..:: You’ve reached Selina Kyle. She’s a little busy right now doing things that good little girls don’t talk about, but if you ask nicely, she’ll think about getting back to you. Leave some catnip after the meow. Meow.::..
Voicemail. What a nuisance. What was it but a 21st Century version of the gatekeeping butler coldly intoning that “Madame is not at home,” which meant that she very well might be but she wasn’t at home to you, you proletarian troll. Oswald Cobblepot wholly endorsed that sentiment, but not when he was the prole in question. He also would have thought with an actual butler to do her screening on the Wayne Manor landline, the least Selina could do was dispense with the techno-substitute on her cell.
Still, this business was important and Oswald couldn’t think of any other way to reach the proud puss. He called the number again, and this time after the meow, he cleared his throat and spoke formally:
“Most amusing. Catwoman, my felicitous feline, I would be much obliged if you would call on me at my establishment later today. Please come at an early hour before the horde of hoi polloi make their appearance, as the business I would discuss is for your ears alone. Kwak.”
He hung up, satisfied. For that is how civilized men extend an invitation in an uncivilized age.
In Bludhaven, Nightwing had never calculated the exact pounds per inch Blockbuster could deliver. He only knew it felt like a bullet the size of a ham smashing into your ribs and slicing through into your core. Up until this moment, it was the ghastliest blow Dick Grayson ever felt. Other injuries were more serious, but for that intense, gelatinous after-pain that lingered long after the hit, shifting and reshifting with each movement, hurling shards of fresh agony with every breath, nothing else came close. Until now.
“Man, that hurt,” he said aloud, although there was no one there to hear. Bruce was still at the juice bar, and when he returned, Dick knew he shouldn’t bring it up. “That really hurt,” he said anyway, rubbing the center of his chest where the racquetball smashed into it.
Bruce set down the glasses and began to blither about the pomegranate, acai and goji berries in the Gotham Racquet Club’s signature fruit juice cocktail. Dick winced, knowing he’d brought it on himself. It was just the two of them on the court, but the ball Bruce had hit struck Dick with a force indicative of Batman’s strength and athletic prowess. Drawing Bruce’s attention to that fact, no matter how vaguely or how roundabout the allusion, was sure to bring out the fop.
“There’s a peach mango too, lower calorie and lower carb, but I figure after the exertion of the game, a few extra carbs are just the thing.”
Dick sipped the juice, even though the act of swallowing would bring fresh agonies. He knew perfectly well what was behind these sudden invitations for a quick game of racquetball. This was the eighth since the whole nightmare began. Joker’s latest stunt riffing on other Rogues’ themes was entering its fourth week, and Batman’s frustration level had been building since that first riddle left beneath a vandalized Bat-Signal.
..:: You’ve reached Selina Kyle. She’s a little busy right now doing things that good little girls don’t talk about, but if you ask nicely, she’ll think about getting back to you. Leave some catnip after the meow… ::..
“C.W., it’s Matt. Seems I never see you anymore since Vault closed up. Wondering if I could meet you at your lair later today? Got an issue I’d rather talk about in private.
“Strawberry and banana might be tasty enough, but it’s not very imaginative. I mean this is the Gotham Racquet Club. For what I pay here, I certainly expect something more exotic than a banana smoothie.”
Yes, fine. Bruce was frustrated. From what Alfred said, he had the unpleasant duty of waking Bruce and Selina that first morning with two phone calls that would not be put off: Tim, upset that his friend Randy Quad had been among Joker’s first wave of victims and nobody thought to tell him, and Riddler, calling Selina to squeal like a stuck pig that he hadn’t done it. At that point, she had no idea what “it” was, but he didn’t stop to explain. He only kept repeating that he hadn’t done it, he had nothing to do with it, and somebody better put a stop to it before (some anagramming nonsense that Dick really couldn’t follow, if Alfred even got it right, which was doubtful).
