Chapter 5: The Sting
The first time I invited Hagen to the Cat Lair, I was ready for trouble. I had armed myself with two atomizers, a water pistol full of super conductive fluid, and a thorough reading of Batman's threat analysis and research logs on shapeshifters, subheading: Clayface. As time went on, I got to know Matt and I relaxed a little. I never forgot he was a shifter. That would be impossible when he'd decide to morph into a jungle cat just to spice up my Queen of the Underworld appearances at Vault. But I got to see the kind of man he was, and he just wasn't a snarling, foam-at-the-mouth Arkham case. So I let my guard down, as much as I do with any rogue. I certainly didn't answer the door packing a seltzer siphon, so I had to improvise when he went for Eddie.
Champagne was premature, but we had opened a bottle of pinot grigio. I sacrificed my glass and splashed it on Matt's right hand. It wasn't any kind of deterrent if he'd really been intent on choking the life out of Edward Nigma, but he wasn't. Like I said, Matt isn't a snarling, homicidal headcase. He was just really pissed at the moment, and I had to find out why—but first I had to break his focus. Throwing anything wet on his clay accomplishes that. The hand around Eddie's throat lost its form and became a flat muddy streak against the side of his neck, down his tie and the front of his shirt. It hung almost suspended for a second, clinging to the fabric like a jumper who had second thoughts, and then it all sort of glorped to the floor where a clay foot expanded to catch it.
Matt wasn't looking at it or at Eddie, he was looking at me, like I was the one who owed him an explanation.
"No punching, choking or clay-smothering my guests," I said, trying to avoid Bruce's 'My cave; my rules' tone but probably failing. Eddie was still hacking and gasping, but I knew there was a question in all his inaudible sputters. A question I wanted answered too, so I asked on his behalf: "Why?"
"That little weasel is leaving clues for Batman," he said.
I turned to Eddie, who despite not being a shapeshifter, managed to look like a cartoon rabbit. That moment they see a barrage of knives, arrows or missiles coming at them, and their eyes bug out bigger than saucers.
"I did? But I didn't," he squeaked. "I wouldn't. I couldn't. No Mr. Confabulate, No Fatal One Crumb, No Ambulance Fort, No Cruel Foe—" His lips snapped shut as if he was hit by a wizard's curse or something. He sat down, back straight, hands on his knees, palms down and looked straight ahead. He seemed like a robot who had been shut down by remote control. "You talk," he said finally, looking up at me.
I could see in his eyes he was scared. Not of Matt either. He was scared of something else. Considering what Eddie knew, and considering the way he believed in the curse, I was a little afraid myself what he might babble if he freaked out like that again.
"Matt, why don't you and I go into the kitchen and talk in private. Eddie…" I pointed to the magazines on the coffee table. "Cat Fancy, 17 things you never knew about Tabbys. Read."
I took Matt into the kitchen and got his side of the story. There wasn't much to it. He'd spotted Batman near The Club Room the night after he'd brought Eddie and I there for the first time. Went back later and confirmed with the doorman that Batman was poking around right after Eddie left with the Smeks. It was hardly a smoking gun.
"If Batman was there—" I started to say.
"He was," Matt said firmly—sounding more than a little like Bruce, actually. Stubborn.
"Fine, he was," I conceded. "He's Batman. He has a thousand ways of finding things out. If he was there—"
"That doesn't mean Eddie brought him with a clue."
"Oh sure, it could be a coincidence. Right, Cat? Or he could have followed you. Maybe he thinks Wayne is up to something shady. He's Gotham's own Lex Luthor, right? So maybe Bats is keeping an eye on the manor, saw you doing suspicious and followed you to the Club Room. Then he went back the next night when you weren't there and Nigma was. Makes perfect sense."
