Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Goddamned Batman, Part 1

The first section of a short story I wrote that appeared in The Further Adventures of Batman, Volume 3: Featuring Catwoman, edited by Martin H. Greenberg (Bantam, 1993):

© DC Comics

She padded across the alleyway, shrouded in the protective darkness of night, picking her way over the city’s debris. From beyond the alley came the sounds of the city, the drone of car engines and the swish of their tires on the damp pavement, the murmur of a million voices, the muffled rumble of the subways filtering up from the tunnels below. The alley stank of the rotting discard overflowing the trash cans and dumpsters over which she stepped. Car exhaust, the mingled odor of exotic foods from street vendors, vapors from the sewers that flowed beneath the streets all assailed her sensitive nostrils.

Gotham City was all sounds and smells around her. She purred, content with the comfort derived from their presence.

Gotham was where she lived and where she prowled, the place that provided her with everything she needed to sustain her.

She leaped up onto the top of an open dumpster, balancing delicately on the edge. What she sought was nearby, would soon be hers. All she needed was a few moments alone to ferret it out. But she was accustomed to the solitude of her activities. She needed no one. She...


A footstep scraped across the pavement behind her. Perched on the dumpsters edge, fur bristling, ears straining, nose twitching to catch scent of the source of the intruder.

“No, no, no,” came the soft spoken response to her alarm. “You’ve no need to be afraid, little pretty.”

The brown, matted cat turned her head to the sound of the voice and blinked large, glowing green eyes. There, at the mouth of the alley, stood a tall, slender figure. A human. The cat had been born of the streets, in a corner of an alley not unlike this one and had never lived among these beings, had seldom experienced anything but torment and abuse from them. She had rightly learned to fear them.

“I’ll be out of your way in just a moment,” the human whispered in reassurance, advancing slowly into the alley. “You have your work to do and I have mine.”

The cat sat, fur settling. She watched the human and purred. Humanity was the enemy, but this one... this one posed no threat. This one was a friend, indeed a kindred spirit. This one possessed the spirit and soul of the cat.

The woman paused before the watchful feline and extended a hand to be sniffed before gently scratching the creature’s head with a claw tipped leather glove. She was tall, lean and graceful, her sensuous form encased in a matte black leather bodysuit, its lines broken only by the small leather pouch hanging at the gentle swell of her hip, capped by a sleek mask that hid the upper half of her face, except for the startling, cat-like green eyes that peered out the mask’s eye slits below a pair of cat ears. A full, red lipped mouth set in a strong jaw turned up in a secret smile she shared briefly with the cat.

“This has been lovely, my dear,” Catwoman purred, withdrawing her hand. “But I really must be going.” She pointed into the air and the cat followed her hand with its wide eyed, glowing gaze. “Up there.”

The cat blinked as if in understanding and stood, stretching its thin little body as Catwoman leapt nimbly to the edge of the dumpster beside her. She settled on her haunches to watch her newfound friend.

Several feet over her head was the extension ladder of a fire escape. Catwoman’s eyes narrowed as she briefly judged the distance, then crouched and sprang upward, her gloved hands grasping the ladder’s lowest rung. She effortlessly swung her lower body up like a practiced gymnast on the parallel bars, landing with only the slightest rasp of shoe leather on rusted metal slats on the fire escape’s lower landing.

The cat peered up at her for a brief instant and, with a remorseful meow in farewell to the only human to ever treat her with kindness, she turned back to the contents of the dumpster to continue her search for the evening’s meal.

Above her, Catwoman was on a quest of her own. On the balls of her feet, she ascended the fire escape steps, her matte black leather outfit rendering her nearly invisible in the night against the brick of the building darkened by years of grimy Gotham air.

She stopped on the third landing, poised, listening to the sounds from the city below. Car horns blared. Voices rose and fell as citizens passed by the mouth of the alley. Somewhere in the distance, a police siren wailed mournfully on its mission of intervention in someone else’s misery. She didn’t care where it was headed as long as her work was uninterrupted.

Reaching into the pouch at her hip, Catwoman smiled her secret smile once again. How accommodating that the treasure she sought was held by one who made its acquisition by her so simple. Certainly, the window opening onto the fire escape where she stood was protected by an alarm. This she knew merely by looking at the grimy glass on which she could see etched the fine line of wire that was there to prevent its being broken by the crude method of entry commonly referred to as the “smash-and-grab.”