“Blueberries and oranges are among these ‘superfoods’ you keep hearing about, so that’s okay, but at least they could be exotic oranges from someplace more interesting than California. And the blueberries, well, they could grow them in some exclusive and interesting way, couldn’t they? Like those cows in Japan that are beer-fed and massaged.”
Tim calmed down easy enough. It’s understandable that he was upset. He and Randy had been friends since Brentwood. But as soon as Bruce explained that the whole thing came to a head after four in the morning, that he’d been detoxing after a SmileX attack and had gone straight to bed, but that he fully intended to call Tim in the morning and fill him in on all that had happened, well… Tim was a reasonable kid, and he had none of the sidekick/second-fiddle baggage Dick had at that age. He settled down and Bruce had gone down to breakfast expecting a quiet morning with Selina before they set out to investigate a lead at Hudson U—only to find Selina was still on the phone with Nigma. So far from being able to calm him, she couldn’t even make sense of what he was saying. She had to go see him in person while Batman started the investigation alone at Hudson. When the dust settled, what were they left with? The longest word in the English language.
..:: You’ve reached Selina Kyle. She’s a little busy right now doing things that good little girls don’t talk about...::..
“To Olympus thou art summoned, Lady of Sekhmet and Bast. Though ‘tis true you be of Egypt, We have looked on that pantheon as kin since the founding of Alexandria. Come then to Olympus, for we would speak with thee on a matter most—BEEP.”
Smiles. The longest word in the English language, because there’s a mile between the first letter and the last.
Smiles. The name of a strip mall dental chain in every other city in which it operated. In Gotham, it wisely opted to call itself The Roxmore Dental Group, L.L.C.
Smiles, who did operate five locations in the Gotham suburbs under that Roxmore name and kept an administrative office midtown. It was there Batman found a hellish game show in progress. Joker had zeroed in on the defining characteristic of Riddler’s theme: intelligence as the one true virtue and mental dexterity as the factor that should determine the outcome of any contest. In brief: smart is better. Giving that premise his usual deadly spin:
Smart is better >> Stupid isn’t funny >> Stupid ruins the joke >> Stupid should die
Joker had come up with Deapidity!, a portmanteau of Death by Stupidity, and quite simply, the sickest game show ever devised. There was a quiz board similar to that on any number of game shows, with a grid of categories and point values. Contestants (i.e. victims) were encased in air-tight tubes, and Joker, as the Master of Ceremonies, would ask them questions. A right answer was awarded several seconds of air, proportional to the point value of the question, sucked from the other contestants’ tubes. A wrong answer forfeited air. A really stupid answer—or any comment Joker found stupid whether it related to a question or not—would be met with the immediate sacrifice of all remaining air in the victim’s tube. It was a ghastly contest, and four contestants had died before Batman even arrived. A fifth suffered brain damage, and a sixth had only been released from the hospital that morning.
“I’m not saying they should actually massage the blueberries, that would be terrible. But they could fortify the soil in some way that made them a little more interesting and made the result a little more expensive. Pour champagne and brandy into the dirt…”
Dick could understand Bruce wanting an hour of Zogger to take the edge off. You walk into a Joker setup, you never know what you’re going to find, but if you did have expectations, a bottled water salesman saying “I'll take Famous Stooges for ten seconds of air” wouldn’t be high on the list.
“Or maybe, you know what they could do, have some special sun lamps made with some kind of, oh I don’t know, Kryptonian crystals, that would be pretty rare. And these crystals would amplify the sunlight, so they’d become these Super Berries.”
..::…Leave some catnip after the meow….::..
“Selina, this is Victor Frieze. I wonder if you would join me at the Iceberg tonight. I will have a special table reserved under the large stalactite, with a privacy screen of extra ice to freeze out the gawkers.”
Dick could understand that, with Joker still free after weeks of this insanity, Bruce didn’t want to risk a Zogger-related injury. So it was racquet ball. And given Bruce’s need to unleash the full force of his frustration, it had to be with somebody who knew his secret. It had to be someone for whom the awesome spectacle of Batman’s power propelling Bruce Wayne’s serve would not be an unexpected and inexplicable shock.
