Chapter 1: Catbird Seat
It seemed like we just got back from Metropolis. Now, not a week later I found myself on Flight 19, Bludhaven to Zurich, and I couldn’t really say why—other than it was Bruce’s fault.
The Boeing 737 was a nice ride, but it was no Wayne One. I couldn’t very well ask to use his plane for this little jaunt when technically he wasn’t supposed to know I was gone. So I was slumming it with fifty-five other passengers, an “all business class” flight, which meant comfortable seats and a good dinner, slippers and aromatherapy gel, all those little amenities that are so impressive until one of the world’s richest men spoils you rotten flying you around in his private plane.
He does spoil me.
What was I doing? Bruce had been nothing but generous and loving since the day he told me his name. Now I was sneaking out of the country while he was on patrol. I had driven all the way to Bludhaven to catch this flight and it wasn’t because the early afternoon arrival was more convenient for checking into a Zurich hotel. I did it so Batman would be on patrol when I was sipping the pre-flight cocktail.
I couldn’t even say why I was doing it. Other than it was somehow his fault.
I wanted it to be Oswald’s. Or maybe Tim and Cassie’s; they’re the ones that burned down the Iceberg. But I couldn’t kid myself. That’s his influence, by the way. “Self-deception isn’t a luxury I can afford (grunt)” is rubbing off on me. I used to be able to focus on the Egyptian necklace as a symbol of the male cat, represented by the sun, coming together with the female cat as represented by the moon— and completely ignore the fact that going after it was a guaranteed Bat-encounter. I used to be able to, apart from a few wary glances from Mirror Bitch, I could just… ignore that it was him.
I couldn’t do that now. Oswald might have started it, the silly bird (pfft), landing in Arkham after the Iceberg fire. But the real reason I was going to Switzerland was him.
The real reason I was going to Switzerland was to take on Batman.
In the old days, whenever Batman captured the Penguin, he’d been sent to Blackgate. He was admitted to Arkham once or twice for “observation” but was always transferred back within a day, the observation amounting to “a fondness for birds does not equate to insanity.”
This was Oswald’s first experience actually taking up residence in Arkham Asylum. He could have up to four personal items in his room “to create a comforting and familiar healing environment,” although that was a moot point. His favorite parasol was not approved, even though the fragile antique was hardly a weapon, and his other possessions had been reduced to a smoldering mound of ash. Seeing them in that condition would hardly constitute a comforting, healing influence.
Oswald knew he wasn’t crazy. He might have caused a scene at the hospital after caped ruffians burned down his nightclub, but who wouldn’t squawk at such a development? He lived above that club—kwak! They burned down his home and his business in one fowl swoop—kwak! He had expressed his outrage with the tip of his umbrella—kwakwakwakwakwak! And if that awful Batgirl wasn’t so nimble, Justice would have been done!
Of course he was upset. They burned down his club and his home. But he was hardly “HAHAHA Harley pass me the shotgun” crazy. He was crazy like a fox, as the saying went, if only foxes had some sort of feathers to justify their cunning. It was precisely because they had burned down his home that Oswald permitted this shocking indignity. He had bigger problems than arranging a release from Arkham when he had no nest to return to. The asylum was a place to live while he went about rebuilding, and revolting though he found his present surroundings, it was a base of operations that cost him nothing. It even gave him an opportunity to observe certain persons up close, for Oswald did not completely accept Dr. Bartholomew’s diagnosis that he had a -kwak- “borderline obsession” with cleanliness before the fire. Control issues -kwak- What poppycock. If there was really anything unnatural about obtaining a few specialty wipes to keep one’s office properly sanitized, it might very well be Hugo Strange’s doing. Or Jonathan Crane’s. One of those lunatics (very good customers and esteemed fellow rogues, but lunatics all the same) that have a 400 page manifesto on fear—kwak, bullies—kwak, and settling scores, real or imagined, with chemicals—kwakwakwakwakwak!
A rude pounding on the wall interrupted his train of thought. It was Ivy again, and he sniffed. Anytime he indulged in a few kwaking expressions of frustrations, she pounded. Even though no lemon-tinged, goddess-is-angry pheromones could seep through the wall, he sometimes imagined he did smell something when she pounded that way. For those who knew Ivy, the associations were too strong.
So —Kwak!— Where was he? Ah yes, he would keep an eye on the Scarecrow and he would humor Bartholomew, but mostly he would work on rebuilding his club.
The stewardess came by with another round of champagne, fruit juice, or mineral water and a choice of American or Swiss newspapers. I glanced at the mastheads of the Gotham Globe, Daily Planet, Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Tribune de Geneve and opted for the latter. The last thing I wanted to see at this point was a Clark Kent byline or a picture of the Bat-Signal.
