Chapter 3: The Tale
The Bristol Country Club is one of those places that have institutionalized resistance to change. Naturally, there are some advancements they have to accept if they want to go on existing in the modern world, and in order to live with themselves for compromising on the stuff that matters, they dig in deeper on the stuff that doesn’t. Maybe they have to hire the Irish and put an unsightly exit sign over the door, but tennis whites are white, damnit. None of that new-fangled colored trim.
So Eddie and I sat in the lounge beside the tennis courts without so much as a thread of green on his person to help anyone identify him. We were playing backgammon to pass the time, and I was trying to bait his witty wordsmith to come out and play. I was worried that with no question mark tie clip, no bowler and cane, and no signature green, it might be difficult for the Smeks to make the connection right away. I certainly didn’t want to introduce him as Edward “The Riddler” Nigma, so a little riffing on the terminology of tennis as they came up to the table would not have been amiss. Unfortunately, the mojo vacuum had reached his language centers. “To write with a broken pencil is pointless” and “A will is a dead give-away” were the best he could come up with, and neither were appropriate to the occasion. We had to trust to luck that Smeks would recognize him sooner rather than later, and luck wasn’t exactly Eddie’s lapdog at the moment. Woof.
At least they arrived on time, and as expected, they came straight up to the table when they saw me dressed to play. I introduced Eddie and got the excuses out of the way:
“Some mix-up at the pro shop. I was sure Alfred had reserved us a court for today, but it looks like somebody got the date wrong. They have us down for next Wednesday.”
It brought the desired effect. Paula insisted I take her place playing with Marcus against the Ambertons. Her arm had been bothering her all morning, and she would have given anything to get out of the game, but she didn’t want to let her husband down. This way I could get a good game in, and she would be so happy to keep my friend company…
I refused once, just so Marcus could get in on the act: It’s always such fun playing mixed doubles with a new partner. Paula had quite a good backhand, but everyone knew that by now, as well as her penchant to tucker out after the first set. He said this right in front of her, but she just smiled. They really were quite a pair, the way they worked together to maneuver me into playing for them. I finally agreed, as long as Eddie didn’t mind, and naturally he was more than happy to have a nice chat with Paula while we played.
After the tennis game broke up, Eddie and Selina had lunch in the dining room so Paula would have a handy visual aid as she briefed her husband.
“Just look at him, Marcus. He’s completely infatuated with her. He couldn’t be more obvious about it if he tried.”
Marcus glanced around for a waiter so he could study Edward Nigma without being conspicuous. He didn’t see anything he would describe as “obviously infatuated.” Nigma was looking at Selina quite a lot, but they were having lunch. Still, he didn’t have the benefit of talking to the guy for over an hour the way Paula had. Paula had a good eye for these things.
“He knows he can’t compete with Wayne’s billions,” Paula narrated while, across the dining room, Eddie was telling Selina about advancements in robotics. “Not yet, anyway. But he knows that’s the point of attraction, and I’m convinced he plotting some coup to make a fortune of his own and win her away.”
Once again, Marcus did his “Look for a waiter” maneuver, but this time he accidentally made eye contact with one and had to order a bowl of French onion soup. The exercise did allow him to take a long, calculated look at Edward Nigma, which he pondered through the next course. He certainly wasn’t much to look at compared to Wayne. Trophy women might not care about that if a man was rich enough, but if she already had an $8 billion GQ cover like Bruce Wayne, she wouldn’t be likely to trade him in for an eight billion dollar Edward Nigma… or even a nine billion dollar one. Unless…
“It’s not enough to become rich himself,” he confided, leaning across the table to share the revelation in a hushed, oniony whisper. “He has to be planning to ruin Wayne as well.” He sat back, contemplating the words with an excited glint in his eye. There were possibilities in that. Very profitable possibilities. “Tell me everything,” he said emphatically.
“Well, like I said, he’s besotted with Selina. Seems to have a very high opinion of himself—his intelligence, that is—but I don’t think it’s ego. He does seem to have the technical expertise to back it up. He was telling me about some article he’d read about a new ‘robot skin’ with nerve endings that send signals to a microchip, I couldn’t follow a word of it. Like talking to that Wozniak character at the Snow Ball last year.”
