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Chapter 3: Beginner's Luck

 

“So what’s this?” Tommy demanded, standing in front of the Riddler’s booth.

Game Theory buffed a nail, looking bored.  “Testosterone storm cloud,” she murmured, pursing her lips and then shook her head dismissively.  “Impending testosterone, no… imminent testosterone storm… Ulgh, no.”  She looked to Nigma as if to get his opinion, but he was engaged in a performance of his own, looking around theatrically as if confirming the question with invisible associates.

“I think the riddle is a fairly well-known concept,” he said finally.  “If you’re not sure how it works, consult the nearest 5-year old.”

“Very funny.  What’s it mean?  What have I ever done to you?”

Nigma smiled.

“You do ask a gratifying number of questions,” he smiled.  “That’s the sign of a superior intellect.  I don’t actually know who you are, but keep up that ratio of question marks and we’ll get along fine.”

“If you don’t know who I am, why did you want to talk to me?” Tommy asked, conveying a quick-fraying patience that few would dare with a man who’d made himself the king of the Gotham Rogues.

“I didn’t,” Eddie said simply.

“But—”

“Does anything on that slip of paper say to come see me?”

“I—” Tommy sputtered, checking the paper in his hand.

“I was asked to devise a riddle summoning you to a certain spot.”

Tommy bent forward, leaning over the front of the table very slightly, his hands curled into powerful fists, yet projecting an aura of respect rather than menace.  It was a show of strength rather than a threat, from one confident enough that he didn’t need to threaten and posture—but who wasn’t about to be treated like a toy.

“Why?” he asked bluntly, and Nigma’s polite but patronizing smile returned. 

“You really are good at keeping up that ratio,” he said pleasantly.

“Why?” Tommy repeated.

“I don’t know.  Trivia bores me.”

“By whom, then?” Tommy growled.

Nigma smiled wider, menacingly, teasingly…

“I guess you better solve it and find out.”

 

Though unintentional, the sheer number of questions Tommy had asked without ever attempting to solve the riddle provided an effective way to separate Coronet from Batman.  Once he was alone outside the Iceberg, it seemed safe to do so.  He went around to the spot by the staff door where employees and the occasional customer smoked, and where Ghost Dragons beat up those who had crossed King Snake.  He decided it should take him no more than a minute to calm himself and collect his thoughts, and no more than three to solve the riddle.

A diamond in the rough… claws reddened not with blood… head to toe… scrawling… curry and cowboys… It was inelegant.  As Riddler clues went, it was rushed, sloppy, none of his usual rhythms or structure, not a hint of cleverness.  Clearly something he’d dashed off as a favor between bites of his vegetable spring roll, judging by the thumb-smudge and the faint smell of sweet chili sauce…  What that all added up to was a clue that could be taken at face value.  All the words meant what they appeared to mean, no puns or double entendres, and the solution pointed to the true meeting place not a decoy location or trap.

The meeting place was a half-block of shops and restaurants like a hundred others.  A pawn shop on the corner with a tacky old-fashioned diamond on its sign.  On one side: a shoe store, Tex-Mex, empty retail space for rent, an Indian restaurant, nail salon, grocery and shoe repair.  The other side was an electronics store, a well graffiti’d safety door, eyewear, Western Union, and a tailor.  There was nothing special about it; even its location a convenient quarter-mile from the Iceberg was shared by a number of similar corners.  Batman strained to find an angle he might have missed as Tommy walked to the rendezvous by the most obvious route, and when he got there, he searched.  There was no one on the sidewalk.  No one waiting in the Tex-Mex.  No one loitering by the retail space.  No additional clues, nothing in the graffiti or…  on the fire escape.

His lip twitched at a fresh scratch and a can of WD40 left on the bottom tier.  He leapt up and pulled on the scissored staircase, noting the well-oiled silence as it folded down, and then he climbed to the roof.

A violent blur flashed before his face a split-second before the once-familiar clap of a whip cracking below his waist.  Unlike most occasions, there was no sting of contact through body armor, so at least she’d aimed short.  The crack was to get his attention, and though Batman put all the sensory data together several seconds before Tommy could have, Catwoman was in motion by the time the thought solidified. 

