A/N: This chapter is filled with continuity nods, canon characters and very, very subtle references. How many can YOU spot? There will be a quiz! And maybe even a prize!
…and five clacks against the dashboard, one for each aqua and purple checked fingernail.
Ivy took a breath, counted down, Four, three, two…
"Are we there yet?"
She gripped the wheel a little tighter, feeling the slick sweat on the leather, and slanted her eyes at Harley, who was folded up in the passenger seat under nine different unfolded road maps. "Shouldn't I be asking you that?"
Harley had the good grace to look sheepish and pluck at the maps, halfheartedly glancing at one and trying to find their current location. It was hard to tell if the blush on her cheeks was from shame or the ungodly hot southern climate. "Sorry, Red, I kinda lost track."
"Well, find track," Ivy responded a bit impatiently, but without any real urgency. She felt physically drained by the heat, exhausted and worn down, and no wonder. The air conditioner had crapped out more than three hundred miles back, during Harley's last six hour shift, and the windows being rolled down seemed to do more harm than good. Ivy's skin felt hot and sticky, but her lips were so dry that she thought they might crack and peel with the delivery of one too many sarcastic remark.
The rebuke still seemed to prick Harley's feelings, mild though it was, probably because she was feeling the effects of the temperature just as badly as her friend was. She motioned at the maps in her lap, slightly distressed. "I'll try, but...there's just so much south!"
Ivy sighed so quietly it was barely audible as she drove. How she'd allowed Harley to talk her into this, she wasn't entirely sure, but here they were, more than twelve hours and several alternating shifts behind them, and it seemed as though the sign for Enigma, Georgia would never appear on the horizon.
Harley hummed to herself as she scanned the maps without any real interest, and Ivy focused as hard as she could on the road. It was getting more and more difficult with each passing minute; she was all but wilting in the unforgiving climate. Waves of moist heat rolled off the blacktop that stretched in front of the car, shimmering like a mirage, and the trees on either side of the road swayed hypnotically in the hot breeze, trying very hard to lull the driver into a trance-like state. Every once in awhile, she would catch a glimpse of something large, mossy and lumbering moving slowly in the trees, and feel the slightest whispers of theGreen at the edges of her consciousness, but she brushed it off, blaming it on the abundance of plant life and her eyes playing tricks on her.
(Why the greenery was discussing parliament, she didn't know.)
Harley shuffled the maps around, made thoughtful noises and frowned cartoonishly, wiping sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. "Ya seen any signs lately? For towns or stuff like that?"
Ivy took a breath of the oppressively damp air, which did little to make her feel better. "We just passed a sign for Houma."
"Houma?" Harley squeaked, then coughed in an exaggerated fashion to try and cover it.
Ivy glanced away from the road for a split second and fixed Harley with a look that was part suspicion and part full-on accusation. "Harley..."
Harley smiled the smile of someone who was sick but putting on a brave front. "Yes, Red?"
"What's wrong with Houma?"
"Oh," Harley gulped and giggled nervously, smoothing the maps she'd been studying, "Nothin'. Nothin's wrong with Houma, Red."
"Harley," Ivy repeated, her tone filled with warning. "What. Is. Wrong. With. Houma?"
"I hear it's a nice place!" Harley jabbered, with false cheer. "A nice place with...swamp monsters and punk rock mermaid vampires and stuff like that! Neato-keen! Right, Red? We can have a swampy adventure on the way to Enigma, which isn't really that far from here at all."
"Harley," Ivy said with rising impatience. "Just how far away from Enigma is Houma?"
"Well, it's like this, Red," she began, voice wavering only the tiniest bit. "Remember when it was my turn to drive and you were asleep and I stopped to get some Ho-Hos because mm-mm yummy I sure do like Ho-Hos, they're the perfect road food! And...and...I guess I musta taken a wrong turn somewhere on the way out of the gas station...but to be fair I did hold up the joint, and the guy behind the counter had a shotgun! And...and..."
Harley grinned without mirth, her eyes desperately pleading for forgiveness before her crime was in the open.
The car came to a screeching halt, the tires actually burning rubber from the sudden stop.