“Superman gets his power from the sun, doesn’t he? So these Super-Blueberries, that would be something worth paying for.”
“Twinkle, twinkle, Cheshire Cat. How I wonder where you’re at. I hope it’s coming to tea with me! At the Humpty Dumpty lair on Avenue C.”
Dick understood all of that, but NONE OF IT made his chest hurt any less, and NONE OF IT made the fop’s mindless prattling about fruit juice any easier to take.
“Interesting,” Dick lied. “But I better be going. Old friend from school is in town. I thought we’d meet up at the gatehouse, walk the campus a little and talk over old times.”
Bruce’s eyes flickered, recognizing the old code. The two men parted outside the racquet club, and a few minutes later, Bruce’s Porche pulled up in front of the old gatehouse that marked the entrance to the Hudson campus.
“Eddie, this isn’t healthy. Now look at me.”
A despondent Edward Nigma raised his eyes listlessly, then let them sink back to a non-descript spot on his carpet.
“Did you eat?” Selina asked severely.
“C’mon then, I’ll take you to Petite Abeille.”
“I don’t feel like going out.”
“C’mon, Eddie, you have to eat. What sounds like the Riddler’s favorite breakfast?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Wrong! Waffle. Sounds like ‘baffle,’ remember?”
“Except it doesn’t. Spelled the same. Doesn’t sound the same. You never noticed ‘cause it was early when I called.”
“I noticed. I’m wide awake now and I just said ‘waffle’ and ‘baffle.’ You don’t think I noticed? I play along, Eddie, because you’re a friend and a sweetie and I love you. I’m on the East End, for Bast’s sake, and for the second time this month because you had to go and put your lair in this sewer. So feel the goddamn love, put on your coat, and let’s get some food into you.”
“Death by Stupidity, ‘Lina. It’s brilliant. It’s inspired. Why didn’t I think of it? Making the dullards pay for their stupidity in the most brutal, absolute terms. Making them suffer for it, and then yanking them right out of the gene pool.”
“It’s not ‘brilliant,’ Eddie, it’s Joker. You didn’t think of it because you’re not a homicidal maniac. That’s not a character flaw.”
“I could be. I could be a homicidal maniac, I could learn. If I could have ideas like that, shit. Death to the stupid people. It’s just so… Just… So…” He trailed off into a sigh of infinite despair. Then… “Go away, ‘Lina. I want to be alone.”
“Come on, Garbo. It’s not as bad as all that.”
“Isn’t it? Joker stumbles into the best Riddler escapade ever, like a drunken frat boy into a dumpster. Hugo Strange solves the ultimate riddle before I do. Batman gets the one woman in all of Gotham nightlife who can keep up, looks incredibly hot in green, and—echht.”
“Eddie,” Selina said sweetly, lifting Nigma an inch off his chair by the throat. “It’s been quite a while since I had to remind you about the rules.”
“No *koff* bat-cat,” Eddie wheezed.
“Good. Now that you’re a little more cooperative,” she said, pulling him to his feet without letting go, “get your coat and run a comb through your hair. I’m taking you out to Petite Abeille. You have to eat something, and I can use the energy too. I’ve got a lot of calls to return this afternoon.”
Dick got into the Porsche, closed the door, and thanked God.
“What did you see?” Bruce asked, pulling back into traffic.
“At the juice bar? Nothing.”
“The signal, ‘a friend from school,’ I thought you saw something compromising.”
“Only you prattling about massaging blueberries like Kobe beef. I couldn’t take it anymore. I figured if we got out of there, we could, y’know, talk like people.”
Bruce grunted but said nothing. Dick realized that, even in the privacy of a closed car, if there was going to be conversation, he would have to start it:
“The Merkewitz guy got out of the hospital this morning?”
“Yes, full recovery. That’s the last from the Riddler episode.”
“And there weren’t any serious injuries from Joker’s take on Penguin, Two-Face or Freeze, right?”
