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.
“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.
Riddler 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?”
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, overdramatic 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.
“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.
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, 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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.