But Catwoman was far too subtle a professional to engage in so brutal and crass a practice. She pulled from her pouch a small plastic box with a single toggle switch on its face and, attached to its other side, a suction cup. The box was quickly affixed to the window pane, directly over the wire strip glued to the inside of the glass. The toggle switch was flicked on by a clawed fingertip and, within seconds, the box let out a single, gentle tone.

The alarm was deactivated. The wonders of modern electronics, she marveled, available to those who knew the correct wrong people. Catwoman knew them all.

Now her work was simple. From the pouch she produced a slender tool, the tip of which she applied to the glass. With a barely audible hiss, she traced a circle in the window pane with the glass cutter. A tap of her knuckle at the center of the circle sent the etched out glass to the floor inside the room with a crystalline tinkle. She reached through the hole left there, flicking open the simple latch holding the window closed.

Catwoman purred with delight as she slid open the window and stepped delicately inside. She closed the window behind her, disappearing into the dark office beyond the night.

A visit to this place the previous day in civilian garb and the guise of an interested customer had given Catwoman the layout of the office, so she had no need of a betraying light to guide her steps. She went straight for the wall on the far side of the office, snaking sensuously through the maze of office furniture and display showcases. Her goal was the large built-in, walk-in safe that dominated that wall. A Wm. Finger Deluxe Model M, Series A-1949. Installed here in the offices of the C. Paris Rare Book & Manuscript Co., her research told her, in October, 1952. Security technology had, of course, grown in leaps and bounds in the forty years since the safe’s installation, but the Model M was still regarded as a fine example of post World War II safe building. A solid box consisting of three layers of one-inch thick tempered steel plating, fireproof, bombproof, with inlaid door hinges and dead bolt locks and four separate tumbler mechanisms that made cracking the locks next to impossible for all but the most experienced safecracker or someone equipped with a good supply of explosives.

All in all, a most formidable and impressive box. Except for someone in possession of the combination.

Someone, like Catwoman.

Once again, her acquaintance with the correct wrong people simplified Catwoman’s task. In this instance, it was Buddy Wexler, a small, round shouldered old man with a perpetual squint and a thorough knowledge of safes built in America during the last century. There was hardly a model he had not, at some point in his long career, gotten into before his retirement. And, being a professional of the highest caliber, Wexler always sought the simplest way through the steel and locks confronting him. In the case of the product of the Wm. Finger Co. constructed prior to 1969, that usually meant consulting the installation records copied late that same year from the company’s offices. Most people, Wexler told her, amused, never bother changing the combination set at the time of a safe’s installation, not even forty years later. It’s too much trouble to memorize new combinations, he assured her as he handed her a slip of paper on which a series of numbers had been written in exchange for a sum of cash.

The dial spun beneath her fingers, first right, then left, then right again. Then, a metallic click and the safe’s handle giving under a gentle push.

The safe door swung open and Catwoman laughed in delight.

Within the safe were shelves and on the shelves rested a wealth of paper rarities, the creme de la creme of the C. Paris Rare Book & Manuscript catalogue: a first edition of Miguel de Cervantes’ El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha from 1610; the original manuscript of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in Lewis Carroll’s own hand; a set of nine Shakespeare plays bound together and dated 1619, the first published collection of the Bard’s work printed four years before the almost as rare and more well known First Folio; first editions of Moby-Dick, Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, and other rare volumes, many inscribed by the authors.

And the object of Catwoman’s excursion into the night: the original, handwritten manuscript of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

There were far more valuable items housed in the safe, items that Catwoman would take with her for sale and profit in the world’s extensive blackmarket in rarities and antiquities. But the Eliot manuscript, she reflected with emotion approaching ecstasy, as she lifted the leather folder containing the sheaf of papers, was for her own, private collection. If she left here tonight with only this in her possession, she would consider the night’s efforts an unqualified success. Little more than a bit of poetic doggerel, this lesser of the poet’s works was most famous for inspiring a long running Broadway musical, but it had as its theme that which was close to Catwoman’s heart.

