"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Clairmont Mansion. My name is Angela and you are with Tour Fifteen. Please remember your number as we may pass other tours and we don't want you following the wrong tour guide." She checked her clipboard and did a fast headcount. "Before we begin our tour, I must ask you to stay close and not lag behind. The Clairmont Mansion's construction started in 1846 and continued non-stop over the next sixty five years. Much of the mansion is still under repair and is not safe. There is also the chance that if you wander away, you may never find your way out again." Angela paused for laughter and murmured conversations. "Are we all set? No last minutes potty breaks? Excellent, then follow me."
Edward glared at the two women to his left. It only stood to reason that he'd get chatterboxes. The brunette tour guide, Angela, stopped and indicated a photograph that was enlarged to poster size. The grainy texture revealed a woman, standing before a window looking out upon an invisible scene. Her features were blurred and nearly indiscernible, but she appeared to be frowning. The tour guide placed a hand on the Plexiglas that protected the photos and waited while cameras snapped.
"Meet Miss Estelle Clairmont. This picture was taking by a photographer who was hiding in her garden and it's one of only a handful known to exist. After measuring the height of the window, it was calculated that she stood 6'4", tall enough to be considered a freak by the people of the 19th century. Angela suddenly coughed, and cleared her throat. "It's said that the ghost of Miss Estella attempted to strangle anyone who looked at her, a way to ensure her privacy even after death. So, if anyone of you suddenly feels lighted headed or gets a tickle in your throat, it may well be Miss Estella."
The little story has its desired effect and people first looked around the spacious room and then began to pull tighter into a group, all except a red-haired gentleman. He looked around as if he was bored. Angela shrugged her shoulders and continued.
"The Clairmont Mansion is considered one of the strangest structures in the United States, the East Coast version of the Winchester Mystery House. While it does share some similarities with that Californian historic landmark, the Clairmont Manor stands alone in many aspects. That house was built as a way for Sarah Winchester to cheat death. Miss Estelle had no time for death; she was too busy cheating the living. Miss Sarah was a recluse by choice, but it would appear that Miss Estelle became a recluse because she was terrified someone would try to kill her if she was to appear outside the walls of her mansion."
There was a loud bang and everyone in the group jumped, then nervous laughter tittered its way through the crowd. "Sorry, as I said before, restoration goes on. Mr. Lawrence Clairmont purchased three thousand acres from the Wayne family in 1840 as a gift for his infant daughter, the sole heir of his fortune. Six years later, he built what was to be the start of The Clairmont Mansion as her eventually wedding trousseau.
"There were many suitors, some starting when Miss Estelle was still just a child. Even then, she was known to have a fiery temper and after she killed his favorite dog, her father told her that the only one fit to marry her was the devil himself. In Shakespeare's time, she would have been called a shrew, but today there are more appropriate words for her." Angela paused for the laughter, then continued.
"That devil took the form of Enrique Casseden. His womanizing was only second to what many called a cruel and sadistic streak. He was a perfect match for Miss Estelle."
"Oh, my, what happened? Was she okay?" This was for one of the two teenage girls in the group. "He didn't hurt her, did he?"
"We will never know. Tragedy struck when the bridegroom apparently hung himself the night before his marriage to Miss Estelle. Many of the papers of the time claimed it was because he could not bear being married to Miss Estelle, although why he didn't merely leave was anyone's speculation. Others whispered that it was not Enrique who hung himself, but rather Miss Estelle when he attempted to force himself upon on. That was never proven."
"Riddle me this," Edward said softly to himself. "Why is it that when a woman is accomplished in the world of business, she is considered a bitch when a man who is equally accomplished is considered a genius?" The woman in front of him turned and hushed him, her cheeks stained a bright red.
"After the death of her fiancé, there was a string of engagements, including that of Bruce Wayne, the great grandfather of our present-day Bruce Wayne. All engagements were broken off for one reason or another and in 1870, Miss Estelle announced she had no plans to ever marry and took possession of the property that her father had purchased and moved into the house. Mr. Clairmont and his wife died shortly thereafter, under very suspicious circumstance, leaving the entirety of their fortune to Miss Estelle."
At this point, Angela paused to stroke a scowling cherub. "This left Miss Estella a woman of independent means and she turned the money her father left her into a staggering fortune, leaving her estate second only to that of the Wayne Foundation. This was something of a sticking point between her and the Wayne Family for years to come. No matter how hard she tried, she could not best their business sense and always came up short. That fortune enabled her to build and furnish the mansion in her own peculiar style and taste."
Edward glanced around the room. There were stacks of stained glass windows, each one depicting a person being tortured. She was obvious a woman of singular taste.
"There are several theories as to her extraordinary building after that. The most predominant is that Miss Estelle had made a pact with the devil himself in order to be rid of her parents and their matchmaking attempts, both which she found burdensome. She and the devil agreed that the day she finished the Mansion, he would claim her as his bride. It all sounds very fanciful, but remember this was not that long after the Salem Witch Hunts. People believed in the supernatural and used it to explain what could not be easily explained otherwise. Even Miss Estelle herself was a staunch believer in the supernatural and had a practicing witch as part of her regular staff."
"She obviously believed in covering every angle," Edward muttered. "As do I."
"Another theory was appeasement of her guilty conscience. Her grandfather had made his fortune in the war, running a slave market from Haiti and back. He packed his galleon with captives, many of them dying before the ships landed, saving them from a life of servitude. It was thought that Miss Estelle built to appease the souls of the slaves, who haunted her dreams and waking hours alike. She blamed the ghosts for killing or frightening away her suitors. That hardly seems a likely explanation either, as Miss Estelle was rumored to be without fear, remorse or compassion for anything living or dead."
"I think you mean, anyone, dear. I'm an English teacher."
"Sadly, I mean, anything. I won't go into the stories, but she was quite brutal with animals as evidence of the many skeletons we found on the premise. Nothing escape her evilness." Angela smiled sympathetically as some in the group shuddered. She gestured to a door at the far end of the room and tried to ignore the nagging crick in her neck that she always seemed to get in this spot.
"Whatever the reason, Miss Estelle started to build with fervor, swearing that the only way the building stopped would be only after her death. The result was Clairmont Mansion, a mass of twisting corridors, maze-like rooms, and nonsensical design. The more convoluted, the better she liked it. She never slept in the same room two nights in a row and had the unfortunate habit of roaming the halls with a whip, ready to beat any worker who she did believed wasn't working hard enough."
"Why did they stay?" a woman asked.
"She paid twice the usual wage and offered things that were unheard of back then, like paid vacations and sick leave. She had a staff of doctors on call and any sick or injured worker or their family could use them without incurring any cost. However, she demanded absolute loyalty and complete devotion in exchange. Now, does anyone have any questions before we head into the mansion itself...?"
Edward polished the gold earring in his right earlobe between two fingers for a moment. Then, slowly, he raised his hand and Angela smiled at him.
"Yes, sir? You have a question?"
"Exactly what did she do with all her money? Even while back 1810, this must have cost a devil's ransom, there surely had to still be money left." There was a pause as if the tour guide wasn't sure how to approach this.
"When she died, her estate was reputed to be at $72 million, not a paltry sum even by today's standards. There was a trust fund set up to continue the upkeep on the mansion, but the fund was nearly bankrupt by the early sixties. Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce Wayne donated several thousands to keep us going."
"Reputed?" This was from another man.
"She didn't believe in banks and it was believe that she kept her money in a private vault located somewhere on her estate. The mansion was severely damaged by fortune hunters after her death, but a vault was never discovered. The Clairmont Restoration Society took over in the 30's and we have been in the restoration process since then. However no trace of it has ever been found."
"How is that possible, madam?" This came from an elderly gentleman in the front of the crowd. Somehow he seemed vaguely familiar to Edward.
"Believe it or not, we are still discovering parts of the mansion. Miss Estelle had a habit of constructing hidden rooms, some of which were discovered and you'll see them on today's tour. There's also a honeycomb of caves that run beneath the house. Miss Estelle used them in part to construct the extensive basement of the mansion. Two years ago, a construction worker uncovered a wine cellar that had been undisturbed for over a century. The discovered wine was valued within the millions. It was due to that discovery that we were able to raise money to continue with the present refurbishing of the mansion. Now if there are no further questions, I'll show you the place where we believe construction began."
The group started to move off, out of the narrow hall that they'd been standing in for nearly ten minutes. It was just as well, for Edward didn't have that much time to waste. This would probably be the most extensive job he'd ever contemplated, thusly, anticipated an investment of time. If anyone was going to solve the riddle of the Clairmont Mansion, it would make sense that it would be done by Edward Nigma, aka the Riddler.
He paused as he passed the portrait and he grinned, his eyes taking on the air of one possessed. "Hello, Miss Estelle, I'll see you in Hell." The old man from the front looked back over his shoulder, and for an instant, Edward's smile dimmed as he swore a glimmer of recognition appeared in the old man's eyes. Then the old man looked quickly away, as if embarrassed to be caught in the act of staring. It was weird, but Edward didn't dwell on it. Instead, his grin returned and he followed after his group. After all, he couldn't afford to miss a single detail.
