Chapter 8: Twists and Turns
Whiskers eyed Dick Grayson with all the malice of a cat whose favorite cushion is being bent out of shape by an inconsiderate two-foot. This particular two-foot had done it before, squashed the favorite cushion, but at least then he did so smelling of cavern and cut grass. Now he smelled like wet paint and plaster. Whiskers delicate nose twitched at the grim realization that by the time two-foot pillow-squasher left, the favorite cushion too would smell like wet paint.
And did two-foot Selina-cat do anything to discourage this? No, she’d lifted Whiskers into her lap where he could get a good look at the desecration, she stroked his fur consolingly, but she did not stop it. Indeed, she seemed to be thinking. There was a very particular kind of thinking whenever she picked him up and stroked his fur this way. It usually meant the purple leather would be removed from under the bed for a time.
Nutmeg would be upset about that. But Whiskers didn’t care so much. Under the bed was Nutmeg’s war room. Whiskers’s domain was the terrace, the planter Bat-Bruce disturbed when he was two-foot in boots, and that cushion.
“I can’t pay you anything approaching what Bruce did for the Wayne Enterprises job,” Dick said. “In fact, with all the start-up costs, Selina, I don’t know if I can pay you anything at all, for a while at least.”
“That’s okay, Dick,” she answered, “your credit’s good. You’re starting up a new business, high ticket private investigation and security; that’s hardware, contacts, office space. You think I don’t appreciate what you must be shelling out to get this off the ground in a city like Gotham? And I know you won’t take money from Bruce, so you must be doing it on loans. I completely understand what you must be going through. What I don’t understand is why you want me?”
“You’re the best.”
“Where exactly did you guys get the idea that I respond to flattery, tell me that? No, never mind, tell me this instead: why don’t you ask your wife? I mean, Richard, if it was security for a physical plant as well as the computer system, you’d be right. I am the best. But just the computers, Dick, you’re married to the best. You’ve got Oracle waking up next to you every morning. You don’t think she can’t find the holes in your system better than Catwoman?”
“You cracked Bruce’s system. Barbara never did that.”
“I doubt she’s tried. Look, I’m not complaining that you can’t pay me up front because money is tight. I am simply asking: if money is so tight, why don’t you use the better no-cost solution right at your fingertips?”
Dick sighed. This wasn’t the first time he’d tried to maneuver Selina around a conversation and failed. One last-ditch attempt to change the subject:
“What if, instead of owing you a fee, I made you a partner. How would that be?”
“Reowrl,” Whiskers spat aggressively as Selina—or rather, as Catwoman—tugged the fur at the back of his neck. It was so clearly a response to Dick’s statement, it was almost as if Catwoman herself had reowled, challenging him. In an instant, her whole manner was different: firm, focused, and no-nonsense.
“Richard, I don’t work for people who try and jerk me making the offer,” the voice took him right back to that rooftop when he was ten years old. This wasn’t Bruce’s girlfriend Selina anymore; this was Catwoman, and she was losing patience. “Why—won’t—you—ask—Barbara?”
“For the same reason I won’t take money from Bruce,” Dick answered honestly, “I don’t want to be indebted—to either of them—not on this. If it was a partnership, her and me against the world, I would. But Selina, this is her town almost as much as Bruce’s. And I want to establish my own presence here without a handout from either of them. Okay?”
She eyed him, appraisingly.
“There’s more you’re not telling me,” she said finally, “Don’t bother denying it, Richard, I can see there is. And if it was just the two of us, Dick and Selina, talking, I’d say I won’t ask because it’s none of my business. But it’s not just the two of us. You are hiring Catwoman. In fact, you offered a partnership—and that means it is my business, whatever you’re not saying. If it involves Batman, if it involves Oracle, if it involves Nightwing even. So ‘fess up, kiddo. What’s the rest of the story?”
Dick looked up at her, looked down at the cat, down at his own lap, then back up at her. It wasn’t exactly like Barbara or Bruce: Tell me because I say so. Selina did at least give a better reason than ‘because I say so.’ With her, it was a legitimate proposition, quid pro quo: If you want Catwoman’s help, there will have to be full disclosure. He made himself comfortable in the chair—destroying Whiskers’s hopes that the cushion would ever recover—and began a more detailed explanation…
He’d lucked out in virtually his first week back in Gotham, when a small committee from Barbara’s condo association called to welcome him to the building. One of them, Brian Everwood, was a city councilman. He stayed after the others had left. Everwood was well-informed about Bludhaven, its civic issues, its law enforcement woes, and he even referenced details of Dick’s own achievements on the Bludhaven Force that could only be the result of genuine interest - or research. After more than an hour of fascinating conversation, Everwood asked, point blank, if Dick would be joining the Gotham Police Force. On learning he wouldn’t (“too much baggage, Barbara’s father being the ex-commissioner and all”) Everwood had smiled, handed Dick his card, and invited him to lunch at the Barrister’s Club. As Bruce Wayne’s son, Dick was no stranger to the corridors of power. The private clubs & the executive suites did not dazzle him as they might an ordinary street cop looking for a new line of work. But Dick was not insensible to the fact that Everwood was trying to impress him, and that attention was both unexpected and gratifying.
