Chapter 4: DefCon 4
With great care, Jason Blood set the photograph of Claire on an honored spot on his bookshelf. The little box cut from green amber, he moved from the 16th century mahogany desk to a more prominent position on the Spanish carved entry table. The move into this new flat made a welcome diversion, and he found himself in no rush to complete the decorating. Indeed, one of the more pleasant aspects of being back in Gotham City was the plethora of galleries, antique shops and auction houses. He wondered, as the doorbell rang, if Selina might like to accompany him to a few auctions. She was certainly knowledgeable about art, and he felt he should make some gesture to thank her for signing over her beautiful flat to him… He opened the door—and sucked in his breath sharply.
The man before him looked no less surprised than Jason himself.
“Łąqųęųş vęŋęƒĭċįųm,” Blood ordered, “Øßŧįςęřę.” Instantly, the visitor was struck immobile and mute, and Jason regarded his prisoner coldly. He had had many dealings with Ra’s al Ghul, the faux immortal that had to dunk himself in a toxic pit to buy another handful of years. And Jason recognized instantly the dress of a Demon’s Head messenger. That Ra’s would dare approach him this way—any way in fact…
“ßųŁŁą rħðmbå,” he said, encasing the messenger in a magical bubble, “Mąġưş mąĮųşċųłųş đęxţęŗę. You may speak now. Do so. What is your message?”
The messenger was silent, reluctant to deliver his missive to any but the intended recipient.
“łmþęŗĭųm ċǿŋłǿqųǿŗ,” Blood ordered.
“A Missive,” the messenger recited, “from the great and powerful Ra’s Al Ghul, Light of the East, Terror of the West, Apex of the age of Oneness through One Rule by the most worthy Demon’s Head, Anointed of Anubis and Osiris, Chosen of Ra, whose greatness is not desecrated nor destroyed by death or grave, he who dies not but arises phoenix-like from ashes to rule again, whose dominion is Yea the entirety of the world of Man. To the Catwoman, Gotham City, North America. Madam…”
Jason Blood laughed heartily.
Defcon 4. Was there ever such a beautiful word?
“No unnecessary traffic between the house and the cave. Any time spent in the cave is in costume, no exceptions…”
He’s adorable when he goes all batty like this.
“All secondary access points, like the elevator in Alfred’s pantry, are deactivated.”
I realize that’s a minority opinion, but it’s how I feel.
“Alfred won’t be going into the cave anyway—or the clock passageway.”
See, that’s the guy I fell for.
“Satellite cave is shut down.”
Segue into the bad-ass technophile coming up fast.
“JLA transporter is shut down.”
It’s not that I was panicky about moving in.
“OraCom is restricted to VH priority transmissions only, of no longer than 15 seconds, anything that goes into the buffer will be random-scrambled to mimic alpha hiss.”
I’ll admit it was an adjustment. How could it not be?
“Non-resident operatives—Robin, ‘Wing, and Batgirl—may enter the cave only through exterior entrance B…”
But Whiskers and Nutmeg settled in so easily, I must admit that shamed me into pulling myself together.
“Final laser disable must be keyed from their transponders 30 to 60 seconds before the vehicle crosses electric eye omega.”
I was uneasy that first day once the furniture got here. I’ve been sleeping in his bed, most nights, for months. And Alfred has been setting the day’s menus next to my morning coffee for almost a year.
“Digital signatures on the transponders will be recoded every 12 hours.”
But technically, I wasn’t LIVING here.
“Workstations 3 and 4 are dedicated to analyzing the feeds from the high-def digital cameras monitoring known Demon agents, and scanning the closed captioning on all television & satellite broadcasts for the keyword matrix, respectively.”
Living in HIS HOUSE.
“Those high-def cameras have a 36 hour backup, although we’re downloading every hour…”
A reaction was natural, I said. Cats are fiercely independent creatures.
