Chapter 6: Curtain Time
There was a joke in the Princeton physics department: How can you tell if a scientist is an extrovert? He looks at your shoes when he talks to you.
It was true. And it made a man like Harold Avies a perfect spy. Well, not a spy exactly, but a courier and delivering something more significant and valuable on this one night than most spies tote around in their whole career—Harold guessed; he had no way of knowing about spies. He was a doctoral candidate in theoretical physics, not an expert in international espionage. What he knew about spies, he knew from the movies. And he was pretty sure what he knew was bunk. A spy shouldn’t be some suave, handsome James Bond-type; he’d be remembered. Roger Moore walks into an empty teahouse behind a brothel in Kamphaeng Phet and the lady says “Ohhhh, Simon Templar, usual table?”
You didn’t want that in a secret agent. You wanted someone who’d blend in, someone like Harold Avies. Thirty-odd people could have seen him in the train coming down from Princeton. Would any of them remember him? Would the porter in Gotham whom he’d asked directions when he changed trains? Would Toni, the pretty attendant who showed him to his cabin? No, of course not. Harold was spectacularly un-memorable, a science geek from Princeton who looked at your shoes when he asked where to catch the Lakeway Express to Metropolis, who remembered that? He would make a wonderful spy.
Not that it really mattered if Harold was remembered or not. He’d never done anything like this before and there was no reason to think he’d ever be called on to do it again. He only got the job because Rupert Fantova was his thesis advisor. It really came down to being in the right place at the right time… kind of the exact opposite of Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
The lights flickered. Five minutes to curtain. Damn her.
A private box was not like an ordinary seat in the orchestra. Because the comings and goings from the boxes would not disturb other patrons, there was no difficulty seating latecomers after the show had begun. Still, Clark said he’d seen Selina getting out of a taxi. She should have been there by now. Bruce was anxious to hear what she learned, if it was all just “Eddie being Eddie” or if there was an actual crisis brewing that he and Clark should be worried about. The lights flickered again. The show was about to start and now they weren’t going to be able to talk until intermission. Damn her.
At the same time, bringing up “Eddie” was never an easy prospect for Bruce. Balancing Batman with being Selina’s boyfriend was normally as effortless as breathing. Something about the way they’d come together as Bat and Cat, he felt truly himself with her, more than with any woman he’d ever known. He didn’t have to juggle roles with either Selina or Catwoman, he simply… was. Except when Edward Nigma was involved. That’s when this delicate balancing act began and he was never quite sure who he was, where he stood, and where it was safe to put his weight down.
The theatre lights lowered and, at last, Bruce heard the soft latch of the door behind him. He heard the hushed whisper of the usher, and then he felt more than heard Selina’s near-silent approach. He glanced in her direction as she sat, curious why Clark had noticed her dress. It certainly didn’t seem like anything remarkable.
“You’re late,” he growled softly.
“I’m worth waiting for,” she purred as the curtain rose.
The play began, but Bruce couldn’t concentrate on it. He glanced at the dress again and began analyzing it. Black on top and off the shoulder (which, okay, was very flattering with Selina’s black hair). Some kind of black, white and grey print below—and short (which, okay, showed off her legs very nicely). It was an appropriate outfit for “Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle out on the town,” but he still couldn’t see anything special about it. What on earth was Clark talking about?
The audience laughed at the first joke of the show. Bruce hadn’t heard the setup, but he took the cue when Selina chuckled. He faked a smile and then berated himself for it. The smile he’d produced on short notice looked too much like the vapid fop not getting the joke because he was too stupid to know the reference. His quick adjustment looked like the vapid fop not getting the joke because he was slightly inebriated. Luckily, it was a dark theatre and everyone was watching the play. It was unlikely that anyone saw his stumble, but it still wasn’t the sort of mistake Batman was accustomed to making.
And speaking of mistakes he wasn’t used to making… Once again, the audience erupted into peals of merriment, as if some karmic laughtrack was mocking him… Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle were out on the town. Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle were attending the theatre. Selina was dressed appropriately for the occasion, and Bruce Wayne, once the country’s most notorious womanizing playboy, had most definitely missed his cue—an unforgivable lapse when Clark, the folksy farmboy, had actually prompted him.
“You look beautiful,” he said quietly. “That’s a nice dress.”
Selina turned, very slowly, the darkness of the theatre evoking nocturnal rooftops and empty museums, making it impossible for him to see anything but Felinity in those gleaming eyes. She turned her attention back to the stage, or at least she seemed to, and for a minute Bruce thought that was the only response he would get. But then, after another few lines of dialogue on the stage sent another titter of laughter through the audience, she spoke without looking at him.
“You’re dying to know what happened today, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” he replied, too quickly and too emphatically.
Then the playful grin, still without looking at him.
