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Chapter 4: Triptych

 

Wayne Manor, Morning.

Bruce sat sketching out plans for the new Zogger, brow knit into a crinkled triangle of intense concentration, as Alfred looked on, wondering what was really going on…

Iceberg Lounge, Morning.

Edward Nigma sat with the Times crossword, a page of anagrams, and a legal pad of new riddles, brow knit into a crinkled triangle of intense concentration, as Sly and Oswald looked on, wondering what was really going on…

Murray Hill Apartments, 4c, Morning.

Azrael sat sketching a new armor design, his brow knit into a crinkled triangle of intense concentration, as Jean Paul looked on, knowing only too well what was really going on and wondering what, if anything, could be done to stop it…

Don’t do this, Az.  I know you’re not a touchy-feely talk-it-out kind of guy, but it would be better than this!  Az?  Az, I know you can hear me.  Put the pencils down, Azreal.  Put the pencils DOWN and listen to me for a blessed minute, will ya?  You do this every time there’s a setback. You tune me out and go running into the System and butching up the armor.  Azrael, listen to me, it has never once helped.  Talk to me, damnit!

Iceberg Lounge…

After a minute’s whispered conversation, Oswald pushed Sly forward.  The bartender approached Nigma cautiously, stopping each time the latter grumbled… “Eight letters, a nutty liquor” …or tore a page from the legal pad, grinding it into a ball, and setting it neatly into a small paperball pyramid at his elbow. 

“What is it, Sly?” Nigma asked without looking up once the bartender came into range.

“Um… I was just wondering, uh, if you’d like some coffee or anything, Mr. Nigma.  You’ve been at it, whatever it is you’re doing there, since dawn.”

“A-ma-retto—a nutty liquor—so that’s tailfeather, number six going down.  I have been at it since before dawn, Sly, as you and the bird ogling me from the doorway—yes, I see you Oswald, speaking of tail feathers—well know.  I have been at it since I got in last night, I have not slept, and I certainly have no need for more (eight-letter word for stimulant) caffeine, as the length of this sentence will attest.”  He looked up and smiled a bright smile, pleased with his cleverness.  “But you should make a pot for yourself and Ozzy.  Get wired, Sly, my good man, I think you’ll find after a cup or two, you’ll be able to keep up with my witty eight-letter word for repartee, begins with a b, badinage.”

 

Wayne Manor…

“Alfred,” Bruce asked crisply as the butler began dusting the sideboard, “Have you noted anything… peculiar… about Selina lately?”

“Peculiar?  No indeed, sir.”

“Nothing unusual at all?  She seems her usual self to you?”

“Yes, sir.  Very much so.  Might I inquire what in particular you—”

“Oh, it’s nothing.”

“Very good, sir.”

Alfred turned to leave, but Bruce went on speaking.

“She’s just… in a really good mood all of a sudden, that’s all.”

“Surely that isn’t cause for alarm, sir.”

“No, I guess not.  It’s odd, though.”

 

Murray Hill Apartments, 4c

A normal man, agitated as Jean Paul was becoming, would have felt tension coiling in the muscles of his shoulders and neck.  He might have stretched, stood, or even paced to ease the physical manifestation of his fevered thoughts.  But with the Azrael personality in control of the body they shared, he could do nothing but coexist with his anxiety as it twisted into tighter and tighter spirals of options that were no options.

Azrael was having an absolute meltdown. 

Catwoman was always a bit of a raw nerve—for the both of them, but more so for the Azrael side.  In their time in the Batman’s mantel, she was the only one that had truly beaten him.  The reaction then wasn’t good. That period was painful and confusing for Jean Paul to remember, all the more so because he hadn’t learned to distinguish Azrael from his own self. He would never be entirely sure what had happened, what incident ignited what response from what part of his personality.  But he knew the combination of the Mantel and the System proved disastrous, and he knew he was unable to stop it.

Jean Paul couldn’t let it happen again.  Azrael was in trouble.  The wild theory Jean Paul himself suggested, that Selina Kyle was setting them up, set off some kind of weird fixation when Azrael realized it wasn’t Selina in the catsuit.  Now he was channeling the System like mad, redesigning the armor over and over.  Jean Paul couldn’t let it happen again… but where could he go?

To go to Bruce with this was unthinkable.  Azrael—losing it—again—and because of Catwoman? 

Oracle was a possibility—they had a good relationship once—but Oracle had married Dick Grayson.  That was worse than going to Bruce. 

Robin and Batgirl were children. 

There had to be someone.  There had to.

