Whoever said that some questions were never meant to be answered should have been shot in the head for gross heresy and treason against the human race. Every question had an answer, and to not pursue it was the deepest of offenses. Still, some puzzles were so perfect in their mystery that one was reluctant to break their beauty by solving them.
For example, the man sitting in the cell next door to him. A perfect little enigma wrapped in a burgundy suit, painted with whiteface and lipstick, garnished with a false carnation, and topped with apple green hair. The expression of idle satisfaction on his face indicated that while he regretted his confinement he did not regret the actions that had led up to it. Any application of logic to the tableau would ruin the perfect bizarreness of the situation.
And yet Edwin had to know.
"Question," he said, raising a finger. "Why are you dressed as a clown?"
The man let out a wild laugh so abrupt it made Edwin jump out of his slouch. "Because society is ridiculous. And who better to point out the joke than a self-employed court jester?” He rolled the final ‘r’, as if savoring the taste of his own genius.
"A very apt point,” said Edwin, once he’d gotten his composure back. He held up a pair of fingers. “Second question. Why were you arrested dressed as a clown?"
The man stood up and leaned on the wall sideways, one leg crossing over the other as his arms folded. The makeup around his lips seemed to make his grin stretch so wide it looked unnatural. "Now that, my friend, is a funny story."
The white-faced man considered the world to be taking itself too seriously. Anyone could start a protest movement or deface property and none of them stopped to think how utterly ridiculous their efforts looked to someone who cared nothing for their cause. For that matter, none thought to match business with pleasure. Social commentary with personal profit, anarchy and capitalism in the same fell swoop. The self-important would wrack their brains trying to figure out the deeper message behind being robbed by a clown but inevitably miss the point that the deeper message was to make fun of them for trying to find a deeper message in the first place.
As to the profit, it was a bank theft. He'd walked in and asked to open an account, only to set off a laughing gas bomb and leave the staff in such helpless paroxysms of giggles as to be rendered unable to stop him. It had been a complete success until he was tracked to his lair at an abandoned joke shop and subdued by the Caped Crusader. Awful, awful man who needed a lesson in humor but was far too good with his punches for the white-faced man to hand him one.
"What about you? Criminal trapeze artistry?" He gestured to Edwin, who was still wearing the green unitard they'd collared him in. In later days, once the costume craze spread, one wouldn't need to ask that question. Costume plus prison bars equaled crime plus Batman, basic Gotham algebra.
Edwin tugged in annoyance at the sleeve of his outfit, which had grown rather uncomfortable in the several hours since they’d arrested him. He'd intended it as a temporary thief’s getup to give him freedom of motion while slipping through narrow tunnels, and it was tight in sensitive places. The police hadn't given him the chance to go and retrieve his normal clothes from their hiding place, which meant he was probably stuck with it until they handed him his prison suit. "No,” he said. “Something a little less ridiculous and a lot more grand. But I like the idea."
Freelance comedy didn't pay very well, especially when the masses were unappreciative of having their own stupidity pointed out to them rather than the foolishness of others. The owner of the last nightclub he'd been kicked out of had accused him of being a stand-up riddler rather than a comedian, while telling Edwin not to bother coming back for another show. But what was so wrong with being a riddler? Riddles were fun. If people didn’t want to be mocked they shouldn’t be so dull.
To supplement his unstable income Edwin set his sights on a precious collection of animal statues, carved in stone and studded with precious gems. Of course it would be a simple matter to pull off the heist and vanish like a thief in the night, but that wouldn’t be enough. He wanted to leave them a clue so he could later say 'I warned you, you were just too stupid to see it.'
