The low-rise area west of the theatre district was poised to be Gotham’s next hotspot. Sprawling renovated lofts interspersed with charming historical walkups. The only condominium, Endicott Tower, was still unfinished and likely to remain so until Frank Endicott settled his dispute with Carmine Falcone or else found another source of concrete. Neither would happen overnight, so the area had time to find a neighborhood acronym that would give it the necessary cache. WesTheDi perhaps, although some residents favored EiToHu denoting the perimeter from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson where alpha residents would soon be strolling in the evenings, defining the neighborhood by their personal style.
Tonight, however, the tone was set by non-residents. The Batmobile crept quietly along Eighth Avenue, followed a few minutes later by a six-foot autonomous vine snaking its way to the intersection. After it disappeared, a lithe wisp of purple could be seen swinging gracefully along the same route as the Batmobile but traveling in the opposite direction.
..:: Vine snake, ::.. she reported on the OraCom.
..:: Same one as before? ::.. Batman asked, checking the rearview mirror to see if he could spot it.
..:: You think I can tell them apart? It’s leafy and it’s slithering under a mailbox, what do you want from me?::..
..:: At least she hasn’t found them, ::.. Selina offered cheerily.
..:: Neither have we, ::.. Batman countered.
..:: Woof. ::..
The OraCom went silent for the next fifteen minutes, during which, Psychobat seethed. When the situation with Catwoman first started to change, he allowed it only after he satisfied himself that each planned step would not impact his mission. Happiness for Bruce Wayne did not mean less Batman for Gotham. On the contrary, the improvements in his personal life seemed to infuse the mission with greater purpose. The realization that life is good made the taking of it so much worse. Even crimes that didn’t involve a death struck a deeper chord. The personal experience of a day-to-day existence that was… pleasant… To ruin that for people, to insert hardship and headaches and fear into their lives, it made him want to punch the perpetrators harder than ever before.
So far, so good. Life with Selina meant happiness for Bruce Wayne, happiness for her (a development in which he took a particular pride), and a more centered and focused Batman for Gotham. So far, so good. So far, he could tolerate all that had happened. But now—
..:: You’re still mad? ::..
..:: No, ::.. Bruce lied.
“Com’s on the fritz,” Robin said, landing on the fire escape where he usually hooked up with Batgirl at this time of night.
“Oracle say cell tower. Is new tower for phone by her building. Make interferity.”
“Interference,” Tim said with a smile, which then broke into a full laugh. “Interference from the cell tower? That’s the excuse she came up with? That tower’s been up for a month, why’s it only causing problems tonight, hm? I’ll tell you what it is. There’s a new encryption matrix on channels one and nine, that’s what’s playing hell with the other channels. I’m going over Saturday and help her sort it out. You should come. Dick’s making paella.”
“Why? And no say why Dick make paella. Is dumb joke and no funny. Know what I mean. Why new channel encrypt?”
Tim made a face and looked across the rooftops to the neon glow of Chinatown. He took out his grapnel and fired a line.
“I’ll tell you but it’s a long story and I’d rather tell it moving. We can check on Ra’s and get some spring rolls.”
Once it became clear that Harley’s contacting Selina was not part of Joker’s plan, that it had nothing to do with Mad Hatter or Cheshire Cats, that Harley was effectively going behind Joker’s back, Batman figured the address she gave for the meeting was an extra hacienda not currently in use. It would be worth checking—ANY lead was worth checking at this point—but he wasn’t expecting to find anything.
Selina agreed that he wouldn’t find Joker hunched over a worktable with a crate of explosives and a carton of beer hats, but she did worry that he might find something else. If Harley did use the empty haciendas for meetings she didn’t want Joker to know about…
“Why smirk? What funny?” Cassie asked irritably.
Tim didn’t think he was smirking, but he did feel his cheeks burn a little. He was a guy. And enemies or not, Ivy was a very hot woman and Harley was a crazy blonde bundle of energy. The idea of the two of them meeting in secret in some empty hacienda…
“STOP SMIRK AND TELL STORY,” Cassie ordered.
