Edward Nygma was familiar with the feeling of impending death in the same way that a pet rat is familiar with being in a cage. Over the years, he'd found himself in enough life-or-death situations that he'd developed a kind of mental block against the typical panic and dread that would overwhelm the average person. In fact, he'd come to take a sort of twisted pride in his unemotional response to peril. Where most people would cry, or think back on their wasted life, or get maudlin at the thought of the future they'd never see, he would mentally hunker down and get to work on ways to get himself out of there as soon as possible. Musing on past mistakes was an easy way to get yourself killed. (Admittedly, it was a little difficult to ignore past mistakes when you were sitting in a closet dressed in a formal ballgown with an itchy wig, but Eddie did his best to ignore his surroundings in order to focus on possible methods to get away.)
He'd pondered, thought, and speculated, and had finally come to the inescapable conclusion (such as it was) that the room was far too well-built. Even if the builders had made the mistake of putting only one lock in, or leaving the hinges on the inside of the room, the ever-present footsteps upstairs told him that upon their escape, they'd be re-captured in minutes.
His thoughts had ticked along in a new direction, focusing on the black possibilities of his upcoming demise. Maybe he'd be fortunate enough for his corpse to be dumped somewhere until the dress rotted off of it. That would be good - he'd hate to think of the reaction his fellow rogues would have if they knew he'd died in drag.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Jackie had appeared next to him and kissed him. His memory of the incident was a little fuzzy - simultaneously entertaining thoughts of new love and imminent death would be enough to short-circuit anyone's brain - and the following few minutes had been almost warm and snuggly enough to make him forget about the fact that they were going to die.
The locks opening, however, reminded him all too well. He tugged on his wig as he stood up, making sure it wasn't going to move, and brushed a little patch of dust from his skirt. The door swung open, revealing Question as she moved her hand back up to the hilt of her holstered and rather large gun. "Come on," Question invited, beckoning at the uncertain pair of prisoners. "It's time."
Eddie, wobbly in his high-heeled shoes, tottered out of the closet, noting the pair of equally well-armed girls chatting in the corner of the stairwell. He and Jackie obediently followed Question up the stairs into the building itself.
It was a house - a small house, with a wide assortment of somewhat beat-up furniture littering the rooms. The place had been designed with as few walls as possible, and they were able to see just about the entire first floor from their vantage point by the basement stairway. Question led the group toward the far wall, her stilettoed boots clicking on the battered wooden floor. Women, gathered into little groups here and there, glanced up from their various conversations as the tiny parade passed by.
Eddie stopped abruptly as their faces came into view. Oh, god...he thought, stumbling forward as he felt Jackie prodding him in the small of the back. His heart thumped in a cadence of terror. This was worse than anything he'd imagined.
They were, to a woman, his ex-henchgirls. Paula and Liz, his Query and Quiz from a few years back, were constructing some kind of machine on the floor of the kitchen, with gears and wires spread in a wide arc around each of them. An ex-Question shared the dining room table with an ex-Query and an assortment of crossword puzzles, done in ink. A trio of ex-Qs with bright, unnaturally colored hair were sprawled in front of a television in the living room, cheering as a big-chinned man chainsawed a shotgun in half. In an area devoid of everything but the hardwood floor, a red-headed ex-Query with a stuffed tiger under one arm had one leg extended behind her in an almost impossible pose, demonstrating to an ex-Question her ideal method for a backwards kick to the jaw while escaping with an armful of loot.
Eddie's teeth were clamped so tightly together that it was beginning to give him a headache. He stumbled along in his ridiculous shoes, hoping to avoid the attention of all these women that he'd dismissed for one reason or another. There were exes everywhere! If they found him out, he was dead and he shouldn't have just dumped them for the Bat to find, that had been a mistake, and maybe he shouldn't have hired so many girls in the first place and henchmen, why hadn't he gone with men, men didn't hold grudges until doomsday, specifically his doom's day, and oh god he was going to die -
Which only goes to show, of course, that even the most jaded individual will panic under the right circumstances.
Question led them up a creaky wooden staircase covered in patchy gray carpet. "I've got them," she announced to the room's occupants as she strolled in and settled down on a handy ottoman.
"Sorry you had to wait," Quiz said from her perch on the windowsill. "Claudia here just had to get her nails done today."
"I didn't see you turning down that pedicure," Query snapped, shoving herself upright on the sofa.
"You didn't see the nail tech looking up your skirt, either," Quiz giggled. A pillow whacked her squarely in the face.
