Selina stood in Gallery 111 of the Gotham Museum of Art before an alabaster cosmetics jar that was the first three-dimensional representation of a cat.
“Look at you,” she cooed. “You don’t belong in here. Early Twelfth Dynasty, Middle Kingdom, pfft. With those big, quartz rock crystal eyes, wide open because you’ve sighted prey, all that tension in your chest and paws, you’re a hunter. You’re an Old Kingdom kitty. You belong next door.” She looked around and then whispered conspiratorially. “I’ll come back one of these nights and move you.”
Then she sighed. “I wish I could stay and do it now, sweetie. It’d be a lot more fun,” she confided, and turned to leave—only to start as she saw Lois Lane standing behind her. “Gotham is not a great place to do that to people,” she announced. “Unless you’re Batman, of course.”
“You were talking to the cat,” Lois noted.
“I was. His name is Nedjem,” Selina said with dignity.
“Nedjem,” Lois said, glancing at the label which said only that it was a cosmetic vessel in the shape of a cat, c 1990-1900 B.C. made of Egyptian alabaster, copper and quartz. “It doesn’t say that.”
“And what it does say is wrong. Look, this is the first sculptural cat in Egyptian art. By the Middle Kingdom, the temple cats, the household gods, there’s an elegant aloofness. The Basts and Sekhmets you honor so they’ll watch over your home and protect the kingdom and right the wrongs.”
“The superheroes,” Lois said.
Selina beamed. “Coming from you I’ll accept that without scratching, but anyone else says it... But yes, you’ve got the idea. Now look at this guy; is that a serene feline deity waiting to accept your homage?”
“No. That is a cat who’s spotted dinner,” Lois pronounced.
“You got it.”
“Well I did hear you when I came up,” she admitted.
“Doesn’t explain how its name is Nedjem,” Lois said with the insistence of a reporter whose question you dodged.
“The first cats appeared in paintings and relief at the end of the Old Kingdom. The earliest recorded name of a cat is Nedjem; it means ‘sweetie.’ This little guy belongs down that way in Gallery 107 or 103. Since they’ve got him in the wrong place, I figure the least we can do is give him a name that reflects his true status in history.”
“That makes no sense,” Lois grinned.
“It does to me. Bruce calls it feline logic.”
“Oh you know about that?” Lois laughed.
“I’m aware,” she said, and they performed an abbreviated fist-bump of super-wife solidarity.
“Hi Lois,” Selina said, belatedly.
“Hi. Gonna ask how I found you?”
“You’re Lois Lane,” Selina said simply, and Lois blushed.
“Damn right,” she said, trying to look modest and failing utterly. “So, this is really a thing you do before your big bachelorette night? You go to a museum and talk to Nedjem, the Middle Kingdom Cosmetics Jar?”
“It’s my ritual,” Selina said. “Cats in museums aren’t the same thing to me as they are to all of you. And weddings entail a lot of... ‘normal’ stuff I’m not good at. Going along with what all of you do, doing it your way, all of society’s little rituals. That doesn’t come easy to people who wear masks. Behind a mask, you don’t worry about it. You do your own thing, say ‘meow,’ fuck ‘em. Give yourself over to that distilled part of you the mask releases.”
“Does Bruce know you feel this way?” Lois asked, concerned.
“Oh Bruce is much worse,” Selina whispered. “When there’s a billion dollars in the bank, it’s the same in the morning when the masks come off. But we want this, so we suck it up. Sublimate who we are and play the part. But we sneak these moments in, touchstones… A cat in a museum that I share a secret with, Zogger—”
“Self-defense trainer in the cave,” she said, mouthing the last words.
“Ah.” There was a pause, not strained but not exactly relaxed. The alabaster cat’s rock crystal stare bored into Lois, urging her to speak. “So how are you holding up?” she asked.
“Not bad, keeping my balance. There are about fifty variants of our ‘official’ wedding photo circulating on the internet, and three or four bridal portraits. It’s surreal.”
“All in the Harry Potter dress with the black lace,” Lois said disapprovingly.
“It’s not like it’s a bad dress,” Selina said quickly. “Or that it wouldn’t suit me.”
“It’s not that,” Lois said. “But I know it’s not your dress and it’s just… Since that business with Joker putting out all that fake news, I have a hard time reconciling… I know the press making stuff up isn’t new: about you, about Bruce. Heck, Bruce cultivated it. And I’m a reporter, I want people to trust what they see in print. I never had a problem with the tabloid crap— Heck, I even helped him, playing along with all that flirting whenever he came to Metropolis—because I always assumed that sane, rational adults knew the difference between a headline in the Planet by Lois Lane and some garbage a tabloid invented years ago about Catwoman or Batman or Superman. But since that Joker business, I don’t know anymore. I hear people referencing that junk like it has some relevance and I get knots in my stomach. I feel dread. Like something foul got in while a door was open and now it’s here, lurking, and we can’t get rid of it.”
“I know it sucks,” Selina said. “I make jokes about the hair, but it sucks. My father read to me from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and those people just… erased him. My mother was a dancer with Ballet Piacenza, the oldest in Italy with a direct line back to the court dances of the Renaissance, before joining the Gotham ballet. I’m the product of Miss Corinne’s, a Swiss finishing school, summa cum laude at the Sorbonne, and they would have you think… And every blessed piece on the wedding manages to… it sucks.”
