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Pearl

by Chris Dee

Batman’s lip twitched. He watched as Catwoman walked around a gaping hole cut through the wood and metal of the modest one-story roof. She bit her lip in either amusement or puzzlement, then glanced up at him in a clear attempt to read some clue in his face. Finally she walked to the edge of the roof, looked down, paced back and forth a few times, and returned to the hole.

“Well?” he graveled.

“When I got here, you said not to take the ladder up, ‘it’s evidence.’ It’s theirs. Metal painted black, about three days ago give or take. We’re obviously meant to think they came up the ladder and cut through the roof, dropped into the vault area of the bank, took the tellers’ cash and safe deposit boxes…” she gestured to the dozens of empty boxes stacked on the roof beside the hole. “Passed them up here to open and stacked the empties there to be out of the way.”

“That’s not ‘what we’re meant to think;’ it’s what happened,” Batman said.

“No,” she said, dismissing an m.o. that was too absurd to be taken seriously.

“It’s the tenth of this kind in five years. All in the outer boroughs, small community branches with less than first rate security.”

“A steel door and a wood ceiling I would describe as ‘less than first rate,’ yes,” Catwoman said with quietly emphatic scorn.

“Last time they came in through a wall. Scored around three hundred thousand.”

“Fine: steel door and a plaster wall. It’s still sad, I don’t care how much they took. I thought you asked me to come out here to, I don’t know, try to figure this out.”

“No,” Batman said mildly. “I called because I thought you might find it funny.”

“Ah,” she smiled and looked grudgingly back at the hole. “Another night I suppose I might have.”

“Rough day?”

“No, just… Scottish Fold, I’ll tell you later.” She squatted down and examined one of the safe deposit boxes, running a claw-tip over the edge of the number plate. “The tenth break-in like this?” she said in wonder.

“I keep telling you, thieves are like gamblers,” Batman intoned. “They never know when to quit.”

“And I keep telling you that’s the kind of thing cops say that you should not repeat because you are not a pinhead.”

“Selina, I know it’s a generalization that doesn’t apply to you, but it’s based on expertise, drawing on the observation of hundreds or thousands—”

“Of failures. Don’t play science with me, Sherlock. It’s a generalization based on a non-representative group: the failures who get caught. Same reason nobody but Hugo takes Freud seriously. You can’t just go drawing conclusions about all of mankind based on a dozen people who were so screwed up they were seeing a psychiatrist when the idea was more radical than monkey glands. You can’t go drawing conclusions about everyone who can pick a lock—”

“The point is—”

“The point is you've got all these tenets about criminals and what they do based on the ones that are known. Look at this bunch. At the very least, you know what they did: hole, empty boxes, there’s a crime to investigate. You know nothing about the most successful specimens because they’re successful. Murders that pass as natural deaths, thefts that are never discovered. You want to pretend this is science? Your criminology buddies have created an incredible evolutionary force on the criminal side of the equation, because all these police mechanisms evolve to catch the injured fawns as if they’re the entire herd.”

“Maybe we should agree to disagree on this one,” Batman graveled.

“You know I’m right.”

“Do you want a ride home?”

“You don’t want to admit it, but you know I’m right.”

“It’s not an original theory,” Batman said flatly. “Agatha Christie put it forward, so did Alfred Hitchcock and so did ‘Richard Castle.’ All entertainers, one of whom is fictional. Compared to actual police and criminolo—”

“Hi,” Selina said, stepping into his personal space and extending her hand until the tips of his claws touched his sternum. “I don’t think we’ve met. Catwoman, cat burglar, theme rogue. I’ll be your criminal adversary this evening. Do I look like an entertainer, jackass?!

He grunted, but he didn’t concede the point.

“Come on, I’ve already examined the scene inside. Quick pass through Bayside and I’ll give you that ride home. You can tell me about the Scottish Fold,” he said lightly.

The code word for their once secret engagement now denoted the wedding plans, which were much simpler than the ones for Dick and Barbara’s nuptials. Bruce and Selina were significantly older, they’d been living as man and wife for years, and throwing an extravagant party for several hundred guests was not a once in a lifetime experience. So many mechanisms were in place for entertaining on that scale, Selina could hand over nearly all the traditional planning apart from picking the dress. That left her time to tackle the other arrangements a typical bride didn’t need to consider, such as ‘Fifth Dimension Blackout Dates’ when a malevolent trickster was most likely to appear and harass the best man.

The subject of the bank heist didn’t come up again until the next day, when Selina found Bruce in his study.

“I’ve reconsidered,” she announced. “Your crime scene on top of the bank, it’s funny now.” She spread a newspaper on his desk and, as she leaned over to point to the story… “Right there” …her hair fluttered in Bruce’s face. At first he thought it was the whiff of her shampoo, the first really personal detail he’d noticed about the elusive cat burglar, that flashed him back to early rooftops. Then he realized it was something more substantive:

“’Sophisticated burglary, police say,’” she read. “Sophisticated. Do they not know what words mean, or do they think leaning a ladder against the side of a building and cutting a hole is a complex operation that requires a high level of expertise?”

“I—” Bruce began, but Selina rolled over him.

“They are pros because they cut the video cameras, Detective Schmidt told GCN,’” she read indignantly. “Pros! Because they cut the video cameras.”

“I—” Bruce tried again.

“I’ve been nice,” she said emphatically. “Since we got together, for your sake, for Barbara’s, I’ve been polite about the GCPD in general and Gordon in particular. I practically apologized for the things I repeated in Cat-Tales, as if Luthor didn’t have a perfectly fair point about the state of law enforcement in this town sans you. These idiots aren’t meeting me halfway.”

“Can I talk now?” Bruce asked mildly.

“Go for it.”

“If I concede your point that a portion of criminal science is flawed due to imperfect sampling, namely that we can only observe those criminals we know about, usually because they get caught, and that known burglars are not representative of burglars in general, will you agree not to judge the entire Gotham police force because this Detective Schmidt is, admittedly, not the brightest of men?”

“Agreed,” she smiled.

“Agreed,” he echoed.

Bruce glanced at the picture of his parents while Selina folded up the newspaper.

“Before you go, there’s something I wanted to talk about,” he said uneasily.

“Hm?” Selina said, not noticing the uncharacteristic hesitancy.

“It was late when we got back last night, and then I took a while with the logs and that’s a lie. I really just… We were in the cave and it just…wasn’t the right time.” Selina had stopped and was looking at him with concern. He continued stumbling. “I… should have said this when we decided to have the wedding here. I should have said it before then, probably.”

“Do you want to change it? I mean, it’s your family home, I love the idea of having it here. And like you said, it gives us complete freedom picking the dates. Barbara knows there’s going to be a certain amount of comparison to her wedding, but she’s fine with that. She cares even less about socialite chatter than I do, I care less than you do. Alfred is the only one in the family who gives a damn, and even he said if we have the ceremony inside instead of the garden, it minimizes the point-for-point—”

“It’s not that.”

