seiberwing: (Ham and Cheese)
[personal profile] seiberwing
Title: The Phoenix in Green
Author: Seiberwing
Fandom: Batman (1960s TV Show)
Characters: Riddler, Bookworm, Louis the Lilac, assorted Special Guest Villains
Rating: PG-13
Prompt: Any fandom, being queer and having a mental illness. It's not cause and effect, it's effect and effect.
Warnings: References to mental illness.
Summary: A new villain in the Gotham archcriminal scene attempts to unpuzzle the Prince of Puzzlers. Good luck with that, old chum.



The second cellblock of the Gotham State Penitentiary was never quiet, even after the lights were turned out and the inmates left to huddle in their shadowy cells. Soft conversations floated back and forth down the hallways in whispers and passed gossip and shady deals for smuggled treasures.

And occasionally exasperated riddles.

“When am I like a piece of wood?”

A weary, interrogative quack came from the cell next door, the sound of a bird who could really care less.

“When I’m board stiff!” Riddler launched himself off his cot and began pacing the boundaries of his cell. His brain was on fire, sizzling like dancing sparks over a campfire, a thrashing live wire cut from its endpoint, and yet he had nothing to do with all his energy. His little cage was only two paces by three. They’d forbidden writing materials in the cells, which meant he couldn’t get his tumbling thoughts out, and if he didn’t find something to do soon he was going to swap pen and paper for floor and nearest convenient source of blood. He needed a good riddle to chew on.
“Bored, bored, bored!”

“So you’re bored, then,” said Penguin, who had pulled his blanket up over his head in the hopes of blocking out the noise.

“Utterly!”

“Riddler, do you have any idea what time it is?”

“Ten twenty-seven PM,” said a drowsy voice from down the corridor. Count on Clock King to be the perfect chronographer, even in his sleep.

Ridler grabbed the bars and shook them. “There’s nothing to do!” he shouted, waking up more of his fellow prisoners.

Penguin rubbed his eyes. “It’s the Gotham State Penitentiary,” he groaned. “They’re not here to provide you with intellectual stimulation. Just…think about something nice. Something quiet.”

“I’m too bored to think.” Riddler knuckles struck each cell bar as he wandered past, with a ping just audible enough to be annoying.

“So think up an escape plan.”

“I’m too bored.” He turned around and started pacing counterclockwise. That was what he always did in prison, anyway. Riddler needed stimulation.

A light came on at the end of the hallway. Something was keeping the guards up late. Riddler assumed it to be something dull and continued wandering his cell until a cackle from Joker snapped up his attention. Joker’s room was closest to the door, giving him a better look at what the guards were doing. “It’s a new arrival!” he called out. “A striking brunette in leather!” That got the block’s attention. Dozens of criminal faces pressed up against the bars of their cells, eager for a peek of something to break up the monotony and lack of female companionship.

The rush of motion was followed by a chorus of annoyed, disappointed groans followed by another cackle from Joker. “What?” he said with mock innocence. “I never said it was a woman.”

Penguin sat down on his bunk, grumbling, while Riddler tried to crane his neck around to get a decent view. Gender aside he was curious now and he’d take any modicum of excitement he could get. If he stood just right he could get a peep of the newest member of the GSP family, now being divested of his accessories in preparation to don the official uniform. The man wasn’t particularly striking on his own. The face and thick glasses put one in mind of an accountant and the disgruntled expression did little for what small scraps of beauty he might have. It was the suit that caught Riddler’s attention.

“It’s not just leather,” he noted. “It’s old book bindings.” Riddler could recognize the places they’d been stitched together. It must have taken an enormous amount of time and effort, and probably some significant payments to a skilled leatherworker. “And there’s a reading lamp attached to his hat. One of us, all right.”

“It doesn’t sound like anyone I know,” said Penguin as he settled himself back down to bed. He prided himself on knowing everyone in the business, not to mention everyone of wealth and influence. It was just what he did—Joker joked, Riddler riddled, Penguin socialized.

“Might be one of the new ones, we’ve been getting a lot of those recently.” The man stepped out of view, but Riddler could see the hat and suit jacket being passed along to the guard. “Interesting. Very interesting.” Riddler’s mind was still sizzling, but now it had something to chew on besides itself. To Penguin’s immense relief, he finally curled back up on his bunk and made a passable effort at sleeping.

***********

Riddler’s fingers ticked impatiently against his breakfast tray, one-two-three-four and then back up the line of digits again. One of the first things one noticed about the Count of Conundrums, riddles aside, was that he seemed to be in constant motion. When he sat his feet twitched and when he stood it was never in one place for very long. When he wasn’t talking he tended to chew on his fingers or a nearby pen, as if keeping himself silent only by giving his mouth something else to do. It was as if he couldn’t bear to be without some form of stimulation for more than a minute and when his brain wasn’t getting what it needed his body took up the slack.

Book-binding leathers. There was something happening there. When the thick-rimmed glasses made their appearance Riddler stalked their owner to a table and slid in beside him.

“Riddle me this,” he said, before the other man could protest. “What gets tanned but should never go to the beach?”

The man blinked at him, thrown for a loop by such an abrupt question. Riddler kept tapping on the tray as he waited for the man to finish thinking. Come on, don’t be dumb.

“Leather, I think?” the man guessed anxiously, watching Riddler carefully in case a wrong answer provoked a violent reaction.

“Excellent.” It had the semblance of a brain. Now they could proceed to the more interesting riddles. Riddler leaned in, giving him the most intense of stares. “What’s your name?”

“Haro-”

Riddler cut him off with a wave. “No, the other name. I don’t care about your birth certificate.” It would tell him nothing useful. “The only interesting name is the name one makes for oneself.”

“Ah. I go by Bookworm.” His voice was timid, but carrying that slight edge that said if pushed he would fight back to the best of his ability. It was undoubtedly his first time through the revolving door of the GSP and he had yet to learn how the prison worked.

Riddler nodded. “Good, good. And what are you in for, theft or mayhem?”

