The Batmobile sped into the cave on autopilot. Batman got out and wrote up the logs on autopilot too. He went to the costume vault on autopilot, and then he turned abruptly, heading into the trophy room instead. He walked past a low display case with a question mark cane and a freeze ray, past a taller, squarer case with a perpetual orchid and another with a green velvet hat, to a much taller display in the back between the playing card and the giant penny. He scowled at the purple fabric, the whip holster, and the familiar cat mask.
Catwoman: Queen of the Underworld.
They’d laughed at it, at first. He had. Batman, Gotham’s Dark Knight, “nothing about crime is funny,” had allowed himself, just this once, to see something crime-related in a different light: the Gotham underworld was a packet of flash paper in a warehouse full of unstable chemicals, he’d said. The lightest touch of a match could set off a soaring tongue of flame, he’d said. Instantly, it could flare up without warning and in a completely unpredictable direction, he’d said. It would burn in a second. If you weren’t looking, you could miss it entirely. You wouldn’t even know anything happened, let alone be able trace it back to whatever spark set it off. But every now and then, that momentary flame would flick in just the wrong direction, come into contact with exactly the wrong tank of chemicals, and then… inferno. Catwoman—Selina, the woman he’d brought into his life, the woman who shared all his secrets, the woman he loved—had become the de facto head of everything he fought against.
It no longer mattered how, exactly, a fire at the Iceberg led to a replacement bar steeped in a Catwoman theme—and the universal assumption that she occupied the same position at Vault that Oswald had at the Iceberg. Somehow it happened, and Batman had assumed it would burn itself out like all flash paper in the Rogue world. In the meantime, Selina would have her fun. He wasn’t exactly pleased that she was seen as a criminal again, but he was happy that she was happy. He knew how the Post’s hatchet job on her image had pained her. If this new development gave her some comfort and validation, well, what was the harm?
He knew she stopped at Vault now every night after her prowl. Robin and Batgirl both noted it in the logs whenever they were assigned to watch the departures at closing time. Nightwing, typically, didn’t name her when he saw her leave. Instead, his log used the cat’s whiskers emoticon that he’d invented when he was Robin. Bruce was so angry when he saw it, he nearly broke the keyboard. He was ready to rip Dick a new one when he saw him again. And he might have, except… the next time they met in person was at family dinner. With Selina and Barbara there, well, it didn’t seem quite so terrible. When they were all together like that, out of costume and as a family, he could see the joke for what it was.
He looked at the Catwoman costume in the display case and felt his gut churn. That was the problem, really. He had been too ready to see the joke, too ready to say ‘that was then and this is now.’ He hadn’t forgotten who she was or what she was capable of back then, but he had drawn a firm line separating the Cat of yesterday from the Selina of today. But it was the Selina of today who prompted what happened tonight, what was happening out there every night.
He could no longer deny that he was, quite literally, sleeping with the enemy.
It was—without question—the most encouraging development in the many years Dr. Bartholomew had treated Patient J. Joker had never referenced any family, any friends, any personal ties of any kind. Now, suddenly, this fleeting reference to “mummy.” The first time seemed like a slip. Harley Quinn fixed up one of his Ha-Haciendas with a lot of brick-a-brac he didn’t care for, including a vase like Mummy had. He didn’t seem aware he’d said it, just went on ranting about slip covers… and a rattan waste basket… and a throw rug that looked like it was made by blind boy scouts…
A few days later, he was relating a wasted day the last time he was released, when two operatives called “Grin” and “Chortle” were late getting in from the airport. Their flight was delayed. Airlines! Airlines suck. Don’t they realize how he hates wasting time! He could have killed George Takei, he could have set up a meeting, he could have been so much more effective-HAHAHA! But no. No, he had to sit around waiting for Grin and Chortle to get in from Phoenix. Mummy always hated waiting around doing nothing that way…
Two mentions, however casual, after so many years of silence on the subject was unbelievably significant. Clearly Joker’s psyche was finally ready to deal with some ancient trauma.
Both mentions were in the context of anger and annoyance. That could be very significant, too. Anger connected to subordinates: Harley Quinn and these henchmen…
Yes, it was very encouraging indeed.
