Chapter 8: Uh oh
Matt Hagen’s least favorite producer on three continents was Rick Simons. It wasn’t that the man was a criminal. He was a producer, that much was a given. It wasn’t even the lost backers, cast, and venue changes brought about by his constant efforts to cheat everyone in sight. It was the way each of those reversals was announced, gathering the cast together and proclaiming, “I have some good news and some bad news.” Good news: the show is transferring to the King’s Theatre in London’s West End; the bad news is half of you will be sacked and recast from British Equity. The good news is those of you who aren’t sacked will receive an additional $200 per week. The bad news is there’s an extension clause, so you can’t take any other work for six months although the chances are practically nil that the show will run past August.
Now that Matt knew what Catwoman really wanted, Rick’s “good news and bad news” was taking on entirely new dimensions.
She had smiled, a really lovely smile from a really lovely woman, and that was quite beguiling on its own. More beguiling still is what it meant. It meant: No, whatever Catwoman’s plan was, Ivy wasn’t going to like it one bit.
“Then I’m game,” Matt had agreed, adding in his most charming love scene delivery, “Especially if it means spending a little more time with you.”
“Pammy isn’t going to like it,” Catwoman assured him quickly, “but I’m afraid it will mean spending time with her, not with me.”
Matt had to think about that.
But then those feline eyes twinkled wickedly and she added, “But she won’t know that.”
“Ha,” he said, realizing that (of course) Catwoman wanted him for the kind of imposture only Clayface could deliver. “As long as I’m there to see the look on her face when the curtain comes down,” he said pleasantly.
So yes, there was good news and bad news, but the good outweighed the bad— except they weren’t done yet.
“The thing is, Matt,” Selina continued in a new voice, “I think it actually is possible to kill you. I think it’s Batman who knows how. And I think Ivy might have gotten to him to make him tell her how to do it.”
Matt’s reaction to that little bulletin was understandably varied:
The thought that he could “die” was not greeted with the dismay and terror most people would consider normal. One of the repeated (and disturbing) questions raised but never answered by Luthor’s “experts” was whether or not he could age. The idea of being, for lack of a better word, immortal, the idea of still being Clayface in three- or four- or five-hundred years, was not exactly appealing. But if he could die, that meant there could, ultimately, be a way out if he found himself in 2507 watching the 579th Annual Academy Awards…
Of course, the idea of IVY killing him today was not a popular one. Completely intolerable. That woman’s psychotic need to get the upper hand with anything male—and how funny that the men she hated the most were the ones she couldn’t green, the ones who could actually challenge the premise that everyone loved the Goddess Beautiful—how pathetically typical. Even Batman deserved better than that.
As for Batman, well, it figured. If anyone would work out some way to, to… that was a morbid and depressing thought, and Matt preferred to skip over the possible details of his theoretical demise. But it figured.
Clayface didn’t particularly like Batman, but being Ivy’s “love slave” wasn’t a fate he’d wish on any man. It sounded like a new circle of hell.
“Then you’ll help,” Catwoman asked when he’d dismounted his verbal seesaw.
“God, yes,” he answered.
Like before, he felt as if Rick Simons had gathered the cast together and dumped a shitload of good news and bad news on them, but at the end of tireless negotiations from a team of top-notch agents, a reasonable balance had been achieved between the good and the bad.
That is, there was balance until a deliriously happy Catwoman threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek—although, since he wasn’t expecting it, it was only a soft, cheekish area at the time she hit it and she came away all smudged with mud and looking so pleased and grateful. She was really something to look at, and now she seemed so happy and all smudged with mud that way…
It was as close to physical pleasure as Matt Hagen could get.
There is simply a fixed amount of frustration and disappointment a human being can take in one lifetime, and Dr. Bartholomew felt he was in serious danger of exceeding his limit before he ran out of life. He had tried to put aside Patient J’s unseemly interest in Ina Garten and enjoy the Barefoot Contessa as before, but it was hopeless. If it was anyone but Patient J…
He tried a few other shows. Rachel Ray and Giada De Laurentiis seemed like lovely women, but the spark just wasn’t there. He couldn’t say if it was the style of their cooking or the pace of the shows, but the magic ingredient of the Barefoot Contessa simply wasn’t there.
Since he couldn’t replace the cure, Bartholomew saw no other alternative but to cut out the disease. This consisted of a brief daydream of killing the Patient J in a number of cruel ways the mad clown himself had outlined in countless sessions. They were all described as too quick and painless an end for “Batsy” but suitable for less hated victims such as Robin, Nightwing or F. Murray Abraham. It was a pleasant way to pass the time driving to work, but Bartholomew knew he did not have murder in his heart. No, if he was going to cut the disease out of his life, it wasn’t Patient J or even the entire criminal wing of Arkham that had to go, it was Bartholomew himself.
