Chapter 2: In Bed
Although he had the vast resources of the Order of St. Dumas at his disposal, Jean Paul Valley never felt the need for a large apartment. Azrael favored the Spartan lifestyle of an ancient warrior, dismissing any form of luxury as a dangerous indulgence that softened the soldier spirit. And Jean Paul’s personal tastes were those of a man whose happiest years of life were spent in a college dorm. He was comfortable living on that scale. His furniture wasn’t cheap or deficient, but there wasn’t much of it. His bathroom and kitchen were clean and tidy, but they were small. Like so many Gotham apartments, his kitchen was small. It had never been a problem that he had no room to store full sets of dishes or cooking pans. He never needed them—until now. Now, he turned and twisted, looking for a free surface to set down the cutting board.
He relocated the wok, the teakettle, and the peanut oil to the cold stovetop and told Azrael to shut up.
I spoke not a word, Mortal, the angel pointed out.
Jean Paul set his grocery bag on the freed counter space, then picked it up again and set it on the floor, and put the cutting board on the counter.
“I said shut up, Az,” he repeated.
Mortal, you seem agitated. It is not wise to handle steel, be
it knifeblade or sword, in that state of mind.
“Stir fry, Az. Gotta have everything ready. Onion, pepper, broccoli—where’d I leave the broccoli?—chicken—where’s the chicken?” he muttered.
In the refrigerator.
“Right. Refrigerator. With the dumplings. Oops, put the fortune cookies in there too. They don’t need refrigerated, they’ll get soggy.”
Shut up, Az, Jean Paul thought the
rebuke rather than speaking it aloud. She’ll be here any minute.
I gotta get this ready. Cooking together is big, it’s a new level.
It’s kind of a—
Date. It is a date, Mortal. You have concealed from yourself for many weeks now that you have been dating Ms. Bertinelli—
We’re not dating!
—because it is always she who initiates the social encounter.
Suggesting we get a cup of coffee now and then isn’t initiating anything, Az. And going dutch to the occasional movie together isn’t exactly dating, either.
She is uncommonly aggressive for a female, Mortal. I have pondered whether it is wise for you to indulge her advances as you have, but now that you have at last taken the initiative—
Huge mistake, Az. Huge. Asking her over like that. Why
didn’t I ever notice what a pathetic hovel this place is. We’re going
to have to eat on the coffee table—shit, I should move the TV into the
bedroom or she’ll think I eat in front of the TV like some kind of beer
guzzling scratch myself slob—took half an hour finding two non-chipped
dishes that matched.
Mortal, may I remind you that you—
Are the man? I know Az, I know. I’m the man. I’ve gotta pull it together.
—Undoubtedly. But I was going to say: May I remind you that you still have several vegetables and a chicken to chop up in preparation for this ‘stir fry’ as well as setting the table, and relocating the television to the bedroom, which I concur would be most prudent in presenting yourself as a man of civilized habits. You should then change your shirt. The one you are wearing is somewhat wrinkled. It is a mark of respect always gleaned by the fair sex if you take pains to attire yourself well prior to meeting with them.
You should also shave.
Azrael… Have you got a little thing for Helena?
Nonsense, Mortal. I have every respect for her Huntress
persona as a crimefighting ally, and it will behoove our crimefighting
efforts to make any such modifications to your private life as will bring
YOU’VE GOT A THING FOR HUNTRESS! WAY TO GO, AZ.
…Shave, Mortal. Our time grows short… Indulge not in
that aftershave that smells of a spice market in Budapest.
Yessir, Az. Whatever you say.
Barbara heard the faint tone that indicated an OraCom unit coming online. She checked her panel to see, and it was Dinah’s channel. She watched as the “BC” on the panel glowed orange for five seconds, indicating the new arrival, and then faded to the same black as the other units that were active.
Barbara paused, her finger over the button to open the channel. She had no assignment for Dinah, it was still early, but once upon time, she would have buzzed in all the same to say “Hi.”
Instead, Barbara wheeled herself to the kitchen and started the water for another pot of tea. She had tried to stay out of it. She tried to support her husband and her friend, but the more of an effort she made, the clearer it became that her “friend” didn’t want to be supported. It was like Dinah expected Barbara to hate her, to be as angry and vindictive as everyone else. She was reading punishment into everything, from a surveillance assignment to a mail run to Cleveland, and she had become increasingly defensive, irrational, and bitchy.
