Chapter 3: Bragging Rights
It wasn’t that unusual. Catwoman’s Jaguar passed the turn-off for the Bristol Country Club and continued on to the deserted stretch where the public road met the edge of the Wayne property. It wasn’t that unusual. She almost always had her fill of prowling before Batman finished late patrol. She almost always got home first. Sometimes she’d go to bed and sometimes she’d wait around the cave until he got in. She’d warm a little cocoa on the Bunsen burner, rub his neck while he worked on the logs, or chatter about her prowl. This would be one of those nights. She wouldn’t go so far as contacting Oracle to check his status, that was a little too much the fretful housefrau for Selina’s liking. But she would wait for him in the cave. She did that often enough for no reason that she was satisfied doing so tonight would not seem anxious, fussy, clingy or neurotic. After all, it really wasn’t that unusual.
Technically, he’d stood her up. They were going to meet at Gallery Athena and hit a few of her favorites on East 57th. Museums, after all, represented only a quarter of the art out there for the taking. There were auction houses, private collections, and of course, her favorite targets: galleries. Quite often, galleries bought back whatever prize she’d taken, eliminating delays, a fence’s percentage, and no end of fuss with exchange rates and Cayman bankers. It was all for the bragging rights. A Catwoman theft was a kind of endorsement. Any item worthy her attention was a piece of unquestionable quality. Plus, it lent a veneer of glamour and international intrigue which collectors loved, enabling the gallery to raise their prices across the board. Selina was looking forward to explaining it all to the judgmental jackass. He’d be so grunty and disapproving, and he was so sexy like that. The only thing sexier than Batman disapproving was Batman disapproving and stymied. In this case, once he’d grunted and scowled at the galleries’ pragmatic lenience, she could point him to a dozen collectors in Bruce Wayne’s immediate circle of friends who went all a-flutter at the chance to buy—or even ‘view with an eye to buying’—any painting, sculpture or antiquity with a cat-theft in its provenance.
But none of it happened tonight because he simply hadn’t showed. Something had obviously kept him, and there was no predicting what. Anything could happen on late patrol, no matter how quiet Gotham was these days.
It gave her a strange sense of déjà vu. When her relationship with Batman had first started to change, he began stopping by her apartment after what he called his “late patrol.” As the visits became more frequent, she’d started to, well, ‘expect’ him, and that took some getting used to. It was one thing to be prepared for Batman-the-crimefighter possibly locating a catlair after a successful heist. It was another thing entirely to be waiting to see if Batman-the-gentleman-caller dropped by after patrol. She got used to the idea after a few weeks, but tonight’s wait on the roof of Gallery Athena brought it all back: checking the time, musing about who was free and what could have happened to delay him, deciding what hour was a reasonable cutoff that, if he didn’t show by then, he wasn’t coming at all… it was a powerful emotional memory, and it left her vaguely unsettled. So she’d come home, parked in the carriage house as usual, and finessed her way through the grounds security. Instead of taking the spruce tree up to the bedroom, she took the Elms to the roof and lowered herself to the East Balcony, picked the lock on the French doors, proceeded into the study and then to the cave.
The two bats were on their low perch over the workstations and Selina waved at them. She liked the larger one. He was black, muscular, and he seemed to be snarling, which to her mind were the proper features for a bat to have. She took a bottle of water from the mini-fridge and settled in at Workstation 2. She pulled up the Gallery Athena website and perused their recent acquisitions, just as she would researching for a heist. They had a late period bronze cat in their Egyptian section, cute but not expensive at all. Only $8,500. That might be decoration for a catlair (if it really was this cute when she saw it close up), but not worth lugging around the rooftops for the pitiful resale. There was a Horus Falcon next to it, 664-30 BC, nice detail on the talons and tail feathers. Oswald would love it… $45,000. Meow. That justified the trip in, during which she could pick up the cat she liked.
She hadn’t been planning to discuss this kind of target-selection with Batman, but since their visit to the gallery itself had been delayed, this would give them something to do tonight. He would probably find it interesting, the (grunt) “thought processes of the criminal mind” (grunt) that led to taking this piece instead of that one.
She checked the time. There was still no sign of him. She yawned, catlike, like she meant it, and continued browsing the website… She found a gold amulet of Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess, wearing a sun disc…
She yawned again.
Still no Batman.
And no Batmobile.
And the cute, muscular bat had folded up his wings like he was going to sleep.
