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Chapter Sixteen

Bruce Wayne retreated to the guard's locker room in the basement of the museum. He made certain no one was watching, then used the customized radio to tell Alfred that the bait had been taken and he was going incommunicado. Alfred would handle everything for Bruce Wayne and Batman, even take care of Commissioner Gordon if the Batsignal went up. He would also be alert for any other, less conventional message Batman might need to send.

Then Bruce Wayne put on an ordinary shirt and trousers, loaded his pockets with the very best in fake ID, checked his appearance-altering makeup, and strolled onto the museum loading-dock to meet his new partner.

Tiger led him downtown to a sour-smelling bar where the light came from the neon signs proclaiming the varieties of beer on tap. Most of the patrons were crowded around the bar watching the basketball playoffs. The home team was winning by a wide margin, and this was a home-team bar. No one noticed a stranger when Tiger called for two beers at his favorite table in the back.

Sinking deep into his adopted persona, Bruce Wayne didn't blink at what he half saw and overheard. He was one of these lowlifes for a while; their world was his world, their rules, his rules. Batman did not exist, except as an enemy. Slouching in a bentwood chair with uneven legs, cradling a stein of cheap beer between his hands, a reconstructed Bruce was in his element and completely at ease.

They spent a beer or two exchanging bona fides. Or, rather, Tiger drank while his new friend talked. After pounding his chest with his fist and making veiled allusions to killjoy doctors and infernal pills, Bruce ignored the alcohol in front of him. Bruce made up his criminal history on the fly, snatching bits and pieces from Batman's memory. Tiger was duly impressed. But then, Tiger was a criminal and criminals were among the most impressionable people on the face of the planet. Each and every one thought he was the smartest goon in the room, the guy who knew all the angles, the guy for whom the rules did not apply. Criminals were also gullible. Every time Bruce Wayne flattered his companion's ego, Tiger became more deeply convinced that he'd found a henchman he could trust.

Gradually, as the night wore on and the beer continued to flow, Wayne was able to take control of the conversation. He traded information about the improvised security surrounding the icon for information about the Connection. But although Tiger readily admitted that he'd done considerable work for the mysterious middleman, it became clear to Bruce Wayne that Tiger merely did what he was told and had no notion of the Connection's long-term plans. In his mind he'd never believed anything different, but in his heart he'd allowed a brief flicker of hope.

Tiger drank heavily. Bruce listened attentively to everything Tiger had to say; there was always a chance that something truly useful would slip in. And Tiger, thinking he'd finally found an audience that understood and appreciated his talents, began to speak recklessly of destiny and transformation.

"Today's your lucky day," he said, shaking his finger at Batman. "You're gonna thank your lucky stars that you was standing beside that icon when I came in. You're gonna be a rich man. Important. You just wait and see. You're gonna say: thank you, Tiger."

"I already have," Bruce said admiringly. "You've got connections."

"Yeah. Yeah I have." Tiger sat up straighter. He looked at his watch and drained his stein. "Okay. We gotta go now. We gotta meet someone. You let me do all the talking, understand? Once I got you in, then you can talk, but you don't know the boss, so you don't do nothing when we see him, okay? You still got that napkin you drew on?"

Bruce shook his head. He'd destroyed the crude diagram he'd made of the icon security. Force of habit, he explained with a shrug. Tiger became agitated, demanding that he make another diagram quickly.

"It's your bona fides. The boss sees you know what you're talkin' about and that you can get him that friggin' icon, he takes you into the organization."

"Are we going to see the boss?" Bruce paused with the diagram half-drawn.

"Yeah. Sort of."

Batman completed the diagram with care and accuracy. He had to assume that the Connection was smarter than his lieutenants. He had to assume that a man who'd survived outside the law for a half-century could spot a ringer. At the moment the icon belonged to no one. If it had to be given up like a pawn in a chess game to get Batman into the Connection's organization, that was something Bruce Wayne could live with. Folding the napkin in neat quarters, he tucked it in his wallet and followed Tiger out of the bar.

They walked several avenue blocks side by side. Bruce began to wonder if the Connection had written Tiger off. The possibility had to be considered. The Gagauzi debacle in front of 208 Broad Street was enough to cashier a lieutenant in any man's army, but, even more, Tiger's constant talk about fate and transformation marked him as a man about to walk off the edge. Then Bruce saw an antenna-sprouting package-service van turn out of a side street onto the avenue ahead of them. It cruised to the curb and waited with its lights on and its engine idling. No one got out; no one got on. Through the layers of latex and disguise, Batman's senses came alive with anticipation.