His arm curled slowly towards him, muscles screaming a protest against the lactic acid building up in them. Bruce Wayne ignored the pain just as he did many other aspects of his life. Instead he concentrated on pushing his muscles just a little further, forcing them to perform even after they had reached their limits. His life depended upon them every night and he couldn't take the chance that they might give out or lack the strength he needed. He felt the pressure of a hand on his lower back and he automatically straightened at the touch.
"Keep your back straight, Bruce," his personal trainer admonished, reaching out to cup a trembling forearm and help it forward. If he found it peculiar that the billionaire would spend a lot of money to build up a physique that was then hidden beneath a carefully-tailored wardrobe, he never made mention of it. Money bought a lot of loyalty. "C'mon, Bruce, you're not sweating enough. Two more sets."
The double-glass doors to the gym opened, but Wayne continued to struggle with the weight until the voice of his butler interrupted him.
"Pardon me, Master Bruce, but I believe we might have a bit of a problem."
A bit of a problem to Alfred could be something as minor as a plugged drain or as major as the collapse of the stock market. It was impossible to tell from the man's polished British-accented voice.
With relief, Bruce dropped the weight to the padded floor and wiped the sweat from his face with a damp towel. "What can I do for you, Alfred?" The way the butler shot a look at the personal trainer, then back, alerted him. Whatever Alfred needed to say required privacy and Bruce Wayne obliged. "Nate, listen, why don't we call it quits for today?"
"You're not going to build up any endurance that way," Nate said. "You just don't push yourself enough." It was a standing joke between the two.
Bruce smiled and shrugged his shoulders, "Yeah, well, you know me, just a laze-about playboy."
"I'll let you know." They walked to the locker room with Alfred trailing not far behind. If Bruce didn't know better, he would swear that was Alfred dry washing his hands. "Let me grab a shower first." The note of dismissal in the voice couldn't be missed even by a less-experienced person and Nate nodded.
"Sounds good. I think I'll go take a couple laps while you make up your mind." He touched his own muscled chest. "I wouldn't want to get out of shape." He grabbed up a fresh towel from the rack and headed for the door, just as Bruce pushed the door into a small locker room.
Bruce unbuckled the wide back support belt, dropped it and then sat on a bench to untie his shoes. He looked up and over briefly before returning to his task as Alfred entered through the door. "So, what's on your mind, Alfred?"
"As you know, sir, today is my day off."
"That's why you weren't banging around the place. Okay, so you were off today..."
"I visited the Clairmont Manor."
"That old tourist trap? I would have thought better of you, Alfred. Wasting your day off like that." Bruce paused as he pulled off his shoes and socks. "I know it's a state landmark, but it's still a P.T. Barnum to my way to thinking."
"Which is why you just donated a healthy sum to the Clairmont foundation?"
"Hey, you know what Barnum says about a fool and his money." Bruce peeled off his shirt and it followed the previously discarded items.
"Did you know they claim Wayne family connections?" The butler bent to retrieve the fallen articles, well accustomed to picking up after the younger man.
"Nothing new about that, half of Gotham has Wayne family connections. One of the benefits about being a founding father, I suppose. Is that what you had to tell me?"
"Something of more precedence, I should think, Master Bruce. There was a familiar face in my tour group."
"Anyone I know?"
"Intimately. It was Mr. Nigma."
"What?!" The head jerked back to stare at Pennyworth.
"I thought that would gain your undivided attention." There was a smug quality to Alfred's statement. He took the discarded clothes to a hamper, obviously content to permit the suspense to build for a moment.
"He's still in jail." Bruce said, thinking furiously for a moment. "Isn't he? Wait, what month is this?"
"It's a topic that you might want to take up with Commissioner Gordon."
"Isn't he?" The question was posed to a heavy-set man in his early fifties. The stacks of paperwork weren't quite tall enough to hide behind and there was no place else he could disappear to, although he was certainly giving the illusion of wanting to do just that. Jim Gordon looked as though there were a hundred other places he would rather be than confronting Bruce Wayne.
"Actually...no. He was released two weeks ago."
"Jim, the man nearly crippled the entire police department. He nearly killed me."
"Damnit, Bruce, I don't just arbitrarily go around saying who gets released and who doesn't. If you were so concerned, you should have shown up at the parole hearing. You were notified in plenty of time."
Yes, he had received the notice, but the parole hearing occurred the same time as a series of very nasty bombings were plaguing the financial institutes of Gotham. It had meant long nights and even longer days for The Batman as he struggled to bring the bombings to an end. Somehow Bruce Wayne's needs got pushed aside for those of a greater need. However, he couldn't very well use that as an excuse, not without revealing a secret he'd kept well hidden for years.
"I wasn't in the country then, Jim. There was some trouble with one of my companies in Germany."
"You made your choice, Bruce, and the parole board made theirs. Edward Nigma was deemed to no longer be a threat to society."
"Jim, he's crazy."
"Not according to the prison psychologist." Jim reached for his pipe. "Why are you so concerned anyway? It isn't like he's going to hold a grudge against you. You didn't put him away, The Batman did."
"Then maybe I should be talking to him," Bruce said. He'd gotten the information he was after, when and why the Riddler had been released. It was true the Riddler was no worse than the Penguin or the Joker. The opposite actually. He was the least violent of the three, but the cleverest. That made him just as dangerous to the people of Gotham.
"Right, that will be the day." It was a well-known fact that Wayne didn't associate, much less approve, of Gotham's caped vigilante. The younger man was quiet for a moment, then leaned forward in his chair
"What if I told you I had reason to believe that the Riddler was already planning his next heist?" Bruce said softly.
The commissioner was interested and he pursed his lips for a moment before murmuring, "I'd be forced to ask for details, Bruce."
"Alfred saw him out at the Clairmont Manor."
Gordon sat back with a snort, "The man's free, he can go where he wants... within reason, of course. Circumstantial, Bruce. You can't prove a thing."
"Yet." Bruce stood and turned to walk out the door, pausing at Jim's soft voice.
"Bruce, I'm saying this as a friend and not as the police commissioner. Don't stick your neck into police business that doesn't concern you. It could be dangerous and you might get hurt."
"It's good advice, Jim. I wonder if I'll follow it." And Wayne was gone, threading his way past crowded desks, through bleak corridors into the even bleaker Gotham City day. Gray, almost black clouds hid the sky from view. Somehow, it suited his mood today.
He climbed into the car and slammed the door a little harder than was necessary. Bruce Wayne was a man used to getting his own way. If Gordon couldn't help him, then there was one man who could.
The dark clouds had melted in the night as it approached and now fat raindrops pelted the canopy of the Batmobile as it rolled slowly through the back streets and alleys of Gotham City.
The bitter cold of the rain had driven most people inside and The Batman couldn't help wishing he could join them. The Batsuit's protection didn't include that of the elements; in the summer, he sweltered, in the winter, he froze, but at least it didn't leak...yet. At least he had the protection of the Batmobile for the moment.
The car's monitor bleeped on, displaying a shirt-sleeved Alfred Pennyworth. From what Batman could see, the manservant was in Bruce's personal library, rummaging through the papers there.
"What's goin' on, Alfred," Bruce said, not bothering to keep up The Batman facade for the butler's benefit.
"I believe I have located that information you requested, sir, regarding the Clairmont Manor. Going back through the Wayne family tree, I did find references to the broken engagement between your great grandfather and Miss Estelle, although the allusions are rather shaded."
"What do you mean?" He turned onto Fifth Avenue, his attention on the myriad of alleys rather than the road. Thankfully, the traffic was light enough at this time of night to permit such inattention. In fact his was the only vehicle moving down the street at the moment.
"Apparently, the arrangements had been made by the parents as was the custom at that time. When your great grandfather was made aware of his impending marriage to Miss Estelle, he protested, saying that he was in love with another woman. Before the marriage could take place, the other woman became pregnant and your great grandfather was forced to do the honorable thing to uphold the honor of the family. I suspect if that Bruce Wayne was anything like his great grandson, it wasn't an accidental pregnancy."
"I'd make book on it, Alfred. I've never heard of any Wayne doing anything by accident, especially Great Grandfather. Anything else?"
"As I recall, Mr. Nigma was inordinately interested in the rumored treasure buried in the cellar of the manor. He mentioned several times."
"Didn't we buy some wine from the Clairmont estate recently? Some hidden wine cellar that was only just discovered?"
"Yes, sir, that was also part of the tour."
"Then it's possible that the vault does indeed exist, even after all this time?"
"Possible, but unlikely. While the tour guide was quick to stress that the vault was merely a rumor and not to be serious considered as fact, she did say that they were still uncovering parts of the basement."
