“Now to truly experience the wonder of caviar,” Talia instructed, “you want to spoon a good-size portion onto your toast point, there, just like this, and then place it in your mouth without biting…”
Greg’s eyes grew wide, but he let his pretty date feed him the little triangle of bread she had prepared, heaped with gooey black fish eggs and a sliver of onion.
“…now use that silver tongue of yours to pop them against the roof of your mouth, to release the full flavor of the rich delicacy.”
Greg managed a smile as he did so and then swallowed. His palette wasn’t accustomed to the “full flavor of the rich delicacy,” to him it tasted a lot like “too much salt.” But he liked trying new things, and he appreciated the effort Talia was making on his behalf—not to mention the cost of this extravagance (as well as that of the champagne, a luxury he liked much better). He wasn’t at all sure why she was doing it.
Well, he understood why in the strict sense; he wasn’t an idiot. Woman invites you out to dinner, then up to her room afterwards, and there’s a candlelit table waiting with a bottle of champagne… He just wasn’t clear on why him. He didn’t get it. He didn’t get it back in Chinatown when she transitioned so eerily from having Nigma killed to dropping those hints about a charming little bistro near her hotel… then once he’d let the hint pass came the flat out invitation.
Greg was far from sheltered but he had never been on a date like this. It was like you see in the movies, the posh restaurant on the Upper East Side, so loud and busy, crowded with beautiful people in fashionable clothes. There were older ones too that seemed to breathe money and power, especially the men in the gray suits that kept eying them while they waited for their table. At first, Greg assumed they were just admiring Talia. She was a pretty little thing, petite and brunette, which was certainly his favorite combination, and with such a reserved, exotic air about her. Certainly that warranted a look or two from men that have working eyes, who could blame them.
But then, as Talia and Greg walked to their table, he couldn’t help but notice the eyes that followed her were more hostile than admiring. Phrases like “Yeah, it’s her” and “some nerve” wafted through the air. They could have meant anybody, but Greg didn’t think so. Then while they looked at the menus, he could hear two men distinctly from the table behind him:
“What’s she calling herself now? Arugula or something. Like her face wasn’t plastered on enough magazines that she’d go unnoticed.”
Greg winced, suspecting Talia could hear as well as he could. ‘Arugula’ was the way the reservation desk had butchered her name and most of the patrons had heard it called out several times in the lobby and lounge before they were seated. There could be no question now who these hostile pockets of dialogue were discussing. Talia ignored it all the same, studying her menu with icy dignity.
“…Head, huh, ‘bout all she’s good for, if you ask me…” “Oh but pronounced ‘Heed,’ David, don’t forget, it’s pronounced ‘Heed.’ Affected little bitch.”
Both men seated behind him laughed bitterly, and Greg threw down his napkin angrily.
“Many people lost money in the reversal of LexCorp’s fortunes,” Talia said calmly to her companion, seeing that he was ready to cause a scene on her behalf. “It is most understandable that they wish to blame someone for their disappointments.”
“Still, Miss al Ghul, people should have more consideration.”
“Not in this city,” she muttered bitterly, “but please, call me Talia. Now then, the goose livers look tasty, how about that to begin?”
Greg said nothing but his eyes raced over the appetizers in search of something-anything that sounded better than goose livers.
“I’m actually more of a Joe’s Crab Shack kind of guy, Miss al… Talia. You know, All You Can Eat Fridays, jalapeno poppers, heh hehe.”
Talia affixed him with an icy stare.
“How about the stuffed mushrooms,” he suggested, grasping at the first words that looked familiar. “Stuffed with crab, capers and—uh oh, Arugula.” He gave a happy laugh—which startled Talia very much.
“You… can laugh at this?”
“What else is there to do?”
“Hey, Miss Talia Head al Ghul, you’re talking to Greg Brady here. ‘I’ll take Names People Make Fun Of for 500, Jack!’”
He laughed again. Talia didn’t seem to get the joke at all, but Greg recognized her polite smile for what it was and encouraged it until it became a tentative laugh.
He had been in DEMON long enough to hear stories enough about “the Great One’s daughter,” but he was beginning to think that, under it all, she was a regular girl that just needed some loosening up like all the rest of them. Get her away from this place with the goose livers and nasty patrons that hated her, and find a nice roadhouse where you tossed the peanut shells onto the floor, and who knows…
Hiding over a head shop, how was that for irony? Riddler, the greatest brain among all Batman’s foes, taking refuge over a head shop.