Eddie glanced nervously from face to face. This was...this was not what he'd expected. Not at all. They were far too cheerful, and there didn't appear to be any kind of death-device whatsoever in this room! (Minus the guns on their hips, of course, but no one shot their enemies in their own house. It was far too messy.) What was going on?
"Guys?" Question said, irritated. "Can we get started?"
Query finally took her attention off of Quiz and looked toward the door. "Sure. You can sit - Who's that?" Query demanded, pointing at Eddie. Sweat popped out on the back of his neck, capturing the strands of his fluffy wig and holding them to his skin.
"That's his new girl," Question explained. "I figured we'd bring her, too."
"What's he calling you?" Quiz asked.
"E-echo," Eddie falsettoed.
"Huh. He hasn't used that one in a while. Have a seat," Query said, waving to a loveseat with two overstuffed and only slightly torn up cushions. Eddie and Jackie uneasily obeyed. Jackie's elbow almost invisibly jammed into Eddie's side as he settled down and let his knees drift apart. Hurriedly, he pulled his legs together and crossed his ankles firmly.
"We've got some...things to discuss," Quiz ventured, glancing uncertainly at her cohorts as Question flopped down on the couch next to Query.
"Before you kill us?" Jackie blurted out.
"What?" Query glared at Question. "I thought I told you to send that letter to her!"
"I did!" Question protested. "You got the letter, right?"
"Well, yeah, but..." Jackie stammered. "I mean, you kidnapped us."
"We had to! Well, sort of," Question fumbled. "It's complicated."
And indeed, it was. The trio launched into their explanation with gusto, correcting one another and saying what they wished to say regardless of who was already saying it. Eddie could feel his brain melting as he tried to keep up with three versions of the past few months delivered in a cross between an argument and a bedtime story.
"It was back in September - "
"No, it was October."
"It was August!"
Question yelled "Shut up! It was a few months ago, when Jackie and Nygmuffins -"
"Don't call him that!" Quiz ordered.
"Why not?" Question snapped.
"That's my name for him!" Quiz sulked.
"When the two of them disappeared," Query bellowed over the argument. "We got back and they were gone..."
When you are a rogue in Gotham, you have to learn to be able to change your plans to fit the situation. If you've planned for Batman to break in through the conveniently unlocked door that will lead him through the long, twisting hallway filled with traps, and instead he breaks in through the skylight and lands directly on top of your very expensive and intricate City-Ruining Machine, you have to be able to plan a way to stop him (or, when that doesn't work, to be able to plan a way to get out of the building before he sends you back to Arkham).
The girls had come up with a fairly simple plan that October: break into the lair and get their boss back. When they'd discovered a new henchgirl there, wearing Query's favorite dress, they had changed their plan to something featuring a little more fatal violence. (Fatal violence, as it turned out, was probably the most popular choice of new plans among Gotham's underworld, topping the list over such choices as Throw Henchmen At The Bat or Run Like A Rabbit.) But before they could do anything, Eddie had appeared and - after a rather pleasant hello - had sent them off to get the doors fixed. As ordered, they'd gone to Carlos and filled him in on the situation. Then, with the last of their cash, they'd gone to Famous Ralph's Not-at-all-Original Pizza and splurged on three huge pizzas with all the toppings. It had taken them almost twenty minutes to fight traffic, and now they were finally back where they belonged - in their lair, with their boss and a delicious dinner.
"Hello?" Question called happily into the lair as she shoved past the shattered door. Hot pizza grease leaked onto her hand. The boxes of pizza landed on the couch as Question shoved her burned hand into her mouth. "Mmmmf!" she swore through her mouthful of herself.
"Nygmy-pie?" Quiz asked, ignoring her compatriot as she poked her head into the bedroom. "Eddiekins...are you here?"
"Maybe he's out getting rid of that other one," Query suggested, flopping on the bright green armchair and throwing her legs over one question-marked arm. "Pass the pizza."
"Shouldn't we wait for him?"
"Nah," Query dismissed, carefully folding a huge slice of pizza in half. "It won't take long."
And so, with a brisk fall breeze blowing through the open door, they waited.
"He is coming back, isn't he?" Quiz asked, looking at the clock. "It's been five hours!"
"Should we go look for him?" Question suggested. Query, snuggled under the enormous green blanket, didn't answer. "Query?" A soft little snore whistled from Query's mouth.
