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Mrs. Wayne by Chris Dee

Part 3: Interesting Times

Dangerous times. 

Oswald sipped his coffee.

These were dangerous times to be a bird that couldn’t fly.  Every night, a new story swirled around the Iceberg during the ill-named happy hour, and then every night for the rest of the night, it floated above the patrons like contagion making each breath heavy with dread.  Second story men, push-in robbers and even garden variety henchmen reported run-ins with a fear-crazed populace nursing fantasies of defending themselves against all comers.  They weren’t as particular as Batman when it came to pointing a weapon and weren’t nearly as precise about where they were pointing.  The distinction that law enforcement deemed “lethal force” was unknown to them, as apparently was the result of firing bullets into pressurized canisters.  Half his customers were complimentary when they spoke of Batman now.  Hardly a story was told anymore where a run-in was related with anything but nostalgia–kwak–if not outright admiration for the Dark Knight’s cool head and unwavering professionalismThat wretched development would have to be dealt with when the dark times were passed, but for now, survival was paramount.

Oswald would have liked to leave town as Catty had, honeymooning in some gleaming seaside paradise.  A villa on the Amalfi coast perhaps; that would be her style.  (Though he himself would opt for a nice Caribbean tax haven–kwak!)  But flying off wasn’t feasible.  His operation had seen two attempted coups already.  If he left town to wait out the trouble, the nightclub would be lost and at least a third of the underground operations it hid, probably more.  He sipped his coffee… 

So there was nothing to do but wait it out.

 

Gotham Keepers had seven locations throughout the city.  The ones in the outer boroughs were spread out, but the storage facility on 39th Street was vertical, its footprint just under a quarter of the block but extending upward for eight stories.

Detective Rowanski served the warrant at the front desk while at virtually the same moment, the FBI advance team pivoted around a fifth floor corner, the tactical light on a high powered rifle creating a dramatic visual.  As lighting, it was superfluous thanks to a tall east-facing window illuminating the hallway, but it closed the drama gap created by the Batman’s presence.  The lead agent stepped forward and four others fell into place behind him: feds and GCPD dramatically backlit by the window.  

“Hall’s clear,” the lead called, and the last man ran forward to squat at before storage unit 508, snip a chain and drill.  The door opened, and the advance team swarmed in. 

“Unit’s clear,” rang out, followed by a distant “Stairs clear” and a louder “All clear!” down the hall.   After a beat, Gordon and Batman entered, followed by Detective Rowanski.

Batman’s eyes swept the room in a series of swift glances while Gordon’s darted methodically left to right and Rowanski’s head turned slowly like a mechanical scanner.  The first thing they all noticed was paper, single sheets of paper hanging from fishing wire, most at face height but some higher.  Following the wires up, there was fishing net nailed to the ceiling tiles, with the fishing line tied to the netting.  One of the feds began expounding on “the unsub’s religious fixation” noting that four of the apostles were fishermen and two were repairing their nets when Jesus called them.

“Yeah, there’s that,” Rowanski muttered, touching one of the suspended sheets.  “Plus the fact that that these are all pages from a bible.”

The back wall was covered in a collage of the type associated with psychopaths, centered between two murals that displayed considerable artistic ability.  The collage was made of headlines, clippings and magazine covers related to his crimes, profile pics from his victims’ social media and printouts of their tweets arranged in a mosaic.  The image thus produced was a mountain fortress of some kind. 

“I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s in Israel,” the least robotic of the special agents guessed, snapping a picture.

The left mural was a woman, quite beautiful and quite pale, with dark hair, big eyes, and sensuous red lips where the paint was extra thick.  That portion of the image had been slaved over.  Over the bottom lip, just at the top center where the lips parted, the corner of a headline was placed as if the bewitching woman was speaking it—a headline cut down to a single word: MURDER. 

The mural to the right looked like a bible illustration: the torso of a man with the head of a bull, its lower body merged into a burning furnace.  Within the furnace, the flames were depicted with the same thick paint as the woman’s lips and in the same painstaking detail, the highlights and lowlights in the flames punching out a thick letter M in the same vivid red.

“Exodus,” Gordon said, examining the page hanging closest to his face. “A verse is underlined.  ‘You unleash your blazing fury; it consumes’  Underlined in red.”

“This one’s Exodus too,” Rowanski said.  “Thou sendest forth thy wrath which devoured them.”

“A different translation of the same passage,” Batman said together with one of the feds, the latter going on to specify the first quote was the New Living Translation and the second, King James. 

“’Thou sentest thine ire that devoured them,’” Rowanski read from a third leaf.  “Still the same page.  Are they all different translations of that one sentence?”

“This one’s Deuteronomy,” Gordon said.  “A fire is kindled in my anger and shall burn into the lowest hell.”

“And this is Exodus again, Jewish Orthodox,” said Batman.  “Thou sentest forth Thy charon which consumed them as stubble.”

“Charon.  Well there it is,” Gordon said bleakly.  “He signs his work.  Charon… God’s wrath… We knew there wasn’t going to be a reason when we caught up with this monster but actually seeing it makes it worse.   

“Agent, analyze whatever the substance he used to underline those words.  See if it’s ink or what we’re all thinking.”

“The murals too,” the fed added, pointing to the letter M superimposed on the flames in the furnace. 

“M for murder?  Seems a little on the nose,” Rowanski said wearily. 

“I’m thinking it stands for Moloch, the demon god of the Canaanites.  He’s sometimes depicted besmeared with the blood of human sacrifice, sacrifices that were made to appease his wrath.  Seems to fit the theme.”

“Later,” Batman said, looking at the collage.  “Judging by the dates of these clippings, he adds to it every six days.  He’s coming back todayEveryone clear out, now!

 

Near the west side spur of the old Gotham Central Railroad, a deceptively small and unobtrusive door behind the Biergarten led to a large and complex living space that was recreated in miniature on a central work table.

The problem represented by an arrangement of chessmen, Ritz crackers and a cherry on Jervis’s model was not a simple one, for the etiquette of a tea party is what made it a tea party rather than just a bunch of hatted drones sitting around a pot of tea.  “Bread and butter before cake” as mater always said, though sandwiches counted as bread and butter and both were currently represented by the Ritz cracker.  Cake denoted any sweets, in this case the boysenberry tarts represented by the cherry, which was over-ripe and caused him to leave ominous red fingerprints all over his papers.  At least he hoped they were ominous; he really couldn’t decide.  If they looked like a toddler’s sticky jam fingers, then it wasn’t exactly threatening, but if they looked like the bloody marks of a recently departed killer, that was worth keeping.  Batman always threw prudent entry out the window if he thought a life was in danger, so it was best to let him think the Queen might be ready to screech “Off with its head” at any minute if it was feasible. 

Which was all neither here nor there, as Dormouse told the Caterpillar.  The point was that the stage management of a tea party was not simple.  Especially one presented for a Bat who would (hopefully) come through the north window or else the west door in which case the chute would (hopefully squared) deposit him on the target spot to line up, more or less, with the imagined landing point from the north window and (hopefully cubed) the same sightlines to take in the tea party… 

The tea party whose exact dimensions and choreography he couldn’t work out—drat!—even with the addition of a table represented by a long box of sealing wax.  It was so frustrating, he decided to go out and get some real props. 

 

As far as Batman was concerned, the GCPD and FBI surveillance teams were one team too many.  He performed his customary vanish while everyone’s attention was focused on their withdrawal from the storage unit, and he monitored the chatter without intending to involve himself again.

..::Agent Brandize, my surveillance team is moving into position now.::..

