Chapter 2: The Malay Penguin
Bruce is amazing. There’s a smoldering intensity that first drew me to Batman, and it doesn’t go away when he gets home and takes off the mask. It does change form. When it’s stopping crime, it’s dark, angry and powerful. But when he’s starting something, it becomes sizzling, dynamic, almost playful. He doesn’t say or do anything special, but you can sense it, that inner core that burns so hot as Batman, all that drive and focus and intensity. It’s just being channeled into something more… lifesize. It’s really something to see.
At least, it is when your eyes are open. That morning, it started before my eyelids were open for business. I was dreaming something about an email from Jason Blood, when that old tingle that used to warn me when Batman was near pulled me right out of the dream into a quick spooning hug—followed by a thigh slap and the morning version of the Bat-gravel tickling my ear and telling me not to sleep in too late. Once I was up, he visited me in the shower, which is always fun, and then suggested I wear a t-shirt. I don’t usually go bare-armed in the cave; it’s pretty chilly. But with all the work we’d be doing, I’d be sure to work up a sweat.
Something about his quiet excitement was contagious, and for the first time in years I felt a flush: this silly, girlish glow warming my cheeks. His impossibly understated yet impossibly intense focus that was so… so Batman, it made me giddy as we went down to the cave. I didn’t know why at first, but then, stepping off the final step, it hit me: he’d done this before. That cave didn’t build itself; he made it. He decided he wanted a chem lab and a gymnasium and a med bay. He chose what equipment to include. And I couldn’t help but wonder if I was seeing into the past, if he was like this on that first morning when he came down those stairs to start work setting up the gym.
“First we’ll pick a spot,” he said—with a plan, as always. “Then we’ll work on clearing the space for it, and once everything is in place, we’ll recalibrate the holo-gens.”
I just nodded. The first time he brought me to the cave, I couldn’t appreciate it. I really couldn’t begin to comprehend. I was still reeling from becoming lovers, from “my name is Bruce,” from the words “I love you,” from Batman’s voice coming from an unmasked face—from that face being Bruce Wayne, no less, from… all of it. It was months—hell, it was years—before I really understood what it meant that first time Bruce brought me into the cave. And now, now he casually mentions recalibrating the holo-gens.
“Of course we wouldn’t have to move a thing if we put it there,” he joked.
“Between the dinosaur’s legs? No.”
And the lip twitch. It was the only sign that he’d been joking (and it’s amazing how many people don’t get his sense of humor that way).
“What about over there, under the Joker card,” I pointed.
“Will make it difficult to get to the emergency generator.”
“What if… we put it right here?”
“It will block your old costume.”
“Let me finish. Put it right here in place of the costume case, and put my old skirted costume…” I turned, “somewhere over there.”
He scowled like he was picturing it, then shook his head.
“I’d rather not move that particular case. There’s a nest behind that stalactite. I’d rather not disturb anything the bats are used to.”
There was something about that scowl—the rooftop scowl—the denial scowl. I looked behind me, up the path to the main cavern and his seat at Workstation One. My costume was hardly in its direct line of sight, but I knew from the nights I’d sat there that the splash of color was clear when you glanced this way.
“Right,” I said with a smile. Let’s not disturb anything the bats are used to. I could have teased him, watched the scowl deepen the way it always did when I called him on one of those. Instead I decided to ask something I’d always been curious about. “How did you get your hands on it anyway? Did I leave it in the 89th Street Cat Lair that time after the Rosenthal Rubies?”
“No, it was in a ventilation duct at the art museum, above the women’s washroom, third floor, by the Flemish—”
“Oh… yes,” I smiled, and then laughed. “I never did make it back into the east wing that night, did I?”
“No, you didn’t,” came the booming Bat-gravel. Seeing it come from Bruce, the memories came flooding in with a new perspective: He was at the party. Of course. The Foundation must’ve underwritten the new exhibit, so of course Bruce Wayne was at the party. So of course the director’s door was locked again, even though she usually forgot when she was staying late for an event in the galleries instead of leaving at five. So of course the barcodes had been reset on all the staff badges. So of course the guard changed his patrol route. So of course the electric eyes were recalibrated. So of course Batman was in every hallway and gallery ahead of me whenever I found a new vent to try and crawl out of. I was so pissed at him that night, but now… now I couldn’t hold back the smile. I couldn’t keep myself from walking over and kissing him.
