∞ ∞ ∞
There’s no downplaying a newsworthy event if the head of a newspaper is involved. Superman and Batman had anticipated the Riddler’s crime, stopped him from grabbing Harold Avies and stopped him from getting the Einstein notebooks, but they had not prevented his escape. That meant he would try again and it would be prudent to control the information released to the public, keep it vague and keep it to a minimum—not the easiest proposition in the Publisher’s office of the Daily Planet.
Once they’d secured Harold at the train station, the first priority was moving the meeting where the formal transfer of ownership was to occur. The museum officials, lawyers, bankers, curators, insurance and security advisors, authenticators, and Princeton representatives were already gathered at the Science and Industry Museum waiting for Harold’s arrival. Superman went to collect them while Batman personally escorted Harold Avies to an alternate location, one determined on the spur of the moment, where the Riddler could not possibly have any plans in place to interfere: Paula Winn’s office on the top floor of the Daily Planet.
Unfortunately, Winn’s paralytic timidity with Bruce Wayne seemed to be a localized phenomenon. With Batman, she was more than formidable, a tigress defending her twin cubs: the Science Museum’s acquisition of the notebooks and the Daily Planet’s exclusive of a Riddler incident. After a ten-second introduction to Avies and a twenty-second inspection of the briefcase cuffed to his wrist, she turned all her attention to Batman: How could this Riddler have learned about the sale? How did he learn the courier’s movements? How did he escape? How could he escape from both Batman and Superman? How secure was this new location going to be anyway? Granted it wasn’t prearranged, so he couldn’t have intercepted any letters or memos about it, but if he could escape from Batman and Superman in the first place (and she never did get a clear answer on how that happened), mightn’t he have anticipated this change in plan and be ready to strike again?
∞ ∞ ∞
The counterintuitive. It’s something all upper level scientists must get used to. Sometimes the solution is the exact opposite of what common sense says it should be.
The counterintuitive reality Batman had to accept was that a professional reporter would be less of a nuisance than Paula Winn. So he maneuvered Winn into calling downstairs and having Clark Kent or Lois Lane sent up from the newsroom to cover the still-unfolding story. That way, the Planet wouldn’t be operating off the same dry press releases the museum would send everyone. Paula agreed—or to be precise, Batman presented it in such a way that she thought it was her idea. She called down to Perry White, Perry said Kent was out meeting a source but he’d send Lois up ASAP, and Lois, reading Batman’s hints, focused on the museum’s acquisition of the notebooks rather than Nigma’s attempt to steal them. She kept Paula occupied with a flood of background queries about the museum: how the sale came about, who approached whom, what other buyers they might have beaten out to obtain the notebooks for Metropolis, and what their plans were to display the new treasure… Freed of a burden (and making a mental note that Lois’s five-minute exclusive with Bruce Wayne should now be stretched to ten), Batman turned his attention to Harold.
“Y’know, I was just in Gotham,” the young man volunteered, still radiating the suave confidence of Harold Avies, interstate man of mystery. “I was just changing trains, but it seemed like a really great city. At least what I saw of it. Train station is a lot cooler than the one here.”
Never one to ignore praise for his city, Batman grunted before turning his attention to the briefcase shackled to Harold’s wrist.
“May I?” he asked abruptly, examining a double lock on the front that resembled those on a safe deposit box, requiring two keys to be turned simultaneously.
Harold consented, lifting his wrist and explaining (for the sixth time) that he was very sorry he couldn’t help but he himself was unable to open the case. A Ms. Garr from the museum had been sent one key in advance and Rupert Fantova, the official masterminding the sale on Princeton’s end, was bringing the other.