“So I’ll ask again, how are you holding up?”
“I’m marrying the man I love,” Selina smiled. “Everything else is detail.”
“Great. Now how are you holding up?” she repeated.
An evil grin formed, a flash of the villain who first grabbed Lois to escape from Superman in her flight at LexCorp.
“They’ve pissed off Catwoman and Mrs. Wayne. I’m holding up great.”
The other woman smiled, and the alabaster cat who was a hunter poised for the kill as well as the precursor to the avenging goddess seemed to join in in its silent, immobile way. Then both smiles faded.
“Lois, we’re running out of small talk. Are you going to tell me why you came to find me here rather than meeting at the bar with the others.”
“Yeah, I was about to tell you… I’m being followed.”
The Egyptian Wing of the Gotham Museum of Art was Catwoman’s Briar Patch. She led Lois through a maze of sarcophagi, grave goods, wall fragments covered in hieroglyphs, and an improbable number of sculptures of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. In the middle of the fourth century B.C. she stopped and began a lecture on the Metternich Stela, “the finest extant example of a type of magically potent monument...” She wasn’t looking at the tall, stone monument but at something beyond it high on the wall that Lois guessed was a camera she couldn’t see (or a camouflaged part of the security system, but given the height of the monument and the likelihood that they were hiding behind it, Lois figured it was a camera). Whatever it was, Selina watched it, lecturing in a strange rhythm presumably because she was counting. “Water poured over such… objects was believed to have… healing power—okay go.” And they were off into a chapel of Ramesses dedicated to a fetish of Osiris.
“Nobody ever comes in here,” Selina declared. “They’re pharoahed out by the time they get this far, and all the sexy stuff: Ptolemies, Cleopatra and Egypt under the Romans is all down that way, so… We’re alone.”
Lois explained that she’d been in Gotham all day. “Had Clark fly me in this morning so I could do some shopping and they were on me in the first hour. It’s like they were waiting at Scully & Scully, which I guess isn’t completely crazy since you’re registered there. It is a logical place for someone attached to the wedding to go. I tried losing them, but I couldn’t at first. I mean—I didn’t always see them, but I’ve got good radar for this kind of thing. I know they were there.”
“They,” Selina said. “Figure of speech or there’s definitely more than one?”
“Two. I saw them—I know them. They’re writers, if we’re being generous. Ash Torrick from that sleazy ancient mysteries show, and Bradford Dormont, from The Other Lady Pemberley. I know it’s probably not a kidnapping or anything, but I didn’t think I should lead them to your party if I could help it.”
“That’s very considerate of you,” Selina said. “Ford has been lurking since the engagement party. We think we’re his next book, but it could be something shorter for Mayfair. Series of essays kind of thing, or a collection of short stories. Anyway, I gave him an interview and it only whetted his appetite. That Ash Torrick is a late arrival. Not sure what his interest could be. I mean, I can't introduce him to Deadman. I don't know what happened to the White Martians or if the Orb of Ra is real, and I can't hook him up with a Medusa Mask.”
“Well anyway, I lost them temporarily,” said Lois. “But then I went to Deeor for my fitting—she doesn’t like me, by the way. When I made the appointment—”
“It’s not you,” Selina assured her. “It’s just that you’re a pretty famous reporter and discretion is everything in that world. Deeor’s clients don't want people to know who they are, what they look like, where their money comes from. It’s like a doctor with medical secrets, or the secrets we keep, you understand? So reporters make her nervous. She gave me a little attitude the day I brought up her doing dresses for you and Cassie, you’re not members of the club.”
“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” Lois said quickly. “I mean it’s the experience of a lifetime, a dress like that. Do you know they’re working off a mannequin specially made to be me, my proportions exactly.”
“Of course, that’s how it works,” Selina said. “I’ll warn you, it’s very addictive.”
“My god, I can see why,” Lois said with the slight eye-roll/head tilt from her first bite of dessert at d’Annunzio’s. “What they fitted today, it was so light, like a second skin. Is that what the costumes feel like?”
Selina nodded, once, a warm glow as if they were discussing sex.
“The dress becomes a part of you. You put it on and you don't think about it again because it’s been molded to your body.”
“Can we do this next time you kidnap me, instead of shoes?” Lois asked.
“You got it,” Selina winked. “Paris instead of Italy, so bone up on your ‘salade croquante aux champignons des bois.’ And as for Deeor, the best way to prove yourself is to take an interest in how the pieces are made. The construction and the craftsmanship. Understand and acknowledge these are works of art.”
Lois nodded, then the buzz faded.
“Selina, they found me when I went to Deeor. I never saw Dormont, but that Torrick character was waiting when I came out. And like I said, I didn’t want to lead them to you. I don’t suppose it’s a state secret: a chocolate tasting and a lingerie show, not exactly scandalous, but, I don’t know about you, I don’t like being stalked.”
Selina looked off to the side, her lips parted, her breathing deepened, and her eyes grew darkly excited.
“Well,” she said, the warm, resonant voice with which Catwoman first greeted Lois Lane, grabbing her from behind and claws to her throat, “the whole point of tonight is a last fling, right? Let’s escape from a museum.”
