman knew: how to deal with Oswald Cobblepot, with Killer Croc, with King Snake and Jervis Tetch. With Harley Quinn if, God forbid, she was in there, knowing that whatever she saw Joker could hear about through the filter of that airhead’s perceptions. Tonight was not a lesson from which he would learn anything to craft the identity of an international art thief, it was something to get through—a task to complete to satisfy Sensei, so she would move on to something useful. So a Stanislavski approach was suspended for the evening. Tommy Coronet was no longer a person, it was a performance that would be conducted like Playboy Wayne—with all of Batman’s knowledge, instincts, observations and priorities at the helm. It was no longer acting, it was simply a lie. Bruce knew things and the Fop pretended he didn’t. Tommy didn’t know, but he would pretend he did, and somehow, though there was no earthly reason for him to be able to pull it off, he would be as confident and effortlessly familiar with the Gotham underworld as the Dark Knight himself.
Waiting until Talon or Crow were there to see, he passed the turn to the 11th Street lot and took the curbside space nearest the front entrance. Mark was on the door and, not recognizing the man or the car, he called out that most people didn’t want to risk taking the last parking space, just in case. Tommy pointed into the darkness and said there were others available down the street.
“It’s your funeral,” Talon chuckled, and Tommy checked his watch, unconcerned about flashing the costly Rolex in front of such obvious lowlifes.
“It’s after ten,” he said with a con man’s easy smile. “Joker, Scarecrow, Freeze and Zeus are all up the river, who else could be coming that isn’t already in there?”
There were grudging nods at the logic, and Tommy slipped Mark a folded bill. Then while he moved to open the door, Tommy’s eyes flicked up at Talon’s, extending two fingers with another folded bill wedged between them. Not a word hinted what it was for, which produced a vibe that was equal parts threat and uncertainty.
“Might rain,” Tommy said in answer to the unspoken question. Rain meant the need for an umbrella… and Talon pocketed the cash as silently as it had been given.
Magical gifts and superpowers afford no advantage with
one who achieves the Void. Those who anticipate attack are easily
Tommy offered Raven a warm smile as he neared the dining room, which brought the expected greeting that allowed him to approach her podium sending mixed messages if he was there to dine or flirt. The warmth of his initial smile cooled to the emptiness of the playboy’s, the shallow ass he used for years to discourage all but the gold diggers. Raven was too busy noting how often he looked at her cleavage to realize he was checking out the dining room the rest of the time:
There were two centers of power in the room, clusters of danger were everywhere, but only two foci that commanded awareness without dramatically drawing attention: King Snake’s entourage and the central table where The Riddler held court with Game Theory. KGBeast had a booth to himself along the back wall, with two armed enforcers from the Chechan mob hunched at a small table nearby, presumably there to watch him and doing a bad job pretending they weren’t… And the Mad Hatter was at his usual table but not engaged in his usual gossip. Instead he was eying Riddler and Game Theory—eying Nigma and Doris—with the same jealous glare he had for Joker and Harley when she arrived on the scene. So, a typical night of crosscurrents.
It took only a moment to log it all, cross-index every threat’s sightlines and path to the exit, by which time Raven was asking if she could show him to a table—asking with the edge that meant go away if he wasn’t there to eat.
So he headed into the bar, though he regarded Sly as a danger equal to any in the dining room. The bartender had a natural gift for facial recognition integrated with a complicated matrix of other information—most of which, fortunately, was confined to alcohol consumption. But Sly had served Bruce Wayne and Matches Malone, and Tommy wasn’t thrilled at giving him a third customer with the same mouth as Batman. Still, standing around without a drink or ordering through a waitress without sitting down at a table was apt to attract attention. So he risked a beer that didn’t seem like it would be worth remembering, and twisted around to see the TV as he ordered to keep from giving Sly a clean angle on his face. Before it was time for another round, he felt a tap and Peahen said she’d bring him a refill in Mr. Cobblepot’s office.
If you are out of breath at the end of an exchange, it
is because you are still trying, still trapped in effort and technique.
Oswald regarded Tommy with the same sour pucker that greeted all tall men: Another one, Kwak! But the prospect of new feathers for his nest soon put such thoughts in their place. There was no profit in vanity, after all. He would indulge in a few minutes of the notorious crime boss playing the gracious host—a few minutes in which he sized up this annoyingly tall stranger—but after that there would be no more nonsense. The few minutes saw Tommy agree to join Oswald in a scotch from his private collection and offer a square of chocolate that he said went particularly well with the Islay malts… Oswald sat back and fixed his visitor with an appraisingly beady eye.
