Weakness. If there was one thing that made her physically ill, it was weakness. Nature was not weak. Nature was the ultimate power. What could man make that Nature could not destroy? Their fleshy bodies, their cities, their pitiful notions of achievement? What was a church compared to a forest? A painting compared to a mountain, a symphony next to a flower…
Well, actually, she liked music. Even her plants liked music. Mozart in particular. And there was nothing in Nature to compare it to. The mathematical underpinnings of music were absolutely man-made, and it had to be said, it was… beautiful. A THOUGHT THAT MADE HER WANT TO SCREAM! Beautiful belonged to Nature. It belonged to Flowers. It was hers, and this filthy animal, masculine, homo sapien, civilized, plant-eating THING had made something that was wholly theirs, wholly unique, and wholly beautiful. JUST HAVING THE THOUGHT MADE HER WANT TO RIP HER HAIR OUT BY THE ROOT!
It was so weak. Pamela’s little thoughts and feelings. As the living embodiment of the Goddess Lifeforce, Poison Ivy rebelled at the idea of hating any part of herself, but that, that… Pamela had become such a burden. People made something beautiful. It was disgusting. But now she had that thought in her head, and it was all because of that part of herself that, for lack of a better term, she called Pam.
She was so gullible. So weak and gullible. She whined and moaned about Harley Quinn’s devotion to Joker, but was she any better? She kept going back too, kept going back to that notion of connecting with someone, finding acceptance and friendship—Goddess help us, she might even have hoped for Love—with animal, homo sapien, civilized, plant-eating people.
Ivy’s fingers had intertwined and she twisted the gnarled pink and green with nervous anger. How could she ever have thought herself a seductress when she was the one getting sucked in time after time by those stinking apes? She was beautiful as the flower is beautiful. It’s natural that men admire the rose and the orchid for its beauty, but the flower does not lower itself to notice their admiration. Its beauty simply IS, as the flower is, serenely existing in a state of natural perfection. It’s natural that humans be drawn in, as Nature decrees. They are drawn to beauty like insects are to scent, but no flower demeans itself noticing let alone caring. Pamela was unworthy to be a flower—a truth she might have sensed, for her chosen legend was not a flower but a vine that punished those who got too close. It wasn’t seductive, it didn’t waste time looking pretty, it just grew and spread and made the bastards miserable. It was a title that suited her aggressive temperament, it suited her anger and it even suited her red hair, given the tint of new leaflets in the spring. The only thing it didn’t suit was the needy mass of feeling called Pam.
The spastic finger-wringing stopped and Ivy took a long deep breath. She looked coldly at the body lying where it had fallen, the vines slithering off a neck still red where they had dug in. She walked over with regal indifference and slid her shoe under the belly to roll Edward Nigma onto his back. His chest still rose and fell, an observation that produced an uncomfortable throb of relief that she regarded like a toothache.
It was starting again. These feelings. Like the refrain of a once-familiar song playing softly in another room. She tried to ignore it, to deny it, to block it out. She knew the way it went, the way it would always go, the way it was. The sensations it produced, they weren’t good, they weren’t serene and beautiful like the blossom of green and wondrous Goddess Spirit she wanted her life to be. They were weakness – humanity and weakness – masculine, animal and ugly, dread and failure.
It always won in the end. It got louder—trying to block out a song you knew when it just kept getting louder. Even when she succeeded, for a time, it would infect someone who brought it closer where she couldn’t HELP but hear it. Harvey, Harley, humming its horrid little tune. Its infectious little tune. It was almost impossible to NOT FINISH A MELODY YOU KNEW ONCE IT GOT INSIDE YOUR HEAD THAT WAY!
Ivy looked down into the face of a man who had once made love to her—granted it was in the grip of her pheromones, but Pamela always told herself that, like hypnosis, there was a limit to what they could make a person do. When it came to sex with Nigma, she was quite sure it gave him an excuse to do something he really wanted. A theory that was proved in her view by the fact that they were back on speaking terms a few weeks later and also that, quite recently, he’d kissed her.
The fact that she had kissed him she chose not to consider. Ditto that she was the willing participant in that “Green One Night Stand.” If we were going to start dismissing pheromones as nothing more than an inhibition-reducing stimulant akin to a few sour apple martinis and a hit of ecstasy, then she’d really have to consider why she was plying Edward Nigma with sour apples and X in the first place.
Again she inhaled as a wave of revulsion rose like bile to the very top of her throat, then subsided. Green fingers ran through the intense henna-red locks that now graced only the left side of her head, and the bliss of cool air soothed across a two-tone brow trickling with sweat. This was the kind of shit she was trying to be rid of, a tumor that got through her bark and was eating its way ring by ring to her core from whence it would spread up to all of her glorious branches, poisoning each splendid leaf, and sinking all the way down to her roots to taint all her future days at the source. It had to end. Pink fingers rose to massage her right temple and lifted the brown hair on that side to let the air cool her neck. It felt good—but somehow the contrast of hot and cold made her feel nauseous and faint. Blood pressure spiked. She considered killing Edward Nigma... and passed out.
