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Chapter 4: Outbreak

The first cases came the next day. By midday, the hospitals in Gotham were bringing in dozens of reports. Weakness, debilitation, strenuous breathing, and swollen lymph nodes…

Bruce hadn’t surfaced, so I was in the kitchen, chatting with Alfred while he prepared lunch. We heard it first over an old-fashioned radio Alfred sometimes turned on while he worked. He had a great love of peace and silence, it was true, but when he was alone or in an informal environment Alfred frequently read books and journals, listened to the radio, or watched those news networks he considered to have retained some dignity and truth in an age where the media were ‘increasingly sustaining themselves on sensationalism and distortion’. Anyone who thought a butler by definition was so insular that he was only concerned with the world of the household he tended to had never really known one. I’d always found Alfred to be as well-informed as he was well-educated, and he made every effort to keep tabs on the world at large, not only for his own sake, but for the effect it had on Master Bruce and his work – his day job and his night.

We were talking about the Catitat felines and the deplorable state of worldwide poaching, when Alfred interrupted me with a quiet “Miss Selina” and reached past me to turn the volume up. As the report droned on and the smiles faded from our faces, Alfred silently opened the fridge and slid the antipasto platter he’d been preparing onto the second shelf. I nodded at him gratefully, and headed straight for the cave, with those two awful words repeating over and over in my head.

Black Plague.

Bruce was staring at the console with a hard, unwavering glare when I came in. It was unusual for him to be down in the cave this much in the daylight hours - but this wasn’t the usual case. I watched his face, all those little twitches along the jaw and between the brows - the sign of that great steel-trap mind gnawing away at a problem. Dead serious. Dead sexy.

If only I was in the mood to enjoy it.

“Bruce.” I murmured - “I checked the Rogue grapevine, Jonathan’s out, some rich Ukrainian second cousin offered him board and a job.”

“Where. When.” Bruce graveled, still staring at the lab reports he’d copied from the quarantine office - the only surviving results of the tests on the captured rats.

I scowled at him, but I resisted the urge to prop my booted toe against the back of his caped shoulders. He wasn’t being a Bat-jerk; he was focused, committed, and today he had a damn good reason. Under all that intensity he was just as scared as I was.

That was one of the things that very few people knew about Batman. It was obvious, really, but nobody really saw it save myself, Alfred, and the Bat-family. Sometimes even we forgot, got lost in awe of him and missed the vulnerability revealed, not obscured, by that raging black mask.

Someone who used fear so powerfully was doing so not because he was immune to it but because he was driven by it. Not just by the echoes of the fear of that horrible night that took his happy life away, but by the fear he felt every time Joker broke out of Arkham, every time an Oracom alert came up, every time he was on patrol and heard a gunshot or someone scream in an alley. The fear that if he failed, if he slipped, if he compromised, bad things would happen, people would get hurt and people would die.

Sometimes he did slip. Sometimes people did die. Frankly, I would never, ever consider any of those deaths to be on Batman’s head. He did everything humanly possible and plenty of things that shouldn’t be to save people and stop crime. But I knew that, when it happened, he took that weight anyway.

“You might want to look at me when you’re grunting at me, honey.” I chided him gently. “It’s the Danesti Institute for Botanical Research and Environmental Resources. Crane's been hired as a research chemist.” I normally wouldn’t have looked into it that deeply, but Bruce needed the headspace, and though it still vaguely grated on me to be running errands for the Batman, I couldn’t pretend this was about us. This was someone ramming a 40,000 deadweight tonne cargo freighter full of plague rats into Gotham harbor. It was ugly already and going to get uglier by the day, and we were, for once, entirely on the same side of the moral soccer team. This had to be stopped and Bruce needed me.

Something about it bothered me. The whole thing. It was strikingly familiar, reminding me of something that felt like it should have been blitheringly obvious but was just out of reach. I hated déjà vu. And oddly enough, I had the impression that Bruce under the cowl was fighting that same sense of maddening familiarity.

“It’s not enough.” he graveled, but it ended in a sigh.

“I’m sorry, Bruce. I didn’t really get time to look into it deeper.”

