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Chapter 6: Against Belief

 

..:: Batman? ::..

Catwoman’s voice was hushed over the OraCom.  With Robin or Nightwing, or even Huntress, that meant they were in a location where a normal tone of voice might be overheard.  In Selina’s case, she just liked whispering in his ear. 

“Speak,” he said in the no-nonsense patrol gravel. 

..:: I want to state for the record that there is nothing more ludicrous in this world than grown-up crooks who aren’t Joker wearing clown makeup, poised for battle and imagining they look threatening.::..

“Noted.” 

..:: A grown-up Rogue like me watching over them like a guardian angel ranks a close second,::.. she added.

Batman glanced down at the ATM that had been the site of so many robberies in the last month.  There was another on 14th Street, and he had the Batmobile parked conspicuously nearby, assuring the would-be thief would move his business here tonight.  Now he just had to wait until somebody withdrew cash… which they were unlikely to do after midnight.

“I can relieve you after my first patrol,” Batman offered.

..:: Nah, I’ve got it covered.  They’re Westies, they’re doing… criminal stuff.  Just sitting here passively watching would give you a rash.::..

He grunted his denial, and she laughed and called him a liar. 

It was one of the particular annoyances of the partnership.  Catwoman could always see through him, she always saw the truth that Psychobat didn’t want to acknowledge, and she usually called him out on it.  For years, those admissions were confined to his feelings for her.  Now that they’d moved past that into other subjects, her… manner in calling him out was still charged with that teasing sexual tension.  Hearing that voice that could always sear through Psychobat’s defenses and burn its way into his core—hearing that voice talking about Westies wearing Joker war paint…

They might not be the worst criminals in Gotham, but they were criminals and Batman was… conflicted about his feelings watching over them ‘like a guardian angel.’   It was preferable when Catwoman took a shift the way she was doing tonight, but no matter who was actually on watch, it was ultimately Batman’s responsibility to make sure those men came to no harm because of his war strategy.  Anthony Marcuso wanted to make overtures to the Joker; that was his doing.  It was crucial to get power pieces off the game board, and it was desirable that they remove each other—in a non-lethal manner—rather than Batman removing them himself.  It served both the primary objective, minimizing casualties, and the secondary goal, achieving a permanent reduction in the criminal power base.  So he maneuvered Marcuso into this idea that his personal success and survival depended on getting out from Carmine’s shadow, and he focused Marcuso’s attention on Joker as the vehicle to do so.  Either he actually intended to make a separate peace as he claimed, or he meant to take Joker out himself when Carmine had failed.  Having established himself as an independent and superior power, he would then be in a position to negotiate his own peace with the Rogues.  Either way, he’d have a minimal chance of success and enormous potential to get himself killed if he proceeded with the plan he envisioned.  Batman knew that would be the case when he began.  He knew the situation would have to be monitored. 

And it was the best use of his time: with Riddler running the Rogues, their most lethal capabilities were being used in non-lethal ways.  It wasn’t an ideal situation, it wasn’t better than a Gotham with no war at all in progress, but with Riddler at the helm, the Rogues United end of the equation was relegated to something Nightwing, Huntress, Robin and Batgirl could monitor without constant check-ins.  The one thing Nigma would not be able to contain, however, was Joker.  The episode taking over The Regal Laundry Service showed that…

Carmine Falcone squinted at the Walk/Don’t Walk sign at the crosswalk outside his townhouse.  He could see from the window that something was wrong with it, but he had to go outside to see exactly what was going on. 

First, none of the letters in WAIT lit up, except for the I. 

Then, it was only the WA in WALK. 

Then, only the NT in DON’T WALK. 

The next cycle was the IT in WAIT, the AL in WALK and the L in DON’T WALK. 

Then, I-WA-NT-IT again, and although Carmine ‘The Roman’ Falcone was no fan of modern music, he must have heard the song at some point, because he was quite sure what was to happen next.  He waited with grim satisfaction as the next WALK remained dark and only the N showed on DON’T WALK, then a completely dark cycle until DON’T WALK appeared again, this time with the O and W lit.

Carmine stormed back to the townhouse and bellowed for Fat Stefano to call the twins in Metropolis and find out what that song was that went “I want it all, I want it now.”  Stefano remembered Magda the cook had a teenage son, and she was a lot easier to contact than the twins.  So they had Magda text her son…

He texted back a link through something called “Let me Google that for you,” and while Magda was calling her son on the house phone to chew him out for being a smart ass, Carmine and Fat Stefano took her phone and followed the link.  It was a music video with some long hair band called Queen singing the requisite phrase, and Carmine muttered that Regal Laundry must be the target.  It was the first riddle he’d actually understood from the clue, and that alone was pissing him off.  After a week dealing with these lunatics, he was starting to understand, their mad language was seeping into his brain.

“Hey, look at that,” Stefano said, pointing a chubby finger at the screen—which accidentally closed the window and they had to wait for Magda to finish yelling at her son to get back to the video screen.

“See, right there,” Stefano said—pointing again, but this time merely obscuring what he was trying to show Roman.  The video had 5340 likes and 28 dislikes.  The top comment said “28 people want nothing.”    90 people liked that.  And the comment was made by someone whose name consisted of 3 green question marks.  Even Carmine realized the name was a link, and the profile it opened specified a $90,000 ransom, which went up to 91 as they were reading.

“One for each like on the comment,” Stefano guessed.

Carmine cursed whoever liked the comment in the last 30 seconds, and hence cost him a thousand dollars, but he also realized he had an opening at last to set Bane’s plan—which he now considered his own plan—in motion.  Solve one riddle, pay one ransom, and use the time thus gained to hit the freaks hard.  Gut them as no one has ever been gutted. 

He knew what he wanted to do, the only question was whether or not Bane should be told.  The hulking brute could deal a demoralizing blow just by showing his face at the execution of the Z—although it would require leaving one survivor to tell the tale—but it would be worth sparing one ‘worker bee’ to bring that kind of terror to the whole of the Rogue world. 