Marcus’s eyes darted back and forth with ratlike cunning until a kick from under the table drew his attention. Selina and Nigma were standing and he had to assume a guileless expression to wave goodbye. As soon as they were gone, his eyes darkened again to twin bulbs pulsing with aroused greed.
“So Nigma’s a tech genius… He sees Bruce as a rival. Bruce runs a tech company…”
“Inherited,” Paula reminded him. “Bruce inherited what he’s got. He’s not self-made and certainly not the sharpest knife in the drawer…”
Marcus tuned her out. He didn’t consider Bruce Wayne stupid in that way. Nothing about the way he ran the business was dumb. He’d been a wild playboy, sure, and one was apt to say some less-than-brilliant things with a jeroboam of Tattinger in his system. But a young man enjoying his fortune, that really wasn’t stupid.
No, where Wayne slipped in Marcus Smek’s view was in buying into all that noblesse oblige crap. The ones who inherited their fortunes tended to do that: all the long range planning, technology that made people’s lives better, partnerships with the city, partnerships with the employees, as if we were all in this together… Not just giving it lip service to please the plebs but really believing there was any way to make a buck in this world besides taking it from somebody else. That’s where Wayne was stupid, and where the self-made like Lex Luthor and Marcus Smek… possibly one day this Edward Nigma… would beat them every time.
“We need to meet him again,” Marcus said decisively.
“Casual/accidental or invite him for cocktails?” Paula asked.
Marcus bit his lip and considered… “Both,” he said.
Alfred naturally planned to inform Bruce that one of his enemies had been in the manor that morning. Edward Nigma might be Miss Selina’s friend and she may have confirmed all those elements of his story that were confirmable, but that in no way negated Alfred’s duty. He would make Bruce aware of that fact as well. There was, in Alfred’s view, no reason to suspect Nigma’s story was anything other than what he claimed: he was meeting Selina at the country club, took down faulty directions and got lost… But then, The Riddler was a sufficiently crafty foe that, if he were up to something, one would expect his story to check out. He would fashion his excuse around such facts as would hold up to reasonable scrutiny. It wasn’t Alfred’s place to be convinced and dismiss the episode on his own authority. He would lay all the facts before Master Bruce and allow him decide for himself.
What he could not lay before Master Bruce was a slip of paper that had fallen from Nigma’s pocket when he produced the slip with his faulty directions. Alfred hadn’t noticed it and neither had Nigma. Bruce noticed when he got home, picked it up from the floor of the foyer and tossed it in the waste basket without a thought. He enjoyed an early dinner with Selina, went down to the cave, and began changing into costume. He had all but the cape and cowl in place when he heard the soft cough from outside the costume vault.
A slow burn ignited behind his eyes as Alfred told him about Nigma being in the house, but reason was quick to squelch any excesses of emotion that might impede his thinking. By the time Alfred finished the story, Bruce remembered the slip of paper and was racing up the stairs to retrieve it from the wastebasket.
It was a debit card receipt from someplace called The Club Room. The word was underlined, and on the flip side was a rudimentary sketch of a closet with several lines scribbled underneath, one after another, like revisions of a work in progress:
No room for a suit?
There’s always room for a suit.
Always room for a black suit. The last with the word “room” scratched out. And finally:
Always space for a black suit.
“What the hell?” Bruce breathed. Alfred was just entering the foyer, having taken the longer route up from the cave. He started to speak, but Bruce cut him off abruptly. “You said he was headed for the Bristol Country Club?” he spat.
When Alfred confirmed the location, Bruce began removing his gauntlet.
“Lay out some evening clothes, Alfred. I won’t be patrolling until later.”
The night Batman recovered the Hapsburg dagger, Catwoman was livid. She read Penguin the riot act and swore he would never fence so much as a gold ingot of her loot again. Today, she would have to admit that she’d got more fun out of the loss than she would have had with the cash. She had held it over Oswald’s head for years, graciously allowing him to deduct her bar tab from the sum he owed. Whenever she wanted something from him, she would knock a few grand off the total like she was doing him a favor.