He gave chase.  A rooftop chase without bat-line or batarangs wasn’t ideal, but he’d made sure his shoes were up to the job and—for some reason he would work out later—Tommy was a master of parkour. 

He caught up with her where she’d obviously intended, judging by the bottle of champagne chilling in an ice bucket.

“So, Mr. Coronet, you’ve been bloodied,” she observed, pulling glasses from her loot sack and pouring. 

“Is that what was supposed to happen?” he said acidly. 

“Welcome to Gotham,” she said, handing him a glass. 

“Sorry to disappoint, sensei.  I came out with the fence and the bank lead I was sent in for, and without a scratch.”

“Imagine that,” Selina said, a canary-feather smile as she sipped.  “So tell me, was there anyone in there tonight who’s smarter than you?  No false modesty now, and no qualifiers.  Yes or no.”

No,” he graveled.

“And with the possible exception of Eddie having a really good ten minutes on his best day, was there anyone more resourceful or better informed than you?”

“Of course not.”

“More observant?”

“No.  What are you getting at, Catwoman?”

“Is that how you got out unbloodied?  Because dumb criminals make mistakes, fail to notice things or connect the dots…”

“I’m really not following.”

“No, I don’t imagine you are,” she said curtly.  “Hubris.  You’ve been preloading Tommy with blind spots.  Pride, overconfidence—maybe a few other failings you figure a criminal must have.  And I’m betting you jettisoned every single one of them tonight, because you didn’t want to get killed.”

“Again, I’m not following.”

She sipped.

“I know you, handsome.  You went in as yourself, because the way you think of Tommy, it would have been too dangerous to only see what he’d see, only know what he’d know…  You’re fine with being less than you should be against police, feds and crimefighters but—”

“Selina, this all started with you storming into the study to point out the police being, to use your word, ‘pinheads’ about the bank job in Queens.  So as a thief, do I have a realistic respect for law enforcement and their abilities or do I assume they’re idiots?”

“You really don’t get it, do you?  You know everybody in that club tonight is dumber than you, and you know they can still pose a threat.  That’s why you ditched all the failings you gave Tommy.  In the Iceberg, surrounded by criminals, you brought your best game.  You don’t bring me any less.”

“Hai, sensei.”

“I really don’t think you mean that.”

“You made your point.  I accept it.  I don’t agree, but—”

“I have not begun to make my point,” Selina said, in a tone that really did evoke the dojo more than Bat-Cat rooftops or aggrieved girlfriends.  “Are there any of those over-sugared virtue jockeys in the Justice League that you didn’t write a protocol for because, for all their abilities, they’re so laughably beneath you that you could dash into the kitchen right now and improvise something with a little salt water, some tin foil and a match?”

“No, there is no one I didn’t write a protocol for, but—”

“And is there not at least one individual whose personal and professional limitations fit that description?”

“No!”

“I count four.”

“Selina.”

“Bruce, I’ve spanked three of them.”

“Selina.”

“Without the foil.  Without a superpower, and in two cases, without a plan.  So don’t bullshit a bullshitter.  You made a protocol for each and every one of them because you know dumber can still be dangerous…  That’s what you give Tommy: that mind, that nerve, that will, that focus and determination… that’s what you bring when we’re going up against Scotland Yard or Interpol or a 1940 triple-walled Mackenzie with a Kesselrig keypad.”

His lip twitched.

“And you don’t want to hear ‘Hai, sensei,’” he noted.

“What I want to hear is that, deep down, you no longer think ‘criminal’ means less than law enforcement and law abiding people.  You think you’re superior to Matches, and that’s fine; he’s an adorable loser and a dumb brick.  But when you think you’re better than Tommy, someone we’re building from the ground up, and you decide that ‘playing him honestly’ means making him inferior—for no other reason than he’s someone who’s choosing to break the law?  Well, there it is, isn’t it: you think you’re better than me.”

“That is absolutely not true,” Bruce said instantly.

“Prove it,” Selina said like a slap.  “I’m gone.  I’m pissed, so I’m doing what I do—what any self-respecting cat would do.  Done with you.  I am out of here.”  She paused, letting the words sink in as she stretched out her hand and slowly poured the contents of her glass into the ground between them.  And then… she took a slow, deliberate, seductive step forward as she said “Batman would be able to find me.  When Tommy can, he’ll be worth my time.”

