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Chapter 2: Sims and Riddles

 

Jean Paul Valley expertly juggled his key ring, the pizza box, and the plastic bag containing the latest Sims expansion pack.  This was going to be great.

You are in high spirits, Mortal, the voice in his head noted. 

I am, Az.  Best thing about being back in Gotham:  decent pizza. We got three hours before patrol. Gonna see what all is new for the Sims.

Must you waste our time with those foolish computer games?

I must. Get used to it, Az.  I’m a geek. I have geek-fun.  Sims 2 expansion pack is geek—

If we must spend time at that machine, I would prefer to play Dark Forces.

Nope. You were at the helm all through Rumania, in Berlin, in Cannes, in Toronto.  Enough already.  I need this.

When we are working on a case, Mortal, it must surely be understood—

Yes, of course, Az.  But it was a long case. It feels like when I was a computer programmer.  When I’d get back from a week’s vacation, the backlog was so bad, I wound up more exhausted than before I left.

Very well.  Take these three hours and refresh yourself.  While you restore your mortal faculties, I shall prepare myself for this evening’s patrol.

Peachy.

In the satellite cave deep beneath the Wayne tower, Bruce returned the spare Batman costume to its vault.  He buttoned up the dress shirt he’d worn to the office that morning, omitting the jacket and tie.  He noted several wrinkles from the careless way he’d abandoned the shirt on the vault floor in his hurry to answer the signal.  At home, Alfred always appeared in the interim, cleared away whatever he had been wearing and left a laundered replacement.  Bruce wondered absently, as he walked out to the main chamber of the cave, if he shouldn’t run up to the penthouse for a fresh shirt before he went home. That way, he could send this one to be drycleaned and not have to suffer Alfred’s barbs if he went home in this wrinkled one.

Any other time, Bruce wouldn’t trouble himself. Alfred was an employee, after all. But even he could only push the butler so far. And after ordering him to make that phone call…  

There were some ways, Bruce reflected, that his life was simpler pre-Selina. Not as full and not as happy, but simpler. Case in point: Dinner at d’Annunzio’s.  

If, back in the day, he had to stand up a date because of bat-business, he stood them up.  He didn’t need a good excuse; he didn’t even need a credible excuse. It was often to his advantage if they saw through a blatant lie and threw a drink in his face at the first opportunity: a nice public breakup, with the bimbo du jour reinforcing the playboy image for him, making a scene about all the other women he must amuse himself with all those times he disappeared.

Selina knew the truth, and that should have made the whole thing simple. Something came up that Batman had to attend to…

But not when the something was a riddle. 

Not when he had to tell her that Talia was back, that the ‘wolfsbane’ Selina had devised to keep her at bay had staledated, and now on top of all that, a riddle was sent to the GCPD containing a picture of that goggled insult the Post called Catwoman.  

“Thanks a lot, ‘Eddie,’” Bruce growled at the packet of papers embossed with a question mark. 

It was more convenient to work out of this cave for the moment. He had been in the city already, working at the office, when the signal went off.  This cave was closer; the costume he kept here was closer.  He had to return here anyway, and it would waste valuable time to return to the manor cave when he could just as easily analyze the evidence from this fully equipped base.

The fact that he wouldn’t have to see Selina or risk her viewing the goggle-picture was a bonus. 

Here’s a quandary: To begin with the fairest or the most maligned…

Alfred was not happy about delivering that message, though. It’s not like he hadn’t done it a thousand times. “Call d’Annunzio’s and have them tell whatshername-Gretta…” “Mandy, sir.” “Whatever, tell her I was playing racquetball with Trump and pulled a hamstring.” “Very good, sir.”

Maybe this wasn’t quite the same, but still.  Alfred was his servant, he did have something come up, and he asked his butler to deliver the message for him as a simple expedient.  It was pointless to let the ill-concealed disapproval of a “Very good, sir” distract him when he had important crimefighting matters to attend to.

Here’s a quandary: To begin with the fairest or the most maligned?
Hook’s ticking tormentor or the El Giza enshrined?
The ancient legend of Ra or the urban legend of the sewer?
The pot before the luck shall be the first after-skewer.
15-2-10-7-4

OraCom Channel-1

..:: Testing. Nightwing, you’re at the docks? ::..

..:: This is ship’s purser Gofer Smith coming to you from the Lido Deck.  ::..

..:: Very funny. Proceed to location 2 and channel 2. ::..

OraCom Channel-2

..:: I don’t understand why I have to change locations.  Can’t you just tweak all the GPS signals and OraCom links from the one…::…

..:: No, I can’t. Tweaking means factoring in all the atmospheric conditions.  The water, the pollution, the altitude… ::…

…:: Sorry I asked. Okay, where am I now? ::…

…:: Roof of the downtown public library. ::…

…:: Check. ::..

…:: Proceed to location 3 and switch back to channel 1. ::…

OraCom Channel-1

…:: There a reason we can’t get Robin, Spoiler and Canary or somebody to help with this instead of making me do ‘em all? ::…

…:: Because I made you French toast. ::…

…:: Knew I was going to pay for that one way or another.  ::…

…:: Proceed to location 4… ::…

Bruce scrutinized the clippings that had come with the riddle. They were all faked photographs or artists’ renderings of his enemies, they were all from the tabloids, and they were all free of any physical evidence beyond a single fingerprint the Batcomputer had confirmed as a perfect match for Edward Nigma.