Tim sighed. Nobody should have to put up with a girlfriend who could read body language that well. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair.
“Stupid Tim. If no will tell, will get story from Nightwing. Will tell Nightwing must ask him because you no can tell without stupid smirk.”
“Okay, okay. Everyone knew Ivy would be on the war path after the orchid show. We had to figure the only reason she hadn’t attacked him yet was the same reason we haven’t arrested him: none of us know where he is. Ivy would be sure to go to any hacienda she knew about, and if she found it empty, she’d still be keeping an eye on it. Now, Selina’s got this idea in her head that whenever Ivy wants to snuff someone on the most wanted list, Batman’s her first call.”
“Right, that whole episode with her wanting to kill Clayface last year. Selina figured even if Ivy didn’t have the idea to start with, if she’s watching the hacienda and sees the Batmobile drive up: light bulb! There’s B, delivering himself right into her line of sight, right within greening distance. So Cat figured there’s only way to handle it…”
Alfred called it the “Joker walk.” Whenever the madman was free, Bruce’s step was a little more hurried whenever he approached the study. He didn’t sprint or anything, but there was a touch more urgency in his step: across the great hall, down the hallway past the dining room, past the drawing room door, and turning into the study. Dick and Tim knew the heightened movement also down in the cave. He’d make a beeline for Workstation 1 and check if there had been any new developments in the four to five hours he had been asleep. There would be a flicker of relief, nothing more, when no news reports were flagged. Then he would set the standard routines in motion: At Large list, traffic reports, weather forecasts and other pertinent information, all feeding into the Batmobile. He would tweak the subroutines—it was almost a nervous habit when Joker was free—Psychobat’s subconscious check: if Joker was free and there was no news, it could be because they had missed something.
Once the subroutines were under way, he headed into the costume vault to change… and there, propped up against his right gauntlet, was a note the size of a business card: “Gone ahead to the 41st Street hacienda. Catch up with you by 10. Meow”
The whole world tilted, like the slanted loop of that “h” in “ahead.” What was she doing? Gone ahead to the hacienda? What did that mean? Alone? What was she…
Yes, Psychobat would later concede, bringing her into his life was the right move. “Happiness for Bruce Wayne did not mean less Batman for Gotham,” et cetera, et cetera. And so much of his life was crimefighting, it was natural that he wanted her to be a part it. But he’d always imagined it as her standing beside him on a rooftop before swinging into battle together or sifting through data in the cave—not FINDING A NOTE in that cave that she was handling a dangerous operation without him! Not pulling up to Joker’s hacienda inside the armor of the Batmobile and seeing her stroll out, exposed and unprotected. Nothing but that thin leather costume to shield her, it made him feel he was the one exposed and vulnerable.
It was something about her walk that sent that wave of dread through his system like that first breath of fear toxin, her walk as she saw the Batmobile and strode up to it, it was that Job Well Done Swagger. She looked like an action hero who’d just set a bomb in the villain’s hideout, striding calm and determined towards the camera, never flinching as the building behind them explodes into an all-consuming fireball. A cliché, but an image so ingrained into the public psyche that Batman half-expected the hacienda to burst into a fiery explosion behind her.
“Sure you do, Cass. That slow motion walk they do in all the movie trailers, that music from Kill Bill blasting, then BOOM! FIREBALL! Zoom in for a close-up on the eyes, satisfied blink with little bits of shrapnel blowing past in slow motion behind them.”
“Catwoman no blow up hacienda.”
“No, I’m not sayin’ she did. I’m just sayin’ it looked like that.”
“You no there. No can say how it look.”
“Never mind,” Tim said wearily.
“Empty, just like you thought,” she said when she reached the car.
