Chapter 3: Dumbing Down, Ramping Up
Metropolis. It had been “The City of Tomorrow” since 1933 when it hosted a World’s Fair celebrating science and technological innovation. Before that, it was “The City Always Looking Upward” because, in the late 19th century, it gave rise to the first skyscraper and only a few scant years later, the first Ferris Wheel. The wheel was built for the previous World’s Fair in 1893 and designed to rival the centerpiece of the fair in Paris, the largest structure in the world at the time, known as the Eiffel Tower. Metropolis had bested Gotham, Keystone, and Washington D.C. for the right to host the international exposition, and the honor had a profound effect on the city’s architecture and self image. The City Always Looking Upward became a powerful metaphor, the Metropolis Ferris Wheel, and indeed the city itself, became towering symbols of American optimism.
It was the current Metropolis Ferris Wheel, the descendent of that first landmark of the 1893 Exhibition, which now witnessed an exhibition of a very different kind—one decidedly lacking in optimism. At 3 a.m., the Riddler returned to dismantle the deathtraps he’d set up with such care in the #7 and #8 gondolas. He cursed in anagrams as he pulled alpha emitters from their innocent-seeming camouflage. He cursed in iambic pentameter as he strapped inert gamma pods to his belt, and he cursed cats and capes as he loaded reflector pellets into his backpack. Then he left, groaning pitifully from the cumulative weight of the gear, which hadn’t seemed nearly as heavy when he’d installed it.
Eddie couldn’t help but feel that the City of Metropolis had let him down. He’d been inspired by his new surroundings, inspired by the stature of their great hero. He’d given Superman his best, the highest compliment a mind like the Riddler’s had to give. And this—this was what he got for his trouble? A bad back?
Bruce Wayne, like most men of science and like most men of ability, did not believe in luck, fate, curses, signs or portents. This in itself was lucky or there was no telling what he might make of Selina listening to La Donna e Mobile when he found her in her suite. The aria was sung on their first “date” and they’d talked about it on the roof of the opera house that night, but only later did the full meaning of the words sink in:
Woman is fickle,
fickle like the wind,
she changes the tone of her voice and her thoughts
and her thoughts, and her thoughts!
Always a sweet, pretty face,
in tears or in laughter, she is always lying
He is always miserable who trusts in her
who to her confides, his unwary heart!
“You do realize the guy singing is the biggest prick in the entire opera,” Bruce quoted, remembering her comments that night.
Selina looked at him, stunned and slightly horrified, but when she spoke, it was clear her reaction had nothing to do with his comment.
“What happened there?” she asked, pointing to his swollen jaw. If it was morning, she would naturally have assumed that Batman tangled with a gang of chain-wielding bruisers on the docks the night before. But she’d just seen him an hour ago and his jaw was fine. He had no Batman injuries of any kind. What did he do, run into a squad of ninjas in the hallway?
“Oh that,” Bruce said, rubbing the jaw lightly. “Training mishap.”
“You’re so cute when you lie. You don’t have ‘mishaps’ fighting an army of DEMON minions, even when they’re fresh out of their training camp and you’ve been chained in a dungeon for a day and a half. Now you’re telling me that you let a boxing glove on a stick sneak up on you?”
“It happens,” he grunted. “Not often, but it happens. I upgraded the targeting matrix and assault logarithms last week and—”
“…Never mind. I… I just wanted to let you know that I’m heading into town early tonight. I have some work to do in the satellite cave, so you should suit up now if you want to ride in together.”
Selina cocked her head, endearingly confused by the offer.
“If you give me a ride into town, I expect a ride home,” she purred.
“Agreed. Meet on the Moxton building at four.”
Selina was still confused, but she nodded her agreement.
“You’re not…” she began suddenly, then trailed off as the tenor reiterated his distrust of the fair sex and she realized Bruce had already gone.
“Never mind,” she sighed.
This time, the personals ad would read simply: Superman, one doesn’t like to be cliché, but since it’s Daily Planet Day.
Eddie hated the idea of “dumbing down” a riddle. It was an affront to the intellect. It degraded hero and villain alike. It was unworthy of Edward Nigma. So that morning, as he stored away 120 pounds of unused deathtrap for the next time and took an aspirin for his aching back, Eddie decided he would not dumb it down. He would rise above the limitations imposed by a city which, through no fault of its own, had its mental faculties blunted by years of 4-Down asking for an 8-letter word for ice formations. There was no reason to be defeated by this; he would simply have to educate them. Start slow and build them up. The Phantom Zone was too exotic for a first foray with a new foe, that’s where he went wrong. He should begin with something familiar…
Of course, the target was only half the problem. That was the answer. There was still the delicate matter of phrasing the question. It was the clue delivery system itself he had to consider. He was The Riddler, yet would have to somehow reframe his signature conundrums in a way any flying nitwit could understand.
