Chapter 10: Pièce de Résistance
Great day to be a bird, it was a great day to be a bird. KWAK!
Oswald ate his dreary institutional breakfast with relish, knowing it was to be one of his last. Very soon now, he would be back in a nest of his own. The contractors had completed the new foundation, the rebuilds had cleared all the inspections certifying and recertifying that all hazards from the fire had been addressed, and the plans for Ice-3 had finally been approved by the dozen or so agencies that saw fit to meddle in his affairs. KWAK.
But he mustn’t dwell on that minutia while he was eating. Such thoughts did not aid the digestion, and the stale Arkham cinnamon bun needed all the help it could get. Oswald examined the dry specimen as he once viewed a brand new umbrella sliced by a batarang. The bun wasn’t hard exactly, not enough to pound on the table and complain you would break a tooth if you tried to eat it. It was just stale enough not to be fresh.
Ice-3. Yes, that was it, the soon-to-be-completed Ice-3. That was the thought to occupy his mind while he choked down this peasant repast. Nobody would call it Ice-3, of course, no more than they called its predecessor the Iceberg Redux. The Iceberg Lounge would always be the Iceberg Lounge, just as Oswald Cobblepot would always be the Penguin. That is what is meant by a classic, and classics were classic for a reason. From the tuxedo to the Audubon print, there are certain pinnacles of perfection that stand the test of time. They go on as they are and do not need to alter with any little twist of fashion, because they got it right the first time.
Staying power, that’s what separated the Oswald Cobblepots of the world from the Alex Ospreys. Alex Osprey. KWAK. Couldn’t even get the alliteration right. It should have been Oscar Osprey, surely. A young birdbrain who thought the Penguin was an outdated figure, clinging to outmoded ideas and afraid of change, ready to be swept away by the sharp-beaked young chicks. And how far did he get, hm? Osprey Man. He came up with a name. He challenged Penguin how many times? Two-kwak? Three-kwak? And then he was felled by Batgirl. By Batgirl! Not even the mean little one. The first one. The klutzy little bat-cheerleader.
Playing at being a rogue, that’s all he was doing. Osprey Man. It was unlikely his own mother remembered him now. The one time Oswald inquired, it was thought he’d gone to Canada and become a lumberjack. Oswald didn’t know there still were lumberjacks, but Ivy assured him that there were, too many in fact, and promptly went off to reduce their population. It was unknown if Alex Osprey survived the slaughter.
Oswald finished his roll and dabbed the corner of his mouth with a napkin.
It was the same in business, really. Closing the deal was the whole point. Anyone could amuse themselves thinking up a scheme. Anyone could play at being a businessman negotiating (although if they were no better at it than Saul Vics, they should not attempt it with the likes of Oswald Cobblepot). But if they couldn’t see it through to the end, they were nothing more than a cracked egg cluttering up the nest.
Oswald was a closer, and now that he could rebuild his club unfettered, it was time to remove himself from Arkham. Now that his stale sticky bun was chewed and swallowed, it was time to set his plans in motion.
It was Raven rather than Sly who opened the Flick Theatre’s service door for Selina, and Selina had a hunch that her easy admittance had nothing to do with the excuse she gave for dropping by. True, the Flick had been Harvey’s home, and true, he needed his swimming trunks if he was going to come cruising with her and Bruce on the Gatta. True, he had left some CDs behind that would be nice to have with him to pass the time at Binky’s. True, there was a backlog of mail with a GQ, Maxim, and Law Review that he’d also like to have. Selina had taken care that every detail of her cover story would stand up to scrutiny… but Raven didn’t care. Raven just wanted someone to complain to.
She told Selina that she wasn’t naïve when she first went to work at the Iceberg. She knew who Oswald Cobblepot was, what he was, and she had armed herself thoroughly. The one time he asked her to come in early, before the nightclub would be open for business, she had shown him her brass knuckles, pepper spray, and the business card of one Morris Kleinschmidt, sexual harassment attorney. Her problem now was Sly. Sly was no Oswald. Oswald Cobblepot was the notorious Penguin. Sly was a sweetie of a guy. He’d gone to all this trouble to get Vault started just so the girls could stay together until the Iceberg was up and running again. She couldn’t go showing him brass knuckles and pepper spray just because he asked her to come in a couple mornings and sign for some deliveries. Except, Raven went on, he was asking, like, every other day. She was a hostess; she worked late. She didn’t even like being up at this hour. Surely, Selina must understand what that was like, being a night person and all. Plus, the deliverymen were pretty fresh. Raven could handle that; she handled fresh loudmouth assholes all the time at work. But dealing with it on the job made it that much more of a pain to come in at the crack of dawn (it was 11:15) and put up with even more.
