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Chapter 8: Double or Nothing

 

Batman’s Personal Log, Sealed
Encryption Matrix Tao-Mu-Iota

I’m losing my mind.  Delusional paranoia due to sleep deprivation.  It’s six weeks since Two-Face disappeared (REF: Duty Log: Batman;  Incident: Gotham General Hospital, §4) and six weeks since I turned an essential objective of the Mission over to an unrepentant criminal. 

It’s six weeks since my nightmare began to change. 

In the past, it’s as though the small traces of light in the alley seem to shift whenever the gunman moves, keeping his face always hidden in shadow.  A few days after the incident at the hospital, that changed.  Now, the gunman leans into the light after the shooting, and he is Two-Face.  I admit, I found this troubling.  There are few constants in the universe that don’t involve the speed of light or electromagnetism, but Crime Alley has always been one of them.  Any variance, no matter how obvious the psychological stimulus, would be troubling.  But now…

Much as I hated the Two-Face variation, I had at least grown accustomed to it.  Three nights ago, the dream altered again.  Now, the gunman never arrives.  As soon as the boy begins walking with the two giants, leafy vines creep in from all sides, covering the walls of the alley at tremendous speed, and I wake up in a cold sweat.

Until today, I didn’t think it was affecting me.  I am still sleeping a solid five or six hours per night.  But when I begin to suspect that Alfred and Selina are engaged in some kind of conspiracy, I must accept that my perceptions are… distorted.  I can only conclude that my subconscious is so troubled by the recent variations in the nightmare that it is resisting REM sleep, limiting the mentally recuperative benefits to a few minutes per night, at most.  The effect on my psyche is that of extended insomnia, which would account for the paranoid delusion in re Alfred and Selina.

Six weeks.  This situation with Two-Face and Ivy must be brought to a conclusion, or I will most definitely lose my mind.

 

We never liked Metropolis.  We always found the henchmen wimpy. 

Near as we can figure, it’s Superman’s fault.  When the resident hero’s best punch can bust your jaw open, you get a decent brand of tough guy.  But Superman’s can literally knock your block off and catapult it into space, leaving your shriveled noggin to ice over in the cold vacuum of space until it eventually falls into the orbit of some piss-ant asteroid in the vicinity of Sirrius-B.  Everybody knows it, so even the dumbest fuck that ever knocked over a liquor store in Metropolis can figure out that when Superman aims his fist at an ordinary human, he holds back.  As my former “better half” would say in his stuffiest summing up for the jury mode: “One has only to look at the number of lead villains roaming around Metropolis, look at their average contingent of 8-10 henchmen per, look at the lack of disembodied heads orbiting Sirrius B, and draw the obvious conclusion.” 

Batman doesn’t hold back.  Every dumb fuck knows that, too.  Every wiseguy and every homeboy and every wannabe rogue knows: you commit a crime in Gotham and you draw the short straw running into the Bat, that spiky gauntlet will be coming at your face with every pound-per-inch it’s got.  You wouldn’t believe the number of muscle-bound goliaths, who have all gone up against Superman, that won’t even consider a simple two-crime contract in Gotham for fear of that fist and the punishment it can dish out. 

We did manage to pick up a few men from Conduit and Neutron, but we have no confidence in them.  They patch radiation suits and clean up energy spills, and we aren’t hiring night janitors for a nuclear power plant.  We wanted soldiers, and we don’t know if this lot can even fire a gun.

We never liked Metropolis.  We only stayed two nights, and the second was just on principle.  We knew by 2 PM our first day that we were wasting our time.

 

Selina marched silently through the Batcave.  She reached Workstation One and dropped a small, silver bat the size of a thumbnail onto Batman’s desk.  Then she dropped a second.  Then a third.

“I’m driving out to Arkham,” she said crisply.  “You know why.”

Bruce looked over the homing beacons he had placed in the lining of her purse, the heel of her shoe, and the glove compartment of her car… and he grunted.

“It would still be safer if I track you,” he graveled.  “Two-Face—”

“Is almost certainly going to hit Vault when he surfaces, not come after me personally.  He chose that building in the first place because there are giant comedy-tragedy masks on the façade—literally, two giant faces hanging on the front of the building, one laughing and one crying.  The only thing that could make it a more perfect spot for Two-Face is taking it over a second time.”

“And if he decides to do that in two steps?  If he decides grabbing you first won’t make the coup at Vault that much easier?”

“Then I’ll deal with him my own way, just like I would have if you’d never entered the picture.  I’m a big girl, Bruce. I can take of myself.”

