Chapter 10: Knight’s Pawn to King 6
In his years of service as a humble messenger to the Demon’s Head, Omar had had occasion to enter Ra’s Al Ghul’s palatial compound in Nepal four times. He’d entered the castle in Moldova once and the castle in Shanghai once. On those occasions, he’d kept his eyes lowered on his own feet as he came and went from The Presence, for it was not his place to notice the possessions of his betters. As Omar delivered his message, he would kneel and stare directly in front of him, facing respectfully in the direction of his master without presuming to look at the Great One’s most illustrious features. Once, in doing so, he chanced to glance at the Great One’s table, for Ra’s Al Ghul was seated for a meal when Omar was obliged to bring him the news: the original Batman had returned to Gotham City and retaken his mantel from the pretender dubbed AzBat. No one knew if this announcement would please or not, and Omar had knelt should the Mighty One wish to cut his throat for bringing unwelcome news. Kneeling before the seated Ra’s Al Ghul, Omar could not help but notice the plates of food sitting mere inches from of his face, and even on that extraordinary occasion he had not seen—on the very table of Ra’s Al Ghul—delicacies such as were placed before him now.
“Specialite della casa,” Giovanni D’Annunzio purred, “Gamberoni - Gulf Shrimp—very large, sautéed in extra virgin olive oil and herbs de provence, with a spicy arrabbiata sauce, served on a bed of lemon pepper angel hair pasta…”
“Here it comes,” Bruce Wayne said quietly to Omar, counting down with his fingers: 3..2..1..
“It’s better than sex,” Selina confided to Moira with a wink.
“Darling,” Bruce said theatrically, once the orders were taken and Giovanni was done sucking up, “I did ask you here tonight so Moira, the Wayne Enterprises employee from Metropolis who I so desperately want to transfer to the headquarters here in Gotham, could see that I have a nice, normal girlfriend. So she and her boyfriend Omar can see that those rumors about me being the Don Juan of the Western World aren’t true.”
“What’s your point, Dear?” Selina asked with equal theatricality.
“Only that perhaps allusions to your unusual relationship with the shrimp arrabbiata isn’t going to allay her fears about what she’s getting into in moving to Gotham City.”
Everyone laughed at this. Selina crunched the end of the bread stick and changed the subject:
“So, Moira, is it true you used to work for the demonspawn? I mean, er, Talia al Ghul or whatever she’s calling herself these days.”
“Head,” Omar said flatly, “Talia Head.”
Everyone except Moira chewed, as though they had thought of something to say but decided against it.
“Yes,” Moira answered finally, “it was as Miss Head’s secretary at LexCorp that I developed the ‘working for difficult people’ philosophy that Mr. Wayne hired me to bring to W. E. - not that the management at Wayne Enterprises is especially difficult to work for,” she corrected quickly, for she didn’t wish to give offense. “I certainly couldn’t imagine any of the Wayne Enterprises suits throwing a coffee pot into a Dell 9000 just because of some items in the newspaper.”
Selina’s eyes locked with Bruce’s, glowing with amusement, as she asked, “Really?”
“If after what you’ve seen today, you’d like to meet with an apartment broker,” Bruce began, hoping against hope to derail the train of Selina’s inquiries. But he was outmaneuvered. Selina stood, saying something about the powder room; Moira stood. Estrogen solidarity, Bruce thought bitterly as the two of them disappeared down a damask wallpapered hallway.
Bruce allowed the executive façade to give way to the Fop façade as he turned to Omar with a world-weary smile.
“By the time they get back, whatever Moira knows about Talia, Selina will know about Talia.”
“She doesn’t knows so much as she thinks,” Omar said, surprising Bruce with an equally worldly voice. “Throwing the pots of coffee into the calculating machine, it is nothing. At the compound, in my old life, there was warning: if you are alone with the Great One’s daughter and she starts to, how you say in English, ‘froth’—run! It is only way. Do not wait to be dismissed - just run! One time, she send entire squad into Hong Kong, suicide mission because of…” Omar lowered his voice dramatically “’he whose name must not be spoken’ did not come with other Justice League heroes to assault on compound.”
Bruce was almost too stunned to realize this was the perfect introduction of the subject he’d wondered how to broach. Omar continued:
“And this ‘sexual harassment’ of which Miss Moira and the other Secret-Aries speak, this fear of chasing around the water cooler, it is nothing. In compound, if you were, how you say, ‘not too bad to look at,’ and ‘he whose name must not be spoken’ turned down the Great One’s daughter…” Omar made a shuddering gesture.