Justice. It was the watchword of Bruce’s life and it didn’t always mean pounding his fist into a criminal’s jaw. Today it meant nothing more than going down to the kitchen and letting Alfred say I told you so. He didn’t like admitting he was wrong, but after all the years Alfred put up with his youthful arrogance and willful denials, he deserved that satisfaction—and maybe Bruce deserved the punishment. Maybe that’s what prompted him to take the route down to the kitchen he’d always taken as a boy.
“Hey, Alfred,” he said, an unconscious shift in his voice evoking his younger self. “What are you cooking?”
Lack of foresight wasn’t a crime. A lapse of judgment wasn’t blackmail and the stubborn refusal to admit a wrong turn and change course wasn’t murder. But it was a mistake and Justice said a man should own up to those.
Alfred noted the tone and the question, but he made no mention of Bruce’s frequent visits to the butler’s pantry as a boy. Instead he pointed to the various preparations as he named them.
“Scampi Mornay, Salmon Quiche, Pheasant Normande.”
The sequence was familiar but Bruce couldn’t place where he knew it from. The detective’s instinct to connect the dots pushed everything else from his mind, and he scanned the counter automatically for a clue to fill in the blanks. He spotted an index card and began reading upside down—Artichoke and Hazelnut Soup, Lobster Consommé with Truffle and Crepe—without even realizing he was doing it. Petit escargot in pastry, lobster and wild mushroom crumble, smoking gun with ginger plum sauce.
Alfred was talking but Bruce was no longer paying attention. His eyes had stuck on the words smoked duck on the paper in front of him as he realized with a sickly lurch he was staring at his mother’s handwriting.
“Alfred, what is this?” he asked sharply.
“I just told you, sir. With the upcoming changes in the household, one thought it best to revisit some of the older recipes one was apt to draw on in proposing menus for various occasions, and make such modest adjustments as might be wished to update them for a modern palate—while retaining the essence of the originals, of course.”
Bruce’s eyes narrowed to slits. The effect could be terrifying behind the mask, but without it, it seemed like his eyes were reacting to the garlic sting in the air.
“Alfred, I know Selina’s told you we’re not doing any special entertaining for the engagement. And after, she’s already running the house. There aren’t going to be any changes on that score.”
“Perhaps, sir, but it is a first principle of domestic service that a young wife is in no way bound by statements she made as bride-to-be. One prefers to be prepared.”
“Nothing is going to change,” Bruce declared with I’m-Batman finality.
“Very good, sir. That being the case, one noted in the morning paper that the beauteous and conspicuously photogenic Lund sisters are coming to Gotham. Shall one make the usual arrangements for a night of club hopping and photo ops?”
Bruce scowled as he usually did in the face of Alfred’s sarcasm. Lili and Lise Lund, ‘the Jet Set Twins from Norway’ as the tabloids liked to refer to them, were what he’d come to talk about, but having the subject he meant to introduce as an olive branch flung at him with such barely concealed mockery… He reminded himself that he was here to own up to the ancient mistakes and let Alfred claim his ‘I told you so.’ He wasn’t any less wrong because spotting an old list put him in a bad mood.
“They’ve already been in touch,” he said resignedly. “Been sending me selfies all morning, want me to take them to all the hot spots of the moment before they become the hot spots of ten minutes ago.”
“What regrettable timing, sir, when your engagement was just announced.”
“Very funny, Alfred. Of course that’s why they’re coming. It’s the talk of Hôtel du Cap, apparently. They heard the news and dropped everything—barely took the time to shop and finish their tans, couldn’t wait for the scandal they were starring in to run its course. They made sure everyone from Monaco to St. Tropez knew they were headed to Gotham for a last hurrah with kjære elskling Bruce. Selina’s having fun pretending to be angry, not because of the selfies but because I don’t have a plan.”
“It is curious, sir, that one so noted for contingency planning did not foresee the possibility when you were crafting the playboy image.”
Bruce’s lip twitched.
“Particularly when you pointed it out a few dozen times,” he said with a playing-along show of contrition. “You were right, Alfred. The ‘life of the public Bruce Wayne as I crafted him’ produced ‘echoes’ which a then-inconceivable future Mrs. Wayne must now be burdened with. I’m lucky she finds it funny.”
“Not really, Master Bruce. Any woman you could possibly deem suitable to share your life would have to have a certain perspective on Batman, the choices you’ve made in concealing his identity and so forth.”
“You’re doubling down on your warning?” Bruce asked with an unbelieving chuckle. “Selina thinks it’s hilarious that Batman, the protocol-writing mastermind, never saw it coming with the Jetset Twins, but you’re going to stand there with that disapproving scowl like there’s still some dire music to face?”
“If you are heading down to the cave, sir, please inform Miss Selina that there will be another tasting for her in about half an hour.”
“She’s… in the cave? On her own, at this time of day?” Bruce asked, but Alfred was too absorbed rolling out pastry to respond.
Schedule: Commissioner James Gordon
“Carol,” Gordon called at a volume to make it through the wall without resorting to the intercom, and only then depressed the button to say in a more moderate tone “Can we please find some way to refer to the pilot program my son-in-law is working on that doesn’t sound like we’re outfitting Major Crimes and the 29th Precinct with space age penile implants?”
“Yes, Commissioner,” his secretary replied with a giggle.
“Thank you, we don’t want Watts stirring up another round of sensitivity seminars.”
