Part 3: Gentrification
The Dame, aka “the female of the species” as some poetic chump put it, is more deadly than the male. Every man knows it as long as it’s some other guy getting tied off in a neat little bow around a manicured little finger. But when the emerald eyes are pointed at you, when it’s all warm smiles and jiggling as one moves into your life, a guy has a way of forgetting.
I swear, half the time, they don’t even do it on purpose. They just… are. A guy starts getting ideas, thinks they’re his ideas anyway, and in all that warm softness and jiggling, he misses something. Misses something else and then something else. Pretty soon it’s got a head of steam and still he hasn’t noticed a thing, until it’s too late.
Bruce knew what he wanted to accomplish with Matches could not be rushed, so those first evenings with Gina in Hell’s Kitchen did nothing but establish a baseline. Boilermakers and steak sangers at Tigh Mallory. The next night, it was oysters and Guinness at Finn’s Pub. The next night, they met at Mallory’s before going elsewhere. For the first time, Raglan noticed that Matches had lightened up on the hair gel and was sporting a new belt and belt buckle. He also noted that Gina was in one of those short-short skirts she’d worn when she went off with Marcuso, rather than the jeans she generally wore for an easy night out at the pub...
Matches had never been at the poker club at night (though Batman had torn it apart more than once when the Triad crossed a line or when he wanted to find a particular operative). It was a different crowd, and not one in which he felt that comfortable. But Gina wanted to come, either because she had a present for Matches or because Selina had one for Batman. He couldn’t tell, and that bothered him. He could have asked, but she’d either find it funny (and he’d be a ball of yarn until she decided she’d had enough fun and told him) or she’d seize the chance for payback (she was pissed about his attempts to coach her after that stumble about her favorite song). Since the unknown gift wasn’t a threat, he decided the best course was simply to go along, let her lead, and he’d find out what it was eventually.
“Your usual Jameson’s or do you want to up your game a little?” Gina said, her voice sizzling with sinful promise as she looked up into his eyes.
The same heat that once taunted Batman shot through his body and pulled his voice into a gravelly whisper as he said “Surprise me.”
The body shimmied away, past the poker tables to the bar, and joined him a few minutes later under the televisions which now showed a variety of football and soccer, ice hockey and basketball. She handed him a glass, which he sipped.
Talisker? his eyes asked. A legit casino would supply an expensive single malt for high rollers, but not an outfit like this, even if Matches was one. Guessing the full extent of his question went beyond ‘How did you pay for the drink?’ Gina inched up her skirt to reveal a black garter belt high on her thigh. She swiped a debit card across it and handed it to him.
“Maybe you’d like to hit the ATM for some fun money for the evening,” she said with a cat smile that was wickeder than Catwoman’s naughty grin. “And put five hundred on The Gotham Rogues for me.”
‘What did you do?’ Batman’s eyes glowered, though he could easily deduce it without the discreet motion of her fingertips. Something on her—perhaps in her bracelet, perhaps elsewhere—had zapped one or more of the Russians’ credit cards in their wallets as she passed the poker table, and had coded the information onto this blank.
He looked into her eyes unbelievingly. She’d… picked their pockets, basically, to fund their night out. Incredible. And incredibly devious, he realized as he counted off the bills spat out by the ugly, undersized ATM the club kept on the premises. With their accounts being charged in the club where they hung out and gambled, it wasn’t certain the marks would ever realize they’d been ripped off.
He placed Gina’s bet (or was it Selina’s?) and put two thousand on the Metropolis Meteors, holding a few hundred in reserve for small bets on first downs, yardage gained and quarter spreads. While the game played out, he considered how to put Selina’s felonious little gadget to better use.
The next night, they stopped at Finn’s after a movie. There was nothing remarkable about Matches’s trench coat, other than the dark grey color hiding the loud plaid of the sport coat underneath and making him look rather impressive, for Matches. Even so, it wasn’t anything to comment on and Toss wouldn’t have, except it was something to say. The atmosphere had been tensing up ever since Liam came in, and Malone’s coat was something to talk about that had nothing to do with Roy’s brother—who everybody knew collected for Mitch—stopping at some extra storefronts that were under Liam’s protection. The owners paid up like always, Finn got his cut like always, but Liam was cut out. So he had Raglan drop in on this restaurant that borrowed five bills from Mitch last year and had to pay back fifteen next week. Sold him a two month extension, interest free, for the same amount Roy’s brother collected from Liam’s vendors. So really, it was a nice coat. Malone looked good.
It was becoming a familiar image: Gina O’Malley settled into a quiet table by the wall at Tigh Mallory or Finn’s Pub, usually hunched over her phone while she waited for Matches to show. She kept to herself unless someone approached, then she would be happy to show them the eBay auctions she was watching or the article she was reading on 80/20 housing. She never asked about their business until the day she sat at the bar. Raglan was there and, being a red-blooded male, he offered to buy her drink. Instead she bought his. She admired his tattoo and asked about the motto written around the central cross. With undisguised directness, she asked if it was true that, among Westies, particular imagery signified their specialties: a gold coin meant a loan shark, crossed spears meant a hitter, two four-leaf clovers on a single stem was a counterfeiter, a sword cutting a knot meant one who’d done a bit of hijacking and been very successful.