A lifetime spent honing the acting skills necessary to maintain a dual identity enabled Batman to hear these astounding revelations of life inside the DEMON Camp while maintaining Bruce’s most guilelessly foppish exterior.
“Oh, that reminds me,” he blithered like a well-meaning dimwit, “he who’s name… I mean, er, Batman sent you a note.”
He fished the sealed envelope out of his pocket and handed it to Omar just as the women returned and the shrimp arrived.
There had been some debate as to whether Bruce or Selina should deliver the note. It was true Omar already knew of her connection to Batman from when he’d rescued her from Ra’s clutches, and in so doing helped Omar defect. But it was also true that Omar knew Bruce Wayne had arranged the job with the Daily Planet that Batman had promised. One connection was as good as another.
The delivery of the note should have been the last order of business for Batman that evening, and he tried to slip back into Bruce mode for the remainder of the dinner. Bruce mode was so much better for dealing with Giovanni D’Annunzio. Tonight’s stunt from Gotham’s premier snob was a new dessert. He was waiting, Giovanni had said, for Bruce and Selina’s return to introduce the new confection. He wanted to name it after her.
Bruce identified Giovanni’s strategy just as Batman would Ra’s Al Ghul’s: he was hoping for another magnificently colorful description of the dessert from Selina, a la “better than sex.” Not the sort of thing you could put on a menu, but the sort of thing Giovanni would delight in passing on to other patrons, an amusing little aside, delivered with that delightful continental savoir faire.
Back in Selina’s apartment, Bruce spoke with the same air of exasperated disapproval once reserved for the vault at Sotheby’s. “I can’t believe you actually did it. I don’t know why I should be surprised, it’s not like it’s out of character or anything. In fact, it’s so totally, typically, the kind of thing you would do…”
“I don’t believe we are going to have this conversation again. What goes on in your head: I’ve said this forty-six times and got no response, but hey, let’s go for lucky forty-seven!”
And then, just like the vault at Sotheby’s, she short-circuited his ability to argue, pressing against him, whispering sinful pleasures: “It was a peach, stuffed with amaretto cream, served on a pomegranate reduction drizzled in Belgian chocolate… It’s a perfectly good word, it’s a perfectly good metaphor, and it was a perfectly orgasmic dessert.”
Unlike the vault, Bruce was not rendered mute and immobile by her performance. He ran his fingers through her dark hair, cocking her head back. Her lips parted with a soft gasp, and he bent over them, declaring in Batman’s firmest gravel: “Those breathy little pants are mine. Remember that…” His free hand moved playfully up the front of her body, coming to rest on her collarbone. “…the next time you want to give some pastry chef credit for…”
That was as far as he got, for Selina wasn’t rendered immobile either.
When conversation resumed about twenty minutes later, Selina brought up a subject that had been puzzling her since he first mentioned Omar and Moira.
“I could have sworn you said you weren’t going to bring Moira to Gotham on Wayne Enterprises business just to get Omar here, that you’d considered the idea and rejected it, that it was a cheap manipulative stunt playing with people’s lives that way, the sort of thing Ra’s might do, but totally beneath you.”
“One,” he said crisply, “That
was before. Then it was five agents instead of six in Chinatown. Now
he’s messing with Dick. I’m not about to let him get away with that.
Two: it’s not playing with their lives if I really do want Moira’s program
coming out of the Gotham headquarters and not the Metropolis office. I
would’ve brought her here at the beginning if she’d let me, but it took some
time to convince her the job was legit. Three—”
he said crisply, “That was before. Then it was five agents instead of six in Chinatown. Now he’s messing with Dick. I’m not about to let him get away with that. Two: it’s not playing with their lives if I really do want Moira’s program coming out of the Gotham headquarters and not the Metropolis office. I would’ve brought her here at the beginning if she’d let me, but it took some time to convince her the job was legit. Three—”
“How many parts are there?” “Four. Part Three: I’m not forcing
Omar to go under cover or anything, I just want to pick his brain a little.
That’s why I asked him to meet Batman tomorrow while you and Moira looked at
apartments. I’m just asking for help. Exactly what
you, Dick, Alfred, Clark, and everybody else are always on me to do.”