This is how Edward Nigma consoled himself about his present circumstances. He was in hiding. He was on the run for his life—and he wasn’t even sure how it all came about. He had just got settled into the hotel where Talia was staying, conveniently positioned right across the hall from her, he made contact and turned on the old Nigma charm.
But the silly woman had refused to be charmed. Talia al Ghul turned out to be not quite as stupid as he supposed going in—which was terribly inconsiderate of her. She saw through his pretense and she refused to be gulled. That was unusual. Too many women, in his experience, would latch onto the slightest hint of non-hostility and decide romance was in the air. Stand next to them in a group photo and they start picking out china patterns. He had Talia pegged as exactly that kind of needy headcase, but she had truly surprised him.
But then! Having had brains enough to see through his charade, she reverted to form and foolishly let him know she smelled the rat.
Why? Why? Why do women do such things??? If you’re going to be stupid, then BE STUPID and step into the trap. If you’re to be savvy enough to see what’s what and set a trap of your own, you should at least have the brains to cover your tracks!
Nigma doubted that a creature like Talia could present him with any kind of actual challenge, but he would have been happy to engage her in a test of wits (such as they were) simply as something to do. It would have kept his mind occupied as they both went through the pretense of courtship while trying to destroy each other.
But to simply TELL him to his face that he was an unappealing little worm and she was going to have him stepped on! What kind of game was that???
Women. Women were a riddle. Women were A RIDDLE.
So now he was in hiding in this cramped little room above a head shop, and the irony that appealed to him so much when he rented it was fading fast in the cloud of odors emanating from below. Cheap incense was bad enough on its own, but cheap incense covering marijuana was downright nauseating.
He had to THINK. Quite apart from the whole ‘hired killers hunting him’ situation, there was the Batman question to consider. He NEEDED TO THINK—HE NEEDED TO THINKTHINKTHINKTHINKTHINK.
There had to be a way to clear his mind a bit so he could process all this. There had to be. There just had to.
Nightwing was positioned on a rooftop across from Gotham Memorial Hospital. With the Scarecrow and a DEMON assassin both inside as patients, it was understood among the Bat-family that the place needed to be kept under 24-hour watch. The midday shift was the most demanding at this time of year. And that, Nightwing knew, is why he had been assigned it. Barbara’s little punishment for his giving Jean Paul a hard time.
It was hot and unpleasant to be in a dark Kevlar costume on a rooftop in the heat of summer. The sunlight glared off the tiny viewscreen where Oracle piped the feeds from the hospital’s surveillance cameras. He had to squint. He was sweating like a farm animal as the sun beat down on his dark hair and he had to squint, all because he had acted like a husband and Babs didn’t like it.
Dick knew he was being petty. It was the kind of grievance you nursed on a stakeout simply for something to do. Otherwise, out of sheer boredom, you might start to imagine crazy things like Selina’s Jaguar pulling into the parking garage below.
Dick stared at the car as a woman’s slim, white hand reached out of the window to take the timestamp from the machine. He saw the car disappear into the garage and then turned his attention to the viewscreen. He punched up the lobby cameras and waited to see if a shapely dark-haired woman got off the elevator from the garage… none did. He checked the ICU floor, and then the hallway outside the Scarecrow’s room… Nothing. He started to check the lobby again when he felt a delicate tap on his shoulder and a thermos bobbed into his peripheral vision.
“Heya, handsome, something cold to drink?”
His head jerked up from the screen… Either Bruce was finally providing rooftop cocktail waitresses for their convenience, or else…
“Hi,” she smiled.
“I saw your car. Didn’t think you’d be visiting Crane,” he said, taking the thermos gratefully. “Is this iced tea?”
She nodded. “Bruce wanted me to look in on Jean Paul at his apartment. So I figured as long as I was coming into town, I’d come see you before heading over to JP’s. We’re supposed to be working together on this Talia idiocy. Although now that he’s gone and broken his leg, I might be off the hook there. Do I have you to thank for that, by the way?”
“Boy, you really don’t like him,” Dick couldn’t help but chuckle. “I knew there was a reason we got on so well.”
“No, I don’t,” she admitted frankly. “Tied up with a lot of bad memories, I guess.”
Dick sipped his tea and ran his fingers through his sweat-soaked hair.
“That’s true for most of us,” he mentioned.
She shrugged, not caring, and again Dick had to chuckle. For Selina, other people’s views on any subject, from the laws against burglary to the care and feeding of bat-wannabes, was entirely their own business. Her view was dictated by her own feline fiat and it always would be.