Tiger spoke rapidly with the driver, who made brief eye contact with Bruce Wayne before releasing the brakes. Bruce stayed on the bottom step with the wind and pavement at his back, watching every move the driver made after Tiger withdrew into the back of the van. He didn't try to make conversation or co-conspiratorial alliances. From what he'd already seen, the Connection ran his organization on a need-to-know basis, and the driver didn't need to know anything about the stranger braced in the open doorway as he got the van up to speed.

Nothing could have prepared Bruce Wayne for the jolts and noise that struck the vehicle without warning. He needed both hands to keep himself from falling backward onto the pavement; there was no way to protect his ears from the assault. The torture subsided to a bearable shake and whine in less than a minute. Batman shook his head to clear it and caught a glimpse of the driver smiling smugly beneath his bright yellow protective ear muffs. He returned a toothy grin and hauled himself up the steps just in time for the partition door between the driver's cab and the cargo area to slide open.

"You can come in now," Tiger said.

The petty crook Bruce pretended to be was overwhelmed by the illusion surrounding him. He stood stock-still with his mouth gaping open while the real Bruce Wayne analyzed everything and committed it to memory. One technological wizard to another, he could admire the Connection's obvious genius. He couldn't see the cameras and sensors, of course; he saw the same holographic illusion Tiger did, but Batman was, perhaps, the only other person who could truly appreciate the genius that created it. Gradually, when he'd inferred all that he dared from the illusion, Bruce Wayne allowed the petty crook to take a hesitant step toward Tiger and the faintly glowing holograph.

"What is this?" Bruce Wayne asked with an awestruck voice. He jabbed at the nearest apparent surface. His hand disappeared, as he expected. He pretended to panic and managed to fall through the illusion, gaining a quick look at some of the transceiving equipment before reinserting himself into the holograph. He did a credible imitation of a man whose worst nightmares had come true.

"Call it a rite of passage," the holograph said smoothly.

Bruce Wayne got up from his knees. No wonder the descriptions never tallied. A man who could create one perfect holograph could transform himself a thousand times over. On the other hand, the man who created this illusion was pumping a powerful signal into this van. It was undoubtedly disguised and encrypted, but it had to be real and it had to be detectable.

I've got you now, Harry. The thought rose irresistably from Batman's consciousness. Bruce lowered his head and covered his eyes, lest the telemetry capture it.

"I told the boss that you can get the icon."

Bruce stood up and submitted to a thorough interrogation through the holograph. He produced the napkin sketch, wondering what provisions the Connection had for taking realtime information out of the van, or if he'd have to leave the flimsy paper behind for a delayed physical examination. He wsa told to put it on the holographic desk, where it floated half in, half out of the illusion. The Connection's holograph appeared to lean over the precise spot where the paper lay. Its eyes narrowed and its forehead wrinkled with simulated thought. Because he was watching, Bruce saw the red beam of an optical scanner move rapidly across the upper surface of the napkin; he also saw a similar beam shoot out of the floor to scan the reverse side. Bruce Wayne could imagine the Connection leaning over a display screen, watching the scanner reveal the sketch while another set of optical scanners recorded his own reactions.

The chess game between Bruce Wayne and Harry Mattheson had begun.

"I like it," the holograph said. "You've done this sort of work before." It was a statement, not a question. "How long will you need?"

"A couple days. By the end of the week. Next Saturday would be better. The exhibit's going to end then and the museum will be closed 'til Tuesday." By then Bruce Wayne could change the security completely, unless he decided to go ahead and give Harry the icon.

"Good. Leave a list of what you'll need with the driver. He'll get back to you---let's say, next Wednesday night, ten P.M. in front of the McAllister Theater---"

"Boss?" Tiger interjected with a worried, left-out look on his face.

"You've got to tie things up with our friends the Bess-arab sheepherders. They're getting desperate. Starting to make noise."

"But, boss, they don't got the picture. So they don't have the goods to complete the deal. So I've been telling them to go back to Bessarabia where they belong."

"They're not going, Tiger. You've got to be more persuasive."