"We're still discovering parts of the Batcave and how long have I been hiding out down there?" A shadowy form slipping along the side of a building caught his attention and he stopped the car. "I gotta go, Alfred. Try to call up any schematics you might find on the caves in the area, old U.S. geological maps, maps that we've made. I'll check in later." He punched off the screen and climbed out of the car into the dark arms of night.
It wasn't all that different from the inside of his jail cell, Edward thought, as he stared at the four walls of the studio apartment. Except that he had the key for the door and he could come and go at will and that was one big difference.
Outside rain hammered at his window and Edward walked over to it, shifting his attention to the night.
"What goes up the chimney down, but not down the chimney up?" he asked his reflection in the glass. His hands came out to rest against the glass as a well of anger and sadness bubbled up inside him. Had he been so reduced to resort to children's riddles? Is that what had his freedom had cost him?
He'd forced himself to abandon his beloved riddles, put them out of his mind. He began reading girlie magazines, muscle books, anything except what he dearly wanted. Gradually, the prison psychologist began to believe that Edward had finally come around and Edward walked through the prison gates a free and rehabilitated man.
The window panes fogged around his fingers, reminding him of the cold dark night just beyond his fingertips...as if his back would let him forget. Batman had mopped up the floor with him and Edward's back had never been quite the same afterwards. Now it joined his arm in its weather forecasting abilities and Edward briefly considered renting himself out as a barometer to make a little cash on the side.
His financial situation was not immediately frantic, but he was going to have to get serious about his new caper really soon. Another visit to the Clairmont Manor should be all he needed. Edward would disappear from view and his parole officer would just assume he'd skipped town or was laying low among the criminal element of the town. No one would or could ever suspect that Edward had gone into hiding in the basement of one of Gotham's most-famous homes. It couldn't be better than if he was hiding out at Wayne's dive.
Edward walked away from the window and to a small scarred table where he picked up a pamphlet of Clairmont Manor and flipped to the show times. The most accommodating time for Edward was the last show on Saturday. It was the end of the most hectic day for the tour guides, the largest crowds and the most questions. Who would miss one nondescript tourist? His lips started to twist into a smile as he slid into his single rickety chair.
The only jarring note in the whole picture was that old man from a couple of days earlier. Edward swore that the old guy had recognized him, but Edward was good with faces and he didn't remember meeting the man. That bothered him, but not so much that it would be likely to rob him of his sleep.
He rose and shut off the overhead light. Then, with a groan, he eased himself down onto the sagging cot. Damn The Batman, Edward thought, wincing at the pain. He was going to need to get a board for his back.
He kicked the sheets up toward his hands and pulled them up around his neck. With a final groan, he shifted his weight to his side and shut his eyes. Had he continued to look out the window for a moment longer, he would have seen a familiar figure silhouetted by a lightning flash looking in.
The Batman looked in at the blanket-wrapped figure and, for a brief moment, envied the criminal. At least, he was dry and warm, and not hanging from a rope in the middle of a rain storm, peeping in windows. Batman wondered what a psychologist would say about that little propensity of his.
Tracking down the Riddler had been a task as simple as breaking into the parole officer's desk and looking through the records until The Batman found what he wanted. Not exactly legal, but then neither was The Batman.
The way he saw it, The Batman had two options here, break in and scare the fear of the Bat into Nigma, or two, stay back and keep an eye on Nigma's activities until he tipped his hand. Perhaps it was time to pay his own visit to the Clairmont Manor and poke around a little. After all, he had lots of experience exploring dark, unyielding places.
It was late, wet, and cold out. Knowing that the Riddler was tucked into bed gave The Batman the peace of mind he needed to continue on his rounds. There was a drug operation that he needed to pay a visit to before calling it a night, just in case Gordon's men bumbled the raid.
It appeared as if the raid was well in progress when The Batman pulled the Batmobile into an alleyway about a block from the site. He covered the remaining distance on foot, his approach silent amid the wailing of the sirens and exchange of semi-automatic gun fire.
The roof was covered, but the gunman was busy concentrating on the policemen below, not watching his back against marauding bats. Stupid, really, but that was the criminal element for you. If they had any brains, they'd chose another profession.
Batman wrenched the man around and off his feet with one yank. This was his favorite parlor trick and it never failed to impress his quarry.
"Let me go," the man pleaded hoarsely, his hands tearing the black gauntlets.
"Is that really what you want?" Batman asked hoarsely, a smile tweaking the corners of his mouth. Never let it be said that The Batman was without a sense of humor. The man abruptly became aware of the fact that his toes were not only dangling inches from the roof surface, but that they were also suspended over the edge.
A spotlight suddenly caught them both in a shower of near-blinding white light, but the effect only further served to make the crimefighter look more opposing.
"Yes… No!" It suddenly sunk in that it might not be to his own benefit to be released.
"I thought you'd see things my way," Batman said, softly. He spun and threw the man against an air compressor's housing. He kicked the assault rifle over the edge. When he turned back, the gunman was climbing to his feet, his anger making him blind to the fact that he was severely out-muscled.
He rushed and caught a steel-reinforced boot in the stomach. Just in case he harbored any disillusions about a second attempt, Batman sent him to the roof with an elbow to the back of his head. The gunman collapsed into a limp pile and Batman walked to the edge of the roof. The cord he'd abandoned earlier was waiting for him. He wrapped it around his gauntlet and stepped off the roof.
The arc swung him down into the remains of a window, sending shards of glass flying inward onto the trio of gunmen hiding there.
Bleeding, surprised and stunned, it was a matter of a few well-placed punches to take care of them.
That accomplished, he turned and caught the rifle blast straight in the chest. Batman swore as the impact threw him backwards over one of his unconscious victims and out the window he'd just come through.
Batman's hand groped and found the cord, twisted it around his wrist with a practiced motion. A shoulder screamed out at protest at the yank that marked the end of his descent and he released the rope to drop to the relative safety of the iron grill of a fire escape.
A bullet from above impacted against the side of his cowl, whacking his side brutally to one side and making his vision swim. Geez, it must be 'out to get the Bat' night, he thought as he pulled himself towards the building, feeling two more strikes hit the back plating of his armor.
He slid through the window and to the floor, breathing deeply to clear his head and collect his thoughts. His reprieve would be short, if at all, so he needed a plan.
The gunfire was increasing from both within and without, masking any sounds that might give the approach of his attackers away. In this sort of situation, the best thing to do is simply disappear.
He got to his feet and moved into the shadows, pulling his cape around him to hide the yellow of his emblem and belt. It was a time to wait and watch.
A bullhorn was blasting demands from below as the door to the room swung open.
"He's in here, I saw him," yelled a voice, unaware of the fact that his foot was a mere six inches from the object of his search. Cowardice being the better part of survival, the speaker paused and let his companion venture further into the room over to the broken window. "Look for some blood. We hit him a least five times. There won't be much fight left to the son of a..."
"Lenny?" A second gunman asked without turning as a minute trickled past. "Lenny?" This time, he ventured a glance over his shoulder and panic was obvious when he realized he was alone in the room. "What the hell is going on, Lenny?" The demand was more of a plea.
There would no reply from Lenny, for he was merely an unconscious lump of wasted humanity sprawled out on the floor.
The second gunman cocked his assault rifle and scanned the room.
"All right, Batman, I know you're in here." He sprayed the room with gunfire, which only resulted in sending Lenny to the Happy Hunting Grounds. Batman took two hits, one in the legging, and another in the reinforced plating of his stomach. Prepared for the onslaught, he managed to keep on his feet and not give away his position.
The gunman suddenly screamed as a shadow detached itself from the wall and approached him. Before Batman could utter a word, the gunman had started to run for the window. His panic made him clumsy so that as he cleared the sill, he tripped, fell against the railing of the fire escape and flipped over the edge.
Couldn't have happened to a better guy, Batman thought as he turned back to the wounded criminal. He probed the man's neck with his forefingers, but couldn't detect a heartbeat. Oh well, one less, two less actually, criminals that he would have to worry about. These offenses would simply be piled onto the others he was reported to have caused.
Batman wasted no more time with the man, but instead headed into the brownstone building. At eight stories, the drug op could be nearly anywhere and he had little chance of finding them. What he was really hoping for was to cause enough distress to slow them down in the destruction of evidence.
There were sounds of activity on the floors below and above him, so The Batman decided to go up, his own personal favorite direction.
Leaving a path of unconscious bodies behind him so that he could find his way back out, The Batman systemically worked through the muscle of the drug op.
"Where the hell are you, Gordon?" Batman growled. Even he had only so much endurance. He loosened a couple smoke pellets from his belt and tossed them over the railing of the stair well. Since Gordon wasn't coming to him, The Batman would go to him. He unhooked the bat grappling gun, fired and tested the line.
Cape billowing out behind him, he swooped down through the smoke. Men scramble in his wake, but the only other door was blocked by the sudden appearance of Gordon's men...finally.
The commissioner followed them in and looked around, as if trying to locate The Batman in the haze of smoke. He walked a short distance away from his men and stood there for a moment, then he muttered, "A lot of the evidence is gone."