IF this Bane would play ball, that is.  Carmine did not like the man’s independence, or his high-handed way of finding fault with any idea that he himself didn’t initiate.  Bane obviously thought of himself as a great schemer, but Carmine could see no evidence of it.  He wasn’t of Gotham, he didn’t understand anything about the city, and seemed completely oblivious on both counts.  Having failed here once, he’d come back without seemingly having learned a damn thing.  He was as oblivious as ever to the fact that he just didn’t get how Gotham worked!  Carmine didn’t like having that kind of blind stupidity in his operation—Bane was the most dangerous kind of moron, the kind who thought he was smart—but like an erratic driver, it was better to keep such a creature in front of you where you could see what he was doing.

So… he would send the Riddler $90,000 (there was no reason to pay an extra thousand, he realized, when he could have just as easily seen the webpage a minute sooner before the price went up), and this Z and Kittlemeier would never see the next dawn…

At least that was the plan.  The plan assuming The Riddler would be as good as his word.  The plan assuming that, when Fat Stefano went to pay the ransom, he wouldn’t find the Regal Laundry trucks already defaced, the drivers dead, and every restaurant on the route informed that they were now free to patronize any legitimate linen service they wished—and in fact, that continued patronage of Regal Laundry—reinvented as Regal LAUGHTER—would end pretty much as the new name implied.

Then the phone rang.

Batman tried to warn them.  Years before this Rogue war, he warned them: Falcone front or no, having the letters LAU in the name of a business was inviting disaster.  Having it painted on the side of each and every truck, it was only a matter of time.  Go on being a mobbed up laundry service if you want (well, he didn’t say THAT), but change the name to being a mobbed up LINEN service. 

Falcone wouldn’t listen, and now a man was dead.  One dead and two more in the ICU, because that wretched excuse for a human being wouldn’t follow the lead of someone who had the answers, because he personally disliked them and what they represented.

Bruce was a bigger man than that.  He didn’t like Edward Nigma personally and he detested what The Riddler represented, but he couldn’t blame him for Joker’s actions.  The culpability lay entirely on Joker himself, for being Joker, and on Falcone for being a pig-headed fool.  Nigma was, at the end of the day, the best person to be in the position he was.  The best thing Batman could do for him, as well as for Gotham itself, was to isolate the most dangerous and unstable elements—in this case Joker—and remove them from the playing field.  Reducing power slowly and evenly on both sides so that neither would gain an advantage, until the bomb was defu... The thought was cut off by a low, thoughtful whistle sounding over the OraCom, and Batman winced.

“You’re wearing a mic,” he reminded Catwoman mildly.

..:: Mother of all things feline and furry, ::.. she replied.

“That’s not a report.”

..:: Y-yeah, this is a hard one to put clearly and concisely.  They made contact.  Sort of.  Call it pre-contact.::.. 

“Joker made contact with the Westies?”

..:: Harley.  Harley showed up at their social club with an envelope. ::..

“Why am I only hearing about this now?”

..:: Because I wanted to get my hands on it first and see what it said..::..

“Catwoman, there are protocols for this kind of thing!”

..:: I know perfectly well how to open packages from Joker and the Whacko Miss, I’ve had both of them as my Secret Santa, remember?::..

Psychobat had an angry retort, but the more rational part of Batman’s mind squelched it.

“Well?” he asked instead.

..:: Cell phone.  Happy-face post-it on the front reads “Thursday, 9 o’clock.”  Only app installed is a GPS.  Looks like a standard-issue ransom drop routine: Thursday at nine they’ll send the coordinates on where to go for the face-to-face.::..

“Okay, upload the Bat-Intercept and send it on.  I should be able to learn the meeting place by other means and pre-set the location, but we’ll have that signal as a back-up.”

..:: Already done. ::..

“What else aren’t you telling me?”

..:: Come again? ::..

“None of this warrants the whistle or ‘mother of all things furry.’  What aren’t you telling me?”

..:: Harley.  I don’t know exactly.  Either Harley’s drastically changed her look—and had a boob job, and maybe shrunk an inch—or he’s got another one.::..

If there was one thing Jervis Tetch loved more than Alice in Wonderland it was being the first to know.  If there was one thing he hated more than the vorpal Bat going snicker-snack on his finely laid plans, it was being out of the loop.  Today, he was getting a topsy-turvy blend of both.  Having finally escaped Gotham General—where they were far too quick to sedate a man with a head wound, in his opinion, particularly when placing a simple array of theta-emitters around his noggin could have blocked his pain receptors without inhibiting his ability to hold onto a thought for more than—oh bother, where was he?  Right, escaped from Gotham General, found a cab, driver suffered from chronic lower back pain, which was lucky because he saw the sense of all Jervis was saying about painkillers and the absolute inadvisability of muddling a perfectly good noggin when all you had to do was let a poor man send to his hideout and get a little microchip that would kill the pain without killing off the ability to hold onto a thought long enough to… bother, now he’d missed his turn. 

Having made it to his lair, sorted through his chips and found the proper one, and FINALLY switched off the pain, he’d made his way to the Iceberg to share the big news.  The biggest news to hit Gotham since the Jabberwock was young: he had been attacked!  He, the Mad Hatter, was seized upon right at the mouth of the rabbit hole by the Voluminous Bandersnatch called Bane!  (And who let that Struthious Sitherthig back in town would have to be explained once the Trupenifous Triflefreg itself was dealt with.  We simply cannot have any Low Luthington slithering into a place like Gotham and knocking the established residents down the rabbit hole any time they wanted a tea cake.  That was not civilized.)

He was sure everyone would agree, and no one more than Jonathan.  Jonathan loathed bullies and there was none bullier than Bandersnatch Bane.  Jervis wanted his own revenge, of course, and hats would certainly be involved, but there are times you want a brainstorm before taking on a Bandersnatch—and if your brainstorm buddy has the ability to make the Bandersnatch afraid of his own ass cheek, that’s okay too.