A rambling and pointless explanation followed: how it was really Fantova’s late wife who’d become such a friend of Einstein’s after he settled at Princeton—Well, really, she met him in the 20s in Europe, but it was more towards the end of his life that they really became close, having dinner together and going sailing—Did Batman know Einstein was a great sailor? He said it was “the sport which demanded the least energy.” He didn’t like any recreation that was mentally taxing; guess he had enough of that in his work. But anyway, this Fantova woman was also a librarian at the college, so when the time came for someone to become custodian of his notebooks…
A dark, brooding tension settled while the young man prattled on. The story might be interesting under other circumstances, but for now, a freeform recitation of Einstein trivia was the last thing Batman wanted to deal with. What made it worse was Lois and Paula’s growing interest in the tale. They had suspended their interview and were now listening to Harold’s endless stream of obscure Einstein factoids (Lois was particularly excited to learn the greatest mind of the 20th Century was a terrible speller), making it impossible for Batman to continue his discreet examination of the case. He withdrew to the outer office, called Clark, and suggested he hurry the party he was escorting from the museum because two of them were carrying keys that might make them a secondary target.
That accomplished, he tapped a control on the communicator that would let it function like an ordinary telephone. He keyed in Selina’s cell number and stared at it, wondering.
∞ ∞ ∞
..::Meow,::.. Selina answered promptly.
“Secure the line,” Batman ordered.
There was a soft click, and again she meowed.
Batman paused, unsure how to proceed.
“I’m… bringing something back when we’re done here, something for you to look at.”
..::Okay,::.. came the halting reply. ..::Line is secure, you know. You can speak freely—Oh, unless you can’t because of something on your end?::..
“No, no it’s not that,” he graveled. “I… I just want to see if you can open something.”..::Of course I can.::..
“You don’t know what it is yet.”..::Let’s start again. ‘Meow,’ I’m me. I can open it.::..
He scowled. The truth was he knew that before he called. Of course Catwoman could open the case, that went without saying.
..::What’s wrong, Stud?::..
But it still needled him to hear her say it.
“Nothing… Enjoy your waffle.”
Yet hearing her say it was the reason he called, wasn’t it?
He hung up.
Tense minutes passed until Superman arrived with Fantova and the others—and then everything became much tenser. Rather than walking them calmly through the door in a body, Superman was speed-running his charges in two at a time—and from some distance away judging by the lapse of several seconds between arrivals. The experience left them shaken and retching when he finally let go, but Batman paid little attention to that. He left Paula and Harold to look after the shaken officials, their condition hardly a concern compared to whatever moved Superman to take such an action.
“Stay in there and bolt the door,” Superman ordered when the last museum rep was safely in the office. Then he turned to Batman, seeming almost winded.
Batman knew the look. It seemed like exertion but it wasn’t; it was shock. Something had set Superman back on his heels.
“Come on, he’s here in the building!” Superman called, heading out the door again. “I don’t know how he could have known, but we ran right into him downstairs. Elevator doors opened and there he was, waiting for us. Batman, how could he have known?”
In the time it took the heroes to run to the lobby, Batman considered and rejected a dozen answers to that question. Could Nigma have placed a transmitter on Harold or even on Batman during the fight at the train station? Could he have guessed the fallback location? Could the whole episode at the station have been a ruse to force them to a fallback position he had already planned for? Could Harold himself be a mole or a decoy? Was this the elusive cat-connection finally revealed? Was Winn an obscure breed of lion or tiger that he’d never heard of? That even Selina never heard of? No, that was impossible, so if Winn was a tiger, she knew—Is that why she was here? Did he miss some clue to ask her about little known wildcats or… No. Paula Winn’s office was the improvised fallback; there was no way it or she could be referenced in the earliest clues…
They reached the lobby and scanned the crowd for any sign of Riddler. Finding nothing, Superman took the time to map out the positioning of the incident: The party from the museum came in the main entrance and gathered here in the elevator bay. They knew they would need two cars, maybe even three. They pushed the call button, and waited five or six here, a few more there, and the rest right over here. The number three elevator opened first, and there he stood, Nigma! Still in that chauffer getup, lying in wait.
“Or leaving the building,” Batman grimaced.
“What do you mean?” Superman asked.
“It’s the usual reason someone rides an elevator down to the lobby.”