At a glance, the Eirene and Daniel Ashton European Sculpture Court seems like the ideal spot for a café within the museum. With its enormous picture windows and high glass ceiling, it has the feel of a bright, airy pavilion with a view of Robinson Park where you can literally dine or take tea surrounded by museum-quality art. Many never look beyond that, but for those who do the perverse juxtaposition of subjects you pass on your way to your table would often spark conversation. There is Canova’s Perseus (holding up the severed head of the Medusa), Rodin’s (starving) Burghers of Calais, and Carpeaux’s Ugolino and His Sons (starved into madness and cannibalism).
The sculpture court was no longer busy, for the throng of tourists had gone at 5:30, leaving the museum to a comfortable ‘Members with Evening Access’ crowd and the sculpture court itself all but deserted. Lois and Selina approached the café, and the hostess began to apologize that they had finished the afternoon tea service and were in the transition to the evening menu. Selina waved her off saying they just wanted a bottle of mineral water, and took a table by the window behind a Hellenic torso that Lois eyed disapprovingly.
“Tea in the shadow of a headless, armless woman,” she noted. “Charming.”
Selina shook her head.
“She survived. Look at her, that’s the victor right there. The city is gone. The men who built it, the ones who died defending it, the soldiers who conquered it—who thought they’d won, who vandalized that very statue—gone without a trace. And there she stands. She’s what lasted to speak for all of them.”
“Well, she’s not standing since she has no legs, and there’s no mouth to speak because she’s got no head,” Lois said, and Selina laughed.
“Yet there she is. And a standard of beauty to boot.”
“God, you are a total romantic,” Lois said. “No wonder Clark likes you.”
“Yeah, well…” Selina shrugged, but she got no farther when the hostess brought their water, and when she’d gone Selina pointed out the obelisk outside the window. “That was the clue right there, the night of the engagement party: Cleopatra’s Needle,” she said. “And just past is where it happened.”
“Etrigan,” Lois said, naming the participant that would have been Superman’s concern.
“Clayface,” Selina said, focused on the one that haunted her. “Poison Ivy, who Etrigan wanted to kill. Etrigan who hurled the fireball. And Clayface who threw himself into its path and morphed into a shape that protected us both. Because I went and whispered ‘hero’ in his ear. Because I’m ‘a romantic.’ He’d be better off if I was a bitter old cynic.”
“Would he? Selina, I’m the most pragmatic person I know, aside from Perry at Christmastime. Half my day is rejecting quotes from people pushing a narrative that doesn’t match the headline. ‘The protest sent a powerful message’ when they don’t have the votes and the bill’s going to pass. ‘The new product line is a hit,’ when its sales are in the toilet. I don’t care how poetic an argument is if it’s not borne out by the facts. I look at the facts here: Bruce, since you. Gotham, since you and Bruce. The League, the relationship with Clark, and with Dick, it’s all better than it was, that’s the outcome. Because you changed him. Nobody would be better off if you were a bitter old cynic.”
Selina thought about it, looking out at the needle as those four words echoed in her mind’s ear.
“Because I changed him,” she said at last. “That’s exactly what’s spooking me. Because I hadn’t. I understand how it looks from a certain distance—a distance that I never had with him, but I get it: What all of you see, the part of him that you saw then and now, it looked like change. But it wasn’t, not until a few weeks ago, until the engagement party. Until Clayface came back. Now he’s… ready to compromise. About magic and time travel. It’s scaring me.”
“Because he’s worried about you? Selina, this isn’t new. When we were at the Fortress, after the Dibny murder—”
“That was perfectly in character. Taking charge, ordering everyone around. Heck, I was the one making the compromise—”
“Exactly. You, with your notorious independence, you were willing to let him hide you up there so he could feel you were safe and protected. Because they were special circumstances and you love him and we make sacrifices for the people we love under special circumstances, right?”
“Lois, he doesn’t compromise. This thing has got inside his head.”
“‘This thing’ being the wedding. Weddings are special circumstances, and he loves you.”
Selina looked skeptical.
“I don’t think it’s that simple. Even the part where he’s worried about me, because he’s… not. Lois, he’s not worried because he’s trusting Faust. Bruce is. Trusting. He’s trusting Faust more than I am.”
“Have you talked to him about this?” Lois asked, and then seeing her face, “You haven’t.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Insert doubts into his field of vision when he’s… well, happy? And relatively worry-free, I don’t want to ruin that. Dumping my doubts on him when I don’t know anything, when they’re not based on anything, why would I do that?”
“Look, you know him better than anyone. What does your gut tell you? If there are unanswered questions, would it ruin this happy carefree thing he’s got going, or would he be invigorated by it?”
“Pre-engagement party? He’d love the challenge. He wouldn’t say it exactly, but he’d be more than invigorated; he’d be… turned on in a very cerebral way. ‘A mystery, thank God.’ He gets bored when he doesn’t have a problem to sink his teeth into.”
Lois began to smile.
“Ah, I see. So pre-engagement party, you’d know what to do, but with this changed Bruce, you’re not so sure?” When Selina shook her head no, Lois only smiled wider. “Lady, you know what you’ve got on your hands? An old-fashioned case of the jitters—Don’t give me that look. I was just like you. I thought bridal jitters were strictly a Mary Sue Smallville ‘been planning the wedding since she was eight’ condition that women like us don’t have to contend with. I was wrong, and this is textbook: He’s changed. You’re the person who knows him best and suddenly you don’t recognize him. Suddenly you don’t know what to do because you don’t know who he is anymore? He’s different from the man you said yes to? Selina, you’ve got good old-fashioned wedding jitters.”