..::Copy that, standing by::..

..::Commissioner, SWAT is in position.::..

..::Roger that.::..

..::Acknowledged.::..

Didn’t intend to involve himself unless it was absolutely necessary.  He didn’t like this.  Gordon had to know the balancing act an operation of this kind required.  He had to know it meant bringing enough men to take down the target but not so many that he would sense a trap. 

..::Be advised. According to the facility staff, subject is a white male, approximately six foot, 220 pounds.::..

The FBI were inconsistent in Gotham, sometimes subtle and efficient, sometimes overplaying their hand, and even at their best, adding numbers that Gordon was not allowing for.  On top of that, he’d brought Batman into the operation—and for no reason that Bruce could assess beyond leverage with the feds.  It felt wrong. 

..::Profile also suggests extreme technical sophistication.  Awareness of traffic cameras, sightlines.::..

It felt wrong

The rooftops in this area were hopeless and Batman had taken up a position in a recess of the loading dock with a wide view. 

And he could feel them.  Gordon, SWAT, FBI, the taxi driver, the mailman, the burger and coffee outside the café.  Too many eyes.

..::Brandize, tell our guy on the roof to find another spot.  I can see him from the street.::..

Too many eyes on alert, too much tension in the air, too many people with guns, too many people

..::Say again?::..

A martial arts master could sense it.  Hell, a yellow belt could sense it.  But would an ordinary man on the street?  How far down would you have to go until they couldn’t feel how many people were scattered around this street, waiting—

..::The guy on the roof, northeast corner. The one with the binocs.::..

Northeast corner?  The Phelps Building?  Batman smashed the switch on his utility belt breaking into both networks as he sprang into motion. 

“You’re blown!  No operative would take a position there.  It’s HIM!  MOVE!”

..::We’re blown. We’re blown. All units, go hot now.::..

..::Subject is on the roof.  Repeat subject is on the roof.::..

..:: All units, be advised. We have contact, northeast corner 39th and Bedford. Repeat...::..

 

Within the first year running the Iceberg, Oswald discovered he had a soft spot for a certain type who found their way to his door who were unlike the prospective henchmen he dealt with when he worked exclusively as the Penguin.  He liked the transplants who came to Gotham with ambition, just a little naiveté, and the wherewithal to take a punch.  The ones who stayed when the city smacked around their expectations and stood their ground like proud emperor penguins, placing their weight on their heels to endure the harsh chill when others limped back to wherever the hell they came from.

That first such creature he’d designated Wren.  She was very pretty, but alas, too young for him.  Even so he’d been quite relieved when she showed up for work that one wintery night, having obviously weathered whatever crisis had her on the brink of quitting the week before.  He remembered watching her that night when Harvey condescended to share a bottle of his private reserve…

“The thing about Gotham,” he’d waxed like a philosophic drunk, mangling something he’d heard on TV as if it was his own thought “is the threshold for citizenship is quite modest.  Two years, I should say. –kwak–  If you come to Gotham and still like it after two years, you’re still having a good time and haven’t been totally ground down, then you’re in–kwak.

Harvey downed a shot and took out his coin, flipped, and began talking with that opening statements air that meant he was going to be a while:

“We appreciate the nod to our theme,” he said as Oswald topped off his glass.  “Two years is an adequate time, we agree (as you knew we would), but we do feel some second criteria must be met.  There are aspects of Gotham life that invisibly link its residents—caped, rogue and civilian—and separate them from outsiders—caped, rogue and civilian.  Breakfast for instance.  Whether you have it at 6 am or noon, any real Gothamite, anyone worthy of that title, has found a particular place—or two—that is their spot.  Whether it’s a bacon-egg-and-cheese, the Gotham Post and a cigarette at the corner bodega or nova eggs with the Times at Barney Greengrass, it is their spot, they discovered it, and it belongs to them.  That is where the Gotham day begins.”

Barney Greengrass being the city’s temple of smoked fish, the words had sizzled through Oswald’s buzz and seared themselves into his soul…  Quite right –kwak– eggs with sturgeon –kwak– eggs with salmon –kwak– eggs with sable …But he never realized the Gotham slant had made an impression, he was thinking only of that menu: eggs with whitefish–kwak!  Yet today, all these years later, he was strangely proud of having found Catskill Grocery since his injured cassowaries brought him to Brooklyn, and he’d come to feel, indeed, just as Harvey said, that this is where the Gotham Day began. 

Down the street, Doctor Maiya had a clinic in a boarded up Catholic School, and she paid the Iceberg a nice referral for all the banged up crooks sent her way.  Her business now might be gunshot wounds, stabbings, and the occasional slice from a batarang, but Maiya had been a veterinarian before all the Bat-contusions and fractured ribs.  That was her training.  It seemed to Oswald she should be able to treat his cassowaries as well any anyone, and he was reasonably sure a more legit operation wouldn’t make bones heal any faster.  So every third day he hopped on a train and ventured into this once foreign neighborhood to check on Kiwi and Wop-wop, monitor their progress and adjust his timeline for his revenge on the Bat who broke them—KWAK!

By the end of the first week he’d found Catskill, with the counter inside and this pleasant outdoor courtyard in the back.  Before 10 am, there was fresh pastry and coffee brewed with Brooklyn’s Catskill Mountain water.  After 10, a fuller menu featured breakfast gnocchi, lemon ricotta pancakes and pumpernickel-crusted quiche—kwak!—which started his wheels turning.

Only the vilest of cynics would doubt the romance in Oswald’s soul simply because he acknowledged the commercial possibilities.  There were over seven billion people on the planet for the simple reason that boys like girls.  It took a peculiar brand of stupidity to ignore that kind of math, one of which Oswald was happily incapable—particularly when the process by which boys and girls made those seven billion people was colloquially referred to as the birds and the bees

That was his recurring thought as he sat in this unexpectedly civilized corner of Brooklyn week after week, sipping coffee that somehow made good on the management’s claims of superiority based on the mineral content of their tap water.  It was a fine day to be a romantic when it began, before the city’s collective obsession with a mystery killer: Selina married off in an act of conspicuous consumption that filled the heart with joy and his cassowaries on the mend after their spirited defense of his South Side warehouse. 

The day after that victory, once his valiant cassowaries were entrusted to the ministrations of Doctor Maiya, he’d visited the Robinson Park zoo, for a win like that demanded penguins, live and in the feathers!  He hadn’t realized how long it had been until he saw the fuzzy chicks of his previous visit had molted into their adult plumage.

His cheer then vanished when, coming out of the Penguin House, he spotted Victor on his way to Polar Bear Cove.  He’d waddled as quickly as he could behind a tree, hoping he wasn’t seen.  The last time the two men had run into each other this way, Victor had been so miserably fatalist about Selina’s engagement to Bruce Wayne.  The encounter had soured his day and the mere memory nearly did so again, sparking a realization about the Iceberg that was more depressing than all of Victor’s pronouncements about marriage and death:

Since the end of the Rogue War, business was booming—except for the couples.  Before the war, the delightful Piculet sisters had come to him as a gift from the Feathered Fates.  Tawny the aspiring chef and Pitta the lounge singer had brought a phenomenal rise in tourist business: out of town, bridge and tunnel, and uptown gawkers.  They came first for the thrill of dining among Rogues, but they returned in pairs for Tawny’s truffle mac n’ cheese and they lingered over round after round of expensive liqueurs, rapt by Pitta’s romantic warbling.

