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Chapter 3: Hugo, Honey, 1967 Called. They want their Glasses Back.

 

I kicked off my shoes at the end of the clock passageway.  There’s a clip-clip that would echo through the cave if I didn’t.  Usually I don’t mind, but right now I didn’t want him to hear me coming. 

It’s an exercise, one of several to keep me sharp since I curtailed the more felonious aspects of Catwoman’s activities.  Often when I prowl now, I’ll break into the executive offices at Wayne Enterprise and borrow a pen from Bruce’s desk.  Sometimes I’ll stalk Robin or Nightwing as they patrol without letting them see me.  And even though I prefer the Impressionists in Bruce’s collection to those at Gotham Museum, I’ve resumed my weekly visits there—except now I go after hours.

As far as I know, Batman is unaware of my training routines.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t include him at times like this just for fun. 

I thought he’d be needing some fun about now.  When he was studying Joker-clues (or what we thought were Joker-clues), that was one thing.  I understand his priorities there and I respect them.  It was like this not long after we started—Ra’s al Ghul came to town, DefCon4 was declared, and he started canceling dates.  It’s part of The Life.  It’s a cost of doing business: long stints of concentrated cave time, intensive battitude, and no sign of Bruce. 

Joker is bad business; nobody can deny that.  He was about to be released from Arkham and Batman had to be ready.

But then it turned out the Joker-clues were nothing of the sort.  It was all Harley being a vindictive ex, giving away his stuff, and doing it so it would hurt.  You’d think he’d be relieved.  You’d think it would be good news:  there was not, in fact, a horrific Joker-escapade being announced that Batman was powerless to figure out.

But instead of being relieved, he’d gone absolutely batty over the whole thing.  He was pissed because he wasted days deciphering clues that weren’t clues.  And what was worse, he now had a notebook full of Joker-targets and he hadn’t anticipated a single one.  He was more pissed about that than anything—because none of the stuff in Harley’s notebook was on his list.  All his theories about the clues-that-weren’t-clues, he hadn’t anticipated a single one of these targets. 

Since the arrival of that notebook, he’d spent all his time at the workstation, entering the targets into the Batcomputer, cross-referencing with all of the search routines and databases.  This was not high-priority crimefighting in my opinion.  It was battitude—typical, tightass, obsessive, overcompensating battitude.  Like in the old days:  He’d let me get close, he’d play along with the flirting, he’d let his fingers dance up my back, he’d let my fingers linger on the insignia… and then he’d have to do the whole grunt-growl-push away-no, you’re a thief, unclean-unclean routine.

That’s all this was: hours at the workstation just because he hadn’t predicted any of the targets in Harley’s notebook.  It was obsessive, it was ridiculous, and I was putting a stop to it.   He needed some fun. 

 

Sly looked carefully at the new arrival—masks were the norm for the Iceberg crowd, but face painting was not unheard of.  This girl—in a pair of furry tan-colored cat ears, with her face painted in tiger stripes, feline noseleather, and whiskers—had a more elaborate look than the typical groupie.  But there was something beyond that, something unusual.  What it was clicked into place when she placed her order:

“A Diet Sprite, please,” she squeaked, “with a tequila chaser.”

“Ms. Quinn?”

“Shhh, I’m here incognifty.”

Sly poured the drinks with a shrug.

“Whatever you say, Ma’am.  One Diet Sprite, one tequila.  What you chase with what is up to you.”

Harley took her drinks to a corner booth near her quarry, sat down without appearing to notice him in any way, and then began a jerky motion with her wrist underneath her chin.  She paused occasionally to sip her drink and spy on the next table.

“What is she doing?” Tom Blake asked finally.

“Trying to get your attention, you silly ass,” Nigma replied.

My attention?”

“Tiger stripes, cat ears, she’s not here for me.  And I’d assume that thing with the chin is meant to be licking a paw.”

Catman looked at the girl in disbelief, then back at Riddler.

“Well that’s just great. That is just what we need around here.  Another goddamn cat-broad trying to steal the show.  THE LITTERBOX IS CLOSED, SWEETIEPIE!” he said loudly.