“Selina, do you imagine Batman wouldn’t be looking out for you if we’d never become involved?  I agree that Two-Face is going to retake his old headquarters.  But he may also decide to take out the person who’s appropriated it to run the Gotham underworld.  Believe me, if it was Penguin or King Snake or Killer Croc in your position, I’d be tracking their movements, just in case.”

“Then I’ll tell Oswald you send your love,” she grinned, leaning over to kiss him.

Bruce accepted the kiss, slipping his hand around her waist as he returned it, and pulling her in closer to sit in his lap as he deepened it.

Without breaking the kiss, Selina very knowingly reached around her back to intercept the homing beacon as he slid it into the waistband of her skirt, and then, still without breaking the kiss, she plopped it silently on the desk next to the others.

“Later, Jackass,” she said affectionately. 

“Impossible woman,” Bruce murmured, as she left. 

He quietly collected the homing beacons and returned them to the inventory, where three, smaller, bat-shaped indentations remained empty.  Selina wasn’t wearing the necklace containing the fourth, but she was wearing her wristwatch that held the fifth, and the sixth was embedded in the keychain in her purse.

 

We always liked Star City.  “There is a pervading air of machismo,” as our better half would say.  Perfect for hiring muscle. 

We ain’t got money to burn, after all.  If we can get two henchmen for the price of one just by going to the right bar and getting tossed off a mechanical bull once or twice (twice), we’re all for it.  All you gotta do then is the graceful loser crap: dust yourself off and buy the winner a drink.  Couple pitchers of the local microbrew is a real cheap investment when we could staff a whole crew from one bar’s Friday night regulars. 

So we had a few mugs of the Star City swill, even though it tastes like piss, and we listened to them talk trash about their local hero.  We have no real beef with Green Arrow, and frankly we find it hard to believe he’s as much of a boob as those henchmen let on.  But that’s how henchmen are.  It was the attitude we expected, and it made our job easy.  A few backhanded compliments and they were ready to agree that he was to blame for their collective lack of great criminal accomplishment.  A real man only knows what he’s worth going up against real men, right?  And no real man makes as much noise as that blustering Arrow.  That guy’s gotta be covering for some serious inadequacies, and these fellows—who, by now, we thought of as brothers—sure deserved better than that.  They positively owed it to themselves to come to Gotham and try their collective mettle against the best… 

Six new henchmen ready for anything, for the price of one from Metropolis.  We always liked Star City.

 

The last time Oswald Cobblepot abandoned his pretense of insanity to obtain a release from Arkham, he assumed the young man waiting for him outside the gate must be with a car service arranged by the city.  A ride back to town was the very least a civilized state could provide—kwak, kwak—after the inconvenience of incarceration.  When it turned out the young man was not a driver but an officer of the court waiting to serve him with 147 subpoenas, Oswald had fled back into the asylum like a medieval thief pursued by a torch-wielding mob.  He had clutched at the altar cloth claiming sanctuary—in the form of hysterical screaming about giant birds ready to peck his eyes out if he ventured beyond the safety of the Arkham walls. 

It had taken him months to free himself from the rat’s nest of fines, liens, amercements, forfeitures, levies, garnishments, and penalties compounded on penalties.  Now, at last, he was ready to embrace sanity once again.  To rejoin society.  To dispense with birdbrain euphemisms like “embracing sanity” and “rejoining society” and get down to the serious business of rebuilding his empire—kwak!

Needless to say, when he emerged from the Arkham gate this time, he was not expecting a ride back to town and he never would have accepted one from a stranger.  But the striking purple of the Lamborghini idling across the street was not the signature color of a stranger.  Oswald still approached cautiously, his umbrella pointed fiercely at the woman whose hair was wrapped in a silk scarf and whose eyes were hidden behind dark glasses.  She was waving cheerily at him from the driver’s seat, but he remained on his guard until he was close enough to see that it was, in fact…

“Selina, my felicitous feline, what an unexpected—kwak, kwak, kwak, kwak, kwak—pleasure.”

“Sounds like you’ve been saving those up, Ozzy.  Get in, and I’ll give you a ride back to town.”

“Why?” he asked suspiciously.

“Relax, Oswald.  I’m done devouring birds for today, and we have to talk.  Get in.”

He looked around as if for snipers, lurking henchmen, or deceptively ordinary-looking young chaps bearing subpoenas.  He then considered Catwoman’s firm position against killing, the hundreds of thousands of dollars it had cost him to extract himself from his financial nightmare, and the probable cab fare back to town… he got into the car without further discussion.