“The plague,” he said, distractedly - “It doesn’t fit. Bubonic Plague is easily cured in the modern industrialized world. There won’t be an epidemic out of this. It’s just not enough, it’s pointless. It won’t achieve anything. If it was Ebola, S.A.R.S, something that’s made recent headlines, something that would do more than just spread panic…”

He’d already ruled out Scarecrow as the master architect, though he seemed to think he might still have a hand in it somewhere. That meant we needed to expand our options.

“Maybe we’re dealing with someone new. An outsider? Maybe an old-world hairdo like Ra’s who doesn’t keep up with the times?”

Bat-glare. I knew he didn’t like it when I mocked his feared, immortal nemesis, which was precisely why I did it. Ra’s was a hairdo and he should damn well know it.

“No, Selina. The destruction of the logs, the break-in at the lab, the scuttling of the ship. Each event was timed to leave the investigators with the information the perpetrator wanted them to have, and nothing more. That suggests a familiarity with operational procedures, or someone who did his - or her - homework.”

“’Her’, huh?” I couldn’t hold back the smirk. “Well you’re not thinking of Harley or Roxy Rocket so I think this is about the part where I tell you that Danesti Botanical Institute is where Pammy does her garden shopping.”

“……..”

“You can thank me anytime. Preferably when this is all wrapped up and you’ve got time to thank me properly.”

“………”

Seriously, a nice dinner and a warm bubble bath for two would do me just as well as a shopping trip to Paris.”

“………”

Still no answer. I couldn’t figure out if he was going to smile or scowl. “Woof?”

Then he was out of his chair, his eyes were smouldering right before my own, and he touched my chin with a fingertip as he drew close.

“I promise, Kitten.” He rumbled, and pressed his lips to mine. The moment was perfectly delicious. Naturally, Psychobat had to ruin it.

“You should go have a prowl.” He murmured as he drew away, and gave a cocky wink that would’ve been par for the course for the Fop, but was utterly bizarre in the cape and cowl. “I’ll handle the detective work from here. Don’t wait up.” He paused, and added more seriously – “No, not a prowl. A holiday. Head out to the Catitat, take the Gatta for a run. On second thought, Lois and Clark could use the company. Take Alfred with you, Wayne One to Metropolis. Just until this has blown over.”

I froze. Oh he did not just - Dismissed? It didn’t sound like Psychobat speaking, but the subtext was there. He was sending the little lady out of harm’s way so he could concentrate on his Serious Business. Ignoring the fact that I’d brought him vital intel, brainstormed the case with him, that I was offering, without even being asked, to work with him side by side on this one. Ignoring that I had real skills and resources that I was laying on the table for him to use, no strings attached. Totally ignoring the fact that I was Catwoman.

He didn’t mean it that way, of course. I could understand his need to be free of any and all distractions to focus on this case, and a biological threat like the Plague could hit anyone regardless of their capabilities. He was worried about me and he wanted me to be safe. It was the way he worded it, the subtle emphasis on the word detective more so than the tired excuses to get me out of town, which grated on my nerves. Still, I wasn’t going to turn it into some childish spat or trudge out the old Cat-Bat animosity. The case was too serious for that. There was a much more constructive way to prove to him that the World’s Greatest Detective could use my help.

I smiled and nodded. “That’s sweet of you, honey, but I’m not going to skip town just so you can breathe easier, plague or no plague.” Just enough Cattitude to let him know I was offended without clueing him in too soon to how deeply. I turned and strolled out of the cave, letting him overhear my words just as I slipped out -

“A prowl, though. I think I could go for that.”

I took that prowl later. I needed it. Working with Bruce was great and I had to admit that being able to get that close to all that Bat-intensity without necessarily needing stitches for it like the old days was yummy. The detective work and clue-chasing was growing on me, like a ball of intellectual yarn just waiting to be pounced on and batted at until it unraveled. Finally, we had a case we could work on together without treading on Catwoman’s independence or my connections with the Rogues in the process. It had me worked up, excited, ready to do business with Batman that felt like we were partners, not as if I was temping as a surrogate Bat-operative, or worse, his pet spy in the enemy ranks.

Then he’d brushed me off. Don’t wait up. Go to Metropolis with Alfred. It was sweet of him to want to protect the people he cared about, but I wasn’t scared of catching the Plague, and he’d gone about it the wrong way.