Selina took a step back. It was his roof-of-the-MoMA voice. The first time she ever heard him speak as Bruce inside the mask, it sounded just like that.

“The first time I heard that voice, I didn’t even know your name,” she said gently. “Bruce, what is it?”

“When Dick and Barbara decided to have their wedding here, I told Alfred that I wanted the planning of this one event to be a Bruce Wayne matter entirely and that absolutely no Batman considerations were to intrude. I didn’t want to give any thought to the public persona or having strangers in the house. It was important to me that it be something I did for the kids because Dick is my son, period.”

“That’s incredibly sweet. I didn’t know that,” Selina said warmly.

“Sweet, maybe, but it set a precedent, and now I can’t… I did it for them and I can’t do as much for you… There are considerations we can’t dodge. The honeymoon for one—”

“Oh that,” she laughed. “We’ll come up with something.”

“There is no way anyone can take my place for those weeks,” he insisted. “Batman has to patrol while Bruce and Selina are off on their honeymoon. He has to be seen patrolling, and anyone he encounters from a name rogue to a common thug to a beat cop might be just a little curious. Catwoman got married. It’s human nature, given the stories about us over the years, anyone might be curious enough to look for a reaction—or even probe for one. And if that happens, no one who stands in for me can possibly be expected to react plausibly, not Dick or J’onn or Clark, and certainly not Jean Paul—”

“No, they couldn’t,” Selina smirked. “But I would pay top dollar to watch you pitch the idea to Jean Paul just to see the panic attack.”

“It’s not funny,” Bruce said, clearly not meaning Jean Paul.

“We’ll think of something,” Selina repeated. “Worst case, I go into hiding for a few weeks. Professional cat burglar here, I can lay low; I’ve done it before. I read trashy novels, I watch old movies, one time I learned to cook. One time I learned to fly a helicopter. Boy that paid off, remember?”

She smiled up at him, and he scowled.

“Sometimes I even go blonde,” she said daringly, and he scowled deeper.

“Not the point. It was just an example of… You’re talking about spending your honeymoon alone reading throwaway paperbacks.”

“It’s just a vacation, Bruce. We can take one any time Joker isn’t free.”

“But—”

“I care more about being married than getting married, okay?”

“But if I can keep Batman out of it for Dick and Barbara and I can’t do as much for you—”

“Bruce, I know it’s been quiet since Spitcurl helped clean up the city, but you have got to stop making problems just because—”

“—there has to be an offset.”

“—you’re not getting your regular allowance of nightly pummels.”

Selina saw that he was no longer looking at her and his final words seemed to be directed at the painting over the mantel behind her.

“It used to be a good thing for kitty when Gotham was quiet,” she said, trying to win back his attention with the old rooftop tease. “You weren’t distracted by straw, tea cups, chattering teeth and weeds, similar baddies that aren’t any fun.”

His eyes said that the change of tone wasn’t working, so she played back his final words in her head.

“An offset, what does that mean?”

“I have to keep Batman out where I can to make up for the places I can’t... I was thinking pearls.”

“…”

“An exchange of gifts between the bride and groom is customary for a wedding on this scale; a man of my means, pearls are the usual thing.”

“Bruce, you hate pearls. I understand why. Everyone understands why. Why would you possibly—”

“Selina, it is the traditional gift on this occasion, and my aversion to them goes to the heart of… of what Batman is. It’s practically a sign if you believe in that kind of thing. Yes, the thought of you wearing them makes me uneasy. I don’t know how I’ll feel getting ready to go out and seeing those miserable oyster tumors around your neck… As a gesture, there couldn’t be a more perfect way to symbolize—”

Brutal is the word you’re looking for. As a symbol, as a gesture, there couldn’t be a more brutal way to send Batman out of the room on our wedding day, and I… Give me a minute.”

She looked back and forth. She swallowed. She looked nervously over her shoulder towards the painting, then at the grandfather clock. It took almost a minute to compose her thoughts, and finally she shook her head.

“I’m really not sure how to say this well,” she said finally. “I know it’s meant as a loving gesture, and I can’t tell you how much that means to me but… it’s wrong on a really primal level. Batman is who you are. Sure it was sweet keeping ‘him’ out of Dick and Barbara’s wedding where ‘he’ is a… a set of priorities for keeping secret identities secret. But here it’s just different. Batman is a part of you. And how we met and who I fell in love with. Batman is a big piece of who I’m marrying. I don’t want that part of you kept out of the way or… or suppressed or ignored like it’s some kind of a character flaw that should be overcome. That’s not a gesture for a woman who loves you, it’s for someone who thinks you’d be a great catch if only you weren’t Batman.” She shook her head helplessly, none of the words were right. “Bruce, I love you, all of you. I could never want you to be less than you are.”

“Just less of a jackass?” he graveled, and her eyes smiled.

“I could possibly do with less schlepping out to Queens to see the refuse of the world’s least interesting bank—”

She stopped and covered her mouth as her eyes lit with delight. For a full second those too-green orbs blazed with a mixture of surprise, curiosity, mischief, and wonder. Then she unclamped her mouth and laughed—still looking into his eyes while some unknown calculation flashed through hers. It all culminated in an excited squeal and she kissed his cheek and ran off.

Bruce watched her go silently as Psychobat began earmarking protocols.

The relative lull Selina alluded to meant that Bruce had more time on his hands. Normally he’d point it at the Foundation or Wayne Enterprises, but with no indication at all when the respite might end, he confined himself to Bat-projects where he could suspend the effort as quickly as he’d begun without attracting attention. In addition to the outer borough bank robbers, there were cold cases he had tagged over the years. Each day he selected one and reviewed the evidence, hoping to spot something new. It was at the end of the third day’s perusals that Selina appeared in the cave.

“I have a much better idea for a wedding gift,” she announced. “It’s technically for you, but if you like the idea, trust me, I don’t need a thing. Nothing that comes in a box will come close. And if we set it up now, it solves the honeymoon dilemma. Bonus.”

“This I’ve got to hear,” Bruce said, bemused, while Psychobat thought the same words in dread.

Selina held out a small black thumb drive, which he took with a thank you and inserted into his workstation. Soon, an insurance photo of a darkened old master in an ornate gilded frame appeared on the screen.

Wood Nymph startled by a River God in tragic need of a cleaning,” she announced crisply. “Orazio Gentileschi, oil on canvas, 1620. Telegraphing the Sauli commissions that would link Caravaggian naturalism with Tuscan lyricism, paying off in Danaë in 1623. Provenance is solid until it vanished from the collection of Simon Stagg. Opinions vary if it was the work of Gentleman Ghost, The Shade or The Mist. What is known is an ex-CIA reptile got it from Shadow Thief in the late ‘90s and traded it to Russia for a little plutonium, which went to an unmentionable Mid-Eastern Country in return for two tankers of embargoed oil… Shall I go on?”

“It’s not an original story,” Bruce said with a good humored nod.