 

Keystone is a great town for rogues. 

We personally like it because it’s a “twin city,” natch, but beyond that superficial attraction, there is the uncommon hospitality of its rogues.  Captain Cold is a gentleman villain of the old school.  He demands a standard of civility from the hometown baddies and extends every professional courtesy to visitors like us.  (Apart from the inevitable personal beefs, naturally.  Any group bigger than two is going to have its Joker and its Poison Ivy, and nobody expects them to link arms and drink each other’s health.) 

But back to us.  Having no enemies in the region, we were greeted as a respected colleague.  There was this sweet piece of ass called Violet.  At first, we thought she was a henchwench, but later, we found out she’s something called a “Rainbow Raider.”  She arranged a room for us, which her colleagues had decorated to our supposed tastes.  The room was divided more or less down the center.  We can’t say we enjoyed looking at that much red and green side by side, but we were touched by the effort.  We picked up eight henchmen, but the flipside of this remarkably civilized rogue environment is that good henchmen know what they’re worth.  Now we shall have to pay the Star City troops twice as much.  When the men are all together in Gotham, they’re bound to talk, and if the Star boys find out their associates are paid more, there will be all kinds of trouble we don’t need.

 

Selina gave a reasonably truthful account of the Vault nightclub’s rise to prominence, its function as the hub of the Gotham underworld, and the laughable assumptions made by certain gullible individuals regarding her role as its queen. 

She stressed that Oswald’s staff had been kept together, as he requested.  She downplayed the ‘Queen of the Underworld’ nonsense as a huge misunderstanding, one that seemed to have originated with Robin and Batgirl questioning some bridge-and-tunnel nobody with dreams of becoming a henchwench.  She was betting that would be the end of it: a potent triple cocktail tapping into Oswald’s snobbery, placing the blame on the junior bats who burned down his nightclub in the first place, and presenting him with the return of his original Iceberg staff which she hadn’t even renamed.  All his Doves, Wrens, Sparrows, and Chickadees were exactly as he left him, without a single Pussywillow or Kat-rina added to the mix.

He was chewing his cigarette holder in a way that usually meant smug contentment, but Selina turned onto the interstate all the same.  She was deliberately taking a circuitous route back to Gotham, with plenty of back roads where she could really open up the Lamborghini.  Oswald may have taken the “Gatta Corleone” announcement in stride, but there was more bad news to come.  With Two-Face storm clouds brewing on the horizon, Clayface as her superpowered goto guy at Vault, Poison Ivy as the first line of defense to deal with Two-Face, the history of antagonism between Hagen and Pammy, and Batman lurking somewhere as the eternal wildcard, Oswald couldn’t have his staff or his “Emperor Penguin” status back just yet.

Just in case he reacted badly to that information, Selina wanted miles of open road to calm him down.  Ozzy might be an excitable bird, but he wouldn’t do anything crazy while she was driving 110 mph.

 

Central City is an armpit. 

Unfortunately for us, the “twin” designation is what my better half would call “a misnomer.”  We still had to spend a few nights there for two reasons.  One: it is Keystone’s twin, and to visit the one without looking in on the other would offend our principles.  And two: without this last stop, we would have recruited men from an odd number of places.  This too offends our principles. 

Unfortunately, as we said, that “twin cities” label is bullshit.  There is one criminal element that moves freely between the two cities.  The henchmen who were worth having had already come to our attention in Keystone.  Central City only gave us a second chance to look over the dregs. 

Unfortunately for us, part two: the twin shit is just as inaccurate when it comes to food and lodging.  In Keystone, that hot little wench-turned-villainess set us up in a themed lair and pointed us to a diner with the best dry rub in the region.  In Central City, we had to make due at a Motel 6 that smelled like mildew, stale sex, and feet.  And their idea of barbecue seems to be a quart of McDonald’s secret sauce poured over shredded cardboard.

Nevertheless, we are quite happy with the staff we have assembled, far from prying Gotham eyes.  We expect the next 22 hours to bring us the standing we have always deserved as the undisputed king of the Gotham underworld.

 

Catwoman made her entrance at Vault much earlier than usual. 

She and Batman had fought about it.  In the weeks since Two-Face vanished, Batman insisted that everything about the nightclub should remain exactly as it was.  They had a tactical advantage in knowing with near certainty where Two-Face was going to strike, freeing the Bat Team to focus on other significant variables like when and how.  Any changes in the club’s routine might tip off Face and waste that strategic advantage. 

