Chapter 5: Eureka?
Nobody really appreciated Talia Head’s unique talents as much as Talia herself. Consider her transformation into the kind of independent single woman her Beloved required. Although raised in the court of Ra’s al Ghul with a thousand minions to do her bidding, she had embraced the democratic practices of Beloved’s country. She had no handmaid to collect her worn clothing and place it into the laundry bag supplied by the hotel, so she did it herself. She filled out the instruction card for the laundry service and placed the bag outside the door with her own hand. She called the concierge herself and made her own appointments with the hotel salon for a set and manicure.
Truly, she was the living embodiment of liberated womanhood.
Another sort of woman, weak and uncertain of her abilities, might be discouraged at the setback. Talia had been forced to leave the diamond exchange before she was ready because of that wretched Azrael. At least there were the security tapes of Catwoman breaking in, so this time, there could be no doubt of the perpetrator. But there had been no mauling of the guards with the claws of a hellcat, as she had intended, to raise Beloved’s ire with the spilling of blood. It was vexing to think she would have to don that horrid cat costume again. But her Beloved must be made to see what kind of—
Talia stopped, keycard in hand, at the door to her hotel room.
The noise coming from the other side of the door was…
Too disgusting! Someone was playing games. Someone clearly had no idea who they were dealing with. To antagonize the Demon Head’s daughter! Talia opened the door, eyes burning with fury, to see—
“Riddle me this, Pet!” A curious man with thinning hair was seated comfortably in her room before a room service cart. On top of the cart, a revolting feline thing was standing around several empty bowls; on the shelf below, there were two covered dishes.
“If a cat has been fed and you give it more food, it doesn’t much care.” The man was undoubtedly The Riddler, another of the criminal filth for which her Beloved remained in this wretched city instead of taking his place at her side. Riddler reached down to the lower shelf as he spoke and placed one of the covered dishes before the cat. He lifted the lid to reveal a small bowl of minced meat, which the cat sniffed at… and then looked up at him with indifference.
“If, on the other hand, some mousy wannabe were to come along and pull on kitty’s tail…” Riddler reached down to the second dish, and placed it before the cat. In one move, he lifted the lid with his left hand while pinching the cat’s hindquarters with the right. A small lizard sat on the plate, and the cat promptly hissed, lunged, and bit its head off. “Good kitty,” Riddler remarked, picking the cat up and stroking its head.
“That’s not much of a riddle,” Talia noted coldly.
“No, it’s not,” he conceded. “Neither is what’s going to happen to you when the real Catwoman finds out what you’re up to. What are you up to, by the way?”
“Calling hotel security,” Talia announced grandly, “And having you thrown out.”
“Sit down, you stupid snatch,” Riddler hissed, as Talia lifted the phone from its receiver to hear no dialtone. “Who do you think you’re dealing with? Or don’t you think at all?”
Talia started to fume and rummage for her cell phone.
“SIT DOWN!” Riddler bellowed. “Please,” he added sweetly. “We need to talk. I am going to talk at any rate. If you are here, then I will talk to you and you will listen. If you are not here, I will call Selina and I assure you she will listen to what I have to say—and then she will shred you into so much…” he pointed to the headless lizard carcass on the plate.
Talia sat. She would have her revenge on this vermin, but for now she sat. In her father’s court, she had learned early there were times a woman could do no more than sit and listen… sit and listen and wait for her opportunity…
“Good,” Riddler declared. “Now then, I don’t know what your problem is or why you’re running around town in a catsuit… For that matter, I don’t know why you used a LexCorp card to reserve this room. That was downright stupid, Lady. Makes you real easy to find, and you can’t even use it to pay your bill now that you tanked the company. But I digress.”
He patted the cat on the head and sat it down. It promptly ran across the room and started chewing the handle of Talia’s handbag.
Talia seethed. One of the criminal vermin that kept her Beloved from her went on speaking and a filthy cat was chewing on her purse.
“Like I was saying, I don’t know why you want to run around town in a catsuit. And I don’t care—except that you picked a bad time. You’re messing with my timetable, Sweetie, and that’s got to stop. So either knock it off for the next, say, two months, or else take it out of town. If you go with the latter and leave town, you can take Barney Fife with you. That numbskull Azrael does not figure into my plan. When I challenge the Bat, it is a clash of Titans! And I don’t need any inferior intellects running around the chessboard. Got it?”
A cat was chewing on her purse and the horrid criminal vermin was giving her an ultimatum?
“I do not deign to take orders from peasants such as you, Little Man,” Talia said coldly.
“Oh, this isn’t an order, Pet,” Riddler answered sweetly, “it’s a threat. Knock it off, or I’ll tell Selina and then she’ll knock something off—probably something you’d rather stay attached to. Like your head.”
The cat discovered a buckle on her purse and began pulling at it.
“‘Cause I gotta say, cute as you looked in the catsuit, I don’t think you got the nine-lives thing in you.”
“An Al Ghul lives a thousand lives,” Talia answered absently, preoccupied for a moment with the soft determined growls coming from the cat as each new tug at the buckle inched her $12,000 Birkin bag along the floor.