“Yeah, people who get fetishy about stolen art often have other interests, sometimes very nasty ones, and it’s twice as bad with gems where something like the Rosaline Diamond makes a very compact way to pay for two million dollars’ worth of firepower to jumpstart a coup. Which brings me to my gift.”

The slide show advanced to show a series of upscale locations while Selina continued:

“If you wanted to go undercover on the Wood Nymph the way you did to suss out the rat’s nest in Hell’s Kitchen, you’d need someone who blends in at Emirates First Class Lounge at JFK, the lobby bar at the Peninsula and the West Side Tennis Club.”

The next slide was a photo of Matches Malone as he’d appeared in the final days of his lengthy mission with the Westies.

“You made Matches to infiltrate dives, fit in among the bottom feeders, low grade henchmen and mob associates. He was becoming a conspicuous throwback and needed an update to go on fitting in—but he’s still a scruffy guy from the Kitchen and he always will be. I want to give you someone new who can blend in at the VIP room in Club 23 just like Matches did at Finn’s, but… more like me. A new criminal identity to inhabit, a thief on my level...”

“Who can infiltrate a different kind of operation on a different level,” he mused. He thought of the database she’d made him for the Foundation bandit, profiling the guests of the fundraising galas, breaking down their jewelry and the locations of their homes as they’d appear to a potential thief. It was shockingly intimate, getting in her head that way.

“Malone is more than a name and a rap sheet,” he said. “I know the man; I know how he thinks, what horse he bets on and how he replaces the money when he loses. What he hears in any given conversation and what goes over his head. Even how he rationalizes a screw-up. If we do this… Selina, if we do this, it has to be all the way. You have to let me in on everything, all the particulars of the lifestyle. I can’t… I can’t hide funds the way I do to buy jet fuel for the Batmobile. I can’t have mastered a zip line during a pop through Northern Wales to learn in an old slate mine between Cryptography at Cambridge and Wing Chun in Foshan.”

“Of course,” she said, beaming. “That’s the idea, Bruce. Something that’s really from me and really for you. It’s not just for the practicality of your having a different type of cover, it’s for... the POV. The one you’re sadly lacking, there’s no other way to say it, about being a successful criminal. Just being it for a while, living it, on that level, smelling its smells and tasting its tastes.”

“And the honeymoon bonus is what we fell into with Matches and Gina: Bruce and Selina appear to leave, very publicly, in this case to a very private undisclosed location, we come back in undercover and live in Gotham in those assumed identities.”

“You got it.”

“I’ll kick the tires on that idea,” he said, automatically deferring any plan that wasn’t his until he had a chance to run it through a dozen Bat-filters. “As for the rest, let me file away this blood spatter analysis and we can start right now.”

“Boy, we are going to have to clean this story up before we tell anybody,” Selina pointed out.

“You gave me golf clubs and a round at St. Andrews with Vandal Savage,” Bruce suggested. “I said ‘Thank you.’”

From a thief’s point of view, the beauty of a safe deposit box is that nobody but the owner knows what’s in it. Rob Tiffany or Feinstein & Son or even The Jewel Box on 19th Street and they know every piece that’s gone. But a safe deposit box might contain anything, the bank has no idea, and a used Breitling in the window at Gem Pawnbrokers is exactly that.

Tonight, Batman meant to turn that perceived advantage on its head. When the Batmobile pulled out of the cave, nobody in the underworld knew a thing about the previous night’s bank heist beyond what was said on the news. By the end of his first patrol, word was spreading that an Israeli competitor of Wayne Tech had produced an ultra-high-security smart phone with some kind of military grade encryption (whatever the hell it meant, that sure sounded impressive.) It cost, like, $14,000 and was only sold at Harrods Department Store in London. You had to show a passport to buy one, because there was a list of countries they couldn’t be sold to! And a pair of those phones was in the safe deposit box haul in Queens.

Now all Batman had to do was trust the black market’s greed. ‘Viper’ was the fence most likely to take the bait. She specialized in gadgets, which wasn’t uncommon, but she also had a history gutting high end gaming systems for the processors. Once she heard the phone he’d described was loose as a hot item in Gotham—chip-to-chip 256 encryption, MU-MIMO and WiGig Wi-Fi—in the hands of some thief who had no idea what he was holding, she’d pursue it like the Holy Grail. So he had taken up a position across from the pizza joint she used as an office, and waited. Oracle would ping him when Viper found one of the websites set up for researching these fictitious technological wonders, but he didn’t think he’d need the heads up. He’d know when the rumors reached her by the activity on the street below. Of course he was set up to intercept any calls and to follow her and track her associates, when the time came. For now, there was nothing to do but wait—and consider the evolving identity of Thomas Uaimhfife, who reinvented himself as Tommy Coronet after the dashing titular thief in his favorite movie The Thomas Crown Affair.

The truth of Tommy’s early life would never be known outside of six archived databases where he’d laid the foundation for a birth certificate and other necessities. PARENTS: Father dec’d, Age 5. Mother dec’d, Age 12. No siblings... And that was the very last time any aspect of the character would be built to the file rather than the other way around. The particulars of Tommy’s career were still to be worked out. Selina was adamant that he not ‘work ahead’ and make assumptions about where Coronet had been or what he’d taken, but the one thing he could say for certain: Tommy had never operated in Gotham. He would be setting up his first apartment, an aspect of any cover that spoke to Bruce’s sincere love for his city…

The Batmobile relay was sending map and street view photos of the safe houses and satellite caves he kept throughout the city, and he swiped through several screens pretending to consider them until he reached a particular one on West 4th Street. Built in 1905, Storm Zone 5, Police Precinct 6. Six stories of apartments above a restaurant with outdoor seating, twenty-five units on paper, nineteen in reality since he kept the top two floors empty to maximize privacy, minimize sound exposure and restrict roof access.

The sightlines weren’t ideal, which is why he rarely used it, but aesthetically, it was a beautiful piece of pre-war architecture. Red brick with dark green windows, neo-classic cornices in sandstone and detailed wrought iron fire escapes painted to match. Even the entrance had character—and a more practical consideration: psychological cover. The restaurant’s outdoor seating made it seem the residents were casually unconcerned if their comings and goings were noticed. On the off chance police or federal agents were keeping an eye on Coronet, he clearly wasn’t the kind of person who cared about that kind of thing. His movements could be seen by anyone, but at the same time, they would be random anyones. A casual diner who happened to look up from his lobster ravioli at the critical time would be almost impossible to track. A smart crook’s location if ever there was one.

Then there was the neighborhood. It was a few blocks from the residential hotel where Selina had settled for a few weeks when she returned from Europe, so she couldn’t complain about the quality of his sample: 100% of the successful international cat burglars known to him had settled in the West Village when they first hit Gotham. She also couldn’t say he was cloning Catwoman since she’d only stayed a few weeks, declaring herself ‘not a downtown girl.’