An anonymous note was mailed to the commissioner’s office seven days before Edwin put his plan into action. 'Six weeks of winter and one week of wealth', it had cryptically stated. Of course it referred to the method of his theft as well as the animal nature of his target. He'd gotten ahold of the plans for the building in which they were being kept and found evidence of a narrow crawlspace underneath the floor, which with a gentle implementation of construction tools could be converted into a tunnel with trapdoor. Groundhogs were, of course, notorious for being able to predict future weather by their burrowing habits and one of the most valuable statues was a groundhog with sapphire eyes. Edwin planned to imitate the rodent by coming up out of the ground and disappearing back into his hole again. Unfortunately he hadn't reckoned on the presence of this 'Batman' fellow who'd begun plaguing the city with a passion for fighting crime and a brain just slanted enough to figure out his riddles. Edwin had popped his head up to find himself met with a pair of dark tights to his left and green pixie boots to his right.
The clown was laughing by the end of the tale, but it was appreciative laughter rather than mockery. A nod to a job well done, even if he too had gotten arrested for it. Edwin found himself smiling in response.
“So might I put a name to the crime?” Edwin asked. “I imagine we’ll have to wait quite a while until they give us newspaper access.”
The man gave him a flamboyant curtain call bow. "Illario Bianchi. On the stage I go by Joker."
"Edwin Nashton. I suppose you might call me the Riddler."
They shook hands through the bars and settled down to idle banter. There seemed little else to do and neither party had been able to smuggle in a pack of cards. For a man dressed as a clown, Joker provided some surprisingly intelligent conversation on counterculture and art as political expression. He didn't appear to actually have any interest in changing the social order, but then both men found themselves hard-pressed to have an opinion on how society ought to run itself in order to maximize virtue and happiness. Much more fun to thwart it in style. But to tell a joke you had to understand your target, no?
"I'm not sure comedic anarchism is going to catch on as a legitimate political theory."
"You would be surprised what nonsense gets pumped into your average university--oh, our hosts are back."
Bizarre suits seemed to be the order of the day. The man they escorted in next was wearing a tuxedo with purple bow tie and top hat. There was a monocle in his right eye and he looked on the verge of biting his cigarette holder in half.
"What's black and white and...purple all over?" Edwin wondered.
"A penguin on his fourth glass of Chardonnay!" Joker piped up, clapping his gloved hands in glee.
The new man bared his teeth and made an annoyed ‘waugh!’ noise as he was shut in with Joker. A moment later Edwin's cell was open and he was relocated in with the other two, leaving the second cell barren. Quarters were not unbearably close with three men in a two person cell, but seating was scarce. Rather than be trapped between a bony elbow and a pudgy one Joker sat in the corner with his legs folded, arms up on his knees and his body shuddering with giggles.
"And it is Penguin, isn't it? You were at one of my shows a few months ago and that lady on your arm kept calling you Pengy. That's not a nose I'd forget fast."
The man frowned. "It’s Oswald Cobblepot,” he said, glaring haughtily down said nose at the clown. “Though, yes, there are those who call me by such an alias. But you don’t seem the concert hall type and I hardly attend anything less dignified.” His tone identified him as a man of high society, or at least one who thought himself high society. Edwin fancied the man was probably disgusted as much by being shut in with plebians as he was at the idea of being arrested at all.
Joker reached up and pulled a double-tailed quarter out of the brim of Penguin’s hat, laughing again at the scorn on his face. "Magic, not music," he chuckled, making the coin disappear again. Edwin knew a little sleight of hand himself and the practiced speed of Joker’s motions indicated he’d probably been at it since he was old enough to know not to eat the coins he’d conjured.
The statement seemed to stir some memory in Penguin, and he gave a small quack of enlightenment. "Were you that hypnotist at the Eagle’s Perch?” He nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, now I remember. You hypnotized Sam Edelstein into thinking he was an elephant. Very crass entertainment for such a prestigious club." Penguin removed the cigarette holder from his teeth and grinned. "But all the more amusing for it. I did enjoy watching the man humiliate himself."