“Me? How did I get on that list?” “Four—” “Have you always been this anal-retentive?” “Four—” “You’d think I would’ve noticed before now.” “Four: with Ra’s, it’s always a game of chess. Omar is the one piece I
have that Ra’s doesn’t even know is on the board.” “I mean, to layout your argument with a table of contents and footnotes…” “In other words, I’ve made my point and, rather than admit you’ve lost a
round, you want to change the subject.” “Growl .”
“Well, it won’t work, Kitten. Unless you admit I’m right, I won’t tell
you what Omar said while you and Moira were powdering.” “I can’t believe I missed anything good. According to Moira, Omar is
pretty naïve about some things.” “According to Omar, Moira is pretty naïve…” Their eyes met. “Interesting paradox there.” “I’ll say.” “Strange couple.” “Very.”
“How many parts are there?”
“Four. Part Three: I’m not forcing Omar to go under cover or anything, I just want to pick his brain a little. That’s why I asked him to meet Batman tomorrow while you and Moira looked at apartments. I’m just asking for help. Exactly what you, Dick, Alfred, Clark, and everybody else are always on me to do.”
“Me? How did I get on that list?”
“Have you always been this anal-retentive?”
“You’d think I would’ve noticed before now.”
“Four: with Ra’s, it’s always a game of chess. Omar is the one piece I have that Ra’s doesn’t even know is on the board.”
“I mean, to layout your argument with a table of contents and footnotes…”
“In other words, I’ve made my point and, rather than admit you’ve lost a round, you want to change the subject.”
“Well, it won’t work, Kitten. Unless you admit I’m right, I won’t tell you what Omar said while you and Moira were powdering.”
“I can’t believe I missed anything good. According to Moira, Omar is pretty naïve about some things.”
“According to Omar, Moira is pretty naïve…”
Their eyes met.
“Interesting paradox there.”
For a man like Ra’s Al Ghul, too much loyalty or excessive devotion should have been impossible concepts. But his Gotham lieutenant, Ulstarn, was beginning to push the envelope.
It wasn’t that things were going poorly in Gotham City. On the contrary, The Upstart, that son of performing gypsies who the detective would make his heir instead of breeding with his own beloved Talia, was responding exactly as expected. Nightwing, it was known, had a history of trying to prove himself, to prove himself to the Detective and to prove himself as good as the Detective. He had never run an operation of his own in Gotham City. The situation Ra’s had placed before him, through his agents Brian Everwood and Nethal, was a scratch precisely where the boy itched. It had just the right mixture of appeals to his vanity and his insecurity. Everwood planted the suggestion to start this -snort- security agency and, at virtually the same moment, Nethal established himself as an invaluable source of information. Blinded by the chance of erecting his own banner in his mentor’s city, of being connected to the corridors of power and to sources of information about the Gotham Underworld even the Detective and that annoying Oracle could not match, the headstrong fool never dreamt that DEMON was the source of the information he was passing on to the Detective. Or that, now that the information pipeline was established, Ra’s could feed the Detective any information he wished, maneuvering him and his minions to do whatever he pleased.
This pleasant thought was interrupted by the chiming of the clock. It had just turned eight o’clock in Gotham. That meant within seconds the door would open and…
“My Master, the unworthy agent in Gotham begs to make his report via the satellite hookup.”
Ra’s Al Ghul winced. Ulstarn ran a tight ship; that was why he was sent to run the Gotham City operation in the first place. Ra’s had seldom encountered a man of such potential: fiercely loyal, disciplined to the point of mania, and so rabidly unpleasant to be around that the very possibility of working under him was universally understood to be a punishment. Genghis Khan, Hannibal, that Colonel in Napoleon’s army, and Ulstarn, Ra’s filed them together in his mind.
Ulstarn’s intense need to prove his loyalty had, up until now, been manageable—especially since Ra’s had the brainstorm of stationing him on the far side of the world in the Detective’s City. He reported in regularly, sent some tribute or other with every full moon, and that was that. Granted, the so-called delicacies from America were seldom to The Demon Head’s taste, but such was the price of being Ra’s Al Ghul. The tribute of underlings was not to be discouraged simply because it was revolting.
Yes, Ulstarn’s posting to Gotham was an ideal arrangement, until recently. But since Nethal was transferred out of the Chinatown base and established in a private residence, operating as an independent agent in Gotham City, Ulstarn’s mania had gone into hyperdrive. He was reporting in every few hours, always wishing to speak to the Demon’s Head himself no matter how inconsequential his report, always begging to sign off with the loyalty oath—in the long form.
