Rebuilding Gotham City: Day 159
Bruce walked down a long hallway of the Manor. The cape billowed out behind him and the cowl rested comfortably on his head. The shadows pooled around his booted feet. He opened the doors to the ballroom.
The green-suited man stood in the center of the room and swelled to fill it. "Batman, it's time to match wits with the Riddler."
Bruce didn't answer as he looked for the best weak spot on the giant upper body before him. How true was the bigger they are, the harder they fall saying?
The pupil-less white eyes inside the purple domino mask narrowed thoughtfully. "I have millions of eyes, yet I live in darkness. I have millions of ears, yet only four lobes. I have no muscles, yet I rule two hemispheres. What am I?"
"The human brain," Bruce answered despite intending not to play along with this obsessed criminal.
"My, my, there is one of those under that pointy-eared cowl of yours. Too bad they didn't figure it out." The Riddler flung out his arm and the room changed under its shadow. Bruce ran to the crumpled couple lying in the alley beside the side exit of the Gotham City Opera House. Neither Nightwing nor Selina moved, and his ungloved hands were too small to staunch the blood from her chest.
His ears rang with his screams, but his eyes opened to the semi-darkened bedroom. Selina muttered in her sleep and rolled away from him. He slipped out of their bed, wrapped his father's robe around his body, and eased the bedroom door shut behind him.
This had gone on for too long. The obsessed murderer had to have left a clue to his identity. No criminal was that clever with hiding. His fuming stride carried him down to the cave.
The sense memory of wearing the suit in his dream was strong, but the answers weren't out there to beat out of anyone. The days of squeezing informants on the mob were years over. And it was better that Batman died over the ocean than risk the temptation of being an executioner again. He jerked his gaze away from his hands. The Tumbler was parked on the furthest cube, leaving open the one with the suits and computer bank. Those days ended when he became unworthy of the suit.
Bruce turned to the computer terminal in the wall on the shore. He organized the virtual copies of the Riddler's clues in chronological, ignored the voice in his head asking how many times he was going to look at the same evidence, and read the first clue again.
Some bluebirds told me,
They saw a puddykat,
In a concrete cage,
Made by Bane.
She wasn't alone tee-he,
She never named the bat,
But what acts they did engage,
Before boom went the plane.
Did anyone foresee,
That I found the puddykat,
In a gilded cage,
Owned by Wayne.
How could she agree
To forget the bat?
No grief to assuage,
__________ shows no pain.
Bluebirds referred to the police, specifically the ones trapped underground with them: Montoya, Jensen, and Kelley. Jensen speculated that Catwoman was pregnant and soon all the cops were gossiping about that.
Bruce scowled at the line "That I found the puddykat." The Riddler had been to the penthouse. As much as he hated the idea, it felt more right than the Riddler had learned about Selina through the tabloid news.
That wasn't an eureka moment of reasoning tonight. When they realized Jen had seen the Riddler without a mask, Bruce insisted she look at every guest who had been to the penthouse. Jen had been adamant that no one from Bruce's birthday party was the Riddler.
But they wouldn't be. True, the Riddler could have infiltrated with the extra staff, but the clue was left on the Tumbler January ninth, practically a month away from his birthday. The only guests they had in the first few weeks after the Occupation ended were Lucius Fox and Amanda Waller. Lucius was beyond reproach, but Waller's people with Cadmus had access to Selina's information. And they were still in town to approach Jen and Stephanie at Liberty Church.
He rubbed his hands and proceeded to hack into Cadmus Project's payroll records. A few hours later, he had a list of names on Waller's security detail for the January trip and a list of names of people stationed in the Gotham branch. He rubbed his face before setting the list aside to look at the clues leading to Harriet Allnut's body.
Those riddles displayed the Riddler's sense of superiority, his knowledge of pop culture, and his familiarity with Gotham City. Bruce made a note on his Cadmus suspects list to look extra carefully at the ones who lived in Gotham previously. He moved onto the last riddle.
What name belongs on the record of birth?The Riddler admitted to Selina how he figured out Willowwood from the way she treated Roger Cly and from her records. Cadmus could access both.
Loss of consortium leads to no mirth.
Come to your old tree house if benedict has any worth.
He leaned back and let his eyes drift out of focus. The only other option he saw right now was an enemy Selina had using Batman as a screen. The Cadmus Project employees were more likely than that. He saved the list as he yawned and headed back upstairs.
Selina sat on the edge of their bed and withered him with a look. "Would it kill you to leave me a note?"
"Sorry, I didn't want to wake you. Are you all right?"
"Braxton Hicks contractions; I was about to get in the tub."
"May I join you or are you mad at me?"