“The fact that they occurred is the problem,” Bruce spat. “We’ve been a step behind him every step of the way. No sooner did I figure out he was mimicking Scarecrow and he’d moved on to Riddler. I took every precaution at the Bat-Signal to intercept him when he tried to leave a second riddle, and he’d already snatched an ostrich from the zoo and was holding Mario Battali at umbrella-gunpoint, trying to make him add a new layer to turducken.”
Dick stifled a laugh.
“It’s not funny,” Bruce said through clenched teeth.
Maybe it was their relative positions: Bruce driving a sports car, Dick in the passenger seat, discussion of a theme rogue. Dick became twelve again.
“It’s a little funny, Bruce. An osturducken is funny.”
“An osturduckenigeon,” Bruce said, as if giving the formal Latin name for a particularly virulent strain of bubonic plague.
Dick threw his head back, laughing uncontrollably.
“Ohmygod, HE PUT A PIGEON INSIDE THE CHICKEN!”
Bruce gripped the steering wheel harder, his scowl deepening as he regarded the road ahead like a henchman who was asking for it… After a moment, Dick looked out the window, ashamed. It was Joker. People were dead. More would die if they didn’t catch him.
“Sorry,” he said quietly. “So before the dust settled on the Penguin thing, he moved on to Two-Face?”
“Yes. The notion of a coin toss deciding who lives and who dies is apparently funny enough as it is. He didn’t find it necessary to make any changes to Two-Face’s M.O. Quite the reverse. He embraced it so thoroughly that he outmaneuvered me completely. When I realized he was playing with other Rogues’ themes, I figured he wouldn’t act as Two-Face until the 22nd. Instead…”
“Instead, he acted on the second Tuesday of the month,” Dick said, remembering the headline. “Then he went on to do Mr. Freeze with that ‘Snow Hotel,’ and in a move we all should have seen coming but didn’t, he returned to the Two-Face motif a second time on the 22nd.”
“We were lucky both coin tosses went our way,” Bruce said grimly.
“The one for you didn’t,” Dick noted.
Again, Bruce said nothing. He’d been placed in more Joker deathtraps than he could count. That this one involved strapping him to a giant silver dollar whose Liberty head had been marred by clown make-up didn’t make it any harder to escape. The coin tosses that concerned him were the ones whose outcome could have resulted in the deaths of innocents. Those had come up good—by sheer luck. While grateful for the outcome, it bothered Bruce that anything as sacred as a victim’s life came down to chance. If only he’d figured it out sooner…
“So what’s next?” Dick asked. “If he’s been a step ahead each step of the way, it seems like the way to stop him is to figure out what’s next and get there first, right?”
“I wish it were that simple,” Bruce graveled. “I’ve been trying to do just that. Anticipate who he might emulate next and how he would ‘reinterpret’ their theme. The possibilities are… troubling.”
“The way you say that it sounds worse than regular Joker-troubling.”
“Mad Hatter. Between the playing cards and the nonsense, it’s a natural for him. But he hasn’t gone there yet. He may be waiting, holding it in reserve, building towards it for a finale. And if so…”
“The Cheshire Cat is nothing but a smile.”
“You’re worried about Selina?”
“Very. And I’ve promised not to bench her or send her out of harm’s way. Damn her.”
The part of Dick who had reverted to his pre-teen Robin only moments before now raged internally. “How the heck did she manage that?” he wanted to wail. But the adult man held the “Holy Special Treatment” in check. Instead he waited, and when Bruce said nothing, he cleared his throat.
“She’s a big girl, Bruce. You know she can handle whatever comes her way.”
“I’m not sure I can,” Bruce replied. “The upside to all this is that the other Rogues are so outraged by Joker’s behavior, it’s given her license to work with me openly. If we’re seen together, it’s no more suspicious than if Cobblepot or Crane knew something that could help me find him and demanded to come along for the beatdown.”
“Except a team-up with Catwoman, you don’t have to worry about a knife in the back when it’s over.”