It was a tantrum, that’s what it was, and Ra’s Al Ghul was not going to rescind an order or reconsider a strategic decision to accommodate the fragile ego of a lieutenant, no matter how rabidly loyal.
Resignedly, Ra’s al Ghul tapped a button, opening the channel to Gotham.
:: Great One, your lowliest and most humble servant begs to report: situation unchanged.::
Like that was news, Ra’s thought. It had only been three hours since his last report.
“Very good, Ulstarn,” Ra’s sighed.
:: My Master honors my most unworthy report with his attention, Sire. Your servant begs to be allowed to sign off with the oath of loyalty…::
“Very well,” Ra’s sighed again.
And it began, the long form. As Ulstarn’s voice droned, Ra’s face assumed a mask of patronizing attention, while thoughts returned to his private contemplation… Where was he? Ah yes, success in Gotham! The headstrong fools! They who’ve not lived but a single lifetime - Child’s play to anticipate their every thought and move…
Batman clung to the shadows in the little alley behind a novelty store in a rundown neighborhood near Chinatown. Omar entered the alley at the precise hour requested in the note, punctual to the minute, nearly to the second—not surprising in a former DEMON agent, Batman supposed.
Stepping silently from the concealing darkness, Batman was disappointed to see Omar start for only a split second before recognizing him and then breaking into a bright smile. This was Omar’s only failing as far as the Dark Knight was concerned: he simply didn’t catch on that Batman was to be feared. That’s what criminals did. Or if they were too far gone to fear him, like Ra’s or Joker, they at least hated him.
But to Omar, Batman was not the avenging arm of Justice, nor even Ra’s al Ghul’s great enemy. To Omar, Batman was The American, his ticket back to basketball, movies, and a girl called Moira.
“Come with me,” Batman graveled in a voice meant to unnerve. Omar followed, unperturbed and wholly accommodating. A short while later, he looked through the nightscope Batman handed him.
“Those are agents of Ra’s Al Ghul,” Batman said flatly.
“Yes,” Omar confirmed. “The one near the window is Ishmael, the one who sits in the back is Ulstarn. I don’t know the others.”
Omar handed the scope back, and Batman eyed him appraisingly. Omar responded to the silence as expected, he filled it.
“Ulstarn is legend among the followers of the Demon. He who is entrusted to run the master’s affairs in the Detec- in Gotham City. It is very great honor. He is very great man. Everybody says.”
Batman applied a little more silence, but
this time it had no effect. Sometimes a direct question was called for:
“So Gotham is a plum assignment? These men are Ra’s best?”
“No,” Omar answered hesitantly, “For Ulstarn, Gotham City is ‘plum,’ is great honor. But for others, posting here is not being sent to Gotham City; it is being sent to work for Ulstarn. They are being punished.”
Batman considered this useful insight: Ulstarn was “great man…everybody says” but they didn’t want to work for him. Hmm.
As Omar continued to speak, Batman was able to form a clear picture of the man: If even half of what Omar said was true, Ra’s had made the biggest blunder in their long war. In sending this total shit of a human being to run his Gotham operation, Ra’s had exposed his jugular. Someone that unpleasant was so because they were afraid. Afraid and paranoid! And fear was a weakness that could be exploited.
There were six agents, now there are five; if it bothered Batman, it must be KILLING Ulstarn.
“There were originally six agents here,” Batman said to Omar, “Now there’s only five. Why might that be?”
“If there were six, there still are six,” Omar said simply.
“No,” Batman insisted, thinking perhaps there was a language problem, “Count them, 1-2-3-4-5. There are only five men down there.”
Omar shook his head. “If the Great One decide Gotham City is six-man job, there are six men here, not five and not seven. Maybe you don’t see him. He is still there.”
Batman stood, stretching his legs from the uncomfortable rooftop-surveillance squat.
“If there were six, there still are six,” he repeated, thinking out loud. “But one has been moved elsewhere, away from the intensely insecure Ulstarn. If I’m a raving paranoid, don’t I assume its about me- don’t I think everything anybody does is about me?”
Omar blinked. The conversational English learned at DEMON was sufficient for a messenger, obtaining accommodations and transportation in Metropolis. Since meeting Moira he’d added to his vocabulary with respect to food, basketball, movies, and portions of the female anatomy. But “intensely insecure…raving paranoid” was beyond him.