Whap! A magazine connected with Query's head. "What? I'm awake!" she gasped, sitting bolt upright.
"Do you want to go look for Eddie?" Question repeated. "He still isn't back yet."
"'Kay," Query yawned. "Five more minutes."
"Now," Question ordered, yanking the blanket off.
"Up!" Quiz commanded, pulling insistently on Query's arm.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," Query grumbled, shaking her so-called friends off of her. "He's a big boy. I'm sure he's fine."
They retraced their steps, visiting lair after lair. Eddie wasn't there. He wasn't in any of the other places they could think of - not even the bar that he'd met them in - and so, to wind up their search, they found themselves standing in the bar at the Iceberg Lounge.
Most of the patrons, tired and dreading work in the morning, had cleared out by now. Even most of the rogues had called it a night and abandoned the bar in favor of their beds.
"Wheeee!" The trio giggled quietly at the sight of Harley Quinn spinning wildly around on her barstool. "Gimme one more!"
"Haven't you had enough?" the bartender asked, with a tone in his voice indicating that they both knew that she'd had more than enough and, likewise, that they both knew he wasn't going to stop serving her since he enjoyed breathing.
"Nope! One more, and..." She squinted through smeared makeup as the trio approached her. "An' three for them!"
"Hi," Query said, a trifle uncertainly. They'd never actually met any of the big-name rogues before. "Have you seen Eddie anywhere?"
"Who's askin'?" Harley chirped.
"We're his henchgirls," Quiz offered.
Harley tilted her head, making her tassels bounce. "What happened to Query?"
"I'm right here," Query said, confused.
"No, the other one. Kinda short, brownish hair..." She giggled. "Likes pretzels..."
"Oh, her," Quiz said. "Well, Eddie said he was getting rid of her, but he never came back."
Harley spun reflectively on her stool, coming to an abrupt, jerky halt as she grabbed the bar. A wrist ruffle collided with a bowl of peanuts, which skittered off of the edge of the bartop and landed in a dusty pile around the bartender's feet. With a patient look plastered over his irritation, the man stooped to clean the mess up.
"He told you he was gettin' rid of her?"
"Yeah," Question nodded.
"An' you believed him?" Harley chuckled.
"Well, yeah!" Question said. "I mean, he's our boss...right?"
"Lemme ask ya this," Harley said, "how'd yer last heist go?"
"Um..." The trio looked at one another. "Well, we got the money," Query said defensively.
"And we got out of the building all right," Quiz added. They both looked accusingly at Question.
"...mrph tbd bmble," she muttered.
"I T-boned the Batmobile," she admitted sheepishly. "But I wouldn't have done it if those two hadn't been fighting over money in the backseat!"
"We weren't fighting!" Quiz protested.
"You punched her in the face!"
"I did not!" Quiz sulked. "It was her that punched me!"
"Liar!" Query gasped.
"Oh, you don't remember?" Quiz snapped. "I was just sitting there and you hit me! Right here!" she added, jabbing a neatly manicured fingernail into her cheek.
"I only hit you because you kicked me!" Query shouted.
"I nudged you with my foot!"
"You left a bruise so deep the nurse at the prison wanted to make sure you hadn't broken my leg!" Query bellowed.
"Guys?" Question said, yanking on their jackets.
"And another thing," Query yelled, ignoring Question, "when we were fighting Batman you tripped me!"
"I was trying to kick him in the head," Quiz shrieked. "You got in my way!"
"GUYS!" Question hissed.
"WHAT?" the pair bellowed at her.
They turned back toward the bar. Harley Quinn, arms folded across her abdomen, was gasping for more breath to laugh with. Tears of hilarity streamed down her face, smearing white makeup over the black of her mask. Then, like a tree falling in the woods, Harley collapsed sideways off of her stool and hit the ground. (Unlike a tree falling in the woods, however, there was no question that a falling Harley made a sound, given that her laughter was probably loud enough to be heard all the way to Metropolis.)
"No wonder he fired ya," she giggled.
"He didn't fire us!" Query snapped.
"It's amazin' he hired ya in the first place," Harley snickered, climbing back up onto her barstool. "Where'd ya meet him?"
"The Dirty Duck."
"An' was he drunk?" The trio looked at each other in silence. "I thought so," Harley said, taking another swig of her drink. "He's gotta stop hirin' girls when he's sloshed."
"Look, we just want to know where to find him!" Query said.
"If he doesn't want you ta find him, you're not gonna find him," Harley pointed out. "He's replaced ya already. It's over."