While he pondered these problems, he decided to decorate his lair at the Daily Planet to make a proper impression when the time came for Superman to discover it. With the building-supplied custodial service, Eddie knew he could not go as far as he might in Gotham. But he’d befriended Anita, the large woman who showed up every evening to empty the wastebaskets and vacuum the floors. In the guise of being friendly and personable, he told her that he published a number of games-related magazines. He was thinking of computer games and word puzzles, but his Spanish was spotty and she seemed to think he meant slot machines and lottery tickets. But that didn’t matter, whether she thought his business was games or gaming, Eddie was now free to indulge in a few oversized props and decorations without raising suspicions. There was nothing like hanging a giant tangram on the wall to clear the mind, setting the stage for a sudden spark of inspiration—and in this case, there was nothing like taking a half-minute to chat with the cleaning woman either. For Anita supplied the crucial spark herself. She said she was taking her son to the Meteors game on Saturday. It was Daily Planet Day, and the paper was giving away tickets to anyone who worked in the building.
Everyone thought about it their first week working at the Iceberg: Joe Pesci getting whacked in Goodfellas. Guy’s just walking along, not a care in the world, steps into a backroom, and in the split second it takes to notice that things are not what they should be—BLAM!—brains blown across the floor.
The old-timers like Sly and Raven hadn’t thought about that for years. But Sly had a horrifying flashback when he came into work that morning. He’d unlocked the ‘Berg itself, collected the mail, and saw the new Fodor’s guide was in. There was a cover letter from the publisher informing Mr. Cobblepot of an expanded listing for the Iceberg Lounge, highlighting it as a Must-See for the adventuresome Gotham tourist.
Excited by the news, Sly had run up the stairs to Oswald’s flat above the nightclub, opened the door, and—BLAM!—In the split second it takes to notice things are not what they should be, he flashed on Joe Pesci’s brains getting blown across the room while his own brain registered the sight his eyes were showing him: Oswald Cobblepot was not wearing pants!
Siegel Field. With the fall of LexCorp, the former LexAir Stadium had reverted to its original name, the name true Metropolans had never stopped using, the name painted on the original hand-operated scoreboard which had never been changed—despite Lex Luthor’s vehement lobbying. It was one of the few public relations battles Luthor had lost with the people of Metropolis. Even at the height of his political and economic domination of the city, he could not convince them to deface that beloved landmark. There was an electronic board installed beneath it in the late 80s and that, of course, had been quickly altered to reflect the new name. In addition, LexCorp installed 90-foot video screens around the stadium, and these too were emblazoned with the LexAir name on every open surface. These vulgar displays had recently been replaced with newer video screens, courtesy of WayneTech, and of course, the new screens displayed the original Siegel name with respect, but considerably more restraint.
It was Daily Planet Day at Siegel Field. No one considered the Metropolis Meteors vs the Keystone Coyotes to be a clash of titans, but it was Daily Planet Day. That was a good enough reason for Clark and Jimmy to attend the game. Lois said she enjoyed cheap beer as much as the next woman, but it was impossible for her to join them. Perry had made good on his threat to run her two-part profile of Morris Kendel, water reclamation inspector for the tri-state area. He was running it this very weekend (Part I, Saturday; Part II, Sunday—Oh the Humanity!), and Morris was throwing a party to celebrate. He’d invited Lois as the guest of honor and, rather than be subjected to whatever hoedown someone like Morris Kendel might throw to celebrate his fifteen minutes of fame, Lois told him she was covering a border skirmish in Uzbekistan. Ergo, she could not risk being pictured in the inevitable photo spread the sports section would run on Sunday: all the Daily Planet celebs at Siegel Field on Daily Planet Day. What’s more, she had to find out where Uzbekistan was, who was on their borders, and why they might be fighting with them.
So it was just Clark and Jimmy in the DP box at the bottom of the fifth. Perry had gone “for a hotdog” again, but really he’d just gone to pace. He found it impossible to sit still, and everyone around him found it impossible to not fantasize about him being killed by an errant flyball. So he’d go “for a smoke” and then, remembering that was no longer possible, he’d say he was going for a hotdog. As he left, the electronic scoreboard and video screens sprang to life as they always did at the end of an inning. But this time, instead of the usual player stats or close-ups of people in the crowd, a gleaming Superman emblem appeared on each of the video screens. Then a blur of red and blue color zipped from one screen to the next, as if the Man of Steel was flying around the stadium faster than the eye could see. Finally, after several revolutions, the colored blur seemed to collide with the electronic scoreboard. After an animated dot-matrix cartoon resembling a meteor’s (or perhaps Superman’s) impact at the very center of the scoreboard, the following words were displayed:
My first is the first,
letter that is.