Cats. Her life. Her pleasure and passion.

Her obsession!

“You’ve always been predictable, Selina,” a deep voice rumbled behind her.

Catwoman knew, even as she turned, with the manuscript clutched to her breast, whose voice it was.

He stood, framed in the doorway to the office, a tall, broad figure sheathed in shadowy gray and midnight blue. His face was hidden by a mask, pointed ears reminiscent of a bat’s head rising from its crown. Shining on his broad chest was a brilliant yellow oval in which was emblazoned a jet black emblem in the shape of a bat and, to complete the image, a billowing cape with a serrated edge hung from his imposing shoulders like batwings at rest.

“Hello, Batman,” she said, her voice as casual as someone meeting a friend on an afternoon stroll through the park. “Fancy meeting you here, of all places.”

“Not so very fancy at all,” he said, pointing a dark gloved finger at the leather folder in her grasp. “The auction tomorrow of the Eliot manuscript has been in all the newspapers. I knew it was only a matter of time before you tried for it.”

“But how could you have known I would try tonight?” she asked with a slow, sensuous shrug of her shoulders. Catwoman’s tongue flicked out, briefly touching her suddenly dry lips. But there was no fear or apprehension attached to the gesture. This was something else, something that always seemed to grip her when she was in the presence of this man.

It was Batman’s turn to shrug as he strode into the office, his hand held out as if to take the folder from her. “I’ve been keeping tabs on this place,” he said. “It was still in the safe this evening at closing time. Tonight was your last chance at it before it was shipped to the auction house tomorrow morning.

“Now, hand it over, Selina.”

Catwoman sighed. “You have no idea how you vex me, dear Batman. Don’t you find it astonishing how our paths are always crossing!”

Batman stopped within a yard of her. “No. As I said, you’re predictable.”

“Oh, no,” she cried in mock horror. “I’d hate to think that were so. But I do know what I can do to drive that silly notion out of your mind.” Now Catwoman laughed and her hand, which had been creeping towards the pouch at her hip as they spoke, came into plain view holding a Zippo cigarette lighter. She flicked it to life and the flame leapt up a full six inches to fill the dark office with flickering shadows.

“This,” she giggled with undisguised pleasure, “Is something you never predicted!”

Batman started in surprise as Catwoman spun and tossed the flaming lighter into the open safe. Into the midst of millions of dollars worth of old, dry and brittle paper.

Still laughing, Catwoman moved towards the window even as Batman sprung into the safe with a single leap. The lighter had bounced once on the floor inside the safe, the flame of the Zippo reaching for contents of the lowest shelf. The manufacturer of the lighter guaranteed its performance in even the stiff wind, so its brief flight from Catwoman’s hand to the safe didn’t dim the flame.

A leather bound book began to smolder. Batman grabbed for it, hearing as he did so the pounding of Catwoman’s heels on the floor and the crash of glass as she dove through the window. As he swept the burning book and flickering lighter up in his hands, the sound of the rasp of her soles on the metal rungs of the fire escape reached him. He rolled out of the safe, holding both sources of fire away from the rest of its precious contents, snapping shut the lighter and slapping the small fire licking at the pages of the burning book out against his chest.

He was back on his feet in seconds, heading for the shattered window and the pursuit of Catwoman. But she was gone, swallowed by the night. Along with the Eliot manuscript.

A cat with matted brown fur sat on the fire escape among the shards of broken window glass, looking expectantly up at Batman. His lips set in a hard, grim line, the Dark Knight peered into the alley below. Catwoman had escaped him again because he had again underestimated her cunning.

He routinely faced and overcame foes who were both stronger and smarter than she. He survived the treacherous nights of encounters with danger and death with physical prowess and wits sharpened to the pinnacle of human perfection, yet this one woman all too frequently bested him with little more than a look from those startling green eyes.

What was the answer?

The cat’s plaintive meow broke his train of thought and he sighed. Catwoman’s time would come, he knew. It always did and always would, as long as she remained the creature of habit she had always been. Batman turned from the window to place a call to Commission Gordon to report Catwoman’s success and his own failure.

The cat cocked her head to one side, waiting on the fire escape. She sensed this human might love cats almost as much as had the first one.

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