Batman didn’t hear. That one moment of subconscious expectation had seared the fears into his mind, repressed fears building since she took those first tentative steps into crimefighting: her costume so thin, her hair exposed, not to mention her cavalier attitude… “I’ve got to get a set of Victor’s frigid-field generators now for my boots,” she had said. Still thinking like a cat burglar. Still thinking like a thief. When he said they couldn’t use the hacienda location she got from Harley, what was her response? “No matter how many cameras or motion detectors they put up, no matter how many armed guards or biometric scanners or inches of reinforced titanium, there is always a way.” It was “problem-solving” “like a vault.”
“What did you think you were doing, coming here all alone?” he asked hoarsely. In his own ears, his voice was warped with rage, but Catwoman noticed nothing.
“I covered that in the note,” she said lightly.
“No, you didn’t.”
“No? Well it was implied.”
Her manner was infuriating. That lilt in her voice, the faux-innocence from a hundred open vaults. That lilt that, regardless of the actual words, said “Oh, am I not supposed to be in here?”
“It was not implied,” Batman said coldly. “You said you’d ‘gone ahead’ to the hacienda, would catch up with me at 10 (if ‘catch’ was supposed to be a cat pun, there was no indication of that fact). Meow.”
“I see,” she sighed as if she expected that would be perfectly clear.
“Explain,” he ordered.
“We don’t scrap the rules for Joker, fine. But this is Ivy, and she comes with her own set of rules. You know she won’t take that flower show lying down. She’ll want to kill him, and we know her first stop when she wants to off somebody on Batman’s most wanted list.”
The observation and insight that made Batman the world’s greatest detective reached out and squashed his anger like swift fingers snuffing a flame. Her words might be light and careless, but there was a vulnerability behind them, one that had nothing to do with the lack of armor in her costume.
“Clayface,” he said, reducing that nightmare episode to a single word.
“I can’t go through it again, Bruce. You said it takes two weeks to build up enough anti-tox in your system, and if you run into her now—which is not, like, out of the realm of possibility seeing that you’re both scouring the city looking for laughing boy—you’ve got nothing to resist her with.”
It felt like that night in the bedroom, facing the music after he’d put her in a sleeper hold and cuffed her to a fire escape to keep her from following him. He had been so full of his own emotions, he hadn’t stopped to consider hers. Whenever he went off to face the Joker, she felt the same way he did seeing her run into danger. This wasn’t exactly the same thing, but like that night, he had been so caught up in his own feelings that he’d overlooked the obvious: Selina had feelings of her own.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said mildly. “Ivy isn’t going to green me to help her kill Joker. The idea would never occur to her.”
“It did with Clayface. And don’t forget, she doesn’t know she nearly succeeded there. As far as she’s concerned, it was really Matt in disguise the whole time. If she knew she actually had you in her viney clutches—”
“This is different. Selina, listen to me, Ivy hates Joker. She hates him, do you understand? It’s a passion as potent and all-consuming as love. She’ll want—she’ll need—the complete visceral experience: to choke the life out of him with her bare hands. Even the plants won’t get a piece of him, it wouldn’t be… satisfying. Believe me, what she’s planning right now is very personal, individual, intimate even. It’s not a team sport.”
Selina looked into his eyes for a long moment, and then nodded.
“Okay, well…” she said finally. “She’s been here. There’s flower shmutz on the back door, the kitchen floor and the door to the basement, and it might be my imagination, but I could swear I got a whiff of Lemon Pledge in the bedroom. She must’ve had the address from Harley same as we did, but the happy couple haven’t been in there for quite some time.”
“She’ll be keeping an eye on it anyway,” Batman graveled. “Just in case.”
“And so will we?” Catwoman guessed.
He grunted. It was the only lead they had.
Two nights later, they added Sutton, NoLiTa, and a section of Cobble Hill to the list of possible hacienda neighborhoods, but they hadn’t found any trace of Joker or Harley, and they always found signs that Ivy was searching as hard as they were.
