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Chapter 9: Round Robin

 

So I sat in Jean Paul’s living room and let him tell me all about this case he had been working on that kept him out of Gotham for so long.  He sat in a tall chair, his broken leg, bound up in a ferociously thick cast, rested on the sofa.  It didn’t look very comfortable, but he said he wanted to sit higher than the leg and this was the best arrangement he had found.

“So the attempted murder led to the movie set, and that opened up the whole espionage thing, and then the smuggling and the drugs, and finally the whole customs debacle with this bonded warehouse that was nothing but a front for the Russian mob.  So it was quite a case.”

“Quite a case?” I drawled, “You law and order boys are so painfully literal sometimes.  The Iceberg crowd would call something like that what it really is: a runaway bobsled to hell.”

He looked confused, then smiled.  He doesn’t get my sense of humor.

I had done what Bruce asked:  I had looked in on him.  I brought him Alfred’s cookies.  And I had stayed long enough to be polite.  There was no need to keep this farce going… Or at least:  there was no reason related to “Hey, Kitten, how about looking in on the poor guy with the broken leg.” 

“You want some popcorn,” Jean Paul asked.

It was my opening to leave; instead I said “Sure.”  I even offered to make it so he wouldn’t have to get up.  He followed me into the kitchen anyway to show me where he kept the popcorn. 

“Jean Paul,” I noted, “I could have found that on my own.  I can find where Cartier keeps the loose emeralds; I can manage ‘packet of Orville Redenbacher in the basket on top of the microwave.’  You don’t need to follow me around like a puppy.” 

“Sorry.”

“And don’t apologize so much!  You’ve got a broken leg, for heaven’s sake.  I’m just saying don’t mess with the crutches if you don’t have to.”

“Right, sorry.  I mean—RIGHT!”

I couldn’t help but laugh.  He’s very odd, but it’s not a completely irritating odd.

The popcorn was done before he got himself back to his chair.  We sat for a few minutes eating in awkward silence, when I saw a Sex and the City sleeve sitting on the table.  I asked if he had been watching it.  He turned beet red and sputtered like Jervis sampling red-hot chili sauce.

“I— ei— ah— oh, sure— well, I—I—I—”

And this is what took Bruce’s place on the rooftops.  He suddenly seemed like such a miserable little mouse.  There is a cat in me.  Whatever else is true or not about Catwoman, that much I’ve always known.  There is a cat in me and nothing will bring her out like the wretched squeak-squeak of a sniveling little mouse.

“Why, Pheromones,” I purred, “Get a hold of yourself. It’s just a fun little comedy… about sex… in the city… If that’s all it takes for you to go to pieces, you better not go out there after dark.”

The mouse ran into his hole.  Which should have made me feel better, but didn’t.  He was looking down at his cast, scratching the surface compulsively even though he wouldn’t be able to feel a thing under all that plaster.

I took a breath.  Way to go, Selina.

“I’m sorry, Jean Paul.”

Nothing.

“Jean Paul, look at me.”

Nothing.

“That’s looking down at your cast.  Look UP at ME.”

Third time’s a charm.  He looked up.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “That was rude, and I didn’t come over here to be rude to you.  You have a way of… ruffling my fur sometimes.  I get catty.  I apologize.”

“Why did you come over?” he mumbled.

I didn’t answer at first.  It was a more complicated question than it seemed.

“Because Bruce told you to,” he concluded.

“Yes and no.  Well, no, because nobody tells me to do anything and you should know that by now.  But on the yes side of no, he did ask me to come, and that’s why I came over in the first place and that’s why I brought cookies.  But it’s not why I’ve stayed.”

He cocked his head a bit and raised an eyebrow, an odd little combination of skeptical crimefighter and confused puppy dog.

“He told me you and Riddler are friends,” Jean Paul said finally, his baffled tone tipping the balance towards the puppy.

