Chapter 6: Sawdust
People who only knew Gotham from the movies usually thought of the midtown streets clustered with yellow taxis. In the city proper, it was easy to get one. Unless it was raining, of course. Or rush hour. Or the hour when tourists lined up to travel the few blocks between their hotels and the theatre district that any sensible native would walk.
That was Gotham-proper. In the surrounding boroughs like Mifflin where Marty’s Garage was located, you had to call and order one. If the call came in before 3 pm, Juana would be the dispatcher, and since Marty’s wasn’t that far from Arkham, she would offer the fare to Mahmoud first and only put out a general call if he was busy. Most drivers didn’t want to go anywhere near Arkham. What if the fare turned out to be an escaped lunatic? It was a problem. For Marty’s more than for most businesses and residents within a twenty-mile radius of the asylum it was a problem, since the nature of a mechanic is that his customers were stuck there because their cars didn’t work. Mahmoud was always happy to take those calls. His son had an overbite and an interest in chemistry. His daughter was a prodigy who would cry when she was ordered to put away her viola for the night and go to bed. The orthodontist, the college fund and the viola lessons were realities. The notion of Hannibal Lecter getting into his cab one day was nothing but an extremely improbable what-if. That was his thought as he pulled into Marty’s and saw a nervy man with thinning hair waiting in the parking lot.
“Times Square,” he said, getting in.
The voice did have an anxious high-pitched crackle, but that didn’t mean a dangerous lunatic. A broken down car could be a traumatic experience, particularly if you were looking at hundreds or thousands in repair costs. The guy was having a bad day, that’s all.
“Times Square,” Mahmoud confirmed, pulling out of the lot.
The destination was unusual. Native Gothamites avoided the Square if they could, and those who didn’t actually work at the Gotham Times, the Disney Store, or passing out leaflets to the line outside the TKTS booth could be remarkably inventive finding ways to avoid it.
“Got people in from out of town?” Mahmoud guessed.
“Hm?” the passenger said, distracted.
“Times Square. You got someone in from out of town you going to meet there?”
“Yes, someone to meet there,” the fare muttered.
At first, Mahmoud took the snappish tone as a dismissal. One of those who didn’t want to be bothered with chitchat from a driver. He planned to say no more, but then the fare spoke again and Mahmoud guessed it was the out-of-town visitor the guy was irked at.
“There’s a hotel with robots, isn’t there?” he asked.
“The Yotel Hotel,” Mahmoud said, announcing the name with the faux-enthusiasm he used when delivering tourists there from the airport. Then he resumed with between-us-natives good humor. “Not directly in the Square, but close. Wait ‘til you see it, looks like the Mir Station mated with an Apple Store.”
You couldn’t devise riddles that had a chance of flummoxing Batman without knowing a thing or two about solving them. Edward Nigma knew as much as any man alive. He knew how to approach a conundrum, and more importantly, he knew the mistakes all but the cleverest were apt to make. Consider: A man lies dead in a circle of sawdust. Beside him are two pieces of wood… The sawdust was there to tell you the scene took place at a circus. That’s all it was there for. Once you’d done “Are we at the circus?/Yes” you could forget the damn sawdust. Yet the brain-teased would always continue: Is there a saw nearby? Did he kill himself with a saw? Did the sawdust come from the pieces of wood? On and on, with the poor fool who posed the query unable to answer anything but Yes or No. The poor fool who only wanted to sit around a campfire enjoying his s’mores without hearing about another maniac with a hook for a hand or the ghost of the Civil War deserter known for snatching souls from this very wood.
Eddie knew it was a trap all but the cleverest riddlees fell into, yet there he was, replaying the message from Doris’s answering machine over and over in his head:
Evidence is the key to my freedom. I can’t escape like some Arkham loon. Reason is going to be important. She’s going to give you the runaround. And if you still need to hear Robbie or the liar, then I am really in trouble. Start at the hotel.
Evidence, Escape, Reason, Runaround, Robbie, Liar. All stories from the Isaac Asimov collection I, Robot.
That’s it. He solved the riddle; he got the clue those words were meant to deliver. He could forget it now. “Forget the goddamn sawdust!” his inner puzzler screamed. He had an interminable cab ride ahead of him—driving into Midtown at this time of day—he had an interminable cab ride when there was absolutely nothing he could get done. Just like those weeks since Selina, the hellacious hellcat, had come to him at Arkham and thrown down the gauntlet. How many times had he replayed that conversation? Dissected each word, each pause, each inflection? The chess set, the Repo and Houg lair, it was all setting the stage to deliver the blow “Are you at all aware that Doris is back in town” repeating his exact words to Batman. That’s all it meant. It was payback for that night. Payback for Bane. There was no hidden meaning in the order she’d taken pieces from her loot sack: Mr. Freeze first, Poison Ivy last. There was no significance to her mentioning the Z. She had to explain how she came into possession of the chess set, that’s all it meant.