Like now. The Batmobie had cruised across WesTheDi towards the river, a few minutes later, the vine snaked after it, and a few minutes after that, Catwoman swung through, patrolling the same route in the other direction.
..:: Vine snake, ::.. she reported on the OraCom.
..:: Same one as before? ::.. Batman asked, checking the rearview mirror to see if he could spot it.
..:: You think I can tell them apart? It’s leafy and it’s slithering under a mailbox, what do you want from me? ::..
“I know, Cass. Truth is, I don’t get it either. If you or I had done it, we’d be benched ‘til Christmas. Hell, we’d be benched ‘til the day Jason Todd would’ve qualified for Medicare. But it’s different for them. Catwoman’s not a sidekick, she’s… well, she’s Catwoman. And she's on Channel 9. B is on Channel 1, they've been poking at each other all week, and Oracle punched in at the wrong moment and got caught in the middle. Hence the new encryption lockouts and all the interference.”
“No get,” Robin echoed, lifting his spring roll and touching it to hers like it was a toast.
Catwoman joined Batman in the Batmobile for the drive out to Brooklyn. It wasn’t that long a drive, but it was too far to go by whip-swing if she didn’t have to.
It was nice. She didn’t chatter like Robin when he was nervous or excited, but she broke the silence now and then. Suddenly she pointed: in front of the library a trio of vines had stopped in their tracks, almost as if they’d heard a noise or caught a scent. They twisted and writhed and then changed direction.
“They must have found something,” she breathed.
“I don’t think so,” Batman said. “They’re not moving forward on their original path, they’re not going back the way they came, and they’re not moving any faster. It’s more likely she’s called them off.”
“Called off the search? She’d only do that if she’s found them.”
“That’s the most likely explanation,” Batman agreed. He said nothing more until they were over the bridge. Then the car slowed and pulled over.
“We’re not going to keeping following?” Selina asked.
“I am. Alone.”
“Now wait just a damn—”
“This isn’t about safety, it’s cover. Look where those vines are headed and play it through in a straight line. Where does that path lead?”
“Not the best place for you to be seen getting out of the Batmobile. Take the rooftop route and I’ll see you there.”
While Batman was fairly certain the vines were heading towards the Iceberg, he continued to follow them rather than racing ahead. It was a gamble—everything was a gamble where Joker was concerned—but if he acted on his assumption, if he went straight to the Iceberg and found nothing, he might not be able to locate the vines again once he doubled back. This way, if they led elsewhere, Catwoman was still headed for the ‘Berg. If either Joker or Ivy was there without the other, she could handle it, while he handled wherever these snaking vines led. They moved slower than he would have liked, but simply by being vines they honed his focus while he mapped out a strategy:
Ivy… She was always dangerous, but never so much as when she was angry. When she was incensed, like now, she was at her most deadly—and not only to her target. To everyone around her. The angrier she got, her intended victim almost became safer in relation to everyone else. Of all the opponents Batman had fought, Ivy was the most ineffective in the grip of her own rage.
Trying to reason with her would be a waste of time. There was no calming her down once she committed to a course of action. While that made her doubly dangerous, it made her easy to fight. She became so singularly focused, all he had to do was interrupt her targeting system: put himself between her and the target, antagonize her with bluster and machismo, use batarangs, gas pellets and remotes to pull her focus. He would delay direct head-to-head combat as long as possible, giving her rage no physical outlet and keeping her off-balance with distractions and misdirection. Her frustration would build until, eventually, it would split her focus. Her single-minded “Must kill” would splinter into “GAH, you annoying shit! Get out of my way and let me do this.” It would be expressed as an exasperated gasp, nothing more, but Batman knew from long experience how to recognize those non-verbal cues. In Ivy, the turning point was always an exasperated gasp. The moment he heard it, he’d know she was frazzled, about to get sloppy. With luck, he would have that achieved by the time Selina arrived. If not, Catwoman’s appearance would certainly drive her over the edge.