“Theft.” His small smile of pride was another point in Bookworm’s favor. “I was after a 17th century copy of the Hauksbók. It’s a collection of thirteenth century Icelandic sagas--”

“That’s what I was after!” Riddler’s eyes lit up, and his sudden wide grin made Bookworm lean back slightly. “The Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, especially. A seven hundred year old riddle contest is not a prize I could avoid.” It wouldn’t be a prize he could read, either; Old Icelandic literacy was not in his bag of tricks. But that was hardly the point.

Bookworm’s lips moved silently before he spoke again. “Gotham Bugle, March 26th, page two, left side column,” he recited. “Batman Averts Viking Raid. You would be the Riddler, then.”

He’d only made page two? Their journalism standards were slipping. “You memorized my heist?” he asked, nearly preening. “It was rather stunning, I know.”

Bookworm sat up straight, beginning to trade his nervousness for arrogance. In his more natural pose he seemed to have the bearing of a smug professor. “I have an eidetic memory. I memorize everything I read, and I read everything I get my hands on. You may consider me a living archive of plots, schemes, and world events.”

“Ah, then you truly do devour books.”

“Oh, books are everything. Books are my life.” The look of pure rapture on Bookworm’s face was enough to tell Riddler he was in the presence of a deep, dire nerd. Which was all right, those were in good supply around here. Everyone had their thing and books were a healthier obsession than hats.

Riddler sucked a piece of rubbery boiled egg off his fork and smacked his lips. The regular crowd had all grown boring for him. He wasn’t much for literature, aside from what he stole, but any new topic of conversation might be enough to slake his thirst. “As riddles are mine. So I assume that means you’ve read Tolkien?” Riddler prodded the rest of his egg as encouragement.

Bookworm puffed up his chest and gave Riddler an arrogant look through his thick glasses. “When I was seven.”

And then it was books for the rest of the day.

*********

Riddler was at Bookworm’s side for as much time as they were given together and the guards, noting his fixation, quietly arranged for Bookworm to have a cell next to him. The chattering might annoy the other prisoners but a Riddler focused on books was one who wasn’t thinking up escape attempts. When you’d been around the GSP for a few years you started to know the delicate balance between maintaining discipline and keeping the prisoners entertained enough to prevent them from thwarting it.

“Actually it was in the prison library for a few months, but it was gone last I checked,” said Riddler as the last of the prisoners were locked snugly in their cells for the night. He’d bent his body into an L-shape, legs resting vertically against the wall and toes pointed at the ceiling. “Probably one of the guards actually got around to reading it.”

“I’m surprised anything by Joyce made it past the censors to begin with,” said Bookworm, turning to lie sideways on his berth.

“It’s Literature.” Riddler gave a slight flourish with his hand to indicate the capitalization. “And Literature is supposed to bend our minds back towards rehabilitation. The warden no doubt forgot that Literature can have as much filth as your average behind the counter magazine.”

“That’s the joy of books. An entire expansive world delicately cradled within an expanse of white paper and black text, with all its strange and wondrous pieces exposed.” Bookworm twisted uncomfortably on his mattress, looking as if he’d bitten into a particularly soggy piece of purple prose. He held out his hands in the shape of a gently clutched book, mourning his loss. “Somewhere out beyond those horrid grey walls there’s a book waiting for me. I was saving it until the end of the heist, and I’m sure to be driven mad waiting to finish it.”

Riddler crossed his arms behind his head as around them the lights began to shut off with sequential clunks. “See, I can tell you’re new at this game. Never put off anything until the heist’s over.” There was nothing more frustrating than escaping from prison and coming home to moldy leftovers. It rather killed the high.

“It was a mystery novel, too. The most recent one in the series, it was only released a few weeks before I was caged. I made it through the first two chapters and now…all is lost.” A soft, melodramatic sob was heard from the darkness next door, to which Riddler replied with a laugh.

“Oh, all is never lost. You have to look on the bright side of prison.”

“There is no bright side of prison,” sulked Bookworm. “You can’t do anything here. We’re trapped in this massive institutional bell jar.” He punched his pillow in frustration.

A soft, rhythmic giggle came from Riddler’s throat. “Hee. Hee. Hee. Are we now? Hee. Hee. Hee.” He brought his knuckle to his lips and bit down on it, mind already grinding into action.

That sounded very much like a challenge.

*****

The next morning Riddler was remarkably coy. He kept slipping off to whisper to other prisoners and around noon vanished from the population completely, only to return in time for lunch. The book talk kept up, but yesterday’s intensity was dimmed. At lights out he kept laughing at odd intervals. Bookworm seemed confused by the shift but didn’t ask for motives.

“I hope you have a peaceful sleep, Princess,” the prince of puzzlers whispered through the bars as darkness fell. Bookworm gave a curious, sleepy grunt.

“What?”

“Ah. You’ll see. Or you won’t.” Riddler smirked, tongue trapped between his teeth to keep himself silent as he listened to Bookworm tossing and turning on the thin mattress. Such a small plan but it was a plan none the less, it was a blatant flouting of the law complete with a riddle, it was a heist in the midst of oppression.

“Peaceful sleep…princess…” Bookworm was muttering groggily to himself. Riddler curled up into a lanky knot in the hopes of hearing an answer. His breath caught in his throat. He needed this, he needed it as badly as he needed freedom, and if Bookworm dismissed it as nonsense he wasn’t sure what he’d do. There were too many idiots in here as it was. When the other criminal seemed to settle down Riddler’s spirits sank with him, only to leap as Bookworm bolted upright in bed.

“Peas!” he whispered in revelation. There was a shuffle of cloth as Bookworm rolled off his bed and peeled back the mattress. Riddler tensed, holding himself back until he heard that perfect little gasp that indicated Bookworm had found his quarry.

“But…but how?”

Finally!

Riddler shrieked with happiness, firsts pounding against the wall. On the other side of his cell Penguin awoke with a frantic quacking noise and the night guard wearily yelled for Riddler to shut up already.

It wasn’t a proper caper but a contraband book was close enough to a good riddling crime to momentarily sate his urges. Of course the princess had gotten a peas-ful sleep. Such a curious boy would have obviously read the classical fairy tales.

“How?” Bookworm whispered. He sounded on the verge of tears as he clutched the book to his chest.

