“Wayne residence,” the crisp, British voice said with perfect elocution and clarity over the telephone.
“Hello, Alfred, it’s Clark Kent,” the friendly voice came over the phone. “How are you?”
“Quite well, Mr. Kent, thank you for inquiring,” Alfred Pennyworth said pleasantly. “If you should happen to speak to your acquaintance Superman, please convey my thanks to him for his appearance at the children’s hospital in Surrey last week. My niece is employed there, and she assures me the children were thrilled.”
“I’ll do that, Alfred,” Clark said, a smile in his voice. Of course, Alfred was privy to Superman’s dual identity, but one never knew who was listening. Dick Grayson’s aunt Harriet may have been in earshot. “Is Bruce at home, Alfred?”
“Master Wayne is in his downstairs study with Master Dick,” Alfred said. “Shall I patch you in, sir?”
“Yes, please, Alfred,” Clark said.
“Very good, sir. Just a moment.” Clark waited while Alfred made the connection to the secure Batcave line.
“Hello, Clark,” Bruce said. “What’s up?”
“Nothing urgent, Bruce,” Clark said. “Just calling to make sure we’re still on for this weekend’s charity appearance.”
“We are,” Bruce said. “I have to tell you, Clark, I’m considering not doing these public appearances anymore. I’m afraid they take away from my usefulness as Batman.”
“How so, Bruce?” Clark asked.
“Well, most of my effectiveness comes from the criminal’s idea that I might be lurking around the next corner, ready to pounce on them,” Bruce explained. “If they know I’m on a stage somewhere having my picture taken, that threat is lifted.”
“I suppose,” Clark said. “Still, the Police Athletic League is an excellent cause. The work they do in keeping kids off the streets is probably as much a deterrent to crime as Superman and Batman are, keeping them out of the criminal element in the first place.”
“True,” Bruce said. “Still, in the future, I may just write them a check and get on with my own work.”
Clark chuckled. “You do what you think best, Bruce. But I’ll see you Sunday?”
“We’ll be there,” Bruce promised. “See you then.”
“Goodbye, Bruce,” Clark said, and hung up the phone. Just then, the light in his office dimmed by half. He looked up and saw that one of the bulbs in his overhead light fixture was out. He glanced at his closed door, then took a fresh bulb from his desk drawer and flew up to change it. Hovering in the air a few inches above his desk, Clark had just changed the bulb when his super-hearing detected footsteps outside his door, his super-sense of smell the hint of Safari. Quickly, he maneuvered his toes to the top of the desk.
“Clark,” Lois Lane said, opening the door without knocking, “Perry wants — Clark! What are you doing?”
“Lois!” Clark gasped, feigning surprise, wavering a bit on the desk. “I-I was just changing the light bulb over my desk. If I stand on the desk on my tiptoes, I can just reach it.”
“Well, be careful with the acrobatics, Clark!” Lois admonished. “You’re not Spider-Man, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” Clark said, crestfallen, awkwardly climbing down off his desk.
“You must really like it here, Nigma,” the uniformed guard said as he lead the small, wiry man in prison grays down the length of the cell block. “You sure do keep coming back.”
“Riddle me this, Olshevksy,” Nigma said. “What do smart people eat for breakfast?”
The guard considered this a moment. “I don’t know,” he finally said.
“Exactly,” Nigma said smugly.
“Huh?” the guard said, puzzled. “I don’t get it.”
“Don’t let it bother you,” Nigma said. “The answer will probably come to you tonight while you’re watching pro wrestling.”
The guard unlocked a cell door and held it open; Nigma obediently walked inside. “Enjoy your first night back, Nigma,” the guard said, locking the door.
“Save me a place at breakfast,” Nigma called out to the guard’s retreating back. He waited ten minutes after the guard was out of sight, anxiously counting six-hundred seconds in his mind. Then he stuck his index finger down his throat and coughed up a small black object — a hard plastic question mark.
“Fools,” Nigma whispered to himself. “They can’t keep the greatest criminal brain of the century caged like a monkey in the zoo! Here’s where I make my escape!”