Oswald had huffed for a block rather than hailing a cab, the word “reparations”—KWAK!—echoing in his thoughts.  How he should have demanded reparations for that ruffian Falcone shooting up the place, how the sum paid to replace the gold leaf did not begin to compensate for the patronage and the prestige those talented Piculets had brought to the ‘Berg. 

In the weeks since, as a killer stalked Gotham, Oswald’s anger mingled with those other musings on romance and greed.  A Love Birds initiative could be devised to restore that part of the Iceberg’s business.  He doubted any inducement would get the sisters to return, but there were other chefs and lounge singers in the world, even if they weren’t named for birds.  The very menu before him – lemon ricotta pancakes with caramelized apple, maple mascarpone, candied pecans and maple syrup; pumpernickle-crust quiche with house cured salmon, kale & crème fraiche – a new chef who could dream up gourmet morsels like Tawny’s mac n’ cheese, outdoor seating in a romantic courtyard, and some way to package it with the love birds theme. 

Of course it would mean an investment, and he had sunk quite enough of his own money into the business this month—the real business, the hidden-beneath-the-surface business that produced a return the tip of the iceberg would never match.  Besides, it was Falcone’s fault, and the Wrath of the Penguin demanded Falcone pay, somehow.  The man himself was out of reach, unfortunately, but his organization remained.  There were remnants of an Italian mob in Gotham, even if it wasn’t what it had been, and there were remnants of another kind.  Falcone had enormous legal bills, and there is always flotsam when a great fortune is liquidated…   which brought him to a third item of business in what was shaping up to be a very busy day.

Again he sipped, his eyes falling on a waiter circulating with a coffee pot.  There was one other arrangement he should make, for the future.

“Rory,” he called as if he were the proprietor rather than a semi-regular customer, and he broke into a greedy smile at the boy’s prompt response.

“More coffee?” Rory asked, the pot in one hand poised over the half-filled cup, milk pitcher in the other resting on a saucer. 

“Freshly brewed?” Oswald asked archly, and Rory nodded.

“Just a heater, then sit,” Oswald replied, indicating the space across from him and forestalling the objection with “Oh don’t worry about the unscheduled break; you won’t be needing this job anymore… You know who I am?”

“Order 41,” Rory said, indicating the plastic triangle that told the staff where to bring his quiche.

“Don’t be coy.  You’ve known who I am since my second or third visit.  You make it your business to be the one that brings out my order, you remember extra salmon with the quiche, don’t have to tell you twice.  Real half-and-half, not some faux nut-flavored milk, and the little plate under the cream pitcher is an especially nice touch.  Sit.”

The tone was that of a theme rogue who could command the obedience of a bank manager, five tellers and armed guard with an umbrella.  Rory sat.

“This area has changed, kwak.  Gentrified now, but ascended plebs don’t tip for breakfast, now do they?  You’ll do much better working for me.  Personal assistant, kwak, and once I’m through with you for the day, you can hang around the ‘Berg’ if you want, earn some real tips.  Or whatever, kwak.”

Rory hesitated, and Oswald could read his thoughts: everyone knew the kind of business the Iceberg patrons were in.  Did Oswald mean literally waiting tables for the tips or did he mean making real money in the back room?  The gambling, Talon’s phone cards, whatever fell off the truck behind Crow’s garage?  The truth was Oswald didn’t care, but he wasn’t going to specify.  ‘Or whatever, kwak.’ was clear enough to anyone worth his time.  If Rory couldn’t work it out, there was no point in recruiting him.

And there it was, the greedy gleam. 

Oswald had a new assistant.  Now what to call him?  Auk perhaps, or Laridae?  He didn’t really look like a Laridae.  Grebes maybe?  Sandpiper?  Well, there was time to work it out.

 

MANHUNT.  It seemed a word from another era, before entire news cycles ran their course in the time it took to microwave popcorn.  Before a phalanx of dedicated news channels could string pundits together to dissect detail of a chosen story 24 hours a day, and before that coverage could follow viewers in their pockets rather than require communal groupings around a television.

But MANHUNT was the word - in extra bold, extra fat type  - emblazoned above the news crawls, except for GCN where it was STATEWIDE MANHUNT in a narrow font, italicized and outlined in yellow to compensate for the loss in typeface gravitas.

The scene outside the 28th Precinct lived up to the drama promised by the word: sirens blazed over indistinct radio chatter.  Uniforms ran with rifles and loaded them into the trunks of squad cars while blue and red lights flashed overhead.  A black-and-white would speed off followed by an unmarked Crown Victoria and a half-dozen journalists toting all sizes of cameras, their press lanyards flapping wildly as they raced to logoed vans sporting satellites on their roofs.  Then the vans sped off as well as the wail of sirens doubled and was joined by the roaring flutter of a helicopter.

 

After visiting his cassowaries and getting Maiya’s assurance that they were fully healed and ready for a rematch with Batman, Oswald withdrew a folded green flyer from his pocket, snatched from the community bulletin board on an earlier visit to Catskill.  He double-checked the address and headed to his final errand in Brooklyn.  He crossed Prospect Park under a canopy of oaks and maples, passed a row of pre-war brownstones (that had quadrupled in value since the time he considered using one as a hideout—kwak!) and finally reached the Botanical Gardens where the Lily Pool Terrace, Magnolia Plaza and Shakespeare Garden had been temporarily joined by a mysterious pop-up shop.  For two weeks, Orchis was set up beside the Water Garden, offering a variety of “living floral” personal products from lilac hand cream to honeysuckle bar soap.  Oswald looked uneasily at the orchids hanging down as he entered the strange enclave, but while they resembled the vine curtain around Ivy’s booth at the Iceberg, they didn’t seem animated the way her plants did when their mistress was in residence. 

At the center of the shop was a strange configuration of metal rods clamped together like a steampunk art project, with coils of flowering vines clustered around clear glass balls, like oversized lightbulbs with two or three glass tubes attached.  Inside each ball was a flower.

“Each bloom is coaxed into one a them glass balls,” a familiar voice squeaked.  “So we get the scent without killing ‘em.  We capture the, whatcha call it, ‘molecular scent signature’ that’s used to develop the fragrance, see?”  She opened one of the tubes and extracted a needle-like probe from the flower, and held it out for a patron to smell.  “We got all kinds a soaps and moisturizers and stuff made with the fragrance, plus the usual eau de parfume and stuff, natch.” 

While Harley babbled happily, Oswald heard a more somber version of the sales pitch in an equally familiar voice.  It was coming from behind a curtain of vines that seemed to demark the tiny shop’s back room, and he edged closer to make out the words “Each flower is gently coaxed into a round glass bauble to capture the bloom’s molecular scent signature, which is directly used to develop the fragrance.  It was of course a revelation to the perfumer (such an arrogant man, French of course) that such diversity could be revealed once you let the precious blossoms live.  Dead, a rose is a rose and he consider the scent ‘basic.’  But in a garden like this, there are over two-hundred variations that emerge with the proper care.  He was here for hours trying to pick one.  ‘They’re all so different.’  One rose has notes of star anise and leather, another that’s identical to the eye has the scent of dried apricot…” she laughed musically.  “The poor fool would still be here if I hadn’t intervened.”

Oswald returned to the cheerier front of the store, and Harley squealed when she saw him.  His shrewd eyes noted more suspicion in her manner than surprise, which was curious but useful.  He pointed discreetly to the door, then gestured with the map they’d given him at the entrance.  He flashed one finger, then two, and left.  A few minutes later, Harley joined him at the Bonsai Pavilion designated 12 on the map. 

“Hiya, Ozzy.  What’s new?” She tilted her head at a guileless cute-puppy angle, and Oswald’s suspicions doubled.