But what did he find now that he had the biggest piece of news to share since Catty set Scarecrow on fire?  No one he knew was at the Iceberg anymore, not even Oswald!  They had set up new headquarters in a warehouse, and he had to hat four waitresses before he could learn the address.  By the time he got there, it was only henchmen left watching the place (and playing something called Star Wars: The Old Republic, which looked like fun).  The henchmen sent him to an auto mechanic (no hatting required if he’d been willing to pay $50, but he saw no need to pay good money when he had a hat).  The mechanic’s place had also been used for a day or two and then turned over to henchmen, who sent him to a midtown piano bar.  From there it was a knife store, a health club, a bowling alley, and now at a laundry. 

It didn’t sound right—the Gotham Rogues set up shop in a laundry?—but Zed and Zowie were right there in the parking lot, unloading canisters of laughing gas from a van.  He followed them… past an area cordoned off with yellow and black police tape which read HA HA instead of GPD—that was quite promising.  There was a carousel horse with a knife through its eye, a barrel of Silly Putty, a couple Joker cards and a Monty Python-era John Cleese poster leaning against the wall waiting to be hung, and a can of spray paint on the ground beneath a fresh Kilroy graffiti reading “KILLBAT WAS HERE.”  No actual Joker or Harley, but it seemed like he’d finally caught up with his fellow Rogues moving into a place instead of out.  He sprinted ahead to grab Zed, who pointed him to an office where Zed said he could find Zoiks. (Jervis always liked the Z, for they seemed to speak his language).  Reaching the office, he saw Zoiks was indeed there and—EUREKA—in a heated conversation with Edward Nigma.

“I appreciate the add-ons are a Z trademark” Eddie was saying. “And a lair or two a year, I can be a sport.  But with the number of jobs I’ve been giving you—”

“Eddie!” Jervis cried joyously.

“I mean a wine cellar under a—Jervis, there you are!  We’ve been looking for you for days.”

Carmine Falcone was not the kind of don who hid in an out-of-town compound during a war.  He knew not to follow a predictable routine, but he refused to stay inside day after day, never leaving the house.  Today’s outing was to the driving range at the Carimate Club to hit a bucket of balls.  He was frustrated; it felt good to pour all that energy into fierce, powerful swings.  It felt even better to imagine the ball was Bane’s head.  He started out picturing it as Joker, then Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, the various faces he’d seen at the wedding that day… but once he imagined Bane’s oversized skull sitting there on the tee, he held onto that image until he was out of balls.

Then Neil Picante came over and they chatted about his daughter and her semester abroad in Padua, about Carmine’s sons in Metropolis, about the Knights trading Hodge, and that piece on the news about Vegas rail...  Then Neil’s phone vibrated, and when he checked the text, he gave Carmine a curious look.

“It says I’m supposed to tell you ‘it has to do with the hands.’”

“WHAT?!” Carmine barked, grabbing at the phone.

“See,” Neil said, showing him the message.

“I… see,” Carmine said, looking at Picante coldly. 

Neil took a step back, appalled by the sudden appearance of suspicion and malice in a man he’d always considered a friend.  He started to speak, but Carmine turned and stormed off towards the lockers without a word.  

These ROGUES.  Yes, he could understand their cursed language now just fine: “We could have hit you.  You left your safe house thinking yourself untouchable, and see how we got to your pal?  He could have put a bullet in your brain as easily as deliver a message.”

In The Godfather it was Luca Brasi’s bullet-proof vest wrapped around his ring and a fish.  In Gotham, it was this Riddler excrescence and “something to do with the hands.”

By the time he changed clothes, Ken the club concierge and all around gofer was waiting with a message that had come in to the switchboard while Carmine was on the driving range.  Neatly written out on the little embossed slips used for the purpose, it read: “Hour hand is first.” 

Needless to say, Carmine did not tip Ken for delivering this monstrosity of a message.  (In fact, Carmine considered himself generous in not beating Ken senseless with a nine iron.)

Hour hand is first, what the fuck was that supposed to mean?  The daily challenge was “The Exquisite Paradox of the Clock,” and Carmine had no freaking idea what that meant.  He knew he had little chance of repeating his victory with the Queen clue—even if he never did get to take advantage of it, Carmine did consider it a victory that he got one right… Clock, paradox, something to do with the hands, the hour hand is first…

Stopping at the juice bar on the way out, Russ Mitchell was ahead of him in line.  Carmine tried to be polite, but he couldn’t follow the conversation.  He pretended, but he kept thinking about the hands of a clock… and if maybe he should reconsider bringing Bane in on this one.  The guy did think of himself as a schemer, just like this Riddler did.  Maybe he would see what Carmine couldn’t…  Meanwhile, he hadn’t heard a word Russ was saying, nor did he notice when Russ broke off mid-sentence to take out his phone.  He did notice when Russ’s brow crinkled as he looked at the screen, then glanced up at Carmine quizzically, back at the phone, then back at Carmine. 

“Minute hand is second,” he read as if he was speaking a foreign language phonetically without knowing what the words actually meant.

Carmine’s lip began to tremble, though no sound actually came out. 

“It says you need another hint.  What is this, one of those multi-media games to plug a movie or something?”

Carmine’s hands shook as he paid for his juice.  Shook as he drank it.  Shook as he gave the valet the ticket for his car—so much so that the valet asked if he was okay to drive.  Carmine would have cursed him out, but he noticed the valet had a computer screen in front of him that presumably told them where the cars corresponding to various ticket stubs were parked. 

Not wanting to risk a new message coming in to someone he just called a rutting bastard who should mind his own goddamn business, Carmine said he was fine… glanced at the screen… and then thanked the valet for his concern. 