My second means you owe a debt
that your debtor is sure to collect.
My third is 3/4 sold.
And my whole?
The last line of the riddle blinked on and off three times while the opening lines remained constant. Then all but the first line blacked out, so the screen read simply “My first is the first, letter that is” and the enormous video screens sprang to life again, all displaying the same image: a giant letter A.
After a moment, the next lines of the riddle returned on the electronic scoreboard. “My second means you owe a debt that your debtor is sure to collect.” On the projection screens, LIEN faded in beside the A. “My third is 3/4 sold” the electronic board added. SOL, the projection screens answered.
“And my whole?” the electronic board blinked again. ALIEN SOL, the projection screens blinked back.
Innovation. Any rogue worthy of the name had to challenge himself now and then. Scarecrow had been pleased with this effort, varying the formula while still maintaining those signature elements which defined him. The radio giveaway was carefully rigged to select only Hudson University students as winners. This afternoon, each “winner” had received their prize, a new iPod tricked out with the new contact version of his fear toxin carefully applied to the headphones. The plastic coating would have melted at body temperature, releasing the drug into their systems and priming them for the time-release trigger set to go off at midnight.
He’d been gratified to hear the first screams from the Isaacson dorm, but then nothing. He’d selected his location to enjoy the full range of terrors bursting forth around the campus, but the only screams he heard were from that one building. He was certain the targeted students were scattered throughout all the dorms and fraternity houses. As he approached Isaacson to enjoy what he could of the limited fright (and possibly discover what had gone wrong with the others), he felt a tap on his right shoulder. It was a familiar and menacing tap, and Scarecrow turned to see the expected blackness in the shadows right before a gloved fist shot from the darkness and thrust him with agonizing force into the brick wall behind him. His legs crumpled, his vision blurred, and his head swam as he found himself staring at the fuzzy outline of a Bat-boot, while above him, he heard a door open.
“I said not to open the door,” the terrifying Bat-voice graveled.
“It sounded like a knock,” a squeaky, gutless co-ed answered.
“It wasn’t. It was him.”
The boot nestled under his armpit and flipped him over, and Jonathan Crane found himself looking up at two blurs: A black one with points on top and a blonde one in a Hudson U sweatshirt. He focused on the seal on the blonde blur’s shirt, trying to force it into sharper focus, while Batman told the students of Isaacson Hall that they could stop screaming, the ruse had worked.
Innovation, there was a delicate balance involved, maintaining those signature elements which defined him, but varying the formula enough so as not to be… Scarecrow winced as he heard the click of the Batcuffs behind his back… predictable.
ALIEN SOL. As a challenge, it was plain enough. How often had Luthor addressed Superman sneeringly as “the alien” and how many villains since had taken up the call? He was the Alien; Sol was the Latin word for sun. Either an enemy was going to come at him, the alien, through an attack on his power source, the sun, somehow depriving him of its benefits, or else “alien sun” was itself the nature of the attack, for even minute amounts of radiation from Krypton’s sun could cripple Superman’s abilities.
Superman had experienced both forms of assault in the past and was confident he could defeat either if he knew the attack was coming. He paid a quick visit to the Fortress to set up a few simple precautions. If he didn’t re-initialize the automated system every six hours, it would notify Bruce and the Watchtower of a Sigma alert and file a story in Clark Kent’s name from Dallas, Texas. He set up flight squares on specific rooftops, with lead shielding and reflectors, where he could escape from most beam weapons. He took a quick buzz around the sun too, super-charging the solar battery of his body and searching for any kind of anomaly. He also checked the nearest asteroids, planets, and their moons capable of launching an assault on the sun.
Meanwhile, the Riddler sat in the bowels of an improvised hideout within Met-STAR Press, eating Chinese takeout with Lois Lane. He apologized again for the awkwardness; dim sum wasn’t the easiest thing to eat one-handed. But he was sure she would agree that he’d been more than reasonable, untying her one hand and removing the gag so she could eat.
“The truth is, I never planned on feeding you,” he explained, as if embarrassed by a social lapse. “I expected we’d all be done with this hours ago. Does he always take this long to show? Must be very tiresome for you.”