"Damnedest thing, Frisbee," old man Devlin said from around a mouthful of chewing tobacco.
"Ayup," his companion scratched his bald head and then replaced his baseball cap.
"How do you figger..."
"Some kind of a freak storm, d'ya think?"
"Mebbe. Had one-a them 'bout twenty year ago. Killed all Ma's tomato plants in the middle of July."
"That was just a little frost," the old farmer replied with a frown, "I ain't never seen a whole field froze over."
"Mebbe old man winter was passin' through."
Devlin strode forward a few steps and knocked on the solid block of ice in the middle of the field.
"But did he have to freeze the cows, too?"
Edward Nygma's stolen car puttered quite merrily along the highway in North Carolina, the air conditioner pumping deliciously frigid air right into his face. Having taken it from the long term parking section of an airport garage just an hour after it had shown up there, he was guaranteed to have at least a couple of days before the theft was reported, and that was all the time he needed to get where he was going.
So far, the drive had been kind of strange, but that was to be expected, considering the circumstances. A little ways outside of Gotham, he'd gotten turned around somehow, and stopped at a gas station outside Atlantic City.
The attendant was little help—the gas station had run out of maps, for goodness sake!—but the fellow over on pump number eleven was kind enough to quickly copy down some directions based on the road atlas he had in his glove compartment. After a brief introduction that consisted of a handshake ("James. Keystone." "Edward. Gotham.") and a few basic pleasantries ("Still have that Rogue problem?" "Still have yours?") Edward was right back on the road again.
Bizarrely, following the directions he'd been given, Edward found himself on interesting back roads rather than stretches of boring gray highway, and passed more unusual landmarks than he knew what to do with. The map led him through Ocean City, a place seemingly made up of nothing but miniature golf courses in varying themes and hotels that hadn't been updated since the nineteen fifties; past service stations with giant green dinosaurs lounging in their lots; past the Model Tobacco Company, an abandoned building that actually resembled a pack of cigarettes, though it was unclear if that was intentional or not, and now, past billboard after billboard advertising someplace called South of the Border. If the advertisements were any indication whatsoever, it promised to be the worst sort of tourist trap.
The first few had been easy enough to ignore, though he had a tough time containing himself when he glimpsed one with a giant three dimensional hot dog on it accompanied by the caption You Never Sausage a Place!, but when he actually neared the state line, he found himself gawping so much that he nearly ran off the road and into the grass in front of the Silver Arcade, which for some reason was adorned with a glass slipper made entirely of neon.
Gotham and its villains were certainly not known for their subtlety, what with all the death defying battles taking place on giant typewriters and capers involving turning the local water supply into strawberry jam, but to the best of his knowledge, none of Gotham's water towers were shaped like sombreros, there weren't any marquees shaped like giant bandidos and there weren't random plaster gorillas dressed in t-shirts, giant turtles, dachshunds and dinosaurs in hats scattered around the city.
As if on cue, the car's dashboard gave a 'ding!' and the fuel light popped on, warning him that the gas tank was running low. Well, he thought, pulling into the nearest filling station, this is as good a place to stop as any.
A muzak version of The Girl from Ipanema greeted Edward when he hopped out of the car and popped off the gas cap. He didn't want to hum along, but he found it impossible not to, as he took the opportunity to study his surroundings more intently as he filled the tank. The tourist trap to end all tourist traps, all he could think as he looked around was that if the Joker ever decided to pop down this way and saw how gloriously gaudy it was, he'd inevitably throw a fiesta, and the place would be leveled in seconds.
As strange as South of the Border itself was, and as hard as it was to tear his eyes away from all the bizarre statuary and kitsch, everything else paled in comparison to the other gas station patrons at the pump directly across from him once he noticed them.
There was only one other car at the pumps, a cherry red convertible with the seats covered in Zebra print fake fur and a pair of aquamarine fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror. The car alone was enough to make him stare, but its owners were two very scantily clad women in their twenties, one blonde, one brunette. Edward tried very hard not to ogle, but failed at that just as surely as he'd failed to resist the siren song of Ipanema.