Selina made sympathetic noises and escaped to Harvey’s quarters as quickly as she could.
Apart from the kitchen, Vault hadn’t touched the rooms that Harvey Dent actually lived in. They remained private and isolated from the nightclub, and Selina had no trouble locating the magazines, CDs, and swimming trunks she’d been sent for. She was amused to see the latter were still two-tone. How often did a man really wear swimming trunks, after all? Harvey probably had no occasion to wear them since Two-Face, and if he did, he probably didn’t think they were worth replacing.
Her cover story covered, she left Harvey’s quarters and made her way to the Vault VIP room and then to the mystery door.
..::That took long enough,::.. an acid voice graveled in her ear.
“I wondered when you’d pipe up,” Selina murmured.
He couldn’t hear. The sunglasses he’d equipped her with had a low frequency microspeaker just behind her ear and a pinpoint video camera embedded in the frame. But no microphone. Bruce could see what she saw, and he could talk to her. She couldn’t talk back. In other words, it was a typical piece of Bat-tech from the control freak technophile.
The door was unlocked. It led to a short hallway with a second door that had a small window to peer inside. The room beyond was the projection booth. Through the small window, Selina could see two men working on laptops.
..::That’s Raptor and Tremor::.. Bruce informed her—which made her long for a microphone to give him what for. She knew who Raptor and Tremor were, for god’s sake. Tremor worked for HER once before he hooked up with Scarecrow. (What had she called him? Mungo? Manx?) Raptor was Penguin’s man from way back. Anyone who was anyone in Rogue circles knew him.
..::That crutch against the wall must be Tremor’s,::.. Bruce observed.
Selina couldn’t see either man’s legs, which meant that Bruce couldn’t either. But only last week, Batman had surprised a number of Scarecrow henchmen setting up a new lair. It made sense that he knew what lowlifes he’d roughed up recently.
Selina opened the door brusquely—which brought a howl of protest in her ear. She ignored it. As far as the world was concerned, she was the boss of all things Iceberg/Vault. That meant these guys worked for her. If they happened to know that they didn’t, well, Mungo-Manx used to. And what she was going to ask was a trifle that no henchman would refuse a rogue of her stature.
“How’s it going, gentleman?” she asked with the light tone that meant “Hi, hello,” not a serious question expecting an answer. That was the mistake cops and crimefighters always made in these situations: blundering in, asking searching questions, subtle as a brick. Blundering and obvious was not the feline way.
Both men made the expected, noncommittal grumblings that also meant “Hi, hello” and Selina took it as such. From her new vantage point, she could see Tremor’s foot in a light brace and placed a mental check next to Bruce’s deduction about the crutch. Then she turned her full attention to the senior man.
“Raptor, would you run downstairs and stay with Raven until the deliveries come. Seems the deliverymen are a bit tiresome when she’s all alone down there. Feel free to scare the tar out of them.”
It was such a reasonable request, and Raptor stood, raising his hand halfway to his hairline as if giving a fleeting salute as he went. When he was gone, Selina glanced casually around the room, while Bruce grumbled that he was glad she pulled it off but it was a hell of a risk to take. Selina growled to herself that since he couldn’t hear, he couldn’t know she’d taken any “risk” at all and was just being a jackass. Then she sat regally in Raptor’s vacated seat, and gave Tremor her full attention.
“Of course, scaring the living tar out of them would be more in your line,” Selina offered sweetly. “But with the crutches, I figured you wouldn’t want to bother going downstairs.”
“Thanks,” he said sheepishly, touching the leg brace. “Guess you heard, I had some Bat-trouble last week.”
“Happens to the best of us,” she smiled. “Tremor, isn’t it?”
“Oh, please, Catwoman, you can still call me Malkin.”
(Malkin! That was it, he was Malkin.)
“It sounds more like an actual name,” he grinned.
“Malkin it is. How are you adjusting to all this,” she nodded towards the laptop. “After your ‘bat trouble.’”
“Raptor says I suck. I guess he’s right. All kinda new to me. Jackin’ up the price of PEZ dispensers and Pokémon cards. But I gotta do something while I’m on the mend, right?”
