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Chapter 6: Losing Him

 

There’s a reason cats work alone.  You know why?  Because people are annoying.

Consider Pheromones over there. 

He had the gall to call himself Batman.  He took Bruce’s place.  He LIVED in this house, he came down to this cave, he had the unmitigated gall to go into the vault and put on that cape—Bruce’s cape and cowl—and then go out into city calling himself Batman.  He makes my skin crawl.  I can barely stand to be in the same room with him, and now I was supposed to work with the miserable shit. 

After the morning room, we had gone down to the cave.  First, we watched the “HelmetCam” record of Azrael’s encounter with the faux Catwoman.  Then we watched it again.  Oracle had already accessed the security videos from the Parker Exchange, so now we sat there watching catvid-who-does-she-think-she’s-fooling for the fifth time.  Bruce was lurking not far away, pretending to work on Zogger.  I got the vibe he wanted to keep an eye on us—on me—which was frankly a little insulting.  It’s not like I was going to claw Azrael into two-hundred pounds of cat kibble.  Not in the Batcave.  Alfred would have to clean it up. 

“VOX Control. VidFeed: Parker Exchange.  Halt and replay from time index 23:15.”

Six times.  We were going to watch it a sixth time.

“Vidfeed.  Play at quarter speed until time index 23:19.”

He used that voice too.  The deep one he thinks sounds like Batman.  Fooled a lot of them with that.  He fooled Two-Face, fooled Gordon, he even fooled Tim.  But he never fooled me. 

“Freeze.  Enlarge quadrant C3, playback at 1/8th speed.”

“Look,” I told him frankly, “We’ve watched this independent film from Nepal’s most neurotic auteur six times now.  There’s nothing more to see as far as I’m concerned. It’s the spawn.”

He looked at the tape, then at me, then at the tape, and then at me.

“The… spawn,” he said finally.

“Talia al Ghul-Head-whatever,” I explained, “the demonspawn.”

“I know who you meant,” he declared. 

How I hate that voice. 

I was having a really good day too.  The thing with Bruce’s scars, all of them coming back that way after the Berserker episode, seeing him… seeing him hurt like that, it put a lot of the nonsense into perspective.  I love him.  We’re good together.  We’re happy.  What did it really matter if a few silly people jumped to some silly conclusions about us?  If Clark Kent tried to play matchmaker?  If we even decided to…  Anyway, it was a good day.  And then he showed up.  Jean Paul Valley, Azrael, the walking, talking reminder of… losing Bruce. 

Jean Paul says Azrael has an idée fixe about me. 

Well, Pheromones, it’s mutual.  

“She tried to frame me once before,” I said, filling him in on the history. “But there was no dressing up that time.  She just had some cat crimes committed in Gotham.  She must have figured the thefts themselves would set Bruce off or something, turn him against me.  The DEMON crowd isn’t big with the new ideas.  She’s recycling what she’s done before, just like her old man.”

He nodded.

“I begin to think your brazen to be true, Catwoman.  I had thought you the instigator behind this new villain’s appearance, but I see now you are innocent.”

“Be still, my beating heart,” I growled quietly.

“An innocent, unjustly slandered,” he kept going. 

“Um, yeah, good.  Glad we got that cleared up.”

“By a petty, covetous woman, made foolish and bitter by her disappointments.”

“Ho-kay.  Fine.  Now about finding her.”

“To make slander of a lady’s good name is among the vilest of sins.”

“Bruce!” I called, feeling I was losing control of the situation, “How do you switch him off?”

“There can be no ‘switching off’ of Justice, Catwoman.  I pledge my sword to the righting of this wrong.”

Exactly the wrong thing to say. 

“Down, boy.  No!  No righting the wrong.  Put down that thought and step slowly away from the hero handbook.”

“What’s the problem?” Bruce asked too casually, coming over to join us.

I explained.  “Pheromones wants to right my wrong.”

“Oh god,” Bruce winced.

“The lady’s name is maligned,” Azrael announced to the whole cave, as if even the bats hadn’t caught on by now.

“I just got the smell of rosemary oil out of my hair, Bruce.  I’m not keen to sit down with any more goddesses that need the lecture notes for Coupling 101.”

He was about to say something when an alert sounded at his workstation.  He went to check it, and bristled. 