In a pair of acid green hot pants and an orange halter top covered with silver spangles, the blonde washed the dead bugs off the convertible's windshield, doing an admirable job of bending over without tipping over in a pair of white platform go-go boots embossed with hot pink hearts. She was chewing bubble gum happily, her hair in pigtails that reminded him of Harley a little bit more than he wanted to admit, and huge earrings shaped like flying saucers—the same color as her shorts—dangled from her ears.
The car was old enough to have a gas tank in the trunk, rather than on the side, and the brunette stood at the back of the car, filling it impatiently. From the top of her head to the heels of her shoes, she gave her companion a run for her money in the flashily dressed department. Tight leopard print jeans, a red off-the-shoulder top and a wide white vinyl belt was topped off with knee high black suede stiletto boots, dripping with fringe.
"—and anyway," the blonde said conversationally as she leaned over further, trying to reach the very top of the windshield with the squeegee, "I don't see why we've gotta do this place."
As they were on opposite ends of the car, they spoke loud enough that the Riddler was eavesdropping whether he wanted to or not.
"Look at it," the brunette replied, gesturing around. "It's just so...offensive. It has got to go."
"Yeah, okay, I guess it is pretty tacky."
"That's not what I..." The brunette sighed and blew an errant strand of hair out of her eyes. "Know what? Never mind."
"Aye, aye, ma'am. Never minding, as ordered." The blonde crossed to the passenger side of the vehicle to wash that side of the windshield, and Edward caught her eye as she leaned forward, inadvertently treating him to a generous flash of cleavage in the process. His face heated a little bit and he looked away, suddenly finding the advertisement next to the pump "Two-for-one chili dogs!" utterly fascinating.
"Hiya, handsome," she called over, completely ruining his brilliant plan of nonchalance.
He reluctantly glanced over and acknowledged her with a slight nod, briefly touching the brim of his bowler derby with his free hand rather than lifting it entirely. "Miss."
"Oh, a gentleman!" The blonde gave him the kind of dazzling smile that would make any straight man's stomach do flip-flops inside him, hardened criminal or not. "He's kinda cute, Carmen."
The brunette, Carmen, glanced over and smiled at him too, the kind of smile that did funny things to stomachs and knees, but only for a second before turning back to her companion. "Focus, Bonnie. We've got work."
Bonnie winked and waved, wiggling her fingers at him flirtatiously while putting the squeegee back in its place at the side of the pump. "Yeah, I know. Still nice to look, though."
Sure is, Edward thought, completely oblivious to the fact that his gas tank had started to overflow, gasoline trickling down the side of his car, and finally sploshing on the ground. Only when the puddle reached his shoes did he look down and notice that he'd overfilled by at least a gallon. He immediately yanked the nozzle free, cursing as it continued to spray everywhere even though he'd released the pressure on the handle. He felt a splatter as liquid soaked through the cuffs of his pants before the nozzle gave a pathetic sputter and spent the last of its gasoline.
He stood there, only partially soaked, looking both surprised and forlorn at this embarrassing turn of events.
Edward wasn't thoroughly drenched, but it was definitely enough to dampen his spirits.
With a sigh, he dared to look over at the two incredibly attractive young women who were staring at him and were definitely not covered in gasoline.
They were both barely holding in maniacal giggles.
"Happens to lots of guys," Bonnie called over, popping her gum.
"Perfectly normal," Carmen added very seriously, but no matter how valiant an effort it may have been to keep from smiling, her sparkling eyes gave her away.
With gasoline pooling in his socks, he'd never been more humiliated in all his life.
No, wait, there was that one time when he built a secret hideout in the shape of a question mark. That was pretty humiliating. Well, that was more stupid than humiliating. Oh! But then there was the time...
Er...maybe it was better not to remember that.
With as much dignity as he could manage while visibly blushing, Edward returned the pump where it belonged, straightened his jacket and turned towards station. He crossed the parking lot, entered, ignored the smirk the clerk was giving him, grabbed a novelty t-shirt to wear, paid and then left. It took all of a minute and a half, but the convertible was mercifully pulling out of the lot by the time he set foot outside. He started for his car, feeling only mildly less embarrassed than before, but before he could take two steps, the gas pump handle that he had carelessly replaced before going into the station dislodged itself and hit the ground.
