“What I want… is simple… Sly. God knows, it’s simple… I don’t want to hear any more about Catwoman. I don’t want to hear any more about Catwoman. I don’t want to hear anything more about Catwoman. OKAY? Is that so much to ask? For one night—no Lady Purple.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Blake,” Sly said evenly, sliding a gin martini across the bar. He hadn’t mentioned Catwoman, of course. Sly relied on tips to supplement his meager bartender’s salary. To earn tips you had to make the customers happy, and to do that at the Iceberg Lounge meant keeping track of who despised whom. You wouldn’t win any friends in this place by talking up Joker to Poison Ivy or Cluemaster to Riddler, and you were just asking for trouble if you brought up Catwoman in front of Tom Blake, the Catman. All Sly had done was ask what kind of garnish Blake wanted in his martini: an olive, lemon peel, or twist of pickled ginger. It wasn’t his fault that the ginger was kept on hand for Selina’s martinis, or that it was she who introduced this innovation. The Iceberg Lounge served both gin and vodka martinis this way, Sly was the bartender, Blake had ordered a martini, so it was his job to ask.
“Anybody should be able to see that,” Sly muttered to himself as he rang up the sale, “especially someone just released from Arkham with a clean bill of mental health.”
Catman took his drink from the bar and stalked angrily into the dining room.
“Do you know what to-morrow is, Kitty?” Jervis called, waving him back to a corner booth. “That’s what Alice asked the white kitten, or was it the black one, at the start of Through the Looking Glass. Well it’s no nevermind, white or black, since you’re all yellow and orange.”
“Must you blither?” Blake asked wearily, sitting down on the bench across from Mad Hatter.
“Oh beamish boy, drink your saucer of milk and tell me all the news. You’re fresh out of Arkham, are you not? Surely there are tales to tell from Dr. Jerry’s House-o-Fun.”
“Yes, I’m out of Arkham,” Blake grumbled, “and what’s practically the first thing I see when I get back to town? Ad for that new jewelers, Objects of Desire. Have you seen it? Big billboard right when you come off the bridge. Six diamond rings in different styles, big as life, and underneath just one word: Catworthy. How do you like that, hm? Catworthy.”
“And you’re assuming that doesn’t refer to you.”
“The word was purple.”
Jervis sipped his drink. Blake sipped his.
“LEND A NORM MUG,” a new voice rang, “A Glenundromm, Sly my good man! A Glenundromm or, if you are in a puzzling mood, then LEND A NORM MUG.”
“Welcome back Mr. Nigma, it’s been quite a while since I’ve heard any of those anagrams of yours. And just as long since I’ve… had occasion to…” Sly was looking distractedly around the bar as he spoke, pausing longer and longer between words, as if he couldn’t find something. “…Um… I mean… it’s been a while since I’ve had occasion to pour that special… scotch of yours, sir. Let me just slip into the back for a minute and fetch a fresh bottle.”
The slightly confused manner became more determined as Sly walked to the hallway at the back of the bar. Edward Nigma was too busy receiving congratulations for his release to notice Sly turning not into the backroom but into the office.
“Mr. Cobblepot,” Sly sighed when he closed the door. “That Glenundromm is white vest, premium stuff. Couldn’t you have taken one of the lesser brands?”
“Quacakwa” came the answer. It was more of an answer than Sly was expecting. From the way Oswald was slumped on his desk, Sly had assumed his employer was passed out. Sly reached for the nearly empty bottle of Glenundromm, only to have Oswald clutch at it with another “quacakwakwa” the moment it moved.
“Okay, I’ll open a new bottle from downstairs—this time, Mr. Cobblepot, this time. But you can’t keep drinking up the special reserves, sir, you really can’t. I’ll put this on Mr. Nigma’s tab to cover our loss. ‘Mistake’ if he notices, but he won’t. Just released from Arkham, I doubt he’ll remember how much of the old bottle was left. But a lot of the regulars are getting out this week, Mr. Cobblepot, so their liquor can’t keep disappearing this way. You want to drink, drink the house brands—or Mr. Dent’s double-malt.”