Now it was over. With the way Oswald’s luck was going, he might’ve refused a smaller deal. And Selina didn’t want to be nickeled and dimed negotiating night by night and table by table. She wanted to make sure the people on her list could get a table at the Iceberg whenever they wanted one: Eddie, Hagen, The Smeks, and of course Selina herself. To obtain that without question, she was prepared to wipe out the entire debt and pretend the whole botched fence never happened.
She gave Raven a few bills on her way out, figuring that Eddie and Hagen probably wouldn’t think to and Oswald would simply forward the instructions without passing along any of the financial inducements. Then she went off to prowl. The next step was Eddie’s responsibility. The Inside Man had to tell The Tale…
Matt Hagen was not impressed by the other shape-shifters he’d met over the years. From what he’d seen, the technical ability to transform one’s appearance wasn’t worth much without an actor’s skill shaping the character underneath. He had three new characters to work on today, and it wasn’t even Christmas.
He started with Ramos, darkening and lightening the skin as if he were fine-tuning a television. He flattened the nose a little, widened the eyes, flipped back and forth between black hair and brown. Finally, when he was happy with the result, he regressed the whole thing to an 8-year old boy. He examined himself in the mirror, sprouted a little to appear, perhaps, ten years old… Eleven? No, ten was better… He added a Pee Wee Football uniform… then a leg cast and crutches… A growth spurt transformed him to an acne-ridden goth kid at fifteen… He experimented with a few different piercings and deciding the left ear, right nostril and upper lip would give the most offense, kept those holes as he advanced again to a cleancut twenty-three. He tweaked the military haircut, once… twice… and happy with the result, he advanced again into the thirties… added the cigarettes, shriveling the upper lip to a dried cracked appearance and sucking a little color out of the skin. He deepened the five o’clock shadow… let it sprout into a full day’s growth… two days… three… then ‘shaved’… He nodded, satisfied, and went to work on Phillip Vries.
The Smeks arrived at the Iceberg Lounge just as Nigma predicted, almost to the minute. Raven pretended to size them up and gave them a table that was presumably left free for walk-ins who struck the right chord. Eddie was seated a few feet away, tucking in to the famous mac n’ cheese. Since he predicted their arrival time so accurately, he could have timed his own arrival for later, so the Smeks could have appropriated him at once without having to wait until he finished his dinner. But he figured since he had a guaranteed table now, he may as well take full advantage. Gourmet mac and cheese not only anagrammed as “A Cat-Rogue Scheme-Mend,” it was also, quite honestly, the best thing he’d ever eaten. The leeks, the truffle, the little sprinkle of panko breadcrumbs… Mmmm…. Panko breadcrumbs. “Purr” was in there, as was Bank, Bad men, Omen…
“Edward! What a coincidence!”
Eddie produced a surprised smile. His savoring of the meal of a lifetime would have to wait.
“Phillip Vries, Ph.D,” Barbara said as she typed.
“Right, search engines, Wikipedia, a bio on the Hudson U website and a couple academic papers,” Selina said.
“Publish or perish,” Barbara winked. “Subject?”
“Anything to do with copper or silicon, electrons, microcircuitry.”
“Does it have to make sense?”
“No, lay readers. They won’t have any clue what it’s saying, as long as it looks academic.”
“Roger. And my payment?”
Catwoman reached into her loot sack and withdrew the precious items:
“One pint Haagen Dazs White Chocolate Raspberry Truffle,” she announced as Barbara’s cat Bytes jumped off her lap and started head-rubbing Catwoman’s boot. “One Chocolate Peanut Butter. They also had a limited edition flavor: Bananas Foster, so I made an executive decision and got you that instead of the Java Chip.”
“Pleasure doing business with you, Catwoman.”
Selina looked down at the cat, who was now augmenting the head-bumps with an insistent purring. She shook her head and headed for the window, deciding to hold on to the catnip treat she’d brought him. He was obviously spoiled enough sharing Barbara’s ice cream.
Once again, the Iceberg proved to be too public a place to have a private conversation, so Eddie led the Smeks back to The Club Room after dinner. Seated again in the discreet side-parlor under the photo of Sean Connery, Eddie held his ground through the first half hour of subtle probing.
