The Water Rooster is alone
but rarely experiences loneliness.
Cassie read the slip of paper stoically. She folded it. Once. Twice. She slid it back inside the untouched cookie shell. She tossed it and the cellophane wrapper into the trash. And she nodded with satisfaction, thinking of Stephanie. Stephanie said a fortune only counted if you ate the cookie. That’s why you should always read it first, and if you don’t like what you see, throw it away.
It was silly, of course. Neither of them believed a slip of paper from Peking Wok had any power to tell what would happen to them. It was just a bit of silly fun. How they laughed the time Stephanie got “Bad habits are hard to break, especially if you like them.” She said the bad habit was Tim. And then Cassie suggested several ways he could be broken, in all sorts of places, all while liking him. Cassie’s fortune read “Listen, observe, note facts, delay judgment and make your own predications.” It sounded so much like Bruce, Stephanie took the slip from her and read it over and over in a deep exaggerated voice, like Darth Vader.
It was silly fun. Silly was the strangest thing Cassie had encountered in the world outside her assassin’s upbringing. She didn’t know how to do it, but sometimes with Stephanie it just happened. She found herself giggling and spouting such nonsense. “Tim break easy. Foot here, fist up, bash bash, meet in center.”
A tear rolled down Cassie’s cheek. She never spouted nonsense now. She never giggled. She didn’t eat ice cream. She didn’t have anybody to go to the movies with. She went to see A History of Violence herself because the billboard she’d passed in Times Square made it seem like something she would enjoy. It wasn’t at all what she expected, which was usually the case when she picked a movie instead of Stephanie deciding what they would see. But the actor was very handsome, and if Stephanie was with her, Cassie would have stayed and giggled about his blue eyes and muscular arms. As it was, she left. She walked home alone, on the street not on the rooftops, knowing she looked like a target that way and hoping some kind of scum would notice and follow.
She missed Stephanie so much.
One time Tim asked if she wanted to “get a slice after patrol.” She said no. She wasn’t comfortable around him—around any of them but mostly him. Stephanie had talked about him so much, they had laughed so much together, it was weird to see Tim or Robin now and think how… anyway, she said no.
He never asked again. Not that it mattered. No need for extra carbs after patrol. But he never asked again.
It was so quiet now, after patrol, and before too. She’d gotten back into her old training cycle. There were barely enough hours in the day to train like she used to and do all the casework Bruce assigned and the schoolwork that Barbara gave her, and still manage to patrol, eat and sleep. She had enough to do to fill the day and then some. But it really didn’t feel like it used to. It was empty somehow.
Her father said training was its own reward, but she had begun promising herself little treats, like the ginger prawns and fried rice, for getting through a six-hour cycle. Then she decided to treat herself at four hours instead. And then three.
This concerned her very much. Discipline was everything. If she couldn’t make herself complete her training regimen…
She would have liked to talk to someone about it.
Bruce was away. He was coming back in a few days, but the fact that he was away now was enough for Cassie to scratch him off the list. She was a little afraid what he would say.
Barbara would probably tell Dick, and Batman had left Nightwing in charge. So it would be almost like telling Bruce.
Jean Paul had been awfully nice after Stephanie’s funeral. He talked to her for hours. He seemed to know how she felt better than she did herself. How she wanted to get away from people and not trust anybody, and not like anybody, and not feel anything ever again. He said it would probably have to be that way for a while, but she shouldn’t let it lead her to do anything drastic, because it would turn around. He said that one day, maybe sooner than she thought, she’d feel like herself again. And she’d be ready to reenter the world, so it was important not to “close any doors.”
Azrael started finding her during patrol, about once a week. They didn’t team up or anything, except for that one time when the drug case she was pursuing turned out to be some kind of Medicare fraud. There were computers and casefiles, and an FBI agent, and all kinds of paperwork that Cassie couldn’t understand. Jean Paul helped her with all the computer stuff, not doing it himself in a blur of typing and flickering data screens the way Oracle would, but really showing her what he was doing at each step. And Azrael helped too, explaining how the FBI were like the old world’s undersheriffs charged to keep the king’s peace in a specific fief. One addressed them as equals in rank, he said, but equals in the service of a lesser king. They pursued the same goal (i.e. the extermination of crime) and one respected their ways (i.e. their filing of reports and obtaining of warrants), but one must never compromise or subordinate our ideals to these practices of theirs, for to do so would place our liege and his interests (the Order of Dumas, or in her case the Batman and his cause of Justice) beneath theirs.