The computer was cranking away at an algorithm he just completed to analyze the images for any hidden patterns.  He had it searching the content, the rogues included and excluded.  He had it analyzing the dates of the issues the images were clipped from.  And he had a new routine to detect any sort of steganography or coding hidden in the pixels themselves. Bruce knew he had to give the routine a full twenty minutes before drawing any conclusions, but his gut told him the analysis would come up empty. 

There was something about the riddle itself that told him. He singled out the two images it seemed to refer to most pointedly.

“What on earth are you doing down here?”

Bruce turned and acknowledged the interruption with a curt nod. 

“Nightwing,” he said blandly.

“O, I’m at location 12.  Signing off for a bit… Because I am…  Well, fine, then I’ll make you scrambled eggs…  I can call it an omelet if you want me to, but you know it’s going to be scrambled eggs.  ‘Wing out.” 

Nightwing removed his mask and shrugged apologetically at Bruce. “Helping her recalibrate the OraCom,” he explained.

Bruce returned his attention to the pictures spread out on the desk and Dick walked over to look.  “What are we—oh man, what’s their thing with those goggles?”

Bruce glanced up at him sternly without moving his head. 

“I don’t think the goggles are the salient issue here, do you?”

“No, I guess not.  This is Riddler?”

Bruce pointed wordlessly to the envelope embossed with the question mark. 

“The fairest… and the most maligned…” Dick murmured as he read the riddle.

“Croc and Catwoman,” Bruce said crisply.  “Selina’s press might be far from flattering, but bad as it is, it pales in comparison to calling Croc a cannibal.”

“‘Most maligned’ is still a matter of opinion—”

“Read on.  Hook’s ticking tormentor, Captain Hook—the clock in the crocodile.”

“Got it.  Urban legend—giant reptiles in the sewer—although that’s mostly alligators, isn’t it?”

“Nigma will take liberties when it suits him.”

“And this last?”

“Crock pot.”

“And ‘El Giza,’ ‘legend of Ra,’ ‘luck’ is all Catwoman?”

“Cats are associated with luck, either bad or good, in most cultures,” Bruce ran down the evidence crisply, as if ticking items off a mental list. “El Giza is the site of the pyramids—Egyptians worshipped cats, plenty of shrines with cat heads on women’s bodies, the legend of Ra says he transformed into a cat to slay a giant serpent.”

“And ‘the fairest?’”

“They’re friends,” Bruce grumbled.  He certainly considered Selina the most beautiful of the criminals he’d faced over the years, but he didn’t like hearing it from the likes of Nigma.

“Could be a way to steer you off Tom Blake,” Nightwing mentioned. “The Catman. All the cat references apply to him too.”

“His picture isn’t included,” Bruce noted.

“Ah. Any idea what it means, or what these numbers or the ‘first after-skewer’ might be?”

Bruce shook his head, his eyes never leaving the clippings.

Azrael thought the lookout atop the SysCo building made an excellent vantage point. He could look into Gotham Plaza, through the Plaza and down Broadway, or across to the roof of the Moxton building, so popular with the Batman’s operatives that a few hours observation of that one summit would acquaint him with everyone that was active in a given night.

Jean Paul did not share Azrael’s delight with their position. The angle at which Az was looking down onto the Plaza reminded him of Sims 2.

You are sulking, Mortal.  Did you not enjoy your recreation?

You know I didn’t, Az.  We came out to patrol an hour before we needed to because I was not having a good time.

I don’t understand why.  I thought the representation of Infinity you created was quite profound.

Jean Paul mentally sighed.  His SIM persona was residing in a small, spartan apartment, much like his own. He had sat alone at his computer desk watching his SIM sit alone at his computer desk, hovering over the screen where yet another tiny SIM was pictured. 

My game-self is a geek with no life, Az.  How much does that suck?

You should have played Dark Forces, Mortal. You would have found more satisfaction in battling for the forces of light in the endless war against evil.

We’re doing that now, Az.  A game is supposed to give you an escape from what you do in real life.

Then why did your tiny avatar sit at his computer playing the same game you did?

The other tiny avatars were gathered around a hot tub.

Why is there never a mugger around when you need one?

Many were female.

Welcome back to Gotham.  You’d think at least a drug deal goin’ down.

Scantily clad.

Hey, look!  Guy down there selling fake Rolexes!  Let’s go get ‘em!

“First after-skewer,” Dick bit his lip, repeating the one phrase that bothered him in the riddle.  “First-after. Not strictly opposites like first and last, but it sounds funny.  After-skewer. What’s an after-skewer?”

Bruce ignored him and concentrated on the numbers. 

Dick never found “bat-mode” conducive to problem solving, so he resorted to a favorite pastime from his days as Robin: needling Batman about a certain soft spot.

“Meow-meow-meow-meow,” he sang.

“Richard.”