Tiger cursed under his breath. "I'll persuade with lead right between the eyes."

The holograph scowled. Tiger didn't notice, but Bruce Wayne did. "What's the point here---getting rid of 'em or getting them to go home quietly? Tiger says you've already got two icons in the bag; I'm gonna get you the third one that you wanted---so what's the harm in giving them a little of what they came here for?"

And giving Batman the information about where the arms were stashed so he could get the word back to Commissioner Gordon, who would interdict the entire transaction.

"Yeah, boss---you're gonna get all your pictures. Maybe we could throw 'em a bone or two."

Bruce Wayne saw a red flash and felt a brush of an electronic scanner. No ordinary man possessed the reflexes to detect the subtle telemetry probe. To preserve his own illusion, Bruce exerted extraordinary control over his pulse and skin temperature.

"It's your problem, Tiger. You solve it," the Connection said while the virtually invisible scanners continued to make their measurements. "I don't want to hear about the Bess-arabs again."

"You got it, boss. Me an' him," Tiger pointed to Bruce. "We're a team now. We'll take care of everything."

"You do that, Tiger. You do that and I will be very pleased."

There was a blinding flash of light accompanied by an electrical jolt. Bruce Wayne could not prevent his body from reacting protectively. He lost consciousness for a few seconds, five at the most, and when he came to the only light in the back of the van came from a dim fixture in the ceiling. Tiger was frozen in the grip of a petit mal seizure. Guessing that this was normal procedure and that Tiger had endured it many times before, he allowed his companion to recover in his own time.

Almost a minute passed before Tiger gasped and started breathing. He blinked several times and wiped the saliva from his mouth, but these appeared to be unconscious movements.

The first words out of Tiger's mouth were: "I sure can pick 'em. I knew that security stuff of yours was good when I saw it. The boss likes you."

"I'd hate to find out what happens when he doesn't," Bruce replied dryly. Every nerve was ringing like a bell or a rotten tooth.

"Don't worry about it. You and me, we're gonna work well together. You got smarts. He likes that, but you gotta be careful talkin' up the way you did. The boss don't like you to get ahead of him with ideas. He thinks he's got all the brains around here."

The van slowed to a stop. Tiger pulled a cord to open the rear access door. The two men stepped out into a dark, narrow alley. The van sped away. Batman recognized the angles of Gotham's Old Town, the twisted maze of streets were the city had begun almost three hundred years earlier. He would need a few moments to orient himself precisely. Tiger didn't need that long.

"I gotta take care of the Bess-arabs right away," he said. "Those damn sheepherders have been nothing but trouble from day one."

"Why did the boss bother?" Bruce asked innocently as he followed Tiger out of the alley.

"I dunno why he does anything, but he never does it the easy way. It's always a little here, a little there. I guess he wants those pictures for something else, maybe something real big. I don't know when a deal ends and another begins. Sometimes I think, maybe, he's playing the shell game. You know the shell game?"

Bruce nodded. "Except he does it with ships and paint."

Tiger paused before a metal door. Suspicion twisted his scarred face. "Yeah. He has the ships painted while they're out at sea. How'd you guess that?"

"Just lucky," Bruce replied easily.

Tiger hammered on the door until it cracked open and a sleepy Oriental face peered out.

"I want to talk to Khalki," Tiger said, thrusting his weight against the door to prevent the doorkeeper from slamming it shut.

They exchanged insults. Batman was not surprised to find that Tiger knew the coarser words of several languages. But the door finally swung open. Bruce Wayne thought he'd seen the worst Gotham City had to offer, but he wasn't prepared for the squalor inside the abandoned factory building.

"They pay rent by the square foot," Tiger explained as he wove confidently through the hivelike structure.

"Who are they? What are they doing here?"

"Illegals. We sneak some of 'em in along with everything else, but they come from all over---for the opportunity. These ain't the homeless or the unemployed. These are the cream of the fourth world. They all got jobs---and they're makin' more money than they could at home. They don't wanna spend anything on themselves 'cause they all got families at home they're sendin' money to. So they come here. Some of the old-timers make their money subleasing toilets. There's a friggin' waitin' list for this hellhole. What you see here, my friend, is the future of America."