The kid took the ticket, picked up the corresponding keys, checked the screen to see where the car was parked, and jogged off to retrieve it.  Carmine stared after him… and then felt a tap on his shoulder.  Turning with dread to see a tall, elegantly-dressed black woman holding a phone in her hand, Carmine swallowed.

“The second hand is third,” she said. 

He stared.  She looked down at her screen and back up at him.

“But the minute hand was second,” she added.

He stared. 

She shrugged and continued inside.  She didn’t notice the wiry man with mischievous eyes and a receding hairline seated in the lobby.  Nor did he appear to notice her.  His attention was completely focused on his own ‘phone,’ an older model with an old-fashioned nub of black plastic antenna sticking out the top. 

Eddie touched a final button, pointed it at the woman’s purse, and shot a final “Thank You” into her text receiver.  So that was done.  He hadn’t bothered to thank the others, but the shoulder tap was such a nice touch, and the expression on Carmine’s face was priceless. 

Now he had to pick up Harley, who was really the only hope of untangling this next bit at the Wild Deuce Gaming Parlor.

Batman never intended “Gina O’Malley” to make an appearance at the Downpatrick Carpentry Club.  Looking for her gave Matches an excuse to go there and ultimately to get close to Marcuso.  But now that Marcuso got his appointment for a sitdown with Joker, he wanted to close the Downpatrick early on Thursday night.  That meant Matches needed a new excuse to be there now that the place wouldn’t be legitimately open for business, and the best reason he could think of was if one of the Westies called him.

He found Selina in her suite, and found her more than receptive to the idea:

“What if Gina went in late Thursday afternoon,” Bruce said, leaning forward with an excited glint in his eye—looking, to Selina, like any name-Rogue at the Iceberg explaining the intricacies of their brilliant new scheme.

“Fresh from a grift,” she added with a naughty grin.  “A few thousand in new bills to pay to the local boss?”

“Right.  Then Pat—who is absolutely on Matches’s side—would stall her.  He’d tell her to stick around and meet said boss, since he’d be coming by in a few hours for some other business.  Gina isn’t the kind of girl who would let a chance like that pass by.”

“She might leave to pretty herself up a little,” Selina interrupted, redirecting his idea seamlessly and without a pause.  “There’d be no point hanging around for hours just to flirt with a guy like Pat, but she would be back to meet the big shot no matter what.”

“And Pat would call Matches and let him know the broad’s here.  Then Matches and Gina—”

“Or rather, Batman and Catwoman—”

“Would be on hand when Marcuso gets the call to meet—”

“Joker,” they said together. 

Then they looked at each other for a silent beat.

“Well that was fun,” she murmured as she sometimes did after sex.

Bruce said nothing for a heartbeat, then he nodded once, told her to show him “Gina’s outfit” when she was ready, and left.

Eddie had turned the Wild Deuce over to Two-Face to do whatever he wanted.  Apparently, all he’d decided to ‘do’ was play house with Poison Ivy.  Eddie wanted to talk to Harvey alone.  He needed a sounding board and, apart from banging Ivy, Harvey had good sense and judgment.  But there was absolutely no way to have a rational conversation with Queen Chlorophyll hanging around, particularly when one of the things they had to discuss was Ivy herself.  So he’d brought Harley along the way you bring wine to a dinner party.  (And, since the Z had equipped his own lair with an actual wine cellar, he also brought a bottle of Riesling).

It was a very girly reunion.  Harley was eager to share her revised opinion of Pagliaccia, and Ivy seemed almost indecently pleased to hear about it.  Harvey took Eddie out back to “show him the perimeter defenses” and since they left the wine with the women, they cut through the kitchen and Harvey took a six pack out of the refrigerator.  They sat on the generator and laser calibration unit respectively, drank, and talked.

“Pammy seems strangely enthusiastic about Pagliaccia,” Eddie noted.  “Wouldn’t have thought she’d give a damn either way.”

“Pagliaccia is occupying a human-shaped hole where Harley used to be,” Harvey explained.  “Long as she's there, the chance of Harley and Joker getting back together is practically nil, and if Harley isn’t trying to throttle her every five minutes, the longer the whole thing lasts.”

“Ah,” Eddie said, and sipped.  “Doesn’t bother you then, the thought of those two getting together?”

“Harley and Ivy?” Harvey asked.  “No, we are quite conversant with that particular ‘thought,’ and we can honestly say ‘bother’ is not the word we would use to describe our reaction.”

Eddie smiled and segued easily from opening pleasantries to the important questions: Since Harley blabbed to Jervis, it had become semi-common knowledge in Rogue circles that Ivy’s pheromones didn’t work on gay men.  Jervis, Jonathan, and Eddie himself were in agreement that the biochemical process must need a root attraction to build on, which would explain why straight women like Selina and Roxy were immune.  Eddie wanted to know if Harvey knew whether the logical extension of that theory was also true and lesbians would be susceptible.

Harvey finished his beer and opened another before answering.

“I’ve no idea.  You want to send her after the fire bomber?”

“Best information: it’s Ella Cullen, aka Mollatova, indie talent out of Philadelphia.  Carmine probably thought he was being clever, using an out of town hitter favored by the Pelaccis.  And it was pretty clear from Harley’s account that the woman was attracted to her,” Eddie noted.

“You don’t think Pammy might sic the flytrap on you for suggesting she drive ninety miles, past refineries no less, to seduce the woman that tried to blow her up?”

“She can take the train,” Eddie said looking off into the distance with an impish glint in his eye.  “And I think if it’s put to her that Joker went all the way to Keystone and turned Susannah Pelacci in a little over a day, she might want to beat his record.”

Harvey laughed.  “Yes, she might at that.”

He gave Eddie another beer and Eddie drank, thinking about the second, more delicate subject he’d come to discuss: Bane was back in Gotham.  Carmine had imported more than a second-rate hitter from Fishtown, he’d brought back that sorry ass steroid case who effed up the delicate Gotham ecosystem once before.  It presented… an opportunity.  36 hours, if not 48… if not more. 