“Y-yes,” Selina said cautiously. “What did the PEZ dispenser finally go for?”
As she said this, she peered at the screen of his laptop, giving Bruce a good look as well. Several browser windows were open, all displaying auction pages on Ebay.
“Four hundred. Chickadee bought it. Raptor says she works from home.”
“Uh oh,” Tremor said, refreshing his screen several times. “Somebody’s bidding up this Egyptian hookah. Tutelar7, I don’t think that’s…” He trailed off as he checked a legal pad with a list of usernames, and then looked back at the screen. “No, it’s not one of ours. I wonder what I should do. Let him have it, you think? Or keep it in the circle?”
Selina shrugged. She guessed Tutelar7 was Bruce helping her clear the room.
“I better ask Raptor,” Tremor said, maneuvering to his feet and picking up the crutch. “Can’t afford another screwup like yesterday with the Xena Bobbleheads.”
Selina managed not to react, even when Bruce—who still couldn’t hear but who could read lips—chimed in with an astonished ..::Did he say Xenon bobbly head?::..
“I’ll explain later,” she muttered once Tremor was gone. Bruce couldn’t hear that either, but she felt better for saying it.
..::Damnit, I wish I had outfitted you with a full utility kit. You could use the BatSpy to plant a virus that would copy all the files from those computers to Oracle and track—What is that?::..
Selina was holding her own “BatSpy” up to the camera. Her USB chip, no larger than a thumbnail and not much thicker than a postage stamp, was purple where his was black. And instead of the inevitable Bat emblem on its tiny face, hers had a simple sticker with a capital letter K, for Kittlemeier, placed imperfectly over the Sony logo.
..::Do Raptor’s machine first,::.. Bruce said without further comment. ..::Then get out of there. They could come back at any time.::..
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Selina whispered, hurriedly attaching her own cyberspying device on Raptor’s laptop and wondering, for the hundredth time today, just what kind of rogue pinup girl he thought she was all those years.
Did he really think she needed one of his bat-gadgets to steal some data off a laptop? Granted, her way wasn’t as sophisticated as his. She wasn’t going to broadcast all Raptor’s files to her own satellite to be downloaded to her personal superhacker’s master mainframe and then monitor everything he did on this machine forevermore. She was just taking a snapshot of the hard drive—or at least five gig of the most recently accessed files on the hard drive—which had always been enough to get the museum blueprints, guards’ duty roster, or guest lists for the big fundraiser. It would be more than enough for Operation: Bat-snoop, and if for any reason it wasn’t, the all-seeing Oracle would soon know the Ebay accounts these guys were using, as well as the building they were logging on from. She would have no trouble hacking in in her usual way and getting Bat-prick anything else he needed.
“So there,” Selina said, as if she was actually arguing it through with Bruce.
She withdrew her chip, slipped it back into her purse, and left.
The most important decision Oswald faced was who to appoint as his deputy in Arkham. Someone had to manage the collective bargaining unit, forward the prepaid requests to Saul Vics as they were redeemed, and, most importantly, collect future bribes and forward Oswald’s cut.
Arkham staff was out of the question. He would be assigning a vulture to deliver raw meat. But there were several quality candidates to consider among the inmates.
Ventriloquist, for instance. The Scarface dummy offered a perfect place to hide contraband and cash. On the other hand, the Scarface persona was a loudmouth, hardly a desirable quality in a deputy. Then too, new doctors were forever coming along and attempting different “cures.” Arnold Weskers never knew what approach was in vogue and when the doll might be taken away from him. It would be terrible to have the totem of his identity confiscated with several thousand dollars of Oswald’s money crammed in its keister.
Crazy Quilt and Signalman were both in residence, but Oswald felt they really were too smalltime to represent Iceberg interests with the very top tier rogues like Joker and Poison Ivy.
He briefly considered Roxy Rocket, even though she wasn’t in Arkham at the moment. She was so eager to put herself in danger, she would have no problem marching up to Joker, tapping him on the shoulder, and telling him if he didn’t pay up “like now!” she’d have to smack him around. On the other hand, there was a firm rule about letting an ex handle your money. Any ex for any reason, even if she didn’t remember she was an ex and denied all knowledge of a certain coatroom at a certain Christmas party. Plus, Roxy’s bluster hid a rat’s nest of insecurities, particularly where first tier rogues were concerned. She would have no trouble threatening Joker or Ivy, but someone with a lighter touch like Strange or Scarecrow, someone that could play on her insecurities, could maneuver her into just about anything… which, come to think of it, was how Oswald got her into the coatroom in the first place.
