Deliver what I'm asking by the hour named,
The neighborhood near the opera house was among the most desirable in Gotham. Twelve hours before a glassy-eyed Sil Barese would enter Carmine Falcone’s study with a green envelope clutched in his chubby fingers, a manhole cover clanked in front of the prestigious Opera Row townhouses. It clanked again, moved, lifted, and finally a wet, slimy and reeking Batman emerged. He cursed under his breath as the summoned Batmobile turned into the intersection. There would be no returning to the opera now. He couldn’t go anywhere until he’d showered. Even trying to patrol was pointless with the stench of hydraulics and sewage preceding him by several feet.
If he went straight to the penthouse and bathed, he could still make the rendezvous with Catwoman on the Moxton Building at midnight—when he realized he didn’t have to. Her silhouette was just coming into view a few stories above where the Batmobile had turned. She must have bagged the opera when she finished with Nigma, changed into costume and kept watch on the Batmobile. Prudence suggested “not seeing her,” getting into the car alone, driving off and debriefing her later… but those were not the priorities of a grown man with a war to prevent. He waited and did his best not to react as she hit the radius of the odor.
“Wow, what the hell did he do to you?!”
“Deathtrap in the hydraulics under the stage, escape through the sewer, you don’t need the details.”
“No, I don’t,” she coughed. “Anyway, um, it didn’t go well...”
Twelve hours later, Sil Barese entered Falcone’s study, murmuring about ‘the green.’ He clutched an envelope of that color along with a yellow rose. It took Bane’s strength to force his fingers open to get the envelope, and even then, Sil passed out before he’d give up the rose. Bane stepped over him and tore open the envelope.
Six hours and one minute after that, the men in the Rimley Street warehouse began to feel a chill. Paulie went to check the thermostat when Pete noticed the windows were iced over. He ran to the door, only to find it open onto a wall of glass a foot thick… or what looked like glass at first glance. In the second it took for the shock to wear off, Pete realized it was a wall of ice. He fired a few rounds into it without making a dent, while Paulie, Jake and Ron all ran to the back.
The ice was still closing in on the much larger loading dock entrance, taunting them with a comfortably wide escape route—if only they could get the rolling door open. The sudden drop in temperature made it agonizingly slow to lift. The men squirmed out the bottom as best they could, no one thinking to call Pete, still firing madly to get out the front. He had traded his Glock for one of the many Uzis on the premises, and he was making so much noise blasting away at the ice prison, he didn’t hear any of the newcomers come up behind him. Not until the already cold air around him dropped another ten degrees as Mr. Freeze approached.
“That’s no way to treat a perfectly fine wall of ice,” Victor observed, sticking his freeze ray into Pete’s nose.
Pete considered himself a tough guy, but he reacted exactly like a hundred terrified victims had when he’d been the one sticking a gun in their faces. He froze, paralyzed with fear, his eyes riveted on the end of the barrel.
Mr. Freeze turned to the others he came in with, but Pete couldn’t manage to pull his eyes off the end of the gun in order to see who they were.
“You want him?” Victor asked casually.
“Why would anyone want him?” said a low, female voice, dripping with contempt.
“Keep him,” Two-Face ordered. “Nigma said he’ll need a messenger to deliver tomorrow’s riddle. After that, he’s got it covered. Pammy?”
He slipped in nose plugs while Poison Ivy conjured thoughts of lying back and pleasuring herself on a bed of thick velvety moss. The frigid air warmed with the thick, husky odors of steamy jungle matrix, of leaves moist with dew drops and sweet blossoms burgeoning with nectar.
“Well that’s done,” Two-Face said dryly once Pete assumed that unfocused stare of unworthy adoration they all knew so well. “Tell Nigma the warehouse is ours. Once the *koff* air is clear, he can send in the others to come in and start setting up.”
Matches Malone may not have been the most connected guy in the Gotham underworld, but even he knew that the old Irish mobs, ill-equipped to survive in a criminal landscape dominated by Colombians and Russians, had been absorbed into the Falcone Crime Family. Matches had no way of knowing that Carmine had put Anthony Marcuso in charge of Westies—nor would he have cared. Falcone and his godson inhabited a criminal stratosphere high above sewer rats like Matches Malone.