Their conversation was interrupted by the newest member of the Criminally Colorful Outfits Club. The reasoning behind the cramped quarters in one cell and the emptying of the other was elegantly displayed now--she was a woman. Very much a woman, and wearing a fitted black catsuit with gold chain belt that left almost as little to the imagination as Edwin's unitard. Her fingers were purple with fingerprinting ink and she viewed the three of them with significant disdain as she sat down.
“Welcome to the freak show,” said Edwin, eying her with appreciation. Elegant and sensual, yet still suitable for movement. Whatever crime she’d committed she’d done it with style.
Penguin gestured to her, making a gentleman’s introduction even if she seemed to be more interested in sulking. “You may know Miss Selina Kyle as the Catwoman. She was my associate on the ride from the upper east side."
"An associate of the notorious thief dubbed Catman by the local newspapers, so deeply feared by the excessively rich collector?" inquired Joker with the giggle that seemed to be becoming his trademark. Edwin caught the joke a moment before Catwoman could correct him.
"Or perhaps a victim of the societal assumption that any great act of criminality must be committed by a man, rather than the fairer and completely law-abiding sex which is obviously incapable of conceiving of greed and vanity.” He smirked and trapped his tongue between his grin-bared teeth when Catwoman's small nod proved him right.
"Maybe now the papers will get it right,” she said, studying her fingertips in pantomimed boredom. “Though I’d rather have the money and not be in here at all.”
“Wouldn’t we all, my fiendish feline,” replied Penguin sympathetically. “But I digress. And you gentlemen are?”
Introductions were made all around and Joker and Edwin repeated their stories for the benefit of the newcomers.
“I can’t say I’ve done anything quite that flamboyant,” Penguin said, though he tipped his top hat to the both of them. He stuck his cigarette holder out of the cell to tap out its ashes--let the cleanup be their captors’ problems. The appreciative smirk turned to a sneer as he paced the cell with an odd shuffling walk. “But I nearly had a clean break before they caught me.”
Edwin had guessed right regarding Penguin’s social circles. He was a man who ran with the upper crust, and that meant one could get away with a lot of unreasonable things. As it happened, the reason he was at the club Joker had performed at was that he was casing it for a particular job. He knew that the owner was a veteran of the Great Depression and never took any payment but cash. The cash was, of course, locked up in an impenetrable safe that was inaccessible to even the most skilled safecracker…from the front, anyway. From the side, one could simply dig through the wall of the adjoining pantry and then cut through the more flimsy metal walls with a blowtorch. The man was paranoid, not clever.
Penguin‘s downfall had been the result of poor information. He wasn’t the first to make an attempt on the safe, just the most successful, and Batman had kept it under hidden camera surveillance. When the sound of the digging at midnight had made the audio sensor activate, Batman was summoned to the scene and met Penguin on his way out with the stolen sacks of dough.
“I don’t expect to be imprisoned for very long,” he said, stubbing out the remains of his cigarette on the brick in the back of the cell. “Money and prestige get one out of a lot of petty troubles. But it’s a very irksome setback.”
As to Catwoman, most of her heists were already famous and she had little need of rehashing them. Her prime motivation had also been money rather than attention, but after her first theft of a set of ancient jade cat dolls the pun-obsessed papers had termed the talented burglar a ‘Catman’ and she’d decided to run with the theme.
All her later thefts had been feline-related, such as mummified Egyptian cats, or the heavily guarded designs of catwalk models that would later be sold to rival companies. In the wee hours of the morning, as fog crept in on little cat’s feet she’d overreached and tried to steal a catamaran from the famous movie star Felix Felicious. They’d gotten her right before she made it to open waters. Turned out that a Batboat was faster than a Catboat.
“He has a boat?”
“So I found out the hard way.”
“The man is accursedly well-prepared,” snarled Penguin, who was still pacing the cell. With his odd waddling gait he could take it in six steps rather than three. “Not a penny for our perfect plans and they can’t even give us single jail cells. This is below a man of my stature.” They’d left him his cigarettes but taken his lighter as a potential weapon, so he was left to chew impotently on the holder like a dog with a bone.