Clock King was looking like the best choice. In terms of Iceberg prestige, he cut a poorer figure than Signalman or Crazy Quilt. But Temple Fugate had one quality the other smalltimers lacked: he had an absolute fetish for applying late fees and compounding interest. That took the sting out of picking someone from the middle of the heap.
Oswald really couldn’t see an anal-retentive clockwatcher like Fugate braving decapitation and dismemberment to collect from someone like KGBeast, but that’s what subcontractors were for. Oswald would mention in passing that Killer Croc was an excellent companion to have when calling on more difficult clients—although he would also stress that if Fugate brought Croc onboard, Fugate was responsible for paying him. Undoubtedly, there would be a needlessly complicated timetable where the contact at the Wing Shack would be driving by the south wall at precisely 5:23, and if the cash (“which Mr. Nigma seems to be holding”) did not fly over the wall at 5:24, the Assorted Mega Platter would not fly over the wall at 5:25. Amusing as the mental image was—Croc picking the Riddler up like a salt shaker and shaking out the cash in time to make the 5:24 delivery of hot wings—it really was none of Oswald’s business how his deputies chose to motivate their subordinates.
Bruce was waiting in the cave when Selina returned to the manor. She held up her tiny, purple USB chip the way she would a cat treat for Whiskers.
“Who’s your favorite queen of the underworld?” she asked playfully.
Bruce took the chip from her fingers and scowled.
“So, where’s the information?” he asked, examining the chip, front and back.
“You’re holding it, Stud.”
“What, transmitted to some account you can access with a keycode on here or—”
“No. Just what I said. On there.”
He did a doubletake, down at the chip in his hand and up at her again. Selina explained that her device didn’t install any fancy virus or trapdoor. It was really just a very small thumbdrive with a nice little routine to grab the most recent files.
“So you just take them?” he said.
Selina raised an eyebrow and gave a ‘surely we established that long ago’ stare.
Again, Bruce scowled at the chip in his hand. It was just a thumb drive.
“Sony,” he noted. “It’s not even WayneTech?”
“Do you make them that small?”
“We do now,” he graveled, closing his fist around it.
Selina laughed brightly.
“Whoever said you’re not fun to partner with, doesn’t know the meaning of the word,” she grinned to herself. “Okay, Handsome, you’ve got your data. I’ll leave you to it and come back in a little while with lunch. How much time do you think you’ll need?”
There was no answer. Bruce had already taken the chip back to his workstation and was completely focused indexing the new files.
Next order of business: finding a nest. Oswald wanted to be situated close enough to the Iceberg that he could keep a beady eye on the construction, but not so close that the thrice-damned noise kept him awake. Otherwise, he might stay where he was, suffering the intermittent pounding on his wall whenever Ivy had a complaint.
Harvey had evidently moved to some posh apartment off the park, the Upper East Side, which did seem a waste. If anyone was to enjoy such proximity to the true elite of Gotham society, it should have been Oswald himself. Nevertheless, attempts to contact Harvey about a spare room in his new digs proved futile. Harvey wasn’t returning his calls, and the one time Oswald did make contact, Harvey only made an insulting remark about “not wanting to know what that feathery thing is in the shower.”
Oswald deferred finding out more about exactly where Harvey was living and why. If a man would cast aspersions on the good name of feathers—KWAK!—there was no living with him. Oswald returned his attention to the downtown neighborhoods nearest the Iceberg lot. There were some passably nice hotels, and Oswald did enjoy being waited on… if only it weren’t for the expense. Victor Frieze suggested the old slip and fall routine and even offered the loan of a freeze ray to create a credible patch of ice. But Oswald felt that really was beneath his dignity. Also, Victor wanted a $200 credit on his Arkham card in exchange for the use of the freeze ray.
Oswald did like the root idea, however, that of blackmailing the hotel. He searched his rolodex for some general manager with a weakness for arena football or all night poker games. He searched and searched… and bemoaned for the hundredth time what a pity it was that Clayface deal didn’t work out. With Matt Hagen’s help, he could have blackmailed anyone with a face. And after all, kwak, who didn’t have a face?
