Every job has its drawbacks. Professional athletes, men and women paid millions to play their favorite games, ended up with broken bones and permanent injuries. Fiercely brilliant scientists, dedicated to their life's work of chemistry, often found themselves dying from the side effects caused by the elements that they had been the first to discover. Even the job of parenting was not immune from its own brand of horror, from the awful smell of baby formula all the way down to the depths of diaper finger-painting.
The job of henchgirl to the Riddler seemed relatively easy in comparison. Wear a green dress? Simple. Hobnob with master criminals? Less simple, but certainly doable. Match wits with the Batman? She'd done it and escaped scot-free three times in a row! And if that was all it took to be a henchgirl, life would have been pretty good. Unfortunately, it wasn't.
Every job's drawbacks appear sooner or later, and in this case, they'd appeared this morning, when a slight tickle on her neck roused her out of a sound sleep. She cracked an eyelid, noting that her field of vision was completely blocked by a mischievous set of eyes, and promptly snuggled further under the blankets.
The warm, cozy softness of the blankets abruptly disappeared. Jackie groaned and stuffed her head under the pillow, which was promptly yanked away. "Rise and shine, pumpkin. Ready for your first heist?"
"Can I have coffee first?" Jackie mumbled.
"Coffee later. Up! Up! Whither a bed, mostly regret!"
Jackie glared at him through one sleep-crusted eye. "It's too early for anagrams," she grumbled. She shut her eyes, mentally shifting letters around with the ease of someone who had had five months of daily anagram-solving to sharpen her wits. "And anyway, the early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese."
Her backside hit the floorboards with a thump. "Vacation's over," he advised, letting her ankle fall to the ground. "We've got work to do. Up!"
They say that creativity goes hand in hand with messiness. If that was the case, then the Riddler was definitely the premier creative mind inside Gotham City. The hall closet of his showplace lair gaped open, revealing one hundred and seventy-five cubic feet of space stuffed with anything a criminal could ever desire. Among the piles, barely visible, the Riddler sifted and sorted through his treasures, accompanying his search with a stream-of-consciousness mutter sprinkled with more anagrams.
Jackie sat outside the closet, perched uncomfortably on the arm of the green question-marked couch. A cup of coffee - her third this morning - steamed warmly in her hands. She had a feeling that even lethal levels of caffeine wouldn't get her nearly as perky as a pre-heist Riddler. She took a long drink anyway, half-hoping that he'd never find whatever he went in there to get. If it was that important to the heist, maybe they wouldn't be able to steal things without it...
She sighed. They were running out of money, and Eddie had been talking about nothing else but Batman and outsmarting him since they'd gotten back home. Even if he didn't find whatever-it-was, she'd be willing to bet that he'd find a substitution and have them out and about as soon as possible.
The human body makes a lot of distinctive noises when it collides with stationary objects. Elbows, for example, particularly elbows that have been shattered and painstakingly repaired, tend to crack and pop alarmingly when trying to balance the weight of a suddenly-falling metal chest full of question-marked knickknacks.
"Is everything all right in there?"
"Fine," Eddie called. There was a thudding crash, as if a box of glassware had fallen down a fire escape. "Oh, bacon fist," he swore. Something else rattled ominously in the depths of the mess.
"Uh, Eddie? There aren't any deathtraps in there, are there?"
The bobbing green hat paused for a moment. "No..." Eddie said thoughtfully. "No, I don't think so." The hat ducked downward, disappearing behind a large cardboard box marked "HATS, GLOVES, PLASTIC EXPLOSIVES". "Ah-ha!"
A cloud of dust emerged from the closet, followed closely by the Riddler, clutching a green metal box in his arms. He ceremonially placed it on the coffee table and clicked the latches open. The lid rose smoothly on its own, revealing a gun laying on a custom-made bed of foam.
If the Emerald City had muggers, they'd carry guns like this. Silver, green, and black metal twined around one another in geometric patterns and swirled over each other in tiny, gleaming question marks. "Here," Eddie said, scooping it up and passing it to Jackie.
She nearly dropped it on her foot. She hadn't realized that guns were so heavy. In movies, they seemed to be weightless. Tentatively, she curled her hand around the...whatever you called it...the handle?...and examined it a little closer.
"Here's the holster," Eddie added, dangling a complicated-looking arrangement of leather straps in the air between them. "Go ahead, try it on!"
Jackie gladly set the gun back in the box and took the straps. Whoever had designed it had been quite clever, since the straps themselves were formed in arcs and whirls that probably looked like question marks once they were in position. However, they'd neglected to add any handy little instructions with it to help the wearer figure out how to get into the thing.
