Chapter 4: Uma Thurman
In the first months after Cassandra Cain came to the attention of the Bat Family, she lived with Barbara Gordon. Barbara was open, patient and chatty, and while Cassie still preferred listening to talking, Barbara soon decided the girl was ready to resume living on her own. Bruce-Sensei gave her one of the identikit apartments he kept around the city as a safe house and emergency changing station, and Dick made several covert visits to help her ‘fix it up’ with personal touches. He often used these secret flats as a teen, he said, and Cassie could tell by his body language that he actually believed Bruce-Sensei didn’t know. That seemed very odd. It should be anyone’s first assumption that Batman knows whatever it is they’re trying to hide, and Dick’s tells were the easiest to read of anyone in the Bat Family. Cassie confirmed her guess when Bruce came to inspect her use of the place, which he called a visit. His eyes shifted around the room as they would around a crime scene, and lingered on the pillow and mug Dick had brought the way they would linger on evidence that had some inference to be drawn from it. The bean bag and milk crate from Stephanie his eyes merely passed over as items of no importance.
After the third of these inspections, Cassie detected disapproval. Bruce had that slight tension around his mouth that was familiar to her from training. Some correction would always follow: an adjustment to her battle stance, a note to keep her arm high during a follow-through or to shift her weight for an offensive thrust... But when Bruce inspected her apartment, no correction ever came. Cassie didn’t think it was proper to ask for instruction, and the one time she tried, she didn’t have the words to make herself clear. Bruce-Sensei just told her what she already knew: that all the furnishings were bought in bulk as complete rooms from a corporate supplier, and she should feel free to make the place more “her own.” She thanked him, just as she would for teaching her a new block or a high kick, but that only brought a different version of the disapproving tension, the one that moved slightly down the right side of his neck and so was only visible when he was unmasked. Bruce said he wanted Cassie to think of the apartment as her home (and once again she thanked him) and not just a place he was allowing her to stay. Cassie thanked Bruce-Sensei a third time, but she could tell by the new tension under his ear that this wasn’t what was expected, so she let it go.
Now she understood. Bruce seldom visited anymore, but Cassie knew he would be pleased at the way she had finally made the apartment “her own.” The personal touches borrowed from Dick and Stephanie had been replaced, one by one, as Cassie found interests of her own. The poster of Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn had first given way to a poster of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and then to a more solid and stylized black and white image of Uma Thurman from Kill Bill.
It was that she slept under now. Selina-Sensei taught that it was every girl’s right to sleep in the morning of a ball, and that is exactly what Cassie did. Then she got up, stretched, and performed the ritual Selina-Sensei had taught her, rinsing off her face with icy cold water. She could skip washing her hair today, since tonight was the ball and she would be going to Antonio’s in a few hours to have her hair done—with ribbons and rubrum lilies to match her new dress.
Cassie was both excited and skeptical about that. The whole ‘Vine’ episode with Poison Ivy was long ago, but not forgotten. Still, it was unseemly to question one’s sensei, and Selina said it was time to get over ‘the flower thing.’ Like all teenage girls, Cassie had lovely shoulders, Selina-Sensei said, and tonight’s strapless gown, with her hair drawn up, a splash of color from the lilies to catch the eye and tendrils of ribbon to lead the eye down, would show them off to purr-fection. Tim would be dazzled, absolutely dazzled, and Cassie would see that—even in a town where every third woman had a grudge against Queen Chlorophyll—flowers could still be your friend.
So Cassie didn’t have to wash her hair, and that meant she had time to run down to Petite Abeille for breakfast. The daily visits there to unnerve The Riddler on Catwoman’s behalf were long over, but the memory of almond croissants, spice tea and baguettes with nutella kept her going back. Today she opted to sit down rather than take out, and that meant she could get a waffle or those mini pancakes whose name she could never pronounce. There was a newspaper on her table, a Gotham Observer the last person had left behind, so she glanced through it while she ate. There was another story on the cat burglar. Not another robbery, just a rehashing of the previous ones and noting that, in both cases, the victims had been guests at a Wayne party. The paper didn’t go on to speculate if tonight’s event might produce a third victim, but running the story the day of the third Wayne ball certainly left the idea out there. Cassie took the paper with her and hurried back to her apartment, wondering on the walk home if she should tell Selina-Sensei she had been to the crime scene herself.
Not having the coverage of a tuxedo or Selina’s experience stowing the means to change in the elegant minimalism of a woman’s eveningwear, Cassie had to return home after the Fire Ball to get into costume before starting patrol as Batgirl. Tim had offered to escort her home, but that meant he would be changing into Robin at her place. They would both be changing there, together. Taking their party clothes off before putting costumes on, and that made her feel... squicky. So she said she’d meet him at their usual rooftop, but by the time she reached it, Oracle had sent him on a surveillance tag in Chelsea. She could have followed, but just then the Bat-Signal was lit, so she thought she’d check it out instead. She arrived at One Police Plaza just as Batman was leaving, and he said she should come along. She needed experience with cat burglar crime scenes. So Batgirl had walked the physical space with Batman-Sensei, listened to his observations and analysis, and answered to the best of her ability whenever he posited a question. She harvested no forensic evidence, however. Instead, she watched Batman and was to write up her own analysis of the samples he collected. The next day, she was to consult his log on the physical evidence and compare their conclusions.
Cassie had noticed Batman’s manner was strained at several points walking through the crime scene, but she never thought to connect it to the fact that they were investigating a cat burglar. It was only when she went into the log and saw the personal lockouts on ten different paragraphs and subsections that she made the connection. All but the brief portion dealing with the physical evidence was sealed with Batman’s personal password.
