Edward Nigma returned to his hideout, pulled a chalkboard from the storeroom, and drew a large question mark with green chalk. He poured himself a glass of Glenundromm, his favorite scotch, and held it up to the beguiling symbol of the unknown.
“A loaf of bread, a glass of wine, and thou,” he toasted. “Or a box of Triscuits and a glass of scotch,” he shrugged.
He had a mystery to solve, a mystery that might just revitalize his criminal career: What was Oswald up to?
What was Oswald up to?
Oswald Cobblepot was the cheapest man alive, particularly where the Iceberg was concerned. Riddler would have been astonished to receive a free drink on his birthday, let alone this… this… enigmatic “gift.” But after Selina left, Oswald had waddled up to the table and said he overheard her mention Eddie’s birthday. Then he puffed himself up importantly, quacked a few times, and said he was in “a unique position to offer a most –kwak– advantageous boon to a select circle of my –kwak– most respected colleagues.” This “boon” would ordinarily go for $100,000 up front, and a monthly tribute of twenty percent of whatever the buyer earned with it. But in honor of Eddie’s birthday, Penguin said he was prepared to waive the buy-in fee, so sure was he that twenty percent of the esteemed Riddler’s take would more than compensate him for his generosity.
“EYEING ROTS” Eddie told the question mark. “SO TEENY RIG”… “I YESTER NOG, in fact”… “I GREENS TOY!”… The word “Generosity,” promising as it was as a rootword for anagrams, did not exist in the Penguin’s pompous vocabulary. The payoff Oswald was expecting would have to be enormous for him to give away a $100,000 buy-in just to have the Riddler involved. Eddie was burning to know the details of the scheme, but he didn’t want it spelled out for him in Oswald’s overblown oratory; he wanted to figure it out for himself. Then he would decide if he wanted to be a part of it. It really wasn’t his style to sign on as a humble participant in someone else’s intrigues, birthday gift or not. It would be far more satisfying to work out the details of Oswald’s masterplan and incorporate that into a greater strategy of his own.
Unfortunately, the only lead he had to go on were those two girls from the Iceberg, two of the cat-groupies he saw disappearing into the back room after last call… Jervis said their names were Felicity and Felicia, but Sly thought the second one was called Felina (which made Eddie wince, anticipating Selina’s reaction), while Raven thought it was Felita. All Eddie knew for sure was that they were cat-groupies and that Oswald asked them to stay after closing.
It wasn’t much to go on, but he was the Riddler after all, and this was a puzzle. No puzzle could remain unsolved if he directed all the faculties of his great brain to unlocking its secrets!
“Felicity and Felina?” Bruce asked, allowing a trace of the old playboy to slip into the business persona he’d maintained since these women entered his office. “How… charming.”
They smiled at him, and the first one (Felina?) struck what Bruce imagined she thought was a beguiling cat-like pose.
“We represent Moggie’s Purr, the new day spa on West 45th,” she announced brightly.
“We’re sponsoring the MoMA re-opening gala,” her companion added, “just like the Wayne Foundation is.”
“Although we can’t offer anything on the scale of your donation, of course, Mr. Wayne.”
“We all do what we can,” Bruce noted cautiously. “What is it I, or the Foundation, rather, can do for you ladies?”
In unison, they smiled again, a smile vaguely reminiscent of Catwoman’s naughty grin, a smile much closer to that beguilingly feline quality they seemed to be going for.
“It’s what we’d like to do for you, Mr. Wayne,” Felicity purred seductively. “We’re newcomers to Gotham, so, of course, we want to introduce ourselves to everybody that… matters. That’s why we’re offering a free spa day to all the museum board members and, of course, to fellow sponsors like yourself.”
“I see. What a delightful idea,” Bruce enthused, permitting a little more Fop to creep into his demeanor than he would usually exhibit in the Wayne offices. “I will certainly consider it.”
A spa? A day spa? Riddler tried to massage the physical pain of idiocy out of his temples. An EVIL HEALTH SPA??? It was such a ludicrously hackneyed cliché, it made his head hurt.
But that’s what the silly woman said on the phone when Riddler called the number he obtained from the Iceberg. “Moggie’s Purr Day Spa,” that’s how those cat-groupies answered the phone.
An evil health spa.
What could Oswald possibly be doing with that old chestnut that
was worth $100,000? As a riddle, a
conundrum, a tauntingly unanswered question, it was shaping up to be a
barnburner. But as a—a happening
amongst one of Gotham’s old guard rogues—it was… it was… it made
his head hurt!