Selina argued that nothing could “remain exactly as it was” with a walking fern in the room.  Now that Ivy was on the job looking for Two-Face, she’d become a Vault regular.  She and Clayface had been giving each other a wide berth, but that could change at any time.  While Catwoman made no pretensions of being a master strategist, she did feel that leaving fire and gasoline unattended was a far more “significant variable” than whatever Batman was factoring into his protocols.  Until tonight, that sensible argument was always overruled.

Tonight, Batman was forced to admit the situation had changed.  He agreed that the Rogues-as-criminal-threat parameters (on which he was the acknowledged expert) had been superseded by one of those Rogues-as-unsettlingly-human developments, where he freely admitted she had superior knowledge (and he would just as soon keep it that way).

The unexpected shift had come from an equally unexpected source.  Ironically, and for the first time in recent memory, Catwoman owed the improvement of her reputation to a periodical for sale at the 41st Street newsstand.  It began with the Costume Institute at the Gotham Museum of Art mounting a special exhibit on superhero fashions and featuring her as an iconic archtype.  She was astonished when the museum she’d broken into no less than thirty-six times (and successfully robbed twenty-three), took the trouble to get her costume absolutely right.  There she was: purple, wielding her whip and lacking complexity, a jeweled bracelet clutched in her hand and not a Gotham Post goggle in sight.  She was so pleased, she overruled the Code of the Cat and redirected a portion of the Vault riches into a healthy, anonymous donation to the museum’s acquisition fund.  If the Universe took that to be making restitution for the golden Sekhmet, so be it. 

As often happened when the museum did something big with respect to fashion, Vogue followed their lead.  They commissioned the best designers in the world to create fantasy variations on several costumed women’s themes.  Nina Ricci produced a fantastical Poison Ivy evening gown, but Dolce and Gabbana’s Catwoman was used on the cover.

Selina had padded quietly down to the cave to surprise Bruce with her triumph, when she saw the same cover looming over the cavern on the giant viewscreen.  That meant the image was currently being viewed at workstation one.  As she approached, she saw that Bruce was glaring at it… and also that he seemed to be frozen mid-density shift.

“You win,” he said, one word spoken in his own voice, one in Batman’s most foreboding gravel.

“Go me,” she replied, unfazed.  “What do I win?”

He turned fiercely, and for a second she could almost envision the mask on his scowling face.  Then the effect vanished as quickly as it came.

“You’re on the cover.  Ivy is on page 26.  After all the bimbos, you think I don’t know what that means?  A Vogue cover, thumbnail on the table of contents, splash page on the article.  Bruce Wayne has seen slights like that ignite socialite wars that make Superman and Darkseid look like drinking buddies by comparison.”

“Hang on.  ‘Slights like this’ sounds like Ivy was actually entitled to the cover and Vogue somehow denied her the placement she deserved in order to give it to me.  If you are suggesting—”

“I am not getting in the middle of this,” Bruce declared, his voice and body language fluctuating wildly between playboy fop and immovable crimefighter.  “You should be at Vault before sunset.  Go for happy hour.  And don’t let her out of your sight.”

So Catwoman arrived at Vault even before the tourists and gawkers, and she settled inconspicuously in her corner booth.  She would let Ivy make an entrance.  She would let the damn flytrap stroll through the VIP room and let the ferns drape themselves over her beautiful leopard-print pillows.  And she would—for now—let the cattiest remarks pass without scratching.

It was for Harvey. 

When this was over, however, grrrrrrlllll…

 

A 1958 Mercedes 220 is not an inconspicuous car.  Painting half of it black and half white does nothing to make it less noticeable, so Two-Face had gone to considerable trouble to get it shipped into Gotham inside a wide-load trailer.  Then he’d gone to more trouble to find a garage near Vault where it could be hidden. 

The garage entrance didn’t have the clearance for the trailer, so the car had to be unloaded in the middle of the night and driven half a block to its hiding place.  Two-Face knew the vigilantes kept an eye on the comings and goings from the Iceberg, and he assumed they kept a similar watch near Vault.  Even if they didn’t, the Vault patrons themselves would have recognized the significance of a two-tone 220.  Much as it pained him to make the transfer at 3:30 in the morning, he couldn’t risk a two o’clock move.  He had his men wait, had them double check that they were not being watched, and at 3:32 precisely, the car was moved to its present location, skillfully parked with its black side to the wall, hiding its two-tone nature as much as possible.

Now, as his advance team checked in two by two, Two-Face sneered. 