Maybe. He still wasn’t sure.
“The Z have been doing a lot of work for me, stripping all those places you took from Falcone and converting them to whatever I tell them to.”
What if she dropped the name intentionally? The Z. Was it the first round of what he considered an Iocane Powder Puzzle? An I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know mobius strip that is the true test of the gaming intellect. She dropped the name of the Z; she said they were doing a lot of work for her. So on the surface, he shouldn't use them to set up a lair before escaping. They would tell her, and she would know when he was planning to escape and where he would be as soon as he was free. He could use the Z to set up a decoy lair, so she would think she knew where he was, but she really wouldn't. Except she knew she dropped their name, so she would guess the lair was a decoy. That would actually make the decoy lair the safest possible place to go. Unless that’s exactly what she was expecting, since she knew that he knew she dropped the name intentionally and would therefore be using them to set up a decoy… Definitely an Iocane Powder Puzzle.
The only response he could think of to say “Z’s Gambit Declined” was to have them set up a store front with the namee Io Canes and Walking Stickss, using his own signature cane as the logo. Underneath that sign would be an actual store, not a camouflaged lair, and that store would sell nothing but scratching posts, cat bowls, cat collars and catnip mice. It was an expensive gesture, more than he would have spent on Batman if he’d been the one to come to Arkham and throw down that gauntlet, but then Batman never would have done that, would he? Guys don’t.
Now the whole question of his non-lair was academic because the precious puss was giving him the runaround.
And if you still need to hear Robbie or the liar, then I am really in trouble. Start at the hotel.
Evidence is the key to my freedom. I can’t escape like some Arkham loon.
He had to get his mind off of this or he would be apoplectic by the time he reached that hotel.
“Driver,” he said in desperation, “You like riddles? A man lies dead in a circle of sawdust, and there’s two pieces of wood lying next to him…”
Selina found Bruce in the library, reading. Whiskers was curled on the sofa next to him, leaning against his leg, while Bruce pretended not to notice but petted the cat absently between page-turns. Whiskers appeared to be keeping time with the tip of his tail: back and forth, back and forth, and every ten cycles… petting stops, page turn…
Selina smiled, taking in the scene before shoving the cat away and taking his place.
“It’s started,” she announced. “Arkham doesn’t know he’s gone yet, but the message on the answering machine has been played. Eight times.” She beamed. “Now we’ll see how long it takes him to figure out the hotel. I can see why he enjoys this. I don’t know why you never thought of it!”
“I have, I just wouldn’t do it for his benefit,” Bruce said mildly.
“I’m not doing it to entertain him; it’s payback. Dreaming up puzzles that will make him pull what’s left of his hair out. It’s not too late if you want in.”
“No thank you,” he said with a lip twitch.
“You’ll enjoy it,” she said enticingly, letting her fingers walk around his shirt collar as she continued. “How many times have we done this? I invite, you refuse, I suggest, you scowl, I propose, you dig in… and when you finally come around and try it, you wind up loving it.”
“Oh, like you and crimefighting,” he said, anticipating the ‘Jackass’ and smack it would provoke and intercepting her wrist, using her momentum against her to draw her hand up and behind her to pin it finally at the small of her back without either of them moving from their seated position.
“Selina, how long after Arkham discovers the escape do you expect Batman to ignore the situation?” he asked without releasing her. “It’s true that I don’t always answer the signal if I’m busy on a case or off-world with the League. But knowing the dangerous escaped lunatic—”
“—doesn’t pose a threat because you’re running him all over town on an insane scavenger hunt?”
“Might just be good for him. You know ‘Payback’ may not have the high moral resonance of ‘Justice,’ but it has a lot of the same moving parts and sometimes it gets the job done. Bat-fists and Arkham haven’t been much of a deterrent, so why not give this a try?”
“Selina, you’re not wrong, but… Doris. It’s really hitting him where he lives.”
“I know. That’s why I’m doing it. Bruce, I didn’t start this fight and neither did you. I didn’t pick this battlefield and neither did you. He did. He made it personal. If he can’t take what he’s been dishing out... Now, I’ve tried it. I’ve committed ‘riddle.’ And I’m telling you, it is fun. I can see why he enjoys it. I thinkk youuwould enjoy it. So I am asking, partner of mine, if you would like to play. He’s done it to you enough times. See what the view’s like on the other side of the question mark.””