Yes. Superficially, Tim and Cassie started it when Bruce and I were in Metropolis. They burned down the Iceberg. Oswald would rebuild, we all knew that… But no one talked about it quite as much as Bruce. He said Oswald needed that role as “Emperor Penguin,” lording it over a notorious underworld hangout that was only the visible tip of a vast criminal enterprise hidden underneath. He said the Iceberg was a lynchpin of Oswald’s identity and self respect. He made it sound like some sort of psychotic condition, or at least a character flaw, but I couldn’t see it that way. I missed the Catwoman who could make it in and out of the museum right under Batman’s nose, make off with the priceless necklace, and then fight him to a draw when he came after it. I still miss her. If getting it all back were as simple as kicking some soot off my boots and hiring a few contractors, I’d do it in a Gotham minute.
It’s not that simple, not for me. If it was for Oswald, I was all for it. I probably would have helped him anyway when he called for a favor. It was only Bruce who made me pause. It was Bruce who turned it into something more than doing a favor for a… well, not a “friend” but for a guy who had a bad break.
Oswald might not be a buddy, but he’d suffered one hell of a blow. Why not do him a favor if I could?
When Saul Vics went to work at Arkham, he never planned to stay. High school football had filled him with big dreams and left him with nasty medical bills. Arkham was a paycheck, a good paycheck for the few months it would take to get on his feet financially. Then Joker decided to get a girlfriend, and if Saul wasn’t going to say “no” when the homicidal maniac asked for a few extra minutes alone with Dr. Quinzel, he also wasn’t going to say “yes” for nothing. One payoff followed another, and by the time Joker and Harley Quinn were an item, Saul had a complete price structure worked out. Anything from a quickie in the copy room to an overnight in Quinn’s cell could be had for a price—as could a game room in Saul Vic’s basement with a pool table, a pinball machine, a 42” plasma TV, and a free-standing bar with three kinds of Belgian beer on tap. Saul even had an inground swimming pool, which is why he was the only Arkham employee that didn’t think Patient Cobblepot was crazy.
“You might as well be going to Mordor,” he would tell you when you brought his dinner tray. “What with all the trolls that dwell there—KWAK!”
Other guards, orderlies, even nurses and doctors called him delusional, erratic, and volatile…
“And as the saying goes –kwak– ‘One does not simply walk into Mordor.’”
…Only Saul Vics recognized a man dealing with contractors.
“Codes Department?” he guessed.
Oswald nodded vigorously.
“Proper number of exits,” he complained, fingering a sketch with a chubby finger. “Last time, they made no mention of exits! It was all exhaust vents and grease catches when I renovated. And before that, it was the location of pumps and waste plumbing in relation to the underground sewer…”
“You gotta grease some palms,” Saul advised sagely.
“I am aware of how business is conducted in a civilized society,” he declared with dignity.
It seemed like a promising response, and Saul wondered if this new patient might be good for a nice sports car or maybe one of those real high end barbecues. He continued laying groundwork, hinting very delicately that Arkham was like anywhere else in that there are rules and then there are people. And people are always ready to bend a rule to help you out once they understand how important it is to you. Saul was about to begin the delicate transition from “helpful Arkham staffers” as a general category of humanity to himself in particular, and cold hard cash as the quickest way to demonstrate how important a certain service might be… when Patient Cobblepot took over the conversation and began steering in the same direction, but by a more direct route. Then he stomped on the accelerator: contractors were not the problem, he had to hold on to his staff. Waitresses, busboys, and dishwashers were a dime a dozen, but employees like Sly and Raven could not be replaced. He had to find some way to keep them from taking other jobs in the six months or so it would take him to reopen the club. But he certainly couldn’t pay them to do nothing. That was bad business. When he paid out good money, he expected service in return. From Saul, for instance, he expected … and out came a list. A pre-written list.
Saul looked it over, quoted a price, and found himself buffeted in a monsoon of outraged kwaking. It took a blanket fifteen percent reduction just to stop the noise and that was only the start of the negotiation. Before Saul realized that a sane Patient Cobblepot could drive a much shrewder bargain than a Lithium/Amitril case like Hugo Strange, he’d agreed to greater percentage discounts after “certain-kwak-benchmarks” had been achieved. Once Oswald’s payments exceeded $2,500, it was only fair that the fifteen percent reduction be raised to twenty. At $5,000, it would increase to twenty-five, and at $10,000… Of course Saul agreed, the man was planning to pay him more than $10,000 over the course of their association…
The stewardess came around with menus for dinner and a personal DVD player that plugged into the armrest. I passed on both. If I did this right, I wouldn’t be in Zurich long enough to be missed. I didn’t want to give it away after the fact by messing up my sleep schedule. That meant extending my seat and curling up for a nice six hour catnap on the flight.