At the end of an hour, Oswald was in despair. The only chap he could think of with gambling debts worked in a café at the Essex Inn, a full 30 blocks from the Iceberg, and what use would the guy in the restaurant be anyway?
It was such a handicap, having to rely on what people actually did. What were the chances he was going to find a person with the necessary authority at a hotel near the Iceberg that just happened to play the ponies with one of his bookies? Damn that Hagen! If only he’d…
Well that was a thought.
The appeal of a Clayface Blackmail Anyone scheme—apart from an amusing “clay pigeon” play on words—was that you could manufacture photographic evidence of whatever you needed the mark to do in order to be blackmailed. While Oswald could not, on his own, get a picture of the Brinkmore general manager in bed with a whore, he could discreetly admit any number of working girls to the hotel in the course of his stay, traipse them back and forth in front of the security cameras, and then threaten to go to the police because a respectable figure like Oswald Cobblepot must not be seen frequenting THAT kind of hotel—kwak!
Yes, that would work nicely. A fine scheme right out of the Yakuza playbook. He liked the Yakuza. Always paid their tabs on time. Not quite as free with their money as Ghost Dragons, but much more so than those constipated Triads or the tightwad Falcones.
And soon they would all be lined up at his bar again, drinking igloos from souvenir glasses, theirs to take home for an additional $4.95. Yes, it was a fine day to be a bird.
Alfred was glad for the company while he prepared the lunch tray for the cave. He would have been happier serving in the dining room, naturally. In the weeks Miss Selina was away, Master Bruce had fallen back on old habits. Alfred still brought breakfast to the bedroom on a tray, or laid it out in the dining room to lure Bruce out of bed if there was early business at WE. But lunches and dinners had been taken more and more often in the cave, until finally there was no longer any question.
Alfred hadn’t planned to mention this to Selina, but she raised the subject herself, had she but known it, when she noticed the cutlets. The breaded cutlets of steak, pork, or chicken had once been a staple of Wayne Manor menus. The breading was highly seasoned, which discouraged the bats. And while the cutlets were tasty enough served hot as an entree, they really came into their own as leftovers. Served cold on an open-faced sandwich, with a dollop of mustard and perhaps a cup of chilled romaine soup, they made an absolutely delicious lunch. Given the number of dinners Alfred had served in the Batcave only to collect untouched a few hours later, he had developed a number of these recipes that could be “recycled,” as it were, into tasty and nutritious lunches that lived up to the Wayne Manor standard.
In recent months, particularly in that period after the Gotham Post party when so many of Batman’s usual enemies were incarcerated, meals in the dining room had become so frequent that Alfred phased out the cold cutlet and soup combos. Though Selina approved his menus each day when she was in residence, she hadn’t noticed their disappearance until their return.
Alfred explained the whole history to her now, since she had asked.
“And now the cutlets are back,” she noted, “meaning that he’s gone back to eating in the cave all the time while I was away?”
“Yes, miss,” Alfred nodded, pausing at the refrigerator door to consider that he had given Master Bruce the romaine soup twice already this week, and considering vichyssoise or watercress in its place.
“I’m on it,” Selina grinned, feeling it was her job to keep Bruce’s humanity quotient at acceptable levels.
Place to live—check.
Someone to pluck the pigeons in his absence—check.
Being absent… that was turning out to be more difficult than expected.
Oswald never considered that it might be a challenge to have himself declared sane. He actually was sane, whereas the rest of these loony birds (very good customers and esteemed fellow rogues, but loony birds all the same) got released all the time.
All he had to do, so he imagined, was go into Bartholomew’s office, say the first inkblot looked like the Golden Gate Bridge instead of a Golden Crested Finch, the second looked like a bust of Shakespeare instead of that statue of Washington Irving that all the pigeons roost on in Robinson Park, and the third looked like… something else having nothing to do with birds.
When that had no effect, he thought the next image resembled his sweet, former hostess, Raven, but she appeared to be off in the distance, as if wandering the dark and frightening streets of Gotham, forlorn and perhaps homeless. For how long could one go on without a job? The next inkblot also looked like a woman, one sitting on the edge of the bed—right there, do you see?—and hinting to her paramour that they should cohabitate and thus spare her the expense of city rents. The next? What a large, bossy woman that one depicted. Someone’s mother dropping in for a lengthy visit now that her sweet little girl had moved in with the perverted old man she was sleeping with.
That would do it, Oswald was sure.