"You know, sarcasm aside, it is possible," I told him. It was more possible than he knew, but without going into that nightmare scenario, I saw no harm in admitting the literal truth. "If Batman is onto us—and this is where you interrupt me and reiterate that he is—then it really might be my fault and not Eddie's. It's also possible that Eddie left a clue unconsciously. That's happened before when there wasn't a curse hanging over him. And yes, it's even possible that your theory is right, his compulsion won out over common sense and he did it deliberately. It's all possible right now, Matt, but none of it is certain, so next time, let's find out before we go all Russell Crowe and the paparazzi, kay?"
It's not that he smiled, it's that he turned into Russell Crowe before he smiled. That's how I knew I had him. I made a note to myself to add a little addendum to Bruce's threat diffusion matrix: shapeshifters, subheading Clayface. There's nothing like a little charm, an appeal to reason, and comparing him to a film star.
I prowled. There was nothing more to do on the con until morning, and I didn't want to run into Bruce before the sting. So I prowled. It was a rainy night. Not the best whip-swinging weather, so I stayed in the neighborhood at first. There's a poker game run by some idiot Falcone cousin that I drop in on now and then to make mischief. It's a high stakes game but hardly catworthy. So I'll clank around the fire escape and fiddle with one of the windows until one of the neighbors hears me and calls the cops. Settle on a nearby roof to watch the fun. There are really few sights as rewarding as a dim-witted Falcone that thinks his game is being raided…
Except tonight, there was no poker game. There was just a trashy blonde I would have pegged for a working girl, except she wasn't giving anything but conversation in exchange for the bills the men entering the apartment were paying her. I watched four transactions from my perch before I got curious, tapped one of the guys leaving and reimbursed his $20 for the info. Then I had to brave the rain and schlep out to the Bronx to see it for myself. It wasn't the kind of thing you could take anybody's word for, you had to see if for yourself. Having seen it, I couldn't wait to tell Eddie in the morning.
"Chess boxing?" he squawked. "'Lina, it's not nice to tease a man in my condition."
"Georgina," I reminded him, pointing to my obnoxiously red hair.
We were back in the financial district, not inside the BankLink building this time but standing in front of it. The Smeks could have returned to Dwight's office, brought their checkbook and signed the papers there, but rogue-like, they apparently wanted the home-field advantage. Dwight and Eddie were to go to Marcus's uptown office to pick up the check and sign the papers. To make up for the inconvenience, Marcus was sending a car, so Dwight and Eddie had to be in front of BankLInk to be picked up from a plausible location.
I wouldn't have been involved at all, except Eddie was afraid to be alone with Matt. He figured he'd be safe once the chauffer arrived, but waiting for the car, he wanted protection. So I became Georgina Barnes one last time, rounding out her varied career in the financial world with a stint as Dwight Evans's secretary. Since Mr. Evans was late. I made small talk with the man he was meeting.
"'Gina, 'Lina, whatever. I've got Retch Tigress Fur hanging over me. The curse knows its days are numbered, it knows I'm almost free. This is its last chance to get me, 'Lina. Not a time for jokes."
"Georgina," I corrected him (again). "And I'm not joking. Four minutes of chess, and then assuming there's no checkmate, they put on the gloves and box for three minutes. Assuming no knockout, they go back to the chessboard."
"Out of breath and bloodied, pawn to queen six?"
"You got it."
"I have to do this. I have to make him do this. 'Lina—I mean, 'Gina—you won't tell him, will you?"
"That's where your mind goes? Damnit, Eddie, I told you because I thought you'd get a kick out of it. I didn't think it was going to become a… a theme thing."
"Please, 'Lina. You know how hard it's been to find decent themes for a crime spree since finding out abou-uh…" he gulped. "Never mind."
On the one hand, I was glad that, even behind Georgina's glasses, I could produce a death glare that could stop The Riddler mid-sentence when he was heading full speed towards a question mark. On the other, I couldn't believe I had to. He was asking if I knew how hard it was keeping the crime game going once Batman whips off the mask and moves into your day life. I was ready to hiss when a taxi passed. It hit a puddle and splashed Eddie, coating him from the knees down with a muddy glop. I decided to postpone being mad at him for a few more hours. If the curse was real, alienating me before the sting would be a good way to screw him one last time—or to dismantle the con entirely, come to think of it.