“No, I never heard that,” Raglan said with an awed grin.
“That’s because I made it up,” Gina confided playfully. “Ice breaker, because I want to know who the counterfeit connection is around here.”
“Well, that’d be Toss’s cousin down at the print shop,” Raglan said, scratching his head. He knew the deal. Women like Gina only came around guys like him when they wanted something. Nice ones stayed a while after they got it (and the fact that Gina was still hanging around Matches argued that she was a nice one.) Sure enough, she stayed and chatted with him until Toss came in. Rather than be politely dumped, he waved Toss over and managed the handover himself. “I was just telling Gina here about the dimmick business at the print shop…”
They went off together and settled at Liam’s booth under the deer head, and Raglan treated himself to a shot, feeling like a knight who’d been privileged to do a service for a redhead.
Once again, Gina observed the social pleasantries before getting down to business. Toss’s tattoo (his most visible, that is) was a wolf. Celtic horoscope, early November.
“The wolf is fearless, brave and uncompromising,” he boasted. “A warrior you want on your side in the heat of battle. Won’t back down; takes no prisoners. ‘Honor’ is his middle name…”
Then the drinks arrived and Gina listened with rapt fascination as Toss explained how the ‘Black and Tan’ must never be ordered in Ireland, being the nickname of the Royal Constabulary sent as an occupation force in the 1920s. If you wanted your Guinness mixed with a pale ale like Harp or Bass, well, that was a Half-and-Half. Though he personally favored a Black and Red made with Killian’s, or a Black Castle with Newcastle Brown Ale.
Social pleasantries observed, he got down to business.
“The print shop used to be on the corner where that ‘All Natural Pet Supply’ thing is now, between the dog groomers and the organic grocery. Moved the equipment out to a new spot on Staten Island. I don’t think they’ve got anything going right now, but when they’re set up, you’re just the kind of girl they like to see passing. I go into the park and buy an ice cream with a fifty, I get ten kinds of shit from the guy. He’s suspicious, he’s pissed off. You do the same thing, he’ll consider it a very good day.”
“That’s slick,” Gina grinned, “but I’m not looking for work. I’m looking for a printing outfit with a sense of discretion. Could you make up about a hundred of these?”
She passed him her phone, and he squinted at the picture.
“Ka Maw Bin… Thu-an?” he sounded out from the round sticker that looked like a presidential seal. Beneath the words, in the center, was the picture of some kind of Viking ship with an imposing monster head on the prow, or something. Then underneath, an easy word he read confidently. “Crispin. 66317. What is this thing?”
“A shipwreck,” she said. “You stick it on something to mean it’s from a shipwreck.”
“You mean like a pirate treasure?” Toss asked.
“Yeah, sort of,” Gina said as if she’d only then realized it. “The Ca Mau was a Chinese junk loaded with cargo for the Dutch East India company. Struck a reef on her return journey to the Netherlands and sank in the South China Sea. Salvaged and sold at auction at Crispin Amsterdam in the 1980s,” she recited, blissfully mangling the histories of the Nanking Cargo, the Tek Sing shipwreck and the Ca Mau into a knotted mess of a narrative. “So it’s a lot like pirate treasure, except instead of gold, it’s mostly what they called ‘export porcelain.’ That crap all looks alike, so it’s really important to know where it came from. Something that was on a ship that sank in 1750 has to be 250 years old. There’s no way around it. It’s authentic.”
She smiled at the cleverness of it all, and Toss smiled back.
“That’s really sweet,” he said, looking down her top. “Things aren’t set up for serious printing yet, but I’ll talk to my cousin. These are just stickers, basically. I’m guessing they can help you out.”
Cassie eyed the peanut butter bagel while Tim continued his report on the Scarecrow case. It was the most complicated investigation anyone had brought to these breakfast meetings and Tim had been going for some time, giving her plenty of time to do nothing but chew. She decided against the second bagel and opted for another glass of orange juice.
“The victims were all street hustlers, male, early twenties,” Tim was saying. “Sent the cops on a wild goose chase thinking it was a sexual predator in the area when, truth is, they were only chosen for convenience. Crane needed a dozen test subjects and it’s easy to get those guys to take a ride.”
“And the tests were centered on weather?” Dick asked.
“Check. He moved into Maxie Zeus’s old place in DUMBO for the lightning machine. Added thunder. Wicked setup to synthesize the storm-trigger fear he wanted for Phase I.”
“Gotham General posted the last update on their condition twenty minutes ago,” Barbara put in. “Everyone’s responded to the antidote. One minor allergic reaction, basically a bad skin rash, and one does have an arrhythmia. Him they’re keeping for observation, but all the rest should be discharged today.”
“Well done,” Dick said, lifting his Pola’s coffee cup in a toast. Tim acknowledged it half-heartedly with his right hand OJ while his left grabbed an egg sandwich and he took an enormous bite. Everyone else had practically finished and he’d been talking the entire time. “That was first rate detective work getting that location. Be sure you crosslink the hell out of it when you write up the logs.”
“Oway, eeya rafnef,” he said, chewing.
“No way, it’s a rat’s nest,” Cassie translated.
“It’s really important we set up the log so B can reconstruct your process,” Dick insisted. “Tell you what, you write it up the way you told us, and Babs will go in after and put in the links.”