 

That night Gotham experienced a Batman it hadn’t seen for a long time, though they had no way of knowing it.  The portion they interacted with was the same as always: the detective and the crimefighter, the fist that couldn’t be outmaneuvered, the car that couldn’t be outrun, the shadow that somehow appeared when there was no possible way for it to find you, which sprung to life and blocked the only route of escape… The actions and intellect were the same Dark Knight that patrolled every night.  Only the emotional core wasn’t present.  The real living man had locked it down so his raging turmoil couldn’t intrude on the night’s work.

The unwavering discipline that was Batman remained through writing the logs—with just an occasional lapse whenever he typed the letters c-a-t.  Then his subconscious registered the cause of the rage he was suppressing, that it was same blasted woman it had always been—Damn her!—and how, in the past, she would have been a featured player in the log he was typing.  Fortunately, before a second “Damn her” catapulted the thought into his conscious mind, the lockdown reengaged.  He finished the account of a stolen car ring without being aware his focus had faltered for more than a second.  Then an email to Lucius cleared Bruce Wayne’s schedule for the next several days, so there was no reason not to spend the night at Coronet’s. 

At that point with Batman’s work finished, ego asserted itself briefly as Tommy eschewed the subway and made his way home by rooftop.  Who did she think she was, sending him to the Iceberg—the goddamn Iceberg—to make a point

She thinks she’s your sensei, the measured, discipline of The Batman responded.

Yes, okay, technically it’s her prerogative to give a lesson however she wants.  But I know how to maintain a secret identity.  I know how to run an undercover operation.  I know how to— MI-6! Interpol!—

And you’d mastered attacks against superpowers with Maki Sensei before Sifu Lin covered most of the same ground against magic users.  You put your imagined expertise in a box and learned a lot more.

Hmph.

It began to rain, and he adjusted his stride effortlessly.

The Batman part of his mind noted it, and the thoughts began mushrooming like an atomic cloud: There was no thought, no effort, not a split second’s alteration in pace as he adjusted to the rain.  Balance, breathing, heartbeat and pulse were completely undisturbed.  Tommy did it instinctively because Batman did.  Batman’s ability was Tommy’s ability.  Every firing synapse, every cell of his body… 

But ability wasn’t… it wasn’t connected to the moral fiber of a person.  It required raw gifts like intelligence and a healthy body, certainly, but after that it was a function of hard work, discipline, determination and will.  The kind of person who used their gifts to break the law rather than earn a living in an honest way, according to the rules society established, would hardly have the wherewithal to—

What I do is not legal, he thought suddenly. 

He awoke with a jolt.  He sat up in bed and snatched the thought-echo of the fast-receding dream. 

He went to the washroom and splashed his face with water, then considered his reflection.

Trespassing, breaking and entering, assault, intimidation… vigilantism.  None of it was legal.  He did it anyway.  He did what he wanted, what he felt he needed to do to make his life work, even though society decided it was wrong and made laws against it.

And he certainly didn’t consider himself less than people who didn’t.  Less than— (What were the words Catwoman used?) —law enforcement and the law abiding.

So it… it should be possible to portray Tommy fairly and still endow him with all his ability and insight. 

It should… Even though he was a criminal… He should be able to give Thomas Coronet “his best,” as Selina put it.

Even though he was a criminal. 

It was perfectly possible, it would just take practice. 

With some agitation, he went to the living room and picked up a stick of incense, then paused as he reached for a box of matches from a famous Japanese restaurant.  He returned to the bedroom and fished a similar box from his pocket, this one from the Iceberg Lounge.  Symbols were where you made them, after all, just like Selina’s agnostic nod to beginner’s luck

He went into the exercise room, bypassed the weights, and he settled in the center, assuming the lotus position and lighting his stick of sandalwood.  He focused on his breathing as he watched the wispy thread of smoke rise from the stick. 

There had been false starts before.  And many, many new dojos, new sensei, new disciplines.  He would perform a studied meditation to clear his mind and start over, and when he was done, he would begin his first day as Thomas Coronet 2.0. 