Eddie watched her fumbling with the straps for a few minutes. "Haven't you ever worn a holster before?"
She gave him an exasperated look through her cage of leather. "Eddie, I've never even held a gun before!"
He blinked. "Really?"
"I just thought that - well, your mom said that she went to the shooting range all the time..."
"Well, I'm not my mother!"
"And I'm extremely thankful for that," he smiled. He looked her over for a moment, tapping his forefinger thoughtfully on his lips as he examined her. Then, all pensiveness gone, he flashed her an excited smile. "Let's go for a little ride." He yanked her coat from the closet and tossed it at her. She stuck an arm between the holster's straps just in time to snag it before it hit the floor. By the time she'd gotten the tangled holster off, the Riddler was already in his own coat and heading for the door.
"Where are we going?"
"You'll see!" he said, with an enigmatic quirk to his eyebrow. With a blast of cold air, he disappeared into the snow. He popped his head back in just long enough to say "And bring the gun!" before vanishing again.
Jackie stuffed her arms into her coat and shrugged it on, muttering to herself as she hauled the heavy metal gun case toward the door. Eddie sure loved secrets for a man who couldn't seem to keep his mouth shut about what crimes he was about to commit. Still, at least they weren't on their way to the heist right now...she hoped. Well, he made sure to tell Batman and the cops whenever he stole anything - surely he'd tell her, too.
Eddie remained maddeningly silent on the short drive through town. As they headed deeper into the warehouse district, he began to hum a cheerful little tune, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. "Ba da daaaa...ba da daaaa...aaah! Here we are." He turned the car off and slipped outside, trotting to the worn, ancient door as if he was a child on his way to see Santa Claus.
Jackie slammed her car door shut and followed him, high heels slipping in the snow as she tried to balance the ungainly weight of the gun case in her arms. One of these days, she was going to have to replace her tennis shoes.
Eddie rat-tatted on the door. After a slight pause, it creaked open to reveal a shortish man with a long braided ponytail gnawing on an enormous turkey leg. "Carlos!" Eddie said. "Leftovers for breakfast?"
"Nah. Made it just now. Want some?" He hiked a turkey-greased thumb over his shoulder. Inside, they could see a rickety card table atop which a beautifully browned thirty-pound turkey rested on an enormous silver platter. "Got plenty."
"No thanks. This is Carlos," Eddie said, turning to Jackie. "Carlos, this is Query."
Carlos wiped his free hand on his apron - an apron, Jackie noted, that was nothing more than a mechanic's jumpsuit tied around his neck by the arms - and grabbed her hand in a firm handshake. "A new one?" he asked Eddie, eyebrow raised.
Eddie cleared his throat. "Yes. A new one," he repeated.
Without releasing her hand, Carlos looked her up and down much like Eddie had earlier. Jackie stiffened slightly as he stared at her. "Huh," he finally said, letting go of her. "You sure?" he said, turning back to Eddie.
"I'm sure," he said, a slight edge on his words.
Jackie did her best to smile politely through the cloud of uncertainty enveloping her head. Something was clearly going on that she was not involved in. She shifted the weight of the gun case in her arms and surreptitiously kicked a clump of snow off of the top of her foot.
Eddie cleared his throat again. "Ah. Query? Carlos and I need to discuss some things. If you could excuse us for a moment?"
Jackie glanced out the door to the car, which was rapidly being buried in flurries of snowflakes. "Oh, come in, come in," Carlos invited, hastily stepping out of the doorway so they could enter. "You can wait through there." He gestured with his turkey leg at a door to the left, a solid-looking door painted gunmetal gray.
She opened it up and peered inside. The door led to a hallway floored with expensive-looking hardwood and outfitted at her end with a pair of ornate spindly chairs that wouldn't look amiss in a museum exhibit. A coat rack stood elegantly between them. She stepped inside and let the door close behind her with a muted click as she rested the heavy gun case gently in one of the fancy chairs. Her bright green coat, spangled with tiny question marks, looked more than a little ridiculous on the highly polished wooden stand. She turned around, wondering if the door on this side was just as pretty as the rest of the furnishings. It was disappointingly gray, just like the other side. Even the handle was...she blinked, running disbelieving fingers over the smooth paint.
There was no handle on this side.
Well...surely Eddie wouldn't take her anywhere that wasn't safe...would he? She considered the last five months of her life, which had included a month-long vacation with a frequently homicidal and emotionally unstable villain, an invitation to a party that he was robbing, and countless trips to the Iceberg Lounge, where this year's hottest accessory was a police file six inches thick.