Batman stared out the door, remembering an account of the Catwoman bankrobber disappearing into the busy lunchtime crowd on the streets of downtown Taranaki. Metropolis was about five-hundred times larger than Taranaki, and Planet Square was the pedestrian hub.
“Given the time it took to speed-run all your charges up to Winn’s office, and the time it took us to get down here, he could be anywhere by now if he headed straight out the door.”
“But why would he when he’d caught us with our—”
“No,” Batman shook his head. “He didn’t catch you. He wasn’t lying in wait. He was probably just as shocked as you were. Nigma couldn’t have known the meeting was moved here. It was a coincidence.”
“Something I say nightly dealing with villains of Riddler’s caliber. Scan the building. We’ll learn soon enough what he was doing here.”
Batman watched Superman’s face as he applied his X-ray vision to different foci, working floor by floor through the dense office building. He knew at once when his friend had found it—and reflected sourly that Nigma would have considered it a victory if he could have seen the dumbfounded shock settling onto Superman’s features as the image registered.
“Well?” Batman asked curtly.
“Nineteenth floor,” came the dull response.
∞ ∞ ∞
While Superman returned to Paula Winn’s office to safeguard the signing of papers, producing of keys, and opening of cases that would complete the Einstein sale, Batman went to the nineteenth floor to inspect the suite of offices Riddler had used as a hideout.
The first few objets d’riddle were fairly subtle: a giant Chinese checkerboard hung on the wall, a four foot tangram displayed in the reception area. To the casual visitor, one who just stepped through the wrong door, glanced around and walked back out, it could pass for art—albeit the work of an artist obsessed with games. As Batman moved further in, however, the more Nigmaesque the lair became. The largest office was painted his signature green. Giant crosswords hung on the walls. And the computer—rigged to hack into all the Daily Planet systems—was awash in decorative question marks. Question marks were painted onto the casing, onto the sides of the monitor and the printer. The desktop wallpaper displayed an especially ornate gold one on a green background, and—most Nigma of all—the question mark key on his otherwise black keyboard was replaced with a vivid Riddler green.
Batman inspected the room first, taking pictures of the crosswords on the walls for later study, uncovering a small cache of question mark weapons and some interesting notes on the desk—not in Nigma’s handwriting—evidently collected from the Daily Planet’s trash… Finally, he turned his attention back to the computer. By the time Superman arrived, he’d worked out the infiltration of the Planet’s commercial and personal ad databases. More importantly, he’d worked out how Nigma hacked Paula’s email and learned about the sale of the notebooks. Satisfied, he copied the entire hard drive to a memory stick and then turned his attention to Superman.
“These question marks are gas grenades,” he pointed out. “Those are explosives. These tiny ones are razor sharp. He can seed them through an enclosed space like an air duct to keep from being pursued—of course, the downside is he cuts off his own path that way as well.”
Superman gave a curt nod and asked if there was anything else. Batman explained how the hacking was done, and again there was a nod—although not quite as quick and confident.
“What’s his email alert?” he asked, suddenly remembering the STAR incident. “Not… the ‘default beep?’”
“You familiar with Mozart’s Dice Game?”
“Yes,” Superman lied.
“Look, they’re going to be done inspecting the notebooks upstairs,” Superman said quietly, although there was no one around to overhear. “I want to escort them back to the museum and see that the notebooks are properly secured. But Bruce, he’s going to try again. You said it yourself. A prize like that, he wouldn’t stop at one thwarted attempt, would he?”
“No, he’ll try again,” Batman agreed in tones so soft only Superman could hear.
“That’s why I was thinking, since she’s in town, maybe Catwoman should have a look at the place? Check out where they’re going to store the notebooks until they’re ready to go on display to the public, and then the security arrangements for the final exhibit where—”
The word “Catworthy” flashed through Bruce’s mind. He glanced back at the computer where a bright green question mark key seemed to taunt him.
“I don’t know. There’s entirely too much I still don’t know. She’s ‘in town’ because he brought her here, Clark. He’s making her central to all of this, and until I know why, I won’t play into his hands by—”
“You don’t think that…” Superman interrupted.