“You’re allowed to ask, you know.”
“Yes, but I didn’t want to interrupt the show… You looked like you were enjoying it.”
“Oh I was, but not the one down there. I’ve enjoyed you sitting there working yourself into a froth.”
“You spent the day with him, didn’t you. If you knew he was pulling something right this minute, you’d have told me as soon as you walked in. So there’s no point playing twenty questions now when the show has two intermissions…”
“Mmm, So yummy,” Selina purred, as if savoring the caviar canapé from the spa rather than the abrupt logic of Batman’s mind at work. “Why everybody thinks Spitcurl is the charming one I will never understand.”
She reached into her purse and pulled out the slip of paper bearing a single green question mark.
“Your clue,” she said, passing it to him.
He inspected it covertly, then slipped it into his pocket.
“No surprise there.” Then, after a beat, he added, “Thank you.”
“Meow.” Then, after a similar beat, she added, “If it matters, it was in a marshmallow.”
“In a marshma…? Do I even want to know?”
“Only if you’re interested in sampling the best hot chocolate in the city before we leave. Lois told him about it. Seems she made quite an impression.”
“She has that effect,” Bruce admitted.
He paused. Both seemed to watch the show for a few minutes, during which another sputter of mirth from the karmic laugh track seemed to mock him. Finally he spoke.
“So, did he track you around the city all day to keep up the charade, or did he just walk right up to you like he would at the Iceberg?”
Selina explained briefly about his approach at the spa, about the lunch and the sightseeing, and concluded that if it was Bruce’s idea to turn Lex’s old office into a public skydeck, it was a vast improvement.
“No, that was Clark’s idea,” Bruce admitted. “He always loved that view. Said it was the closest you could come to seeing the city the way he does.”
The audience burst into enthusiastic applause as the lights came up. The first act was over, but rather than get up for intermission, Bruce reached over and touched Selina’s leg, indicating she shouldn’t get up yet. She had turned to look at him, the brighter light levels shattering the moonlit rooftop effect from before.
Somehow that made it worse. This would be easier to say to Catwoman.
“Did he happen to mention the tigers?” Bruce asked, appalled by the hint of trepidation in his voice (that Selina didn’t seem to notice).
“You must be psychic,” she grinned. “He did mention them, knows all about them. Which is pretty damn impressive, really, considering the little one hasn’t found a favorite tree yet.”
“Some idiot at STAR left his notes on them lying out,” Bruce graveled angrily. “Nig… Edward must have seen them when he was there.”
“On a Post-it,” Selina noted, touched but amused by the reaction on both sides. “He expressed concern about that, actually. Doesn’t think you’re ‘looking after my secrets’ very well.”
Bruce’s mouth dropped open, that careful balance between Batman and Selina’s boyfriend toppled once again, this time by joint waves of shock and relief—which he quickly covered behind a mask of irate battitude.
“This from the criminal mastermind who hasn’t changed apartments in six years. Or ‘secret’ lairs in four. Anything else?”
“He was thrilled beyond words that you knew the third clue would be ‘in,’” she teased.
A density shift radiated pure hostile intensity.
“I meant did he reveal anything else relevant to the case?”
“Hm, let me think…” As always, Selina seemed immune to that ferocious Bat-intensity that made hardened killers quake in terror—or rather, instead of being terrified, she seemed warmed and aroused by it. “Oh, yes! There was something else. The target, whatever it is, he said it’s catworthy.”
Bruce went quiet, wheels-turning over the clues he had so far, trying to put the pieces together into some shape that would make sense to a mind like the Riddler’s…
Selina merely watched, until she heard him murmur “catworthy;” then she realized the misunderstanding and touched his arm.
“I think I gave you the wrong impression there. ‘Catworthy’ wasn’t a clue; it was an offer. You know, like if I wanted to join in. The target is catworthy.”
The wheels ground to a halt and Bruce’s eyes went square.
“Join in?” he hissed. “You mean he wanted… He honestly thought you’d go for it?”
“No. He ‘honestly’ knew I was going to refuse, otherwise he would have told me what the priceless target was instead of just saying catworthy. But he asked anyway, and that was sweet of him.”
Bruce glared, and the lights flickered again, indicating the second act was about to begin.
North by Northwest, now that was a spy picture. Ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time… Okay, strictly speaking, it was hard to buy Cary Grant as an “ordinary man.” Harold Avies was an ordinary man. Cary Grant was CARY GRANT. But North by Northwest was the spy thriller Harold kept remembering, since he was on a train.