Lois inspected a fried dumpling and then regarded the Riddler with equal suspicion. She was the most kidnapped human being on the planet, but even for her, this was a very peculiar situation. She scrutinized the dumpling again, and then the Riddler. On the one hand, she could refuse all food (and the bizarre attempt at conversation) and risk offending her abductor, possibly triggering a violent outburst which might or might not draw Superman’s attention. On the other hand, she could risk the dumpling in the interests of humoring the Riddler, and draw him out, which would certainly make for a better story.
“Where are we again?” she asked, stalling for time as she weighed her options.
“Med-STAR Press,” he answered patiently. “The printing center for Metropolis Standardized Testing And Reporting. They only make up standardized tests for middle and secondary schools throughout the Midwest. Hasn’t anyone ever used this place before? With the other S.T.A.R. such an obvious target, it’s a perfect decoy.”
Rather than attempt to answer, Lois ate the dumpling.
“Granted it’s not as sexy as making off with all the paraphernalia to crack the Phantom Zone and ransoming it back to the city,” Riddler went on defensively, “but it is an S.T.A.R. too, and it is up to its eyeballs in question marks.”
“Mhm,” Lois agreed cautiously.
“Not sure what kind of themed crimewaves you people are used to,” he added irritably. “I mean, ‘Toyman’ ‘Prankster,’ it really doesn’t inspire terror, y’know. Joker can make the Secret Service piss themselves just by showing up someplace. And Harley can make ’em nervous just because if she’s around, then Joker might be. Did you know she once shut down trading on the stock exchange? It’s true, for fifteen minutes, just going into a Duane Reede on Wall Street to buy a toothbrush.”
Lois asked for the dipping sauce and a napkin. She was at the point where she’d started writing the story in her head for when she was free.
“Then there’s Luthor,” Eddie ranted on. “No denying he’s the smart one, I’ll give you that. Made it all the way to the White House, sure. But then what, hm? Taken out by a scandal. A reporter gets under his skin so he tries to have the guy killed, come on! Plus letting that demonspawn run his company, that speaks for itself on the fuck-up scale and—are you listening?”
Lois nodded vehemently and hurriedly chewed her dumpling.
“You had that far away look, like you’re carrying the one,” Riddler said suspiciously.
She shook her head vigorously and finally swallowed.
“No, no, paying attention,” she assured him. “Luthor’s the smart one, but not really because of scandal-reporter-skin, spawndemon-fuck-scale, are you listening.”
“It didn’t look like you were paying attention,” he repeated. “You had this frozen look and you were staring up in that corner—which is just what I do at the Iceberg when Croc is talking about his love life and I’m forced to calculate Pi.”
Lois looked horrified.
“Croc is that big killer crocodile guy, right?”
“Killer Croc, Waylon Jones, yes. There are visuals I do not need defiling the sacred temple of my mind, so I calculate Pi. You remember that Britney Spears ad for Diet Pepsi?” he asked.
Lois nodded mutely.
“Thirty-six decimal places.”
Pushing the envelope. Hugo Strange knew as well as anyone that if you wanted to take on an adversary like Batman, you had to push the envelope. The man’s cunning was legendary. Nevertheless, he was only a man, and every man had a weakness. In Batman’s case, it was Bruce Wayne. Hugo’s previous attempts to target Wayne may have gone awry, but those failures resulted from faulty methodology, not a faulty hypothesis. In the past, Hugo attempted to lure Wayne into circumstances where he could be dealt with in his civilian identity. He could see now the great flaw in his approach. He used the knowledge that Bruce Wayne was Batman. He did not use the knowledge that Bruce Wayne was Bruce Wayne.
Bruce Wayne was Batman. It was well and good as far as it went. If Hugo could catch Wayne with his guard down, then Batman could be drugged, hypnotized, or killed outright. But all Hugo had ever done with that information was realize Bruce Wayne was the man to go after. It was time to push the envelope! He should not waste his time trying to lure Bruce Wayne into anything. He should use Wayne’s own life as the means to know where he would be! Every year, the Wayne Foundation spearheaded a blood drive. Tomorrow, Bruce Wayne would appear at the Park Row Clinic for a photo op, giving the first pint of blood to kick off the event. This year, Hugo would arrange for that blood to be drawn by Brian Dobson, his agent, with a special needle treated to inject enough serum to cripple Wayne’s will, making it impossible for him to perform the simplest of tasks—let alone function as Batman—for the seventy-two hours it would take to drive him completely insane.