That was the methodology. That’s the strategy that was called for tonight: When they're that focused, distract them—and the easiest way to do that is to keep getting in their way and keeping them from their one all-consuming goal.
Meanwhile, the vines had reached their goal: turning at the intersection that led to the Iceberg.
Although the street was unnaturally quiet…
No pedestrian traffic, few parked cars, no Talon or Crow on the door…
Batman went inside cautiously…
And continued to feel like he’d missed the rapture. No one in the entrance, no one at the coat check, no one at Raven’s podium.
A lone figure sat at the only occupied table in the dining room—a figure in green, but not the green Batman expected. Edward Nigma sat, his fingers poised in a neat steeple pointing upward to the tip of his nose.
Catwoman’s path to the Iceberg was more direct than the Batmobile’s, but she veered off course when she spotted Zed, one of the lead Z, slinking down 11th towards the parking lot. Zed drew the short straw the one time Catwoman had contacted the Z to set up a lair. He went to meet her but Robin and Batgirl swung into action before they could even discuss animal print cozy vs high tech modern. Catwoman blamed him for leading teenage sidekicks to her door, and the only way Zed could clear himself was to account for every move he’d made since breakfast.
It told her everything she needed to know that night: about the Mad Hatter’s unfolding plot, the agents he had in place and traps he had prepared—but it didn’t make tonight’s little chat a happy prospect. Zed had very clear memories of those claws, and the unspeakable things she threatened to do with them. But in his near-hysterical ramblings and denials, Scarecrow’s name was mentioned twice.
Selina sighed to herself. This was going to take a while—but cat burglar’s instinct said there was a prize to be had. Curiosity and patience would be rewarded.
And it was a prize she could deliver that Batman would never… Well, technically Batman could get Zed to talk too, if he had found him. But his method would be all Bat, all crimefighter. Selina enjoyed playing Catwoman’s reputation to bring Batman a prize from the Rogue side of the equation. She smiled at Zed, metaphorically rolled up her sleeves and literally cracked her knuckles… Whatever Batman found waiting for him at the Iceberg, he could certainly handle it solo.
“Here we sit in the Iceberg Lounge,
Batman scowled. And Riddler smiled.
“The meter isn’t my best, I’ll grant you, but I’m extemporizing. Sort of a sonnet-haiku-limerick. Not bad considering. I’ve only had a few minutes to compose it before—eeht.” He gasped and gurgled as Batman pulled him from his seat, then resumed his gaming smile since Batman’s move did lift him up where he could look his nemesis in the eye.
“Where are they?” Batman graveled.
“Answer mine and I’ll answer yours, Caped Curmudgeon.”
Batman let him drop back down to the chair.
“The absence of birds or umbrellas wouldn’t make the night any quieter, nor would his nose, which is Cobblepot’s most distinctive physical characteristic.”
“Oh contraire, birds chirp,” Eddie said in a chirpy voice of his own. “At least one of Ozzy’s umbrellas fires bullets, and if he had a cold, his nose would—” Batman cut off these musings with a fierce kick at the table, which caused a sharp scraping sound but no movement. “But okay, you’re right,” Nigma continued. “It’s none of those things. A good riddle should eschew the obvious, otherwise any dullard could just guess the answer without solving a thing. Birds and umbrellas are obvious, and no one would argue if you called that nose conspicuous.”
“Greed,” Batman said darkly.
“Kee-rect,” Riddler beamed. “After Luthor, Oswald Cobblepot is the greediest character I ever met,” he said, leaning back in his chair. The move was a taunt. I fear no bats; I fear them not, it proclaimed. Batman glowered, which Eddie seemed to enjoy. His tone became more expansive, a natural storyteller with a great yarn to spin: “Once Joker pulled the trigger on those homing pigeons, Ozzy didn’t care so much about his theme-schemes. Not from a personal standpoint. Not once the birds were back in their coops. He reverted to type, started looking for ways to make a buck from the situation.”