 

Tommy’s day officially began when he extracted an odd little device from a kitchen drawer, along with a pair of specialized needle-nose pliers.  The strange object covered in gears was the Swiss-made, 13-jewel time lock for a Zurich bank vault.  With the pliers, he gave a protruding rod a quarter twist, and the mechanism began to tick.  He stared for a moment, admiring the beautiful precision of the topmost gears making their clockwork music.  It was the score to which he would prepare his breakfast: two raw eggs mixed in white rice with natto, an apple, and a pot of sencha—light, nutritious, and virtually identical to the breakfast Bruce himself had eaten training in Tokyo, so he could hardly be accused of making Tommy ‘inferior’ on that count.  (Damn her.)

While the tea steeped and the rice maker did its thing, he took a tension wrench, a half-diamond pick and a clear master lock from the drawer and proceeded to pick it a half dozen times until his breakfast was ready.  While he ate, he perused a few news stories which—in his expert opinion as a detective and criminologist—were as likely to come up on Batman’s feed and Tommy Coronet’s:

Her Majesty the Queen had toured the new National Cyber Security Centre in London, and he absorbed every detail about that facility rather than simply noting her jewelry.  For he was certainly not the kind of limited, inferior intellect who would focus only on the triple string of pearls, Queen Mary’s button pearl earrings, and the round Cambridge Emerald brooch without also understanding every nuance of the operational nerve center in Great Britain’s fight against cyber-attacks.  (Damn her.) 

Damn her. 

Why was this so hard?  She was right.  About Tommy, about all of it.  She was right.  If he could see that, why couldn’t he go all in?  Do what needed to be done and do it without compromise—and without taking petty little shots every step of the way? 

The next story was the burglary of a London warehouse where thieves had absconded with $2.5 million worth of rare books, 160 books in total, including a copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus, dating from 1566 and worth over a quarter of a million. 

Bruce’s psyche screamed trying to organize the competing analyses in his mind.  His core, his instincts—Batman—was ferociously highlighting all the details that could ultimately identify the thieves: the warehouse was near Heathrow, the books on their way to a book fair in California.  That wasn’t like hitting a jewelry store with a vault full of diamonds every day of the year.  The thieves had specific, insider knowledge, right down to the individual crates which contained the most valuable works. 

At the same time, Tommy seized on the mechanics of the crime: a trio of thieves (so two accomplices needed and a three-way split) used glass cutters to come in through the skylight, evading motion detectors.  They rappelled forty feet, opened six specific containers and, according to one theory of the crime, spent “hours” selecting the specific items they were after. 

His inner Selina throbbed at the quotes from a police “expert” in art recovery whose logic was painfully hard to grasp.  The pinhead said the books would be impossible to fence and speculated that there must be a collector behind it, amassing a fabulous collection.  He thought the books might be cut up so their illustrations might be “traded in the art market.”  He compared the heist to the movie Goodfellas.  He compared the loot with “Picassos, Rembrandts and gold bars.”  As both a criminal and a crimefighter, there was a daunting amount of wrong-headed thinking to catalog.

The thieves knew which crates to open, no others were touched, so of course they didn’t spend hours sifting to select their loot; the notion was absurd. They had the bulk of their haul in the four most valuable works—in addition to Copernicus, there were 16th century volumes by Dante, da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton—and they knew exactly where those were.  So the bulk of the 160 books taken was a blind.  The stolen books were the property of three different dealers, so it was possible one of them was involved.  One or more of the six crates could have been random, creating the effect of a larger targeted heist to conceal only one act of insurance fraud.  It could also be one acquisition of one desired piece with the others taken to pay off accomplices…

Even his inner Alfred added to the mental chaos, noting that Copernicus brought a complete and terrifying reversal of the most basic aspects of human thinking.  Everyone knew the Earth was the center of everything, that God had placed man at the center of His creation, and to entertain for a moment the possibility that it might be the other way around was to face the abyss.  Men who believed they knew everything about their world and how it worked faced with the possibility that they were wrong in every detail… 

Aspirin.  The simple act of eating breakfast had left him with a whopping headache, and if there was one thing Bruce hated it was going into his morning workout with a throbbing head.  He left the dirty dishes on the table as he stalked off to the weight room.  It was not an auspicious beginning for Tommy 2.0.

 

“Batman would be able to find me.  When Tommy can, he’ll be worth my time.”