Cassie nodded, even when she didn’t completely understand. She had always respected Azrael as a great warrior, and there was a time she even felt a foolish adoration for him, an adoration that now seemed very frivolous. But she still admired him. And she was becoming comfortable with Jean Paul in a way she wasn’t with the rest of the Bat family.
(Tim never did ask her to go for a “slice” again after patrol)
But somehow that made it harder to go to Jean Paul rather than easier. She was losing discipline, losing her edge in training. What would he think of her???
That left Tim. Tim was pretty stuck up to go to for crimefighting
advice. I’m Robin, I’m Batman’s sidekick, I have a car, none of the
other Robins had a car.
Maybe she should just workout another three hours and avoid the whole question.
But she didn’t want to. She really didn’t want to.
Of course, Batman’s training included many activities her father’s regimen never cared about. Crimefighting, he said, was more than fighting and surveillance. She had all the stealth and combat technique she needed, he said. She should develop herself in other areas. And that meant more than knowing about fingerprints and carpet fibers, he said. Theme criminals tended to immerse themselves in pop culture. She shouldn’t go overboard, but a nodding familiarity with ‘what kids do’ would better prepare her to decode the deliberate clues villains like the Riddler sent to taunt them, and to recognize the accidental ones they left behind unwittingly.
Cassie always suspected this was a trick to make her go to concerts and shop for trendy clothes like “a normal girl.” So she got an iPod, the same kind Stephanie had, and a School Girlz Rock backpack. She wore them enough for Bruce to see, and figured that was that. But now she was reconsidering. Three hours of deadlifts and overhead squats or three hours snooping around St. Mark’s Place for a hip t-shirt or a bracelet or some incense. Maybe swing by MTV studios and Niketown before patrol too. It couldn’t hurt. You never know what might show up in a riddle.
Share your happiness with
“HA HA HA HA Haaaa!” Fingers of a repulsively pasty white sat the
fortune down on the table, and looked up at Harley with a dangerously
malevolent grin. “What a deliriously delicious idea, HA HA HA Haha.”
“It doesn’t really say that, does it, Puddin’?” Harley squealed, running
over to see. “Share your happiness,” she read over his shoulder.
“Ooh, that’s not good news for Gotham.”
“No?” Joker grinned evilly. “Don’t be silly, Harls, Everybody loves
to smile! HA HA HA HA hAAA. Let’s go out and paint the town laughing!”
Harley’s features set into a mask of thoughtful determination.
“No, Puddin’,” she said with hesitant firmness. “I don’t
wanna go out tonight. I want us to stay in together and, and, play
Whose Line Is It Anyway: The Home Version, and do jello shots.”
“What’s this I hear? The Nattering of a Naysayer??? Harls,
let’s try again. Get your pretty round tush into costume, gas up the
SmileX tanks and let’s go HA HA HA HA Haaaa share the joy!”
She stood firm, arms crossed defiantly.
“I said no, we’re staying in.”
“Or maybe,” Joker snarled, getting up from the table and stalking
menacingly towards her, “I’ll start with YOU!”
“I SAID NO!” Harley screeched, producing a pressurized boxing glove,
aiming it squarely at Joker’s nose, and pulling the trigger. His head
snapped backward and his body swiftly followed. Harley pounced,
pulling the lead weight from inside the glove and bludgeoning him over and
over with it. “YOU ALWAYS WANT—GO OUT AND KILL—CAN’T WE EVER—STAY
Joker’s head—or what had been Joker’s head—now resembled a whitish green
and red puddle of (ironically) pudding. Harley’s attack slowed as she
grew winded. She finally stopped altogether, panting, and looked down
with satisfaction at the disgusting pool of gore.
“That was fun,” she squeaked.
The mass of goo darkened and squirmed, then re-solidified into a human
shape but of a normal pinkish skin tone, dark wavy hair, a softer jaw, and
the rugged good looks of a movie star.