Riddler laughed. “’A thousand lives,’ eh? Well, isn’t that special. You’d get on real well with Tom Blake, y’know that, the Catman. Maybe that’s what you’ve got in mind playing dress up with the catsuit, hm? Reowrl. You know what they say: ‘Once you go cat, you never go back.’ Heh, heh, just ask Bruce Wayne…”
The mention of Beloved’s name on the vermin’s lips added a whole new level to Talia’s torment, and, for the moment, her attention recoiled back again, away from the cat and back to the Riddler.
“…lucky guy that Wayne, although what the attraction could be on her side is quite the braintease. The man is an absolute idiot!”
“HE IS NOT AN IDIOT!” Talia exploded, pushed beyond the limits of human endurance. “He is genius made manifest! A repugnant riddling menace like you is not fit to polish his shoes!”
Riddler was taken aback. It wasn’t, if the truth were known, the first time he’d gone a little far with the taunting and wound up getting screamed at. It was such an effort dealing with the dumber sorts like this Talia Head. He had to hold back all his anagrams and word games or he wouldn’t be understood. It was a strain, and he had to be excused for taking a few pot shots when—in addition to merely being stupid—his listeners insisted on making a spectacle of their ignorance.
“…Nor is that diseased cat-slut fit to stand at his side…”
But really, she was carrying on like an absolute Arkham case.
“…to sit at the head of his table…”
Nigma had to wonder if they were talking about the same guy.
“…travel with him to the great capitals of the world…”
Talia certainly wasn’t the sharpest pin in the cushion, but nobody could be so stupid that they thought Bruce Wayne was smart by comparison.
“…unworthy… unfit… undeserving…”
It was almost like she was confusing Wayne with— Oh let’s not even go there.
And it would explain the…
…and, of course, Catwoman.
“…in his box at the opera…”
Now that was a conundrum.
“…photographed arriving on his arm at all the great occasions…”
That was a conundrum worth the conundring.
“…will never truly have him…”
Or whatever it is you do with conundra.
Dick retired to the bedroom as soon as it became obvious he was a riddle-widower for the day. Barbara was analyzing old Post articles on every rogue included in the packet of photos sent with the Croc riddle. As single-minded as Bruce could be with a new riddle clue, he had always included Dick in the process. Barbara wasn’t so generous. She might still be smarting from her exclusion the other night. Dick had been included in that, solving the riddle with Bruce, so this was her show.
It didn’t really matter. Dick had no desire to be petty. He was just… bored. The idea of lying around the house like a lazy-male caricature did have a certain appeal. He was entitled, after all. He worked hard. Tonight, Nightwing was going to suit up and work hard again. Unlike Bruce, he was going to allow himself some downtime. A day off. Why not? If Barbara wanted to spin her wheels all day like a compulsive workaholic, let her. He would rest up for the night ahead.
Unlike Bruce. It was with that happy thought that Dick turned on the television. It had been a long time since he’d had the chance to see The Young and the Restless.
Edward Nigma walked in a brisk figure eight around the lobby of Talia’s hotel, across the street into Robinson Park, around the batting cages, and back across the street and into the lobby.
He had to calm himself. CMON DU RUN, he thought, reflexively generating anagrams for Conundrum. CORN MUD NU… MUD ROC NUN… Batman. MBA TAN… NAB TAM… BAT MAN… oh. Try a different word, something more challenging. Bruce Wayne… Idiot. The man was an idiot. It never made sense, him and Catty. A man like that and a hot babe like Selina. It never made any sense. The brain is the ultimate sex organ, after all. The sexiest men were smart. It was only the dullards that needed the thick hair and six-pack abs… YARN CUB WEE… ANY CUBER WE…
After several minutes of this soothing mental tonic, he found himself back in the park. He stopped his pacing and sat on a bench.
He had a schedule. He had a complete crime spree, his cleverest ever, mapped out. He couldn’t just set it aside. He had already sent Batman the first clues! It was begun. He couldn’t just abandon the scheme at this point. He had already sent the Catwoman clue intertwined with Croc’s. How could he simply ignore that? How?!?
But… But if… If, if, if.
If it were true…
It might be difficult for him to set aside the precedent of riddling clues to announce his next crime. But it would be IMPOSSIBLE to set aside this new possibility and pursue his original scheme as if nothing had happened.
What if Bruce Wayne was Batman?
He had to pursue this question. It was too tantalizing a possibility. The Riddle of the Sphinx was nothing to it. Batman’s identity! The Post crime spree would have to wait. The Catwoman crime would have to be postponed. Yes. No. Yes! What was he, Two-Face? Did he have to flip a coin? No, he was the Riddler! And this was the Riddle of the Ages! And the solution beckoned to him! He would not turn his back on it!
So… How to proceed?
He needed a clue.
It would be folly to build any plan on so shaky a foundation. He had only wild speculation at this point. Only the stupidest fool would construct any theories on the chance words of an agitated hysteric. He needed more pieces of the puzzle.
