Chapter 5: FAB!
Batman steeled himself. He had endured more brutal interrogations than this, from craftier foes.
“Bruce… please, darling… I know you know…”
Far more savage interrogations…
“I know you were scrutinizing that FAB! video when they drove up to Hugo’s place…”
Rigorous mind probes by unspeakably cunning alien technology…
“I know you caught details you could use to pinpoint his location…”
“Please tell me.”
The interrogations and mind probes never went quite this far, however. Selina in the catsuit—Catwoman without the mask—an ungloved fingertip tracing down the ear of the bat emblem on his chest, across the arc of the head and then over the other ear.
“I may have paid attention to the feed, but that doesn’t mean I have house number, street and intersection…”
A lie. The Gotham Cathedral spire visible over the roof was the clincher. It was Featherbed Ave, mid-block, and the edge of the 5 was visible just outside the doorframe. So mid-500 block, probably 532 to 538.
“No? My great detective couldn’t work it out from some little detail?”
But there was no way he could tell her that.
“Flattery will get you nowhere.”
Not when she was in this mood.
She bit her lip. Pouty. Completely out of character. She would stop at nothing right now.
“Then what will?”
“Considering what I know you have in mind? Very little.”
Naughty grin. DAMN HER.
“Ooh, that sounds like a challenge.”
The DEMON minion F’Nos had asked around. He found that it was all as he had been told: In the decadent city, it was not considered disloyal to go out seeking diversion on his evening off instead of sitting on his bunk and meditating on his duty. It was considered “normal” to go out. It would help him blend in.
The best place to go was obviously that favored by his master Gr’oriBr’di, the revered head of all DEMON operations in this hostile outpost of Gotham City. Gr’oriBr’di said he must go to the Iceberg Lounge, partake of a martini, and not hit on Roxy Rocket.
F’Nos understood this last instruction and was proud of his cleverness. American bars, he knew, were equipped with mechanical bulls upon which the warriors who gathered there would test their manliness and skill, trying to stay atop the mechanical beast as it bucked and shimmied. Roxy Rocket, he surmised, was a similar test of manhood upon which the warriors of the Iceberg Lounge demonstrated their fighting skills. It was obviously a great honor to test one’s mettle against Roxy Rocket, and it would give offense to the Iceberg Warriors for a newcomer to take on this great challenge without first proving oneself through lesser trials. F’Nos wondered what these preliminary tests might entail, but he was confident that his DEMON training was equal to the task.
He was confident until he reached the canopy at the Iceberg’s front entrance and found himself surrounded by five men of curious appearance and manner, who walked excitedly in a circle around him, looking him up and down and commenting on his apparel.
“Now that is slimming… sort of a body stocking underneath?”
“Snaps for you, dearie.”
“Like we told Hugo, it’s the accessories that make the outfit.”
“See how that big square collar matches the belt and the gloves—a touch of color, with restraint.”
Flustered, F’Nos hurried past them into the building only to find himself surrounded once more…
“Watch the cord, Mac!”
“LIGHTING! Why aren’t those wires taped down yet?”
“Busy hanging lamps here!”
“Tripods! Comin’ through.”
“Oomph, watch where you’re going, pal. These are expensive cameras we’re setting up.”
F’Nos backed away from the cluster of burly technicians and bewildering electronics, this time to collide with… Salvation.
“Gr’oriBr’di! Most esteemed master, Gr’oriBr’di!”
F’Nos’s face lit up as he recognized one of the trio he had backed into. Then he remembered his station and bowed obsequiously.
“Whoa, no, no, none of that,” Gr’oriBr’di ordered, pulling F’Nos to his feet. “Glad you made it, buddy. You remember Sly…”
The man next to Gr’oriBr’di, the one who had come to the Chinatown headquarters, gave a friendly nod, and F’Nos answered with an uncertain half-bow.
“…And this is Lori Leeberg.” Gr’oriBr’di indicated a trim, petite woman in a blue, skirted suit. “She produces the show these guys are setting up for.”
F’Nos had no idea what ‘producing’ meant, but he could see the men working with the equipment were minions and this woman was supervising them, so he bowed low as he would to any overseer and waited for leave to rise. Lori had extended her hand when, instead of shaking it, this strange man bent in half and stood staring at her shoes. She looked to Greg Brady in confusion, and when he only shrugged, she patted F’Nos on the head.