Taking the thin mattress from his bunk, Nigma crawled into the front corner of the cell next to the door and huddled behind the mattress. He then pulled the dot out of the base of the question mark and hurled the rest of it at the far wall. On the opposite side of that wall was the yard and freedom. Nigma flung the plastic explosive and scrunched down behind the mattress. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion, louder than Nigma had counted on. His ears rang with the force of it. When he rose unsteadily to his feet, there were flames all around him.
“Wow!” he whistled. “I must have put too much C4 in that thing! Well, more’s the better; the fire will keep the guards busy while I–” Nigma glanced down at himself and saw his spindly legs clothed in emerald green spandex festooned with black question marks. “How in the world did I get into my costume?” he wondered aloud. Then an icy fist of fear gripped his heart. He looked around himself, seeing a barren cavern of red stone lit by flames everywhere. Somewhere from the shadows cast by the flames, a tall, cloaked figure detached itself from the darkness and approached him.
“Pleased to meet you,” the figure said in a deep baritone. “Can you guess my name?”
The Riddler stood transfixed, staring in cold horror at the cloaked figure approaching him over the burning cavern floor. He made no sounds; he was too terrified to speak.
“Oh, come, now,” the cloaked figure coaxed. “No guesses? I expected better from the Riddler. Well, at any rate, I’m glad to see you’ve arrived right on schedule.”
“S-s-schedule?” the Riddler stammered. “Th-there’s some mistake! I-I’m not — it’s not my — I-I’m not ready to–”
“No mistake,” the cloaked figure said, producing a book from the folds of his cloak and opening it. “Yes, it’s right here. Nigma, Edward Richard, also known as the Riddler, due to die in an explosion during a failed prison break and arrive here October 8th, 19–”
“No!” the Riddler screamed, dropping to his knees. “No, please! Please, don’t take me! G-give me another chance! Please!”
“Well,” the cloaked figure said thoughtfully, stroking his beard as he replaced the book within his cloak. “I sometimes do make allowances for men of your… profession. Far more useful to me, sowing discord and misery up there than down here. But an overrated clown like you? No. Not worth the paperwork hassle.”
“Clown? Overrated?” the Riddler gasped, ego overwhelming his terror momentarily. “That’s not true! I’m the greatest criminal genius of–”
“Really?” the cloaked figure said. “Then why did you continually end up in Blackgate Prison? Why did you constantly fail in your attempts to outwit Batman?”
“I-I just hadn’t reached my full potential yet!” the Riddler protested. “Believe me, I had a scheme cooked up that would have definitely worked this time! I-I just need another chance!”
“Hmm, possible,” the cloaked figure said. “Perhaps you hadn’t hit your stride yet. I remember Adolf’s days in the trenches; you’d never have known what he’d eventually become. Very well, Mr. Nigma, I will give you another chance. However, you have to prove that you’re worthy of it.”
“H-h-h-how?” the Riddler stammered.
“Oh, the old three tests bit,” the cloaked figure said. “Passé, I know, but I’m a sucker for the classics. I will give you a list of three items. You must successfully steal all three before one week has elapsed. If you fail–” The figure flourished his cloak, and the flames leaped higher, their heat searing the Riddler’s face and their light blinding him. He threw up his arms to protect his face and screamed with terror.
Edward Nigma screamed and sat bolt upright. He looked around himself at his surroundings: the peeling wallpaper, the rusty sink, the flash of the neon beer sign through the window from the bar across the street. His hideout. He was in his hideout in Gotham’s seedier district. And he wasn’t wearing his costume. It had all been a horrible dream. He must have been dazed by the explosion and somehow made his way back here without knowing it. With a sigh of relief, Nigma lay back down on the bed to relax.
He looked up at the ceiling and screamed. Written on the ceiling in letters of blazing fire were three items in a column — his list of items he must steal to escape the fires of Hell.
Nigma swallowed in terror.
“Splendid meal as always, Alfred,” Bruce Wayne said as his faithful butler cleared away the last of the dinner dishes.
“I hope you saved room for dessert, Master Bruce, Master Dick, Mrs. Cooper,” Alfred said. “I finally coaxed my Aunt Hermione to part with her secret recipe for lemon crumb cake. I daresay she has guarded it all these years with more secrecy than was attached to the Manhattan Project.”
“Heaven’s sakes, none for me, thank you, Alfred,” said Dick’s aunt, Harriet Cooper. “Your sole almondine was so delightful I’m afraid I left myself no room!”