It wasn’t that easy to sleep on a train, at least it wasn’t if you were on a mission like Harold’s. So he lay there thinking about spy movies. Alas, no Eva Marie Saint had crossed his path, beguiling her way into his sleeper compartment with a flurry of suggestive subtext. But no Martin Landau had showed up to kill him either, so… No Martin Landau, no Robert Shaw from SPECTRE, no Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me, no creepy Germans from The Lady Vanishes, and no entire IMF force including the Rich Little lookalike from Mission Impossible…
Boy, the more Harold thought about it, trains were really a terrible way to get around if you were a spy… at least in the movies.
Catwoman never claimed to understand detective logic. It was entirely possible that Batman’s insistence on visiting each and every place she’d been with Eddie that afternoon was a perfectly sound crimefighting exercise. It was also possible that this was the man reacting more than bat. He’d been moody through the last two acts of the show, moody through supper at a quaint jazz club near the theatre, and moody on the cab ride back to the hotel. Of course, the last wasn’t helped by the fact that it was a cab they were riding in. The specter of Claudia Reisweiller-Muffington seducing Eddie by removing her panties in the back of a taxi continued to haunt them after they’d paid off the driver and returned to the room. Back in the room, Bruce obviously couldn’t wait to get into costume and, as soon as he did, he declared the spa would be their first stop. Selina hadn’t questioned it—although she did question going out the window just to drop down a floor and come in through a different one. What difference did it make if Batman and Catwoman entered the hotel through Bruce Wayne’s room or George Ruderick’s? Batman growled and grumbled, and in the end—even though breaking and entering was on her side of the partnership more than his—she agreed to do it his way. So they made their way through George Ruderick’s hotel suite and down to the spa. She showed him the Relaxation Room where Eddie made contact and the corridor leading to the women’s locker room where he’d waited while she got changed. She pretended not to notice when Batman’s eyes flickered over the spa robes hanging on the wall and then glanced at her legs.
“Yes, I was in the short one after my pedicure,” she mentioned wickedly.
His reaction was… pleasingly nostalgic. Batman feigning complete disinterest in her seductive teasing while his whole body radiated his awareness of her as a woman. She purred. He grunted. And then, before the growing tension could develop into anything, he turned to go. It was all so vividly familiar.
They left the Four Seasons for the next destination: a celebrated neighborhood café called Hot Chocolate. This entailed a short train ride out to Sikela Park and minutes of heady physical contact that left him more physically agitated than before. Selina was obvi—Catwoman, that is, Catwoman was obviously aroused by the experience, racing through the chilly Metropolis night with only his grapnel—and his arms—holding her to the speeding train. And Catwoman excited and aroused in that way was never something he quite knew how to deal with. The more he shut down to her, the more she affected him. By the time she’d picked the lock on Hot Chocolate’s back door, he could barely concentrate. At the very least, he should have been the one to break in. Sure, it might have taken him forty seconds longer to pick the lock, but it would have given him something to focus on—something other than the sight of Catwoman picking a lock. Through a haze of cat memories, he entered the restaurant, examined the décor, the menu, and the table where Selina and Nigma were seated that afternoon. Meanwhile, Catwoman looked over the menu.
“They have a Sunday Brunch,” she said casually.
Psychobat tuned her out. If-Tiny-In… Infinity… lemniscate was the infinity symbol. Chocolates because Selina liked them. And pussywillows… The tigers were looking more and more like an irrelevant coincidence… or a deliberate red herring… but probably just a coincidence… Catworthy… Catworthy. The bastard asked Catwoman—asked Selina—to “join in” his criminal enterprise… and she said it was sweet of him. She said it was nice to be asked…
Psychobat reminded himself sharply that that was irrelevant—unless he thought she might have taken him up on the offer. Was that a possibility he had to consider? Might Catwoman and Riddler be working together now?
Bruce slammed the door on that thought: No, it was not possible.
Well then, Psychobat insisted, if Catwoman wasn’t a suspect, then he should stop thinking about her and focus on the case.
Then again, Batman thought suddenly, he wasn’t the only one with cats padding around his thoughts on this case, now was he? If sending the “E” to Selina had nothing to do with the tigers, if sending chocolates and pussywillows had nothing to do with the tigers… then what was behind the recurring cat-angle?
That question returned at the Art Institute. Selina said they hadn’t gone inside; they just sat under the huge bronze lions and talked…
At first, Batman considered the lions in relation to the Dhumavati tigers and the Catitat, then he considered Selina herself, steps away from one of the greatest art collections in the country and not bothering to go inside. She just sat out front and chatted with her friend. Again, Psychobat berated him for focusing on the irrelevant… and again, he countered with the notion that Selina wasn’t irrelevant. Nigma himself was making her central to… to whatever was going on.
The final stop of the night would be Selina and Eddie’s final stop that afternoon: the LexCorp Skydeck. Batman thought it important to tell Superman because of the Luthor angle. It did seem like their visit—and indeed Nigma’s whole afternoon with Selina—was just about sightseeing, but you could never be certain with someone like Edward Nigma. Certainty led to futile laps around the sun while your wife was being kidnapped. So Batman had called Superman and, even though it would be “a few hours past my bedtime,” he agreed to meet them at the base of the towers so they could all inspect the Skydeck together.