“Oh, come on, you silly putz!  It wasn’t that hard to follow.  For pity sake, you’re going to be throwing ‘feline logic’ at me next.  Yes, Bruce asked me to come, but I’ve stayed for reasons of my own which I will get to if you’ll just pipe down, stop being annoying, and let me get on with it…”

This look crossed his face that I recognized from the Watchtower.  Batman and Martian Manhunter talking—arguing, rather—telepathically. 

“Your imaginary friend should pipe down and stop being annoying too, Jean Paul, because this is me being nice, believe it or not.  And that has an expiration date.  So tell Az to take a Midol.  Now then.  You obviously can’t continue to help me out on the demonspawn matter because you’ve only got one good leg for the next few weeks—”

“The demonspawn matter?” he asked.

“Talia Twitterhead running around town in a fake catsuit, you didn’t think I’d forgotten about that, did you?  I don’t intend to let something like that pass.  I’ll be visiting her soon—solo.”  He looked disappointed and I realized that, bat-impostor or no, men are men and those XY egos need tending to as regularly as any of Pammy’s exotic orchids.  “Which I can do, since you were able to pinpoint where she was staying.  That was some first-rate work, Jean Paul, I doubt Oracle herself could have done it so quickly.  So. It started me thinking, since we can’t work together on Talia anymore, maybe you could help me out that same way, behind the scenes, researching another matter.”

A new look crossed his face.  I’d seen that one before, too.  Eddie sitting down with a crossword, Jervis panting to spread some fresh gossip, Whiskers hunkering down with a catnip mouse.  I had him.  When the idea first occurred to me, it was just to give him something to do.  It’s boring as hell being laid up that way.  But after Dick let it slip about that riddle, a more practical reason suggested itself:  having my own personal Oracle to work on whatever it was Bruce was hiding from me.

“Do we have a deal?” I purred, knowing the answer already, “Or do you have to flip a coin or something?”

“I’ll do it, Catwoman,” he answered—and his voice had a slightly different timbre.  It wasn’t the bat-voice, but there was an edge.  “It sounds… like an interesting challenge.”

 

Wayne Manor was home to Dick for so many years, he didn’t bother calling ahead before coming over.  Since he wanted to see Alfred rather than Bruce, he let himself in the kitchen rather than ringing at the front door.  The kitchen itself was empty, and all Dick found in the butler’s pantry was Nutmeg curled up on Alfred’s chair enjoying a nap. 

Dick assumed Alfred must be somewhere in the house, so he checked the drawing room… the morning room… the study… And finally, just as he was trying to decide whether to go up to the bedrooms or down to the cave next, the clock passage opened and Bruce walked out.

“Alfred’s out shopping,” he announced curtly.  “Market day.”

Dick didn’t bother to ask how Bruce knew he was looking for Alfred and Bruce didn’t bother to explain.  He always knew things; he was Batman. 

“Isn’t that Tuesdays and Fridays?” Dick asked, remembering the routine from when he was growing up.

“Monday and Thursday now,” Bruce replied.  “So he and that French chef next door can keep an eye on what each other buys.”

“You’re kidding.”

“That’s the way Alfred explained it to me.”

“That’s so bizarre.”

“I wouldn’t press him about it,” Bruce grumbled.  “The one time I did, he said he doesn’t tell me how to stake out Joker’s hacienda.”

Dick laughed.  “Well, I won’t ask him about that, but I really do need to ask him something.  I’m in it deep with Barbara.  Quickest way out is for me to learn to cook an omelet.”  Bruce glared and Dick quickly diagnosed the source of his mentor’s disapproval. “It’s marriage-logic, Bruce, not detective logic.”  That led to a new sound, somewhere between a grunt and a sigh, which Dick could also translate.  “I know, I know, you hate it whenever something won’t fit into one of your categories.  Would it help if I called it a marriage-protocol?”

“It would help if you didn’t pretend there is an entirely different set of rules for dealing with a woman just because you put a ring on her finger.”

“But there are.  And it’s not a bad thing either, Bruce.  I mean, look at this tiff with Babs.  She’s all pissed at me ‘cause of how I treated Jean Paul the other night.  Big whoop.  It’s not like ‘Oh shit, I’m back to dateless Saturday nights for the rest of my life.’  It’s time in the penalty box, but I know I’m not off the team.”