“Huh? Oh, sorry, just thinking out loud.”

“Sure.”

“She does fit in somehow or other.  You said it yourself. Giza, Ra, fairest. Who else could it be?  Plus, we got the goggle-pic right here,” he said, holding it up.

“Richard.”

“Meow-meow-meow-meow…” he sang again, tilting it back and forth to make it dance.

“I can still send you to your room, you know.”

“Poor Selina, how she must hate those bastards at the Post. They make up shit about her past, about her work, about her personal life, and then, to add insult to injury, they make her look like this… Jesus, talk about getting skewered.”

Both men’s eyes met in a moment of electric comprehension.

“After— Post.  Post means after.”

“Skewer.”

“Post-skewer.  First Post skewer. Croc is the first Post-skewer?”

“Computer, VOX override.  Suspend current operation, apply analysis matrix Gotham Post, display relevant articles on Killer Croc.”

“Which article do we start with?”

“The first, then the worst, then the one this picture is clipped from. And if that doesn’t work, we brute force it.”

“What are the numbers again?”

“15-2-10-7-”

“Slow down, one at a time…  15.  Got the first article on him here.  Fifteen letters in… T.  What was next? 2?  Two letters more…E…”

“10.”

“8-9-10… A.  T-E-A”

“7”

“R”

“4” 

“S.  T-E-A-R-S Tears.  Son of a bitch.  Crocodile tears.”

“Computer, VOX override.  New search: theme targets, search term:  tears. Display main screen and relay to OraCom.” Bruce stood and headed to the costume vault to change back into costume. “Dick,” he called back from the vault, “when it comes up, you prioritize that list, split it into thirds. Have Oracle call in Robin, we’ll each take a third and—”

“Slow down, Bruce.  No need. Only one target here, and it looks like we’re too late.”

Batman raced out of the vault, cursing; his cape, cowl and gauntlets still in his hands.  Nightwing had his right hand to his earpiece.  With his left, he held up three fingers. 

Batman hurriedly donned the cowl and switched the OraCom to channel 3 in time to hear:

…:: Bergdorf’s department store, ground floor, fine jewelry, twenty minutes ago.  They just added a boutique for a new jewelers called Gocciolina, specializes in teardrops. ::…

“Understood, O.  Thank you.” Nightwing answered.

“Damn,” Bruce hissed.

… :: That you, boss? :: …

“Affirmative, O.”

… :: Not sure what kept you from dinner tonight, but I sure want to thank you. After you cancelled on her, Selina came by with one of those desserts from d’Annunzio’s. You know, the ones they say are better than—::…

“Oracle, the security tapes from the robbery—”

…:: Already uploaded to your opencase partition in the main cave system. I made a subdirectory: ‘Teardrop.’  So how long were you guys going to keep that fudge-raspberry torte a secret? ::…

“Batman out.”

Talia paced back and forth in her hotel suite, an agitated nausea coiling in her muscles, propelling her body to either move or burst into convulsions of nauseous rage.  An hour in the hotel’s limited “fitness center” did nothing to drive this intolerable FRUSTRATION from her system.

Why could she not make him understand?  It was she that he loved, she that he always loved, would always love and was destined to be with. Why couldn’t she MAKE him see that? 

It was the Cat’s sorcery, obviously.  Somehow she bewitched him. It was understandable if he wanted to amuse himself while they were parted.  But now that they could be together, now that she had come to him, there was no reason for him not to have the wretched slut sent away.  The only reason her Beloved would not have done this already is that he must actually believe those horrid things he had said to her.  He must actually believe himself happy.  Clearly the wily Cat-witch had used that time close to him to ensnare his mind.

But she would free him.  She would show him what filth he had taken to his bosom.  She would show him what the Cat really was, and once her spell was broken, then he would realize how he truly felt.

Bruce crept silently into the darkened bedroom.  He slipped under the sheets with a stealth the bed’s other occupant would have admired if she’d been awake to witness it—but that would have defeated the purpose. He lay there for a long minute, watching Selina sleep, watching the sheet rise and fall gently with her breathing.

It was a long time since Bruce faced up to his conflicted feelings about her, about her ties and friendships with certain rogues. “Deceiving myself is not a luxury I can afford,” he had said.  

The goggles had nothing to do with his canceling dinner.  

She wouldn’t like the picture if she saw it in the cave. She wouldn’t be happy about Talia being back.  But Selina was a rational adult, not some raving Arkham case.  She would deal with the situation just as she had the cancelled dinner.  Stuff happens, Stud; we adjust. 

She certainly knew about the Post’s outrages before now, one more picture wouldn’t come as any surprise.  And she had to know the wolfsbane wasn’t a permanent solution. 

So…

Why did he cancel?

Why did he really cancel that dinner date?

Riddle me that, Eddie.

They were friends.  She’d gone to him for help in the past.  He’d come to her.  

It was a gray area. 

Couldn’t anybody see that that was a gray area? They were friends.  It’s not like he was afraid she’d go back to stealing or anything. But a twinge whenever Eddie popped up again was natural enough. Wasn’t it? Not much of one.  Just a nagging… little… if.

To be continued...

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