“Blake, you’re an ass,” Eddie whispered harshly, “she’s here for you, you stupid schmuck.  She’s trying to get picked up.”

Blake looked back at Harley, who was again performing the bizarre wrist-jerk.  He looked back at Eddie.

“That looks nothing like licking a paw.”

“So she’s a bad mime.  She’s cute.  She’s here.  She’s dressed like a cat.  What’s your problem, man?”

Blake picked up his drink, grumbling, and walked to the other table as if performing some odious duty to pacify a tiresome friend.

Nigma shook his head.  “Cats.  The eternal riddle.”

 

Catwoman had not lost her touch.  The trademark stealth was in tact.  I doubted whether even the bats overhead could sense my approach as I snuck up behind the chair of Bruce’s workstation and—spin-splat-ouch—found myself lying flat on very hard cavefloor.

“Explain to me,” the deep voice asked calmly, “why when I interrupt your workout it’s a problem, and I get scratched up, but you get to come down here anytime you want and…”

“Pfffft.”

“That’s not an answer.”  He sounded grim, but offered a hand to help me up.

“It’s not the same thing,” I said, dusting myself off.

“No, it’s not.  You were just working out; I’m working.”

“I was working out and you pounced on me.”

He grabbed my wrist and pointed to a fresh scar on the back of my hand.

“Whiskers gets away with it.”

Can you believe that? “Whiskers gets away with it.”  I gave him the look—the special rooftop look meant for Whateverman whenever the hero-addled brain fails to comprehend something basic.  It isn’t meant to seem condescending, but if it does, what can you do.  Sometimes with heroes you have to go back to basics:

“Whiskers is a cat.  Sometimes when I start the yoga, he’ll take my getting down on the floor and laying in relaxation pose to mean playtime—”

“And he gets away with it,” Bruce declared.  

Typical, stubborn, obsessive and missing the point—and when he does it with that damn half-twitch at the corner of his lip, it’s all I can do to keep from kissing him.

“He gets swatted away, same as you did.  Only difference is, he doesn’t sulk afterwards.”

Grunt.

Damn, I love that man. 

“He doesn’t get even, either,” I pointed out.  “So, do we have an ETA on when you’ll be done with that stupid notebook?”

“Six hours ago.  I finished with it last night.”

“Then what have you been—”

“This.”  He pointed to workstation 3. “The auto-downloads picked up mention of it from a memo on one of the corporate intranets, and then the shooting permit filed with the city confirmed it.”

I looked where he was pointing and saw a half-dozen video feeds flickering on the cluster of monitors. 

“What is it?”

“A reality show.  A reality show on which Hugo Strange will be appearing.”

 

Selina’s brow furrowed, she swallowed, then looked up at Bruce, confusion etched on every feature.

“I have a feeling I don’t want to hear this,” she said carefully.  “Just about anything to do with Hugo tends to make me queasy.”

“I visited their camera truck last night, setting this up.  It will allow me to monitor all of their raw footage as they’re taping.  If there’s anything of concern…”

“Oh,” Selina broke in, suddenly getting it, “Not the Bruce-Wayne-is-Batman theory again.”

Bruce noted, with some amusement, that she spoke of it with the same weary-dismissive contempt that all rogues did.  That she knew it was true—that she was actually standing next to him in the Batcave as she said it—made no difference whatsoever.  It was Hugo, and therefore a laughable embarrassment to all roguekind.

“…if there’s anything of concern,” he continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “I can zap it.”

“Won’t that look suspicious?”

“No, it’ll look like the cameras experienced a momentary atmospheric anomaly that corrupted the sound record.  I perfected this technique last year when the JLA considered that reality show nonsense*.”

“Ah.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I love it when you go all bad-ass technophile.” 

Bruce’s fingers paused for a split second, and then continued their continual movement over the dials and keyboard. Selina spoke again.

“So has there been anything ‘of concern’ to zap?”

“No,” he twitched. 

Selina looked at the screen that read

   … … … … …:: feed off FAB! remote crew-1 camera-1 ::… … … … …

The camera shot showed the interior of a van, as five well-groomed men circulated a dossier.