“Yeah, quacakwa-kwa,” Sly said sadly, closing the office door behind him.
“SLY!” All Sly had a chance to register before being thrown against the wall was a blur of red-black and the jingle of tassels.
“Um, gee, hi Miss Quinn.”
“Sly my FAVORITE Bar-guy! Give us a hug.”
“Quacakwa-kwa” Sly sputtered as the air was forced from his lungs, “Ms. Quinn, I can’t breathe.”
“Oh. Sorry there,” Harley released him and started brushing off his shirt, “Well I just wanted to say Hiya! ‘cause y’know I missed you so much, you and everybody here at the ‘Berg!”
Sly smiled the cautious and confused smile the Arkham orderlies often wore as he pointed Harley Quinn back to the bar. He said he’d be there in a minute to take her order and headed downstairs.
Harley stopped at every table she passed as she moved to the bar, smiling at some who were too far away to stop and chat with, waving at others, and blowing kisses to a chosen few.
“What’s with her?” Catman asked, noting that he and Jervis only rated a beauty-queen wave and not a kiss.
“Worried about slipping,” Jervis explained. “You know how it is: a couple splits, one stays in the mimsy borogoves, keeps the friends and the hangouts, and one disappears down the rabbit hole never to be seen again.”
“And Harley figures she’ll be the one to go? She gives parties and organizes karaoke nights and is cute as a button, whereas Joker is… Joker.”
“Speaking for myself, I would rather look at her grin than his,” Jervis agreed. “But as Roxy is so fond of pointing out, Harley is only a sidekick. It’s a topsy turvy world, Blake, but even so, who will risk offending Joker… Blake? Blake, are you listening to me?”
As sometimes happens with cats, Catman had become fascinated by a shiny object and was giving it, rather than his companion, his full attention.
“That… new groupie,” he said at last, “is wearing… aluminum foil? Anyway, I disagree about Harley’s prospects. Certainly Poison Ivy will want to keep her around no matter what—”
“Besides,” announced a new voice… and Edward Nigma approached the table, “not everyone is intimidated by Joker.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” Jervis declared.
“Quite true,” Blake confirmed, “You wanted the news from Arkham, well that’s the news. A new power has risen to challenge the Clown Prince of Crime.”
Jervis ogled, unbelievingly. “Who?” he asked finally.
Blake and Nigma exchanged amused glances before answering in unison: “Hugo.”
Jervis pulled out a pocketwatch and looked at it, then shook it. “No, that makes no sense at all. Hugo Strange? Topsy turvy world and all that, but the Queen of Hearts can and will say ‘Off with their heads,’ whereas all the Dormouse can do is get breadcrumbs in the butter. Unless that was the March Hare, because this is Thursday and we always have bread and butter with tea on Thursday—but Joker can kill you. Joker will kill you. So there’s really no way it can be Hugo.”
Catman stood and offered Nigma his chair with a formal nod: “Whatever that was he just said, it’s more in your line than mine, Mr. Riddler. Enjoy your evening, gentlemen. I am going to find out why that new groupie is wearing silver foil.”
Catman left and Riddler sat.
“It’s true, Jervis. It started at Arkham. Hugo bribed a guard and built himself a little powerbase doing favors for the rest of us—getting us out of the common room when Joker was there, decent food, things like that. Then this Manikin came into the picture. You know what Hugo is like. He practically imprinted on her. He’s in love. Or at least deeply obsessed.”
“Strange is obsessed with Batman,” Jervis objected.
“Strange was obsessed with Batman, now he has made the acquaintance of a woman-mannequin. A real actual moving breathing living woman AND she’s a mannequin. Hugo’s got no time for Batman.”
Jervis stared into space for a moment as if performing some arduous calculations, then he nodded and Nigma continued.
“So Hugo’s obsessed with this Manikin, but she strikes up a friendship with Harley when Harley falls out with Ivy, so then Joker starts paying attention to Manikin to annoy Harley. Joker and Hugo been squaring off ever since.”