“It’s funny,” I laughed. “I know more about the other stuff in here than where you got my costume. Like that umbrella over there, with the carved handle. From the Malay Penguin heist, right? Langston Reed’s answer to the Maltese Falcon.”
“Except it wasn’t fictional. It was presumably the model for the statue in Dashiell Hammett’s tale, an actual silver gilt, jewel-encrusted, ebony sculpture, which Reed stubbornly insisted on exhibiting despite the Penguin being free…”
“I’ve never seen him that mad at anybody who wasn’t a criminal,” Dick told Alfred after Batman and Robin returned to the cave.
Alfred didn’t think it tactful to say that he wasn’t surprised, so he simply brought Master Dick a soft drink.
“I mean, I guess the guy was kind of a jerk,” Dick went on. “Showing off all this high tech security he’s got all over his gallery. But he did kinda have a point. Penguin doesn’t ‘rule the art world,’ as he put it. Mr. Reed should be able to exhibit whatever he wants. Just ‘cause it’s a villain theme.”
Alfred allowed that there was some validity to the point, but he also knew Langston Reed, a man whose sense of entitlement was so pronounced, he was the model for aspects of Bruce’s Fop performance. Alfred had no doubt how Reed would react to Batman coming into his gallery and challenging his actions. He would become aggressive and obnoxious—and Alfred could guess how Bruce would respond to that. Recognizing the similarities to Fop Wayne, his anger would be, as Dick described, on the scale of that reserved for criminal persons.
All Alfred said to Dick was that a valid point can be argued well or argued poorly, and perhaps Mr. Reed was not one of those gifted with the ability to express his views in a convincing manner. He then went deeper into the cave and made himself conspicuous dusting behind the workstation, in case Master Bruce wished to unburden himself.
“The idiot is using the same system of lasers and electric eyes the Shadow Thief beat last month, Alfred. The glass housing Catwoman slices open with her claws the way you and I turn a doorknob. Microphones and seismographs to detect disturbances on the floor or in the air, but cameras he dismisses as overkill. He knows best, the arrogant blowhard. He doesn’t know how to do anything but write a check to Foster and Forsythe, but he knows what’s best and all my expertise is waved away.”
“Most distressing, sir. Still, there is an advantage, surely, in knowing an item the Penguin is certain to try and steal. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.”
“Perhaps. But when a target is so obvious, it can work against us. They know we know what they’re going to do. It becomes part of their plan, part of their… game.”
The next few days bore out Batman’s prediction. A series of false alarms at Reed Galleries exasperated the police. Batman traced them to the hypersensitive microphones and seismographs Reed was so proud of. There was a theatre next door to the gallery, rehearsing a musical. The noise and vibrations kept triggering an alert, every false alarm prompted him to set a new baseline. Once the rehearsals ended, the gallery became too quiet. Noise so far below the new ambient level could mean that power or ventilation might be compromised, prompting the system to once again sound an alert. The lynchpin of Reed’s brilliant security system had been rendered useless by a line of showgirls.
Dick was ready to learn the ins and outs of forensic accounting, so Bruce assigned him the task looking into the production company who rented the theatre. It took him less than a day to find Cobblepot’s holding company among the backers of the ersatz musical. That led to a confrontation and the bizarre exhortation to “Remember: Never pitch rolls at a bank!” Robin latched onto Penguin’s parting words and spent all his free time trying to find an association between coins or coin rolls and the Malay Penguin… or perhaps a bank and the Penguin... Savings, money, investments, safe deposit boxes, deposit slips, tellers, on and on with banking and banking terminology.