It was for Riddler to keep his voice down as he gloated. “We run on two currencies around here, favors and reputation. I have both.” He’d had to pull a lot of strings and promise a lot of favors to get it smuggled into the prison, especially on such short notice, but the look on Bookworm’s face made it far too worth it. “Besides that, the rest is pure talent.”

“But how did you know this was the one?”

“I’m just that good.” Bits and pieces, context clues, and the rest was pure genius. Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home, Harry Kemelman.

Bookworm settled down in his bunk and laid the book out on his pillow as if it were a Holy Bible. Riddler watched through the bars as the Bookworm began to read by the glow of the guard tower lights, his delicate fingers slowly traveling down the pages. One could already see his brain slipping away into the bright, free world of fiction.

“Courting?” Penguin quipped with a chuckling quack.

“Don’t be so shallow.” It had been for a far greater prize than that. If he hadn’t gotten his hands on some manner of clever criminality he was going to burn up from the inside. “I have four lobes but no ears,” Riddler whispered to the ceiling as he curled himself up tight. “I can reach forty-five miles but cannot walk an inch. Without me, nothing is possible. With me, anything is conceivable. What am I?”

He was still hungry. A smuggled cheap mystery had only taken the edge off. But he could sleep now.

******

A completely unrelated prison break occurred two days later, courtesy of a charitable Mad Hatter, and any further attempts at socialization were interrupted as every criminal in the penitentiary fled to boltholes in abandoned factories and safe houses in the basements of sympathetic sushi bars.

Bookworm, less prepared for the endless cycle of imprisonment and escape, took the more mundane option of bunking down at his sister’s house and hiding in the broom closet when the police came calling. He re-read any new publications that drifted his way, he formulated this or that plan, but he could not get his mind off the twitchy, giggling man in the adjoining cell. He only knew the Riddler by reputation and their few days of acquaintanceship hadn’t told him much besides his literature preferences, but he struck Bookworm as extremely…vivid, for lack of a better word. As mischievous as Robin Goodfellow but as fey and alien as Prospero’s beautiful Arial. If he had been a character in a book he would have had to be the protagonist, the narrative itself could not stand him playing second fiddle. It made Bookworm desperately curious about who he was beyond the flamboyant heists.

Bookworm had always loved books because books never lied. They sat there and told you what you needed to know, and if they didn’t you analyzed them until they gave you what you wanted. People, now, those were complicated and deceptive, they never showed you their true face. Unreliable narrators, the lot, and they never answered to their motives.

Why the book? Why out of nowhere, a near-impossible accomplishment in a secured prison where a renowned criminal like Riddler would be the center of the institution’s attention? And why for Bookworm, when they’d only known each other a mere day? In Gotham the Riddler went by ‘Prince of Puzzlers’, and apparently it suited him to be a puzzle himself. The need for answers nagged at Bookworm like Edmond Dantes’ need for vengeance, like Ahab’s obsession with his whale, like Romeo’s lust for Juliet...like a Bookworm denied the third book in a trilogy.

Of course finding him would be hard in this climate. Everyone was hiding, bar the few too stupid to know when to keep their heads down when the Batman’s attention was split a hundred different directions. Riddler was an old hand at the revolving door of the Gotham prison system and finding him when he didn’t want to be found would be troublesome. Riddle me this, Bookworm: where would an excitable intellectual go to socialize, should he be limited by a criminal status?

To other criminals, of course.

********

Gotham was nothing if not a prize jewel of capitalism. Where demand lurked, supply was there to fill its needs and kiss its troubles away. Villain bars were inevitable, those sleazy underground institutions that asked no questions about your allegiances, but Gotham had a rising number of crooks who considered themselves to be above crude drinking binges and intoxicated flirting.

In came Censored Letters, Gotham’s only villain cafe. It was owned by a former member of the Chicago Outfit who felt sympathetic to the needs of crooks who just wanted to have a little quiet socializing without police interference. It was in the basement of an abandoned post office, with bits of dim light shining through the tiny windows at street level. The shelves along the bare brick walls were filled with books about famous historical criminals and theft techniques, and for ten cents the barista would put a little something extra in your drink.

“Sure, he comes in here. One of my best customers, he’ll go through three cups an hour. I’m just saying he’s not been in recently.” And for five dollars he’d be an absolutely lousy informant.

“Then do you have any idea where he might be?”

“Nope.”

Bookworm fumed almost as hot as the milk the barista was steaming. “You can’t give me anything? I’ve been searching every criminal establishment in Gotham for him.”

“Nope…wait.” The barista peered over the bar, then pointed to the back of the room. “That dame there, the one in red. That’s Danielle Tsaifere. I’ve seen them come in together before, I think she works for him. No guarantees, but you might pick up a lead there.”

Danielle had perfectly curled up blonde hair and an expression of mild irritation. She wore a wool poncho to ward off the basement chill and had her thin legs crossed under a book featuring a well-muscled man clutching a half-dressed beautiful woman. Her finger was over the title or else Bookworm would have known whether he’d read that one.

He stood politely beside her, arms folded behind his back. “Miss Tsaifere?”

Danielle looked up warily. “Might be. Why?”

Bookworm smiled and tried to display himself as professional as possible. “I’m looking for the Riddler. I’ve heard you have…some ties to him.”

Danielle looked to the barista, as if already plotting her revenge for being exposed. She shut the book around her finger. “I’m his moll, if that’s what you mean,” she said, lip curled up in a sour scowl.

“You mean you work for him or that you’re his romantic partner?”

Danielle chuckled. “Oh, girls Riddler can manage, but girlfriends aren’t happening anytime soon. He loves himself too much.”

“Then he’s unattached?” The distant genius, of course, too busy with dizzying grandeur to concern himself with the baser pleasures or the trivialities of the heart. Yes, that seemed an appropriate archetype.

“Yep.” She looked him over, book-binding hat to polished oxfords. “Why, you looking to fill the position? He’s fond of the brainy ones.”

Bookworm twitched. That was low, the woman was obviously trying to get rid of him. “I’m hoping to arrange a meeting with him,” he said hurriedly. “Professionally.”

Danielle opened the book again, as if the conversation was already over. “He’s not feeling up to company,” she replied, sounding bored.