“Calloo callay,” Jervis said in wonder, “Good dish, I say! And all this has been going on in Arkham and no one’s told me?”
Eddie looked at him in disgust.
“What do you call a chin-wagging rumor hag?” Riddler asked with a twinkle.
Jervis wrinkled his brow.
“I don’t know.”
One last attempt, and if it didn’t work, Bruce knew he would have to admit defeat. One… last… desperate… twisting… stretch… and then———lunge-ARGH!
“DAMNIT!” he swore to the empty cave. That was it. Defeat. Lunge-and-dab wasn’t going to work. Swallowing his anger, Bruce forced a calmer tone as he spoke into the intercom. “Alfred, I’m in the med facility. Would you come down here for a moment, please.”
::Of course, sir.::
Minutes later, Alfred was silently dabbing the cuts on Bruce’s back. The silence stung more than the disinfectant. It was a bitter truth to face: being human. There were simply points on his body he could not physically reach—which meant living with an untreated injury or sucking up his pride and getting help.
“I don’t know why I never rigged something up to let me reach back there. Some kind of articulated clamp on a handle.”
“Impractical, sir,” Alfred sniffed, “and unnecessary while I am at hand.”
Bruce seethed. The usual price of Alfred’s medical assistance was sarcasm. The lack of it in this particular instance might have puzzled another man, but not Bruce. To a detective, the explanation was all too clear: Batman injuries occurred at night. Alfred would be summoned to the cave at three or four in the morning. He would treat whatever gunshot or stab wound required his attention, and then see about repairing the damaged costume—all the while peppering the respectful reserve of a family servant with tersely ironic comments about the joys of crimefighting. Called to the cave, not by Batman but by Bruce, at eleven o’clock in the morning, Alfred must have known even before seeing the scratches that this was not a Bat-related incident. Not exactly.
It was… embarrassing. Bruce hated that he was going to explain how this happened, but if he didn’t there was no telling what Alfred might think up on his own, and that was a damn sight more embarrassing.
“Selina doesn’t like to have her morning workout interrupted,” he began tentatively.
“It’s not like it’s Strategic Self-Mutating Defense Regimen 4 or anything, it’s just Yoga and Boflex and some Tai Chi.”
“As you say, sir.” The disapproval in the words was palpable.
“Alfred, the fact is, I mean, to be blunt, Selina working out is a sight to see.”
The butler coughed.
“…and the element of surprise is a very real consideration in physical contests… even if it weren’t, Batman doesn’t wait and ‘make an appointment.’”
“I see, sir.”
“Quite sir. You inserted yourself into Miss Selina’s morning routine without first ascertaining her views on the matter.”
“It was spontaneous.”
“Very good, sir. If I may make a suggestion, the next time Batman wishes to be spontaneous, it would be wise to do so in the protective garments designed for that purpose. Will there be anything else, sir?”
Technically, Sly’s job was finished once the last customer had departed and he’d closed out the register. But he knew if he left it at that, there would be rubber checks come payday—that is assuming there were any checks at all. So he headed back to Mr. Cobblepot’s office and lifted his unconscious employer off the night’s receipts. He retrieved the previous four nights’ receipts from the safe and made up the delinquent deposits. Then he dropped them in the night deposit box on the way home.
The next morning he called the payroll service he used for his Florida bar, Sly’s, and set them up to take over the Iceberg accounts. He checked the inventories, phoned two vendors and called the beer distributor to reschedule a missed delivery.
Then he considered the black ledger.
Sly was not naïve. He was well aware that the legitimate nightclub he worked for represented only… the tip of the Iceberg, so to speak. There was another business operating alongside this one, a shadow business, that for all he knew made up the bulk of Oswald Cobblepot’s operations. Sly certainly had no interest in becoming a crime boss and even if he did, he was sure he wouldn’t know how to go about it. But he was equally sure that side of Oswald’s business wouldn’t survive continued neglect any more than the club could. He didn’t know what happened when crooks and black marketeers didn’t get paid on time, but he knew instinctively the Iceberg was not the place to be if that occurred.
