Chapter 9: Trading Pieces
“Come again?” Barbara asked, rescrambling the signal for the fourth time since Catwoman dropped the last bombshell.
..::Oracle, this is getting ridiculous,::.. the hushed phone-voice stated without a hint of static or white noise obscuring the weariness of the speaker. ..::I’ve told you everything I know, and I can’t find out anything more if you keep making me repeat what I’ve said already.::..
“There are procedures, Catwoman. B asked me to confirm your report. On the OraCom, in the city, it’s no problem. I’d have the traceback signature, I’d know it’s you. This is a… what did you say it was? A public telephone in a sports bar?”
..::Close enough. But it’s not a public phone, it’s Pete’s phone, and he’s letting me use it, in his office, to call home and tell you all I’m not dead. He didn’t figure on you calling me back—neither of us figured on you calling me back ten minutes later for this inquisition. Now, I’m in a little office in back of the bar, and there’s just a small half-window where I can see out to the tables, and that’s where I can see—yep, that’s Ubu. Looks like his drink order came. So if you don’t mind, I’d like to get out there and find out what the hell is going on.::..
“Catwoman, wait! No! It’s a trap!”
..::You know what, O? If Ra’s knew I’d be here—if he actually planned on my being undercover at the conference, getting captured and winding up on that ship, being discovered and forced to jump off at the precise point where this island was the nearest place for a school of rescue fish to bring me, and he had Ubu here waiting, so as soon as I found this bar and came into the back room to make a phone call, they could spring the trap on me—if that’s the situation, he deserves to win. I’ll call you when I know more.::..
I could understand Barbara’s disbelief. “Ubu walks into a bar” is the start of a joke, not an aside during a frantic call from the boss’s girlfriend to send a plane, a boat, or a caped colleague to pick her up in the middle of the Atlantic. But Ubu DID walk into the bar while I had Barbara on the line, and it just seemed like the sort of thing Batman would want to know about.
Of course, from Ubu’s point of view, “Catwoman walked into a bar” is probably the start of a joke too.
Some cosmic force was definitely having fun with one of us, and I wasn’t sure who was going to be the punchline. Although our relative dampness argued that I was there to plague Ubu and not the other way around. Pete had supplied me with a Café Sport t-shirt and let me make a wrapskirt out of a beach towel, so I was able to jettison the last of the DEMON threads, and the only part of me that still dripped was my hair. Ubu, on the other hand, was a walking puddle machine.
He’d settled at a square table near the wall, a small chair on one side that would have been toothpicks if he tried to sit in it, and a sturdy booth on the other where he could sit and drip-drip-drip a little river along the edge of the sloped floor and out the door. Pete brought him several small plates of local delicacies, and he was concentrating on his food a little too much to notice me strolling up to the table, until it was too late:
“Hey, Ubs,” I said cheerily, settling into the rickety chair across from him.
He looked startled but far from hostile. Wearing the bar t-shirt, he might have thought I was a particularly friendly waitress. I decided to jog his memory a little, so I peered into the plate nearest him.
“What have we got there, fried songbirds? Looks tasty.” And then, even though I don’t stretch the theme to the point where crispy canaries are a tasty snack, I picked up one of the fried birdies and had a nibble. Then I purred.
“You are the Detective’s feline concubine,” he said finally.
“Meow,” and a twiddling fingertip wave confirmed my identity, and that was it for a minute or so. I got the impression Ubu was a lot more comfortable standing behind Ra’s like a floor lamp and letting the cadaver do all the talking. I obviously had to take the initiative.
“Is there any possible way to file a name change with you guys?” I asked seriously. “Couldn’t I be, I don’t know, ‘She with whom locks are pointless’ or maybe ‘the lumpy purple one with the ears’ or ‘watch out for those claws?’ Something that’s more about me than him.”
“What do you want, woman?” Ubu asked (a fair question, actually, but not one I intended to answer).
“Oh, nothing much. Run into somebody you know in a place like this, far from home, middle of nowhere, it’s natural to come over and say ‘Hi.’” I looked around the bar theatrically. “Anybody else I know in the neighborhood? I mean usually wherever you are, old man Ra’s is flitting around, isn’t he? But I don’t, uh... Nope, I don’t see him. You ‘gone rogue,’ so to speak?”
He just stared at me. If I didn’t know he spoke English, I would have thought he didn’t follow a word I was saying.
“No, what am I saying?” I laughed. “DEMONs don’t go rogue! The loyalty of the Ubu is absolute, right? Rather like the focus of the crimefighter on his task.”
