Chapter 5: World’s Finest (Poor World)
It had finally happened. Selina was ready to admit she was wrong. Crimefighting… was okay.
She was in the Four Seasons Spa’s “relaxation room,” nestled behind a privacy curtain, enjoying a post-treatment snack. First, they had soaked her feet in rose petal milk. Then came the foot massage with damask rosewater and primrose oil, followed by a layer of rose petals applied to her legs, to be held in place by a wrap of deliciously hot towels. A hydrating facial was next, after which she was brought to this cozy little nook that reminded her of a miniature cat lair full of plush, comfy furnishings that seemed like oversized cat-toys. The attendant brought her the caviar canapé and glass of champagne included with her spa package, and Selina lay back, skin glowing, scented legs a-tingling, sipping, munching, and admitting finally that, if this was crimefighting, it wasn’t all that objectionable.
“When is a waiter like a thwarted Gotham foe?” a familiar voice asked outside the curtain.
Selina laughed and pulled the curtain aside to reveal Edward Nigma dressed as a spa attendant and carrying a bottle of champagne.
“I’ve no idea, Eddie my pet. When is a waiter like a thwarted Gotham foe?”
“BAT FOOLED BY RHYME BLUR,” he announced proudly, topping off her glass.
“That’s the worst riddle I’ve ever heard,” Selina said sourly.
“It means ‘more champagne for the lady,’” he explained with exaggerated dignity, defending his quip. Then he slipped a second glass out of his jacket, filled it, and sat down on the ottoman next to her.
“How you doing, ‘Lina?” he asked warmly.
“Not bad. Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving Gotham?”
“Didn’t want to call you at home,” he said, taking a drink. And then, feeling he should keep the question chain going, he asked, “What kind of treatment did you get?”
She explained about the rose petals, and he slapped his leg in delight.
“Hot damn, the massacre of the flora! Pammy’d hate that. I heard this place goes through 10,000 flowers a week, what with the arrangements in the lobby and all the rooms and stuff.”
Selina laughed wickedly.
“Yes, she would hate it, wouldn’t she. Added fun. Oh, that reminds me, thank you for the pussywillows.”
He bent his head in an embarrassed ‘aw shucks’ move, then he looked up, as if expecting more.
“And thank you for the chocolate,” she added gamely.
He grinned and patted her leg.
“Nothing’s too good for my girl.”
Silence followed. Selina finished her champagne, and Eddie did likewise.
“So when do I get ‘in?’” she said bluntly, trying to jumpstart the conversation.
“In?” he looked up sharply, a catch of awed hope in his voice.
“Clue number three,” Selina purred, leaning forward seductively, and then pronounced the word like the sweetest of sins. “In.”
Eddie’s mouth dropped open.
“He knows it’s an IN?” he exclaimed, practically singing.
“Shh, Eddie, keep your voice down.”
“He knows it’s an IN?” he repeated in an excited whisper.
“Of course he does. What did you expect?”
“How fast did he get it? Tell me, was it under an hour? I bet it was under an hour.”
“I don’t remember,” Selina teased.
“It was! It was under an hour. Under a half hour?”
“Eddie, I was unpacking. I didn’t have a stopwatch, okay?”
“Unpacking! You hadn’t even unpacked! Fifteen minutes, wasn’t it? He got it in fifteen minutes!”
Impulsively, he pulled Selina up from the chair, performed an abbreviated foxtrot turn and dipped her dramatically—then he froze, looking down into her astonished eyes as anagrams for “Here lies Edward Nigma” marched through his mind.
“Er, yes, well,” he sputtered, as he awkwardly righted her, then put his hands firmly into his pockets. “Maybe best not to, eh… Don’t tell him I did that.”
“Y-yeah,” Selina agreed slowly. “You got a hold of yourself now, Eddie?”
AWARDED REEL MIEN SIGH, AWARDED EEL HEM RISING, AWARDED REEL HINGE ISM…
“Yeah, I’m good,” he said finally, his voice cracking on the final word. Then he turned, finger raised in the air and a brilliant idea on his lips. “I’ve got it! When is a day in Metropolis like a—Oh, screw it, just blow off the shopping and come to lunch with me.”
“Okay, now that’s the worst riddle I’ve ever heard.”
“Selina, come to lunch with me and I’ll give you Clue Three.”
“You’re rhyming. Eddie, I have a firm rule about going along with anything you suggest in rhyme, and you know why.”
“You looked good in green, ‘Lina.”
“We agreed never to mention that.”
“I know, but damn, woman. DOGGONE REIN”
“DINE ROE GONG,” he said, reaching for the last bead of caviar on the plate. “Be better if it was ‘Dine roe gone,’ but we can’t have everything. Mmm, love those fish eggs.”
“You’re a crazy man and nobody likes you,” she declared playfully.
“Come on, ‘Lina. You’re supposed to go shopping next, right? Saks, St. John, Nicole Miller. Okay then, let’s say I grabbed you in the fitting room at Nicole Miller and spirited you across town. That way I can show you this great place I found. We’ll have a nice afternoon and—”
“What the hell would you be doing in the fitting room at Nicole Miller?”
“Work with me, ‘Lina. I’d be… kidnapping you, okay?”
“Kidnapping me? Eddie, I’d kick your ass,” Selina pointed out frankly.
“They have hot chocolate.”