“In tents of the insect cures?” he asked.
Batman’s lip twitched slightly at his mistake, then said: “You’re moving to Gotham City?”
“I can have someone arrange a job for you here just as I did in Metropolis. There’s only one thing I’ll ask in return—this is something even simpler than last time.”
Omar said goodnight to Batman, walked out into the street, past the curio shop, slowed just a halfstep as he saw Ishmael through the window, and waved. Then he went back to the motel.
He could not know, though Batman would have predicted, that this simple action led Ulstarn to question Ishmael no fewer than four times: twice before the 5 a.m. report to Ra’s, once before the 8 a.m., and once again after.
“My Lord,” Ishmael repeated each time Ulstarn asked, “I only know the man slightly, to say hello if we pass in the hallway. He is a courier.”
After another four assurances that the courier, Omar, was neither a close friend of Ishmael’s, nor had they ever worked together on a mission nor shared quarters nor any other link Ulstarn could think to specifically ask about, the unlucky Ishmael was sent off to find the man anyway for a “casual, accidental meeting.”
Ishmael was far less convincing than Omar had been in appearing surprised at the purely coincidental meeting, but Omar let this pass. He reacted exactly as Batman had instructed—by answering or not any inquiry he wished with the guileless and unvarnished truth.
“He is in Gotham with his girlfriend Moira, who is moving here from Metropolis for her job? And this story checks out?” Ulstarn asked for the ninth time since hearing Ishmael’s report.
“Yes, My Lord.”
“And he said nothing else?”
“You ordered it to be a friendly conversation only, My Lord; he said nothing else of consequence. And I could hardly ask for more and maintain a tone appropriate to—”
“What do you mean, ‘nothing else of consequence?’ What else did he say?”
“He recommended I go see Star Wars Episode 2, My Lord.”
“In my evening off, he suggested I see a cinematic entertainment: Star Wars, Episode 2, Attack of the Clones. He said it was most diverting.”
“YOU DON’T HAVE AN EVENING OFF!” Ulstarn bellowed, and Ishmael lowered his head until his chin touched his chest.
“I did not think it appropriate to reveal that, My Lord.”
Ulstarn was worried. He had viewed Episode 2: Attack of the Clones fourteen times and could not detect any hidden message this Omar might be trying to pass to his men.
He now began to worry the movie itself was the trap. It didn’t contain a message—it was a way to get him out of the curio shop. To go see it, he had to leave the men alone. That was almost as bad as letting them leave the shop. How he hated not knowing where they were. He should have put a stop to that ‘night off’ business long before Nethal’s transfer. Why it was madness, letting them go anywhere. They could be doing anything; they could be talking to anyone. At least now their free hours were spent in his presence. They could still talk to each other if they wished, for he was no tyrant. But it was better still if they spent their free time listening to him. Yes, far better that he be able to fill their ears and their minds with stories of glorious battles past, shouting down any thought but their loyalty to DEMON and the Demon Head’s appointed lieutenants. And now he’d left them alone - again.
He called each man into his private quarters and questioned them about what they had done in his absence. He was not pleased with their answers, as none used the exact phrasing he wished to hear.
He began questioning again, but only got through the second man when he gave up. This was not satisfying. They were not spontaneously saying what he wanted them to say.
He thought about some sort of team-building activity: Get them all tattooed, or perhaps branded.
Enraged, Ulstarn assigned each man fourteen hours of busywork to occupy his time while he went out. Then Ulstarn stalked out of the shop again. He was going to confront the architect of his downfall, that miserable Nethal! Who was that miserable non-entity who no sooner took the loyalty oath pledging himself to Ulstarn before getting transferred to be his own one-man operation! Who was this vermin that the Master would give him orders directly! Ra’s al Ghul’s decisions could not be questioned, but this worthless cockroach certainly could.
He was going to confront Nethal, and this monstrous plot against his sovereignty in Gotham would be exposed—Nethal’s downfall would be an example to the next ten generations of DEMON underlings to know their place and serve the lieutenants as they would Ra’s al Ghul himself!
So fully did this pleasing thought fill Ulstarn’s imagination, he failed to take the most elementary precautions for a DEMON agent operating in Gotham. Not that it would have made any difference. The caped figure following on the rooftops was silent, invisible, and undetectable whether his quarry was paying attention or not.
To be continued...