It didn’t seem like something she should keep from Sensei Selina. It didn’t seem like something she should reveal about Sensei Bruce. For nearly a week she had wrestled with the problem. Now she had this article in the Gotham Observer. It might be a way to trick Selina into giving her some cue. She didn’t like that word though. One should not try to trick one’s sensei. They always knew, and that led to hours of deadlifts and overhead squats. But it might be a way to nudge Selina into giving her some idea about the cat burglar: if it was okay to talk about, if Batman’s investigation was something to talk about. So, as soon as Cassie got home, she unfolded the Gotham Observer, opened it to the page with the cat burglar story, and refolded it so it couldn’t be missed. Now she just needed to find the right place to put it…
The bean bag she’d gotten rid of and replaced with a low, rotating, red and white table that matched the shelves and cupboards she already had. It was the last of Stephanie’s stamp on the decorating, but Cassie had added three mementos, two of Stephanie and one of Spoiler, to the shelf above her stereo. Displayed on the rotating, red and white table was a pretty iron tea pot and cups from the Chinatown Cultural Center where Jai had taken her. About once a month it sat there by itself, looking very pretty and decorative, like a picture in a magazine, like someone was coming over for tea ceremony. Then the accumulations of living would begin to clutter up the table again. The current clutter included a dinner card and centerpiece from the Fire Ball, a dry cleaning ticket for her dress, the earrings Selina-Sensei had lent her, and a page torn from Teen Vogue with a picture of the way she wanted her nails done for tonight.
She wanted to run that past Selina-Sensei, because sometimes the ideas from Teen Vogue were good ones, but sometimes they were “too downtown,” “too brash,” “too old,” “too young,” and sometimes it would be fine for another occasion but tonight it would draw attention from some part of her appearance that “should have center stage.” So that was perfect. It was just like hiding a weapon for easy retrieval once the target was in sight: Cassie rearranged the clutter so the borrowed earrings were sandwiched between the Gotham Observer and the page from Teen Vogue. She would have to move the newspaper to pick up the earrings or to show Selina the magazine. Just like hiding a weapon… except not to kill, to get advice on how to paint her nails for the ball. And find out if it was okay to talk about the cat burglar.
She rearranged the order, placing the magazine on top and the newspaper on the bottom.
Then changed them back.
And might have done so again if Selina hadn’t knocked on the door right then. Cassie knew it had to be Selina because everyone else used the buzzer on the front stoop—unless they were in costume and came in through the fire escape. Only Selina let herself in the front entrance without buzzing and knocked only when she reached Cassie’s door.
Cassie let her in and, though her conversation was as awkward as ever, her props handling was that of a master assassin. She handed off the newspaper to Selina in order to get the earrings, returned those with a polite thank you but immediately turned away so Selina couldn’t hand the newspaper back, forcing her to tuck it under her arm while she put the earrings into her purse. Selina went on holding the newspaper as she walked through the tiny apartment. It would only be a matter of time before she noticed…
Except Cassie noticed something first. Selina had that same little stretch of tension on the side of her neck as Sensei-Bruce in those first inspections. Something in the apartment displeased her, and as with Bruce-Sensei, she didn’t offer any corrections. Cassie asked, but Selina smiled and said the apartment was very nice. Cassie asked again, and noting Selina’s eyes, guessed it had something to do with the picture of Uma Thurman over the bed. Again, Selina said everything was very nice.
“Selina lie,” Cassie announced petulantly. “Is try to be polite. But polite no good from sensei. If battle stance weak, is no good to say is fine. If not know what wrong, no can fix. Get knocked on butt.”
“Yes, that’s very true,” Selina admitted. “And if I thought there was anything at all in your combat training that was amiss, I’d tell you. But we both know that’s not too likely, because I am in no position to be giving you notes on your fighting skills. And this is your home, Cass, you can’t do anything wrong and there’s no chance of getting knocked on your butt, okay?”
“Selina is sensei,” Cassie said stubbornly. “Not with fighting but with Tim. With earrings and makeup and how to be kick ass but still be soft and girl and fun. Something with picture is not right. Sensei look at picture and make little tense around mouth, look again and make little tense around neck. Something with picture is not right. Sensei have wisdom no want to share. Say is not Selina place to give notes, but Selina is sensei. Is place to give correction, is place to share wisdom. Not have to. Humble student no can tell Sensei what must do. If no want teach, no can make teach. But humble student begs instruction. Want correction. Want know what wrong with Kill Bill Uma Thurman picture.”
Selina smiled kindly, laughed kindly, and led Cassie back to the low red and white table that denoted the living area of the tiny studio. They sat casually on the floor, and Selina looked around thinking how to begin.
“Remember when we talked about Lady Shiva?” she said finally.
Cassie nodded. “Great fighter. Not much else,” she said, repeating her words from that earlier conversation.
“The ones who duke it out for that ‘best fighter in the universe’ tag never are,” Selina agreed. “Maybe that’s why they put so much into pursuing it, because if they’re not that, what are they?”
“Selina think Kill Bill Bride like that?”
“Maybe a little. It’s her defining characteristic anyway, the fighting. I wouldn’t want you to think it’s yours.”
Cassie said nothing but nervously tucked her hair behind her ear.
“‘Has breasts and kicks ass’ is fine if that’s all you can do,” Selina said. “But you have got so much more going for you than that, Cassie. So if you want to put a goal up there, a role model or something to aspire to you, I’d like to see you shoot a little higher than somebody known for wiping out the Crazy Eighty—ohmy—” The last word was cut off by Cassie launching herself from her seated position and wrapping her arms around Selina in a tight hug. “—Eight,” she concluded with a laugh and a back pat.
Another day, the next half-hour might have been spent talking about those alternative goals and role models, but the day of a ball is no time for such frivolous pursuits. Instead, Cassie produced her page from Teen Vogue and Selina pronounced her judgment: the wavy blue nail design was ideal for the Water Ball, as long as Cassie was not going to wear any rings, and it would work especially well with a bracelet. Cassie said she didn’t have a bracelet, and Selina opened her purse and produced a beautiful rope of silver links, like the most delicate band of chainmail for a particularly elegant warrior princess.