“I think he’d make an exception for me, we’re colleagues.” Admittedly Riddler might not see it that way after only a few days of contact, but henchpersons had to be handled with a firm hand. They had no sense of subtlety.

“Doubtin’ it. He’s not seeing anyone.”

“When will he be?”

“Dunno.” Danielle shrugged. “Try back in a month.”

Blocked at every turn. “If he doesn’t want to see me, he doesn’t have to resort to excuses.” Bookworm tried to keep himself under control but the irritation was beginning to become unbearable.

“He probably doesn’t even know you’re looking for him. He just doesn’t feel like company.”

Bookworm clenched his fists. “How does someone have an entire month’s worth of a bad mood?” he said, speaking through gritted teeth. So close, only to be brushed off by a mere peon!

A slender, manicured finger turned another page of her book. “Ain’t that a riddle.”

Bookworm bit his lip to restrain a shriek of frustration. Temper, temper, that was what got him in trouble in the first place. He took a deep breath and composed himself, hand to his chest.

“Then would you at least take him a token of my esteem, as one master criminal to another?”

“Sure. Why not.” Danielle didn’t flinch as a thick book three times the size of her dime store romance was dropped into her lap. She picked it up and checked the back, then dropped it into her skirt again. “Looks like it’d make a nice doorstop.”

“It’s fine literature,” Bookworm hissed. “While it may be too intellectual for you a man of his caliber could read it easily.” He didn’t account her so much as a farewell, simply turned on his heel and stomped out of the coffee shop. If he couldn’t get an audience with the man himself, he’d do the next best thing. The thing that the Bookworm excelled at above all criminals in Gotham.

Research.

*******

A highly visible crime would be stupid but quietly slipping into the Gotham police archives while his minions delivered a flashy distraction was a far less risky task. It took him more time to find Riddler’s file than it did to read it, and that he did in less than a minute. He snapped the file shut the moment he’d mindlessly consumed the contents and slipped back out the door before the police could realize there’d been a break-in to begin with. He didn’t let himself analyze the contents until he was safely in the back of the Bookmobile, watching his minions congratulate each other on a distraction well done.

The Riddler did not present himself as boring, that was certain. The man had a very creative criminal record and a habit of pulling faces at his mugshots. He was noted as being highly intelligent, no surprise there, and had apparently gotten several pieces of criminal legislation passed just by making the courts aware that such crimes were physically possible to begin with.

Two pages from the back of the file was a psychiatric evaluation from Dr. Wertham, the GSP psychologist. There were numerical results from this and that scale, a bit of mumbling about Riddler’s methods and symptoms, but what interested Bookworm most were the little phrases neatly scratched out in clinical black ink at the bottom. A Hemingway-esque summation of a man on a single line of paperwork.

Compulsive need for riddles. Manic-depressive illness. Sexual deviancy.

One rainy Sunday morning back in September Bookworm had made himself a pot of oolong and read the newly released second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Now he leaned against the wall of the shuddering van and called back up the relevant paragraphs.


[…]Manic-depressive illnesses…
These disorders are marked by severe mood swings and a tendency to remission and recurrence. Patients may be given this diagnosis in the absence of a previous history of affective psychosis if there is no obvious precipitating event. This disorder is divided into three major subtypes: manic type, depressed type, and circular type.
296.1 Manic-depressive illness, manic type…
This disorder consists exclusively of manic episodes. These episodes are characterized by excessive elation, irritability, talkativeness, flight of ideas, and accelerated speech and motor activity. […]
296.2 Manic-depressive illness, depressed type…
This disorder consists exclusively of depressive episodes. These episodes are characterized by severely depressed mood and by mental and motor retardation progressing occasionally to stupor. […]
296.3 Manic-depressive illness, circular type…
This disorder is distinguished by at least one attack of both a depressive episode and a manic episode.


That did explain a few things. The Riddler wasn’t just bizarre, he was completely out of his mind. 296.1 neatly explained his behavior in prison, 296.2 his current disinterest in socialization. Yes, that was a neat card-cataloguing Bookworm could handle. As to the third on the sheet…

302 Sexual deviations

This category is for individuals whose sexual interests are directed primarily toward objects other than people of the opposite sex, toward sexual acts not usually associated with coitus, or toward coitus performed under bizarre circumstances as in necrophilia, pedophilia, sexual sadism, and fetishism.
302.0 Homosexuality


Wertham was unnervingly unspecific on the nature of the deviation. Of course it was entirely possible that it was a misunderstanding, psychiatrists could easily take some joking remark and assume the presence of perversity, but…

Well. Perhaps best to think no further on it and refrain from any more gifts. Just in case Riddler got the wrong idea. Besides, there were heists to plan, books to read.

Dates to find.

******

The latest round of black wasn’t as severe as most, but Riddler didn’t leave his hideout until a few weeks before the Rogue’s Ball. Intercriminal socialization was common but the ball was the one attempt they made to have it formalized. Old grudges were left at the door, future crimes were discussed, and on one noteworthy and particularly intoxicated year Riddler had woken up on Commissioner Gordon’s couch with police issue handcuffs on one arm and Catwoman on the other.

It had been intensely amusing until Batgirl showed up, and if he hadn’t been a man of guile and cunning they’d probably never have found his hat.

Of course, one had to show up with a proper partner. Waking up late left Riddler in the singularly humiliating position of having no lady to escort. All the usual suspects had been snapped up, and even his own henchgirl had decided to pursue other options. But Riddler had always considered himself a master of thinking outside the box.

He sauntered into the Caliber Calla Lily greenhouse, all question marks and smiles. It was a gorgeous establishment, bursting with color and imbued with the soothing scent of wet soil and flowers. Obvious love and wealth had been put into its creation. In the center of the green was a broad-shouldered mobster on his knees in the mulch, the sleeves of his shirt rolled back to his elbows and his hands caked with dirt. The only bright spot in his ochre-and-grey attire was a lavender fedora with a sprig of lilac tucked into the brim.

“Afternoon, Louis.” Riddler unconsciously tried to hook his thumbs into his pockets, but stopped when the gun behind him pressed harder against his spine. Mobsters could be so tetchy.