Batman wasn’t interested in the specifics. He was troubled by the clue itself. It wasn’t Cobblepot’s style to leave puzzling epigrams. He was ready to dismiss it as a red herring, but he allowed Robin to continue simply because some lessons are only learned through trial and error. The price was hearing Dick murmuring about pitches, rolls and banks while Bruce was trying to prepare for his upcoming flight to Paris. The board of the International Securities Exchange was meeting there Friday, and the American delegation was traveling together on a chartered flight to prepare. The flight was expected to be as much work as the conference, and he simply couldn’t concentrate with all of Dick’s speculating:
“He backs the musical to mess up the gallery’s alarms, right? And the money comes through a bank. The dancers – the ‘chicks’ – are feathered like birds…”
He was ready to tell Dick to let it go, when a final clue was dropped—literally dropped, by a flock of birds flying through midtown. The leaflets were weighted with Double Eagle coins, and all bore an absurd taunt addressed to Batman:
We need stall no longer! Time
is on the Wing!
Tonight I shall lift the silver bird—and you will take a dive!
Refusing to short either Gotham or the Securities Exchange, Bruce immediately appointed Justin Broome to take his place in Paris. Batman and Robin suited up, Dick’s triumphant chattering dropping to a background hum as Bruce’s mind serpentined through the facts of the case. The final thought snapped into place as he snapped the latch on his utility belt.
“…Just like you always said, Batman, the Penguin’s weak spot is his vanity! He thinks he can play with us—but we’ve outsmarted him! Right?”
They raced to the airport, to the plane chartered by the Securities Exchange, and caught the Penguin red-handed, preparing to hijack the flight and kidnap the sixty most powerful men in the international finance community.
With Robin clamoring for an explanation in front of a plane-full of witnesses, Batman couldn’t avoid explaining his reasoning: Pitch, Roll, and Bank, followed by Stall, Wing, Lift, and Dive were all flight terms. There was nothing relating to the Malay statue, not even the bird itself since penguins don’t fly. Tossing out the assumption that Penguin had any interest in the statue, Batman considered the taunt literally. A ‘silver bird’ might well mean an airplane, and as targets that screamed TARGET-TAKE ME went, the passengers of this one flight far outshone any jeweled statue.
Robin still couldn’t accept that Penguin could pass up stealing the Malay Penguin…
Bruce stopped narrating, since Selina had apparently been fighting down a SmileX attack since he described the dancers shorting out Reed’s security, and since his Right/Wrong exchange with Robin, she was losing the fight.
So he stood, silently scowling while she got it out of her system. He noticed the secret alcove was beginning to show since they moved the long display case with the Mad Hatter’s top hat. The stone “wall” in that one area was beginning to look discolored, and the patch next to it oddly unsolid. He knew the effect would become more pronounced as the morning’s work continued, until finally the alcove with that secret safe was completely visible. He knew this would happen, of course, once they started moving cases with the hologram generators attached to their hinges. He estimated the alcove would not be visible for more than forty-five minutes, if they continued to work at the pace he anticipated. If it went longer, he would initiate the DefCon-4 protocols to lock Alfred and the others out of the cave, but he didn’t want to resort to such measures unless absolutely necessary.
“I’m sorry,” Selina said, once she got her chuckling under control. “It’s just… a very different story when you tell it.”
“I take it you’ve heard it before from Cobblepot?”
“Once or twice,” she said with a naughty grin. “Would you like to hear his version?”
Selina tilted her head, deciding where to begin. Finally she said, “What are the first words out of everybody’s mouth after they hear ‘The Malay Penguin?’ ‘Like the Maltese Falcon,’ right? It was the first thing I said. Summa cum laude at the Sorbonne and I’d never heard of this thing. So, first time I heard Ozzy mention ‘The Malay Penguin,’ I asked like everyone else—”
“Is that anything like the Maltese Falcon?” Bruce nodded. That was his experience as well, unless you told the listener before they asked, that would be their first question.