Cassie reached for it, but Selina yanked it back.
“Not that easy. Gotta earn it,” she winked. “First, read what it says engraved into the clasp, right there.” She pointed, and as Cassie carefully read “O. P. Orlandini,” Selina mouthed the syllables with her. She repeated it so Cassie knew she had pronounced correctly, then nodded and pointed to the laptop on Cassie’s desk. “Look ‘im up. I want a full report,” she ordered.
Fifteen minutes later, a full report is exactly what she heard: the artist himself, his atelier in a converted 14th century convent in the Chianti hills, and the details of his hammering and shaping techniques that dated back to medieval armor-making. Satisfied, Selina rummaged in her purse again and pulled out a black box with a digital lock.
“Here you go,” she said, shutting the bracelet inside and handing it to Cassie. “Get it open and she’s all yours to wear tonight.”
Cassie squealed with delight and went to work on the lock, and Selina left her to it. Cassie was too absorbed to see the Gotham Observer she left on the floor, or to care that Selina never even noticed the article about the cat burglar.
Nine holes at the North Hudson Golf Course. It was a tradition for Dick and Tim on the day of a black tie event they both had to attend. Any subject related to the event was verboten, and today’s holes one to three were spent on sports: hopes for the Rogues first round draft pick and the Joker-level insanity of trading Ward to Cleveland. Holes four to six dwelled on transportation: Dick’s love affair with the Pagani Huayra since the Auto Show, and Tim’s desire for a motorcycle. Holes seven to nine compared the charms of Stana Katic and Yvonne Strahovski, and the walk back to the pro shop debated a slice at Famous Original Ray’s or Original Authentic Ray’s on the way to collect their respective dry cleaning.
Tuxedo pickup accomplished, Tim returned to the dorm to observe Single Guy Ritual, otherwise known as putting off getting ready to the last possible minute. Dick, the poor bastard, was now a married man and rushing home to shower, apply hair gel, dig out cufflinks, buff scuff marks off his shoes and descend to other unmanly indignities. Tim returned to the dorm, played an hour of Mass Effect 2 (decided Dick was out of his mind about Yvonne Strahovski who voiced Miranda) and read the astronomy assignment for Monday.
He checked the time, debated running to the student union for some cheese fries, but decided there’d be plenty to eat at the ball. So he got dressed, despite it being a good fifteen minutes before he had to, and headed to The Robinson Plaza. He passed a florist on the way, familiar to him from his senior year when he escorted debutantes to this kind of party every third night in December. He briefly considered stopping as he had then and getting a corsage for Cassie. It was the kind of thing girls went crazy over, and he did have a few extra dollars not spent on cheese fries. Unfortunately, what Tim didn’t realize was the year he had been an escort he was enjoying the unofficial deb season discount offered to instill the habit in the upcoming generation. The regular price of a regulation wrist corsage was roughly four times what he imagined, and he wasn’t about to give up cheese fries for a month! Cassie was a sensible girl anyway, he decided, and would certainly appreciate a post-patrol burger at Nick’s more than a wrist-weed that would only get in the way when they danced.
Not being one for the red carpet, Tim took his usual detour around the park and came out near the little alley between the Gret Café and Sarabeth’s loading dock. From there, he took the service entrance into the hotel and was twisting and turning through the kitchen, where he always hurried lest he be mistaken for a waiter, when he ran smack into…
“Oh wow,” Tim breathed.
There was a muffled thumping in his chest from where he bumped into the girl at full speed.
Muffled thumping that should have subsided after the slap of impact, but wasn’t.
A weird frost seemed to be spreading up his brainstem, too.
Kind of like being hatted… if the hat was about two feet in front of his face instead of sitting on top of his head. Floating in front of his face and seeping in through his eyes, covering his whole brain in—
“Stupid Tim,” Cassie said.
“Yeah, stupid Tim,” he managed to agree. “I mean, SORRY, Cassie, hi. Hi Cassie. Boy you look, wow, you look really—wow. Didn’t see you there. You look… really wow. Really, really wow. I mean… Hi.”
“Is okay. Tim funny. And no crush too bad,” she said, re-fluffing the scallops of fabric at the top of her—uh, top. Tim tried—with the force of will of a man actually hatted and trying to break free, Tim tried to fight the magnetic pull and focus his eyes anywhere but on the delicate blue-wavy-painted fingers deftly fluttering around… breasts…
The breasts of a girl who knew at least thirty ways to kill him.
Right here, right now.
Without crushing those gauzy silky pips on the top of her evening gown.
Tim was saved from imminent death when a waiter pushed gruffly between them and jostled him back to reality. The next minutes were spent hurriedly making their way to the ballroom, where he spied Madison Hargrove talking to a waiter—the same one from the kitchen?—and with a flash of inspiration that only comes to seasoned crimefighters who have weathered multiple mind-control episodes, he slipped away from Cassie and ran up to Madison.
“Blue centerpieces are Sponsor tables, white ones are Angel tables,” she was saying. “So you want to make sure when you’re passing out the programs—”
“Hi,” Tim said, desperately pulling cash from his pockets. “Tim Drake, remember me? No, you won’t remember me. I was an intern at Wayne Enterprises a few years back. I have sort of a… corsage emergency you could call it. I will give you every dollar I have on me and volunteer for the rest of my life if you can give me a flower.”
Madison stifled her laugh; the waiter didn’t even try. Then both smiles faded as they looked behind him and became serious a split second before Tim felt a hand on his shoulder.