She smirked at him. "Go fill the tub." She didn't ask about his nightmare or his research until they were both in the heated water, her back against his chest, and his hands stroking over her contracted belly. "Anything new or just an exercise in futility?"
"Do you have any enemies? Someone who would go to any lengths to get revenge."
"The only one who fits that category is ole Hellhound." She leaned her head on Bruce's shoulder. "But riddles, mazes, and traps weren't his style. He'd invade the Manor for a duel." Her hand slid against his tense thigh under the water. "So Batman as a smokescreen for the Riddler's obsession with Catwoman? Sorry, lover, but he cared less that he had me in his clutches."
"It was a long shot. What steps do we need to take against this Hellhound? Have the Manor blessed?" Her muscles began to relax under his fingers.
"We were students of the same sensei, but his attitude problem with me really took off when I beat him to the magical amulet he wanted."
"He had a thing for anything claiming to be magical." She shrugged. "The only thing magical it did for me was turn into a pile of cash when I handed it over to a guy calling himself Jason Blood. Anyways, Kai declared us mortal enemies, renamed himself Hellhound, fought me, and got his ass kicked." She turned her head and kissed his neck. "But don't worry about him. The last letter I got from my sensei said a magical artifact he went after ate him."
"Ate him?" Bruce nuzzled her cheek.
She shrugged again. "My sensei's words, not mine. Is that the only idea you had?"
"No, the other is a variation of the Riddler has been to the penthouse. What if he is or was Cadmus?"
"If Waller wanted me to confirm Batman's identity, she doesn't need to murder Harriet Allnut or kidnap me."
He shook his head. "Not sanctioned, a rogue agent with ties there."
She turned to face him. "My being Catwoman is an open secret over there."
"And they knew Selina Kyle was with Wayne while the rest of the city was still guessing who you were." His hands trailed over her body. "It's a new list to check into."
"Just make it a shorter list if you want Jen to do another photo line-up. Poor kid is stressed over finals."
"She is?" Bruce had noticed the gradual skittishness, but had attributed it to something else. "I thought she had a problem with me."
Selina's brow knitted. "She hasn't said anything to me. Maybe she thinks you'll kick her out if she flunks."
"Don't let her panic about that. I wouldn't."
"I'll talk with her later." She moved closer and slid her hands up his chest. "How about right now you rub me some more?" One of her hands tangled into his hair, wetting it as she pulled him closer for a kiss.
Rebuilding Gotham City: Day 166
Blake pulled the SUV to the curb outside Hudson U's Business College building and waited. He tried to see the afternoon as not a total loss. He removed a Cadmus agent from their list of Riddler suspects and practiced B&E. His lock picking skill was improving. Selina would pat his head for that, but Bruce deserved better news. And as much as Blake would love to tell him the Riddler was found, this Cadmus agent had an alibi for Selina's kidnapping. While it was possible to fake video evidence, the former suspect had a collection of personal sex videos made over years and in the three months after Selina's kidnapping. Blake believed the time stamp on the February twentieth file.
Jen opened the passenger side door and climbed into the front seat. "Did something happen?" she asked.
"No, a lead didn't pan out, that's all. Sorry, how were your finals?" He merged the vehicle into the traffic.
"The easy ones are done, but I don't know how I'm going to handle the one for Introduction to Statistical Reasoning when I can't stop thinking on how I'm the biggest idiot who lives in a mansion."
Blake smiled. "That's not true. You're heaps smarter than the Airhead Brigade from the wedding reception. Remember them?"
She shook her head. "That doesn't help me deal with Selina and Bruce."
"I kept blaming Batman for what happened to Selina with Bruce right there!" She waved her hands in emphasis.
"You think Bruce is upset about that? He knows you were just scared for Selina."
"Yes, Nightwing, I do think Batman is mad I said it was all his fault!" She crossed her arms over her chest.
He jerked the wheel to the left and jerked it back before they crossed into the other lane. The driver of the car in that lane honked the horn as he sped past the SUV. "What gave you that crazy idea?" He managed to ask as his stomach fell out of his body and dragged along the street.
"You dodging baseball bats at the stadium."
"You didn't say anything!" He shot a brief glare at her.
"Who is my sister, John? I know how to not give things away, especially what can get someone arrested." Jen slumped against the seat. "Nothing from the Occupation made sense. I was calling Selina's cell phone and the Manor every day. Any panic room Bruce built would have phone access. Or Selina would have snuck out and called me back. She didn't because she couldn't. Bane had her locked up with Batman."
She sounded so hurt, Blake didn't know how to respond.
"So that didn't fit. And Bruce came for Selina's help just like Bane's men said Batman would. And you didn't fit."