Selina lay back, enveloped in a warm vanilla-lavender milk bath, and purred as no cat immersed in water had ever purred before. It was Batman she fell for—or, at least, the man inside Batman, as she’d thought of him before learning he was really Bruce Wayne. Since the masks had come off, she’d discovered Bruce Wayne brought many delights into her life, delights she never dreamed of in the heat of those charged encounters with Batman. And it was just possible that, of all those unimagined delights, this bathtub was the very best. She stretched out her toes, letting the warm silky water flow down through the crevices and over the skin of her leg. Then she rubbed her arch against the cool, Carrara marble. She closed her eyes and let her head tilt back against the cushioned neck support, breathed in the delicious tickle of vanilla, and again, she purred.
“This… obviously isn’t a good time,” a hoarse voice croaked from the doorway.
“Purrrrfect time,” she breathed. “Come join me.”
“No. Um. We’ll talk later, when you’re not… naked.”
Selina opened a suspicious eye—but he was gone. Something about that refusal was very… familiar. She got out of the tub, wrapped herself in a thick terry robe, and went out to the bedroom to find him.
“Not naked and not dripping,” Bruce said archly.
“Can’t say I’ve ever had a conversation with a dress code before. Did something happen on patrol?”
“No—Yes. It… It’s not really patrol anymore. It’s driving straight to the East End, parking, and collecting as much scum as I can by dawn. It’s like half the underworld has declared war on one neighborhood, and considering the neighborhood...”
“You’re blaming me.”
“I’m supposed to think it’s a coincidence that, since you became ‘Gatta Corleone,’ crime is up six hundred percent in a few square blocks you personally hate? Look, Selina, it’s the Gotham Post printing lies about you, not the people living on the East End. I understand that you’d like those Post stories contradicted in as public a manner as possible, but this isn’t the way to go about it. All the wrong people are suffering. Innocents are—”
“What about all the innocents in TriBeCa and SoHo and the Upper Westside that aren’t getting mugged at the ATM because all the bad guys are downtown in—”
“THAT’S NOT THE POINT!”
“It’s exactly the point. It’s not like there are any more crimes going on than there were before. All I said was, if you’re going to do something anyway, I’d just as soon you do it on the East End.”
“You did a lot more than that. You STARTED this mad rush to—”
“By accident! Crazy Quilt came into Vault to celebrate a big score. He was doing a little boasting. Certainly to be expected. Somebody like him doesn’t manage to get one past you everyday. And when he happened to mention this big score was at East End Pharmaceuticals, I picked up his tab.”
“Of course! Because crime on the East End should be rewarded and encouraged, right?”
“Oh, don’t be so pompous. It was a whim. It was a one time thing.”
“It was not a one time thing. You invited Rag Doll to the VIP room.”
“He’s from out of town. Why not be hospitable?”
“Because we don’t want him or his kind in Gotham. We have enough thieving—”
“Thieving criminals—psychotic, thieving criminals of our own without importing them from Keystone.”
“I don’t expect you to roll out a welcome mat, but my position at Vault is a little different. He’s from out of town, and I was being nice.”
“After which, he hit an antique store, two restaurants and a liquor store, all on the East End.”
“He may have had a little crush on me after we talked that night. I would have handled it if Wing and Wally hadn’t gone all Rambo on him.”
“And what about Roxy, hm? Has she ‘got a crush’ too?”
“Am I expected to give an accounting for everybody I invite to my table for a drink now?”
“Roxy Rocket is the most destructive force to hit that neighborhood since Hurricane Irene came up the Eastern seaboard in 1973. She is reckless, Selina! She rides around on that rocket without giving the slightest thought to the flame trail or the exhaust or the clearance. She’s dangerous, and she’s desperate for attention. You must know that. You must know she’s out to impress you now that you’re— and— and instead of using your influence to defuse the situation, you’re encouraging her and all the rest of them to—”
“Listen, Stud, I have never felt the need to justify myself to you or anybody else, and I absolutely will not be starting now. So don’t get the idea that you get to come to me with a list of complaints at the end of the week or that you’re entitled to any kind of explan—”
“I HAVE THE CONCH! …planation. I am not going to start giving you explanations for every little thing I do. Except I will tell you, just this once, that all I was doing with Roxy was playing matchmaker. Matt was with me that night, and he happened to say she looked good. I invited her to join us because I thought they might hit it off.”