“I’ve got this,” Bruce said, steering Tim firmly away from the group. Then he shoved a piece of plastic into Tim’s hand as if covertly passing him a batarang. “Go downstairs to the lobby. The gift shop will still be open. Pale peach or lilac should go with what she’s wearing. Next time, come prepared.”
Tim started to squeak out a thank you, when the words froze on his lips as Robin instinct kicked in. Bruce’s eyes had refocused on something across the room, and Tim was suddenly on hyper-alert before he consciously realized why. He shifted his neck imperceptibly, glanced, and let his peripheral vision pick out what Bruce was looking at: Gregorian Falstaff making his entrance.
“Pass him on your way out,” Bruce ordered without taking his eye from the pudgy figure that looked so much like Oswald Cobblepot. “If you’re able to hear without dawdling or being conspicuous, find out what tonight’s flavor of Wayne-bashing is going to be. But don’t worry if you can’t manage it discreetly. He can’t do any real harm. He’s just… extremely annoying.”
“I know,” Tim said. “Last week Dick was saying he wished Penguin was still active ‘cause it’d feel really good to punch that face a few dozen times.”
“What did he do to Dick?” Bruce asked sharply.
“Selina didn’t tell you?” Tim said. “Oh man, well… She lent Barbara some dress for the Fire Ball last week, and I guess there was a lot of ruffled fru-fru around the bottom or something, to be, like ‘flames.’ And Randy’s mom heard Falstaff saying to Mrs. Wigglesworth that the gown was ‘made for the dance floor’ and it was a shame to see it ‘wasted’ on somebody in a wheelchair.”
Bruce’s lower jaw stiffened the way Tim had seen at the Bat-Signal when there was news about Joker.
“I see,” he said darkly.
“So now Mrs. Wigglesworth thinks Falstaff must have something to do with politics or cable news or something, ‘cause nobody can be that offensive except on purpose.”
Cassie knew without checking that she would be seated at Table Two, next to Dick and Barbara. For her, the first kick of a formal event was the way the men already sitting at a table were supposed to stand up whenever a woman came to join them. The little tells right before their bodies started to move were so cute! Tim, for example, was usually late, only remembering he was supposed to stand once he saw the others start to move. He would get that little pucker in the center-right of his chin, just like when he played Phoenix Ninja and he realized his avatar was about to die again. He would catch up by only rising an inch or two out of his seat and joining the other men on the way down.
Dick and Barbara were both seated at the otherwise empty Table Two when Cassie arrived. As usual, Dick was in motion almost instantly, his move telegraphed by a fleeting crinkle above his eyebrows that looked so much like Alfred Pennyworth.
They talked for a few minutes. Barbara noticed the bracelet at once, guessed that it came from Selina, and asked if Cassie knew anything. She hissed the last words in a strange way, and Cassie shook her head, confused. Barbara tried again. When Selina gave Cassie the bracelet… and here Cassie interrupted to explain that Selina hadn’t exactly “given” it to her but had locked it in a box as part of a training exercise… and Barbara waved impatiently as if shooing a fly.
“But you saw her,” she whispered hoarsely. “You saw her in person. Did you get anything?”
“Get bracelet,” Cassie said, repeating the obvious.
“Body language, Cassie. Did you pick up anything from Selina’s body language or any of the other stuff you see? Do you have any idea what’s going on with her and B?”
“Their comm channel has been offline all week,” Dick explained. “Babs tried to run a diagnostic and ran into a bunch of new lockouts.”
Cassie remembered the sealed paragraphs in Batman’s log and that she never got anywhere feeling out Selina with that article in the Gotham Observer. Still, Cassie had been trying to decide if she should keep one sensei’s secrets from another. Telling a third party like Barbara was something else entirely. Luckily, because of the way Barbara was asking, Cassie didn’t have to lie.
“Not see anything in Selina body language,” she said, and changed the subject to the band setting up, which looked like the same one as the Earth Ball that she liked so much, and the funny Falstaff man who looked so much like Penguin going round to all the tables as if he and not Bruce was the head of the foundation hosting the event.
Since Bruce said Falstaff’s posturing couldn’t do any real harm, Tim hadn’t figured on hurrying back with a report. He’d find Cassie, present her corsage and give Bruce the sitrep when he returned the credit card. That was before he heard what Falstaff was saying. Tim couldn’t get the first snatch of conversation out of his head the whole time he was in the gift shop staring at the rotating cooler of pre-made corsages. He didn’t even register whatever the clerk said to him as he paid, and all he could think about on his way back to the ballroom was finding Falstaff and hearing more of tonight’s talking points before reporting back to Bruce. Cassie’s corsage was forgotten until he physically handed back the credit card and remembered what it was for.
Then he met his mentor’s eyes and gave a full report on Gregorian Falstaff’s talking points for the evening. It was quite a switch. He didn’t have a word to say against Bruce or the Foundation this time around, and he was full of praise for Wayne Enterprises. He had been waiting all week to see the items Atlantis had donated for the silent auction—an alliance they all knew had sprung from the marvelous work Wayne was doing with Sub Diego. The robotics alone would have represented the most significant advances in a decade; the communication matrices alone deserved nothing less than a Nobel Prize. And the integration of those cutting edge robotics with state of the art communication nets was, quite simply, the most important dual-world achievement in a generation. Not since the undersea kingdom made itself known to us had there been such an inspiring initiative to show Atlantis what the surface world was capable of. Unquestionably, Wayne has risen to represent us to that advanced culture in a way that did honor to Gotham.
“I see,” Bruce said in the same tone he’d acknowledged Falstaff’s earlier outrage about Barbara.
“Bruce, what’s it mean?” Tim whispered.
“I have no idea,” Bruce admitted.
“So you didn’t, like, buy him off?”
Bruce glared hatefully.
“Selina didn’t borrow a mind control chip from Tetch or something?”