I was a smart woman. I might not be Batman’s equal at detective work the way I matched him - or outmatched him, let’s be frank - in other areas, like stealth, breaking and entering, and kicking his gorgeous butt on a rooftop at midnight, but I was enough on par with him to follow his trains of thought (with the possible exception of excessive science-geek-babble). I had insights that wouldn’t necessarily occur to him, and he appreciated them. That kiss, the love and admiration in his eyes, had proven it. Why had he immediately gone on to try to cut me out again?

Kitty wasn’t happy, and she had an answer to it. I’d strike out on my own, and find out what was really going on and who was behind it before Batman did. I’ll admit it was a little petulant. But if I beat him to the punch, it would prove my point and it would save valuable time and energy for Bruce that might, in turn, save lives. Win-Win situation, really.

But it was still irritatingly close to being ‘crime-fighting’, and Catwoman’s tolerance for being cooped up in a guano-smelling cave tapping at a keyboard while scowling intensely was thinner than the Bat’s. Cats are, of course, curious, but we like to be active about it. All that meticulous planning isn’t feline at all. We snoop, we prowl, we spy, we play it by ear, we butt our little wet noses in where they shouldn’t be and we look damn good doing it. The Egyptians were clued into the fact that cats are great big know-it-alls and they also knew that unlike owls and foxes and all those other creatures that are supposed to be mysteriously wise and clever, we knew things because we bothered to go sniff them out first-hand.

By the time Oracle and Batman had given themselves eyestrain discerning between them that the several hundred tons of topsoil had been delivered to several different companies - Drachenskind Pharmaceuticals, Corvinus research laboratories, Danesti botanical institute, White Knight industrial supplies - and that they were all owned by offshore interests, many of them European, with obscure ties to aristocracy - Catwoman had enjoyed a pleasant chat with a plump, talkative delivery supervisor who turned out to be a huge fan of the Cat Tales show, observed a very in-depth conversation between a pretty blonde lab technician and her cheeky college-age intern from the comfort of the outside of their tenth storey window, and had an even more cheerful chat with a sleazy black-market goods courier, whom she had persuaded with her whip around his neck and her boot in his ribs to tell her everything he didn't know.

From these I’d gleaned that Drachenskind was owned by someone named Graf Ordog, Corvinus by a Marquis DeLaempri, Danesti by a guy named Volkoslak. He was Russian or Serbian as far as any of his employees knew. White Knight was run by a poorly-known Arabian sheik named Al-Daruc. Nobody working at any of the companies had ever met their employers in person, which was understandable, as they were all based overseas.

That was where it went suddenly cold. All of them had been in business for between ten and twenty years. Legitimate business, even the sales to Pammy were on the books. They weren’t covers for anything. They had no connection to anything illegal whatsoever, not so much as a management exec with gambling debts.

The only thing they had in common was the clue - they’d all been receiving shipments of soil samples from Eastern Europe for several months now. Those shipments hadn’t been used on site, however. They’d been sent to the various companies, signed off on, and picked up by deliverymen to be sent, allegedly, to a selection of warehouses. Only nobody at Corvinus, Drachenskind or the others knew the addresses. None of them had ever seen the stock after that, or visited the storage places in person. And I couldn’t find a warehouse in town that had anything resembling Eastern European soil samples stored there.

Again, the twinge of familiarity. It was bugging the hell out of me. What was I missing?

The annoyance was starting to eat away at the glow of fun from the evening’s play. And as much as it would make me smile to be able to bounce back into the Batcave and triumphantly drop all this fresh evidence into Bruce’s lap, there was every likelihood he and Oracle would have come this far between them and then it’d be his turn to be smug. I couldn’t have that. I needed a trump card before I could go to him. I needed to know exactly what Pammy - or whoever - was up to, before he did.

I stared at the names of companies again. Drachenskind was German for something like ‘Dragon’s child’ and Corvinus - Latin for ‘crow’, and Crane was out again. It was Halloween. Jonathan hadn’t sent his invite, Bruce hadn’t found any evidence he was planning anything, and he was out now…and working for Danesti.

God damnit.

White Knight didn’t ring any bells, unless it was meant to be the opposite of Dark Knight. Or an obscure winter reference and Freeze was tangled in this. Freeze? Now I was really grasping at straws.

