Edward Nigma finished carving a question mark into the brown object on his dinner tray. He set the plastic fork down at its place, like an artist finished with a favorite brush, and surveyed his masterpiece critically. He could normally delight in the cache of an unanswered question represented by that symbol, but not in this particular case. For this question mark was not used to seal an envelope holding a taunting clue for Batman, nor did it crow triumph at a crime scene, silently asking what became of the empty safe’s contents. No, its meaning here on his dinner tray was all too depressingly clear: It asked What is this thing?
Riddler’s best guess was some sort of artificial meat… oatmeal? or wheat bran?? marinated in… steak sauce??? and sculpted into… rissoles????
With each new question mark, he grew more depressed. The worst legacy of Josiah Arkham, Nigma reflected, was not the asylum that bore his name, but these godawful “Victory Recipes” the kitchens still served. Oatmeal rissoles and potato substitute might be just the thing if U-boats are blockading the British isles and your meat ration won’t stretch to Thursday, but in 21st Century Gotham City, they seemed a little out of place.
Nigma knew he had to exercise his mind if he was to stay sane until his release, and rather than try to deduce the evening’s mystery meat, he turned his mind back to the Hugo Strange puzzle. He’d confirmed that Strange was the second new arrival during the session with Dr. Bartholomew:
“Say Doc,” he had asked, “What happens when there gets to be more psychiatrists among the inmates than on the staff?”
“Most amusing, Edward. Now can we get started?”
“I’m just sayin’, Doc, Harley and Hugo admitted in one week. Your colleagues are dropping like flies. Maybe time to tune up your own noggin just to be on the safe side?”
“Thank you, Edward, I appreciate your concern. But this hour is to be spent on your noggin. Suppose you tell me what’s been happening since we spoke on Monday…”
And there it was. No denials or feigned confusion. Hugo Strange was back in residence, and Bart didn’t act like it was any secret. So why wasn’t he in the common room?
Nigma paced as he asked himself the unanswerable question: How to find out? How to find out? How to find out? “FOOD UNHIT TWO.” In frustration he started generating anagrams: “FOUND HOOT WIT.” “WHOD INFO TOUT.”
He stopped and cocked his head, looking back at the question mark on his dinner tray: “Who would info tout?” he asked the block of mystery meat.
Leland Bartholomew knew positive reinforcement was vital to the learning process. And his temporary assistant HAD succeeded in pulling and indexing the notes for all fast-track rehabilitation sessions for Patient #68-C240 (Crane, Jonathan; a.k.a The Scarecrow). The only problem was that Bartholomew had asked for Julio Cumanez (Patient #68-C340, a.k.a. “Duo”). But Bartholomew didn’t have the heart to send them back. It was practically the first task Brian had completed on his own without interrupting to ask a dozen obvious questions. It would do no harm, Bartholomew decided, to review Crane’s file.
The next morning at 11:15, a full fifteen minutes after Nurse Chin would be on duty in the infirmary, Edward Nigma complained of a very mild headache. He carefully stressed that it was surely caused by the awkward angle at which he’d rested his neck during his session with Dr. Bartholomew that morning, so foolish of him not to realize at the time, but he was so engrossed on the good doctor’s insights. Again, he stressed, that was a very mild and muscular pain, and that surely the simple old-fashioned remedy of aspirin (as opposed to the 900 mgs of lithium that was their first response to anything that moved) was all that was needed.
While this tactic did not, in fact, get him whacked with 900 mgs of lithium, neither did it get him taken to the infirmary. Regrettably, Eddie realized what he would have to do in order to obtain a face-to-face with the informative Nurse Chin.
Patient #62-B047 (Blake, Thomas; a.k.a. Catman) was sufficiently recovered from his marathon therapy to join them in the common room. Nigma strolled over to him and sat down. But instead of probing for news of the outside as he normally would from a recent arrival, Eddie let out a low whistle.
“Quite a shiner,” he observed, pointing to Blake’s black eye. “Batman, of course.”