There I paused to grin wider. It’s not often I get to go all Jervis, spouting nonsense that way, but this was a very particular type of cat-and-mouse game: the more playful I was, the more confused he would get, and the more confused the mouse, the sooner it runs into a corner where it shouldn’t.
“Any order, no matter how hare-brained, is your happiest duty to perform, right? No matter how paranoid or ego-driven or infomercial-inspired… If His Greatness demands that 10,000 lots of Oxyclean be dumped into San Francisco Bay, Ubu shall oblige without question. If celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito must be slain for the glory of the DEMON, he shall be slain and Ubu shall not question why, right?”
He was still staring, but it was a different stare. It was the stare of a mouse that feels the hard crease of a corner at his back.
“There were several errands to be run on land,” he said abruptly. “Rather than dispatch many men and weaken the undersea contingent, I volunteered to see to them myself.”
“There’s an undersea contingent,” I noted curiously. “Now that’s interesting.”
I helped myself to another of his fried canaries, and again I meowed. Ubu sputtered, but not because I was eating his lunch.
“I revealed nothing you did not already know, Feline Concubine of the Gotham Detective. I stated only that my being here is no act of desertion. I am on this island on the Master’s business.”
“Riiight,” I said with a wink. “Pete, could we get a few more gin and tonics over here? And maybe a plate of those conch fritters? Protesting too much is thirsty work, isn’t it, Ubu?”
He definitely had that cornered mouse look now, and I thought it was time to let him run a little, thinking he’d found an escape. I assured him that I was never there, he was never there, what happens in Horta stays in Horta. I let him eat the rest of his lunch without stealing any more of his canaries, and I even gave him one of my fritters when they arrived. He didn’t exactly relax, but he wasn’t on high alert either—which made the whole episode with the aqua-cops pretty sad.
There I was, letting the Ubu mouse feel he’d maneuvered out of the corner and start scurrying around until he would drop more crumbs like “the undersea contingent” and “errands to run on land.” There was something about a hot spring on a nearby island, but before I could press for details, the whole bar got darker. The light streaming in from the open door was suddenly blocked by a phalanx of them: six figures all together, four in the uniforms I’d seen in Atlantis, and two that looked like the local coast guard. Pete’s isn’t the biggest bar in the world, and six men coming in in a pack fills the space in a very intimidating fashion. Ubu freaked.
I’m not even sure they intended to capture him when they came in the door. They might have just been sent as my ride, but once Ubu started fighting to NOT get captured, well… aqua-cops are just like the regular kind: If you toss a stick and say “Fetch, Rover! Go get it, boy!” they’re going to chase that stick.
I stayed out of it. Normally I like getting in on the action, but this one was such a mess. I don’t know if it was the Atlantean fighting styles or Ubu’s bulk, but it just didn’t look like fun. I figured I’d fight later. And if I didn’t get a chance by the end of this little adventure, Bruce is always ready to accommodate me with a little sparring in the cave… although, after a DEMON case, chances are he’ll have had his fill, in which case, we’ll just have to find some other way to work off the physical tension. Meow.
By the time my thoughts progressed that far, the Atlanteans were dragging Ubu into what they called a plasma sub, and the coast guard guys were trying to sign me up for a battery of tests before I went with them. I’m not sure how Barbara managed to mangle the Anton Geist information, but it should have been perfectly obvious to everyone that I was still breathing air. Even if there was still an asterisk on Tim and the scientists, and even if the jury was still out on what killed the minion, I was standing right there, watching the aqua-cops pummel Ubu. I was breathing air! Case closed, let me sign your little paper and get me on that sub.
Ubu stared ahead, modulated his breathing, and appeared to zone out. To the Feline (one of those elements in his surroundings he was finding it difficult to tune out) it must appear he was separating himself from any awareness of his surroundings. He was a prisoner preparing himself to undergo whatever tortures his captors might bring, for nothing, but nothing, could compel him to betray the name of Ra’s al Ghul.
The very suggestion that he could have defected was an obscenity. There was a need for one at the sea base to go to the surface and supervise the delivery of the captives. There was a need to call the compound in Sri Lanka, and The Great One decreed it should be done from land and not from the arriving ship, for nothing should be left to chance, no stray transmission that could be intercepted by the Detective and lead him to Ra’s present location. There was a volcanic caldera on the nearby island of San Miguel rumored to be a mystic, life-giving spring, and The Demon’s Head wished it to be surveyed, should it be suitable for a Lazarus Pit. There was absolutely no need to send three men when these jobs could all be completed by a single one, and there was no reason Ubu could not be that man. Once he was on land and found the fabled hot spring to be a nothing but a fetid blowhole whose waters and steam vents reeked of sulfur, it was certainly his duty to seek out alternatives. There were a dozen islands, after all, and the sun that shone down on them was so very warm. The air was so clean and unfiltered. And the walls of the little pub where he stopped for lunch had windows that did not bend in noticeably as you approached crush depth.
