Riddler paced. Not since the day of the great revelation, the day he stumbled upon the last piece of the puzzle and saw clearly the answer to the ultimate riddle (WHO IS BATMAN UNDER THAT MASK?) had he paced so feverishly. For not since that day was he confronted with such a confounding conundrum.The tabloids might be good for a laugh now and then, but there wasn’t a word of truth in their pages and anyone with an ounce of intelligence knew it. To keep up with what was really happening in Gotham, you had to read a real newspaper, and Edward Nigma, like most men of intelligence, started each day with the Gotham Times. His early morning wake-up calls from Poison Ivy had one benefit in that he was starting the day much earlier than usual. At 7:12 he hung up from Queen Chlorophyll’s daily update on her much improved press and he opened his Times to the crossword. At 7:26 he finished the crossword and noted his time: a dismal 14 minutes and 12 seconds, more than three minutes over his average of 10 minutes 41 seconds and almost TWICE his fastest time, 7 minutes 28 seconds.
So much for the so-called benefits of early rising.He turned to the headlines, read through the national news, then turned to the local… business… technology… travel… entertainment… and finally before perusing the classifieds and opinion pages, he found the Style section and checked Hermoine’s Society Chit-Chat.
He set down the paper, stunned, and stared into space for ten full seconds. Then he looked at the page again to see if the perplexing puzzle made any more sense the second time around.The Wayne Foundation asks us to open our checkbooks more often than any other philanthropic institution, and it might become tiresome if they didn’t always make it worth our while. The newest addition to the social calendar, a masked ball called GOTHAM AFTER DARK, promises to out-do them all.
Hm. The WAYNE foundation throwing a party based on the colorful “rogues gallery” associated with Gotham’s Dark Knight? Surely, one cannot doubt the hand of the lovely Miss Kyle in this unique and daring theme. Readers will remember, I’m sure, that Selina Kyle starred in the infamous Cat-Tales stage show a few years back, and there are those who still argue if she might be the real Catwoman. But whatever her connection to the rogues of Gotham, there is no doubt of her connection to Bruce Wayne. For years now she has been escort presumptive of the once-notorious playboy, and more than one socialite has her hat all picked out for when that engraved invitation finally arrives bidding them to another stunning Wayne Manor wedding.
A picture from the Grayson-Gordon wedding appeared beneath that appalling paragraph, and that’s when Nigma set down the newspaper and began pacing.The first wave of nervous tension shuddered through his system as he recalled how Harley Quinn dragged him to that wedding, dragged him all the way out to Wayne Manor in a cheap suit and false moustache because she had to crash that reception (for reasons never explained, and considering Harley, Eddie figured that was probably for the best) and she thought she would look less conspicuous arriving with a date. He’d gone along, it went as well as anything goes when Harley Quinn is involved, and he’d done his best to forget it ever happened. He’d succeeded just fine until this Hermoine lunatic had to go reminding him.
If he knew then what he knew now… Bruce Wayne was Batman. Batman was Bruce Wayne. Harley had taken him out to BATMAN’S HOUSE to CRASH A PARTY. If he had an inkling what that demented tassel twit was getting him into…He hadn’t begun to recover from that realization when the next shockwave reverberated through his still-reeling brain. A ROGUE PARTY???? Was he insane? Was he flat out paging-Doctor-Arkham-pickup-in-aisle-six insane? Was he SEA INN, AS NINE, SIENNA—off his bat-noodle? Wayne wasn’t stupid, he wasn’t suicidal, that seemed to leave only crazy. Didn’t he realize how insanely dangerous it was for him to be throwing a freaking costume party peppered with Batmen, Jokers, Riddlers and who knew what all might turn up??? What was he thinking? What was he going to do, Bruce Wayne at a costume party where everyone has to dress as crimefighters and rogues? Not that Nigma especially cared about Bruce Wayne’s welfare. Apart from losing the only opponent with a mind fit to match wits with his own, he wouldn’t particularly mind living in a world without Batman. But Selina was another matter. And Selina’s fate was now, for better or worse, tied to Wayne’s and…
…and even if Riddler wasn’t above using her that one time, he did consider Selina a friend and……he would hate to see her Smilex’d or dismembered…
…fed to Joker’s hyenas or…He went back to the newspaper, that one phrase echoing through his mind—Selina’s fate was tied to Wayne’s now, for better or worse.
He reread Hermoine’s coy prose. More than one socialite has picked out a hat…
Would she?And if she did, what did Eddie care? It’s not like he ever had a chance with her. They were friends all those years when they were both available. If there was any spark, it would have happened. There wasn’t. It didn’t. So it wasn’t jealousy.