“Good to get that out of your system, Harleen?” he asked with a charming
“Oh Matt,” she smiled, bending to kiss the tip of his nose, “that was the
best ever. But you still haven’t quite got the laugh down. It
starts off good, but then it warbles.”
“I’m working on it, Puddin’,” he said, stroking her hair affectionately.
“I can’t quite find it yet. Can you tell me again, what’s my
“I dunno, Matt, I think yer overthinkin’ it. Ya just gotta feel it.
“See, I like it better when you do it,” he leered roguishly. “It’s
wicked when you do it.”
“I like your hair like that. Is that the Ghost Rider?”
“No,” In an instant his features melted and reformed. “Ghost Rider was dirty blonde with a permanent one day’s growth of stubble.” His face and hair morphed again into their previous form. “This is Captain Lance Starfire, Space-Rogue, gotta go half way to the galactic rim just to find a bar that will serve him.”
She giggled. “Hollywood is silly.”
He looked wounded. “I was nominated for two Golden Neutrinos for that role,” he sulked. “Got a lot of fanmail, too.”
“I’m sure you did,” Harley soothed. “And you wouldda won if your robot sidekick Quark hadn’t split the vote.”
“Robots are such glory hogs,” Matt grinned. “So, Miss Harley, now that you’ve killed Joker, what do you want to do tonight?”
“Rob a bank for excitement and some fun money, then a nightcap at the ‘Berg?” she asked girlishly.
“You got it, gorgeous.”
When you give sparingly
sparingly are you rewarded
Gladys Ashton-Larraby read the fortune aloud and sat it down triumphantly on the table.
“Pah,” her husband answered.
“Even the fortune cookie agrees with me, Randolph,” she insisted. “We simply can’t cut back on charitable giving this year. Think how it will look, with Randy starting Hudson U, everyone knows that means tuition and a large donation to the school each year. It will look like we’re over-extended if we suddenly take only half a table at the opera gala or skip the Wayne Cup at the polo club.”
“Why? If everyone knows we’re having an expensive year, the first of four expensive years, why can’t we cut back some?”
She sighed dramatically.
“It isn’t done, Randolph. The Ashtons have maintained a certain stature in Gotham City almost as long as the Waynes. We don’t have anything as grand as a foundation, but we do have an obligation to support other founding families.”
“And we can’t support them at a gold or silver level for a few years instead of always doing the top diamond-crusted platinum category.”
“No, we can’t,” Gladys answered firmly. “Randolph, really, we owe Bruce a great deal. I don’t have to remind you—”
“BUT you’re going to!” he sang out. “After ‘the unpleasantness with the foreigner,’ Wayne came through and got you back on the A-list.”
“—in time for the Christmas round of parties, yes, Randolph. After you jeopardized our social prospects and those of your son, whom you insisted in numbering like a movie sequel, Randolph Larraby IV indeed, rather than letting him enjoy the distinction of the illustrious Ashton legacy.”
“And how much Larraby Chemicals money will you need this time to keep the illustrious Ashton name at the top of that diamond-crusted-platinum-caviar-foie gras-and-truffles list of donors?”
“The same as always, Randolph. Three tables at the gala, and…mmm-forty tickets for the Wayne Cup should be sufficient.”
Forgive your enemies, but don’t forget their names
“That’s mine,” Barbara announced, snatching the slip of paper from Dick’s fingers before he’d finished reading.
“Hey!” he blurted, grabbing it back. “No fortune swapping, you’ve got your own.”
Barbara cleared her throat and read from her slip with dramatic flair, “’Your mission is the luminous path that you follow, no matter how dark the night around you.’ Clearly, Dickie, this is yours.”
He laughed, handed over his fortune and took hers, reading it over to himself.
“Mission and the Dark Knight, that’s me alright, for one more night anyway. Bruce gets back tomorrow.”
“I know. Believe me, Oracle is counting the minutes,” Barbara said, collecting the Chinese takeout boxes, the chopsticks and cookie wrappers.
“You saying Nightwing isn’t keeping things under control?” Dick asked archly.
“You’re fine,” Barbara answered sweetly, “But Robin called in four times last night asking if I’d heard from B and if there was any change in plans on his return.”
