It was a fine spring day. Nannies, governesses, children, and officers all promenaded through the Summer Garden in St Petersburg. The officers discussed their friend Hermann spending all his nights glumly watching play at the gaming tables without ever joining in.
“I don’t believe I’m watching this,” Edward Nigma thought, too struck by the mind-bending wrongness of the situation to even word it as a question.
What was the crumbiest thing Batman had done to him over the years? There, worded as a question and a question worth asking: What was the very worst thing the Bat had ever done? the lowest of the low? the most diabolical, sadistic and mean?
The Queen of Spades. Best anagram that he’d come up with since the usher tore his ticket: HE-FOP NEEDS A QUEST. It was an opera by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (KITTY HELP IS VERY CHIC…OAK, he was still working on that one) based on a short story by Aleksandr Pushkin (DARK PLAN HE SINKS U).
Hermann appeared and revealed the reason for his gloom: he was in love—passionately but hopelessly, since he was poor and the object of his desire was noble and out of his reach. He rejected his friend’s cheerful suggestion that another woman would do just as well.
The official excuse was a business trip, “Bruce Wayne was away on business.” Whether he really had a Wayne Tech deal in London running a few days longer than expected, or if he was tied up (literally, one hoped) in Nepal or Mongolia—or maybe the third moon of Sirius-4, that was anybody’s guess. But whatever the reason, he wasn’t available to use his box at the opera, and Selina didn’t want to go alone.
Of course, that didn’t mean Eddie had to go with her. But when she’d called with the invitation, he realized that he missed her. They didn’t get together like they used to. And besides, he’d given her a nasty conk in the head the night of the Gotham Post party. Mind controlled or not, real friends made up for that kind of thing.
Despite his lingering anger, Batman calmly removed the buckle and several metal cylinders from his utility belt and placed each in the Watchtower’s trans-spectral decontamination pod with methodical precision. Knowing that each object should be isolated by a four-inch perimeter to avoid any reflective-recontamination, he resigned himself to a second and possibly a third round of treatments. He still had to decontaminate the batcuffs, two batarangs, and his chest emblem.
“The chamber could be twice the size without drawing any more power from the system,” he noted acidly. “I’ll have Wayne Tech send up the appropriate equipment next week.”
“Is that really necessary?” Superman noted mildly.
“Forty-five minutes instead of fifteen, Clark. Maybe your time isn’t that valuable, but mine is. There are other things I could be doing right now.”
“I meant is it necessary to decontaminate at all. It was magic, Bruce.”
“No, the Dhumavati Priestess thought it was magic, but it behaved like radiation, it burned like radiation, and that ‘chalice’ looked like some kind of primitive alpha emitter. Yesterday’s ‘magic’ is today’s ‘science.’”
“It knocked me back—”
“Not every force that affects you is magic, Clark.”
“You still think that cat’s eye on the chalice was kryptonite?”
“I plan to analyze the fragments,” he grunted. “I’ll let you know.”
Superman nodded, then chuckled.
“Cat’s eye kryptonite,” he mused. “Boy, that would have made for a fascinating subplot once upon a time. How is Selina, anyway?”
Batman stared coldly.
“She’s at the opera,” he said flatly.
It had to be said, Eddie admitted reluctantly, if you had to go to the opera, this was the way to do it. Selina, absolutely stunning in a strapless evening dress, displaying the creamiest shoulders in existence, was there with him. No man, however platonic a friend, could be completely immune to that ego boost. The back half of the box was a little anteroom with a standing order from the bar. Waynes, it seemed, didn’t wait in line like the hoi polloi at intermission. They had two glasses of champagne delivered to their box before the show and at each act break.