“Thank you, F’Nos,” Brady said, “Just go to the bar and wait for a second. These guys will be done setting up in a few minutes and Sly will be right over.”
He pointed the strange man towards the bar and returned to Lori’s side. “They will be done soon, won’t they? I mean, kinda blocking traffic here, and people are starting to arrive for the night…”
As he spoke, Catman stumbled in, nearly as flustered as F’Nos had been. Luckily, he sidestepped the tech crew.
“There is a cadre of paisley pushers out there!” he announced to the room at large. Then, seeing the unusual activity, he hurried around the technicians to the tiny group of familiar faces. “Sly, my dear fellow, there is a cluster of highly opinionated men in hair gel outside the door to this establishment. They made many snide comments about my cape.”
Sly looked to Lori and Greg with an I-told-you-so grin.
“That’s the cast of FAB!, Mr. Blake. They’re going to be filming here tonight.”
“Taping,” Lori corrected.
“Right, sorry. All this TV jargon is new to me. They’ll be taping here tonight and tomorrow, and then the show will be broadcast—when did you say, Miss Leeberg?”
Catman had been looking at the woman since she first spoke.
“In a few weeks,” she answered, “once it’s edited down with the other segments.”
“I know you,” Blake remarked. “You were in here before. FOIL! You were the silver foil girl—she was the silver foil girl!” He pointed with excited indignation, repeating the accusation to Greg and Sly, and then looked back to her with a disapproving glance at the dull blue of her tailored suit. “The foil was better.”
The hostess Raven looked theatrically down at her seating chart, although it was already determined where the group before her would be seated. FAB! The cast of FAB!—two of them anyway—Jai and Ted!!!—were right here IN PERSON. Raven adored the show, taking pains to tape any episode she had to miss because of her job at the Iceberg.
And here they were—Jai and Ted—standing right before her podium, waiting to be seated! She smiled up at them and led their party through the dining room to the large round table strategically placed before the video cameras. The FAB! culture and food experts took their seats on either side of Hugo Strange.
It was Hugo Strange, Raven knew that. But it was touch and go if she would have recognized him if she hadn’t been fully briefed before the group arrived. In her mind, Raven imagined how the transformation might be described on the show…
In place of the coke bottle glasses were slim tinted lenses in chic wire frames that rested lower on the nose and covered only the bottom two-thirds of the eye. The beard was replaced with only the faintest layer of stubble, perhaps a day’s growth that suggested a sophisticated but rugged casualness and framed the face to make him appear less jowly. The suit was new too, a deep wine-colored shirt with a two-tone maroon tie in a checkerboard pattern, topped with a textured sports coat, also wine-colored, but a touch lighter.
Raven was not one to flirt with customers, least of all a drooling mouth breather like Strange. But it was for television, it was for FAB! If she complimented him, that might get on the air (and it was the least icky he’d ever looked).
“Looking very dapper tonight, Dr. Strange,” she offered, handing around the menus.
He looked up at her over the tops of the glasses, a wild flash in his eyes, and he opened his mouth to speak—then he stopped as if remembering something, glanced to the man at his left, the one at his right, and finally he looked back up at Raven.
“Thank you, my dear,” he said simply, then looked again at his companions as if expecting a biscuit.
“Now then, Hugo,” his culture guru began, “when you sit down with your lady, it’s best to let her have a minute to look over the menu herself, but if she hesitates, you want to be able to suggest a specialty or two. So let’s call over a waiter and ask what this place is known for.”
“Riddle me this!” a loud voice rang out from the doorway.
Strange winced. “You’re about to see what the Iceberg is known for.”
“What is the absolute worst thing you could run into in the course of a crime spree?”
“Batman,” Tom Blake answered.
Riddler shook his head no.
“Batman and Robin,” Scarecrow said.
Again Riddler shook his head.
“Batman and Superman?” Mad Hatter guessed.
Riddler looked around at them slowly, his shoulders slumped in disappointment.
“You all think inside the box,” he grumbled sadly and started for the bar.
“WELL?” Catman bellowed, “Let’s have the answer already. What is the absolute worst thing you could run into in the course of a crime spree?”
“Your ex,” Nigma said flatly.