Dwight rounded the corner. He stopped at a newsstand and bought a paper. A Wall Street Journal, of course. Matt and his props. Then he stopped for a shoe shine. I thought it was cute, getting a peek behind the curtain, seeing an actor get into character that way. Eddie just grumbled.
Batman once observed that, if I was only in it for the money, I would have been set after my first Monet. There's a fun factor, for one thing: satisfaction beyond the dollars and cents. Pouring Matt and Eddie into the Smeks' Town Car was not satisfying. And it occurred to me, watching from the curb as the pair of them were driven off to the sting in the mark's own limousine, that since I was dressed as Georgina anyway, I really didn't have to miss out on the fun. They had a head start, but I knew that Town Car would be crawling up Broadway in the very worst of Gotham traffic snarls, while I could take side streets to the bridge and zip up the expressway. I suppose, technically, Georgina shouldn't have driven Selina Kyle's Lamborghini, but I had a scarf in the glove compartment that hid the hair. Unlike Angelica, Georgina has some semblance of a figure, so at worst, if anyone spotted me, it looked like Selina was having a bad hair day.
I got uptown in plenty of time, parked, discarded the scarf, and found the Smeks' office in the Kensington Building. The other tenants ran the gambit from theatrical agents to architects to a medical supply firm to a dentist. I chose the latter to get past the front desk. Nobody presses for details when you're holding your jaw, wincing as you form the words "eleven o'clock dental appointment." As the elevator approached the Smeks' floor (DreamFixer Imports on 18), I figured I'd dig into the alternative cons Matt had come up with to get an office space in the financial district.
"Georgina Barnes, Customs and Excise," I rehearsed in my mind. "We've been unable to contact the signatory on the last 1029-IDT Return to be submitted from this address. You may have submitted an incorrect return, which might mean an additional amount to pay…" This, Matt stressed, in a tone which assured them the 'may' and 'might' were a polite fiction mandated by my superiors. They most certainly HAD submitted an incorrect return, and there most definitely WOULD be more to pay, and ice queen that I was, the prospect pleased me immensely. I would then ask for an office and access to their purchase invoices for the last three months. When they started to object, I was to put on a high school principal voice and say "Do you understand the nature of a spot check?" while my partner (Matt, when we rehearsed it, although Eddie gave the line better) would condescendingly whisper "The clue is in the title." Since I had no partner, I would skip that part and go straight for the final threat: the issues I had could be cleared up in an hour or so, but if I had to come back, it would be for a full audit.
I went over the lines twice in the elevator, but when I reached the desk, I got no further than "Georgina Barnes, Customs and" when the receptionist waved her hand at me in a languid sweeping motion.
"Just go on back with the others," she said. "End of that hall, make a left, half way down. It's the second glass wall on the left side. They're waiting in 2B."
Matt Hagen had never played a "Signing of the Trask/Metro Merger" scene, but he had bought a house. He therefore based his performance on Stacy Richards, his Malibu realtor, if she was played by Harrison Ford in Working Girl. "Sign here. Initial there… Now if Mrs. Smek will sign here as well. Initial there and there… Now if Mr. Nigma will initial one more time here next to Mrs. Smek's signature…"
Edward Nigma had never bought a house, but he had an instinctive understanding of his part in the scene: a Rogue who just wanted to get his hands on the money, trying to hide his impatience with all the stupid paperwork.
"Remember, Wayne stock won't plummet immediately," Marcus said to pass the time more than anything else. "There will likely be a slight drop in all tech stocks when the news breaks. It's important not to react to that minor dip. The payday will be when the common denominator is found."
"Serves the trust fund right," Paula said coolly. "WayneTech didn't get half what they should have for all those products out there using the process."
"Those licenses don't come cheap," Marcus said, more surprised than Eddie or Dwight by her comment.
"Mere money," Paula sniffed. "Every electronics manufacturer needing your patent to stay competitive, think of it. Think of what Luthor would have done, leveraged it for real power—over all of them—instead of settling for a fat ROI."
