Chapter 1: Prologue
Giovanni d'Annunzio looked down at his reservation chart, then up at the couple before him. The leggy brunette said she was lunching with Bruce Wayne. The wiry man with thinning hair and a question mark tie clip said he was meeting Selina Kyle. Giovanni looked back at his seating chart: There was only one table. Wayne's man Pennyworth made the reservation for one o'clock, a party of two. Selina called a few minutes later: one o'clock, a party of two. He just assumed they were together. He promised them both his best table.
The only free space for emergencies such as this was cramped and noisy, near the kitchen. He could not risk insulting Bruce Wayne, accustomed to the best d'Annunzio's had to offer. Nor would he want to offend Selina, who brought royalty to his establishment in the person of that oddly dressed Princess of Themyscira… Selina who had been so gracious when he'd seated that awful Miller character… Selina who, on seeing the vilifying writers in her territory, had spoken about vendetta (in flawless, patrician Italian) in terms that made it clear, Catwoman or no, this was not a woman to cross.
He decided the only solution was to compound his mistake. He had assumed the two different reservations were the same. What if, instead, he had assumed the two parties would be dining together? Still an innocent misunderstanding on his part, but this way, no one should be offended by being seated at a cramped table by the kitchen.
He picked up two menus and beckoned Bruce and Selina's guests to follow him.
Zatanna sat across from her unexpected lunch companion, concealing her suspicions in the easy manner of a show-biz personality on a talk show. That Bruce was late was not, in itself, cause for alarm. He was a busy man with a company to run, a charitable foundation gearing up for the holidays, and a secret identity. So he was late for a lunch date. Big deal. What was suspicious was that a criminal sat in his place. The man with the question mark tie clip was not unknown to Zatanna. As an auxiliary member of the JLA, she would have recognized The Riddler even if he hadn't introduced himself, bold as brass, as Edward Nigma.
"So tell me," the insidious puzzle master queried, "What brings the famous prestidigitatress to Gotham City?"
It took Zatanna a half-minute to realize this was meant as polite smalltalk, not a master criminal issuing a riddling challenge, and she found herself answering reflexively as she would on a talk show: "I'm playing at the Civic Center on the 8th and 9th, and then I have a special appearance at the Wayne Foundation Gala to benefit the Thomas Wayne Memorial Clinic. It's always such a pleasure coming into Gotham for any reason, but I'm especially excited to be a part of this event. There's to be a silent auction, and one of the items being sold is an artifact of Harry Houdini's. The Tome—"
"The Tome of Secrets," Nigma cut her off. And only then did Zatanna remember she was not speaking to a talk show host, but a member of Batman's Rogues Gallery, a theme criminal, and she had just drawn his attention to a most tempting prize. Bruce arrived then, followed by Selina, both complaining about the same traffic snarl in Gotham Plaza. By the time they sorted out the introductions and lunch orders, Zatanna had tried twice to signal Bruce about her faux pas. It now became clear that no such covert signals were necessary, for Nigma introduced the subject openly.
"Before you two arrived, Miss Zatanna had just mentioned an item I'm very interested in, Harry Houdini's Tome of Secrets. It's said to contain every secret he knew, his own illusions and escapes, those of other magicians, the fake mystics he debunked, everything."
Zatanna began envisioning the bat-scowl and lengthy explanations as to how and why she'd told a master criminal about such a coveted prize. But as Nigma went on, it became clear he already knew about the Tome long before their conversation:
"When he died, Houdini told his brother Theo to burn the thing. But he wouldn't. Instead, Theo used the Tome's secrets to further his own act – and therein, so the legend says, began the curse."
"The curse?" Bruce and Selina asked in unison, causing Zatanna to look back and forth across the table like she was watching a tennis match.
"The curse," Nigma repeated. "If any but the rightful owner of the Tome turns its pages," he lowered his voice dramatically as if telling children on a camping trip about the escaped maniac with a hook for a hand, "it is his or her own secret that will be revealed to the world."
"Let me get this straight," Bruce asked, walking Zatanna out of the restaurant, "You're doing two shows at the Civic Center for extra money to buy this magic book…"
"The Houdini Tome," Zatanna corrected, waving her arm for a cab.
"…but if you get outbid, you won't let me buy it for you and you won't let me lend you money?"
"Curses are not to be trifled with, Bruce. Riddleman had it right. If any but the rightful owner touches the thing, their secrets will be outed. I don't know exactly how the powers that be might interpret 'the rightful owner'…"
"…and I'm not any taking chances," Eddie told Selina, "I can't steal it. I have to buy the Tome legitimately."