“Commissioner, I give you my word, before it comes to that, I’ll say I harassed you.”
“I don’t think that would stop him, but I appreciate the thought.”
Glancing down at his screen, Gordon saw his 2:30 appointment had been changed to a line of closed parenthesis creating an outrageously inappropriate image before blinking out entirely to be replaced by the bland but professional designation Consult: D.Grayson, Introducing and Integrating Advanced Applications to Investigation SOP for Non-CSI Personnel Without Specialized Technological Skills.
Alfred’s elevator was closer than the study, so Bruce took it down to the Batcave and so passed the experimental “data well” before reaching any of the workstations. The hexagonal chamber surrounded by semi-transparent wall-screens was lit up with GPD Major Case, Scotland Yard and Interpol files on long ago art thefts. Selina wasn’t in the well, but… The instincts from a thousand nights walking through recent crime scenes prompted him to tap the side of a feeder bank between the data walls. The panel had been opened quite recently, and bending to look underneath the core partition, he could see one of those pristine claw-tip wire splices that was the signature of a cat crime. He closed the panel and proceeded into the main cavern. There, he saw Workstation One logged in with the same five screens on the monitors: Interpol, Scotland Yard, GPD…
Selina’s workstation was lit up too, with entirely different data. There was background on a Tintoretto oil painting in a corporate collection but disputed as the property of a holocaust survivor... Sales literature and the horizontal cross section of a Phoenix vault... The layout of an office building with the camera locations marked off… A spreadsheet with security guard rotations and keycard access points…
He was clearly looking at the leg work for a… cat crime. A cat crime being planned in the Batcave. He looked back at his own workstation. The Interpol image was a large, silver-gilt picture frame from Palazzo Corsini, signed “Meow” with a deep cat scratch in the empty space where Surrender at Rivoli had been. Though the painting had been taken years ago in another country, the mockery seemed acutely personal.
“Catwoman!” he called out with the ferocity of early rooftops that was ill-suited to the proximity of the JL Comm Platform where she stood.
“Right here, handsome. No need to bellow,” came the low but playful stage whisper. He blinked. She was standing on the raised rectangular base as if for a video call with the League. Except her back was to the camera and monitor. Instead, there was a triptych of semi-transparent wall-screens like those in the data well. The same files displayed as at Workstation Two.
“What are you planning?” he asked with a suspicious but less aggressive head tilt.
“I don’t like the hexagon. It’s too cramped in there, especially if we’re both looking. I thought I’d try this. See how nice and spread out they are, but you can still take it all in at a glance.”
He joined her on the platform and looked it over. “The well was only an experiment. This has some merit. We’ll give it a try. But you didn’t have to reverse engineer from the data well. You could have told me what you were thinking; I would have set it up.”
“What do I look like, Pammy?” she said crossly.
“Um, no,” Bruce said quickly, remembering that Poison Ivy said she needed ‘Nigma’ to set up her email.
“I’m allowed to play with the tech toys, right?” she said, letting her hands dance teasingly around his waist the way she used to toy with Batman’s utility belt.
“No,” he graveled firmly. “Absolutely forbidden—You’ll enjoy it more that way. And so will I.”
With that, he kissed her forehead, delivered Alfred’s message, and admitted to a few wild suspicions that crossed his mind when he saw the files she was using to set up her project.
“Well that explains the bellow,” she laughed. “You didn’t really think I was going to go all bad girl and snag the Tintoretto, did you?”
“Not too bad, but I thought maybe there was going to be punishment for Lise and… ahem, yes, Alfred?” he said, turning to the source of the suddenly silent bats.
“Begging your pardon, sir, miss. There is a young woman to see you.”
“You’re on, studly,” Selina said playfully, smacking Bruce’s bottom.
“No, miss, I should have been more precise,” Alfred said dryly. “The visitor is not one of the Lund sisters, and she is here to see you. A Doris Ingerson. I’ve shown her into the morning room.”
The association of former henchmen called The Z had become independently wealthy, at least temporarily. Their business model was simple enough: they would perform a series of unimaginative but cash-rich jobs for start-up funds and put the money into constructing a theme lair or front operation for any Rogue due for release from Arkham who wanted to pay for the service. For an additional fee, they would perform those lackluster fundraising jobs flying their client’s colors—though nobody took that option anymore. There were enough additional fees incurred when you hired the Z, and the extras they dreamed up on their own were funnier. It was the sheer audacity of it that impressed: getting 3D body scans at a clandestine but space-age SoHo tailor to get custom-made jeans digitally fitted to the millimeter—on Two-Face’s tab. Each brazenly expensed extra outdid the last, which is the only reason they lived to do it twice.