“He really doesn’t like the double patrol. But it can’t be helped. The city is the same size it was last week, and there are five of us covering it instead of six. It won’t kill him. I pulled lots of those double patrols my senior year.”
“It didn’t have to be five instead of six if you’d let me call Dinah.”
“No way. For these few nights this is my team, Babs. Bruce made that very clear, I’m in charge, it’s my crew. And I can make my peace with Az being on it. He’s managed to stay not-crazy for quite a while, he’s patrolling as instructed, and seems like he’s doing a good job taking Cassie under his wing. I can deal with him, I can deal with Helena… Water under the bridge. But I won’t ever, EVER—There will NEVER be enough water under that bridge with Black Canary.”
“You’ve made that more than clear,” Barbara said stoically.
“She stood next to you at our wedding, Barbara. And Stephanie’s funeral. She went into his house… a dozen times… like nothing ever happened. That house I grew up in. That man who came into my room when I woke up screaming from a nightmare. That man who taught me to demand the best of myself, that the best way to honor them was to make John and Mary Grayson’s son the best man I could possibly be… He let her into the family—like you and Jason and Tim and Selina. There will never be enough water under that bridge.”
Barbara pursed her lips and sighed.
“You better get changed,” she said quietly. “Don’t want to be late for your last night as the big man.”
Your talents will be recognized
and suitably rewarded
“Tell me something I don’t knows,” Kittlemeier sniffed, tacking the fortune to the corkboard above his worktable with a steelhead sewing pin.
He disliked working late in his shop, ordering in Chinese takeout instead of stopping on the way home for his usual Jaegerschnizel and a little glass of schnapps. But it had to be done. He’d rescheduled Scarecrow’s fitting once already.
Horizontal straw, of all the ridiculous things he’d been asked to pull off. The man was a beanpole; there was no hiding it. The first two attempts at this new costume, Crane had looked like a particularly skinny haystack.
“Meester Crane,” Kittlemeier had told him when he saw his client’s obvious disappointment, “Yous the customer and if dis is the look you wants, dis is what I gives you. But if you tell me what is effect you wants to achieve, maybe I can helps you better.”
Jonathan Crane regarded his skinny-haystack reflection. “Something that conveys absolute, primal terror,” he said definitely, “but with a sort of Old World, Errol Flynn swashbuckler charm.”
Kittlemeier raised an eyebrow.
“Dis is because of Mr. Blakes again, isn’t it?”
Ever since the Catman had transformed himself into a strapping, muscular ladykiller, half his clients had been in with lists of alterations, or complete redesigns, of their costumes—most of which were hopelessly optimistic about the slimming properties of black gabardine.
Finally deciding that Errol Flynn was perhaps “a little fancy pants” to arouse an appropriate level of terror, Scarecrow suggested a new inspiration.
“Maybe something in a straw man John Wayne,” he proposed, gesturing with a theatrical flourish before the mirror. “Something that says ‘don’t worry, I’m not gonna gas you…The Hell I won’t!’”
Kittlemeier nodded and told Crane to swagger back and forth in front of the mirror (careful, you got pins dere, Mr. Crane), and was pleased with the result. Crane had a surprisingly good swagger. Any cat lover—or blowfish enthusiast—would have recognized someone adept at trying to appear tougher than he really was, and Kittlemeier was truly inspired by the performance. He was certain this new design would suit the Scarecrow’s ambitions to perfection, if only he could find the time to complete it.
You will turn to your
mother for advice
Jervis pursed his lips into a prim but irate grimace and set the fortune down on his plate—noting as he did so that his pinkies were extended in a fussy effeminate manner. He angrily clenched both hands into a fist and grimaced all the more at the little slip of paper.
“Just because a man calls his mother on occasion,” he said defensively.
Edward Nigma raised a derisive eyebrow.
“Mamasboy,” he coughed, just as Two-Face once did the night the Iceberg was turned inside out because of his Auntie Maud’s visit. Jervis’s prestige among the rogues had never really recovered, even after he’d gone so far as to hat Killer Croc for an unprecedented crime spree.
“That noggin of yours is a 7-1/8, isn’t it Edward?” Jervis said teasingly. “I believe I have a Stetson back there in just your size.”