Plus, it was a rich crowd. The opening night of the first opera of the season. The best of the best, wearing their best. While Riddler hadn’t left any clues for tonight’s event, there was nothing to stop him making plans for the future… These people in the boxes didn’t buy a ticket for a single show. They’d be in these same seats for the next opening, and the next, and the next, season after season and decade after decade. They’d leave their subscriptions to their kids, right along with the jewels they wore. It made a good link for a crime spree, an unseen link connecting a seemingly random series of victims. Any given opera would yield a thousand possibilities for clues… Of course, while the victims would seem random to the police, to Batman (a.k.a. Bruce Wayne—lifetime season box holder for the Gotham Metropolitan Opera) the connection between the victims would be easier to spot. Would it be too easy? That was the first question mark to address.
And since old Hermann was still moaning, melodically and in Russian, about his doomed love life, Riddler turned his attention to the audience. Wayne had the best box, of course, the shit. Some ancestor probably built the damn opera house. Another night, Bruce Wayne himself would be sitting where Eddie was, Selina beside him, the lucky bastard, and then any guests they invited to join them—the box could accommodate up to three more couples… While a duel with Bruce Wayne would be a pleasure, taking on Selina that way was unthinkable. So much for Box #1. Nigma lifted his opera glasses and tuned his attention to the next…
He started. In the next box over, a similar pair of opera glasses were trained on him. It was that Richard Flay character. There were others in the box with him, but all Eddie saw was Flay. They seemed to run into each other whenever he ventured into one of these society shindigs, and given the interest Flay always showed in him, breaking into the guy’s house in the middle of the night did not seem like a good idea. “Edward, how divine! You’ve finally come to see my art collection!” No. And kidnapping would be even worse. Flay could have very different ideas about what constituted a suitable ransom and might be all too willing to pay it. (He didn’t even want to think about what the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ might lead to.) Nigma moved his gaze beyond Flay’s box into the next…
Again he started. Again, opera glasses were pointed at him—along with a bejeweled finger. Eddie recognized the woman doing the pointing; she was hard to forget. Claudia something-or-other Muffington. She’d gone to the Gotham Post party, she’d gone as Poison Ivy, she’d met Harvey Dent, and apparently he wasn’t holding the leafy bustier against her because he was sitting right there next to her. In fact, Harvey was pointing too, now, pointing straight at Eddie (or possibly at Selina, at the very least at their box) and whispering something into Claudia’s large ruby earring that made her smile.
..:: Where are you? ::.. the harsh no-nonsense Oracle voice demanded on the com.
Nightwing glanced around the laboratory. He didn’t see any kind of shielding that would interfere with the OraCom’s tracking capabilities. He saw cages, rabbits, foxes, and monkeys.. They did medical research. There were no radiation chambers or lead housing, nothing that would mess with the OraCom. And even if there had been, having seen him go into the building and not come out, it didn’t exactly require Holmesian deductive skills to figure out he was still in there.
“Stand by,” Nightwing said brusquely, and then returned his attention to the night staff, a combination guard/caretaker who was still shaken from the break in. ‘Wing had begun by treating the man like a fellow professional, a security guard who had interrupted some radical student group breaking in to Free The Animals! and had simply done his job. But first impressions were deceiving: The “security guard” didn’t consider himself any such thing. He was the guy who came in at night and kept an eye on the animals. The idea of people breaking into the lab never occurred to him. It’s not like they did the kind of research anyone would object to. Twelve years, they never had a bit of trouble. That brought Nightwing’s attention back to the “radical students” who, it turned out, were no such thing. They were burglars, plain and simple. Trying to steal the monkeys, not free them. And for money, not a cause. Probably $10,000 a pop.
‘Wing did his best to calm the caretaker, understandably shaken by his first contact with real criminality, but who had confronted it very bravely and protected the animals in his care. In other circumstances, if it was a seasoned guard watching the perps, he would have left knowing the police would be by to collect the culprits within the hour. But seeing that this was a shaken civilian, he stayed. While they waited, he learned the guard’s name was Paul, he’d lived twenty years in Gotham before moving to Bludhaven, and this was the first he’d ever seen of a costumed vigilante. He asked what Batman was like.