“You really think so?”
She nodded, then said “On your end, not a doubt in my mind. On his, it’s what we call a developing story. Keep an eye on it. I’m betting two weeks after the honeymoon, he’ll be back to normal. If not, you’ll deal with it then. But until the wedding’s behind you, you’re not going to figure out anything. It creates too much interference.”
“Okay,” Selina said, and then closed her eyes. “And there he is. Look, outside, 3 o’clock behind the tree.”
“Well I’ll be damned,” Lois said, noting the tuft of white hair that was certainly Ford Dormont lurking where he could see inside the restaurant but imagined they couldn’t see him. She glanced at her phone and tapped the stopwatch, then said “A little over fifteen minutes, I hope I’m that good at his age. How did he find us so fast?”
“The sculpture court is a very popular venue for parties, the kind of parties he went to every night in his heyday. Seats two hundred, six hundred if they stand and nibble… It’s one of the corners of this place he probably knows as well as I do...”
“Well if you knew that, why did you bring us here?” Lois asked.
At first Selina didn’t answer. She touched her finger lightly to the rim of her glass, then spoke as if she was thinking about something else.
“Because now we know where he is... If it wasn’t for Ash Torrick, we could scoot over to Medieval Art, make a mad dash through the Met Store and be… on 82nd Street before he’s out of Decorative Arts. Did you see that?”
“Nope, I’m just sitting here waiting for you to tell me what ‘it’ is,” Lois said.
“That recessed case in the wall, it’s dimmer than when we came in. The exit signs are a little brighter, too, and there’s a red indicator on the emergency light over the door. I don’t know if it was lit before, but it’s on now.”
“Which means?” Lois asked.
“A power surge,” Selina whispered, still but her eyes flitting around with delight as if there were invisible fairies in the air. “Or a brand new Houkotanuki system rebooting.”
“And that would be what?”
“That’s a very good question,” Selina murmured, taking out her wallet and dropping a bill on the table. “Somebody is hacking the encryption system on the museum’s database. We need to get to a terminal…”
She looked around casually but Lois watched her eyes. ‘Taking in the camera angles and sightlines,’ she thought, and said “Don’t forget to work Dormont into the equation.”
Selina glanced up angrily, either as ‘I never forget’ or ‘I was carrying the one.’ What she said aloud was:
“This place has seventeen curators. Maisie Cowle won’t be working late; it’s her daughter’s birthday. So we can use her office. You up for scooting through some vents or should I get us a staff ID?”
Lois’s eyes gleamed with a blend of mischief, curiosity and pride that was the terror of corrupt politicians, predatory lenders and redlining banks.
“Why don’t you let me get us the ID,” she said, a flush of excitement brightening her cheeks. “Show you what reporters can do. You above all people, Gotham of all places, should stop writing me off because I haven’t got powers.”
“Uh,” Selina stalled, but Lois pressed her case.
“A burglary at a Gotham museum and I’m sitting here with Catwoman,” she hissed excitedly. “I get to see this through your eyes, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Way better than a chocolate tasting.”
“Okay first, you need to calm down. It’s not a burglary. The Houkotanuki protects the database, not the alarms or the cameras, the heat sensors, that’s all on a separate mainframe with the back-up generators.”
“Okay, so what is happening?” Lois asked as they left the restaurant.
“I don’t know. That’s why I want a terminal,” Selina whispered.
“Great, so, ID badge,” Lois said, all efficiency. “I need a clear shot at the reception desk as if I’m just coming into the building. How do I do that?”
Selina affixed Lois with a sideways appraisal as they walked briskly through the sculpture court. It was a look Lois remembered, from that first semi-kidnapping at LexCorp when Catwoman used her to escape from Superman.
“I’ll give you this, Lane, you don’t rattle,” she’d said then. Today she said “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, Greco-Roman and into the coat check.” Lois nodded and Selina added “I’ll give you this, Lois, you are never dull.”
“You told me something like that once before,” Lois reminded her. “I think it’s just that I adapt and I try to avoid being predictable. Can only depend on Superman so far, I mean, I have to pull my weight. Stay alive until he shows up to do the punch-a-hole-in-the-space-station part that I can’t.”
“It’s more of a partnership than people realize, isn’t it?”
“Yep. They see ‘Lois Lane that always needs rescued’ and put me in a safe little box where they never see it coming.”
“I sure didn’t,” Selina said. “When I grabbed you that time, it was just expedience, in the moment: Get out of the super-strike zone, get to the 10th floor landing—”
“Which you’ve since made up to me with shoe shopping in Rome and Florence—”
“It’s not that part, Lois, it’s… I never saw you coming. What you said. About him, him and me, what you saw.”
“Reporter’s curse,” Lois said. “Observant as all hell and no filter. When I see something and it prompts a question, it comes tumbling out my mouth without any thought that it’s not the kind of thing anyone wants to discuss with a stranger.”
“Well you were right. About ‘the man you want and the one you can have.’ It haunted me.”