“Of course. A hunter such as I can only be taken by a predator of equal skill, no mere sidekicks can hope to-”
“Heh, okay, if you say so.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, everybody knows the Bat only wails on you ‘cause of the cat thing. He’s expecting Catwoman at those crimes, Blake, don’t you know that? Then when you show up instead, he’s pissed. Hence the punching bag treatment.”
“That’s a lie,” Blake seethed dangerously.
“Not a bit. Why everybody knows Selina has first pick of any cat loot that comes to town, and you get to make do with her leftovers, so it’s only natural Batman would assume—”
The punch landed on Nigma’s left cheekbone, which wouldn’t have been his first choice as it would make a challenge of chewing tonight’s mystery meat. But it succeeded in getting him into the infirmary with unfettered access to Nurse Chin.
“HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA. Now stop me if you’ve heard this. A guy goes into a bar with an octopus… Croc, Croc, you in there? Anybody ho-ome?”
“You’re just staring into space, buddy. What’s up?”
“Whoa, big words there, Crockers. So why the staring into space?”
“Croc visualize happy place. Croc visualize not tearing arms off clown when clown tell joke. Croc think about swamp. Croc not think about halls of Arkham wet with blood of Croc’s enemies.”
“Eh, okay then. I’ll be over here. Check please!”
“My first is traded for fair ladies’ pert curves. My second, a backwards train. Without my last, there would be no butchers, bakers, or candlestick makers…” Nurse Chin listened to this riddling prattle with an expression of tolerant patience, until Nigma reached the last part, “…and my whole? My whole answers at 212-555-6719. Extension 12.”
Chin grew pale hearing the phone number of the Gotham Tattler, the tabloid that supplemented her meager Arkham wages buying information on incarcerated rogues.
“Now Nurse Chin, I don’t especially care if you sell the occasional bit of gossip, true or false, to some scandal rag. But then I’m a lot more open-minded than most about that sort of thing. So it’s probably much healthier for you if we keep this as our little secret. And in exchange, a little tittle for me not to tattle, eh? How would that be? All I want to know is: why has Hugo Strange not been sent to the common room since he was admitted?”
“I’ve got a bone to pick with you, Bartholomew!”
“Why Pamela, no plant metaphors? That is an improvement.”
“If you think so, you’re as ignorant as you are shortsighted, little man. Bone meal is an excellent fertilizer. I want to talk about Harley.”
“This hour is reserved to talk about you, Pamela. You know that. And even if it wasn’t, you know I couldn’t discuss the other patients…”
“Root rot! You know I know what’s best for her: get her away from Joker. Tell me that’s not what it says in all your reports.”
Bartholomew looked at his raving patient with a look of calm and impassive disapproval. He would not be drawn into validating her outburst or confirming her assertions—however right they were. Harley Quinn’s file did read: Phase 1: Break obsession with Joker, Phase 2: achieve realization of enabler co-dependent tendencies, Phase 3: turn focus from crime and train patient to reenter society and live an independent life.
“Pamela, the interest you take in your friend’s recovery is admirable, but if you would focus just a little of that energy to embracing your own rehabilitation—”
“You have manure for brains, Bartholomew…”
The doctor’s passive expression never wavered and he made a note without looking down at his pad. Isley was, despite her psychosis, smart, educated, insightful, and dignified—until someone disagreed with her. Then she transformed into a violently irrational harpy.
“…Harley is supposed to be kept away from Joker. Now that you’ve gone and let him into the common room—and don’t think we’re not onto the reason why: because you don’t want to listen to him any more than we do, and you figure he’ll get it out of his system that way. But he’s in the common room now, and Harley will be coming in the common room, too. They’ll be together, don’t you get it! You’ve got to do something about this or, so help me, I’ll…”
Bartholomew tuned it out. More threats, he was used to it. But Poison Ivy had already inflicted her worst. The garden view his office was supposed to enjoy was completely obliterated by an opaque moss coating the window, and he could no longer drive his car to work. No matter where he parked, vines would coil into his tail pipe and gas tank, and by the end of the day, he had to get it towed to Max’s Garage, pay $75 to have it cleaned out, and suffer Max’s gaffaws.