The grunting-sigh resounded, and Dick was about to say more when the doorbell rang.  He stopped to grab an apple as Bruce went to answer it, then Dick followed to the foyer.  When he got there, Bruce was signing for a delivery.  What Dick noticed at once was a stiff tension emanating from Bruce that hadn’t been there before.  The deliveryman handed over a box and Dick instantly saw why.  The box was green and covered in question marks.  The dots below each mark were not painted circles but round air holes, through which a plaintive mewing could be heard.

 

I had returned to the Parkview, Talia’s hotel, and was trying to decide how to proceed.  Once upon a time, when Bruce and I first got together, this psychotic harpy came to my apartment for a catfight.  She came into my bathroom for the confrontation, if you can believe that.  I was tempted to return the favor now, because, as I let myself into her suite, I heard the sound of the shower running.  It was an appealing thought, surprising her in her bathroom just as she had done me.  It had just the right touch of payback.  Except for one thing: that original confrontation ended in the shower stall.  And I believe very strongly that if two women have issues involving a man, it is important for the dignity of everyone involved that nobody gets wet.  You want to avoid swimming pools, fountains, sprinklers, garden hoses, and yes, bathtubs. 

I was in her suite, but that was as far as I planned to go.  I would wait—it was only a few minutes, but what I noticed in that time changed the whole course of what I wound up saying to her.  Polo.  I smelled Ralph Lauren’s Polo.  Bruce said that Greg Brady was having dinner with Talia last night; evidently he’d made it up to her room.  Hm.

“How dare you break into this place, you miserable cat-thief!” my favorite psycho screeched from the doorway—and that absolutely settled it.  The minute I saw her, I knew I was right about the Polo.  Beneath all the foot stomping from being intruded upon and the horror of Catwoman sitting in her furniture, she had the undeniable glow of someone who’s needed a good bunny-humping for ages and finally got one. 

“You chose Option #2,” I answered dryly while she knotted and reknotted the belt of her hotel robe like she had a grudge against it.  “You did have options, you know, when LexCorp tanked.  You could have gone back to Daddy, you could have found yourself a new protector, or you could have evolved.  Did you even stop to consider that one at all?”

“Get out.”

“Guess not.  You’re a remora in $400 shoes. Why bother evolving when you can just follow the fin.”

“GET OUT OF HERE, YOU HELLACIOUS HELLCAT!” 

“Oh, calm down, Talia, I’m leaving soon enough.  But first, like it or not, we’re going to have a talk.  The less you interrupt, the sooner it will all be over.  ‘Kay?”

She gave the robe belt another really vicious knotting, but said nothing more.  I obviously had the floor… and that alone was quite telling.  She was just going to stand there and let me spank her.

“You know, Talia, there was a time I figured I hated you more than anybody, but it occurs to me that I’m not even close.  You’re the one that really hates your guts.  I mean, look at yourself.  In one week: you bankrupt Luthor’s company. You try to frame me—which, by the way, seems to have honked off Bruce and Azrael ten times more than it did me, and I’m plenty pissed. You put a hit out on Eddie and, as anybody will tell you, fucking with my friends is a quicker route to blood loss than prancing around town in a catsuit you don’t have the figure for.  And now, to top it all off, you start screwing Daddy’s #1 man in Gotham.  ‘Death wish’ does not begin to cover it, this is The Rube Goldberg Suicide Machine.  Ten thousand years of human history, nobody has ever devised a more convoluted Dadaesque way to kill themselves… And I’m totally wasting my breath here, aren’t I.” 

“Are you quite through, she-cat?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

I sighed.  