But still Barbara let it all roll off her back. She let it pass night after night, snipe after snipe, because she thought she had to; she wanted to prove she wasn’t turning on Dinah just because Dick had. She tried as long as she could; she let as much of it pass—from both Dinah and Dick, neither one appreciating the position she was in, stuck between them—let as much of it pass as she possibly could. But that 20-minute crack was the last straw.
So Dick wasn’t forgiving and forgetting the way Dinah expected. He didn’t think she could be trusted, he’d been incredibly protective of Tim anyway since Jack Drake was attacked, and Nightwing had been left in charge of the team. So if he vetoed loud and clear her little proposition about teaming with Robin and Batgirl while Bruce was away, that was the decision. Was she only prepared to follow orders when it involved lobotomizing captured villains or mindwiping one of their own?
After 10 minutes of listening to Dinah complain as if she was the injured party, Barbara invented a shootout on the docks and closed the channel.
“Twenty lousy minutes,” that’s “all they took,” she said. Was she supposed to do penance “for the rest of her life?”
Barbara had tried to remain neutral, she had tried to distance herself emotionally from the turmoil that was turning everyone else inside out on this, and it was at that moment, she realized she succeeded. Because at that moment she didn’t see “Dinah, her friend” or “Black Canary, the crimefighter”—she saw Norman Panks from the victim’s support group. Norman was a gambler, he ran up debts he couldn’t repay with people you don’t run away from. They went to his house, his wife died in the attack and he wound up in a wheelchair, bullet severed his spinal column, just like Barbara.
He was the most poisonously bitter and repugnant individual you could meet outside of Arkham or Blackgate. And after two months of meetings, Barbara finally realized why: Guilt. Norman knew he was to blame for his wife’s death. He felt he should be punished. So he sabotaged himself with everyone he met, bringing on the abuse and rejection he thought he deserved.
Dinah had been carrying on exactly like Norman Panks. She was sabotaging herself with Barbara and any sympathizers she might have left in the Bat-Clan, and the only reason to do that was guilt. And the only reason to feel guilty is if she knew she’d done something wrong.
Barbara had tried to remain neutral, and only now that she mentally dropped a weight onto one side of the scale and consciously “took a side” against Dinah, did she realize the neutrality was killing her. She’d had a sick tightness in her stomach, in her neck, and a sour taste in her mouth for months. Now, for the first time since the big confession, she actually felt… alright.
“He was off,” Jervis confided to Victor Frieze, Sly the bartender, and Oswald Cobblepot. “Crazy-puzzle-man has its place, naturally, here at the ‘Berg to celebrate a successful heist or impress the groupies. Kaloo to Ka-lay, if you know what I say. But this was a business dinner. This was a negotiation. There was no henchman or henchwench around to impress. It was very odd.”
“What did you do?” Oswald asked, “go full-bore Wonderland on him?”
“Yeah, Mr. Nigma’s always one of the first to point out how annoying that is,” Sly said—then winced apologetically at Jervis Tetch. “I just meant, you know, when you’re not expecting it,” he added weakly, mentally kissing his tips goodbye for the next month.
“Right, give it right back to him” Frieze insisted, ignoring Sly’s faux pas and thumping the bar vigorously with his finger. “You want to play the crazy-theme-villain hand here, Edward? Let’s go. I’ll guarantee I can out-crazy you any day of the week.”
“I tossed out a few,” Jervis said mildly, “but I wasn’t trying to pick a fight. I just wanted to hear his pitch and get on with it.”
“Was it any good?” Oswald asked shrewdly.
“Superb,” Jervis moped. “A million dollar job, technology tied to a helmet. Nothing less than you’d expect from The Riddler. Damnit. It would have made a for a frabjously fruminous felony.”
“Ak-hem,” Oswald coughed, since the annoying-theme subject had been raised so recently.
“Sorry,” Jervis apologized. “Anyway, it was a good target. Broke my heart to turn him down.”