Pammy wouldn’t work with any of them closely. She was far too uppity and selfish, and they were all male, and unlikely to slip up and let her green them into servitude. And if she had them greened, they wouldn’t have the mental faculties to organize something of this complexity. None of this stuff had any of her hallmarks - but Danesti, she was involved with them, so was Scarecrow, and now the botanical supplies…

Sighing, I turned to the names of the employers themselves. Ordog, Volkoslak - I didn’t know what those meant. Russian, Romanian, Czech? DeLaempri sounded French, but wasn’t, and I had no idea where the Arab sheik could possibly fit. The only thing that connected them were those boxes of earth.

Something clicked.

I found myself pressing my cell phone to my ear.

:::What is at home in darkness but basks in firelight, and calls only when she has something to say?:::

:::Meow. Hi Eddie.:::

:::It’s good to hear your voice, Selina. Crane’s out.:::

:::I heard. Wanna have a little pre-Halloween get together to take your mind off it?:::

:::Riddle me this: if a black cat brings bad luck, does a purple cat bring good?.:::

:::You’re about to find out.:::

Pamela Isley stalked down the hall of Danesti Institute for Botanical Research and Environmental Resources. It was one of the few truly ‘green’ laboratories in Gotham, at least by Pamela’s definition, because it supported research into genetic enhancements for plants - strengthening them against parasites and pollution, trying to isolate the genes for quick growth to ensure trees that would swiftly populate the lands grievously stripped by the forestry industry. That kind of work would never be preferable to cutting out the human infection at its source, but it would help. So, she had taken interest. She had purchased from them. They did not know to what use she had put their botanical specimens - they did not need to know.

It was most like a Goddess, she decided, to elect when and to whom to impart wisdom and knowledge.

But now, as she had come for her purchase, the owner of the laboratory, apparently visiting from overseas, wished to see her. Why he had invited her to join him in his office was unknown; perhaps this man - though he was just a man - shared her vision of a world where flora would no longer be brutalized by the stupid and the greedy. Perhaps that was the reason for his magnanimous choice of a research field - perhaps he would recognize her for the authority she was, and offer himself and his resources to further her goals. If she wanted to, of course, she could make him see that anyway -

Starbucks was risky simply because it was public, and with the Black Plague apparently striking Gotham, anywhere public suddenly felt dangerous and exposed. The news had broken by evening and there were few people on the streets, and those who were out were wearing white surgical masks - which might help with the pneumonic variant, but would hardly protect them from plague fleas.

But Starbucks, though nearly empty, was where Eddie and I sat, sipping our coffees, while the girl behind the counter watched us nervously.

“YES, WAR FROZE CREVICE.”

“Eddie, c’mon, it’s been a long day.”

He chuckled. “Selina, I just can’t see it. Ivy might tolerate Freeze but she can’t stand Scarecrow, and he wouldn’t work with someone who was immune to his fear toxin.”

“He didn’t try did he?!”

“Oh he did. Once. As you can imagine, it was once only.”

“Twit.” I sighed over my coffee - “But, seriously, Eddie, we’re in trouble here. There has to be something linking all these companies and we're running out of time to find out what.”

“Don’t you feel bad that we’re essentially meddling in what is probably the biggest rogue scheme in three years running?”

“I would, if it weren't going way the hell too far - spreading a contagion in Gotham city? That killed a third of Europe the last time it was loose? Who the hell do they think they are?”

Eddie bit his lip on a thought that was probably you're sounding like him, you know, because it would do far more harm than good. I knew what he was thinking, but I didn’t call him on it. This time.

His finger tapped against his lip. “What about the shipping company?”

“Hunyadi international shipping. Black Sea, departed from Varna.”

“Varna.”

“Got something?”

Eddie narrowed his eyes. He tapped his fingertip on the list of names laid on the table, with a ring of brown coffee slowly spreading to stain it. “...”

Then he started laughing. It was a strange, sickened little sound. “Oh that's just too ridiculous.”

“What?”

“A derelict ship, bound from Eastern Europe through an ominous thunderstorm, crashes dramatically into the harbour, nobody on board, bearing a mysterious cargo of earth-filled boxes and pestilent rats...madness, death and darkness spread in its wake. Does this sound familiar?”

“Yes, and that's what's been driving me furniture-scratching mad. It sounds like some corny old horror flick-”

A thought started congealing in my head even as Eddie, hysterical smirk in place, pulled out a pair of scissors with a flourish and started furiously snipping at the paper. I watched, curiously, as he began to rearrange the letters.