One thing Bruce learned in the dojo that had served the playboy in dealing with women as much as the crimefighter dealing with theme rogues: Some things are meant to be taken literally and some have a greater meaning which focusing on the literal will only obscure.  Instinct was the only way to know the difference.  A guess could lead to a cracked rib or a broken bone, so instinct developed quickly.  And instinct said the task was not to find Selina but to make Tommy worthy of the her instruction.

He wasn’t meant to be actively looking for her; he was meant to be living his life as Coronet and if he got it right, somehow, in the realm of criminal superstition and/or feline logic, there she would be.  So the logical thing was to pick up where the lesson left off.  The Iceberg had brought him Cobblepot as a fencing and smuggling connection, and a lead on no-questions off-shore banking…

The Ottoman Union Bank was one of the stranger patches of Little Odessa.  An older building, its rundown façade might have once been impressive: an ornate gate over the doors, a brass name plate on a column next to that, like the ones discreetly announcing a law office or a medical practice.  The interior was nothing remarkable, just an ordinary suburban bank—until he signed the book at the unattended reception desk.  He was then approached by a statuesque blonde, unnaturally thin and showing too much cleavage for a place of business.  She was either a model doing a photoshoot as a bank teller or one of the Russians’ whores who’d been promoted.  He said he wanted to open an account and dropped Ilya’s name, and she showed him to a back office like a stewardess in a Bond film.  He half-expected the hackneyed ‘If there's anything else you want. Anything at all…’ as she opened the door to the richly appointed office. 

In place of the come-on, he was offered coffee from a silver Turkish pot.  It, like the carved paneling, mahogany desk and Peshawar rug seemed out of place in the small room.  There was also a sticky sweet roll covered in black sesame seeds and chopped pistachios.  Superficially, it was like any other business offering refreshment to a client while he waited, but given the criminal nature of this business, there was an unshakable echo of Ra’s al Ghul’s cloying hospitality. 

The banker himself, a Mr. Sadik, did nothing to lessen the impression.  He was practically a caricature: freakish salt-and-pepper curls and a thick mustache, an expensive but ill-fitting suit, a voracious smile showing too many teeth, and a hungry enthusiasm for particular words relating to the proposed account.  “Excellent” and “It’s a pleasure” were on his lips constantly as they discussed the details of Tommy’s deposits, and with each repetition his eyes shown like a glutton’s before a thick, juicy steak.

The performance did convey what the Ottoman Bank really offered.  Few depositors had accounts there for anything but a debit card that drew from a local bank rather than an offshore one.  The Ottoman acted as your introduction setting up these offshore accounts, and Mr. Sadik was clearly not particular about the quality of your passport and other documents.  Any briefcase of cash, or in Tommy’s case bearer bonds, held his attention so that he barely glanced at the other paperwork.

Tommy left with his ‘deposit’ spread over three accounts in the British Virgin Islands, Belize and Seychelles, having found the minimum deposits in Switzerland and Luxembourg too high (too high to entrust to Sadik and the Ottoman Bank, in any case) and the Cayman Islands too complicated to decide on the spur of the moment.  He took some literature and promised to consider an alternative distribution once he had a chance to study them.  Then he rushed out to enjoy a clean breath of air that didn’t reek of Turkish coffee and a Russian whore’s perfume.

Well… a clean breath of air for Brooklyn. 

It was Tommy Coronet’s first time in Brooklyn and Bruce considered his options.  Perhaps he’d want to view the cluster of warehouses owned by Fredericka Mandelbaum, a 19th century, Prussian-born fence who made them available to the godfather of modern burglary: George Leonidas Leslie.  The man who pioneered the training grounds seen in Hollywood movies, building full-scale copies of banks and other targets right down to the furniture that might get in the way, where his crew could… could rehearse their crimes... buying black market copies of private safes and installing them all like… like a burglar’s showroom… 

His internal monologue ran down to nothing as he felt he was being stared at.  He glanced around, but no pair of hostile eyes were watching.  As he walked back to his car, he realized it was that inner-Selina glaring.  The idea of sightseeing like some kind of criminal tourist was wrong—tragically wrong.  He had to stop making ‘criminal’ the prevailing thought in finding Tommy’s character.  He was new to Gotham and he was in Brooklyn.  What would be the logical thing to do, considering it was too early for pizza?