“Oyae-anx,” Tim said.
“Okay thanks,” Cassie echoed.
“Hey,” Barbara said.
“And Babs, pull the report from the GPD who were chasing the sexual predator angle. I’d like to link that too.”
“You want hash browns with that?” Barbara offered, holding out a bag of them to make her point, which Cassie took from her hand and began munching.
“Cassie, you had the armed robbery from Matches’s last report,” Dick went on. “ID’d and collared the suspect, right?”
“Description fit Dog Morales. Sunset Park. Didn’t have gun or vic’s wallet. Did have contents. Three hundred bucks and Metro Card. BS alibi. There to ‘see friend.’”
“Line up with the vic was scheduled for 11 o’clock but could get bumped a few days until the swelling goes down,” Barbara mentioned. It was a familiar refrain after a Batgirl capture. The least engaged public defender would notice the way their client stood out, and nobody wanted to give innocent fillers a black eye and a fat lip so the perp would blend in.
“Good, tag it in the system, and assuming she makes a positive I.D., link it in the log,” Dick said, though Barbara mouthed the last words with him. “And it’s a long shot, but see if they look for the vic’s prints on the Metro Card and the cash, and link that too. They probably won’t, ‘cause they’ll have to disclose if they look and it’s not there, but it can’t hurt to check. Now Tim, that Scarecrow thing pulled you off Matches’s tip on the coke coming out of that recording studio. Do you want to get back on that tonight or have Cass or I take it?”
“I’ll stick with it,” he said. “I got a tracker on the dark sedan he mentioned. It was parked out back, so—”
“Alright, be sure to give Babs the tracking code before you go. She’ll keep an eye out in case it’s moved today. Now you’re up to roust Matches tonight, but Gina is going to be at the public library this afternoon. Either Cassie or I will meet her, so check in before you go after Matches. Chances are, the day’s news will come through her and you won’t have to bother.”
“Right ho. Is there any more bacon?”
“Ah, excuse me. The Library is my Briar Patch, why am I not going to meet her?” Barbara asked.
Three sets of eyes blinked at her like deer frozen in headlights.
“We’re both sort of…” Dick said simultaneously with Cassie saying “Both of us on list” as they made identical back-and-forth gestures and Tim added “I think Selina’s con…” pointing from one to the other.
“I see,” Barbara said through her teeth, which then broke into a ferociously determined smile. “Who wants coffee?”
There were over a million smokers in Gotham City. For Bruce, that meant reports and proposals when he returned to the Foundation that would note the highest percentage in seven years up from a historic low only three years earlier, attribute the rise to a 47% reduction in anti-smoking media campaigns, and contrast the bargain price funding a new program of television and subway ads with the projected $10.4 billion the state would be paying in medical costs incurred from smoking. For Matches Malone, it meant there was a shitload of money in cigarettes without a tax stamp.
He wasn’t keen on the idea of making that money himself. He didn’t want a career in black market cigarettes. He wanted one quick payday to get some balls rolling, without having to wait for a good day at the ponies. He didn’t have the organizational skills to run a bunch of distributors or the patience to go around strong-arming newsstands and bodega owners personally.
What he did have was the contacts and knowhow to find a supplier—and better still, the time and place of a buy. One of Cobblepot’s guys who went by The Philippine Eagle was bringing in a shipment of 10,000 cartons. The Alejandros and the Four Lotus were each taking half. That would mean two briefcases of cash, each containing over 100k. The triads were still sniping at King Snake, so there was a good chance if Four Lotus money was taken, the whole thing would be blamed on him. The exchange was going down in a fenced lot between warehouses right across from Slip 15, and Matches had the whole scene rigged: smoke bomb, floodlight, wind machine, fire crackers and helicopter sound effects, even a prank siren with a rotating red and blue light. He’d spotted the Four Lotus briefcase and was set to move. His thumb twitched over the clicker—when there was a squeal of brakes more authentic than any of his sound effects, and the most famous car in the city came screeching into view. Matches couldn’t believe his luck as the Batmobile tore into their midst and blocked the opening at the end of the fence, and started emitting a dense black fog, while Robin and Batgirl—fecking Robin and Batgirl—swung into the fray. The very second he was ready to snap the button and start the show, a diversion beyond his wildest dreams was kicking, punching, roping, hoisting, and spewing black smoke all over the place, all by itself!
Perhaps it was shock, perhaps it was some ingrained animal instinct, but Matches clicked into an altered state of focus and mental discipline that registered the positions of all combatants and their trajectories, then locked onto the triad’s silver briefcase just before it was engulfed in black fog. His thumb clicked the control, setting off his own display to increase the chaos, and he walked swiftly to the briefcase… The briefcase that only he knew was there, the briefcase that would now never be missed, that would be impounded with the cigarettes and other cash as far as the Four Lotus was concerned, a cost of doing business, not the kind you can hunt down and avenge… His hand closed around the cold metal handle as he processed the cacophony, using the sounds to determine each fighter’s position without letting it cloud his thinking or slow his movements. Re-plotting his course of escape with each new shift, finding the path through the tumult as if by instinct and walking swiftly but never breaking into a run. His pulse never rose about 86…
Unlike most safe houses Batman kept in the outer boroughs, the one Tim approached in Brooklyn would require multiple keys from the personal transponder in his communicator. The graffiti’d door in a shaded sidewalk on Myckoff was unlocked, which meant only that Dick was already inside. Locked or not, opening it activated the access sequence: his transponder passing through the door set the timer. He had sixty seconds to cross the courtyard. Dick’s bike was parked out front, but Tim had no time to drool over it now. He went straight to the inner door and typed a six-digit pin into the keypad, superficially unlocking it while the transponder silently sent its digital signature, authorizing the system to accept the code.