Mahmoud Molokhya. Eddie pocketed the card as he walked into the hotel, deciding he’d rather use the driver again than take his chances hopping into the first taxi that stopped when he was ready to leave. The guy was a find, one of that rare and precious species he liked to call non-idiots. Not only did Mahmoud play along with the circle of sawdust riddle despite having heard it before, the reason he’d heard it was because he had a kid who liked puzzles. A kid who liked puzzles and chemistry and knew what he called a chemistry riddle: What do you do with a sick chemist? If you can't helium and you can’t curium, you might as well barium.
Mahmoud, on the other hand, actually knew that was a joke and not a riddle, and that a real chemistry riddle—this guy who was driving a cab—knew that a real chemistry riddle would be something like the atomic structure of quasicrystals. “The puzzle that boy in Sweden helped his father solve a few months back.”
Eddie was beside himself. Here was a man who had heard of Linus Hovmöller, the 11-year old son of a University of Stockholm chemistry professor who noticed he had a talent spotting patterns when he played Sudoko, who gave his son a chemistry puzzle that had been stumping him… for… for… Eddie’s excitement vaporized. He realized any non-idiot picking up a stranger ten miles from Arkham who then proceeded to talk about puzzles the whole ride into Gotham would have to realize that passenger was the Riddler. Facing the danger head on, Eddie asked what Mahmoud meant to do about it.
His answer? “My name is Mahmoud Molokhya. My skin is brown, I have a beard, I speak with the accent of my father who was Egyptian and I’ve been talking about advanced chemistry. You afraid of me?” Eddie shook his head and Mahmoud shrugged. “You don’t make assumptions about me; I don’t make assumptions about you.”
Definitely a non-idiot, and Eddie needed all the non-idiot allies he could get right now. So he gave Mahmoud a generous tip, asked for his card, pulled a few more bills off the roll and told him to consider himself on retainer. Mahmoud could hang out at a pizza joint down the street—Joe’s Favorite Slice (which anagrammed into a number of phrases that included ‘Solve it,’ a good omen if ever there was one—and Eddie would call when he was ready to go. Mahmoud left. Eddie turned to face the imposing doors before him and returned his mind to the task at hand: Evidence is the key to my freedom… Start at the hotel.
There was no human staff in the lobby. There were check-in kiosks to the left, elevators straight ahead, and to the right: a robot bellhop. That’s why Eddie was here. “Yobot,” the Robotic Luggage Concierge, had been in the news briefly when the place first opened. The large, white robot arm resided behind a glass wall, with another wall of compartments behind it that looked like oversized safe deposit boxes. Next to the glass was a station with a touch screen and a big rectangular opening framed by neon lights that looked like an oven on the Starship Enterprise. When prompted by a command at the touch screen, the robot arm came to life, swung this way and that until it had retrieved a storage bin from one of the coded compartments, and placed it in the glass wall side of the starship oven. The hotel guest stored or retrieved his luggage, and with another prompt from the touch screen, Yobot returned the storage bin to its compartment.
Eddie pursed his lips. I, Robot to come here, deliver clues through that, it was a clever idea and he really wished he’d thought of it. He spent a few minutes deciding how he would do it better. Selina thought she was so clever, but she did nothing with the fact that “I” rhymes with “Why,” which is a question. So if you punned the clue and made it “Why, Robot” which is phonetically Y-Robot or Yobot. Yes! That’s how a truly clever gamester would go about it. Stupid cat.
By which time he’d watched a few guests come and go, storing and retrieving their bags, and realized a bar-coded receipt or Name/PIN combination was required to retrieve a bin. So that was the next puzzle.
He looked around, and took a ride up and down in an elevator just to eliminate it. There were three things in the lobby: the Yobot, the check-in kiosks, and the elevators. He was fairly sure the check-in was the place to go next, but it would be just like that scheming little hellcat to put the clue in the elevator so he’d spend hours at the kiosks trying to solve a puzzle that wasn’t there. It was worth two minutes of his time riding up and down in the elevator to avoid that…
Like everything else in the Yotel, the elevator looked like something from a science fiction set, but there was no clue to be found there. He went back to the lobby and approached a check-in kiosk like a gunslinger at the OK Corral.
-Do you have a reservation?- It began, and Eddie couldn’t help imagining the voice of the HAL 9000 reading it aloud. Yes and No appeared on the touch screen, and it only made sense to try yes.
-Name?- It asked, and a keyboard appeared on the screen.
Isaac Asimov, he tried.
-It would fill my robot soul with joy to check-in the great
Isaac Asimov as a guest, but it is a pleasure I will never know since he
died in 1992.-
Figures. They had a programmed response for the most likely name a prankster would enter.Figures. They had a programmed response for the most likely name a prankster would enter.
Karel Capek, he tried.