Quit his job? When the thought first sparked, it was unthinkable. “Can a thought be unthinkable?” a corner of his mind asked in Patient Nigma’s voice—and that’s when the “unthinkable” thought erupted from a tiny spark into a raging inferno of promise and hope!
He had a nest egg, he had no children, he had a 401k he could cash in. He could take a leave of absence, a nice long vacation somewhere beautiful where they cooked delicious local specialties in quaint roadside bistros. And then, at the end of three months or so, he could simply
He would need some other job, certainly; he needed money to live. But there were other jobs in the world that all paid something and did not involve daily contact with Patient J—with Joker, if you didn’t work at Arkham, he wasn’t Patient J, he was Joker, and most jobs did not involve ANY CONTACT WITH HIM AT ALL. That was saying something. That was worth quite a lot. Yes, he might have to accept a paycut and curtail a few little luxuries, but balancing that, he would not have to see Patient J-o-k-e-r again ever.
As much as Matt Hagen missed his old life, there were undeniable perks to being Clayface. Perhaps the most precious was impersonations like this, impersonations which PROVED Matt Hagen “the action star” really was a good actor.
Playing Batman to a first tier rogue, this was going to be a highpoint of his Clayface oeuvre.
Everyone assumed that action stars couldn’t act. Matt would be the last one to call Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme actors, but he did think there was more talent required to deliver ridiculously bad lines than the highfalutin stuff. Anyone could look good doing Shakespeare—well, anyone that wasn’t Keanu Reeves. But pulling off “covert agent turned survivalist must stop Chinese mafia from smuggling explosives across international borders,” that took skill, damnit, and not the kind they taught at the Actors’ Studio. Not the kind that James Lipton got all fluttery over. It took real acting to deliver the lines those so-called writers called dialogue as if it resembled natural human speech or expressed anything approaching a viable human thought! It took real acting to not notice that you sounded like a total moron, and it took even more talent a month later working the press junket, when you had to talk up that trainwreck of a picture as if it was something you were actually proud to be a part of.
It took real acting that absolutely nobody recognized as acting. They believed it was real. Wasn’t that a better performance than the obvious stuff they gave Oscars for?
That was the kind of acting Matt Hagen excelled at, and that’s what would make tonight’s Bat performance possible.
At the cat lair, Matt had assumed a reasonable Batman shape from memory, and Catwoman had offered a few suggestions to bring the look up to date. The insignia wasn’t as round as in his day, it was a little more ovular and the yellow background had been changed to a deeper gold, Catwoman said. Also (according to the pussycat), it seemed Batman’s jaw wasn’t quite as square as Matt remembered. He was reluctant to take direction on that kind of detail, it reminded him of Cameron giving “little suggestions” for a line reading, which amounted to the exact delivery he wanted to hear, the precise tone, pace, emphasis, and facial expression. Matt always felt that intruded onto his artistic turf as an actor—but then Cameron didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. His understanding of the plot, his view of the characters, and his instincts for any aspect of storytelling other than where to point the camera were all simplistic, two-dimensional, and brain-dead. In this case, on the other hand, Matt didn’t doubt that Catwoman had more opportunities than he did to see Batman up close and personal, and she would have done so much more recently. So he acquiesced and softened the jawline until she was happy.
She even broke into Kittlemeier’s (gutsy broad) to get him an authentic cape and utility belt. Checking himself out in the mirror, Matt thought he looked perfect. But Catwoman insisted on spritzing him with some “leather scent.” She said it added authenticity—although now that Matt had reached the greenhouse, he doubted anyone inside would be able to smell anything but flowers.
Clayface-Batman entered the greenhouse like he was expected. He didn’t speak until spoken to and did his best to look adoringly at Poison Ivy, even though her back was turned and she had not yet deigned to notice him.
“You’re early,” the narcissist bitch said at last, without turning to look at him. “Could you not bear the separation a moment longer?”
Yes, standing there in the vestibule of the 28th Street greenhouse, looking tenderly at Goddess Greenleaf as if you were actually happy to be in her presence again, that took skill—and not the kind they taught at the Actors’ Studio.
It was that time. Again. Bruce hated what he was doing, but he couldn’t help himself. He bypassed the workstation, again, there was no new route to map out, again, nothing to update from the holographic citymaps into the Batmobile’s navigation matrix, again.
“Hatch open,” he ordered, again. He got in and closed the canopy, ag—
“Canopy lock,” a hard female voice declared.
He turned incredulously to the passenger seat.
“Suspend Voiceprint: Batman,” Catwoman continued calmly, “Ignition lock, Autosystems terminate.”
“What are you doing?” he rasped.
“We have to talk,” she said calmly.
“No, we don’t,” came the instant reply. “I have to—”
“Or, at least, I’ll talk,” she cut him off, “You listen. If I’m right, you don’t have to say a word. If I’m wrong, you might want to mention it.”