He looked up at the hotel…
It wasn’t an attractive prospect, but he did know one certain source of information. She who had supplied that first puzzle piece…
It wouldn’t be an easy task considering how he’d begun with her. But Talia Head was not a smart woman; it could probably be managed. He would go back and apologize to begin with. Collect his cat, tell her he liked her spunk. And he would get a room at the hotel—on her floor, if it could be managed. The proximity would be useful. It would help convince her of his interest, and it was certainly more comfortable than the Iceberg basement.
Dick turned off the television and went to rejoin Barbara in the living room.
“Soaps have changed,” he announced.
“Did you say something, Dickie?” she asked absently, engrossed in a Post article about a psychic girl and her pet, the giant four-armed gorilla.
“The soap operas, Young and the Restless, General Hospital. I haven’t watched since college. They’ve gotten really odd.”
“Oh?” Barbara pretended to listen while wondering to herself why psychic girl and her gorilla were fighting vampires. “How’s that?”
“Our heroine, the all-around perfect good girl goes to a doctor to try and help, eh, somebody—I dunno, old friend-enemy-something, you can never tell on soaps—who’s been kidnapped, ‘experimented’ on, all kinds of microbots/cybernetic stuff attached to her. With me so far?”
“Dickie, if somebody was psychic enough to realize a gorilla was sentient, don’t you think they should be able to tell if they’re getting mixed up in a cult of ancient vampires?”
“And it turns out the doctor she’s going to for help is the business partner/college friend/roommate of the woman who’s been trying to wreck her public image because she’s so all-around perfect good-girl how can ordinary women compete with—VAMPIRES?!?”
“That’s what it says, cult of ancient vampires… What were you saying?”
On her prior visits to Gotham, Talia’s entrance into Chinatown would have been conspicuous. Even uptown Gothamites took the subway to the Canal Street station. Tourists sometimes took taxis, but more often arrived by the dozen on double-decker buses. A white stretch-limo from one of the uptown hotels, too wide and unwieldy to turn onto the back streets, that would be noticed. Particularly when it stopped, choking off traffic, and a chauffeur emerged to open the door for a haughty woman in a tailored white suit.
It was lucky the “ghetto fabulous” trend had made designer knockoffs all the rage with the beautiful people. It was assumed that Talia was just another Madison Avenue socialite come in search of obvious fakes. As she marched crisply along the streets too narrow for her limo to travel, she was assailed with whispers of “LV colors—Miss, you want LV colors? Prada? Kate Spade? Burberry?”
She ignored these, but found the food carts and cooking stands harder to blot out. The dirty smells of this horrible city were a positive assault on the sensibilities of any refined being. Once Beloved came to his senses and took his place at her side, their first order of business really must be to move out of this rotten and rotting city.
Talia bypassed these narrow stalls, past padlocked gratings and murky basement stairs, until she found the address she sought. At the curio shop, she slapped In’Qel for raising his eyes in her presence, erasing in a second the softening his eight months in Bludhaven and four weeks in Gotham had brought about. He begged esteemed master Gr’oriBr’di to forgive the intrusion that his most unworthy servant might announce the arrival of the Great One’s Daughter, Talia al Ghul.
Greg was appalled at his star pupil’s regression into a groveling toady, and his concern for the henchman prevented his giving Talia his full attention for the first minutes of her visit.
“I have heard promising reports of you, Gr’oriBr’di of Gotham,” she declared. “Ulstarn speaks of his removal from this post in terms that leave no question of your cunning and brutality. Since that time, so it reaches my ears, you have moved to take over Oswald Cobblepot’s operation as well. This speaks well of your ambition as well as your guile.”
“Oh, I really wouldn’t say I took over anythin—”
“Of course not,” Talia interrupted, “I quite understand.” Too dignified to actually wink, she merely gave a twitchy side nod to indicate her shrewd appreciation of his unspoken tactic.
Talia was very pleased with what she saw in Greg Brady. He was truly everything Ulstarn had said: the innocence with which he denied plotting against Cobblepot, it would fool anyone. He had the requisite power, for he commanded her father’s minions… He certainly didn’t have a fortune on the scale of a Lex Luthor, or even King Snake… but he had cunning and ambition. With cunning, ambition, and power, the fortune would be his soon enough. Yes, he would do very nicely. If Beloved did not soon wake to his destiny, then this Gr’oriBr’di would make a suitable protector in the interim.
“Um… Well, what can I do for you, Miss Head?”
And the vermin Edward Nigma’s advances had given her the perfect means to approach him.
“Al Ghul. Now that I have completed my mission destroying LexCorp, I have taken back the name with which I was born, Talia al Ghul.”
“Your mission destroying LexCorp?” Greg asked. “Ohhh, yes, of course.” He gave the same sideways twitch-nod she gave earlier. “I quite understand,” he assured her. “Well then, Miss al Ghul, what can I do for—”
“I have need of an assassin. Your best. I wish Edward Nigma dispatched without delay.”
To be continued...