So Tommy Coronet would be a downtown boy and that was settled. Granted he could not be using Bruce Wayne’s resources, but there was no reason he couldn’t be Bruce Wayne’s tenant. By the time Viper mobilized her contacts to find whoever pulled the bank job, the paperwork was in place. Tomorrow, Bruce could have Lucius take over his afternoon schedule (always a pleasure when Asian currency arbitrage was on the agenda), clean out a few things and see about personalizing the generic corporate furnishings.

Viper’s efforts never produced a lead on the bank heist, but it did unearth a warehouse of stolen TVs, confirmed a suspicion about Jonathan Crane’s source for the electronics he used at the Man’s Reach exhibit, and answered the question of how the Spanish Town Posse had been paying their bills since the Hell’s Kitchen raids. It took a week for Batman to clean up the girls and drugs the Jamaicans were running in the Bronx, the black market electronics shops in Harlem and Queens, and their supply network of thieves working nightclubs and subway stations. He set Oracle on the online business supplied by the Queens storefront, Clark on the Crane tech source in Metropolis, and Gordon on the trail of counterfeit iPhones and iPads sold alongside the stolen ones. The last would eventually become a case for the FBI or Homeland Security and that would boost the GCPD’s standing with the federal agencies.

It made for a complicated log, but rather than go up to bed when he finished, he changed into his most nondescript travel clothes, packed a duffel with his make-up kit and the other appliances for his disguise, and left for the airport. Hours later, a man with the build of an ex-sailor and the elegance of a diplomat emerged from one of the shower rooms in the first class lounge of an airline with whom Wayne Enterprises had an arrangement. He had a “weekend beard,” a shadow of about two day’s growth that strategically reshaped his mouth and jaw. His hair was browner than Bruce’s, longer on top, a windswept style that was chic for the nineties and, combined with the dark-rimmed glasses, gave the impression of a vaguely out of touch intellectual—a novelist perhaps, but too highbrow to be anyone you’d heard of. He strode down the corridor past the clocks of various time zones and into the seating area where Lucius Fox was hunched behind a newspaper.

There was no more than a glance of acknowledgement as he picked up a magazine from the table and took the seat opposite. Skimming the amenities at the airline’s other clubs around the world, he casually turned it for Lucius to see the picture.

“I’ve never seen anyone that happy on a layover,” he observed, and Lucius chuckled. He agreed they all seemed improbably thrilled by a pitcher of orange juice.

No names were given, but the small talk established that Lucius was on his way to Germany on business while he himself was on his way home to Metropolis, the last leg after a grueling twenty-hour flight from Singapore, also on business. With the wry observation that neither of them thought to wear a tie like the euphoric orange juice-drinkers, they exchanged hopes that the other would have a smooth flight and went their separate ways.

Bruce could have ended it there, but he decided another few tests were called for. He’d never before assumed a cover who would move so freely in Bruce Wayne’s world, and given the nature of his disguise…

Don’t React,” Clark heard as Bruce’s distant, battlefield murmur in the seconds before a tall, broad-shouldered figure walked uncertainly into the Daily Planet bullpen. Clark held his breath as the bespectacled stranger hovered over Lois’s desk and asked for Mr. Kent. She gave him the hitchhike thumb without looking up, and Clark was amused at the slight hesitation before Bruce changed tactics. He recognized her then, apologizing like a star struck fanboy and burbling praise for her coverage of the Wasner trial to get her to look up. She did, slipping into Gracious Lane mode long enough to thank him and then directed him more explicitly to Clark’s desk.

“Come by for some pointers?” Clark asked when Bruce reached him.

“Among other things. I needed to run tests and Metropolis is the best place. ‘Undercover Boss’ if I’m busted here, and at STAR Labs or Lex Corp, it’s corporate espionage. They’ll react, but they’ll keep it quiet.”

“You want me to hover nearby and listen, let you know if they ‘react?’” Clark guessed.

“If your lunch hour is free,” Bruce said as Clark grabbed his jacket.

“Sure, happy to help. As long as you tell me how you’ve got the cheek and neck looking sort of… rounder,” he said, gesturing around his own chiseled jaw.

The infiltration of STAR Labs was uneventful, but Lex Corp brought the most rigorous test Bruce’s disguise would face. Luthor had nearly restored his company to the prestige it enjoyed before his fall, but he hadn’t yet achieved a corporate headquarters that dominated the Metropolis skyline like the old LL Towers. The new Lex Corp was headquartered in the smaller Oxford Complex where it accounted for 73% of the tenancy, so it wasn’t an absolute certainty that the man Bruce collided with at the entrance was there on Lex Corp business. What was certain, Clark knew from meeting him in Gotham: Barry Hobbs was a keen Luthor supporter. He’d described Lex as ‘the greatest president this country ever elected’ and, according to Bruce, his pro-Luthor zeal was grounded in the rivalry with Wayne. Barry Hobbs had a grudge against Bruce since ‘an old prep school rugby match.’

Clark narrowed his focus, watching intently, listening intently... Bruce’s blood pressure had surged when he recognized Hobbs. His heart pounded, though there was nothing amiss in his voice as he apologized and held the door for the other man. Drops of sweat beaded under the make-up while the two men worked through the bottleneck going into the lobby… Clark held his breath until they separated, Bruce breaking right to a news stand while Hobbs continued on towards security.

“That was an unexpected bit of drama,” he said into the communicator, and Bruce coughed. “Someday, I want to hear about that rugby game.”

The rest of the Lex Corp tests were an anti-climax. Bruce signed in at the security desk, naming a law firm that was one of the other tenants, and rode around in the elevators visiting offices on several floors. Clark lost sight of him thanks to Luthor’s fetish for lead-based paint, but he could still hear, the accommodations for sonic mesh being limited in a building Lex didn’t own. At the end of the day, Clark offered a fly home as he usually did, but Bruce wanted to get into character leaving Metropolis as “someone who wouldn’t exactly be chummy with Superman.”

Selina had said to text her when he was ready to begin, and since she was known to be Catwoman, it seemed perfectly plausible that she could know Tommy well enough to pick him up at the airport. So he disembarked from flight 6635 expecting to find her holding a sign reading Coronet. Instead, he saw a platinum blonde, hair style identical to Gina O’Malley’s brash red, funky ultramodern sunglasses like a visor, silver frame and lightly tinted black echoing the black and white of her sweater with the dramatic close-up of a lion. She was looking right at him with the smug smile of ancient rooftops when she thought she had the upper hand, and wiggled up to him with a welcoming kiss.

“Clark gave you a heads up,” he graveled before she could slip her tongue in his mouth. “Details of the disguise, maybe told you what I was wearing?”

“He sent a picture, actually.”

He demanded to see her phone, not because he was upset at the prank but because he hadn’t noticed when it was taken. Once he saw the background and angle, he thought through the walk from the parking lot to the Metropolis terminal, factored in where Clark must have been positioned, how long he would have to be in a stable hover in order to take a non-blurry photo, and if there were any indicators he should have seen but missed.

“Any bags, or is that it?” Selina said, guessing the subject of his reverie and choosing to ignore it.

“This is it. I’ll shop as we go,” he said, and then when they reached the car, he gave her the address.

She stared.