She browsed some more and found a Hellenistic armlet with lion heads capping each end…
Again she yawned… Where was he?
Matt Hagen wasn’t sentimental about roles. All shows closed, all shoots wrapped. The Monarch of Menace had run its course, so he went to the Iceberg in a new face, a thin, blonde, vaguely artsy-looking fellow he’d seen on the street. The doorman wasn’t impressed, so Matt morphed into the Monarch one last time just to get inside. As soon as he was in the door, he resumed a more familiar face, Matt Hagen as he had once been (“Hardly credible as the President, unless all the politicians died out and we were forced to elect male models instead.”—Variety) It was this face that approached Raven’s podium. Matt remembered scornfully how she’d only admitted the Monarch as Harley Quinn’s escort. But Matt Hagen, Matt Hagen’s movie star looks made her blush and stammer. She couldn’t show him to a table fast enough, a prestige table along the back wall. She handed him a menu and then—like the airline stewardess on an old Bond flick—she said Matt should let her know personally if there was anything he wanted.
Selina awoke feeling cold and uncomfortable. She opened her eyes and saw beady bat-eyes staring down at her. She stretched, yawned, and stretched again. She saw the Batmobile sitting in its hangar. She looked blearily from it towards the costume vault. He was home. Did he just leave her there?
She stretched again, feeling miserably stiff through her shoulders and back, and made her way up to the manor. Dim light was just starting to pour through the windows. It was dawn. She went upstairs and heard water running… Alfred’s room. Maybe he was getting up soon but she was ready for bed. She headed into the bedroom and saw Bruce sleeping peacefully.
“Jackass,” she hissed, removing her costume.
She slid between the sheets, too tired to wonder much about when he got home or why he’d left her in the cave. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.
Clayface wasn’t the kind of villain groupies came to the Iceberg to see. But Matt Hagen was a handsome man, and most girls hanging around hoping to meet the Riddler or Scarecrow didn’t exactly run screaming if they met him instead. (“If the real Harry Vincent looked anything like Matt Hagen, the title of Harry’s Harem would seem a lot less ironic.” –Hollywood Reporter) He found that two sour apple martinis was just about perfect. In the length of time it took one of these lovely Riddlettes or Conundrias to drink two sour apple martinis, Matt could drink in a refreshing dose of their beauty before he tired of the witless inanities coming out of their mouths. While he got no benefit from the alcohol he drank to keep up appearances, a good “shot” of looking at a pretty woman was quite invigorating.
In between groupies, the waitresses Sparrow and Jay were more than attentive, and Raven stopped by his table twice just to make sure he was fully satisfied with the service. It was after her second drop-by that Sparrow said Mr. Cobblepot wanted to see him in his office.
This time, Selina awoke feeling warm and cosseted by crisp Irish linen. She opened her eyes and saw a pretty vase of lilacs on the bedside table. And she smelled coffee.
“Much better,” she murmured into her pillow.
She rolled over—and saw the crumpled sheets beside her were empty. Bruce was already up.
“Woof,” was her only comment until she’d had her coffee, exercised, and showered. Then she went looking for him. She tried the study first, then the cave, then the library, and finally she found him in the south drawing room looking out the window. It was a nice view of the river and the city beyond, but Selina preferred seeing it from the garden just outside the window. It was the same view, but without the windows framing it like a painting, making it seem like a part of the house, Wayne property, “his” city.
“Good morning,” she purred, leaning up to kiss his cheek. “I missed you last night.”
“Morning,” he grunted after a pause.
“Any particular reason you didn’t wake me when you got in?”
“You seemed comfortable,” he said. “I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“Disturb me next time,” she told him. “I only stayed up to see you.”
He grunted and continued to look out at the city.
“If you wanted to go into town today, how about we stop in at a few galleries during business hours. They have special viewing rooms for the serious high-ticket buyers; you certainly qualify there. You can see how they’ll bring in any pieces we want to look at, to contemplate in private. It’s very useful before—”
“No,” he said harshly. Then to soften it he added, “No, I’m busy today. Tonight, too. I’ll be busy for a while.”
Selina was disappointed, naturally, but she didn’t want to press. Downtime made him edgy, she knew. And it was possible she’d been just a little too enthusiastic, told him a bit more about Catwoman’s world of art, jewels and larceny than even the Batcomputer needed to know.
