The lithe, cat-shaped silhouette carefully lowered herself into position above her target. She calculated the angle of descent that would enable her to snatch the coveted object and hit the ground at the optimal angle for a quick getaway. She had only to wait for the right moment and then…
The moment came! The guard’s attention faltered and Nutmeg leapt to snatch the thick, crunchy envelope from Bat-Bruce’s fingers—only to be caught, mid-leap, in a blur of reflexive movement too fast for any two-foot. She squirmed as the strong fingers that held her repositioned her body to hang helplessly from her scruff.
“No,” Bat-Bruce growled firmly.
Nutmeg pawed vainly at the envelope.
“Oh, that’s what you’re after,” Bruce noted. He set the cat gingerly on the carpet, crushed the envelope into a ball, and tossed it lightly towards the trashcan. Nutmeg leapt, seized it, and ran from the room.
Bruce’s lip twitched.
“You’re welcome,” he said, returning his attention to the invitation that came in the thick, foil-lined envelope:
Gotham Museum of Modern Art
requests the honor of your presence
He knew this was coming, of course. He was on the museum board, the reopening committee, and the Wayne Foundation was a major underwriter of both the building renovation and the reopening events. He knew this was coming for months, even before Richard Flay’s clumsy maneuverings just before Christmas. Flay only wanted to ensure the Wayne name would be there, front and center, to bring the event the social prominence it deserved, and Bruce was always ready to oblige in that respect—if only the whole thing hadn’t set Selina off so strangely.
Catwoman had a history with the MoMA, certainly. Batman and Catwoman had a history there too. And Flay’s reminder at Christmas had sparked something in her, some hidden fear or insecurity, losing her independence or… damn her, she was an impossible woman.
Now the museum was set to reopen, it was going to be a large, widely publicized event, and his name would be all over it.
Catman stared at his image in the Gotham Post with a mixture of approval and disgust, an impossible contradiction in any species but cats.
“You are not pleased, Herr Blake?” an oily voice oozed above him.
Tom Blake looked up guiltily into the eyes of Hugo Strange. Dr. Hugo Strange, who had gone to such trouble to bring about this startling transformation.
“It’s very… eye-catching,” Blake admitted.
“Indeed,” Hugo beamed proudly as he took a seat opposite Catman and turned the picture so he could view it right side up. “There are those who will say Ms. Kyle is no longer the sexiest cat-criminal in Gotham.”
Again, Blake was torn in feline contradiction: it was a satisfying thought, upstaging Catwoman, the flea-bitten she-cat who stole his press, and the prominence he deserved among the rogues—not to mention the Batman’s attention—with equal ease. But the way Hugo was preening himself, as if he was the one sweating hour after hour in the gym: weightlifting, iron cross, bodypresses, 300 crunches a day, and those tofu-vegetable smoothies that tasted like bananas, mowed grass, and wax. What had Hugo Strange done besides sit there on his lazy ass, nattering about motivation and visualizing the goal?
“Herr Cobblepot is expecting a flood of new groupies at the Iceberg,” Strange was saying. “His staff is fully briefed, they will do their utmost to direct the most promising candidates to the center.”
“I just wish they had pictured me in my cloak,” Blake remarked, finally voicing his true objection to the photo in the Post.
“Now Tom—After all we have accomplished together, I may call you Tom, may I not?”
Tom Blake nodded; it really wasn’t much to ask after all Hugo had done for him.
“Good, and you will call me Hugo.”
“Mhm,” Blake agreed, trying not to sound too reluctant.
“Good, good. Tom, you must remember that your costume is only a visual manifestation of the feline powers within you.”
“It’s not,” Blake interrupted curtly. “My cape is fashioned from the fabled fabric of Ka, imbuing me with the mythic nine lives of a cat.”
“It would have hidden your new muscles,” Hugo countered, abandoning the psychobabble pretext and zeroing in on the practical facts. “The six-pack abs, the defined veins on your forearm, the blonde highlights for which we invested $385, would all have been obscured.”
Catman looked back at his image in the Post, an image not even identifiable as “Catman” if not for the caption, and he hissed.
“And what’s the point of all this Green Arrow stuff anyway?” he asked, pointing to the text below the photo. “Why do I have to be beaten down and humiliated to turn out sexy? I can’t just look like this ‘cause I’m spending six hours in the gym each night?”
“You know I haven’t seen a single episode of Lost or Desperate Housewives?”
“Haven’t even tried that new pizza with the three kinds of cheese in the crust.”
“Sleep,” Hugo Strange ordered, snapping his fingers in Catman’s face.
Tom Blake slumped.