“And the Maltese Falcon, in the novel as well as the movie, was a fake. Robin was absolutely right, Oswald would never pass up the chance to get his hands on the actual Malay Peng—”
“I know. The statue at Reed Galleries was a fake that he’d substituted for the real one before it came into the country. He admitted that when we caught him, boasted about it. He stole it weeks before, right after the loan to Reed Galleries was made public, but he cleverly kept the theft hidden so he could use it as a decoy. It took almost six months to find where he’d hidden the real bird… You’re laughing again.”
“Bruce, do you really see Oswald waddling around Chatsworth with a 12-inch statue down his pants, hanging back on the tour and swapping it out for one on the mantle?”
“You did it?” Batman breathed.
“I had to go to Europe anyway, was overdue for a stop in Zurich. Why not sweeten the business trip with a little fun. Like we did in Paris.”
“Hardly the same thing,” he said, a hardness creeping into his voice from a hundred long-ago rooftops. Normally Selina would have ignored it, but today, given their task in the cave, it gave her a pang. She offered a peace offering:
“So I went to this little village called…”
“Hooksiel?” Catwoman asked, more to confirm Oswald’s handwriting than her pronunciation. She was reading from the slip he’d handed her, and if he didn’t want her to hock a lover’s saxophone then it must be Hooksiel…
“In Lower Saxony—kwak!”
If only he’d sit down. She’d offered Cobblepot a seat as soon as he arrived at the cat lair, but he only sat down for a minute and then he was up again. Waddling around, scrutinizing each Bast and Sekhmet as if he were appraising them. It gave the impression that he was distracted, not giving the conversation his full attention. But Selina knew better. Oswald Cobblepot was a lot shrewder than most people gave him credit for.
“A charming village. Picturesque—kwak. Not much of a tourist destination for foreigners, but popular with the locals. Hence, there is a comfortable hotel should you wish to spend the night. How’s your German?”
“Good enough to meet your…” she squinted at the paper. It was either Hemp Knight or “Herr Kniphaus…” to peck a flesh birch “…to pick up your fake bird.”
“A work of art, Catwoman. A forgery so exact, made by a true genius of the craft, I am assured it will pass the most vigorous visual inspections. Supplied as he is with all the medieval equipment for caving the wood, applying silver, and inlaying the gems, Herr Kniphaus assures me the statue which arrives in Gotham will be indistinguishable from the original—kwak.”
At least, to Mr. Reed’s eyes, Catwoman thought. But there were too many different materials involved to fool chemical testing, carbon-14 dating, or the myriad of non-visual techniques to determine authenticity. Passing a “vigorous visual inspection” might be a great selling point for a forger in 1902, but today…
“Oswald,” Catwoman purred, “why do I suspect what you really like about this Kniphaus is that he’s cheap?”
“There is no point in paying for more service than one needs,” Cobblepot sniffed. “The Malay Penguin remains the property of the Duke of Devonshire, in whose collection it now resides—kwak! It is merely on loan to the Reed Gallery for the period of the exhibition, and Mr. Reed will have no authority to risk damaging it with chemical testing.”
“I suppose,” Catwoman said, biting her lower lip thoughtfully. The Duke’s country house was called Chatsworth, one of the most famous in England. Selina had been there twice. The art collection was so large, it contained so many old master drawings that could not be put on display, and a great deal had been sold off in the 1950s when the 10th Duke died ahead of schedule, producing a £7 million tax bill. The result was that even the curator didn’t know exactly what the collection contained. The first time, it was fun: taking a Fragonard that nobody reported stolen because nobody even knew they had it. The second time, going back for a Tintoretto, it didn’t seem quite sporting. Besides which, the Dukes of Devonshire all seemed to lean towards that horsey kind of English gentry that liked dogs in their pictures rather than taking up a healthy interest in Egyptian artifacts.
So that was her last visit to Chatsworth, but knowing the house was a great advantage. She knew their security was… well, it was as good as could be expected for a house built in 1554. They were so limited in what they could touch, in terms of the physical structure. The installation of modern wiring, plumbing and heating—without disturbing the historical base—had provided any number of holes for the modern cat burglar to exploit. And like all of those historic houses, they were dependent on the revenues from public tours. All Selina would have to do was pay her £16 admission, and she could walk through the halls and see if anything had changed. If they’d found a way to add thermal cameras or motion sensors to make a theft challenging, she might even pick up a piece or two for herself.