“No, really, for years after I’d get a knot in my stomach when I’d see your name on a story, or sometimes just a blurb about Superman in the Planet. Because it was right after that, right after we talked that you accepted Clark Kent’s proposal and after what you’d said that day, I knew how you felt about—”
“When the truth is, I never had to decide,” Lois said softly, “He told me the next day. I felt guilty about you whenever I thought back to our talk, because I got to have it all and you were stuck behind that mask… and look at you now. Ready to become Mrs. Wayne.”
It was Selina’s turn to blush with excitement.
“I love him so much,” she confided. “Bruce, I mean. The whole man is so much more important than that one facet. I’d tell him but he gets jealous.”
“Wait,” Lois said, “Did you say—”
“I know, it’s nuts. He has a weird way of looking at it. It’s not normal.”
“No, it’s not,” Lois laughed. “Clark is just as weird about some of it. We go up to the fortress in November because there’s this little pinhead that becomes visible in Orion’s belt—barely visible. It’s like one little pinhead of blue and a gassier pinhead-size blur next to it that he says is the light from before Krypton blew reflecting off a gas cloud or something. And every year we go up to look at it… Totally nuts, how can you not love him to death?”
At last they made it to the coat check, and from there Lois proceeded alone, approaching the reception desk with her crisp “I am Lois Lane in pursuit of a story” walk which the savvy in Metropolis interpret as “Do not come between the Nazgul and its prey.” She said she knew that by now everyone was gone for the day. She cursed the airline, cursed Uber, cursed the hotel and Gotham traffic, and then threw herself on the clerk’s mercy as a woman who was truly on her last legs.
“So I know I’ll have to come back tomorrow. When I do, maybe you could please tell me who to ask for so I can recoup some time and maybe not look like a complete idiot. I’m working on a story about Lex Luthor’s art collection. He’d lost everything when LexCorp collapsed and my sources say he’s completely rebuilt it. In less than two years, I don’t see how that’s possible unless he went to Argentina and bought up, like, three villas worth of stuff looted by the Nazis. I was wondering if there’s someone I could sit down with, go over the pieces I know about and see if we can piece together what happened…”
The receptionist went over the staff list, suggested Dr. Albany or Miss Greenaway, perhaps Mr. Granger, it really depended on what type of pieces they were. Lois whipped out her phone and began showing the receptionist pictures, and while she was occupied (and while Selina watched in shock), Lois deftly lifted the ID badge clipped to the receptionist’s belt.
“On behalf of myself and the three best burglars I know, that was incredible,” Selina said when Lois returned.
It was a quick maze-run to the American Wing by way of the Mezzanine, up the stairs to the STAFF ONLY door Selina preferred, where a second maze brought them to the proper hall, a swipe of the card and Maisie Cowle’s office. Selina made quick work of the door, sat down at the desk and began typing. As she worked, Lois asked how the museum had acclimated to a woman half the city believed to be Catwoman becoming a member of its board.
“All but the former head of security took it in stride,” she said as she worked. “They all know what side their bread is buttered on, nobody wants to make an enemy of Bruce—well, nobody but Barry Hobbs and you saw what happened to him.”
“I did indeed,” Lois grinned, feeling that really no payback was too severe for an unabashed Luthor fan. “The former head of security, you said. Resigned in protest?”
“Offered a better job in Keystone,” Selina said.
“Your doing or Bruce’s?”
“Little bit of both. I didn’t do it on purpose. He’d made such a nuisance of himself since I joined the board: had his whole staff watching my movements whenever I was in the building and he practically stood on their shoulders while they did it. It was a security risk: if anyone else wanted to rob the place, all they’d have to do is wait for a board meeting. Nobody was watching the cameras anywhere but in the board room. So Bruce figured the best thing to do was get the idiot promoted before he got himself fired.”
“Hence, an offer he can’t refuse from Keystone,” Lois mused.
“The thing is, it paid an unexpected dividend. Now that he’s gone, the rest of the security staff all but ignore me.”
“I guess that’s understandable.”
“Well this isn’t,” Selina said, eyes riveted on the screen. “Look, this is a modification log. I did a search for changes to the database since the power surge. Look at this: nine records. Four pieces in the storage vault have been moved, or at least their location was changed according to the database, to Galleries 253 and 358, while a piece from 358 was sent to restoration. Gallery 357 next door, two pieces removed and sent to restoration. And something from 207… all sent for restoration, huh.”
“That’s eight, you said nine altogether?”
“A piece from Gold of the Ancient Kingdom,” Selina read, “That was a special exhibit, it closed months ago. Anything they had on loan should have been sent back before now, but this edit ‘Returned to lending institution’ was just made a few minutes ago.”
“Can you see what the old location was? I mean if the exhibit’s been closed, it has to have been somewhere all this time.”
“I should be able to, but…” Selina shook her head, “Nope, it’s not here.”
“Okay, so where is it going,” Lois said, a reporter with a scent not going to be discouraged.
“There’s just a code,” Selina said, typing, “9132, here we are. Ernshaw Museum, California.”
“Never heard of it,” Lois said.
“Neither have I, must be pretty small. It’s a San Francisco address; I can ask Anna… Boy this is weird. It’s got another generic name: Artifact 85G. I’ve got a Fragment 1406, Personal Ornament 421.”
“That’s unusual, eh?”
“No,” Selina hedged, drawing the word out for three syllables while biting her lip. “There are more than two million pieces in this place if you count every loose bead and glass shard. But pieces that make it out of the vault to be displayed in the galleries, you’d expect to be interesting enough and complete enough to warrant a ‘cosmetics jar in the form of a cat’ type of thing.”