Hugo’s food guru tried to resume their conversation:
“Now before we get to the wine list, what about a cocktail? I see martinis are a specialty here… ”
“Your ex!” Jervis exclaimed, eager to get the full story, “Would that be Query the first, Query the second, Echo, that short one with the bandana or—”
About half the room offered faint murmurs of sympathy while the other half glanced furtively at the jukebox. Catman spoke for the latter group.
“NO COUNTRY MUSIC!” he roared.
“WHY? Don’t want to sully the memory of the Stray Cat Strut marathon?” Riddler yelled back. “And what are the Stray Cats but rockabilly? Hm? Answer me that. And how far is that from country? That’s what we want to know, Tom! Answer that one!”
“Martini!” the Fab! duo called out, “can we get a couple martinis over here?!”
“When I have woman issues, I handle it as a villain should,” Blake maintained, “in the field, striking a blow in the name of Feline Criminality!”
“Yeah, right. ‘CATWORTHY jewels!’ That meant Selina, you pretentious ass. And your woman issues were striking out with a bimbo in tinfoil—”
“That purple hellcat is not—”
“—and not recognizing that the kitty-chick groupie was here for you—”
“—some sort of monopoly on cat crimes just because she’s got a big rack—”
“—whereas Doris I ACTUALLY LOVED!”
Much of the room went quiet after Nigma’s outburst, so that the conversation at the FAB! table could be clearly heard…
“…not a fiasco, but an opportunity. If something like this were to occur tomorrow night, it’s an opening to say ‘Ah yes, Catwoman. I have a very important piece of Catwoman-inspired artwork in my apartment. Perhaps we can go back there after dinner and I’ll show it to you.’”
Beneath his sunless tan, Hugo blanched.
“Et tu, Hugo,” Catman said simply.
Hugo Strange sat alone at the large table under the television cameras—alone as far as he was concerned. Poison Ivy’s plant companions now occupied the seats on either side of him. They were basking in the warmth of the television lights, she said.
Poison Ivy. A manic antho-hylo-botanophiliac with obsessive narcissistic overtones, control issues and goddess delusions indicative of acute egomania.
And he sat there with her pets.
His Fab! advisors had abandoned him. They sat at opposite ends of the bar, consoling Riddler and Catman respectively, while Hugo sat before television cameras playing with a swizzle stick.
“Doris was special,” Eddie was explaining to the food expert, Ted. “A mind like that, never too tired for a brainteaser, that’s hard to come by. Did the Times crossword in ink…”
“The Blake men were always big game hunters,” Blake was telling Jai, the culture expert. “That’s out of vogue today, but I tried running a photo safari. Still plenty dangerous, right? Harsh jungle, hot sun, lots of 600 pound wild things…”
“…So Games Magazine had this contest, big promotion, with a pyramid of gold bars as the grand prize. A prize of gold bars for solving their supposedly unsolvable puzzle, you see. And these gold bricks are on display in their lobby…”
“…there is just no challenge in taking pictures of rhinos and lions instead of shooting them, so I undertook to become the ultimate predator. Mine is the thrill of the hunt with the ultimate adversary, the Batman…”
Jai tried—for the fourth time—to plug a gallery he knew in SoHo that featured safari photography. He stole a glance at his colleague, similarly trapped at the far end of the bar.
“…so I attack the offices, and there she is. My Doris! She works there now! She actually made up some of the puzzles in this promotion…”
“…can’t upstage her. She’s the cat-villain everybody knows. She’s in with the old guard, Riddler and Penguin and Two-Face, and I’m just some guy in a funny mask. ME! With my enchanted cloak, fashioned from the fabled Fabric of Ka, imbued with the mythic nine lives of a cat!”
Jai nodded… slowly… sipped his martini … and didn’t say a word.
“…she says ‘anti-social criminal behavior is so unnecessary, Edward. If you set your mind to it, I’m sure you could win the grand prize legitimately’…”
“…and when I scored the White Jade Cat from the Xing Gallery, police never came after me, Batman never came after me. All assumed Catwoman had taken it!”
“…and to think I always wanted her to see me in the field. I really shine out there. I am in my element. King of Conundrums! The Prince of Puzzlers…”
“Oh, I get it, like a drag name!” Ted exclaimed. Then he glanced furtively at the cameras. They were too far from the mics for any of this to be picked up, or that bon mot would have surely made the promo for the episode.