Located eighty miles outside of Gotham, Zack’s was the last roadhouse Greg and Talia would stop at before they got back to the city. He stressed this. It really was her last chance to throw caution to the wind and try some pie. All roadhouses had great pie.
“Banana cream,” Greg read enticingly off the menu. “Tee, how can you keep eating scrambled eggs day after day and not break it up with a really good slice of pie now and then?”
Talia raised a haughty eyebrow, picked up her fork, and held it out in front of her, suspended between her fingertips.
“This,” she pronounced, “is cheap, punched out tin. No one who presents a diner with a utensil of this kind is fit to prepare food. No food meant to be eaten with a utensil of this kind can serve any purpose other than postponing starvation. As we are only a few hours from Gotham and palatable meals, I am in no danger of starving. A bottle of Evian is all I shall require.”
Greg sighed and grinned apologetically up at the waitress.
“Got any bottled water?” he asked mildly.
The waitress shook her head, and Talia assumed the look of a long-suffering queen in exile as she settled for a cup of weak coffee. Greg ordered “a big slab of that chocolate pie—and two forks,” he added with a wink, “in case she comes around.”
Bruce kept up the genial smile and witless banter until the strangely feline representatives of the Moggie’s Purr Day Spa left his office, then he underwent one of the most disconcerting transformations in existence: his entire demeanor shifted in a split second, his jaw clenching tightly, his eyes darkening, his entire body seeming to condense into a heavier, denser mass. His walk as he returned to the desk was not that of Bruce Wayne in either business or fop mode; it was Batman’s. The forceful punch of the intercom was Batman’s, and so was the brooding scowl that crept over his features as a light, careless voice told Lucius he was leaving for the day.
There was nothing unusual about a new business aiming for upscale clientele. There was nothing suspect in their using museum sponsorship to target the rich, the famous, and the beautiful people. And superficially, there wasn’t anything suspicious in their having a cat theme and their representatives approaching him with such markedly feline deportment. But something about it was wrong. Every instinct said so.
Bruce Wayne was known to be linked romantically with Selina Kyle; Selina was known to be Catwoman. It wasn’t a stretch to think he might be receptive to catlike women. If this was a trap… His mind quickly listed and prioritized the pertinent questions:
Who was behind it?
As with all questions of this kind, Bruce knew finding any one answer would point him to others. The most promising question in that respect was the last, and that meant he had to investigate the spa.
The closer they got to Gotham, the more Talia began to feel her old self again. The sight of the great city growing on the horizon as they neared the 10th Street Bridge, the pitch shift in the sounds of the traffic as they moved from open highway to the close avenues between tall buildings, the smells of those cars and busses, street vents and food carts… It was revolting. Talia did not like Gotham City.
…A billboard for a jeweler screamed
Talia ignored this large purple reminder of a… a woman who made Belov-… who made Bruce Wayne happy in ways that she herself evidently could not.
…A T-shirt store in Times Square displayed a huge bat emblem in an enormous yellow circle…
Again, Talia made an effort to ignore the image which represented her Beloved Bruce, and which he himself wore on the many occasions when he… spurned her affections.
…On Fifth Avenue, discreet
banners hung from every streetlight announcing the MoMA reopening, sponsored by
the Wayne Foundation…
It was fitting, certainly, that Beloved’s name be celebrated in the city he gave so much.
…They passed another banner…
It was fitting. Gotham was, in essence, Beloved’s capital city—just as it would be if he had accepted her many offers and taken his rightful place as her father’s heir. Gotham would be his capital, and there would be banners throughout celebrating his name. But he declined this glory because it was not what he wished his life to be.
…They passed another banner…
It was a pity he didn’t recognize how wonderful it would be: the two of them reigning as King and Queen of DEMON, and hence, the world. But what could she do? She had tried everything a woman could to entice him, everything to make him understand, and she kept on trying, rejection after rejection, denial after denial, until finally he took refuge in the arms of that vermin slut.
…Finally they came to Wayne Plaza itself, where a signboard listed LL-Research Group, LexTech, and LuCo Investments. Talia’s stomach lurched as she saw these former LexCorp divisions being publicly welcomed into “The Wayne Enterprises family.”