"Last page," Dwight Evans said brightly, the forced cheer in his voice belying his eagerness to get the transaction over, get out of the office, and get far, far away from Paula Smek: Luthor fan. "If Mr. Smek will just initial here, here, here, here and here, and you both sign down there, we're all done."
Finally it ended. Marcus wrote out the check, signed it, slid it over to Paula, she signed it. Slid it back to Marcus, who tore it out of the check book and held it out to Dwight—when suddenly the door burst open. Four men in suits surrounded the desk, as the one behind Marcus pulled him from his chair and intoned "Marcus Smek, you're under arrest for forty-eight counts of fraud, sixteen counts of grand larceny, sixteen violations of the Internet Trade Act, thirty-four…" while the one behind Paula recited the same, about four syllables out of sync.
In Eddie's mind, the scene seemed to play in slow motion as he leapt from his chair, lunging forward to grab the check from Marcus's fingers, his own voice distorted into a downshifted "Nooooo" as the policeman swung Marcus's arm behind him to apply the handcuffs. The check fluttered to the desk, where a third agent picked it up.
"Here," he said, handing it casually to Eddie. "It's no good. Their accounts were frozen at 9:01this morning."
Marisol didn't know what to expect when she agreed to this "chess boxing" in her basement, but she hoped it would bring in some money. Mari & Diego's had failed as a bar and Marisol's Griddle was failing as a restaurant. Diego was gone and money was money, even if the idea of boxing made her sick. A little extra from Falcone for the use of the hall and a little extra selling beer and sandwiches to the crowd—assuming anybody would come to watch this crazy thing—it could make the difference between keeping the doors open one more month or telling Victor and Bobbi they better start looking for work.
She didn't know what to expect from this chess boxing, but if she had guessed, it wouldn't have been Riddler, Clayface, and Catwoman sitting in the back of the crowd, looking like their dog died and periodically coming up to the bar for a beer. But there they sat: three of the most dangerous villains in Gotham. She knew she should call the police, but she really couldn't. Not when a) she was letting Roman Falcone's wise guys hold boxing matches in her basement and b) the villains hadn't done anything more villainous than watch the fights and pay for their drinks.
"So there's, what, five ways to win or lose?" Clayface asked.
"Knockout, checkmate, judge's decision," Catwoman counted off on her claws.
"Throwing in the towel," Clayface added. "And…?"
"Taking too long to make a chess move," Riddler grinned.
They got up together and walked towards the stairs, Marisol hurried ahead in order to beat them to the bar. She poured their beers and then left them alone in the empty restaurant.
"It was a novel experience, that's all I'm saying," Matt said philosophically. "I've never been in a room when the cops burst in to arrest somebody that wasn't me."
"Technically they were Feds," Selina noted. "GCPD was there, but Special Agent Dietz won the coin toss, so the FBI got to make the actual arrest. Gotham's Finest get to fight it out with the IRS, Treasury and the Securities Exchange Commission for whatever's left."
"And you were in the room with them?"
"Yep, it was a half-hour to remember."
"Easy for you two to kick back and compare 'novel experiences' from this fiasco," Eddie grumbled. "I'm doomed to go through life with the Grifter's Curse emailing the answer to my riddles to the entire J. Peterman mailing list."
"Should we tell him?" Matt grinned.
"The atomic number of niobium. Who knows that?" Eddie wailed.
"I think we better," she winked.
"Tell me what? Tell me what?"
Hagen reached into his clay and pulled out a fat manila envelope.
"The Smeks did not invest in Nigma Solutions," he began.
"I know, because their assets were frozen."
"No, Ed, before that. They never intended to; they were playing you from the beginning. They went back to Vries and offered him 10% more than whatever you were paying him. Then they went back to Evans and told him to put only as much of their investment into your company as you would need to execute the black box phase of the operation and ruin Wayne. I was to put the rest into a new corporation: Smek Solutions. They were planning to shut you out and make a killing on the new process themselves."