Thirty minutes later, Nightwing left the lab with the sour aftertaste of a lie still clinging to his tongue. He’d said Batman was a stand-up guy, which was true enough, that Gotham was lucky to have him, also true enough, and then, asked point blank what it was like to work with the Dark Knight Detective, Nightwing said it’s an honor and a privilege.
Listlessly, he clicked on the OraCom, knowing one of those with whom he shared the honor was about to flog him with it.
..:: ‘Wing, where the hell are you? You don’t put me on standby for 45 minutes without a check in. ::..
He pointed out the tracker Oracle kept on everyone except Batman, and that she should have no trouble seeing exactly where he was.
..:: I know how my system works, ::.. she said acidly. ..:: I meant where are you on the case, because if it’s nothing crucial, come home. ::..
..:: I’m going to throw my computer out the window, ::.. she said flatly.
Nightwing said nothing. He knew the frustration level in Gotham was climbing by the day. That’s why he’d been turning his attention more and more to Bludhaven. Barbara and Tim were plenty sore about it, but Bruce seemed to respect it. For all the new protocols and procedure checks he was pressing on the others, he was talking to Dick more and more like an equal.
“Roger, O. I can call it a night. Should I bring anything?”
..:: Yes. Sledgehammer. For the parts that won’t go out the window. ::..
“How about a hot fudge sundae, like old times,” he suggested. “Pretend you beat me at foozball.”
..:: Argh, you had to bring that up. Do you know what he did to Robin and Batgirl? ::..
Nightwing tuned it out. He could be as critical of Bruce as the next man, and he had no love of Zogger, but he was sick of everyone complaining about ‘doing their homework’ essentially. The bottom line was: training was important. Discipline was important. This was life and death stuff, not Psychobat going psycho for no good reason. He’d done plenty of Zogger in his day, twice a month like clockwork and extra sessions when Bruce was worked up about Catwoman. Did he whine and complain about it? Hell, no. Alfred wouldn’t hear of it, for one thing. “If you are no longer amenable to the demands of the vocation you have chosen,” Dick could imagine him saying, “it is certainly best that you reconsider the decision now.”
He stopped at the all night Dairy Queen closest to the condo, bought a hot fudge sundae and a banana split for himself, and headed home.
By the end of Act I, Eddie decided that Hermann’s romantic failures had less to do with his finances and more to do with his whining. Since the lights were coming up for intermission, he shared this thought with Selina.
“Let’s say for a minute his little scheme works out,” he began excitedly. “It can’t, because he wants to talk to the Countess at the masked ball and no scheme hatched at a masked ball is going to work; even a newbie should know that much. But let’s put that aside and say it does. Let’s say he lucks out and Countess Whatsherdress tells him her magic secret for winning at the gaming tables. He wins a fortune, buys himself a commission and a title, social position, all the bells and whistles. He still won’t get the girl, you know why?”
“Because he whines?” Selina said, picking up his rhythm.
“Because he whines,” Eddie pronounced. “Not just to his friends, but right there on Whatshername’s balcony. He stood right there in front of the lady he professes to love and he whined about it.”
“Sang,” Selina corrected. “It’s called an aria.”
“It’s called being a whiny little priss. No woman worth having would put up with that.”
“He declared his love,” Selina pointed out. “What would you have him do, just keep quiet and never tell her?”
“Might be for the best,” Eddie said with quiet resolve.
“Then he’ll never know if he had a chance.”
“He doesn’t have a chance. It’s an opera.”
“They don’t all end badly, you know,” she said, smiling.
“A Russian opera,” Eddie countered.
“Point,” she conceded. “Come on, let’s stretch our legs, see and be seen.”
“An opening night at the Gotham Opera,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “Promenade behind the dress circle and the private boxes you have to inherit from God. Socialites and the climbers trying to impress them… What do you call a target rich environment, eh ‘Lina?”
“Meow,” she answered with a grin.