Brian had infiltrated the Park Row Clinic six weeks before as a volunteer. Now, it only remained to remove this Leslie Thompkins from the equation so that Brian could take her place in the photo op with Wayne. Hugo waited outside her brownstone, chloroform rag in hand. He waited… waited… wondered what kind of all-night bingo game could be keeping the old biddy so late… and waited some more. At last, he spotted his target and moved in, ready to jump her as soon as she paused at the door with her key—when he was suddenly knocked off his feet by the gut-wrenching impact of a vigilante’s boots meeting his sternum mid-swing. He was then hoisted into the air by the same vigilante—difficult to identify by only the blur of boot and glove Hugo had seen thus far—grabbing him by his collar, carrying him for the length of the swing, and then hurling him from a height into a dumpster.
Minutes passed while the pain of a concussion mingled with the stench of rotting garbage.
Hugo was finally yanked unceremoniously out of the dumpster by the vigilante—who turned out to be Nightwing. Hugo pointed with a stern index finger at his nose, planning to lecture this brawling boy about the serious nature of head trauma and the inadvisability of dropping unhelmeted heads into metal dumpsters from a height… but he found his speech was slurring too badly to make himself understood, and he wound up passing out in the ambulance before reaching Arkham.
Pushing the envelope. It was necessary if you wanted to take on an adversary like Batman, but there was a great deal of trial and error involved.
“Not wearing pants?” Sparrow asked, horrified.
Sly’s hands still shook as he related the story.
“It was like this when I first came to work here,” he warbled. “Mr. Cobblepot would lay these traps for Batman: a suspicious file left conspicuously out in the open, with that golden finch knickknack sitting on top of it, facing precisely 23 degrees north by northwest—he knew, he measured. He’d come in every morning and check it with this laser thingy he got from Sharper Image.”
“Okay, creepy,” Sparrow agreed. “But… that’s being paranoid about Batman. And his pants are still on. So how did…?”
“He starts second-guessing himself,” Sly explained. “’Wait a second-kwak-did I move the finch myself to get to the phone?’ Then he’ll start retracing his steps. ‘Sly hands me receipts… Raven asks about day off… walked to window… practiced putting with umbrella… went to bathroom… phone rings… come out to answer… go back to retrieve pants… come out to answer again… Did Batman have time to get in and out?’”
“Okay, well, I can see how the pants came off that time, but it’s still basically just Penguin being crazy-paranoid about Batman, and let’s face it, he knows more about that than any of us, right?”
“Yeah,” Dove agreed, joining the conversation. “And that was all in the past, right? When he first opened the club. It doesn’t really fit in with the cleaning kick he’s been on, and it doesn’t exactly explain why you had a full-frontal Oswald encounter today.”
“I was getting to that,” Sly shuddered. “He rented one of those steam cleaners to do his carpets upstairs.”
“Oswald Cobblepot is steam cleaning his own carpets?” Sparrow wailed. “That’s insane. He gets flunkies to do everything. When I first came to work here, he expected me to cut up his meat for him.”
“I’m just telling you what happened. He does usually get a wench or a henchman to do anything menial, but he’s not satisfied with how anyone else cleans right now. He says Claw and Crow ‘cut corners,’ Talon tracks in more dirt than he sweeps up, and Feather gets fingerprints on everything. So he’s up there cleaning the carpets himself, and he somehow backed his way into the bathroom. And since he was stuck, he… took a shower.”
“While the carpets dried,” Sparrow said flatly.
“I’m guessing it was a very long shower,” Sly said meekly.
Eddie was excited. Here, he had finally found a Metropolan on his own level.
Lois had been just as desperate as Eddie to escape mental images of Killer Croc viewing a Britney Spears commercial for the first time, so she confessed. She confessed that she’d been kidnapped so often over the years that she had it down to a system: While a part of her sat, laid, or knelt there strapped, chained, or cuffed to the monolith, altar, or rocketship, the rest of her started work on the story she would file when it was over. She could carry fourteen to eighteen paragraphs in her head, full text, or notes and bullet points for thirty.
Riddler could appreciate anyone who worked in their head that way, he did it himself! He quickly embarked on a flight of anagramming fancy, beginning with her name as he’d scrambled it to put Superman on notice about his intended kidnapping of ALIEN SOL, and ending… ending with the disquieting observation that the letters LOIS LANE could also be rearranged to spell LO SELINA (another woman who could keep up with him in a city of pinheads that couldn’t. And would it have killed her to at least call him after that winged rat broke his legs? After all the trouble he went through to warn them about the little Harvey mix-up? And what does he get for his trouble, hm? Their flying pitbull runs him off the Wayne property, and not a month later, NOBLER KEGS. So fine, screw her, screw them both. Here he was in a nice enough city with its very own flying hero that didn’t need a Batline to do it.)
Eddie kept that acidic thought to himself, and instead composed a brief poem: Ode to an Alien Sol.