“Of course, Gotham City,” Everwood (please, call me Brian!) enthused, “is a very different proposition than a metrop like Bludhaven. The corporate presence here, the wealth it represents, it’s staggering. Look at WishStar. Why, they’ve accomplished more in a year, restoring buildings and cleaning up Gotham Plaza, than City Hall could in a decade. And as for Batman—”
“It’s just cosmetic, Brian,” Dick felt compelled to point out, “Gotham Plaza, all the crime is still there, and all the sleaze. It’s just moved a few blocks to the left.”
“I know that Dick, may I call you Dick? I’m not naïve, Dick. But the patches of a clean Gotham that have been created are good for the city. Tourists feel safe—in fact, tourists are safe. Don’t you realize what that means? Why, the boon that creates, not just in the dollars they bring in but the boost for the city’s image! They go home and tell people it’s a good place. You can’t put a price tag on that, on what WishStar has given us.”
Selina looked curiously at Dick, who paused in his story.
“Could we possibly fast forward past the paid advertisement for WishStar, ‘a family-friendly SuperCorp with a heart as big as their bank account,’ and get on with your new line of work.”
Dick looked embarrassed and summarized the rest of the lunch: Councilman Everwood suggested the need for savvy, informed, well-connected security and investigation services to serve the growing corporate presence in Gotham. Consultants like Foster & Forsythe had their niche, and so did low-level investigators like Slam Bradley…
Dick paused to enjoy Selina’s reaction. He’d dropped that name specifically, knowing her distaste for that particular PI, who she described (rightly enough) as a bottomfeeder. But the fact was, Everwood too had used Bradley as an example of the kind of investigator whose outdated methods and underclass trappings did not fit the needs of the new Gotham and her emerging corporate clients.
It seemed the perfect answer to a question Dick had only started to ask himself: his place, his day-job, and Nightwing’s inside track in Gotham City.
The very next night, Nightwing had found Nathan. Nathan was a snitch, but not an ordinary snitch. A good snitch. A very good snitch. He knew the penny ante stuff they all did, the mob and the street gangs, but he knew uptown too: not just that some museum exhibit might make an interesting target for this criminal or that one, but what corporate sponsors were underwriting the exhibit, who carried the insurance, and so on. He even had Iceberg gossip: Sly finally got his dream date with Roxy Rocket; the disillusionment was swift and painful…
“You’re kidding!” Selina interrupted, Catwoman’s down-to-business mask dissolving in an instant into the reveling-in-gossip face. “I hadn’t heard a word about that.”
Dick failed to supply more details, but smiled, as if dangling bait. “Then I guess my informant’s as good as I think he is,” he grinned.
“He have any more to offer besides gossip of either the Iceberg or Wall Street Journal variety?” Selina asked, the business face returning.
“History,” Dick said. “Did you know Larraby Chemicals main factory was the old Ace Chemical Plant where Joker had his… accident?”
Selina shook her head. “It was a long time ago,” she said.
“Yeah. It’s way before my time. But I remember asking Bruce about it once. We were on a case, and I thought it’d be a likely Joker target.”
Selina waved him off. “I do know this one, from the clown’s own mouth,” she sighed. “Joker doesn’t blame the physical plant. He blames Batman. He blames his astrologer—dead now, by the way. And also he blames Mr. Whipple.” Dick looked blank, so Selina explained, “from the Charmin ads.”
Dick rolled his eyes. Then finished his story.
“So anyway, I was in this quandary about what to do with myself being back in Gotham, and within two days, all the pieces fell into place: Brian Everwood, Nathan, Grayson Associates. Actually, my first thought was Grayson & Grayson, but Barbara’s been so difficult about anything work related. I finally worked it out, I think: See, with the Titans, I led a team. And before that, I was Bruce’s partner. For all his dictatorial personality, Batman is part of a team: in the JLA, and he led the Outsiders, and he leads ‘Team Bat’ for lack of a better word.
Barbara’s never done that. She’s more of a dispatcher. She’s traffic control: go here now. And she’s triage: This is the priority, take care of this one, then that one, then that. She doesn’t know what it is to lead; she directs. And it seems like, since we’ve been back, whenever our personal relationship bled onto Oracle turf, that aspect of her character emerged. Well Selina, I can deal with that in the field. As Nightwing, it’s a total asset to me. But if Grayson Associates is going to be my business and part of Nightwing’s operations here, then I’m going to be calling the shots. I’m not going to have ‘the wife’ ordering me around like the hired help…. So now you know. That’s why I came to you. That’s why I want you handling this—for money or a share of the operation—and not her.”