“The place I want to take you, Lois Lane told me about it. They have the best hot chocolate you’ve ever had in your life. And you’ve got a Nicole Miller in Gotham, anyway—where they’re not trying to fit these women that need a layer of blubber to get through the winter.”
“I get hot chocolate?”
“And my ‘IN’ clue.”
“And we’ll be done by six? Because I think we’ve got theatre tickets.”
“Word of OH NOR, back by six. Now c’mon, let’s get there before the lunch rush.”
As owner of the Daily Planet, Bruce knew he would have no problem entering any office or division he wished. Naturally, he would have to begin with Paula Winn, as a courtesy, despite her unfortunate tendency to panic whenever she met him. As the hotel-supplied limo speeded him along to Planet Square, Bruce pulled out his palm computer and read over Lucius’s briefing email: Paula Winifred Winn, employed Daily Planet for eighteen years, President and Publisher for the last six, Vice President and Executive Editor before that, headhunted from Los Angeles Times where she’d held the same title at considerably less salary. Married, husband Robert, was a lawyer at LexOil, now a partner at Levine and McNamara, no children. Birthday in September. Mother deceased last year, WE sent flowers. Member West River Country Club, good tennis player, poor golfer. Board member, Science and Industry Museum. Season subscriber and donor to Metropolis Opera and several theatres, although these appear to be a function of her status as chief executive at the DP. She does not actually attend performances.
Bruce scanned the text, although he’d read it all before. Paula Winn was unique among the executives who ran his holdings in that she alone proved immune to his protocols to alleviate panic when he paid a visit. He’d met her eight times since acquiring the Planet, and each meeting was as awkward as the last. He’d already tried engaging her in small talk about L.A., tennis, golf, her husband’s law practice, the science museum, and even the opera and theatre despite the foreknowledge that her interest in the last was only for show. Absolutely nothing penetrated that jittery aura of terror she projected that was so reminiscent of a person succumbing to Scarecrow toxin.
Still, Mrs. Winn was the head of the Daily Planet organization and it would be unthinkable for him to just drop in at the reporters’ bullpen without at least checking in with her. The limo pulled into Planet Square and Bruce steeled himself for the ordeal to come.
Everyone has a few “hotspots” in their perception. Certain words leap out, no matter how softly uttered or how briefly passed; certain sounds emerge from the otherwise inaudible burr of a busy newsroom. For Clark Kent, his wife’s voice—a sudden change in the tone of his wife’s voice—was one such hotspot. Clark wasn’t even aware that he heard her… six cubicles away, on the phone, browbeating the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan… not until the tone shift. One moment, there was high indignation, a moral imperative to defy the gag order when even the Red Cross and Amnesty International were appea— And then, before the Red Cross and Amnesty International could complete their appeal, her voice was all warm honey and silvery pleasure.
“Well, hello there, Bossman. That is one fine, fine suit you’re wearing.”
Clark’s fingers froze on the keyboard. Everyone had their own strategy at this point to deal with Perry’s nicotine withdrawal. Whenever that office door swung open, the whole bullpen froze, waiting to hear if the cry was “STOP THE PRESSES!” or “If I don’t get some red meat and a stogie in the next thirty seconds, everyone’s fucking dead!”
“You know, a man who can dress himself is a very sexy thing,” the Lois-honey dripped on.
But the office door hadn’t swung open, Clark realized sharply, and if the thought of Lois “vamping” Perry was just bizarre enough for Mxyzptlk to come up with…
“Is that Armani?”
…even that fifth dimensional pixie couldn’t warp reality enough to make Perry White’s wardrobe the focus of her praise.
“Gieves and Hawkes, actually,” an equally honeyed but far more masculine voice answered, and the truth sunk in: It was a different “bossman” Lois was flirting with, one she always flirted with when he came to the Planet, one who did get his suits on Savile Row.
Clark could have looked through the wall of his cubicle to follow the action, but it seemed more polite to stand. Sure enough, there was Bruce leaning over Lois’s desk, that glib playboy grin on his face while Lois fondled his tie—which wasn’t Armani either, he said, but Hermes. Clark relocated to his wife’s desk, putting on the same mock knock-it-off-you-two manner that he always assumed when they did this. He knew they were just playing with him, after all…
“Good to see you again, Bruce,” he announced as if he really felt the exact opposite.
…He was assuming Bruce was there to see him, so he suggested a quick tour of the newsroom. It would give them a chance to talk privately, and it would take him off Paula Winn’s hands before the poor woman had a heart attack. Clark didn’t need his super-senses to notice she was white as Bruce’s shirt (which was Armani. Lois finally got one right, she was so pleased.). While Clark had often seen Batman produce that effect—the alarming pallor suggesting no blood pressure at all, belied by the subsonic pulmonary roar of a panic attack—it was always deliberate. But this was Bruce, not Batman, and he didn’t seem to be doing anything to inspire terror. He was only telling Paula Winn that he’d like Lois (or rather, “that plucky go-getter Ms. Lane”) to take over his tour of the Planet’s many divisions and departments, while Lois said she’d be delighted to show him around (or rather, “hobnob with the rich and hunky”).
Bruce and Batman…
“No offense, Kent, but if I’m going to look around the office, I’d much rather it be your wife on my arm.”
…Clark had an epiphany…
“And what an arm, Bruce. I can see I’ll have to stretch this out. Not just going to show you the Metro desk, Sports and Leisure. You’re going to get the full tour.”