The reason for the extra layers of security was evident as soon as he entered: unlike the safe houses which were anonymous identikit apartments, this long, narrow space had once been a satellite Batcave which Dick adapted to a personal workshop and mancave. The “kitchen,” never more than a counter with overhead shelves, a gas burner, microwave, blender and sink, had always been used as a laboratory. The counter now displayed a glorious mess of electronics. Next to each pile of gadgets lay a stack of post-its and a notepad detailing Dick’s research for the GPD.
The furnishing too was anything but anonymous. Past the kitchen, one came to the living space: a sofa of legendary ugliness which had once graced Dick Grayson’s living room in Bludhaven, a media center with a shelf of his music and movies that Barbara didn’t care for, and a dividing wall where four guitars hung, also from his bachelor apartment in Bludhaven.
“Hey, bro!” Tim called, knowing Dick must be in the back as it was the only spot not visible from the door.
“Back here!” came the confirmation, and Tim quickly searched under the counter to see if any of his stash remained. Doritos and Snickers were gone (figures) but there was an oatmeal bar… He decided to pass and grab something later. He tossed his backpack on the Sofa of Unspeakable Ugliness and headed past the guitars, where two tiny rooms like sleeper compartments on a train opened on the hall. Each was almost exactly the width of the bed they contained, which was elevated to provide an open area below. There, a simple shelf acted as a standing desk. There were also shelves around the bed for books, a small television or a laptop, and it was there that Dick was perched. He sat cross-legged at the edge of the bed, working on the laptop. At first it seemed like he was reading email, but then Tim realized…
“Is nobody going to listen to me on this?”
…it was his own log entry up on that screen.
“Voice of experience here. Ignore at your peril,” Dick was saying. “I get that Bruce was there. That in no way means your logs will be scrutinized less. It probably means just the opposite. If you say Penguin’s guy had a Glock and he knows the gun was never in plain view, then he’s going to ask how you knew what it was and God help you if you’re filling in details you only learned later once the cuffs were on.”
“I knew ‘cause Cassie told me,” Tim said. “You’ve met her, there’s no ‘why.’ She says ‘Has Glock;’ you say ‘Ok.’ Why are we meeting here anyway?”
“I want to make sure the logs are solid before Bruce sees them,” Dick said, (and Tim mouthed ‘No kidding.’) “I know you all make fun of me, I don’t care. What none of you take into account is I know what I’m talking about. Let him see you can get it right the first time, it saves time…”
Tim’s attention wandered—and then did a double take. While Dick prattled, Tim’s eye had fallen on the lower shelf beneath the bed and the items displayed there. They were familiar.
“…finding a place to store that stuff in the meantime and keeping out of Barbara’s way. She keeps threatening to format me.”
Tim made a face.
“Ooh, not good, bro,” he said, picking up one of the familiar-looking items Dick had pointed to and turning it over to confirm a hunch.
“Not literally. Well, sort of literally. She made a partition that she’s named Dick, and when she’s really fed up, she formats it. You want to be careful with that, it’s supposed to be Ming.”
“Reformatting a drive that many times a day is not good for the hardware, bro.” Then, to change the subject before Dick could respond he said “You know all of these are fake, right?”
Dick abandoned the laptop and slid down from the bed to join him in front of the desk where a selection of Chinese bowls, bronzes and jade were lined up in a neat row.
“I know,” Dick said suspiciously. “How the heck do you know?”
“This inscription is Simplified Chinese,” Tim recited like an expert whose credentials had been questioned. “Came into use in 1949, so max of about sixty years old there, a bit shy of five hundred. This one’s a shipwreck bowl,” he said, picking up the next one. “On the sea floor for a couple hundred years, so it’s not likely that it’s a modern piece from Chinatown, right? Even got a little label on the bottom here from the Crispin auction where it was originally sold. That’s very impressive—top quality auction house, builds confidence. Just one thing. It says it’s from the Ca Mau shipwreck. That was sold by Sotheby’s. Crispin sold the Nanking Cargo, so I don’t know what’s going on there. It actually does look like an authentic little tea bowl, but somebody’s trying to pull something.”
“Who are you?” Dick asked in awed horror.
“This one appears to be a Chenghua period Ming dynasty Doucai bowl, judging by the reign mark,” he went on with smug professionalism. “Actually is an antique, but not that old and, eh, not Chinese. It’s a fine example of 19th century Japanese Arita from when they were basically forging Chinese marks and designs because there was all this political unrest in China but a big market for the stuff in Europe.”
“Officially creeping me out here, Timothy.”
“Speaking of ‘not Chinese,’ I’m pretty sure this jade thing with the fish is from Atlantis. Those characters down the side are definitely not any form of Mandarin or Cantonese. I think they’re Atlantean glyphs, but you’ll want to check me on that.”