But then, when she went upstairs, there was an envelope taped to the door of her suite. An envelope from the formal Wayne Manor stationary sealed with a gold W. The folded sheet inside was embossed “From the desk of Bruce Wayne.” Underneath, in familiar masculine handwriting, it read:
Please meet me in the east garden tonight at dusk.
She grinned, Cheshire style, and continued into her suite, wondering how such a gloriously strange man ever came into her life.
Alfred was piqued when Bruce didn’t appear for dinner. He’d been waiting for some sort of closure since the flowers arrived that morning. It was the first delivery from Perdita’s Florals since he’d restored the fifth arrangement for the dining room, restored it on his own authority. Now here it was, a sweet little centerpiece of white carnations set off by a modest spray of fern. Was it or was it not to be used on the dinner table after Master Bruce had personally ordered the practice discontinued?
That morning, Alfred considered approaching Miss Selina about it, for the distribution of flowers throughout the house was really a question for the mistress of the manor and Alfred was always eager for her to assume that role in any way she could… Yet even Alfred didn’t entirely believe this was his real motive for involving her.
It was a moot point anyway. She had returned home very late, even later than Master Bruce, and was sleeping in. Alfred would not disturb her for such a trivial matter. He changed out all the flowers himself, replacing the bouquets in the foyer, the master bedroom, the morning room and the south drawing room. That left only the new arrangement for the dining room, and Alfred felt uncharacteristically tentative as he transferred it to a silver basket and positioned it on the table. It seemed like the right decision when he’d placed the order, but ever since the flowers arrived that morning, he felt doubts. He wondered all day if he’d made the right decision, and what the consequences might be if he was wrong.
And then, without a word to anyone, Bruce simply didn’t show up to dinner. Miss Selina sat alone in front of the white carnations, drank her seafood consommé and ate her lobster dumpling in thoughtful silence, thanked him perfunctorily for a delicious meal, and left. He doubted she even noticed the flowers.
Alfred brought a second bowl of consommé down to the cave, the inevitable spot where Master Bruce would be found whenever he skipped a meal. But he wasn’t there, and Alfred returned to the kitchen, perplexed.
“So you’ve given it up,” Oswald observed when Matt Hagen was seated and the office door shut behind him.
“Harley gave me up,” he explained with a light c’est la vie gesture. “So I gave up the Monarch.”
“But you’ll still be –kwak– operating as before?” Oswald asked hopefully, re-calculating the proceeds from Hagen’s bank and safe deposit robberies if unhampered by Harley’s clumsiness.
“I haven’t decided,” Matt said frankly. “It’s something to do. But I don’t really need the money.”
“Nonsense,” Oswald quacked sharply. “Money is power, my dear Matthew. Money to hire men, to make payoffs where needed, to cement alliances with Rogues of a stature comparable to your own.” He paused and took a long, thoughtful puff on his cigarette, then continued. “It is because of your stature that I am willing to overlook your attentions to Raven.”
Matt Hagen raised a condescending eyebrow.
“I think you mean Raven’s attentions to me, don’t you, Ozzy old sport?”
“Raven is a valuable asset,” Oswald said testily. “One who knows how to handle the Iceberg clientele. One of those few people who won’t get everyone killed because they forget it’s Joker’s Trivia Tuesday and the correct answer to any question about coconuts is ‘African or European.’
“As such, nobodies such as henchmen, Ghost Dragons, and slumming playboys are not permitted to truck with my hostess. It disrupts the smooth operation of the well-oiled machine that is the Iceberg Lounge.” Oswald paused again and preened. “Were you not of a standing within the greater Iceberg organization, you would have already been introduced to other, less comely members of my wait staff, Raptor and Condor to be precise, who happen to be former Green Berets.”
Matt sighed. He saw where this was going and could have interrupted, but it did no harm to let Oswald complete his threat, such as it was.
“It is Raptor and Condor’s function to invite certain patrons to the Champagne Room—this being the room where they hit you with a champagne bottle, pour the contents over your clothes, deposit you in your car, crash it into the fire hydrant down the block, and notify the police.”
As Oswald spoke, Matt transformed himself in stages into a 6-foot condor, the non-descript artsy fellow with a bottle of champagne sticking out of his head, a giant fire hydrant, and finally a policeman.
“None of that works on me, Ozzy,” Officer Hagen announced for a finale.
“Indeed,” Oswald conceded, “But that is irrelevant since you are, as I say, of a standing within the Greater Iceberg Operation which offsets the taking of certain liberties.”