It was no act of disloyalty to prefer a room where the walls did not creak and groan with the weight of an ocean. It was no act of disloyalty! He preferred walls that did not have the weight of an ocean pressing them inward towards his head. He preferred air that didn’t reek of salt water and algae, where every breath didn’t coat his throat with a film of mossy slime. He may have dallied a bit longer than absolutely necessary, but the walls did not creak and bend! He would have to eat whether he returned to the sea base or not, so what was the harm in taking a last meal on land, with the warm sun and the unfiltered air and the non-creaking walls?
The harm, obviously, was the accursed Feline who sat across from him now.
Of all the accursed luck! If the Detective had somehow gleaned Ra’s al Ghul’s plan and was actively searching the Atlantic, and if the Feline Concubine had, like any sensible being, found an excuse to make her way to land and there found the warm sun and unfiltered air a good enough reason to delay her return, what were the chances they would seek refuge in the same bar?! What were the chances?! And now, because of that vile woman, another thrice-damned submarine was taking him back to the ocean floor.
At least this vessel seemed better built for the purpose—though it was sacrilege to think so, and Ubu immediately chastened himself for preferring the infidel Atlantean sub to that provided by Ra’s al Ghul. In order to squelch these traitorous thoughts, Ubu once again lunged forward to strangle the Feline.
Catwoman’s arrival in Atlantis was very different from Batman’s. The plasma sub was no transporter, and there were no formalities to be observed (or set aside) for its arrival. As far as the Atlantean Guard was concerned, it was an ordinary vehicle returning from a mission. Batman wanted to meet it, so Vulko directed him to the docking bay, where he went unescorted.
He waited alone while the receiving crews did their jobs, professionally, efficiently, and without acknowledging the visiting surfacer in their midst. Before long, a sub docked… The hatch opened… An ensign stepped out and then turned back to assist a shorter figure emerging behind him…
Batman’s eyes flickered up and down, inspecting Selina’s form as she came into view. All vestiges of her disguise were gone, the wig, the tape distorting her figure, the clothing. Not unexpected. She wore the kind of improvised getup typical for shipwreck rescues—except for the tears and pulls around the top of her t-shirt, and the matching bruises around her neck.
Their eyes met for a long moment, which was as demonstrative as either of them were comfortable with in a docking bay full of strangers.
“What happened?” Batman asked finally, indicating the bruising on her neck by pointing to his own.
“I brought you a present,” she said with a half-smirk. “He got a little rambunctious in the car.”
On cue, the Atlanteans were carrying an unconscious Ubu out of the sub, a fresh bruise on his head, and his left eye going black.
He really is the sweetest, most thoughtful man in the world. Nobody understands that about him, which is how he wants it, naturally. Batman is not supposed to be sweet—but he is. He really is.
He had Alfred send my costume through the League teleporter so it was waiting for me when I got to Atlantis. Since we’d learned about the symposium, it seemed like the whole adventure had degenerated into a series of costume changes. And now, here, finally, was the costume that mattered: MINE! My catsuit. I was home again.
Getting to peel off that last t-shirt and slip into my own skin… meoooooooow. I felt like me again. For the first time since the Batcave, I felt like me. No Foundation suit, no DEMON minion, no tight waitressy t-shirt from a waterside bar… Me. Catwoman. Catsuit-Purple-Purring-Hissing-Scratching-Enough with the water already-I’m a cat goddamnit-Meow.
I had just pulled my hair out through the back of the cowl when the secretary came in. She said Batman and King Orin were in the situation room and I should join them as soon as I was ready.
I was ready, but I stalled for a minute, fussing with the gloves and patting down the wrinkles, just so I could talk to the new girl. That’s when I learned her name was Valerina, she was the king’s personal assistant, and, since formal protocols had been set aside for Batman’s visit, she was our unofficial guide and go-to girl for the duration of our stay.
She seemed to think I was her equivalent in the Bat Family, and while I’d normally shut down any assumption that I was a sidekick or subordinate, I didn’t in this case. When I was working, I’d always found support staff—assistants, chauffeurs, and whatnot—ready to open up to an equal. I learned about more backdoors and blindspots by letting people like Valerina think I was one of them. So, just for today…
We hit it off immediately. For someone attached to a Leaguer, even a comparatively sane one like Aquaman, she seemed amazingly grounded and sensible. She said this was her first contact with Batman, and when I asked what she thought of him, she said he seemed “a lot like King Orin.” No nonsense, as she put it. I could only guess what kind of “nonsense” she’s encountered with the other Leaguers, but preferring Batman’s manner to it certainly indicated more taste and intelligence than I’ve come to expect in places like this.