“HOW ARE YOU DOING THIS?”
“I’ve been helping Cass study,” Tim laughed. “Selina gave her flash cards, and this is the stuff pictured on them. Not the same type of stuff, these exact things. Like this one, I couldn’t tell you why it’s dodgy just here sitting on your shelf, but there’s supposed to be paperwork somewhere documenting its provenance that includes the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburg – no h, and that’s what these red numbers on the bottom are supposed to be from. Except the Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania where the museum is, it’s spelled with an h. There’s another Pittsburg in Kansas, no h, and no museum that’d have anything like this. So once again, looks like a genuinely old piece, but somebody’s trying to pull something.”
“She’s not expecting Cassie to say all that, is she?”
“Cass says she’s a lot better when you give her lines.”
Slap Hurley was behind the bar at Finn’s when the call came in. Maewyn Finn’s Pub wasn’t the sort of place where couples left messages for each other or the wives and girlfriends of regulars could call to check up on them. But the men all knew that Matches had rented one of the industrial lock-ups by the river. They knew setting up a place took time, and they guessed that Matches hadn’t told Gina what he was doing so he could surprise her. So Slap took the message… while Mitch sat at the end of the bar, listening while he nursed his lunchtime Guinness. His eyes narrowed at the half of the conversation he heard: Matches was set to meet Gina here tonight, no surprise there; if she came in first, let her know that he’d be late.
Mitch shot a nasty look at Liam’s booth under the deer head, tossed a bill on the bar and stalked out. Roy and his brother came in an hour later, shooting darts for most of the afternoon. When Gina came in, she once again settled into that quiet table by the wall where she didn’t bother anyone—until Roy took the seat across from her while his brother stood imposingly behind her chair.
“This looks like it’s going to be an interesting conversation,” Gina said, meeting Roy’s eye like a woman who is seldom rattled.
“I hope so,” Roy said. “I like a good conversation, nice way to pass the time on a rainy evening. You were passing the time with Toss not long ago. Right over there under the deer’s head. Y’mind telling me what that little bit of business was about?”
Gina looked towards the booth the same way Roy had, and then at Roy with an appraising tilt of the head.
“Ah, I see. I was afraid that might have been a problem. Liam’s table, yeah? And you guys work for Mitch. Figure I’m messing with the balance of power. My bad. I just asked Raglan where to go for some printing on the QT; he sent me to Toss, and Toss sat me down there. I’m certainly not looking to step on anyone’s toes.”
“Printing?” Roy said skeptically. “Y’sure you’re not talking about, like, counterfeiting?”
“Stickers,” Gina said. “And down the line maybe some really high end sales brochures and artist renderings for real estate, couple of blueprints. Sometimes I need things to look like a Leonard Roff or Lex Luthor operation, without Roff and Luthor money to put into it.”
Roy nodded with an almost-convinced grin, and Gina went on.
“Look, I think I know how to make this right. I asked for counterfeiters because they tend to have the right equipment to make certain things I need. But they’re not that special. If you guys could hook me up with a forger. Those boys are real artists and very hard to come by. I had a guy in Seattle who could make a stamp: New Zealand six pence, 1858, black-brown on pelure paper, in a day. And I had a guy in Keystone who did rare bank notes. 19th Century Huddersfield five pound note, oh that was a sweet one. You see, marks love to cheat. And they always figure the richest guy around is the one who’s the best at it.”
“Like Lex Luthor!” Roy’s brother prompted, and Gina looked up, twisting her neck awkwardly.
“I forgot you were back there,” she said, and then waved towards the other tables. “There, get yourself a chair, get comfortable. Slap, could we get a round for the boys here? So anyway, the marks love it when you let them in on something the big boys do. Makes them feel warm and squishy inside when you let them in on one of those ‘Lex Luthor Secrets.’ How he’ll take large amounts of cash out of the country by investing in rare stamps and bank notes, for instance. Things like jewelry are just as small and portable, but everyone knows they’re worth boatloads. Best thing to do there is use jewels for misdirection. You get a fake of something that looks, just, stupid expensive. Not hard to come by if it’s a copy of something famous that’s changed just a little bit. Like the necklace from Pretty Woman with sapphires instead of rubies, or that heart-shaped rock from Titanic except it’s red instead of blue. Something like that, you put it in a Cartier box looking real as can be, the Customs boys start salivating—and then they find out it’s glass.” Roy and his brother both started laughing, just like the marks would, and Gina concluded “And the whole time, your two million dollars is right underneath. Innocent little stamp in the lift out bottom under the necklace.”
By the time Matches came in a half hour later, he found them drinking a toast to Lex Luthor—who, Roy’s brother informed him, converted the entire proceeds of the Metropolis Mercantile Bank bailout into a single tea-stained banknote that his chauffer smuggled into the Caymans as a bookmark in Fifty Shades of Gray.
“Get your things, we’re going to be late,” was all Matches had to say until they were outside. Then he added “Mercy reading Fifty Shades? Sometimes I think you’re more vindictive than Luthor.”
She shrugged, as she always did when he decided to be a judgmental jackass.
“Didn’t come cheap,” she said. “Now I’m supposed to find a red Swarovski ‘Star of the Ocean’ for Roy’s girlfriend’s birthday.”