“We caught this joker trying to sneak in the back door,” said the thug to his left. He was dressed in the more traditional black pinstripes and his fingers were hard on Riddler’s shoulder.

Riddler hissed through clenched teeth. “It’s Riddler, not Joker, we don’t even have the same color scheme, please stop living under that rock you’ve been under and watch the news sometime.” He attempted to shrug the thug off, wincing when the man’s fingers just dug in harder.

Louis finished tamping down the soil around a plume of ruffled marigolds. He pulled the cigar from his mouth and gave the group a disdainful scowl.

“You want to explain yourself, Riddler?”

Riddler didn’t often cross paths with Louis the Lilac. Louis tended to treat crime as more of a business than a game and his designs on the world flower and perfume markets were too specialized for a man who based his riddling crimes around whatever shiny object had caught his attention that week. One couldn’t accuse Louis of being one of the plebian criminals, of course. The man-eating lilac alone granted him admission into the archcriminal class. Style was what was important, style and a stylish defiance of societal concepts of law and order.

(In related news, Louis was also quite open about both his personal preference of guys to dolls and his deep disinterest in any else’s opinions on the subject. If one had a problem with pansies, one shouldn’t complain to a florist who carried a Colt 45.)

Riddler stuck his nose in the air, feigning haughtiness. “I wasn’t sneaking. I simply was attempting some measure of discretion, until these goons decided they wanted to make a production of it. Your lilies are looking lovely, by the way.”

“As I recall you and discretion ain’t been on speaking terms for a while.” Louis replaced the cigar and stood up, brushing the dirt from his hands. “If you’re sniffing around for help you’re on your own. I don’t pair with a guy who actively tells the Bat brigade where he’s gonna hit next.” He waved the two mooks away, less out of respect for Riddler’s comfort and more to indicate how little of a threat he thought Riddler was.

Riddler pressed his hands together and approached the mobster. “You haven’t heard what I was interested in pairing with you at,” he said, trying to lead Louis on by curiosity.

“No. I haven’t.” Apparently cattails were less curious than cats.

Riddler took a few winding, delicate steps through the flowerbeds, careful not to trample so much as a petal of Louis’ delicate work. Best to open with the point and work backward from there. “Who are you taking to the Rogue’s Ball?”

“Eh?” Louis raised an eyebrow. “Some dame. Haven’t picked yet. Why do you care?”

“The premiere archcriminal social event of the year and you’re only taking ‘some dame’?” Riddler tsked. He certainly wouldn’t take a civilian. Never, not even under the most dire of threats, would he settle for ordinary.

“Do you think it actually matters to me?” Louis spit in the dirt, careful not to hit any of his plants. “I ain’t gonna be marrying her.”

Riddler threaded himself over a rose trellis, verdant limbs dangling like hanging ivy among the flowers. “It just so happens that I myself am in need of an escort. Given the current situation there seems to be no reason we couldn’t engage in a mutually beneficial arrangement.” When Louis gave him a blank look, Riddler emphasized the suggestion by gesturing between the two of them. He offered an expectant giggle when the man finally got the idea.

“You trying to pull some gag on me?” Louis’ expression indicated that if Riddler was, he could look forward to a prosperous future as fertilizer.

“I believe we’ve already established I’m not the Joker. The only rule of the Ball is that we leave our grudges at the door…there’s certainly no legislation surrounding who you’re announced with.” Marsha’s Aunt Hilda never brought anyone at all, though she mostly came for the liquor. “Tradition, perhaps, but what do we care for tradition? Are we not the groundbreakers and the trendsetters, the benders of laws and the causes for new ones?”

Louis looked uncertain. Understandable to be wary, but this was Gotham. Riddler carefully disentangled himself from the roses and strolled over, hands in his pockets.

“What do you say, Louis? Wouldn’t lilac and green be most complimentary?”

*******

Bookworm was having as much trouble as Riddler, despite not being subjected to a bout of depression until after last call on fiendish females. Unfortunately all the books in the world didn’t make talking to women any easier. Bookworm finally had to resort to Sarah “Legs” Parker, the lone daughter of a crime family whose traditionally-minded matriarch had forbidden her from going to the gathering unless she had a proper man as a date. It would have been nice if Legs was doing more than using him as an in, but in the absence of affection a trade of favors was acceptable.

Mr. Freeze, escorting Miss Glacia Glaze.

“Gosh…Ma’s never let me go to any big parties before,” Legs whispered as they waited on the crimson carpet just outside the doorway. “I had no idea there were so many crooks in Gotham.” She had picked out a rather showy, rhinestone-studded cocktail dress and was looking everywhere but at her date. Bookworm had assumed it was convention to treat your accompanying henchgirl like an attractive human accessory. Having the same treatment applied to him was a little unpleasant.

“Quiet, my dear. Let the master of ceremonies announce us.” Bookworm patted the hand on his arm and put on an arrogant grin as they stepped up to the doorway.

The Bookworm, escorting Legs Parker.

Legs’ eyes went wide as they stepped into the main ballroom. The color scheme was eclectic to put it politely and near-blindingly gaudy to put it realistically. The walls were hung with bright, velvet banners and waiters were orbiting the room with plates of champagne flutes and miniature quiches. On the center stage at the other end of the room, an extremely nervous looking band was playing ‘Mack the Knife’.

“Ooh! Check out that dessert table!” And Legs was gone. Ah, well. At least the formalities had been filled. Bookworm stood around aimlessly, gnawing on a canapé and covertly searching for a neon green suit amidst the other colorful characters. He didn’t seem to be in attendance. Bookworm considered the 296.2 and felt mixed concern and relief at the idea that the other archcriminal might be too overwhelmed by insanity to come.

The Joker, escorting the Catwoman.

Devoid of anything better to do, Bookworm tagged along in the wake of the new arrivals. Catwoman strode with purpose and swaying hips, while Joker moved with little jerking steps like an excited bird. Somehow they still managed to keep pace with each other. Bookworm trailed them to Penguin and loitered nearby when the three set to chatting like childhood friends. The MC continued to rattle off any name but the one Bookworm was interested in hearing.

False-Face, escorting Miss Matches Malone.