“Okay,” Selina agreed. “I don’t believe I’m doing this, but I’ll just get rusty if I don’t keep my hand in, I guess. When do I start?”
“As soon as you want,” Dick said, handing her a business card, which Whiskers promptly snatched from his hand. “I settled into the office at that address yesterday,” Dick said, watching Whiskers chew his business card into a small, wet wad, “paint’ll be dry tomorrow. Meantime, you can log in from here with…the access codes I had written on the back of that card—does that cat not like me or something?”
“I swear,” Selina laughed, retrieving the card and trying to see if the ink on the back was still legible, “you’re worse than Bruce.”
“I swear,” Selina sighed quietly, twiddling her fork in her salad, “You’re worse than Dick.”
It had been going on for four courses. There had been six DEMON agents at some curio shop in Chinatown; now there were five.
Through the soup: were six, now
“He killed one,” Selina guessed. “Now about this new job I’ve been offered…”
“In the past,” Bruce bulldozed over her, ruining her plan to tease him with her news, “if he killed one, a new one came in and replaced him. So why not this time?”
And through the fish: men are cycled
in and out, but there are always six. What happened to the last one that
he wasn’t replaced?
“Weren’t you going to tell me about the meeting with Tim?” Selina asked, trying to change the subject. “He was onto something about Scarecrow—those CEOs?”
“It doesn’t make sense. Even Ra’s al Ghul has turnover, but in the past, when he’s lost a man, he’s always replaced him. They came and went, the faces changed, the short one left, the goatee came in - but there were always six.”
With the roast:
“Look, I know you didn’t have henchman, but imagine you did. If you always had six, why suddenly change to five?” She started to speak but he cut her off: “And it can’t be to cut costs; funds are never an issue with Ra’s.”
“Because I used to be psychotically obsessive, but now I got therapy,” she answered tensely. “I don’t know.”
“Neither do I,” Bruce growled, “That’s what bothers me.”
And now with the salad: Bruce took
six grapes from the centerpiece, arranged them in a row above his plate, took
one away, and stared at the empty space.
And this, Selina couldn’t help but reflect, is the crimefighting genius that kept me from the VanDeegan Emeralds?
“Couldn’t Ra’s just change his mind?” she speculated.
“To my knowledge, he’s never changed his mind in 1200 years. Why start now?”
Dessert would have been more of the same if Dick hadn’t arrived, eager for Grayson Associates to make its first intelligence contribution to the crime-fighting crusade in Gotham.
“A lead already?” Bruce and Selina asked in unison.
Dick did a doubletake.
“It is so creepy when you guys do that,” he said.
“Must be an emergency if it couldn’t wait for patrol,” Bruce said, checking his watch. They’d be in the city in costume within the hour. If it couldn’t wait that long, he wondered why Dick did didn’t simply telephone.
“Not an emergency, exactly,” Dick said, unable to hide his intense excitement, “I didn’t bring it to Batman or to the cave, because this lead concerns Bruce Wayne.” Finally! Finally, Dick’s hour had come. He was finally measuring up to, and possibly even surpassing, Bruce. “Seems the Joker wants to kill you. At the old Ace factory.”
“WHAT?” Selina reacted first, and louder, “WHY?”
“Never ask ‘why’ with Joker,” Bruce said calmly.
“But Jack adores you,” she objected, “which is a big, creepy WHY all by itself, by the way. Now, all of a sudden he wants you dead, and no WHY? Six grapes down to five, and we were obsessing on why through four courses.”
Dick looked back and forth like it was a tennis match.
“Ra’s is predictable,” Bruce explained
carefully, “Joker is insane. You can’t predict what he’ll do or why. ”
“It looks like Dick can,” Selina observed. Dick beamed as she turned to him and asked, “Where’d you say this is going down?”
“The old Ace plant. Now Larraby Chemicals,” Dick answered proudly. “My contact supplied blueprints.”
“Already got’em,” Bruce said dismissively.
“Old plans,” Dick shot back, producing a long documents tube, “not since the renovations when Larraby took over.”
Batman stood on the roof of the former Ace Chemical Plant, watching the paddy wagon taking Harley Quinn back to Arkham disappear into the stream of traffic. The ambulance was still being loaded. There was the stretcher carrying Joker…cuffs stained with blood and Green Dye #4.
The OraCom buzzed in his earpiece under the cowl, and he heard Oracle’s patient, but insistent, request for confirmation of the police chatter she was picking up: Joker and Harley apprehended. No civilian casualties. Minimal property damage, but fire trucks dispatched to sign off before the plant could reopen. All those chemicals—it could have been serious.