“It’s time,” he announced to Double.  The driver nodded and started the ignition…

 

“Catty, darling,” Poison Ivy called out with ferocious enthusiasm, approaching the corner booth as Norma Desmond might have crossed the soundstage to greet a rival movie queen intruding on her set.  “My deepest sympathies, that hideous cover.  Will your press woes never end?  I mean, if I had only known what that awful Dolce and Gabbana were going to do to you, I would have greened them for you.  But now I suppose it’s too late.”

It’s for Harvey, it’s for Harvey, it’s for Harvey, Selina repeated to herself.  Claws would not do.  But feline pride did demand some kind of response.

“Why thank you, Pamela.  That is terribly sweet of you.  But as it happens, I know Domenico and Stefano personally.  Turns out, they just love me as I am, no chemical attractants required.  Something about the way I move, and, well, being so sexy and pheramin—I mean, feminine—at the same time.  That’s why they asked specifically to use me for their inspiration, over all the costume and theme types available.  So you see, I really don’t think I need the assist from greening.  I’ve always found they’re perfectly receptive to requests made the usual way: with a smile and a credit card.”

 

Neither the Iceberg nor Vault had ever checked patrons for weapons.  Zealots like the Ghost Dragons would never have agreed, and it was only the Dragons’ code demanding they free themselves of debt at the end of every month that kept the nightclub’s legitimate operations in the black.  Other patrons like Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, and Clayface were weapons all by themselves, and it was considered unsporting not to let the rest of the clientele defend themselves.

So there was no need for the advance team to kill the bouncer, or even to knock him out.  All Deuce had to do was give the password, and the entire party of twenty-two men could have come in heavy.  But Two-Face wanted to see a series of quick, silent strikes before the main assault, invisibly removing those Vault employees who might interfere and replacing them with his own men.  It was the kind of violent flourish he preferred: an advance team operating in pairs, synchronized to the second, executing their tasks with brutal efficiency.  It was the stuff of action movies and spy thrillers, the kind of thing his better half always scratched out of the master plan.  Mr. High-and-Mighty with all his inside knowledge of how real crimes happened, la-di-da.  Like it didn’t matter that all the cases that came across a D.A.’s desk were loser shitheads who got caught! 

Now, Two-Face was free to do it his way, without all that meddling interference.

Deuce would give the password all right, but Ditto was going up the fire escape and in through a window.  Right now, at this very moment, he’d be entering what had once been Harvey’s bedroom.  He’d follow the path Two-Face had mapped out until he came to a big storage closet co-opted for the staff’s locker room.  That would bring him out behind the bouncer, just as Deuce was coming in the front door.  When Deuce recited the password, “Catwoman gave me the combination,” Ditto would strike.  A swift double blow to the back of the neck—bouncer down—and all that would be left is dragging his sorry ass back to the supply room which Duo and Dual would have already secured.  Deuce would replace the bouncer, and the others would meander to the main floor and blend in with the crowd.  Just a few more freelance henchmen looking for work. 

At the same moment, Twin and Twain were infiltrating the back entrance where several of Penguin’s old lieutenants were known to congregate.  Twain would take out Talon, while Twin took care of Crow.  Then both would advance to the kitchen, flash a couple ten-dollar badges from the 2nd Avenue pawnshop, and say they were from Immigration.  That would clean out the kitchen staff…

 

Ivy had seen Clayface coming up the stairs to the VIP level, so she knew her window of opportunity was about to close.  Too soon, Selina would have the odious dung heap at her side, like a shape-shifting attack dog. 

“Well, you can always hope no one will know it’s supposed to be you,” she concluded brightly.  “I know I didn’t.  I saw that cover and said to myself ‘Is that supposed to be based on Catwoman?  Here I thought bondage gear was coming back.’  You know, Selina darling, you really shouldn’t encourage that kind of ‘reinterpretation’ of your look.  It might give those idiots at the Post ideas… oops, too late.”

By which time, it was too late.  The walking dung heap brushed past her as he slid into the chair opposite Catwoman.

“Gotta say, that was some good press, Cat,” he said casually, waving to Dove and then calling out for her to bring him a mudslide before he turned his attention back to Catwoman.  “I know it’s not your color, but that costume sure was slick.  Did I read right, that was Swarovski crystal on the mask?”

Ivy decided to give the commoners on the lower level a thrill by going down to the bar herself to get her drink refreshed, surrounded by all of her creeper vines, flytraps, wisteria, and ferns.