Bruce shut his eyes, shook his head and breathed, expelling one thought while shutting out another.
“This entire situation is completely unacceptable,” he graveled.
“Well… tough. If it’s any consolation—”
“It’s not. Whatever you have to say next, there is no ‘consolation.’ Selina, this is wrong. This whole situation, everything about it and what you’re doing with it is wrong and it has to stop.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way. There really isn’t anything I can do. It’s going to run its course, and until it does, I plan to get as much satisfaction as I can out of it.”
“Yes, no matter who gets hurt.”
It was—without question—the most hilarious prank in the many years Joker had been coming to Arkham. Mummy hated waiting around that way with nothing to do HAHAHAHAAAAAAAAA! That got Dr. Bartsy alright, had him hooked like a salmon. Mummy had a vase like that HAHAHAA! Yeah sure, she had a vase like that—where they put her intestines after they were pickled! HAHAHAAAA!
Mummy, Doc, get it? HAHAHAHA.
OH wait, no, it’s too good, it’s too funny. You didn’t think I meant MY mummy, did you? HAHAHAHAAAAAAA! AHAHA-AHAHA-AHAHAAAAAAAAAAA!
Nearly everyone in the know was calling the sleek, purple Lamborghini “the Catmobile.” Everyone except Batman, because he found the term unsettling, Riddler, because he found the term unsettling, and Nightwing, because he found himself too overcome with awe and envy to wrap his tongue around the requisite syllables. He perched on a ledge of the Bair Building and watched the beautifully lined car turn off Morales and park in the 11th street lot. He swung down to the flagpole where he expected to change course for a flashy dismount that would land him right in the driver’s path as she headed towards Vault—when the flagpole snapped, leading to a freakish mid-swing adjustment that still produced a clumsy, too abrupt landing which an awkward tumble-roll on the sidewalk did little to cushion.
Catwoman looked down on him, horrified.
“Are you alright?”
Nightwing got to his feet, wincing in lieu of an answer.
“Hurt?” Catwoman asked when he didn’t speak.
“Only my pride.”
“Happens to the best of us,” she offered with a kind smile.
“Do you have to be so nice?” Nightwing said, falling into step beside her. “Couldn’t you make some crack about always landing on your feet?”
“You want me to be ‘catty?’”
“Might make this easier.”
“Ooh, I like the sound of that. I take it this isn’t a social call then? You’re here on business?”
“Kind of,” Nightwing sighed.
“Meow. In that case, you can come inside and accost me at my table, assuming you can walk that far without falling on your face and breaking your nose.”
“Sheesh, Selina, that’s not ‘catty;’ it’s just mean. And I’d rather talk in private. I was thinking a rooftop.”
“I have arrangements for ‘private’ inside. I don’t plan to waste you coming to see me ‘on business’ on a discreet rooftop. You’ll have to come in, come up to my table, and ‘be a dick.’”
She stuck her tongue out at him, unholstered her whip, and swung it backhanded until the handle made abrupt, forceful contact with Nightwing’s body armor. The blow didn’t exactly hurt, but it caught him off guard and he doubled over instinctively to minimize the effect. Catwoman left him in that condition, the wind knocked out of him and a fresh cat scratch on his armor for good measure, and went on her way into the nightclub.
It was—without question—the most encouraging development with Harleen Quinzel since the sad day Patient J turned her from an Arkham staffer into an inmate. Joker had indulged in a childish exhibition that mocked the very tenets of psychotherapy. Never said it was my mummy, indeed. Childish. Willful. And so painfully counterproductive. Why all the time Bartholomew had spent researching maternal dissociate trauma and its links to homicidal mania, only to find out the mummy in question was of the dead, wrapped, and dried out in a pyramid for 3000 years variety (HA HA, indeed). So much wasted time, time that could have been spent helping patients that didn’t indulge in childish pranks, patients like Harleen.
