Chapter 2: The Mark
All things considered, Eddie’s been a pretty good sport since finding out about Bruce. He’s taken a few unnecessary swings at my head, but once you factor in his obsessions and psychosis and the fact that Batman always solved his riddles, he’s been a good sport. He helped in the last round against Joker just to pull focus from me, so it wasn’t Catwoman fighting crime as much as all Rogues fed up with Joker’s theme-snatching saying “Enough already” and punching back.
I owed him. He was in dire straits with this Grifter’s Curse, and he wasn’t going to get himself out of it alone, not with his personal dark cloud following him around wherever he went. So I agreed to help—under one condition. I didn’t mind helping a friend, but I drew the line at going to that lair of his to do it. He only set up shop on the East End because he knows I avoid it like the plague. With the Post’s nauseating lies about me centering on that area, it’s literally the last part of town where I’ll risk being seen. Ironically, that’s another example of Eddie being a good sport. Since he discovered I’m dabbling in crimefighting on rare occasions, a lair on the East End was a way to guarantee that we wouldn’t be running into each other. If a cape comes knocking on his door, he knows it won’t be me. So he can pull whatever jobs occur to him, I can indulge in the occasional date night patrol with Bruce, and we both know our paths will never cross. Friendship remains intact and everybody’s happy, Riddle Me-ow.
Except it hasn’t really worked. He’s had one personal crisis after another since moving into that hell hole—nothing that called for a drop in from a crimefighting cape, just the kind of thing that needs a drop in from a friend. So I’ve sucked it up and gone to the East End. More than once I’ve gone, and that’s as much compromise as he gets from this kitty. I wasn’t going to be DRIPPED ON on top of everything else. I let Eddie know that if he wanted to see me under his roof ever again, he needed to find himself a new roof in some other part of town, preferably one capable of keeping out the rain. Until then, we’d meet at the Iceberg.
This was a new low for Edward Nigma. The Iceberg Lounge, the one place a Rogue of his standing was guaranteed VIP treatment, and they didn’t have a table for him. Raven looked better than he’d ever seen her. She was in a new hostess dress: black, sleeveless, scoop neck, sequins. The “wow” that escaped him when he saw her had dropped his voice into the Bat-register. Eddie wanted to think that’s why she refused him a table. The dining room was never fully booked for The Riddler, so hearing an unfamiliar voice, she must have mistaken him for a groupie. The dream was short-lived, unfortunately, for she went on to address him as Mr. Nigma when she suggested he “try to find a spot” in the bar.
It was easier said than done. He had to go through the dining room to reach the bar, squeezing around tables of more fortunate diners whose chairs were practically back-to-back to begin with. The reason was clear enough: there was an icy-white grand piano under the chandelier that had never been there before, and Oswald was too cheap to remove tables to make room. Every table was full, and one man even tried to give Eddie a drink order as he squeezed past.
Reaching the barroom, it looked like his only choices were sitting with Hugo Strange, with henchmen, or with KGBeast. Picking the least objectionable, he asked KGBeast what he was drinking and it was enough to make him reconsider the merits of Hugo Strange as a drinking buddy.
“Da. From someplace called Alaska Distillery. Moscow tried this in 1972. Salmonka was called. This is no better.”
“Then why are you drinking it?” Eddie asked.
“I see ad on back of magazine behind bar. I am curious so I ask Sly. He order it special, must buy whole case, he says. Cobblepot say now I must drink it. Sly no will serve me anything else until all salmon vodka is drunk.”
Eddie made a mental note to watch what he said in front of Sly, and KGBeast agreed to let Eddie share his table as long as he drank a few shots. Eddie agreed, with the bonus that by the third shot, as the chilled vodka distilled with glacial ice slid away leaving the unmistakable whisper of smoked fish on his palate, he’d learned why there wasn’t a free table to be had in the dining room.
Hackers are thief-like by nature. The computer, like the urban penthouse, has its secured locks and burglar alarms, all its goodies locked away behind thick titanium walls and tumblers, or perhaps a biometric keypad with a fingerprint scanner and a twelve-digit digital pin. It thinks it’s very secure until you come along, knowing far more about how its locks actually work than it does, and a few minutes later, all of its treasures are yours for the taking. Since Oracle is the world’s best hacker and Catwoman is the world’s best thief, we hit it off the very first time we teamed up. I had no idea she’d been Batgirl, of course, so there was none of that awkward tension you get with crimefighting capes. By the time I found out about her past, it didn’t matter. She was a sensible woman and we had a rapport. We could laugh together at the foibles of the silly little girls (Poor Stephanie) and wonder if we had ever been that confused.