“…so I said ‘Purple? What’s with purple? There aren’t any purple cats!’ … And what does the flea-bitten she-witch have to say to that? She looks good in it. She wears what she pleases, and it pleases her to wear purple because (see above) she looks good in it. And this rabble cheered. These people sitting here right now let loose and cheered her on. THERE ARE NO PURPLE CATS, PEOPLE! And that’s when they stopped inviting me to parties.”
“…went in prepared to confront Batman, Robin, Nightwing, any of them. Even that Azrael disaster would be preferable to this…”
“…when I found the solution: MASCULINE cat-crimes. The priceless remains of a Saber-Tooth Tiger at the historical society…”
“…there are 8-million people in this city. Certainly the law of large numbers says the chance of running into DORIS at the scene of a crime should be all but impossible…”
“…that’s when my ideas petered out. There just aren’t that many cat-objects out there that are decidedly macho…”
“Right, right,” Jai exclaimed, “Not a big call for bobcat testicle sculptures… Well, not in the U.S. anyway.” Then he looked longingly at the cameras trained across the room, just as Ted had, and sighed in despair that none of this priceless conversation could possibly be picked up by the cameras or microphones.
“…probably seeing that guy that had the desk by the door, the one with all the crossword puzzles tacked up—with the thick hair and… What is Blake saying down there?”
“…with masculine appeal so as to never again be confused with the flea-bitten…”
“OH FOR GOD’S SAKE BLAKE! You wandered around here for a month muttering ‘masculine catstuff, masculine catstuff’ until Oswald asked you to leave because you were bothering the other customers. WHICH YOU WERE! Then YOU said there was only one particular customer who was bothered, and it was disgraceful the way we all kowtowed to the flea-bitten she-cat, and that’s when Dent hit you.”
Hugo Strange turned to the plant on his left. “A puzzle fetishist and a porphyrophobic ailurophile with a vestment fixation have hijacked my makeover.”
His complaint was interrupted by a ruckus in the entranceway, followed by the sound of an insane cackle growing closer.
Hugo turned to the plant on his right. “Oh, like it can get worse.”
“Hahaha… ha. Ha. Yes, boys and girls, The Joker has come among you once more. But wait! Hold off on the cheers of welcome, for once you hear what’s happened to me, HAHAHAHAHAAaaaaa—you’ll weep. But first, SLY! Sly, my good man, a beer and a crowbar, if you please, HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA!”
Taking a hint from the wild pointing from the dark haired hostess, Jai and Ted hid themselves behind the ornate screen behind her podium once the mad clown made his entrance.
“This is outrageous,” they complained in stage whispers, “it’s becoming the Catman and Riddler show! Or it would be if they’d been close enough to the microphones.”
“But you’ve got a few minutes at the table,” Raven insisted, “remember, when you arrived, telling him about the menu. And I said how nice he looked. You can use that.”
They looked at her and then at each other. They didn’t look happy.
“Well,” Ted whined, “I guess we could. But snaps for the couture doesn’t do us any good. If we use that clip, it will just set Carson off, you know. It’ll be all about the clothes and the beard and nothing else.”
Raven bit her lip. The clothing expert, Carson, was certainly the funniest and most colorful of the Fab! crew…
“We can still salvage it,” Jai said, “we just go back out there, take our seats like none of it ever happened, and say ‘so Hugo, if you were on your date now, wouldn’t this be a splendid opportunity to talk about the local color and…”
“You can’t go back out there,” Raven interrupted. “You don’t understand, Joker is here now. Don’t you get it. JOKER is the CARSON of the Iceberg set.”
“Sly, oh Sly? Where is Sly—WHAT HO! Come away from that hothouse harlot, my lad, you don’t know where she’s been. Bring Uncle Joker a good sturdy beer and a nice frothy crowbar.”
“Excuse me, Miss Isley. Duty calls.” Sly stood, but Poison Ivy reached out, placing a proprietary hand on his arm. “I told you, call me Pamela. And there’s no need to jump just because the Lord High Jester starts barking orders.”
“It kind of is my job, ma’am.”
