“What are you looking for, Mr. Riddler?” Jennifer asked from the sofa. She watched her abductor as he stared out the window.
“To see if your daddy got the message,” the Riddler explained. He mopped at his forehead with a paper napkin from the fast food restaurant. “Whew, it’s warm in here! Are you hot, Jennifer?”
“I’m fine,” Jennifer said. “It feels fine to me.”
“Yeah? Well, maybe I’ll open a window. I’m burning up.” Riddler’s hands moved for the window, then withdrew. “No, I’d better not. Best not to draw attention; the open window might be a giveaway.”
“Did my daddy get the message, Mr. Riddler?” Jennifer asked.
“Not yet,” Riddler said, staring out the window. He coughed twice, cleared his throat, and walked away from the window. “What’s on next?”
“Bewitched,” Jennifer answered.
“Which Darrin is it?” Riddler asked, sitting down on the sofa.
“The tall one,” Jennifer answered. “I don’t like him as much.”
“Me either,” Riddler agreed. “I hate it when a new actor tries to step into a patented role, and they expect us to buy it.” The arch-criminal thumbed through the newspaper TV listings. “Hey, The Addams Family is on Channel 5! Let’s watch that — Gomez kills me!”
“Zis must be ze plaze,” the Joker said to himself as he rounded the corner of Robinson Place and California Street. He had taken the subway from his temporary hideout to the Robinson Place Station and walked the rest of the way. He stood before Number One California Street and stared at it appraisingly. A faded, weather-beaten sign testified that it once housed the studio of F. Randall, Commercial Photographer. The windows were boarded up and the door hinges rusty with disuse.
“Looks as though no one’s been here in ten years,” Joker mused. “Of course, it’s supposed to look like that, ain’t it? Now, let’s see. What would Batsy do?” Joker’s eyes scanned the outside of the building. An iron fire escape, black enamel paint peeling with age, clung to the side wall with the tenacity of old age. The fire escape terminated at a window on the top floor of the two-story building.
“But of course,” Joker chuckled. “The bat would make for the belfry!” The confident villain strode forward.
“What was that, Mr. Riddler?” Jennifer asked in surprise at the sudden loud noise.
The Riddler sprang from the sofa and raced to the window. He stared across the street, and a grin slowly creased his face. He watched with delight as the old photo studio consumed itself in flames, sending orange light and thick oily smoke high into the night.
“That was my message,” the Riddler said with glee. “It’s just been delivered!” The arch-criminal began giggling to himself, ending in a coughing fit.
Commissioner James W. Gordon sat behind his desk, a weary, haggard look on his face. Chief Clancy O’Hara sat in a chair in the Commissioner’s office, a grim look on his face. Neither man spoke. There was nothing left to say. They had tried a desperate gamble to find the little girl kidnapped by the Riddler, and not only had that gamble failed, they had set an even greater evil loose on Gotham City.
The telephone on the Commissioner’s desk rang. His hand shot out like a lightning bolt to answer it. “Gordon.”
A high-pitched giggle came through the line. “How do you like your bat, Commissioner? Extra-crispy, I hope.”
“Riddler!” Gordon cried out. O’Hara gripped the arms of the chair tightly, his knuckles whitening. “Riddler, listen to me–”
“No, you listen to me, Commissioner!” the Riddler interrupted. “Your bat-eared friend blundered into a trap, and now there’s nobody to help you! Tell Coleworth to put three million dollars — do I need to say in unmarked bills? — in a duffel bag in Locker 140 of Gotham Authority Bus Terminal by 4 AM tonight. Just put it there and leave. No cops, nothing. Once I collect the money, I’ll be back in touch. Ta-ta!”
“Riddler, wait! Please–“ But it was no use. The villain had hung up.
“The devil!” O’Hara spat. His trained ears had heard every word of the conversation. “He knows we’re licked!”
“What did he mean, Batman had fallen into a trap?” Gordon asked.
“He’s bluffin’,” O’Hara said. “He’s got to be!”
“And yet,” Gordon said, puzzled, “Riddler couldn’t know that Batman is away. He couldn’t!”
“Aye, ’tis a puzzler,” O’Hara agreed, nodding.
“Woo! What a blast!” the Joker chuckled to himself, standing across the street from the photographic studio, watching it burn. He had started to climb the fire escape, but at the last moment had thought better of it. If he had figured Batman would use the window, Nigma was sure to think of it, too. So the Joker had used the front door and found the explosive booby-trap at the window. He had retreated then and set the bomb off from across the street with his rifle-cane.
“OK, Eddie, I know where you’re not,” the Joker said, stroking his chin. “Question is, where are you am? Hmmm… well, I know Eddie’s obsessed with his puzzles and outsmarting Bat-brains. Yeah, yeah, I’m one to talk, I know. Well, Eddie might make his riddles obscure and obtuse and any other obs you can think of, but he plays fair. If those riddles led Batman into a trap, there’s gotta be another way to figure ’em so they’ll lead me to Eddie.”
The Joker paced up and down the empty street, listening to the fire engines arrive. “Well, if I were Eddie, I’d have a hideout close by this trap, so I could see with my own eyes when Batman fell into it. So much more satisfying than seeing it on the news. So it’s gotta be somewhere in walking distance of here. Hmm…”
The Joker stood on the corner of California and 33rd and began to slowly turn around in a circle. He kept his eyes open, sweeping the area. When his circle was almost fully complete, he stopped, looked, and began to laugh.