Joker had apparently forgotten all about his mummy prank already, a not uncommon purging of thoughts once they had served their purpose for him. But he hadn’t purged the fixation on mummies. On the contrary, he was on a positive “Egypt kick,” as Patient Crane described it. His response to almost any development now consisted of “Tut-Tut” followed by a full minute of raucous laughter, and his repertoire of jokes was pruned to those where “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” would serve as a punchline. In session, he’d decided that Dr. Bartholomew’s office was a Las Vegas cabaret circa 1962 and he himself was Eddie Fisher. He used Bartholomew’s stapler as a microphone and briefed the good doctor on the notorious Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton affair while they were in Italy filming Cleopatra. He spoke as if it were happening right now and he himself was Taylor’s jilted husband, Eddie Fisher. Like Fisher, he then sang a little ditty called “Cleo, the Nympho of the Nile” and begged Dr. Bartholomew to tip the veal and try the waitress. HAHAHAHAHA.
As Patient J setbacks went, it was fairly benign. No one had been injured except Nurse Chin, when she tried to take the stapler, and she didn’t even need stitches.
Harley’s reaction, on the other hand, was the most promising development in years. Patient J’s mummy fixation had evidently penetrated their… personal relations, and he wanted her to shave her head and wear one of those Nefertitti cones. She refused.
She refused. She said it was because she’d seen the pictures of Britney Spears, but that was of little importance. Whatever her reason, she had refused. There were things Harley Quinn would not do for “her Puddin’” and that was a discovery of unbelievable promise. Bartholomew couldn’t begin to rate its significance: was Quinzel’s obsession with Joker finally waning?
Nightwing had never seen anything quite like Vault. Once a vaudeville house transformed into a movie palace transformed into a Two-Face hideout, it was now a nightclub like no other. The focal point of the old theatre lobby was a bar with a sultan’s ransom of cash, jewels and gold bars stacked behind it and a dazzling array of lasers, sensors, and searchlights sweeping the area in front. The little café tables and chairs that originally populated this main barroom had been replaced with groupings of deep, overstuffed furnishings that resembled oversized cat toys.
He made his way to the stairs that led to the VIP level and, mindful of Selina’s advice to ‘be a dick,’ he exuded as much hostility as he could while still taking in the fascinating surroundings. At the top of the stairs, he pushed past Raven’s podium and strode into a surreal space that had once been the Flick Theatre balcony. A dozen plasma screens of varying size were hung on the walls. All displayed video wallpaper of wild cats. Like the barroom below, the tables, chairs, and loveseats resembled those in a cat lair. Along the back wall, the largest, deepest sofa was covered in a rich leopard print and situated behind a low, ebony table. There, surrounded by Mad Hatter, Firefly, Roxy Rocket, Killer Croc, Magpie, and Cluemaster, Catwoman was holding court.
At the surrounding tables, Double Dare, Signal Man, Zodiac Master, Getaway Genius, Kite Man and Killer Moth eyed Catwoman’s circle as if waiting for a chance to join it. They were prevented, Nightwing guessed, by the doorkeepers: a pair of live, fully maned lions posed regally in front of the table like the stone ones flanking the entrance to the Metropolis Museum of Art.
Nightwing marched up to the table, ignoring the growls from the lions and the wolf whistles coming from Double Dare’s table.
“Quite the entourage,” he said, locking eyes with Catwoman.
“I hate drinking alone,” she replied, sipping her martini.
“How does one rate a private audience?”
“One asks nicely. Not something your kind excels at, as a rule.” She shifted her attention to the hangers-on. “Off you go,” she announced with a shooing motion. “Everybody. Scram. Adult swim.”
Everyone but the lions left. Catwoman pointed Nightwing to the seat across from her, and then addressed the lions directly.
“It’s alright, Matt. He’s housebroken. Why don’t you run downstairs and ask Dove to send up a snack plate for the poker room.”
The lions roared viciously at Nightwing, and then left on their errand.
“Clayface?” Wing whispered harshly. “You’ve got Clayface running errands for you now?”
“No, I’ve a pair of trained lions named Matt who I’m expecting to bring a plate of mini grilled cheese, chicken wings, and crab puffs to the poker room. Of course it’s Clayface, who else.”
“Trained lions don’t seem any less likely than ordering Clayface around like a paid flunky.”