“So this is what Bruce was bashing his head against for years, hm?  No wonder the mere sight of you gives him a headache.  No, I’m not quite done yet.  Because your crowd is bad enough when you’re gunning for the rest of the world. But seeing one of you turn all that destructive creativity on yourself, that isn’t nearly as entertaining as I would have thought.  It’s embarrassing is what it is.  You’re an embarrassment to—”

“Let me save you some time,” she interrupted coolly.  “I have already had a number of women tell me what an EMBARRASSMENT I am.  How I am a DISGRACE, and have lowered the ceiling, and set back the cause, and betrayed the sisterhood, and DISEMPOWERED all our daughters for DECADES TO COME!!!” 

Well, she started off cool, but by the time she was betraying the sisterhood, she had worked back up to a shriek.  I had a hunch why that might be.  Dinner with Greg Brady = dinner in a Gotham restaurant, and I was at D’Annunzio’s recently enough to know what the ladies who lunch were saying about Talia when she wasn’t in the room.

“This was at the restaurant last night?” I asked quietly.

“Yes.  In the powder room.”

“The ladies can be vicious,” I probed.

“Quite.” 

Her tone was crisp, controlled… and very unconvincing.  They really got to her. 

“At least with you, vermin slut though you are,” she announced, “I know the nature of your grievance.  You covet the man whose heart will always be mine.  But these women, I did nothing to them.  They… may have suffered some small financial reversals as a result of the LexCorp situation, nothing more.  The same was true of their husbands, but the comments of the men in the dining room were nothing compared to the wanton venomous attacks of those women—”

I couldn’t help but laugh, not as I had at our first meeting to belittle her overblown pride, but from genuine amusement.  Talia al Ghul was one of the great comic creations.  What made it funnier still is that she thought she was a tragic queen: Juliet, Medea and Helen of Troy rolled into one, with a spritz of Chanel No.5.

“What you did to them, Talia,” I explained briefly, though I doubted she could ever understand, “is this:  you got in.  You got into the boys club.  And there would be jealousy from that no matter what.  But here’s where you really messed up:  You failed.  They let you in, and you screwed it up.  That’s where all the resentment is coming from.  You proved all the gender crap right.”

“You believe this to be so?”

“Yes.  Given what they know of you, that is the reason they hate you.”

“I see.”

She glared at me with pure loathing and I glared back.  We both felt the need to clarify that ninety seconds of (comparatively) civil conversation didn’t make us friends.

“Now if they knew you better,” I added quickly, “they would have a whole different list of reasons to hate you.”

“You will never have him,” she declared, Helen of Troy in her big scene.

“Goodbye, Talia,” I said sweetly, standing to go.  “I’m sorry you’re so needy and desperate for validation that you have to invent a romance where it doesn’t exist.”

I went to the door and opened it.

“I’m sorry your life is so completely pathetic and devoid of substance that you require a man to be the scaffold for every thought and impulse of your being.” 

I left and turned for the parting shot—happy to be back on catfighting terms with the demonspawn and happier still that nobody had to get wet.

“Nevertheless, my pity for your dismal non-self notwithstanding, Bruce is still too busy to waste his time carrying the dead weight of your soul. He’s doing more important things, like breathing.”

 

After the episode with Whiskers sneaking into the cave, Bruce thought it best to examine the feline contents of Riddler’s package in the study rather than taking it down to the Batcave as he would to analyze any other potential evidence. 

Technically it was addressed to Selina, but he saw no reason to delay on that score.  The box obviously contained a live cat… Well, “obvious” was never something you took on faith where the Riddler was concerned.  Nigma had been known to outfit a baby carriage with a recording of a crying baby and enough explosives to put a hole in the world.  But a close examination of the box for tripwires and other traps, and a closer inspection of the contents through the holes, only revealed little patches of tan and black fur inside moving in perfect sync with the plaintive mewling, leading Batman’s final conclusion to confirm Bruce’s first observation:  the box obviously contained a live cat.  Opening it at once would be the logical way to proceed even if it wasn’t from a known felon, known to be active at the moment, and known to be pursuing a cat-theme…  Still, for all that was “known,” Bruce couldn’t help but feel those meowing question marks were mocking him.  