“It was Croc that broke Azrael’s leg,” Dick explained, changing the subject. “The two of us went down to the Iceberg just as soon as Oracle said there was trouble. Croc was holding the DEMON guy and fighting off Batman at the same time.”
Selina raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” Dick understood her skepticism. “Even for Croc, that’s not possible. He couldn’t do both, so he threw DEMON-guy down and sat on him—cracked up his ribcage, damn near collapsed a lung, I think. We knew we had to get him to move before the guy was crushed. Even Batman’s way can take a while with a monster like Crockers, so—”
“Flaming sword. Azrael got him to stand up all right, but then it’s not just Killer Croc, it’s ‘angry and scorched’ Croc. Picked Az up like a basketball and made a free throw straight into the bar.”
“Yeah… So… Bruce has you going to see him?”
She nodded. “Yep. I’m not sure why. If it’s just to ‘be nice’ and make a gesture—or to get me out of the way for a while.”
“Selina! I can’t believe you’d even think that last one. I mean, ok, Bruce’ll do that, I know—to me. To me, sure. To Babs, certainly. To Tim, weekly. But c’mon, getting you out of the way?”
“It’s a little weird at home right now, Dick. Something’s happening with us. There’s something going on that neither of us seems able to talk about or even admit to—”
“You’re just getting this now?” Dick asked in a flat deadpan.
Selina’s eyes flared angrily, but she said nothing. Dick gulped the remaining tea from the thermos and handed it back.
“Selina, I really think it’s nothing more than he didn’t like that riddle coming in with the Catwoman goggle picture.”
The angry stare morphed into one of shocked confusion.
“Y-yeah. …Oops. Way to go, Grayson. Guess he hadn’t mentioned that to you?”
Selina slumped wearily. “No. Not like he tells me all about ‘work’ in the normal course of things—and I don’t expect him to tell me everything but… damn. Riddles now. And demonspawn. This whole thing is such a mess.”
“Talia? I haven’t heard this one. You said you’re working with Az on it? What’s Miss Nepal up to now?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Selina sighed. “Trying to get under my skin probably. Running around town as a second-rate Catwoman. I mean, really, at this point, what’s another one, give or take? I’ve already got this idiotic goggle-bitch in the Post with cat-powers and bad hair. At least the spawn’s got decent hair.”
“Well she does,” Selina insisted.
“Maybe she wants to bait you—get you to try and kill her.”
“I don’t kill people,” Selina reminded him sweetly. “I make them wish they’d never been born. Speaking of which…” She stood, taking the thermos, and moved to leave, “I’m off to the Imposter’s to take my medicine. Checking in on the miserable…” She trailed off, then turned back to Nightwing thoughtfully.
He waited… the mention of Azrael had obviously set her off in some way and he was curious what might follow.
“Dick, when it happened… with… Bane. If I’d come to you in Bludhaven, I mean, when I saw he was gone and that it was an imposter in the batsuit, if I’d come to you and asked, would you have told me… something? anything? that he wasn’t dead at least?”
Dick gave a sad smile and a sadder nod. It was one of those questions that couldn’t be answered fairly… It was impossible to know what he would have done at that time—but it was easy to see the answer she needed to hear. “Of course.”
Nigma only took three steps into the head shop before he reconsidered. Much as he felt the need to calm his agitated mind, he simply wasn’t prepared to get high. He got such a tremendous kick out of THINKING, he couldn’t risk gumming up the works of the priceless mechanism of his mind. One need look no further than that sorry chap behind the counter to assess the risks involved using these substances.
“Dude,” the clerk began (because it was the beginning of a sentence, Nigma figured), “Can I, like, help ya?”
“That’s okay, Dude,” Nigma answered back (because it sometimes amused him to communicate with inferior minds on their own level), “I only wanted to read these notices on your bulletin board.” “OR DO A MUDDLE YON,” he muttered under his breath, improvising an anagram for “you addled moron.” He made a pretense of looking at the posted ads: a band called Shards was playing at a club called Redlight—although how that related to the picture of a candle dripping wax onto a human skull, even the Riddler’s great brain couldn’t fathom. There were rooms for rent and futons for sale. The cheap mimeographed sheets were all pink, yellow or blue—except for a single one in white, with two simple words in plain black type:
A man of Edward Nigma’s mentality couldn’t help but be intrigued.