“Normally, Vulko would have the job staffing a visitor of his stature,” she told me as she led me through the maze of corridors. “At first, I thought maybe I was assigned as… Well, I shouldn’t say this, but judging by your costume, I suspect you’ll understand. I thought perhaps I was given the assignment to be a species of…”
“Eye candy?” I guessed.
“Yes, exactly. But as soon I met him, I could see that wasn’t the case. He’s very no nonsense, rather like the king in that respect. Now that he’s been with us several hours, I realize it was just… I am saying too much, but…” She paused, looked around, and continued in a whisper “From what I’ve seen, Batman scares the krill out of Vulko.”
Like I said, I liked Valerina straight away.
Ra’s looked up sharply, and made a swift gesture for the minion Denni’ to be silent.
The lights had flickered again. That was the second time in an hour, although this time, at least, they had not gone out completely. If his engineers made any error connecting his equipment to the base’s Atlantean power grid, someone would have to be flogged.
“Continue,” Ra’s said at last, once the flickering ceased.
“The prisoners are exhibiting all the expected behaviors, going through the motions of work but doing little when not directly supervised. We have identified three who seem the least resistant and are rewarding them in small ways. A pillow, an extra ration…”
“A beginning,” Ra’s said coolly. “There will always be collaborators, Denni.’ There will always be those whose ambit—”
Once again, the lights flickered.
“Whose… ambitions…” Ra’s droned on with less certainty, “will quickly override any… princip—”
This time, the lights went out completely.
I could tell we were approaching the situation room when Valerina’s easy manner faded. There were a pair of guards standing at attention at the end of the hall, but even without the closed door coming into view behind them, I would have known from her change in stride.
The guards let her enter on sight, no passwords or badges or entry of keycodes. The first thing I heard when the door opened was Batman’s voice:
“If you don’t think your men can hold him, I can make other arrangements.”
Followed by Aquaman’s:
“I didn’t say that. It is true that Atlantis has very little crime and what there is has never warranted the equivalent of a surface type of jail, but we are perfectly capable of—”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“When I got back from that endless relay swim around the Pacific, I told you—and kept on telling you every time you asked—that Atlantis had not been invaded. THIS, this is how you invade. Not storming the dome with a thousand men that can’t breathe inside a flooded—Oh, hello, Selina, good to see you again—could never get into Atlantis as an advancing army. But get a man captured! Ubu was just brought into the heart of Atlantis!”
“Hey, that was your guys’ idea,” I chimed in. “It wasn’t mine and it certainly wasn’t Ubu’s.”
“Can we be so sure?” Arthur asked. “Can we absolutely certain his ‘capture’ was not a staged event to give him access to the inner sanctums of the palace?”
“Oh hell yes,” I laughed. “You didn’t see his face in that sub. He is not loving the underwater experience. I’m still not sure what he was doing in that bar, but I know he was happy there and I’ll bet all the catnip in my wallet right now against all the kelp in yours, he would still be there if your men had left him alone. Ask the ones that kept pulling him off me in the sub, if you don’t believe me. He was not happy to be back underwater.”
“You’re sure?” Arthur asked—and before I could answer, Batman echoed him. Rather than put up with the Jackass Crimefighter routine in stereo, I turned to the one I knew best and answered Batman directly.
“How many times have you seen Ubu, and on how many of those occasions did he strike you as a gifted actor?”
He grunted, and in my peripheral vision, I saw Arthur grimace.
“Assuming you’re right, Ra’s al Ghul still has upwards of sixty prisoners to our one, including Tim. And he doesn’t seem the type who would part with a single one in any type of prisoner exchange.”
“Not… the way you mean it…” Batman said slowly. I could see his wheels turning, then his eyes went square and I knew he’d reached a decision. When he spoke again, it would be a new tone, the “this is what we’re going to do” proclamation.
Except he didn’t say anything, he just looked at me.
“It is,” Arthur said, also looking at me.
“NO!” I said. I’m not in on the Justice League telepathy channel, but I could tell that whatever they were talking about, it involved me and I would not like it.
“No,” I repeated.