-It would fill my robot soul with joy to check-in Karel Capek as a
guest, but it is a pleasure I will never know since he died in 1938.-
That was a little more impressive. Any barely literate geek knew Asimov, but how many knew the Czech playwright who coined the term ‘robot’ in the first place? It was beginning to look like robot-themed science fiction guesses wouldn’t work. Perhaps he was looking at it the wrong way. This nightmare was Selina’s doing. What name would she use to… Hm, maybe.
-No reservation exists.-
Okay, progress. At least now he knew what a regular non-joking response looked like.
-No reservation exists.-
-No reservation exists.-
-No reservation exists.-
-Reservation Found. 2 Nights Prepaid. Please select the number of keycards needed.-
It worked! On only five tries. Oh, ‘Lina, you didn’t really think you could challenge the prince of puzzlers and win, did you?
He touched the square for one keycard. The mechanism whizzed and whirred and eventually slid out a thin wedge of plastic.
-You have 1 bag checked with YOBOT. Would you like to retrieve?-
“Yes,” he said aloud as he touched the word with a flourish.
“Bitch!” he barked at the screen, bringing looks from one or two people, and causing a tourist-mom to clamp her hands over her son’s ears.
“Yeah, like you don’t have HBO at home,” Eddie grumbled, returning his attention to the kiosk. He tried a few pins: the last digits of Doris’s phone number, the last digits of his own, and then gave up and took the keycard. The next puzzle would be in his room.
“Vince Turner, that was obvious,” Bruce said.
At first, he and Selina had cuddled on a sofa in the library to follow the action on her laptop, but when they saw what Barbara had set up for them, they decided to go down to the cave to watch on the big screen. All Selina had asked for was a simple hack to notify her when the Turner reservation was accessed. Instead, Barbara hacked the lobby cameras as well as the hotel mainframe, and the kiosk cameras, and she rigged up a subvert to display a transparent mirror image of the kiosk screen superimposed over the camera feed, so it would appear to Bruce and Selina like they were inside the kiosk looking out at Nigma typing in his guesses.
“Why would she do all this?” Selina had asked. “It’s not like Eddie is the Joker, she has no grudge against him that I’m aware of.”
Bruce’s lip twitched.
“You really don’t know? I should probably let Jim tell you himself, but that dinner with the mayor went even better than we realized. He got the call Tuesday.”
“Well that’s great and I’ll act surprised when he tells me,” she smiled. “But credit where credit is due, it was Alfred’s leg of lamb and half a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape that put him in such a good mood. All I did was send the invitation.”
“You did a lot more than that. He said you were very charming.”
“I listened to him talk about the Belmont Stakes and being the butt of all those jokes on the Daily Show, the horrors of oversized sodas, and how we should all go back to calling it Knights Stadium because ‘Live from Gotham Stadium in Gotham City’ sounds stupid. Announcers don’t like to say it and we get short-changed on the network bumpers on every home game.”
“Selina, look where we are and remember who you are talking to. Imagine the mask on if it will help, and think about how many times I’ve been on the receiving end of your charms. You went to work the moment that man walked in the door, and by the time the soup was served, you had him eating out of your hand.”
“Well, I’m glad it worked out,” she said. “But even so, Barbara didn’t have to do all this—oh look, here he comes.”
They had watched on the lobby camera as Eddie worked out the mechanics of the hotel’s operation, then switched to the kiosk-view as soon as he started trying aliases.
“Vince Turner, that was obvious,” Bruce said dryly.
“It wasn’t supposed to be hard,” Selina laughed. “I don’t want him spending all day on the preshow. Even so, he guessed you and then Bane before he got it. Gotta wonder what’s going on inside that brain of his.”
You had to wonder what went on inside the brain of the guy who built this place. That was Eddie’s thought as he went down the hall to his room. He couldn’t decide if it was meant to resemble an airport or an airplane. It was undeniably cool, but undeniably strange. He reached his room, opened the door—and realized why all the hotel literature referred to the rooms as cabins. It was small. Ship’s cabin small. Airplane toilet small.
There was an appropriately futuristic “Techno-Wall” (otherwise known as an LCD TV with shelves around it and its remote sitting on the bottom shelf in a special cradle). Eddie took this and turned on the TV, although he didn’t think it was likely to broadcast a special message just for him. He did it to check the remote, examined the buttons for some clue that might reveal the pin, and even went so far as to remove the battery. That would be a great place to hide a message.
The bed folded out—automatically, at another button touch—taking up what little space remained to move from the door to the window. He looked in the folding mechanism, then searched the pillows and sheets. Finding nothing, he folded it up again.