…Clark remembered when the two of them began this routine, in the early days before he and Lois were even married. It always struck him then that Bruce, who thought nothing of flirting with Lois only to nettle him, was also Batman, who was so famously discombobulated by Catwoman’s suggestive teasing…
“I can think of nothing that I’d enjoy more. And have I mentioned that you’re my favorite writer? I can’t get enough of your wonderful profile.”
…It also occurred to him that the situation with Catwoman had changed dramatically since that time…
“You mean profile like ‘a conversation with Madeleine Albright,’ or looking at me sideways?”
“Why both, of course.”
…Bruce and Lois hadn’t changed their routine, but he certainly had an option to respond that he’d never had before.
Yes, Selina would have to admit it, crimefighting did not suck. She was sipping a concoction of 2/3 hot chocolate, 1/3 hot fudge. Eddie didn’t want to ruin the consistency of the homemade marshmallows, so he just handed her a slip of paper with a question mark. They both agreed that since he could have arranged for her to find it IN-side the marshmallow, they would simply decide between them that that’s what happened.
“So Lois told you about his place?” Selina asked, peering curiously at his tart covered with caramel-crusted pretzels.
“Yes, she’s the super one in this town as far as I’m concerned. Gave me a whole list of places geared to feeding humans rather than fattening up grizzly bears for the winter.”
“I’m not joking. You don’t want to know what they do to hot dogs out at that ballpark.”
Selina laughed harder.
“‘Lina! It’s not funny, stop laughing. I put a riddle-solving tutorial up on the scoreboard in the middle of a ballgame, still nothing. They don’t even mention it in that so-called newspaper of theirs. What are they going to say, hm? SUPERMAN A NO SHOW. LANE SAVES SELF.”
A wet snorting grunt followed.
“Eddie, so help me, if you make me blow hot chocolate through my nose…”
“The man’s a moron, that’s all I’m saying,” he concluded lamely.
“Well, for what it’s worth, I’ve seen him, and he does know you’re in town now. That should help matters… I think he even considered the possibility that we’re working together.”
The Daily Planet was important to Metropolis, and Bruce took his responsibility seriously as the owner and steward of an icon. Batman was interested in one office only, in one line item on one record in one database in one office. Another type of man might have viewed the whole tour of the newswires and media center, the various divisions within the reporter bullpen, Circulation, Printing, and IT as a tiresome charade he must endure to get to that one moment of discovery, but Bruce was not that kind of man. He took an interest in all the areas he saw, and was particularly patient with the boys in IT who were a bit starstruck at the actual head of WayneTech standing right there in front of their cubicle (and fulsome in their admiration of the new WayneTech systems installed last year) …Lois bore it all patiently and finally brought Bruce to the division Batman was interested in: Advertising.
Bruce asked a few questions on the pretext of seeing how a new corporate account might be set up to accommodate several large ad buys on short notice. As the obliging clerk showed him the process, he was able to see that the full-page “Riddle Me-Tropolis” ad was placed by Nonnenum Enterprises. He grunted, softly; Batman had what he’d come for, and that was all he could do until he “met Clark Kent for lunch.”
Eddie dropped his fork.
“To- Together? Us?? Us like ‘you and me,’ us? ‘Lina, you’re kidding. He thought we might be working together?”
He considered this, a pleased glint in his eye. Perhaps he’d misjudged Superman. Anyone who could entertain a notion like that.
“Eddie, close your mouth; you’ll catch flies.”
“Oh, eh, I mean, er, yeah. Heh. What an idea, right? Me and you. Heh. Heheh.”
He went back to rapt contemplation of this dream team-up. A clever bit of misdirection, Catwoman distracting the heroes, leading them on a merry chase, while he absconded with the prize… Selina did her best to ignore her companion’s reverie and signaled for the check.
“I’ll get this,” she said, pulling out her wallet and fully intending to leave him there if he didn’t pull himself together.
“Want to try it?” he said suddenly. “Just think of it. I’ve got a primo target all lined up. Priceless. Perfect for you. Completely Catworthy!”
“Eddie, come on, you know I can’t.”
“Can’t? CAN’T? There’s no can’t in cat! This is Catwoman we’re talking about. Come on! Oh, ‘Lina, come on, just think of it. It’ll be fun.”
She smiled kindly, obviously pleased at the suggestion and the temptation it offered. Then…
“Eddie… I came with him.”
“I know… Doesn’t mean you have to leave with him, does it?”
She shook her head sadly.
“Well, I tried,” he said, making the best of it.
“You knew what the answer would be… or you would have told me what the target is.”
“Clever woman. That’s my curse, you know. Clever. Women.”
He looked thoughtful… worried… and then, spoke the unspeakable fear:
“I’m not going to face you on the other side of this caper, am I, Selina?”
She hissed. No amount of rose petal pedicures, caviar, or chocolate could compensate for a friend like Eddie asking a question like that. Crimefighting SUCKED!
“I’ll have you know Catwoman robbed a bank in New Zealand!” she announced fiercely.
The Wayne/Kent “lunch” was really Batman meeting Superman at STAR Labs for a quick walkthrough of the facility that Bruce was sure had been Nigma’s original target. He disliked appearing as Batman in daylight, but it was necessary. As the owner of their biggest competitor, Bruce Wayne was persona non grata at STAR Labs. But Superman they were always happy to welcome, along with any Justice League colleagues.