We were back in our quarters, alone, and by now I had said no approximately four hundred thirty-seven times. One hundred in the sit room with Aquaman and Batman, one hundred more to Aquaman alone when Batman left to make a phone call, thirty more when he got back, one hundred a piece to Valerina and Vulko while they took me the long way back to our quarters, and now seven—“No!”—eight since Bruce joined me in our suite and, in a particularly transparent maneuver, took off his cowl to “reason” with me, face-to-face.
Four hundred thirty-eight nos. It should have been enough for anybody, but not for Batman.
“Aquaman is right,” he’d stated (in exactly that ‘what we’re going to do’ tone I predicted). “The quickest and least bloody way to invade is to be captured and let your enemy escort you into the heart of his operation. With Ra’s, it’s always been the most efficient way to get inside whatever he’s doing.”
“I’m familiar with the Trojan Horse protocol, Bruce. I’m also familiar with the Ra’s history and I’ve been biting my tongue not to say her name. I know you’ve always found ‘getting captured’ to be the quickest way inside with that DEMON crowd, and the absurd indignities you sunk to, pretending to let that transparent harpy manipulate you. A man with 1/1000 of your intelligence would have seen through her act in a Gotham minute. And anyone who allegedly knows you the way that DEMON crowd pretends to should fucking know that. But no, apparently they actually are as gullible and stupid as they think you are, and they open the gates every time and roll that wooden horse into the throne room. Fine. They’re idiots, I accept that.
“But does anybody really think that lucky streak would extend to me? Can you honestly stand there and say that preposterous, already-straining-credulity-to-the-breaking-point chain of deluded DEMON stupid would survive The Prodigal Ubu marching me into the throne room trussed up like a Christmas turkey?”
“Selina, we have two distinct advantages right now. We have Ubu, and we have Ra’s. The Demon’s Head thinks he’s pulling this off. He thinks I’m off investigating Pequena’s designs on you, the world believes his scientists are dead, and Aquaman is blissfully unaware he’s moved into the neighborhood. We can shatter all of that in one devastating second with you marching into his throne room and saying ‘Meow.’ I know Ra’s. His plans are all predicated on an assumption of success. He doesn’t have fallback strategies or contingency plans, and while he’s reeling, trying to find a flee square on three fronts at once, we open the keyhole for the Atlantean troops and rendezvous with Tim. He’ll be free by now, and looking for a—”
“Wait a minute, ‘we?’ Who’s we?”
“Selina, you can’t think I was going to send you in there alone. I’ll be Ubu.”
It’s one of those statements that, if anyone else says it, you laugh. You know they can’t be serious and you laugh. If Batman says it, you know he can’t be joking and you should take it seriously, but… Ubu?
“You’ll be Ubu,” I said flatly.
“I probably can’t fool Ra’s for very long, up close,” he said, almost casually. “But the rest of them won’t be a challenge. I made up as the last Ubu and got away with it for nearly a day, and he only spoke Farsi. This one speaks German, Romanian, and English. Plus, Arthur’s people have this wearable hologram unit they’re still trying to develop for covert ops. The tech is fine, but their agents don’t have a lot of undercover experience. Who better to give it a shakedown cruise than someone experienced with infiltration, stage make-up impersonation, and—”
“Yes, yes, I get it. Who better than you. It’s a tech toy, who better than you to try it out.”
I was trying for a lip twitch, but all I got was a grunt, so I decided to stop teasing and think it through.
“Well, we will be doing Ubu a favor,” I said, thinking out loud. “Even if it is you, as long as they think it’s him, he benefits. He was playing hooky on land, not a doubt in my mind. And now that we’ve got him, he’s been gone even longer. There’s no way he can really explain where he’s been or how he got captured without admitting to… to the kind of indiscretion I don’t think they let you admit to in DEMON. If he doesn’t show up with a prisoner of at least my level of ‘interesting,’ then he’s going to be flopping around for air that won’t come, just like that dead-fish minion.”
“’Will be doing him a favor,’ that means you’ll do it?”
“Ubu may not be my favorite person in the world, but I wouldn’t want to see him deadfish, particularly when it’s partially my fault.”
“Welcome to the least satisfying aspect of crimefighting, saving the bad guys. And they never say thank you.”
“You saved me a few times. I always tried to thank you, and you didn’t want to hear it.”
“I can tell Arthur to proceed with the plan now?”
Mr. Denial, just like old times. He even had that stiff jaw he always pulled whenever he declined to be thanked. I decided another reminder was in order. Occasionally the ass-saving had gone the other way, and…
“You, on the other hand, what was that phrase you used instead of thank you? How did that go again? Was it… Oh yes, ‘Put the Storm Opals from Rann back on your way out.’”
To be continued...