"There's still enough." It was as if one of the shadows was suddenly given the power of speech.
"Thanks to your intervention, but did you have to toss that guy out the window?"
"I don't kill, Gordon." He would defend himself no more than that. "He did that himself."
"Are you all right?"
"I saw you hit twice. Are you sure?"
"Yes." Something lying in the rubble of the aftermath of the attracted The Batman's attention and he knelt to retrieve it. It was a book. Not just any book, but one entitled, 1001 Riddles, Jokes and Enigmas.
The hand holding the book tightened until the leather crackled in the cold night air. Batman spun and approached a brace of policemen. As if conveying his wishes mentally, a handcuffed man was suddenly pushed to the front of the pack.
"Where did you get this?" Batman demanded, holding the book up
"A girl scout gave it to me," the man said, the quavering in his voice belying the bravado of his words.
Batman reached out and snatched him from his police escort. "I don't have time to play with scum like you," Batman rasped. "Where did you get this?"
His answer came in a shower of spittle and the cops that flanked either side of the man each stepped aside in unison. Batman thrust the book at Gordon and wiped his face with the back of one glove.
Just as deliberate, Batman suddenly spun and slamming the man back against the wall. The same black glove cracked into the plaster beside the man's face, going through it and the wooden slates behind it.
There was a hush among the men as The Batman slowly pulled his hand free and he smiled slightly.
"The next time, it will be your face. Where did you get the book?"
Apparently, he had made his point for the man's lips moved noiselessly for a moment before coughing out, "From this guy in the lock up."
"Some red-haired guy. He was crazy sick about riddles, then all of a sudden, he just dropped them. Started giving his books away. I traded him some Hustler magazines for it."
Batman let the man crumble into a heap and stepped away, heading for the shadows, but Gordon intervened.
"That won't hold up in a court of law, you know," Gordon said, handing him back the book. "Did Wayne talk to you?"
Disrobing was always an interesting part of any evening. The cave wasn't heated, so the first onslaught of cold air could come as a wave of blessed relief or like a sledge hammer in his stomach. Or sometimes, like tonight, he just hurt too much to care about it. The start of multi-colored bruises were already cascading down his stomach. Worse that the bruises was the ringing in his ears.
The butler had descended from the manor above, balancing a tray in one hand as he negotiated the rocks and power cords that snaked across the cave floor.
"My word, Master Bruce, bad night?" he asked, setting down the tray.
"The bad nights are the ones I don't come home from," Bruce said, struggling with the cowl. Alfred helped him pull it free. The billionaire removed the book from a pouch on the belt and dropped it onto the counter top before collapsing back into a swivel back chair.
"1001 Riddles, Jokes and Enigmas?" Alfred read the title of the book. "Peculiar reading material or is this the standard fare for costumed crime fighters, sir?"
"Picked it up at the drug raid in Crime Alley. Head guy said The Riddler gave it to him," Bruce said, working his boots off and taking Alfred's proffered robe before opening up to cover of the hardback.
Inscribed on the title page was the name, E. Nigma 1964 in spidery handwriting.
Bruce set the book aside and picked up the file on Nigma that he'd taken from the prison psychologist's office. They told how the psychologist had finally broken through Edward's barrier, uncovering incidents of child abuse and neglect that had led to his turning to crime.
"Yeah, right," Batman said aloud. "Try losing your parents at ten." He smiled tightly at his butler as the words came out, then he returned his task of disrobing. Unbuckling the leggings of his costume, he discovered that one leg proved to be as colorful as his stomach, but bruises he could live with. Any of the bullets the armor had stopped tonight could have killed him. He'd been very lucky.
"Why is Mr. Nigma giving up his riddles, Master Bruce?"
"I don't know, Alfred, but I intend to find out. Do you have those maps?"
"On your desk, sir."
"You have a Board of Director meeting this afternoon. I have taken the liberty of pulling the necessary documentation and placing it in your study."
"Thank you. Wake me at 11:30, which should give me enough time to scan it."
"Very good, sir."
"And try to find out who Nigma gave the rest of his books to. There might be a clue."
"Yes, sir." The butler's calm acknowledgement gave no indication of the nearly impossibility of the task before him.
Edward looked out his window at the gray, forlorn Gotham cityscape or what little of it he could see past the building across the street. He only had a couple more days before his excursion and doubt was starting to nag at him now. What if his provisions had been discovered and removed and the security tightened because of it? What if the whole thing was just a legend and there was no vault to discover? Edward would be in serious financial trouble then.
He glanced down at the book he held, his latest treasure. 3001 of the World's Best Riddles would be of great comfort in those dark lonely moments in the basement of the Clairmont Manor.
With a smile, he randomly opened the book and glanced down at the page.
A red maiden is sitting in a green summerhouse,
If you squeeze her she will cry.
And her tears they are as red as blood,
But yet her heart is made of stone.
It was pure nectar to his riddle-starved brain. He deliberately put off solving it, toying with the words instead. This was almost as good as sex; better, in fact. He didn't have to be polite, remember its name or expect it to cook him breakfast in the morning.
Of course Edward hadn't been with a woman in so long that it didn't really matter anyhow. Besides, prostitution was illegal and it was a violation of his parole to associate with criminals.
Smiling, Edward solved the puzzle and closed the book without checking the answer in the back. Normally he'd tear out all the solutions before he even started, but he'd been so long without riddles that he didn't trust his ability.
He missed his old books, but they had been a necessary sacrifice in his vie for freedom. Once he got his hands on the Clairmont fortune, he'd be able to buy them back and more. Then Edward Nigma would be resplendent in riddles.
Bruce Wayne doodled on the pad in front of him, doing his best to look bored out of his mind. The meeting had broken up just a few minutes ago and the only ones left in the room were Lucius Fox and himself.
"So what do you think, Bruce?" Fox was not fooled by Wayne's blatant display of ennui. The CEO was too business wise for that.
"'Bout what, Lucius? Stocks are up, profits are up, we're opening two new offices overseas and we're in the top two percent of the Fortune 500." Bruce rattled off the agenda to his operation manager. "Do you want me to forecast gloom and doom and insist that we're heading for a downward trend in the market?"
"Not necessarily, but a little reaction, good or bad, would be nice and show that you're at least listening to us," Fox said, taking off his glasses. "I am assuming that we'll be able to go ahead with Christmas bonuses?"
"Even if I had to pay them out of my own pocket," Bruce said, smiling. "I'm sorry, I'm just a little tired today, Lucius."
"You're always a little tired, Bruce. When was the last time you took a vacation? A real vacation?" His answer was the shrug of Wayne's shoulders. "You sure you're not going to change your mind about the Mentworth contract?"
"No military contracts, Lucius, end of discussion."
"If I didn't push, I wouldn't be doing my job."
Bruce smiled and said softly, "I know, thank you."
The man got to his feet, then paused, "Bruce, are you sure you're okay? You seem even more distant than usual."
"Just great," Bruce said aloud, then added mentally, Just as long as I don't move, everything's fine.
"I think you need a little more distraction in your life." Lucius said, holding out an envelope to the younger man.
"Yeah, like I need another IRS audit. What's this?"
"They're holding a midnight tour of the old Clairmont place. It's a fundraiser for the local orphans. I thought you might like to attend."
"How 'bout you?"
"At $500 a head? Too rich for my blood."
"This a subtle hint for a raise?" Bruce grinned widely.
Fox laughed and shook his head. "Not on your life. The last thing I need is to be bumped up into a higher tax bracket. Besides Clair isn't into that sort of thing and she's up to her eyebrows with planning Jenny's wedding."
Bruce nodded and took the envelope. Midnight, what better time to check out his suspicions and to disappear should the need arise?
Edward wandered through the extremely familiar gates of the Clairmont Manor, a blond wig hiding his short-cropped red hair. The disguise had been a last-minute precaution and so far it had paid off. None of the regular staff recognized him and the fewer people who remember the quiet, nondescript guest, the better.
There seemed to be a bustle of activity that was unusual even for a Saturday and he turned to the ticket taker.
"What is going on, please?" He used a thick Slavic accent to hide his own voice.
"We're getting ready to close down for the season, but before we do, we're having a special midnight tour of the manor. It's sort of a tradition for Halloween eve."
"That sounds like enjoyment."
"Yeah, if you've got the money. Tickets are $500 a pop."
"A pop?" Edward paused, as if trying to figure out the term. "That is very expensive," he concluded, seriously regarding the woman.
"Sure is, but it's a great way to meet someone who's loaded." She winked Edward, who again nodded seriously. "Your tour will be leaving in just a few minutes, sir, you don't want to miss it."
"Yes, of course, thank you."
He'd planned to start exploring tonight, but now self-interest dictated another path. The last thing he needed was to trip over one of those money bags. Instead he'd simply have to wait and watch. Who knew what other possibilities might open themselves to him?
"Are you quite sure you intend to go through with this, sir?"
"Alfred, I would have thought you'd be delighted that I was taking a night off."