He used a letter opener from the desk to carefully pry open the top.  A chubby furry face—black, white and tan, with pale yellow eyes and a pink nose—looked up at him.  He glared down at it.  It meowed back.  

The meow was slightly less troublesome coming from the cat than from the riddling box… Slightly.  But not much.  He had an urge to interrogate the little beast, which was, of course, ridiculous.  Just having the thought made him feel ridiculous. Fortunately, at that moment, he heard the front door open and a cat he could press for answers clip-clipped across the foyer. 

“Selina, would you step in here a moment?” he called. 

Clip-clip-clip and she appeared in the doorway.

“Meow,” she said.

“Meow,” the cat answered.

“Yeah, meow,” Bruce grumbled.  “Look at this.  We’ve got trouble.”

“Oh, look at you, aren’t you the sweetest little thing,” Selina cooed, ignoring Bruce entirely and fussing over the cat.  “Where did you come from, you little ragamuffin?”

She saw the cat’s tag before the box.  “Flummox,” she read.  Then she bit her lip.  “Somebody named you Flummox?  Oh lord.”  She looked up at Bruce, who was now holding the box up for her to see.  “Eddie,” she said flatly.

“Obviously,” he graveled.  It was Batman’s voice, she noticed immediately, and bristled. 

“Just like you to go jumping right into Bat-mode without stopping to consider there might be a perfectly natural—oh, but wait, you do have a reason don’t you.  There’s that riddle you never told me about.”

“How did you know about that?” he asked coldly.

“Does it matter?  I didn’t find out from you.”

“This isn’t the time to go into it.”

“It’s NOT?!?  We got a question mark cat here called Flummox, if this ISN’T the time to talk about the Catwoman riddle, I can only guess you’re waiting for ‘Tell-your-girlfriend-why-you-didn’t-mention-the-riddle-and-goggle-picture Day.’”

He stared for a long moment—not at her, but at the cat.

“That first riddle did hint that a Catwoman clue would be next,” he murmured, clearly ignoring her question and moving on to bat-business.  “It’s overdue, in fact.  And now this shows up.  But why send it to you?  Unless I’m supposed to know that it’s overdue and go looking for it.  It’s a new twist, getting the Catwoman clue from Catwoman, maybe that’s what was meant all along.  He knows you’re with Bruce Wayne now, but could still be playing ‘Bat and Mouse’ games on the side, so…”

“Bruce, could we put the crimefighter in the box for five blessed minutes and talk about this?  This is relationship, not crime. Pointy ears does not handle relationship, remember, because he sucks at it.”

“I’m trying to keep you from becoming Nigma’s next target here.”

“Eddie’s not going to make me a target of anything.  Leave him out of this, leave the cat, leave the bat, just you and me, 5’s a crowd… You’re not even listening to me.”

“There is another possibility.”

“Yeah, there’s the possibility Greg Brady is the secret mastermind behind this whole thing, playing all sides against the middle so he can run off with the demonspawn.  Can’t believe that didn’t occur to you, day one.”

“Selina.  There’s the possibility… that Riddler knows?”

She sucked in her breath and looked down at the cat, then up at Bruce again. 

“No.  He couldn’t.  Could he?”

“It’s a prospect I’m forced to consider from time to time.  Usually I can dismiss it pretty easily.  This time I’m not so sure.  He’s sending clues to the house—and for some reason, Talia wanted him killed.”

Selina started examining the cat with more interest, then turned her attention to the box.  “There’s a note in here.  Did you see this?”

Bruce was instantly at her elbow.  “I hadn’t.  I’d only opened it when you came in.”

Selina skimmed quickly.  “Straightforward.  Says he picked up the cat in an alley by the Parkview Hotel—that’s where she’s staying all right, it all fits together, we know he was there.”

“We’re not a shelter,” Bruce spat.  “That’s not even a plausible cover story.”

“He doesn’t need ‘a plausible cover story’; he’s a friend, it’s a cat…”

“We are not an animal shelter.”

“It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t know anybody that might want a cat.”

Bruce gave a thoughtful look that slowly morphed into a disquieting smile.  “Yes, that’s true.”