It wasn’t the most lucrative business model in the world until the war between the mobs and the Rogues. Falcone properties were taken on nearly a daily basis, and Nigma ordered each to be refitted with the theme of a predetermined Rogue. After the war, the properties fell into the hands of an outfit called NMK where Selina Kyle was calling the shots. She favored using the Z over contractors with suspected ties to the deposed Falcone family, which was all of them. After months of constant, high-paying work, the Z were flush as never before. Prudent men and women might have invested the money and never worked again—but then prudent men and women seldom go into criminal henching. None of the Z wanted to retire, but they did become very particular choosing the jobs they would take. Nigma and Kyle as the twin sources of all this good fortune could snap their fingers whenever they wanted. Joker could too, because… Joker. Anyone else had to be interesting. An A-Lister like the Mad Hatter might find himself waiting behind Maxie Zeus because the latter’s requirements included a ‘lightning machine’ that was awesome to construct and the perfect excuse to host a Christopher Lee movie night before turning over the keys. He might even find his order bumped in favor of Hugo Strange, Ventriloquist and Catman who each had the foresight to include a case of Omaha Steaks, Jameson’s Irish Whiskey and a box of Cuban cigars, respectively, with their work orders.
Zound set down the receiver on an old-fashioned rotary telephone whose masking tape label read “Zowie’s Florals.” It sat in a row of similar antiques indicating Zack’s Diner, Zoik’s Oriental Rugs, Café Zoophilly, and Zook’s Watch Repair.
Today’s call for a floral delivery was from Selina Kyle, so naturally Zed volunteered for the meeting. “301 West Prince Street,” he said, giving the address the caller specified. Then he teased, “You’re not going to actually bring her a bouquet of flowers, are you?”
“I may,” Zed said, unashamed of his conversion into the most enthusiastic and devoted of Catwoman fans.
They’d begun on the worst possible footing: the very first time Catwoman tried to hire the Z, Robin and Batgirl crashed the meeting and Catwoman was convinced it was Zed who led them to her. Their second encounter wasn’t much better, but at the third, she saved his life. That would have evened the scales but it would not have accounted for Zed’s zealous admiration on its own—not without the WT Black. In contrast to the aged rotary phones the Z used for their landline fronts, they each had an object in their back pocket provided by Ms. Kyle for their personal use. As nearly as they could tell, it was a 5G Wayne Tech Prototype. It looked like a cell phone, made calls like a cell phone, surfed the net, played music and uploaded pictures of chicken pad thai to Instagram like a cell phone. But according to their patroness, the WT Black was not ‘a cell phone;’ it was a highly encrypted telephonic android-metavert device that possessed “the closest thing you’ll get to NSA-proof, CIA-proof, and most importantly JLA-proof data-encryption until LexCorp gets its hands on the Thanagar patents.”
What that meant was their calls and browsing were anonymous, which was nice, but more importantly, their locations couldn’t be traced. That’s how Falcone’s men tracked Zed, Catwoman said, and to make sure it didn’t happen again, she equipped them all with these untraceable phones. They all received one, but Zed’s was the first, and as one who made First Contact with the source of this secret spyware prototech, he guarded his position as official Z ambassador and go-between. He took the subway to Prince Street and hummed his childhood spy-thriller theme song as he walked the few blocks to the former cat lair at 301.
Catwoman greeted him at the door, ushered him inside, offered him an iced tea, and then set about asking the kind of questions she’d asked before—questions about the lair of another client which she must know jeopardized the entire existence of the Z (not to mention his own).
“No. Catwoman, I appreciate the super-phone, and the life save, I’m sorry about the whole Robin-Batgirl thing and I really, really don’t want you to threaten me with that whip thing again, but I can’t. I just can’t. If we started giving out information like that any time somebody threatened to rough us up, I mean I know I kinda did that twice, but nobody ever found out about that ‘cept you. If word got back to the Bat, I’d be, like, getting slammed against an alley wall two and three times a week.”
“I figured that’s what you’d say,” Catwoman said with a nod of resigned calm, and then called in a much louder voice “You can come in now.”
“Okay, here it comes. Bring on the goons,” Zed said, hands gripping the edge of his chair, bracing for torture as he turned to where Catwoman was now looking as she said:
“No goons. Game Theory.”
Zed blinked. He knew there was a Rogue fashion-model called Mannequin, he’d seen the pictures. She was nothing compared to the woman before him: very tall, very sleek, masked, platinum blonde. She had one of those bodies that was like a walking coat hanger, and the silky jumpsuit she wore looked like it belonged on a runway. A strip of clear mesh down the center separated blocks of green and yellow. The rest was solid black on top, green on the bottom. Very dramatic and—if it wasn’t clearly the costume of a Rogue who outranked him—it would be very, very sexy.
“Ma’am,” he said, jumping to his feet with the instincts of a henchman who knew staring below her chin could get you killed.
“At ease, Zed. Game Theory, take off your mask,” Catwoman suggested.
She did, and… “Oh,” Zed said aloud.
“You recognize her, I take it?”
“Picture on the coffee table, next to the chess set,” he said. “I mean… Riddler had your picture in every lair we made for him, ma’am.” He grinned awkwardly and then added “You’re hair was different. And you had kind of a tan.”
“I think it’s fair to say The Riddler would not mind you giving this lady the information she’s asking for,” Catwoman said, acting as arbitrator. “You see, they had a date a few nights ago and he didn’t show up. She hasn’t heard from him since, and he’s not answering his cell. We don’t even have a phone number for his new lair.”
“That is very awkward,” Zed said cautiously. “Maybe Batman got him!”
Both women glared at him with undisguised contempt.
“Well it’s possible,” Zed backpedaled. “They could be keeping it out of the papers or something.”
Both women glared.