There was only one solution, Sly decided, fingering the edge of the ledger. He had to find someone to take over managing that part of the business just as he took over the Lounge.
Who? That was the question.
Batman stood over his workstation, a familiar mix of annoyance and amusement battling for dominance as he examined the small card wedged between the rows of letters on the keyboard—a slim border of leopard spots framing a flowing feminine script:
He tossed the card aside and sat down to work; she would have to wait. There was no time for games now. It had started.
Damn Ra’s al Ghul, this was really his doing. Ra’s pulling that recruiting stunt in Gotham City. It had irked him. The obscenity of it, the unmitigated gall. Ra’s al Ghul in his city. Batman was outraged and he had taken it out on the criminal element of Gotham however he could. That much was enormously satisfying—at the time. The majority of the rogues gallery found themselves hauled off to Arkham within a few short weeks.
It was satisfying at the time… but now came the consequences. Thanks to the Arkham fast track rehabilitation program, large numbers of criminals going in at the same time meant many being released at the same time. Riddler, Catman and Harley, all this week; Ivy, Joker and Hugo by the end of the month.
He had to be ready.
He ran his finger along the ridge of the card. “Sorry Kitten, some other time.”
The one indisputable advantage to working at a place like the Iceberg, Sly reflected, was information. An ordinary Joe trying to find some underworld figure wouldn’t know where to begin, but all Sly had to do was ask. He didn’t even have to pay $50 for the information like someone else might; he just brought Mr. Tetch a fresh Derby Fizz and a little slip of paper with the address was handed back. And because addresses in Chinatown were a little tricky, Mr. Tetch even drew a nice little map on the back of the cocktail napkin.
Getting in once he found the address was a little trickier than Sly would have thought. The man in the front of the little curio shop was awfully excitable. Sly thought he looked familiar—he remembered serving customers at the Iceberg that wore that same outfit—but when he greeted the man as he would anybody he knew from work, the guy got hysterical.
“Loyal to The Great One, F’Nos is loyal to Great One Demon Head, I F’Nos, I give dying breath to Demon Head and his ministers Gr’oriBr’di and Ulstarn, I do my duty. I no go to vile places of decadent city.”
“HEY!” Sly yelled, offended, “That’s my bar you’re dissing.”
“Don’t mind him, Sly,” a familiar voice teased from the doorway, “He’s new. We haven’t loosened him up yet.” The former Iceberg bouncer, Greg Brady, turned to the DEMON underling, “F’Nos, nobody in the decadent city considers it disloyal to take your night off and go out somewhere instead of sitting on the edge of your bunk staring into space. One of the places you can go is the Iceberg Lounge, where this man will serve you the best damn martini in the city and listen to you bitch what an unfeeling hardass your boss is. Get it?”
He winked at F’Nos, who looked utterly confused. So Brady winked at Sly and added “—as long as you don’t hit on Roxy Rocket.”
Both men laughed, disappeared into the back room, and a half hour later, Sly shook hands with his new partner.
Nigma gave the true riddle a final proofread before unfolding the paper on which it was printed and refolding it to display a decoy question.
There was one thing to be said for a stint at Arkham, it always gave him time to devise new criminal conundrums. The downside was: it was an asylum. The meds, the crazies, it messed with your head. Whenever he was released, he had to go over every aspect of any capers planned there.
Satisfied that he had all the bases covered, he slid the folding paper puzzle carefully into its special green envelope, sealed it with a gold question mark, and set off to drop it at police headquarters.
He stopped a block shy of his destination when the sky above the building lit up.
“Drat it all,” he muttered, “Premature Bat-signal. Some upstart carrying on, taking up Batman’s attention, messing with my timetable.”
Knowing that officers were at that very moment on the roof waiting for Batman and would remain there until the caped menace had answered the signal, Riddler knew he would be unable to deliver his challenge tonight. He turned on his heel, flagged a cab and headed for the Iceberg.
Stymied for another night after a long stint at Arkham, he would have to take what consolation he could from a glass of Glenundromm and the puzzle of that new groupie wearing silver foil.
To be continued…