Batman didn’t respond.
Yes, it could have been serious. Joker wanting to kill Bruce Wayne at the Ace Factory? Insane. Insanity was a given with the Joker, but still. In the privacy of his own mind he voiced the “Why” he would not with Dick and Selina. Then he reprimanded himself just as he had them. There was no “Why” with Joker. In a week, the madman wouldn’t know himself.
::BOSS! REPORT IN, WOULD YOU?:: Oracle’s answer-me-now tone. It was one sound, Clark once confided, that made the Man-of-Steel jolt.
..:: Here, Oracle. Report confirmed. Joker’s in custody. Quinn’s in custody. Situation contained. No casualties::..
::Mind telling me why you didn’t answer the first two times I asked then?:: The relief in her anger was palpable. Of course, Batman kicked himself, “no civilian casualties” could have meant anything. With Joker, she would naturally assume the worst.
..::Preoccupied::.. he answered, in the terse I’m-Batman/Don’t-Question tone that silenced everyone but Selina.
Then he thought the better of it. Barbara was pissed because he’d scared her.
..::I was preoccupied,::.. he explained, ..::going over the battle, Oracle, I didn’t hear you. It was almost too easy. The heads-up from Dick, the blueprints, they hadn’t had time to set the Bruce Wayne trap, let alone prepare for unexpected company from Batman.::..
:: Well, good deal. Calling it a night, then? :: Oracle answered simply.
Some things she still viewed with Batgirl simplicity. Battle lost or battle won. It was too early to “call it a night.”
Besides, Batman couldn’t shake the feeling that he was missing something. A link in a chain that wasn’t a chain. Or a piece that didn’t fit the puzzle because the puzzle, not the piece, was wrong… Disgusted at the thought he sounded like Riddler, Batman slapped the OraCom control.
:: Yeah, boss? ::
Maybe what he needed, Batman decided, was to get back to basics. An old-fashioned scrap and scratch might be just the thing. Clear his mind, and let him think this through.
..:: Is Selina on the channel ? ::.. he asked abruptly.
:: Not tonight. She’s doing a job for Dick. ::
..:: You mean, for Nightwing?::..
:: I mean what I said. You wouldn’t hear of her coming along to the
chemical plant, so Dick has her casing this big corporate complex.
Revamping their security and Grayson Associates is putting in a bid.::
..::She’s not on the channel when I need her because she’s DOING A JOB FOR DICK!::..
:: Hey, Bossman, stand down. Change the tone and maybe I won’t tell her
you had a hissy that she wasn’t at your beck ‘n call after you left her out on
the Joker bust. ::
This was outrageous. What had gotten into the girl? “Change the tone and maybe I won’t tell her you had a hissy?” That was a very different thing from getting a little testy because he’d missed a check-in.
..::What complex is she casing?::.. Batman asked through clenched teeth.
::I’m not at liberty to say,:: came the unbelievable reply ::Guess
you’ll have to use those detective skills we’ve heard so much of. Oracle
Batman stared at the OraCom control in disbelief. But the mystery of Oracle’s mood swings would have to wait. To pursue it now would be to let her distract him from finding Selina—and on the off chance that that’s exactly what it was supposed to do - “estrogen solidarity” and all that - he wasn’t going to let them get away with it.
The initial attempt to break into Grayson
Associates’ computer system met with a brazenly personal message:
You CAN’T be serious. We haven’t been online for 48 hours and you’re already scratching at the backdoor? If you ask Dick nicely, he might just tell you what you want to know. Or you could ask me. You could try to kiss it out of me like you used to, or maybe…
He didn’t read further. He realized what she’d done. The relay from the Batcomputer to the Batmobile used a unique data pulse that prevented anyone from tracing the signal in either direction. She was using that pulse as an identifying signature to block login and send back this saucy little taunt. That meant however he was going to break into this network—and he would break into this network—it couldn’t be from a Batcave workstation or the Batmobile field unit. Damn her.
Well, he thought, Come at it from the other side then: If Catwoman was approaching this like any other job, she’d investigate before going to the site in costume. He let himself into her apartment and examined her personal computer. As he skimmed the day’s browser history, he felt Whiskers sniffing his boots expectantly.
“Sorry, fella,” he offered, patting the cat’s head although his eyes never left the computer screen, “unexpected visit tonight. I’ll bring you some next time.”
There it was—in the history. In the last two days, Selina had visited the websites of WishStar, Chantal Klee and KeeNeCo. The latter two were, respectively, the architect and contractor that renovated WishStar’s midtown complex, taken over from a failing publishing empire.
Batman lifted the cat onto the desk and
chucked his chin. “Don’t tell her how I found out,” he instructed,
To be continued...