 

Deep within the Mercedes ignition, a tiny bat-shaped beacon had activated the moment the key turned.  For all the elaborate pains Two-Face had taken to avoid the prying eyes of vigilantes and their sidekicks, he never thought about their cameras.  Batman had been recording a six-block radius around Vault, 24/7.  He saw the two-tone car arrive and moved in to investigate within hours of its appearance.  As soon as he confirmed Harvey Dent’s fingerprints in the backseat, he placed the tracking device which had just activated. 

Miles away, a soft beep sounded at workstation one, and the signal was immediately forwarded to receivers inside the Batmobile and on a vibrating com unit in Batman’s utility belt.

He unhooked the latter and tapped a button twice, the first silencing the alert, and the second relaying to Bruce Wayne’s cell phone, instructing it to dial a pre-programmed number.

 

“What’s that?” Clayface asked, looking around sharply as if a fly was buzzing near his face.

Catwoman reached into her whip holster and pulled out a sleek, purple cell phone. 

“Nothing,” she said, flicking off the alert. “Just the boyfriend being a nosy jackass.  He does that sometimes.  You know how civilians are.”

 

The two-tone Mercedes pulled up to the front entrance, the doors swung open, and Two-Face strode into the nightclub with Duplicate and Replicate shadowing a half step behind him.  He clicked the safety on his shotgun twice as he passed Deuce, and the henchman nodded.  He locked the door and took his place behind the other henchmen as the foursome strode onto the main floor.

“Two minutes of your time!” Two-Face bellowed. 

The entrance would have been enough to capture everyone’s attention without firing into the ceiling, but Two-Face had had enough of such sissy restraint.  He snapped his fingers twice, and Duplicate fired a shot.  That would produce the usual screaming, which two more snaps and Replicate’s second shot was to silence. 

Except there didn’t seem to be any screaming. 

Everyone was just looking at him as if he’d proposed a round of double malts to toast a new deathtrap.

He should have realized, Vault was like the Iceberg: Rogues, Dragons, Demons, and henchmen.  They were not inclined to scream.

He briefly considered a coin flip to decide about the second shot, but then decided it wasn’t worth the time.  He had wanted everyone’s attention, and now he had it. 

“This is our establishment,” he announced, pointing the shotgun to the rafters in a slow swirling motion.  “All of you working for the old Iceberg operations are now working for us.  Any objections shall be submitted in duplicate to the double barrel of this shotgun.  Are we clear?”

For a still moment, it seems as though silence would be the only answer.  Then…

Clap.

Clap.

One single set of hands…

Clap.

In a slow, sarcastic rhythm…

Clap.

Of pure, ironic contempt.

Clap.

Clap.

Clap.

Until the crowd in front of the bar parted, allowing Poison Ivy to move graciously onto the main floor.

“That really was an astonishing display, Harvey.  So… so… what’s the phrase I’m looking for… so ‘tough guy stupid.’   I can only assume you picked it up from one of Hagen’s old movies.”

Two-Face looked her up and down the way a wolf looks at raw meat—then swung his shotgun until the tip pressed lightly into the side of her nose.

“Ivy,” he leered.  “We will be happy to explain the nuances of our scheme to you later, two-on-one.  For now, all objections may be submitted in duplicate to the barrel.”

“You said that already,” Ivy said instantly.

“We are SAYING IT AGAIN!” he roared.

“Ah, so it’s true,” Ivy smiled, flicking the gun away from her nose as one might shoo a fly.  “It's just you now, is it?”  Two-Face’s mouth had dropped open very slightly as Ivy spoke.  It should have been a simple matter of closing it to reply, but, for some reason, his mouth wasn’t quite working.  “No more Harvey in the way?” Ivy inquired again.  Then, taking his silence as agreement, she continued. “Thank God, he was such a whiny nuisance.  All that self-pity.  And of course so timid and boring where it really counted.”

At last, Two-Face managed the coordination of breath, larynx, tongue, and lips necessary to form a reply—although it came out as a sort of half-hearted grunt. 

But that was only because she’d wrecked his rhythm. 

There was an adrenaline rush mounting an armed attack—that’s what had built up a certain pressurized tightness in his chest, that’s what had ignited a burning churn in his gut—and then Ivy came traipsing in and cut him off before he got rolling.  It was that shift in momentum that might have slowed his reflexes a little, and that was the only reason his reaction might have been a bit slow or seemed less than whole-hearted. 

Yes.  He definitely agreed with her.  Harvey was a whiny nuisance.  Harvey was a pathetic, self-pitying loser.  Harvey was a wuss.