The Dhumavati cult which devoted itself to the Seventh Aspect of the Goddess, personifying the destruction of the world by fire when only smoke from its ashes would remain, had been a little confused in its iconography. In Hindu tradition, the Goddess’s vehicle was a lion. But the prevalent image in the cult’s temple and weaponry, as well as the death maze where they trapped Batman and Superman, was a tiger. The maze itself was based on a quatrain in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, where a royal hunting lodge had fallen into ruin and been reclaimed by the tigers that had once been prey.
The tigers in this case, meant to tear Batman, a weakened Superman, and any other intruders to shreds, had been undernourished and enraged by electrical shocks from jeweled collars. Once the greater threat of the Dhumavati’s Fire Cyclone was neutralized, Superman brought in a team from Star Labs to take control of the base, including the death maze—and the tigers. The specialists were able to render immediate aid on site, but once the preliminaries were completed, the team leader had been very clear: Star Labs had neither the facilities nor the expertise to care for six Bengal tigers, and the animals’ treatment in captivity made them poor candidates for a wildlife sanctuary.
Now, with twenty minutes still to go before the decontamination cycle was finished (and Batman could get the hell out of the Watchtower and back to Gotham where he belonged), Superman was back with printouts. Photos of each of the tigers, health profiles, details of their living conditions with the Dhumavati cult.
“Just tell her about it, Bruce, that’s all I ask.”
“Selina is a fairly intelligent woman, Clark. You think she won’t have a pretty good idea what happened when she sees the claw and bite marks in the body armor—not to mention my thigh.”
“But once she hears how they were mistreated, not having enough food, and those electrodes in the collars… She already has a preserve, I’m sure she’d be willing to take them in.”
“Clark, may I remind you that when you found out I was seeing Selina Kyle, you, J’onn, and Arthur came to me full of dire warnings about ramifications for the League. You dismissed my perfectly just observation that it was none of your damn business, and exacted my personal oath that my involvement with ‘the criminal who had a history of breaking into this very facility’ would never affect the Justice League.”
“Well… Yes, Bruce, but c’mon, that was a long time ago, and Selina is—”
“And now, you want to use that very involvement you made such an issue of to make me your errand boy, show her some sappy photos of the poor malnourished cats so she’ll take them in and solve a League problem for you—”
“Bruce!” Superman cut him off. “She’s Catwoman, they’re tigers, she has a preserve? What’s the problem here?”
The batscowl shifted but didn’t soften.
“If you want anything from Selina, you should ask her yourself and leave me out of it.”
“Okay,” Superman said gingerly. “Consider this the ‘advance notice’ you’re accustomed to that I’ll be coming into Gotham tomorrow.”
“You could always telephone,” Batman observed sourly.
“I could, but asking is better in person.”
“Just leave my name out of it,” Bruce repeated.
Eddie might have found Hermann a more sympathetic character in Act II as he became gripped by an obsession that would destroy his only chance at love, but Eddie was now gripped by an obsession of his own. A puzzle had presented itself at intermission, and he was no longer watching the opera at all.
Harvey Dent was taking Claudia Reisweiller-Muffington to the Iceberg Lounge after the show. They’d clearly assumed Selina and Eddie would be going there as well, and Claudia (who Harvey had actually called “Muffy” with a straight face) seemed to be maneuvering to “make it a foursome.” As it happened, Eddie had been debating if he should suggest a drink and a nibble after the opera, but if he did, he was thinking somewhere a short walk from the opera house. Not going all the way down at the Iceberg!
Once Harvey and “Muffy” disappeared into the crowd, Eddie turned to feel out Selina on the situation—when he saw she’d been shanghaied by that Ashton-Larraby woman (Harley Quinn at the Gotham Post party, and twice as nuts as the original in Eddie’s opinion).
So Eddie turned back—only to be met by that too-friendly and too well-dressed Richard Flay.
In desperation, he had struck up a conversation with the first person he could grab. He couldn’t place her, but she looked familiar and he said so. He thought maybe he knew her from the Gotham Post party where he’d seen most of these people last. But no, the woman—whose name was Penelope Vraag, she said, and that did ring a bell—recognized him just fine and she knew exactly where she knew him from. No, not from the Post party or the MoMA opening before that. He had—
VRAAG! Of course, it was Dutch for “Question!”