There was a desk to plug in a laptop. Free wifi. A small bathroom, shower, sink, a little ironing board and iron, hairdryer, and… Hello, Selina. There was a safe. A laptop safe according to its label. It also wanted a PIN to open. Eddie cursed and continued his search. The ‘closet’ was a free-standing bar with a few hangars positioned over a drawer for clothes. Nothing there but a bible. He was about to check the toiletries in the shower to see if there was a hidden message on the labels… when he froze. He looked slowly back at the drawer with the bible, opened it gently as if he was afraid of waking the sleeping book, and looked down, unable to suppress a smile. It wasn’t a bible, it was a leather-bound copy of I, Robot.
“Evidence is the key,” he said aloud, opening the book and running his finger down the table of contents. Evidence… page 144. That couldn’t be right. The Yobot wanted four digits, but—Eddie’s eyes snapped up with rat-like cunning as he looked towards the laptop safe.
“1-4-4,” he said aloud as he pushed the keys. The display bar above the keys lit, he heard a click, and the door opened. Inside sat a Wayne Tech laptop.
“Evidence is the key? That’s cute,” Bruce said when she told him.
“You don’t think it’s too easy?” Selina purred.
“It’s not like I have years of Catwoman riddles to measure it against,” he graveled.
“But if it were from him?”
“And too easy means?”
“It’s a trap.”
THAT CONNIVING HELLCAT!
Absolutely nothing happened when Eddie powered up the laptop. It was dead the way they shut down at the core for safety when the battery is completely drained. There was no power supply or a/c cord, and he couldn’t believe he was simply meant to go out into Times Square to pay 6X retail at some tourist trap electronics store. If this was The Revenge of Cluerissa, the Idiot Groupie, that would be the answer. But this was Selina. And Selina’s ideas of revenge—as he knew from the very Bane episode that got him into this—were more elaborate, passionate, poetic and painful.
“Are you at all aware that Doris is back in town…” Repeating his exact words to Batman.
Followed by weeks to do nothing but wonder. How he tried to hope that was her revenge, the torture of not knowing, day after day from waking to sleeping, as he raced to get himself free. How he tried to convince himself that was her plan, that he would spend those days analyzing every nuance of her visit, dreaming up far worse scenarios in his imagination than anything she could think up on her own.
“In costume and committing theme crimes…”
He reached for the remote, thinking to turn on GCN and hoping he could get something from that HEIST AT ZEITGEIST story when it cycled around—when he stopped and looked down at the laptop. The laptop which was lighter than the TV remote. He worked furiously to open the casing and found it—That Conniving Hellcat!—empty.
Except for —That Conniving Hellcat!— an envelope of pale, lavender stationery. Scented. He opened it, and the faint tickle of vanilla and honeysuckle grew stronger as he slid out a thick, perfumed notecard.
You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, it read in Selina’s confident, flowing hand.
“Sure, now you act like a Rogue,” Eddie said, glaring down at the taunt. Then he stopped to consider… Selina was a Rogue. She wasn’t some airhead like Cluerissa, she knew the rules. She knew them better than anybody, because he had explained them on numerous occasions. The intricacies of his personal rules in leaving clues for Batman—she knew! She knew you had to cover the check. “Evidence is the key.” I, Robot in the room and Evidence is the key. It wasn’t enough to let that lead to a false trail, it had to in some way lead to the actual…
He dove across the bed and tore open the drawer, clawed at the book until he reached page 144.
There it was. She knew the rules, and there it was. Wedged into the very center of the crease on page 144: a thin receipt on onionskin paper bearing the Yotel logo and the word YOBOT.
“Aha! Take that you Voltage Beggar Lout,” he said, racing for the door. In the elevator he repeated to himself “Yobot the robot luggage valet is a voltage beggar lout.” When he reached the lobby, he varied it to a Voltage El Gag Turbo, but that didn’t make any sense, so when he reached the claim kiosk, he merely said “Good evening, Yobot,” and ignored the stare of the same tourist who had clamped her hands over her child’s ears.
He fed his receipt into the little slot beneath the touch screen, and the robot arm sprang to life, swinging into position in front of the appropriate bin, clamping onto the handle and pulling it out. It contorted to lower the bin and slid it out through the access pod for Eddie to retrieve its contents. A large, canvas suitcase in Riddler green.
“Lina, you shouldn’t have,” he said, lifting it out. He touched the kiosk to tell it he was finished and didn’t bother watching Yobot returning the empty bin to its place. He practically skipped back to the elevator, and even the specter of the tourist woman getting into the car with him couldn’t dampen his spirits.
“Isn’t it a lovely day?” he announced brightly, hoping to scare her.
“Mhm,” she said, with a wary look.
“You really must go see Mamma Mia,” he said, remembering the last time he laid low at a tourist hotel. He had no idea if Mamma Mia was still playing, but that didn’t stop him from humming Dancing Queen until the woman got off on her floor.
Returning to his room, he opened the suitcase…
“I imagine he’ll be feeling pretty good about himself by then,” Selina mused.