But Batman knew. He had a hunch that the Westies were Marcuso’s reward for early success when Falcone first started promoting him. There was a shift in activity around the Downpatrick Carpentry Club immediately after a ‘pump and dump’ operation folded in NoLiTa and shortly before Marcuso’s engagement to Susannah Pelacci. It looked remarkably like Carmine was grooming the kid, giving him a mid-level operation to run unsupervised, the same way Batman had tested Robin before advancing him to a new tier of training and responsibility. And then, quite possibly, giving him an extra income as tacit approval for the marriage.
The reasons why Carmine might have given the Westies to Marcuso was conjecture, but Batman had confirmed that Anthony Marcuso was, in fact, in charge shortly before the ill-fated wedding. That meant the Downpatrick was the place to begin, and he only needed a cover story for Matches to be poking around. At one time, he would have made up a story involving a loan shark or a numbers racket, but the names and particulars were always changing for that kind of thing. It would take a few hours rounding up the right kind of scum and beating the specifics out of them. Not a lot of time, but… with Selina in his life now, there was no need for even that small expenditure of Batman’s time. He could create the cover story this afternoon, Matches could hit the Downpatrick by seven, and Batman wouldn’t have to take a minute out of his regular patrol. He would also get to see Selina’s reaction to being asked, which was sure to be entertaining.
“I don’t understand why we can’t have the Z do this,” Scarecrow grumbled. It had been a long time since he set up a chem lab himself, and a warehouse that Carmine Falcone had been using as… as a warehouse was hardly his idea of a proper workspace.
“They’re busy,” Eddie said, too busy for the moment to present his thoughts as questions. “I don’t plan to keep using greened guidos as messengers. It’s boring. As soon as the Z are done setting up my project, we can have them help out here. But I’d like to have this place established as our new HQ by then, so we might just put them to work on the next one. Second riddle, we’ll go for that bookie joint he’s got over the Wild Deuce club. For Harvey.”
“Why can’t I use Pammy’s new pet,” Jonathan asked, not really caring about the riddle delivery system for tomorrow’s clue when he had heavy boxes to move today.
“Need him to do the inventory. Falcone mostly kept guns here. Pete, Pagliaccia and Harvey have the best knowledge to identify different types on sight. And I’ve got Harv on a much more important job right now, so it’s got to be Pagliaccia and Pete taking inventory.”
Jonathan’s brow shot up under his mask, which Eddie correctly interpreted as a question about the vital task he’d assigned to Two-Face.
“Keeping Ivy happy.”
“You want me to what?” Selina asked, looking at the brassy red wig which, together with a vividly blue suit, constituted her disguise as Georgina Barnes, the identity with which she’d infiltrated the financial world on more than one occasion.
“Just the wig,” Bruce repeated. “Not the suit. Simple t-shirt and jeans, something you’d wear on a date to an amusement park. And trashier make-up.”
“Trashy make-up,” Selina said dully. “For the Wall Street intern.”
“No, Georgina Barnes is Wall Street. This is Gina O’Malley, a grifter who only becomes Georgina Barnes when she needs to get into places like BankLink and CashPulse.”
Selina’s lips curled into the unique smile she had whenever Batman wanted her to do something criminal.
“Who will I be conning?” she asked in her bedroom voice.
“Don’t get excited,” he warned. “I just need to take a few pictures.”
“Ah, then somebody I conned already is looking for me,” she smiled with just as much satisfaction.
Beneath Batman’s disapproving scowl, the part of Bruce’s mind that would later play Matches grinned in reply. He hadn’t decided yet why Matches was looking for Gina: if she had double-crossed him, cheated him, or just up and disappeared when the wrong people started asking questions about something she was involved in that he had no knowledge of. The reason didn’t matter, since it was a given that whatever Matches told the Westies was sure to be a lie.
Bruce decided now—or actually, Matches decided as he watched Selina put on the wig and fuss with the red locks with that naughty-girl grin—that whatever the Gina-Matches history was, she’d broken his heart.
None of the men who escaped from the Rimley Warehouse were aware their boss had picked a fight with theme rogues. They assumed that if they reported the store of guns and unlaundered cash had been lost to a creeping ice flow, Carmine would naturally think they’d made the whole thing up to cover their own pilfering. That would be the last anyone would see of them, except a few fish at the bottom of the East River. So, like any sensible crooks, they packed into a van and headed for Toledo. If Bane hadn’t sent a man down to Rimley Street, they still wouldn’t know the place had been taken.
