Chapter 4: Racecar
Harley felt a little sticky when she and Mistah J got back to the Ha-Hacienda, so she left him to correct papers and went off to take a shower. Mistah J said it was a good class, that he’d got almost halfway through his lesson plan before the big ol’ Bat party-poop came in and pooped the party. So Mistah J—Oops, that shoulda been Professah J, she kept forgetting. So Professah J was in a good mood. That gave her an idea.
When she got out of the shower, Harley put the academic gown on again, but this time with nothing underneath. She left the bedroom and went to find her Puddin’.
“Oh Professor Joker,” she said enticingly, as she slowly unzipped the robe halfway down her chest, “I’m so sorry to interrupt your office hours, but I just had to talk to you about this grade on my paper. Isn’t there some way we could… raise it a little.”
Joker turned and looked at her, puzzled.
“Professor? What? Oh, the Crane thing.” He waved his hand like he was distractedly swatting away a fly. “I’ve moved on. Check this out, Harls. RACECAR!” He stretched out his hands on the word, like a flamboyant movie director framing an imaginary hero shot.
“HA-HA HAHAHAHA!” Joker cried, punctuating the brilliant notion with the cackle it deserved (and just leave it to Harley to blink like a deer in the headlights when she should be cackling with glee).
“But, but… Puddin’,” she stammered at last.
What could it mean? No absent-minded professor and the naughty teaching assistant? No toga parties?? No protesting the disenfranchised dolphins caught whaling in the Japanese tuna nets???
Harley’s eyes narrowed into steely, determined slits. She marched over to Joker’s desk and laid herself across the papers he had been correcting.
“School can’t be out already, Professor,” she drawled like a vintage Hollywood movie siren. “You were going to put the Phun back in PhD, remember? You were going to… going… to…”
She trailed off as her eye caught a few of the papers on the desk and saw the “grade” each bore in the upper right-hand corner.
“Uh, Puddin’, what’s with all the green question marks?”
Batman seldom used the autopilot if he was capable of driving home. The aftereffects of Smile-X exposure were not incapacitating. There was no valid safety reason to use the pilot, but he did anyway. In the short distance he’d driven, he caught sight of his reflection no less than eight times in the rearview mirror and four times in the sideview, that grotesque upward twist disfiguring his lips and coiling up his cheek. Clinically, he knew it was nothing but filaments of muscle fiber tricked into releasing calcium ions, thereby triggering contractions in specific muscles of his face. This in response to a chemical which time, sleep, and the antidote would soon flush from his system. Clinically, he knew that. Emotionally… Emotionally, he felt like a puppet on Joker’s string, a chemical puppet master pulling his mouth out of shape to laugh at a joke that was not funny. Or maybe a fish. Despite Joker’s involvement, a fish might be the better analogy. Its mouth is pulled out of shape too when it bites into a hook, but unlike the innocent puppet, the fish has only itself to blame. The fish takes that bite of its own free will, it makes a conscious choice. It doesn’t recognize the bait for what it is and winds up…
This was ridiculous.
Batman forced the lunacy from his mind. That was the real side effect of a Joker encounter, and it wasn’t the aftereffect of Smile-X exposure; it was the aftereffect of JOKER exposure. Fixating on some notion and running wild with it. With the discipline of a seasoned martial artist, Batman shut that door in his mind and focused on his breathing until the Batmobile reached the cave.
“I really should have done it years ago, Harls. After all, a riddle is nothing but a joke that’s too busy showing off how clever it is to bother being funny. All we have to do is knock it down a few pegs and HAHAHAHAAA! Jokles.”
“Or ridkers,” Harley suggested.
“No,” Joker shook his head in a prissy but convincing Nigma impersonation. “No, no, no. Absolutely not. I refuse to dumb it down for the mental midgets. If they can’t figure out what a jokle is, they deserve to be confused.”
“Whatever you say, Puddin’. So where to we start?”
“Racecars?” Harley squeaked.
“No, no, Harls. No S on the end. Just RACECAR. That way it’s spelled the same way backwards and forwards. Much easier than thinking up those stupid anagrams he’s always spouting.”