As much as Catman resented being upstaged by Selina, as much as Catwoman resented pussy jokes, as much as Poison Ivy resented Gina the Iceberg washroom attendant validating Hugo Strange’s neanderthal ideas about women, as much as Harley Quinn resented that damn octopus joke, Edward Nigma couldn’t abide people confusing jokes with riddles.
Jokes, whether involving musically amorous octopi or not, had no logic. They were frivolous stories meant to set up the punchline. They were told to get a laugh—or in the case of the octopus, a pained groan. But riddles were an art form, the work of one mind that expressed itself by challenging another, a contest between brains that took pleasure in the intellectual stimulation. One did not laugh at a riddle. And while Nigma was as inclined to express merriment as the next man, he did not cackle like the Joker.
If he laughed a little louder and longer than usual at the Hugo Strange situation, that’s only because it was damn funny. There was no need, surely, to strap him down this way like he was some hysteric in a madhouse. At least they didn’t sedate him—which meant, as long as he remained calm and collected, he would most likely be let up by dinnertime. And tonight he was looking forward to dinnertime.
Because Saul Vics, a ten-year man at Arkham, had house payments. How could any sane man not laugh at that? Hugo Strange was the new ass to kiss at Arkham, and tonight Riddler would enjoy a good dinner because Saul Vics had house payments!
Vics was a guard, not especially brutal, but not especially bright either. He had grown accustomed to a tidy little side income from admitting Joker and Harley Quinn to the little copy room behind the offices. Since the big split, those bribes had dried up, and Vics, hard up for cash, had gone about quietly advertising his services. Hugo Strange was the first to notice and immediately put Vics on retainer. Now he didn’t have to go to the common room and suffer Joker’s prattle, plus his own cell was now equipped with comfortable furniture, a portable DVD player, and best of all—through Vics—he could order takeout!
Anyone lucky enough to obtain an invitation from Hugo would—after tipping Vics $25—be escorted to Strange’s cell instead of the common room to partake of stir-fry, barbecue, or deep-dish pizza.
For the bargain price of $49.95, Nurse Chin agreed to take Hugo a note from Nigma asking for an invitation.
Hugo Strange was pleased to invite a record four guests to his cell that evening. Riddler had requested an invitation—a sign, surely, that Hugo was at last beginning to receive the respect he deserved from the senior rogues.
Catman, naturally. Although the straitjacket he had been placed in since the altercation with Nigma meant he couldn’t eat pizza. But he must still be invited, for Catman had a fixation on the Batman that rivaled Hugo’s own. And since Hugo was destined to one day learn all there was to know about the Bat, transcending to become Batman himself, it was only fitting that Hugo Strange: future Batman understand his most obsessed foes like Blake.
The third guest was Jonathan Crane. Scarecrow had finally been captured (by Black Canary this time, if the rumormill was to be believed). The news pleased Hugo greatly. Crane was hardly a friend. Despite countless hours spent huddled together at the unpopular table at the Iceberg, Jonathan was stubbornly disrespectful of Hugo’s unique position in the Gotham underworld. He seemed to view humiliating taunts as some kind of conversational ritual. Now that Hugo was in a position of power, for only he could deliver an inmate (or not) from the common room and oatmeal rissoles, he longed to exercise that power on Crane: You sit in my cell, eat my pizza and play my Trivial Pursuit Freudian Edition, you will listen to my Bruce Wayne-is-Batman Theory.
Nurse Chin had to wait until Nigma was taken back to his cell before she dared risk a phone call. Once she was alone, she wasted no time.
:: Gotham Tattler. ::
“Extension 12, please.”
:: Baker. ::
“Hi, it’s Chin. What’s the going rate for a love triangle?”