They still didn’t know exactly how it went down, but they knew none of the men they sent had reported back. The first was at Mercy Hospital being treated for hypothermia, the second and third were in Arkham, having reportedly run into a Dairy Queen screaming about the “monster rat” and “abominable snowman” that were chasing them.
Carmine had ground his fist into the table and snarled that he would send a legion to get his property back. Bane let him snarl and curse all he pleased—let him get it out of his system—then he imposed his veto.
“You would play their game, señor. You would waste men and resources learning only what they wish you to learn: that they have defenses in place to keep the warehouse. You would do better to prepare for today’s riddle. If I read this first one correctly, they plan to send you one every day. Solve it, and you escape that day’s action. Fail to, and they strike whatever target they have announced.”
“That’s not ‘playing their game?’” Carmine asked with an acid sneer.
“It is playing along, but with purpose, not merely reacting the way an animal responds to the whip—”
“Now look here—”
“Let me finish, señor. If we answer a single one of these challenges, we will buy time. We will have gained a day when we know they will not act, and we will be ready to make a definite strike of our own. A target of our choosing, not dancing to their tune.”
“You have something in mind?”
“This… ‘Riddler’ is not a man of action. He fights with his mind. You do not hurt such a man by breaking his bones. You remove the tools he relies on. These rogues have ‘suppliers’ like any army must. There’s an old man with a workshop, and a group of worker bees that call themselves ‘The Z.’”
“Yesss, I like the sound of that,” Carmine said, drawing out the first word as if contemplating a particularly savory dish described by a waiter.
Bane noted the hunger in the words, correctly identified it as blood lust, and thought it best to clarify a point that should be obvious to any civilized being.
“There is no honor in doing violence on an old man,” he said indignantly. “You will take steps to ensure he is not in his workshop when you blow it up. This ‘Z,’ they are—”
He was interrupted by a knock. Carmine called for whoever it was to enter, and as the door opened, they saw it was his cook. She held a large piece of brown paper, torn from a brown paper bag.
“I was doing the day’s shopping like always, Mr. Falcone, and they didn’t have any plastic. They used the old paper ones and double bagged to make up for it. Look what I found written on the outside of the inner bag. It’s addressed to you, sir.”
Carmine reached for it and read, his face growing redder by the second.
We need to find a better way,
Doubly fitting, don’t you think?
Matches was more at home at the Downpatrick Club than he ever was at the Iceberg. These were his kind of people. He flashed Gina’s picture, said they’d worked together in St. Louis and figured she’d beaten him back to Gotham. When nobody recognized her, he showed them another picture with her all gussied up like some snooty banker. Still nobody recognized her. Matches had kept his thumb carefully over the name on what was obviously a fake ID card from some outfit called BankLink, so Mitch jostled the dumb lug’s elbow to make him drop the card. He bought Matches a pint to make up for it, picked the card off the floor and, before handing it back, saw the name was Georgina Barnes. Mitch remarked on the quality of the fake, and since it was now obvious what business Gina was in, Matches said she was ‘a good girl,’ in that she’d always pay the local boss his cut of the grift. So if none of them knew her at the Downpatrick, that just meant she hadn’t hit town yet.
Or if she was here, she hadn’t scored yet, one of them noted.
Matches gave the guy a nasty look, then shook his head. It seemed like to him it was a given: if Gina was in town, she’d be conning somebody, she’d be successful, and she’d have been in to pay the Gotham bigwig—turned out to be a guy called Marcuso—his cut.
It was obvious to everyone that Matches Malone had an exaggerated idea of this woman’s talents, but opinion was split as to why. Either it was blind admiration ‘cause he was banging her, or delusion ‘cause he’d been stung and guys like that think anybody who got the better of them has to be a fuckin’ genius. Either way, they figured it’d be worth seeing when he caught up with this lady, so they had no objection to Matches hanging around.
When no ransom arrived by the deadline, the gamblers at the Wild Deuce gaming rooms became too cautious to make a single bet. It really was insanity, risking your money that way, and a small riot erupted when a number of regulars tried to cancel bets they’d already placed. When the police arrived, they not only found Falcone’s men too terrified to put up a fight, they found several crates of handguns and ammo from the Rimley warehouse that the wise guys themselves didn’t seem to know about.