The next night it was back to steak sandwiches at Mallory’s. Matches had abandoned the snug-fitting plaid sport coat for a well-draped sharkskin, none of the shiny horror associated with mobsters of another era but a matte Loro Piana Navy blue. The night after that, a bucket of oysters at Finn’s, the shirt and tie underneath were replaced by a black cotton polo…
The day Toss brought a thick envelope of counterfeit auction stickers for Gina, he expected to leave them with the bartender at Finn’s. Either she’d come in before he left or leave a payment he could pick up whenever. He didn’t expect her to be on the premises. Apparently she’d set up a Vintage Watch Room in the back. No one had ever been granted permission to use the backroom in Finn’s absence (that he knew of, anyway) but as the bartender pointed out, nobody had ever asked.
As he headed down the hall to the backroom, Toss passed Mitch coming out with his arm in front of his face, as if blocking an attack. Toss quickly realized he was admiring a new wristwatch.
“Omega Speedmaster Mark V,” Mitch said proudly.
“’Kay,” Toss said. The words meant nothing to him, but Mitch was stoked so what the hell.
Inside, Gina was behind a small showcase, apparently waiting on Roy like a customer, helping him put on a watch.
“Check it out, Rolex Stainless Steel Oyster 1992,” he announced. “You think this or the—what was it?”
“1960s Vacheron Constantin,” Gina prompted.
“Yeah, that,” Roy said. “Goes for almost six thousand. This one’d be like forty-eight hundred.”
Toss suggested he take the one he could pronounce—and get on with it, he and Red had business. Roy wisely picked the one he was wearing, and Toss hoped he’d scurry off. Instead, Gina settled around his elbow and cooed, admired his choice, and said “This will just take a minute. Toss, you look over what’s here, but don’t get too attached. I’ve got a special one picked out for you, ‘cause of our thing.”
With that, she led Roy all the way back to the desk. Toss couldn’t hear what was said, but after a minute, Roy signed something and left chuckling.
Gina returned and said he could have any watch he chose, but because he’d been so helpful facilitating the deal with the auction labels, she held back the two gold ones for him. Jaeger-Le Coultre, 18kt gold wristwatch with calendar and moon phase function, circa 1980, and the most expensive piece she had: a Cartier Yellow Gold Tank Watch circa 1960. Toss was iffy about sporting something too much nicer than Mitch’s, so he opted for the Jaeger-Le… first one, even though he couldn’t remember the weird name she reeled off any better than Roy could remember that Flashy-row Constantinople thing.
He didn’t need help putting on a watch, of course, but no sane man would prevent Gina’s delicate fingers from flitting around his wrist that way. Then she led him back as she had the others, and his curiosity grew as to what exactly was expected in payment for such swag.
On the desk, there was a stack of paper plates, several felt-tipped markers, and the most butt ugly vase anyone had ever seen. It was sort of… pink and greenish gray. Lopsided, with a ring handle on one side and sort of an… elephant-bat-fox head on the other, spiral pattern in front. It looked like it was made by a nearsighted glassblower on acid. Toss looked at Gina in awed horror, and she handed him a Sharpie.
“What the hell is this? I’m glad you asked,” she said, anticipating his question. “Remember when I told you how important it is to know the history of these glass bowls and things? You can basically convince people something’s worth thousands or even millions if they’re absolutely convinced it’s old, Chinese, and authentic. Well…”
She tipped over the butt ugly vase and laid it on its side, revealing a horribly corroded bottom, with several sets of numbers printed in black and red marker.
“This code here is from the Very Important George H. Corcoran collection,” she intoned, breaking into the exaggerated uptown voice she’d use with a mark (and making a mental note to give Trip Corcoran a dance at the next fundraiser to make up for turning him into his great grandfather.) “Sold in 1959 to the Layne Museum of Fine Arts, that’s their coding here and here in red (A dance for Ted also, for the impending slur on his family’s legacy) who turned around and sold it only a year later to raise money for a construction project. From there, it wound up in the hands of a Gotham collector whose mark is right there.” (Scrupulously correct, but no dance for Richard Flay. She didn’t mind his buying stolen goods, but he had near-Jervis-like mind control abilities whenever he ran into someone at the auction house, and he’d apparently decided the future Mrs. Wayne should be collecting Georgian silver.)
“So what I’d like you to do,” Gina went on, “is print these letters and numbers here on the paper plate, around the rim here and here, matching the placement on the vase. In red there and black here. Don’t try to copy the printing though, just use your own handwriting. And then sign it in the center so I know which one is you. If I need you to do a bunch of bowls and vases, I’ll be in touch next week.”
Matches’s drinking habits were changing too, from the stolid, unvarying loyalty to Guinness to flirtations with craft beers like Carrig Irish Lager, Dungarvan Red Ale, Galway Hooker Pale Ale and Northern Ireland’s Belfast Blonde. Even more radical, he allowed his deliberations on whiskey to expand beyond Irish borders to consider a single malt scotch called Talisker…
The incongruously named Sunshine was once the deadliest dive the Westies called home. It was now a swanky sports bar called The Upper Deck. From habit, Mitch looked in the long windows facing Tenth Avenue as he passed, and there was Matches, all gussied up for the redhead, as usual. He could almost pass for a yup. Not quite, but almost, the pair of them whipping out their phones the minute they were seated. Mitch decided to go inside and investigate.