“Jet fuel and other W-tagged supplies won’t be restocked, so usage is strictly as-needed.”
But the one fiercely independent creature was sitting in his lap licking a paw while the other snuck off with one of his socks.
“Now, security on the manor grounds…”
So much for it being a cat thing.
“…surveillance cameras, and, of course, the alarms on the windows…”
I did pull myself together. I’m living here now. This is my home. His house is my home. And it’s good.
“Bruce Wayne is out of town until the bruises heal anyway…”
But it’s awfully good to see that other guy. Get grounded again in where we began.
“…no reason to expect visitors, but if someone did arrive…”
Defcon 4. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.
The Royal Suite of the Gotham Imperial Hotel had one feature Ra’s Al Ghul found particularly gratifying. The 6,000 square feet meant nothing to him; the five bedrooms, five and half baths, and two livingrooms were of little interest, nor was the wine cellar. But the “jacuzzi,” situated like a Roman bath with its cupola and tromp loi frescoes, bespoke of an ancient empire when royalty meant power. Not like these modern kings that might stay in this suite who were mere figureheads for elected governments. No, this was the room of a Caesar!
Ra’s had ordered the jacuzzi covered with planking and Persian carpets. This lush area would be the throne room in which he would receive his guests. As the hour grew near for the first summoned criminal to appear, Ra’s became impatient. He wanted to meet these paragons of the Gotham City X-factor. Every moment he spent in this wretched city made him more eager to learn its secret. In particular, every moment he spent with devoted but ineffectual minions like Ulstarn and Ubu made him more ready to welcome a different type of follower. Consider his new Ubu:
“It would be the greatest honor to give my life protecting yours, My Liege. But if we are in the company of three different individuals who might pose a threat, my sacrifice may not be enough. If it is your Imperial wish to test the three Gothamites Ulstarn has summoned, it is prudent we have two additional guards accompany us.”
Ra’s grimaced. It was true there were times when the intrigues and stratagems of the Demon’s Head were too cunning for mere mortal understanding. But THIS was not one of those times. His plan was simple enough: Gothamites had something, he knew not what, that set them apart. He wanted to employ one to bring that quality into his operation. There were three candidates; he would interview each, just as he had questioned the prospective Ubus, and then he would choose one. That one, and only that one, would then be tested. Nothing about it was difficult to understand.
Yet Ulstarn, Talia and now even Ubu seemed to misconstrue his intentions.
First Ulstarn came to him inquiring if he might have the honor of indoctrinating the new recruits. Ra’s explained (with a patience that proved the Demon’s Head could be as benevolent as he was mighty) that not all but only one candidate was to be brought into the fold and that the traditional indoctrination should be postponed, as brainwashing might interfere with the Gotham X-factor he sought in this person.
Then Talia called with a list of housing and diet requirements for her “imprisonment.” Ra’s explained (with a patience that proved the Demon’s Head could be merciful as he was great) that he did not need her physical presence as a faux captive, only the photographs. He would, as he had in the past, tell the chosen individual that his daughter had been kidnapped, show them the photographs, and offer them a great bounty to recover her. He and Ubu would then accompany them on their search and observe how they progressed through a series of trials. Once he saw how the candidate reasoned and fought, he would know if they were worthy to serve him—and in this case, he would begin to know what it was that made the Gothamites so special… There was a curious hacking sound when he said this. (With a patience that proved the Demon’s Head could be as lenient as he was fierce,) Ra’s chose to believe that noise was, as his daughter claimed, static interference caused by thunderstorms over Metropolis.
First Ulstarn, then Talia. And now it was Ubu. Ra’s explained (with a grimace that proved however benevolent, merciful, and lenient the Demon’s Head could be in the normal course of events, his patience was not, in fact, as limitless as his might and was, in fact, fraying fast, and if his minions did not cease riling him with their willful misconstructions, blood would be spilt and heads would roll!) that they would be putting one and only one Gothamite through the trial.