At the warehouse, Two-Face, Ivy, Harley, Scarecrow and Roxy were huddled around a police band, listening to the chatter. Eddie watched them from a distance, breaking into collective cheers and high-fiving each other as various details came to light. He could have joined in the fun, but he wasn’t in the mood. These first steps had been tedious. He was anxious to get into the good stuff, but it couldn’t be helped. In a battle against the mobs, a battle asserting the dominance of the Theme Rogue, it would have been unthinkable to rush in and ignore the Day-2 angle for Two-Face. Also, Carmine Falcone was no Batman, and allowances had to be made. There was a learning curve with riddles. Eddie could only hope the slow ramp up was enough. Soon, the battle would begin in earnest.
There was another round of raucous laughter from the group at the police radio. You’d think they had been SmileXed from the happy grins on everyone’s faces… which reminded him. Joker and Pagliaccia were out making arrangements for tomorrow’s little surprise, so he only had an hour or two to settle things on another front.
He stood, feeling a little too much like an RA in a college dorm, and rearranged what he intended to say in the few steps it took him to reach the group. His arrival was greeted with cheers, and, as the architect of the night’s triumph, he indulged in a bow before getting down to business.
“What is the difference between The Riddler and those rolling nightclubs on the back of tractor trailers?” he asked impishly. “The one hates to party with the brake on, and the other hates to break up the party. But I must. Pammy, Harv, run down to the Wild Deuce and, as soon as the cops have cleared out, replace all the police tape with vines and bring back anything useful the cops left behind. Jonathan, ring up Oswald and see how much he wants in reparations for all that damaged gold leaf at the Iceberg, and then put all your behavioral psychology to work on getting him down to a reasonable figure.”
They all left on their assignments, leaving Eddie alone with Harley, who looked up expectantly.
“Nuthin’ for me to do?” she asked hopefully.
“I thought I’d make a sandwich. Care to join?” he said cheerily.
Harley followed and, since she had been the one to stock the makeshift kitchen, she did most of the running around getting the ingredients from the not-always-obvious places she’d stored them. Eddie made smalltalk up until they got through slicing the bread, then with the knife safely stowed away, he segued to his real subject.
“I was wondering what you thought of that Pagliaccia,” he remarked casually.
“Pagliaccia,” Harley growled in a barely audible tone that Eddie seemingly didn’t hear.
“Such a sad case,” he mused, apparently talking to the mustard jar.
“Yeah, sad,” Harley oozed, staring at the sliced ham as if she was a Kryptonian trying to fry it with her heat vision.
“Of course, you’d be the one to realize that,” Eddie nodded admiringly. “You are the trained psychologist, after all. I’m just the wordplay guy. Of course you’d be the one to realize how poor Susannah is deluding herself that she has any real interest in Joker. Trying so desperately to convince herself, to escape the pain of it all.”
“The pain?” Harley said uncertainly.
“Left at the altar that way by her one true love.”
“And it’s not like you can just ‘replace’ your one true love,” Eddie noted, but his voice seemed to fade, replaced in her mind’s ear with the sales girl at Aria Bridal Boutique, showing her the gowns and accessories that could be adapted so easily to her carnival theme. How she’d smiled at the idea of cotton candy canapés and carney game decorations… It would have been the very same salesgirl that helped Susannah. She’d chosen a lot more satin and lace than Harley would have, but it was all so pretty that day at the SoHo ballroom, Harley had been so sure it would inspire Mistah J to pop the question. And then, what did he say? He said there’d never be a wedding, said it right in front of everyone! Left at the altar by her one true love. By her one true love!
“That’s true, you can never replace your one and only,” Harley said with a sudden spark of realization. It said a lot about the girl that she picked Mistah J to be her rebound guy. He was the bestest, most splendiferous guy on the planet, and if only it wasn’t True Love, he would make any woman mad with joy. But even Puddin’ was no match for True Love. Poor Susannah!
“And of course you’re a woman, too,” Eddie said sadly. “Women are so much more sensitive about these things. A dumb oaf like me thinks if the last guy didn’t work out, you can always have another. Like an hors d'oeuvre!”
“Oh but you can’t,” Harley said earnestly. “You can never replace your one true Puddin’.”
Eddie considered this, head tilted thoughtfully.