“I’ll do it,” she told Oswald, reaching for a pen and scribbling a number on his paper. He was standing by a waist-high silver Sekhmet, running a gloved finger over its ear as if testing for dust. Catwoman showed him the paper.
“KWAK!” he wailed, stabbing it with a chubby finger. “You cannot possibly expect me to pay such an amount.”
“No, that’s my account number,” Selina assured him. “This number is my fee.”
Hooksiel. Kniphaus. Selina saw Bruce’s eyes register the information, and while he didn’t actually say thank you, it was implied in the bat-grunt.
“Then it was off to England. It was nice seeing Chatsworth again. I waited until the insurance inspectors had authenticated the bird and saw it safely packed up for shipment to Gotham, then I made the swap and stashed the original in a cargo bay at Gatwick. Oswald already had the shipping arranged.”
“I never knew,” Bruce said quietly.
“Naturally, I don’t figure into the story when Ozzy tells it. He stole the bird weeks before it came into the country… All the same to me. He stole it, he had it stolen. I got my fee. He can say whatever he wants. But anyway, the fake bird was on its way to Gotham, and Oswald knew Reed would push your buttons. He’s so obnoxious. He’s so certain about everything he says, and so wrong most of the time. Ozzy knew the more Reed boasted about his wonderful precautions, the more you would be focused on all the areas where they fell short—and while you were focused on Reed being wrong, it would keep you focused on the biggest wrong of all: the idea that the Malay Penguin was his target.”
“Subtle,” Bruce said admiringly. “If he’d left it at that, it would have worked. But he overplayed his hand with all those extra clues.”
“Didn’t it ever bother you? Oswald leaving you clues like Riddler? It’s never been his M.O., before or since. Didn’t it make you wonder?”
“It’s an unanswered question of the case,” Batman graveled, willing to admit the debit in want of a credit in that particular case log, but rejecting that word “wonder” that made it sound like he was a poet contemplating the stars.
“Eddie knew a lot about what was going on,” Selina explained…
“’Lina’s birthday’s coming up,” Eddie told Oswald tersely. “We made plans to go see that revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Lanced Cone Elm, she canceled on me. Off to Europe to pull a job!”
“Wasting your time there,” Oswald observed. “The Felonious Feline is unequivocally unavailable.”
“Don’t believe everything you hear about her and Batman,” Eddie said peevishly.
“Pshaw,” Oswald agreed. “I would not dream of repeating that prattle of the proletariat…” And he wouldn’t even if he believed it. Catwoman made it clear that insinuations about her and the Bat would bring an unsheathing of claws and shredding of Penguin plumage. Quite apart from his desire to live unbruised, he could tell when a woman was unavailable, even if she herself seemed blithely unaware of that fact. He himself had made overtures. And any bird who could resist the charms of Oswald Cobblepot would clearly not be tempted by inferior specimens like Batman or The Riddler.
“Anyway,” Eddie said, heavy on the dignified hauteur. “I want to call and wish her a happy birthday. Question: Where to call? Answer: Unknown. But the query begins “Where,” which rhymes with lair. Who did ‘Lina say only last week was stopping by her lair?”
Oswald cleared his throat, annoyed by the unnecessary whimsy in what was clearly becoming a straightforward business transaction: the Cat’s location in exchange for a wad of cash.
“I figure it must be you that hired her,” Eddie concluded. “I just want to know where she is.”
Oswald named a price—which Eddie resented. Questions should be answered based on knowledge and wit. Intelligence was the currency he valued, not simple cash. But Oswald was firm, so Eddie grudgingly paid up.
“So Ozzy told him about Hooksiel, and almost immediately he regretted it. You know what Eddie is like, it’s a puzzle. What’s Selina doing in Hooksiel? He made it his business to figure everything out—and Edward Nigma knowing the details of what you’re planning is never a good thing. There’s no telling what might set him off. FAO Schwarz puts a giant Hello Kitty in the window and six months of work goes down the drain because he’s sending you haiku about the Katz collection.