"If it were only that, Master Bruce," Alfred Pennyworth said as he laid out a suit jacket that he deemed worthy of ghost hunting.
Bruce stared at his reflection in the mirror as he knotted his tie. "It's for charity, it gets me inside the Clairmont manor and it may be the only opportunity I have of sneaking away if needed. You can also be sure that if the Riddler is involved, he'll be around. Is the suitcase in the car?"
"Yes, sir, and the key is in the usual place."
"Thank you." He adjusted his collar, making sure it was loose enough for him to swallow, and walked over to the bed. "Don't worry if you don't hear from me for awhile. I don't know how long this will take."
"Do be careful, Master Bruce."
"Always am, Alfred." He slapped the butler on his shoulder, grabbed his wallet and keys from the bedside table and walked out.
Edward was not a man of great imagination. No, he often flattered himself by thinking he had none at all. However, the creaks, groans, and abrupt snaps was enough to send the most unimaginative man to have sudden fits of panic. Edward swept the area in front of him with a beam of light, but it did little to cut through the blackness of the cellar.
"Why are ghosts very simple things?" Edward asked, mostly to hear the sound of a voice, any voice, including his. "Because you can see right through them." A sharp crack and the beam swung in that direction, but revealed nothing. A prickle of fear caressed Edward's spine with a velvet touch.
It was only a half an hour to midnight and he could hear people rustling above him...at least he hoped it was people and not something else. This was much worse than he was expecting
The cellar was dank, smelly and unnerving. Edward considered shutting the flashlight off for a moment, then shook his head and turned back to the security of his book.
As he scanned the crowd, Bruce Wayne recognized many of the financial elite of Gotham. Reporters and camera crews from various stations, newspapers, and magazines clustered around people, hoping for some tidbit of news, gossip or anything else they could carry away with them.
Bruce didn't play the game like the others. It annoyed him; so he annoyed it right back. He ignored unflattering publicity, never going out of his way to confirm or deny it.
A tiny Japanese woman waved to him and Bruce smiled as he approached her.
"Bruce, I'm glad you made it. I was afraid you were going to stand me up after inviting me here. The thought of going through this place alone freaks me out."
"You'd hardly be alone, Lil," Bruce said, taking her pre-offered hand and kissed her cheek fondly. Several heads turned in their direction. Just what he wanted now was attention.
"You know what I mean. This place is bad enough during the day. My mom took me through here when I was a kid and I didn't sleep for a week afterwards.. I don't know how you talked me into this."
"You teach martial arts. There's not one person in this room who could take you," Bruce said, himself, excluded, of course, but she didn't have to know that.
"That was probably why I started."
"Then even more reason to say thanks to the Old Girl."
"Mr. Wayne, it's a surprise to see you here tonight." Tonya Maths was one of Gotham's rising media stars. She now smiled prettily at Wayne, while shoving a microphone in his face. "What do you make of all of this?"
Effortlessly, Bruce snatched two glasses of champagne from a passing tray and offered one to Lil. He clicked his glass to hers and drank as if totally ignorant of the question. Just when he judged the reporter was about to crack, he murmured, "Well, Miss Maths, you'll have to narrow your question down. Do you refer to the house, the benefit, and the feeding rights of media vultures?"
The woman's face reddened and the fight for control over her temper was obvious in her eyes. "Why would you be interested in Gotham's orphans? I meant the midnight tour of the Clairmont Manor, of course. "
"Of course." Bruce sipped his champagne and said something to Lil in soft Japanese before returning his attention to the journalist. "What I would like to know, Miss Maths, is why you automatically assume that I don't support the orphans of Gotham. After all, I'm one of them." The comment caught Maths off guard and he leaned close to her. "Before you talk to me again, I suggest you do your homework."
He led Lil away from the steaming reporter and Lil glanced back over her shoulder at the woman. "Wow, you play dirty pool, Mr. Wayne."
"If they want to play with me, we use my rules," Bruce said, exchanging their glasses for fresh ones. "Not checking out the background of your sources is sloppy journalism. She should have known that this is one of my favorite charities."
"There's at least two dozen of Gotham's elite here. How could she remember all the facts?"
"It's her job to and I guarantee that she'll never approach me again without her facts firmly in hand. Let's just say I gave her a lesson in how not to start an interview."
A voice over the loudspeaker interrupted him. "May I have your attention, please? Our tour will begin in ten minutes. If you will please line up in front of the gate. Also a reminder that there are to be no recording devices, cameras with flashes or video cameras inside the manor without prior written permission."
"Sounds like we're about ready to rock and roll," Lil said as she set her glass aside. A group of four similarly-dressed men approached them and the leader held out a hand to Wayne.
"Glad you could make it tonight, Wayne," the man thundered, then he leaned in. "Going for a little noogy, eh? Is it true what they say about Japanese girls?"
"Beats me, she's my jujitsu instructor. One wrong move and she'll tie my arm around my throat. Have fun, gentlemen." Bruce turned away from then and offered Lil his arm. "Shall we?"
"You don't like them, do you?" she asked as they walked away from the group.
"Pompous ass suck ups, the lot of them, but I don't know why you think I don't like them." Bruce grinned at her, warmly.
Lil giggled and nodded, tapping her forehead. "It came to me in a dream."
The tour slowly wound its way through the corridors and rooms of the Clairmont Manor and so far nothing had triggered his Bat sense. He stifled a yawn and glanced over at Lil, who was eating all of this up like bread to a starving man. The dark held no secrets or mysteries from him. Unlike most people, he didn't fear the shadows and the creatures that lurked in them. After all, he was one of them.
The tour guide had led them into a curtain-draped, oddly-shaped room. Carefully-attended candles were the only illumination besides the flashlight that the guide carried.
"This is Miss Estelle's séance room. According to bookkeeping records, she had a full-time medium, a practicing witch, and a conjurer on her staff. Whether this was to contact the spirits of her dearly departed or to keep those spirits at bay is anyone's guess.
"If you look around the room, you will once again see numerous reference to 11, Miss Estelle's favorite number. There are 11 walls, with 11 panels, 11 curtains, the rug contains 11 squares and by leave of the 11 candle holders, we assume there was also 11 of those.
"Nearby townspeople reported that every night the tower bell would ring, once at midnight to summon the spirits, again at three to drive them away. The night of her death, the bell rang at midnight and never again. There are several documented cases that stated the bell fell four stories and crushed a servant. Ironically enough, it was at 1:11, the exact moment that Miss Estelle drew her last breath. The date was November 11, 1911."
Bruce's attention wandered from the guide to the room. As accustomed as he was to small places, it was quickly becoming claustrophobic with all the people crowded into it. A curtain rustled and Bruce cocked an eyebrow. He couldn't detect any drafts or any movement of air from this side. He looked around, but the rest of the guests were stock still, fascinated as the guide spun stories about Miss Estelle's spiritual encounters.
Mice? Maybe, but doubtful. At least not in these areas. What then? He eased himself through the crowd and to the spot. Pushing aside the curtain, he stared into the darkness behind it. His night vision was better than average, yet he could make nothing out.
Looking around to make sure that he wasn't attracting attention, he knelt and reached out to touch the wood. Gently he pressed against it and it yielded, suddenly swinging inward and allowing a breath of musty, cold air egress into the small room.
"Ah, Mr. Wayne has astutely discovered one of Miss Estelle's parlor tricks," the tour guide's voice interrupted his investigation and he glanced back over his shoulder at her. Now the focus of attention, he stood, pulling back the curtain for everyone else to see.
"Miss Estelle would like to, as she put it, scare the disbelief right out of the scoffers and often put on rigged séances. The whole room is rigged with trap panels, doors and parlor tricks."
"Why bother?" Bruce asked, dusting off his hands. "If she was as firm a believer as she was reputed to be, why resort to cheap tricks?"
"Ghosts can't be made to perform like a pet dog. You can't rely upon them to..."
With a sudden whispering roar of wind, every door and panel in the room abruptly opened and the resulting gush of air extinguished all candles. Before they were plunged into near dark, Wayne had immediately focused his attention on the tour guide. Her face had paled, either she was a heck of an actress or the trick had caught her off-guard or unaware. Now the hand holding the flashlight trembled slightly as she relit the nearest candles.
"That wasn't part of the tour. I think perhaps it's time to move on." She walked to a door and it slammed shut upon her approach. It was obvious to even a non-trained observer that her resolve was crumbling.
Bruce looked over at the panel that he stood in front of. Everyone's attention was on the tour guide as she stammered out some sort of excuse.
He took a step towards the secret panel, which remained up. Another step, still no response. He slipped through the opening easily and stood up to study his vaguely familiar surroundings. Of course, they had been here just a few minutes ago; this was the hallway which led to the south conservatory.
He turned back to the panel and gave it a tug. Obligingly, it slid back into place, leaving him alone in the moon-lit hall. A sudden rustle drew his attention and he thought he detected movement.