But something bothered him about that niggling little paragraph hinting so pointedly about a wedding.So what was it?
Alfred was well aware that the movie room behind the armory, while not officially in use since Master Dick had moved out of the manor, was still an occasional “hangout” for both young gentlemen. They kept it equipped with the latest X-box and Playstation gear, while Alfred gave it a regular dusting, airing, and generally augmented Dick and Tim’s superficial efforts to keep the place tidy. Neither he nor they ever alluded to the arrangement—until today. While Alfred was used to finding an occasional candy wrapper or an errant kernel of popcorn when he checked the movie room, this was the first time he found an actual occupant. Tim was asleep, curled around some kind of a video game console and using a box labeled Phoenix Ninja as a pillow.
“Double or nothing, SilentShogee,” Tim blurted, bolting upright.
“Ahem, good morning, Master Timothy,” Alfred said blandly. “As it is a somewhat unusual hour to be paying us a visit, perhaps you would care to come around to the kitchen for some breakfast when you are ready.”
“Hi, Alfred,” Tim said meekly. “Breakfast?”
“Yes, sir. I have a pitcher of juice and a basket of muffins always on hand. For something more substantial, you would have to wait and join Master Bruce and Miss Selina when they come down.”
“Uhh, no, that’s alright,” Tim blanched. “I don’t think Bruce would understand.”
“It is indeed most unlikely that he would if you decline to offer an explanation, young sir.”
“It’s Cassie, Alfred. We had a bet and I lost and, well, you probably know, about the ice cream sundaes and all. Thing is, I think she’s hooked on that mid-patrol sugar rush, ‘cause now she keeps trying to get me to bet again. And I’m not sure how long I can put her off. So I have to get like ten times better at Phoenix Ninja and fast.”
“I see, sir. Might one suggest that you simply decline further contests of this sort with the young lady.”
“She calls me a chicken, Alfred. She has a vocabulary of maybe eight-hundred words tops, and half of them amount to ShadowBird, that’s my avatar in the game, being a puny, chicken-necked wimp that she’s gonna break like a twig. Can’t let something like that pass, Alfred. I’ll lose my guy-card.”
Alfred suppressed a smile. He looked disapprovingly at a soda can and a smudge of tacky, sugary cola on the game console, then cleared his throat.
“Breakfast in the kitchen when you are ready, young sir,” he said severely.
Tim nodded, and Alfred turned and left.
Selina growled sleepily and buried her face deeper in the pillow.
“It’s for you,” she murmured, shoving Bruce’s hip.
Alfred merely stood at the side of the bed, holding the telephone on a silver tray.
“Give me a minute,” Bruce managed, opening bleary eyelids. He knew the butler would never disturb his sleep for anything trivial, so he didn’t ask if it was important. He didn’t ask anything, not even who was calling, until he’d poured a glass of water, took a sip, then closed his eyes, focused his thoughts on his center of gravity and inhaled through his nose, slowly, steadily, feeling the air fill his lungs…The meditative focus was wrecked by a beeping trill. Bruce’s eyes shot open and he looked savagely at the phone on Alfred’s tray. The beeping trill sounded again, and Bruce realized it was not this phone making the noise. He shoved Selina’s hip just as she had done his, then graveled “It’s for you.”
She moaned, pawed around the bedside table, and finally found her cell phone resting in its charger.“Hello?” she mumbled into the closed cover as it rang again. Bruce took the phone from her hand, opened it, and held it to her ear.
“Hello?” she repeated.
After that effort, Bruce felt sufficiently alert to answer his own call. “Bruce Wayne,” he began...::‘Lina? Is Wayne out of his mind?::.. sounded on Selina’s phone.
..:::HAHAHAHAA It’s genius, Brucie, pure genius!::.. was heard on Bruce’s.
“Good morning, Eddie,” Selina sighed.
“Joker?” Bruce asked cautiously.
Selina looked at Bruce and raised an eyebrow. He looked at her and scowled...:::This party, what’s he thinking? What are you thinking? You trying to get yourself killed?::..
..:::This party, it’s brilliant, Brucie. The so-called villains in this town have gotten so boring. HAHAHA! Leave it to you to show ‘em how it’s done, eh, Brucie old boy, HAHAHAHAAAAA!::..“Oh right, the party,” Selina murmured.
“Oh right, the party,” Bruce growled.
..:::Gotham After Dark,::.. both callers said in unison.
“Yeah, Gotham After Dark,” Bruce and Selina answered in sync.