“Just a message coming in,” he graveled. 

Batman’s voice, the real one.  How anybody could be fooled by Pheromones’s imitation, I will never understand.

“I… have to go out.  You two settle this between you.  Work it out.”

I was so stunned, I let his rather… commanding tone pass.  I do not take orders from Batman.  And he knows that by now.  I just—temporarily—missed the chance to remind him of that fact because I was so surprised by the whole message/run-off routine. 

I didn’t have a chance to really consider the situation with Bruce, though, because of Azrael.  Now that he’d decided I wasn’t the bad guy, he was more gung-ho than ever to focus on the case.

“So the Demon Head’s daughter is the false Catwoman, and her purpose in this deception is to bring ruin to the true Cat’s good name and The Batman’s high opinion of you.”

Swear to god, that’s how he talks.  In this particular case, it wasn’t quite as annoying as usual.  He was, despite all the pomposity, strangely direct in his approach:

“Find her.  Stop her.  Teach her not to attempt such folly again.”

I don’t believe anyone has ever taught the demonspawn anything, not successfully at any rate, and I told him so.  His response was, again, conspicuously not-annoying for Pheromones:  The followers of St. Dumas were longtime enemies of the Demon, he said.  They had “ways…” 

It sounded colorful.  What they used to do to heretics in the good old days.  But I hoped it wasn’t going to come to hot coals and thumbscrews.

“The Order of St. Dumas keeps up with the times, Good Lady,” came the none-too-reassuring reply  “There have been many advances in technology since such primitive methods were employed.  The Order serves St. Dumas with the best means at their disposal.”

“Um, Pheromones, just to be clear, are you talking about torturing the demonspawn?  Not that it’s necessarily a deal-breaker, I just want to be clear.”

“It seldom comes to torture.”

So of course, I had to go along.  I was a little piqued about Bruce and the way he took off, but this had to take precedence.  “It seldom comes to torture” and the demonspawn?  I somehow didn’t think a stern talking to from a guy with a flaming sword was going to do the trick, and somebody had to and keep an eye on him.

In any organization the size of DEMON, there are official rules and mandates that every minion knows, scorched into their very souls by the rigorous indoctrination.

Then there are the other rules and precepts, unofficial, never hinted at in any document or training.  They are known just the same by every minion from the lowliest pit-stirrer up to the master’s own bodyguard Ubu.  One such unofficial precept was that transfer to Gotham City was a punishment. 

This had nothing to do with the Great One’s great enemy, He whose name must not be spoken.  Not directly.  It was because of Ulstarn, the lieutenant who had run the vital outpost in the heart of the enemy’s stronghold for so many years.  Ulstarn’s loyalty to Ra’s al Ghul was beyond question.  He was simply… unpleasant.  Monumentally insecure, obsessively suspicious and downright paranoid, it was hell—living hell—to work for such a man.  And so slowly, month-by-month, word got around:  the glory of challenging the Master’s great enemy, He whose name must not be spoken, must be balanced against working for Ulstarn, He who figured any two minions talking together must be plotting against him.

When the higher tiers of DEMON realized this, they put the men’s dread of Gotham to good use.  There were always minor transgressions for which death was too extreme a penalty.  Flogging or starvation, while effective, left a man in poor condition to fight for their liege as a minion should.  A transfer to Gotham, on the other hand—in some cases, the mere threat of a transfer to Gotham—offered a welcome alternative for the DEMON overseer in need of a pickling rod. 

When Ulstarn was replaced with Gr’oriBr’di, all of DEMON held its breath.  No one knew what kind of man this was. He had not come from their ranks but was chosen personally by the Great One himself, named by the Great One personally and awarded a prestigious second apostrophe! 

Not knowing what to expect, Raf’on, son of Raf’Fir and a third generation servant of the Demon’s Head, was the first to test if Gotham City would still be a punishment posting under Gr’oriBr’di.  He sent a discipline case, Ul’Gei, a rebellious but promising Ajax second class, who all agreed had a splendid future before him if only he didn’t get himself executed before the quarter moon. 