But days had passed and still there was no mention of a release date. Now that the rest of Oswald’s plans were in place, he really couldn’t wait any longer for Bartholomew to nudge him out of the nest.
He also couldn’t come up with any more nightmare scenarios to draw from a meaningless blotch from a leaky pen.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. His next session, Oswald would have a breakthrough. He would realize he'd been wasting his gifts all these years, challenging the Batman and pursuing unlimited wealth and power. Such paltry goals, when all the while, he should have been teaching the fundamentals of business to inner city youths…
When Selina returned to the cave, she found Bruce muttering “that wily bird” over and over.
“That’s the mantra,” she said lightly, setting down the lunch tray. “Sometimes interspersed with ‘I’m going to kill that wily bird.’”
Bruce grunted and reached absently for the cup of soup, brought it to his lips and began to sip—and then pulled the cup back with a start. It contained no liquid, only a small slip of paper.
“It’s an IOU,” Selina said. “Alfred and I decided there really has to be a limit to how many meals in a row you can eat down here, and you have definitely exceeded it.”
“You and Alfred decided… This is my house,” Bruce sputtered.
“And that’s why Alfred has made you such a delicious lunch. So, unless this Oswald thing is going to require holograms or live bats as visual aids, you can tell me about it upstairs while we eat.”
Bruce’s lip twitched.
“And if it does require holograms and live bats to explain?”
“Ooh, he’s playful now. If there’s going to be a hologram of Ozzy, I’ll see it on an empty stomach, thank you. But make it quick, because the chilled watercress soup won’t stay chilled forever.”
“You’re an impossible woman,” he noted, switching off the monitor.
Once again, the fifty-minute session was drawing to a close with no talk of Oswald preparing himself to rejoin society. Any moment now, Bartholomew would intone the dreaded, “I think we’re about out of time,” and it would be another week or more of stale breakfast rolls and contractors working unsupervised.
Perhaps something more Freudian was needed. Perhaps he should realize he was kicked out of the nest too soon. Too soon. To try to fly… No, that was starting to sound like a haiku. And if he went on to reference his half-formed featherless stubs, that might offer a nice psychobabble rationale for the birds, but it also sounded a bit cuckoo. If he wanted to sound SANE, there was no point in being original or poetic. If only he had been tall or good looking, yes, that was more like it, captain of the football team or class president, maybe then! Maybe then… two-second pause to wipe an unmanly tear… maybe then, his father would have loved him.
That should do it. That really should do it. Bartholomew would try to conceal a satisfied grin, much like Catman when he walked into the Iceberg and saw that Selina was not present.
“I think it's just that… when I got into crime… no excuses here… but… it was as if I had finally found something I was good at… really, truly good at… and I thought…if I could just be successful somewhere, anywhere in my life… maybe, somehow my dad would be proud of me…”
Oswald sat back in his chair, as if wanting to examine this speech from a distance. Was it too much? No, it was just the thing. He held up his hand, as if it held an imaginary skull to which he could deliver his soliloquy.
“Maybe he would show up at the Iceberg one night… The place would be jumping… Celebrities… the upper crust… everyone having a good time… and he would see that I was worthy of being his son… He would say out loud, before the world, and for the first time ever… ‘This is my son…’” Two-second pause to stifle an unmanly sniff. “This is my son. Oswald Cobblepot III… and I love him.”
Oswald nodded at his own dialogue. If the heartless brute was unmoved at that, there was no hope for it. Oswald would decide that Bartholomew resembled his father and start harassing the man day and night for the coveted paternal affection, until finally the miserable shrink would have no choice but to release Oswald in order to escape. Kwak!
Alfred stood at the sideboard, trying to look like an attentive servant rather than a victorious general as Bruce and Selina seated themselves in the dining room.
“It’s an amazingly sophisticated money laundering scheme,” Bruce announced, filling his plate.
“Ebay?” Selina laughed. “Banged up henchmen on laptops selling crap on Ebay?”
“That’s only one part of a three pronged operation. Ebay seems to cover the bulk of his regular underground income: the gambling, smuggling, and fencing the usual levels of stolen goods per month.”
“The ‘usual levels?’ So if I brought him a Monet and he sold it—”
“Did you ever bring him a Monet?” Bruce interrupted.
“I’m not telling you that,” came the coy, naughty-grinned reply.
The grunt that followed meant “I’ll find out.” Selina took it as such, and continued.