“Oh. Like that Torque twisty guy in Bludhaven?”
Joker’s face fell.
“Somebody else is doing it?”
“Oh yeah, fer years now.”
“RATS! No Formula 1 clown car then. Back to the drawing board.”
“What is white when it’s dirty?!” Harley cheered. “No? Don’t you remember that one from when we were kids, Puddin’? What is white when it’s dirty? A blackboard.”
“Riddles. We’re not playing Jeopardy, Harls. Just find me riddles.”
Sitting at the workstation with a blank log file before him, it was no longer possible for Batman to shut his mind to the events of the night. It was time for a clear, dispassionate analysis of what had occurred and why.
Unlike the fish of his earlier musings, Batman had recognized the bait—the real bait, the bait Joker deliberately set out to lure him to his hellish “classroom,” that Batman recognized just fine. He knew the Bat-Signal display which led to the Hummer which led to the GPS was a trap, he knew the location where the GPS would lead him was a trap, and he acted accordingly.
The trap he didn’t see, the hook he bit into of his own free will because he didn’t recognize it for what it was, that was not a part of the Joker’s plan. Joker didn’t know anything about Batman’s partnership with Catwoman. He didn’t know Selina would take it into her head to ‘get the answer before Batman’ with a little creative digging at the Iceberg. He couldn’t know she’d learn something that would bring her to the 1PP roof and intersect Batman’s own investigation at the key moment of discovery. He couldn’t know the specter of a Joker trap about to be sprung would prompt Batman to render her unconscious to keep her out of harm’s way. It wasn’t bait. Since Joker didn’t know any of the hidden gears and levers, none of it was deliberately set up to bait him. Batman had done it to himself.
The fact that that proved Joker’s “thesis,” that was one of the ironies that circled overhead wherever the Joker went. It was the punchline. As the twisted clown himself would undoubtedly phrase it: “That’s the joke, Batsypoo. HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAA!”
And that’s why the Batmobile had brought him home on autopilot. That’s why he couldn’t be clinical about a forced grin. He left the car calmly once it reached the cave, his nerves soothed by those few minutes of focused meditation, but as soon as he sat at his workstation, the image he’d been avoiding confronted him with greater clarity than ever:
His desktop wallpaper was dark, a nearly black bat emblem against a full black background. That blackness behind the glassy computer screen was, for this image, more horribly reflective than a mirror. The dark cowl was barely visible, but the light skin below punched out clearly. There it was, distinct and detailed, his own lips compelled to join in a cosmic joke at his expense: Without compromising her principles or her independence, Catwoman became his partner, just as he’d always dreamed. She fought crime at his side, exactly as he’d wanted, and he pushed her aw…
What… the hell… was that?
“Okay here’s one!” Harley cried happily, pointing to her computer screen. “I stand at the beginning of time, I complete the coming of night; I occur twice in eternity, and I’m always within sight. What am I?”
“This better be funny,” Joker said darkly.
“The letter T! So we could, like, go after anybody whose name began with a T, like Tom Thompson or Teddy Tedson or Terry Terri—EEK!”
Harley had to duck as a lead-coated rubber chicken came swinging at her head. It missed her but knocked the computer screen off the desk, its cord pulling Harley’s keyboard, a pencil holder and a sack of White Castles down on top of it, and finally erupting into a small spark that ignited the White Castle bag.
“Now it’s funny,” Joker said dryly. “Put that out, Harls. I’m going for a walk.”
A word with “E” at the beginning, an “E” at the end, and only one letter. Was it “E?” No, it was “envelope.” A puppy is one, but a dog is not. A kitten is one, but a cat is not. A cookie is one, but a cracker is not. What is it? A word with double letters. What was born in H20, lived in H20, was powered by H20, and died by H20? The Titanic.