“I suppose you’re right,” he said finally, then a grateful nod as he added, “Thank you for setting me straight about that.”
Though he wore a thoughtful pout appropriate to the sad conversation, inwardly Edward Nigma beamed. Disaster averted. Pagliaccia’s intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the mafia was too good a resource to lose. It was doubly valuable since the mobs didn’t know they had her. But Harley Quinn was one of them as no Janey-come-lately would ever be. They couldn’t lose her, nor could they have her attacking Pagliaccia every ten minutes with that pirate-cry YARRR. The only solution was to make peace between them, and the only way to do that was to play on Harley’s romantic streak. How is a romantic like a maple tree? You tap them just so to get the sap!
“Don’t worry, Eddie. Doris will come back one day, you’ll see. True love always wins out in the end.”
Inner Eddie’s beaming smile faded. He clutched his chest like a man having a heart attack, spasmed a few times, and finally fell down dead as his outer self looked blankly at Harley Quinn.
“That sandwich looks really good. You gonna eat it all?”
He shook his head dully, Harley took half of his sandwich onto her plate and trotted off happily.
Anthony Marcuso liked to check in with the Westies two or three times a week. He usually didn’t stay long, but tonight, since there was a new guy, he stuck around to look over this Matches Malone for himself. Mitch and Pat both said he was okay. Skate thought he would be okay if he got this grifter broad out of his system, but until then, not reliable. Punchy thought he needed to get laid. Dinny thought he was on the dumb side but good people. Jimmy-P thought he was smart but unlucky.
Anthony decided he agreed with Mitch and Pat. Malone was okay. Respectful. Something Anthony always liked to see. He didn’t show the girl’s photo first thing like he had with the others. Anthony was a boss, and Malone waited to be asked. When Anthony didn’t recognize her, they chatted a few more minutes. It came out that Matches Malone had done a few stints “henching” for theme criminals. That’s when Anthony decided to take a liking to the guy, cancel his plans for the rest of the evening and buy a fresh round of drinks.
Malone didn’t have much specific intel, it was obvious that what little he knew was years out of date. But he had insights, a view into that world of capes and costumes. It would be very useful in the coming weeks. Matches even said as much, without realizing what he was saying:
“When one a them guys like the Joker is riled, the difference between the guys who make it through and the ones who don’t is per-spective.” He pronounced it with a strange emphasis, like it was the only long word he knew.
“A guy like the Joker” had been riled—the Joker himself, in fact, so it was easy to superimpose the delicate triangle onto Anthony’s own circumstances: enraged rogue, the intended target of their rage, and the technically-criminal but comparatively-innocent bystander trapped in the middle. He began to see that the way for him to survive all this—and maybe come out on top himself—was to do what Roman couldn't: Remove Joker from the playing field. Prove to Uncle Carmine that he was useful and resourceful—and to anyone else that might be watching, that Anthony Marcuso was a force to be reckoned with.
He would have to make overtures. Get the Joker to a sitdown. Make a separate peace.
How exactly did one ‘make overtures’ to the Joker?
There was a lot of hugging when Joker returned with Pagliaccia. Harley was eager to make up for lost time, bonding with her spiritual sister. Joker looked confused, but he didn’t seem to care. Ivy looked confused too, but once she saw that Harley’s turnaround on Pagliaccia did not extend to Joker, she didn’t care either. Two-Face watched the pair of twin harlequins with the same lustful glint they all remembered whenever Double Dare came to the Iceberg. Eddie was man enough that he could appreciate the idea of twins. He could understand Harvey’s appreciation. But he himself had other priorities at the moment, and he wasn’t about to risk the doristraction. It was time for the next war council, and he knew the Z had arrived that afternoon and made up for lost time setting up a war room. They sectioned off a corner of the warehouse, put in a conference table, comfortable chairs and, in typical Z fashion, equipped each place at the table with its own gaming laptop preloaded with World of Warcraft (w/ six month subscription, prepaid), Star Wars: The Old Republic (w/ six month subscription, prepaid), VOIP headset, a back scratcher, a vibrating foot massage, Gotham Rogues stadium cushion, and a box lunch from The Rising Fire sports bar.
Eddie shook his head in wonder, unable to guess what this collection of extras was going to cost him—and then remembering the warehouse contained four cartons of unlaundered Falcone cash. He decided he’d pay them with that.