So Oswald “had” to rebuild in Bruce’s opinion, and that little piece of deductive forecasting had him circling like Vultureman: for a place like the Iceberg Lounge, insurance was pipe dream. Ozzy would have to use his own money to rebuild, of which he had plenty. Since he’d exchanged the Penguin moniker for that of Legitimate Businessman, he had his beak in a thousand dirty deals, even commissioning a few Catwoman thefts once upon a time and fencing a few baubles for me whenever I gave him the chance. There was no question that Oswald had the money to rebuild; the trick would be getting at it. Batman had never been able to tie him to the shady stuff, not absolutely. He knew the details of at least half the Iceberg’s real operations and he could speculate about the rest, but he could never get the proof, not the kind of unambiguous, admissible-in-court proof to send Oswald away for good. Rebuilding the Iceberg could change all that. If Oswald had to dip into those hidden bank accounts, accounts that must exist but that Batman could never find, he could finally tie Oswald to millions in illicit funds.
Hence the emergence of Vultureman.
I was right there when it happened. Creepiest thing I’d seen since that first smile in the mask.
He’d been in the cave all afternoon, so I went down to say hi. He was in the gymnasium working out, very meow. And he was happy to see me, which isn’t the norm when I interrupt his workout. I got the sense that he was only exercising to think something through and the parallel bars were no substitute for a real listener.
“So?” I asked, stretching out on a stalagmite, “What’s the brood du jour?”
“The Devil You Know,” he said. “Cobblepot has to rebuild, we know that, as much as Nigma has to send riddles. It’s an opportunity, but taking down someone so crucial to the underworld has repercussions. It will create a power vacuum—and who knows who might step up to fill that vacuum. Penguin has managed to get away with far too much for far too long, but at least I know what I’m dealing with. A new player would change the way things are run and could ultimately make everything worse.”
“I sense a ‘but’ approaching.”
“But,” he intoned with that gravelly bat-menace that is so sexy, “I have to weigh that risk against the size and scope of the opportunity: taking Cobblepot out of the game permanently. Not just for a little while, not making it ‘difficult’ for his criminal enterprises for a time, not two steps forward one step back, but finally ending him for good. Selina, can you imagine the message that would send? If someone of Penguin’s stature, someone who has gotten away with it over and over and over again, was taken down and utterly destroyed? There’s even a chance that I could prevent anyone filling the void, if I can keep the pressure on in the ensuing chaos after he goes down. At a time when so many of the major players are locked up anyway, Cobblepot is already crippled with the club gone and his cash flow disrupted. It’s a chance—a real chance—to effect a significant, permanent change in Gotham for the better. It would be… beyond irresponsible to let an opportunity like that go for a vague ‘what if’ about what might happen later.”
It wasn’t much of a response, but he didn’t seem to mind. He was so intense about it all, so focused and determined… It’s that intensity I always found so attractive. It’s pure mainline Batman: dark, driven, and sexy as hell. But something—ULGH.
There was a nauseating lurch-bump drop-lurch bump-lurch-drop before the seatbelt sign came on. I pulled the downy “first class” pillow around my head and waited out the thirty seconds of turbulence and the ninety seconds of explanations from the cockpit. Then I rolled over, missing Captain Leffinger’s professionalism as much as Wayne One’s accommodations, and tried to get back to sleep.
Anyway, I don’t think Bruce’s ferocity bothered me much at the time. He was Batman, he was doing what he did best, he was doing… what brought us together in the first place. It was only later when Alfred brought me that message from Arkham that I really started to feel it.
We were having an early dinner together upstairs in the dining room. Bruce doesn’t mind as long as it doesn’t cut into his pre-patrol routine in the cave, and it makes Alfred so happy. He’d just cleared away the soup and was coming back with the entrée, when he brought me a message along with my lamb chop. Someone called Vics had placed a call on Oswald Cobblepot’s behalf. He wanted me to pay him a visit at Arkham, specifically he wanted me to pay a visit so he could ask a favor. I didn’t need to see or feel the density shift, I knew, given the way Bruce’s mind had been working, that BatPrick was about to make an appearance.
“There it is. A favor. He’s going to ask you to be his mule. Go to Switzerland or the Caymans for him and bring back a nice fat bankroll.”