“Tom, I want you to visualize yourself pleased with the results of your efforts. I want you to picture yourself looking down at your photo in the Gotham Post, smiling with pride and satisfaction. And most of all, I want you to imagine yourself shutting up about Desperate Housewives and the three cheese pizza.”
The morning the tiny bat appeared on their bedroom window, Bruce identified the species as a “bumblebee bat” and Selina had pronounced it a good omen. She eyed the creature now with more misgiving. Whiskers was watching it, fascinated, as it climbed methodically up the outside of the screen, let go, circled around the spruce tree and then back to the window to start the cycle all over again.
“Wasting your time,” she told the cat, “he’s not getting in.”
Whiskers flicked an ear in her direction, acknowledging the familiar voice, but did not turn his head or move his gaze from the bat.
“Listen to me,” she grumbled. “Can’t tell a cat what to do, I know it better than anybody. Certainly can’t tell a cat what to want or not… want…”
So Whiskers had a new hobby for the next few days, it was really nothing to her. It was a bat, a real bat, a living thing. The house was built over a caveful and one had turned up above ground. Big deal. Whiskers noticed because it was something new. It was ridiculous to read anything into it. These weren’t omens or symbols or metaphors, they were living creatures and they were only doing what came naturally.
She reminded herself sharply that she wasn’t even superstitious. She’d stolen cursed antiquities once upon a time, she’d broken the seal on enchanted crypts, and only last week she’d traded barbs about demon lovemaking with Etrigan, an actual prince of hell. She was not superstitious. Her cat was captivated by a bat. He’d eventually figure out it was hopeless and move on.
She didn’t like the sound of that, but these weren’t omens or symbols; they were Whiskers and some bat from under the house. That’s all they were. Eventually Whiskers would figure out that the bat wasn’t a toy and go back to some other pastime like his catnip ball that he could actually play wi…
“I’m getting out of this room,” she muttered, Whiskers again acknowledging her voice with an ear-flick. “I’m getting out of this room, out of this house, and back into the city for a while.” She checked her watch. It was a little early still for a prowl, but she could pass the time with a quick drink at the Iceberg.
Talia al Ghul did not like mud. It was the one recurring theme in her adventures with Greg (as Gr’oriBr’di preferred to be called as a term of intimate address) that she could do without.
Camping had started out so well. It was not unlike her father’s elite training compounds in the spiny desert of Madagascar, and she had impressed Gr’oriBr’di with her knowledge. She didn’t know how to erect a tent, there were always minions to do that, but she knew to avoid tripping over the pegs and guylines. She couldn’t lay a fire, but she could warm cider over the coals. She had no idea what s’mores were (even after seeing one assembled and choking down a bite she had no idea what it was), but she could toast lavash. And while Gr’oriBr’di had never heard of the thin middle eastern bread any more than she had heard of s’mores, he seemed to enjoy it… even after they had no more caviar to pile on it and were reduced to smearing it with peanut butter… which simply wasn’t the same.
It was all going so well until the rain. There was no rain in the spiny desert of Madagascar. The very idea of sleeping in a canvas bag held aloft by a stick of wood while a virtual monsoon poured gallons of water down on you—water that turned into a revolting black ooze once it hit the ground and seeped into absolutely everything. There was no cell phone signal to find the nearest bed and breakfast or to summon a helicopter to take her there.
Then there was the motorcycle. The speed Gr’oriBr’di found so intoxicating was… well, to be perfectly honest, despite her disgust on learning what was meant by a “bug shield” and greater disgust at seeing how very poorly it served its purpose, the speed was quite exhilarating. But it did serve to coat every exposed inch of her body, and a surprising number of unexposed ones, with a resilient film of dirt in whatever state of wet or dry happened to be in the air that day. More mud. How she hated mud.
How she hated stepping off the motorcycle in those parking lots and feeling her boot sink into a muddy slime, knowing there was nothing before her but another plate of scrambled eggs, the one familiar dish the “fry cooks” in these “diners” could consistently prepare with adequacy.
She had never in her 216 years of life been so utterly miserable, but she endured it simply because it didn’t occur to her that there was an alternative. It was only when Gr’oriBr’di found her pounding dirt and gravel out of her ruined Mason Pearson hairbrush, when she burst into tears at his simple “Tee, what’s wrong, sweetie?” that she dared examine her own feelings…
“I hate this, I hate this, I hate all of this, everything, it’s awful” may not have been the most mature or articulate step ever taken on the road to self-knowledge, but Greg Brady had apprenticed with the Joker. After “HAHAHAHAHA! All the hamsters out of the microwave!,” Talia’s outburst didn’t seem so very odd.