NONE OF THEM WERE FUNNY! Just like he said at the beginning. Too busy being clever and forgetting to bring the HA-HA. So far, the only one that had any potential at all was the black and white box that held keys without locks, because dropping a piano on Robin—splat—right at the very second Batman answered the riddle, THAT would be hilarious. The timing would be a bitch though, because you’d waste a good nine or ten pianos just figuring out how fast they fell. And chances are, some busybody would notice nine or ten pianos dropping. ‘Cause they can play their stereo as loud as they want, but drop a few pianos out the window and all of a sudden everybody’s complaining about the noise.
Then there was setting up the mirror on the sidewalk and a couple closed circuit cameras so you could keep an eye on Batsy’s face. Because you had to catch him at the precise second when he started to say the answer—and what if he sneezed, huh? What then? What if you only THOUGHT he was about to answer the riddle and you cut the rope but he was just sneezing? SPLAT! Flattened Robin, wasted piano, and no ha-ha.
This Riddler business was a lot harder than it looked.
Batman glared at the main monitor from workstation one, the screen whose image was mirrored by default on the giant viewscreen that hovered over the cave.
Bruce had built this system. He knew every program and subroutine, from the criminal database to the Batmobile relays, from the Watchtower uplinks to the override encryptions for the manor telephones. It was supposed to be a closed system; between himself and Oracle, he’d locked it down so that no one could make these kinds of modifications without his say-so or at least without his knowledge. And yet… What the hell was that?
Top left corner, small and unobtrusive, he had clustered the icons to interface with Oracle, Nightwing, Robin and the League. Beneath these, a small purple icon flashed. It was obviously an indicator, this pulsing little circle of purple light, like an incoming transmission would flash under one of the other icons. The color could only be Selina’s signature, and given the night’s events, no incoming message from her could be good—but that’s not what Bruce was focused on. He probably had a seriously upset girlfriend on his hands, and Batman might have a royally a pissed Catwoman to contend with, but neither part of his psyche could deal with any of that yet. No part of his mind could get past that flashing circle of purple on his computer screen.
What the hell was it?
How did it get there?
He’d designed every facet of this system.
Every security feature.
There was no way for that thing to be there.
But it was…
When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.
The quote that was missing from that new Sherlock Holmes movie. The principle that was missing. When you eliminate the impossible… There were events in that story which the criminal perpetrator meant for a gullible populace to take as supernatural. It was a credible scheme for the period. An era clinging to superstition and the occult, they might well believe a dark lord dabbling in black magic could rise from his grave after being hanged. But Holmes was a man of reason. And a man of reason, a man whose very methodology is grounded in eliminating the impossible, that man does not shrug at this notion of magic rewriting the laws of the universe to bring the impossible into being. Holmes should have taken more of a stand against that suggestion of magic that defied all logic and reason…
Just as that damnable flash of purple defied logic and reason. Bruce had built this system and everything in it, and that flashing icon had no earthly business being there.
Well, Harley looked cute enough in her Harlequery outfit. Green instead of red, yellow instead of black, question marks instead of balls on the end of her tassels. It was an okay look.
Joker’s own purple jacket looked fine over a green vest, shirt, and tie. He already had matching hair: hair over the head where the all-important riddling brain was, it was green. So the costume was fine. It was just finding the right riddle.
You couldn’t start a Riddler crime without sending Batman a riddle. That was the rule, everybody knew that. There just had to be some way to make the Riddler clue funny…
When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.
Bruce had created every program, database and subroutine in the Batcomputer—including a New Database :: New File :: Unindexed which was immediately divorced from the main systems and subsequently named ::Selina’s Decidedly Off-Duty Definitely Not-a-log Chronicle of Whatever She Damn Pleases Meow::. Evidently, that log had been reconfigured to link back to his system just like Oracle’s, Robin’s, or Nightwing’s. The flashing icon was notifying him of a priority entry that required his attention.
That mystery solved, another man would have promptly clicked the icon and read the entry. Bruce’s finger moved to do so, but Psychobat stayed his hand: there was a Joker incident still to write up in his own log, and instinct said that whatever lay beneath that blinking purple icon would command Bruce’s immediate attention. It was best to get the Joker matter out of the way first.