“Typical,” Batman grunted.
“Ozzy’s no fool. He knew Joker wasn’t going to pay for anything, but Pammy—”
“Poison Ivy,” Batman corrected.
“What’s in a name? Would not that which we call a rose by any other word be a vicious, fanged flower that bites anyone who gets near it? Oswald knew Pammy’d be an easy touch. He let her know he could deliver Joker here at the Iceberg on any given night—for a fee.
“Asking for the dandelion treatment in my opinion. She’s greened men for less. But that’s what Ozzy did, and somehow or other, he got away with it. Women are the ultimate riddle, Bats. She’s greened men for doing nothing more than being a little crankly after a really bad fixup with a henchwench wannabe named Cluerissa. That’s Clue-rissa! Couldn’t you just gag? Being a little cranky after a bad double date and crossing her path when she’s having a mood, that gets you greened. But Ozzy gets away with shaking her down on this Joker thing.”
It was no riddle to Batman. It was precisely the aspect of Poison Ivy’s character he was banking on: her single-minded focus when she was riled.
“If you’re not part of the problem, you’re part of the solution,” he explained. “Cobblepot was making himself part of the solution. It wouldn’t occur to her to green him to avoid paying for the service.” No more than it occurred to her to kill, unmask, or discredit Batman when she’d greened him the year before. Her focus then was to make him tell her how to kill Clayface, and until that was accomplished, she had no other thought in her head.
“Well anyway,” Nigma resumed, “I don’t know what she paid, but Ozzy got word to Joker that he was so impressed with the pigeon stunt that he was prepared to concede the victory. He wanted to honor Joker at a special ceremony, award him the Golden Feather of Distinguished Bird Roguery or what have you…”
Eddie had ordered another Glenondrumm and when it came, he persuaded Dove to sit with him. Of course that wasn’t allowed, but who’s expected to follow rules in a Rogue bar?
“Well, I wouldn’t for just anyone,” Dove said, settling into the seat beside him. “But seeing that it’s you, Mr. Nigma…”
“Edward, please,” he grinned.
“Mr. Cobblepot always says the Old Guard Rogues can have anything they want. Just make sure it goes on their tab.”
Eddie didn’t think clever wordplay about Dove “going on his tab” would be well received. She might get the double entendre, but if she did, it would make the implication that Oswald would charge for her all the more insulting. Instead, he regaled her with his favorite riddles and anagrams related to the words “Brinks Truck.”
It was going well. Dove was a pretty thing, smarter than the average henchwench, much smarter than the average groupie—but not averse to spending time with theme rogues. Not looking down on theme criminals with some high and mighty chip on her shoulder just because the way she made her money was legal. She listened attentively as he broadened his theme, explaining that “cash in transit” actually anagrammed as “Sacristan Hint.” If you weren’t squeamish about leaving a riddle with a priest…
And that’s when it happened: HAHAHAHAHAAAAA!
The smiles of a pretty woman and the mental diversion of the sacristan hints had driven the depression from his mind. Now, with that awful cackle, the blow fell anew. Death by Stupidity. The most fiendishly clever Riddler scheme in years, and he hadn’t thought of it. HAHAHAHAHA, indeed. It wasn’t funny. Not one bit.
Nasty shock for the Iceberg patrons, enjoying a nice glass of Glenondrumm, pretty girl listening so attentively, then that cackle—HAHAHAHA—Joker and Harley standing at Raven’s podium, wanting to know when the party is starting.
“And Ivy was waiting,” Batman prompted.
Eddie looked peevish at the interruption. He had paused for effect. A master storyteller trying to convey the monumentality of the moment.