Everyone thought about it their first week at the Iceberg: Robert DeNiro as Al Capone in The Untouchables, strolling around the room, talking about teamwork, handling a baseball bat to illustrate his point as he walks behind his seated capos, all of them nodding and grunting their agreement as he spoke about the team. Button, Button, Who’s got the button, and all of a sudden—BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!-SPLAT—he beats an offending yes man’s head into a bloody pulp that lands in his Waldorf Salad with a meaty squelch.
The thought haunted Raven when she first went to work for Oswald Cobblepot. Every night when she walked into the club, it occurred to her that this might be it: she’d open that door and a dozen henchmen and emperor penguins would be pointing machine gun umbrellas at her head. It never happened, of course, and she’d become accustomed to Oswald, the Iceberg, and the rogues who called it home. She hadn’t thought about those old movies for years—until tonight, when she’d walked into the lounge without a care in the world—and found herself staring at a “reception committee.” Gina, Sparrow, Dove, Feather, Claw, Crow, Talon and Sly were all standing there waiting for her, grim with purpose.
“Ozzy’s gotten weird,” that was the gist of it. There was the mini-vac, and it was not for listening devices that were so small they could be mistaken for cookie crumbs. The staff considered that possibility first, but Oswald said he had every confidence in the regular anti-bugging precautions built into the Iceberg walls from the first week of operation. Then there were the air purifiers, which hit you with the smell of ozone and static electricity as soon as you opened the office door. Again, the staff considered the possibility that this was a very sensible precaution on Oswald’s part. There really could be spores and pollen in the air. Poison Ivy hadn’t been seen for a while, but maybe Oswald knew something they didn’t.
Raven agreed that it was all very odd, but Oswald had always been eccentric. Birds and umbrellas, for heaven’s sake! She didn’t think it was any of her business. The rest of the staff briefly considered “the M. C. 3.” Jonathan Crane, Jervis Tetch, and Hugo Strange. All Iceberg regulars who incorporated mind control into their criminal endeavors as the Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, and ‘That Creepy One with the Glasses and the Funny Name.’ All three were released from Arkham fairly recently—but not recently enough to have racked up thousands of dollars in alibi fees on their monthly bar tabs, which was the usual reason customers turned against Oswald. The staff had spent the better part of the day discussing fear toxins, hats, and Pavlovian conditioning, and none of them could come up with anything the M. C. 3 had to gain by turning Oswald Cobblepot into Adrian Monk… and that’s what brought them to Raven.
“Seeing as you’re so tight with Dr. Bart and all,” Sly announced like it was the most reasonable thing in the world, “we were thinking you should have him come down and have a talk with Ozzy.”
Raven refused. She agreed that Oswald was acting strange—a declaration punctuated by the sound of the mini-vac humming again behind his office door, then switching off, and a series of kwaking-coughing curses about the cloud of dust when he changed the bag on this thing—But, Raven declared fiercely, that didn’t mean he was Arkham-crazy. It wasn’t her problem, and it certainly wasn’t Leland’s. Ozzy didn’t need a shrink, she insisted—as the office door opened and Oswald waddled out with a dustbag that he carried and then disposed of like it contained a mini-vac size allotment of nuclear waste—What he needed, Raven concluded, was an exorcist.
Lois had brought this on herself, she realized that. She simply wasn’t sure what to do about it. A half-hour had passed, Superman was nowhere in sight, and Riddler had pulled up a chair across from her so they sat almost knee-to-knee. He didn’t want to “overstep” as a kidnapper, but he wished to express NICHE SCORN, “his concern” that is, for the bigshot hero’s obvious neglect.
“I thought he was supposed to be good at this ‘saving Lois’ stuff,” Eddie said sincerely. “I know you’re with that Kent character now—and snaps for going with brains over brawn, by the way, that alone shows you’re a smart woman—but back to the cape. You’re still supposed to be Superman’s special gal, right? Seems like he’s not taking very good care of you, that’s all I’m saying. I had an elaborate plan to grab you, assuming Superman would be, you know, guarding you. Not like I didn’t explain the riddle clear enough, ALIEN SOL, so even someone in this ‘7-letter word for newspaper’ town can understand. And what do I find? Are there any precautions or protections in place to thwart me? No! There you were, just sitting at home, reading travel advisories for Uzbekistan—and misspelling landlocked, by the way, there’s no hyphen…”
Lois tried twice to defuse the situation. She explained that kidnappers, particularly those who grab her to get Superman’s attention, tend to be fairly similar, especially when something goes wrong. There are very predictable responses, often involving a gun to her head. Riddler was the first one to… to do whatever that was he just did (pitching woo?), and she really felt she should step in before this went any further. She was going to put aside the fact that she was a prisoner (lord knows, he seems to have done), and talk to him frankly, like a person:
“Don’t get flirty with the hero’s girl. Even though I’m married to Clark now, Superman and I are quite close, and you don’t want to get chummy. The results could be unfortunate—for you. I’m not saying he’d break your legs or anything, but—”
She had to stop then. It seemed Riddler was choking on a wonton. Lois didn’t think she could perform the Heimlich maneuver handcuffed to a chair, but she was prepared to try anyway when he managed to dislodge the obstruction on his own.