Paula was getting impatient. Marcus was being a bit too subtle and it was getting them nowhere. Throwing caution to the wind, she said how nice it was to see Selina back at the club again. She was just saying to Marcus the other day how they never seemed to run into her anymore, and Marcus said it was because she’d been flying all over the country with Bruce for all those town hall meetings he was doing for WE…
It was a very odd thing to say. A suspicious person might think Paula had a strange fixation on Selina, but she was betting a man who was in love with her wouldn’t see anything unusual in Paula finding her as interesting as he did. As she hoped, Nigma did not appear suspicious and it gave the conversation the necessary turn:
“Interesting to see her getting so involved in Wayne Enterprises, isn’t it?” Marcus beamed. “Always appealing when a woman has a good head for business.” This with an affectionate dab at his wife’s hand. “Though I must say, I doubt Bruce himself understands anything that goes on in the Tech subsidiary. Just between us, I always thought the man was a bit of a fool. What a savvy woman like Selina sees in him, I can’t imagine.”
“Oh come now, Marcus, surely you can imagine,” Paula smiled. “The appeal is as clear as all those zeroes on his bank statement.”
It did the trick. Sensing such sympathetic listeners—people who clearly appreciated Wayne’s shortcomings as well as his beloved Selina’s many fine qualities—Edward Nigma unburdened himself. His passionate attachment to her and his plan to destroy Bruce Wayne and achieve a WayneTech style empire for himself in the process was very much what Marcus guessed, although the details, the details were beyond non-Rogue imaginings:
“You don’t get to be a criminal mastermind without learning how to build your schemes on a proper foundation,” Eddie explained proudly. “As you may know, it was microelectronics that made WayneTech the powerhouse that it is.”
“Microchips,” Paula nodded knowledgably.
“Much smaller than that, dear lady,” Eddie smiled, assuming a patient professor expression. “The innovation that made Wayne is actually a microscopic component of the integrated circuits themselves. As you may know, the integrated circuit or microchip is at the heart of everything electronic, from computers to cell phones.”
He paused here with a malicious glint in his eye as he recalled one particular phone that these Smeks had sold him.
“Originally, chips were made from aluminum. It was more compatible with the rest of the integrated circuit technology. But it was BIG—molecularly speaking that is. The nature of a circuit, you want the current to flow. Compared to other materials, aluminum is very resistant to the flow of electricity. So you need more of it. That means you need more room for it. By the 1990s, aluminum was the blockage holding back technology. You just couldn’t make things small enough when it had to hold all this hulking mass of aluminum circuits.”
“You see, doesn’t he remind you of Woz,” Paula said brightly.
Marcus ignored her.
“Please go on, Edward.”
“Do you really want to hear this?” Eddie asked, pretending he had let himself go and was reluctant to bore his new friends any further—and enjoying the unguarded enthusiasm of their nods for him to continue.
He stalled and ordered another round of drinks. Once again, the waitress got his order wrong, but Eddie didn’t mind (even though whatever she brought him this time contained an inordinate amount of tequila—blech). He was getting quite enough stimulation from the Smeks’ obvious impatience. He let them dangle a few minutes more before continuing:
“Well, as I was saying, aluminum circuitry could not get small enough to run the ever shrinking electronics. Another material was needed, and everyone knew copper would be ideal. It’s amazingly conductive. A neutral atom with twenty-nine electrons, and the last one, number twenty-nine moves easily to the next atom unimpeded. Other materials, the transfer of electrons has to happen more specifically by the electrons hopping from one atom to the next, but with copper… electron twenty-nine is predisposed to move freely. Copper’s lower resistance would allow for much smaller wires, 1/1000 the size of a human hair. The resulting chips would run exponentially faster and use substantially less power. There was just one catch.”
“Figures,” Paula said, while her husband said “Isn’t there always?”
Eddie smiled at the latter, since he’d worded his remark as a question.
“Riddle me this: What was the one drawback with copper? What was the one puzzle that needed to be solved in order to use it? Answer: If it came into contact with the actual devices, it would change its properties. So it wouldn’t behave as the integrated circuit was designed to behave.”