“No!” Batman answered definitely.
“I don’t either,” Superman said with quiet intensity. “Since we’re agreed they’re not working together, and she is the best when it comes to getting past locks that nobody is supposed to get past, I say we ask her to have a look.”
Batman looked again at the bright green question mark. That word “ask” did strike a chord. “He knew I was going to refuse, but he asked anyway and that was sweet of him.” She said it was nice to be asked…
“There’s a lot I still have to work out when I see her,” Batman growled definitely. “Once I know… then we can ask her.”
∞ ∞ ∞
Bruce Wayne had always stayed at the Four Seasons when he was in Metropolis, but Batman would never return through the suite’s window alone and in daylight. He would take a circuitous route through the service entrance, appropriate a waiter’s uniform, and return to the suite with a cart of dirty dishes collected from outside someone else’s room. But today Superman was with him, and Metropolis was used to Superman. If anyone did notice both heroes approaching a given floor of the building, there was nothing suspicious about it. A thrill to see Superman perhaps, but that negated any surprise at seeing that Gotham vigilante swinging through Metropolis skies.
They climbed through the window and saw Selina was stretched out on the sofa, watching CNN’s retro-coverage of the bomb scare—which popular punditry had apparently declared a laughable overreaction.
“Hey, fellas,” she greeted them, indulging in a magnificent feline stretch.
Batman grunted in reply and turned toward the bedroom to change, but he was stopped in his tracks at the sound of Superman’s response.
“Se-lina, good to see you again. Would have been nice to have you with us this morning. Catwoman is always such a spunky go-getter in the field. But I can’t begrudge you an extra hour’s beauty sleep when you turn out looking like that.”
Cat and woman were at odds. Cats respond to all praise of their appearance and person with nothing but pleased satisfaction that you finally noticed. Selina, on the other hand, had to wonder why Bruce’s friend and Batman’s ally was behaving like he just got a snortful of Ivy pheromones.
“Nice to see you too, Spitcurl,” she managed, safely acknowledging the compliments as felinity demanded, but prudently making a mental note to check her pink sapphire at the first opportunity for any sign of alternate-reality leakage.
Batman continued into the bedroom, and Selina pointed Superman to the remains of a fruit plate left over from breakfast.
“Clue-free this time, I promise,” she teased. “Help yourself if you’re hungry.”
He took an apple and sat next to her, watching as the television showed a close-up of Riddler’s “bomb.”
“Maybe this is his famed paranoia rubbing off on me,” she confided, nodding towards the bedroom, “but I don’t care how cute or silly something looks. If it shows up in a train station or an overpass, or near a medical center or a reservoir, and it’s not supposed to be there, then I’d much rather you get laughed at for hurling it into the sun than be sitting here listening to death tolls right now.”
“That’s not paranoia,” Superman said kindly. “It’s a different perspective. You’ve been in a room with a ticking bomb, Selina. You’ve looked down the barrel of a gun. For most people, the idea that there are others in the world who truly want them dead is unreal.”
“And,” Bruce added, entering from the bedroom, “the reality that someone would be prepared to act to bring that about is a distant, not-quite-believable notion. So they focus on the silly-looking creature on the front of the device and find the whole episode absurd.”
Selina smiled up at him and purred at Bruce Wayne’s lounging-around-the-suite ensemble.
“Well, the good news is nobody seems to know Eddie was behind it,” she said. “Present company excepted, obviously. And for what it’s worth, the silly creature is called a ‘Mooninite’ and the only anagrams I can get out of that are ‘Noontime’ and ‘Toe Minions.’”
He grunted, said he too thought the ‘bombs’ had little significance other than keeping the super-powered adversary occupied, and then he lapsed into silence.
Selina looked back and forth between the men; she seemed to be waiting for something.
“I like that shirt on you,” she told Bruce finally, like it was a bribe. “The blue brings out your eyes.”