Like most minions, Ul’Gei did not remain in Gotham for the full term of his posting.  He was discovered, like so many are, by He whose name must not be spoken, and returned to the compound in the same cargo crate used to smuggled him into the United States.  On Ul’Gei’s return, Raf’on watched him closely.  The man’s spirit was broken.  He was silent, he kept his head down, he kept to himself. 

When other minions returned from Gotham, they were found much the same.  Silent.  Heads down.  One would almost think they were disappointed to be back in the compound.  They kept together, as men will do that have endured the same terrible hardships.  Whoever Gr’oriBr’di was, he knew how to break a man’s spirit.  The returned minions whispered of his torments only among themselves—“ice burrows,” “the rocket,” “jackelope”—and the overseers understood that transfer to Gotham City was still a punishment to be dreaded.

The assassin Il’Nar was one such punishment posting.  He had been ordered to kill Clark Kent and he had failed.  This was no minor transgression.  Failure to complete a sanction was punishable by death:  death by a thousand cuts, death by burning, death by drowning, death by hanging, death by half-hanging drawing and quartering, and in less severe cases, the condemned would be allowed to take their own life, not honorably by the sword as a warrior, but by the voluntary consumption of strychnine.  The sentence was determined by the manner in which the assassin failed.  The problem was that, in the case of the Kent sanction, no one could determine what Il’Nar had done wrong.  Unable to issue a reprimand, let alone pass sentence without some kind of definite findings, Raf’on got the matter off his desk the only way he knew how: he transferred Il’Nar to Gotham City… indefinitely.

Il’Nar knew if he was ever to get back to the compound, he must prove himself to Gr’oriBr’di.  He would serve Gr’oriBr’di as no overseer had ever been served.  This first sanction, Edward Nigma, was a test, and he was thankful to be given it so quickly.  He was thankful to Edward Nigma for so foolishly crossing DEMON in whatever way he had done that so demanded his swift removal. 

Il’Nar had no difficulty infiltrating the Iceberg basement where he knew Edward Nigma now dwelled.  There was only a skeleton staff in the building before the establishment opened for the evening:  Cobblepot (well known to all DEMON personnel stationed in Gotham from the dossiers) and Sly the bartender (well known to all DEMON personnel stationed in Gotham for his lessons on the relative merits of Heineken, Beck’s, Guinness, and Samuel Adams).

Il’Nar searched the Iceberg basement with quiet efficiency and, finding it empty, positioned himself behind the door, uncoiled his garrote, and waited for Nigma’s return.

It turned out Azrael wasn’t completely useless to work on a case with. 

Well no, that’s not quite true.  Azrael is useless.  But Jean Paul is right up there with Oracle for the computer wizardry.  It only took him a half-hour to find where the demonspawn was staying. 

It took me that long to persuade him to wait on the roof. 

Official reason:  I knew the hotel well.  On the park, very upper.  It was a regular stop on my prowls when I was working.  So it only made sense for me to go in alone.

Unofficial reason:  He was a little too sugared up about this ‘avenging the lady’s name’ business, and the idea of ME holding anybody else back from eviscerating the demonspawn was just plain wrong.

The real reason:  Helmet-Cam.  This guy can record everything that he sees and hears in costume.  Those who do not learn the lessons of history will repeat them:  I didn’t know what was going to happen when I saw Talia again, but whatever it was, I was quite determined it would not wind up on Kazaa via Az-Cam.

So he waited on the roof, and I took my old route onto the concierge floor.  I knew the man at the desk.  I had chatted him up a few times in the past, strictly to gain information about the place back when I was working.  George.  He’s been concierge here for fifteen years.  Got into it “temporarily” for some extra cash on learning his wife was pregnant with twins.  By the time she dropped the little rugrats, he had so many contacts in the restaurants, nightclubs, stores and box offices around the city, he couldn’t see giving up the tips and going back to data-entry.

George had told me that the hotel guests who stay in these rooms fall into two categories:  those that don’t really know what a concierge is and don’t begin to take advantage of his services, and those that carry on like Pharaoh in a Cecil B. Demille movie.  The woman standing at the desk now clearly fell into the latter category:

“You’re quite sure housekeeping gave the carpet a thorough cleaning, not just vacuum? I want the room perfect tonight, absolutely perfect, so if they didn’t see to it, you’ll have to move me to another room…”

Demonspawn in rare form.