“There is that,” Bruce said, permitting a lip-twitch. But then… “There’s a more serious worry where Catwoman is concerned.”
“Yeah, him carving out her smile to be his Chershire Cat.”
“Not her safety, Dick. It is a concern, but as you said, she’s a big girl, and as I said, I… made a promise. We both agreed to simply deal with that worry privately and not let it interfere with the work. No, my deepest fear about Joker and Catwoman is what he’ll do when and if he gets to her theme.”
Harley’s head hurt.
She didn’t know anything about microelectronics and she didn’t know much more about the electro-chemical nature of the brain. Idiopathic hyposomnia. Low THS levels. Frontal lobe deficit. What the fuck? The only way she got through NeuroSci 100 was going to Professor Dave’s house to help him test his new hot tub, and the only reason she passed 400 was because Doctor Steve had a foot fetish. It was one thing for Puddin’ to ask her to make a Scarface sock puppet, but how the heck was she supposed to make a mind control hat? Disrupting electrical and chemical activity in the brain to inhibit judgment and paralyze the will? HOW?
She didn’t want to let her Puddin’ down, but she couldn’t see any way they could copy Mad Hatter without breaking into his place and taking some of his stuff. She closed the book that had given her such a headache and went downstairs. Mistah J would be angry, but she just had to tell him. She would dress up as Alice, she would paint giant playing cards, she would make lifesize chessmen, but there was just no way she could figure out the mind control…
“That’s it, now you stay here where it’s nice and warm. HAHAHAHA. Daddy will come and feed you. Yes, he will.”
“’Cause you is vewy, vewy hungwy, isn’t you?”
“Puddin’?” Harley asked. Mistah J didn’t feed the hyenas, and she’d never heard him talk to them that way.
“That’s why Daddy is going to feed you… and water you… so you can grow nice and big and… flowery. Yeah.”
“We can show those little piss-takers that Daddy is not a complete clown.”
“Puddin’, are you talkin’ to yourself?” Harley asked tremulously.
“No. Just talking to my seedlings,” he called out. Harley peered into the living room and saw him hunched over a long flower box.
“Talkin’ to… the seedlings?”
“Ignore her, she’s got issues,” Joker confided to the soil.
Even on date nights, Selina drove into the city on her own. She did appear in the cave before setting out, in order to peak at the At-Large list and Batman’s planned patrol route. It made for easier rendezvous without a lot of guesswork and searching. But this was not date night, so Bruce was surprised to see her examining the holographic map when he came out of the costume vault.
“Looking for something?” he asked—and then nearly dropped to a defensive crouch out of sheer instinct. Something about the way she turned to look at him. Bruce wasn’t even sure what it was. There was nothing overtly hostile in the move, or in her expression but… something about it set off the old alarms, the learned reflexes honed over years of facing off against… criminals.
“Not exactly,” Catwoman said, seeming very much her old self (although if that were true, Bruce asked himself, why did he just think of her as Catwoman rather than Selina?) “I’m here at Oswald’s request. As well as a few other people, but Ozzy was the most… explicit. He suggested I use the signal, but the cops are keeping an eye on it after that Joker mess. It won’t last of course, but for the moment, getting to the signal is a pain and it’s easier to just go to high ground and play ‘spot the car.’”
“I see,” came the low gravel that everyone but Selina found menacing. “Since you found me, should we talk here? Or does it need to be in the city where Cobblepot’s agents can see?”
“Here will do.”
Batman scowled, still puzzled at what exactly in her manner was setting off his defensive instincts, but Psychobat suggested (and for once had a point) that he worry about non-threat Selina later and give his full attention to her message from genuinely dangerous Rogues.
Except she wasn’t saying anything yet, despite the fierce Bat-scowl. So he walked past her to shut down the hologram and then turned back to face her. The movement brought their bodies much closer together, which usually got her talking.
“He’s pissed,” Catwoman said frankly. “They all are, but Ozzy is the most worked up. His theme is ‘the only one that tastes good deep fried,’ as he put it.”