“Okay, so where do we start: Gallery 358, 207, Restoration or Shipping?”
Selina looked up with a grin.
“See, this is why we get along. Anybody else, I’d have to tell them we’re going to have a look at these things. They literally wouldn’t know until I brought it up and then I’d have to convince them to go along with it.”
“Oh that much passivity just shouldn’t be allowed,” Lois said in feigned concern. “It will kill you. The total lack of curiosity and initiative will just… you’ll die. Three, four days tops, you’ll just up and die.”
“You might be thinking of water,” Selina noted.
“Tsk, I do confuse them sometimes.”
Since the galleries were only open for another hour, they began in the Art of the Americas: Pre-Columbian, Gallery 358… They worked well together at first: analyzing the labels to see if anything looked newly printed or if an object didn’t quite match what its label described, and coming up with a short list for most likely pieces to be the new ones brought from the vault.
Lois took notes while Selina pointed out where and how the cases opened and reconstructed how the change-outs would work. It was a laborious process if done correctly to minimize disturbance of the other artifacts in a display. And then they considered the security camera: It would take a while to swap out the pieces and the staffer doing the job was almost certain to appear on the closed circuit camera—but the opening of that one particular case seemed to offer the best cover. Could it be that the pieces taken were not as important as the case they were taken from?
They went excitedly into the next gallery to see if the pattern repeated, but as Lois went to work as before, shooting video with her phone and looking for labels that didn’t quite match the displays, she noticed Selina’s contributions growing fewer and less detailed.
“Feels like someone’s walking over my grave,” was all she would say when asked.
By the third gallery—207, Ancient China—she was herself again and they discussed ways to get a look at the security footage to either get a look at the culprit moving these works around or else confirm their theory about the cases. Gallery 253—Art of Tibet and Nepal—was on the third floor. They got as far as the elevator, but as Lois reached to push the button, Selina stopped her.
“Let’s take the stairs. I don’t want to be cornered.”
At the top of the stairs, she led Lois to a balconette that looked out onto 79th Street. She pointed out the Fletcher-Sinclair House, one of the grandest Fifth Avenue mansions designed by Gilded-Age architect C.P.H. Gilbert in his signature French-Gothic Style. Lois couldn’t help but notice that Selina never looked at the house during this edifying lecture; she kept her eye on the way they’d come.
“You think Dormont and Torrick are still out there?” Lois asked.
“Just making sure,” she murmured and then resumed in the Sorbonne docent voice. “The house is named for Isaac Fletcher who built it and Harry F. Sinclair, the most notorious of the three private owners before it became the Ukrainian Institute, which it is now…”
When she was satisfied that they had no novelists tailing them, Selina motioned to Lois and they cut through Chinese Decorative Arts to finally arrive in Gallery 253, the art of Nepal and Tibet. Once again the piece most likely to be a recent addition was in the display case where the camera would see no more than the sleeve of whoever opened it. It resurrected the idea of getting a look at the security footage themselves, Lois agreeing it was better to come back after the bachelorette outing when the museum was fully closed, but insisting she be allowed to come along.
Merry bickering continued as they made their way to the restoration room, their movement through the halls now a silent ballet of timing and teamwork that avoided detection by museum staff, security cameras, and even detoured to a soda machine when Lois felt a dry cough coming on. Finally they came to a door secured by a special keypad under a discreet sign reading Conservation and Restoration.
Selina noted that the system was active, meaning everyone was gone for the night and they had the place to themselves. She took out what looked like a very chic art deco compact, and Lois cooed.
“Clé de Peau eye shadow,” Selina said as she dusted the keypad with a delicate blue powder, and then she shook her head sadly as she saw the fingerprints. “It’s always one of the same four combinations,” she confided, pressing 1-1-4-9. “Not much point in changing every few weeks if you’re just cycling through the same—no.” The door had clicked, opened, they’d stepped inside and Selina stopped cold. “No,” she repeated and then shook her head in disgust. “Not you. Not. You.”
Lois waited for an explanation, but when seconds passed without Selina volunteering one, she asked. Selina pointed to a gold diadem inlaid with jade and turquoise.
“Zotz, the Bat Death God,” she said wearily. “He has a bunch of different names, actually. Aztec, Maya, Moche, every tribe in South America had a bat god. Lord of the underworld, guardian of the underworld, soul wrangler, overseer, binder of souls… always a death thing. To be expected. Night creatures usually get that end of the dichotomy. (Primitive cultures love dichotomies: light and dark, male and female, life and death.) But with bats it’s more so because they hang out in caves which were considered the entrance to the underworld, often called Xibalba ‘the place of fear…’”
“Selina, you’re babbling,” Lois said, noting a tone that tempo different from all the previous art history lectures.
“Yes, well, he’s a death god and he’s a bat. This one is the original, I call him Zotz after the Mayan version, but he doesn’t have a name that we know. Only that he’s the oldest, the First One. All the other mythologies evolved from him. And nobody really knows he’s here, in the museum I mean—Joker, Scarecrow, Hugo—Thank god. I mean, it’s not surprising, in a collection this size, most pieces go unnoticed, and it’s not like anybody but me is particularly into art and museums…”
“Still babbling,” Lois said quietly, and Selina shot her a look.
