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Black-Clad Bats and Making Money

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You may recognise me as the man who programmed — because that’s what being a game programmer gets you, instant celebrity, like Shigeru Miyamoto and the guy who invented Tetris — you may recognise me as Edward Nigma, the man who programmed Labyrinth of the Minotaur, a bestselling game whose apparent claim to fame is that it is unwinnable. I’m not quite sure why that was the selling point. See, the thing about puzzle games is that you’re supposed to solve them. That’s the way they’re designed. So every time someone praised Labyrinth of the Minotaur, it would be like, “Hey, did you hear about this game I’m too dumb to solve? It’s my favourite puzzle game! You should see if you’re too dumb to solve it, too!” And all their idiot friends would be like, “Yeah! I love being too dumb to solve this game!” And that’s how I realised just how easy con artists must have it.

“But if your game was so successful,” I can hear you wondering, “then what are you doing talking about it here?” And I admit, this is rather a step down from my customary lifestyle of sleeping on a bed of rose petals and cocaine. That’s because programmers, despite our justified mockery of end users who click through the terms and conditions without reading them, are no more lawyers than the rest of the non-selachian population, so the moment the word “whereupon” enters our pupils it triggers an instinctive defense mechanism in the human occipital lobe that makes us forget how to read.

As a result, I was happily unaware of the scale of the Labyrinth of the Minotaur’s success until one day I come in to work as usual to find that my office has been emptied out, which — for the record — is unusual. I turn to my boss, Daniel Mockridge, and politely inquire, “Daniel, what the hell happened to my office?”

And he says, “That’s not your office anymore.”

And I say, “Well, all right. Where’s my new office?”

And he says, “You don’t have one anymore. You’re fired, Eddie.”

Which I have two issues with: firstly, how was I supposed to reach that conclusion using only the information given? It’s like going to that restaurant you don’t really love but it technically counts as your favourite because you’ve been going there after work for the past three years — that’s a universally relatable experience, right? right, that’s what I thought — and they tell you, “Oh, sorry, we can’t serve you your coffee the way you like it today.” So you’re like, “Oh, that’s all right. I’ll just take a soda, then.” And they say, “You’ll never get a soda from us again, you son of a bitch. Also, we’ve hired a hitman to kill your mother.” And you’re like, “Well! That escalated!”

My second issue is that he called me Eddie. “Eddie,” that’s a very familiar name. That’s a name that your parents and other people who knew you as a child call you because you weren’t old enough to insist, “I’m grown-up! I should be addressed by a grown-up name!” You, Mr. Daniel Mockridge, are not my parent, and if you were, you just forfeited the right by disowning me.

So I say, “You can’t fire me! You need me!” And Mockridge pulls out a copy of my contract — which he apparently had on hand for this exact reason — points to a clause with the word “whereupon” in it, and says, “Actually, all we need is your intellectual property, and you signed over all the rights to it when you took this job.”

“Well,” I think to myself, “that doesn’t sound like something I’d do at all.” And I say, “Danny—” he started it — “Danny, I don’t think you get it. Sure, maybe I allowed you to make money off my intellectual property, but what do you think this company is going to do without the intellect that created it? I’ll just make a new, better game, and Competitron will fold within the year.”

Then he points to another part of the contract and says, “Ah, see, that’s what the noncompete clause is for.” If you don’t know about corporate noncompete clauses, they state that you can’t work in the same field for any other company until the contract period is up, five or ten years later. This is legal, for some reason! And I can’t argue with this assertion, because I can’t read it, and so this man who got paid for my work laughs in my face and says, “Well, Eddie, if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”

Later, as I’m perusing the ramen shelf at the grocery store through my tears, like a grownup, I think, “Wait a minute…why aren’t I rich? I’m smart, aren’t I? I’ll get a private investor.”

In Gotham they call that the mob.

You would think, after the first time I signed a bad deal, that I would learn. But I am a man who likes books, and computers, and sitting quietly in front of those things, which means I learn trivia every way but from experience.

I refer to experience as “trivia” here because no one tells you about it until you get it wrong. And then they act like you should have known it the whole time.

Long story short, the next thing I know I’m standing in front of this very large, very serious Russian man, who is such a big deal that people call him the Russian, surrounded by a number of even larger Russian men. I sell the Russian my pitch, and he nods and looks thoughtful and then asks me, “Why should I trust you with my money?”

So of course, as anyone would in such a situation, I exaggerated.

(This is a way to say you are lying without technically lying.)

As you can probably guess from what happened next, this didn’t end quite the way I hoped it would.

“Didn’t you know?” I said with the arrogance of someone who had never been shot. “There’s no problem I can’t solve. I know how to make numbers sit up and beg. I can find you money where you never thought there was money to find.”

And the Russian leans toward me with this glint in his eye and he says, “No problem you can’t solve?”

And I say, “That’s right.”

And he says, “What do you know about security systems?”

And I think, “Wait.”

This is a sudden change in subject!

But of course I’m already in up to my neck, and I can’t back out now, right? So I say, “Well, let’s just see what I can do,” as if failure was an option.

So that’s how I ended up planning a bank robbery.

You would think it would be difficult to accidentally rob a bank! So did I.