“Of course, if he is really gone, that does leave you with a bit of a problem,” Ivy continued.  “Look around, Facey my sweet.  Harvey was always the brains of the operation.  Just look what you come up with on your own: men and guns and tough talk.  It’s all so pathetically impotent.”  The last words were spoken through a pleasant laugh.  “He was a whiny nuisance, but he was the brains,” Ivy concluded simply.  “You’re just dumb muscle.”

“BULLSHIT!” he exploded… although a nagging corner of his subconscious whispered that “bullshit” wasn’t a very good answer, and if that was the best he could come up with, it sort of proved her point.

“Oh please, Face.  You think this is the grand scheme of the year?” she asked, motioning around the bar.  “You replace Mike, Crow, and Talon with your own men.  You don’t think Croc or KGBeast or… well… me, are going to present a significantly bigger problem?  Admit it, Face, this is a plot to take over some restaurant or cruise ship far, far from Gotham, someplace without any people like us in it.  It’s from one of those hack mobster TV shows Harvey used to watch at 2 a.m.”

She smiled, delighted with her own cleverness as she concluded:

“Which means, he is still in there after all.”

“No.”

“He is!  For one thing, he picked out that tie.  Harvard red, isn’t it?”

“No.  Harvard is crimson.  This is blood red, much like you’re going to bleed when we blow your fucking head off!”

She clicked her tongue as she sidled up to the scarred side of his face.

“If Harvey were really gone, you would have done that already,” she whispered, breathing huskily.  “You’ve never been one to take any lip from ‘the green broad,’ Face.  ‘Yes, Petal’ was all him.  If you were really all alone in there, you would have shot me on sight.  Or tried to screw me.  You’re carnal lust incarnate, right?  Unburdened by all of Harvey’s boringly conventional prudery…  So why haven’t you tried to fuck me?  Is it because we both know that no matter who started… Harvey was always the one to finish?”

Once again, Two-Face’s mouth had dropped open.  This time, before he could form a better response than simply closing it, Ivy had strolled over to one of the corners with an overstuffed couch and leopard-print chairs positioned around a low table. 

“Oh look, votive candles,” she said as if the words held some hidden meaning.  “One, two, three, four of them… And an overstuffed pillow… I wonder if it’s… goose down.”

Whatever it meant, the recitation brought a high flush to Two-Face’s cheeks.  Barely containing his fury, he clenched his teeth and forced out the words “Can’t we do this later?”

“Still blush evenly on both sides, I see,” Ivy observed dryly.

“ENOUGH!” he roared—and once again pressed the gun into her nose.  “Don’t flatter yourself, Petal.  You were good, but you were never that good.  Under all the leafy pretensions, you’re nothing but a freak, same as we are.”

Ivy tilted her head and knit her brow.

“Well now I am confused,” she whispered.  “Because if hot wax and goose feathers don’t even rate a coin flip, I don’t know who you are.  As I recall, ‘Double or Nothing: Tickle, Drip, or Spank’ was the one thing you both agreed on.”

 

In the VIP room above, Riddler, Scarecrow, Catwoman and others had lined up at the rail, leaning over to watch the action below.

“I don’t get it.  Why’s she letting him stick a gun in her face?  Why doesn’t she just green him?” Scarecrow asked peevishly.

“Why do you tie tufts of hair, fur, and feathers to a fishing line to catch a trout?” Riddler said instantly, and Selina was pleased she wasn’t the one who had to explain it.  Or so she thought, but then Riddler continued: “Instead of, say, dropping a concussion grenade into the stream and picking up all the fish you want once they float to the surface.”

Scarecrow turned from Riddler to Catwoman.

“Translation, please?” he asked.

“Pride,” she answered.  “Ivy’s always liked that she can get to him without the pheromones.  So she’s doing it the way that requires actual skill…”

“Just like landing a trout,” Riddler nodded happily, pleased at the painstaking (if needlessly clear and straightforward) explanation of his thesis.

“Besides,” Catwoman thought silently. “With pheromones, we don’t get Harvey back.”

While the others continued to comment on the action below, Selina felt a soft tap on her ankle.  She looked down, and saw a ball of tiger-stripped fur the size of a tennis ball rolling around the tip of her boot.  She looked over to where she’d last seen Clayface, and instead saw a trio of Matt Hagens watching her intently.  She nodded slowly, only once, and then pointed discreetly to the darkened exit sign on the far end of the theatre below.

 

The men Two-Face stationed to guard the various entrances were falling quickly.  Four were taken out by batarangs, two were seized by creeper vines, and two more had their heads knocked together by a fire hydrant that had sprung up into an animated mass of clay. 