“Okay then,” he nodded, “We’ll find a drugstore in the morning and get you a new brush.”
“NOOOO!” she wailed. A cheap drugstore hairbrush, it was the last straw, and it all came tumbling out in a torrent of words: The brush was her last tie to a life that wasn’t caked in fetid, stinking mud—a life, incidentally, in which she was a failure in every respect. She had failed at LexCorp, she failed her father, she failed to capture her Beloved’s heart, she failed at everything she had ever tried or wanted before the mud! But she still wanted more than anything to go back to it!
“Well, why on earth didn’t you say so?” Greg asked mildly when she had finished—his calm in the face of her tantrum incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t experienced “Rainy Sunday fun, HAHAHAHAHA! Human organ jigsaw puzzles, they’re fun and educational!”
..::Barbara, I hate Detroit, and I
hate Cleveland. Admit it, I’m
Barbara muted the OraCom and closed her eyes, summoning patience.
Black Canary was not being “punished.” Barbara had been giving her out-of-town assignments, but for Dinah’s own good as much as everyone else’s. She’d been making a considerable effort to make Oracle “Switzerland,” to remain neutral and dispassionate in the face of bad feeling from all sides, in the face of her own doubts about Dinah’s involvement in the Dr. Light situation and her own resentment at the pain it caused Dick. She was bending over backwards to NOT point the finger of blame, but if Dinah was so determined to read punishment and payback into everything Barbara said or did, then Barbara saw no reason to go on wasting her time. She released her mic and spoke with the crisp no-nonsense tone they all knew was the voice of the Oracle. It said do what you’re told, do it now, and chat with Babs later.
“BC, as you know we can’t retrieve every batarang that gets thrown. The ones we miss usually show up on eBay. We buy them, get them shipped to P.O. boxes in cities outside Gotham, and periodically somebody has to make the rounds and pick them up. It’s your turn, and I’m not setting up a box in Honolulu because you don’t like Cleveland.”
There was an injured pause. Then an acidic ..::Yes, ma’am, with a vengeance, ma’am.::..
Barbara shook her head and cut the line.
“Tee, if you weren’t happy, why on earth didn’t you say so?”
The question hit Talia like a slap in the face.
“Say so?” she repeated dully. Voice dissatisfaction in the life her protector decreed for her? “Gr’ori,” she began.
“Greg,” he reminded her of his given name.
“Greg,” she corrected instantly and was rewarded with a warm smile, which encouraged her to continue. “You are my protector.”
“Boyfriend,” he interrupted.
“…Boyfriend,” she hesitated, not quite so comfortable with this word as the last.
“Or love-stallion,” he joked, and she ignored him.
“It is not fitting to question one’s placement in… When I was… younger and still heir presumptive in my father’s organization, I was sent to Eger for three moons to undergo the training of the League of Assassins. It was a formality only, so I could take my place as its leader, a role befitting the Demon Head’s daughter. The scorn of my fellow students, and even the instructors, they all hated me, Gr’ori.”
“Greg. They all saw I could not perform up to the standard DEMON demanded, and yet I was there among them and destined to be placed before them all. They did not hide their contempt. The training was grueling and each day it grew worse—but I stayed. I stayed because…”
“I stayed because…” Her lip quivered.
“Your dad wanted you there?”
“And you wanted him to love you?”
She shot him a viciously hostile glare. Though she had never spoken of the camp or her feelings there to anyone, this talk of pleasing her father had a bitterly familiar ring to it.
“Talia, you can love a guy and not go along with everything he says. I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, I’ve heard the stories about you and ‘he whose name must not be uttered because this whole organization has a big ol’ stick up its butt and won’t ever use just one word if they can drag it out for twenty.’ I’ve heard the stories, and it’s a pretty sorry tale too, even for DEMON gossip: ‘Daughter, go capture the detective.’ ‘Yes, Daddy.’ ‘Talia, let me out of the holding cell.’ ‘Yes, Beloved.’ You really might want to consider slipping the occasional ‘Kiss my ass’ in there when those guys put you in the middle that way.”
He paused and looked at her sternly… and saw a daring, impish smile steal across her features.
“You little tease, you just made a joke, didn’t you?”
She giggled. “Yes, Gr’ori.”
“Oh, now you’re asking for it,” he chuckled roguishly, rolling up his sleeves, and then pounced.
Tickling, shrieking, and more markedly undemonlike giggling followed.