Everywhere were reminders of old rejections, old failures, old bitterness, and old jealousies. And Talia’s eyes swelled with tears… The “vermin slut” was… was no slut. Her name was Selina Kyle and… Bruce, not Beloved, Bruce loved the scheming cat-witch… loved “Selina” as he didn’t love her… He wasn’t bewitched or seduced or ensnared. He was in love. That was how he behaved when he was in love. He had never welcomed Talia into his life the way had the verm… the way he did Selina, because he had never loved her—just like he’d said. Many times. Very many times.
Talia did not like Gotham City.
Seventy-eight Floors above Talia squirming in Wayne Plaza, one floor above Bruce leaving the executive suite, Selina strolled alone through the lush penthouse. This is where she’d come the night she faced the truth about the MoMA. The museum had closed for renovation shortly after she closed Cat-Tales. The final meeting between Batman-the-crimefighter and Catwoman-the-thief occurred on their roof, watching from above as they packed up their collection. She had laid down a challenge that night, the reopening gala of the Gotham Museum of Modern Art was going to be a banquet for Catwoman: the art, the jewels, the prestige of the ultimate heist, all hers for the taking. She had challenged Batman, and now, three years later, the time had come to make it good, the museum was ready to reopen… and none of it was going to happen. She lived in his house now, she slept in his bed, she called him Bruce and he called her Kitten.
Catwoman’s great triumph at the MoMA reopening could never happen now.
She’d faced up to that reality months ago, and she’d come here to the penthouse with a vaguely formed notion of playing a prank. The artworks were just as modern as the museum collection, just as priceless, just as… “Catworthy” as that billboard over the bridge put it. Then she’d become distracted, there was an Ivy incident when she’d reached the penthouse and she’d forgotten all about that prank. But now…
After leaving the Iceberg the night before, she’d felt restless and nostalgic. She’d gone back to the MoMA, gone into the offices to learn what she could of their new security and layout. By chance, she found insurance documents on the Van Gogh, Batman’s favorite painting. It reminded her of her original plans for the reopening gala.
She slept in his bed now, she kept her catsuit underneath his bed—and she discovered the last time she was down there that Nutmeg stashed her treasures there as well. Her cat stole Batman’s socks and hid them underneath the bed they shared; the days of filching a Van Gogh to prove she could were over. So she’d gone home and crawled into that bed and spent an hour watching him sleep… and then, this morning, she’d come back to this penthouse to decide what to do now.
Oswald Cobblepot glanced at his own image reflected in the banker’s lamp, thinking how much he resembled a Gotham Santa Claus. For here he sat, pen poised in judgment over an exhaustive list culled from so many sources: Arkham admissions, Blackgate releases, and outstanding Iceberg Lounge bar tabs, to determine who was most deserving of this priceless gift.
Here, truly, was a census of the Gotham underworld… Double Dare, such charming ladies and sure to make profitable use of the boon if it were offered them. He was sorry indeed to learn they were still locked away in Blackgate… King Snake, limitless profit potential there—but a competitor. Oswald was not about to turn over so valuable a tool to a competing crime boss. He would receive twenty percent of all King Snake earned with it, but Snake himself would keep eighty percent, and with a war chest like that he could destroy the Iceberg. On the same principle, the Italian mobs, Yakuza, Odessa, and the triads were ineligible as customers… Black Mask… a small -kwak- chuckle escaped his lips. Like that nattering nabob would ever be anything more than a cheap Bond villain wannabe. One does not bestow the keys to a Ferrari on a pizza deliveryman… That left the rogues, and the rogues could be sadly impractical when it came to the bottom line. Joker, Clayface, Croc, Frieze—they might put the boon to very creative use in their personal vendettas against Batman, but it was unlikely they’d make any money with it. And twenty percent of “OOH-HAHAHAHAHA-Dead-Bat” was of no use to him.
Of course, the one perfect candidate—well, no, that wasn’t possible. Damn Hugo.
Nigma was an obvious choice, of course. Even if his schemes were superficially about outsmarting Batman more than turning a profit, he still managed to end in the black any time he didn’t end up in Arkham. Riddler might not be a cash cow, but he could be a solid, dependable earner so long as he didn’t get himself captured.
Still, the one perfect candidate—the purrfect candidate, in fact—was Selina. She wouldn’t go using it to kill Batman, that’s for sure; she’d use it as it was meant to be used, to make a fortune for everyone concerned. And yet Catwoman was the one criminal Oswald was forbidden to sell to. Damn Hugo and his conditions! It was all Blake’s doing, Oswald had no doubt, and why they needed him involved at all Oswald couldn’t imagine. A petty vindictive worm, that’s what Tom Blake was.