He saw the spark. He saw it leap into the pool of fuel that he'd been standing in just a few minutes earlier. He saw it ignite and managed to get out "Oh, sh—" before the entire pump erupted in flames. He got the "—it" out just in time for the fire to make the leap to his stolen car, and then migrate to a nearby gorilla statue that went up so fast it might as well have been flash paper.
From fiberglass animal to fiberglass animal, the flames jumped from place to place until there was fire in every direction he looked. His newly purchased t-shirt trailing on the ground, Edward stared, too dumbstruck to even bother to panic.
Why, oh why did this sort of thing always have to happen to him?
The roar of an engine pulled him out of his stupor long enough for him to turn. The bright red convertible with its two gorgeous occupants barreled through a wall of flames at top speed, its driver screaming "Yahoo!" as it zipped past him. Edward was yanked by the collar with so much force he nearly came flying out of his shoes, and found himself thrown into the backseat, crumpled into a very uncomfortable heap, only very vaguely aware of how he got there.
With another excited cry, Carmen stomped on the accelerator even harder and the car lurched through the blaze once more, clearing the gas station fire with a screech of tires and the smell of burning rubber. It fishtailed on the blacktop, first to the left, then to the right, before it straightened out and jumped a grassy divide onto the highway. Edward tried to unfold himself and clumsily managed to scramble up into the seat.
"How ya doin' back there, handsome?" Bonnie asked, leaning back over the passenger seat and peering at him over a pair of heart shaped sunglasses.
"I blew up a gas station."
"Ha!" Carmen crowed from behind the wheel. "You sure did, honey!"
"We were going to blow it up anyhow," Bonnie said with a laugh. "Sorry about your car, though."
Edward recovered surprisingly quickly and shrugged. "It wasn't mine."
He saw Carmen flash him a knowing grin in the rear view mirror. His stomach flipped over, and it had nothing to do with her driving. "So, need a ride?"
"I highly doubt you're going where I am."
"Don't count on it, sugar." Carmen's reflection winked at him. "We've got a thing for hard luck cases."
"Cute hard luck cases," Bonnie clarified. "Besides, we owe you."
"Yeah, we were going to blow up the whole town, but you saved us at least a stick of dynamite or five!"
Edward blinked a few times. "You were?"
"We're assassins, a-duh," Bonnie said proudly. "Fabulous assassins."
"And you...get paid to blow up tourist attractions?"
"Nah, got bored." Edward stared at Carmen. She shrugged one shapely shoulder. "What? It's an off week."
Bonnie popped her gum a few times and smiled at him mischievously. "I bet we're not the only ones."
"Why, Bonnie, whatever could you mean?"
"Oh, I'm just wonderin'—ponderin', really—what a big city fella like our friend here is doin' out in the middle of nowhere."
"That is a good question," Carmen agreed a little too sincerely. "A puzzle, even."
"Hey, Carmen, would you go so far as to call it a riddle?"
"Don't let's be gauche, Bon." The giggle was implied. "I think it's far more accurate to say it's an enigma."
Bonnie folded her arms on the headrest of her seat and leaned towards Edward. "Okay, Bowler Boy. Spill it."
Edward narrowed his eyes at her a little. "Why?"
"Look, I like you," a gun that seemed to appear out of thin air pressed into Edward's nose, "but I'll still shoot you."
"Don't make her do that," Carmen warned, "it takes forever to get blood out of this upholstery."
"I'm going to a party," he tried very hard not to squeak.
He nodded as much as he dared with the barrel of a gun shoved against his face. "Very exclusive. Villains only. In Georgia."
The women glanced at each other briefly.
"Obvious trap," Carmen said bluntly.
"And you were dumb enough to go?"
Edward nodded, very slowly, though he wouldn't have said he was dumb enough. He had considered the options and found that his curiosity far outweighed the risk, especially since word had spread that he wasn't the only one to receive an invitation.
Bonnie pulled the gun away and looked at her partner-in-crime, beaming. "Well, there's just one thing to do."
The engine roared as Carmen hit the accelerator, pushing the convertible well into overdrive. "We crash!"