The first sign that something was amiss came before Catwoman even entered the Iceberg. Penguin was always changing staff and not every doorman snapped to attention as soon as he saw purple cat ears, but this was the first time she ever had to call inside for Oswald to instruct his doorman to admit her. Ozzy was understandably mortified, but for all his “thousand apologies my felicitous feline”-ing, his excuses as he escorted her inside (“Fledge is new. He didn’t realize you were the genuine article.”) made no sense.
The genuine article? It made no sense at all—until they reached the main dining room and Catwoman saw… cat-women, dozens of them, one idiot in that zipped biker getup with the goggles, several in catsuits of yellow; orange; yellow and orange; yellow, orange, and red; and one in orange, red and pink.
“What in god’s name is going on?” she asked, amazed.
“Groupies,” Oswald announced. “I take it you haven’t seen today’s Post.”
“Oh hell, what’ve they done to me now?” Selina muttered under her breath.
“Not you, my dear,” Oswald consoled. “Nothing to do with you at all.”
Catwoman’s eyes shifted sideways to regard Oswald suspiciously. “That should be a good thing, right?”
He shrugged. They had reached her usual table. Selina couldn’t help but notice it was already occupied. “I assume you two won’t mind sharing,” Oswald proposed, “We’re appallingly crowded tonight. So many –kwak– undiscriminating gawkers.”
“Evening Eddie,” Selina purred down to the figure slumped at her table.
“Hi,” he looked up.
“Hi? That’s it. Two letters, no anagrams?”
“What’s the point? Why waste the jewel of my intellect on witty badinage when I have become a GenX metrosexual prone to violent outbursts and sporting a question mark tattoo on my neck like some kind of riddling melanoma?”
Selina blinked. “Eddie, I begged you to stop taking those herbs.”
“You haven’t seen today’s Post, have you?” He slid a folded paper across the table. Selina touched it delicately with the tip of a claw, as she would testing an alarm pressure-panel.
“Do not look directly into page six,” Riddler advised.
Selina carefully unfolded the paper and gasped.
“Whoa, meow on a stick, who’s the beefcake?” she asked, wide-eyed.
“Blake,” Riddler said flatly.
Catwoman screamed, jumped up in her chair and sprung backward, eyeing the image in the tabloid with horror.
“That’s sick,” she pronounced finally. “They made… they made… I can’t say it, they made Catman buff?”
“Oh no,” Eddie said, “It’s so much worse. It’s not Photoshop this time, ‘Lina. Blake actually looks like that now.”
“I need a drink,” Selina sighed, sinking back into the chair.
“Just think how I feel. Look at the bulge he’s got stuffed into those size four safari shorts, then turn the page and look what they did to me. I’m a capon.”
“That’s it, I’m leaving.”
“Stay. I’ll buy your drink.”
“Eddie, so help me, if you use the word ‘bulge’ in reference to Tom Blake ever again, I will take out your spleen through your ear.”
“Hey, you don’t want to mess with me, ‘Lina. Turn the page, really. I may be a capon, but I’m a mean, crowbar-wielding, psychopath capon.”
Selina couldn’t help but laugh. Then she turned the page as instructed and looked at the picture. “With a tattoo,” she reminded him. “‘Cause without the riddling rash on your neck, the whole thing’s meaningless… Boy, who’s that little green spec you’re whaling on?”
Catwoman smiled a secret, vindictive smile. “Couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy,” she purred, enjoying the spectacle on the page. “You could do it for real, you know. While the air fares are low, long weekend in Star City, show the Post how the Riddler really takes on a sub-Bat hero.”
“I can’t,” Eddie sulked, “Green Arrow, who seems to be Post’s flavor-of-the-month, is also allegedly responsible for Catman’s makeover. According to the Post, they had some big throwdown last sweeps week. Arrow opens a can of whoopass on Blake, spurs him on to the whole transformation. If I go out there targeting Arrow for no reason, it’s going to look like I’m avenging Blake! No thank you, I got enough problems right now.”
Selina took a deep breath. She’d been joking, but the lengthy, impassioned response seemed to indicate that Riddler had already given the idea serious thought.
She flagged a waiter, ordered a drink, and drank it. She and Riddler watched the room full of starry-eyed cat-groupies. It was he who finally spoke.
“How did it happen, ‘Lina? We used to own this town. You and me, Joker, Oswald, then Ivy came along, Harvey, Jervis, Jonathan, Victor… Now look around. I don’t know half these people, and if I went by the Gotham Post, I wouldn’t recognize the ones I do know.”
She said nothing for a moment, then murmured softly:
“Happy birthday, Eddie.”
“How’d you know?”
“Just a guess. Forty?”
“Rather not say.”
“Mhm. Well, many happy returns.”
To be continued...