He fished in his pocket and pulled out the brochure for Crispin Fine Art Storage.  It wasn’t the kind of place that took walk-ins, but… he took out his phone.  He first considered being his own PA, but at the last second he decided—or perhaps that inner Selina suggested—he should get in the habit of keeping Bruce Wayne closer to the surface. 

“Thomas Coronet,” he announced smoothly.  “I’ve just flown in from London and it seems my PA dropped the ball arranging an appointment.  I know it’s awfully short notice, but if one of your sales associates could accommodate me…”

Thirty minutes later, he was pulling into an industrial area on the East River that was, at a glance, the least likely spot in Gotham to contain a treasure trove—or 140 treasure troves—of priceless art.

 

The Crispin Storage Facility was a warehouse built in 1913 as part of the Gotham Dock Company’s sprawling network.  Almost two hundred warehouses once spread over thirty-nine piers; today the Crispin building was one of two that remained.  Its sister stood beside it: gutted, derelict and shrouded in black netting, while it gleamed as her modernized, ultra-high security twin.  The only possible reason Two-Face had never hit it was that he didn’t know about it, and Batman kept his files up to date preparing for the day he found out.  He patrolled the area whenever Two-Face was active and always checked the derelict shell as a likely spot for a hideout.

It made the tour, from a sales associate called Samantha Lowell, the most productive exercise since the extraordinary morning in Kyoto when he had a breakthrough, learning to discard the technique he wanted to work on and letting instinct guide his body through whatever moves the fight required.

Thanks to Two-Face, he’d already studied the building.  The layout, climate controls and security were all familiar.  That allowed him to approach something completely new to Tommy while giving it the full benefit of Batman’s intellect and expertise—and while maintaining a persona similar to Bruce Wayne.  He’d gone in thinking it would be baptism of fire, but he came out feeling… relaxed. 

It was easy.  Like that day in Kyoto, he had just… done it.  Samantha was an attractive woman.  Tommy was pretending to be a man very much like Wayne.  The habits of a hundred meetings with bimbos prompted that smile, the playboy charm.  Tommy was a criminal, a con man, his instinct would be to ingratiate himself, he would flirt…  But it didn’t feel right.  So he simply… didn’t.  He let instinct stop him as he stretched out his hand and he shook her hand with an ordinary smile he would bring to any new acquaintance.   Almost a half-minute later, the reason caught up with him: The playboy was meant to be remembered, and he wouldn’t want that.  Tommy was presenting ‘a man like Wayne’ only in that he was rich enough to be a likely Crispin’s customer.  The slightly older, vaguely West Coast version of his business persona that he’d dropped into by default was forgettably dull, inconspicuous… Just perfect. 

Behind that pleasant façade, his focus split to three fronts.  There was the security, of course.  Guards monitoring the extensive electronic surveillance 24/7, that surveillance consisting of high resolution CCTV, motion sensors, intruder alarms and biometric scanners… Exactly what was to be expected with the type of art displayed in World Class Museums, apart from the European ones cutting corners. 

While a part of his mind checked off boxes and confirmed that there were no surprises on the security front, another began logging vulnerabilities—potential ones, at least—from all the climate controls.  All he had to do was appear bored by the security as something to be taken for granted with the service they were offering, but be crucially interested in the archival and preservation standards.  Like any salesman, Ms. Lowell played to the customer’s preferences.  Once he started asking questions, she pointed out all the visible mechanisms for the humidity and temperature controls that maintained a constant 70-degrees with 50 percent relative humidity.  She boasted of the air filtration system constantly filtering impurities and exceeding even the American Museum Association’s standards.  Tommy smiled to himself.  Had she but known it, Ms. Lowell was describing dozens of access points (for maintenance men to change filters), pipes and power going to heating and cooling units, and a host of options for the thinking burglar to consider.