“Eddie thinks the party is a bad idea,” Selina said, covering the receiver.
“Joker thinks it’s genius,” Bruce replied...::Unless you’re trying to kill him,::.. Eddie suggested. ..::‘Lina, if you’ve finally come around on the whole idea of killing him, I’ve got to say this gets top marks for style and creativity, but there are better ways to go about it, you know what I’m sayin?::..
..::Brucie, Brucie, I’ve got it. You know what you should do? HAHAHAHA! Oh, it’s too funny! You should, you should, HAHAHAHA, it’s too good! You should go as Batman! HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAA!::..“He thinks I’m trying to kill you,” Selina reported flatly.
“He thinks I should go as Batman,” Bruce countered, drawing several inches of the bedsheet into a coiled fist.
..::Best! Joke! Ever!::.. Joker sang out.
Alfred went about his usual routine on entering the Wayne bedroom in the morning. He opened the curtains and arranged slippers and dressing gowns at the foot of the bed, as if unaware there were any conversations going on...::And what’s this bit about having a hat all picked out for the wedding?::.. Selina’s earpiece quacked audibly.
“What?” she hissed in reply.
“What?” Bruce barked into his.
“Alfred, where’s today’s Times?” they said in unison.
..::As long as I get to give the bride away and kill a Robin at the reception,::.. Joker was saying...::‘Cause I thought we were still friends, ‘Lina, and I don’t appreciate getting news like this from some newspaper gossip column.::..
Alfred held out the paper, and Bruce and Selina both snatched at it, ripping the page in two.
..::If anyone here knows of any reason why these two should not be wed, speak now—and forever rest in peace! HAHAHAHAAAA.::..“Shut up, Jack,” Selina snarled at the phone in Bruce’s hand, as she held up her half of the article, and tried to read over the tear.
..::I mean, all right, he’s not exactly who I would pick out for you, ‘Lina, and Lord knows you can do better, but still, a phone call. A guy wants to be kept in the loop!::..
“Shut up, Nigma,” Bruce spat...::Oh, she’s right there, HAHAHA! Whipcrack! Eh, Brucie boy, HAHAHAHAHAAAAA!::..
..::He’s there! What we can’t have a simple PHONECALL NOW?::..
“Of course he’s here,” Selina hissed, still trying to read the torn paper, “It’s morning, Eddie, it’s damn early in the morning, we’re in bed.”..::AHH, too much information, TOO MUCH INFORMATION!::.. Nigma wailed.
Selina simply closed her phone, handed it to Alfred, and asked him to throw it out the window.
“Yes, I’ll tell her,” Bruce said before hanging up his and replacing it on the tray.
“Throw that one out the window too,” Selina suggested.
Bruce gave her that rooftop glare when he didn’t appreciate her sense of humor, but rather than wink playfully as she usually did, she looked deathly serious.
“You don’t imagine those calls were the last, do you?” she asked.
Before he could consider the question, the phone rang again, and Bruce looked at Alfred.
“Throw it out the window,” he said flatly.
Four times since hanging up the phone, Eddie reminded himself that he took 14 minutes and 12 seconds to complete the Times crossword. Clearly his mind was not at its best today. Clearly he should consider the question carefully—any question he should consider carefully—before acting.
Calling Selina that way was rash. He needed more information, certainly, you couldn’t solve a jigsaw puzzle with only one piece. But calling her first thing in the morning and artlessly asking was not the way to go about it.
Information, Information, Information. How best to gather information…
Bruce was surprised, but hardly displeased, to find Tim sitting in the dining room. The boy murmured something Bruce didn’t really listen to, something about going a few rounds with Zogger after patrol and then crashing on the couch, Alfred offering him breakfast… Bruce didn’t care. Tim’s presence in the house was a convenience. He would brief Dick, Barbara and Cassie tonight, but Tim could be told now, immediately, and Robin would get a few hours head start. He could help sort through the At Large lists to start with and possibly—
“What are you doing here this early?” Selina asked coldly. She had bypassed her place at the table and went straight to the sideboard, poured herself a cup of coffee, and glared suspiciously at Tim. Despite the lack of costume, she looked (and sounded) remarkably like Catwoman accosting a crimefighter who surprised her mid-break-in.
Tim repeated his story about Zogger, the couch, and wanting some breakfast. Selina poured milk into her cup with a markedly feline expression.
“You haven’t seen a newspaper?” she hissed suspiciously.
“No,” Tim said frankly.
“Okay then,” she sighed, seeming satisfied. She resumed her usual manner, took her place at the table, and took a sip of coffee. Then the hostile felinity spiked again and she looked up at him as a new thought struck her. “Don’t,” she ordered.