“That’s quite an assumption, isn’t it?”
The look that answered me was pure rooftop Psychobat.
“Is it? He was your fence. Probably feels this is your chance to repay him.”
“Okay, first, do you refer to any accountant who’s added a column of numbers at WE as your accountant? I had three regular fences over the years, and Oswald was not one of them. I gave him a few items to move now and then and that’s my doing him a favor, not the other way around, so please don’t make it sound like he’s the one with any markers to call in. He still owes me forty-five grand for screwing up the sale of the Hapsburg dagger, which you recovered if memory serves. So if you want to talk repayment, he owes me and you owe him.”
“Oh, put your claws in,” Bruce said… and it was Bruce suddenly, casual and half-amused at my outburst—which I rather resented. Batman started the fight and he wasn’t sticking around to finish it.
I pawed the air and hissed. His lip twitched, then the Bat-intensity resettled over his features.
“Back to Cobblepot,” he graveled. “This could be the break we’re waiting for. I’ve been waiting to see how he’ll try to get to the money and now he’s going to ask you. It’s unbelievably good luck. It will be a little rocky working out exactly how Batman finds out when it’s Selina Kyle he’s confiding in, but there’s plenty of time to figure that out. The important thing is that you go see him right away.”
“To lead you to his money? I can’t help but notice this is starting to sound a lot like crimefighting.”
“I’m a crimefighter,” he said simply. “Selina, this is what I do. And you’ve been more than willing to help in the past. Coming to Metropolis was crimefighting. All the paperchasing on the Vaniel case and breaking us into the Falcone compound, cracking the JLA security system on the Dibny murder…”
“I know, but… this feels different.”
“But why? Cobblepot isn’t one of your special friends like Nigma or Dent.”
He was right, but it still felt wrong somehow. I said so, and again he asked why. I studied his face as I searched for an answer.
“Maybe it’s the way you’re salivating,” I said bluntly.
“Look,” he said reasonably, “I know it’s very soon after Metropolis. And I realize that you’re not ‘Team Batman’ and that your involvement in a crimefighting operation should never be taken for granted. I definitely jumped the gun just now, not even wording it as a question.”
“I sense a ‘but’ approaching,” I repeated.
“But,” he said—sans Bat-gravel this time (although Psychobat was still very much in the room, I was certain). “I think you’ll appreciate that I’m not the one initiating your involvement here, Cobblepot is. And particularly after our talk downstairs, I think you can appreciate that this is one of those very special cases, like the Dibny murder, when calling on your unique connections and expertise is… warranted.”
He said ending Cobblepot would be an unprecedented win. He said it would cripple the underworld in a dozen different ways. He said he could take advantage of the resulting void to thin out the various mobs and destroy any semblance of organization among the rogues. In addition to those boons for Batman, he added, he would undoubtedly have some extra time for Bruce. We could spend a few days at the Catitat or on the Gatta, maybe even Paris if I’d like.
I didn’t like. I didn’t like any of it.
Rogues aren’t a compassionate breed. When the news broke about the Iceberg, the phrase echoing through the walls of Arkham was “What do we do now?” not “Poor Oswald.”
Victor Frieze was the sole exception. A “misery loves company” kind of guy, he sought out Oswald as soon as he arrived in the common room, eager to embark on a lengthy joint wallow.
Oswald found it thoroughly depressing. He resolved to avoid the common room in future, and was pleased that Saul Vics had an established fee to be excused from the social hour. He wasn’t happy with the size of the fee, even with his discount, but that only served to open up a new round of negotiations. Since his money was hard to get at right now and he had these outrageous contactors bleeding him dry, he persuaded Vics that his early bribes should be rated at a premium, every dollar counted as three in working toward the discount tiers. “A loss leader, if you will, -kwak!”
In return, Oswald agreed that in the future, once he was over that $10,000 mark, he would reverse the process, only counting one dollar for every three he paid out. The fool said it seemed reasonable, never realizing that after $10,000 Oswald would have reached the maximum discount, so there was nothing more to count toward, Kwakwakwakwakwak… These Arkhamites, it was almost too easy. Kwakwakwak. They just didn’t know how to strike a bargain.
The Alps. I woke up to the Alps coming into view outside my window and the breakfast they serve an hour before landing: flaky croissants, fruit salad, choice of tea or coffee, etc. I figured, in the interests of staying on a proper Gotham timetable, it was time for some caffeine, so I ordered a cup of tea with milk.