“Now, about the dinner reservation.  Definitely for two, at eight thirty at Sinclair.  A good table, mind you, quiet.  We’ll want privacy, not being gaped at by a lot of common riffraff…”

Head full of plans from the sound of it.  

“Then we’ll come back here after dinner. You understand that I’m not to be disturbed all night…”  

If this was for one of her Bruce fantasies, she was farther gone than I thought.

“…under ANY circumstances…”

I was just thinking how that woman needs a hobby when—No, it couldn’t be—but—I was quite sure—well, almost sure—No, I am sure—I saw Batman-cape disappearing down the hall!

“…be returning around eleven, so make sure room service has the champagne and caviar ready to go…”

He… He did do a swift and strange disappearing act in the cave but… but he wouldn’t be answering a summons from Talia!

I had to have been mistaken about the cape.  Too much ‘bat’ on the brain.  And we’ve seen where that leads:

“I prefer Osetra caviar, not Beluga.”

But it did look an awful lot like Batman—not just the bit of cape, but the way it moved.  It was only for a split second but a girl can tell.  I can tell at any rate.

Which reminded me that Pheromones was still on the roof. 

What could it hurt, I figured?

So, while Demonspawn gave elaborate directions about what kind of oysters were acceptable if they couldn’t find the caviar she wanted, I called Azrael. 

He told me… he told me he could see the Batmobile parked in the next block.

“Now about the Dom Perignon.  1959 or ’62 I think…”

I do not understand this, Mortal.

Leave it alone, Az.

This was not a preliminary expedition to assess the lay of the land.

Leave it be, Az.

This was not a fact-finding mission.

Leave it, Azrael. 

It was to be a confrontation.

I know. 

But the feline has retreated.

I know.

While the villain remains unchastened.

Az.

Why have we retreated?

I don’t know what’s happened, Az, but look at her.

She is standing on the rooftop of that jeweler.

That’s not what I meant.

You told me to look.  I have analyzed her appearance on several spectrums.

Az, it’s… it’s like you with the costume, okay?  Look at her.  That’s the Catwoman version of your redesigning the costume routine.

Something rattled her and she’s pulling back to process it.

But I—

Shut up, Az.

But—

Azrael.

Let the wookie win.

Since I had stopped on Cartier’s roof, he beat me home.  He was in the cave, which isn’t exactly unusual.  He was working, which isn’t unusual either.  I said “Hi, Handsome” and he grunted.  Not unusual. 

So why did all of this “not unusual” suddenly feel so strange?

I asked how his business in town went…  “Fine.” 

It was an opening for him to tell me what it was about, and instead of telling me anything, he said “Fine.”  

That wasn’t odd.  It’s Bruce.  He’s not chatty.

Still.

I mentioned that Alfred was making a roast for dinner.  It was just something to say—dinner—it had nothing to do with what I’d overheard at the hotel.  Bruce grumbled something about patrolling early, sandwich on a tray would be fine.  His eyes never left the computer screen…

I never considered the obsessive workaholic thing suspicious before.  It’s his way.  It’s how he is, I knew that going in.  But now… Suddenly I wasn’t so sure.  It seemed like he was avoiding me.

I walked up behind him and started rubbing his neck.  I do this often when we’re in the cave together.  He’s never closed a file before to keep me from seeing it.  Not until now.

It got to be seven o’clock.  Seven thirty.  Seven forty-five.  I wasn’t exactly clock-watching, although I may have glanced at my watch a few more times as it neared dinner-reservation time. 

Ten to eight, he went out.

It was way too early to patrol.  Even an “early” patrol.  It was still daylight, for pity sake. 

I’m not proud of myself, but I followed him.

I think he knew.  He lost me in any case, purposefully or not.  I lost him just over the bridge.

I don’t know why, but I went to the hotel.  I don’t think it was a conscious decision.  I certainly don’t remember making that decision… I just kind of… ended up there.

It was stupid, I know.

I was being silly, I know.

There was no way—NO WAY—I was going to find the Batmobile there… that would just be…

It couldn’t be…

I left the Jag and swung up onto the roof of the Moxton building, knowing that when I looked over the edge of the roof, there couldn’t possibly be a…

And viola, Batmobile. Parked two blocks from the hotel, in the alley behind the Moxton, same as before.

To be continued...

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