Across the room, Edward Nigma watched the quartet and could guess the topic of conversation. Jervis was such a gossipy little fusspot. He really should have known better, going to a chatterbox like Mad Hatter with a scheme. Eddie reached into his pocket and pulled out the telling little slip from the fortune cookie. He read it over again as he sipped his drink. “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
It was the great riddle of his day. For a man of Edward Nigma’s temperament and profession, it was truly the ultimate question: Who is Batman under his mask? And now he, Edward Nigma the Prince of Puzzlers, had the answer: Bruce Wayne.
So now the great riddle was how to continue. How, knowing that secret, was he to continue BEING the Riddler, making use of the information and yet not making use of it? How to devise the perfect crime, the perfect clue, the perfect means of delivery—and then, how to execute that plan knowing the clue would lead the Bat to the crime scene, to him, into the confrontation and then—and then—and then that was the riddle! How to continue? He could no longer not know, he could no longer… It was Bruce Wayne under that mask—and having that knowledge in the midst of a Bat-confrontation was not as satisfying as he’d expected.
The fact that it was Selina’s boyfriend didn’t help matters, certainly, but even without that complication, there was something strangely… off balance… in the room now whenever Riddler and Batman met.
A teamup seemed the perfect solution. With a cohort present that did not know the secret, both he and Batman would be forced to pretend. Everything would be as it had always been—it would have to be—they would have no choice—at all.
A perfect plan, the perfect solution to the puzzle, everything could go
back to normal—if only Jervis had gone along with it!
Rogue pride. Stupid rogue pride. Because he didn’t think it up himself, that’s why Tetch wouldn’t go along. They were all such self-absorbed shitheads, it would be just the same no matter who he asked, especially with Tetch now running his yap to any Rogue that would listen. No telling what bizarre theories or conspiracies that demented little toadstool was floating around about him at this point.
What to do, what to do, what to do?
There was a sudden, loud moan of disappointment from Raven’s podium at the door. A catgirl was being turned away… looking for Blake of course. She must’ve just learned he was up the river. Eddie winced as he saw her. Groupies…
Now there was a thought.
Rogues were difficult to maneuver, but a henchwench, a henchwench would provide much the same cover. She wouldn’t know Batman’s identity any more than Jervis or Jonathan or Victor would. He would have to pretend, Batman would have to pretend—EUREKA—it would all be the way it was!
Yes, that was the answer. Riddler disliked burdening himself with armies of henchmen. It was undignified—besides which, such men were uniformly stupid and Eddie had to deal with enough stupidity as it was without inviting more right into his hideout and actually letting it in on his plans. Occasionally they were a necessary evil, but on the whole, he avoided hiring henchmen whenever he could.
But a wench, that was another matter. He used to like showing off for a comely lady or two. Echo, Query, Vestige, Doris, Mull, Muse, Puz—
Doris who wouldn’t change her name—or put on a costume.
Doris who wouldn’t be a henchwench.
Doris who said crossword puzzles were no foundation for a lasting relationship.
Doris who had no interest in seeing him in the field, in seeing “The Riddler” do what he did best. Doris who had no interest in the baubles Riddler’s plunder could buy.
Doris who didn’t get off living in the hideout of the famous rogue from the newspapers.
Doris who didn’t get off seeing the face of the famous rogue in bed with her.
Doris who did get off though, quite spectacularly, when he’d…
Well, a guy couldn’t stay on the floor forever. He’d had a bad year, between Harley and Doris and Clurissa and that greened one-nighter-from-hell with Poison Ivy. A bad year and he’d sworn off women for a while, but that was no reason to—
She wouldn’t put on a costume or change her name or be a henchwench, but boy could she return a serve. Dancing together at the Halloween party… “Like in baseball (cha-cha-cha), those kids that hang in the dugout and manage the e-(cha-cha-cha)-quipment, what are they called again?” And literally without missing a beat, she followed his lead: turn-step- “Batboys.” Cha-cha-cha.
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person
Bruce gets Selina. Bruce the-freaking-Batman Wayne gets Selina, and what did Eddie get, hm? “Eddie, we need to talk.” A hazy memory of Poison Ivy looking royally pissed and a dandelion he couldn’t explain in his waistband. The Gotham Post making him over into a GenX Metrosexual on his 40th Birthday, and then… then Batman beats the living shit out of him all because… because…
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
What a hopeless riddle.