Eddie started to giggle, despite the blow to Rogue pride that these low-rent Internet scammers thought they could cross the Riddler in that way and live to enjoy the result.
"They wanted to—" Another helpless giggle escaped him, almost as if he'd been exposed to SmileX, and then he composed himself. "They wanted to steal the patents for Dr. Vries revolutionary new variant on the Wayne process to make copper based microchips? Oh that's too funny." He broke off and cackled again, and this time Matt joined in.
"Oh, I don't know," Selina said sweetly. "I'm sure there's somewhere in the world where electroplating pots and pans is still considered cutting edge technology. Ra's al Ghul's base in Kyrgyzstan maybe. They might have sold a few."
Clayface morphed into a DEMON minion wearing a chef's hat. "Your majesty, I have the honor to present your morning egg, prepared in a state of the art frying pan imported all the way from Gotham, city of your great enemy, center of Western decadence. But these Smek people do make some damn fine cookware."
After another round of laughter, Eddie became serious.
"Well, technically I did con them, I guess. But I didn't make a dime from it, and don't know if that would count lifting the curse. Grifters do it for money, not to right a wrong. I bought those nincompoops lunch! I'm technically out of pocket on the deal."
The clay-minion morphed back into Dwight Evans, who took the fat manila envelope from his breast pocket.
"Bribery is a cash business, Ed. Dr. Vries's extra 10% was to come out of the investment check we never got to cash, but they had to pay Evans to dummy up the papers, remember? $10,000."
Eddie looked from the envelope to Matt and then to Selina.
"That's $3300 apiece, Eddie. Not a huge haul, but it more than covers lunch and whatever you spent on the phone." She smiled and then added pointedly "With enough left over to get you started on a proper lair in a respectable part of town."
"What do you call a West Side walk-up with a river view and a Bat-trap in the basement?"
"Sounds like he's back," Selina told Matt.
"Riddle me this! How do the Z pad your bill if you actually request a vintage popcorn machine, Fender guitar, and Venetian mask from the set of Eyes Wide Shut?"
"He's back," Matt said flatly. "What have we done?"
"Riddle me—HEY, why didn't you guys tell me about the payoff before now?"
Clayface morphed into an exaggerated Riddler caricature, made an effeminate "ta-da" motion with his right hand and it changed into a miniature Bat Signal. The signal then shot a fake clay-shaft of light onto the wall, with the center image shaped like a question mark instead of a bat.
"Riddle me too, for I will now answer my own question," he declared in a squeaky parody of Nigma's own voice. "Why would my partners think the compulsive nutjob who goes running to Batman dispensing hints to everything we're doing SHOULD NOT BE GIVEN ALL THE INFORMATION?"
"ehrm-kuhm," the real Eddie coughed.
"It really didn't seem like a good idea to tell you, Eddie. Not with the curse hanging over you."
"Et tu, 'Lina?"
"Atomic number of niobium?"
Matt proposed a toast to the Bat-free conclusion of a successful Rogue enterprise. Selina drank, although she wasn't sure either term applied. They'd come away with 2% of the score they set out for. None of them cared about the actual money: Hagen bet his cut on the chess-boxer in the red bandana, Selina left hers in Marisol's tip jar, and Nigma's only concern was that he scored enough to redeem his mojo from the karmic pawn shop. Still, 3k a piece wasn't much for three of the biggest names in Batman's Rogues Gallery, and Selina knew it. She also knew a "Bat-free conclusion" was very much in doubt.
She couldn't confirm that until she rid herself of extra Rogues, so she skipped the last bouts. She kissed Matt-Eddie on the cheek and thanked him for his help, ran her fingers through Eddie-Eddie's hair and told him to call when he had himself a new lair. Then she left, dropping the thick roll of bills in the tip jar on the bar as she passed.
She didn't get far. Two blocks from Marisol's, she felt the tingle. Though the surrounding buildings were much shorter than the mid-Gotham skyscrapers, she unholstered her whip and took to the rooftops. She searched the horizon for signs of a cape but saw nothing. She returned to street level, and a moment later, the Batmobile pulled in front of the alley she was stepping out of.