"Selina kept Stephanie, but she had no reason to keep Batman's junior partner. She confirmed Bruce kept you and they're both so gaga about the baby that would be Batman's thanks to getting locked up by Bane, so Bruce is Batman." Blake was too stunned to say anything. "Don't try to lie about it now," she snapped at his silence.
"I'm glad you didn't learn about it from Stephanie."
"Stephanie? Wait, you love Batman. Goddamnit, the baby was told before me!" You all suck!" She crossed her arms tighter and stared out the window.
Blake turned onto the Queens Bridge as he considered the best way to break the angry silence. They crossed to the Palisades before he opened his mouth. "Bruce didn't want the knowledge to make you a target. The masks are to protect your loved ones from the bad guys."
"I know that."
"When we found Stephanie, we also had to deal with Bruce bleeding out from his last fight with Bane and his hard landing from the Bat's escape pod. She found out and we've worked hard to make her understand she can't tell." Jen's arms relaxed slightly. "Why didn't you ask Selina?"
Her arms dropped free. "Bruce makes her happy. I haven't seen her happy like this since our parents died. And I go shitting all over the guy who makes her happy."
"Whatever you're worried about, Bruce has already forgotten about it. I let Selina get kidnapped and he hasn't thrown me out. Just apologize for it, tell him you know, and go study with a clear head."
"How the hell did you let... what is that?" She pointed out the windshield.
Blake stopped the SUV before the gate automatically swung open. A green card the size of a poster board hung from the gate's top spikes. "One man's death wish," he finally said. He opened the door. "Wait here."
He took his forensic toolkit out of the back seat and photographed the card while shaking his head. The face had Mrs. Selina Kyle Wayne printed on it. He gloved up before untying the bow on the card's spine, pulled the green ribbon off the gate, and bagged it. The card was too big for any evidence bags in his kit. "Don't touch it," he warned Jen as he packed it into the back seat.
She waited until he drove onto the manor grounds. "Are you telling me that the creep who kidnapped my sister is sending her love notes?"
"I haven't read any love notes from the Riddler. He leaves riddles, and we're keeping that out of the press."
Jen didn't say anything as she fumed in the passenger seat until they parked inside the garage. "I'm getting Selina!" She slammed open the door to the kitchen.
Blake followed her with the green card and the bagged ribbon. Alfred peeked out of his office. "That's not how Miss Jen normally returns home." His perplexed frown deepened when he saw the green oversized card. "That parcel did not come by the postal service. The blackguard dared to come here?"
"Dared up to the gate." Blake laid it on the clean kitchen island. "Is Bruce home?"
"Not yet." Alfred joined him. "Missus Selina worked from home today, so I remained here with her and Miss Stephanie."
Blake sighed. "I left last and it wasn't tied to the gate then, but that was hours ago."
Jen's voice reached them through the door that had swung shut behind her. "I can't think about your fundraising ideas while a crazy wacko is threatening you!" The door swung into the kitchen and Jen dragged Selina in by her arm.
"It doesn't do any good to hire them if no one will go to the show." The teasing dropped from Selina's expression when she saw the green on the island. "The Riddler?"
"It's the right color green," Blake said.
"Obviously, I took the wrong tack with this guy. I should have told him what happened to Bane in excruciating detail."
Blake opened the card with his still gloved hands. The poem was printed in a large, black font matching the size of the card.
Cat carried out on a wing and a prayer;Instead of a signature, a riddle in a smaller font size was printed near the bottom of the card.
such an unexpected end to our stalemate.
'Tis a pity that I became your honeymoon delayer.
For that alone, you shall not capitulate.
I am not a royalty of Gotham forayer;
so enjoy your family before they dissipate.
A beggar's brother went out to sea and drowned. But the man who drowned had no brother. What was the relationship between the man and the beggar?
"And instead of signing his name, he leaves a riddle." Alfred shook his head. "This chap is so sharp he's liable to cut himself."
"Are you sure you didn't hit him in the head?" Jen asked Selina.
"I wish I could take the credit."
Blake turned the card over, but it was only marred with smudges from the railings. He would test them to make sure, but he reopened the card to glean insight from the words. "Forayer?"
"One who forays, raids, or pillages." Everyone stared at Alfred. "I have always been a fan of crossword puzzles."
"So he says he's not going to foray, raid, or pillage the royalty of Gotham. The tabloids always call Bruce the Prince of Gotham City. Sounds like the Riddler is going to leave you and Bruce alone."
Selina's lips puckered. "The same tabloids that call me Cinderella. I'm not expert, but I think this crazy thing is an apology."
"One could read an apology in the 'tis a pity line, but he may just be sorry for himself," Alfred said.
"What's wrong with just writing I'm sorry?" Jen asked.
"It has fewer words that rhyme with it?" Blake shook his head. "I better fingerprint it just in case he got careless."