Matt glurped into his natural state.
“Meaning as long as Clayface is a star that’s making you money, I can pinch all the extras I want, eh? You’re a prince, Oswald, a real prince.”
Selina entered the east garden as soon as the sky began to darken. Bruce was already there, prompt as always, and she announced her presence with a rooftop meow. He turned—and grimaced.
“That’s what you’re wearing?” he asked critically.
She looked down, surprised. She was wearing what she’d worn to dinner, black silk over leopard spots.
“What’s wrong with my dress, I thought you liked this dress.”
“The note was addressed to Catwoman,” he said, looking pointedly at the animal print trim.
“It’s the east garden,” she answered, pointing around defiantly. “I figured if this was bat-business, you would have ‘summoned me’—arrogantly—to the cave (grunt).”
“Arrogance and grunting aside, the letter was still addressed to Catwoman,” he said coolly.
“You’re not in costume either, Stud,” she noted with a suggestive purr.
“That’s because it’s Bruce Wayne that wanted a meeting with Catwoman,” he explained.
“Playing poker with Harvey and Two-Face wasn’t this complicated,” Selina grumbled—mostly to herself, but Bruce obviously heard and he scowled the way he always did when she compared him to the Rogues.
“Yes, well, since you mention Dent, the process he laid out for Ra’s that time, the way someone would go about contacting Catwoman for a job, going to the Iceberg and sending a message through Penguin… Not appealing. So I did this.”
“Well Handsome, you’ve got my attention. After an intro like that, whatever the hell this is you’re up to, it’s gonna be good. Look, I can go upstairs and get changed if you want, but since I’m not as screwy-schizophrenic as most nightfolk, present company included by the way, why don’t we just sit on the bench over there, and you tell me right now what you want?”
“If it were that simple, I could have done that at breakfast,” he said, moving to the bench.
“Yes, you could, but we’re here now.”
He looked at her searchingly, seemed about to speak, but then turned away. He seemed to look around the garden, staring at nothing in particular, but Selina knew his wheels were turning.
“A complete analysis and overhaul of manor security,” he said carefully, as if testing out each word before speaking it. “Room by room, foot by foot—inch by inch, if necessary.”
Then he turned to her and spoke faster and with more animation, as if he was satisfied with the word-test and was now free to unpack the idea in detail.
“More than the simple tweaks you made to the ground security after you moved in. More than the strategies you worked out for Wayne Enterprises when we had that LexCorp problem. Selina, this is the big picture: manor, grounds and cave. A blank canvas. You can look into anything, change anything—I mean anything—in the course of devising a better system.”
“Why?” she asked, the cat’s curiosity overriding the thief’s delight in the ultimate challenge.
Bruce looked straight ahead, as if the answer was etched in the terra cotter planter.
“The Dibny murder,” he said dully. “It’s been in my head since the Dibny murder. I believe our system here is superior to the League setup the Dibnys used, but a colleague murdered in their home is apt to make anyone reexamine the strengths and weaknesses of their own personal security.”
It didn’t ring true. Selina knew this man better than anyone. She wasn’t sure if it was the reason he gave or the way he said it, but something didn’t add up. If he wasn’t actually lying, there was still something he wasn’t saying.
Plus, he was a control freak. He was the world’s foremost control freak and yet he’d just written a blank check. She could change anything she wanted, anything. He’d repeated the word, no caveats. No “You can change anything at all—except, of course, for the time set on the grandfather clock to open the passageway to the cave.” No caveats, no qualifications, and no limitations. Something was very, very wrong.
But then, as if he anticipated the danger, Bruce changed the subject before Selina could frame a question or voice any doubts.
“There is the matter of your compensation, of course.” Here he paused and delivered a startling hybrid of the playboy’s seductive grin and the knowing smile with which Bruce the businessman laid out the buyout offer you couldn’t refuse. “The Catitat is an ongoing operation, after all, and you haven’t been working since that Sub Diego job for Aquaman. So, just to make it interesting for you, I have four gold bars hidden around the house, grounds, and cave. If and when you locate any in the course of this project, they’re yours.”
Leaving the Iceberg, Matt Hagen could have settled under any roof for the night. All he really needed was a place to stay dry, a roof and a solid floor where he could glop out in his natural state and not be disturbed. Any warehouse would do, any storefront, school or restaurant that was closed for the night. He could even make do with a car in a pinch, although the seal on the doors wasn’t as tight as he liked to glop out and relax completely. But he could make do with almost anything; there was no need to return to that empty hotel room where he’d watched television. He was going back there anyway, but only for the walk.