Selina would make them all a fortune. In one week, most likely, she could set them all up for life. Damn Hugo –kwak–. Damn Blake –kwak–. Damn them all.
Felicity greeted Bruce Wayne at the front desk of the Moggie’s Purr Day Spa with the same suggestively feline manner she’d exhibited at his office, the same manner she’d exhibited at the Iceberg in her hope to attract Tom Blake. She recommended the spa’s signature package, the Moggie’s Purr: “A sixty-minute deep tissue massage accompanied by the soothing sound of a cat purring.” As an added bonus, she said, Mr. Wayne could keep the CD of recorded purrs, ideal for at-home meditation, relaxation and self-healing.
He agreed and Felicity turned him over to a new girl, “Mau,” the most unabashedly feline specimen so far. As Mau escorted him into a plush salon, Hugo Strange watched from behind a two-way mirror.
Soon. Soon the soft lull of the cat’s purr, and the inaudible but highly functional binaural tracks hidden within those sounds, would gently produce soothing theta waves in Bruce Wayne’s brain, which, coupled with the sedative in the massage oil, would induce a state of deep relaxation and intense suggestibility.
Soon, Batman could be switched off with a simple verbal command, enabling Hugo’s agents to escape from any confrontation without fear of pursuit. Soon the destruction of the Batman would begin!
“I don’t ask much of my friends and colleagues,” Eddie complained to the chalkboard, which now displayed five smaller white question marks surrounding the original oversized green one. “I ask only that they not occupy Batman’s attention when I am trying to leave a riddle at the Bat-Signal, and that they not be stupid. It really isn’t too much to ask.”
This Oswald puzzle would drive him mad! The Penguin was one of the all-time great Gotham rogues, and the question of how such a mastermind could be reduced to a tired cliché like “evil health spa” remained unanswered.
Then Oswald compounded the riddle by sending word that this great “boon” was now ready: A trigger phrase implanted in BATMAN to make him abandon pursuit of any criminal that uttered it??? It made no sense—Oswald said the Bat-password was now in place—a done deal. How could he possibly have achieved such a thing? And how did the Moggie’s Purr day spa fit in? And what was a Moggie anyway?
A quick trip to Google answered the last question; it was a cat of mixed ancestry, the feline equivalent of a mutt—which didn’t get him any closer to solving the Oswald question. A “cat-mutt” only reminded him of Tom Blake, the Catman, who the tabloids had turned into a Greek god, while their new take on the Riddler’s appearance could best be described as “Colin Farrell meets Boy George.” Catman with a hoard of delicious cat-girl groupies, while the only persons hanging around the Iceberg hoping to meet the Riddler were the understudies from the Rocky Horror Show and… wait… Catman groupies were staffing Oswald’s Zoolander day spa, which had a cat-theme “Moggie’s Purr,” and somehow or other they got a trigger phrase implanted into Batman…
But Oswald didn’t know Batman’s secret identity and neither did Tom Blake. There’s no way they could know they had him in their spa unless… Someone else was involved, someone who did know Batman was Bruce Wayne, and that was a short list.
HUGO! Hugo Strange was NOT one of the great Gotham rogues. Hugo Strange was not old guard like Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman. Hugo Strange was just the sort of addled nitwit that would come up with a mind-numbingly stupid cliché like an Evil Day Spa!
Riddler marched up to the chalkboard, erased the question marks, cracked his knuckles, and set to work.
Barbara knew her Oracle filters couldn’t detect each and every piece of authentic bat-paraphernalia that came up on eBay. There were always typos and erroneous descriptions. Even if she could locate every “Gotam City Bataroon” that came up for sale, there would be so many fakes to sift through, she wouldn’t have any time left to function as Oracle. Her automated routines weren’t perfect, but she was satisfied that they acquired most of the loose Batarangs.
It was only when Dick was outbid on that Haley Circus poster that it occurred to her to tag the others who bid against her in the Batarang auctions and investigate their future buying. That was how she discovered “SigmundFledermaus,” who had purchased, as nearly as she could determine, two genuine Batarangs. SigmundFledermaus… it warranted further investigation.
In her present state of mind, Selina wasn’t thrilled about meeting Eddie for drinks at the Plaza (“just like old times, eh, ‘Lina?”), but given the funk he was in since his birthday, she didn’t see how she could refuse.