“Well, you know me, Alfred,” Dick said, “I’m always up for dessert!”
“Mercy, Dick, I don’t know how you keep the pounds off, the way you tuck into those sweets,” Aunt Harriet clucked.
“Dick engages in regular physical exercise,” Bruce assured the matronly woman. “As do I. The only way to keep fit.”
“Well, whatever you both do, it seems to be working,” Aunt Harriet said. Bruce and Dick stole a conspiratorial glance at one another.
“Anyway, I do hope you two will be staying in tonight, rather than gallivanting off the way you do,” Aunt Harriet said.
“Don’t worry, Aunt Harriet,” Dick said. “The Gothics are playing the Star City Astrals at Star Arena tonight, and we’re going to stay right here and catch the game on television!”
Bruce lifted his water glass to his lips, then stopped as he glanced out the window. Blazoned across a broad gray cloud formation was the glowing golden circle of the Bat-signal.
“Well, Dick, I guess it’s time for my surprise,” Bruce said.
“Surprise, Bruce?” Dick said, anxiously but knowingly. He, too, had seen the signal.
“Yes. Wayne Enterprises is closing a deal with Queen Investments in Star City tonight,” Bruce said. “The documents are being flown there by helicopter. I thought it would be fun to go along and catch the game in person.”
“Wow! It sure will, Bruce!”
“Mercy sakes!” Aunt Harriet exclaimed. “A quiet evening at home just isn’t good enough for you two, is it?”
“If I may be so bold, madam,” Alfred said, “one must make allowances for the exuberance of youth. Masters Bruce and Dick have not had time to, shall one say, settle into a routine.”
“Well, there’s something in that, Alfred,” Harriet said. “Have fun, you two.”
“I’m sure we will,” Dick said, rising from his chair. Bruce cast a thankful glance at Alfred, who nodded slightly in acknowledgment.
Minutes later, the sleek Batmobile was roaring down the streets of Gotham City. At the helm, Batman spoke on the mobile hotline to Police Commissioner James W. Gordon. “The Riddler again, Commissioner?” Batman said.
“I’m afraid so,” the veteran police official said. “He broke jail two nights ago, as you know. This morning a letter arrived by messenger. All it contained were two riddles. What kind of man wears a coat he cannot remove? And When is a crusader like a lit match?”
“Anything interesting about the letter, Commissioner?” Batman asked. “Or the envelope?”
“I checked that,” Gordon said, “knowing how that clever criminal often couches his clues. The letter was printed on a yellow paper. I checked with the company from the watermark; it’s a color they call marigold.”
“Thank you, Commissioner. We’ll be in touch.” Batman hung up the phone.
“What kind of man wears a coat he cannot remove?” Robin repeated. “That’s easy. A man in a painting wears a coat of paint. But what painting? Could the second riddle be a clue to that?”
“I don’t think so,” Batman said. “Recall the color of paper? Marigold? There’s a painting called The Golden Man on loan to the Sprang Gallery this week — worth a fortune.”
“Hey, that’s right!” Robin cried. “I read about it in the paper! But what about the other riddle? When is a crusader like a lit match?”
“Well, the crusader is probably a reference to me,” Batman said. “They sometimes call me the Caped Crusader, among other things. The lit match reference puzzles me.”
“Hmm,” Robin pondered. “The part of a match that lights is called the head, and an angry person is called hot-headed. Could the Riddler mean when you get angry? Say, if he stole the painting and you couldn’t stop him?”
“Possible,” Batman said. “But I suspect a deeper meaning in the Riddler’s clues. We’ll find out soon; here’s the Sprang Gallery now.” The Batmobile pulled to a silent stop before the darkened gallery. The dynamic duo entered through the gallery’s service entrance, which they opened with tools from their utility belts. They found the watchman unconscious but unharmed, and left him in pursuit of their foe.
“The Golden Man is on exhibit on the second floor,” Robin whispered. “I saw a sign.” Batman nodded silently and motioned for Robin to follow. Swiftly but silently, the Gotham guardian mounted the stairs, his young companion close behind. However, as Batman reached the center of the staircase, a jet of yellowish liquid shot from a concealed location, struck the back of his cowl, and burst into brilliant flames.