“I was going to check you into The Mark,” she said. “Preferred hotel of cat burglars since the Falco/hair gel incident of 2003.”

“When they found him because the hotel’s exclusive hair gel was found in the air duct?” he muttered with crimefighter disdain. “That makes it a preferred hotel?”

“It’s ironic,” Selina said simply. “I told you not to work ahead. What else have you been up to?”

“Nothing… much.”

Selina recognized a touch of her own rooftop wordplay and failed to suppress a scowl in response.

“This is going to be harder than I thought,” she muttered.

The ‘Nothing much’ turned out to be a stack of Wayne Industries bearer bonds he’d taken from the Wayne Tech office in Metropolis. When Selina reminded him the first rule he’d laid down was not using Bruce Wayne’s resources, he said that he hadn’t made use of Wayne’s face or keycards to enter and move through the building or his knowledge of the combination to open the safe.

“And you’ve said several times, in your view rightful ownership has ‘nothing to do with who paid for the thing,’” he concluded. “I say I stole it fair and square.”

The last was said with a boyish grin that brought a naughty one from Selina.

“It’s fine by me,” she said. “Just be warned, if you get to enjoying this new thing: bending the rules and turning on the charm while you talk your way around it, I’m not going to stop you. Ever.”

Noted.

When they arrived at the West 4th Street address, Selina smiled as Tommy explained the psychological cover provided by the restaurant, but it wasn’t a pleased smile. It would be handy as a way to tweak the nose of any police or feds so arrogant as to think they could tail you, to send an order of garlic bread and nibbles out to the surveillance van, for instance, but that isn’t what Tommy/Bruce was saying. No, he was suggesting police would not have the ingenuity or wherewithal to pull the restaurant’s credit card receipts and go knocking on the doors of anyone they could find on the off chance one of the random strangers did look up from their plate at the opportune moment… Batman knew better, but he was assuming Tommy would not. He was preloading Tommy with the overconfident blind spots he assumed any criminal must have. And she would have to find some way to correct that.

To do otherwise would be such a waste. That was her thought as he entered a 6-digit pin into the Dactyl Elite keypad outside the door to his unit… PNZ601 he typed, then looked at her as if for recognition. He opened the door with a key, held it for her but warned her not to move past the foyer. Once he’d closed the door, there was a pneumatic whisper as a small wall panel opened revealing a second, identical keypad with the PNZ number still displayed on the LED screen. Bruce/Tommy recited the remaining code aloud as he typed: QAU400.

“I assume that means something,” she grinned.

“Stockholm, December 22, 2000, two Renoirs and a Rembrandt were taken from the National Museum. As you probably know, the thieves escaped by boat less than seven minutes after entering the gallery, while police never got anywhere near the scene because of two car fires completely blocking street traffic coming into that part of the city. The first, one hundred meters to the northeast, was a Ford, license plate PNZ601,” he said, pointing towards the door indicating the first keypad, “The Mazda blocking the southwest entrance to the peninsula was QAU400.”

“Oh that’s hot,” Selina murmured with a throaty growl, but before Bruce could consider acting on the lustful response, her attention shifted to the apartment and she let out a low whistle.

Like the Wayne Penthouse when she’d first seen it, there was an ultra-modern sensibility: clean crisp lines, a preponderance of right angles, leather and metal. The color palette was reversed, though still an achingly tasteful arrangement of supremely subtle grays. The penthouse had offered slates so dark as to be nearly black, while the furnishings here were so light as to be nearly white, set off by a dark wood floor.

“Nice,” Selina noted. “Wasn’t expecting a man cave or anything, but this is… really nice. Now what’s going on there?”

Her finger twirled at the two anomalies in the room that were completely ornamental and also the only items that weren’t remotely modern. An oil painting in the style of the Dutch Old Masters hung on the wall, stretched and mounted on a board but unframed… and a gold and crystal 18th century snuff box.

Bruce reeled off a few of the particulars as Selina might have done in her Sorbonne lecture delivery: the painting was A Boy Bringing Bread, Pieter de Hooch, 1663; the snuff box, Dresden, 1740, carved from a single piece of rock crystal, one of the most expensive gemstones and extremely difficult to work with, since it is solid quartz and second only to diamonds in hardness… then he changed gears, and in a new tone dripping with playboy charm, explained that they were reproductions he had made years ago to trap a thief called Marlowe.

Selina’s brow crinkled, and she looked quizzically towards the window as if she’d heard a noise and was trying to guess where it came from.

“Déjà vu,” she murmured. And then, hesitantly, “Do you have, like, an aspirin? Because this is exactly the headache you used to give me. I’m not kidding. I haven’t had it in years, but it’s not something you forget. Trying to plan a crime and there’s just no way of guessing what you’ll know, what you’ll notice, what you’ll figure out and where you’ll run with it, and where you’ll just unexpectedly turn up—bearing a 17th Century de Hooch, God my head hurts!”

He recognized the exasperation, on her face and in her tone, from a dozen other criminals…

“Wallace Collection, right?” she asked, and he nodded.

To her credit, he’d never glimpsed that exasperation in Catwoman. He thought about telling her, as a compliment…

“I remembered them from the Wednesday exhibitions,” he explained pleasantly. “Officially, I was studying at the London School of Economics. Unofficially, Scotland Yard and Mi6 both had… never mind, it doesn’t matter.”

…But at the moment, it seemed doubtful she’d take it as a compliment. So he simply brought her aspirin and a glass of water, and after she took it, she eyed him with that adversarial glint in her eye.

“Remind me, how many martial arts have you mastered?” she asked sharply.

“We’ve talked about this. There’s no real answer to that question; it depends on where you draw the line saying a certain master’s technique is different enough to call it a separate fighting style. Count Japanese, German and Brazilian jujitsu as three distinct disciplines, that level of distinction it’s between thirty and forty fighting arts. But if you go into the minutiae and politics of the dojos, where a master’s sons and students founded different schools that feud, recognize and disavow each other over time, the total must be over a hundred.”

“What I’m asking, Bruce, is how often you’ve been a white belt.”

“Ah. You mean you want me to slow down.”

“Considering we haven’t started yet and you’ve got a Sterling Trust haul of bearer bonds in your carry-on and a Wallace House de Hooch on your wall, yes, I would like you to slow the hell down.” She looked at the painting and shook her head in frustrated awe. “Since you’re itching to give me your resume, I guess that’s chapter one. And since you’ve been all over the world learning Wing Chun in Foshan and spelunking in Wales or whatever the hell it was, this part should be easy. Pick seven or eight places—I’ll narrow it down to five and you’ll pick three—that has some particular food or drink associated with it. Exotic but not too exotic, oddball but not too oddball, hard but not impossible to come by in a place like Gotham, and ideally something you liked enough to eat a lot.”

“And alluding to these will be part of the lifestyle,” he deduced.

“White. Belt,” she said crisply.