With the discipline mastered in another era, Bruce forced the thought of Catwoman from his mind and wrote up the log with icy detachment: his inspection of the escape scene at Arkham, links to the personnel records of the Arkham staff involved, a liquor store robbery quashed on his return to the city, and the results of questioning one willing informant and two reluctant ones before the Bat-Signal was lit… When he came to those points in the chronicle where Catwoman herself had participated in the night’s events, he obviously couldn’t block her out of his mind completely, but he was satisfied that he related her part in the affair without compromising the integrity of the log. He even described his own motive for excluding her from the investigation: it was an emotional reaction grounded in fear for her safety, which was an understandable byproduct of their personal relationship. There, that episode logged with clinical objectivity, he then related the discovery and infiltration of Joker’s classroom, those aspects of Joker’s “lecture” which seemed relevant, and what he was able to learn of the Joker’s captives, given their mental state after their ordeal.
There would be a great deal more to learn in the morning, from the students themselves, from the site of their capture, and from…
Batman had a full day ahead before the sun set again for a routine patrol. A full day ahead required sleep. He hadn’t even… he should have taken a breathalyzer and a sample of his blood as soon as he returned to the cave. The analysis would be ready by now, but he’d forgotten because he had been so—DAMN HER!
Bruce removed the cowl and ran his fingers through his hair.
He had been exposed to Joker toxins. It was necessary to monitor his physical recovery. He had a message waiting from Selina which would, he knew, monopolize his time and attention once he opened it. He needed to get a few hours sleep in if he was going to approach the Joker investigation tomorrow with the mental readiness it demanded.
Put that way, the priorities were obvious. He shut down the workstation with the blinking purple Cat-message unread. He went to the med lab, drew a sample of his blood, breathed into the vapor collector, fed both samples into the tox analyzer and left a note for Alfred to process the results first thing in the morning. Selina would be asleep by now. In the morning, he would simply tell her that he didn’t have a chance to read her little missive and whatever was in it would have to wait until after Joker was taken care of. If anything, the remnants of his Smile-X exposure would underline his point: obviously, with a Joker case in progress, Joker was the priority. They would settle their personal issues later.
Bruce grunted at Batman’s final word on the matter as he moved towards the costume vault, although the grunt sounded strange with the rictus grin pulling at the corners of his mouth. He ran through the plan once more as he hung up his cape…
Alfred attending to the blood work…
He removed his gloves, boots, and utility belt…
It was a little over two hours after consumption of the antidote when the samples were taken. Alfred wasn’t aware of that. If his reading of the analyses confirmed the timeline independently, Bruce could be assured that his recovery was on track…
And then as he stripped off the tunic and leggings…
The Selina matter deferred, he could get in a solid four hours’ sleep and still make it to the Hudson campus before noon…
As he pulled on the kimono, he began plotting the avenues of investigation once he reached…
His mind began to wander. He was trying too hard, focusing too purposefully on the task at hand. His routine was off. Granted, his routine was always off when it came to the Joker, but this was off-kilter even for the Joker-norm. Clinical detachment notwithstanding, somewhere in the deep recesses in his brain, that little purple icon continued to flash.
Bruce turned sharply at the top of the stairs and glared back down into the cave.
He couldn’t do it. Try as he might, he couldn’t completely push her out of his mind. Like that damn flashing purple icon in his mind, she was always there... and would always be there. He’d have to deal with this, one way or another.
But he just couldn’t bring himself to go back down and read whatever it was she had written to him. He knew that would take over, and he had to focus on Joker right now.
But if keeping her out was a lost cause, maybe… maybe the answer was in the opposite direction. Don’t shut her out (since she won’t be shut out anyway). Instead… counterintuitive though it seemed, bring her all the way in.
“Jokles! HAR-LEE! I’ve got it. It’s just like they always say—you know, the smarty pants Theys who are always saying things—your first idea is always your best. What was my first idea?”
“No, not that. Jokles. What do they call that, when you put two words together to make a new one? Like Bollywood and Bennifer and orangutan.”
“It’s called a portmanteau,” Harley said, momentarily forgetting to be a ditz.
“Poor man’s toes?”
“Portmanteau, like the suitcase. And orangutan isn’t one.”