—He had kidnapped her cousin six years ago.
And then, before he could come up with an anagram for awkward coincidence (I’D WON A CRACKED WINCE), she asked if he was enjoying the opera.
It wasn’t Edward Nigma’s first encounter with that level of well-mannered breeding that bordered on Arkhamesque disconnect from reality, but it was the most striking.
He told Penelope Vraag, whose cousin he had kidnapped six years ago, that he was enjoying the music immensely but he thought the woman singing Lisa was a bit off. He figured after that, having demonstrated her unshakable composure in making polite chit-chat with that awful villain she was so unfortunate as to run into, she would now turn her back on him and disappear from his life forever.
Except she didn’t. She agreed about Lisa, praised his critical ear, and mused about the staging spectacles to come for the masked ball. She stood there, chatting with him quite casually through the whole intermission. She never got around to the horrified shunning. Her manner remained poised, agreeable and kind of… flirty.
“Oh man, you are so whipped,” Tim blurted when Nightwing came through the window performing ‘the old coolant bag wrapped around a nested bowl to keep the hot fudge sundae intact coming up the flyline trick.’
Nightwing took in the scene before answering. Tim and Cassie, in costume but unmasked, sat in his living room apparently talking to Barbara, who sat with a laptop propped on an endtable, with an OraCom video window open on the screen.
Nightwing answered Tim’s satisfied smirk with a hard, dead batstare, and then pointed. “She’s my wife,” he announced emphatically.
Barbara giggled, delighted, and sent Cassie to get extra spoons from the kitchen. Nightwing removed his mask. And when Cassie returned, Barbara pointed like a hostess at a dinner party indicating where each guest would sit. Cassie, it was decreed, would share Dick’s sundae and Tim would share hers.
“None for you,” she said to her computer screen—and only then did Dick notice it was Huntress in the video window, on a wrist-com judging by the angle, and under the 10th Avenue Bridge judging by the background.
“So anyway,” Tim said as if resuming an earlier complaint, “These ‘full reports weekly instead of fractured updates,’ what does that even mean?”
“It means instead of just copy/pasting your log entries, take the five minutes to make it into a real report,” Dick answered automatically.
“Well, yeah, okay. But what about the internal links in the logs. I’m not going to put footnotes and a bibliography in my log entries.”
“When you encounter a weapon we haven’t seen before,” Dick said firmly, “It is worth the ten minutes it takes to check and see if it’s commercially made, and link the entry to that info. It could be damn important for finding the guy and maybe ultimately linking him to a crime. If it’s not commercially made, then it’s doubly important, because I for one like to know what I’m up against out there. If Victor Frieze came up with something new, I’d rather know now before it’s pointed at my head.”
Tim said nothing. He looked silently at Cassie and then at Barbara.
“Guess I should go,” he said quietly.
The meeting quietly broke up. Tim murmured a sheepish “Sorry, Bro” before he left.
Dick turned belligerently to Barbara.
“Is that really a good idea, getting everybody together to bitch about Bruce?”
“C’mon Dick, you can’t say he’s been exactly reasonable since the whole Ivy thing. ‘Things have gotten too lax, and things are starting to get missed. We should have seen X, Y and Z coming way before we did,’” she mimicked. “Like anybody could predict a crooked Coast Guard officer giving her boyfriend the slip number of the wrong boat that was smuggling in drugs for the Marzettis instead of diamonds for Cobblepot.”
“Maybe not, but with all that goes on in this city on any given day, it doesn’t do any harm to take a closer look.”
“As long as I’m looking at the right thing!” Barbara snapped. “In keeping with the dictates of Operation Know-Everything, I found something I thought was noteworthy: Opera season opens tonight. Know what they’re doing? The Queen of Spades. As in a playing card. I point this out and Bruce bites my head off.”