The bird, the cat, the clown and the Riddler were the big names in Gotham. The first and best. The United World Council dehydration scheme was communally regarded as impossible to beat for ambition. If anyone knew what the prince of puzzlers would be up to it would be this trio and, despite his concerns, Bookworm couldn’t whittle down his curiosity.

“I don’t suppose any of you have seen the Riddler lately?” he piped up, breaking into the first available lull in the conversation. He tried to play it off as casual, even when the three stared at him. “Just curious.”

Egghead, escorting Queen Olga of the Bossarovian Cossacks.

Catwoman shrugged. “He did a little safe-cracking job for me a few weeks back, but all I got out of him was a riddle. Something about a plant that always tells the truth.”

“Can never get a straight answer out of that man,” Penguin grumbled. “I’d guess that new girl Poison Ivy, but she showed up ten minutes ago with some beanpole psychology professor from Gotham State.”

Uh…

The crowd looked up, the better to see what had flummoxed the MC. Catwoman gaped. “What is it you were saying about a straight answer?”

One second, folks.

“Waugh?” Penguin, being shorter, couldn’t see over the crowd of mumblers. He bounced on the balls of his feet and tried to get a look at the podium near the door “What’s going on?”

Riddler was standing in the entryway, grinning devilishly. He was arm in arm with a scowling man in a soft mauve suit, who was having a quiet argument with the MC over terminology.

“What kind of plant always tells the truth?” Catwoman pressed her palm to the brow of her mask, having gotten the riddle only too late. “A lie-lack.”

The MC finally managed an equitable introduction.

Louis the Lilac accompanied by the Riddler.

Bookworm watched as the suited pair descended the stairs, and then carefully slipped into the crowd as anxiety took over. He’d speak to Riddler. Get things cleared up. Just not now.

*******

Riddler, after the usual pleasantries with old friends, wandered to the bar and got stuck there.

So what’s this with you and the lavender mob?” asked False-Face. He was drinking his cocktail through a straw, the better to avoid disturbing the cartoonish plastic mask he wore when openly presenting himself as the criminal master of disguise. Of course no one knew what his real face looked like, given his constant flitting from one disguise to the other, but he needed some way of avoiding being mistaken for the wait staff.

“He was single, I was single, why not? D. Tsaifere had been my first option, but you made that an impossibility by showing up in slacks.” Riddler raised his glass to the other crook, indicating he considered it a blessing. This had been far more fun. The look on Pengy’s face alone…

False-Face toasted back, but not before taking a discreet peek over his shoulder to ensure no one was listening too closely. He liked to keep his roster of identities close to his (and/or her) chest. “If I’m gonna hit up the Rogue’s Ball I’m not doing it as a henchgirl. But how’d you get him to go along with it?”

Riddler pressed his hand to his chest and turned up his nose. “Who with the slightest passing interest in the criminal male gender would reject a chance to have the Prince of Puzzles on their arm?”

“Uh huh. And how’d you get him to go along with it?”

Riddler’s grin dropped for a brief moment. “I promised him a three day notice on my next heist, he mumbled. “So he knows when the heat’ll be off.” He quickly forced a change of subject. “What about you, who’s this Matches Malone girl I hear you’re with?”

“Decent girl, decent conversationalist,” said False-Face. “She’s not a bad hand with the disguise makeup either, that ain’t her real face but you could barely tell.”

“Coming from you that’s high praise.”

“She wants a little privacy when she’s around the criminals, I ain’t gonna begrudge it to her.” He leaned in a little closer and lowered his voice. “I did catch her talking on the phone, though. Between you and me, I’m pretty sure her dad’s a cop.”

“Living dangerously, are we?” A delicate young bird trapped by a legal-minded father, yearning for escape into the welcome arms of the underworld, leading a double life. That sounded about False-Face’s speed.

“Aren’t we all.” False-Face took a long slurp and pointed over Riddler’s shoulder, indicating a woman with dark hair and large glasses on the other side of the room. She looked about college age, maybe a little older, and Riddler couldn’t sink the feeling that he’d seen her somewhere before. Perhaps he’d kidnapped her in a previous heist. He met a lot of women that way.

“Talking with my stalker, no less,” he said, referring to the bookish man attempting to hold a conversation with her. “Spoke to no less than three of you trying to hunt me down, one has to be impressed with his dedication.”

“Mhm. He keeps looking over at you and then pretending he didn’t. I think he might have a thing for you.” To make False-Face’s point, Bookworm began to turn his head towards Riddler and then quickly glanced away again as soon as he noticed the other criminal watching him.

Now this could prove interesting indeed. Riddler turned away to hide his smile. “He’s smart. I wouldn’t completely object. But do play natural.” He continued talking to False-Face as if nothing had changed. When he moved on to have his way with the hors d'oeuvres Bookworm followed at a distance, tracking him like a hunter following a deadly lion. It was quite amusing to watch.

Riddler toyed with Bookworm as he flitted from one collection of conversing crooks to another. He finally slipped into the back alley with a pack of Lucky Strikes in one hand, a champagne flute in the other, and the stem of a fistful of grapes twisted around his fingers.

Am flora but not fauna, am foliage but not a tree. What am I?

“Good evening, Riddler.”

Am bush.

Right where he should be. “Evening.” Riddler lit a cigarette from a lighter shaped like a black chess king. He offered one to Bookworm and received a polite declination. “Riddle me this.” He reached over and shut the door to the ballroom, isolating them in the dark alley. “Why are you following me around like a lost puppy?”

Bookworm straightened his jacket and put on a smile more unnatural than the Joker’s painted grin. “I wanted to see if you get the book I sent you. By way of--”

“Danielle, yes, I got it. Too much family politics, not enough riddles, but solid enough.” Bit dull. After his vibrant criminal career a thick tome on a mafia family seemed mundane. It might make a nice movie, though.

“It was just in return for what you did for me at the penitentiary. I hate to leave favors unreturned.”

Riddler gave him a look of disdain. “I didn’t do it for you.”

“Oh.” Bookworm struggled for a topic of conversation while Riddler idly kicked a few fallen wads of paper around. “It’s good to see you feeling better?”