He felt he needed to walk—and think. Oswald wanted him to continue robbing banks. It figured, Ozzy was a greedy little bird and he was making good money fencing the goods from the safe deposit boxes. Still, Matt was ambivalent about the whole thing. He only got into it for Harley; he had little use for money himself. Maybe it was power like Ozzy said, but not useful power. There were plenty of people that Matt would like to fuck over, that bitch Rebecca, just for starters. Get some payback for being turned into Clayface. But he didn’t see how any amount of money could settle those old scores.
Maybe he’d read too many of those predictable action scripts, but he just didn’t see how money would do him any good.
Still, he said he’d think about Ozzy’s proposal. Being a Gotham Rogue gave him a community. He was connected to something, to Oswald and the Iceberg and the freaks who gathered there. Of course he wasn’t about to become Oswald’s lapdog. He would decide what jobs to do, when and how he wanted to do them. Clayface was his own agent, not an operative of the Penguin.
He reached the hotel and morphed into a blind man with a guide dog to walk through the lobby. He returned to the room he’d occupied before, turned on the TV, and glopped into the viscous state he found most relaxing…
Ozzy hinted that there might be more lucrative work in Matt’s “hiring out” his shapeshifting abilities, but again that came down to money, which simply didn’t interest him. He didn’t want Oswald telling him to go impersonate some judge or town councilman to further some scheme of his own. He didn’t want Ozzy brokering deals for him to replace a museum guard for Catwoman or infiltrate an ice cream factory for Mr. Freeze. He alone would decide when and how his abilities would be used, and for what purpose, and no amount of money would tempt him otherwise.
…His personal trainer from the old days was on a reality series. That was depressing. He had to solidify a hand to change the channel. As an actor, he despised this “Reality TV” on principle, although he wouldn’t have cared at all if he was still working. As a big screen talent, television was beneath his notice and a few jobs more or less for TV actors couldn’t affect him.
Of course, Clayface was on that same movie star level, whereas the Monarch of Menace was a TV player at best. It was time he returned to Gotham for real, not in a borrowed identity, not pulling some lackluster robberies to satisfy Harley’s idea of roguedom, and certainly not as Oswald Cobblepot’s bitch. It was time to reclaim his position as Clayface.
“I’ll make sure you have everything you need by noon tomorrow.” That was the last thing Bruce had said. Like she was Patterson from marketing…
Rather than prowl in the city, Catwoman was spending the night investigating perimeter defenses around other stately homes in Bristol. Some setups were better, some worse, but since she was only gathering data rather than trying to penetrate a particular house, she had time to think. Something peculiar was going on with Bruce. Putting aside her doubts about the job itself and the reason he gave for offering it, there was that quick exit he’d pulled at the end of their meeting. He said he had to make some modifications to the utility belt before the night’s patrol—and if that wasn’t a second cousin to his “gotta prep for an early meeting” excuse he used to give the bimbos, Selina would have agreed to walk Krypto the wondermutt for a month! And then, right before slinking off to make his ‘modifications,’ he’d said, “I’ll make sure you have everything you need by noon tomorrow.” Like she was Patterson from marketing. Very, very odd.
She tried to put the questions out of her mind and focus on her work, but they kept creeping back into her thoughts, like some awful long-legged insect. They waited lurking in the shadows once she got home too, a faint undefined worry that haunted her dreams but which she couldn’t quite remember on waking. All she knew was that she woke up tired, and she decided to skip her morning workout. The bed was empty, again. Bruce must have got up first again, even though last night she’d beaten him home as usual. Again, a vague disquiet settled somewhere in the back of her mind, which she did her best to ignore. She took a hot bath instead of a shower, dressed leisurely, and only then emerged from the master bedroom. The first thing she saw was a thick manila envelope taped to the door to her suite, just as the invitation had been. She opened it curiously, and pulled out a number of large folded sheets: blueprints of the manor, survey map of the grounds, floorplans, details of the ornaments on the front entrance and the decorative molding indoors, everything from the kitchen to the drawing rooms, the great hall to the greenhouse. Everything she needed, he’d said. Well, here it was, with an hour to spare before his noon deadline.
Still, something was very odd.
To be continued...