A third part of his mind analyzed the staff he was able to see.  Small impoverished museums were more likely to skimp on poorly vetted guards, but even so, well-funded didn’t always mean well-trained.  The guards he saw, however, had the bearing (and in several cases, the haircuts) of ex-military.  As for Ms. Lowell, well, she had almost certainly changed her name.  The Lowell was a boutique hotel on the Upper East Side that underwent a conspicuous renovation six years ago, and around her neck she wore the particular setting popular at Tiffany that year for divorcées having the diamonds from their engagement rings reset.  So most likely divorced, not wanting to keep her husband’s name or return to her own, and given the extremely upscale nature of the art market… Lowell.  A name change meant extra scrutiny during a background check—and here she was, so she’d clearly passed.  It was a lot of supposition, but signs pointed to extremely good screening.  He was unlikely to find a bad apple among the Crispin staff…  

The tour was so satisfactory, Batman realized why this seemingly irresistible target had never been hit by a burglar capable of pulling it off.  He realized at the same moment Tommy decided to become a customer rather than casing the place as a thief.  The discretion afforded through their self-managed units went beyond privacy into the kind of institutional force field you’d normally have to go to Switzerland to obtain.  No one outside of the facility staff—not even in other parts of the Crispin organization—would ever know your identity, handle what you had stored, know what it was or have access.  You could theoretically store artwork, jewelry or furniture stolen from Crispin within their own warehouse.  You were shielded from other clients too, a feature he’d seen in action as he deduced from security and logistics cues that he was being kept safely off the path of a visiting client who had entered the building twenty minutes into his tour, accompanied by one or possibly two guests, on their way to one of the private viewing rooms.

A high-end thief anywhere in the North Eastern U.S. would be an absolute fool not to have a storage space here.

if Gotham wasn’t Batman’s city, his alter-ego added swiftly. 

But where he once would have puffed Tommy up with fatal arrogance at that thought, he now indulged in the briefest lip-twitch.  Thomas Coronet was, after all, the one thief in all the world who didn’t have to worry about Batman.

As the twitch gave way to a laugh (that Bruce recognized as Selina’s), he realized he was giddy.  He was breathing deeper, doing it naturally without effort.  The air felt cooler, crisper—even if it didn’t smell any better.  He felt great. 

He could simply do this.  It was easy. 

It was suddenly hard to see why he ever had trouble.  It was hard to imagine not having those instincts, needing to think about what to do, how to act, and what to think.

He decided to double down on the hunting trip-turned-stash-acquisition and get acquainted with the neighborhood.  A smart thief planning to keep incriminating items in Crispin’s Storage would certainly analyze the area for vulnerabilities just as Bruce did for satellite caves and safe houses.  He decided to start with Batman’s preferred perch on the roof of the derelict twin.

Daylight offered a better view than his usual mid-patrol visits, and he looked out into the neighborhood beyond the gated compound: the school bus depot, an auto mechanic, fire house, plumbing supply, the odd warehouse for rent in a sea of occupied industrial spaces…  Behind the Crispin’s gate, a covered loading dock, the considerable external supports for the various security and fire suppression systems… His head whipped back to the surrounding streets.  Ms. Lowell had stressed the on-site protections, but she’d also mentioned the hyper-responsiveness of the Gotham police and fire department.  Bruce-Tommy’s lip twitched as he considered the proximity of the fire house—and that other space for rent. 

A small building on the corner across the street… but enjoying that same hypervigilant police and fire protection because of its proximity to the Crispin building…

A small building—yet far larger than the storage space he was considering—available for a price right on the opposite corner, on the same micro-grid.  It shared the same water and electric as well as the same fire and police.  Its tenant would have legitimate access to all sorts of useful information.  He copied the phone number for the rental agent and started to climb down to get a closer look, when the memory hit like a bullet as he neared the edge of the roof.  There was once a cat lair in this neighborhood

There was once a cat lair in this neighborhood. 

It was years ago, long before F. Miller and a fabricated East End past the made her prickly on the subject, but even then it was a discrepancy.  The grungy industrial neighborhood didn’t seem like Catwoman’s style. 

It was hardly a mystery worth thinking about.  If he noted it at all, it was a single sentence in a forgotten log.  But if she was setting up that lair shortly after Crispin bought the building, just as they were beginning the renovations...

He took a deep breath and went in search of the one-time cat lair.  As he walked, he accessed the log and checked the dates on his phone.  The timing checked out.  Catwoman would have acquired her little piece of Red Hook just as plans were finalized for the Crispin warehouse.  She would have been on paper as a part of the neighborhood impacted by the changes, received those notices nobody reads, invited to the open zoning board meetings nobody ever goes to.  What had looked like nothing but “a cat lair” might have been her key to unlock all the secrets of the Crispin building through their use of the city’s infrastructure.