“Right, I’ll make a list and you’ll tell me what it’s for later,” he said with a businesslike nod. “But assuming these things will be part of the lifestyle, tea? I do just happen to have some Japanese sencha I picked up at this Asian grocery down the block. The real thing from Shiuoka province, just like I remembered from Tokyo…”

“This might be a difficult concept for a man who has the silhouette of a bat on every tool he owns, but subtle allusions. Not making a pageant of it.”

“This is subtle. A pageant would have been the matcha pan bread they had behind the counter, the matcha brownies, matcha muffins and matcha Kit-Kat bars.”

“God, this neighborhood has changed,” she said. “It’s the cleanest, most livable, most European neighborhood in Gotham now. That’s you, m’love, it wasn’t like this when I stayed here. Do you ever stop to notice how much better things are than when you started?”

“Only you would bring up Batman’s accomplishments at your first meeting with Tommy,” he said, changing the subject.

“If you didn’t want comparisons made, you shouldn’t have settled in this part of town,” she countered. “How about I make the tea while you work on that list. Seven or eight places, food or drink, something you like, and try not to be that guy who learns a wrist grab and is instantly working out six variations, three ways to counter and adding a biomechanical exploit.”

“Roger. Squid sandwich in Madrid, no biomechanical exploit… like assuming it’s shorthand for stealing a Goya at the Prado.”

“Bast and her kittens, what have I done?”

By the time Selina brought the tea, Bruce had a written list which he handed over.

“Japan at the top, no surprise there,” she noted as she read. “Lotte Ghana Black Chocolate bar with extra cacao.” She looked up at him. “Interesting.” Her eyes returned to the list and she read “London: Spanish sea salt chocolates, 70p at Harrods Food Hall; Hong Kong: chocolate covered nougat from Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shop; Italy: Pastiglie Leone… these are all candy.”

“I had considerable need for compact, highly portable doses of sugar.”

“I’ll bet,” she smirked.

“I can come up with a more diverse list.”

“Oh no, this is perfect,” she said, “You’ve got a thing for oddball foreign candy, couldn’t be a more perfect angle. The thing is—as you guessed—it’s not ideal to go through life confessing to felonies, but like any business, you want to advertise what you do. The people who will be inclined to hire you have to know you exist and what you’re capable of. So you advertise in code…” She touched the top of the teapot. “If I know you’re in the business and I see you’re always ordering green tea, you mention ‘real sencha, the way I remember it from Tokyo,’ I know you’re advertising something.”

She tilted her head and looked at him appraisingly.

“Maybe the Rubens taken from the Odawara board room a few years back, or maybe it was the prototype chips from Hachinohe A.I. I may guess wrong, but things will fit together eventually. The Rubens means you can beat smart glass, a Phoenix box, passive infrareds and shock sensors. Hachinohe, that’s key imprinting and a retinal scan, voiceprint failsafe with heat and moisture detection. Rubens, you’ve got mad acrobatic skills and a custom-made carbon fiber rig, five point harness with some kind of auto-breaking resistance voodoo going on in the back. Hachinohe, you cloned one of those high tech ID badges with smart paper. You’re a high tech badass.”

“Suppose I did both?”

“Then you’re Batman,” she said flatly.

He laughed.

“If you deduce all that from the tea, maybe you’re Batman.”

“I can’t get all that just from the tea. But that’s why every thief I know has half a dozen oddball exotic tastes, a collection of regional specialties that add up to a resume. Paprika Hendl—Budapest, Hapsburg Dagger. Dosa and vadas—Southern India, Tipu Sultan Tiger. You know that twice-cooked pork belly they make in Sichuan province?”

“Sanxingdui Museum for a Han Dynasty bronze,” Bruce said quickly.

“You got it. So in your case, let’s say I’ve got Tokyo, London, Hong Kong and Italy to work with.”

“Which could each represent countless targets, so you would look for other cues. I should presumably pick actual thefts in each of the cities I want to highlight from my travels, and without ‘making a pageant of it,’ find occasions to let some knowledge of the subject show through. Rubens in Tokyo, silver vaults in London, etc.”

“I guess I better get used to the idea of your being three steps ahead every step of the way,” Selina said, rummaging through her purse and withdrawing a rolled up catalog. “This was for some light reading in your hotel room tonight. Russian military surplus, I marked a few things you might like: night vision spotting scope, thermal camera, the world’s simplest short-range jammer. Just intercepts a signal and resends with a stronger microwave a split-second out of phase, creates the most god-awful signal mud.”

“Is this how you set off all those false alarms to get into the Whitebridge?”

“No, it doesn’t have the range,” she said, sliding a thin stylus from an old-style Blackberry and pointing it at him. “From here, I can get your phone and the wifi, but even that keypad at the door is out of range.”

“Doesn’t sound very effective,” he sniffed.

“Tech is the one area you are honestly a snob,” she laughed. “A match stick isn’t exactly badass on its own. ‘Effective’ depends what you light with it.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “Can I at least take an item like that apart, see how it works and enhance its effectiveness?”

“Yes,” Selina said crisply. “That’s exactly what we’re going to do, in fact. There are only a handful of Kittlemeiers in the world, and when you go to one—”

It’s a vulnerability,” he cut her off in Batman’s dismissive gravel. “Use a Holt Descender like the thief at Hofburg Castle, it had to be made by Koechert, Dulaq, Rodriguez, or Fang. Interpol knows it. Other thieves know it. And Koechert is close to Vienna. If police or a competitor find him, pressure him and he coughs up a lead… that points them to Tomio as the thief.”

“Very good. Solution?”

“Make my own gear whenever possible.”

“Meow. Nothing you order from the catalog is going to set off flags, but I still wouldn’t have it sent to my home. I didn’t figure on you having a home yet, so I’m going to check into that room I booked at The Mark. Have your first order sent there, and anything after that, we’ll assume you’ve been in town long enough to have found—”

“Bosco on 21st, Tactical in Red Hook and McNeil’s in Bludhaven to buy in person. Pay in cash, wear a ballcap, no logo, dark glasses, and mind the traffic cameras.”

Selina glared at yet another hijacking of the lesson. Seizing on the glasses, she added:

“Try not to look like Matches.”

Grunt.

Unlike Matches brazenly giving boxing lessons in the grimiest gym in Hell’s Kitchen, Bruce felt Tommy would be discreet about his daily workout. Like Bruce, he wouldn’t want his athletic prowess known, so he’d made the second bedroom into a simple exercise room and, through six sets of bent-over dumbbell rows, he drilled: the city, the tells, specifics of the heist and the patois of expertise about the prize…

London—Chancery Lane—The Silver Vaults—

Selina seemed to like the apartment overall, but there was something early on that irked her.

Harrods food hall confectionary—Sea salt chocolates and rose-almond sweets—

Was it the roof access? The sightlines from the window?

Flaxman tea set—cast by Paul Storr—Georgian Entrée dish, Storr again—museum-quality—

No, it started before they got to the living room.

Both have full hallmarks—London 1810—

That little smile.

From the inner walk-in vault of a connoisseur collector—

Patronizing.