“Damn!” Marcus exclaimed, caught up in the excitement of the story for reasons he couldn’t quite explain. His wife gave him a puzzled look.
“So the puzzle the tech world faced at this juncture was this: How to protect the silicon in a microchip from the effects of copper circuitry? It was WayneTech that solved that riddle.”
Marcus and Paula’s mouths dropped open in unison.
“They developed a microscopic barrier, a barrier layer that would keep the copper sort of on top of the devices, and so it wouldn’t be able to get down to the actual device layers.”
Marcus and Paula looked at each other, then back at Nigma.
“Intel, ATI, Sony, LexCorp, virtually everyone making viable microchips in the last decade is using the WayneTech process. And if anything were to… nullify the process, cause the barrier to dissolve…”
“The copper reacts with the devices and they stop working—My God, the failure of computers and phones and—the destruction would massive, cataclysmic.”
“If taken to an extreme,” Nigma said quickly. He wasn’t a terrorist, he didn’t want power grids to shut down, hospitals plunged into darkness, or airplanes deprived of ground support midflight. What kind of sociopathic monster did these people take him for? “All that’s necessary is for a spate of small product failures, here and there, that will diminish confidence.”
“Like what happened to Toyota,” Marcus nodded.
“Exactly, except this won’t be just one company’s products. At first, no one will know what’s gone wrong. Sixty iPods, laptops and phones that don’t seem to have anything in common all go on the fritz at once. What the fuck—oh, excuse me.” He glanced apologetically at Paula, who waved him off with an amused grin. It was rather amusing that a man casually plotting to bring down a financial empire would think he’d given offense saying “fuck.”
“So first response, nobody knows what’s happened,” Marcus said, working it out. “Devices failing from different manufacturers… Then someone connects the dots. All the different makers used this same process making the microchips. Wayne’s barrier doesn’t do the job it’s supposed to… He’d become the worst corporate villain since Halliburton.”
“Halliburton, BP and LexCorp combined,” Eddie said. “The companies that used his process would be lining up to sue him—and desperate for a new process they could trust.”
“When there’s nothing actually wrong with the Wayne process,” Paula said. “You could conceivably change a few words, update the packaging, and sell it right back to them.”
Eddie smiled, showing more teeth than were necessary—here, surely, was the mindset that had stuck him with that worthless second-generation, Japanese-kink-app phone.
“The NigmaSolve Solution,” he said. “The flagship product of NigmaSolve Inc.”
Marcus smiled too. He didn’t know if Eddie’s scheme would actually work as far as making his fortune, or if that goal was achieved, if ‘NigmaSolve Inc.’ would win him Selina as he seemed to assume. What Marcus did know was that Wayne stock was sure to take a tumble in the process, and that would make him a fortune regardless.
Blotchy skin, brittle hair and nails, just a touch of red on the nose without going all W.C. Fields… Now a little bloated, flabby muscles but without becoming a caricature… That’s what the rest of them did, bad actors. Went all movie of the week on the horrors of alcoholism and lost the character in their determination to make a point. Matt liked to push details like that until it crossed the line, and then dial it back. Dial it back a little more… and… there! It was just about… PERFECT!
He turned to see his profile in the mirror and dropped his “alcoholic’s ass” an extra inch. All he had to do now was get used to the walk that went with it. He took the body for a stroll through the neighborhood, and found himself near The Club Room. He decided to drop in, see if Vinnie would admit a dusty academic like Vries. Nigma would be long gone with the marks, so it would be perfectly safe to show up in the Vries persona. After all, the guy was a drinker, it only made sense to bend his elbow a little. Get the feel of drinking in this body, get the feel of the glass in that hand. What an alcoholic must feel holding a glass like that… feel when…
Matt/Vries got as far as the fake dogs, but rather than turn, he kept on walking without slowing his step when he saw tell-tale movement on a rooftop up the street. It was a cape. It was a scalloped cape. Matt KNEW that cape, he had MIMICKED that cape. It was Batman’s cape. What was Batman’s cape doing up the street from The Club Room not twenty-four hours after he’d brought Selina and Nigma there?
Nigma! That squirrelly weasel Nigma!
To be continued...