 

The real Catwoman’s entry into The Parker Exchange was accomplished in half the time as the impostor’s and with far greater efficiency.  She had installed videoloops onto the surveillance cameras and gassed the guards within moments of her arrival, preempting the possibility of visual evidence or unwanted interruptions of the events to unfold. 

Unlike the impostor, she wasted no time attempting to dismantle the alarms in the display base for the Kimberly Canary, eighth largest yellow diamond in the world.  She merely took a claw and etched a large question mark into the Lucite case, followed by an arrow pointing to the left.  Then she made herself comfortable in the darkened alcove where the arrow pointed… and waited.

An hour later, she had the opportunity of observing Riddler’s arrival at a crime scene for the second time in her professional career.  The first was when she’d just returned to Gotham, a simple cat burglar without a costume or moniker.  It was that chance encounter with Edward Nigma that nudged her along to becoming Catwoman1.  His manner now was just as cocky as it had been that night… IDing the electric eyes, circumventing the pressure panels… right up until he reached the case and saw her love note etched into the glass.  He turned slowly in the direction of the arrow.

“You still strut,” the darkened alcove observed in Catwoman’s voice.  “Nobody to see, you know.  I nixed the cameras.”

“Clever kitty,” he remarked dryly.  “But you’re here.  That’s audience enough, but not the one I was expecting.”

Catwoman leaned forward into the light.

“Bad form, Eddie.  Not starting off with a question?  For shame.  Allow me:  What do you think you’re doing, Edward?”

“What do you think I’m doing, ‘Lina?”

Selina raised an eyebrow beneath the mask.

“It looks a lot like you’re trying to make trouble for me—and I’m just wondering why that might be.”  She rubbed the claws of her right thumb and index finger together thoughtfully. 

“And how could I, a humble hobbyist in the ancient art of posing puzzles, make mischief for you, my favorite feline?”

“You’re not ‘humble,’ Eddie, but we’re making allowances for alliteration, yes?”

He turned his attention back to the case and traced the question mark scratched into its surface thoughtfully, then looked back towards Catwoman.

“A riddle for you, Selina.  Why are such good friends as we sparring with words?  Are we… jockeying for position?  Sizing up… an opponent?”

She laughed.  “Don’t be ridiculous, Eddie.  We both know if it came down to it, I could kick your ass.  And since neither of us wants that outcome, there’s no reason for it to occur, now is there?”

“Touché.  And the duel continues.  Which brings us back to the original question:  why are we dueling at all?”

“Why did you send me that cat?”

“Do you have to ask?”

Catwoman glared and took a step forward.

“This isn’t a parlor game, Eddie.  This isn’t who can answer the most questions with a question.”

“Why are you here, Selina?”

“Why do you think?!  Because I already have two cats and that’s quite enough for one lap.  So I gave that adorable little furball you sent me to Dick and Barbara.  Dick and Barbara GRAYSON, Eddie.  Bludhaven PD and the goddamn commissioner’s daughter.  The ones that look at me funny at every family dinner wondering what the wily cat is up to…”

“Oh come off it, ‘Lina, you were a bridesmaid at their wedding.”

“Yes, and the ruffles made my ass look big.  You think any of that matters to cops and copspawn?”

Nigma bit his lip thoughtfully. 

“So Grayson knew a cat-riddle was due and turned Flummox over to be inspected, that’s what I’m supposed to believe, eh?  And then what?  Bats finds the next key in the collar, and instead of coming by himself, he sends YOU to stop me?!?  I don’t think so, ‘Lina.  I don’t think that’s likely at all.”

“Eddie, you’re ranting.  Do stop, it’s unattractive.  Do you really think I would let them see the real collar once I knew something was hidden in it?  I’m the one that found your little clue that spelled out ‘canary,’ and that’s why I’m here.  I don’t know why I’m ‘not the audience you were expecting,’ you sent me the thing.”