Cassie sat in the corner of the Batcave medlab, shivering and breathing rhythmically into a paper bag. Several feet away, Tim held a bloodied bandage against the deepest cut in his leg, maintaining a firm, steady pressure just as Alfred had instructed. They both heard the calm, reassuring warble in the room beyond, as Alfred called a final status report into Nightwing.
“It’s happened to all of us, Cass,” Tim said kindly. “Y’shouldn’t worry about it.”
She glared at him hatefully and the paper bag puffed out violently from her sudden, angry exhale.
Alfred returned, checked Tim’s bandage, and cleared his throat.
“Very well then, you are both to spend the night here in the house. You will make your respective log entries in the morning, and Dr. Thompkins will examine you both at that time. Master Timothy, assuming your wound clots properly and remains free of infection, I would expect you to be cleared to resume patrolling as early as next week. Master Bruce will return tomorrow and make the final determination on when Miss Cassie may resume crimefighting activities.”
“C’mon, Alfred,” Tim interjected, “Ya don’t have to be so grim about it. She feels bad enough as it is.”
Alfred silenced him with a Bat-glare that made Bruce’s look like a cheery wink, then directed a similar look at Cassie.
“It is no trivial thing, young woman, to have proceeded as you did against a villain of the Scarecrow’s stature without waiting for proper backup. You are fortunate indeed that Master Robin was near enough to reach you when he did, and more fortunate still that the toxin to which you were exposed was the generic one for which we have an antidote. If it were one of his more ‘exotic’ blends, you would have to be sedated. As it is, I will still need to monitor your pulse and blood pressure throughout the night.”
“Couldn’t wait. Had hostage,” Cassie said simply.
“See, I told ya, Alfred. Cassie is a pro. If she went in alone, it’s ‘cause she had to. Like any of us would. And the fear gas, it’s like I said, it’s happened to us all, and it’s a lot to deal with. Can’t you guys leave her alone and save the lectures for later.”
Alfred’s face softened as he looked from Cassie back to Tim, then back to Cassie.
“Indeed. My apologies, miss.”
He left quickly, almost awkwardly, and Tim gaped in surprised horror, as if he hadn’t known his own strength and accidentally broke a window by tossing a paper ball at it. He looked at Cassie as if for confirmation that Alfred Pennyworth really had just raced out of the room like a clumsy pickpocket, and then followed the butler in confusion.
Helena Bertinelli smiled. She licked her lips seductively, although the trace of “spicy” peanut stir fry that lingered was remarkably bland. It had been quite a while since she’d been on a real date, and even longer since she felt this kind of comfortable with a man.
It had been building since the night they met by chance on the roof across from Barbara’s apartment: both summoned to a mysterious “attendance mandatory” meeting; both uncomfortable that it was held at Barbara and Dick Grayson’s home; both recognizing that the other was stalling, putting off the dreaded moment as long as possible, and for the same reason. They silently agreed to help each other through the meeting: arriving together divided the attention either would have received walking in alone, sitting together kept them from feeling like the poor relation that had to be invited to the wedding but whom nobody wanted to dance with, and leaving together… well that part wasn’t planned. But given the nature of the meeting, both wanted to talk afterwards, and both realized they wouldn’t be anyone else’s first choice for a confidant.
“What do you think?” Huntress asked as soon as they were back on the roof.
“Betrayal,” the Azrael voice boomed definitely, and then, in a strangely softer tone, “Pretty big betrayal too… And those guys don’t forgive.”
Huntress thoughtfully rubbed her left fist inside her right, as if massaging the knuckles with her fingertips.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I think you and I aren’t the bottom of the totem pole anymore,” she said shrewdly.
The next weeks proved her out. Oracle was calling her more often, with definite assignments, not random check-ins. She wondered if Azrael had been similarly ‘bumped up the food chain,’ but she waited another week before (casually) asking Oracle his whereabouts. That led to the first of those “accidental” meetings.
He had located Ventriloquist and Scarface in some kind of toy factory by the riverfront, and it looked like they were moving into narcotics. Another set of fists always comes in handy in a situation like that. So she’d joined in—Blam—and they fought so well together.—Splotch—They fell into such a rhythm, no instructions needed, just a mutual sense of timing and instinct.—Skrunch—
And then they talked—well, she talked, he was pretty quiet. He struck her as the last guy in the world you’d draft into the crimefighting life. Shy, sweet, self-deprecating, a disarming aw-Dad way about him… Of course she realized that was the guy in the helmet, not the Azrael crimefighting persona, but even so, he seemed like he must be a poet or an artist. Quiet a leap from there to the Blam-Splotch-Skrunch of an arrogant, blowhard vigilante.