Eddie couldn’t shake the feeling that a better man should feel conflicted about the opportunity before him, but he didn’t.  He simply didn’t.  Bane was back and it seemed like nobody knew.  Nobody except for Jervis, Carmine, and now Eddie himself.  Fate doesn’t hand out gifts like that every day.  When she does, when Fate Herself deigns to throw gold at your feet, isn’t a man obligated to bend down and pick it up?  Wouldn’t it be the height of ingratitude to refuse?  If he did, she would not be so generous again.  In fact, she might decide to punish the ingrate in an epoch-making manner.

That was Eddie’s thought as Harvey, having noticed his silence, waved his acid-scarred hand in front of Eddie’s face.

“Y’in there, Ed?”

Eddie smiled and made a joke.

Of course, Harvey didn’t have the one key piece of information that would make him the perfect sounding board, but if Selina had proven anything, it’s that there are more important qualities in a criminal cohort than knowing who Batman is under his mask.  (There were more than 1600 anagrams for “Sleeping with the enemy” that included the phrase “Theme-sin,” 14 of which also had the word hint—and if he ever found a place to rob or a victim to kidnap called “Elegy Pew,” that would be a riddle Batman would NEVER forget.)

It might be premature to call the East End gentrified, but like SoHo, TriBeCa, and MePaDi before it, it had started the transformation that begins with Gothamites desperate for affordable housing noticing an industrial or working class area that no one has thought to develop, and ends with two brokers on a reality show vying for the honor of listing Allison Janney’s $10 million loft.  The East End had yet to see a textile factory converted into trendy celebrity housing, but it had reached the point that a decrepit dive bar, with no name anyone was aware of other than the word BAR above the door, was to be gutted and re-envisioned as a blue-hued, late-night lounge.  It had reached the point that when such a bar is to be “re-envisioned,” there will be a Construction Preview Party before the work begins—that party to be attended by one fashion designer, a celebrity chef, a couple runway models, an Emmy-winner, two Grammy nominees, the Knights’ new third baseman, and at least one Kardashian.

None of which impressed Gina O’Malley in the least.  The little pucker she gave when Anthony Marcuso got the text, the barely perceptible eye roll as he read out the address, it was quite adorable—and one of the reasons, Bruce decided, Matches was so hopelessly smitten with her.  Matches was out of luck tonight, though.  Gina had played up to Anthony Marcuso like the expert grifter she was.  He’d offered his arm and invited her to accompany him on ‘a little bit of business she might find amusing,’ after which they’d celebrate with a midnight supper at Barzana’s.  Matches slunk away, rejected and ignored, as Marcuso said he thought Gina was the kind of girl who liked champagne.  Moments later, Batman took up his position on a rooftop down the street, as a sleek black Town Car pulled up to the door Matches had just left through.

As the car drove farther downtown, Batman had to revise his assessment of Anthony Marcuso.  He had assumed this proposed sit-down was a trap and Marcuso was planning to kill Joker the way Falcone had tried to.  But he wouldn’t invite a woman he just met to a hit—an extra witness to silence, there would be no point.  No, he’d invited Gina to impress her, and possibly to impress Joker.  That meant he was going into that meeting expecting everyone to walk out alive, and that meant there would not be an attempted murder charge to throw at him on apprehension.  And that meant Plan B: the evidence packet Batman had prepared from last year’s pump-and-dump and the Westies’ ongoing protection racket… not all that much.  Without even a drug sentence to hold over him, the Feds would have little chance getting Marcuso to cut a deal, but that’s not what worried Batman.  With only securities fraud and misdemeanor extortion on the table, Marcuso would almost certainly get bail.  That meant he’d be free until after his trial and still be a player in the war with the Rogues.

The Town Car reached the East End, approaching Stanton from the wrong side.  The narrow one-way street was packed tight with parked cars, so the driver continued without slowing…

Removing Joker from the playing field was the primary objective of this operation, and that would still be achieved, but Batman hated the idea of settling for so much less than the situation afforded, of accepting such a third-rate result because someone wasn’t planning cold-blooded murder.

Coming around the block again, Marcuso’s Town Car turned onto Stanton…

Broken ribs might do the trick.  Batman had no qualms about sending a criminal to the hospital, but he wasn’t oblivious to the irony: he was only setting out to do so in this case because Marcuso wasn’t as bad as he’d thought.

The car stopped in the middle of the street in front of a non-descript door between a Mom & Pop grocery on the one side and a graffiti’d metal security door on the other.  The latter was presumably what caught Joker’s attention: the graffiti mural of a skull had a fine set of upper teeth that, if you were so inclined, you might see as a smile.

Batman glanced over the roofs and ledges, determining the various angles on the front door, the various angles on the ledges, and optimal position to make his move.  The driver opened the car door, and Marcuso and his entourage filed into the bar.

“How’s the Italian food in this Italian restaurant?” Joker said as Marcuso and Gina entered the dingy empty barroom.

“Oh, hell,” Selina said under her breath.  Gina recognized the quote from The Godfather, but Selina recognized the Joker’s tone and manner: arms outstretched as if welcoming home a favored son with the repetition of a childhood joke.  He was being playful.  In calling a sitdown, Marcuso had given Joker a new situation—in the sitcom sense—and a new audience. 

“Try the veal, it’s the best in the city,” Marcuso replied with just as much enthusiasm as Joker and mirroring his open-armed gesture.  “My uncle’s favorite movie,” he explained with a smile that was almost as wide as their host’s.

Joker made a noise like oheeu, seeming both pleased and perplexed that his greeting got such a warm (and unterrified) response.

“This’d be the uncle that ginsued my dentist?” Joker asked, trying once more to get a little terror going.

“I honestly don’t know—Can I sit down—which is why I figured we should meet and talk it out before any really unfortunate assumptions were made,” Marcuso said with surprising sincerity, followed by an abrupt change of tone and subject as he spotted a chair, followed by a return to the original talking point as if nothing at all had happened. 