 

Wayne Manor…

Bruce merely stared at the arrow on his sketch indicating the tiny roving arm that would deliver a half-dozen rapid blows to the midsection.  In his mind, he almost felt the blows, so lost was he in memory of a hundred late night Zogger sessions.  Sessions after patrol, after an encounter with a maddening cat, sessions meant to clear his mind of the echoes.

“That’s far enough, Catwoman.”  “It’s never far enough, Dark Knight.” 

No rooftop encounter had ever haunted him like her behavior at breakfast.  Alfred must have brought in the tray while Bruce was in the shower.  He had come out of the bathroom to find Selina, lying on her stomach on the bed, reading the newspaper and laughing like a schoolgirl. 

“Guess what,” she announced, flopping over onto her back to face him, looking up with a tickled smile, “I have cat powers.”  And then peals of laughter. 

“You have woman powers,” he noted, voice dipping into Batman’s gravel, “And that’s quite enough trouble as it is.”

“Woof,” she said, rolling back onto her stomach.  She bent her knees up and crossed the ankles, letting the legs bob back and forth as she read, the muscles of the calves gently tensing and releasing on each move. 

Bruce grunted, feeling she’d made his point for him.  He picked up the silver pot from the tray, poured his coffee, and picked up his own newspaper, still neatly folded in its little pocket in the side of the breakfast tray…  The second paper was a new phenomenon.  Alfred had been quick to add a second cup to the tray as soon as Selina started sleeping over.  After she moved in, the pastries began appearing.  Not every day, but often—a chocolate croissant or a raspberry scone.  And now, a second newspaper. 

Bruce brought the coffee to his lips and one of those strange chains of sense memories reminded him of another morning, another cup of coffee, another newspaper—a box labeled Stage Views right beneath the fold:

CATWOMAN PURRS

They say God writes lousy theatre. They haven’t been to off-Broadway’s Hijinx Playhouse lately, where Selina Kyle, purporting to be one of Gotham’s most mysterious costumed nightcrawlers, The Catwoman, is currently starring in a one-woman show…

Bruce vividly remembered the words burning off the page into his brain, a swallow of coffee gone awry, a gurgling cough, and then a frantic attempt to mop the hot liquid off the page, read the soggy words beneath, wave off Alfred, and at the same time go on breathing despite the lingering sting of snorted coffee and the state of shock congealing in his lungs. 

He turned back towards the bed as if turning from that past shock into the present:  the puzzle of Selina—that same Selina from the stage of the Hijinx Playhouse, the same Selina who mounted Cat-Tales to answer an insult from that very newspaper—lying on his bed, actually laughing at the Post’s latest outrage.

“‘Chosen of a cat god,’ oh my dear lord, somebody at the Post is off his medication again.  That’s why I can jump from rooftop to rooftop, it seems.”  She looked up at him with a delighted wink, “Only been doing it since I was 23.  Don’t ask me how you pull it off though.”

Bruce said nothing.

“How can anybody be so wrong in so many ways.  You’ve really got to wonder, don’t you?” she laughed merrily, popping a bite of scone into her mouth.  “I’ll bet you Blake has kittens when he sees this.”

Where was the indignation?  Where was the rage?  Where was the litany of imaginative organ removal techniques involving cat-claws?

 

Iceberg Lounge…

“Where’d he go?” Oswald asked, looking around the bar where Ed Nigma had been loitering since moving into the Iceberg. 

“Out,” Sly told him, “Said there’s no way he can continue like this.”

“KWAK-KWAK-KWAK!  There’s gratitude for you, after I let him stay in my bar for a mere pittance of rent, and the most trifling percentage of his earnings whilst he was our guest.”

“I don’t think he meant us, Mr. Cobblepot.  He left this note.”

Sly held out a folded Iceberg Lounge napkin stained with a brown mug-sized ring and smelling strongly of stale coffee.  Oswald opened it, read the words scrawled inside, then reread them.

Gang aft No Way! Bitch!

“The best-laid schemes o’ Mice and Men gang aft a-gley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief and pain for promised joy.”  

The best-laid plans are my plans, you copycat bitch.  

Gang Aft Aglay?  I’ll show you Gang Aft Aglay.  

No goddamn copycat is going to track litter over my timetable. 

“This isn’t a riddle,” Oswald noted, “it’s a rant.”

Sly said nothing at first, but merely went on polishing the bar with his trademark calm.  Oswald watched this behavior, remembering those first weeks when he’d noticed the bartender’s unflappability in the face of rogue excesses.

“Well, kwak-kwak, back to normal around here, anyway.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Cobblepot,” Sly smiled.

“Make sure you add the cost of that table onto Blake’s tab.” 

“Already done, Mr. Cobblepot.”