She had that look, from the rooftops. The way her breath parted her lips on the words “just this once.” The way her eyelids dipped as she blinked. The way her head tilted ever so subtly hinting at the kisses that could be his. He had an impulse to touch those lips, but he squelched it as he had then. She could be… so wicked.
Eddie’s breath escaped him in a quick, ragged pant, as if he’d been sucker punched.
He had opened the suitcase and had the contents unpacked on the bed. There was a change of clothes, a WayneTech tablet (which powered up fine) and a file folder that looked like a police file, except instead of manila or dark brown cardstock it was made of thick, black plastic. Though he’d never been in the Batcave, Eddie had no doubt he was looking at a Batman file.
He opened it—and there was Doris staring up at him. Doris in a mask. Doris in a mask and Playboy bunny ears. Doris in a mask and Playboy bunny ears with her hands on some Gotham Post artist’s idea of a Batman costume and ICK! ICK-ICK-ICK-ICK-ICK!
His long ago words to Selina had never seemed so uselessly stupid and hollow. “It’s a tabloid. Nobody with an ounce of intelligence believes that shit… At the end of the day, it’s just another What-The-Fuck Moment from our Friendly Neighborhood What-Fuckers.” Bullshit!
She looked good. Boy did she look good. He started wondering if she’d lost weight or if the Post shaved off an inch here and there the way they do magazine ads—then he started hyperventilating at the thought of some artist asshole at the Gotham Post PHOTOSHOPPING DORIS! Rubbing his CURSOR over her HIP and deciding there was too much of it and he’d just SHAVE A LITTLE OFF!!!!
He reconsidered Selina’s righteous and just ideas about revenge. What was it she said that one time at the Iceberg—if she ever got “the tap” from the Star Sapphire—the Gotham Post enveloped in a big Catwoman-Purple mushroom cloud, that was it, YES! RIGHT! But not Catwoman purple. A nice Riddler Green mushroom cloud that would then rise up and reshape into a question mark and drip nice yellow dots down onto the atomic shadow of whatever nincompoop of a Gotham Post asshole decided Doris wasn’t absolutely perfect the way she was.
And he went to the sink to splash his face off before continuing.
Then he dried his hands, returned to the folder, and primly refolded Doris, placed her gently on the left ‘read’ side of the folder, and continued with the pages on the right.
There were a series of crime reports… Hey, she was calling herself Cognitive Dissonance, wasn’t that cute? And she scored a Faberge her first time out. Good girl! And a silk robe Greta Garbo wore in Grand Hotel…
His eyes continued to skim the page, but his mind took a little side trip, imagining Doris arriving home at the lair after that particular score and modeling the robe for him. He liked Garbo, and Doris had much the same coloring…
He realized he hadn’t the slightest idea what he just read and had to go back and reread… oh my. She also took the gloves Garbo wore in Ninotchka and incunabula seized by the Red Army.
Eddie looked around the room with a pleased-but-embarrassed smile which slowly morphed into a broad Just-Got-Laid grin. Faberge, Grusinskaya, Ninotchka, the Red Army—all Russia.
“That’s my Puzzle Muffin,” he said, barely able to hold back the tears.
“But you didn’t give him a real file from the cave,” Bruce said in a just-checking tone that meant it wasn’t really a question.
“Of course not, I just used one of your file-folders. To rub salt,” Selina said with a smile. “Then there’s a handwritten sheet in my writing analyzing CogDi like a crimefighter, noting her preference for Russian items and speculating—”
“No,” he winced. “Please tell me you didn’t go into why she’s going after Russian things.”
“No, I just listed other targets she might go for.”
“Ah,” Bruce said, looking relieved.
“Forget what I said about analyzing her like a crimefighter. Bad choice of words, I concede that I have no idea what that means. I approached it like the database I made for the Foundation Bandit, identified three things she could go after. Item 1 is ballerina Nolzhenko’s pearls and they’re a little out of her reach. She’d have to get help from a much more accomplished and knowledgeable thief. And then there’s a still from a traffic camera Barbara snagged for me with the two of us window shopping in SoHo.”
“After that, there’s nothing for him to do but examine the tablet.”
The video began with an image that should have surprised him, but didn’t. Catwoman in a cat lair, sitting at her desk with the Rogue chess set between her and the camera. She was playing black, her queen was mid-board, threatening a lone white pawn.
“Hello, Eddie. I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining the obvious. The police are holding Doris for the Zeitgeist robbery. They haven’t charged her. Yet. Which means if you get to the evidence before they do—or before they convince her to do something silly like confess—then you get to be the hero of the hour. Otherwise I’m afraid it’s theft of cultural property, a federal charge and a stint in a federal prison far from Arkham.”