He had her favorite drink waiting when she arrived, and he was glowing with pleasure as she sat down as if it was the first good thing that happened to him all day. It was hard to ignore.
“So,” he announced, placing his palms on the table with a determined glint after she raised her glass to her lips, “How many years has it been, my ‘WEAK LION,’ hm? Want to team up, ‘Lina? We could set the city on its ear. I see you in green.”
Selina smiled affectionately as she took her cue. “I work alone,” she pronounced firmly.
“LAKE I NO ROW,” Riddler exclaimed, lifting his hand to his brow in an exaggerated pose of dramatic woe as he churned out anagrams on the familiar phrase. “OK, A LIER WON—OW LINEAR OK—WEAK LION OR… The lady works alone.”
“There’s no one like you, Eddie,” Selina laughed, “And there never will be… Thank god.”
He smiled, then turned serious.
“They were good days.”
“They were,” she agreed. “Eddie, you’re forty, you’re not dead. Get yourself a hot sports car… or beat up Azrael. Both are great for the ego.”
He grinned sadly. “That how you do it?”
She raised a dangerous eyebrow.
“Massage the old ego now that you’ve hung up your whiskers.”
“Ex-cuse me?” Selina blurted, nearly spilling her drink in shock.
“C’mon, ‘Lina, you forget I know the real story there: you, Bruce, cat, m-hm-bwm-vwm,” he added, making a subtle flapping motion with his hands to punctuate the nonsense syllables, “and not so much anymore with the best thief in Gotham City-meow-purr-hiss.”
“Good bye, Eddie” Selina spat, standing and collecting her purse, “Enjoy your midlife crisis. It’ll go real well with the receding hairline.”
“Now that hurt, Selina,” he replied sincerely. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to offend you. I didn’t know it was a hot button. You have given it up, haven’t you?”
“Technically,” she admitted.
“Well, I’m sorry I upset you, in any case” Eddie went on, and Selina sat back down. “I won’t mention it again.” He pressed his fingers to the front of his hairline delicately, as if feeling for blood.
“I’m sorry I took the shot about your hair,” Selina sighed mechanically. “I did know it was a sore spot. I just wasn’t prepared for that kind of… insinuation… damnit, Eddie.”
“I didn’t insinuate anything,” he insisted.
“Maybe not, but… it felt like…”
“Selina,” he said with a strange gravity she’d never heard before, “Have you got anybody at all over there you can talk to about this stuff?”
After a pause, she smiled.
“I’ve got Whiskers, I’ve got Nutmeg, I’ve got the gal in the mirror. I’m fine, Eddie.”
“You need a sports car,” he declared, reverting to the lighter mood, “or to beat up Azrael.”
“Or a really good win,” he added.
“Yeah,” she admitted. “A win… would be meow.”
The night the first reports hit the Iceberg, Oswald should have been elated. Rumors of wildly improbable escapes from Batman, backed up with celebratory rounds of drinks for everyone at the bar and an extra C-note for Sly just for being the best goddamn bartender in the best goddamn city in the world, Hurrah!
A barful of gleeful patrons falling over each other to buy each other drinks, and he got twenty percent of the windfall they were celebrating. He should have been ecstatic, but all his greedy mind could think of was Catwoman. Nigma let it slip that his favorite Felonious Feline was finally fed-up with her fence. The lovely alliteration made the ravenous birdman salivate. For years, Penguin had been shut out of the most profitable fencing opportunity in Gotham: Catwoman was headquartered here, Catwoman the best thief in the world, Catwoman who came regularly into his nightclub, called him “Pengy” and “Ozzy” and taught his bartenders to make her special martini. Catwoman lived HERE and yet she gave her business to that Beverly Stendal in Argentina, Igor Fabricant in Brussels, and Anna however-you-say-that-name in San Francisco.
One time Catwoman had given him the chance to feather his nest and he’d laid an egg. She’d just taken up with Bruce Wayne, a new world of fabulously wealthy Gothamites opened up to her, and she’d given Oswald a chance to bid. He thought he’d offered a fair price, but it was too low and she was insulted. He was too “small-time” for her.
Penguin could not let another such opportunity pass him by. He was not small-time; he had a password in his possession to shut off Batman.
Twenty percent of everything Catwoman stole plus the fencing contracts… it was the chance of a lifetime. And the Penguin did not take policy from the likes of Hugo Strange.
To be continued…