“Okay, our subject this week is Dr. Hugo Strange—Supervillain.”

“Supervillain, well that explains the beard.”

“Right, always remember:  when you go evil, stop shaving.”

Selina blinked at the monitors.

“This isn’t for real.”

“It’s real.”

“Maybe I should start watching more television.”

 

Harley stood before the mirror in the Iceberg Women’s Room, fretfully combing her hair.   She had made an error.  She’d greeted Gina, the washroom attendant, by name—forgetting that she was supposed to be a newcomer to the Iceberg who wouldn’t know who Gina was.

Harley bit her lip.

Well, her time here was almost up anyway.  She’d gotten what she needed from Tom Blake.  Now she just needed to pop upstairs to Oswald’s flat above the club, her first foray as a cat-woman cat-burglar, and then she could leave and it wouldn’t matter if Gina let the cat out of the bag about the new cat-groupie.

“Bye-ah Gina, I mean, Meow,” Harley said cheerily.

Out in the dining room, she stopped to say goodnight to Catman:

“It was such a thrill meeting you, Mistah C, I can’t tell you.  Now I gotta give this sidekick idea some thought, ‘cause I don’t know if it’s quite my style.  But if I decide to help you out stealin’ these famous relics from the Catacombs, then I will get in touch.  Where did you say your lair was again?”

Blake regarded the girl as if she wasn’t very bright, and repeated patiently:  “Beneath the Safari Club, hidden entrance in the Tiger’s Paw Room behind the armoire.”

“Thanks Tommy, I mean, Meow.”

 

I cocked my head and looked at the video screen.  It was an exterior shot where the van pulled to a stop and the FAB! team ran out and knocked feverishly on a heavy wooden door.  The door swung open, and there was Hugo Strange, standing agape as FAB! swarmed over his apartment like a Ralph Lauren SWAT team.

“Ugh,“Ugh, Hugo, sweetheart. 1967 called, they want their glasses back. Wonderful invention, Dearie, they’re called ‘contacts.’ Say it slowly with me: ‘con-tacts.’”

“This room is just stupid.  Plastic ferns? What’s the idea here: ‘I want to set off my purple leopard print chair with a little touch of green without having a living plant around?’”

I think I blacked out for a second at that.  Purple leopard.  And Hugo.  Just the idea—shudder.

“Don’t look,” Bruce advised, “it could get much worse.”

I remembered that he had been inside Hugo’s place as Batman, although I’d never heard the circumstances or even if this was the same apartment.

“Trust me,” he repeated, “Don’t look.”

“What’s with this floor anyway?  Those tiles are kind of… what would you call that? Off-beige.”

“The throw-pillows look like Doug Henning’s T-shirts…”

“Even shopping malls in the square states don’t use those recessed overhead lights anymore, do they?” 

“Now Hugo, about your personal couture.  First thing we’re going to do is lose this Freud Gone Wrong beard and then we’ll fix up the wardrobe.  So, you’re a criminal mastermind and all that.  Sounds exciting.  To each his own, I always say.  So, how to do you generally dress for that?”

All sound stopped from the video feed and I opened my eyes to see why.  Hugo wasn’t saying anything.  I looked at Bruce, who had the same faintly horrified look on his face. 

I looked back to the screen and Hugo still hadn’t come up with an answer.  He might be standing there still if one of the others on the Fab! crew hadn’t burst in from a side door.  He slammed it shut behind him and leaned back against it like maybe the Mummy was chasing him.

“Do not go into the bathroom.”

 

Greg Brady fitted a 10x loop into his eye and examined the gems laid out on Oswald’s desk.

“Very nice,” he remarked, looking up at Tom Blake.

“They are more than nice,” Blake declared, “They are Cat-worthy.”

“Um, yeah, okay.”  Greg tossed a thick envelope onto the desk.  Blake opened it and began counting a thick wad of bills.

“There’s less catnip here than we agreed.”

“It’s exactly what was agreed on, minus your outstanding bar tab.  I spoke to my partner—”

“SLY!”

“—and he agreed that when a tab gets into four figures we need to draw a line.”