“You and I aren’t the only ones who toss the rulebook when it’s Joker, Bruce. If anyone else pulled something like this, they’d have had a close encounter with a headless horseman by now. An arctic deep freeze, exploding question marks and the business end of an umbrella, at the very least. But it’s not anyone else, it’s Joker, and I guess they all feel like: why should we risk life and laughing gas going after him when there’s someone handy who’s going to do that anyway.”
“I go after him to protect innocents, Catwoman, not to settle the score for an irate criminal element who feels their toes are being stepped on.”
“Gee, thank you so much for clearing that up, Dark Knight. Here I thought it was just an excuse to wear a cape!”
Bruce’s mouth dropped open in utter shock. WHO did she think she was…
“Look, I think we all know what you do and why you do it. But they all wanted me to talk to you, so—”
“Not exactly. They just know I’m the only one who can get this far into the conversation without you throwing batarangs at my head.”
“Don’t push it,” he graveled.
“Oh please, BRING ON THE BATARANGS, Handsome. Because it’s the lack of those things whizzing past my ears right now that put me in this ridiculous position. One or two phone calls—like Ozzy or Eddie—FINE. But Maxie Fucking Zeus? These are small-r rogues treating me like the Bat-Pager, and I’m pretty damn pissed about it!”
“So sharpen your claws on them, not me,” Psychobat snarled.
“I would LOVE to. But the fact is, Ozzy did have some information that may actually be important, and the rest of them, if they didn’t have the pressure valve thinking they were getting a message through, I frankly don’t know what they might do.”
“Information first, speculation second. What did Cobblepot say?”
“Missing pigeons. Homing pigeons, to be exact. There’s a whole clique that train and race them around the city, apparently. Almost two hundred have gone missing. All this time we’ve been assuming when he went on to a new theme, he was done with the last one—except for, you know, going back and doing Two-Face a second time. But… what if it’s more than that? What if he’s not done with Scarecrow, Riddler and Freeze just because he goes on to do somebody else? It seems like he might be planning on going back to Penguin and doing something more with birds.”
“Possible. But it’s more likely that he took the birds intending to use them and then lost interest before he got around to it.”
“Well, Ozzy is concerned that they’re going to show up on his door in a feathery heap with death smiles on their beaks.”
“Impossible or not, Oswald finds the idea disturbing—which frankly, I can understand—and he’s making plans to respond, just in case. Bruce, right now they’re waiting for you to do something. They won’t wait forever. They’re dangerous, you know that better than anybody. Eventually, they’ll get tired waiting, or he’ll go too far and step on the wrong toes, or… Hell, he’s Joker, he might just step in the wrong place and start the dominos falling by accident. Then it’s Rogue War, Bruce. I know you don’t want that. I don’t want that. Fuck, even they don’t want that or they wouldn’t have made me their Bat-Pager.”
“In other words, it would be better if I stop Joker today rather than tomorrow. I agree, Selina, but I felt that long before this conversation. It’s always a race against disaster when Joker is active. Knowing the names of the people involved doesn’t make it any more or less serious.”
..:: You’ve reached Selina Kyle. She’s a little busy right now doing things that good little girls don’t talk about, but if you ask nicely, she’ll think about getting back to you. Leave some catnip after the meow. Meow.::..
“Uh, Catty?” Harley whispered into the receiver.
“Unbelievable. Do you know how many different roses there are? Thousands,” Joker said in the background.
“Catty, I gotta talk to you?” Harley whispered, hoping she was loud enough to be heard on the recording.
“You can even make your own and name it yourself. Think of it, Harls: The Buster Keaton Rose. HAHAHAHAHAAAA!”
..:: BEEP ::..
Shit, she’d run out of time and she hadn’t even said her name. Harley hid her phone behind her back and hit redial.
“Says here that wisteria can take up to seven years to flower,” Joker informed her, pointing to a gardening website. “It’s a member of the pea family.”
To be continued…