“Yes, ma’am,” Tim said sarcastically.
Over breakfast, Bruce outlined the plan. They had just over three weeks. They would get every rogue they could off the streets before the night of this party. Joker was the top priority, then Riddler and Hugo Strange, then everyone else—everyone—from Cobblepot down to Catman, every rogue they could lay their hands on had to be removed from the equation before that party.
After a nap, a brisk jog and a shower, Nigma felt at last he could think clearly. He began to see a more likely explanation for the theme party, a more likely and far more troubling explanation.
No, Bruce Wayne was not insane and neither was Selina. He wasn’t stupid and neither was Selina. Ergo, they were not the ones responsible for this insanely stupid idea for a party. Someone else was behind that, and for some reason they were unable to stop it. The reason might be tied to Wayne protecting his secret, or it might be connected to that week or so that Selina was out of town. It didn’t matter. Whatever the reason, the pertinent piece of the puzzle was that they were stuck with it.
And Wayne wouldn’t like that.
Batman wouldn’t like that.
And he wouldn’t take it lying down.
It would be Hell Month without the venom. He’d be on a crusade to get as many criminals off the street as humanly possible, particularly the theme villains and most especially—Nigma blanched—most especially he himself, who knew the special tie between Bruce Wayne and “Gotham After Dark.”
The realization sank into his insides like a sack of wet sand: he was about to be hunted as never before. He was public enemy number one on Batman’s personal hit list—and glorious as that distinction might be if he had contrived it, having it THRUST upon him by some high society partygiver was not his idea of amusing irony. It was-AAAARRGGHH! He screamed as a loud pounding at the door interrupted his fevered thoughts.
He stared in wide-eyed terror at the door and the fierce pounding still going on behind it. Was this it? Was Batman here already? Was it- Wait. No. Batman didn’t knock.
“Who is it?” he called with an exaggerated casualness that sounded almost like a drag queen’s falsetto.
“Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage,” a familiar voice answered from behind the door, “She knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How do you expect to know who’s behind the door unless you open it, Edward?”
“Go away, Jervis,” he called. “I am not receiving visitors.”
Harvey removed the last sheet from his printer and read over the letter one last time while the ink dried. Satisfied at his eloquence, he folded it once, twice, and slid it into its envelope. He reached for a stamp—and froze, noting a strange shadow on the wall. He spun around savagely, and then sucked in his breath. He saw exactly what he expected to see, given the shadow, but it was still quite a surprise, given that it had no business being there.
“Batman,” he said sharply.
“Harvey,” Batman answered with a curt nod. He entered the room almost casually, and looked at the letter still displayed on the computer screen.
“Law Review?” he noted.
“Letter to the editor,” Harvey replied. “Maybe I can’t practice law anymore, but I can still subscribe to any publication I want.”
“And write to the editor,” Batman graveled. “And expect it will be published given your… notoriety.”
Harvey’s lips curled into a contemptuous smile.
“Law Review is pretty conservative. I don’t know that they’d be that impressed by Two-Face’s legacy.”
“Not impressed, but they’ll print it anyway,” Batman sneered. “It’s a unique perspective.”
“It’s also none of your business,” Harvey sniffed.
Batman turned back to the screen. “The tainted evidence and illegal search issues raised by the modern vigilante,” he read aloud, “it certainly sounds like ‘my business,’ Harvey.”
“I don’t recall inviting you to call me by my first name,” Harvey said flatly, “or to come into my house and read my mail.”
Rather than pointing out that Harvey was sending the letter in question to be published, Batman merely grunted, then abruptly extended his hand.
“Bury the hatchet?” he offered.
Harvey glanced down at the gloved hand, then lifted his eyes again to bore into Batman’s.
“Two-Face would have said ‘Sure, in your skull.’”
“I wouldn’t make the offer to Two-Face,” Batman pointed out.
Harvey considered this, chuckled at the obviousness of the statement, and nodded.
“I suppose not,” he agreed, the antagonism receding as the two men shook hands.
Batman held the grip a moment longer than necessary and again met Harvey’s eyes.
“If you want to make a difference again, there’s a better way than writing OpEds for some dry, academic—”
“If you’re suggesting what I think you are, no thanks,” Harvey interrupted. “Don’t believe what you see in the Post, I’m not a masked do-gooder kind of guy.”
“Wrong paper,” Batman said gruffly. “It’s not the Gotham Post that concerns me. It’s an item in the Times.”
He explained briefly about the fundraiser, the theme, and the prominence with which Selina’s name was mentioned.