Ivy bit her lip as Sly left for the bar. Oswald had made it quite clear that if she ever unleashed her more irresistible wiles on his bartender, lifetime banishment from the Iceberg would only be the beginning of her troubles. The birdman did little more than strut—or waddle—around his nightclub for the last few years, but still, the Penguin was once a force to be reckoned with. There was really no telling how much trouble he could be if he decided to be trouble. It was better to let Sly go on about his business, even if, at the moment, that meant listening to whatever had Joker worked up now.
“…And it was locked! The Hacienda was LOCKED. I never lock the door. Who would dare break in? HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!”
Unfortunately, that meant everybody else had to listen too, for Joker did not seem to have a volume control.
“HAHAHAHA-SO. It takes me fifteen minutes to get in the door, and then I realize, HAHAHAHAAAA, I can break a window. So I go back outside, break a window and finally I’m home. Or I think I’m home, but you know what? … I say do you know what, Sly?”
“What, Mr. Joker?”
“It was pink! Somebody came into the Hacienda East, put a lock on the door, and made the whole place pink! So I went to the Hacienda West—another lock on the door! And now I’m starting to get concerned. There is some kind of serial lock-installer loose in the city with a truckload of pink shit. What’s the world coming too, I ask you. So I go to get my goody bag, because sooner or later I’m going to find this guy—and my goody bag is gone! No acid-spray flower, no 50,000 volt hand buzzer, no lead-plated rubber chicken!”
Joker picked up his drink and walked with it into the dining room, directing his complaints to the room at large.
“So I went to Circus Burger, because by this time I’m having a bit of a day, and there’s nothing else to do when you’re having a day but to order some fries from a big clown head, then take the big clown head with you, find a guy in a paper hat, and bash, bash, bash away with the clown head until the paper hat is all squashed flat, and then eat your fries. HAHAHAHAHAAA. But the clown head is gone. I get up to the window and THE CLOWN HEAD IS GONE. Just a little black squawk box. You can’t bash, bash, bash paper hat guy with a little black squawk box. IT ISN’T DONE.”
“Where was Harley?” Ivy asked testily. That sick clown had a tendency to take out his bad days on his girlfriend. Harley and Ivy were not on friendly terms at the moment—and they weren’t going to be unless and until Harley explained what she was doing on a crime spree with Two-Face. But even if they weren’t friendly right now, they were still friends. And Ivy would repeat her question until she got an answer. “Where was Harley during all of this?”
“Who?” he asked with exaggerated confusion.
The plants on either side of Hugo got up from their chairs and repositioned themselves near Joker in order to strike if necessary.
“So anyway,” Joker tried his best to ignore his new escorts and went on explaining his troubles, “So now I’m getting kinda frustrated, and I want to let off some steam. So you know that Gotham T-shirt place in Times Square with all the bat stuff for the tourists, you know that big sign they have with the great big BAT in the oval just LOOMING over the store. I figured what that needed was a big ol’ red smiley face painted on it, and I just knew somebody in the store would bleed red, right? I get there, and there’s a great big picture of ME in the window: ‘Celebrating 365 Days without a Joker-related incident!’ And these tourists came up asking to take my picture standing in front of the window-picture and the sign. So now I can’t go after them or it’ll be a year until they can put up the sign again. So I went to Smiling Pete’s Auto Dealership to have some fun. With a name like Smiling Pete’s, you know they’ve got to be a fun crowd. So I figure: Joker—that’s me—take yourself down to Smiling Pete’s, mow ‘em all down, and let Chaplin sort ‘em out. I get there, and it’s now THRIFTY Pete’s. I look up at the sign, and Pete’s not smiling! He’s squeezing a nickel—and he’s not even happy about it! And the Laughing Buddha is now Peking Gardens. And the Grinning Gremlin is now Twenlowe Brothers Limited. AND THAT’S NOT FUNNY!”
One of the animated plants standing next to him mimed holding its stomach and rocking with laughter.
Joker looked at it wickedly for a moment, then at Ivy, and then back at the plant. He lunged at it, intent on ripping it to shreds, and it ran behind Hugo’s table. Joker moved to run round the table to the left—the plant did likewise so they remained exactly opposite each other. The Joker moved right, the plant moved right. Fake left-run right. Fake right-scurry under. Move by move, the plant evaded capture and Joker became more and more enraged.
Finally, the mad clown picked up a chair in frustration and smashed it against the table, breaking it into several large pieces. He gripped the largest piece and swung it terribly.