She leaned forward and scowled into the camera before concluding:
“Riddle me this, riddle me that. Expect to get scratched if you fuck with a cat. This vid will self-delete in five seconds. Four. Three. Two…”
Rather than going dark, the image froze, shrunk slightly, and broke up into twenty-five squares on a five-by-five grid. These began to flicker, displaying other images—partial images—that did not make up the same whole. Eddie’s eyes widened as he realized he was looking at a jigsaw puzzle where each piece was perfectly interchangeable, the same size and the same shape – and a slideshow. Square A-1 of Image 1 might be C-5 of Image 2 and D-2 of Image 3—worse! It might be D-2 of Image 3 on a 90-degree angle.
His head tipped back and he took a deep breath. He could do this. It was for Doris, of course he could do this. He had been training his whole life for this. No cat burglar could present him with a puzzle he couldn’t solve. He took a few more deep breaths, rubbed his hands together and quickly mastered the mechanics of the puzzle. One tap and then slide into position to swap with another piece. Two taps turned it in place 90 degrees. Once he got two pieces aligned that contained slides that belonged side by side, tapping the seam between them froze them on the matching frames. Ha! In twenty minutes he had an image—and almost wished he hadn’t.
Tarot cards. An unpleasant reminder of an episode that occurred right after he figured out Batman’s identity—though of course Selina had no way of knowing that. It seemed even luck was on the hellcat’s side—an ironic twist in that he thought luck was on his side when he learned Bane was in town before anyone else knew.
Tarot cards, of all the—Luck was certainly NOT on his side when he took refuge behind Madame Keila’s green door that time. The advertisement that had seemed so promising “Got questions?” leading to nothing but a bargain basement horoscope & palm reading outfit. The place stank of sauerkraut, incense and weed, but Keila did make a pun when she asked if he wanted a fortune and there had been such a mix of good and bad whirling around him since he figured out Batman’s secret, he thought he could blow twenty bucks on a reading.
The deck before him now was very different in design, but The Devil still had those bat wings that plagued him at that first reading. There was an Emperor card as well—wearing purple. The High Priestess was pleasingly in green, a detail he would have enjoyed more if there wasn’t a cat sitting beside her. There was a Chariot, Magician, a Seven of Cups that had a heart in the center with an arrow through it, and (predictably) The Lovers.
Eddie’s heart thumped. He was no expert in tarot. He used the imagery twice in riddles, and both times he had to look up the meanings and promptly forgot once the crime spree had run its course. All he remembered now was that Death meant change, not literal death, and that the Two of Wands should have told Batman to search for hidden options (but that idiot Robin wouldn’t give up the idea that it had something to do with the second book of Harry Potter introducing the character Tom Riddle.)
And neither of those cards were here.
He jotted down a few notes and started rearranging the pieces again. As soon as he separated two, they flickered and resumed the slideshow. It took him another twenty minutes to discover a second image, and he hurriedly dialed Mahmoud and ordered a pick up in front of the hotel asap.
Mahmoud was a non-idiot, so when they reached the South Side train station, Eddie decided to confide in him.
“Two sets of eyes are better than one and I’m fighting the clock. I have to find this exact spot.”
He pointed to the jigsaw picture, solved and frozen on the tablet. It was certainly a boarding platform. The name of the station was clearly etched on the railing.
“No number visible,” Mahmoud said. “It’s not going to be easy.”
“The graffiti on the back wall,” Eddie said. “We can match that, easy.”
“We can match it, sure, but I wouldn’t say it’s easy. If the place were empty, sure, but with the trains passing in front of the walls, it’s going to take some doing to spot those particular letters.”
“That’s why I’m asking for help,” Eddie said, though it seemed to Mahmoud that he wanted to say more.
They split up and searched. Most people came and went. Those who didn’t became landmarks: the homeless guy, the street musician, the gal dealing three-card monte and the guy looking to pick up runaways. It was Mahmoud who found the graffiti between the second and the third.
“There, on the back wall,” he showed Eddie. “I and a space, T and a longer space, then the A O L A evenly spaced, just like in your picture.”
Eddie nodded and moved around to find the spot where he had the exact view to match the photo. He had to pause while a train passed, but then satisfied himself that he was standing at the very point where the picture was taken. He looked around, and a train passed going the other way.
The musician collected the money tossed into his open case and started a new set.
There were no anagrams to be had from the letters, he knew that already. He looked around for some clue to add from the surroundings. Or something here that referenced something in the tarot cards.
Another train passed—a long one—and while Eddie waited, he looked around irritably and saw Mahmoud throwing away part of that indecently large tip into the musician’s open violin case.