"EDDIE!" she yelped, pounding on the door with her fists.
There was no answer. She stepped back, heart racing, and took a deep breath. Okay. So she was locked in a strange hallway in some guy's house. Okay. Okay. She rubbed her hands together, searching the hallway for signs of trouble. All that she could see were paintings - tasteful, professionally-spaced paintings hanging on well-lit patches of wall. Okay. Paintings. Right. She backed toward a chair, intending to rest for a moment, and arched upward as something bitterly cold bit into her backside.
The gun! She wrestled the case open and snatched the gun up. Was it loaded? Was the safety on? What did a safety look like, anyway? Did it matter? If anyone tried to hurt her, she'd just pull the trigger and see what happened. If it didn't go off...well, the thing was heavy enough. She'd probably be able to smack someone with it and at least give them a nasty bruise.
She crept down the hallway. As she passed the first painting, a piece of the floorboard beneath her foot suddenly dropped away, jamming to a halt two inches below the rest of the floor. She stumbled and caught herself just in time to see a grid of bars snap out from the walls behind her, sealing off the chairs and the door. Another set snapped out as she stood there, disbelieving.
They were getting closer! She bolted for the end of the hall, bars clacking into place behind her, and skidded around a corner just as the final set slammed into place. She leaned against a wall, panting, and looked around, gun at the ready.
This room was emphatically not as well-loved as the hallway. Cinder-block walls marked off a six-by-eight passageway leading forward only for a few feet before it turned sharply to the left. A draft blew icily above her head, coming from a broken window set high up in the warehouse wall. Using the badly-set bricks as a ladder, Jackie hauled herself up, peering over the cold gray wall like an urban prairie dog.
The passageway wound around the vast warehouse floor, opening onto occasional wide spaces and detouring around abandoned machinery before ending...she squinted, tracing the path with her eyes...over there, near the bottom of that old iron staircase. At the top of the staircase, in a glass-walled enclosure, Carlos and Eddie looked down on her. Covertly, Eddie gave her a thumbs-up.
She bit back an urge to stick her tongue out at him and dropped back to the floor. Suddenly all those little remarks about 'a new one' and 'was he sure' popped back up in her mind. Maybe this was standard procedure for all new henchgirls. Well, if this was her entrance exam, she'd better get it over with.
Gun in hand, eyeing the walls for more little surprises, Jackie clicked into the labryinth on her shiny black heels, wishing beyond wishes for her comfortable, ratty old tennis shoes.
Unbeknownst to Jackie, but knownst to nearly everyone else involved with the rogues' gallery, Carlos was the man to go to when you needed to acquire some skills. His warehouse-sized obstacle course came in very handy for training underlings, of course, but he also had a university-caliber library stored on a wall full of compact discs, as well as technical manuals for most of the world's weapons of mass and minor destruction. Not only did he possess all of this knowledge, but he'd read it and absorbed it until he'd become a quiet expert in nearly everything a master criminal would need to know. Carlos knew lots of things, some of which were extremely useful in keeping the police department off his back.
He stood thoughtfully next to Eddie as they watched Jackie maneuvering through the labyrinth of traps and tests. A six-by-six pool of deep, stagnant water blocked her path. She backed up, took a deep breath, and sprinted forward, leaping at the very last second and managing to land on her feet on the other side.
"So where'd you get this one?" Carlos said idly, taking another bite of his rapidly diminishing turkey leg.
"Don't tell me you don't know," Eddie said lightly, aware that very little happened in the rogues' world that didn't get back to Carlos sooner or later.
Carlos chuckled. "Yeah, I heard. She really took out Robin?"
"One shove," Eddie said proudly. "And she got me away from Batman before I even hired her."
"Nice." Carlos tossed the bare turkey bone in a nearby garbage can and wiped his hands clean on his makeshift apron. "She's coming up on the hard stuff now." They leaned a little closer to the window, watching her in silence.
She battled through, doing about as well as the average person might, but certainly not displaying any of the superhuman agility, speed, or strength that some of his past henchgirls had possessed. He had imagined their first heist to be spectacular, news-making, Bat-breaking kind of stuff - but if it was going to end up with one or both of them back in Arkham before the fun even began, then maybe it would be necessary to downgrade his plans a bit.
A grate with a widely-splayed laptop attached to its very center blocked her passage. She examined the screen, tapped out a sequence of seemingly random letters on the keyboard, and grinned as the grate slid harmlessly into the floor. Eddie beamed proudly.