“It’s your meeting,” he quacked harshly.
“I’m new to town,” Tommy said. Direct, making eye contact. “I have friends in the moving business in other parts of the world, but—”
“You need a local fence,” Oswald said bluntly.
“A-an associate in San Francisco or Paris or Dubai isn’t terribly useful if I can’t get an item to them,” Tommy said smoothly. “My understanding is that Gotham presents unique challenges and that you’re the best when it comes to moving things in spite of them.”
“Smuggling then,” Oswald said coldly. “You want your regular people handling the sale and expect to use me like Federal Express—KWAK!”
“It never occurred to me that you might want to handle the sale yourself. I suppose that would depend on your fee. Let’s say, hypothetically, I had two million in gold…”
“Kwak, I’ll get you 200,000.”
Tommy turned his head as if from a cough, paused for a half beat, then directed Batman’s glare of righteous outrage—and impending violence—at the tip of Oswald’s nose.
“200,000, kwak,” Oswald repeated.
“That’s a finder’s fee,” Tommy said, every syllable dripping with disgust.
“I’m taking all the risk,” Oswald complained. “If it’s gold coins, I can only sell so many at a time. No telling how long it will take to liquidate everything, and all the while, I’m in possession of potentially stolen items, no telling who might be looking for them.”
“I haven’t said if it’s bags of Credit Suisse ingots, South African Kruggerands or a single bar from Lukfook in Hong Kong, and you’re offering—”
“—ten percent. That’s insultingly low.”
“Not for Gotham… but since you appreciate a good scotch, call it twelve-five.”
“Your first offer will be thirty percent or I don’t even consider offering what I’m… really offering.”
“KWAK! You’re one of those, are you?”
“One of what?”
“An albatross, a sulfur-crested cockatoo, an arctic tern,” Oswald said like a judge handing down a sentence.
“I am not a bird,” Tommy said, the firm tone of one who understands Gotham eccentricities but is refusing to play along.
“You sure? It’s a compliment,” Oswald explained. “They’re long-lived birds. Not the type that get into debt with the wrong people, not the type that have to take whatever they can get because if they don’t have the money by Thursday they won’t go on breathing. That sort are very profitable, while they last—”
“But they don’t last long and when someone like your Batman catches up with them, they’re quick to cough up a name,” Tommy cut in as if to say ‘I can interrupt too.’ “I will repeat, I am not a bird—but more importantly, Mr. Cobblepot, I am not a rat. What I am is a long-game player. You’re right, I don’t need to raise two or three million by Thursday. I can take my time, and if we can’t come to an agreement on the gold, I can hold on to it and the Hegyi—”
“Marcell Hegyi’s Untitled #2. It’s been cut out of the frame, might need restretched, won’t lose more than an inch of canvas.” He paused, knowing this meant nothing to Oswald. He gave Tommy a half-beat to notice before supplying the information he would care about: “It’s worth around four million in Macau or Singapore. Yours for two.”
The repetition of two brought the faintest flicker of surprise, which Bruce noticed but decided Tommy wouldn’t. Clearly Oswald picked up on it, like any seasoned Gotham operator would, and he quickly dismissed it since Tommy was an out-of-towner. He still might have said something if not for a knock on the door. Peahen brought him a note and then gave Tommy a curious look while Oswald read it. Oswald also gave Tommy a cursory glance, then he waved Peahen away with a ‘yes alright-kwak’ and tucked the note under his blotter pad.
“When is an albatross not an albatross,” he said, lifting his glass as if proposing a toast. “We were speaking hypothetically, correct?”
“Hypothetically,” Tommy replied.
“An item like hypothetical gold, you want thirty percent, fifty on hypothetical art, is that right?”
“To begin. From time to time I might come across items you would find particularly appealing: a hypothetical wall plaque from the estate of a prominent collector decorated with a cockerel, or an extremely rare 18th century charger with a couple of geese.”
“Kwa-a-ack,” Oswald said, drawing the sound out for three thoughtful syllables. “You would expect more for an item like that.”
“An item like that would be a gift,” Tommy said. “One I might hope would inspire a similar gesture.”
“Like an adjustment in your percentage.”
“A substantial adjustment.”
There was a brief exchange of barely perceptible nods which certainly felt like a handshake, but then Oswald sighed.
“You’re not a pigeon,” he said regretfully. “And you present an attractive offer. One I should be very pleased to accept on the off chance that you survive the night with the intention of remaining Gotham, and are still possessed of enough internal organs to do so.”