“SLY!” Blake called again, opening the office door and screaming into the bar, “SLY!  Come in here!  My tab cannot possibly be…”  He quieted once Sly entered the room and closed the door behind him. “There is fourteen hundred dollars missing from this envelope!”

“$1468, Mr. Blake,” Sly said evenly.

Blake looked from Sly to Greg and back to Sly.

“Fourteen hundred sixty… how on EARTH is that possible.”

“You tore up Miss Ivy’s special wood-free table, Mr. Blake.  That polymer stuff is very expensive to get fixed.” 

“She made comparisons between myself as the Lord of All Felines and that flea-bitten hellcat.”

“I don’t care, Mr. Blake.  Miss Selina has claws too, but she doesn’t go scratching up the place.  Your tab with the Iceberg-S was $1468, and so we took it out of your payoff from Iceberg-G.  If that’s all you guys need me for, I’ll be back at the bar.  Stop by for a beer on your way out, Mr. Blake.  On the house.”

 

In his living quarters above the nightclub, Oswald Cobblepot squinted at the empty beer bottles.  He counted and there were 9, then he counted again and there were 10, and then he counted a third time and there were 9 again.

But he distinctly remembered bringing 4 bottles each time he’d made a trip to the refrigerator.  So there should be 8 bottles or else 12.  But 9 was wrong.  9 wasn’t divisible by 4.  If he brought 4, and then brought another 4…

He looked up, thinking he heard a noise.  He thought he saw a shapely womanish shadow—with cat ears.  “Kwaka-kwa” he burped…

“Kwaka-kwa”—the noise made Harley freeze in her tracks.  She had finally found the document she came for, but now if Oswald was awake, how would she ever get out without being seen? 

Or maybe she could be seen?  Oswald was certainly drunk—Harley thought back, trying to remember her classes on the psychological effects of inebriation—if he was drunk enough, she could pull this off.  

She stepped confidently out from the shadows and walked right up to where he was sitting.  “Hiya, Ozzy,” she chirped in her regular Harley voice, “You look like someten the cat dragged in.  Hee, hee, meow, hee.  Oh, and look at all this mess.  Don’t worry, Ozzy, I’ll clean it all up for ya.”

She picked up an empty beer bottle and the remote control, pointed the beer bottle at the TV and discreetly pushed the button on the remote. 

“There, something for ya ta watch for a while.  Love them soap operas.  Bye now!”

She skipped out of the room, and a moment later, Oswald heard the click of the door closing behind her.

 

It’s not that I wanted to go see Harley.  Harley’s not what you’d call a friend. She’s never been what I’d call a friend, and that was before her stunt with the Bat-Signal put Bruce into such a state.  

That was the thing:  her stunt had put Bruce into a state, and now she called wanting to talk.   I didn’t want to listen to her whining about ‘Puddin’’, but it did occur to me that this was the inside track with her and Joker.  I always considered Joker & Harley to be a sicko tango that I didn’t need to know about.  But that was before the fallout started setting off the Bat-Signal every five minutes. 

So I went to meet her as requested.  I would have liked to stay and watch the Fab! crew shave off Hugo’s “Freud Gone Wrong” beard, but as Bruce pointed out, we were just seeing raw feeds anyway, and the best bits would certainly be edited into the final show.

So I went.  I couldn’t imagine why she wanted to meet at the Safari Club, but with Harley, it’s always a mistake to assume there’s a reason.

 

Riddler was ecstatic.  His tangram clue may have gone to waste, but this new puzzle was foolproof.  Tied to the Roman Calendar, it would let him open up a hitherto unexplored universe of cluing conundrums to taunt his great adversary.  The Roman numerals themselves, using letters to express numbers, would enable him to hide the numbers within the very words of a riddle—or even to construct anagrams around them!

And the Roman practice of identifying a day by its distance from another, four days prior to the Ides of March, meant that he could leave a properly constructed clue for Batman days before his planned crime, when no last minute foolishness from some upstart nobody could interfere. 

It would be a magnificent triumph, his greatest ever, perhaps. 