 

Beneath Wayne Manor…

Bruce fired up the Batcave systems that monitored the security cameras positioned throughout Wayne Manor.  The ones in Selina’s suite were out again.  It had become a running game between them:  She disconnected them, he restored them; she rerouted them to show the interior of Alfred’s pantry, he set them back; she rigged them to play a loop of ‘Catvid-legs’… he let that one stand for a day, then switched it back.

On a hunch, he punched up the feed from the camera in the morning room.  She was there.  Bruce sat back in his chair, watching the image with a curious mix of satisfaction and unease.  Selina was sitting at the desk, sipping coffee and reading the morning mail from the look of it… and unless there was some kind of short in the system, she was humming… Rodgers & Hammerstein?…  When she first moved in, she always used the little office she’d set up in her own suite.  Lately, she’d begun using the morning room more often… 

Maybe it was that simple. 

They’d grown much closer since the first time Talia tried inserting herself into their lives.  Selina was more secure in their relationship now; more secure in the life they were building together.  So Talia’s power was diminished.  She was no longer a threat; she was, at most, an annoyance.

It was—it should have been good news.  But Bruce felt a queasy inclination to gulp all the same and his mind raced to find the reason…  Selina was reading her mail in the morning room, letting go of those distinctions she insisted on so adamantly when she first moved in.  She was a cat; she would always be independent.  But she was growing beyond that aggressive, almost paranoid, guarding of her independence.  She was beginning to see that a life with him didn’t threaten it. She was…

She was… She was showing Jean Paul Valley into the morning room?

 

10 blocks north of the Iceberg Lounge…

Nigma left the Gotham Public Library with as energetic a gait as he’d entered an hour earlier.  But where anger and frustration spurred him on earlier, he moved now with a renewed determination to get the job done.  A mere forty minutes in the computer lab and he’d found the information he needed. 

He hailed a cab and named an address.  As the taxi pulled into traffic, he thought through the possible scenarios.  He had his riddles laid out, there was a sequence and Catwoman was to be #2 in that sequence.  He had laid the foundations in that first riddle, already sent to Batman.  Croc was first, but Catwoman was mentioned.  Catwoman was the key to crime #2.  Catwoman HAD to be crime #2 if his clue was to be fair.  Now all he had to do was send the code and it would be up to Batman to find the correct Catwoman article in the Post to learn the target:  Canary. 

He simply could not have a fake Catwoman running around Gotham sniffing around his cat-prize—with Barney Fife trailing after her, no less.

No, he had to put a stop to this copycat nonsense.  He wasn’t sure how yet, but given his intellect and hers, he was certain there would be no difficulty.

 

Wayne Manor…

Jean Paul would never feel really comfortable talking to Selina Kyle, but the Azrael situation was too dangerous and too important to let butterflies stop him.  He had eliminated the entire Bat-family as potential confidants.  The whole AzBat history made the subject too delicate.  Selina might hate him still for daring to take Bruce’s place, and she wouldn’t take pains to hide it.  But even her pointed dislike he could endure more than facing Bruce with the news that Azrael might be coming unhinged again.

That was his theory, at least, until he reached the morning room.  Jean Paul had told Azrael that he wanted to see Alfred.  It was plausible enough, it got him to the door of Wayne Manor, and he’d blurted out his request to see Selina the moment Alfred Pennyworth opened the door.  Azrael began ranting and Jean Paul tuned him out as resolutely as the vigilante often did to him.

I didn’t use to be so good at this, Az, he thought before shutting that door in his mind. But after all those weeks in Rumania and Berlin, I think I can just about get through a ten minute conversation with Selina without your—oh.

Jean Paul felt all his determination unravel when he reached the morning room and Alfred, who had been walking in front of him, stepped to the side.  Jean Paul found himself looking through the open space formerly occupied by Alfred’s back, through the doorway at Selina, seated at the desk.  She was humming something; she looked… quite lovely in that split second looking up, before recognizing her visitor. And then… disgust.  Her face didn’t exactly “fall,” but the disappointment was clear enough.  “Oh, it’s you” was never said aloud, but Jean Paul heard it just as clearly.

Jean Paul’s resolve faltered—and Azrael began screaming in his mind.

—herself into the Batman’s life, robbing us of a powerful ally in this matter, and perhaps the one best equipped to handle her, but that you must also place yourself under yoke of her—

“Um, really sorry to bother you,” Jean Paul managed, sounding whiny even to his own ears.  “I hope it’s not too bad a time?”

“No, of course not,” Selina answered with all the warmth of a tax attorney, “Have a seat.  Can Alfred bring you anythingnogood.  Well then, what do you want?”