Bruce raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah. Okay. Took a shot. Thanks for the, uh,” Tim said, holding up the corsage helplessly. “I better go find Cass.”
Cassie could tell as Tim approached the table that he had something hidden in his jacket. At first, she didn’t think it was a present for her, because it was Dick and Barbara that he was hiding it from… No, just Dick, she decided by the angle Tim stood at when he reached the table. So if it was a surprise, her first guess would have been that it was a surprise for Dick—but it was her that Tim asked to see outside.
She smiled like when he asked her to dance, took her purse and left her napkin on the chair in one fluid move like Selina-Sensei had taught her, and led Tim to the little alcove she’d found behind the bandstand that had the most privacy. There was a blind spot where a couple couldn’t be seen from anywhere except this one little cubby hole. Going to check if that observation point was clear, Cassie saw that while it was empty, the blind spot it overlooked was already occupied.
“Ruh-roh,” Tim said, looking down on Bruce and Selina huddled in tense conversation.
Remembering Barbara’s words, Cassie took the opportunity to study Selina’s body language. She had a Catwoman posture. Defiant. Aggressive defiance. Confident in her defiance. Not defensive. Defiance as her birthright… Confident. Strong. Unafraid. Is who she is. Don’t like it, go elsewhere. Cassie gave a quick, curt nod, liking the way that sounded. She unconsciously tilted her head and set her mouth, sampling the idea like a taste of ice cream on those tiny plastic spoons. Is who she is. Don’t like it? Go find what you like. Oh, she liked the way it felt and gave another very slight nod. Then she turned her attention to Bruce.
The top layer was Batman, trying to conceal everything going on underneath. Like he always did with Catwoman. It never worked. Still he tried. Under the Bat layer was surprise. Something was unexpected. Couldn’t be defiance. Surprise at defiance in Catwoman was like surprise at rain when the clouds were dark. So it must be something else that was surprising—Got it!
“Hey!” Tim said as Cassie pinched his arm excitedly.
“Bruce start it,” she explained in a thrilled whisper. “Selina react. Bruce surprised by the way Selina react. Maybe say is feline logic. Selina defiant because Bruce no have right be surprised. Maybe say is jackass.”
“Well, I guess we were overdue for some fireworks,” Tim sighed.
Whatever was going on between Bruce and Selina, they kept it concealed with the practiced skill of Gotham night people whose lives depend on keeping a secret identity secret. Not a hint of tension could be seen by anyone but Cassie, and even she wouldn’t have noticed if she had only their public demeanor to go by. It was only those few moments of conversation glimpsed in the private alcove that told her where to look.
She thought about it during dinner, wondering if those sealed passages in Batman’s log and the silent channel on the OraCom were related. She also sensed that Barbara would press her for information again if she got the chance, so she turned the other way and spent the whole dinner listening to Tim. She didn’t follow much of what he was saying about his classes at Hudson, but she was glad he said the Falstaff-sponsored concert was over and all the signs and decals advertising it were taken down.
“I just wish they’d caught it in time and Photoshopped it out of all those pictures on display at the Earth Ball,” he said with that little inhale that pulled his upper lip back from his teeth and meant a joke was coming next. “I mean, that was the week benefiting Education & Youth Programs, right? And you’ve got Falstaff’s logo all over the Hudson campus: big, block letter ‘F’ inside that great big red hexagon. It’s like the international symbol for ‘I'm Flunking Algebra.’”
Cassie joined in the table-wide laughter although she had no idea what was supposed to be funny. After dessert, Tim wanted to go down to see the silent auction and Cassie said she would meet him. She went to the powder room and took out the little vial of Visine Selina-Sensei told her to always carry in her purse. She applied the eye drops to forestall any redness, then a fresh layer of light peach lip gloss, and finally she went into a stall to make a few adjustments to her pantyhose. It was then that the door opened and two women entered with sensei’s name on their lips.
“…always thought Catwoman overlooked the stature of the Littleton jewels, that’s all I’m saying. I mean really, Matilda Markel’s little baubles might be canary diamonds, but so what? There’s no law, surely, that says Catwoman can only steal jewels with a cat tie-in. Matilda’s canaries were nothing special, only a present from Chester when she found out he had a mistress. There’s no history to them. This ring was made by Frederick Mew of Cartier in 1952 at the same time he was working on the Williamson brooch for Queen Elizabeth!”
“Perhaps you should mention that to Selina,” a second voice said quietly.
“I have,” the first said firmly.
“What did she say?”
“Oh, something about a controversy if it was the Williamson pink diamond or some Persian thing that was the inspiration for the Pink Panther. As if she herself hadn’t tried to steal the Williamson twice. I mean really, all the way over in England, when the Littleton jewels are right here in Gotham, year round. If she can’t recognize that kind of an opportunity, I certainly hope she hasn’t gone back to it. If this cat burglar is someone new, perhaps they will recognize quality.”
“Well I hope it’s her. That will be the end of her and Bruce, she can go back to Batman and my Annie can have another crack at becoming Mrs. Wayne.”
“Bite your tongue. Don’t you remember what he was like before? RSVPs to a dinner party, then calls an hour before and cancels—or doesn’t show up at all. Or brings two Swedish models with him who don’t speak a word of English and spend the entire meal pouting and pushing their food around the plate. If I had a dollar for every time that man threw my seating arrangements into chaos. Since Selina, an RSVP means—”
“Means you get to remind Clive who reminds Perkins not to serve Château de Poulignac because there’s some mysterious history between Selina and the Count de Poulignac, and that would be so awkward for Bruce.”
Both women erupted into peals of laughter, and Cassie pushed open the stall door like a pugnacious gunslinger entering the saloon. She looked both women up and down as if sizing up a fellow assassin. Then she primly extracted the tube of pale peach lip gloss from her bag, even though she’d already touched up.