So I didn’t mind using Barbara for Operation: Help Eddie, but I did draw the line at Nightwing. So I had to wait outside their co-op until Dick left for patrol, and naturally he picked tonight to watch the end of a ballgame before setting out. So I stretched out on my gargoyle and waited. Eddie would just have to amuse himself at the ‘Berg until I got what I came for.
Naturally, despite arriving late in the crush of the third seating, Catwoman had no trouble getting a premium booth in the dining room. There was a stag table in the back who would have been happy to vacate their place for the famous (and eye-catching) Rogue, but Raven gave that honor to a group of tourists. It added a special thrill to their glamorous night in the heart of Rogue Gotham. Raven then sent Dove who sent Wren who sent Peahen who sent Jose the busboy into the bar to tell Mr. Nigma he could join Catwoman in the dining room. As Eddie pushed his way through, the man who tried to order a drink from him earlier now told him they were ready for their check.
Eddie slumped into the booth like a desert nomad reaching the oasis, and Selina very kindly told him that he “looked like hell.” Before he could bring her up to date on the curse’s latest maneuvers to make him look like an idiot (kuram na sm'ekh, as his new drinking buddy might say), Oswald was waddling up to them looking insufferably pleased with himself.
“Catwoman, my felicitous feline, always displaying such discriminating discernment—KWAK! What a testament it is to your exceedingly good taste that you have chosen this particular night to visit us again—KWAKwakwakwak.”
Selina had no idea what he was talking about, but she guessed it was connected to the crowd so she asked what was going on. Oswald went into ecstasies of kwaking at the chance to tell the story again: The grand piano had been delivered a few days ago by mistake. That afternoon, a perfectly ravishing creature had come to the bar to clear up the mistake. Her name was Tawny. Tawny Piculet… (A rapturous sigh here rather than more gratuitous kwaking, for a name of such distinction should be contemplated in silence.) Tawny and her sister Pitta were moving in down the block. Pitta was a lounge singer, hence the piano, while Tawny herself… (Once again a pause and a reverent sigh) …was a celebrity chef. “Celebrity,” at least, in the minor arena of Star City. She and her sister had now come to Gotham to make a name for themselves in the greater world—kwak.
Oswald Cobblepot was not one to thumb his nose at opportunity, and he hired them both on the spot. Tawny set to work creating a new menu, and as fate would have it, a tour bus broke down right outside their door and a busload of tourists poured in to wait just as she finished a test batch of her gourmet mac n’ cheese… Oswald paused here to eulogize about the mac n’ cheese, the leeks Tawny added that brought such piquancy to the dish and the slice of truffle on the bottom which infused the surrounding cream with such flavor. By the time the replacement bus arrived, the tourists refused to leave. When they finally did go, they evidently spread the word at their respective hotels, for the phone started ringing within the hour. Every concierge in the city wanted a block of tables reserved for their guests, and there hadn’t been an empty table since.
Selina looked skeptically from Oswald to Eddie and back to Oswald, as if she suspected a prank.
“Ozzy, you didn’t buy a smart phone recently, did you?”
“Why would I do such a thing?” he sniffed. “I have a staff to take my messages-kwak.”
“Just checking,” she smiled.
He leaned in then and spoke confidentially:
“I was going to get a pair for Talon and Crow, for the –kwak– convenience of our customers who have a –kwakwak– a keen interest in sporting events. I thought perhaps the phone that Edward was getting. But when I went to the website, it seemed suspect. –kwakwak– 84 applications, wireless internet and satellite. Too good a deal for the price quoted. So I sent Talon to –kwak– see what had ‘fallen off the truck’ at Willoughby’s.”
He toddled off, and Selina turned to Eddie with an I-told-you-so flourish as soon as he’d gone.
“There you are. Ozzy passed on the phone you bought. He’s got your mojo.”
Oswald stopped a waitress as she passed, took a bite of something off her tray, and assumed a rapturous expression as he chewed and swallowed.
“That’s disturbing,” Eddie said, seeing Oswald approach the piano only to have the singer beckon with her finger. (And what kind of a name was Pitta Piculet anyway?)
“It is,” Selina agreed. Oswald Cobblepot, bloated with happiness, turning pink as a svelt lounge singer twirled his hair in her fingers, pinched his ear and crooned at him… “Disturbing” was the mot juste.
“I didn’t think you believed in the curse,” Eddie said, eyes riveted on the scene with morbid fascination.