“That’s… really… lowballing it,” he said at last. “She was poised… in Booth 3… by the door… None of us knew what was going on of course. I did notice she wasn’t hiding behind that curtain of foliage at her usual table, but it didn’t seem all that strange. She was sort of wandering around the dining room most of the night, but she’s Pammy. She’s odd. Certainly didn’t seem like she was keeping an eye on the door. But once I heard that cackle, HAHAHAHAHA, I turned around and there she was: Booth 3, standing on the seat and just… poised… like one of those toy monkeys with the cymbals.
“I think she was supposed to be a flytrap, but the way she sprung at him, the hands closing in from both sides and this loud Xena war cry, it was more cymbal monkey than flytrap. Harley yelled something original like ‘Red, no!’ and that must’ve really stung like a bitch, because here she had Joker’s head between her hands, and she lets him go to take a swing at Harley. Generally speaking, when Pammy’s worked up, she’s like a homing missile. But here, she lets go of her target with kind of an abbreviated nut-kick to take a wild swing at Harley.
“Joker says ‘Nice diversion there, Harls’ wherein Ivy swings right back around and pokes him in the teeth. I can only assume she was hoping to poke him in the eye, but instead, she hit dentine. Oh well… Harley cries ‘Puddin’!’ and Ivy swings back at her, Joker says ‘Nyuk, nyuk,’ and Ivy swings back at him. Some of us are thinking they could keep this going all night, or until Ivy gets dizzy, falls down and sees God.”
Batman managed to control himself. Every Robin gave colorful and flippant reports like this in the beginning. He deliberately forced his mind into that mode: reading Dick’s fanciful and undisciplined logs in the early days, rather than noticing any similarities to Selina’s method of giving a sitrep.
“So Joker nips at her—which isn’t as crazy as it sounds when she keeps putting her finger in his face that way. She throttles—or tries to, but this time he knows it's coming and does that bouncy back and forth thing with his head. She takes another swing at Harley, Quinn ducks and Joker shoots a blast of (I guess) SmileX at her. That stuff doesn’t work on Pammy but DOES piss her off big time. She shoots a few pheromones his way, which doesn’t work on him but—once again—pisses her off even more. She grabbed his lapels and ordered her vines to wrap around his legs and make a wish. Harley is jumping up and down for her to stop and trying to hold back that monster flytrap she’s got.”
“Ivan,” Batman said absently.
“Eh, y-yeah, what do you call a transportation app for the iPhone?” he said, merely as a mnemonic to remember the beast-plant’s name.
“Go on,” Batman ordered, but when the story resumed, there was a subtle change in the tempo, like Nigma was waiting for something.
“So Joker’s got these snaking vines starting to spread his legs. Yells out ‘Hey! Watch the giblets there, Queeny.’ Harley’s racing through the stages of grief. Denial: ‘No, Red, no!’ Anger: punching the flytrap fronds and calling it names. Despair: ‘No, Red, no’ again. And then she gets to bargaining. ‘Red, listen, it doesn’t have to be this way. If you didn’t like Puddin’s little take on your theme, maybe you could have some fun with his?’”
Nigma had been watching Batman’s face intently, waiting for this moment. Now, as the meaning of those last words sunk in, he was not disappointed.
“The mind boggles, doesn’t it?” he prompted. “Ivy’s take on Joker, everyone move one theme to the right?”
But Batman offered nothing more than a silent glower as an insight to his thoughts.
“By this time, the rats were scuttling,” Eddie went on. “I can’t make it to the door without passing through the pheromone red zone, so I hid behind those champagne crates over there. Peeked through the crack, saw and heard everything that came next, after the place emptied out: Harley and the flytrap fighting it out for the big rubber mallet, Joker's still got vines wrapped around his ankles, new ones wrapping the arms while Ivy wraps her hands around his throat—and he’s GIGGLING! Ivy’s choking him hard, watching the life drain from those frantic little eyes, and in between the chokes and the struggles, he's still giggling.