“Look, I gotta think if Mr. Riddler didn’t give you an address or phone number, it must be because he doesn’t want you to know—don’t hurt me, there’s still a way. I could maybe go over myself and check on things. Just to make sure everything’s okay. Okay?”
He looked pleadingly at Catwoman, who deferred to Doris. He looked pleadingly at Doris, who broke into a wide my-hero smile that left Zed dazzled. He would do this. He would solve the case of the missing Riddler. For her.
Notdead. Dead Ton. Dated… on. Donated… The only way Edward Nigma knew to process the situation was to get his mind working. He was not dead—Ado Dent—and he knew he was not dead because his throat—Hot Rat—hurt—thru… Not a proper word. Still, not bad for a man nearly garroted by a monster vine from hell. Swallowing saliva—Avails, Is Lava, La Visa—was like swallowing pebbles covered in ground glass—which neither he nor anybody else ever swallowed, so that was dumb.
His brain wasn’t quite working yet. But paid was goon… Noooo… pain was good… considering the dead numbness in his arms… and his legs… and his torso… pretty much everything below the neck… and the fact that he couldn’t open his eyes… and then the really scary part after he did some deep breathing and found he could open his eyes and things didn’t get substantially brighter because of the stuff covering them like a second set of eyelids. They didn’t let in enough light to make out much, but his eyes adjusted and he started to work out the texture, Eddie was fairly sure he was looking at the underside of leaves.
Zed didn’t really think Batman nabbed the Riddler. If it was at all likely, Catwoman would have thought of it before he did. But he knew weird stuff could happen, so he wanted to check the outside of the lair thoroughly before trying to get inside. The sign outside read Double Negative Percussion (con-un-drums, Zowie’s idea) and it had openings along the bottom that would drop Tetris-style formations of blocks on an unwelcome intruder’s head (Zoik’s idea). The blocks could be loaded with either gas or explosives (standard) but came filled with peanut shells for testing and demos. A case of those was now included with every lair, since Zooks noticed that no matter how similar the perimeter defenses were to those of previous lairs, the client always wanted more demonstrations and trial runs than they planned on. It was dangerous guessing ‘why’ where Rogues were concerned, but it wasn’t much of a stretch to think they just wanted to play with the new thing. So an extra case of peanut shell blanks was made up for each element of the defense system, clearly marked TESTING DUDS and left at the back door as if the Z had forgotten to take them away. In Riddler’s case, Zed had left the crate himself… And there it sat outside the back door, on the exact spot where he’d left it.
That settled the Batman question. The Riddler hadn’t even tested his perimeter defenses. There was no way he would have begun a crime spree without having the lair prepped for a Bat-attack. He hadn’t even opened the box… which Zed could understand with a babe like that Game Theory waiting on the outside. All Zed wanted when he got out of the joint was pizza and tail, if he had a woman like that, it’d certainly take him a while to get around to thinking about freaking riddles for Batman.
So Zed took a deep breath and put his rudimentary house-breaking skills to work with his inside knowledge of the locks. Three electronic switches, a plug spinner, a 12-slider, Assa 6000 and a deadbolt. Took him 90 minutes, during which he vacillated between bragging how fast he was beating it and complimenting Zound on an unbeatable set up. He also went back and forth on scuttling his principles, calling Catwoman with the address and letting her check it out herself. It’d mean losing face, which wasn’t a big deal with Catwoman, not after the lamppost incident, but with that Game Theory… that very tall and slender and very, very blonde Game Theory… Eventually he made it through the maze of locks and counterlocks to enter the lair.
It was certainly lived in, but it felt like no one had been there for days. The white board—that Zoiks cut specially to fit the recessed space under the carved wooden question mark he made himself—bore the heading THE PUZZLE THAT CANNOT BE SOLVED in big block letters. Next to it was a cheesy heart shape made from mirror image question marks. Underneath was a list of Rogues, some at large and some at Arkham… and hashtags. That was a clue, and Zed tried the desk next. While the computer powered up, he noted lists scattered around the keyboard and mousepad. Each had a name of a Rogue from the whiteboard, some with cryptic notations underneath. A few repeated the hashtags, and one… Zed winced when he realized the cryptic notes referred to Bruce Wayne’s engagement to Selina Kyle. He realized he should have mentioned it when he saw her—then the thought was forgotten as he realized something else. He turned back to the white board and saw that all but four names on the list had a little mark like a checkmark beside them. All but Clayface, Roxy Rocket, Poison Ivy and Killer Croc—and one of the slips on the desk had the address of Roxy’s hideout and Poison Ivy’s Greenhouse along with two other locations, one of which was a manhole on Canal Street.
Zed never considered himself a detective, but it wasn’t a stretch to think Riddler was off to see the four Rogues on that list.
Clearly, there was nothing to do but wait, and clearly waiting was not Doris’s strong suit. Waiting was essential for a cat burglar, however. Selina never intended to go on coaching Doris after her objective was accomplished with the Zeitgeist break-in, but since Doris needed to get her mind off her troubles, she decided to resume her lessons.
It began with simple trivia. Doris was Eddie’s perfect match in many respects, one of which was encyclopedic knowledge in a few chosen areas and a scatter shock of detail in dozens of others.
“A normal man can monitor six surveillance cameras for twenty minutes, max, before fatigue sets in,” she recited in answer to a quiz question.