"But we broke out of jail to keep working for him!" Question stomped a foot.
"So what? He doesn't want you anymore. He's got the new one now." Ice rattled in Harley's glass. "Hey, guy! Empty glass over here!" The bartender obediently filled it to the brim.
"Why'd he get a new girl already?" Quiz asked, hurt. "I mean, we were doing okay. We were even sending him riddles and stuff! Why would he like her more than us?"
Harley shrugged. "Well, she did get him away from Batsy twice..." She giggled again as a memory struck her. "You're the ones that wrote those riddles? The 'Fry skin' and the wolf one?"
Harley burst out into a new storm of laughter. "You made him so mad," she chuckled. "I've never seen him that mad before!" She threw back the rest of her drink. "Yer lucky he didn't skin you." The empty glass clinked as it was abruptly deposited back on the bartop. "Yer sure ya haven't seen Red?" she asked the bartender plaintively.
"Miss Isley hasn't been in tonight," the bartender said with the air of one that had said it all evening.
"Well, if she's not gonna show up, I'm outa here," Harley said, snatching up her smiley-face bag. "Maybe she's back at the greenhouse. Later!" She wove her way through the sparse crowd of committed drinkers and stumbled toward the coat room.
"Was she serious?" Quiz asked, running a finger around in the puddle of condensation dripping off of their three untouched drinks.
"Harley Quinn? Serious?" Question snorted.
"I think she had a point, though," Query muttered. "Eddie did seem awfully...upset tonight."
"So we're not henchgirls anymore?" Quiz demanded, pinging her glass with a short green fingernail. "What are we gonna do? We can't just quit..."
"We're gonna have to go back to being on our own," Question moped. "Boring ol' gas stations and liquor stores."
"And pawn shops," Quiz added with disgust. "I hate pawn shops. They smell funny."
"Well, we're only in them for a few minutes..."
"Yeah, but the money always smells funny too." Quiz wrinkled her nose fastidiously. "Don't you think so?" She nudged Query. "Query?"
"You may as well stop calling me that," not-Query sulked. "Since Eddie fired us and everything."
Ex-Query Claudia morosely kicked at a barstool. "I don't know. This sucks."
"I wonder what the others did," Quiz said, taking a tentative sip of her drink.
"Y'know...his other henchgirls. I wonder what they do now, since he fired them."
A wide, delighted smile lit up Claudia's face. "You're brilliant, Tiffany!" She snatched her companion by the arm and dragged her toward the door.
"Yes! I've got the perfect idea! C'mon, Delilah, we've got work to do!"
No-longer-Question snatched a handful of pretzels. "Coming!"
"So anyway," Claudia said, buffing her newly-polished nails on the couch cushions, "we went looking for all of Eddie's old girls."
"Some were still in jail," Delilah offered.
"And some were in Arkham or somewhere," Tiffany dismissed, waving her hand vaguely in the air. "We couldn't find a lot of them."
"But the ones we found were pretty bored with doing normal stuff. It's fun, doing the costume thing, but without a theme you can't really do a costume - "
"Well, you can," Tiffany interrupted, "but it's kinda dumb, and no one cares if you're dressed up like a Care Bear just for the hell of it."
"A...Care Bear?" Jackie said, confused.
All three rolled their eyes. "Don't ask," Claudia sighed. "Anyway, the costume thing wasn't working for the others on their own - "
"So we thought we could all join up together!" Delilah chirped from her spot on the ottoman. Claudia pointedly cleared her throat. "Claudia thought it up," Delilah explained, "but we all helped. I mean, the Mafia does pretty well, and there's a ton of them, right?"
"Everyone wanted in, pretty much. Paula and Liz build all the machinery and the neat stuff, and the double-Ds take care of the planning part, and the rest of us get to do the fun things!" Tiffany said in an excited squeak.
"The fun things?" Jackie asked, letting the reference to 'double-Ds' slide for the moment.
"You know, the robberies!" Delilah gushed. "We've each got our own theme, so the Bats don't know we're all part of the same group. We're the Weather Girls! She's Twister, and she's Cirrus."
"And what about you?"
"I'm..." Delilah shrugged. "Well, until I think of something better, I'm the Drizzle. I was gonna be Storm, but that was taken," she pouted.
"That's...very nice," Jackie said. "What does any of that have to do with us?"
Tiffany giggled. "We want you to join us, silly!"