“You, for one thing,” he said smoothly.  “We haven’t seen you at the Iceberg in some time.  You or Pamela, not since you came to purchase an alibi for Catty’s girl’s night.”

“Oh!  Yeah!  That!” Harley exclaimed with excessive breath on each word. 

Relief? Oswald though; not the reaction he was expecting.  He went on.

“I certainly hope you and Pamela aren’t avoiding us.  True, the Friday night crowd is a little more spirited these days, as well as the Thursday night.  And the Wednesday.  Henchmen are a bit nervy, and the groupies seem to have formed some kind of underground workshop ‘theming’ tasers and pepper spray.  It’s quite distasteful—kwak!  Some people are not cut out for creative expression in the Rogue line and oughtn’t to try it.  Happy hour can be a bit volatile now—but what’s that to the likes of Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, eh?!”

“I dunno, Ozzy, Red just hasn’t been in the mood ta go out much.”

“I’ve had this on my desk for weeks, waiting to give it to you when you came in.  But you never did,” he pronounced severely, handing over a magazine called Audubon Monthly with a close-up of a magnificent creature on the cover, its dark blue/nearly black plumage broken up by tufts of red. 

“It is a Harlequin Duck,” Oswald explained.  “The article makes an appeal, doomed I fear, to change its name to a Harley Quinn duck.  While the campaign is not likely to receive support in bird-watching circles, the article is quite complimentary.  I thought you might enjoy it.”

“Wow, nice, thanks Ozzy,” Harley said, failing to notice that the magazine was too old to be a recent discovery.

“As I said, I had been planning to give it to you when you next came to the Iceberg, but you haven’t.”

“Oh well, you know how it is—” Harley started to say when Oswald spoke over her.

“Or perhaps I should say, you never came to see me on your many visits since that night, when you came by the Iceberg before we were open for business.  Gina allowed you to copy her key, I believe, the stupid girl.  $400 to let you copy a key rather than letting you in herself and charging fifty to a hundred on each occasion.”

“Now Ozzy, look—”

“Do not think of compounding the offense by lying to me, Harley.  I am very fond of you, but I was robbing banks with umbrellas before it occurred to you to get yourself employed at Arkham with fraudulently obtained credentials.  I will not tolerate your nonsense.  Kindly tell me for what purpose you have been sneaking into my club.”

Harley let out an angry puff.  She obviously didn’t like his tone, but she was cornered and she knew it.

“Look, if I tell you, you’ve got to promise not to tell Red.”

“I thought as much,” Oswald preened.  “This has something to do with the curtain of vines and greenery around her booth?”

“Well if you knew that much—” Harley began.

“It seemed to be dying and now it’s not.”

“—why didn’t you say something?”

“I wanted to know if you would tell me the truth.  And that’s much easier to determine if you don’t know how much I know, obviously, kwak.  Now, what precisely is going on?”

“Nuthin’… much.  Red is just havin’ some trouble maintaining the plants long distance, I guess.  It’s like the plant version of woman troubles.  But if people found out, people y’know, she got on the wrong side of, like Jonathan and Matt and Puddin’ and Roxy and Maxie Zeus and Croc and those Demons, and KGBeast, Double Dare, King Snake—”

“Indeed,” Oswald said to move things along.

“They might take it as weakness and come after her,” Harley concluded.  “So I been watering them an’ stuff.  You’re not going to tell, are you, Ozzy?”

“Ordinarily, I would blackmail you both,” he said haughtily.  “Six months at least, as punishment.”  He maintained the mock-sterness for a beat, then said “But” and paused again for effect.  “You both did buy an alibi package on very generous terms, and as you know that obligates all of the Iceberg staff, myself included, to keep your secret in the face of the severest Bat-interrogation.  And absolutely no one came asking about your whereabouts that night.  No one at all, not even ordinary police.  So I figure you’re owed one.”  He gave a sly smile that said he intended to keep her secret all along, and she gushed her thanks. 

“I will ask a favor,” he said then.  “A favor I’m quite sure you’ll enjoy, being the most, shall we say, romantically-minded of the Iceberg’s top-tier clientele…”   He explained about the Love Birds package, his desire to convert the smoker’s alley into an enclosed courtyard, and any other input she wanted to offer to help him appeal to couples.

 

Jervis zig-zagged his way around the ping pong tables, pretzel and sausage vendors of the Biergarten under the High Line, burdened with shopping bags and boxes.  He had gone to two stores specializing in miniature furniture for doll houses.  Dainty & Co. in Gramercy was run by a rude couple who had the television on (with the volume higher than it had to be unless one of them was hard of hearing) and could barely be pried away from it to wait on him.  It was Channel 13, local news, something about the Charah Killer and the string of murders beginning with Alan Seevers on Express Platform 7 at Gotham Central Terminus.  News about non-theme crimes was always such a dreary affair, and Jervis tried to ignore the distraction and shop. 

The police had a suspect apparently, called Gus Robert Payne, and the old man remarked how “all these psychos” had three names.  Paul John Knowles, John Wayne Gacy, Victor Gellert Zsasz…  It was nonsense, and NOT the tasty kind of nonsense that went down like a rich teacake.  It was the other nonsense that didn’t hold up to the slightest bit of critical thought, but which they stuck to because it gave them something to say.  Jervis made a note to return and hat the couple for the roles of Queen of Hearts and bumbling second footman when the time came.  Then he left and headed uptown to Miniature Mercantile.

The store was such a delight, Jervis forgot his troubles for an hour and left with a bag of adorable miniatures, having spent much more than he intended but knowing it was worth every penny.  His imagination was ablaze with possibilities, and he returned to his lair invigorated and— oh dear.

“Oswald,” he said cautiously, greeting the fellow Rogue who was eying the beer taps with suspicion.  A low, growling “kwaaaak” appeared to sum up Oswald’s distaste for the spectacle: a sign inviting the beer-drinking public to simply walk up to a tap and pour their own.

“I hear whispers that Batman’s first run-in with your cassowaries went the way of the White Queen’s seashell,” Jervis said discreetly.  “I hope you’re not here to register a complaint.  I warned you my gear is not meant for a skull of that size, and there was no telling how that dinosaur crest was going to complicate things.  Nevertheless, as the March Hare told the Dormouse, ‘we do not do refunds.’”

Oswald assured Jervis that he hadn’t come for a refund—though he was curious how Jervis heard about the incident.  As usual, Jervis Tetch was tightlipped about his sources but eager to talk about anything else.  While he kept up a stream of gossipy nonsense, he ushered Oswald to a door marked with a stylized H denoting an entrance to the High Line, though it had been worn, sunbleached and graffiti’d to resemble a runic hat.

Through the appropriately incongruous door they came to a predictably narrow passage—where Jervis said he planned to install black and white squares of linoleum for a more Wonderland-appropriate floor that would enhance the optical illusion that they were traveling down and getting smaller—to finally reach the lair itself.  Inside, Oswald was –kwak– “invited” to witness the transformation of the working model tea party/Bat-trap as Jervis installed all of his frabjous new purchases from the Miniature Mercantile, the dollhouse store…  

Well.  It was the price you paid when you visited Jervis.  Oswald knew that, though that word invited implied a choice you never felt you had, even without a hat.  When you met Jervis on his turf rather than yours, there was some sort of tea, some sort of fruit tart and you watched him work.  Last time it was theta waves with a pinch of 5 Hz and pastry with gooseberry jam.  Today it was blackberry macarons (full size), and dainty monogrammed doll house plates on dainty miniature chargers, miniature spoons on miniature napkins, and a frightful account of the serial killer that had half the city in a twist.  The killer who was destroying Oswald’s Happy Hour night by night, had henchmen admiring Batman groupies theming tasers.  In short—kwak—it was more pertinent than Jervis’s usual workshop blather:

“They found one of those serial killer shrines, don’t you know, with trophies.  ‘Cray-cray’ as the March Hare told the Caterpillar.  Oh, now look at these darling little gift bags.  I don’t really need them, but they’re so dainty and sweet, I couldn’t resist.  I thought they could go on the table like party favors, but only behind the women’s place settings, none for the men, so the table doesn’t look too cluttered…”

“Very nice,” Oswald said crisply.  “But um, ‘one of those serial killer shrines’?”