Jonathan Crane pinched the bridge of his nose, his eyes squeezed shut tightly. "You dragged me all the way here…"
"You didn't have to come," Al said in a gruff monotone, her arms crossed over her chest in a show of undeniable stubbornness.
He continued as though she hadn't said anything. "...we went to all the trouble of securing Captain's mother as a babysitter for a week..."
"I could have stayed home with Kitten."
"…and you aren't even going to go inside?"
"Nope." She stared out the windshield.
Jonathan briefly considered gassing her, thought about the way she would scream and squirm in the driver's seat, probably thrashing so violently she's smash her head on the steering wheel and blow the horn, but then discarded the idea. He was in Georgia; he needed all the spare toxin he had. Wasting it on Al was out of the question.
"Aren't you the least bit concerned about the other two twits getting themselves killed?"
"Why, Squishy," she turned to look at him with mocking skepticism, "are you?"
"Naturally," he said dryly.
"See, that's what I thoug—wait, what?"
"I would much prefer if you all got yourselves killed."
"Oh, Squishykins," Al fluttered her eyelashes at him, "even after all these years?"
"Well, too bad," she said bluntly. "I'm not going inside."
Her face brightened and he hated her just a little bit more. "So, since we're in Georgia...you wanna go blow up your old high school?"
The mansion stood on a hill, as most sinister mansions are wont to do. The hill was ringed by a rotting wooden fence, but the ground the fence stakes were driven into was uneven, causing it to rise and fall in a jagged pattern, like decaying, crooked teeth. The grass wasn't green, per se, more of a brown that—if it got ambitious—might one day aspire to be green-ish: a sickly color firmly straddling the line between mold and brown mustard.
Surrounding the fence, and, by extension, the mansion, was swampland, soggy, muddy and stagnant. The air was positively thick with mosquitoes and the smell of standing water.
Strangest of all was the fact that the sky hanging over the property was green. It was probably just the effects of swamp gasses but one could not shake the feeling that the area was just…tainted. Tainted, perhaps, by something…otherworldly.
"I don't like it," Techie muttered sullenly, casting her eyes from left to right, scanning the area with undisguised unease.
"It's just a house," the Captain rationalized.
"A big old house," Techie responded. "A very big, very old, probably very haunted, big old house."
"Really, Ops?" The Captain admonished with a slight roll of her eyes. "Quoting Spice World?"
"Paraphrasing," Techie muttered.
"Anyway, it's not haunted."
"It crackles," Techie said ominously. "It crackles like the crossroads."
"It doesn't…okay, it's a little…static-y," the Captain conceded, "but so are lots of things. Are you really going to let that stop you?"
The Captain shrugged and started up the path to the front gate. "Well, I'm going inside."
"You can't stop me. You can only come with me and make sure I don't die."
"I've made up my mind," she called back over her shoulder.
The sound of Techie struggling to run through the mud to catch up made the Captain smile a bit, right up until the other woman collided with her back with a squeak.
"For the record," Techie said much more flatly than she might have otherwise to help cover up her yelp, "I would like to state that this is a horrible idea."
"Your protest has been duly noted in the Captain's log…and let's be honest, it's no worse an idea than usual."
"Al wouldn't even get out of the car," Techie replied.
"No, Al's smart. It's only paranoia until you're proven right."
"It'll be fine."
"You think the place is static-y, I says it's crackly and Al—you know, Al? The one who attracts nothing but bad juju when there's juju to be found?—won't even set foot on the property. What does that tell you?"
The Captain tugged at the latch on the fence's gate. It gave with ease—and a creak that sounded like a dying animal. "It tells me we're in for one hell of a dinner party."
"I had a feeling you'd say something annoying like that," she grumbled, following the Captain to the front door along what could be called a cobblestone path if one were feeling very charitable. It was more like a series of jagged rocks, partially submerged in mud and covered with algae—slippery and rather stomach churning.
The two story mansion itself had fallen into severe disrepair, though it was in much better shape than it should have been, given how the surrounding property looked. At one time, it might have been a beautiful place that belonged in a Hollywood epic, but the paint was peeling from all the columns holding up the balcony and it had clearly survived at least one major fire. The front door looked solid enough, but its knocker was tarnished and the bell rope that hung next to it that had been red was frayed and black in places. The windows, however, were all stained glass, small and strangely pristine that depicted scenes of…well, it was impossible to be sure.