While they waited for Superman to arrive, Catwoman decided to “sharpen her claws” on the secret entrance she’d used to reach Luthor’s office in the old days. She was curious if they’d closed the security holes after she “got in that time” (read: “stole the plans for the top-secret X-27 airplane from Luthor’s own computer, deliberately tripped an alarm to make for a more challenging escape, kidnapped Lois, tricked Superman into lifting an elevator into position where it blocked Batman’s pursuit, made fools of Luthor’s in-house armored security force in their own locker room before they could suit up to come after her, and then, when finally captured, startled Superman into dropping her with a sudden kiss—that he never did have the decency to mention to Bruce—and ultimately escaped with less effort than villains who could transport, shapeshift, or fly.” That she describes as “when she got in that time.” Impossible woman.).
Batman let her go, “to see if they closed the security holes,” although he already knew the answer: in one sense they had, but in another they hadn’t. As always, Luthor’s paranoia about the Alien had overridden all other considerations. He had to have his secret entrances and secret passages, always shielded in lead, unknown to half his own staff, and isolated on their own security grid. After Catwoman successfully broke in to steal the X-27 “Lex-Wing” schematics, they tried to address the security flaws she’d exploited. But with all of Luthor’s Superman baggage, they could only treat the symptoms, not the cause. They replaced electric eyes with infrareds, installed an extra grating inside a ventilation duct, added a few more blackbelts to the Team Luthor security force and bought them lighter armor they could quick-attach with velcro… In sort, they did nothing of consequence to stop, or even slow down, an intruder of Catwoman’s abilities. If she was breaking in today, Batman knew she would have been just as bored as she was the first time.
But still he let her go to discover all this for herself. He let her go precisely because she was bored. She liked to amuse herself during any crimefighting exercise, and if he didn’t let her do it with the tower security, she would probably do it with him—leading to god knows what by the time Clark arrived. So he gave her a comlink, and she disappeared around the back of the building.
Conviveal… That didn’t look right.
Lois added an “n.” Connviveal…
It still didn’t look right.
She rightclicked to check the online dictionary… And it confirmed that the spelling was wrong, but that was it. The dictionary was supposed to suggest the correct spelling based on the letters it had, but with two reporters in the household, one of whom was also a member of the Justice League, the Kent dictionary was customized with so many added words, proper names, foreign terms, alien terms, ultradimensional terms and jargon that Lois never trusted it. It might be giving her the proper spelling of convivial or it might be giving her the correct spelling for the marriage contract by which the queen of Junius 4’s third moon thought she was automatically betrothed to Clark’s first male offspring.
Look now, look at that.
Lois looked up at the television.
It is a chair, what of it?
She was watching ROME, the complete first season on DVD.
A chair? That’s no chair, it’s a throne!
Lois wondered if spelling was easier in ancient Rome. They had fewer letters. You could put a V in place of a U and nobody cared.
I believe thrones are generally more decorative. That is decidedly plain, and chair-like.
As the men on screen debated the thronelike qualities of Caesar’s chair, Lois reflected that TV shows coming out a season at a time on DVD was the best thing that ever happened to the medium. Her nights alone were random and impossible to predict in advance, so she had never been able to follow a series with an ongoing plot. That left sitcoms and game shows, which she despised. But now, now there was a whole world of ongoing drama opened up to her that she could preorder from NetFlix, stack on top of the TV, and whenever Clark was gone for the night, she enjoyed a mini marathon.
Tonight, she’d finished up LOST (with that boy who’d played the hobbit who she found so appealing, like Mxyzptlk without the malice), tried one Desperate Housewives but decided not to continue (something about that Susan Mayer being such a ditzy klutz was strangely off-putting), and postponed The Sopranos (having more than enough experience with real life mobsters) in favor of this Rome epic.
While she watched, she was working on her Nigma notes. Even though she’d agreed not to run with the kidnapping story when it happened, there would be a Riddler story sooner or later. It was only a matter of time, and thanks to the kidnapping, she had hours of exclusive material on the riddling chatterbox. When the story finally did break, she would be ready: How ironic that the most insightful coverage of the notorious Gotham rogue would not come from any paper in the villain’s hometown but from the Daily Planet’s own, (soon to be two-time) Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Lois Lane…
The only problem was he was so damn connviveal… coniveal, convi—friendly, for a kidnapper, he was exceptionally hospitable and friendly.
Roger Thornhill, that was the name of Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest.