“Law says no steal with or with-out cat tie in,” she said, her odd speech pattern covered by the dabbing of lip gloss. “Pink Panther based on Darya-ye Noor. Is Persian. Pink diamond. Part of. Iran’s. Crown jewels. I think. And is tacky making private club around who knows about Selina and French count.”
With that, she dropped the lip gloss in her purse and snapped it shut, then pointed to the first woman’s finger and said “Is nice ring” before she left.
Atlantis and Sub Diego were indeed the centerpieces of the silent auctions. Other balls had the usual selection of golf weekends, autographed footballs, shopping sprees and spa treatments donated by Gotham businesses and Wayne Foundation supporters. The Water Ball was different. Only nine items were offered for sale, nine items whose exotic rarity was underlined by the small number. Where previously auctions had the items arranged on long tables with a clipboard set beside each for patrons to record their bids throughout the evening, tonight’s auction room featured six round tables with vivid aqua blue cloths, their items glistening in a column of light streaming from a trio of tinted lamps positioned directly overhead, showing off each piece like an individual jewel.
Atlantis had donated three pieces: a painting, a carved bowl, and a pair of glass orbs, which each stood alone on their own table. The orbs were the subject of the most conversation. Stacked one over the other in a gold and crystal encasement, they were said to be a time piece, functioning something like an hourglass underwater, but none of the guests were quite sure how. Tim was pretty sure it had something to do with sea pressure, but he wasn’t stopping to figure it out. He was more interested in the items from Sub Diego. Each of their tables featured two items, and each of those reflected the city’s closer ties to surface culture. The most popular by far was a high-def photo of the submerged Grand Del Mar resort signed by dozens of Sub Diego residents.
Tim was thinking there might be a sociology paper in it. The Atlantean stuff was more refined, the aesthetic like something from the fairy forest in a fantasy novel. They’d probably see the Sub Diego efforts as barbaric and crass. Items carved not from native undersea materials but from bed posts and belt buckles that had started off on land and were submerged with them. ‘How tacky, how macabre, how perverse,’ the Atlanteans might say. But the people of Sub Diego were all born and raised in the continental U.S. They knew the power of celebrity, the link between celebrity and news, what the relics of a disaster would be bring… Yeah, that would work. Find a quote or two about stuff salvaged from the Titanic, that would give him a couple print sources for the bibliography. Everything else was timely, so no trip to the library for quotes from some stuffy Max Weber lectures. No notecards, YAY! Any paper Tim could write in his head, on patrol, without time-consuming research cutting into his out-of-costume time was always welcome.
He looked around the room, wondering who to hit up for a quote. He saw Lucius Fox, figured that was a good place to start, and lucked out more than he could have imagined. Mr. Fox walked him over to a Mr. Anders who was huddled with a guy closer to Tim’s age, called Norm. Turned out, Norm was the point man for all the Wayne Foundation’s interaction with Sub Diego, and after the introductions, Lucius told Norm to ‘show him the gizmo.’ Norm turned over the tablet-sized object he and Anders had been huddled around. For a split-second, Tim thought it was a bad video-feed from a bar with some weird blue lighting, then he realized it was amazingly good video of people in a room under water.
“These are my buddies from high school, Juan and Alan,” Norm said. “Juan’s girl Cara and Alan’s partner Scott. All residents of Sub Diego. Guys, this is Tim Drake.” All but Cara waved when Norm said their name, so Tim knew who was who, and they all chorused “Hi Tim” with another round of waves and smiles when Norm was through. Tim noted that all were dressed for a formal party, and Cara had her hair up in a style similar the one Cassie wore, topped with a tiara made of some kind of shells. Their voices were all remarkably clear, considering they were under water. Tim had to assume it had something to do with a jellybean-size pellet of silica each had clipped to their lower lip.
“Juan and Alan were the first employees of the Sub Diego office,” Norm concluded. “They’re able to attend tonight thanks to the communication system Wayne Tech recently deployed down there.”
“That’s the public relations spiel he feels compelled to give while I’m standing here,” Lucius said with a grin. “So I’ll just be on my way and leave you young people to enjoy yourselves.”
The tablet began giggling once Lucius was gone, Scott grabbing the tiara from Cara’s head and wearing it himself. Alan and Cara both producing oblong orbs that looked like gelatinous balloons that Tim could tell by the way they held them were the Sub Diego equivalent of beer bottles.
Tim mentioned the auction items and was thrilled to learn that Scott had come up with most of the ideas and Juan had put it all together. He was talking to the best people possible to help him with his paper, but as soon as he started fishing for a quote, they waved him off. This was a party, and they were here tonight to enjoy themselves. But they would be happy to help him out. They’d be open for business Monday and Tim should “come see them at the office.” Norm explained that the tablet he held was just a tiny piece of the complex Wayne Tech system. It wasn’t mobile outside the Wayne Tower yet, and he had improvised so the Sub Diegans could attend the ball and see the auction first hand.
“Yes, Norm is our date!” Juan called out, and all four cheered as Norm held the tablet out to the side and posed as if for a prom picture.
Technically, Tim realized, he was going to be doing as much time-consuming out-of-costume research on this as he would at the library working on a more traditional paper—but it was going to be incredibly cool research. Probably cooler than anything he’d be doing as Robin in that time. He asked if he needed to make an appointment for this meeting, but got a confusing response. As Juan shook his head with a flippant ‘come in any time’ gesture, Norm was nodding yes. Juan and Scott’s time might not be strictly regimented in their office, he said, but their “Land Doubles” were on a restricted access floor of the Wayne Tower. (Scott made an exaggerated ‘la-di-da’ gesture at that) Norm said he would put Tim’s name on the list at the front desk so he could get a visitor’s badge first thing Monday morning. (Scott then began humming the James Bond theme while Cara and Alan posed back-to-back with finger-pistols.)