“So, if I brought him a Monet and he sold it to some Japanese nouveau riche for $3 million, even after he pays me, his cut is going to be too much for these henchmen to cover up selling PEZ dispensers back and forth.”
“Correct, especially on top of their usual monthly cash flow. So for large amounts from a single one-time transaction, he has this circle of lawyers.”
“Lawyers? That doesn’t sound like Oswald at all. ‘First thing we do is kill all the lawyers’ is the only Shakespeare he knows. Harvey used to pay him twenty bucks a month not to quote it in front of Joker.”
“Typical clumsy subterfuge. He owns five lawyers in these sorry, one-man practices in Brighton Beach, little more than a painted nameplate on a door with a mail slot. They handle bogus civil suits of no interest to law enforcement, concocted by his men. A sues B for negligence. B sues C for copyright infringement. C sues D for breach of contract. All are settled out of court, and at each step, Cobblepot’s lawyers take forty percent of the settlement. Five or six rounds of that and the proceeds from your Monet are indistinguishable from legitimate income.”
“It’s got style.”
“It’s stupid. It leaves the worst paper trail of the three. Now that I know where to look, the lawyers involved, the patterns of suits filed and settled, those will be the easiest washes to spot. And once I nail down the timing, how long after a given deal it takes him to dispose of the proceeds, then I’ll be able to work backwards and determine the precise crimes he was laundering.”
“Well, if you do stumble upon a Monet, it isn’t me,” Selina winked. “I was at Martha’s Vineyard at the time.”
Bruce’s lip twitched, then he turned serious.
“Unfortunately, Oswald knew the lawsuits were the weakest method. He only used it for big one-time deals. A large, sudden inflow of cash that had to be explained.”
“Okay, so Ebay and lawsuits. You said there were three?”
“For regular payments: protection, tribute, and the like, he has a fake collection agency collecting on bogus student loans. It’s not particularly clever; anyone can see the payees are unlikely students. But they’re also a category that won’t cooperate with authorities. They’ll work harder than Oswald would to avoid answering questions, so he probably feels he’s safe.”
“But he’s not,” Selina’s eyes gleamed.
“Now that I know what he’s doing? No. He’s not.”
Free as a bird! Within minutes, Oswald Cobblepot would be living out the one ornithological expression he had not dissected for Dr. Bartholomew: he would be free as a bird. The simile was drawn from flight, obviously, for what creatures are freer than those who can fly? Not even gravity may imprison a bird, and no mere fence or wall or stream may one hold back. And yet, the expression did not limit itself to birds that flew. The Penguin might be a flightless bird, but he too was free once these last forms were signed and his belongings handed over.
It was loving himself that did it. “But I see now, I see it so clearly, Doc. What good is it being loved by my father… being loved by the whole world even… if I can't love myself. I want to love myself, Doctor. Can you help me? Can you help me find the courage to finally love myself?”
“Sign here, and here, and initial there.”
“My good woman,” Oswald drew himself up with magnificent hauteur, “perhaps the riff raff you normally ‘process’ affix their signature to any line you say in their reckless haste to leave this institution. Oswald Cobblepot is no such creature. I shall read every word of this frightfully small print, and if I find I am acknowledging receipt of one item less than I have received, I shall be having words with your supervisor-kwak!”
The clerk didn’t react. Most patients from the criminal wing were unpleasant when they were released (although no one had ever quacked before). But still, the sign out desk was a good gig and worth putting up with almost anything. It was the one place none of them were dangerous. They might be five minutes before they got here, and they certainly were five minutes later once they walked out the door. But in that narrow span of time between seeing the front door and passing through it, they were on their best no-kill no-threaten no-freeze no-green no-morph behavior.
“My antique parasol appears to have a scratch that you will see is not mentioned in the admittance paperwork. I—and indeed any impartial jury—would be forced to conclude that the scratch was not present when I was admitted and this priceless antique was entrusted to your care. I must insist that this be noted on all three of these forms—that is the downside to triplicate, my dear, although I’m sure you have no say in the paperwork that is assigned. Please make the necessary changes—in ink—here, here, and here, and then (and only then) shall I sign. My lawyers will be in touch next week about suitable compensation… Excellent, that’s the personal property taken of. Now, about these supplemental releases…”
It took half an hour to dispense with the paperwork, and at last Oswald Cobblepot strode through the doors of Arkham Asylum to breathe the free air of Gotham once more. He was about to renew his musings on that delightful expression “free as a bird” when he saw he was being approached by a panhandler.