Edward swore to himself the moment he moved. Whoever the joker was who had decided to leave the tour and join Edward's party had seen him. Two more steps was all Edward needed to escape back into an unfinished part of the manor. However, it might be two impossible steps. He froze in place and hoped that his observer would decide that it had been a trick of his or her eyes and panic.
Instead the figure mimicked him, standing still and staring at him. Even though he knew he couldn't be seen, it gave Edward a peculiar turn in his stomach. For a moment, he could have sworn he saw The Batman's silhouette.
The moon drifted behind a cloud, plunging the immediate area into blackness. That was his exit cue and Edward didn't waste any time. He thought he saw the figure coming in his direction and held the secret panel firmly in place after he'd disappeared through it.
There was a soft whisper of movement, a rustle of skin against wood and Edward doubled his efforts. After what seemed like hours, the noise dissipated, the moon reappeared and Edward hurried away.
Bruce Wayne sat back on his heels and pursed his lips. He could have sworn he'd seen something. It was time for him to disappear and The Batman to take his place.
At the far end of the hallway was a dimly-lit exit sign and Bruce headed in that direction. The door revealed a stairwell and he hurried down the metal steps, which abruptly dumped him into the gift shop.
Two clerks looked over, startled at his appearance and Bruce sighed. Witnesses were not exactly what he needed right now.
"Can we help you, sir?" one asked as she approached him. Her name tag read Carol.
Bruce had had a lifetime of protecting up his secret identity to perfect thinking on his feet. "Yes, Carol, you can." He fastened his eyes upon her, using them to speak to her as well as his voice. "Something very strange is going on in the séance room. All the doors are opening and closing by themselves. They won't let anyone leave the room. I think the tour guide has lost control. I came for help."
"What?" The woman said as if hypnotized by his intent stare. Suddenly she blinked and shook her head. "Wait a minute, how did you get out then?"
"Came through a secret panel."
"I'll go get security," Carol said. "Janice, maybe you better check it out."
In the excitement to help their fellow employee, Bruce was overlooked and he casually made his way to the exit of the shop and into the parking lot.
Edward took a deep breath and relaxed back against the unfinished wall of one of the numerous bedrooms. That would be a lesson to him; he should have stayed in the basement where it was safe. However, the tours never strayed into these rooms, so he was protected from detection here. The need for human companionship, never a strong factor in his life before, had kicked into full force and Edward had fled the dank, musty-smelling cellar for the house above.
"You've got too much imagination, Edward, my boy," he said, chastising himself. "Get thee to the basement." A deep breath and he was off again, following a twisting path down into the bowels of the house.
"It was rumored that a worker left his hand print in the wet cement of the basement wall and Miss Estelle sealed off that portion of the cellar, convinced that the spirits were attempting to make daytime contact with her." Edward could hear the tour guide's voice in his head and he looked over at the hand print. It didn't seem frightening to him, but he wasn't some pent-up, frustrated old woman either.
He had left the door ajar to keep from having to pick the lock and it waited for him, the thought of untold wealth beckoning to him to enter. After a moment and a backward glance, Edward slipped through the door and closed it.
Almost immediately, the dark surrounded him, threatening to suffocate the breath from him. Edward turned on the flashlight and followed the stairs down. Dripping water replaced the familiar noises from the manor and Edward swept his light in an arc.
"Might as well get cracking, old man," Edward said. He'd hadn't tried the corridor on the left yet, so it was that direction that he headed first.
The Batman stood quietly in the blackness, watching the small circle of light disappear, swallowed eagerly by the shadows of the basement.
The night vision goggles he wore cast an eerie glow on everything he looked at. He finally had his confirmation that the Riddler was up to something, but aside from trespassing, there wasn't much to nail him on, at least not yet.
He dropped into a squatting position, a leftover from his days in Japan, and settled in to wait. After what he judged was about half an hour, Nigma emerged from the tunnel, walked right past his enemy and continued down an opposite path.
"It cannot be seen, cannot be felt, cannot be heard, and cannot be smelt. It lies behind stars and under hills, and empty holes it fills. It comes first and follows after. It ends life and kills laughter," he heard Nigma say as he passed. For a moment, The Batman thought he might have been spotted, but Nigma continued to speak as he walked on and it occurred to The Batman that it might be just to hear a voice, any voice, that made Nigma speak.
"Dark, you old friend, where are you hiding it? Why are you hiding it from me? It's just another riddle and there isn't one that I can't solve." The voice faded as he passed from hearing range.
How long he'd been down here was a mystery, but the whiskers that sprouted across his lower face gave some indication of the passage of time. Slowly, he chewed the mouthful of granola bar and mentally made a note to thank Alfred for its inclusion. The house above had fallen into a silence marred only by the sounds that any older house made.
Since the construction of the manor had been completed over a century ago, it made sense that it would creak and groan. Being raised in similar style of structure had a benefit in that The Batman didn't jump and look around every time there was a noise the way Nigma did. Of course The Batman was used to caves, the constant drip of distant water, the dark invisible rustling and he took no notice of them.
However, it was clear to The Batman that the Riddler was slowly losing a battle with his imagination. He would suddenly swing his light around and demand, "Who's there?" only to reveal nothing. Nigma's periods of sleep were fitful and brief, a situation The Batman was also used to.
Of course, Nigma also had only a flashlight for illumination. He'd given up the random search of the immediate area of the cellar and now sat poring over maps, the beam of the flashlight tracing first one path, then another.
Batman had studied geological survey maps of the area, setting them to memory, but they had proved little help. Just as the massive cave beneath Wayne Manor had eluded the surveyors, so did much of the twisting corridors of clay and dirt hidden beneath the Clairmont Manor.
There were a lot of parallels between the two houses and The Batman couldn't help but wonder if there had Estelle Clairmont had used the Wayne Manor as a basic blueprint while Nature duplicated the series of caves beneath the houses. Perhaps she and his great grandfather had been closer than it initially appeared or widely led to believe.
Batman used the time Nigma spent on the maps to do a little exploring on his own, but even the night vision goggles didn't surrender anything to him. If there were indeed any secrets down here, Miss Estelle buried them well.
Edward's head bobbed up, his eyes narrowed with the effort of listening. He swore he wasn't alone, that he was being watched, but once again his flashlight refused to turn up anything. With a sigh, he turned back his maps, although that path had quickly revealed itself to be a dead end. Somehow, this wasn't going as he'd planned. He hadn't counted on all this... this atmosphere.
The fact that it was Halloween night also preyed upon his mind, although it really shouldn't have. Edward never had anything but fond regards for the holiday before; he'd certainly never allowed it to stand in the way of his making a dishonest living before.
Perhaps he was going about this all wrong. Perhaps he'd had more luck if he approached it as he did his riddles. He ran his fingers through his short cropped red hair and took several deep breaths to clear his mind.
"Once upon a time, there was this crazy old woman. She built and built her house until she could build no more. She loved the number 11, stained glass, Oscar Wilde, ghosts, and her favorite animal was the bat." Here Edward paused, coughed and spit. "Yeah, like anyone in their right mind could like bats, but I digress. This crazy old woman had a fortune that she buried in the cellar, hidden to everyone, but her. Where is it?"
Yes, he liked that much better. It gave him a chance to organize his thoughts. He walked over to the staircase and sat on the bottom step.
"Now the question is, Miss Estelle, if you were to combine all those facts, what do you come up with?" His own knowledge of Wilde was fairly extensive, since a collection of his plays was one of the few books he'd recently traded for. "Yet each man kills the thing he loves, by each let this be heard. Some do it with a bitter look, some with a flattering word. The coward does it with a kiss. The brave man does it with a sword." Edward thought over the words, for it seemed the most appropriate. That and a quote from "Importance of Being Earnest". "To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."
Edward had no doubt that Miss Estelle was anything but careless. Deliberate, hard and cruel, but not careless. He sent the beam from his flashlight out on an excursion of the immediate area and noticed something he hadn't before. The rough stone walls had markings on them. His flashlight was also starting to lose its juice, but he was too interested to stop to change the batteries.
He stood and approached the closest one, his hand outstretched. His long slender fingers brushed against the cold wet stone and Edward involuntarily shuddered at the sensation; like death itself.
Holding his fading beam close, his fingers traced the design, running them over and over the outline as his mind raced to match shape with identity. A tree? Too smooth. A light bulb? Not invented. A…? Edward swallowed and snatched his hand back. A skull?
"Jesus," Edward sputtered and took a step back. It wasn't a carving at all, it was a real skull. He stumbled, nearly dropped his flashlight, and then clutched it close to him.
The Batman watched Nigma's reaction with amusement. He'd had a skull grinning over his shoulder ever since he'd gotten here. He'd never had a fear of skulls. After all, his father had been a doctor; there'd been one in his study for as long as his son could remember.
Bruce had also spent several months studying with a forensic scientist, who also happened to double as the town coroner. Both Bruce and The Batman grew used to the face of death in all its numerous forms.