Joker nodded absently, still perplexed but now rather fascinated by someone whose gypsy moth attention span appeared to rival his own.

“Dentist, skewered,” he said, pulling up a chair of his own opposite Marcuso’s.  “Do you know how hard it is finding a guy who will grow back teeth?  Ain’t no FDA approval on that stuff; you have to know people.  You have to grease some palms.  And you have to swish with sesame oil and apple vinegar three hours before and after every treatment.”

Marcuso nodded as if he was a fellow-sufferer.

“Yes, yes, and that is exactly the sort of thing for which restitution should be made.  Now, what do you think would be fair?”

“Restitution?”

“For the inconvenience, losing your dentist that way.  You don’t strike me as someone who’d go for a truckload of Italian suits, so if my Uncle Carmine is responsible—and I repeat I honestly don’t know that he is—but whoever is behind it, they’ll have to offer some sort of restitution that you’d… actually want.”

Selina and Joker were the only ones to hear it: a quick, double, barely-audible flutthwakunt, like a violent muffled heartbeat just behind the walls.  Two henchmen outside, taken out by Batman.  Joker’s men, presumably, since Marcuso’s were still standing in the doorway behind them. 

Selina glanced at Joker to see if he’d heard, and as he opened his mouth to say “Pagliaccia, get the canisters ready!” Gina ran for cover in such a way that she pushed Marcuso off his chair and out of the line of fire.  Joker’s boutonniere shot a spray of something pink and gooey where Marcuso’s head had been, as another double flutthwakunt took out the men in the doorway.  Before they hit the floor, a trio of batarangs knocked a razor-tipped playing card from Joker’s hands, and Batman was vaulting over the abandoned table—the heels of his boots planted firmly at the point Joker’s chest would soon occupy.

As Joker ran into the flying bat-tackle, Gina’s clumsy efforts to take cover behind the bar managed to swat Marcuso’s hand away from the gun he’d instinctively reached for.  Then she showed his feet which way to run before his head caught up with what was happening.  He wasn’t a stranger to violence, but this kind of action—the dark caped blur cutting a swath through the clownish colors in the room must be Batman—the cackling clown-blur was Joker—and the new burst of color and movement brushing past him with a red canister/siphon/fire extinguisher/something was too short to be a henchman.  Without consciously processing that it was a petite woman/probably the girlfriend, Marcuso reached down for Gina’s hand as he drew his gun to lead her to the door.

Marcuso wasn’t a particularly gallant man, and he certainly had no feelings for the woman he just met, but there was an instinctive bond with the only other non-masked, non-costumed non-freak still standing.  Just as the freaks themselves obviously stuck together, the little one rushing in that way, pointing that siphon at Batman—

“YOU BIG MEANIE, THAT’S MY COOKIE DOUGH YOU’RE MANHANDLI—Anthony?”

“Susannah?”

“Oooh, awkward,” Joker said—before Batman spun him around and flattened him with a right cross.

“What the hell are you wearing?” Anthony cried.

“Why didn’t you call me?!” Susannah cried.

“I thought this’d be funnier,” Joker told the tile floor under his face.

“That’s one of the fruit loops that wrecked our wedding!” Anthony yelled, pointing down at Joker.

“Well you’re the fruit loop that left me at the altar!”

“No, I’m the guy who had to climb out on a ledge, dodge a plant-woman, a scarecrow AND the fucking FBI to make it TO the altar!  Just to get ‘if anyone objects, let him bite down on a batarang and take it like a man, ha ha ha.’”

On cue, Joker joined in the ha-has and said ‘That one was a classic.’

Pagliaccia turned, looked down, and kicked him in the temple.  The fleshy clunk made even Batman wince, but Marcuso betrayed a hint of a smile.

“I wanted to go to Vegas, if you remember,” Anthony said.  “Toss fifty bucks in the window at some Elvis chapel and spend the rest of the week shagging and playing blackjack.”

“Oh yeah, that’s fun,” Susannah said, rolling her eyes.

“Compared to rabid penguins trying to bite my face off, YES! Shagging and blackjack is fun!  It was you and Uncle Carmine that were all about the damn wedding.”

Batman cleared his throat.  He’d already noted that the corsage on Susannah’s wrist was the kind that shot SmileX projectiles.  Now he saw the words “So this is my fault?!” hovering on her lips.  A deadlier combination he couldn’t imagine. 

“It’s a good offer.  Take it,” he graveled.

“What is?” Anthony asked, but Batman was ignoring him and looking straight at Susannah.

“Get married in Vegas.  Don’t take a week.  Disappear.  And never show your faces in Gotham again.”

“Hey, I wasn’t asking her,” Anthony put in.

“She just kicked the Joker unconscious,” Batman hissed.  “Arkham’s never held him for more than six months.  How long do you think she’ll last once he’s free.”

Anthony moistened his lips, then looked at her thoughtfully.

“The wedding, and this,” Batman said, indicating her outfit, “Waste products.  He’s had absolutely no interest in either of you personally, until now.  What do you imagine he might do now that you’ve made an impression?

Anthony and Susannah looked at each other. 

Batman knew better than to jeopardize the night’s anticipated success by telling Arkham to expect a Joker admittance between 9:30 and 11 on Thursday night.  He also knew better than to leave it up to chance.  As soon as he learned when the Marcuso sitdown was happening, he had Oracle go into the Arkham system and quietly modify the schedule.  Thanks to a misdelivered voicemail, a rumor was circulating that the schedule changes were part of a state-wide performance review, with promotions, bonuses and budget cuts hanging in the balance.  Result: senior personnel were all on duty at the critical time and ‘on alert’ without knowing it.  They processed Joker’s admittance faster and more efficiently than ever before, and Batman was soon crossing the Arkham parking lot heading back to the Batmobile.  Only Selina, Dick, Clark or Alfred would have recognized his gait as euphoric:

Joker, the most dangerous wildcard in the war, was safely contained for the duration of the war.  Marcuso was also removed, as Batman had originally planned.  Also as originally planned, there was the prospect of his turning State’s evidence when the whole thing was over, which would deal a critical blow to Falcone’s operation in Gotham and to the mobs that did business with him.  And yet, despite all that good fortune—which represented the very best outcome Batman had anticipated when he drew up the plan—it turned out Marcuso was not the ruthless killer he expected.  That made the whole arrangement more palatable.  He would still be getting away with a number of crimes, but not the taking of human life.  On the contrary, to his mind, he’d be testifying to save one.