“I say, Dude!” he called to the store clerk, “Would you know who posted this enigmatic sign with the question marks?”
“Oh, that’s Madame Keila, Dude. She’s got that little place in the back, just go round to the alley, green door by the dumpster, can’t miss it.”
Eddie’s face lit up and he waved a cheery wave of thanks to the helpful clerk. A green door, what clearer sign could he hope for?
Azrael had been quiet. At first, it might have been the painkiller administered before setting the broken leg. But now, Jean Paul was convinced it had more to do with the DVD he was watching to pass the time.
Mortal? Azrael spoke at last, This program we are watching…
Sex and the City.
Er, yes. It is not appropriate for one like myself.
You didn’t mind the SIMS bikini babes in the hot tub.
I merely drew your attention to elements of the game your tiny avatar did not seem aware of. I in no way—
Oh, whatever, you Dumasian stuffed shirt. This show is educational, remember that. That’s what Green Arrow taught us.
I do not know that he was completely serious when he said that.
Sigh. Look, Az, the Order didn’t prepare you to deal with aggressive women. And lord knows the girls at New England Polytech never gave me a clue. This show helps. That guy is called Mr. Big. You watch him, and next time Catwoman throws us a curve, that’s the stuff to give her. Forget adding gold epaulettes to the armor, just stand back like Mr.Big and say…
Nice dress?!? We watch six seasons of this stuff and THAT’S what you come up?
This is not suitable for one such as I, Mortal. Give me the remote.
Although this Charlotte does display a seemly virtue.
She is modest. She does not discuss her orgasms as much as the others do.
Eh, yeah, I guess.
Her heart must be pure indeed to resist the wanton influence of her comrades.
I like Miranda.
You would. Beware the temptations of the flesh, Mortal.
It’s a TV show!
It is this lack of discipline that allowed our adversary to gain the advantage and lay us low.
It was the fact that he’s a six-foot-five, 270-pound reptile-man that could pick us up and throw us like a lawn dart.
Answer the door, Mortal.
The doorbell rang before Jean Paul could sputter his surprise. He juggled his bowl of popcorn and crutches, muttering all the while about insufferable angels that were more literal than the Deep Blue chess program—when the door swung open and he found himself staring into the icy green eyes of Selina Kyle.
“Nice dress,” he remarked meekly.
Riddler was less than thrilled on reaching Madame Keila’s green door to see the sign above advertising “Horoscope, Palm Reading, and Tarot.”
“What is a lot of hooey?” he queried at the sign. But he went in anyway, remembering the original Got Questions? ad that brought him here and the green door he had considered a happy omen.
Opening the door, he was again hit with a wave of aromas. It was similar to the smell in his room—for this place too shared a wall with the headshop and the same combination of patchouli and weed seamed to permeate. But there was something else, something he couldn’t identify… Bizarre smells seemed to be his special curse this week. He began to wonder if he would be in this position at all if he’d just made the best of the dead rat in the air conditioner and stayed in his hideout in the first place.
“You crinkle nose,” a woman’s voice observed. “You no like the smell of my sauerkraut?”
“Is that what it is?” Eddie wheezed, looking around. The woman, presumably Madame Keila, had entered from a dark backroom not unlike Kittlemeier’s. She had dark, greasy hair pulled into a tight bun, an unflattering style that made her look older than she probably was. “I’m sure your sauerkraut is very good on its own,” Eddie offered. “It’s just combined with those other smells from next door, it presented something of a puzzle.” Madame Keila smiled, revealing wildly crooked teeth.
“You want fortune?” she asked peremptorily.
“Yes!” he answered instantly. A question and a play on words, how could he resist?
“Sit,” she ordered, pointing to a side table. Nigma did as instructed and Madame Keila disappeared into the back. When she returned, she wore a heavy-looking paisley shawl over her sleeveless cotton shirt.
“That looks warm,” he noted. “You don’t have to bother with it on my account.”
She shrugged it off her shoulders but looked at him critically.
“You don’t believe, do you?”
“No,” he admitted, “But I like the amount of your conversation that you phrase as a question.”
“Okay, fine,” she said decisively, as if suddenly understanding everything. Then she laid out several cards, placed her hands over a specific one and pointed down at it with her middle finger. “Turn.”
Eddie obeyed, flipping the card over, and looking at it with alarm.
“That man has bat-wings,” he noted, pointing to the card.
“Is Devil,” Madame Keila explained.