He stiffened, as he had on a hundred rooftops when she’d purred sinful promises in his ear. She wanted something and would resort to this to get it, even in front of Clark…
“Hey, I have blue eyes too,” Superman noted, pulling on the sleeve of his costume.
Selina turned to face him… and agreed (in the same spirit and tone she used to humor rogues at the Iceberg) that he had very nice eyes—which, yes, the blue of his costume brought out beautifully—and you know what, it was the red of the cape that really set off the blue. It was all very, very, very meow.
Superman nodded, satisfied (although his satisfaction would have been short-lived if he knew she’d once used the same triple build meow to distract Killer Croc when he was set on twisting Nightwing’s head off).
For her part, Selina looked again from one hero to the other.
“Oh come on, guys!” she demanded finally, the dangerous seductress vanished into a playful kitten anticipating yarn. “What do I have to do to get my paws on this thing you want me to open?”
“Ah, yes,” Bruce said, remembering the phone call when he’d told her about it. He nodded to Superman, who zipped out the window. A moment later, Clark Kent walked in the door carrying Harold Avies now-empty briefcase.
“Open it,” Bruce said brusquely, then catching the angry flash in her eyes, he softened it with “I mean, see how quickly you can get it open.”
Her eyes gleamed with excitement as she took the case and turned it over, inspecting the double locks and then the seams and hinges.
“Hm, locks are right there in front, just like it seems. They’re so butch and obvious, I thought maybe those locks were a decoy and the real one was hidden somewhere in the back.”
She got up and headed for the bedroom.
“Wait, where are you going?” Bruce asked, getting up to follow. “It’s not open, you didn’t even try.”
“Oh, hang on,” she called back, “Don’t get your batarangs in a bunch.”
She returned a minute later—with a batarang along with a set of strange keys with the pins filed down to the base and only a tiny row of raised triangles remaining.
“It’s a double lock, like a safe deposit box, right,” she said, sliding one key into each lock, then pulling them out a notch. “Two keys turned at the same time. You can’t pick that the regular way.” She tapped each key expertly with the batarang, then handed it sweetly to Bruce. “Thank you,” she said brightly. Then she pointed to the key on the left and turned to Clark.
“Now you turn that one. On three…”
He looked helplessly at Bruce, who nodded again while Selina counted, “One- Two- Three.”
They turned the keys in unison, producing a sturdy double click within the mechanism as the lock released.
“Not bad, hm? Was that about two minutes, counting the trip to the bedroom to get the batarang?”
“Three minutes and ten seconds from when you began your inspection,” Bruce said grimly.
“Like I said, not bad,” Selina beamed, blowing on her nails and buffing one as if shining a claw.
Bruce glanced at Clark, uncertain how to proceed…
There was that last rooftop before they left Gotham. “Did we ride in together tonight so I would be stuck with you as my ride home and it would be damn tricky for me to take the Egyptian Wing home in the back of the Batmobile?” “Did you at least consider the possibility that I might Watergate it?” Then here in Metropolis, her delight baiting Superman that first afternoon, her thrilled amusement when he suspected her… And of course, there was Nigma’s offer, the Einstein notebooks were ‘Catworthy.’ She said it was nice to be asked… As much as Bruce was sickened by the possibility before them, Selina wouldn’t be. He could just tell her. She’d probably be delighted.
“At the train station, Nigma tried to grab the courier delivering the notebooks in this case, but the courier didn’t have the means to open it. I think that’s why he wanted you here in Metropolis. If he got his hands on this case, he’d need you to finish the job.”
Selina smiled, Cheshire style, then she reached over and kissed his cheek. She was delighted, just as he thought.
“The bump keys are from Kittlemeier,” she said with a grin. “Eddie’s got a set; he wouldn’t need me for a silly thing like that.”
“Are you sure?” he graveled.
“DAMNIT!” Bruce slammed his fist so hard and so suddenly against the case that Clark jumped. Selina didn’t appear to notice.
“You’re sure?!” he asked again.