“A normal man,” Selina nodded. “And a freak of nature like, presumably, Batman?”
“Opinions differ,” Doris said crisply. “And studies indicate the configuration of the screens is a factor. Two rows of six seem preferable to four rows of three, for instance. But the best estimate is that a freakishly gifted human could maybe monitor up to eighteen screens for thirty to thirty-five minutes or six screens for up to fifty minutes. But a mind like that would have such an aptitude for mathematics, music, anything based on patterns, they could do way better than working as a security guard.”
Clayface didn’t use henchmen except on the rare occasions when he impersonated someone who had “people.” Zed never heard about those gigs until long after the fact, and before he hooked up with the Z, he’d never met anyone who did. Zooks and Zound heard the stories later, same as him, and Zooks heard the darker version that the reason you never met somebody who worked a Clayface gig was because he absorbed them when he was through. He’d study your face, your walk and even your voice while you were working, and when the job was done—GLURP, you were gone. Added to his repertoire of anonymous Gotham faces.
“Which means he could be here right now,” Zowie had said in a forboding voice and grabbing Zooks and Zound by their collars. “He could be me,” she added with a psychotic gleam in her eye.
Zed had nearly pissed himself, and Zooks looked like he had the day Joker asked all those questions about the skee ball machines in his new hacienda. But Zound figured it out right away and shrugged.
“You guys are too stupid to live,” Zowie pronounced with a teasing grin. “I worked one of those Clayface jobs and I can tell you right now why none of you guys got the tap. You have to bring your own clothes. Do any of you even own a suit?”
They all looked at each other, and when Zed rightly pointed out that the locks on 7th Avenue pick as easy as the ones anywhere else and they could each ‘own’ a dozen suits by sunrise if they wanted, Zowie laughed at him.
“And it’s gonna fit like it. Face it, none of you can pass as part of Margo Kishley’s entourage.”
She was probably right, but it didn’t change the fact that Zed didn’t know Clayface, had never worked for him, and was taking a chance showing up at his door without warning. He was a little uncomfortable – then when he saw the craptastic building didn’t even have a door but was more of a condemned, abandoned shell, he was more than uncomfortable. He went in, called out ‘Hello!’ a few times, and eyed the support beams as if he could do more than guess at their condition. Then he heard laughter. He followed it, forgetting to be afraid the I-beams weren’t up to the job, and spied three neighborhood kids: black, ages 12-14 he guessed, and playing Rock-Paper-Scissors.
“Hello!” he called again, and two ran off. One just pointed at him and laughed.
“You here to see it?” he asked.
“What are you kids doing here?” Zed asked in return.
“We heard there was a body. We came to see. How’d you hear about it?”
“Uhh,” Zed answered.
“Ten dollars,” the kid said.
“To see the body!” he exclaimed like it was obvious.
“Get outta here!” Zed yelled, swatting at the kid who laughed, dodged and bounced while taking a few swipes at Zed’s back pocket and wallet. “You’re a fast little creep,” Zed said at last, giving up. “I’ll give you five.”
The kid pocketed the money and pointed to a more intact part of the structure. More walls made it darker, the condition of those walls made what light there was… creepy. It shone through random cracks, drawing attention to pockets of nothing as if they were supremely important. The dramatic irrationality reminded Zed of Joker, and he unconsciously snapped into the hyper-alertness that was in place whenever he met with the crazy clown.
Whether it was the Joker instinct or simply his eyes adjusting to the dimmer light, Zed’s eyes widened as they gradually made out a patch of not-quite-as-dark within the darker-dark. He swallowed and crinkled his mouth and brow while trying to convince himself that the patch did and did not have arms and legs.
He took a step closer, and yeah, it definitely had the shape of a human body lying face down in a puddle of dark ooze. A weird little trick of the light, there was a thin trail of ooze feeding into the main puddle from the side and… and… ohmygod another trickle between his legs… There was a think trickle of ooze coming from behind him flowing into the puddle under the BODY!
Rather than run away – in a direction from which OOZE was coming – Zed jumped up and to the side to get away – at least a short distance away – from the trickle. He sniffed. He swallowed, and he took a determined step towards the body.
“Hello!” he called out a last time. “Mr. Hagen, is that you? I’m Zed from the Z. I would have called but you don’t have a phone. Really bitchin’ alarm system you have here. Like, better than anything we ever installed for Scarecrow.”
The body melted into the puddle with a disgusting glorp, the puddle became less tarry and took on a more obviously mud-like appearance, and finally it sprung up into the well-known form of Clayface.
“You’re a brave man,” he said, snapping fingers that seemed to suddenly sprout for the very purpose and handing over a slip of paper between them. Taking it, Zed was retroactively scared to see as the surface mud-bubbles evaporated, it was his own five-dollar bill.
“Yeah, well, I beat fear toxin the hard way,” Zed said, feeling the kudos were undeserved.
“I’ve never had the pleasure; what’s ‘the hard way?’” Clayface asked, walking away and apparently expecting Zed to follow.
“Bat-antidote doesn’t work on me,” he explained. “Weird body chemistry, I guess. Just had to wait it out.”