His smile faded as she continued along. The hand-to-hand combat simulator was too much for her, though she did give it a valiant try. When the fake Batman and Robin popped out at her from the walls, she threw herself backward, not forward - though she did bop them playfully on the heads on her way past them. And when it came to target practice with the gun...well, novices did often underestimate the kick a gun like that had when the trigger was pulled, but they didn't usually fall flat on their backsides like an Olympic vaulter having a really bad day.
"What'd she do before you hired her?" Carlos asked, as Jackie managed to get her next shot vaguely near the target without falling over.
"Oh." They watched her shoot again. She shot a few more times, getting closer to the human silhouette on the target each time. On the sixth shot, she managed to wing the paper target on the left shoulder. She moved onward and began hauling herself up the cargo net stretched across the passageway. She crawled upward at a snail's pace, the soles of her high heels slipping on the nylon rope, shifting the gun from one hand to the other as she pulled herself along.
"Look, I don't want to offend you," Carlos said carefully, "but this one's gonna need a lot of practice before she's up to your usual stuff."
Eddie sighed. "You're right," he agreed, drumming his fingers on the windowsill.
Supervillains had standards. It was sort of an odd phenomenon, given that supervillains as a whole were inclined to do, wear, and blow up whatever they liked. But once you crossed the line from villainy into supervillainy, it was important to only do those things that would continue cementing you firmly into your new status. Lex Luthor would never be caught stealing cakes when he could be luring Superman into yet another intricate Kryptonite-laced trap. Catwoman would never be caught stuffing steaks down her pants in the local grocery store. And while the Joker had been known to use counterfeit money to steal five bucks worth of donuts, he'd also taken the time to carefully poison the helpless clerk with the distinctively toxic cash.
Consider Gotham, a city where a small army of villains, super and otherwise, are constantly bumping elbows with the various gangs, mobs, and other criminal enterprises that try to take over every city worth running. Every bank, every jeweler, every museum and scientific laboratory, therefore, has sunk quite a large part of their operating budget into the maintenance of a well-trained security detail, complete with cameras, guns, and anything else the average joe might need to take out any unwanted after-hours visitors.
And so the Riddler found himself in an uncomfortable position. If he maintained his standards and robbed, say, a bank, his inexperienced henchgirl might find herself captured rather quickly. While this might not have been a big deal if it was any number of his previous girls, it mattered quite a bit to him that Jackie returned to their hideout in one un-Batted piece.
On the other hand, if he stuck to places where Jackie was unlikely to be captured, his supervillain ego would take a serious beating. The Riddler did not rob pawn shops - well, not anymore, anyway - and being seen stealing from a penny-ante place like that would make what little respect he had in the criminal community completely vanish.
All of his previous grand plans had to be tabled for another day. There had to be somewhere that they could rob. Somewhere where the people weren't going to be inclined to hurt them, or even to chase after them. Somewhere where there was lots of money and just the right amount of security (enough to salvage his ego, but not quite enough to pose a threat). Somewhere where they could stay hidden in plain sight until they struck...
An idea blazed across Eddie's brain, lighting up his face with the joy of an answer found. That was it! The perfect place! He'd never robbed it before - in fact, no one had - and okay, so it was hardly Gotham National Bank, but it would still give them enough cash to put together something amazing for next time.
He ripped the notebook from his pocket and scribbled something furiously. Carlos, used to his customers' little idiosyncracies, politely ignored him and watched the girl in the green dress trying to pick a padlock with exactly the wrong kind of lockpick.
Commissioner Gordon stamped his feet, clearing a small space to stand in by the snowdrift engulfing the base of the Batsignal. Falling snowflakes hissed and died as they landed on the hot metal of the enormous searchlight.
Batman stepped out of the shadows. Gordon cut right to the chase, eager to get back inside where a warm pot of coffee awaited him. "I got an email today written in binary. One of the boys downstairs translated it for me." He passed the folded piece of paper to the Batman.
Batman unfolded it. As his eyes scanned the text, his mouth began to take on that sullen, stern, tight-lipped look that meant someone was going to be very unhappy very shortly.
The Lion is king but for a day.
I'll win the crown, he'll hie away.
A ruby gnu, and draco too,
You'll find me when you look at you.
"Any idea what it means?" Gordon asked.
"Unicorns," Batman muttered darkly. A blast of cold wind threw icy snowflakes into Gordon's face. When he blinked them away, Batman was gone.
(to be continued)
Author's Note: The Joker's donut adventure happened in "Laughter After Midnight" from The Batman Adventures Annual #1. The song that Eddie idly hums during the drive is 'Gonna Fly Now' from the Rocky soundtrack. Oh, and Lex Luthor did steal forty cakes, which is as many as four tens, and that's terrible.