It was clear this was where Matches had been developing a taste for new exotic liquors. He was invited to join them for “a whiskey flight.”
“Talisker,” Matches said, pointing confidently to the first glass of three, then he snuck a look at his phone before pointing to the middle glass and pronouncing carefully, “an Iss-lay single malt called Caol Ila and another one called Lagavulin.”
Mitch looked suspiciously at Gina and the bottle sitting in front of her before announcing he’d have what she was having. The label read “Trouble Brewing Dark Arts Porter.”
They chatted for about half an hour: about the game, about the merits of the 1970 Buick GSX that showed up in the gang’s motor pool compared to the ’69 Mustang they had last year and the muscle car by which all others must be judged, the ’68 Charger LT. Gina said little, though she perked up when the conversation shifted to the new cars unveiled at the auto show and the relative prospects of the 2016 Ford Shelby GT350R Mustang and the Porsche 911 Targa GTS against the Batmobile.
Both men had their phones out, for Googling pictures of the cars and to confirm details on which did and did not have the carbon-fiber skin without which automotive victory over The Bat was impossible. Mitch may have noticed then that Malone’s phone bore an impressive skin of its own, bearing the imprint of a designer for which he was unlikely to have paid retail, or he may not have noticed until Gina got out her phone in a similar case bearing a similar mark. Mitch may have even connected these improbable luxuries with Chinatown knockoffs without Gina showing him pictures of miniature jade musical instruments that looked like toys and asking what he thought they’d be worth.
“I’m guessing you’re not an expert on Chinese antiques,” she said with a coy smile. “So just as a random person off the street, if you had to guess, what should someone pay for these? Sixty bucks, six hundred, six thousand? Sixty thousand?”
He had no idea, of course.
Lesson for the day: curiosity is a better pick-me-up than caffeine.
Every Bat-protocol said a package like the one in Barbara’s lap had to be thoroughly examined before it could be opened, and she didn’t have any of the equipment in the house. She could take it to the satellite cave herself and get started on the x-rays and scans, but it would take hours. Dick could manage dinner, but she doubted the team could adapt to the night’s patrols beginning without an OraCom.
It had started with General Dvornikov, shot when the CIA busted in on his arms deal. Barbara confirmed that he was out of surgery, no complications, and assuming no post-op difficulties arose, he’d soon be joining the two Bludhaven wiseguys in government custody. Bludhaven PD might be sore about the jurisdictional bigfooting, but they wouldn’t have fared any better if Nightwing had handed the job to the Justice League. The important thing was that the weapons were secure and Dick hadn’t found it necessary to handle it himself...
Rather than use the found time to catch up on his sleep, Dick had, of course, gone to Bludhaven for the day. Officially he was dropping in on his old buddies at the 13th Precinct; really he was getting the unofficial, unreported details on an incident juicy enough to have made it across the river to Matches Malone’s poker game. It seemed some mob wives and girlfriends got into it outside a certain nightclub, at least two of them attached to men in Blackgate since the Falcone sweeps. There were accusations on both sides of somebody’s boyfriend/husband/brother/son being a rat. Not just a cop rat either, but a cape rat.
With Dick gone for the afternoon, Barbara used the time to install those links on Robin’s Scarecrow case and then to check the tracker on the dark sedan and the results of Cassie’s lineup… when she was interrupted by the buzz of the intercom: the kind of delivery from the kind of bonded messenger that wouldn’t leave a package with the doorman. And so, a minute later, a knock at the door. It reminded Barbara of the occasional deliveries from the Mayor’s office that came for her father when she was a girl. The men and women who brought them were always so serious about it. Barbara had never accepted such a delivery herself, but the man at the door today had the same frown she had glimpsed back then, the same fifty-yard stare, and he needed to see Mrs. Grayson’s ID before she could sign.
Fortunately, the temptation to say “screw Bat-protocols” and tear the thing open reigned for only half an hour when Dick got home and confirmed that he had sent it. Barbara asked why the hell he didn’t mention a bona fide drama box was coming, but he would only answer “You’ll see.”
So she opened it, and she did see… a laptop. A laptop with liquid-cooled, titanium housing, choice of biometric keys including a combination fingerprint and heartbeat password that one-upped that LexBeat idea Luthor was trying to roll out, quad sync’d over-clocked processors and a dedicated cryptographic air gap tunneling packet rates for a uniform, er, something.
“A uniform er-something?” she asked with an arched eyebrow.
“I’m lucky I remembered as much as I did,” Dick said hopelessly. “I asked Mr. Fox to write it down but he said no. This is, like, what comes before a prototype. It’s a proto-prototype.”
“Dickey, my love, I do not tell you often enough how very much I love you.”
“Well, with that pilot program your dad’s got me working on, the GCPD are catching up on the tech front. We don’t want to fall behind.”
“No fear of that. This is a 747 among stone arrowheads.”
“Mr. Fox says it’s 3P, that’s for Third Paradigm, because ‘next generation’ doesn’t begin to convey just how much of an evolution this is.”
“Hang on, with Bruce undercover, when did you get him to sign off on this?”
Dick cleared his throat.