“Don’t threaten me, Pop-n-fresh,” Nigma answered pleasantly. “I’m bringing you business. Riddle me this: how do you expect to get paid if you pop a Panama on the brain brimming with lucrative larceny?”
“I’m all ears,” Jervis announced, perking up considerably.
“Bradley Raffle,” Eddie pronounced grandly, “which is just close enough to ‘baffle’ that it will yield a plethora of perplexing clues to mystify our mutual menace.”
Jervis nodded eagerly. “Who is he?”
“Batman,” Eddie said flatly.
“No, no, no! What are you, addled? I know who our mutual menace is. I mean this Bradley Raffle. We’re not going to rob, abduct or ransom some chap simply because his name makes a snappy clue.”
“One is never quite sure what you know,” Eddie muttered resentfully. “In any case, Bradley Raffle is only the inventor and patent holder of a fiendishly brilliant LENGTHY COO.”
“And that would be?” he asked wearily.
“No puzzling spirit!” Eddie exploded. “Why have you no puzzling spirit? It’s no fun if I just TELL you!”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Jervis said quietly. “Edward, as the March Hare told the Jack of— Oh, never mind that. Point is, Ed: You seem a bit off.”
“Off. Or FOF if you want to make one of those word games out of it. FOO even. Edward, you are FOO.”
“I am not. FOO isn’t even—the anagram of OFF is not FOO. And I am not off. I am bringing you a wonderful chance to break out of your rut and strike out like the champion first-caliber rogue you once were.”
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there,” Jervis said sensibly. “What you brought me was kung pao chicken, which was very nice, but—”
“A PUN IN KEG CHOCK,” Eddie said mechanically.
“—But I don’t see why. You’ve never wanted to team up before. Now this chap has an interesting name for a clue of yours but you bring it to me.”
“Because of the technology, Jervis,” Eddie said eagerly, “LENGTHY COO is technology. He’s made a virtual reality helmet, don’t you see? Why, this is tailor made for you. Licensing it to some gaming company for a fortune—a fortune—he’s worth millions. And I bring this perfect opportunity to you, and all you can do is say I’m FOO.”
Jervis scratched his chin, and the verse he associated most with Edward Nigma sing-songed in his head:
Don’t state the matter plainly,
But put it in a hint;
And learn to look at all things
With a sort of mental squint.
He mentally squinted at Edward Nigma. It was true, the ransoming of a wealthy inventor of a virtual reality helmet… Or possibly just hatting the guy and using him to insert some of Jervis’s own circuitry into the helmet itself before it hit the market—would make a perfect Mad Hatter scheme.
But Riddler already had a plan of his own, kidnapping the guy because of his name. He didn’t NEED Hatter to be involved at all. There was no reason to be bringing him in. He’d just be another rogue hanging around for the crime itself, another rogue present for the Bat encounter afterwards (there was usually a Bat encounter afterwards if you insisted on leaving clues like a trail of breadcrumbs) and another rogue standing there when it was over, expecting a cut of the proceeds. No, it made no sense! Why was Riddler practically giving him half the ransom for doing nothing more than being in the room when Batman came through the door?
“Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it,” he muttered to himself.
There was a mystery here. And Jervis did not share Edward Nigma’s delight in unanswered questions.
“Be off, or I’ll kick you down the stairs,” he said abruptly.
“That’s a no?” Eddie queried.
“Yes, it is a No. ‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ said Alice. ‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cheshire cat. ‘We’re all mad here.’ There is something you are not telling me, Edward. And you are most definitely off. Add it up, this misadventure you propose would be perilous, at best, for me. No, I thank you for the chicken, but I’ll pass on the Baffle guy and his helmet.”
“Coward,” Nigma spat.
“I’m very brave generally,” Jervis quoted, “Only today I happen to have a headache. Goodbye.”
Eddie studied Jervis Tetch for a long moment, his eyes darting subtly as his mind raced through possibilities. When he satisfied himself that he was indeed at a dead end, he shrugged amiably.
“Your loss. Goodnight then.”
He turned to go, and Jervis walked his friend to the door. Before closing it, he paused inquisitively.
“Edward, what did your fortune say?”
“It was a quote,” Eddie answered with a strangely forceful resignation. “One you’ll recognize. ‘It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’”
To be continued...