Harold decided that if he needed to make up a name on the spur of the moment, he should have one prepared. Otherwise, in the panic of the moment, he’d probably say he was Harohnoalbert Eiseeafirehydrant.
So, not that there was any reason to think he’d have to come up with a name on short notice, but if he did, he was Roger Thornhill. Just like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Roger Thornhill… Roger O Thornhill, his initials were ROT… and the O didn’t stand for anything, he said…
Harold spent the next ten minutes introducing himself to his reflection. Thornhill, Roger Thornhill…
Superman hadn’t realized the impossible awkwardness of the situation until he approached the Lexcorp Towers and saw Batman waiting alone. He was supposed to fly Batman and Catwoman up to the Skydeck that had once been Luthor’s private office, but Catwoman was nowhere to be seen—and that’s when the realization hit. It would be the first time the three of them were together in that space since Catwoman stole the plans for the X-27. It would obviously be uncomfortable, for everyone, but especially for Selina. So, seeing Batman alone, Clark naturally assumed that she decided to skip this part of the night’s investigation. He landed, resolving not to aggravate the situation by asking embarrassing questions. Except—
“She’ll meet us up top,” Batman announced without preliminaries.
“Wha-” Clark replied to avoid being truly speechless.
“She got bored—she gets bored easily when crimefighting is involved—and she went to investigate her ‘alternate’ route up to Luthor’s office. She’s well past the halfway mark, far enough that it’s better to keep going than turn around and come back. She says she’ll meet us.”
Clark said nothing. He flew Batman up to the Skydeck without a word. He looked around, always an unusual exercise in the LexCorp Towers since every floor, door and wall was lead-lined. Since there was no way he could visually gauge Catwoman’s progress, he listened for some clue as to her location—and shuddered as he realized it was exactly what he’d done the night of the break in. He glanced at Batman, who seemed unconcerned with the situation.
“They could have come up in either elevator,” he noted aloud, “Tickets torn at that station if they came up this way, or over there if they came up on the penthouse side… Selina didn’t mention if they used any of the viewfinders. We should check them all anyway. You take the ones on that side.”
“Can I ask what you expect to find?” Superman asked.
“Possibly nothing. Possibly some markings on the lens, like the ‘pan then zoom’ clue he left at the sundial… Possibly something he could have seen here that would set him off, or that he might reference later… Possibly…” He trailed off as he approached a particular wall, the one he’d inspected the night of the break in after Luthor swore there was “no other way out” so Catwoman must have left through the open window. Batman had searched, found a hidden release that opened the hidden door through which Catwoman had really made her escape. Now that door was gone, and racks of Skydeck postcards, ball caps, and cup holders confronted them from the space it once concealed.
“A gift shop,” Catwoman purred, emerging from behind two obscenely large banners for the Metropolis Meteors. “Boy, if Lexxy could see this.” She held up a plush bear wearing a Superman t-shirt and a red cape. “Now that’s Karma.”
Batman’s lip twitched. Superman struggled to find words.
“Hey, Spitcurl,” she greeted him with a smile.
It didn’t make finding words any easier, and again he stood mute.
Batman asked which elevator they’d used that afternoon, and she pointed to the one on the penthouse side. Together, they retraced the steps she’d taken with Riddler, and Superman revised his assumptions. There was no awkward embarrassment. It was as though Selina didn’t even remember the X-27.
“Lex-Wing, that’s what he called it, the X-27 Lex-Wing.”
Okay, scratch that. She did remember; she was talking about it—with Batman—while they strolled back to the office side of the Skydeck where the incident actually occurred.
“I mean, who would actually call an airplane a ‘Lex-Wing?’” she laughed. “Didn’t George Lucas go after him for infringement or something?”
Clark expected Batman to answer with the icy finality he used to shut down Wally or Eel when they were flippant in the field, but instead it was Bruce’s voice that answered with relaxed indifference.
“Yes, settled out of court. It’s how Lucas got the money to do the last three movies.”
The feline laugh became more strident.
“That explains a lot actually.”
The pair of them strolled up to him, almost casually, like lovers walking along the river at sunset—then the Bat-density shifted as Batman said, “We’re through here.”
“We are?” Clark asked, stupefied.
“It’s an observation deck; there really isn’t much to see,” Batman said curtly.
“Oxymoron alert,” Catwoman teased.
“I had to inspect the space to eliminate the possibility that a clue was left here more than actually searching for one.”
“Oh Handsome, please, a little pity for the kitty,” Catwoman said, rubbing her head. “It’s been a long day and remember I had a headful of Eddie to start with.”
“My point is,” he said, opting for short, clear sentences, “I had to come here myself and see the place in person. Now we’ve been here. We’ve looked around. There doesn’t appear to be anything of concern. So we eliminate that for now. There’s no clue here. There’s nothing important to note. If something is referenced later, we’ll be able to recognize it. The job is done for now.”