Tim laughed—and then spotted Cassie. She was at the table displaying the bowl from Atlantis, walking around it slowly with a thoughtful frown, giving a very convincing performance of a serious art scholar scrutinizing a new work. Tim guessed what she was really doing was keeping an eye on him, waiting for him to be alone, so he went to join her.
“You can always come over and join me when I’m in a group like that,” he reminded her.
“Is awkward when see Tim laughing in group. Too often not get joke.”
“You do fine, Cassie. When you don’t get the joke, it’s just like when you’re quiet. Most people won’t even notice, and if they do, most won’t think anything of it, and if they do, they’re just going to think you haven’t been here that long.”
“Woof,” Cassie said.
“Woof?” Tim laughed.
“No say it right?”
“You said it perfectly,” Tim assured her.
Once again, Cassie refused Tim’s offer to see her home, but this time, he was ready. He’d talked to Dick about the way the last two balls had ended, and Dick helped come up with a plan that neither wanted to call a protocol:
Leaving a formal party like the Wayne Gala alone was not the typical experience, Tim said. Most people came and went to events like that as a couple. If Cassie wanted to build up more experiences like normal people have—not just for the sake of her ID but so she’d have more to talk about in social situations, get more of the jokes and so on—she owed it to herself not to be going home alone all the time, kicking her shoes under the bed and tossing her purse into the nightstand in an empty apartment. She should finish off the evening just like any young woman who wasn’t Batgirl. Say goodnight to her date as if he wasn’t Robin and she would not be seeing him again on the rooftops. And only then, once Cassie Cain’s night was over, once the door had closed behind Tim Drake, should she change into costume and begin the night as Batgirl.
Cassie knew it was a crock, but it was a clever crock, and Tim delivered it very well. She also liked what Barbara had said about ‘a snog’ at the end of the evening being the best part of getting all dressed up. So she let Tim take her home.
As they left by a side door, Tim pointed to the front circle where Alfred stood formally beside the Wayne Bentley. Bruce and Selina were coming out the revolving door, party smiles in place. A final air kiss to Bunny Wigglesworth, a manly wave to Ted Endicott, and they both climbed into the back of the car.
“Think they patched it up?” Tim asked, meaning ‘What can you see?’
Cassie pursed her lips and studied Bruce’s jaw as the car door began to shut. In the split-second before he vanished behind the tinted window, she saw the little pull that indicated his expression was about to change.
“Happy performance over,” she said, shaking her head. “Get ready to have new face soon as door shut. No can tell why. Might be pretending happy to hide he is mad at Selina. Might be pretending happy because is party and supposed to be happy.”
“Yeah, hard to tell with Bruce. Maybe you should have watched her instead.”
Cassie directed a slow burn at Tim, who quickly changed the subject, reiterating how pretty Cassie had looked tonight. It was enough to save his invitation inside when they reached her front stoop. The invitation was for a cup of herbal tea that was never brewed. Instead, Tim left fifteen minutes later with his tie in his pocket, two shirt studs hanging loose in their holes, and a love bite on his neck that Robin’s costume wouldn’t conceal.
There was a subway stop at the end of Cassie’s block that made a convenient place to change, and he was halfway to the rendezvous out of habit when he remembered the new spot. He kicked himself for not reminding Cass and could only hope that she would remember. Their old roof in NoHo had been a great place to meet up until “Nite Fry” opened down the street. Robin was normally a big fan of any restaurant, food truck or diner staying open past 4 am, and a late night pizza parlor opening in the same block as his favorite rooftop hangout should have been the jackpot. A late night pizza parlor that deep-fried the pies should have been the powerball of late night troughs for the growing vigilante with a healthy appetite—which was kind of the problem. Nite Fry smelled 10 kinds of wonderful. The whole block had this ebb and flow of aromas. First you got a noseful of flash-fried salami piccante sizzling in sunflower oil, and then, before that delicious odor became familiar so you stopped noticing, it was wiped out by aromatic waves of baking rosemary bread. Not something you could ignore. So, in the interests of actually starting patrol and not spending the first hour obsessing on the nosh they weren’t having, Robin and Batgirl now met on the Southernmost steeple of St. Paul’s.
Luckily Cassie did remember and Batgirl was waiting for him—with the first project for tonight’s patrol already picked out. She had discovered a pattern of suspicious activity down the street from an open air parking lot and was sure either guns or drugs were being exchanged, but she couldn’t figure out how. So Robin went to watch with her. First, a car appeared and parked on an adjacent street. After a few minutes, the driver got out, walked to the parking lot and returned a few minutes later in a different car. She parked Car 2 next to Car 1, got out, went back to her original car and drove off. A few minutes later, she was back, parked in the original spot, walked back to the other car and drove off again… Robin agreed something strange was going on. A quick check on the license plates turned up nothing, and rather than try more sophisticated searches through the limited Batcomputer interface in his belt, he had Oracle tackle it.
“Sounds like Dick took the night off,” he noted, hearing a murmured voice in the background.
That was confirmed by Barbara specifying “No tea, sweetums, just water. I’m parched from all that—aw crap, they changed the passwords again—champagne. Just a big glass of water with lots of ice, please.”
Tim thought the Dick-murmur was saying something about liking it when she was ‘bubbling on bubbly,’ but when open communication resumed, Oracle had a very different message to relay.
“Dick wants to know how are there two empty parking spaces right next to each other on that street. That doesn’t just happen. And it’s going to take a few to run the makes and models against stolen car reports and scan for any patterns, so while you’re waiting, maybe check around to see if there’s some kind of gang signs or even a vagrant that could tell you if anybody’s been around to intimidate the neighborhood about parking there.”