He came to a stop before an ugly brick building with no signage, painted white.  It was dark gray when he’d seen it as a cat lair, and there had been a sign for custom glass work or something of the kind… 

He looked around at the surrounding rooftops, trying to remember which he’d used to surveil before entering… when he felt a presence behind him.

“That was a lot faster than I expected,” Selina cooed—and she handed him a cup of coffee. 

“Really?  It looks like you were expecting me,” Bruce said, inspecting the cup with the name of a bodega down the street.

“I meant I didn’t expect you today,” she said, pushing past him to open the door.  “I’d put a sensor on your roof.  The ugly dying-to-be-a-Two-Face-hideout across from Crispin.  It’s the tallest building for miles, no other structure mars the view, the obvious perch when you decided to get serious about this neighborhood.  I just didn’t think it would be until Friday or Saturday.  Just like old times,” she said, running her nails lightly across his chest where the bat emblem would be.  “Kitty gets settled in with a week’s reading material, and you show up days ahead of schedule.  When the roof alarm buzzed, I figured I had half an hour until you found me here.  That wasn’t enough time to bring lunch, but enough to greet you with coffee.”

“Better than the panther,” Bruce muttered, following her inside to the long, dark hallway where a vicious black jaguar greeted him on his previous visit.

“Hm?” Selina asked innocently, and rather than repeating the remark, Bruce said he never realized she had kept the place. 

Selina said she never used it since building the Catitat but it was always useful to have ‘a workshop.’  And that concluded the preliminaries.  Selina looked at him expectantly.

“You were right.  My approach to Coronet was flawed,” he said.  “It’s been corrected.”

“Meow.”

“Don’t meow yet,” he warned.  “You said you weren’t expecting me to catch up with you for a few days.  Let’s pretend I didn’t.  I’d like to work on a few things on my own.  Drill it in.”

“I’m not sure I like the sound of this,” Selina began, but before the words were out of her mouth, playboy charm was engaged.  Bruce had taken her hand, lifted it to his lips and then with a merciless combo of Bat-gravel and Bruce’s piercing blue eyes, assured her that he knew what he was doing.

Oh this is going to be bad, she thought.  For her, for Gotham, for somebody.  But she knew better than anyone that there was little that could be done once Batman had made a decision.

“How much time do you need?” she asked with a feline edge that said this isn’t surrender, it’s giving you enough yarn to get yourself into a terrible tangle.

“Five days should do it, if you’ll do me one favor.”

 

Tommy arrived home, activated his new alarm with a touch to the fingerprint pad, and read the prompt on the slim LED screen over the keypad. 

Apple Tree No 1…

It was one of the Klimt paintings recovered after the most horrific art theft in history: the Nazi raiding of private collections throughout World War II.  Once restored to the family, it had been sold at auction as Lot 53… Tommy typed in 53 and the hyphen automatically appeared on the screen after the numbers.  Lot 53, Gustave Klimt’s Apple Tree No 1 was marked down to bidder number 1762… He typed in those digits and then unlocked his door in the usual way. 

In the foyer, 53-1762 was lit on the screen of the second keypad as a second prompt cycled through the symbols for Euros, American Dollars, Hong Kong Dollars, Japanese Yen, Swiss Francs, and finally came up on the British Pound.  He entered the purchase price in that currency and grunted.  The system was disarmed. 

He was gladder than ever that he’d kept his favorite feature of the satellite cave installation.  He opened the rock crystal snuff box, pushed a recessed button in the lid, and the wall with A Boy Bringing Bread by Pieter de Hooch slid into a recess hidden by the painting, revealing an enormous plasma touch screen. 

“VOXRec Initialize voiceprint Thomas Coronet,” he ordered, then he paused.  “Scratch that.  Initialize voiceprint Thomas… Pearl.  Make primary.  Download VOX command menu and presets from main computer.  Purge all preinstalled menus and defaults.  Display biographical information: Hobbs, Barry.  Google Earth, satellite photos and critical property data: Hobbs Trust Building, 42nd Street.  Financial Overview, Paulson Hobbs Wealth Management…”

To be continued…
 

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