And thus it was an uncharacteristically flushed and exasperated Ra’s Al Ghul who sat in the Roman bath/jacuzzi/throne room of the Gotham Imperial’s Royal Suite, waiting for his 12:00 appointment with the first of three Gothamites that might save him from his devoted minions.
Alfred Pennyworth was from a country that kept their theatres open during the London Blitz, so breakfast at Wayne Manor that first morning of Defcon 4 was laid out as usual: baskets of bagels, muffins and fresh fruit, a toast rack, pastry, juice, tea, coffee, and a covered dish warming eggs, bacon and kippers over a tiny flame. Next to Bruce’s place at the table lay a sheet from a loose-leaf dayrunner, listing any appointments for the day. Next to Selina’s lay a similar sheet with the day’s menus.
As was customary, they served themselves at breakfast. This was fortunate, for it meant Alfred did not have to watch as Selina drew floor plans and schematics all over his menus, proving conclusively that there were seven routes into the Gotham Imperial’s Royal Suite and not four as Bruce stubbornly insisted.
Finally, Alfred was forced to interrupt to announce they had a visitor.
The butler noted only that Master Bruce was too engrossed in the argument to
question why a visitor was admitted when Bruce Wayne was “not at home.”
That reason became clear enough when they reached the drawing room and saw
who the visitor was.
“Jason Blood,” Selina cooed, “the man, the myth, the legend.”
“What the hell have you brought into my house?” was Bruce’s greeting.
“Selina, I have some of your mail,” Blood said politely, ignoring Bruce and pointing to the DEMON messenger floating beside him in a 5 foot pulsing orb of light.
“Jason, things like this come to the cave, not the front door. What is this—”
“Relax, Bruce. He is in a ßųŁŁą rħðmbå; he cannot see or hear anything but what I will him to.” Jason’s voice shifted to channel even the minute amount of magic necessary for the spell: “łmþęŗĭųm ċǿŋłǿqųǿŗ, Herald of Ra’s Al Ghul. This is Catwoman. Deliver your message.”
Bruce Wayne’s eyes grew dark and foreboding as the messenger in the bubble recited his speech. First, there was Ra’s daring to come to town—No, FIRST, there was Ra’s having agents in his city—No, FIRST BEFORE THAT, there was Ra’s Al Ghul’s existence! But once you accepted that this sociopathic megalomaniac existed at all, that he had agents in Gotham City, and that he kept sending agents into Gotham no matter how many Batman ferreted out and sent packing, that he would dare—DARE!—come here in person—AND THIS WAS TWICE NOW!
“…summoned to the Imperial Presence at twelve o’clock precisely.”
And NOW on top of THAT, he was sending
come hither candygrams to SELINA!!!!
“Well now,” she purred when the message concluded. And she wore that damn little catsmile that was so inappropriately amused by all the wrong things, “Now there are eight ways into the royal suite.”
“Don’t even joke about it,” he warned in the Batman’s deep gravel. Then he turned to Jason and spoke with a focused intensity that was not quite human. “Tell me everything you know and I don’t about Ra’s al Ghul. Everything. His history, his allies, his strategies, victories and setbacks—”
“Bruce,” Jason answered, “You’re talking about 800 years of material. You sure you have that kind of time?”
Ubu could not understand what was happening. The Master’s 12:00 appointment seemed to be… late. It was unthinkable. How could anyone summoned to the Demon’s presence be late? The idea of a no-show was even more unimaginable; so when a woman appeared for the one o’clock audience, Ubu figured it must all be a misunderstanding. Gotham City was six or seven hours behind Romania depending on something called Daylight Savings Time. Ubu decided that, in his inexperience, he must be misreading the clocks. It was not actually 1:00 but 12—and this good woman was, of course, on time for her appointment with Ra’s al Ghul, for who would ever flout the power of the Demon’s Head?