Selina sipped her coffee while Eddie finished his dessert.
"Good thing you asked me to lunch today, because I found out who my competition is. Zatanna is in town for the book, she said so! That woman is a professional magician, there's no telling what tricks she might stoop to in order to get it. I'm going to have to play hardball; I can see that. Something to deplete her cash reserves and boost my own."
"Eddie, you're unbelievable. You chance into having lunch with a beautiful, unattached woman, and in the ten minutes you were alone together, you make her into a rival. You had stuff in common!"
"You saying this was a fix up?"
"It was not a fix up, Eddie. It was just an oops at the reservation desk, I swear. But look, I was at a bridal shower with Zatanna. In a room full of bitchy, tightass, pretentious crosscurrents, she was the let-your-hair-down, live-and-let-live, top-up-the-champagne-glasses and joke-about-toys-that-go-whirr girl. You hear what I'm saying? You found out you had stuff in common, right? She's a magician, she knows about Houdini."
"'Lina, look, I do hear you. But no. I'm done with it; I'm off women for a while. No offense. Between Harley and Doris and Clurissa and Ivy, it's been a bad year. Enough already. I'm going back to focusing on the work—and getting that book. By any means necessary."
"IXAT POTS," Zatanna called out in desperation, causing a passing cab to screech to a halt, stopping within inches of her outstretched leg. "Works every time," she winked while Bruce held the door.
As the taxi disappeared into traffic, Bruce returned to the restaurant with a scowl.
He waited for Nigma to depart and offered Selina a ride home.
"They're both awfully intense about Houdini," he muttered, while they waited for the valet to bring the Jag.
"-cough-SherlockHolmes-cough-" she answered, with a graceful dip into the passenger seat.
Bruce couldn't help but smile at the valet's double take. He was grateful in ways he couldn't even articulate that it was Selina, that it was Catwoman, who was the woman in his life. He didn't have to be polite on the ride home. He didn't need to be politically correct or even tactful. He could vent.
Zatanna was a nice girl and a heroine, but in some ways, she epitomized everything he distrusted about metas and superpowers. Using magic to hail a cab. Irresponsible. Flamboyant. Heedless. Careless.
The best of them relied on their powers too much and never developed other basic skills as they should. "Powers are not a crutch," Wonder Woman had insisted on the one time he broached the subject, "They're a part of us, a part of what makes us all that we are. Why, it's like saying you're too dependent on your eyesight because you never learned to read Braille."
"I can read Braille," Batman had said flatly. "It comes in handy."
Diana had stormed off in search of a listener that wouldn't contradict her proclamations. By contrast, Selina was nodding at the story as he told it, smiling like it never occurred to her for a moment that Batman would not read Braille.
Zatanna, he resumed, was the perfect illustration of what he was saying. She was the weak link of any team she was on, when one would think her magic would make her the strongest.
"Proving yet again," Selina purred, shifting her legs subtly in the seat, "it's not powers or the lack, it's what you do with them."
A twitch-smile signaled that Bruce was done venting and, noting the seductive shift of her legs, he proposed bypassing her apartment and heading out to the manor. She shook her head.
"No point, we'll just get settled in and you'll wind up coming straight back into town."
"Oh?" Bruce's eyes flickered off the road to regard her. With Silver or a bimbo that statement would be a complaint, because he was always running off from their dates. Coming from Selina, it was a tease. She knew something. She knew Batman would be called into the city tonight—and she'd just spoken with Nigma.
"No need to come back just for that," Bruce began, dipping his voice slightly into Batman's gravel to show he was ahead of her. "Since I already know the answer to the riddle is Houdini."
She said nothing, but his peripheral detected a sad shake of the head.
"Oh right, the rightful owner bit. Damn."
His eyes shifted stealing a peek. There was still no reaction from Selina.
"Well, if Nigma is planning to buy it outright and he just found out he's got competition, he'll be going for large amounts of cash. Like box office receipts. And if he hit Zatanna's shows, that could tie her up in paperwork, delay her payment, reducing her ability to bid against him."
He twitched. Selina said nothing. This triumph of deduction was as much a foregone conclusion as Batman knowing how to read Braille…
"Damn, you're a hard woman to impress."
"I like watching you show off."
"I wasn't showing off," Bruce lied, "just thinking out loud."
...to be continued...