:: Depends on who and how much draw they have. ::
“Catman and Riddler came to blows over Catwoman.”
:: No sale, not buying Catwoman. ::
“But the Post—”
:: I know, I know, the Post got its highest circulation in forever with that Batman-Catwoman picture. I’ve been in Times Square; I saw the billboard. So did everybody else, and they’re all trying to copy it. ::
“But Stu, this is primo stuff. Catwoman is a draw…”
:: Only if you know what you’re doing, gorgeous, and the knockoffs don’t. They don’t have the stuff. You can’t just reproduce the Post’s picture, add some adolescent psychobabble, and think anybody but the cosmically retarded will buy it. ::
“Who do you think reads the Tattler, Stu?”
:: Who do you think signs my paycheck, Chin? ::
“What about using the Catman-Riddler fight without going into the reasons, then? That should be worth something, shouldn’t it?”
::I can give you a C-note for that.::
“A C-note! Baker, you’re killing me.”
:: You know what pays the bills, Chin: Get me some dirt or get me a diet. ‘Riddle me Thin’ was the best issue we’ve had this year. ::
There’s always a price.
No, anagrams notwithstanding: There is always a price. That’s all there was to it.
Sure, the pizza was good. Deep-dish. Metropolis style. Pepperoni & sausage or veggie. Tangy sauce, just the right amount, not too spicy, not too sweet. And the cheese, pure heaven.
But having to listen to Hugo’s Bruce Wayne theory again: Eddie had to admit it wasn’t a vast improvement over the octopus joke.
Correction, he thought, having to listen to Hugo’s Bruce Wayne theories. The years of contemptuous disbelief from his fellow rogues had taken their toll: for it was no longer simply “Bruce Wayne” in the new model; that was merely his Terran name. On his native world, he would have been called Mnd~rph~nmahss~hs, which we Earthlings can’t really pronounce, but as close as we can come, it would sound like Mann der Fliegen-Maus, don’t you see, Man of the Flying Mouse!
Still, Eddie ate pizza and sat quiet. It’s not like Hugo was ever playing with a full deck, so it couldn’t be called a tragic waste. And it was better if he got it out of his system here, in private, than if he went off like that at the Iceberg. Joker had taken a liking to Bruce Wayne, nobody knew why, and so far Strange had been lucky. Thanks to the clown’s gnat-like attention span, he seemed to have forgotten Hugo’s famous theory. He certainly never put it together that his good buddy ‘Brucie’ was the butt of the slur. It would not be wise for Hugo to remind him, but Hugo was so bat-crazed, it seemed unlikely he was aware of the danger.
“And of course an alien would explain the signal as well. It isn’t merely to call him; it lights the sky in such a way that we can’t see the star of his homeworld.”
“Gotcha. And it explains the pointy ears, too. You going to eat that last slice?”
“What I would like to know,” Tom Blake said testily, “is why I am the one in a straitjacket.”
“Because you hit me,” Eddie replied, taunting him with the last slice of veggie pizza.
“Desist in your infantile banter and untie me, Nigma. For I have news that I shall only impart if I am pacified.”
Hugo’s ears perked up and he forgot his rambling theories in pursuit of the Holy Grail “news.” Since his arrival, he had been amusing himself manipulating Blake… His feverish manner melted into the oozing rationality of the evil psychiatrist. “Now, Herr Blake, you are a guest here. And guests are expected to sing for their supper.”
“I haven’t had any supper,” Blake answered petulantly.
“Give him the last slice, Edward. You see, Blake, we are all friends here. You are tied up and cannot eat, so Herr Nigma will feed you. And in return, you will tell us whatever you learned from the orderlies when they put you in that straitjacket, yes? That is when you found out this ‘news,’ is it not?”
Blake nodded. “Very well. But only because it’s deep dish. There’s something afoot on the outside. Reports are vague, but a new villain challenges the Bat. And should she fail, her joining us here at Uncle Jerry’s House-o-Fun will be of particular interest to one now among us.”
To be continued…