“Internal organs,” Tommy echoed.
“Yes, I believe you have given offense to an individual whose threats frequently involve making those internal organs, a-hem, external.”
“I see. And this individual is waiting outside?”
“I believe so.”
“I wish you the best of luck,” Oswald said dryly.
Dismissed, Tommy left the office. As the door closed behind him, he considered the route to his left: an emergency exit through the kitchen meant passing the back room and being seen by the inhabitants, possibly being attacked if the offendee was in there. At the very least, he’d be a joke. He intended this to be Coronet’s sole appearance in the Gotham underworld, and that was fine as long as he left with his prestige intact. But if he was never seen again because he pissed off a name rogue and fled, if he was never seen again because Gotham beat him… Not an option.
He walked boldly through the bar and into the dining room, and felt a throb of Batman’s awareness behind his eye as he scanned the path to the exits. There were two notable changes from his earlier analysis. The first was something he simply couldn’t see from Raven’s podium: the curtain of greenery that cordoned off Poison Ivy’s booth was still in place. It was pulled back revealing an empty booth, but it seemed as lush and full as ever. That was a mystery since everyone assumed it was her special connection to plant life that kept it blooming in her absence. But that connection would have shorted out with the rest of her powers in the aftermath of her last rampage, wouldn’t it?
The second change was the Chechans. One was now seated with KGBeast, his partner vanished, and a Russian with tattooed knuckles sat alone at their table. His name was Ilya, and he’d played poker with Matches Malone. There was a fresh bottle of vodka, and an empty glass on the table in front of the empty chair. Ilya gestured to one or the other as Peahen brought a tin of caviar and a plate of pickled mushrooms.
Tommy ran his fingers through his hair as he recalculated sightlines, trajectories and paths to the exit, then took his place in the proffered seat. Ilya poured, never taking his eyes from Tommy’s face. Sensing that the quickest way to distance himself from Matches was to demonstrate an easy familiarity with the situation, Tommy raised his glass.
“За встречу!” he declared confidently, and then with that slippery salesman’s smile, “Did I say it right? It’s ‘To our meeting,’ yes?”
“Close enough. Most Americans say na zdorovie.”
They drank, names were exchanged, and then Tommy called the question just as Oswald had done.
“Why are we meeting?”
“You’re new in town. You ask for a meeting with Cobblepot. You must want a bank or a fence. There are better alternatives in Little Odessa.”
“I’m familiar with Mr. Korsakoff,” Tommy said smoothly. “Musical instruments aren’t really my thing, but if I ever find myself with a Stradivarius or a Bergonzi to move, maybe even a Hilaire or Nagyvary, he’ll be my first call.”
“Mhmph. Well, at very least you should set up accounts through the Ottoman Bank. If you go through Cobblepot, you’ll find he has a way of, let’s say, making up for what he gives away in that office.”
“I will keep that in mind,” Tommy said, confused by the lack of threats to his organs. Ilya noted his expression, and Tommy admitted the conversation wasn’t what he expected.
“You expect intimidation?” Ilya asked, heaping an enormous spoon of caviar on a bite of cracker, but before Tommy could reply, he saw Ilya’s attention waver. His eye drifted to the right with the wistful smile of a man admiring a beautiful woman, and he leaned in that direction until his cracker dribbled caviar onto his lap.
“Well, your message,” Tommy murmured as he sensed the presence coming up behind him.
“I sent no message,” Ilya said as the whiff of an unfamiliar scent (combined with his earlier analysis of the seating) announced the newcomer’s identity before she spoke.
“If I could borrow your friend,” Game Theory drawled at Ilya while her fingers danced on Tommy’s shoulder and twiddled on his forearm. Then…“This is for you,” she said, handing Tommy a folded note.
She left before Ilya recovered the power of speech.
“That was, um?” Tommy managed.
“Game Theory. Riddler’s girl,” Ilya replied. “You better read that note.”
He did, and though Batman had no trouble recognizing the location named in the riddle, he felt sure Tommy would. Nobody new to Gotham, nobody feeling their way through their very first visit to the Iceberg, would know what to make of it: receiving an actual Riddler-riddle. Even Batman who had received hundreds of the damned things never had one hand-delivered by Nigma’s unnervingly flirty girlfriend.
“Is this usual?” he asked Ilya.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” came the reply.
Deciding the only credible first-timer’s reaction meshed beautifully with Batman’s own desires, he got up, pretended to do a last shot, and marched across the dining room to confront the Riddler.
To be continued…