"Get in" he graveled in that ominous "this isn't a request" tone that I used to find so infuriating. It still ruffles my fur a little, but having heard it enough times from Bruce since we got together, it gives me a little rush now hearing it from Batman.
"How was your day, dear?" I said, slipping into the passenger seat.
"Wait," he said. The door closed, and I heard the click-click-hum of the internal scanner.
"You're making sure I'm alone," I said.
I could barely stifle the chuckle. He's so sexy when he gets that way. Infuriating, but sexy. I 'held' (apart from a naughty grin) for the final second of scanner-humming—after which, I knew it was safe to talk, but I waited for the go-ahead.
"Grunt?" I prompted.
"You were with Hagen. I wanted to make sure appropriate precautions were taken before you used the OraCom."
"I never use the OraCom," I pointed out.
"No, but tonight you have questions. You might have called Barbara to learn my 10-20."
"You're such a liar," I teased. "I 'took precautions' every night at Vault, as you well know. And Matt never once tried to 'follow me home.' So why don't you just admit that you were lurking because you wanted to talk to me too."
No grunt—but the car sped up, which was as good as an admission as far as I was concerned.
"Should I start?" I asked sweetly.
Again silence from the belfry, apart from a rather angry acceleration as he turned onto the bridge.
"Honey, I'm afraid I caused a little dip in the NASDAQ again," I said like a 50s sitcom wife who'd dented the car. That brought a liptwitch.
"Not this time," he said—astonishingly, in Bruce's voice, which I don't think I've ever heard while he's driving the Batmobile. "The Smeks did sell their Wayne holdings but there were ample buyers, so there was no price fluctuation. Then they went on to short sell an additional ten thousand shares, expecting to buy what they need for pennies in a few weeks to cover the obligation. That produced a very minor drop, 1/32 of a point, not enough to affect the composite indices, and it corrected by the closing bell. "
"Let me guess, it was you doing all the buying," I laughed. "And now there are two less shareholders out there who think you should operate more like Lex Luthor."
We drove in silence until we were over the bridge, parked, and hit the rooftops.
"How long have you known?" I asked while we watched the dealers congregating outside the nightclubs.
"Almost from the beginning. Alfred told me Nigma was meeting you at the country club, and Flay saw you there. Said he was going to come over and say hi. He's 'always happy to have a chat with that charming Edward fellow,' but you were with the Smeks, who he considers pariahs and social climbers of the worst sort—there, the one in the Cherokee jacket, he's the supplier. Let's go."
I spent the next few minutes picking off the dealers who ran while Batman nailed the supplier. Two made it into one of the clubs, so I waited until I saw the supplier hoisted up onto a streetlight in a Bat-net. That meant Batman was free and he'd be watching the door, so I went inside. I found one, whispered a few threats—nothing medieval, just creative things to do with my claws. His partner saw me with his buddy and made for the door—right into Batman's waiting fist, and my mousy playmate decided to get as far away from that as he could—turning back right into mine. Meow.
We took the rooftop route to Chinatown and Bruce resumed his story: Eddie had dropped a receipt at the manor, a receipt for The Club Room, so that was Batman's next stop after the country club. He learned that Eddie had been there with a couple that matched the Smeks' description. They were obviously the key to whatever was going on, so he checked them out—broke off the story at that point, because he spotted a couple kids breaking into a car.
Once he had the Smeks as a starting point, he found their websites and even found Eddie's Vince Turner alias in their sales records. He also found Oracle's tracks exploring the sites from another angle. She can hide her trail from anyone else, but not him—crappy news for me, but I still find it rather wonderful. He's Batman. And he's cute when he's miffed.
He was miffed I had pulled Oracle into whatever was going on, but he tried to downplay it. Psychobat's never had the control over her activities that he'd like, going all the way back to her Batgirl days. Fortunately, we found a guy holding up a liquor store, and that let him work out his aggression.