“Of course it is. Orange and Tang, breakfast drink of the astronauts. The first astronaut was a monkey. Tang is orange. Orangutan. Jeez, Harl, you can be so stupid sometimes.”
“Pour mant—Oh no, I can’t think of a pun that works with ‘mant.’ Pour mant-woe is me, no punny funny for ‘mant.’ Or maybe how a dyslexic guy spells ‘tomato?’ Or no, I’ve got it! A portly man too heavy to carry his own portmanteau, HA! See Harls, we can do this without dumbing it down for the plebes. Pack up the rubber chicken, we’re off to the Bat-Signal!”
Despite a Post reporter’s last act of desperation several years ago, Selina had no cat powers. Unlike Poison Ivy, she didn’t have any telepathic contact with or control over her pets. Nevertheless, when Bruce reached the bedroom, he found Selina asleep on the far edge of the bed (as if to get as far away from him as possible without forsaking comfort. Cats, he learned early, never compromise on their own comfort). Whiskers and Nutmeg were positioned in the center of the bed, their backs to her and facing him, as if they were appointed guardians of a symbolic barrier between them. Both cats raised their heads as Bruce approached and glared with marked hostility.
“Out, both of you,” he graveled.
Both cats blinked up at him, unimpressed with the awful specter of Batman giving a Bat-order. Selina did react to the Bat voice, however. She rolled onto her back and shifted a little under the covers before calling him a jackass, and then rolled back onto her hip. The performance, while evidently not enough to wake her, was sufficient to chase away the cats. Bruce climbed into the bed and studied the back of her head for a moment.
Bring her all the way in...
He gave her shoulder a poke.
“Wake up, I think I’ve got it.”
“What part of jackass do you not…” she began sleepily, but she trailed off when she saw his face. After a long, still moment she spoke softly. “I see you found him.”
Bruce grunted, but the rigid muscles pulling up the corners of his mouth forced his lips slightly open and caused a change in the timbre. Instead of the customary Bat-rumble of acknowledgement, it sounded like an eerily soft chuckle—and it sent a shiver up Selina’s spine. Down in the great expanse of the cave, the noise had dissipated quickly enough that it never really registered in Bruce’s mind, but here in the coziness of the bedroom, he heard the chuckle-grunt clearly. Even if he hadn’t, the look in Selina’s eyes made the horror more than clear. Bruce rubbed his fingers absently across the upturned corners of his mouth as he stretched his jaw, as if trying to loosen those muscles, even if only a little. Finally, he gave up and refocused on the task at hand.
“Don’t worry about that. Listen, key Arkham staffers disappeared after Joker’s escape, just like the armored car drivers after the Scarecrow heists. Joker was lecturing on fear, and he snatched his victims from a haunted house he advertised on the Hudson campus. Apart from the fact that Joker’s involved, who does this sound like?”
“You think he’s working with Jonathan?” Selina said, sitting up excitedly. “Because the Z have done a disappearing act, and Oswald thinks it’s because they just set up a lair for Scarecrow. After what happened last time, it’s certainly plausible that they’d want to lay low for a while.”
“It fits. If Crane broke Joker out of Arkham, it explains why the escape lacks all the usual Joker markings.”
“Yeah, but why. I mean, Jonathan doesn’t work and play well with others, and as for Jack—”
“I know. One mystery solved, or potentially solved, leads to the next set of questions. But now we have a theory to go on tomorrow when we hit the Hudson campus.”
“We? Eh, hang on there, Handsome. I quit, remember?”
“Never mind, you obviously didn’t read my resignation, and with that echo of a Joker grin on your face, I can guess why. I’ll give it to you in person: I quit. I’m going back to crime, and you know why? Ironically, it’s because you have a better handle on how that works. I go to Cartiers, attach a jammer to the Phoenix relay, left vent, down, left, left, down, right squiggle, 0010-048-73, jewels that don’t belong to me. You say put them back, and I don’t. We all know our lines, we all have our blocking. Crimefighting, on the other hand—”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“You told me to stay, like a cocker spaniel. Do I look like a panting, drooling wonder mutt, Bruce? I don’t think I do. And after all these years, I don’t think you’re capable of being that confused. You tell me to sit and stay, you have to know that’s going to go play out like ‘put back the ruby tiara’ except—wait, what did you say?”