He took his place at the head of the table and rapped his cane authoritatively on the end, so the summons could be heard throughout the warehouse. Selina had often remarked how cats do not “come when called,” but if they think they might be interested in what you’re doing, they’ll amble over into your general vicinity—in their own time—just to make it absolutely clear that they’re here on their terms and not yours. Rogues, Eddie noted, were the same. No one came directly, but pre-ambling movements had begun.
Pagliaccia, Oswald, and Harvey were the three that Eddie cared about. They were the ones who could make a reasonable intellectual contribution. Joker naturally assumed he was the one who was invited, not his sidekick, so he was there. Harley came over as soon as she saw Pagliaccia was at the table, elbowed Joker out of the way and took the seat beside her. Ivy came over with Harvey (those two suddenly seemed to be joined at the hip, Eddie noticed). Crane didn’t look like he planned to leave his experiments. Victor showed no signs of having heard. Roxy was talking to Matt Hagen and neither showed any signs of breaking things up to come join them. Oswald was playing cards with Ventriloquist, Hugo, Firefly, and Maxie Zeus. Eddie didn’t want any of that lot, except Oswald, and there was no telling who might tag along if he called to Oswald personally, so he decided not to prod. He’d talk to Ozzy later if he wanted to run anything by him.
As expected, Pagliaccia had the most to offer in terms of sensitive places to sting:
“First, blow covers. Nothing fracks things up like someone drawing attention to your ‘secret’ dealer, body shop, whatever. Even paid off cops have a hard time lookin’ the other way if there’s a neon sign hanging overhead: STOLEN CARS STRIPPED HERE. Ya know what I mean?”
Harvey started to chuckle.
“She means that figuratively, but it would be pretty funny to do it literally.”
“On it!” Joker said, raising his hand like an over-eager student. “Morey’s House of Neon, owes me a favor.”
Harley shot him a look. She leaned forward, to speak to him past Pagliaccia who sat between them.
“Morey owes you a favor?” she said severely. “Morey’s still alive and kicking? I thought you gave him a ‘barrel of laughs.’ I thought we agreed on that.”
“C’mon, Harls, it was just a joke.”
“Wasn’t a very funny joke.”
Joker started giggling, and Pagliaccia leaned forward to talk to everyone else at the table. “No one cares about the small fry,” she said, while Joker and Harley leaned back and started cross-talking behind her back. “Mules can be replaced within hours, and guys like Cookie Dough’s dentist—”
“He’s harmless, Harls.”
“So to annoy them, do things to supplies and operations that are slightly larger. Drug shipments go ‘missing,’ favorite meeting places burn down just before they get used, gambling debts can't be collected because the person disappeared…”
“Harmless?! Easy for you to say. It wasn’t you he was leering at.”
“And since everybody answers to someone, the middle men will be shittin’ themselves because that missing shipment or uncollected debt is coming out of their soft ‘n squishy parts.”
“Take it as a compliment, Harls.”
“And if you’re really lucky, the big man might decide there has to be a mole for all this stuff to be happening all at once. Once that shit starts, everybody will be pointing to their neighbor to save their squishy parts. ‘Missing money boss? I think Manny may have been dipping his beak.’”
“Why do men always think it’s an honor to be drooled over?”
“Why do women think it’s an insult?”
“Now you guys won’t want to do this, ‘cause you like signing your names ta stuff, but the absolute best is if you can do your thing and blame it on a third group that nobody trusts. Street gangs or bikers. ‘Get a couple outta town smokes to nick the take from a backroom and Whammo! Your problem got a problem with the street scum, and you might be able to help ‘cause your ass is as lily white as his!’”
The Rogues all stared in open-mouthed horror. Ivy wasn’t sure if she was more offended by the bald-faced racism or the spineless cowardice wanting someone else to take the blame for your crime. Eddie was disgusted at the idea of committing a crime you didn’t want credit for. The very idea of blame and not credit for a crime, did these mobsters have no self-respect? Two-Face took the racism and lack of criminal pride for granted, but he was appalled that Joey the Bull hadn’t taken any pains to shield his daughter from the details of his criminal enterprise.
“We should have gotten rid of these low-lifes a long time ago,” Ivy said finally.
“Some of us tried,” Harvey said through clenched teeth.
To be continued…