Jean Paul steeled himself and explained, as briefly as he could, that he wanted her help.  Azrael, the Azrael personality, that is—Yes, he supposed he was worse than even Bruce about referring to his crimefighting persona as a separate entity, but it really was very different from the usual vigilante alter-ego situation, not that he was pretending to be an expert about superheroes—

She looked so disapproving; he kept stumbling and qualifying his remarks, taking strange verbal detours.  Before long, he was explaining how Azrael was an artificial personality programmed into him by the Order of St. Dumas… when he realized she didn’t care.  

“It’s just that, you have a very profound effect on Azrael… ma’am.  He’s acting wonky again, and I really don’t know what to do. I figured if anybody could talk him down, it’d be you.”

 

Beneath Wayne Manor…

The words “Azrael” and “over the edge” were all Bruce needed to hear.  Without bothering to close down the console, he was on his way out of the cave, up to the morning room to get some answers.

 

Wayne Manor…

“Let me get this straight,” Selina said crisply.  “Your… ‘Azzier half’ is having an episode, and you want me to… do what exactly?  Sit him down for milk and cookies?”

There was no answer.  It seemed like the poor ass couldn’t even look up at her.  Selina realized that, like it or not, she needed a different approach.

“Look… Jean Paul,” without realizing it, she had infused the name with a slightly French pronunciation, and it startled him into looking up at her.  His mouth opened and the words began pouring out in a stream…

“I know you didn’t set us up, Catwoman.  I know that! I knew as soon as he said it wasn’t you in the catsuit.  As soon as we saw it was a fake Catwoman, then it all made sense!  But he won’t see that.  He’s got this idée fixe about you now.  He thinks you set up the whole thing to humiliate him because of the time it was him in the batsuit, and I know you’re going to hate me now for even bringing that up but—”

“Hang on,” Selina ordered.  Jean Paul stopped, less because of the verbal cut-off and more because Selina Kyle’s hand had appeared—firmly—on top of his.  It wasn’t a slap or anything, but it was physical, it was her hand, it was there on his thumb and forefinger, touching him, and it punctuated the order to stop talking with the force of a thousand Halt in the name of St. Dumas.

“A fake Catwoman?” Selina asked pointedly.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Don’t call me ma’am.  A fake Catwoman?”

He nodded.

“You mean like goggles and cat powers from the Gotham Post?”

“No, more like you.  Purple and, and stealing jewels—except with a tail.”

“A tail!”

“And… not as pretty.”

Selina glared a glare of absolute contempt, and Jean Paul thought of a different detail to have noticed.

“And not so good at the stealing, either.  She didn’t disable the cameras or anything.”

Selina flexed her fingers and Jean Paul gulped.  The gesture was most eloquent, even though there were no claws there: something needed to be shredded.  Preferably something that would scream.

“I, I jus’thought,” he stammered—when Bruce burst into the room, seized his collar, pulled him from the chair and slammed him against the wall.

“What happened?  How many hurt?  What triggered it?  What part of town?  Who was there?  Who else knows?”

“HEY!” Selina cut in, “Excuse me, I think this is my meeting, and if anybody is going to claw some answers out of the pheromonially-challenged mouse, it’s going to be me.  So take a number.”  She turned to Jean Paul without breaking for air and started her own barrage of questions: “Where was this fake Catwoman?  What was she after?  How did she go about breaking in?  Why didn’t she disable the cameras?  What did she say?  How did she fight—”

“Kitten,” Bruce started to say, still clenching Jean Paul’s shirt in his fist, “Do you mind, this is import—WAITAMINUTE, a fake Catwoman!?!”

“Ye-es,” Selina answered in a mocking singsong that erased all doubt that the good mood of the morning was a distant memory.  As she went on, Bruce found her tone disconcertingly familiar. It harkened back to the old days on rooftops, telling Batman to back off. “Was working on that before you came barging in, so barge the hell out so I can get on with it!”

“I really do think she can be more help,” Jean Paul added meekly.  “Maybe work together, with Az, I mean, on finding this imposter.  If we can just convince him Catwoman—real Catwoman, I mean, Selina—isn’t involved, I think he’ll have to realize you have a right to help take down the copycat.  Right?”

Bruce looked from one to the other.  “I want a report every fifteen minutes,” he barked finally, turning to go.  Then he stopped and turned back. 

Of course. 

His eyes met Selina’s.

“Talia was bound to try something,” he said flatly.  “This is it.”

“I don’t understand,” Jean Paul said, “Talia Head?  Why would she want to send Az into a death spiral?”

“This started off such a good day,” Selina complained.  “I had cat powers.”

To be continued...

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