“I know. Not sure why he’s doing it, really. I never asked him to. He seems to be enjoying it.”
“You seem to be enjoying it,” Nightwing said sternly. “Look at this place. It’s like that 81st street cat lair blew up.”
“I never had giant HD screens in a cat lair. I got that idea from you know who.”
Nightwing looked around, and saw the televisions were indeed WayneTech and in a similar configuration to those in the Batcave.
“Sly has been very receptive to my little suggestions,” Catwoman said proudly. “He doesn’t want any trouble, after all.”
“Doesn’t want any trouble? Like, you made him an offer he can’t refuse?”
“He hijacked my theme, ‘Wing. Maybe he didn’t mean to, but he did. And, unlike some, he’s ready to make it right. The Z put in a satellite hookup, and on game days this becomes quite the viewing room. The rest of the time, we have these lovely pictures of the beautiful cats. Everyone is happy… well, except for Catman and Hugo Strange. I’m told they sit downstairs and grumble in their beer.”
“I see. Well it’s quite a setup. But when I said private, I meant more private than this.”
“I know,” she winked. “Follow.”
She rose and crossed to the little hallway that led to the one-time projection booth. She unlocked the door with a keycard, to reveal a small but comfortable poker room. On the table, the “snack platter” sat with a pitcher of water.
“Help yourself,” Selina said, selecting a crab puff. “I made a few suggestions for the menu too. Oswald’s tastes were a little heavy.”
“Selina, what are you doing?”
She looked up sharply.
“I’m offering you a snack, that’s all.”
“Look, is it really safe to talk in here?”
“Well, the room is soundproofed and I have better anti-bugging countermeasures than even Oswald did. Oswald’s, as you may recall, could block Oracle. Mine can mess with eavesdropping Kryptonians, so you do the math. And to answer your question, what I’m doing here is… nostalgia. I’m enjoying very selective touches of the way things used to be, the best of the way things used to be, and I’m enjoying them immensely.”
“Ok, well… Maybe he was okay with all this ‘nostalgia’ when he gave you anti-Krypto frequency scrambling countermeasures, but he’s not okay now. Selina, he’s going seriously bat shit since the… I don’t know what to call it, the upswing in crime on the East End of town.”
“I know. We had a fight a few nights ago.”
“I know, and it was four nights ago. You know how I know that? I saw the Zogger logs. Talk about nostalgia. 4 o’clock in the morning, forty minutes every night. Tell me, Selina, do you begin to appreciate how much you’re messing with his head if he needs forty minutes of Zogger to get to sleep at night?”
“Look, I know you don’t want to hurt him.”
“Of course not.”
“Then find a way to end this. For his sake or…” he coughed and reconsidered expressing the rest of the thought.
“Or?” Selina said archly.
“To be honest, if you didn’t want to do something like this ‘for him,’ you could kinda do it for the rest of us. According to Wally, there’s been some ‘nostalgia’ at the last League meetings too.”
“I don’t want to hear it. That lot needs counseling.”
“Let’s just say that somebody said something, the kind of remark they never would have made pre-Bat/Cat, but now, occasionally, they will indulge in, because they learned, one lip twitch at a time, that he is flesh and blood under that cowl and he can, within reason, see the...” Nightwing sighed, unable to find his way safely to the end of the sentence. “They were not aware that the mood had shifted,” he concluded tactfully.
Catwoman sharpened her claws on the side of a chair.
“What. Did. Plastic Man. Say?” she hissed.
“It involved… Batman… losing a leash.”
“I’ll KILL him.”
“That won’t be necessary. It took lantern energy, speed force, and olive oil to pull him out of the slipknot B tied him in.”
“Alright. You made your point. I’ll… I’ll take care of it.”
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, Selina. This place really does look great, and I can see you’re having a ball.”
“It’s okay. I’ve had my fun.”
It was—without question—the most… the most… cliff diving in Mexico?
Dr. Bartholomew had spent nine sessions attempting to probe Harleen’s ability to distinguish “Mistah J’s” wishes from her own—and to put her wishes above his—on this one issue. What made that one demand, shaving her head and donning an Egyptian headdress, different from everything else Patient J asked of her?