“Oh didn’t I tell you?  The first store I went to, the couple was glued to the TV and the news was going on and on like they do when they’re just killing time waiting for something to happen.  The Blunders-in-Blue found a storage unit with this cray-cray shrine and they staked it out, but the killer got away.  Or possibly something at the storage unit pointed them to his house, and that’s what they staked out, and he got away.  I’m not sure, you see at that point, I thought the best I could do for the tea set was Royal Albert Old Country Roses.  It’s not too busy and the handles are so delicate.  But there are only two cups and I needed at least six because as you see, Batman could come in through the skylight, the north window or the door, and it has to read from all the sightlines, two cups just isn’t enough to get the job done…  Well you don’t care about that, as the unicorn told the Duchess, but I was occupied with the teacups and really didn’t get the details.  But wherever the stakeout was, the killer got away.  And I think he has three names.  Anyway, there’s a spectacular manhunt going on as we speak.”

“No!” Oswald exclaimed falling into full gossip mode. 

Twenty minutes later, he left with the information he came for: the location of the Riddler’s current hideout as well as Jervis’s gut reaction to Love Bird packages.  His Alices were few and far between, but there were always a few groupies hanging out hoping to become a White Rabbit.

 

His lucky “Malay Penguin” Umbrella removed from its display case for the occasion, Oswald rapped the handle formally against the buzzer at the Archie Dems Recording Studio, and was pleased when Doris herself opened the door.  That would save time.

“Archimedes?” he asked, referring to the Archie Dems sign, and she nodded.

“Come on in, Mr. Cobblepot.”

“Today, I would be very pleased if you called me ‘Penguin,’” he said, placing both hands on hers in a show of sincerity as she reached to take his umbrella.

“Then I guess you can call me ‘Game Theory,’” she said sportingly.

“Oswald, to what do we owe the pleasure,” Nigma said, glaring pointedly at Oswald’s hands on Doris’s hand on the umbrella. 

“Kwak!” he answered sharply.  “Not sure what the etiquette is these days.  Time was, it would have been quite an offense to make an offer to a henchwench without asking first if I might make use of her services.  But I gather Game Theory is not a wench but more of an independent contractor—kwak.”

“Partner,” Eddie said with emphasis.

“Yes, kwak, partner, quite,” Oswald echoed quickly and directed the rest of his statement to Doris.  “So I imagine it’s a greater faux pas if I brought this to him before you.”

Doris and Eddie exchanged looks.

“Well, since you found us together, it’s a motion pot,” Eddie said, while Doris mouthed ‘moot point’ in case Oswald didn’t get it.  “Come in.  We were watching the chase, have you seen it?”

“The um, Charah chap,” Oswald said hesitantly. 

“His name is Gus Robert Payne,” Eddie said.

“Three names,” Oswald noted.  “I heard something from Jervis, but it was, eh, hatterized.  Botched stakeout, I take it?”

“That was only Act I,” Eddie laughed.  “What exactly happened is murky, but it sounds like, crazy or not, this guy is savvy enough to get where he’s going by rooftop.  On his way to his creepy psycho killer holy of holies, he ran into the sniper SWAT had perched to keep an eye on the door.  Went downhill from there: he’s gone before the cops know they’re busted, but they have a lead on where he lives, so they go rolling into the Dixon Complex like it’s a war movie.  I mean tanks and troop transports and a line of squad cars, starts a roaring panic, the South Side’s on fire—and again, Payne gets away.  Well almost.  He’s in a red SUV heading for the interstate, a dozen police cars and helicopters following him.  O.J. for a new generation.”

Oswald chuckled and Eddie declared he “almost felt sorry for Gordon,” which made Oswald squawk.

Five minutes later, Oswald found himself in a comfortable enough chair, though it was certainly a brighter green than it had to be, with a glass of iced tea sitting on a giant Rubik’s Cube end table.  Doris sat across from him with an improbably large jig saw puzzle between them.

“London Bridge?” he asked as Eddie picked up a piece of sky.

“Bat trap,” Eddie replied, hurling the puzzle piece like a ninja star to stick into the back wall and burst into a puff of yellowish gas.  “Whatever you do, don’t touch any piece that might be a reflection in the water,” he warned as he left them alone.

Oswald watched him go, marveling how anyone kept a roof over their heads with such a theme.  Really, birds were the only way to go. 

He briefly explained why he’d come: 

“So, I was hoping I might make use of your thieving expertise.  You might help me identify –kwak– and perhaps ultimately obtain some items of value connected to Carmine Falcone.  Ideally something of a –kwak– feathered nature.  A ten percent finder’s fee is customary for the former, I believe.  Naturally if you were to accompany me on the actual heist and lend your –kwak– acrobatic and alarm-silencing skills, I would be prepared to offer…” he looked at her piercingly “a seventy-thirty split.”

Doris bit her lip.  It would be her first commissioned theft for a figure of Penguin’s stature—that was nothing to sneeze at. 

“Fifty-fifty,” she said. 

“Out of the question, I would be fencing the item as well as participating in the theft, in person, as the senior rogue.”

“Fair enough, sixty-forty, final offer,” she said.

“My dear young woman, a newcomer like yourself should be paying me to appear at your crime scene.  I am the Penguin!  Just think if Batman were to surprise us.”

“He’ll ask where Riddler is,” Doris said flatly, and Oswald sniffed.

It was true Game Theory had no reason to be star struck the way Magpie or Roxy would have been.  She was already partnered with an A-lister…

“Very well,” he said.  “Sixty-five/thirty-five, but you must never tell a soul, not even Edward.  If the others I fence for were to hear of these terms, I would be ruined.  And the cat-and-bird jokes from Selina, I shudder to think, kwak!”

“Agreed, but only if it can wait a few weeks.  The research you’re talking about will take time, and I’m sort of in the middle of something.”

Oswald appeared to think about it, emitting a strange birdlike “Awwwk” sound that ended “ceptable.” Then he continued eagerly, “I have other operations that will benefit from my personal attention while I wait for your schedule to –kwak– open up.  These thefts are to be… call it ‘finance’ for a new project, all in the planning stages, no timetable, but it does bring me to the other reason I’ve come.  There is another aspect of the project I thought you might help with.  You and Edward –kwak– are the most conspicuously happy couple among my regulars, the Iceberg Love Birds, as it were.  I would like your input...”

 

..::We should clarify the L.E.X. Bearcat is a non-military armored personnel carrier for law enforcement, not a ‘tank’ as was stated earlier::.. the television droned.  The newscaster was killing time as updates on the slow-speed chase hit a lull.  The main screen offered a helicopter view of the harbor and interstate near the R.H. Kane bridge, with a station bug reading SKY 8 LIVE in the corner, and a box above proclaiming GCN SPECIAL REPORT courtesy of KRTV.   A corner box ran footage from earlier in the day, with a SWAT team in formation alongside a parade of squad cars and police vans, storming through the gate of a housing project. 