Batman didn’t really think Joker would care that Susannah kicked him in the head, it wasn’t the kind of thing he held onto.  But Susannah and Marcuso had no way of knowing that.  In their world, among the criminals they’d grown up with, Respect was the only currency and Disrespect the only sin.  To them, it seemed all too plausible… and the prospect of the girl he loved wearing a death smile put all the rest into perspective. 

All that remained was keeping them hidden while…

Only Selina, Dick, Clark or Alfred would have recognized Batman’s buoyant mood as he’d crossed the parking lot, but anyone would now realize what his mood had been now that it vaporized.  In a heartbeat, the air was ionized, crackling with dangerous, raw volatility.  Behind the mask, Batman’s eyes narrowed to slits and his mouth filled with an acrid taste associated with his first patrols: the taste of anger and hate yearning for expression.

On the hood of the Batmobile, a small white flag fluttered from a ‘flagpole’ of arrow-tipped plunger.  Batman pulled it off the hood of the car and carefully removed the plunger-arrowhead base to reveal the hollow of the cylinder that made up the pole.  Predictably, there was a note inside:

Truly, it’s been a snooze.
Roman is a bore!
U try being clever with a guy that
Calls himself “The Roman.”
Excedrin Headache #15

Batman had to read it twice.  Then he flipped it over to the back, looking for the rest.  The first letter of each line spelled out T-R-U-C-E.  No kidding, Edward, that was covered by the white flag.  So… What?  #15 Truce Street, what the hell?

Batman looked at the horizon, half-expecting a second arrow-plunger to come flying through the sky with the rest of the riddle. 

He got into the car and noted the time—it was far too early for Selina to go home.  She’d have ditched the Gina disguise by now and hit the rooftops.  He opened her channel on the OraCom…

“Catwoman?”

..:: Those two were cute, weren’t they?  ‘Why didn’t you call me’ ‘Rabid penguin trying to bite my face off.’::.. 

“Later.  What’s Excedrin Headache Number 15?”

..:: Beg pardon? ::..

“Nigma.  I’m looking at a riddle—”

..:: I thought you were just dropping Joker off at Arkham.::..

“I’m looking at a riddle so simplistic that he’s either had a stroke or there’s some significance to this Excedrin Headache 15.”

..::… ::..

“Still there?”

..:: I’m thinking. ::..

“Could it have something to do with—”

..:: Bat Flower.::..

“Ex-cuse me?”

..:: There’s something called a Bat Flower.  It’s purple and black and it has whiskers.::..

“I’m familiar with it.  Ivy’s never—”

..:: Yeah, that’s the joke.  You kind of had to be there.  I guess she was having a bad week, and at various times Eddie and Harvey and Jervis all got roped into these hour-long pep talks.  ‘The Ballad of Humoring Pamela,’ if you know what I mean.  They were all avoiding the Iceberg, individually, and all three of them went to the same place as an alternative.  Struck them as very funny when they ran into each other, you know that they were all in the same predicament.  Few drinks later, it was even funnier.  You can guess the topic of conversation.  One of the jokes was Pammy finding out about this bat flower and not being able to think of anything to do with it. ‘Excedrin Headache 15.’  Batman’s your enemy, plants are your theme, there’s an actual bat-flower and you’re coming up empty.::..

“I see.  This other bar where they ran into each other, where was it?”

..:: God, who remembers? ::..

“Was it near the Iceberg?  Is that how they all happened to find it?”

..:: No.  The place had a karaoke night.  You know, last act of desperation to get some warm bodies in the door.  Harley organized one, that’s how they all knew it.::..

“Good, that’s promising.  Did you go?”

..:: … This is a legitimate crimefighting thing?  There are actual lives hanging in the balance that hinge on you knowing this?::..

“Catwoman.”

..:: Fine.  I reluctantly admit I was there.  I committed karaoke happy hour.  Satisfied?::..

“Describe it.  The bar.  Décor, specialty drinks, signage, anything.”

..:: Okay, it was below street level.  And there were remnants of sort of a western-cowboy theme—barstools, windows, some of the shelves—but most of it had been done over as kind of a 50s diner.  Then that had mostly been painted for kind of a… bland sci-fi look.  I don’t know what that tells you other than they’re probably not in business anymore.::..

“Good.  Location?”

..:: I want to say theatre district or just west of it, but I know it was farther downtown than that.::..

As she spoke, Batman had been typing parameters into the Batmobile’s palm-top terminal.  The Batcomputer was churning through advertising records for freebie neighborhood newspapers going back twenty years.  With each new detail, the search matrix shifted, and by the time Selina spoke the words ‘farther downtown…’

“Got it.  Haekken’s.  Hell’s kitchen.  Don’t wait up.”

Haekken’s had indeed opened with a Western Saloon theme.  Their décor had changed to a 50s diner, to a lackluster sci-fi setting, and finally to steampunk before it closed its doors completely.  No new tenant had moved into the basement, but the floors above were offices.  Glancing at the directory, Batman immediately noted the name Repo and Houg.  Riddler had announced his opera crime with a Sator Square: SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS… Arepo was the one unknown word in the Latin palindrome. 