It was a good plan, and Batgirl immediately dropped to street level while Robin took up a position down the block. “Hey Ron!” he called out. It wasn’t terrifically loud, it wasn’t dramatic, and it wasn’t meant to make everyone involved in the car swaps stop and look around wondering “Gee, what was that.” It was nothing but a momentary sound to pull just that much focus for a fraction of a second while Batgirl moved into the observation zone. He had a car alarm and siren sound effects too, if anything happened that required a more serious diversion. He squinted into the dark patch where he last saw her, looking for some sign of movement so he could provide another shout out to camouflage her return… when he saw the pointy-eared shadow fall on the patch of fire escape under his left foot.
“No need ‘Hey Ron,’” she said.
Robin said he knew that, but he was trying to help. Batgirl said she knew that, and there were symbols for the Jade-Five Triad chalked onto the curb and pavement of both parking spaces. They relayed that to Oracle, who said she would notify the GPD.
“I hate this,” Robin said, meaning the police operations in place to monitor the various organized crime outfits trying to fill the vacuum left by Falcone. Batman had been clear: with so many undercover operations underway, no action was to be taken in cases like this unless lives were in danger.
“Me too,” said Batgirl, flipping a batarang between her fingers like a pianist’s warm-up exercise.
“Know what’s always good for some action?” Robin asked with a grin.
“Muggers in park,” Batgirl answered, her voice revealing the smile that her full-face mask concealed.
They fired their lines in tandem and traveled uptown towards the park. At 59th Street, the plan changed.
“Is that Catwoman?” Robin gaped.
“Salute you world’s greatest detective,” Batgirl said flatly.
“Should we go and say hi?”
“Sure, more fun than muggers.”
She was perched on a gargoyle on one of the mid-size buildings, lying on her back, legs scissoring in a slow, thoughtful rhythm. By the time Robin and Batgirl reached her, however, she was back on her stomach, legs bent at the knees. She had a trio of gadgets positioned around her, a central tablet linked to two phone-size devices. The tablet flicked slowly through a slideshow of spectacular jewelry. When each new ruby necklace or set of teardrop earrings appeared, the gadget on the left displayed a record from a database, the gadget on the right, a satellite map.
“Hey guys,” Catwoman said with a wave. “Bored with the Russians? Or was it yakuza?”
Boredom was admitted, but when Robin said it was one of the Triads behind their drug case, Catwoman shook her head.
“Nah, that’s the Russians. They’ve got a poker game in Chinatown. Jade-Five boys lost big a few weeks ago. Working off their debt.”
“O-kay,” Robin said quietly.
“No, I am not channeling Batman,” Selina said, noting his reaction and guessing it was the kind of behind-the-scenes crimefighter detail he’d toss out when a sidekick had less than up-to-the-minute information. “It’s just that I had fifteen go-rounds with the Batcomputer getting all this set up,” she said, pointing to the tablet. “Every reboot, it starts up on that same Daily Blotter for the GPD. I can also tell you that the raids on Canal Street knockoffs have been suspended for the week because they need the extra bodies around the U.N. and twenty lots of counterfeit Blu-Rays were slated to be destroyed at the 9th Street Impound at 4 o’clock. Robert Wittman, formerly of the FBI’s Art Crime unit, was scheduled to give a lecture at One-PP but Hudson University cancelled the event he was really coming into town for, so the whole thing’s been postponed. Also the last of the Feds vetting Muskelli for that appointment to the Justice Department have officially ‘left the building’ and boy is the front office happy to see the back of them.”
While she chattered, Robin and Batgirl both squatted down and repositioned to get a better look at the screens. Tim had a hacker’s interest in the uplink she established with the Batcomputer. Cassie had a personal interest in the ruby and diamond necklace currently being displayed.
“Synchronized tri-tier uplink with an encrypted self-modulating pulse, integrated with the Foundation mainframe and WayneTech satellite” she told Tim. “Harry Winston, two baguette and brilliant-cut diamond rows suspending a fringe of oval and cushion-shaped rubies, mounted in platinum,” she told Cassie.
“Cool,” they said in unison.
“At first, I had this cat burglar pegged as an idiot,” Catwoman said conversationally. “I told Bruce after we saw that movie: if you’re a jewel thief, there is just no point in breaking into the Brewster townhouse while they’re attending the Wayne gala, because the best pieces—in this case, that little piece of Piaget on the screen right now—are across town hanging around Mrs. Brewster’s neck.”
“Sure, makes perfect sense,” Tim agreed. Cassie nodded, and Selina smiled.
“Well that’s a breath of fresh air. A little recognition of Kitty’s expertise, thank you very much. All he did was argue. But this time, he was right. There could be a point in hitting the Brewsters or the Lowells or the Auchinclosses when they’re at the Wayne gala. To embarrass the Foundation or Bruce personally.”
“Whoa,” said Tim. “Ya think? Really?”
“It’s early to say. We’ll know more if there’s another one tonight. That’s why I made up this database: all the best jewelry owned by Foundation donors, linked to their dossiers and the location of their primary residence in Gotham. Now we wait. If someone’s getting hit strictly because they were attending a Wayne event, it would have happened already, during the ball. But when they’ll discover it is anybody’s guess.”
“And there’s too many to check beforehand, right?” Robin asked.
“Not a productive use of my time—grunt,” Selina said in her imitation of the bat-gravel. “I did pick the three I thought were most desirable—the pieces I would go for that were worn at one of last two balls so presumably would be back in the safe tonight while the owners wore something else. He checked them but… nothing.”
Tim let out a low whistle as Selina touched the corner of the tablet and the three items she had selected came up on the screen while the map refocused to show a greater portion of the city and all three locations blinked with tiny purple dots.
“You put a lot of work into this,” Tim noted.
“He asked for my help,” she said lightly. Then her eyes darkened and the corner of her mouth dipped into an injured scowl. “This he asked me,” she growled.
To be continued…