“Before he went. You remember the prep day when I went out to the manor? It was suggested that, by this point in the operation, I would certainly be doing something irritating and you would be on your last nerve. Too supportive to let me know, but before long, quietly plotting my death. Alfred suggested a gift of some kind. I had all that applied Wayne Tech in my head and asked if there might be something for you. Bruce called Lucius to see what R&D would have ready for a shakedown cruise, and he came up with this.”
The next time Matches and Gina were to meet at Mallory’s, Gina was late. Matches checked his phone several times for texts, which allowed Liam to notice the new case. He smirked, as everyone had at the subtle and not-so-subtle changes to Malone’s look since he took up with the leggy redhead. Of course there was another aspect to consider… an aspect that hadn’t occurred to anyone but Roy’s brother, who happened to notice Matches paying his tabs at both pubs and the Downpatrick off a big fat roll…
“Stood you up?” Liam asked, perching on the bar stool beside Matches and ordering a shot and a beer for himself, a fresh round for Matches, and the volume turned up on the ballgame.
“She’s working way downtown these days,” Matches said. “Third Circle of Traffic Hell if she doesn’t start moving before the office suckers get their 5 o’clock freedom. She didn’t today, so now we wait.”
“How about a little action to pass the time?” Liam said, pointing to the game. “Without the juice, of course.”
“Sure,” Matches said, taking out his roll. “A hundred that Remy misses.”
“Slàinte,” Liam said, accepting the bet with a lift of his glass.
Remy made the shot from the twenty, which brought out Liam’s own roll at last. He added a hundred of his own, and bet that Moyer would miss—when he promptly made a jumper from the baseline.
The stack of winnings shifted back and forth, sitting in front of Matches while Liam counted out the bills from his own roll to cover his next wager... “Another five hundred that Penchon gets schooled…” Then when luck turned, to sit in front of Liam while Matches did the same. “…Remy gets payback, double or nothing.”
There was almost $6000 by the last quarter, which was enough of a bond to warrant a blunt question.
“It’s a lot of money you’ve been dropping. On that clancy, on the clothes. Not holding out on the old man, are you? Whatever you’ve got going, he’s going to want his cut.”
At that moment, the door opened and Gina entered the bar looking like none of them had ever seen her—except for Raglan who remembered when Matches first arrived at the Downpatrick with an employee ID from a Wall Street bank. The suit was tailored, the makeup refined, and the handbag had gone from the flamboyant Saint Laurent Duffel favored by Kate Moss and Gwyneth Paltrow to a sturdy Valextra Madison that was practically a briefcase.
Her manner, at least, was the Gina they all knew. She went up to Matches, hugged him sideways and took a drink from his glass, then peered at the stack of cash in front of Liam like she could count it by sight.
Matches proposed a quiet (read: cheap) night in after his losses, maybe ordering a pizza, but Gina wanted to hit one of the chichi places on Restaurant Row.
“My treat, I’m celebrating,” she declared. “I told you when Gotham Magazine reclassified that shithole from endangered to extinct...”
“The East End,” Matches mouthed to Liam, just so he knew which shithole she was talking about.
“For the prophet has written,” Gina continued in Stentorian tones, “’When the crack house gives way to the fusion restaurant and the crack ho to men called Morgan and Chad, there shall come a Great Season of Marks as greedy as they are plentiful. For burned out cars do not beget lofts nor bullets stuck in doorframes transform to sake bars without the efforts of him called the Real Estate Developer.’ ~Grifters, 31:19.”
“Amen,” said Matches, as if from habit.
It was obviously a stag night when Matches walked into Finn’s pub wearing only a Gotham Rogues jacket. Even a dim bulb like Matches Malone could sense something off; the smart man behind him sensed far more. The way Raglan let the conversation begin and then replied with only a few words… and then with none at all. The way Toss kept glancing at the mirror over the bar. The way Roy fingered a dart before he threw. The way his brother couldn’t hit above a six.
There was nothing to be done but wait or call the question, and Batman knew whatever was about to go down was better done on his timetable than theirs. So he announced he was going to hit the head, and entering the hall that broke left to the toilets and right to the backroom Finn used as an office, he turned right—only to hear the sluggish and near-silent clack of a Smith & Wesson 629 cylinder being spun, rather lopsided, then a snap and a cock before the gun was placed next to his head.
“The hell do you think you’re doing?!” a gravely brogue asked from the darkness before him. “Y’looking to damage that fine firearm carrying on like some Hollywood pisher in the movies?”
An apologetic grumble behind the gun sounded like Liam, but Matches didn’t risk shifting his eyes to confirm it and the figure silhouetted behind the desk didn’t acknowledge it. “That’s an S&W .44 mag double action revolver you’re beatin’ ta hell,” it continued. “It’s not a tank, and it’s not a toy. You’re damaging the thing because you thought it looked sexy in a Humphrey Bogart film? And you—”
Bruce/Matches felt the end of the barrel press against the temple of his glasses just past the hinge, pushing the pad and bridge against his nose and emphasizing the gun’s proximity to his eye.
There was a crinkle of old leather as Maewyn Finn adjusted in his chair, leaning forward into the light.
“Why you spending so much time in Chinatown, boyo? Y’doing business with the Triads? Bringing smack into me neighborhood? Into me backyard?”
To be continued…