She found a way to ask, finally, without seeming to hint about names or day jobs, and that’s when the truth came out. He “sort of inherited the family business,” he said—and with that chance phrase, it all made sense. The daughter of a powerful mob boss, Helena grew up with countless men (and boys) who were cut out for other things, but who followed into a “Family” business because they had no choice.
It was when she told him that part of her own past that the masks came off—and that was quite a shock. He was downright handsome. Helena had been involved with four handsome men, including Grayson, and each turned out worse than the last. She had developed a positive aversion to attractive men: nice to look at meant hell to spend time with. The ego, the arrogance, the ‘sun sets on me’ attitude. But Jean Paul had none of that. She couldn’t believe it when “Azrael” took off his helmet and the man she’d come to think of as this modest, gentle soul looked like a Calvin Klein model. If he’d come up to her in civilian life looking like that, she would have blown him off immediately.
“Would you like some more?” Jean Paul offered, holding out the bowl of “spicy” chicken and broccoli.
“Sure, just a bite,” she smiled… The stir fry was bland, but so was Helena’s social life since becoming the Huntress, and Jean Paul Valley was decidedly not.
The Monarch of Menace’s entrance into the Iceberg Lounge was truly a piece of royal theatre. Raven, the hostess, was never impressed by costumes. She thought some of the doormen were far too quick to let any flamboyant outfit in if it was a slow Tuesday night, and that left her to deal them. The showy figure that stood at her podium was a perfect example, and she called the new doorman (Mark, was it?) in from his post to make her point.
“Okay, now look at this that you’ve sent me,” she hissed, pointing at the new customer’s back. “Head to toe in a red velvet cape and tunic trimmed with, what is that, Dalmatian fur? You send me Cruella De Vil in a Miss America crown and a purple mask.”
Before Mark could explain why he’d admitted the man who admittedly looked more Disney drag queen than Gotham rogue, the reason became clear. Harley Quinn bounced in from the coat check and curled her arm around his.
“Your scepter, Your Majesty” she announced, handing him a long gold stick. “They didn’t want to check it ‘cause it’s electrified and they got a lot a C4 and gunpowder in there already.”
“Harley please, you can call me Mr. M.” he nodded graciously, and she curtseyed and giggled.
Raven blanched and hurried back to the podium.
“Good evening, Harley,” she enthused. “I didn’t realize you two were together.”
“Hiya, Raven. Ooh, pretty blouse,” Harley chirped pleasantly.
Anxious to make up for her earlier lapse, Raven went all out to make the newcomer feel welcome. She offered them a table in the dining room, and when Harley said they only wanted a few drinks, Raven suggested they at least walk through the dining room on the way to the bar, so the Monarch’s outfit could be seen.
Harley was so exhilarated by the whispered buzz of speculation as they walked through the dining room, that she paused at the door to the bar and jangled her tassels for attention. Once everyone turned to see, she posed dramatically and declared, “Rogues of Gotham City, I present you with the Monarch of Menace!”
Alfred returned to the Batcave as soon as he had made up the Rose Bedroom for Miss Cassie. He escorted her silently up the stairs to the clock passage, through the study, across the Great Hall, up the stairs to the bedroom, and down the hall to the Rose Room. There he stopped and coughed, once. To Cassie, it sounded like a Bat-grunt, the kind that preceded a stern talking-to.
“I feel I should reiterate my too-brief apology, miss,” he said formally. “My remarks were truly out of place. I fear that I, as well as Master Nightwing and Miss Oracle, behaved rashly. We have all—”
“Because of Stephanie,” Cassie said with her usual brevity.
“Yes, miss,” Alfred said somberly.
“Stephanie was rash. Went in alone. Bad mistake.”
“Yes, miss,” Alfred agreed. “But your actions should not have been judged because of what happened to her.”
“Was different,” Cassie nodded sadly. “No choice, had hostage. Not rash but still. Went in alone. Still bad mistake. Nightwing angry.”