“I was NOT pitching woo,” he announced, trying for dignity.
He said he was just frustrated, he said he could put a gun to her head if it would make her feel more comfortable. Lois said no, that wouldn’t help. He said good, he didn’t possess one. And that concluded Lois’s first attempt to defuse the situation.
Time passed… And still no Superman arrived…
Lois wasn’t expecting him any time soon. She realized that he wouldn’t know she’d been taken until he went home and found her missing, and if he’d seen this “Alien Sol” clue at the ballgame, he would have gone straight into defense mode elsewhere. So she was on her own—which was the way she liked it. She regarded the Riddler shrewdly, and resolved to try again.
“Calculating Pi?” she asked sweetly. “You’re looking off into the corner.”
“Not that into math,” he responded gruffly. “The query of the day is ‘Where are this guy’s priorities?’”
“Oh, because you looked bored,” Lois said casually.
“I’m not bored. I am pondering what passes for thought in this so-called Superman’s less-than-super brain. I am putting forth the proposition that if the guy’s ‘interest’ makes you a target, then he’s got some responsibility to be taking care of you, and in my opinion, to be doing so a lot better than this,” Riddler said, snapping back to the original subject.
“Maybe it’s a Gotham thing,” Lois sighed, giving up.
Riddler arched an eyebrow… he began to feel he was about five seconds away from what Dr. Bartholomew would call “an episode.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked archly.
“It means that you’re the strangest little man who’s ever kidnapped me,” Lois replied, “And that’s saying something. And the most atypical kidnapping prior to this was Catwoman, so I figure it must be some kind of Gotham—
“LOOK, I DO NOT HAVE A THING FOR SELINA!” he screamed. “SHE DANGLES MODIFIERS, FOR ONE THING, SHE WON’T WEAR GREEN ON A BET, AND SHE HAS NO TASTE IN MEN! JUST BECAUSE A GUY DOESN’T STAND AROUND WHILE SOME ‘CATNIPS THUDS’ GOES RUNNING AROUND TOWN LIKE A FAKE CATWOMAN, DOESN’T MEAN HE FEELS ANYTHING BEYOND ORDINARY FRIENDSHIP FOR THE REAL CAT! I HAD EVERY REASON TO STEP IN THERE, SHE WAS MESSING UP MY TIMETABLE. IT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH KEEPING SELINA OUT OF TROUBLE, AND FLUMMOX IS A CUTE NAME FOR A CAT ANYWAY. THAT WAS A FAIR CLUE, WHETHER THEY APPRECIATED IT OR NOT. AND OF COURSE I’M GONNA SEND IT TO THE HOUSE! IT’S A LIVING THING! YOU CAN’T GO PUTTING A LIVE CAT IN A CARDBOARD BOX AND JUST DROP IT AT THE Bat-Signal. AIR HOLES OR NOT, IT COULD BE UP THERE FOR HOURS BEFORE SOMEONE FINDS IT, MIDDLE OF THE SUMMER, THE THING COULD UP AND DIE AND THEN WHERE WOULD I BE, HM? DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT SHE’D DO TO ME IF I KILLED A CAT?”
Nonsensicalicitiousness, the benchmark of genius. Anyone could be bizarre, off base, or weird. If invention consisted of nothing more than thinking what had not been thought before because it was stupid, where would be the cleverness in that? But Nonsense, Inspired Nonsense is the essence of genius. Genius does not reject what has gone before, it transcends it. A white rabbit, a rabbit hole, a red queen and a hookah-smoking caterpillar, that is genius, nonsensicalicious genius.
The Mad Hatter did not cling faddishly to headwear as the only means to attach his control chips to a victim, not with such a frabjous alternative before him. A dance club called The Rabbit Hole, the very name Jervis Tetch would have chosen as a front. But he didn’t! The owners came up with the name on their own, along with the idea of wristbands: red, yellow, and blue. Red meant only that a valid ID had been presented at the door. Yellow could access the VIP room. Blue was for designated drivers to receive free soft drinks at the bar. All were made of plastic jelly, ideal for concealing control chips.