“Better? Why, was I sick?” Riddler raised his hand and delicately plucked a grape with his teeth. Watching Bookworm squirm was imminently amusing, but the need to find out why was far more pressing. If it had been just over the book Bookworm would have held on to it until they met again.

“Ah, well.” Bookworm fidgeted. “Your Danielle intimated you were…in the downward slope.”

“I very much doubt that. If there’s anything I trust my henches for, it’s discretion. Why do you call it a ‘slope’?”

“No reason.” A man as precise as the Bookworm would not choose such unusual wording for no reason at all. Riddler was growing suspicious. “So, um, any crimes lately?”

“Nothing fantastic. I’ve not been inspired lately and a man of my reputation needs to have something spectacular in the works to top his earlier performances.” It had been an intensely frustrated feeling, to be so unriddled. He’d spent several weeks in August barely leaving his room.

Bookworm seemed to see an area to earn points in and surged forward with the compliments. “Oh, yes. I even tracked down your criminal record for some inspiration for myself. The silent movie plot alone—” He choked on his next words as Riddler grabbed him by the tie and twisted.

“You went through my criminal record?” he shrieked in Bookworm’s face. “My personal criminal record? Downward slope, fah! You’ve been snooping!”

It wasn’t just the list of his accomplishments they’d put in there. That was something Riddler could be proud of, he’d pin it to every door in Gotham. It was the unnecessary garbage they insisted on tacking on to the Riddleer’s name. His pre-criminal history. The name his father had given him and that he’d thrown away in favor of his princely title. And the blasted, gnawing, venom-soaked words of that horrible prison psychologist.

“I. Well.” The walking library seemed to be at a loss for words and Riddler’s cigarette was uncomfortably close to his face. “But of course I never believed it!” he yelped.

Riddler’s fingers went slack and he offered Bookworm a sweet, fanged smile. “Why not?” He began to pace the narrow alley, waving the cigarette about and flicking ashes onto the neighboring boxes. “When the man in the clown costume says I’m mad, then one must give a certain measure of thought to the idea. Genius and insanity go hand in hand, I am in most scintillating company. But Wertham takes my most glorious of accomplishments, my tantalizing riddles and puzzling crimes, and he boils my entire life down to a diagnosis!” His champagne flute shattered against the wall as his voice rose to a fever pitch. “What do they call a bird that burns and dies and rises again, they call it a phoenix! But a man, they call a cripple!”

He stopped to breathe. Bookworm was huddled against the trash cans, eyes wide. Riddler took a long, final draw from the cigarette and blew out a torrent of satisfied smoke. “But yes, it’s true,” he said lightly, as if the previous temper tantrum had never happened. “Unrepentantly mad.”

He preferred that word, it sounded more dramatic than ‘mentally ill’. Or eccentric, which was just insanity with money attached. Ill people went to hospitals, madmen conquered countries.

Bookworm nodded in timid understanding. “So that’s why you brought Louis the Lilac to the party?”

“Hm? What’s Louis got to do with it?”

“That was the other thing on the evaluation. The...” Bookworm couldn’t even bring himself to say the words and in a rush spit out “Three-zero-two point zero.”

Riddler rolled his eyes and flicked away the cigarette stub. “Words, Bookworm. Letters. Those things you find below the top row on the typewriter.”

Bookworm’s voice was lowered to nearly inaudible. “The sexual deviancy.”

Riddler fell over laughing. His body trembled with mirth so hard he couldn’t stand up again, and he was forced to curl himself up against the bare wall in an attempt to maintain an upright position. It really was hilarious, how so many people tried to pick him apart and put him into the neat little categories that fit so well on their paperwork.

“That…you think I’m...they really wrote…heeheehee…” He was clutching at his abdomen, desperately straining for breath. He’d only brought it up to Wertham to scandalize the man. Playing with the good doctor’s head was one of the few pleasures prison had provided. Wertham was everything Riddler had turned to crime to get away from. He was a stodgy protector of the status quo, an enforcer of norms. Having attention lavished on his glorious personage was always nice but not when it was by someone who was determined to mentally vivisect him.

Riddler kept planning to find some creative way of murdering the man but never got around to it.

He gasped for words between giggles. “Wertham’s a backwards hack who has no business practicing medicine. He, haha, pathologizes everything—my criminal behavior, my adoration of puzzles, my choice in attire, and now my innate distaste for conventional sexual morality.” The laugh this time was slightly more vicious. They’d really gone and put that in his record.

“But you can’t actually be with…”

The laughter cut off sharp as an execution. “Of course not. He’s far too single-minded and unintellectual. It would never work. Penguin showed up with Marsha, Queen of Diamonds and I hardly fancy they’re an item despite their mutual romantic attraction to people with lots of money.” He staggered to his feet again, leaning on a garbage can for moral support.

“So you’re not a…you’re not?” Bookworm seemed to be gaining a habit of not finishing his sentences. How ungrammatical.

Riddler cocked his head to the side, shifting gears back to that earnest, sharp whisper. “Oh, to that I am quite guilty. I make it a point of honor never to be arrested for anything I didn’t commit. But not because of Louis. It’s just that I don’t particularly care.” He pointed to his temple. “What I prefer are brains. Intelligence, novelty, someone who can keep my interest. Everything else is just…” Riddler made a disdainful gesture at everything from the shoulders down. “Biology roulette. Pointless. It’s no difference to me.”

He finished off the grapes while Bookworm puzzled that one over. “But you do know there’s a difference?” he said timidly, the student wary of the teacher’s sharp tongue. Perhaps he was finally realizing that confronting an archcriminal with accusations of insanity was a very bad idea if you turned out to be right.

Riddler folded his arms and gave him a mild glare. “I have had an anatomy class or two in my time, yes. What’s your point?”

“The second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistics Man—”

“There’s a difference between mental illness and having tastes which exceed those prescribed by the boring masses but you don’t see Dr. Wertham caring much about that either,” Riddler retorted. This was not what he wanted to be doing tonight. It was like talking to that accursed prison shrink all over again, rattling off citations like they meant anything. Personally Riddler didn’t care if everyone thought he was insane—he was, no getting around it—but he couldn’t abide inaccuracy.

“But neither of them are normal,” Bookworm persisted.