"Captain," Techie began nervously, "didn't Cthulhu have a cult in Georgia?"
"Louisiana," the Captain answered, reaching for the bell rope and giving it a tug. Dust and debris showered down from where the rope was attached and the doorbell gave an anemic wheeze.
"Huh," she said thoughtfully. "That was…gloomy."
The Captain yanked the rope again. This time, it came loose in her hand, the length of cord hitting the ground with a soggy thump.
They both stared at it for a moment.
The Captain remained upbeat, reaching for the tarnished knocker. "I guess we try the..."
In an instant, Techie was glued to the Captain's side, gripping onto her arm like a five year old clinging to a security blanket, her eyes wide and startled. "It opened by itself. The door opened by itself."
"We must be expected," the Captain said cheerfully.
"By Dracula, maybe!"
"I'm going in."
"You're being ridiculous."
"I'm being cautious-ulous!"
The Captain turned to her friend, hands on her hips. "Didn't Eddums receive an invitation to this thing?"
"And if he arrived first?"
Techie remained silent.
"Are you really going to let him stay in there in the big spooky haunted mansion all by himself?"
"You don't play fair," Techie sulked.
"That's why I win," the Captain said, stepping over the threshold and into the house. Techie followed, reluctantly.
The inside of the old house was much nicer looking than the outside suggested, which is to say it didn't entirely resemble a demilitarized zone, only partially. Moth eaten tapestries hung from the walls and the vertical gray striped wallpaper was peeling, but the dark hardwood floors, though worn, were freshly waxed and shiny. Cobwebs only inhabited about a quarter of the corners and several of the ancient gas lamps burned brightly— almost merrily.
The entryway was semi-circular with several hallways branching from it, like the spokes of a wagon wheel. Though the entire foyer was lit, the illumination only stretched down one corridor, the others threateningly dark, despite the fact it was only early afternoon outside. The architecture inside the house didn't really match up to the way it was built from the outside, but not knowing that no architect in his right mind would design a house in such a way, neither henchgirl really noticed beyond the general feeling of things being a little...off.
"The angles are all wrong," Techie muttered as they wandered deeper into the house, down the hallway lit with old gas lamps. The first few were bright and cheerful, but the deeper they got into the house itself, the lower the flames burned. Portraits that were obviously from the turn of the twentieth century, or perhaps even a little earlier, hung between each lamp and the next, and they grew more eerie the less light that was available.
"Eh. My bedroom at my parents' house was made up of nothing but wrong angles," Captain said with a shrug, seemingly unfazed by the atmosphere thick with creeping dread. "No big deal."
"Uh huh." Techie didn't seem to be listening, instead looking at each portrait as it came into view, studying it just long enough to feel uncomfortable and then staring straight ahead until the next one demanded her attention. The dark played tricks on her eyes, and she blinked rapidly every so often just to make sure that it was only the dusty air and the dark, not that the figures in the paintings were blinking back at her.
"I don't know what you're so worried about. We face off against Batman every day and he is way scarier than any old house."
"That," Techie said stubbornly, "is debatable. All Batman can do is beat us up and take us to the cops. The house could eat us and swallow our souls."
Captain sighed with exasperation. "Are you particularly attached to yours?"
"As a matter of fact...!"
"Then maybe you should go and wait in the car with Al."
The hallway was coming to an end now, opening into an almost opulent dining room—at least, opulent in comparison to the rest of the house they'd seen thus far. A crystal chandelier hung from a ceiling that seemed ridiculously high for a house with only two floors, but it looked somewhat lopsided, missing many crystals from one side. Beneath it, a long dining table made of solid cherry stretched from one end of the room to the other, with several lit candelabras in a line down its center.
Aside from the dining table and a couple of fainting couches against one wall, the room was pretty empty, with the exception of an old Victrola in one corner, next to a door that probably led to the kitchen. The old phonograph grabbed Techie's attention immediately, but she ignored the nagging desire to go and investigate, instead returning her focus to the dining room.