Nightwing spotted the final two henchmen standing back-to-back at the fire exit, their weapons pointed at assailants closing in from both sides.  The thug on the left pointed his gun at a giant flytrap, although his hands shook so violently, it was doubtful he could have fired.  The thug on the right pointed his gun at another massive clay form.  The plant and the clay, while clearly menacing, seemed to regard each other as a more hostile target than either of the henchmen.  The clay mass split itself into three, while the flytrap must have somehow “called” for reinforcements, for suddenly all the vines released their captives and inched to its side.

Nightwing scrutinized the surrounding rooftops, looking for an optimal angle.  Then he swung down, grabbing the henchmen without landing, and leaving the plants and the potting soil to settle it among themselves.

 

What was that quaint expression Catty had… PURR-FECT?

Two-Face said he had changed (typical man), but Ivy could see that was nonsense.  If only she could get him to flip for something, he would see it too.  He would have to.  His coin was still the one indisputable chink in his double-breasted armor.  A flip would mean a difference of opinion, a good Harvey at odds with a wicked Two-Face, just like old times.  Through that small opening, she could slide in the knife and split him open, just like a stubborn bulb that had clenched up too tightly during the long, cold winter and needed some not-too-gentle prodding to bloom again.  Since the coin was obviously the key, she had waved a quarter under his nose and suggested he kill Batman whenever he showed up.  She realized immediately that was too simple.  Even before he knocked her to the floor, she realized it.

“Do you imagine we have not included the Bat’s arrival and fiery demise in our plan?!” Two-Face had hissed.  “We’ve got it covered.”

And there it was.  COVERED.  Purr-fection.  It was that word “covered” that gave her the answer:

“Yes, of course,” she said, happily jumping to her feet and returning to his side with the coin.  “I misspoke.  I meant kill Catty!”

“Come again?” Two-Face said flatly.

“Catwoman!  Off with her head!  She is in your way here.  Best way to start a new regime is to kill off the old one, right?”

Once more, Two-Face’s mouth had dropped open. 

One flight up, Catwoman’s had as well. 

Ivy’s merely curled into an infuriatingly feline smile.  So this is what Catty meant when she said puuuurr-fect.  Ivy could see why she always seemed to enjoy it so.  It was absolutely delicious:

If Two-Face flatly refused to shoot Catwoman without even flipping the coin to decide, it meant that Harvey was alive and well and living on the right side of his face.  So protective of his dear “little sister” Rogue, that he wouldn’t even put it to a coin flip.

If, on the other hand, he did flip the coin, that still meant that Harvey was in there, because a coin flip meant a difference of opinion.  In that case, good side up: Harvey wins/Selina lives.  Bad side up: it still meant that Harvey was in there but he was overruled, and Ivy’s life would be rid of the meddlesome Cat.  Win-win. 

The only remaining possibility was if Harvey was absolutely gone.  In that case, Two-Face should have no qualms about killing Catty without benefit of a coin flip.  Messy, and she would certainly miss Harvey, but as a consolation prize, her life would be rid of purring purple cover girls stealing her press.

She looked up eagerly to see how Two-Face would respond…

He was staring at the coin in her fingers as if it were a snake.

“We…” he began, then shook his head, displeased with whatever argument had presented itself.

“We…” he said again, but one again, he stopped there.  His brow seemed to accordion until the normal eyebrow on the right merged into the scar tissue on the left. 

“We will stipulate that there is a certain precedent among organized crime figures,” he said at last, “wherein a new boss might come to power and/or consolidate power via the removal of his predecessor.  However, we strenuously object to the notion that we would be guided by the precedents of organized crime.  If you were to argue that we are a crime syndicate, we would draw your attention to the established definition of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations for which the RICO act is named, pursuant to—”

“THERE YOU ARE!” Ivy cried, flinging her arms around his neck.  “Your objection is sustained, my precedent is full of it, welcome home, Harvey!”  And with that, her mouth clamped over his, terminating the conversation for a full minute.

Two full minutes.

Three. 

Ghost Dragons tugged at their collars, swallowing loudly.

Four. 

Five.

A black ooze moved quietly around the edge of the crowd, creeping up behind the remaining Two-Face henchmen and clubbing them with a giant, clay mallet.

Six.

Seven.

“Geez, get a room,” a Jervis-like voice muttered from the back.

Eight.

Selina glanced up and saw a dark shape just visible through the skylight.  It looked mysteriously like a spiked gauntlet giving a thumbs-up.

To be continued...

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