Whose skull it was, however, did pique his interest and he had a feeling that Miss Estelle had this section of the basement shut off for reasons other than were suggested by the tour guide. It would be impossible to not eventually notice the rather macabre decoration and The Batman was certain that it was for that reason that the facilities kept these chambers closed to the public.
There was a skull, then a series of symbols, a demonic face, a second set of symbols, a grossly elongated bat and a last series of symbols. The Batman had had no real luck at translating the script, although he read and spoke more languages than most people knew existed. The symbols closely resembled hieroglyphics, something The Batman could transcribe when he put his mind to it. The translation he got from these symbols, however, made no sense and he abandoned it after a while.
It took Nigma a long time to re-approach the walls and when he did, it was with fresh batteries. The beam bounced across the designs and The Batman finally figured out that the Riddler was counting the replicated patterns.
"Hmmm, 11 skulls, 11 monsters, 11 sets of mumble jumble, but 12 bats."
For a moment, The Batman wondered if he'd been finally spotted by the criminal, but the man's beam had never left the walls. The Batman turned and started his own count. Nigma was right, there was an extra bat. It was odd that he hadn't noticed before.
Nigma disappeared back to his campsite, returned with a pickax and started to work on the edges of the bat stone. It took Nigma so long that The Batman was ready to get up and help him, but eventually the criminal worked the stone loose. It fell with a dull thunk and the Riddler reached into the space, only to withdraw the hand with a curse.
Obviously not successful, Batman decided as the Riddler sat back and drummed his fingers. He could almost hear the wheels turning in the man's head.
"What if that wasn't the 12th bat? What if the first one is the odd man out?" Nigma was off again and he didn't stop until the floor was littered with stone debris.
"It isn't fair," Nigma said, softly, collapsing into an exhausted heap. "What is your secret?" Then he was asleep, but The Batman didn't realize it for a long time. Batman watched the Riddler sleep, not daring to move freely about the small confines of the area both he and his enemy were in, but knowing at the same time that he had to.
Rising slowly to accommodate his cramped joints, he came to his full height. All the recent and not-so-recent injuries shuffled around, adding their voices together until it seemed that each muscle screamed in a unified moan.
He clamped his teeth against any vocalization of pain and took a cautionary step. The Riddler didn't move. It was safe.
Edward found himself wandering down the, by now, familiar halls of the Clairmont Manor, except that the spartan, almost negligible decoration of today had given way to an opulence he'd never witnessed before. Heavy brocade curtains and rugs hung from the walls, trimmed with a rich gold cable. The rug beneath his feet was thick and soft.
A tall woman was approaching him and Edward froze, that peculiar situation that occurs in dreams when the last thing you want to do is remain in place.
"So you think you deserve to find my treasure, do you?" asked Miss Estelle, for there was no debating her identity.
"What makes you think you are worthy? What would you be willing to do for it?"
"Anything I had to."
"Yes," Edward heard himself say. This was crazy; he was not exceptionally brave or foolhardy.
"Would you... love me?" Estelle's face loomed close to his and Edward's answer was to grab and kiss her with more passion than he knew he had.
Suddenly they were in her bedroom and making love, while tour guides brought by uninterested groups of people to stare, comment and laugh at their tryst. It didn't make any difference to Edward, he kept his attention focused upon the woman beneath him and keeping her there. For some reason, he knew he didn't want her getting the upper hand, so to speak.
He climaxed, saw the corpse in his arms and started to scream.
Edward awoke and was half way to the stairs before realizing he'd even moved. He sat on one of the steps, holding himself and rocking slightly. He rubbed his chest as his heart threatened to break its way free from it and tried to calm his breathing. It was the first time he'd had a wet dream and nightmare simultaneously.
He slowly regained control over his senses again and began to analyze his dream. Obviously, his subconscious was trying to tell him that the only way he was going to find out where her treasure was would be to go to bed with a woman who'd been dead for over a century. That wasn't likely, now was it? Edward thought.
He looked down upon the stone mess that littered the floor. It made sense to hide the vault, but it would also have to be somewhat accessible. After all, the financial outlay for this place would be large and constant and Miss Estelle would want access to her fortune without witnesses.
It would have to be fairly well hidden to keep any craftsmen from dipping into it. Because this was the only portion of the cellar that had ever been finished then sealed off, it made sense that the vault would be here...but where? His attention wandered back to the skulls.
As macabre as they were, the skulls were fascinating to Edward. He'd never seen any real ones before and probably wouldn't after this. He rose on still shaky legs and walked over to the first one. Hesitantly, he reached out and touched it, his hand trembling slightly. It was bleached an unnatural white; smooth and cool beneath his fingertips. It didn't feel the way he'd imagined bone to feel, more like an unglazed ceramic mug.
"Wait a minute," Edward said, aloud. He fumbled around the joint between the skull and the stone that held it. He pushed the skull. Nothing. Then he pulled and a low rumbling of neglected gears shook dust from the plethora of cobwebs above Edward's head.
The wall holding the twelfth bat slid back a few inches, then aside and eagerly Edward ran to the spot. Suddenly he stopped, his mind racing. Would Estelle booby trap the vault? He would have.
He took the pickax by the head and thrust the wooden handle into the black chasm. There was a metallic whine and a slow groan. Edward held the flashlight close to the opening, spotting the bar of metal as it attempted to lash out. Water and age, however, had rusted the mechanism out and made it useless. Edward tapped the coiled spring with the axe and it practically shattered at the touch.
"So much for your grand booby trap, Miss Estelle," he said, still from the safety of the cellar. His flashlight beam picked up something, a skeleton stretched full length, its arm and hand outstretched to Edward. Then he spotted another and another. Obviously he hadn't been the first one to find the treasure, but the first one to exercise enough restrain to keep from rushing into the chamber.
"Hmmm, another perplexity. I wonder if this door swings shut once the thief is inside." Edward looked around for something to brace the door open and settled for three of the bat stones. Hopefully that would be enough to keep it from closing completely.
The stones in place, Edward took an experimental step into the chamber, his body poised for flight back to the door at the slightest indication of noise.
The Batman watched Edward slip into the chamber, an eyebrow cocked beneath the cowl. So the Riddler had cracked the enigma and was reaping the rewards. All The Batman had to do was wait for him to drag the riches back to his lair and snatch him.
A low rumble interrupted his thoughts and he abruptly realized that the heavy stone door was sliding back into place, easily pushing away the stones that Nigma had laid in its path. If the door closed, it would seal the criminal in and Batman hadn't been here to see how the criminal had triggered the wall.
There was a strangled cry from within and Batman moved, even a criminal deserved a better fate than that. A hand appeared, attempting to stop the progress of the door and Batman added his considerable strength to the task. Whether the Riddler was suddenly surprised by the appearance of the black gloves or knew he was there all along was beside the point at the moment.
The stone would not be stopped and with one hand, The Batman shook the grappling gun loose from his belt, aimed and fired at the nearest point of fulcrum.
The harpoon buried itself into the stone and Batman hooked the other end onto the rough surface. The mechanism whined a protest at the load and Batman bit his bottom lip as he wedged his body into the opening.
"Nigma, get out," he ordered. He glanced out of the side of his mask and the criminal was frozen in place. "Get out now."
"I... I...," the Riddler stared at the still narrowing opening, then back at the treasure. He suddenly took off, running into the back of the small anteroom, snatched something up, just as The Batman felt something snap. He couldn't tell if it was him or the grappling gun. The pressure against his body was threatening to fold him into a wad of bat pulp. It was getting harder to breath and a soft red haze was beginning to fog his vision.
There was movement under him as the Riddler moved past. That was fine, except now The Batman was stuck, ironically between a rock and a hard place. He had neither the strength nor the movement to permit himself to escape. Wonderful, just what he needed. He saved The Riddler... but who would save him? Guess it was going to be a bad night after all.
Edward looked back over his shoulder at The Batman. Certainly the man's appearance had been a surprise, but it also answered several questions. Like why he felt he was being watched. It hadn't been ghosts, demons or monsters, just a goody-goody bat.
There was something wrong, though. Edward had expected the crimefighter to leap free and begin to pursue him. Instead, the man remained wedged into the space and Edward winced as the grapple line sudden broke, increasing the pressure on The Batman.
Despite his hatred for The Batman, he couldn't just let him be squashed like some giant bug. Edward dropped the case he was carrying and went to the man's side.
There was no way Edward could move the wall, not with his back, but he knew how to trigger the door and he hurried to the first skull and pulled it out. For a moment there was no reaction and Edward feared that it might be too late, the mechanism might be jammed or broken. It could be that it had to close first before opening again.
After what seemed to be a millennium, the wall began to retreat and The Batman suddenly dropped into an unconscious heap on the floor, half in and half out of the room.
"Can't leave you like that, old man," Edward said, grabbing an arm and pulling. The Batman remained motionlessly and Edward tried again. "Good grief, you weigh a ton."
His back was aching before he finally got the crimefighter clear of the opening and he watched the door started to swing close. It must have been on some sort of timer that only Miss Estelle was aware of.