There was no electricity, no water, no sanitation. Men---there were no women here---lived cheek-by-jowl in conditions worse than any antiquated prison. Most of them were asleep in cells no larger than the reeking mattresses they slept on. The little light came from candles and open-flame lamps. Bruce Wayne couldn't keep himself from looking into the cells, into the wide-eyed faces with their uncanny mixture of fear and hope.

The faces were timeless. Bruce Wayne had seen them staring out of hovels and boxes all around the world, coal mines and prison camps, nineteenth-century pictures of immigrants and fourteenth-century engravings of Black Death survivors. They were all steerage passengers on the ships of fools. He could barely contain his outrage. No man should live like this, and yet there was a measure of truth in Tiger's cynicism. Life in the subbasement of America held more opportunity and hope than life in much of the rest of the world.

Bruce was thinking about the drug-ravaged East End and comparing it to this when Tiger led them into what appeared to be a cul-de-sac.

"Khalki---open up." Tiger pounded the cheap wallboard until the dust billowed. "Dammit, you've been pestering me for days. It's Tiger. Open up!"

Other voices, awakened and angered by Tiger's shouts, joined the chorus. There was hatred here, held barely in check by the fear and the hope. Bruce Wayne hooked a finger over his collar and swallowed anxiously. If this place erupted, no one would get out alive.

Finally a panel swung down from above them and then a rickety ladder. Khalki and the three other remaining Gagauzi were hiding in the crawl space beneath the original roof. Bruce didn't want to guess how much they were paying for the privilege. He tucked his head and allowed himself to be guided to what he realized with some horror was a charcoal grill slung from ancient electric wires. Khalki, a clean-shaven man in his early thirties, offered him coffee and, without thinking, Bruce accepted. The other Gagauzi huddled close together on the far side of the swaying fire. One was a boy not yet out of his teens, the second was as old as Bruce was pretending to be, while the third was about his true age. At first he thought they were three generations of one family; then he realized that the resemblance was purely superficial, created by fear and strangeness. They stared at him while Khalki and Tiger conducted an animated conversation.

Bruce Wayne filled his mouth with coffee. It tasted burnt and sweet, with the texture of crankcase oil mixed with sand. The youngest Gagauzi stifled a smirk. And Bruce remembered the Gagauzi were ethnic Turks with whom coffee was an art, not a wake-up beverage. He gulped heroically and set the cup on the floor to precipitate.

"He wants to talk to you," Tiger said to Bruce after several minutes of apparently futile discussion. "Tell him he's got to do it my way."

"What is your way?" Bruce asked, getting cautiously to his feet.

"We meet day after tomorrow, midnight, Pier 23. We go out to sea. I give 'em what their pictures bought, we radio the freighter and put them and the merchandise on board. An' I never see their friggin' faces again."

Bruce nodded and began lobbying Khalki with words and gestures, just as Tiger had. The Gagauzi relented; he wanted to go home with whatever he could salvage from his nightmare. But before he led Tiger and Bruce Wayne back to the ladder, he rooted through his meager possessions and came up with a small enamel pin of a gray wolf on a red field.

"Gagauz flag," he said proudly as he affixed it to Bruce Wayne's shirt. Then he executed a military salute. "Hero."

All the way out of the firetrap, Bruce Wayne reminded himself what the Connection was doing was not right and what he was about to do was not betrayal.

It wasn't hard for Bruce to get away from Tiger for a few minutes. He crouched in a doorway and wrote a message to Alfred. He told the butler to contact Commissioner Gordon with the where and when of the arms. He paused and looked around; Tiger was nowhere to be seen. He turned the paper over and added a second message:

Catwoman showed up at the museum. At least I think she did. Whatever her involvement with the icon has been, I don't want her showing up at the pier. I think you can lure her back to the museum. Try to intercept her and get her to go to---

Bruce paused. The possibilities were endless, but he could hear Tiger crunching through the rubble at the end of the alley. He took the location at the top of his mind---the place where Catwoman had left a message for him---and wrote it down. Then he scrolled the paper swiftly into a capsule the size of a disposable cigarette lighter. He sealed it and dropped it before Tiger got into hailing distance. In fifteen minutes it would send up a homing beacon.

Tiger was feeling much relieved. "How are your sea legs, old man?" he said, clapping Bruce roundly on the shoulder. "Hope they're good ones, 'cause we got a bit of sea work to do."

Chapter Fifteen | Catwoman - Tiger Hunt | Chapter Seventeen