Her appearance did not quite tally with the description he was given: she was blonde, not brunette. She looked about 5’ 3,” not 5’ 7.” And her outfit was red and black, not purple. But she was here for an audience with Ra’s al Ghul, and if she wasn’t the 12:00 appointment then she must be the 1:00, and she clearly was not a 6’ 180 lb man with two faces. So Ubu opened the door for her and intoned:
“The great and powerful Ra’s Al Ghul, Light of the East, Terror of the West, Apex of the age of Oneness through One Rule by the most worthy Demon’s Head, anointed of Anubis and Osiris welcomes The Catwoman of Gotham City, North America into his most Imperial Presence.”
Harley Quinn and Ra’s al Ghul simultaneously freaked out—or to be more precise, Harley freaked out while, at the same moment, Ra’s underwent a transformation that, for one not imbued with the timeless dignity of the Demon’s Head, might be called freaking out. This transformation involved a rapid reddening of the face, a bulging of the veins in the neck, and a kind of gurgling sound kept at the back of the throat to minimize the volume. It was this last that fascinated Harley Quinn, and she complimented it. It was very close, she said, to what Mistah J called a dry spittake. Why, her Puddin’ used to sit for hours watching Whose Line is it Anyway with a glass a Gatorade and… *sniff* Her Puddin’… *sob* Her Mistah J!
While Harley wept all over the fine furnishings of the Royal Suite, Ra’s tried to fathom why Ulstarn and Ubu had, between them, delivered him the laughing man’s concubine in the mistaken belief that she was the Detective’s concubine… and also he left orders to have his suit dry cleaned since the mad clown’s mistress was blowing her nose on his lapel.
“Well that was a waste of time,” Bruce grumbled once the door closed behind Jason Blood.
“I thought the Renaissance years were entertaining,” Selina demurred, “and even if you didn’t, it wouldn’t have killed you to offer him a chair.”
“He can sit down without being asked,” Bruce spat, heading for the cave.
“It’s called being polite,” she countered, following him.
“Selina,” he stopped and turned at the clock entrance, “Kitten. Love of my life. I don’t think you appreciate how serious this is.”
She seemed to consider that for a moment and then touched his cheek.
“Bruce, my dark knight, my dearest love. I don’t think you appreciate how serious this ISN’T.”
“He’s here in Gotham.”
“Yes,” she agreed, pausing to let the admission sink in before adding, “and he’s a hairdo.”
“The same hotel as before. Sending out invitations! He’s not even trying to hide that he’s here.”
“I’m not worried. Bruce, you’re ten times the man he is. You’ll take him.”
They walked silently to the cave… to the costume vault… and wordlessly began changing into costume. He had gotten as far as the leggings, chest plate, boots and belt when he started speaking, quietly, as if to himself, but still loud enough to be heard.
“There are three unbreakable rules for dealing with an enemy like Ra’s: Never let them know where your buttons are. Never let them know your real objectives or what you value. Never take what the enemy gives you. With Ra’s, I’ve broken all three.” He turned, completely in costume but for the cape and cowl, and those he held in his hand. And yet the man standing before her wasn’t Batman. This was that searching vulnerable soul she first recognized in that other vault.
He stepped towards her, just as he did that night before he kissed her. Their eyes locked, and when he spoke, it was that same strangely intense whisper.
“Selina. The JLA mission went to hell because they wouldn’t use my tactics. I’m the strategist. I don’t have a meta gene or a power ring. I’m the thinker. Ra’s came close to taking out the JLA—Ra’s ‘the hairdo’ came close to taking out the JLA using my protocols. Do you understand? I’m that good, Selina. I am, as you said, twice the man he is.”
“Ten times,” she corrected.