“Nobody knows he’s here,” she said firmly and with a deliberate control that was the polar opposite of babbling. “And it should stay that way because this incarnation is one of the nastiest deities in any pantheon.”
At that moment, the lights went out.
“I’ve seen this movie, when the lights come on the thing is gone,” Lois whispered.
“Not what I’m worried about,” Selina replied.
“When the lights come on, it’s gone, and then when I get home, I glimpse him in the mirror and people around me start dying.”
At that moment, the lights came back on. The diadem was still on the work table, but neither woman relaxed.
“It was another power surge,” Selina said. “Longer than before, both systems rebooting. Try the door.”
“Locked,” Lois reported, and Selina cursed under her breath. Lois studied her with concern. “Okay, World’s Greatest Thief, how do we get out?”
“Selina, ‘meow,’ since when do you so much as blink at a locked door.”
“That’s not a locked door, Lois, it’s a system reset.”
“No, a lock is a puzzle. It’s meant to outsmart people who want to open it and aren’t supposed to. Understand how it’s made, figure a way around its obstacles, solve the puzzle: click, you’re in. But a Houkotanuki resetting behind a Kesselrig keypad that’s out there while we’re in here, that’s not a puzzle that’s…”
She trailed off.
“Go ahead, say it,” Lois chided, “You’ve looked at him four times since the lights came on. Let’s get it out there. It’s not a puzzle, it’s…”
“Possibly it’s Leatherwing the God of Death here deciding to score a final goal for Team Bat before the wedding—or maybe to derail things entirely.”
“That’s where I thought you were going. Selina, you used a phrase earlier and I’m afraid it’s true. You let this inside your head. Bride-that-was to bride-to-be, you’ve got to get it out. It’s just a wedding.” She laughed on the final phrase, and Selina gestured with claws that weren’t there.
“We’re stuck in the museum with the bat god of death, Lois.”
“You love him, he loves you, you’ve looked in each other’s eyes and said it a thousand times. You do it once more in front of people, and that’s it. Then there’s a lot of hugging and dancing and food you’ll only pretend to eat because the dress makes it hard to breathe, and then you’ll take it off and get on with your lives. Together.”
“Thank you, Lois, I’m sure that would be a comforting and profound insight as well as a damn fine pep talk if we weren’t sharing this moment of sisterly communion with Zotz the Binder of Souls, Lord of Xibalba and—at the risk of repeating myself—Bat-god of Death, who we are locked in with. This is not a metaphor, he’s a bat. Look at him, see the wings? He’s a bat. And it’s a museum and we’re locked in with him, and this is going to be really bad when they find us in the morning.”
Lois’s eyes twinkled with triumph as she held up her phone.
“Unless I rescue us—not something I get to say often.”
“You said that building across the way was the Ukrainian Institute, right? Well I just happen to be on very good terms with the Ukrainian ambassador. I was interviewing him several years ago and it turned into a kidnapping, y’know like it does, and I was instrumental in his not getting thrown into this vat of electrified—Serhiy! Yes, it’s Lois… Yes… Yes… Well thank you, that’s very kind… No really, I was just in the right place at the right time… Oh Clark is fine, yes… I will tell him. Serhiy, the reason I’m calling is I need a favor, a very urgent one. You have a consulate in Gotham, right?”
The Executive Director of the Ukrainian Institute called the Executive Director of the Gotham Museum at home and asked her to deputize the most senior employee still in the museum to kindly receive their neighbors from the Institute who were at this moment crossing the street, and accede to their request on a very urgent matter.
The assistant curator for Drawings and Prints was called upon, and she received the distinguished visitors from the Institute (which happened to be the event coordinator, who was the only one still in her office and answered the phone, along with a caterer, bartender and facilities manager on duty for an evening rental). Giving the impression that they were accustomed to diplomatic intrigue, the foursome explained that a valuable sculpture had been damaged at the consulate. That it was a gift from an individual who would be attending a party at the end of the month and it was vital the sculpture be repaired by then. The Gotham Museum being one of the top restoration shops in the world, and being much closer and more convenient than sending it home, the consulate would be approaching the GMA in the morning with a formal request. But before then, the ambassador was particularly concerned with their security and wanted them to have a look. Allusions were made to the time difference, the necessity of assuring high ranking parties back home who would be asleep by the time tomorrow’s A-team had the paperwork in order…
The curator had her orders, so she escorted the visitors inside and gave them a security tour: the keycard access to the staff area, the security office monitoring the many camera feeds from the public areas, the loading dock where their piece would be brought in, the receiving area where the crate would be weighed, opened, and its contents documented. It would be affixed with a scannable code that logged it in the museum’s database and tracked its physical location and movement thanks to a Houkotanuki system that coordinated both the database and the alarms. One more card swipe and here they were at last at the restoration department. A pin code required, as you see, and here we are…
Selina and Lois, the professional thief and professional snoop, had no difficulty staying hidden while the party entered, nor sneaking out once the event coordinator was on the line with the ambassador describing the arrangements and sending photos. They had no trouble getting the rest of the way out of the museum or getting a cab, or indeed making it to Le Ganachery where Barbara and Cassie greeted them with such wild enthusiasm they could only blink… and notice the bottle of Tattinger on the table that was already half empty. An amuse bouche was thrust into each of their hands, consisting of a champagne truffle, chocolate-covered strawberry and a shot of chocolate martini.