“Well, I haven’t completely dismissed the possibility that you’re faking it, that you and Ozzy are making all this up just to pull my leg. But since I can’t see what either of you would get out of it, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt.”
“How nice of you,” Eddie said flatly. It occurred to him that if he really wanted to convince her, he probably could. He could remove all doubt the way he’d convinced KGBeast: by cutting cards. He’d lost 14 consecutive hands and had to buy the entire case of salmon vodka as a result. (Although he had no intention of drinking the stuff like Beast was doing, that was just dumb.) Then he’d fumbled shuffling the cards, spraying half of them onto the floor, and when he bent to pick them up, he hit his head on the table… He decided it was fine to let Selina entertain a few doubts.
“Eddie, you know if it’s true, if it really is the Grifter’s Curse, then there’s only one way to break it. You’ve got to con them back.”
“And how do you suggest I do that, ‘Lina? I don’t know where these people are. That website could be out of L.A. or Metropolis or Vancouver for all I know.”
“They’re right here in Gotham,” Selina smirked. “Which is good, because I don’t relish the idea of getting on a plane with you.”
“Does that mean you’re going to help?”
“Of course I’m going to help, you knew that when you first called me. Now then, DreamFixer is one of a dozen websites owned by—”
“Hey, Cat, mind if I join you?”
Matt Hagen. Clayface. He was a regular at Vault when I was posing as queen of the underworld. Really attached himself to me, like a shapeshifting bodyguard/bouncer. Half the time he’d do it as a leopard or a cheetah, once as a pair of fully mained lions. It added a lot of panache to my appearance but I could never figure out what he got out of it. I know he didn’t have a crush on me, it was nothing like that. The best I can figure, he just liked the company.
Eddie grumbled when he asked to join us. I could tell he wanted to get down to work on the DreamFixer problem and this was interruption. But it was my table, not his, and I couldn’t help thinking there is always room for a shapeshifter when you’re planning a con. I slid over and made room, Matt sat down, and after a few complaints about the “Do you have a reservation” treatment from Raven (Matt had been an A-Lister in Hollywood and held on to the attitudes when it came to things like getting a table and being on the list), we brought him up to speed on the Eddie situation.
“Grifter’s Curse? I never heard of such a thing. And it’s real? I don’t believe it.”
“KGBeast didn’t either,” Eddie said. “So we cut cards. I lost. Fourteen consecutive times.”
Hagen let out a low whistle, morphed into KGBeast and said “Dats is some fiercely bad luck, Comrade Riddles.”
Not surprisingly, he drew the attention of the entire room. The tourist half applauded. The singer decided to reclaim their attention with a Tchaikovsky flourish over the piano keys, and in short, my quiet, inconspicuous booth at the Iceberg was no longer a fit place to plan a crime. I suggested we relocate, and Matt said he knew a place.
The Club Room was one of those spots hidden away in the forgotten cubby holes of SoHo that understood the importance of a discreet entrance that isn’t particularly easy to find. We followed Matt—transformed from clay man to a suntanned Wall Street type for the occasion—past a pair of fake guard dogs, up a flight of stairs, behind a velvet rope and through a small unmarked door. Matt greeted the doorman as “Vinny,” and Vinny admitted us to a homey room populated with large, comfy couches and leather armchairs, leopard-print throw pillows and splayed palm trees. Over each conversational nook hung an enormous black-and-white photograph: Paul McCartney at the piano, Jimmy Stewart in a fedora, Peter O’Toole in evening clothes looking very suave and holding a cigarette, a foursome of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and a couple horror stars from the 50s I didn’t recognize. Matt led us through the main room to what was clearly his preferred spot: a side parlor with a big picture of the Bond-era Sean Connery in a bathtub, sipping a martini. I love Gotham, I really do. Places like The Club Room are one of the reasons.
We got comfortable and got down to work beginning with the intel Oracle dug up about the website that had taken Eddie’s money…
“One of a dozen owned by Marcus and Paula Smek. They peddle electronics, most of which is several grades below what’s advertised. Basically whatever they can pick up cheap anywhere in the world, repackage and sell elsewhere: obsolete DVD players from Tokyo become state of the art gaming systems in Philadelphia and BluRay players in London. The other sites push luxury bedding—most from sweat shops in Singapore, sporting goods—most made by political prisoners in China, and an assortment of counterfeit items from designer handbags to books and movies.”
“It seems so petty,” Hagen said.
“Greedy and unimaginative,” Nigma agreed. “Kind of thing that gives crime a bad name.”