For nine sessions Bartholomew had probed, mindful of the delicacy required to coax the idea out from the damaged psyche without pushing too hard and making the patient defensive. Finally, after nine sessions of the subtlest probing, he unearthed a previous occurrance. Harley had refused Joker once before, but she wouldn’t say why. Bartholomew knew he had to tread carefully, ever so carefully. It took another six sessions before he got the details: cliff diving in Mexico…
Selina liked parking in the carriage house after a prowl and making the final approach home on foot. It reminded her of old times when she lived in the city, and those delicious final swings before the drop onto her balcony that said “home.” Tonight, she didn’t want to bother. Tonight, she parked in the garage and came in through the kitchen to take Alfred’s elevator down to the cave. She would tell Bruce she was giving up the Queen of the Underworld shtick and, with any luck, head off another night of Zogger. They might even take a bottle of bubbly up to bed to celebrate. After all, he’d wanted her to give up crime for so long. She was giddy with the silliness of the situation, playful as only a cat can be playful that close to dawn, when all the dogs and reasonable people are snoring in bed. She was especially happy to see the Batmobile wasn’t in its hangar. He wasn’t home yet. Meow.
The giddy-silly-feline playfulness waned as an hour passed, then two, and still there was no roar of the Batmobile pulling into the cave. Selina wasn’t worried; she knew Batman could take care of himself. But the sun was up (she assumed) and he hadn’t come home. There was no way you could call that a good thing.
She played at her workstation for a few minutes more, ignoring the disquiet in her stomach. She scrutinized the bats sleeping on their favorite perches and ignored the growing restlessness creeping out from that uneasy stomach, into her arms and legs. Abruptly, she stood, simply because her body needed to move. She headed upstairs, opting for the stairs to the clock passage this time, and collided with Alfred coming down.
“Ah, good morning, miss,” he sighed with relief. “It is good to see you. I was somewhat anxious when I saw the bed had not been slept in.”
“Y-yes, Alfred, I’m fine. I’ve been down here waiting for him. But he doesn’t seem to have come home last night.”
Alfred pursed his lips.
“Don’t alarm yourself just yet, Miss Selina. You must know it is hardly an unprecedented occurrence,” he said, moving past her and continuing down the stairs.
“But you just said you were worried,” Selina noted, following him into the cave.
“Yes, because you were both absent. I have rarely encountered a completely empty bed since you moved in. But, as I say, in the days before your arrival, it was a not infrequent occurrence. The first order of business on these occasions, after checking the newspaper and finding no obvious Batman-related episodes that might explain the master’s absence, is to consult this panel. There, you see, he activated it four hours ago and has sent a ‘heartbeat’ signal every thirty minutes. He is therefore quite unharmed, he is merely occupied on some mission and unable to return at this time. An impromptu League development, no doubt.”
“Woof. Any idea how long he’ll be gone?”
“It could be a matter of hours, days, or even weeks.”
“Most unlikely, miss, but as I say, not entirely without precedent.”
“Damn. Guess my reign is extended a little longer.”
Sly noticed he was being followed. He noticed immediately, not because he was especially paranoid, simply because a Hummer limousine is hard to miss. You see a car like that when you’re locking up Vault for the night, you’re going to notice. You see it again two blocks later while you’re walking home, again you’re going to notice. Probably chalk it up to a coincidence; it’s going the same way you are… That is until it keeps going the way you are… not speeding to head you off at the curb but subtly pacing you… inching closer as it goes… to finally pull up beside you a few steps from your apartment, and… gulp… roll down its window.
“Yeah, can I help you?” Sly said, trying to approximate the tone he’d use at the bar, although the crack in his voice betrayed him. It just wasn’t the same serving the nastiest of the nasty from behind the bar (when, after all, they’d come in for a drink) and having some creepy mysterioso follow you home this way.
The passenger behind the half-open window stayed in the shadows, but his hand emerged in what looked like an awfully expensive suit.
“Give this to Catwoman” he said, handing a sealed envelope.
“Ah, sure, okay,” Sly squeaked. “Should I say who…”
The window rolled up before he could finish, and the car crept away as slowly as it had come.
To be continued...