“I said I’m sorry. I overreacted.”
“You’ve held your own against Joker on numerous occasions, and it was wrong to take the decision out of your hands.”
She stared at him in silence for a long moment.
“Well this is new.”
“Yes. Yes, it is. Look, I can’t claim to be inexperienced with team ups, but, Selina, those are sidekicks and allies. You’re the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. You truly are my partner, in every sense of the word. It is new territory. And I may stumble here and there. When that happens, I think it’s important to err on the side of caution.”
“No. Bruce, you ask too much. Ask me again in the morning and maybe I’ll be able to. But with half your face still bent out of shape that way, it’s asking too much. I have to deal with you going after that sick fuck, I don’t have the option of—”
“You did exactly the same thing I did, you tossed the rules because it was Joker. We agreed you would not be going after the rogues, Selina. Whenever it comes down to a probable face-to-face with somebody you’d wave to if you pass their table at the Iceberg, you go home.”
“You didn’t on this, because it was Joker. You followed me, you—wait, what did you say?”
“I said you’re right. I told myself I’d just follow for a little while to see where the trail led, but… c’mon, if I didn’t want to keep the option open to go in and help you, I would’ve just gone home, right? I didn’t. Because, well like you said: Joker.”
And there it was: the piece he’d never considered.
Bruce took a deep breath.
“When we started this, I swore I would never treat you like a Robin. Still, when one of the boys made an error in the field, we would start over the next night. I’d address whatever went wrong so they would take what lessons they could from the experience, but then it was over. We’d start fresh.”
“Which one of us do you figure is ‘Robin’ in this scenario, Bruce?”
“We both are. We’re both in unfamiliar waters. We performed less than optimally. We’re addressing it. Take the lesson and move on.”
“And what’s the lesson?”
“It’s two-fold. First, we both have to understand how hard it is for the other to see us facing off against that maniac. I think you do know that. Despite the delivery, I think you understand the impetus behind what I did tonight. But if this is going to be a partnership, I need to be more aware of how difficult it is for you when I have to go up against him. It won’t change what I do or how I do it, but at the very least, I need to acknowledge it. Which leads into the second part of the lesson.”
“We don’t put the rules or common sense in a drawer just because it’s Joker.”
“Is that what we did?” Selina laughed.
“And you really think just deciding we’re not going to do it anymore will do the trick?”
“Sure. Why not?”
Despite the rigidness at the edges of his mouth, Selina noticed a slight spasm at one corner and realized at the moment it was as close as he could come to a twitch-smile.
Selina offered her hand, and Bruce looked it quizzically.
“I’d seal it with a kiss, but you have icky Smile-X mouth,” she explained, pointing. Bruce looked at the hand again and extended his to shake it, when Selina pounced, pushing him onto his back. “You are so easy sometimes,” she giggled before smashing her lips into his…
The sun rising over Gotham is a spectacular sight: the first rays of golden-orange breaking out of the black of the East River, fanning into a cone of peachy-pink as they stretch towards the land, and finally lifting a ball of blazing white that glistens on the water. So intense, it would hurt the eye if it wasn’t broken by the constant motion of the water. Then slowly, imperceptibly pitch-shifting into a burning haze that sizzles through the morning mist and hurls blinding shafts of white onto the giant towers of glass and steel. The moon vanishes, as does man-made illumination…
The pale shafts projecting a Bat emblem on the night sky to summon a vigilante served little purpose in daylight, so no one noticed that the light appeared less yellow than usual, and that the image projected in silhouette on the clouds no longer resembled a bat. Instead, the image just visible for a second before it was obliterated by the brilliant glare of sunlight was a distinct, purple-tinted curve of the top of a question mark, with an equally distinct green-tinted shape below in place of the dot... an equally distinct green-tinted shape that looked very much like a giant, toothy smile.
To be continued...