“I miss my daddy,” Jennifer said sadly. Her lower lip trembled; she was on the verge of tears.
“I know, kid, I know,” the Riddler said, not unkindly, and ruffled her hair. “I promise, you’ll be back with him soon.”
“Promise! In the meantime, want me to go out and pick you up some comic-books? They still publish Betty and Veronica, don’t they?”
Before Jennifer could answer, there was a knock on the door. Riddler gaped at the door in terror. Who could that be? No one knew he was here. No one! Could — could Batman have survived the explosion? Or maybe that overgrown brat Robin was back in town. But no; they wouldn’t use the door.
“Aren’t you going to answer the door, Mr. Riddler?” Jennifer asked.
“Uh, sure, sure,” Riddler stammered. Cautiously, he crept to the door. It had no peephole, so he had to open the door a crack to peer outside. He gaped in surprise as the door was pushed open by a purple-gloved hand.
“Hello, Eddie,” the Joker said. “Going to invite me in?”
“J-Joker!” Riddler stammered. “What are you doing here?”
“I was in the neighborhood, thought I’d drop by,” Joker said. “Say hello, swap stories, split a beer. You know, things colleagues do.”
“B-but how did you know where I was?” Riddler protested. “How did you find me?”
“Oh, Eddie,” Joker said and tut-tutted. “It took a while, I admit, but once I had the key, it was obvious. The Bates Theater, bankrupt and closed for the last five years. A closed theater would have no one in the cast. And Bates? Fisherman? Too obvious by half, Eddie.”
The Riddler stared at the Joker in slack-jawed surprise. “H-how did–?” A sudden coughing fit seized the Riddler. “How did you know my riddle-clues?”
“Oh, didn’t you know?” Joker asked. “Batman is out of town. Commissioner Gordon asked me to fill in. I know, I was as surprised as you. But this is a special situation.”
The Riddler, astonished by this turn of events, opened his mouth to reply. A violent coughing fit stopped his voice.
“Nasty cough, there, Eddie,” Joker said. “You should take care of it. Soon,” he added, ominously.
“W-what do you mean?” Riddler asked, blinking his eyes to wipe away the perspiration.
“I mean, you sure know how to pick ’em, Eddie,” the Joker chuckled. “You kidnapped an ambassador’s daughter! An ambassador to a third-world country, where hygiene is a greeting! A widower ambassador, who dotes on his only child, takes her everywhere he goes, even halfway around the world. And you know how kids are — they get into things they shouldn’t, play in places their parents warn them not to.”
The Riddler stared at the Joker in mounting terror. He glanced back at the angelic-faced ten-year-old girl on the sofa, then back at the Joker. “W-what are you saying?” he asked in a terrified whisper.
“Come on, you mean the Riddler can’t add up the clues?” the Joker said. “Jennifer Coleworth has bubonic plague, you ninny!”
Riddler gasped in terror. It couldn’t be true — it couldn’t! And yet it would explain his sudden illness, how he’d felt fine only hours before, and now…
“Yaaah!” the Riddler screamed and bolted past the Joker, out the door of the little apartment.
“Good idea, Eddie,” Joker called after him. “You’re looking a little green, there! Can’t tell where you end and the costume begins!” The Joker laughed to himself, then turned to face Jennifer.
“Hello, little girl,” the evil clown grinned.
“Are you a clown?” Jennifer asked the Joker.
“A sort of one,” Joker nodded. “Do you like clowns?”
Jennifer shrugged. “I like Ronald McDonald.”
“He’s good,” the Joker agreed. “I mean, he has a different style than me, but I see where he’s going with it. How do you feel, honey?”
“I’m sick,” Jennifer said. “My daddy was taking me to the hospital when Mr. Riddler took me away.”
“Uh-huh. You didn’t tell Mr. Riddler about that?”
“I was scared.”
“Well, don’t be, not anymore,” Joker said. “You’ll be fine.” The Joker picked up the telephone and dialed. “Hello, Commissioner? Joker here. Hold on, hold on! You’ll find the kid in the apartment over the old Bates Theater on 33rd. That’s right. Eddie? Check the hospitals. I think he’s in search of medical attention. Uh-huh. Oh, sure, Commish. I’ll be right here waiting! Ta-ta!” The Clown Prince of Crime hung up the phone.
“I’ve gotta go, sweetie! Just sit tight and watch TV until the police get here. They’ll take you to your daddy.”
“Thank you, Mr. Clown,” Jennifer said. “You’re a nice man.”
The Joker paused and flashed her a toothy grin. “Don’t you believe it,” he said before leaving.
The Joker hummed to himself all the way back to his hideout. Bat-Brains and Gordo would probably expect him to kill the kid or kidnap her himself. Well, if he always did what was expected of him, it wouldn’t be funny.
The kid had given him an idea, though. She liked Ronald McDonald, did she? Fine. He’d become a fast-food clown. Burgers were taken, though; he’d have to come up with another schtick. Chicken? Pizza? Tacos? Fish, maybe? Well, he’d think about it. He had time. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Laughing Fish,” Detective Comics #475 (February, 1978).]