Happy to welcome them, perhaps, but Batman could see at once that they were not exactly forthcoming. At first, he attributed the subtle cues to nerves. STAR had evidently registered them coming in on radar eight minutes before their arrival. Unannounced Superman drop-ins were common enough and they’d had similar visits from Batman, albeit less frequently. However, registering both Superman AND Batman coming in together apparently put the whole place on high alert. The heroes had arrived to find a Dr. Emil Hamilton waiting at the gate with assurances that all current research and active projects were on hold and all staff at their stations at the ready. All assumed the space-time continuum must be seconds from disintegration and the World’s Finest heroes needed some cosmic whatchamajig from the STAR vault to stabilize it. When it turned out the heroes just wanted to check out the facility, everyone went back to work and, theoretically, everything went back to “normal.” But the staff was still on edge; it was understandable.
That’s what Batman told himself for ten minutes.
Dr. Hamilton had been assigned to show them through the facility, he was the researcher with whom Superman evidently had the closest working relationship. Dr. Hamilton wasn’t a sociopath, a supervillain, a lawyer, or a politician. As such, he simply wasn’t a very good liar. Like any detective, Batman was adept at reading body language, tone, and manner. Once his suspicions were aroused, he noted peculiar choices of words and phrasing that hinted at subjects a person was trying to avoid. Batman met Superman’s eyes, confirming that he was aware of the situation. Superman’s senses could detect all the subtle changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature that occur when a normal person lies. The only question was if he’d noticed. Meeting Superman’s eyes now, there was no doubt that he had.
The heroes had vastly different approaches to a situation like this. Batman’s was direct. He would have slammed Hamilton against the wall and asked point blank what the custodians of Phantom Zone technology, twelve varieties of kryptonite, a JLA transporter, and a Martian fusion reactor were trying to hide from the people who entrusted them with it! But it was Superman’s town, he knew Hamilton better and he had a working rapport with the man. His approach would be more effective under the circumstances, so Batman remained silent while Superman proceeded to kill the guy with kindness.
First, he told Batman (although Batman was well aware) about all that STAR had done for him over the years, identifying kryptonite initially and analyzing the various forms and their properties, advising him on other Kryptonian artifacts and technology as it was discovered, and really assisting on everything of a scientific nature that he’d encountered. They even provided specialized medical care for himself and his cousin… Batman nodded appreciatively, as he would at League meetings where the discussion was a pointless formality and the outcome of the vote a foregone conclusion. Then Superman segued to addressing Dr. Hamilton directly. While many of the faces had changed over the years, Hamilton was there at STAR from the beginning, from Superman’s very first visit. He asked aloud if Hamilton remembered that day (as if anyone didn’t remember meeting Superman for the first time!). It gave STAR such an aura of continuity and stability, he said. He knew this was an organization he could really trust—“because of its people, Hamilton, because of its people.”
Batman stood passively off to the side, marveling at the spectacle. He knew that Superman (and just about everyone he knew, really) would have thought the Bat-approach brutal and vicious, in every way inferior to Superman’s way, all smiling sweetness and light. But really, who was the sadist? Hamilton had been reduced to a writhing shell of guilt and shame, he was ready to break four minutes ago, and if Batman had just slammed him against the wall, the poor man could have yelled “Okay, okay, I’ll tell you the truth” and that would have been the end of his (far less agonizing) torment right there. But because this resembled a morality play more than an interrogation, he had to wait, squirming on under the weight of his suffering, until Superman gave him an opening to unburden himself. Their tour continued: through the computer center, through the chemical and polymer laboratories, through the nanite and nanobite labs, and through the research center for Non-Terran protein chemistry, peptide chemistry, regeneration, molecular biology and biopharmaceuticals. No opening came for Dr. Hamilton to admit whatever he was hiding, and at the entrance to the final high-security core, Batman could take it no longer. He changed the subject:
“Did I tell you the Riddle Me ad was taken out by Nonnenum Enterprises? Nonne and num are both Latin prefixes.”
Dr. Hamilton perked up considerably at this information. As a scientist, he’d had more than enough Latin to tell them what Batman obviously knew already: the term nonne introduced a question expecting the answer ‘yes;’ num came before a question expecting the answer ‘no.’”
“Is that significant?” Superman asked.
“Not especially,” Batman admitted. “But it might have been. It was worth checking. It does tell us that he was in a whimsical mood at that point.”
“Nothing to do with his present scheme though?”
“No, it has nothing to do with infinity, but it is an insight. When he began this, he was playful. Nonnenum Enterprises, he’s amusing himself. Since it’s unlikely anyone would ever go looking up the information, it’s there only as a private joke.”
“Just trying to see inside his head, without benefit of X-ray vision,” Superman quipped.
Batman shot him a disgusted glare.
“Which is why we’re here,” he graveled, “even though STAR is probably not the present target. While much of the Phantom Zone and other cross-dimensional technology is tied to quantum physics, high level mathematics and metaphysics, it’s unlikely he’d return to a target when his first try was such a disappointment.”
Superman noted the continued undercurrent of blame, as if failing to provide an intellectual challenge for the villain was some kind of character flaw. But his reaction was preempted by Dr. Hamilton, who snatched at these fragments of conversation and transformed from shamed caitiff into a man.