“Good,” she smiled. “Home, bed?”
He grunted, and Catwoman declared that her trip up the secret entrance was enough “fun” for one night, and offered Superman the Super-Teddy in exchange for a speed-fly back to the hotel.
A cartoon… about a mean-spirited talking milkshake, a box of french fries with a goatee… and a meatball… sharing an apartment in the suburbs of Bludhaven.
Eddie was starting to feel that sending clues to his upcoming crimes in the form of a riddle really wasn’t that peculiar. Of course, he never thought his particular brand of riddling criminality was strange, but now that he’d seen this “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” (which as far as he could tell had nothing to do with water, nor were they teens, nor were they a force of any kind), he had to wonder how anyone could think leaving a simple riddle at the Bat-Signal before a burglary in any way constituted abnormal behavior. In a world where anthropomorphic fast food hanging in a Bludhaven crib passed for entertainment, who was to say the residents of Arkham were any crazier than the folks programming this Cartoon Network?
Not that it mattered. Eddie didn’t have to watch the show (thank god). He just needed the likeness of a few characters for an appropriate diversion. Now that Batman was in town, it was entirely possible that Superman might figure out where he was preparing to strike and… 15 minutes. Selina said he’d solved it in 15 minutes. From the first two pieces of the clue, he already knew the answer was ‘infinity,’ so the final piece must be “in”… Damn, the man was good.
Unconsciously, Eddie rubbed the break point on his left leg.
He was good. And he had Selina with him. It really didn’t seem fair. Brains, money, muscles, hair, and a woman who could keep up.
Eddie strung a wire across the back of a circuit board, repositioned a bulb… and wondered if he shouldn’t have an anagram ready, just in case. If Superman showed up, he wouldn’t use it. The diversion was meant for him; it would defeat the purpose to come right out and tell the big blue oaf that it was nothing but a way to keep overpowered, underwitted capes occupied so he could carry out his plan without interference. But if Batman showed up instead—Batman who could neither fly nor bend steel but who could solve the Infinity riddles in less than 15 minutes—then it was only fair to tell him the truth. NO MOB, BAT… That was rather good. NO MOB, BAT. For that was the point. Not a bomb.
Superman could pick up a bomb, run it out to sea or hurl it
into the sun before Riddler had taken two steps towards his escape route. But a
bomb scare was something else entirely. He wouldn’t want to start a
4 trampled in stampede when Superman heads off bomb squad.
Eddie chuckled at the imaginary headline,
adding the byline:
by Lois Lane, smarter than the rest of you Metropolis imbeciles put together.
The Man of Steel hurled a Lite-Brite into the sun today, evidently feeling the image of an intergalactic milkshake giving viewers the finger was too great a threat for local authorities to handle. Resulting panic among bystanders led to a stampede killing 4 and injuring 7. Man of Steel expresses regret…
Despite the difficulty sleeping with scenes from sixty-odd intrigue-on-a-train movies flashing through his head, Harold had left a six o’clock call for breakfast, and at six o’clock precisely, Toni the pretty attendant came knocking at his door—alas, still not like Eva Marie Saint intent on charming his secrets out from under him, nor like the seductive Tatiana Romanova bartering her favors and a Lektor decoder for safe passage out of the Iron Curtain, but merely to announce the time and inform him the dining car was open for breakfast.
So, breakfast… after a shower. Even spies and couriers ate breakfast and took showers.
It turned out that six years of advanced study in the finest science departments in the Ivy League were no match for the shower controls in a Lakeway Express sleeper compartment, but Harold eventually managed a hot, steamy shower which left him shivering as he made his way to the dining car. He confined his interaction with staff and fellow passengers to that of any Princeton physics “extrovert”—he ordered coffee and a Southwestern omelet and looked out the window as he ate. He returned to his cabin and checked his watch. In a few hours, they’d be arriving in Metropolis.
Even for Batman, it was a full night: the theatre, jazz club, spa, restaurant, art institute and the Skydeck—coming after a full day of the Daily Planet, STAR Labs, the Fortress of Solitude, and STAR Labs again, that nagging background tension building all the while because Selina was out there with Nigma. It was an exhausting day and Bruce crashed hard when they returned to the hotel. He slept deep and dreamt of question marks stalking him through the Dhumavati death maze and Dr. Hamilton releasing tigers from the Phantom Zone. One of the tigers caught him on the LexCorp Skydeck and the rake of its claws seemed to pass right through his armor. It felt just like Catwoman’s claws—but not tearing into his flesh, more of a persistent nudging.
“Bruce, Bruce, wake up. You have a phone call.”
The armor dissolved into a soft goosedown duvet, and the tiger’s claws into Selina’s ungloved hand.
“What time?” he murmured sleepily.