“Could be,” Eddie admitted. Or he could be an obnoxiously rich billionaire dating my best friend, came the ancillary thought.
“You have strong feelings against this man,” Madame Keila noted, observing her subject’s reaction rather than interpreting the card.
“That is a misconception,” Riddler replied, puffing himself up with great dignity. “Others may hate him. I merely enjoy the game. I rejoice in his existence, for at last, I have an opponent smart enough to play with. When I can fool him, it is a success, intellectually and artistically.”
Madame Keila nodded. If the customer wanted to do all the talking, that was fine with her. They were sure to be happy with their reading that way. She pointed to the next card and Nigma flipped it over.
“Ace of Swords… is Air sign, has to do with brain. Great mental powers at work.”
Nigma puffed up importantly. “That is very true.”
“Upside down means mental illness. Compulsion.”
“No, no, no, no, no,” he shook his head. “That is another misconception. Look, any game, there are rules. Giving a fair clue, that’s just one of the rules of the game. The way people carry on like it’s some kind of a disease, it’s quite ridiculous. To be sure, there are those who are downright crazy, but I am not one of them! It’s only inferior intellects that can’t understand that, so they call me crazy.” He pointed back to the Ace, “It’s the curse of genius. The mediocrities have always had to rework it so you’re not better than them, you must be ill.” He turned the card around so it was right side up, indicating genius rather than compulsion.
Madame Keila gave an uncertain nod and pointed to a third card, but Nigma wasn’t finished.
“And another thing, I don’t go around saying all those stupid people should die, not like some, not like Miss Demonspawn and her old man, you want to talk about who’s crazy. I have absolutely no problem if all the dimwits want to go on living. I’d like them to KNOW how fucking stupid they really are, but that’s as far as it goes. Because there are smart people in this world and there are stupid ones—which brings us right back to bat-wings over here…” He pointed back to the Devil card and began punching his pointing finger into the table to accentuate each word. “And I really need to know which one he is.”
Madame Keila was now sitting back on her chair, one hand on her hip, the other leaning on the table.
“You finished?” she asked dryly.
“No,” Nigma said petulantly. They sat in silence for a minute, his rant having spent itself. Then he began wagging his finger while he thought. “I need some kind of a test. That’s what I need to do… Well, let’s see, there is that outstanding cat-clue that I was due to send out and never did. What if I sent it in some sly way that he’ll never know about,” Riddler pointed to the Devil card yet again, “unless he’s y’know, and then he’ll figure it out and kick my ass… and then I’ll know! Ha! That’s pretty good. And I’ve already got the cat. Cute enough little thing, but what do I want with a pet cat? I only got it for that bit with Talia. Yeah, that’s not bad. Send the clue on the cat. It’s good, it’s really, really good. Hot damn, it’s the perfect plan!”
He stood happily and held out his arms. “Thank you, Madame Keila!” he exclaimed, bending down to kiss the good lady, when he suddenly bolted upright and slammed his hand back on the table.
“No, damnit all, there’s a snag. I’m still in hiding, because that miserable little bitch has sent some kind of super assassins to kill me. DAMN THAT SILLY WOMAN ANYWAY! AM I NEVER to get this operation off the ground because of her interference. Demons, Demons everywhere I turn. This is all that Ra’s al Ghul’s fault, you know. That miserable hairdo. And whipped! The guy is whipped by his own girlie-spawn. Not just this one, oh no, he’s got a whole litter of the psychobabes. Spare the rod and all that; they up and killed him, that’s what they did. Someone replaced that Lazarus shower gel he uses with something a little more potent, you hear what I’m sayin’. Took over his whole operation. Girlified it, too. I hear they’re putting in a Pier One. And the henchmen used to think it was rough! Ha! Just wait. At least Ra’s never sent you on a feminine products/Haagen Daaz run or had you exiled ‘because you look like that two-timing bastard Achmed.’”
“Your reading is concluded,” Madame Keila cut in. “Twenty dollars.”
“You don’t even want to know what it takes to be an Ubu these days,” Nigma replied.
“Twenty dollars, please,” Madame Keila repeated.
“Yeah, whatever,” Nigma reached into his wallet and pulled out a bill, tossed it onto the table and left in disgust.
Madame Keila went straight to the telephone and called her contact at the Gotham Post. “Gregory, I have had such visions, great events unfolding in the Far East. I have such predictions for you… it is about Death, grim and inevitable, like that song, the Schubert, Death and the Maiden.”
To be continued…