They reached a burned out elevator shaft, and Clayface extended a circular platform from his foot. Zed guessed he was supposed to stand on it, but instead he stared and pointed until Clayface told him specifically to “Get on.” He did, it rose two floors and revealed a rather neat studio apartment furnished not unlike Zed’s own two-bedroom railroad.
Unlike the exposed and pocked brick and concrete below, the walls were flawless white plaster. Hardwood floors. Two windows with a big oil painting in between of the ugly modern type Zed didn’t understand. Beneath those, a low two-rowed bookcase ran the length of the narrow wall. Very little furniture: a full length mirror, a funky silver metal floor lamp, a cow-pattern chair where Clayface told Zed to sit, and…
“What is that?” Zed asked curiously, pointing to an object that might have been the unholy union of a leather scoop chair and a clawfoot bathtub.
Clayface explained that it was something Kittlemeier made for him to help him ‘mush out’ at the end of the day the way normal people lay down to sleep. He hated mushing out on a bed. Beds and carpets had fibers, and you could not imagine how awful it was having fibers getting into your pores. They were beastly little things. Kittlemeier came up with this special way of treating leather. It was wonderfully comfortable.
“During World War II the British crown jewels, the Magna Carta and other irreplaceable treasures were brought to the U.S. and placed in Fort Knox for safe keeping.”
Selina smiled, but Doris went on. “Also the Hungarian crown jewels in 1945, to protect them from the Soviets.”
“Interesting, I didn’t know that,” Selina said.
“And in 1973 a con man called… I think Jenkowitz, claimed it wasn’t the real Magna Carta returned after the war. He claimed it was switched for a fake and tried to sell the original to an Irish collector who wasn’t nearly as gullible as he looked.”
“How could you possibly have a fake… never mind. Let’s get out of here. I’m sick of trivia, it’s time for a field trip.”
Zed climbed up the same man hole he’d gone down to find Killer Croc, but he ran half way down Canal Street before he dared let the gag reflex have its say. God it smelled down there, and if he’d only been, like, anybody else who goes down to the sewers because it’s their job, he could have expressed that like he imagined EVERYBODY DID their first time climbing down a stinking sewer. But no, he couldn’t because he was going to see Killer Croc, a guy who considered that sewer home and just might take offense. So he waited. And now he breathed.
He breathed. And breathed. And breathed.
Then he coughed a little. Suppressed the urge to puke. Walked up to one of the sidewalk stalls selling some weird exotic fruit, pointed to one that looked good, took a bite and smelled it for a minute or so. It was good to have the smell of something else in his nostrils, but it seemed like he was still getting whiffs of that awful place. Wincing, he ran his fingers through his hair and sure enough, the faint whiffs got stronger. He had the stink in his hair. Seeing that he was in Chinatown, he stopped in an apothecary and asked about dry shampoo. Just something he could use right now with his fingers to tide him over until he could go home and take a shower.
The clerk was very polite while Zed explained his ridiculous predicament, and while they didn’t have the shampoo he needed, she thought tea would do the trick. Any tea, she advised, pointing him to the shop across the street – the cheapest they had would get the job done. He tried it and it worked pretty well. The whole episode only took ten minutes and it was enough to organize his thoughts: Riddler had been to Clayface around 11 o’clock and he never made it to Killer Croc’s. So whatever happened must have been between those two. That would be more useful once he knew the order in which Riddler planned to see everybody. After he talked to Ivy and Roxy, he’d have a better idea.
He rejected Clayface’s idea that it was all a wild goose chase Riddler orchestrated to make Batman jump through hoops. Sure Riddler left clues and puzzles, but if he was hatching something for the Bat, he would’ve unpacked the defense system on his new lair, and he certainly would have told his girlfriend. So Zed would continue his quest. On to the Green House and then to Roxy’s.
“Struann is the oldest auction house in the United States,” Selina narrated softly as the two women strolled together. “It was founded in 1803, been in continuous operation ever since, and have you noticed the way the guard is still checking out your assets? He likes blondes and he likes tush, remember that.”
“Whereas the doorman likes brunettes and legs,” Doris noted. “1803, you say? That’s eight years before Crispin’s?”
“Very good. Original’s in London; branches in Gotham, Paris, Geneva, Boston and Los Angeles. Now right down that hall past the ladies room and the water fountain is Receiving. Items come from estates, galleries, private collections, and ordinary people wanting to sell something. After they’re receipted, they’re sent to their proper department: sculptures to the sculpture department, prints to the print department, etc for authentication and cataloging. The slave labor they call it; it’s on the fourth floor. There’s a clear view from the fitting room of Liv Modero across the street. We’ll go there next. Bring opera glasses or a small scope in your purse, take a few items to try on, look right out their window into Struan’s.”
“Do you ever buy anything?”
“At Liv? Not usually, but I’ve been known to go on a spree,” Selina laughed, enjoying the novelty of a criminally minded girlfriend with a proper sense of priorities. “About a week before the auction, everything is sent back down here to the exhibition rooms. Ooh, I like that one,” she said, pointing to an ivory netsuke. “The night before the auction it’s all put backstage, and finally on the day of the sale… that’s the door to the big auction room right there, and the smaller one is right down the stairs… day of the sale, it’s put up for auction and hopefully sold.”
“Assuming it makes it that far,” Doris said lightly.