Riddler shrugged. “Oh, it’s not so bad. It’s clean, at least. The last time I spent a night in a jail out in New Guernsey there was so much filth on the floor I entered in white shoes and left in grey ones.” And the company was far less colorful.
The other three looked interested, smelling the traces of a good story.
"What was your offense? Fraud?"
Their eagerness to provide examples spoke of like-minded pasts. It was comforting to be among colleagues. Edwin licked his lips and said, with a certain amount of relish, "Lewd conduct."
It did get the surprise he'd desired, three sets of eyebrows going up in tandem. Edwin smirked and elaborated with a light, devil-may-care demeanor. "The ridiculous part is that I hadn't done anything of the sort. I was simply in the casual and completely chaste company of several gentlemen who due to their preference in attire represented themselves as being of a certain persuasion. The authorities decided that three was a better number than two and brought me in along with them. If nothing else they were kind enough to put us in separate cells to prevent anything untoward happening overnight, but it took all the next morning to convince them that they could stick a sodomy charge on me as easily as they could stick a playbill on the moon.”
This got a chuckle all around. "Shame, though," said Joker, pulling one knee up to his chest and letting the other leg splay out across the narrow cell. "To get put in jail and have done nothing interesting to deserve it.” He tsked. “It's just not justice."
"Hardly.” Edwin pressed his hand to his chest and assumed a tone of great nobility and pretension. “And being that I am always a fan of justice even if its wheels turn slowly, I set out to make myself lewdly worthy of the charge the following night."
His confession earned him a few more laughs from Joker, but no one seemed to care about the implications of the statement. Criminals the lot of them, they seemed to hardly mind if he broke the small rules in between breaking the large ones. And a man in lipstick really had no right to judge.
“That reminds me of an incident a few years ago,” said Penguin. He gestured with his cigarette holder as he spoke, a small nostalgic smile crossing his sharp features. “It was early spring and I was down in New Orleans on business. During the Mardi Gras, you know. And I ran into some very lovely young ladies…”
They passed anecdotes around like prison cigarettes. This heist, that con, one anecdote leading into the other. Edwin found himself settling into a smirking camaraderie with the three other crooks, huddled up in their cramped cells that reeked of cleaning solution. Even Catwoman began to drop her haughty attitude and share the details of her heists that hadn’t made it into the papers. When Edwin found an opening for his own yarn he wandered the cell with his agile fingers idly trailing over the bars, only to sit as he forfeited the stage to the next raconteur. Their laughter gave him a pleasure he had never found in the idly snickering crowds he’d performed for at dingy nightclubs.
“Four thieves and libertines trapped in a jail cell,” mused Catwoman, as Joker finished a story about dodging a high bar bill at a penthouse restaurant by parachuting off its fiftieth story balcony. “I’d wager we’re all intelligent men and women or we wouldn’t have gotten this far?”
“Naturally, my dear.”
“Certainly more than the GCPD.”
Catwoman tapped on the bars separating her from the outside world, fingernails clinking against the metal. “Then perhaps we might turn our collective brainpower towards solving our most immediate problem.” She checked for nosy policemen, then removed her headband and briefly flashed the underside at them. There was a set of metal rods hidden in the band that Edwin recognized as lockpicks.
Joker twisted his hand and brought up a small canister, which he proceeded to slip into his boutonniere. “I think I can manage to give our captors a good case of the giggles, should they become problematic,” he said, fingers twitching in impish excitement.
Penguin’s cigarette holder tilted upward as he grinned. "One of my amply arsenaled umbrellas is in the evidence room, if we could get at it I imagine our escape would be most, waugh, expedited.” He turned his attention to their final member. “And what do you bring to the party, Edwin?”
Edwin very slowly stretched out his long limbs, as if waking from a pleasant nap."Please," he said, slipping his fingers into his belt and coming up with a small electronic device of his own invention. The modern world’s answer to the crude art of hotwiring police cars. "It's Riddler."