All along either side of the table, at least a dozen mismatched chairs resided, ranging in style from a plain pine kitchen chair to an emerald green Victorian gentleman's armchair to…
"A hickory stump?" Captain frowned thoughtfully at the bizarre assortment of seats. "This feels significant somehow."
In spite of her best efforts to the contrary, Techie finally let her curiosity overtake her trepidation and she wandered over to the Victrola to study it with questing, almost reverent fingers. It was probably a hundred years old, yet still in perfect condition.
Captain, meanwhile, approached the table. Handwritten place cards, made of thick, expensive card stock, were placed in front of every chair, but rather than being adorned with names as traditional formal dinner party cards should have been, they were scrawled with enigmatic messages.
She picked up the first, lying in front of a metal bar stool, the legs of which had been shortened to make it the right height for the table.
"The days grow hot, o Babylon," she read aloud. "What does that mean?"
"I know that!" Techie paused in her study of the Victrola. "It's from..."
"From...?" Captain prompted.
Techie smiled, but it was a dead thing. "It's from The Iceman Cometh."
"Yeah," Techie replied grimly.
"Ha! Don't be silly," Captain said, though it was unclear whether she was trying to convince her friend or herself, "Mr. Freeze wouldn't show up here. Too hot in Georgia!"
She moved on to the next two place cards in front of a bench and held them up in the light. "She then with her wand touched a lady so fine... and Demeter. Harley and Ivy are expected."
Techie made a little irritable sound from her corner, as Captain continued with the next card. "This one's just covered in gold glitter. Who do we know who's into glitter?"
"He's not a supervillain."
"That we know of," Techie remarked.
"Isn't there somebody who's got a thing for shiny stuff? Grackle or something like that?"
Techie shrugged, running her hands over the dusty phonograph horn. "Don't ask me. I can't keep track of every crackpot in Gotham. Al can, but I can't."
"'Dr. David Black," Captain read aloud. "This one I'm lost on."
Techie had stopped paying attention entirely, much preferring to fondle the old music maker. She inadvertently brushed the needle arm and it dropped into place suddenly, the Victrola turning on in the process, even though she hadn't turned the crank.
The music that filtered out of the phonograph was slower than it should have been, and it sounded not unlike a piano that hadn't been tuned in awhile. Strangest of all, though, beyond the sluggish tune and the fact that the Victrola had started playing itself, was the song that played.
The crackling ten inch record delivered a few weak, off-key organ chords and a dozen or so plucks of a guitar's strings before a slow, thick molasses voice began to sing, Ti-i-i-ime is on my si-i-i-ide, yes it is.
Techie and Captain traded a look from their respective places in the room. "I knew the Rolling Stones were old, but I didn't think they were that old."
"I'm sure it's just a record player rigged up to look like a Victrola." Pulling the needle away from the record, Techie backed away from the corner and joined the Captain at the table, trying valiantly not to show that she was spooked and changed the subject. "So is there anywhere at that table for us to sit?"
"There are so many cards it's hard to tell. There's a place for Quiz and Query, and a couple others that I can't be sure of—like this one, Fingers of night will soon surrender the setting sun. That's you, isn't it?"
"That's me. I don't know how anyone knows that's me, but that's me." Techie was ashen. "Who in the hell knows my nickname is tied to Twilight Time?"
"This is starting to feel like a trap."
One of the candles on the table flickered and went out without warning. Then another,. The henchgirls looked at each other, edgy and quiet, waiting for more of the candles to sputter and die.
Hearts in their mouths, they waited in silence for a full twenty seconds.
"Probably just a coinciden—"
"The ghosts are moving tonight, restless... hungry."
Captain screamed. Techie screamed. They clung to each other like cartoon characters as a man stepped out of the shadows, flickering candlelight glinting off his round spectacles. He seemed ordinary enough in his well tailored suit—ordinary enough, at least, that the girls were comfortable shouting at him to cover their hysteria.
"What the hell, man? Don't sneak up on people like that!"
"Who do you think you are, Batman?"
Puzzlingly, his lips curled upwards ever so slightly.
"Allow me to introduce myself," he said smoothly, extending a hand. "I am Doctor Hugo Strange."