 ..::Early reports from the Dixon Complex where the GCPD closed in on a then-unnamed suspect in the Charah Killings were somewhat alarmist.  Residents described an “overwhelming force” and characterized police as an occupying army “banging on doors, busting down doors, and pulling people out their apartments.”  These reports have since been debunked, but only after GCN reporter Janine Stefhaus had put several accounts on the air, sparking panic and riots in the area.  One fire is still burning on the South Side, seven injuries reported, and for a time there were additional reports of an ambulance unable to move through the chaos… We’re now happy to report that situation is resolved.  Gotham Presbyterian reports four—not seven but four persons injured in the riots have been admitted. They are described as having modest to serious injuries though “none are life threatening.”  We repeat, all of those injured in the Dixon Complex riot have made it to the nearest hospital and none are in critical condition…  Mayor Capek is expected to hold a press conference at 4 p.m. and Commissioner Gordon has released a statement calling for calm… 

..::Traffic has been cleared from Fourth Avenue to the R.H. Kane Bridge as police engage in a prolonged pursuit unlike anything seen since the slow-speed Bronco chase of O.J. Simpson in 1994.  That was in Los Angeles of course; nothing like this has ever happened in Gotham…  The suspect, now identified as Gus Robert Payne somehow escaped the police dragnet at the Dixon Complex earlier today and is allegedly in the red SUV that’s been intermittently visible.  The Channel 8 helicopter has been struggling to keep it in view.  Ironically, the vehicle is a Ford Escape, and I understand a number of memes are already circulating on social media…::..

“Are you watching?” Oswald said, hurrying to the bar and relieved to find Sly and Talon had made it through the throng of redirected traffic and had the TV over the bar tuned in to the hypnotic car chase.  “I was cursed with a Lyft driver who had an absurd reverence for orange cones.  Simply refused to eschew the road blocks.  Miserable reception.  I have had only spotty audio for the last twelve minutes.”

“Riot’s done,” Talon reported.  “The Bat-plane sighting was a bust, but uh…” he pulled Oswald away from Sly and continued with a quiet urgency: “Raven and Dove called in, Finch and Lark said they’d be late because of the traffic situation, and the kitchen’s gonna be light.  Only one legit green card back there; nobody’s going to risk working their way through the checkpoints.”

Oswald took it philosophically: however light the staff, the chance of there being customers to wait on was equally thin if the situation didn’t resolve soon. 

“Well it’s not just that,” Talon whispered.  “The extra guys I hired for security since everything got crazy, they want another three hundred each, per night.”

“Good to know you’re hiring muscle with the brains to feather their nest,” Oswald grinned.  “Terminate them.”

“But—”

“Their services are no longer required.”

“Sir?”

“Talon, why do you think there was such an overwhelming show of force at Dixon this morning?  The police are considerably more put out than you or I by the city’s change in mood.  They tried to end it capturing this fool in a way that sent a message—kwak—made a point—kwak!  And they failed.  In escaping, this Payne gave them quite a black eye, and Gordon can’t allow that to stick.  That’s why there hasn’t been a Batmobile or a Bat-plane anywhere near this.  The GCPD needs to save face, they have to do it themselves, and they’re going to do it tonight no matter what.  By tomorrow morning, Payne will be in custody, Gordon will get his headlines and everything will go back to normal.  I’ll have no need for extra muscle.  But keep their names on file.  An extra three hundred a piece—kwak—that’s very good—kwak.  Balls—kwak.  That’s what I like to see.”

 

In the Pearl apartment, the video screen ran GCN’s coverage of the slow-speed chase, though Selina ignored it.  In her lap, she had an article from the Art Newspaper about a painting in the Wellington Collection brought to London by the duke himself in 1813 after the Battle of Vitoria in Spain.  “Erroneously” attributed to an obscure northern Italian artist, it was—surprise-surprise—recently discovered to be a Titian.  She quickly checked her notes on the table and… Yep, there it was.  On the Byron/Shelley list. 

Eppur si muove,” she whispered, imagining her fingernail was a claw and tracing a pattern of cat’s whiskers around the name.

Then she felt Bruce’s hands on her shoulder as he stood behind her.

“I’ve been benched,” he announced.  “Gordon doesn’t want me out there tonight.  In his mind, everything is riding on the GCPD being the ones to take Payne in, on camera.”

“He’s told you to back off before,” Selina noted.  “Do you ever listen?”

“Sometimes.  Tonight I’m going to.  He thinks it’s important the city see his men putting down the panic and restoring order.”

“He might have thought of that before he started a riot in Dixon.  This chase isn’t the only thing that looks like L.A. in the ‘90s.”

“I’m still not sure what happened at Dixon,” Bruce said, displacing an art book to make room on the sofa beside her.  “Or at the storage center before that.  I was there and I’m not sure what happened beyond ‘somebody blundered’.”

“Well I wasn’t there but I can hazard a guess,” Selina said. “Too many pricks.  Too many agencies, too many egos, too many guns, too many eyeballs and twitchy trigger fingers.”

“Maybe,” Bruce grunted, distrusting the easy answer but unable to refute it. 

“Between the two of us, we’ve had, what, a dozen task forces dedicated to bringing us in over the years?  Usually with some Ahab at the helm with a dream of making everything right again.  If she can get a collar around Catwoman’s neck—or if he’s the one who finally puts a stop to that Bat vigilante—then Daddy will love him as much as his brother, it won’t matter that she didn’t get into UVA.  She’ll get that promotion, his kid will be able to hit a fast ball, the Great Barrier Reef will recover, the ozone layer will grow back, and herds of wild unicorn will roam the plains as they did in days of old.  And how has it always ended?  Not with either of us on a government issue choke chain, that’s for sure.  Invariably the overwrought blowhards get in each other’s way, trip over their egos, trip over their own feet, or shoot themselves in the head.”

“You know Gordon’s not like that.  He’s never cared about a perp walk and he can pack as much sarcasm behind the word ‘optics’ as you do with ‘motion sensors.’”

She smiled.

“So you’re taking the night off?”

“I’ve already told Barbara.  Dick is going to Bludhaven, of course.  Cassie’s going with him, and Tim is studying for a chemistry final.  Besides, you’ve been stuck on the sidelines since the wedding, the least I can do is accept one night without grousing.”

She tilted her head.  “That’s sweet.  You want in on my Regency art ring?  These are seriously bad dudes.  I would be completely on your side in 19th Century London; these are criminals who should be punched.”

“So close,” Bruce said with a lip-twitch.  “Try ‘arrested.’  ‘Jailed.’  Punching is a means to an end, that end being arrested and jailed.”

“Bruce, I believe this guy,” she pointed, “burned Titian’s Rape of Europa in the fireplace at Carlton House.  I want to sharpen my claws on his face, break his clavicle, and then hand him over to you and watch you tenderize him with your fists all the way to the Tower, where he gets the smelly damp room without a window.  Take the win: Laws shouldn’t be broken, fīat jūstitia ruat cælum.

Wow,” Bruce graveled while Psychobat squelched the urge for a goal celebration in the crimefighter’s instinct that it must be a trap.  “He really burned a Titian?”

“I can’t prove it in court, but I think so.  Yeah.”

“You can tell me about it later,” he said, kissing her cheek and then grinning like his teenage self plotting a boyish escapade behind Alfred’s back.  “Tonight I thought Tommy might take Colette out.  I know a place that might be fun.”

“Who are you?” Selina asked.