“…really should have told you at once… soon as you arrived…” he began hesitantly, then built in confidence and fluency as he continued. “We had a break-in several nights ago, and a researcher working late was attacked by an intruder he never saw.”
“And you never reported it?” Batman barked.
Hamilton took a deep breath.
“We prefer not to admit police to the facility if we can avoid it,” he explained. “Superman will certainly appreciate that when Lex Luthor was mayor, our position became… precarious. Even before that development… We have a great deal of priceless proprietary data on site, in addition to the Phantom Zone and Watchtower access, and all the kryptonite. And we have found that police detectives simply do not accept that there are places within the facility where we dare not give them access. Since this break-in occurred in an unimportant office in the least secured wing of the building, and the researcher, as I said, never saw his attacker…”
Batman growled contemptuously, but his disapproval was for show. The truth was that he would do the same if WayneTech found itself broken into that way. Nevertheless, Batman and Superman would inspect the office that was compromised and questioned the researcher who was attacked.
Examining the office that was broken into—and then every other office in the administrative wing, which may or may not have been breached, there was no way to tell without investigating—was a dull and time-consuming effort. It gave Superman a chance to ask the questions that had been plaguing him for some time.
He didn’t understand the Riddler; the whole concept baffled him. He certainly had villains enough bragging after the fact: “I’ve just exchanged the entire populations of Thiallin-2 and BizzaroWorld, behold the carnage!” He’d had villains enough challenge him during the act itself: “I’m going to crush you into powder and the whole world will know that I’m the one who beat Superman!” But the whole idea of sending “clues” to heroes and police beforehand? If you were going to rob a bank, wouldn’t going up to the guard, showing him your gun, and telling him that, in two minutes, you were going to shove it in a teller’s face and ask for all the cash in the drawers be… counterproductive?
“Only if you see the cash in the drawer as the goal,” Batman explained. “With Riddler, it’s rarely about the crime itself. His particular pathology is about intellectual superiority, about outsmarting the police, the hero, everyone.”
“Thumbing your nose at the world and getting away with anything you want because the rest of humanity is too stupid to figure you out?”
“Correct. It’s not about the crime, per se; it’s about the game, the matching of wits.”
“I get that part, I just don’t see why. What’s the benefit? What does he gain?”
Batman shook his head.
“You’re thinking like Luthor, it’s—scratch that. You’re thinking of Luthor, where his intellectual superiority is a means to an end: more money, more power, destroying the Alien, all of it is personal gain. He’s a star athlete who hones his skills because he wants the million dollar contract with the Meteors, the product endorsements and the fast cars. Riddler just wants to win the game.”
“So he proves that he’s smarter than you, so what? What’s the point?”
“You mean what’s the point in winning a game if you’re not a paid professional athlete? It’s just like all those guys who show up in Metropolis, picking a fight just to prove that they can beat Superman.”
“Same field, different sport?” Superman said with a laugh.
“Yes, all born of the same insecurities, the same need for attention and validation of their superiority. Look at it this way: Luthor and Nigma are both fiercely intelligent men. That’s not a delusion, it’s a fact. In Luthor’s case, he achieved tremendous material success with his gifts. There was no sore spot from seeing men with far less ability achieve far more wealth and power. So he focuses on something else, he becomes obsessed with a distinction he can never buy and can never attain with his natural gifts.”
“Whereas Nigma grows up knowing he’s the smartest kid in the class, and sees the ditzy cheerleader become a cosmetics queen and the dumb football player become a movie star?”
“Something like that,” Batman grunted, kneeling to inspect a doorknob and lock that might have been tampered with.
“You do realize you just described a man whose entire criminal career is motivated by anger over an injustice?”
Batman rose—presumably because his inspection of the door was complete. He placed a bat-shaped emblem marker on the lock for fingerprinting and further examination… but for a split second, Superman had the distinct impression that, if it wasn’t for the certainty of shattering his hand, Batman was about to punch him in the mouth.
The Metropolis Art Institute had one of the finest Impressionist collections in the country, and Selina fully intended to go inside and visit a few favorite masterpieces before she left town. But today’s visit, she and Eddie remained outside, sitting on the steps under one of the magnificent bronze lions which flanked the main entrance.
“Got it! WOW, I AM CAT KIN! That’s your anagram for Kiwi Catwoman. Like it?”
“Much better than the WACKO TWIN one, yes.”
“I told you, I was just warming up. It was all that sugar from the chocolate tart.”
Eddie looked up at the massive lion and pondered “I wonder if your wacko twin in kiwi-land would like to team up with me?” Selina playfully smacked the back of his head. Then he wondered if the New Zealand Cat would object to wearing green, and Selina smacked again but he ducked. Finally, he looked back at Selina and, for the first time, made reference to her T-shirt. She’d been wearing the shirt with a dramatic close up of a beautiful Bengal tiger since they left the spa, and Eddie was torn about mentioning it.
“That’s a mighty big tiger,” he said at last.
“Why thank you,” she grinned, stretching it downward for a better look.
“One of your new ones?”
At first, a puzzled grin was the only response.
“How did you know about that?”
“How indeed? Maybe he’s not taking very good care of you, ‘Lina. Not looking after your secrets as well as he keeps his own, not that he does such a stellar job there, either.”
“They’re not missile codes, Eddie; they’re tigers. It’s not exactly a state secret.”