His eyes opened, he registered the white of the unfamiliar ceiling, the warmth of Selina’s nudge, and the memories of Metropolis and the Nigma case in one wave of realization. Then he looked up at her with far more malice than he had when Catwoman really had scratched up his chest like the dream-tiger she just supplanted. The last thing he remembered before sleep was her ordering breakfast on the little card the hotel provided. She’d asked what he wanted, he said he didn’t care, she said she’d get him a waffle… and then she got up to leave the card on the doorknob, saying she’d checked off 12 noon for room service to deliver it, the latest time they had a checkbox for unless… and that was it. He was asleep by the time she got back.
“You said they weren’t delivering breakfast until noon,” he growled, sitting up. “Why is it so early?”
“It’s not breakfast, you have a phone call,” she repeated. “Her name is Winn, from the Daily Planet. Lit button to pick up.”
He blinked again, swallowed, and was full awake. Paula Winn would never call him over a trifle; it would take something big for her to overcome her terror and actually initiate contact. He took the call while Selina stumbled sleepily off to the shower…
When she returned, Bruce was dressing—or rather Batman was—the Justice League comlink lay open on the bed and he was cursing into it while he struggled with the cape.
“Of course he did it on purpose, Clark. Now make whatever excuses you have to and—Damnit (that to the cape)—that whole thing yesterday was a ruse (that to her, she guessed). He knew I’d have to check out all the places you went together; he knew I’d be up all night doing it, and that gave him this morning to strike.”
..:: We don’t know that, Bruce,::.. the comlink sounded in Clark’s voice.
“Of course we do. Einstein’s notebooks?! It fits the infinity clue, and to an intelligence-obsessed mind like Nigma’s, Albert Einstein’s personal notebooks are as ‘catworthy’ as a target can get.”
..:: Yes, I agree. I’m not disputing that’s what he’s after. I’m just saying that all the stops with Selina yesterday wasn’t necessarily a deliberate—::..
“I warned him if he ever used her again I’d—”
“Hi,” Selina interrupted, yanking the cape into position and claiming his attention at the same time. “Einstein notebooks?” she asked, now fussing with the cape and emblem the way another woman might tie her husband’s tie.
..:: Good morning, Selina,::.. the comlink called cheerily.
“Morning, Spitcurl,” she replied without turning her eyes from Bruce. “Einstein notebooks?” she asked again.
“Paula Winn is on the board of the Science and Industry Museum,” he explained briefly. “I asked a lot of questions about it yesterday. To be honest I was just trying to get some lifesigns; she tends to panic whenever she meets me. Now it turns out I asked so many questions that it penetrated the fog, she gets that I’m interested in the museum and invited me to sit in on this acquisition they’re making today—this morning.”
“Right, along with a few personal artifacts. The transfer happens at eleven. The courier’s train is getting in any time now. Clark’s flying out now to escort it in. That shifty bastard, he knew we’d be up all night revisiting all those—”
“Yeah, you did that part already, and it sounds like there isn’t time to argue about it. So…” she paused just long enough to kiss his cheek “…You and Spitcurl give him hell…” kiss “…Save the day…” kiss “…Don’t break his legs again unless you have to…” kiss “…Then come back, wake me up, and we’ll split a waffle.”
..:: Bruce, seriously, you need to marry that girl.::..
In 1912, a consortium of railroads formed to commission a new railway station in downtown Metropolis. They wanted a station “befitting the city’s status as America’s railway hub.” They wanted a station “to make an architectural impact.” What they really wanted was a station to outshine Gotham’s Grand Central Terminus. The Beaux Arts colossus was completed twelve years later. Visitors were awed by a cavernous “Great Hall” that measured 20,000 square feet. Flanked by soaring Corinthian columns, pink marble floors, terracotta walls, and crowned with a five-story, barrel-vaulted skylight, everything about the station was engineered to impress. Built—and, in fact, overbuilt—for the grandiose taste of Midwest robber barons, the station was one of the few significant buildings in the city to escape branding by LexCorp in the guise of a restoration. Even Luthor could find nothing to expand, gild, or enhance the sprawling structure. Although the station could handle as many as 400,000 passengers per day, only about 100,000 passed through in its heyday in the 1940s. Today, that number had dwindled to a few thousand on a good day. The station had two sets of tracks, ten leading northbound and ten southbound. Capable of handling more than 700 trains in a single day, there was only one passenger train arriving this morning.
Harold Avies stepped out onto a crowded platform bustling with passengers boarding the outbound Texas Eagle on the adjacent track, and deafening with the engine noise of several nearby commuter trains. A Redcap arrived with a luggage cart, as he would to deliver any first-class passenger to the Metropolitan Lounge, but Harold waved him away. He had no luggage beyond the student backpack slung over his shoulder, and the industrial-looking briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. It was an incongruous image: the awkward, scruffy grad student with his toothbrush and a change of underwear in a worn canvas backpack, carrying this monstrous titanium attaché that looked like something they took out of the Swiss bank vault in the Bourne Identity.