Edward stared down at the unconscious Batman, his fingers poised just at the edge of the mask. One tug and The Batman's days of reign chaos over the criminals of Gotham would be over. So would the greatest enigma that faced the Riddler. It was too sweet to rush.
He snatched his hand away at a groan and he looked around frantically before realizing it was The Batman who had made the sound. It was too late now and Edward got to his feet, made his way to the staircase and picked up the case.
"Just remember, I had a chance to look and I didn't do it," he said over his shoulder and disappeared up the stairs.
"Just remember, I had a chance to look and didn't do it." The words rang in The Batman's ears. Do? Do what? Slowly he began to move, taking stock of injuries along the way. His back was definitely strained, along with just about every other muscle he owned.
He dragged himself to his hands and knees and crawled towards the stairs. That effort nearly killed him and he felt tears trickling down his cheeks as he collapsed against the damp wood. His chest burned and his limbs were spasming. It just wasn't fair.
"Life isn't fair, Bruce, and you know that." It was his father's voice ringing in his ears. "You've got a job to do and you won't get it done down here."
"Yes, sir," Batman mumbled, struggling to his feet.
He got to the top of the stairs after what seemed a century and cracked open the door. Pale white light shone in, heralding the dawning of a new day. If he rested for a just a moment, perhaps he'd find the strength to go on. He would find the hiding place where he'd left his street clothes, strip and redress, somehow get to his car and drive back to the Manor. Right, or maybe he'd just sprout wings and fly.
He dropped his head to the floor, waiting for his strength to rally. Already weakened from a lack of food and sleep, there just wasn't anything left for him to draw upon.
Footsteps were approaching, probably the night watchman or security guard. No doubt the Riddler had triggered an alarm that would explain the ringing he heard.
The Batman couldn't be seen like this; appearance were everything. If the word got out that he was only human, that he could be hurt, it would destroy all that he had built.
Sitting up nearly cost him his tenuous hold on consciousness, but he got upright and felt a little better for it. Now, all he had to do was stand and not pass out; a herculean task if there ever was one. Using a wall as a brace, he struggled up, blood coming as he bit his bottom lip.
Rounding the corner was a figure, the beam of its flashlight illuminating the still-dark floor in front of it. The beam came up and caught The Batman full in the face.
"My word, Master Bruce."
Alfred? Jesus, I must already be unconscious, The Batman thought as he slid down the wall. If that were the case, then there was nothing he could do about until he woke up. He just hoped the night watchman wasn't the gossipy type.
Edward Nigma sat in his small studio apartment, which seemed even cozier now than before he'd spent three days in a cellar. He sipped his coffee and leaned forward to examine the case he'd carried all the way from the Clairmont Manor. Up to this point, he'd refrained from even cracking the lid, a situation that was facilitated by the rusted hinges and a sturdy-looking lock.
He found his car right where he'd left it, carefully put the case in the trunk and just as carefully drove home, taking care to not disobey any traffic signals or do anything to arouse suspicion.
Now he set it upon his bed and stared at the rust-encrusted outside of the case. He run his hands over the outside before reaching for a screwdriver. The metal, while appearing old and fragile held firm and Edward worked for nearly an hour before the metal finally gave way to his less-than-gentle administrations.
"This is it, my friends," Edward said, rubbing his hands together. Anything could be inside, gold, jewels, anything.
The first whiff of air was enough to turn his stomach and Edward looked down at the moldy mess that greeted him.
The paper, in the humid conditions, had rotted, and Edward felt a swell of fury well up in his chest. After all that work and effort, all he had to show for it was a bunch of moldy paper. It just wasn't fair.
He nearly threw the chest across the floor before coming to his senses. Maybe he could get a few bucks pawning off the chest. At least it wouldn't be a total loss. Edward wrapped the chest in a blanket and placed it in a corner far from him.
Now it was time for a little shut eye. After all he'd earned it, he'd even saved The Batman's life. Not something that he'd brag about to fellow criminals, but surely that would be something could be too exploited at a later date.
He wasn't even conscious of nodding off before he sunk into a deep sleep. He was walking down a familiar corridor and he heard a voice behind him.
"Remember, you promised." The voice was soft, strangely hollow sounding and Edward turned.
Standing there, in an advance state of decay was Miss Estelle. Her arms were outstretched to him, her body was swathed in a rotted wedding dress, the bouquet of dead flower dribbling flower petals onto the floor. "You wanted my treasure and I gave it to you. You promised me your love and I will have it. Whenever you close your eyes, I will be waiting for you, my love."
Edward came awake with a start and he started to laugh, then the laugh caught in his throat. Littering the bed and the floor were flower petals. There was a strange scratching noise at the door and Edward started to scream.
Bruce Wayne woke up, blinking at the bright light in one eye. He pushed it away or tried to, but his limbs felt like Jell-O, refusing to obey his commands.
"Lie still, Bruce, or you'll hurt yourself... more than you already have and you'll pullout your IV," Leslie Thompkins said, holding his hand down on the bedspread. "You feel like telling me just what you were trying to accomplish?"
"Leslie? I'm home or am I hallucinating?" Bruce asked, becoming aware of the familiar trappings of his bedroom.
"Thank your lucky stars that Alfred went looking for you, although why he continues to is beyond me. You obviously have a death wish."
He tried to sit up and the attempt drew a moan from him.
"I said to lie still," Thompkins ordered. "Or do I pump you so full of muscle relaxants that you won't have any choice?" Sometimes having a doctor for a best friend wasn't all fun and games.
"No, you win," Bruce murmured. After all, she'd be gone in a few minutes and he would then do as he pleased, starting first with the IV line.. "How long...?"
The doctor ignored his question. "You were dehydrated and nearly dead when Alfred found you. Again, would you like to tell me what happened?"
"Not really." He smiled weakly at the older woman, a gesture that turned into a wince as she got up from the bed with a rough jostle. "Have some respect for the dead and dying, Leslie. What's the prognosis?"
"Rest, Bruce, complete and total bed rest for at least a week, do you understand me?"
"Sure, Leslie, whatever you say." He'd give himself another day. Then he tried to shift a leg and decided he might go as high as two. He couldn't very well lie abed while the Riddler was pillaging the Clairmont Manor.
"You look like you got caught in a giant vice."
"Once an over-achiever, always an over-achiever."
"You can joke if you want to, Bruce, but I think this has gone well beyond the realm of common sense. I'm serious when I recommend some psychiatric counseling." She injected something into the IV line and shook her head. "Why I keep patching you up is a mystery."
"I'll certainly agree with that if it would do any good, but we both know I'm too far gone for that," Bruce said, indicating the end of the conversation by closing his eyes.
He tried to decide whether it hurt more to move or lie still as he listened to Leslie leave the room and someone else enter. Someone whose step was softer, more measured approached the bed.
"Master Bruce, are you awake?"
He opened his eyes and smiled up at his butler. "Yes, Alfred, what can I do for you?"
"You gave me quite a scare, sir."
"Me too, old friend, thank you. I have to get out of here, Alfred. The Riddler has found the Clairmont fortune and there's no telling what he's up to."
"Not much I would venture," Alfred said, holding up a paper for his employer to read it.
"Riddler apprehended for attempted theft," Wayne read the 40 point headline out loud. He squinted to make out the finer newsprint, a nearly impossible task without his glasses. Instead, he smiled up slyly at his butler, "And how did this come about?"
"A person of exceptional character, and conscience, merely made an anonymous call to the police commissioner and told him that he had witnessed someone exiting the Clairmont Manor with what he believed to be stolen goods. By the time, the police called upon Mr. Nigma at his hovel, they found him in a state of extreme agitation. One television reporter even said that Mr. Nigma appeared to be frightened out of his mind."
"Huh, I wonder what happened..." Alfred helped him to sit up, propped against some pillows and offered him a glass of water.
"One of the theories is that he inhales a particularly nasty type of mold. The trunk that he had retrieved from the basement was filled with moldy bits of paper."
"So much for the Clairmont fortune." He drank the water slowly. "What a pity."
"You shall have to ask him, sir, although I suspect it will be quite some time before he's permitted to have any visitor of a visage as dark as yours."
Bruce smiled at that. "Somehow you always know just what to say to make me feel better, Alfred."
"I would be disbarred from the butler's league if it was any other way, Master Bruce. Would you care for some lunch or would you like me to pull your IV line first?"
"Lunch, I think, and my glasses." Leslie had obviously given him something for pain and he was feeling much more comfortable.
"On the table beside you, sir," Alfred said, smiling slightly.
"Oh, right, thank you," Bruce said. "And would you open the curtains for me. I have a feeling that it's a beautiful day outside."
The butler complied, the ease of his movement belying the weight of the heavy ceiling-to-floor curtains. Outside, night was encroaching upon the manor, dark clouds racing across the face of the moon that was just beginning to inch its way past the trees.
"See?" Bruce said, smiling as the trees bowed down before the wind. "What did I tell you? It's a beautiful day out."