“Oswald Cobblepot?” the man said.
So not a panhandler. Perhaps a chauffer? Perhaps some sort of car service for released inmates needing a lift back to town?
“I am Oswald Cobblepot, yes,” he nodded.
“Subpoena, Internal Revenue Service. Subpoena, Internet Commerce Bureau. Subpoena, Interstate Trade Commission. Subpoena, Inter Gotham Alliance. Subpoena International Banking and…”
Oswald fled back into the asylum, pounding his fist on the admissions desk and renouncing all claims of sanity. He screamed hysterically about the birdy eyed beads or the beady eyed bats, or no, the batty shaped beetles that were looking at him funny! They were out there, lurking, waiting, waiting do you hear? Waiting to swoop down and (serve him with 147 subpoenas) peck his eyes out!
Bartholomew was sent for, and Oswald pointed feverishly to the door, explaining again about the poison fang demons waiting to (deliver 13 notices of asset seizure) eat his liver.
A shot was ordered, something to calm him down. And he explained, as the nice orderly plunged a syringe into his arm, about the soul-sucking succubae (the Internal Revenue Service), the fire belching banshees (Interstate Trade Commission), the five-headed goat beast (and other nasty things beginning with Inter)…
Bruce preferred getting fully into costume before pulling the At Large list and plotting out the night’s patrol. He had changed into the tunic, leggings, boots and cowl. But he postponed the gloves and cape until after he checked the new utility belt. He was halfway through the inventory when he noticed the bats outside had grown quiet. Then he heard the distant clip-clip of high heels approaching the costume vault.
“Knock knock,” Selina called before she reached the door. “Are you decent—Oh shit, you are.”
She was in costume as well, but without her mask, which made him feel somehow overdressed.
“Well, at least I caught you before you left,” she purred.
“Need a ride into town?” he asked, deciding the inventory was complete and hurriedly attaching the belt.
“No, I just wanted to tell you something.”
He looked up. Something about the way she said it sounded… significant.
“I had fun.” She said it simply enough, but as she continued, she had stepped in closer, too close, the way she used to when she wanted to tempt him. “Zurich. Metropolis before that. Going to Vault with Matches and then going back on my own…” A fingertip danced along the top ridge of his belt as she looked into his eyes and repeated “I had fun.”
“We’re talking about the ‘C’ word?” he graveled, the ominous bat-voice an automatic defense when she threw him a curve.
His lip twitched, and he reached for the cape.
“Well… good. Does this mean—”
“No. It absolutely does not mean I’m going to exchange prowls for patrols. I just wanted you to know that… that it was good. And I hope we can do it again sometime.”
“So…” It was the bat-gravel again, but this time it wasn’t covering uncertainty. This time it was a deep, seductive murmur, not unlike Catwoman’s when she really wanted to tempt him. “The next time I want your help with something like Cobblepot’s money laundering…?”
“You can just ask.”
“Without you chartering a plane and running off to Switzerland?”
“Right. As long as there’s no blood dripping from your fangs while you sing an aria about finally nailing the one that got away.”
“You picked the wrong night to say that,” Batman growled. As he spoke, he pulled the glove down tightly over his hand and made a fist as if savoring the sensation.
“Ah,” Selina smiled, aroused as always by the menacing flashes of Psychobat that others found terrifying. “I thought I detected an unspoken ‘woof’ earlier when the news came in about Oswald. You’re not happy with the resolution?”
“It’s good that he’s back inside and going to be hiding there for a good long time. His organization is crippled, assets seized, bank accounts frozen. But it wasn’t… satisfying.” Before the last word, he ground the gloved fist into his bare palm and his eyes blazed with an ancient hatred.
“Meaning you didn’t get to beat anybody up,” Selina said dryly.
“Something like that.”
“It’s going to be a shitty night for muggers, isn’t it?”
He smiled, the slow, wicked smile seldom seen in the cowl. Then it faded, and with a final, casual tug at the cape clip, Batman seemed ready to go.
Before he did, Selina had one final thing to say, and she said it with uncharacteristic seriousness.
“It isn’t over, you know? ‘Queen of the underworld.’ Even if you got the bulk of Ozzy’s money and most of the small fry, Vault is still open for business and my new reputation right along with it.”
“I knew it,” Batman said softly, shaking his head as he turned away. “Any time you offer to help, it’s trouble.”