Harold looked around, hoping for a sign to ground transportation so he could find a taxi, when he saw a very different type of sign: AVIES. It was a chauffeur, an actual uniformed chauffeur holding a handwritten sign with his name, just like in the movies. Harold shifted his weight and looked around, unsure how to proceed.
“Eh, you from the science museum?” he squeaked, looking (in true science geek fashion) at the man’s shoes.
“Yessir,” the chauffeur replied.
“Cool,” Harold nodded. “I mean, uh, YES, I mean, I’m Harold Avies.”
The chauffeur began leading him through the terminal, and Harold started to ask the question all first-time visitors ask of taxidrivers and hotel clerks in Metropolis… “Have you ever seen Superman?” …when all hell broke loose.
First there was a weird bluish shadow washing across the huge vaulted skylight, and a few lucky folks who looked up in time squealed and pointed as they caught a glimpse of costume or cape. Then everyone could see Superman, standing there—or, well, more like floating there, right over their heads, right inside the train station hovering under the skylight.
“Wooww,” Harold managed, a breathy exhale of pure awe.
“Stay right where you are, Rid—” the Man of Steel began—when a squealing high-pitched alarm sounded and a squad of men like a SWAT team ran in from three different entrances and ordered everyone to move quickly but calmly towards the exits.
Superman didn’t question them but lowered to the ground at once—Harold guessed he was going to talk to the SWAT guys and find out what was going on. Harold could only guess because the chauffeur was half-pushing him/half pulling him towards the door, almost like a bodyguard, so Harold really didn’t get a chance to see what else happened inside the station. He thought he heard the words “bomb threat” “check up there” and “Mooninite,” but there was no time to even think about that before they were outside, racing towards a green and black van as if they were running from gunfire or the station was about to explode into a big end-of-the-spy-movie fireball. The back of the van opened, and it seemed like the chauffeur was going to shove him inside—as if Harold himself had the secret data locked in his head and had to be protected from snipers lying in wait—when all of a sudden, just as he was almost inside—the whole van lifted right off the ground and went soaring into the air! —And a big black blur that turned out to be BATMAN came swinging out of nowhere! Right through the empty space where the van had just been! —And went soaring boots first into the chauffeur’s gut!
The rest was a blur of green gas bulbs, whizzing Batarangs, flying capes and pounding fists—entirely too much excitement for Harold who, despite having Jason Bourne’s safe deposit box shackled to his wrist, was just a grad student from Princeton, New Jersey! He did what anybody with an IQ of 190 would do, he ran!
He ran like mad, into the traffic lane, nearly getting clipped by a bus as he went, visions of Roger Thornhill running from the crop duster in North by Northwest merging into James Bond racing away from a helicopter in Russia with Love—the menace from the skies no longer confined to his imagination as news helicopter whirred overhead, proclaiming itself SuperStation WLEX, then in smaller print, “An Eye on Metropolis”—Too late, Harold realized that no spy worth his double-0 would stop to read the advertising tagline on the helicopter—in the time it took, the traffic light changed and cars were heading his way in both lanes! Again he did what anybody with an IQ of 190 would do, discovering this time that he’d somehow, in his panic, run full circle and was back at the green and black van, and back in the heart of the battle in front of the train station.
Again he found himself surrounded by a blur of green gas bulbs, whizzing Batarangs and flying capes—and again, he did what anyone with an IQ of 190 would do (after running had failed twice)—He hid!
At least he kept trying to hide, but every time he crawled under something, Superman picked it up!
Finally, in sheer desperation, he sprinted back INTO the train station, colliding with members of the SWAT team on their way out carrying a— a— Harold blinked, finding himself staring into the cold LED eyes of Ignignokt the Mooninite from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, as a kind of chemical reaction occurred in his brain, the sheer absurdity of the image reacting with the hours of anxious boredom and fantastic daydreams on the train, catalyzed by the panic of the last minutes… Harold suddenly found himself utterly confident, composed and serene.
“Excuse me,” he told the SWAT captain politely, looking the man in the eye. “I didn’t see you there.”
Before the officers could explain that the train station was still closed to the public, Superman lowered into position beside them and tapped Harold on the shoulder.
“Are you the young man from Princeton bringing the Einstein Notebooks to the Science Museum?” he asked in the tone one might use to avoid spooking an injured animal.
Harold turned, looked Superman straight in the eye, and offered his hand—cuffed briefcase and all.
“Avies,” he said, with all the suavity of a double-0 operative. “Harold Avies.”
To be continued...