“The husband of Selina Kyle Wayne,” he said sincerely.  “It turns out, I’m allowed to have fun.  On my honeymoon, with an unexpected night off and the city’s nightmare coming to an end in the next half-hour,” he added, pointing to the vid screen, “we are allowed to have fun.  Get your things.”

 

Tommy Pearl got out of the cab first, having given the driver triple the usual tip for a ride of that length, along with a wink to thank him for his silence.  He then helped his blindfolded date from the cab, positioned her just so facing what Google had called “a happening spot for local craft beer, wine and cocktails.”  As the cab drove off, he began narrating like a true Gotham transplant excited to be introducing a part of the city he just discovered:

“Once the Great Melting Pot,” he began dramatically.

“No,” Colette said softly.

“Then drug supermarket and cocaine capital of the North East.”

“…”

“And finally,” he said whipping off the blindfold, “Hipster Apocalypse.  The East End.”

Colette looked at the bar “happening spot” in front of her, called The Belfry, and the sign reflected in its door for an equally hip establishment behind her, called Fat Cat.  She turned to Tommy with dazed and fascinated horror.

“Why?” she whispered.

“Because we can,” he said simply.  “Colette has no connection to this part of town, and as I remember, Gina O’Malley took a perverse pleasure including the neighborhood in her cons.  So why not?”

“The words ‘Hipster Apocalypse’ for a start,” she laughed, but it was a laugh that said she was willing to go along with his crazy adventure.  Then she whispered “I taught you too well.  The only other person who ever managed to get me down here ‘for fun,’ and on such screwy reasoning, was Eddie.”

“I did not need to know that,” Tommy murmured.  “I’m supposed to think like a cat burglar, not a rogue.”

“Then forget I said it,” Colette soothed, sliding her arm through his as they walked.  “I’ve seen how you date,” she gestured to The Belfry before elaborating: “opera house roof, picnic basket, quirky romantic.  I’ve had the playboy treatment: d’Annunzio’s, red carpets and early exits, leave the Porsche double-parked near the after party, Page Six tells the world you were there all night.  And I’ve seen the real you.  When you want to impress: dinner for two in the garden, Alfred pouring a Chambertin ’94...  And the real you relaxed: sesame noodles at my place, no wine since we’re both going out later.  I’ve even seen how Matches shows a girl a good time: oysters and Guinness at an authentic Hell’s Kitchen Westies’ pub and then watch him gamble at his new favorite poker room.”  Her eyes shown with admiration as she finished, “Tommy is something new.  So, you’re driving.”

“Down that way,” he said, pointing, “there is a ‘Meow Parlor,’ café with by-the-hour petting of its resident cats, sandwiches and wi-fi.  I figured that’s probably too on-the-nose.”

“Much like the Belfry,” she agreed.  “You weren’t kidding about the hipster apocalypse.”

“I think they also sell shirts,” he added.

“The Belfry or the Meow Parlor?”

“Yes.”

Wow, she mouthed to herself.  Tommy cleared his throat. 

“But ‘cattiness’ is what tonight’s outing is about.  Given the history, the slurs on Catwoman’s good name this neighborhood has been a part of, I thought you would appreciate what it would do to the people who spun those original stories to know that planning tonight’s outing, I consulted the blog of a raconteur-author-lawyer-provocateur-hip-hop aficionado-restauranteur, and there I found The. Quintessential. Expression. of that old neighborhood’s absolute, no coming back from this ever, demise…”  They came to a stop at a storefront as Tommy announced “The trendy Asian sandwich shop.”

BAODOWN, the sign read, the two words merged into one but distinguished by contrasting colors and a shamelessly chic bauhaus font. 

“Experts confirm that a gentrified slum has reached the point of no return when a Taiwanese or Korean sandwich shop appears with offerings that take two minutes to describe (but probably include pork belly, peanuts and cilantro) and include a protein that takes more than two hours to prepare.  In this case, the pork is braised for five hours—served with house relish, crushed peanuts, and Taiwanese red sugar—and the chicken is brined for six hours in a Taiwanese five-spice brine, then fried in sweet potato starch, seasoned with red pepper powder, cilantro, and again, Taiwanese red sugar.”

Colette giggled.

“I think that sentence would cause physical pain to the authors of those old Post articles and their trashy East End crimefighter.”

“Plus we get to actually eat the sandwiches,” Tommy pointed out.  “They sound pretty good.”

“You are all kinds of strange, Thomas Pearl,” she said admiringly, and they went inside.

The deep, narrow shop had a window in the back, and a television was audible from the kitchen as they stood studying the menu.  The kid taking their order was happy to supply an up-to-the-minute update.  He was of the old neighborhood clearly, with an East End-that-was view of cops chasing criminals, even if the criminal was Gus Robert Payne, the Charah Killer:

“So the Ford Escape made it all the way to the seaport, hit those old cobblestone streets and OW! it was all over but the crying.  Maybe dude thought he could make it to the bridge, I dunno.  There’s a parking lot under there used to be good for transfers and gun buys.  Maybe he thought there’d be some brothers around to run interference.  But the Bat cleared that shit out years ago.  There was jus’ no one there.  Cops got him cornered outside this old hotel.  Heh, if he thought he was gonna make it inside, he must be batshit.  Bam, kissing pavement the second that door started to open.  Like the split second.  On the ground, handcuffs, game over.  News was sayin’ show’s over ‘til morning and they go to some Real Housewives shit, come back like ten minutes later.  Say they’re going to show the perp walk when the cops get him back to the precinct, and after that, gonna be a press conference.  Some hotshot DA been watching all this, bitch can’t wait ‘til morning.”

Tommy and Colette took their sandwiches to one of the small tables on sidewalk out front, and Tommy positioned his phone so they could keep an eye on the news. 

“Something’s wrong,” Colette noted, looking in his eyes.

“I’m not sure what,” he murmured.  “This should be the end; he’s in custody.  But it doesn’t feel that way.  It feels… Something big is happening here.”

“What if we cut the honeymoon short?” she whispered.  “You must have an exit strategy, considering how long we made it.”

Tommy took a deep breath. 

“I wanted to establish a baseline.  I thought I could show that nothing had really changed.  For us, our public selves.  Maybe I wasn’t a playboy anymore, but I was still the same hedonist who’d put my own pleasure above other considerations, and I married a woman of the same stripe.  That’s why the extended honeymoon, so in the future we could still disappear whenever we needed to: call it golfing in Abaco or a yacht show in Singapore…”

“I know the song,” Colette cut him off with a smile.  “One-Percenter Shock and Awe, I know it’s your favorite, if only because of the cars involved.  I like it too, and I get that you had a plan.  But I know you, love, and there are branches and contingencies on that plan, and branches on the contingencies on the branches.  And then separate from that there’s Plan B with branches and contingencies of its own, Plan C, D, D-alpha 1, D-alpha 2, D-alpha Metropolis…”

He chucked into his sandwich and looked at the street around them with concern.

“Okay, yes, I do have something that would allow us to come back early without anyone daring to read into it.  Something on a scale that’s just ‘Wayne,’ they can’t pretend to understand and would be laughing stocks if they tried.  No one will presume to have an opinion about us based on…” he sighed.  “But it will break Clark’s heart.”

 

Bruce couldn’t say what he found unnerving, but something in the day’s events prompted him to continue Tommy and Colette’s date rather than returning home to watch the press conference in private.  He even wondered if, subconsciously, that’s why he’d brought them to the East End in the first place: to be surrounded by ordinary Gothamites in the aftermath of Payne’s capture.  