“Because Joker and Harley are safely up the river?” Dick asked, wincing.
“Because they’re both in Arkham, yeah, and because he already knew.”
“I’d guess so. He is on the board, he’s got the best box in the opera house, and I think some great aunt or somebody founded the opera guild.”
“Fine. So he knew,” Barbara finished listlessly. “It’s still no reason to bite my head off.”
“No, it’s not,” Dick agreed, wrapping his arms around her. “I’m sorry you had a bad night, Babs.”
She stretched and then settled into his embrace.
“Bytes has a new trick,” she muttered, settling down into more trivial complaints. “He crawls between the keyboard and the side monitor, curls up and takes a nap.”
“The fiend,” Dick laughed.
“He gets fur and cat fluff in my keyboard,” Barbara countered.
“The diabolical fiend,” Dick added with dramatic flare.
Barbara started laughing too, but continued her complaints.
“Then he’ll stretch out and push the keyboard into the OraCom.”
“The fiendish, Mephistophelean devil!” Dick declared.
By now, both were laughing stridently, waking Bytes, who hopped into the middle of the merriment and started chewing on Nightwing’s discarded mask.
Eddie had a theory, and Hermann had pulled a pistol on the Countess, frightening her to death before learning her secret—which meant that Act II was nearing its conclusion. So he pulled Selina into the anteroom in the back of the Wayne box to share his thoughts before the lights came up for the second intermission.
“Bruce Wayne with Catwoman,” he began grimly. “Claudia Muffington with Harvey Two-Face Dent. Seeing a pattern here? Because they are. We’re gonna be the new fad, like those rat dogs the fashionistas were dressing up last year.”
“Eddie,” Selina breathed philosophically, “shall we discuss how many rules you’ve just broken before I toss you out of the box and into the orchestra pit?”
“No, no, no,” he shook his head frantically. “I didn’t say a word about Bats, did I? I said Catwoman and Bruce Wayne, there’s no rule about that—”
“And the rat dogs?” Selina interrupted, raising a dangerous eyebrow. “I was likened to a toy poodle, Eddie.”
“Bad example. What if I said you’re a… oh, what do they call those big silk scarves with the—never mind. Point is, Bruce Wayne and Catwoman, Muffy Whatshername and Two-Face, that Ashton-Nutcase giving a rogue party, Richard Flay chases me from the caviar to the foie gras every time I come to these things, now this Penelope Vraag is ready to forgive and forget my kidnapping her cousin. Don’t you get it? We’re the big new thing, the restaurant you have to get into before anyone else, the accessory you can’t do without. Selina, we’re ‘the new black.’”
“Pfft. Eddie, really. You can’t throw a stone around here without hitting someone whose mother, sister, or neighbor didn’t have a safe, a painting, or a party that I went for at some point. None of them ever made an issue of it, and I guarantee it’s not because Gladys Ashton-Larraby wants to get into my tights.”
He considered this for a moment, then, as the music died down and the lights came up, he shook his head, unconvinced.
“No, I still say something is up and I’m going to prove it,” he declared. “I’m going to tell Harv and ‘Muffy’ that we’ll go to the Iceberg with them after all. I’ll do it loud enough that word will get around—”
“No,” Selina objected. “I brought my suit, I’m prowling after the show.”
Eddie pursed his lips slightly, not quite liking the announcement, or the way it was phrased, coming from Selina. Prowling after the show, it sounded so… batty.
“You don’t have to come,” he assured her. “I’m just saying that we’re going to see what happens. I bet I have three dates to go in your place by the time Lisa throws herself in the river.”
Selina shrugged, and the door to the box opened. Behind the young man bringing their champagne, a conspicuous mass of satin and sequins hovered just outside. Selina noted Claudia Muffington, Bunny Wigglesworth, Binky Sherborn and Penelope Vraag, all positioned just a little too casually where someone coming out of the Wayne box couldn’t help but notice them.
“AW BLENT HECK” Eddie said confidently.
“Maybe,” Selina sighed.
To be continued…