Selina and Lois were too experienced with real danger to remain off-balance after such a trifling episode as being detained by an ancient death bat who, if he had done it on purpose, wasn’t strong enough to hold them. Their evening was being hosted by Tattinger and there was 80 vs 90% cacao to savor, and after that, a limo to Setablu, a boutique of Italian lingerie too sinfully indulgent to be famous. After that, Selina offered her guests a choice: their hosts had arranged VIP accommodations at a dance club, a jazz club, or if their palates were up for it, a caviar tasting at Petrossian.
“Yes, we could do that,” Barbara said. “Or you could all come back to my place for something as mundane as coffee and you two could tell us what the heck happened.”
“Have peach tea and green tea at mine,” Cassie volunteered. “But not place for everyone to sit.”
Selina and Lois looked at each other and shrugged.
“Well since you’re onto us, and we’ll have to kick Dick out at your place, Barbara, or sit on the floor at your apartment, Cassie, why don’t we use the penthouse,” Selina offered…
Instinct flared as Bruce stepped from his dressing room and registered dark, rapid movement where no movement should be. A fist half-formed reflexively before his brain caught up, then the fingers relaxed and the puff of an almost-laugh escaped him.
“And who are you?” he asked the tiny bat that had scurried down the bedroom wall and taken refuge behind a colonial era fainting couch that Selina had moved into their bedroom from one of the little-used guest rooms. “You shouldn’t be up here, buddy. There are cats in this house,” he said, stepping into the bathroom and returning with a glass. The bat had dropped to the floor and run to the window—which made it easier to catch but Bruce hoped it didn’t have an injured wing. It took all of two seconds to trap it under the glass, and just in case it did have an injured wing, Bruce chose to release it in the cave rather than throwing it off the balcony. It did fly off then with what he decided was a grateful squeak, and he returned to the study feeling he’d done a good deed. The first thing he heard was Selina’s laugh and Alfred’s coming from across the hall, and he went to see what was so funny.
“So we have a plan,” Selina was saying, “Roses and stasis in the silver basket in the foyer; Imari bowl stays in the dining room, empty. Wine stoppers in the small crystal bowl freeing the bigger one for the potpourri, which frees up the antique Lenox for—”and then froze when she saw him. “Hi,” she said brightly, the particular guilt-free brightness when he surprised her at an open safe. “Promise you’re going to go on loving me after I tell you.” He then saw she was holding a small, blooming orchid plant in each hand, their roots overflowing their tea-cup sized plastic pots.
“I think I can guess,” he graveled, eyes darting from the pink one speckled with Catwoman purple to the one that was solidly Catwoman purple. “Ivy sent a gift.”
“The new, muted, unnervingly polite, semi-thoughtful, not noticeably psychotic Ivy sent a gift, yes. Alfred and I were just figuring out what to do with it. And um, Oswald… there’s a set of, sort of, place card stands. Birds on leaves. Hand-painted. Herend. Quite nice actually.”
“I see,” he graveled, and Alfred tactfully withdrew. “And the ‘silver basket in the foyer’? Ivy doesn’t send cut flowers.”
“Pete Ignazio sent a bouquet, pink roses and purple stasis. Quite pretty.”
“The Falcone underboss,” Bruce said flatly.
“That’s him. And um… Could I get a grunt on that promise to go on loving me?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I want to invite Eddie and Doris—hear me out.”
“Just hear me out.”
“He—You know what, the gold jaguar from Belize, I’ll return it.”
“That one has always stuck in your craw.”
“I… Yes it has. Make your case.”
“Ford is becoming a real pest. Lois got a taste of it yesterday and she said when she’s chasing a story, the one thing that’s consistently effective slowing her down is when they assign a couple of flunkies to keep her occupied. Eddie knows the situation with us, and Doris already stepped in with Ford, on her own, just because she saw it needed to be done. They’re both smarter than he is, and I think if I ask—”
“That’s a very good idea.”
“And I know he’s not your favorite person in the world, and I’d do anything to make this a rogue-free day for you, but realistically I don’t think it—wait. What?”
“It’s a good idea. It would never have been my choice for Nigma to know my identity, but he does know. That’s a fact, it’s part of the landscape, and it’s wasting a resource to ignore it if it can be helpful.”
Selina blanched slightly.
“Given your friendship, you’re right. He’ll be… helpful,” Bruce concluded.
“Great,” she said, seemingly relieved that he was receptive to the idea. “Okay then, I’ll go over later today, deliver the invitation in person and, depending who’s home, explain what we really want.”
He grunted, came closer to kiss her cheek and then gave the orchids a particularly venomous blast of disapproval as if to demonstrate he was still Batman.
“Where are they going to go?” he asked in the tone he’d speak of felony burglary.
“I was thinking that table in the breakfast room, where we never eat.”
“Alright,” he said, and then completed the cheek kiss.
She asked about patrol and he gave the vague grumble that was the norm since he began swapping patrols with his future self. He said he was going to work out in the cave, and she said he was on his own for lunch since she was taking the dress back to Deeor until Kyle needed her to sit again. He left… And Selina stared after him, at the doorway where he’d disappeared.
“Given your friendship he’ll be helpful?” she quoted, and then shook her head. “Old-fashioned wedding jitters… Lois, you better be right.”
To be continued…