“’Hey, Harls, you’re right,’ he sputters—because at this point, Ivy’s figured out her hands aren’t big enough, and she tries to get one of the vines around his neck like a garrote. That lets him get out more words at a stretch. ‘Come look at this, Harley. She’s fuming so hard, she’s practically emitting spores, HAHAHAHA-echt.’ That last part when Pammy got the vine in place, obviously. Then it became a tug of war: he’s got her wrists and she’s got the end of the vines. He pries an opening to say a few words and she tightens them again. ‘Just look at ha-ha-her—eccht’ ‘She’s more than—eccht—funny. She’s downright hysterical—eccht.’ ‘You always told me she couldn’t tell a joke-HAHAHA-ACHT.’ ‘You said she takes herself too seriously for—eccht—You mean she's not even trying? She is a NATURAL HAHAHA—eccht TALENT.’
“Harley and the flytrap are still wrestling for the giant rubber mallet. They’ve got it high in the air, and I have no idea who had the better grip. I don’t think they knew either, but they were mutually moving towards Ivy and Joker, and sooner or later, that thing was coming down.
“’Why it’s astounding, HAHAHA—eccht,’ from Joker. ‘That funny without trying? It’s astounding, it’s amazing, it’s, it’s… it’s HOT!’ … And he kissed her. Ivy screamed. Harley screamed. The mallet came down. Ivy and the plant went one way, Harley and Joker went the other, and I stayed safely behind those crates until it got quiet again.”
“Why did you stay?” Batman asked darkly.
Riddler smiled, walked back towards the champagne crates, and retrieved a bottle and a glass.
“Join me?” he offered.
“Why did you stay?” Batman repeated.
“Second verse, same as the first, eh?” he quipped, pouring an inch of liquid into his glass. “Tidy wish day. Why did I stay? Maybe I’ve embellished a few details,” he said, sipping. “It’s possible. Maybe Ozzy decided there was more money to be made. Ivy versus Joker, there's mondo betting-pool potential there… It’s possible. Maybe Oswald Cobblepot’s greed decided that offering Joker-on-a-platter to Ivy wasn't enough, not when he could set it up like a prize fight. Not when he had a monopoly on the action. That, Bats, is very, very possible.
“Of course, knowing what a brawl on that scale could lead to, there’s no way he’d want that kind of property damage here in the Iceberg. He’d have to find somewhere else for the fight. However, knowing the way word gets around in this town, and since all Rogue roads lead back to the ‘Berg, someone would have to stay behind… to make sure that the straggling bettors—er, patrons, that is—make it to the fight. And on top of all that, there was you, Bats. Whoever stayed behind had to be someone who could delay the Bat long enough for the fight to take place and conclude. No need to let someone like you ruin a perfectly good money-making venture like the fight of the century.”
“And they elected YOU to delay me?” Batman sneered.
“Did it work?”
Catwoman entered the Iceberg just in time to see Batman’s punch hurl Eddie across four tables to land at her feet in a dazed heap.
“Can’t leave you two alone for a minute,” she muttered.
“It was a joke, it was a joke” Nigma said mechanically as he got to his feet. “There she is. Just passing the time waiting for you, puss-puss.”
“Puss puss?” Selina said. “How hard did you hit him?”
“Not to worry, Bats,” Riddler grinned, “It all happened just like I told you. The vines, the giblets, the stages of grief, the kiss and the mallet. I was hiding behind those champagne crates, heard the whole thing.”
“The stages of grief, the kiss and the mallet?” Selina mouthed, thinking that even for an Iceberg tale, she might not want to know the details on this one.
“Then WHY did you STAY?” Batman asked, punctuating each word with a blast of Psychbat venom.
“Why did I stay to talk to you when I could have been safe out the door an hour ago? What’s my usual reason, Bats? To ask a question, of course.”
He looked happily from Batman’s scowl to Selina’s puzzled frown.
“In case you two haven't noticed,” he said, “Joker's taking other people's themes out for a joy ride. My question to you both is this: ‘What are you planning to do when he gets to Hugo?’”
To be continued…