In the ‘never sell these’ category of his collection—

When she thought he was being a hero-addled cape.

Period bird-figural armorial—

No, her view must now be his. Because he was being a hero-addled cape…

Repousse rope designs throughout—

But how?

And one of the finest handles I have ever seen with superb figural lion heads and acanthus leaves—

Batman’s mindset instinctively began tagging this item like a log entry: the bird in the armorial crest would make the item attractive to Penguin, the lion heads to Catwoman or Catman, and even the leaves might attract Poison Ivy. Such objects weren’t her usual thing, but she went for such one-offs when she needed quick money to outfit a lab.

Original matching Sheffield plate warming stand signed Matthew Boulton, he said, repositioning for six sets of tricep extensions.

No. No. There was no need to consider any of that in relation to an old Tommy theft. Next city: Hong Kong

Although a prudent thief should consider it in planning a future theft, shouldn’t he?

The tells: The city was famous for tailors offering good bespoke suits—made incredibly fast and incredibly cheapfor businessmen on layoversIf Tommy dressed in those suits, it would be a near constant allusion to a Hong Kong past

If you were going to operate in a town full of theme rogues, wouldn’t a smart thief stop to consider who he might run into going after an objet de cat or bird or plant?

—It wouldn’t even take the actual trip to Hong Kong to arrange, as there was a sign he’d noticed in his first stroll through the neighborhood, a “Hong Kong Tailor” almost midway between his front door and the hotel where Selina had stayed

That was it! They were still outside when that patronizing smile crossed her lips. So it wasn’t anything about the apartment itself. She must not like the location, or something about the restaurant.

The heist: Kowloon—Kansu—Jade frog

Whatever he was missing, she didn’t point it out. Whatever he got wrong, she didn’t correct it. That must mean she meant him to figure it out himself.

The patois—The frog was actually a three-legged toad called a Chin Chan. A grey white jade with russet on one side of the head and hints of russet on the rear leg—

Either that or it was personal preference and didn’t matter that he wasn’t doing it the way she might.

translucent in the center body with a light crystalline inclusion inside part of the body…

Maybe, but her prior irritation suggested otherwise… And it was Selina, if she wasn’t irate, she’d be playful, if it was a preference that didn’t matter, she would tease him…

Tommy had a number of errands he wanted to complete before his training began in earnest. He started with a consultation at the tailor (single breasted, two button, unplaited trousers and a couple of shirts to begin) picked his fabrics (and a more colorful lining than Bruce Wayne would have considered) and once his measurements were recorded, he headed to the downtown heliport. He picked up a Knights ball cap and a cheap camera to feel more like a tourist, and did his best to settle into the mindset of one who simply did this as a job.

Selina said a helicopter tour was a must for a practicing cat burglar’s first day in a new city—an idea so frighteningly smart, it bothered him. Considering how well he knew the city just by swinging through its upper strata at night, considering he’d just come from Metropolis with Superman’s unique perspective fresh in his mind, considering he himself was a pilot who often flew himself into new places for the first time, it was galling that a bunch of… criminals… could happen upon such an efficient way to get a quick, all-encompassing, atypical perspective of a new place.

He knew he wouldn’t be gaining actual insight into Gotham, he knew every block, street and alley too well. But he welcomed the chance to see it all in a new way, through the eyes of one who lived in a world of speculative break-ins. What was burglary, after all, if not a different way of using the streets and buildings? Through Tommy’s eyes, he looked down to consider the criminal opportunities lurking in the urban planning—the order of streets leading to and from the Gotham National Bank, for instance… then the Sherry-Netherland... and the Excelsior Towers… He thought through the sightlines, potential hiding places, how shadows would be cast at different times of day…

Tommy, he realized, must be one of the rarities who grasped the elusive truth: architectural understanding is useless without urban understanding. If you didn’t know how to get away from a crime, it was pointless figuring out how to commit it. He noted getaway routes from the Foundation burglar’s targets: The Mandell mansion on Fifth and the Brodland Townhouse on 59th, the Beaufort place on the Park, and Coleman penthouse atop a Yorke Avenue high rise that society people still called “Justine Platt’s apartment”… His eyes darted as he looked down, mentally racing through each escape, noting the potential hideaways, possible next turns and preemptive roadblocks, and all the overlooked connections between distant neighborhoods.

Back on the ground, he took a more abbreviated walking tour of the area between the Fifth Avenue mansion and the bank, casually mapping out how a would-be burglar might escape on foot, blending into the thick lunchtime crowd on the short walk to the subway… Despite these weaknesses, he surmised the bank was safe enough to open a box there. He went inside and went through the process, performing an equally casual analysis of the vault—as well as the clientele. John Blain was coming out of the elevator in the back… John Blain of “Prosperity Partners,” Luthor’s dark money outfit. Now what would Blain be doing in Gotham, and meeting with someone on the second floor?

Batman made a mental note to research Prosperity’s recent activity, and Tommy went about storing his bearer bonds until Selina talked him through a larger stash point that could accommodate a wider variety of loot. After that, it was time for his first fitting, so he made his way back to the West Village, and after that, he took another run at shopping.

Cora Colette was the legend Selina used with that Parisian fence Cancrelat, so unless she told him otherwise, he decided Tommy knew her by that name from some meeting in Europe. Without suspecting a Catwoman connection, it would still be clear that she was a superior thief and someone he would like to impress, so now that he knew the code, he scoured the stores for the little touches that would make the right statement when she came over. The prizes she associated with Tokyo had clearly made the best impression (“If you did both, you’re Batman.”) so he would focus on Japanese signatures. He picked up some good sandalwood incense and, knowing her propensity to snack when she prepared a crime, some seaweed rice crackers, shrimp chips, and in case their work sessions turned into dinner, ippei-chan yakisoba with fish roe mayonnaise (authentic, a savory taste of caviar, with the benefit of being nothing more than instant noodles and safely within his culinary abilities).

That left only a few technical remnants of the old safe house/satellite cave which Selina would not appreciate but which Batman was not going to do without.

Through six sets of dumbbell presses, Bruce drilled on Tommy’s knowledge of Peter Paul Rubens and an oil sketch he had taken from the corporate headquarters of Odawara Electric. Rubens was a phenomenally popular artist in his own lifetime—He ran a studio employing almost every painter in Antwerp—The sketches, like the one he’d taken, were small oil paintings sent to the workshop as blueprints to reproduce on larger canvases—so they were known to be done entirely by the artist’s own hand—and they were small, light, easy to transport—the one he’d taken was 10” x 6”—easy to smuggle and easy to hide—

He repositioned for seated dumbbell curls.

The one he’d taken was Aphrodite’s Rage Against Psyche—oil on oak panel—was a late work, 1636—High Baroque composition and lighting—the fullsize canvases based on it hang in the Museo del Prado, Uffizi and—

“And the private collection of Xavier Lang,” a familiar voice purred in the doorway. “Who also lent two imperial masks to the Gotham Museum once upon a time. Can’t blame a girl for trying.”