“Maybe not, but come on. The guy’s got more money than a small country and you’re shacking up with him. Does make you a target, you know. Somebody like me finds out about something like this, it’d be real easy to make contact. Call up the manor pretending to be some vet from STAR Labs. Your phone number was right there, ‘Lina, right on a Post-it: Wayne Manor and a phone number. Payday! Call up, pose as some veterinary specialist with news about your tigers, set up a meeting, lure you… eh, any… where.”
His impassioned monologue ground to a halt as he saw the gaze of impossible astonishment crossed with impossible fury.
“You know, now that I say it out loud, it sounds pretty stupid… It’s the crosswords. ‘Lina, the crosswords are getting to me. Did you see what 4 Down was this morning? A 7-letter word for stereo accessory. SPEAKER! Now if you’ve got a stereo for the sole purpose of listening to music, aren’t speakers kind of mandatory? I don’t call that an optional accessory, I consider that part of your stereo. Speakers plural, by the way, because stereo means it’s playing stereophonic sound, minimum of two channels. What good is one speaker, hm? That’s how it starts, ‘Lina. You start putting aside what you know is true to make some answer fit the clue, and pretty soon you start thinking a speaker really is an optional accessory for your freakin’ stereo, and the next thing you know, you don’t realize that anybody trying to lure Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend to some isolated kidnap spot with a story about Catitat tigers is a MAD TO DIE FOOL doomed to fail.”
“Sorry,” Eddie concluded meekly. “That was what Dr. Bartholomew would call ‘an episode.’”
Finding nothing more at STAR Labs, Batman and Superman left for the Fortress of Solitude to examine the one clue that remained: a video camera left at the planetarium sundial.
Batman had arrived at the Fortress many times and it always went pretty much the same way. There was a lot of snarling and growling, a baring of teeth driven by a super-powered jaw, and entirely too much “there there, easy fella”-ing from Superman, followed by assurances that “he really does like you, he’s just excited to have company.”
So much for the “Superman doesn’t lie” theory, Bruce thought sourly. Maybe Superman didn’t, but Clark did and always about that dog. Krypto didn’t like anybody that came to the fortress—except, irony of ironies, Selina. Clark had brought her to stay with Lois when the League wives and loved ones were threatened after the Dibny murder. She returned talking about the “over-friendly wondermutt” that apparently licked her face and pawed her hair throughout her stay. Bruce never told her that her experience with Superman’s dog: flying around, following her everywhere she went, and generally trying to become her new best friend, was—to put it mildly—an unusual one. He didn’t think she’d appreciate the irony.
Superman brought the video camera, the box and wrapping it came in, and a photograph of the package in its original, unopened condition.
“I was just thinking” he began while Batman inspected the items. “If we knew why he came to Metropolis in the first place, it might point us in the right direction.”
Batman said nothing but appeared to scrutinize the video camera. Clark tried again.
“I know it’s not unheard of for villains to change cities every now and then, but why here? Why now? There must be a reason.”
Batman appeared to read the fine print on the camera casing, informing the owner that no user-serviceable parts were contained within and opening the sealed panel invalidated the warranty.
“Don’t you think it might tell us what he’s after if we knew why he came here?”
Batman withdrew an atomizer from his utility belt, spritzed the camera, and then examined it with a bat-shaped lens.
“Bruce? Any idea why he’s come to Metropolis?”
Batman set down camera, atomizer, and lens with a weary sigh.
“It’s entirely possible that Riddler isn’t ‘targeting’ Metropolis at all, Clark. It may simply be that the sole point of attraction for this city is that it’s not Gotham.”
Clark considered this. There was only one reason he knew that drove Batman villains to seek out “not Gotham” as a destination.
“You mean like in January?”
Bruce froze for a moment, then turned to stare directly at him. A cold silence stretched through agonizing seconds, and then he finally spoke:
He explained briefly about Edward Vaniel, the investigation that followed the dying man’s shocking revelation, and the… unfortunate timing of Riddler’s Midnight Express crime coming only hours after the hospital visit. At first, Clark’s only response was dumbstruck astonishment. He couldn’t seem to say anything, or even form a thought to express, however inarticulately. In an attempt to ease the situation, Bruce mentioned a detail from that curious epilogue with Vaniel’s son David. After a long night in the ICU, essentially waiting for his father to die, the one detail the young man recalled with such clarity was a tapeloop on the 24-hour news channel repeating footage of Superman every twenty minutes. It must be very gratifying, Bruce concluded, to know your persona has such positive connotations that, even in such removed circumstances, it can somehow give people comfort.
Bruce knew this was not the way Clark thought of himself, and the foreign thought did snap him out of his dumbstruck haze. Now that his friend was tracking again, Bruce fully expected the next question to be an aggrieved “Why didn’t you call me?” but instead, Clark merely looked him in the eye and asked if he was okay.
“Yes,” Bruce answered honestly. “More ‘okay’ than I’ve been in quite some time, actually.”
“Thought there was something. When you got in yesterday, I thought you seemed a little more… well, I’d never use the words ‘laid back’ when it comes to you, but I could see that something was different, in a good way…”
Bruce pointed abruptly at the camera.
“There are markings on the lens,” he said gruffly. “You were meant to ‘pan’ four degrees, four minutes, and four seconds clockwise from some point, presumably the seven o’clock position on the sundial, and then zoom in.”