It only took a day to take over the club and a week to make the adjustments. The wristbands didn’t have that ideal proximity to the brain that you had with a nice tophat, but they could easily keep a trance going once the subject was under, and the flashing lights and thumping music of the dance club presented countless opportunities for that. At the end the first week, the Mad Hatter had his new Wonderland operating at full capacity… until somehow it all turned against him. He still didn’t now how it happened, but all of a sudden the music stopped, the lights came up, the March Hare opened up the doors and the Knave of Hearts ordered everyone to leave in a calm, orderly fashion. Alice herself admitted Robin to the Hatter’s private sanctum above the dance floor, and then she kicked him in the groin after Robin had him handcuffed. It was conversish and contrariwise, and he couldn’t figure out how his most cleverishiciously secretocious operation had been discovered.
“Tim and Randy-quad had a couple fake IDs?” Catwoman laughed. “Boys will be boys, I guess. Tough break, Jervis.”
Batman grunted, looked out over the city and back at Selina. He’d finished his second patrol early and reached the Moxton roof an hour ahead of schedule. To his surprise, Selina swung by a few minutes later, and he’d been telling her about the night’s successes. At first, it was an odd throwback to the first visits to her apartment after patrol. There was something about being in costume and still in the city. He’d remained in a Batman frame of mind, the old detachment holding firm as he talked about apprehending Scarecrow and Nightwing’s capture of Hugo Strange. But that changed as he told her about The Rabbit Hole. Bruce couldn’t be sure if it was her reaction or something in him, but he felt the shift. Robin apprehending Mad Hatter was a Batman concern, but Tim sneaking into a nightclub with a fake ID…
“He said he was ‘just trying to keep up appearances around Randy’ and ‘look like a normal teenager.’”
“Then, I imagine, he found himself on the receiving end of the back alley glare,” Selina guessed. “The one that makes third generation wiseguys consider life in a Jesuit monastery?”
Batman stifled the liptwitch.
“He says he’s got ‘great intel’ on the underground fake ID racket.”
“That’s two,” Catwoman growled in her playful imitation of the stern bat-gravel.
This time, Batman permitted his lip to twitch.
“I do believe his final excuse, that sneaking into the club had nothing to do with buying alcohol. It’s just that ‘all of the good clubs in the city’ are strictly twenty one and over, and the teen-focused alternatives ‘just suck.’”
“Poor kid,” Selina laughed sympathetically. Then a comfortable silence settled over the rooftop and, feeling the easy contentment, Selina broke into a gently playful grin. “So now will you tell me how you hurt your jaw?”
“Sadly, it really was a training mishap… It’s just that, well, I was a little distracted this morning,” he admitted.
“Mmm… Any chance that it was my little New Zealand celebration that distracted you?” she asked with a teasing purr.
“You did seem a bit… over-excited by it all.”
“Oh Woof. You admit it. Here I thought you’d fib and I would get to say ‘That’s two’ again.”
He said nothing. Another comfortable silence was filled with the distant sound of traffic on the river, and little else.
“I have another question… an awkward one,” Selina said softly. “Did we ride in together tonight so I would be stuck with you as my ride home and it would be damn tricky for me to take the entire Egyptian Wing home in the back of the Batmobile?”
“They do have a complete mock up of a pyramid, several sarcophagi and a full scale temple, I doubt it would fit in the back seat,” he said flatly.
“Why? Did you at least consider the possibility that I might Watergate it?”
“No, of course not,” he answered instantly. “I honestly don’t know what you might do at this point, Selina, but I knew it wasn’t that.”
“Good. I’m glad… and maybe a little disappointed.”
“What, you want me to think that you’d still go out there and do something like that?”
“No, of course not,” she said, echoing the speed and inflection of his delivery. “Maybe it’s just… Jervis, Jonathan, Hugo, and some chick in New Zealand. Everybody’s having a little fun tonight except me.”
“…” Lois stared, appalled.
“…” Eddie replied, defiant.
“…” she repeated.
“…” he retorted.
“That was off the record,” Eddie said meekly.
Lois raised a humorless eyebrow and tapped an impatient foot. Eddie pursed his lips, silently stubborn, as his eyes darted around the room to a pair of chopsticks (COP’S SHTICK), a pair of handcuffs hooked on a folding chair (A CHILD OF GRIN) and six unexploded exploding question marks (TAME QUIRKS ON-oh why bother?) The flotsam of another failed attempt at criminal greatness, that’s what he was looking at, and his frustration spiked as he kicked an empty Chinese takeout container—which ricocheted off a printing press and bounced back to hit him in the head.
Lois smiled kindly.
“I’m just going to escape on my own now. Ta.”
To be continued...