Eddie stormed over to berate him as he would a dumb henchman, but before he started, Mahmoud started talking excitedly:
“Look at this, electric violin. First, he lays down the chords, plays it back in a loop, then he taps out a rhythm, adds the percussion base. You hear that? The layers. Playing all alone, he has three layers.”
Eddie’s face fell.
“Layers,” he hissed, looking back at the graffiti wall with the train passing in front. “Layers,” he repeated. “It’s a time puzzle. We only have one-third of the message. The other two are on trains. Don’t you see? That’s why the letters are spaced so strangely. It’s not enough to know where to be, we have to know when. Only at the exact moment when both trains are passing in front of us, one going east, one going west, will all the letters line up.”
“Hey, that’s pretty good,” Mahmoud chuckled.
“Yes, it is,” Eddie said under his breath. “That bitch.”
“How do you know what time?”
Eddie sighed, walked to a spot behind the musician where the performer blocked pedestrian traffic, and tuned out his surroundings until he had solved another picture. A still from a black and white movie of bejeweled Katalya Nolzhenko playing Salomé in her pearls… useless. Then a picture of a clock! Aha! A fine old mantle clock set to… (he squinted) … 5:17.
Rats. It was a long time to wait around a crowded train station and do nothing. It wasn’t much time if he wanted to leave and get the photographic equipment necessary for safety. High speed camera, test it on a few other trains to make sure he had the angle right—it was going to be only a split second, after all, when he could see through the windows of the first train to the second and through the second into… wait a minute… how would that work exactly? The front train would obscure the second and both would block the back wall. It wasn’t a timing puzzle, it was an impossible puzzle. There was no way to see all three sets of letters at the same moment when they were all together. There was no way…
By now, the musician was on his fourth set, and Mahmoud had taken over the looped percussion and was tapping out the rhythm on an improvised drum as he chatted on and off with the musician in the periods when nobody was stopping to listen to them play. Eddie watched for a second, his focus narrowing on Mahmoud’s hands. Long-short-long-long—He knew this—Short-long-short-short—Short-long-short-short—YELL, o should be next—long-long-long—YES!
“Yellow what? Yellow what?” Eddie cried, charging at the violinist and grabbing him by the shoulders. Chaos ensued while Mahmoud pulled Eddie off the musician, the musician coddled his violin and checked for damage, the three-card monte gal tried to take the tip money from his case, Eddie tried to kick her in the face while yelling frantically at Mahmoud that the drumbeat was Morse code and the real message hidden at this location.
When the dust settled, three-card monte gal had been driven from the platform—into an oncoming train, the musician hoped—and Mahmoud hurried Eddie outside in case the incident brought any police. When they got back to his cab, Mahmoud tapped out the percussion on the side of the car, just as he had learned it. The full message consisted of two words: Yellow Iris.
A part of Eddie’s mind began dissecting the word—there was the obvious; it was a flower, there were anagrams containing “Lie,” etc. The rest of him considered Mahmoud the way he would a henchman who was just a little too lucky or a little too curious, or for some other reason, beginning to look like a Bat-plant.
“Lucky how you just happened to click with that guy,” he said suspiciously.
The reaction was not like that of a henchman, planted or otherwise.
“I was curious about that instrument of his,” Mahmoud said. “Electronic violin. I asked what it cost, if there’s an electric viola, if a little girl who played the viola could pick up the violin.”
“A little girl?” Eddie asked, noting a hand moving to Mahmoud’s pocket that somehow he didn’t think was going to be pulling a gun. Sure enough, out came the wallet, and then the picture. A little girl with a viola that seemed nearly as big as she was, and then a few years older joined by the boy who knew chemistry jokes that he thought were riddles.
“Now you know why I don’t call the police,” Mahmoud said, meeting Eddie’s eye. “Femi will go to Juilliard. She’ll need a much better instrument than she has now.”
Eddie wished he had a wallet with Doris’s picture. Some nice snapshot of the two of them sitting together at a table at the Iceberg, even dancing at Jonathan Crane’s Halloween party. Instead, all he could do was unfold a weeks-old copy of the Gotham Post and assure his new friend that bunny ears and the rest were the embellishments of newspaper pinheads that just couldn’t help themselves.”
“She has very nice eyes,” Mahmoud said, picking the one detail that seemed safe.
“Help me save her and we’ll get your daughter a Stradivarius,” Eddie said.
Mahmoud smiled. “My friend, she’s as good as saved.”
An hour later, they stood beneath the sign for Yellow Iris: A DIY Perfumery. They looked up at the sign, they looked at each other, they looked at the sign again.
“Edward, do you remember earlier when I said ‘She’s as good as saved’?”
“I do,” said Eddie.
The door opened, a woman came out and walked between them, smelling like a sugar cookie.
“I may have jumped the gun,” said Mahmoud.
To be continued…