“NOW we got us a party. Why is there never a Robin around when you need one?… BLAKE! You’re in orange and yellow, get over here! HAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAA!”
Nigma, who had been watching the proceedings like a floorshow, finally spoke up. “Time to test the nine lives theory, puddycat?”
Selina bent down with excruciating slowness and dragged her lips over the insignia on Batman’s chest. There was a grunt… followed by a deep-throated purr.
“I do love that sound,” she murmured, “that ‘I’m not entirely certain what you’re up to but I’m not stopping you any time soon’ grunt.”
A different rumble sounded, haughtier, disapproving. “You’re naming the grunts now?”
“Only that one,” she laughed, her hands drifting around his waist. He tensed for a split second until he felt them settle on his back, clear of the utility belt. “It’s not all the grunts, just that one. I’ve called it that for quite a long time. Since the Julian Rubies. Remember?”
“How could I forget?”
“You had fun that night, admit it.”
“Fun? Fun is not a word I normally associate with patrols or interventions—”
“Fun isn’t a word anybody associates with patrols or interventions…” she remarked, then switched to a sultry whisper that puffed hot breath onto his lower cheek, “but we were talking about the Julian Rubies—and you had fun.”
“As I recall, you didn’t get what you wanted that night either,” he twitched.
She ignored the taunt and focused on the non-denial.
“It could be even more fun now… the mask can come off, no pointy ears in the way.”
She pinged an ear of the cowl playfully.
“I see,” he said gruffly, “You think that a little playful seduction is all it’s going to take to get me to reveal the information you want… if I even had the information to give?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Well, if that’s the case…” With inhuman speed, he wrapped his arms around her waist, lifted her to a sitting position on the ledge next to the console, and stepped in close—too close. Leaning down, his lips brushing against the base of her neck, he slid one hand across her lower back while the other glided upward to tangle in her hair. “…Why don’t you let me handle Strange and you can take care of Quinn.”
Selina said nothing… for a long moment, the skin of her throat tingled where the hot breathy whisper had warmed it. Her pulse pounded and her heart raced—but no less so her mind raced for a reason, any reason, to reject this outrageous proposal. He was finally playing back—which, okay, was new and she couldn’t honestly say it was a bad thing. On the contrary, that tingle and the voice and the fingers were…. NOT a bad thing. But he couldn’t win. Not on the first try, no way. She’d suffered a hundred rebuffs like this, or a thousand. No way he was going to pull this off on the first try. Her brain simply had to come up with a reason to reject this—without getting nasty. Definitely didn’t want to discourage his doing it again. Some reason—amusing playful reason—damn, it was hard to think with all the blood rushing…
“You don’t have claws,” she said finally.
It sounded better in her head. Hugo’s crime obviously required sharp bits of…
The hand behind her back fell away, and Batman quickly pulled three batarangs out of his belt, one between each finger—then he slowly dragged them up her back.
“No, but I have the next best thing…” he graveled.
“Well,” she said thoughtfully, enjoying the feel of the cold metal as he played along her spine, “maybe you actually could remove his colon with one of those things… but even so…” she sighed finally, “You’re not me.”
He would understand that. He had to. Ultimately, it came down to that: the perverted atrocity was a crime against Catwoman and Catwoman had to handle it.
“You’re not me, Handsome,” she repeated, “So no.” She lunged forward, momentarily sucking on his lower lip, then released it. “The game was fun while it lasted though.” Then she spoke airily, gathering her gloves, cowl and whip as if to depart. “Well, if you’re not going to help me hit his apartment while he’s out, I’ll just have to go to the Iceberg and nail him there.”
She waited while he mulled it over, reading his thought: private evisceration vs. public pounding.
“Selina, they’re still filming. Chances are there’s cameras, production crew and assistants all over that house… granted, some of those brownstones on the 500 block of Featherbed Avenue have rear entrances but—”
“Featherbed, 500 block, look for the camera crews, got it.” She threw her arms around his neck spouting a sincere “Thank you, My Dark Knight, my dearest love” before pressing a wet kiss onto his open mouth. “You really are the best.”
He grunted as she started to leave. “Selina, wait…”
His lip twitched.
“Whatever you’re planning… get rid of that damn mannequin.”
To be continued...