“CATAMARAN FOLD HERN ERROR HUH,” Riddler confided to Sly as he signed his tab and stood to leave, “CATAMARAN HERDER FLU HORN RHO, Sly, CATAMARAN HURDLE HERR FOR HON—Hurrah for the Roman Calendar!”

Sly caught the eye of the doorman and made a turning motion with his thumb and index finger.  The doorman nodded.  He would take Nigma’s keys and call him a cab.

 

Batman was annoyed when the alert interrupted his monitoring of the Fab! video feeds soon after Selina left.  The live feeds would be easier to zap if Hugo alluded to any of his Batman theories.  Now Bruce would have to let the feeds backlog, sift through them when he got back, note the timestamp of any items of concern, go back to the production bungalow and deal with the individual tapes. 

But it couldn’t be helped, there was a crime in Gotham. 

He flicked a control to shrink the video feeds to a minimized window and typed in a code to display the alert at this workstation.  The automated monitoring routines threw up a map of the city indicating a crime connected to one of his themed enemies.  A yellow circle was superimposed on the map with a zoom in on Hudson U. Campus.  Beneath it were the words:
     University Archeological Museum:
     Artifacts from 1st Century Catacombs… valued at $130,000

Catman.  Damn him.  First that “Catworthy” stunt and now this. 

His annoyance with Catman grew steadily as he drove to the museum.  It was only when he reached the crime scene that he began to reassess the situation.  There were clues, too many and too easy.  First he found an artificial vibrissa—an animal whisker—lying by the empty display case.  This was white with a black stripe, indicating it was from a striped animal, a large striped animal—like a tiger.  But this wasn’t a real tiger’s whisker.  It was plastic fiber, the kind of detail they might add to an animatronics figure or stuffed simulacra. 

There were perhaps a dozen exhibits and theme restaurants around Gotham that might have such fake tigers.  And that’s where the second clue came in, to narrow it down for him.  The museum was closed for the night and the custodians had already left.  All the trash cans were empty, except for one by the elevator.  It was the old-fashioned kind with an ashtray on the top, even though this was a non-smoking building.  In the circular tray meant to be filled with sand was a balled up paper napkin.  “The Safari Club,” it said.

One clue too many. 

Either this was the work of a very sloppy copycat, or else it was a trap. 

 

There was no sign of Harley at the Safari Club, just a message asking me to wait in the Tiger’s Paw Room.  The room was what I imagine the Fab! guys would call “Early Tarzan Nightmare.” A lot of wicker, rattan, and leather.  Animal print carpets, pillows, and throws.  The tables were glass tops supported by figures of cheetahs, zebra and elephants.  And, oh yes, there was a tiger—stuffed. 

There was a leopard print chaise longue—not purple, thank god for small favors—and right in front of it on the cheetah table was an ice bucket chilling a bottle of champagne, a portable CD player from which Harry Connick Jr. softly crooned, and another note from Harley saying ‘whatever happens’ I should ‘go with the flow.’ 

I was starting to think I’d have to have that talk with the tassel twit before the night was over, when the sixth sense went haywire right before I heard the voice:

“Selina?”

Not the voice I was expecting, obviously.

“What are you doing here—Never mind. Go. Now. This is a trap.”

Yep, it sure was, Handsome.  But not the kind you were thinking, I’m sure. 

My wheels were spinning like mad trying to work it out.  What was the demented little twit up to?  Throwing me and Batman together like it’s prom night? 

“Selina, I don’t know what Catman is up to, but if he’s gunning for you too…”

I tuned him out.  …champagne (domestic, but make allowances for Harley) …soft music…  …animal skins (again, making allowances)…

There was no mystery what she was up to. 

…Batman…

There was no mystery what she was expecting to happen.

…go with the flow…

And there was no question she was around somewhere watching.

I eyed Batman meaningfully; I gave a guttural growl and licked my lips.  Here I was just thinking how he needed some fun.

˜˜Trust me,˜˜ I signed, stretching up to reach him.

Just as our lips met, there was a muffled squeal from behind the armoire.  Through the kiss, I felt his lip twitch—he understood.

To be continued...

*See JLAin’t: A Year in the Life

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