“Less work for us then,” Selina smiled. “I don’t know about you two, but ‘rich and stupid’ is my favorite combination. Greedy means they’re going to swallow any tale we tell them. People see what they want to see. In this case, they’ll see the money shining out there on the horizon and that’s all they’ll see. It’s all they’ll want to see, it’s all they’ll care about. And petty means they deserve it. These two definitely have it coming.”
“Aren’t we assuming quite a lot from the business practices of a website?” said Hagen.
“He’s right. ’People see what they want to see,’ ‘Lina? Aren’t you jumping to a lot of conclusions about this couple just because they don’t defeat alarm systems and steal Picassos?”
“Or leave brainteasing clues for Batman,” Hagen added, and Nigma scowled.
“I’m not jumping to conclusions,” Selina purred. “I know them. Both of them. They’re members at Bruce’s country club. In fact, they’re always trying to get me to play tennis. Insanely competitive. Type 3s. That’s our in.”
“Um, I don’t follow,” said Hagen.
“The Bruce Wayne crowd that flit around ‘Lina since she took up with Mr. Moneybags fall into a number of categories,” Eddie explained. “But don’t try to keep track of the numbers because she keeps changing them.”
“I do not,” Selina laughed.
“She does,” Eddie repeated, ignoring her and directing his words only to Matt Hagen. “First group had their eye on Wayne for themselves or their daughters. They’re not too pleased that he’s off the market, but they try to hide it since they figure ‘Lina’ll be deciding who gets an invite to all the Wayne shindigs from now on. Second group, they know she’s broken into Buckingham Palace and had a go at the crown jewels, so—”
“It was Windsor Castle for a Rembrandt,” Selina interrupted. “The crown jewels are in the Tower of London—”
“And you had a go at them twice,” Eddie interrupted right back.
“Actually I think it was three times,” Selina said under her breath, and her index finger twitched a few times over the next several minutes as she tried to work it out. Maybe it was four times, actually…
“Anyway, they know Catwoman steals things like Rembrandts and crown jewels, and they’d just love to imagine their own baubles are in the same league as the queen’s. So whenever they see Selina, they make a big production auditioning their jewels. The third group—”
“That these Smek people are in,” Matt said to show he was following.
“Actually, the third group is Richard Flay.”
“The third group is one man?” Hagen said skeptically.
“He is in a category by himself, and we’ll leave it that,” Eddie said sourly, remembering Richard Flay’s penchant for flirting with him whenever he showed up at society events.
“And the Smeks?” Matt asked. “They’re the ones we’re interested in, right? What category are they?”
“Hungry,” Selina said coolly. “Some of the hungry ones are new money, some married into it. Some are just insecure. They’re always looking for an angle or an edge. Like their knowing you is a means to an end, it’s not a social exercise. It’s all about what you can do for them.”
“Producers,” Matt said instantly.
“O-kay,” Selina said uncertainly.
“Look on their friends as assets more than people?” Matt asked.
“Yeah, that’s them,” she nodded.
“Producers,” he said again decisively. “People like that, you want to give them an opportunity to use you. They’ll eat that up every time. Bringing them a deal won’t work, but if they spot it for themselves, if they figure out a way to take advantage…”
“Well, like I said, what they usually want from me is tennis,” Selina smiled. “The others Eddie mentioned, they either focus on the fact that I’m with Bruce, or else if they see ‘Catwoman,’ they see ‘jewel thief.’ The Smeks are a little different. It hasn’t escaped their attention that Catwoman is very athletic. They like idea of a doubles partner that can hold her own against Batman’s right cross, who they can innocently introduce as ‘Brucie Wayne’s little friend’ and have their mark write me off accordingly—right up until the moment I spin Dwight Raifford’s serve back at him with the force of a razor-tipped batarang.”
“A ringer,” Matt laughed.
The waitress brought their drinks—except for Eddie’s, which she got wrong. When she was gone, he spoke up: He didn’t see how any of this could help him. He needed to con the Smeks in order to get his mojo back. He couldn’t just beat them at tennis. Matt, who had been offered a good few con artist parts in his day, was happy to explain:
“Selina is your roper. She’s made first contact with The Mark through this tennis club. She will then introduce them to you, The Inside Man. You, Inside Man, will tell them The Tale, the narrative of your con. Do you have something in mind?”
“I’ve an idea that I’m working on,” Eddie murmured, with a winsome glance at Selina.
“Then all you need is a Fixer,” Matt said smugly. “Someone to create the world of the con, the reality your mark will get caught up in. The fixer makes sure that, wherever your mark looks, your story holds up. You lay the bait, and...”
“Get hints,” Eddie grinned.