“You think there’ll be trouble?” he asked, already knowing the answer. Batman didn’t bother stating the obvious.
“You stood up to Ra’s al Ghul,” Batman reminded him. “Why, if not out of friendship for Selina and Wayne?”
“You heard about that, eh,” Harvey grimaced, embarrassed.
“I hear everything that has to do with Ra’s al Ghul,” Batman declared.
Harvey slid his hands into his pockets, walked to the window, and stared out at the city.
“What bothers you more,” he asked suddenly, “Her name being linked to this whole party theme or her name linked to Wayne?”
“Don’t believe what you see in the Post,” Batman graveled, echoing Harvey’s earlier statement.
Harvey continued to face the window, but tilted his head until a green glow from a neon sign overhead fell over half his face.
“Don’t forget who you’re talking to,” he murmured in a distinctly Two-Face voice. Batman tensed, but Harvey turned slowly, a frank but non-menacing expression despite the glow from the window. “’We’ were there, Sport, certainly saw enough to know the Post doesn’t know the half of it.”
Batman said nothing. And Harvey continued.
“In my opinion, the better man won. Bruce makes her happy. Wouldn’t want to see anyone mess that up.”
“Then help keep them both alive,” Batman said with finality. “Help me remove as many threats as we can before that party.”
Harvey’s fingers twitched as if wishing for a coin. Then he nodded, once, and looked back out at the city.
“Alright. We’ll help,” he murmured.
But Batman had already left.
Eddie figured he had four or five more hours to come up with a workable plan. He’d had to admit Jervis Tetch to his lair. He couldn’t let the man just stand out there in broad daylight—in that oversized hat, with his bow tie and his stopwatch—as if to say HELL-O! BATMAN! YOOHOO, ROGUES DOWN HERE!
So he’d let Jervis in and let him prattle. Something about Scarecrow and needing a master plan. He needed Riddler to devise a plan for him. Gratifying, he supposed, to have his genius recognized—if that’s what was really going on. But the timing was suspicious. Very suspicious.
No sooner did he become Batman’s most wanted, and Jervis shows up intent on drawing a bullseye around his head. Absently, a corner of Eddie’s brain not occupied with the immediate strategy wondered if that line about the socialites’ hats might have some deeper meaning. Probably not, but he left an asterisk next to the thought. For the moment, he had to get rid of Jervis, keep the demented little toadstool occupied in some way.Jervis wanted a master plan, something as ingenious as it was subtle. Eddie pretended to think, and rummaged through his mail. He found a thick, narrow booklet. ZAGATSURVEY Gotham City Shopping, the red and gold cover proclaimed, Covering over 2,000 stores in 50+ categories including Accessories, Clothing, Electronics, Sporting Goods, etc. ranked by over 7,500 avid Gotham shoppers.
Nigma opened the book eagerly and thumbed through its pages. He’d send Jervis on a positive scavenger hunt that would keep him running around town for hours—to a place called The Fountain Pen Hospital to get pen nibs, Habu Textiles for Japanese yarn, Fat Beat for vinyl records, Bicycle Habitat for racing goggles (may Selina forgive him), FAO Schwartz for gourmet jelly beans and a tote bag (he would need one by this point), and a shop called the Green Onion (although he had no idea what they sold, who could pass up a shop called the Green Onion?) And finally, feeling a little guilty that Jervis would be running around Gotham for a day or more for absolutely no reason, Nigma added the J.J. Hat Center to the list as a sop to his conscience. The book said it was “perhaps the only place in Gotham for a man to buy a real hat,” and that would make Jervis happy.
More importantly, it would keep Jervis out of the hair for a while. The Mad Hatter believed the wild list of items he was sent to collect from such intriguingly-named stores must be clues. They must add up to a criminal scheme of the highest magnitude. The intricacy, the nuance, the subtlety, ONLY THE RIDDLER COULD CRAFT SUCH A SCHEME!
In fact, Nigma had no thought beyond keeping himself out of Arkham until the party. Gotham After Dark: a fundraiser for the Wayne Foundation—that he had to see.
More to the point, Batman was determined he wouldn’t see it, and that made it all the more vital that Nigma remain free.
He had wracked his brains ever since he sent Jervis on that fool’s errand. He had wracked his brain, but he could see no solution but to hide. He would leave the lair, run to ground, and lay lower than low. Let Batman waste his energies searching for the others, there would be no Edward Nigma to find until he showed up at that party, took a glass of champagne… which he now mimed taking from the tray of an imaginary passing waiter… and raised it in a toast… to Gotham After Dark!
To be continued…