“Oswald figured the best way to avoid the explosion was to detonate the bomb himself. So he gave you a couple Riddleresque clues himself, pointing where he wanted them to.”
Bruce’s lip twitched. And Selina grinned.
“It obviously backfired.”
It was a little early to break for lunch, but Bruce didn’t want to risk Alfred coming down to the cave to prod them while the alcove was visible. He didn’t say it, but Selina guessed he also wanted to update his files on the Malay Penguin “in light of new information” (grunt). So she went upstairs to talk to Alfred about lunch, planned to hang around the kitchen without making a big deal out of it, giving Bruce time to tweak his logs, and then bring the sandwiches down herself when they were ready.
To pass the time, she told Alfred about the robbery at Falconi’s the night before and Bruce’s extraordinary gesture bringing home the diamond from their first encounter there.
Alfred knew the particulars of that first crime they foiled together—not because Bruce had ever mentioned it, but because the subject was raised quite recently when he asked her to take over for him while he was injured. Alfred did not like admitting he overheard private conversations between the master and the mistress, so he was quite happy to allow Selina to tell him the story now. It gave him an alibi, so to speak, for knowing all the details he did.
“There we were, back in the jewelry store on the very spot where it all went down all those years ago… I would have settled for a kiss. Instead, it was that broody bat-silence, you know the one where he’s like a black hole sucking in light. I didn’t think I’d even get the kiss, and instead… diamond as big as the Ritz, almost literally in this—Cassie?”
Alfred turned, and Cassie gave her quiet fingertip wave that made her seem shy if you didn’t know she preferred gestures to speech.
“Case go bad. Last night,” she said. “Thought woman killed for purse. Find thug use her credit card. Pawn her jewelry. But say no kill. Say dead already when he find. Believe him. He is right hand. Kill strike with left hand, and taller like Alfred.”
“Indeed,” Alfred said mildly.
“Turn out she doctor. Office in Gainsly. Lots OCs come out of Gainly.”
“OCs are OxyContin,” Selina explained.
“Last six month, lots OCs,” Cassie continued. “Percs, Paulas, Blue Dynamite, 512s. Wonder if connected. OC is prescription drug, schedule one. Doctor write prescriptions. Maybe for all OCs, Percs and Blue Dynamite coming out of Gainly. Maybe write too much. Attract attention. If get investigated, mob want silence her before she can cut deal.”
“So you need to do some research?” Selina guessed.
Cassie nodded. “See if police investigate. Or DEA, anybody. If investigate, maybe have theory who work with, which mob involved.”
“Why not go to Barbara for something like that?” Selina asked.
“Might not be. All guesswork. If no find police report, next step research is medical. See about prescriptions writ and filled. If need do medical research, Sensei better. Sensei father was doctor. Much better teach.”
Selina smiled. “Well, we’re doing some work downstairs so you won’t be able to use the cave workstations today, but I’ll send Bruce up and he can help you from the laptop in the library.”
Predictably, Bruce kicked at the idea. Updating the logs while Selina brought lunch, now helping Cassie, they were falling behind schedule. If they didn’t finish in time to recalibrate the holograms before he left for patrol…
Selina’s response was simplicity itself. “She knows five street terms for OxyContin, but it’s only one time in three she’ll bother with ‘he’ ‘she’ and ‘is.’”
“You still could have sent her to Barbara. She can learn as much about human interaction there with Barbara and Dick—”
“Bruce, she says she came here because your father was a doctor.”
“C’mon, you’re too good a detective not to see it.”
“She hopes I’ll talk about him,” Bruce said softly. “She wants insight into…fathers.”
“Yes, the regulation kind who read you bedtime stories and teach you to throw a knuckle ball. Can you blame her?”
“I’ll go up and talk to her,” he said, looking towards the alcove.
“And I’ll move the weed,” Selina said, glaring at the overgrown orchid preserved in pressurized argon.
…to be continued…