“No! No hints, Nigma. None of your stupid riddles letting The Bat know what we’re up to—”
“Easy, Matt,” Selina said, placing a gentle hand on his arm. “It’s an anagram. Get hints…”
Matt Hagen’s mouth dropped open, completely confused.
“The sting,” Selina whispered.
There were a few things I hadn’t told Eddie about the Bristol Country Club. The land had originally belonged to the Van Schuyler family, aka Richard Flay’s ancestors. It was at least a hundred years since they’d sold it off or donated it, however it came to be the grounds of the club… Point is, it was once theirs, and the remaining Van Schyler estate began at the north end of the golf course—that’d be the present day Flay estate, as in Richard Flay’s house. I figured in Eddie’s present state of mind, he was better off not knowing. I hadn’t decided if there actually was a curse or if it was just Eddie’s belief making him into a disaster magnet, but I knew the increased likelihood of running into Richard would make him a nervous wreck either way. And I needed his best game if this con was going to work.
I also didn’t tell him that if there were functioning curses in operation, there might be one hanging over me where the Bristol Country Club was concerned. Before Bruce, it was just a series of failed robberies and one garden variety bad date. The robberies seemed like improbably bad luck at the time, but now of course, I can chalk them up to the bland Mr. Wayne yawning in the corner, consoling himself after a bad putt on the 12th green. The date, well, Wall Street types do like to brag about their portfolios and this one was a wine snob. He picked Château de Poulignac to show off, and I spent the evening staring at a picture of Francois’s house on the label. One coincidence like that does not a curse make.
Since Bruce: it was at the Bristol where he introduced me to the fop personality without any warning or explanation. That was fun. Gladys Ashton-Larraby chased me into the ladies room to make sure I knew her canary diamonds were catworthy. There was a garden party where everyone who’d been to Dick and Barbara’s wedding had to tell “that priceless story” about the Mrs. Wayne mix-up… And finally, it was at the Bristol Country Club where Richard Flay reminded me that the MoMA was getting ready to reopen, which ignited a lot of the unresolved Bat/Cat issues.
So nothing that extraordinary, nothing that screamed jinx-hex-curse, beware-beware-beware. It just wasn’t the most encouraging history one could hope for when kicking off a con there, a form of criminal enterprise in which confidence—not to mention luck—play a certain role. I figured the less Eddie knew on that score, the better. But I did tell him what he needed to know, like how to get there. Consider my pique when, sitting in the lounge ten minutes past the hour he was supposed to meet me, my cell rang. It was Alfred.
..:: There is a Mr. Nigma here to see you, Miss. When I informed him that you were not at home, he said that he was aware of that fact, as he was on his way to meet you. He expressed a desire that I should call you and convey the message that he is lost. ::..
Throughout this pretty speech, I heard Eddie’s voice pipe up occasionally in the distance, saying “Lina…” “Lina…” “tried to call” “stupid phone won’t work” and finally “Lake.” The last was explained by:
..:: I have consulted the directions he is holding on what appears to be the reverse of a greasy receipt from a fast food restaurant, Miss. I regret to say they do not lend credence to his tale. If followed, these directions would deposit him into the water trap on the 9hhgreen. ::...
“I imagine that’s why he’s lost, Alfred. Why don’t you just give him the proper directions.”
..:: Very good, Miss. ::..
“Your butler doesn’t like me,” Eddie announced when he finally arrived.
“Probably not,” I laughed. Alfred tends to echo Bruce’s view of most people, particularly the Rogues. Even though Eddie is far less deadly than the typical villain, Bruce’s attitude towards him is… spikier than with the others, particularly since he worked out the secret. At least that was the reason I assumed Alfred had been a little abrupt, until I saw the directions Eddie had to begin with. It was scribbled down exactly the way I had told him, except there was a grease spot where he wrote the turnoff onto Country Club Drive. Missing that turn but following the rest of the directions he’d taken down, he would’ve continued onto the Wayne property and been driving in the general vicinity of... No wonder Alfred was suspicious.
I was starting to believe in the curse. Messing up the directions, that could happen to anyone. Messing them up in that particular way… Then again, as unlucky as Eddie had been, he hadn’t make the absolute worst blunder possible. If he’d continued on with these directions instead of breaking off and going to the house to ask for help, he could have driven right past the entrance to the Batcave. That would’ve tripped about sixty alarms and brought down the wrath of the Psychobat in an epoch-making manner.
Eddie had actually dodged a bullet. It was the first ray of hope since this whole miserable business began. And the unkindest cut of all was that I couldn’t tell him.
To be continued...