The kid at the order window recommended a “dope little place” down the street that was good for drinks, “real low key,” sometimes had indie-rock bands, but there wouldn’t be anything going on tonight… Tommy grunted.  They could watch the press conference with a random group of locals and gauge the neighborhood reaction.

The mood stepping into the bar wasn’t good.  There were steep, narrow stairs leading to a sleazily posh basement, where mahogany paneling and antique advertisements evoked Boss Tweed's corrupt political machine, once run from this very spot.  As Tommy and Colette descended, they could smell it: agitated uncertainty.  The television was on but muted, while the house music felt like repetitive, harmonic itching powder.  The silenced TV news was replaying the slow-motion chase, the helicopters circling, police storming the Dixon projects “like an occupying army,” Payne’s ultimate capture, and finally the jarringly well-lit stillness outside the Gotham South Precinct. 

Tommy and Colette’s eyes met, feeling each other’s senses on hyper-alert.  Feeling suspension.  Not danger, not yet.  People balanced—just barely—near a tipping point.  That brightly lit stage in front of the precinct waiting for the next act to begin, while that strangely agitated music thumped. 

They each ordered a beer and absorbed the gripe of the moment: Since Payne’s capture, a Twitter account had appeared calling itself GothamDASpy.  It claimed ADA Josephine Mackey—the one who called the late night press conference—had been “stalking” through the office during the chase.  It said she made her colleagues uncomfortable with her palpable hate as she snarled about the inevitability of Payne’s capture.  That “it made your skin crawl” according to one associate, the way “blood and venom practically dripped from her mouth.”  That she “had a screaming fit” at one point, calling for the police to shoot out Payne’s tires—and to shoot Payne himself if that’s what it took to end the pursuit that was making a mockery of Gotham law enforcement.  But minutes later she was vowing to prosecute Gordon personally if the police used lethal force, robbing her of the opportunity to bring Payne to trial and put a needle in his arm herself. 

Residents of the old East End and the new were equally aware Gotham had abolished the death penalty, and speculation ran high that Mackey wanted to use the Payne case to bring it back.  The new East End saw ambition; the old, blood lust.  Both saw a bitch.  A bitch who was probably crazy and definitely out of control… but for all the agreement, the fault lines were visible.  The bar’s patrons were united in their disgust for Mackey, but there were undercurrents of blame.  Each side faulted the other for the fact that an unhinged whack job had power. 

On the news, the still image outside the precinct began to show movement.  The volume was turned up, and the jeering began with the announcement that Payne’s transport would be arriving momentarily.  The heckling nearly drowned out the more important development that the press conference had been cancelled.  The fuse was now lit. 

Though the press conference was rescheduled for tomorrow at 11, all the crowd heard was the name Assistant District Attorney Josephine Mackey.  The bar erupted into the kind of violence that would have been commonplace for the neighborhood—if Tommy and Colette weren’t among the combatants.

Within a punch-backhand-kick-elbow on one side and an block-duck-upswing-kick on the other, they stood side-by-side facing away from each other.  They kicked in unison, and as their respective opponents fell away, they faced each other for a moment, eyes blazing with excitement, then positioned back-to-back. 

"We need to do this more often," Tommy breathed. 

Another pair of simultaneous kicks and Tommy bent over while Colette vaulted over his back, grabbing a tray from the bar.  She swung wide, taking out her target and a bonus who’d pulled a knife, then passing the tray to Tommy who took out one of his own.

Tommy took down his next attacker with three swift gut punches, while Colette considered the nearest menace with bored contempt.  "This is why no civilized person with a shred of self-respect will have anything to do with this neighborhood," she said as he came at her with the bear-hug attack favored by Ubu and the threatening growl favored by dogs.

She dropped to get under his center weight, then pushed up and against his chest with her left as he moved in, using his own movement to propel him into her right cross.  It was aimed below the jaw to smash brutally into his throat, and he fell back, choking.  She finished him with a dainty shoe descending onto his chest, holding him down while she punched his head. 

Tommy blocked the guy coming at her with a bottle, grabbing the arm and delivering a nerve pinch that forced the fingers open, then hurling the assailant neatly into a table with his right while he caught the falling bottle in his left.  He broke it on the side of the bar and tossed it to Colette.  "Claws," he suggested, as he casually elbowed a man in the face who was coming at him from behind.

"Thanks," Colette said, smiling at the jagged edge weapon as Tommy ducked under a wild swing.  He came up, holding the guy at arm's length by the throat, and Colette took him out with a spinning high kick to his chin…

No one heard the TV’s announcement that ADA Mackey had been suspended leaving tomorrow’s press conference to be conducted by Erin Cassidy, and no one saw Detectives Rowanski and Reed lead a handcuffed Gus Payne through a gauntlet of uniforms into the Gotham South Precinct.

 

PAGE SIX TV
Your daily dose of gossip straight from the pages of the Gotham Post!  Dissecting the most outrageous, provocative and entertaining stories from the Post’s iconic gossip feature PAGE SIX!

RIGHT NOW on PAGE SIX TV – Bestseller Bradford Dormont took time out from his next novel to appear at a Hamptons bash with this Taylor Swift lookalike.  Also in attendance were Robert Downey Jr, Jimmy Fallon and Ash Torrick, star of Ash Torrick's Encryption.

THEN – Trendsetter or Tragic – Margot Kidley's Venice Film Festival look had a lot of people buzzing.  It's the first JJ we've seen on a red carpet since the designer’s supposed "First look at Selina Kyle's wedding dress" was exposed as a hoax, and critics have been appropriately catty.  Selina Kyle, you remember, was actually married in Deeor.  Not only was JJ’s black lace number a fake, it is pretty darn close to an Alexander McQueen from his 2008 collection, which was then used for a wedding dress in a Harry Potter film without giving the designer credit.  Not exactly a criminal rip-off, except for some self-serving comments JJ made about her wedding look not putting forth the same tired white dress any man would have given Ms. Kyle.  Honey, I'm pretty sure Alexander McQueen was a man.  He won four Designer of the Year awards more than you'll ever see, and before that he worked at Givenchy, who was also a man.  Shut up, you embarrass yourself.  And Margot looked like she was wearing Post-its. 

PLUS – He's supposed to be in rehab, but did Dashiell Tate escape to reunite with the nanny who started his downward spiral?  Well first, maybe we should stop calling her the nanny since she did that Playboy spread.  So “Did Dashiell Tate escape rehab to reunite with his Playboy model girlfriend?”

BUT FIRST – Why is Gotham's power couple cutting their honeymoon short?  Turns out—Get this—three satellites on the orbital ring crashed into each other.  Yeah, I wouldn't think that's supposed to be possible, but somehow… Anyway.  As if that's not bad enough, one of the satellites belonged to DP Media, as in Daily Planet Media, as in Clark Kent, the best man.  So Bruce Wayne is coming home to oversee a Wayne Tech sale of some new satellites.  It's a long process apparently, takes years to complete, no time to waste getting started.  Not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars, am I right?  And get this: as a special favor to his BFF, Wayne is giving the Daily Planet 500 hours of piggyback time on his private GPS satellite.  Heh, Bruce Wayne has a personal satellite, can you believe it?  I mean of course you can, he's Bruce Wayne.  You have a toothbrush, a suit, a phone, a satellite.  Everybody knows that; who doesn’t know that? 

Ha-ha! I'm Naomi Sands, Welcome to Gotham Post TV.  I'm here with Page Six Entertainment Anchor Jeremy Kaye.  We’ve got lots to gossip about today so let's not waste any time...

To be continued...

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