“And still, I’ve broken all three rules with him. He knows where my buttons are. When he attacked the JLA, he got me out of the way by…” he shuddered, unable to continue. When he did speak again, his voice quivered on the words, “he dug up my parents and hung their coffins over the Lazarus Pit. He knows how to push my buttons. He knows what I value: justice, this city (he’s here, in my city, WHY?), my family. He took you last time to get me to come to him. Now he’s sending you invitations and—”
“Three rules, you said,” she interrupted, “never take what he gives you?”
Bruce paused and turned away.
“It was necessary,” he said softly. It was a long time ago, and they had talked about it. But he could see even that distant allusion to his past with Talia hit a nerve. He wondered if the Defcon 4 protocols needed to be revised now that Selina was in his life (“Examine thoughts for demonspawn subtext before opening your mouth”).
“I know it hurts you to hear about it, and I’m sorry for that. I encouraged her; I admit it. I never trusted her and I never loved her. But I let it play out because she was the only way inside what he was doing, and this is life and death.”
She said nothing, but her fingertips traced the insignia on his chest. He inhaled sharply, that one simple action reawakening the bat, banishing the doubts and ambiguities for a time.
“So you broke a few rules,” she said finally, looking up at him with daring eyes, “that’s what they’re for.” Naughty grin. “You’re still ten times the man he is. He’s still a hairdo. And you’re still going to kick his sorry ass all the way back to Nepal.”
Ra’s was fuming as he went back to the bedroom to change his shirt and tie. He was at a loss to rate the exact degree of his outrage. Not just any of these criminal vermin’s concubines did they send him, but the mad clown’s! That that lunatic called Joker was allowed to live was testament to the failure of the Detective’s methods and the need for global order Demon rule would bring. Indeed, when the Detective finally came to his senses, embracing his destiny and agreeing to wed his beloved Talia and become his heir, Ra’s fully intended to present him with the laughing man’s head as a wedding gift, on a platter, with an apple stuffed in the mouth. He already had the platter, made especially by the monks of the Tharlam Monastery in Tibet.
By the time Ra’s returned to the throne room, Harley Quinn had been removed, and Ulstarn and Ubu quaked in fear—as well they should. Ra’s was seriously considering if that Tibetan platter might not be put to better and more immediate use to present himself with the gift of Ulstarn’s head. Were it not for the difficulty of disposing of bodies in the Detective’s city…
“My Master,” the excrescence groveled, “mere words cannot begin to express my mortification at this unfortunate series of misunderstandings—”
“SILENCE,” Ra’s ordered. He had listened to enough oaths of loyalty—in the long form—from this repellent toady, that he was not about to sit and listen to an equally prolonged apology. “There can be no excuse for this appalling incompetence. Ulstarn, if there were any man readily available who could take over this important Gotham City operation, you would be, at this moment, on a boat back home.”
But no, that would never do. For Ra’s remembered he had placed Ulstarn in Gotham to keep him on the far side of the world.
“There is still one individual remaining, who this unworthy servant ventures to hope The Demon’s Head may find suitable…”
There would be no cushy exile to the compound in Nepal or Romania for him.
“…he has excellent credentials…”
No, he would have to be sent somewhere equally remote from the heart of DEMON operations.
“…fought bravely against the Dark Knight on numerous occasions…
He would be sent to… to…
“…the Upstart Nightwing as well as fighting the Imposter Azrael when he was so foolhardy as to take on the Detective’s mantel…”
By chance, Ra’s eyes fell on the photographs acquired to test the chosen candidate, photographs of his daughter…
“…extensive and detailed knowledge of the criminal classes of Gotham City…”
That was it!
“—and unlike the other summoned Gothamites, he has arrived promptly for his 2:00 audience…”
His daughter! METROPOLIS. He could transfer Ulstarn to Metropolis and let him annoy Talia for a while!
“Ra’s al Ghul, Light of the East, Terror of the West…”
Yes, he would exile Ulstarn at once.
“…welcomes to his Imperial Presence…”
If only there was someone fit to replace him.
“Greg Brady of Gotham City, North America…”
To be continued...