After Bruce’s bizarre attempt to bribe me with offers of yachting getaways and weekends in Paris, I had decided not to decide about Oswald. I went to see him, just to hear him out, but I had no idea what I would actually do when he asked this favor. On the drive up, I joked with myself that if he made me a better offer than Bruce’s trip to Paris, I could start a bidding war between them.
Except Oswald’s offer wasn’t what I expected. For that matter, neither was Oswald. I’ve visited patients at Arkham before, and they’ve always been their usual selves. Ozzy was sort of… nice. Not creepy nice, not an oily ‘buttering you up for a favor’ nice, just… friendly… polite… normal. He said he was just telling Dr. Bartholomew about the term ‘catbird seat,’ how the catbird, named for its catlike call, attracts a mate by building a pile of rocks until it has achieved the highest point around, and then perches on it. This may not sound like enchanting conversation, but Oswald usually opens with ten minutes of “kwak-kwak felicitations my felonious feline kwak-kwak always a pleasure to receive a fellow kwak-kwak aristocrat of crime -kwak.” So a casual (and kwakfree) mention of catbirds was quite an improvement.
Then he mentioned the golden finch. Oswald wasn’t what I’d call a sentimentalist, but that finch was the one item he’d lost in the fire that he really missed. He stole it the first time, one of his earliest Penguin heists, but Batman recovered it. It wound up in an eastside gallery along with some Maya jaguars I was interested in. I knew he’d want it back, so I brought him the whole lot to fence, certain he’d take the finch for himself.
Now he told me he knew. He’d always known that’s why I brought him the goods from that particular heist. Unlike Bruce, Oswald was perfectly aware that he wasn’t my number one fence, or number two or three. He knew why I picked him to move the goods from that job. Made him pay through the nose for it but still, he said, it was kind of me to think of him and he’d always appreciated it. That’s the word he used. Kind. Not ‘magnanimously munificent on a scale of congenial generosity hitherto unknown among criminal persons of exceptional-kwak-standing such as ourselves.’ Kind. I was starting to wonder what kind of medication they were giving him and why the rest of us didn’t think to slip him some years ago.
Then he kwaked (only once) and got down to business. “Nice as it was” to see me again, he had asked me down there for a favor. I braced myself, still undecided how I was going to respond and still ill at the thought of becoming an “agent of the bat.” But the favor wasn’t what we thought.
“Certain members of my staff… Sly-kwak, Raven-kwak. Can’t lose them. Just can’t. Busboys and dishwashers, dime a dozen. But Sly. Raven. Dove. Kwak. Irreplaceable.”
“Okay,” I managed, just to say something while I recalibrated my brain.
“Could be six months before I reopen. Maybe more. They’ll get new jobs. I can’t have that. Might not get them back.”
“Yeah. I see the problem, Oswald, but what can I do?”
“I need to either give them jobs in some other capacity, just temporarily—and that apparently won’t work as legitimate employees are quite ludicrously prejudiced about participating in criminal activities, even for a few weeks—or else pay them a lump sum to tide them over. Ruinous! I’ve been crunching the numbers all week and it’s ruinous-kwak. Plus if they sit around watching Jeopardy for six months, who knows if they’ll be fit to come back and work.” He paused there and his eyes gleamed with that old Cobblepot greed as he drew out the next word for three syllables. “O-o-or, let someone else do the paying for six months. Get them new jobs doing just what they do now, not let them go find something on their own where they might not come back. Nice temporary stint, so as soon as the Iceberg is ready to take them back, kwak-they’re fired.”
I noticed the kwak-count was up, which only happens when Ozzy is agitated, usually about money. I told him I sympathized but I didn’t see what I could do. I had no use for a bartender, a hostess, and a cocktail waitress out at the Catitat. It would confuse the tigers. His response left me… stunned.
“Not you! -kwak- Wayne!”
“You’ve got Bruce Wayne in your pocket, right? Must be a dozen places he could set them up.”
“You want me… Oswald, let me get this straight, you want me… The favor you asking is for me to ask Bruce…?”
I told him I’d get back to him.
And I left.
The seatbelt sign came on. Seats and tray tables up. Stewardess made her last round collecting glasses and headphones, and the plane began its slow descent over Kloten Airport… and I still didn’t know exactly why I was going to Switzerland.
I never decided, that was the problem. I never worked out how I felt about what Bruce asked me to do. And then when Oswald wanted something else entirely, it left me… lost.
A lost cat doesn’t stand there looking confused and pathetic. She tilts her head at a determined angle and heads off in some definite direction, working it out as she goes.
So I was going to Zurich. Bruce would find out, somehow. Finding out is second nature to the World’s Greatest Detective. Then we’d see.
To be continued...