He looked up, and saw that Clark wasn’t listening. He wasn’t even looking at the camera, he was looking at Bruce with that ‘proud papa’ grin.
“Don’t,” he warned.
“It’s good to see, that’s all.”
Bruce glared. And Clark did, finally, turn his attention to the camera.
“But there’s no way that thing was going to zoom in on STAR Labs from the Planetarium. I checked the full three-sixty, it’s not on the horizon.”
“No, that only would have pointed you to a decoy. The real clue is this ‘pan then zoom’ on the wrapping paper.”
“See, I’m catching on… Except I still don’t understand sending the chocolates and pussywillows.”
“I told you, they’re friends.”
“Bruce, I consider Selina a friend, but I don’t give her candy and flowers.”
“No, you gave her tigers.”
Clark said something in reply, but Bruce didn’t hear him. He held up a finger as he concentrated on the timeline.
“The tigers—Come on, we’re going back to STAR Labs. Now!”
The view from the Skydeck above the former LexCorp towers was certainly the most magnificent in the Midwest. They say on a clear day you can see into four different states. They say on a clear day you can see fifty miles in any direction. They say on a clear day, Lex Luthor would make a full lap from this office to his penthouse and back again, scouring the horizon and snarling like a rabid beast, always expecting his perfect view to be spoiled by those bright streaks of red and blue…
“How do you think he did it?” Eddie asked, scoping out the horizon. “Luthor was a smart guy and he lived here; never seemed to make him terminally stupid.”
“That’s a matter of opinion,” Selina purred. “He hired me for a job and then tried to renege on paying for it.”
“Okay, that is asking for pain, I’ll admit. What did you do, scratch it out of him?”
“No need. He had me stealing some plans off his personal computer.”
“Jennifer Jigsaw, you mean all you had to do was transfer the funds out of his account into yours?”
“Was this from his office or his penthouse?”
“Office. Luckily, I never had to set foot in the quarters Lexie called home.” She looked down at her feet, realizing they were on the penthouse side of the Skydeck. “Not until now,” she added with a grin.
“Well then, let us proceed along yonder catwalk to his former office, or as your hero friends refer to it, THEFT ENCORE SHE… MICE.”
“The scene of the crime?” Selina guessed.
“The scene of the crime. Oh, for a woman who can keep up!”
They crossed to the office side of the Skydeck, and Selina indicated where Luthor’s desk had been.
“Was his password at least hard to crack?” Eddie asked hopefully.
“Was it at least interesting?”
“His social security number with the date of the Norman conquest in the middle.”
“Oh man. Kitty, you must’ve been bored out of your mind.”
“I was. Getting into the building was even easier. I don’t think he’d been here that long, and his so-called security was a joke. So I tripped the alarm to add a little excitement to the escape.”
“Oh yes, I’m sure going up against Big, Blue, and Brainless was an electrifying thrill.”
“Might have been,” Selina trilled with a naughty grin, “But I lucked out. Batman was in town, I got ’em both.”
“Was very meow.”
There’s nothing quite as unnerving as having Batman point at your nose yelling “YOU” followed by some order, no matter how reasonable that order might be. “YOU! Put this office back exactly the way it was the night of the break-in” had so paralyzed Dr. Hamilton’s assistant, she wasn’t any help whatsoever, and Superman had to spend ten minutes on damage control while Hamilton himself pulled the files and bulletins that would have been out that week. He also noted that a crate of corroded nozzles were on that table, waiting for pickup the next morning, and the freshly refilled watercooler was nearly empty.
Batman scanned the reset office as if absorbing vibrations from the scene, until—
“INCOMING!” Superman’s voice rang out.
Batman snapped into defensive mode, while Superman scanned the room with far less focus than Batman’s pointed intensity. He hadn’t said it. Both heroes looked around with ever-decreasing alarm. Absolutely nothing was ‘incoming’… Absolutely nothing was happening at all… After a few moments of consideration, Batman returned his attention to the office and specifically the items on the desk and tacked onto the bulletin board. Superman continued to scan, now looking into and through the walls, his puzzlement growing. He hadn’t said anything. Was some kind of alternate Superman leaking through a time warp or—
“INCOMING!” sounded again.
This time Batman bent his head, concealing a lip-twitch, then turned and walked brusquely out of the room and peeked into the next office. Superman followed, and peered into the office. He saw the same thing Batman did, a low-level researcher sitting at his desk.
“It’s his email alert,” Batman said gruffly. “Probably plucked it from the news coverage of that skirmish over Honduras last year.”
He returned to the office. Superman followed—more flustered than ever.
“It just… I mean, it’s a little weird,” he said finally. “Okay, sure, these guys are all technical people so I’m sure it’s nothing new to them…”
“Your email alert is still the default beep, isn’t it?”
“Wh-what? What do you mean?”
Batman shook his head.
“Nothing. Never mind.”
He walked deliberately to the desk and seemed to scan its surface—although he was really looking for a particular item. His eyes narrowed when he found it, and he handed it wordlessly to Superman. The Man of Steel looked down at a folder of photographs, weight charts, veterinary reports and dietary records for six Bengal tigers that he and Batman had fought in the Dhumavati death maze, and which he himself had campaigned, cajoled, and bartered for Selina to take in at her preserve.
“What does this mean?” he asked, reading a new concern in Batman’s manner. “You think he knows about the tigers?”
“He may. It’s a possibility.”