“Y-yes,” Nigma answered, chewing on this new idea.  “I suppose I did… in a way.”  An idea that hadn’t occurred to him was always suspect.  “Grayson really doesn’t trust you?”

“No.  Of course not.  He assumes I’m after Bruce’s money.”

Nigma watched his friend critically.  “Yes, of course.  The money.  Why else would you possibly be interested in a man like Bruce Wayne.”

Selina met his gaze levelly.  “Careful, Eddie.”

“I mean it, Selina, what else could possibly attract you to that simpering… airhead… fop.”

“You better not be suggesting what I think you are.”

“Course not, ‘Lina, there’s a rule against that, isn’t there.”

She said nothing, and Nigma continued.

“Thou shalt not insinuate… about the cat… and the…”

He never finished the sentence.  The room was silent except for the faint vibration of a stagnant alarm system… joined a few moments later by the soft hum of a distant air conditioner… and finally a siren blocks away.

“If it were true,” Selina said finally, “Then Hugo is right.  Hugo got there first.  Hugo Strange, Eddie.  Hugo figured it out before the great Edward Nigma.  If you go to bed every night for the rest of your life telling yourself that you worked it out by virtue of that magnificent brain and all Strange did was stumble onto it like a drunken fratboy into a dumpster, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll manage to convince yourself before you die.  But make your little theory public, you’ll never convince the rest of the world.  All of them, Joker, Harley, Doris—Batman himself—everybody, will know Hugo got there first.”

“What an interesting conundrum you place before me, Kittycat.”

“Not really.  Like I said, that’s all ‘if it were true.’  There are eight billion—and one—other reasons I could be with Bruce.”

“Eight billion following a dollar sign.  That’s not your style, ‘Lina.”

“No it’s not.  That just leaves one, doesn’t it.”

“I see.  All right, well… I guess that’s that.  Only leaves one more question, so riddle me this, Kitty:  How hard are you going to make it for me to leave with that pretty, pricey, yellow rock?”

 

Four blocks from the Parker Exchange, the Batmobile sat well concealed in a shadowy midtown loading dock.  Batman sat within, waiting… waiting… staring like a man hypnotized at a small console displaying a grid of the city… waiting…

At last, the little blip, a nanite transmitter embedded on the Kimberly Canary, quivered.  It did nothing more but vibrate in place for ten seconds or so… it was in motion, Batman knew, but hadn’t moved far enough to change position on the grid.  After interminable seconds, it jumped to a box to the right and then continued its stationary vibration… ten seconds more and it jumped again.

In contrast to the diamond’s painful slowness, Batman’s heartbeat raced.  The diamond in motion meant Selina had finished her little… chat with Nigma.  How he hated the thought of it, of any of them alone with one of his enemies.  He would be tense, certainly, if it was Dick or Tim confronting Scarecrow on their own or Cassie or Stephanie alone with Clayface.  But it was worse with Selina and Eddie—simply because she wasn’t in danger.  That had been her position when they discussed it:  Eddie was her friend, and whatever might go down, they would never really hurt each other.  Bruce had insisted otherwise, every fiber of his being resisted such reckless complacency, especially with one of the most formidable rogues.  But in his heart, in the privacy of his own mind, he would admit she was probably right.  And that made it so much worse.  It underscored the divide between them.  Riddler, the criminal, his nemesis, was Eddie, her friend, that wouldn’t hurt her.

It wasn’t a thought he liked dwelling on, and he willed the damnable little blip to make its way down the grid so Batman could get on with chasing down that criminal scourge and pounding his fist into that smug, riddling face.  At last, the little yellow circle complied and the Batmobile eased into motion. 

Ten minutes later, Batman scrutinized the building where the stolen diamond had been taken.  It didn’t look like a typical hideout, and a quick sweep with the infrared confirmed that the closed businesses on the ground level were as unoccupied as they appeared.  There was a light on in the room above, and Batman approached the window cautiously.  Peering inside, he saw the diamond was in plain sight—an obvious trap—sitting there, two chairs positioned around the table where it lay.  The chair nearest the window was turned out slightly like an invitation.