"So you didn't have all the particulars of the con?" I asked, once we reached Chinatown and were settled on a rooftop to count DEMON minions.
"I did but it was irrelevant. The Smeks' criminal activities were the focus of my investigation, not…"
He trailed off, and I knew it wasn't carrying the one keeping track of the minions.
"Not?" I prodded.
"My focus was the Smeks' activities, not Nigma pulling you into a criminal enterprise," he graveled.
And Oh, Sweet Mother of Bast, I should have known that's where this was going.
"Look, Bruce—" I whispered.
"Forget it," he graveled. "Nigma made his point. Electron 29."
"Curse or not, he's the Riddler. He had to leave some clue to what he was doing. Getting lost and coming to the house, accidentally dropping a receipt, that was just circumstance, bad luck. He had to deliberately send Batman a message, and that was it. The meat of his con: copper, conductivity, electron 29."
"No, no you've got a false scent there, lover. He got all that from some show on the History Channel. Working with an actor, he figured Matt needed lines to memorize, so he swiped a bunch of stuff from a show called Modern Marvels that had an episode about copper, and I think the rest came from a biography of Richard Feynman."
He turned to me very slowly, the neon glow from the street throwing an odd glow onto the far side of his mask as he said "No… Selina… he didn't. There are a thousand different 'tales' Nigma could have told to separate the Smeks from their money. He chose the bogus inventor and an invention rooted in the conductive properties of copper for a reason. You're 'Electron 29,' Kitten. You can go from taking down Joker to helping Nigma to patrolling with me without taking a breath. It's like you don't even notice."
"That was his point?"
"That I'm an electron predisposed to flit back and forth from one atom to the next? What kind of stupid riddle is that? Wait a minute, wait a minute, are you saying I'm the mark here? That there was no grifter's curse and that that pasty-faced balding weasel decided to—"
"The objective of a con is to give something for nothing, correct? That's the rationalization: you take someone who wants something for nothing and give them nothing for something."
"Nigma did the opposite. You were giving him 'something for nothing,' helping him with his predicament when there was nothing in it for you except the incidental fun you derive being bad. Instead, he gave you something of value. An insight—what he imagines is an insight at least."
"That I'm electron 29."
I looked around, uncertain what to make of it. I checked the street. If there was a new DEMON minion lurking, I would have certainly welcomed the opportunity to pummel one.
"Was there a curse?" I asked—I'm not really sure why I thought he would know, but I couldn't think what else to do.
"Is the curse real?" he huffed. "Certainly not, superstitious nonsense. But you're asking if Nigma believed he was cursed. Probably. He did buy an outdated and defective phone from the Smeks' website, so what he told you on that score is… probably true. And once he saw your readiness to help him, he made the most of the opportunity."
"So I'm not the mark."
"He may have hoped to unnerve me with the 'revelation' about you, but no. I got something for nothing, the same as you."
"What? The insight that I'm unreliable and disloyal?"
"A criminal operation is out of business. What the Smeks were doing may not be in Joker's league, but they were cheating people on a massive scale. They can't do it anymore, they're going to pay for those crimes, and there are two less stockholders who think WE should operate more like LexCorp. All things considered, I should send him a fruit basket."
I chuckled at that, but it still seemed terribly unfinished somehow.
"A criminal operation is out of business," I echoed. "And two less stockholders that want you to emulate Luthor. If Eddie gets a fruit basket, what do I get?"
"Two more rounds of town halls before the Tech Expo," he said instantly, like he was expecting the question.
"Oh gee, what fun," I said lightly. It wasn't cute enough to warrant a lip twitch, but it produced one anyway.
"This round might be," he said coolly. "Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok and then Berlin, Munich, Brussels, Dublin…" he paused. "And Paris. We could do some shopping. Walk into the original Cartier through the front door without… upsetting anyone."
I looked up and caught him watching me right before his eye flicked away. I let him think he got away with it and I didn't notice, but… we could do some shopping, I had to wonder.
© 2010, Chris Dee
from the Latin tropaeum, a prize, memento, or monument to an enemy's defeat