Repo and Houg was on the third floor.  There were stairs, of course, but Batman preferred to go outside and enter through the window.  Too late he remembered he’d gone in that way the night Riddler took the Kimberly Canary from The Parker Exchange—the confrontation immediately after Nigma had announced he knew Batman’s identity by sending a clue to the manor.  That night, there had been a table with two chairs positioned right inside the window, the stolen diamond laid out enticingly in the center.  Tonight, Riddler sat behind an executive desk in a high-backed leather chair, with a carved chess board before him.

“Well now, you got here earlier than I expected,” he said with a smile.

“No, I didn’t,” Batman graveled, sitting in the client chair across from the board.

“No, you didn’t,” Nigma admitted.  “But saying you did was my opening to invite you to a game.  ‘Since I wasn’t expecting you until one or two in the morning and you’re here now, we have this extra time and a chess board sitting in front of us…’”

Batman looked over the board: the pawns were the usual kind, but the pieces were made up to represent the various Rogues: the king’s rook wore a blue dome and glowing eyes representing Mr. Freeze, the king’s knight wore a blue top hat with the signature 10/6 price tag tucked into its rim.  The bishops were Joker and Harley, the king and queen Two-Face and Ivy.  The clay blob of a queen’s knight was ‘melting’ a bit off its square, and the queen’s rook sported Oswald’s top hat and cigarette holder.

A lip-twitch escaped him.

“C’mon, nobody will ever know,” Eddie said teasingly.

“I’m not here to play chess,” Batman said flatly.

“No, of course not.  You’re here because it’s not your nature to sit back and let the ‘runaway snowball of fuck’ keep on rolling.  Oh, you’ve been busy so far trying to keep people from getting killed, because, well, you just can't help yourself.  But I know all the while those wheels have been turning.  You know the moment is going to come when we have to stop and take a breath, and you’ve got something ready.  I know you’ve been looking for ways to capitalize on this. Working one side against the other, not just to defuse the situation but to gut both sides of the underworld.  So the only real winner after all of this mess will be the law and order crowd.”

“And you,” Batman said, glancing at the row of Rogue pieces on the back rank of Riddler’s game board.  “What are you doing but playing the situation for your own benefit, to prove you’re smarter than everyone?”

“Almost.  Not quite,” Eddie said with a hint of a smile.  Then he leaned across the board and spoke confidentially.  “I wanted to see if you have the balls to say ‘I need your help.’”

Batman reached across the board and picked up the Joker-bishop.  He looked thoughtfully at the little tuft of green hair and toothy smile. 

“Interesting choice.  Most people would have made him the king.”

“Most people are idiots,” Riddler observed.  “King is not only the weakest piece on the board, he’s the most predictable.  Moves one square, can’t put himself in check, and because he’s so gosh-darn important, he doesn’t move at all until there are no options left.  Bishop, on the other hand, can wreak havoc just by existing.  Move the pawn sitting in front of him, it’s a whole new game board.”

Behind Batman’s mask, Bruce looked up sharply.  It was a shockingly brilliant analysis.

“Diagonal moves,” Batman noted.  “Psychologically more erratic, amidst the squares and straight lines of the board.”

Eddie shook his head, dissatisfied with the idea.

“No, to play that game, the most psychologically irrational movement is the knight’s… I didn’t want to do that.  You were going to see it.  That seemed… needlessly rude.”  

“Thank you,” Batman said grudgingly.

“So, the bishop is out of the game,” Riddler said, removing that piece from the board and holding it over the trash can before allowing it to plummet.  “Never got to use ‘kench’ in a riddle.  Great word, kench.  Middle English, easy to rhyme, it means—”

“To laugh loudly.”

“Oh sure, you know.  You’d know ‘sanguinolency.’”

“Addiction to bloodshed.  Nigma, what do you want?”

“I’m rather enjoying this.  A stimulating conversation with Batman that doesn’t involve getting punched.”

“So far.”

“I was saving The Exquisite Paradox of the Clock for you, you know.  Wasted on someone like Falcone.  Paradox: a fusion of the preposition para, meaning ‘against,’ with the noun stem doxa, meaning—”

“Belief.”

Quite.  Against-belief.  Zeno of Elea coined the phrase in… something or other by Plato.  Zeno of Elea, which conveniently anagrams as ‘One Foe Zeal.’”  He smiled, his fingers neatly steepled under his nose.  “Would you like a glass of wine?  This place has the most amazing cellar.  I’ve got a Kistler, Sea Smoke, Andrew Murray, Dominique Laurent, even a Romanee-Conti.”

“You should have invited Selina.  She’s the oenophile.”

“It’s one foe zeal, Bruce.  Selina would be one foe too many.  That would be Meno of Yoontea, who probably never coined the term for anything.  No, tonight is for our little paradox, yours and mine.  Your enemy has something you need, something you have to have in this fight for all you believe in, but asking for help from him, eh…” he wagged a finger.  “That goes against everything you believe.  What a delightful quandary, much better than that bit of wordplay about the clock hands.”

“You’re wrong if you think I would let anything as insignificant as pride prevent my asking for help—if I thought you had anything to offer.  But all I hear are vague allusions.  If you’ve got anything specific, let’s hear it.”

Eddie smiled.

“Can’t blame a guy for trying.  I have nothing.  Nothing at all to offer you but a ’96 Dominique Laurent, and alas, you turned me down.” 

He got up like a master showman after the lights have gone down, and the audience has left. 

“A pity.  Over oaky, but it’s only the real wine snobs that complain about excessive oak.”

This while moving to the door, that master showman already changed in his dressing room and ready to leave the theatre for the night.  Then, reaching the door, taking one last glance back at the stage—or in this case, back at Batman standing up from his seat in front of the desk.  The Riddler's head tilted at a too-casual angle as his lip curled into an offhanded smile, giving the impression that his next words were a complete afterthought:

“Oh, by the way, are you at all aware that Bane is back in town, working with Falcone?” 

A silent beat while the name sunk in, and then with the specter of the hulking steroid case still hanging in the air... 

“Selina ever tell you about their history?  Ta!”

To be continued…
 

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