“What did the wolf say when he coughed up a sheep that didn’t agree with him?”

Batman said nothing, and Nigma waved for him to come inside.

“I’ve been expecting ewe.”

Batman glanced around the room with cautious eyes long attuned to the subtlest signs of rigged windows, electric eyes, and other accoutrements of gimmicked hideouts.  Reasonably satisfied that there was no trap about to close on him, he crawled through the window—but pointedly ignored the proffered chair.  He stood, but Nigma sat, then leaned back in the chair, making a show of his ease.

“That diamond is stolen.  I’m taking you down.”

“I don’t think you can do that, Bruce,” Nigma answered conversationally.  “No, I really don’t see how you can go shipping me off to Arkham now.  Not with what I know.  No telling who I might talk to in a place like that, now is there?”

Batman’s face betrayed nothing.  He knew, of all his enemies, the one most likely to one day penetrate his secret was the one who saw it as a riddle (“Who is under the Batman’s mask?”), had a compulsion to solve riddles, and the intelligence to do so.  He long knew this was a possibility, and had long ago constructed protocols should it occur.

“What time is it when an elephant sits on a fence?” Batman asked flatly2.

“Time to get a new fence,” Nigma answered suspiciously.  “Everyone knows that one.  It’s worthless.”

“That’s why I have nothing to fear from you.  Your compulsion.  A riddle everyone knows the answer to is ‘worthless.’”

Nigma lowered his eyes, raised a finger as if he’d thought of a loophole, then lowered both his finger and his eyes together as if they were connected by an invisible string.

“You know,” he said, resuming the conversational tone with which he’d begun, “That really is most disappointing.”

Batman took the diamond from the table and turned back towards the window with a frightening economy of movement, the cape swooshing dramatically around a body that seemed removed from any physical exertion. 

“You’ll get over it,” he graveled, stepping towards the window.

“Not that!” Nigma exploded, surprising Batman so much that he spun back to face his adversary, pivoting automatically into a defensive stance.  But Nigma still sat, unmoving.  There was no attack to defend against.  Nigma merely looked rather… hurt?  “One imagined you would have some bit of intellectual bait-and-switch ready to keep the big secret under wraps, old boy.  So did the kitten.”  He spat the last words with disgust.  “Hers was better, by the way.  ‘Cept neither one of you went for the most convincing argument of all.  Neither one of you said, ‘Hey, telling the world would have a really serious impact on Selina’s life and not for the better.  Do I really want to do that to her?’  That angle doesn’t occur to anybody but me?  And I’m the one with a compulsion?  I don’t think so!  Hugo Strange and elephant sits on fence, that’s what the brain trust at the manor comes up with.  Worthless riddle? I’ll tell you a worthless riddle:  What profits a man if he solveth the puzzle of puzzles but doesn’t know who his friends are?  Chew on that one a while.  Bruce.”

Bruce grunted, in true bat fashion, considering those words for a moment, and Nigma’s chest swelled a bit as he mentally awarded himself the first point on this new gameboard.

“Then you riddle me this, Edward,” Batman finally countered, “When does a friend stop being a friend? When he uses you to get to his enemies.”  Then, added more as a declaration than a request: “No more clues to the manor, addressed to Selina.  Ever.”

Eddie glanced down at the table, twinging slightly at the rebuke but having that same I-don’t-take-orders-from-flying-rodents reaction that Selina always did. When he glanced back up to respond, the room was empty.

He expelled the deep breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.

“Riddle me this, riddle me that,” he mumbled, getting up from the table and straightening the knickknacks around the room as if tidying up for the night, “tit for tat, bat and cat, flying rat… wink at… combat… play at… splat.”  He nodded, satisfied, then switched off the light.  “Still plenty of material to work with, old boy… Brass hat… bridle at… wrestling mat…”

To be continued...

(1) See Selina’s origin story, Cattitude, Chapter 3.
(2) Dialogue from Batman’s “protocol” in the last scene taken from Jeph Loeb’s HUSH

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