“You’re testing me,” Bruce graveled without slowing his rhythm. “Lesson’s about to begin, I’m getting into character, and you let yourself in and put on your rooftop voice, start alluding to crimes past…”

“That was a very good night,” she said coming into the room and, standing before his bench, stroking the top of the right hand weight as if she were petting a cat. “And if you can’t admit that at this late date, then I really don’t think I can help you.” She sat facing him, straddling his legs, and traced where the bat emblem would be as she spoke… “You’re going to need some bigger, badder baseball stats for Batman to recite.” …then let her finger travel down his body while her eyes held his as if mentally drawing on the mask. “Or there’s no way Tommy is going to be able t—”

In a lightning move he’d relieved himself of the dumbbells and launched his chest into hers, propelling them both onto the floor with her on her back and him on top as his mouth twisted into a lusty snarl.

“I’ll remind you that Batman was the reason it was ‘a very good night.’ Suppressing him would defeat the purpose of this conversation.”

“Meow,” she said dryly.

“Not good enough,” he graveled, lowering to nibble her neck.

That old rooftop voice as hot breath on her neck produced a deep-throated purr, as always, which then resolved into a reluctant “Mmmrwllllno, it’s really going to have to be. If you want that first lesson.”

He traced the top of her cheek where the mask ended when she was wearing it, then gave a sad grunt.

“How would Tommy react to your letting yourself in?” he asked without changing their position. “He’s certainly not the type who would give a woman his key.”

Selina considered it—as well as the ease with which he’d changed the subject and initiated a business conversation while they were in an erotically charged position, a development she couldn’t help seeing as Batman mimicking her own rooftop come-ons… which was intriguing.

“That’s a good question. Since I’m sort of his mentor right now, I guess he’d accept the situation. He knows I’m better than he is, that’s why I’m useful. But he still wouldn’t like it, at first. I didn’t like that you could get into my place when we started, but then it got kind of sexy. I’d change a lock and you’d find a work around… It was hot, your thinking that way.”

“So if Tommy finds you attractive, the annoyance that you can beat his security will be tempered by… other feelings.”

Selina’s lips parted.

“I guess that’s one way of looking at it,” she said, running her fingers up his arm and the muscles that so recently bulged with the weight of the dumbbells. “You think you can work with that kind of conflicted feelings, stud?”

I’ll try.

He started to get up, but she grabbed, twisted and spun his momentum back into the floor until he was the one on his back and she positioned enticingly on top.

“What was the first big score that set you up?” she asked in the same businesslike tone he had used.

“London, the Silver Vaults,” he said, launching into the highlights.

“Good lord, that is a score,” she said when got to the second Storr. “Wish I’d known you then, I’d have taken that baby off your hands.”

“You can, it’s in the Adam breakfront,” he said, abandoning the Tommy performance for his Saturday at home manner. “I pulled some old insurance listings to memorize between patrols. Figured that’s a popular way to find targets.”

“You’re still working ahead,” Selina said wearily. “And you’re getting it wrong. No, that’s not how we find targets. Insurance can be a source of intel on security once we have a target, but we find them on hunting trips—which we’ll start today. It was going to be tomorrow, but I clearly have to mix it up if I’m going to stay ahead of you. Meet me at 72nd and York in three hours… And I’m afraid this is where you start paying for this location. You need to go through Midtown and get a couple of ties. Hermes, Asprey or Kiton, you like their ties, right?”

“I do, but even if I didn’t, Tommy would if you tell him to. My personal taste doesn’t—”

“Buy two ties that you like,” she said firmly, “from two of those three stores, and meet me at the corner of 72nd and York.”

“You know there are plenty of downtown options. Fils Précieux is the most expensive boutique in the city, 14th and 9th.”

“I think you mean ‘Hai, sensei,’ don’t you?”

“Ah, it’s not about the ties; it’s about carrying bags from a few blocks away.”

“It’s about being a white belt, Bruce.”

“Selina, I know how to be a white belt. Taking the term literally, it’s all I’ve ever been. Because I never stayed long enough to become a black belt in the true sense. You know where the idea came from, right? A belt is like an academic gown, it’s never washed. The longer you study, the more it darkens and frays; the more you work out, the dirtier it gets.”

“And by the time it’s black, you must really know your shit. I know, but—”

“What I do,” he cut her off. “I know how to suppress what I know, to lock it away in a corner of my mind and take my place at the low end of the mat as a beginner.”

“I see absolutely no evidence of that ability,” Selina noted.

“And as soon as I feel that click of understanding, the box inside my mind unlocks and I begin integrating whatever technique I’ve just learned into everything else I know. As soon as I feel the click, I start adapting the technique to make it my own.”

“Okay,” Selina bit her lip, considering this. “Okay,” she repeated. “So what we have would seem to be a ‘premature clicking’ situation. Is there some way we could put that on a delay? You get to thinking you understand something, can you maybe count to ten… or twelve… thousand before you open the box?”

“I doubt it.”

Selina pointed to the dumbbell on the floor.

“Can we talk about the time you did six extra sets of bent over rows, three extra sets of flat bench and three extra sets of low incline on top of six sets of triceps extensions because you didn’t want to come into town with me and meet Anna?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“The kind of workout you do takes discipline—a lot—and you kept that one going much longer than necessary because you’re stubborn. So why can’t you summon the discipline to put the mental box unlocking on a time delay.”

“Because this is criminal behavior,” he said, a hint of the gravel creeping into his tone. “Anticipating is second nature. Say five words about the Ming Dynasty right now, my brain will start trying to finish your sentence. You tell me people who don’t know Chenghua or Wan-Li say ‘Ming’ like it’s Gucci or Prada, I can’t not think of the Amherst Collection, Lansing, the guns, Rat Catcher and the Krugerrands. The associations are automatic.”

“That doesn’t really go on in your head every time I say ‘Ming,’ does it? I mean, my suite is in the Chinese room, there’s a garlic head Wan-Li in the hallway outside the door. Please tell me you don’t flash on all that every time I—”

“Maybe not every time,” Bruce said with a lip-twitch. Then seeing she looked troubled, he added “I’m exaggerating. But if I wasn’t, it wouldn’t be so terrible, would it? You don’t think of me as ‘a great catch if only he wasn’t Batman’ well, that goes both ways. Catwoman is how we met, and who I’m marrying, and—”

He was cut off by a warm, impulsive kiss, which… continued… and deepened… a little more… and… no, a little more… ki breathing techniques engaged… and tricks employed for underwater escapes… and eventually resolved in a moaning sigh, and a lot of panting.

“So there’s no way to put the Bat-brain on a time delay,” she murmured against his mouth.

“Not reliably,” he murmured back, pressing his forehead against hers. “Though that thing you just did has a good track record slowing it down.”

“Meow.” Dual labored breaths continued. “So you’ll get a tie?”

“Hai, sensei,” Bruce managed.

“72nd and York.”

“Hai, sensei… Three hours.”

“Great, I’ll see you there. Enjoy the traffic.”

To be continued…
 

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