“That Eddie has a couple bump keys? Yes. That he knows how to use them? Yes again. Bruce, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know what he’s after, that’s what going on,” he barked angrily.
“Yes, superficially the notebooks, but… but there seems to be more. He seems to be… including you too much. I thought maybe this was why.”
“Bruce, you know I’m not in any danger from Eddie, right?”
“Maybe not, but you are involved. He sent you the ‘E.’”
“Yes, he sent you an ‘E,’ too.”
“I’m the enemy,” he said grimly.
Selina flicked her finger subtly to Clark, who took a step towards the window and gazed out as if he’d never seen such a view.
“Bruce, I love you,” she purred softly. “But you have a hero-addled brain that just doesn’t get it. He took out a full-page ad in the newspaper, he put a riddle tutorial up on the scoreboard, he kidnapped Lois Lane—that’s the See Spot Run of crime in Metropolis—and Spitcurl didn’t notice. So he sent for who he knows. We’re not ‘the enemy,’ we’re home.”
Bruce rubbed his eyes and massaged his forehead.
“Einstein once said, ‘Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.’ I don’t think this is quite that simple.”
∞ ∞ ∞
Only one building remained from the first Metropolis World’s Fair in 1893. It had been the Palace of Fine Arts, the only structure built to be permanent. Because of the priceless art treasures it would contain, on loan from the capitals of the Europe, the slap-dash temporary construction used for the rest of the fair would not do. For fire and insurance purposes, it was built to last, even though it was destined to close like all the others at the conclusion of the fair. It was refaced and strengthened in the 1930s, and finally reopened as the Metropolis Museum of Science and Industry.
Selina said she’d be happy to “look over” the facility and give Superman a frank appraisal of their security. She went out that afternoon to walk through the public areas as an ordinary visitor and planned to return after dark as Catwoman.
Batman and Superman waited across the street in Kesel Park, keeping a sharp eye on the building.
“Just so I understand,” Superman said with exaggerated dignity, “we have to be here just in case my asking her to do this was part of Riddler’s plan, and Catwoman being in there right now with the notebooks is playing into his hands?”
“Correct,” Batman graveled.
“But she can’t know we’re here because?”
“She wouldn’t like it.”
Superman glanced at the dome of the building from where he just heard her whisper his name. Looking through the shell, he saw Catwoman lowering herself into the rotunda.
“She knows,” he said flatly.
Batman turned to him, scowling.
“She just told me,” Superman explained. “She must have picked up on your little trick to talk to me in public. She says she knows we’re here, and you shouldn’t be… um, shouldn’t be such a…”
Batman’s lip twitched.
“She doesn’t know. She doesn’t even know you can hear her. She’s just playing a hunch.”
“You can never be sure about a cat, Clark. You can only be sure about the woman. ‘Tightass’ sounds like the woman.”
Superman merely stared. Batman rummaged in his utility belt for the scrap of paper he’d taken from Riddler’s lair.
“Not to change the subject, but perhaps you can explain this,” he said, handing over the slip from a Daily Planet notepad, just like the ones on Clark and Lois’s desks. “That is your handwriting, I believe.”
“Ehhh,” Superman floundered.
“Catwoman. Bank rob. Priority CATch.” Batman read.
“Eh, well,” Superman began haltingly.
“Then the ‘cat’ in ‘catch’ is underlined three times,” Batman noted.
“Well, eh,” Superman muttered for variety.
“The diamond-shaped doodle in the lower corner looks like your emblem.” Batman added.
“It doesn’t refer to her, obviously,” Superman said hurriedly. “It’s the one in New Zealand. See, Selina had called me the day the story broke and, well, I felt I should do something.”
“To catch the one in New Zealand, I mean.”
“Just to protect Selina’s good name, you understand.”
“Okay, okay. She pushed my buttons, and I decided some very serious law enforcement was called for in response.”
Batman ceased glaring and turned away to face the museum again.
“Can’t think why I’d expect you to sympathize on that one,” Superman muttered.
…to be concluded…