“Yes, assuming that,” Selina agreed.
Zed had never been a Chelsea guy and it was years since he’d been to the stretch of 28th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues known as FloMa. He knew the Flower Market as a criminal: it was open Monday through Saturday starting at 5 a.m. and not all of the stores took credit cards. That meant the florists, high-end decorators and in-the-know amateurs who came for the opening rush all brought plenty of cash. Oodles of cash as they hustled their way through a thick crowd, often burdened with unwieldy bundles. It was a pickpocket’s paradise.
That crowd was long gone, and even the housewives who followed had thinned considerably. Many of the vendors were closed for the day, but much of the sidewalk was still lined on both sides with six-foot walls of green flora for sale, while the steps outside the open shops were packed with potted plants.
“RAIOUW” a harsh feline voice sounded from below as Zed narrowly missed stepping on an orange moggie.
“Uh, sorry,” he said, continuing on his way. He’d forgotten about the cats. Not all the dealers had them, but an astonishing number did. Sometimes they seemed to be actively guarding the expensive tropical plants, but mostly they just sat there judging your purchases (like everyone else in Chelsea). The savvy regulars seemed to make friends with the cats. They knew the names of the kitties at their favorite stalls and stopped to say goodbye before leaving with their purchases—a practice Zed always thought was stupid, but now that he was practically working for Catwoman, he wondered if he should make an effort. Sort of a good karma thing.
He went back to the orange moggie, squatted down and said hi. The owner of the stall was close enough to see and told him the cat’s name was King. Zed took the introduction as a cue to pet, but King nipped at his fingers… then sniffed, then licked them. The owner asked if he’d been handling catnip or parsley, both of which King had a passion for. Zed remembered the tea and guessed it was probably that.
He went on his way, stopping to meet three other cats—a grey and white longhair called Artichoke, a black pugnose called Wolfgang and a fat tabby called Goethe—before he reached Ivy’s greenhouse. The door was locked, so he rang the buzzer. After a minute, the door buzzed back and clicked. Zed went inside, thinking the good luck gesture with the cats was already paying off. He’d seen the intercom out front and, knowing Poison Ivy, he was expecting more of an interrogation before he got in. He was ready to give a… a full account of who he was and… and what his uh… business was… something… boy, it was hot in here. Like steam room hot. And wet. He ran his fingers through his hair which was already damp with sweat. The action – or just the heat – revitalized the tea smell. It wasn’t nearly as appealing mixed with the smell of his own sweat… unless that was the smell from the sewer still… or something else. It was different if it was the sewer It was…. It was kind of… boy it was hot in here.
“Come,” a honeyed voice said. “Don’t be afraid. Come closer.”
Zed blinked. His eyes were watering terribly, either from the haze of smelly steam or the coating of sweat thickening on every party of his body—including his eyelids. He tried to blink away the sting, squinted and blinked some more trying to decode the blurry source of the honey voice.
“Come. There’s nothing to fear. Only the green awaits you. Come into the loving embrace of the green.”
He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. His heart raced. And his legs were moving with a will of their own. He forgot about the smell. Something… nicer had entered the picture, not exactly sweet and not even very pleasant, but whatever it was, it numbed him to that awful stench. He still couldn’t see what he was walking towards, his stinging eyes still only registered a blur. A green blur. A green and pink blur. Green topped with orange and pink topped with brown.
“That’s it, no man can resist me.”
Riiiight, Poison Ivy. He was here to see Poison Ivy... So that’s the green topped with orange… Zed sighed happily at the revelation… though he hadn’t remembered her skin being that dark and green, or her hair that vividly orange. His heart raced faster, faster than it had in the grip of that fear toxin. His head tilted back in a half-swoon, though his eyes fought to stay riveted on Poison Ivy. They rolled down to behold her from a new angle unflooded with tears and shock tore through his delirium. The green-pink-orange-brown blur suddenly clarified into the body of a woman split down the center like a female Two-Face. Her green side was vividly green, the hair garishly red. Her other half had natural pink skin and perfectly ordinary brown hair. And her expression was one of such rage and hate, the spell of her pheromones shattered into a bone-splitting scream of self preservation.
“AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!” Zed screeched into Ivy’s face, and though she reacted with little more than a psychotic twitch that stretched from the left side of her upper lip to the lower half of her nose, various plants and vines in the room shrank back from the unholy din.
“AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!” Zed continued, acting on instinct and oblivious to its effect on the plants.
“Stop that, you’re hurting them!” Ivy yelled.
“AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!” Zed replied.
“STOP IT!” Ivy screeched.
“FINE!!” she bellowed, her chest heaving to convey the full force of her hatred but finding her voice wholly inadequate. She reached out a green hand—what should have been a perfectly normal hand apart from the color—to see the veins were so engorged with the strain to express her rage, it looked like a gnarled talon. “So be it,” she croaked, jerking her hand upward and twisting into a clenched fist.
Zed’s body began to writhe and flail as... as… wrist to neck started to prickle and sting, neck to waist was quivering and itching and… oohhhhhh….ohhhhhh….. waist to toe was….
Oh god. His scalp was getting that same barbed tingling, like something was alive up there and…
Burrowing into him…
He smelled TEA.
To be continued...