“Yes, miss, but not with you. We, all of us, still have a great deal of anger and sorrow and fear because of what happened.”
Cassie glanced anxiously down the hall, confirming there was no one around to hear.
“I know. Lied to Tim. Tim ask what I saw, from Scarecrow gas. I said ‘monster.’ Wasn’t. Was Stephanie.”
“I understand, miss,” Alfred said, his eyes moistening. He placed a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “Even without the Scarecrow’s fear-inducing toxins, most of us are all too familiar with that sort of vision.”
Never one to speak if she had nothing to say, Cassie stood in silence and waited to be dismissed. Alfred stood a long moment, analyzing the girl’s silence. Then abruptly he pointed into the room, the gesture and the words to follow harkening back to a time when Master Dick, and before him Master Bruce, tried to connive their way to staying up late on Christmas Eve.
“Off with you, now,” he said with mock severity, “I shall bring you a cup of milk with nutmeg and cinnamon, and after that, in bed and no excuses. You have a full day ahead of you tomorrow.”
With uncharacteristic tact, Oswald waited until Harley went to powder her nose before approaching the “Monarch of Menace.”
“So, a bank robbery,” he quacked, as an introduction. The whole bar had heard the story, how he and Harley Quinn had cleaned out some safe deposit boxes at the State Bank and Trust. “Not a lot of villains rob banks anymore. A pity, really-kwak. It’s such a lucrative activity.”
“Not bad,” the Monarch agreed.
“Of course they don’t keep as much cash around as they did in the old days,” Oswald continued philosophically. “Safe deposit boxes might contain a plethora of treasures but –kwak– you can’t exactly spend a diamond-crusted Rolex at the minute mart. You need a quality agent that can convert a wide variety of merchandise into something more -kwak- liquid.”
“Oswald Cobblepot,” Monarch said with an ironic trill in his voice, “We hereby grant thee official warrant for the sale of our sovereign spoils and dub thee King’s Fence.”
Oswald chewed his cigarette holder thoughtfully.
“Very smooth,” he pronounced like a connoisseur of Roguery and the accoutrements of criminal theme. “I knew the old Monarch,” he continued, to show he was old school and recognized the resurrection of a long-forgotten moniker. “The original Monarch of Menace was not smooth. He was –kwak– something of a buffoon.”
“I know,” the new Monarch murmured subtly through his teeth, just loud enough for Cobblepot to hear. “I look on him as an old, dated movie that was overdue for a remake.”
Helena’s eyes danced sharply as she read her fortune to herself before sharing it with Jean Paul.
“You will be fortunate in everything you put your hands to,” she read in a deliciously liquid voice. Her eyes locked on his, a sexy amusement he didn’t quite understand hanging in the air. “…in bed,” she added finally.
“Huh?” he blurted, his voice cracking.
“You will be fortunate in everything you put your hands to… in bed,” she repeated, with more impatience than seduction in her tone..
“Okay,” he grinned weakly.
“C’mon, don’t you know how to do this? You add ‘in bed’ onto the end of your fortune. Here, look, what did you get?”
Jean Paul gulped.
“My friends never did that,” he said honestly.
“Well you’re going to do it now. Let’s see what you’ve got there,” Helena ordered.
“We did do something like that in the dorm, though, but we added something different on the end.”
“Come on, Jean Paul, let’s see your fortune!” Helena demanded, reaching forward and tickling him until his hand popped open and she snatched the slip of paper.
“Oh my,” she grinned evilly and read aloud, “’You have unusual equipment for success, use it properly’—say it with me now, Hot Shot—‘in bed!’”
Jean Paul grinned sheepishly.
“My friends used a different phrase at the end, that’s all.”
“Oh yeah, I know. Some people say ‘between the sheets’ instead, but ‘in bed’ just works better somehow.”
“That’s not what we did,” Jean Paul said miserably.
“Well, let’s hear it. What did you use?”
“…with this new fully armed and operational battle station.”
“We were geeks,” Jean Paul explained.
Helena burst out laughing.
“Well, that kind of works too. Seems a waste of the unusual equipment, though, you naughty boy.”
Jean Paul read his fortune again.
“You have unusual equipment for success, use it properly—with this new fully armed and operational battle station…”
He looked up, she looked up, and in unison they spoke the last two words.
To be continued...