“Have you seen where you are? Have you seen what you’re wearing? This is Gotham City! We do not do normal!” He was shrieking now, teeth bared. It took what little shreds of self-control he had not to put his hands around Bookworm’s throat and give him a brief bout of oxygen deprivation for daring to express such idiocy to his face. Instead he paced and ranted and sent the alley rats dashing for their nests.

“Different, normal. Stupid. Little. Words. You’re such a lover of books, read some of Oscar Wilde, or Sappho! Try Catullus, when he’s translated properly he’d scandalize your ears off!” Riddler gestured towards the door with the grape stem. “Or look to our merry band of scoundrels. Do you think Louis is insane too? A saner archcriminal I’ve never met in my life, it’s almost boring how sane he is. What about Black Widow? She has quite a few tales to spread around and I’ve never known her to be prudish about telling them. ” He stepped around the scattered trash cans, light on his feet, one finger tapping his lips as if in thought. “And then there’s False-Face, our crook of a thousand names.”

“What about him?” Bookworm looked close to fainting with confusion. A man who was familiar with the classics had no business being so muddled about this issue. Riddler pressed on, less interested in educating Bookworm than shoving his stupidity in his face as he did to so many other citizens of Gotham City.

“Is it him? False-Face could become a woman as easily as he could a man, and on many occasions he does. Perhaps we’re looking at a disguise right now, nobody knows what’s under that mask and suit.” Riddler held out two hands at equal height. “Is it John Doe or Jane Doe? Him, her, both, neither, it’s only your small mind that makes you assume your eyes aren’t deceiving you.”

Riddler knew the answer, of course, the answer was that False-Face was complicated beyond what Bookworm would be able to inch through. Riddles were no fun when everyone knew the answer, however, and less fun when they’d promised to mutilate you for spreading the secret around. The point was that the world was not a pretty, pigeonholed little place with a large box marked ‘insanity’ where one dumped all the bits that didn’t fit anywhere else.

“There’s no such thing as a neither,” Bookworm sputtered, cheeks burning at the humiliation of having been reduced to bad grammar.

“For such a well-read man you live in a very small world, Inchworm. Which brings up some very interesting questions…” Riddler was pacing again, circling him like a shark. “The human mind is the greatest riddle of them all. What is going on inside those little black boxes we call skulls?” Riddler gave Bookworm a firm poke in the forehead as he orbited by. “Riddle me this. Why ply me with gifts and stalk me around my favorite haunts, even when you feel I’m some sort of depraved madman? And why persist in trying to pin down my preferences into something a little man like you can understand, when I’m obviously not interested in what you or anyone else has to tell me? You could have walked away whenever you pleased.”

Bookworm’s back hit the wall and his hand groped for the doorknob. “I did research. There’s nothing bizarre about that. I didn’t know you were insane until I stole your record.” He was quite noticeably not answering any of Riddler’s questions.

“But you had to go track down my file and deliberately read it. The same for the DSM. I imagine if, for instance, I asked you some obscure question about prizefighting in Southeast Asia or the nerve cells of sea slugs you’d be completely incapable of answering.” He folded his hands together and pointed both forefingers at Bookworm, dropping into a whisper. “You can’t even say the word, can you? And you’re so insistent on convincing me, I think our lady doth protest too much.” He ran his tongue over his lips as he pronounced, with relish, “Three-zero-two point zero. Poor little Inchworm.”

It was the fear in Bookworm’s eyes that gave him away, the little twitch that came with just the insinuation. Whether or not he was worthy of the category he’d had great cause to think about it, and perhaps a few accusations in his time. Riddler let out a shriek of accusing laughter that half the city must have heard, and that hit Bookworm harder than any punch he could have thrown.

“I have four lobes but no ears. I can reach forty-five miles but cannot walk an inch. Without me, nothing is possible. With me, anything is conceivable. What am I?”

Bookworm cowered. “I…I don’t know…” he mumbled, his gaze on his wringing hands. What had he expected, support? Did Riddler not just say he cared nothing for small minds?

“It’s the brain, you narrow-gazed bibliophilic shut-in. Four lobes, connected to forty-five miles of nerves, no one function without it, and the imagination can conceive of anything. And mine may be twisted, but at least I’ve got one. It’s not enough to memorize, Bookworm, you’ve got to think!” On the final, loudest word he rapped Bookworm between the eyes with two fingers. Bookworm fell back against the wall, hand pressed to his face as Riddler stepped away.

“I’m not interested in boring people,” the prince of puzzlers snarled, turning for the door. “When you feel like growing a few neurons, perhaps then we can hold a decent conversation.”

The crowd had grown in his absence. It was a flowing, chatting carnival of villainous oddities that provided a delight to the eyes. Seeing it warmed Riddler’s black heart. What did he have to prove to this buffoon, nothing. Bookworm’s dated ideas had no place here. He was the Riddler, the most brilliant criminal in Gotham, the most fiendish of Batman’s foes, and he would not be pinned to corkboard for the inspection and pleasure of the uncreative.

Riddler shoved his way through the crowd, grabbing a magenta-sleeved wrist as he passed and pulling his date to the dance floor.

“You!” He snapped his fingers and pointed to the terrified jazz band. “Pick up the pace. Something I can dance to.” Obligingly the band rushed to a faster tempo so fast it nearly tripped over its own sheet music. Riddler turned to his partner, only to notice that he’d grabbed the Clown Prince of Crime by mistake. A pale face stared at a white face before both men burst out into fits of manic giggles.

“Come on, Pagliacci.” Riddler straightened his back and held up his hand. If anyone appreciated a good joke at the universe’s expense, it was the Joker. “What kind of dancing happens on a playground?”

As he spun across the dance floor, feet keeping time with Joker’s patent leather loafers, Riddler saw Bookworm standing awkwardly at the open door. His brown suit made him fade into the darkness of the alleyway behind him and the shadow of his hat hid the expression on his face. Riddler barely gave him a look before whirling back around to swap Joker for the Siren.

Perhaps the wallflower might one day bloom into a lilac. Perhaps not, and who particularly cared? The Bookworm could read all the little lies and fantasies he liked. Riddler wrote his own story.
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