"But I'm still working for Eddie." Eddie's satiny elbow nudged Jackie in the ribs. "We're still working for Eddie," she corrected hastily.
"Yeah, for a few more weeks," Claudia said, rolling her eyes.
"He's gonna dump you sooner or later," Tiffany said.
Delilah chimed in with "And when he does decide to get rid of you, you don't want to face down the Batman by yourself. It's not fun at all."
"Look, he's not going to..." Jackie floundered. "I like him."
"Yeah, you like him now," Tiffany snorted. "Wait until you're all alone with Mr. Batface."
"What about you...Echo?" Claudia said, narrowing mascaraed eyes at Eddie under his wig. "Are you going to do the smart thing and join us now?"
"No," he fluted uncertainly. "I'm, um, staying with...Eddiekins."
"Your loss," Tiffany shrugged. "Back in the van, then - we'll take you home."
"Can't we just get a cab?"
The trio shook their heads. "If we let you know where we are, then you'll let Eddiekins know," Delilah pointed out. "And he might get nervous about us and try to do something silly."
"He wouldn't," Jackie said loyally. Eddie, in his long satiny dress, was inclined to disagree.
"But we figure we'll leave him alone, and he'll leave us alone, and everything'll be good!" Tiffany said happily.
"Unless he wants to work with us again," Claudia chimed in.
"And even then, he'll have to ask nicely," Delilah smirked. "If we decide we want to work with him, that is."
"He's nice and everything, but he's kind of a coward," Tiffany said.
"Yeah! I mean, what kind of a guy would leave his girls for Batman?" Claudia agreed.
Fury, like hot magma, boiled through his veins. Who the hell did they think they were, maligning him like that? It wasn't cowardice to leave them for the Batman, it was...it was...well, it was basically just a quick and dirty way to say goodbye. It certainly wasn't because he was scared to face the Batman alone! Just because he'd hardly ever done it didn't mean he was scared to!
The trio noticed the stony look on "Echo" and Jackie's faces. "All right, come on," Claudia sighed. "You'll believe us soon enough." With that, the group abandoned the tiny room in favor of cramming themselves into an even smaller space inside the van.
Eddie walked carefully into the lair, trying his best to keep himself from falling as he aimed himself straight for the kitchen. "Bye!" Jackie called to the van idling in the street.
"Give us a call when you need us!" Tiffany called back, waving as the van tore off down the street.
"Are they gone?" Eddie asked through clenched teeth.
Jackie shut the door. "They're gone."
The wig, suddenly airborne, shot across the room and draped itself over the food processor. The right high heel clattered into the dishwasher's door, and the left zipped through the air to land in the laundry basket. Socks flew in a mighty explosion of fabric as Eddie yanked the dress downward and kicked it into a pile near the stove.
Sweaty, furious, and clad only in a pair of purple tights, the Riddler glared at Jackie as she tried to stifle her laughter. "This never happened," he informed her in a growl, stomping toward the bathroom to scrape the layers of makeup from his face.
He'd had it with this town and its irritatingly large population of his ex-henchgirls. If only there was some way to get rid of them...between his fellow rogues and the forces of justice, things in the immediate future were looking irritatingly busy. If only there was some way to get away from it all...
He grinned at his rather damp reflection as inspiration hit him. Of course!
"Pack your bags," he called to Jackie.
"Again? Why are we hiding in another hotel?"
"We're not." He wriggled into his favorite black shirt. "We're going to the beach." Yes, a vacation was just what he needed. A nice, relaxing vacation, where nothing would go wrong...
One might suppose that the Riddler would stop thinking in these terms, particularly since his entire life seemed to be nothing but a plan that had gone disastrously wrong. Still, hope isn't all bad - after all, optimism is the spark that lights the candle. Unfortunately, in the Riddler's case, it was about to set the room on fire.
Author's Note: If you thought you recognized an ex-Q here and there - you're right! I blatantly stole (erm, borrowed) them because I adore them so. Surely the authors of those other tales will forgive me for a little loving reference or two...yes?
Eddie and Jackie's story will continue in "Beach House". I'm sorry I was somewhat late putting this chapter up, but you know how it is - you start writing, and you lose track of time, and before you know it you're late for your appointment to be fitted for your zombie hippie costume. (I love working in haunted houses!) In the meantime, stay tuned for more of "Medical Help", guest-starring Dr. McNinja and Dr. Horrible, as well as more Sorrow and perhaps a story starring a certain Mad Hatter. Thanks for reading!