They said no more in front of the STAR staff but quickly relocated to the top of the Daily Planet building where they could speak freely. Then Superman asked again.
“Okay, if he knows Selina has the tigers at her preserve, so what? What does it mean?”
“I’ve been assuming he was challenging me. What if he’s not? What if he wasn’t sending clues to Batman at all? What if he was announcing to Bruce Wayne and his girlfriend that they were his next targets? Suppose he’s not intending to go up against Batman at all, Clark. He’s still in Metropolis. Suppose he’s still going up against you.”
“But he brought you here!”
“Yes! Probably to explain the clues to you. He wasn’t getting anywhere with the usual method.”
“Well that’s not encouraging. Do you think Selina is in danger?”
Bruce’s lip twitched as he heard Selina’s “Pffft” sound deep in the recesses of his memory.
“No. I don’t claim to understand their ‘friendship’ but… I do accept it. You know the villains who pretend to be so open and cordial, the ‘just because we’re on opposite sides there’s no need to be hostile’ attitude. Imagine two of them, playing off each other all day, with no interference from any tightass crimefighters that won’t play along.”
“Let’s say you’re right, that she’s not in danger but that you or she are the target. What do either of you—or those tigers—have to do with infinity?”
Bruce thought… and thought… and thought.
“The Foundation funded Dr. Leiverman’s work on string theory,” he said finally. “It’s unlikely Nigma would know anything about that, or care. There is no way he could ‘get at it’ just by luring Selina and I to Metropolis, and there’s no way he could profit from it if he did get his hands on it. Even if none of that were true, it still wouldn’t work as a Riddler clue. To satisfy his sense of fair play, I or the Foundation would have to be associated with Leiverman’s work. We’d have to be known for funding string theory research, when in fact, the Wayne Foundation is known for anything but.”
“Any other possible connections?”
Bruce thought again… and thought… and thought.
“I didn’t think so. I’m afraid we’re back to the obvious, my friend. He brought you here from Gotham because you’re his preferred chess opponent, and I only play Scrabble.
Batman glowered, then checked his watch.
“I have to go. We have theatre tickets.”
The Koul-Brau Palace. In 1926, the Palace Theatre opened at the corner of Cassidy and Nowak Streets in the heart of the downtown loop. Designed by legendary theatre architects the Rapp Brothers, the interior featured a splendor previously unseen in Metropolis, a breathtaking vision inspired by the palaces of Fontainebleau and Versailles. Falling into disrepair over the decades, it was renovated in the late 1990s by Koul-Brau Breweries, a wholly-owned LexCorp subsidiary, with the unfortunate result that Lex Luthor’s own French Empire tastes became the driving force of the restoration, adding a layer of Napoleonic pretension onto the already over-gilded design: breche, violet, and white marble swept majestically through a succession of lobbies and foyers; great wall surfaces trimmed with gold leaf and wood decorations; all of it enhanced by huge decorative mirrors to make it all seem even bigger… To a Gothamite like Bruce, accustomed to opulence balanced with taste and restraint, it was all a bit much.
He’d been shown to one of the plush private boxes, took his seat and began leafing through the playbill while he waited for Selina. In the past, whenever he’d attended a cultural event in Metropolis, the experience was always soured by the proliferation of LexCorp subsidiaries advertising in the program: LexOil, LexAir and SuperStation WLEX, Metropolis Mercantile Bank, Commerce Bank of Metropolis and First Metro Security, the Good Foods Group, Ralli’s Family Restaurants and naturally the Koul-Brau Breweries. Only the last remained even though the company itself was now defunct, some contractual obligation left over from the restoration. The Koul-Brau Palace had to go on calling itself that for another 75 years, and would go on running this ad in its playbill for another 25. As for the rest of the ads, well, Bruce was happy to see WayneTech and the Daily Planet doing their bit to support the arts, but he would have liked to see more family-owned businesses in amongst the corporate patrons. Metropolis was emerging from Luthor’s dark shadow, but the progress seemed very slow and hesitant. They were not recovering their identity as quickly as he’d hoped.
He felt his cell phone vibrate. Assuming it was Selina, he’d answered without checking the caller ID and was surprised to hear Clark’s voice instead.
..:: You realize that’s Luthor’s box you’re sitting in,::.. he teased, and Bruce realized it was really the JLA communicator inside his phone that had signaled an incoming call.
Bruce looked around, and saw the walls were all decorated with gilded friezes, reproductions of those on the Arc de Triomph (typical Luthor). He reached over and scratched the gilt with his fingernail to reveal a darker metal beneath the gold leaf.
“Lead in the walls?” he assumed.
..:: I assume so. I followed you through the lobby, saw them tear your ticket, point you up the stairs, usher took you down the hallway, then you disappeared into the wall. Luthor’s famous ‘privacy issues,’ there are pockets of them all over the city.::..
“I told you there’s no need to keep watch.”
..:: I just figured I’d stick around until Selina shows. I want to see what she’s wearing.::..
Bruce pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it for a moment.
..:: Oh! And speak of the devil, there she is. Just getting out of a cab now. Oh. Oh my. That is some dress.::..
Bruce continued to regard his phone with a hostility usually reserved for Joker henchmen. Didn’t he have enough riddles to deal with right now?
..:: Anyway, guess I should be going. You two enjoy your night. Be sure to tell Selina how much I like her dress.::..
To be continued...