She paused and was met with only the clenched jaw and controlled glare that answered most of her more tantalizing rooftop propositions. So was that good news, typical Bruce at war with himself? Or was it shutting down to her? The cape and cowl version of the “tired tonight” rollover and turning off the light?
“I think something happened to you the night we were supposed to meet at Gallery Athena,” she began, easing herself into it. “I think you had an encounter with Poison Ivy and haven’t been in control since.”
She paused again. He’d twitched ever so subtly at the mention of Ivy’s name, but then he just stared straight ahead like the whole universe would split in two if he moved an inch.
“Just a reminder, silence equals yes,” she said gently.
Clenched jaw, batglare, and no disagreement. She continued.
“I think you couldn’t say anything or even hint at what was wrong, so you came up with ‘Project Walapang’ as a way to get the pertinent information into my hands without technically disobeying Ivy’s orders. Is that right?”
He looked like he was about to say something—actually, he looked like he was about to say about 28 somethings ranging from “GET THE FUCK OUT!” to “Thank GOD!”—but after a few moments of internal battle, he finally gave a curt half-hearted grunt. Given the silence-means-yes proposition, and his obvious internal thrashing, it was a completely ambiguous response. Like New Years Eve Charades at Eddie’s, Selina thought absently—which did at least supply a useful formula of words.
“I’m sorry, I need something more than that,” she said (swearing to herself on Nutmeg’s catnip mouse that she would never tell him this was how one ‘humored and handled’ a semi-inebriated Edward Nigma).
Batman struggled for a moment.
“Project Wa…” he began, then stopped and stared at the tip of his glove as his hand rested on the steering wheel. “That… was for you and you alone,” he managed at last.
“On a roll, meow.”
His lip twitched. He closed his eyes and shook his head, bewildered and, in some deep recess of his psyche, somewhat amused by the way her mind approached the problem.
“Okay, so I’m prying into places I’m not supposed to, finding numbers and looking up files with clues substituted for what’s supposed to be in there. And even at that, the clues didn’t directly implicate Ivy. I, I’m guessing that…” she stopped and winced, hating the implication of what was to follow, “I’m guessing that covered you if you can’t lie to her. In case she asked a direct question, you’d want to be able to honestly say you haven’t done anything to implicate her. Plausible deniability, as they say in political circles.”
“I haven’t. I would never—” he blurted instantly, and again he stopped, regarded the tip of his glove for a moment, and then looked at Catwoman. When he spoke again, his voice was deliberate and mechanical. “It involves no one but you.”
“I thought so,” Selina said quietly.
“I have to go now,” he murmured just as quietly.
“No. But we’ll be done soon. There’s still the why. Harley Quinn Kryptonite and Clayface. Harley and Matt Hagen had become a couple.”
“They had?” Batman interrupted sharply. It was unlike the previous outburst and Selina smiled to herself. For the first time in days, she heard a hint of the man she knew. Psychobat hadn’t known something. And Psychobat hated not being the first to know. Much as Selina was delighted to have uncovered something on her own, she was more encouraged by this spark of real Battitude.
“Guess you didn’t know that?” she grinned, figuring a healthy dose of teasing felinity might help him along. “He was ‘The Monarch of Menace,’ you really didn’t know?”
“Score an extra point for kitty,” Catwoman purred. “But if you didn’t know about Harley and Hagen, what was the Harley Quinn Kryptonite supposed to mean?”
“It was found in Hawaii,” Batman said absently. “I thought it was obvious. You were here in the cave that day. You knew… Gotham… from Hawaii… I have to go now.”
“We’ll be done soon,” Selina repeated. “And if you didn’t know before, you know now. That’s ‘the why behind the why,’ from your point of view. Harley and Clayface were an item, and Ivy is a jealous, resentful, possessive bitch. I remind you that silence equals agreement.”
His head whipped around at ‘resentful, possessive bitch’ and he glared at her intently, but after the rest of her statement, he said nothing.
“You can say that again,” Catwoman smirked. “Which brings us to why she went after you and, I think, why you’ve been able to resist her as far as you have. I made a similar mistake this morning. I told Alfred not to worry about being tactful. Didn’t work, I may as well ask Whiskers not to play with yarn. It’s against his nature and he won’t do it… Ivy asked you to kill.”
“She wants Hagen dead, and she guessed that if anyone knows how to do it, you would.”
“You’ve been holding out all this time.”
“I have to go now.”
“Waiting for me to figure it out.”
“I have to go.”
“SELINA,” he shouted, then took several deep breaths, though he hadn’t appeared to exert himself in any way, his heart had been pounding and he was visibly winded. “I have… to go… now,” he graveled in a hard, forceful, batvoice.
“You know I can’t let you do that,” Catwoman said grimly.
“You know you can’t stop me,” came the unexpectedly menacing reply.
To be continued...