I had it almost as soon as he began.

L-A-E-M-P-R-I

A-L-D-A-R-U-C

I sucked in a breath.

“You are fucking kidding me.”

She found him sitting in the dark. There was no-one else in the building at this hour; no secretaries to serve him coffee, no research staff puttering around in their labcoats. Just him, sitting in his office, behind the desk, with all the lights off.

“Good evening, Ms Isley.”

The voice was a silken baritone with a delicious, if very faint accent that masked a kind of metallic harshness just below it. Pamela felt a tingle pass up her spine - something that very, very rarely came over her in a man's presence. It was something she felt last clasped in Harvey's arms, staring into the ruined beauty of his face -

A scowl spoiled her beautiful brow, and she didn't like that she felt one there. She didn't like this feeling at all, because it was mingled with a deep, gut-instinct repulsion that didn't stem from her general hatred of humanity and its male population in particular.

“Please, sit, and drink.” A white hand swept in smooth, if somewhat theatrical gesture to the bottle of wine laid upon the desk - no, a dinner table, in an office - and the single glass that had already been filled - “You must excuse that I do not join you. It is not my custom to partake.”

When someone offered you wine but excused themselves from it in Rogue circles, there was a certain assumption made. But if he knew the first thing about her, he wouldn't even think about it - would he?

She watched his face. He was old, elderly even, but handsome in a “distinguished” kind of way, and she found it hard to place just how old he was. He had a thin, hard, hawkish face, the face of a man around forty, perhaps, but his hair and moustache - both of them long, flowing, their style probably last fashionable in the 1500s - were white as snow. Not her type. Yet, she found it hard - found it took an actual force of her considerable will - to pull her gaze from his eyes.

With an expression like a fox sliding its leg out of a steel trap, free, but with its strength still sapping away, she put up her haughty visage and reminded herself that she was a goddess, and no smooth-talking man would be allowed to take away even a shred of her dignity.

“I prefer to stand. It gives the proper perspective to those I deal with.” She purred, narrowing her eyes at him. “I assume you have called me here to speak of business?”

Part of her was tempted to drink the wine with a smile, hoping that this smug snake really was trying to poison her - so she could see his face when it failed. But she wouldn’t deign to drink something so brutally squeezed out of harvested grapes. The bastard had to know that. He was mocking her. She was sure of it.

“Of course.” She watched the white hands fold - saw the white angles of his face half-draped in shadow. “I have a great need of you, Ivy. You are much more in person than I had hoped for. You are unique. Your beauty, your strength, your unusual abilities...you possess everything that the women of the past were lacking.”

Flattery was a language Ivy never quite tired of, though the man spoke it too simply for her like, without groveling or self-debasement. She could fix that.

She swayed gently toward him, placing one delicate hand on the table, leaning over to smile at him and give him a generous view of what would never be his... “Why, you sweet man. You know how to charm a lady. I bet you have lots of little dolls lined up to hang off your arm and keep your bed warm.” She lifted a fingertip to trace his jaw, in a motion that might have been mistaken for a friendly tease, were it not so lingering, so deliberate - “ But can you handle a woman like me? I know already what the answer is, but I challenge you to be man enough to find out.”

She noted with an odd detachment how cold his skin was. The moonlight filtering in from the window did things to his eyes, gave them a reflective gleam, like a cat's, save tinted inexplicably red.

He smiled. His lips, too, they were unusually red, but the teeth behind were stark, icy white.

“I accept your challenge, my dear. But I wonder. Are you prepared for the consequences?”

Consequences? Was he daring to threaten her? She smiled. He'd find out what 'consequences' meant.

She draped a fragrant arm over his shoulder, leaned closer - and spritzed him.

He didn't flinch. His breathing, his body temperature, his heartbeat remained exactly as they had since she had entered the room - nonexistent.

Poison Ivy sucked in a breath and her eyes flew wide.

In the dark, he grinned razors.

“No-”

He was out of the chair, his face dissolving instantly from faintly predatory to snarling, wolven - the red eyes wide, the red lips twisted around white teeth - the canines - he was a blur of white and black striking her body like a freight train, hurling them both against the closed door. Ivy couldn't scream; her face froze in shock.

Pain shot into her throat; two white-hot pinpoints that seemed to embed and burn forever.

To be continued...

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