"Fingerprint what?" Bruce quietly shut the door to the garage. Jen jumped at the sound of his voice and he silently crossed the kitchen to see what they were clustered around. Cold rage poured off of him like radiation as a blank mask settled over his features when he saw the green. "Where did that come from?" he demanded.
Jen moved behind Selina. Blake answered him in a normal tone of voice. "It was tied to the gate when I brought Jen home." Hopefully that would make Jen see there was nothing to fear.
Bruce silently read the text. His next words were frosty. "Alfred, what did we do with that proposal to electrify the gate?" He turned from the island and headed toward Alfred's office.
"I thought you decided against that security feature?" Alfred's concerned look followed Bruce.
"That was before!" The shout was almost down to the level of Batman's growl and Jen jumped again. Bruce vanished into Alfred's office.
Selina strode after him with her belly in the lead. "You need to dial it back before Stephanie sees you." Alfred followed them.
The door to the office closed and Jen turned to Blake. "I'll be hiding in my room, trying to study, okay, bye." She practically ran out the door to the back stairs.
Blake sighed before picking up the card and the bagged ribbon. He didn't hold out high hopes for any forensic evidence, but he carried the items down to the Batcave. Sure enough, no fingerprints on the card or the ribbon. He scraped off a sample of the smudges for the mass spectrometer and started running it. The argument was still going on behind the office door when he passed through the kitchen on the way to sample the gate bars.
Alfred was back in the kitchen when he returned. "Supper at your usual time, Master Blake?"
"Yeah, thanks, Alfred."
He found Bruce inside the cave's forensic lab, created under the foundation arches of the mansion. The older man wasn't running any other forensic tests or photographing the card, but leaned over it and focused on the words. "You found something for the mass spec?"
"I think it's just residue from the gate." Blake set the comparative sample on the table next to the machine. "So when is the electrician coming out?"
"Selina vetoed it, vehemently after Alfred told the story how Rachel and I hung on the gate to wait for him to come back from the store. We agreed to have a third party with experience in children's security look over the grounds for any holes we may have missed. No fingerprints?"
"None and the police haven't had any luck tracing his stationary. But the camera works on the Tumbler. I'll be sure to park somewhere conspicuous tonight."
"The riddle must have something to do with what the Riddler's planning, but I don't see how the beggar is the drowned man's sister leads to him discovering Batman's identity."
Blake frowned over a begging sister as a target for any crime. "Nuns who help the homeless, maybe? There are a few orders in Gotham; I'll add them to the patrol route tonight." He sat at the normal-sized computer terminal and accessed a search to get the locations and plot a map.
"I wanted to give her a normal life, not one targeted by madmen. I shouldn't have married her."
Blake whirled back around. Bruce didn't look up from the green card that covered the whole table. He had never seen such bleak heartbreak on anyone's face, much less Bruce's. He liked it better when Bruce was furious instead. "If you want her to kick your ass while pregnant, go repeat that to Selina."
"This Riddler is after her because of me." Bruce's calm mask slid over his features, but his hazel eyes smoldered.
"The Riddler targeted her because of Batman, and luckily he's too busy proving how smart he is to realize you are one and the same. But that poem sounds like he's going to leave the Wayne family alone now, so Selina's safe and won't become a widow because you won't live long enough to divorce her." Blake crossed his arms over his chest.
"You're that certain of the outcome." Bruce's hands went into his pants pockets.
"You didn't see what happened to her when she thought you were dead."
Bruce flinched when that hit home.
But Blake wasn't finished. "I don't think you realize what effect Batman has had on Gotham City because you're so busy not accepting thanks for what you had to do. I still have officers who gave me grief for asking about Batman apologizing for it. The reason Gordon chased the Feds out so fast wasn't because we didn't need them, but how they almost got clobbered talking ugly about Gotham's vigilantes. The entire department has fallen in with Gordon's stance: Batman saved Gotham City, end of story. And that's just GCPD. I haven't told you about how regular citizens treat Nightwing because he was Batman's sidekick."
Bruce didn't say anything, but the smoldering in his eyes banked to a more thoughtful stare.
The computer beeped behind Blake. "Don't throw away Selina and yours happiness because a jealous shit wants to piss all over Batman's hero status." Blake turned back to the computer and studied the route it had come up with.
"I won't do that to Selina." Bruce said quietly before pulling a camera from the wall cabinet. "I'll finish documenting this so you can drop it off to Gordon tonight. You know how Alfred is if you skip a meal."
"Right." Blake added Police Headquarters as the first stop to the route and then headed to the elevator upstairs. He wouldn't have time to warn Selina or Bruce that Jen figured it out before patrol. Frankly, they all needed the time to calm down. He'd give Jen back up tomorrow when he'd make her tell them.