But I never actually wanted to commit a crime, you see? All I ever wanted to do was make games and get rich the old-fashioned way, by parting people from their money voluntarily. So now I was facing a conundrum: how do you commit a crime for someone else…without committing any crimes?

Traditionally, the answer is to not get caught, because that means no one can pin anything on you. I’d read about bank robberies before — I’d watched movies — and it’s not hard, right? Usually people just get caught because they make stupid mistakes, like being physically present when the police arrive, or not wearing masks. It’s like people aren’t capable of learning from other people’s mistakes! They’ll say, “Well, Jim Jones and the Red Hood Gang got put in jail because Jim shot a machine gun into the ceiling in broad daylight and then they drove straight back to his garage to divvy up the cash, but we don’t need an unobtrusive hideout or a getaway plan with more than one step, because that won’t happen to us.” It’s madness!

So I say, “Mr. Russian, I’ll need three things. And that’s a security video of the inside of the vault, a map of the city sewer system, and several blocks of C4.”

And he says, “Done.”

And I think, “Shit.”

Because now I have to do it.

So I send a few guys through the sewers right underneath the bank vault, they blow up the floor, the security cameras are on a loop so they don’t show anything, everyone gets away clean and the bank is insured and nobody gets hurt. Right?

So I’m celebrating with these Russian men, which when you’re Russian means getting blackout drunk on vodka and dancing like a maniac, which is kind of a universal thing but more so. And a couple of men are boasting about the heist, and how easy it was, and then one of them mentions he threatened a security guard’s pregnant wife to get the tape.

I did not want that! I expressly wanted to avoid that!

I don’t know why mob people always threaten people’s families. I guess it’s because pretty much everyone has a family, so it’s a safe bet? But frankly, if it is a choice between someone breaking my legs or another person’s legs, I would generally prefer it to be another person’s legs. Perhaps this is considered selfish by people who have never had a broken leg, but trust me: if you have ever broken a bone, one of the things you most want not to happen is to break a bone again.

But now I feel responsible for these ruthless criminals threatening this poor man’s wife, so I decide I have to apologise somehow. But I can’t just incriminate myself. I have to be sneaky about it. I have to be clever. Fortunately, clever is my specialty! “I’ll send him a puzzle,” I think to myself. “That way he will have a clue to the answer, but no one else will.” So I look up his address in the phone book and I send him a nice Hallmark card, which says, “What is kind only when mean?”

For some unimaginable reason, this did not go over as well as I thought it would.

Gotham’s police — great people — are useless. Mob rule is actually more effective than rule of law in Gotham city, and part of that is because the police are basically the mob, but worse at it, because they’re not being paid as much. If I’d had a crime committed against me, I wouldn’t even call the police. I’d just decide, “Well, I can live with this. I don’t want to put anyone to any trouble.” I get mugged in an alleyway on my way home from work? “Eh, I don’t really need to buy food to live.” I get murdered by nineteen stabs in my own home? “You know what? Life goes on.” I would trust the Mothman, a being which does not exist, to bring the perpetrator to justice out of nothing but a sense of civic duty and a desire to eat humans more than I would trust the GCPD.

But you see, Gotham has something even better than the Mothman: it has the Batman. Because bats eat moths.

So where the police all scratch their heads and shrug over the big hole in the vault floor because they’re nearly on break and solving crimes is above their pay grade, the Batman finds out which guards were on duty that week and squeezes them until the one guy panics and shows him the card. The next day, all the papers that were politely coughing and looking away from the “unsolvable” bank robbery are running headlines about the mysterious “Riddle Robber”, wondering where he’s going to strike next. And the Russian himself summons me, and he’s looking happier than I’ve ever seen him, and he’s like, “You’ve convinced me. You’ll have your cut from the job. But there’s one more thing I want you to do: I want you to get the Batman off our backs.”

Of course I agree to this instantly, because I also want to keep the Batman off my back. But how to do that, other than by not committing crimes? I’ll tell you the answer I came up with: by making it look like you’re going to commit a crime…but then don’t.

It never actually occurred to me that I could simply not do this thing. But people get very stupid when they’re asked to do something by someone who could easily murder them. If someone can and will murder you, the thought of making them unhappy does not generally enter your mind as an option with a lot of long-term potential. Instead you think, “This person might kill me for any reason! I’d better not give them any reasons. In fact, it would be even better to give them reasons not to murder me, and maybe even murder someone else instead.” That’s what mathematicians call basic game theory.

And merely pretending you’re going to do a crime, that’s hardly even a crime itself, you know? It’s like prank-calling 911. Sure, maybe someone dies because you distracted emergency responders at a critical moment, but it’s not like you killed them, right? I mean, what do most first responders do all day anyway other than wait around until something interestingly catastrophic happens? Have you ever seen a police officer stop someone from committing a crime? No. That’s the sort of thing that only happens on TV, because in most cases the natural reaction to being threatened with a deadly weapon is not to run to the phone and give someone your name and address. A police officer’s job is to get there after the fact and draw a chalk outline around the body so that observers know a crime has occurred.

So I start sending riddles to the newspapers and various places of business I could never typically afford to frequent, like jewelry shops and hospitals. It turns out that when no one knows what the hell you’re talking about, practically anything can be ominous! Is the swordfish a metaphor? Is someone going to hack the First National Bank, or merely reenact Hemingway by releasing the aquarium’s freshwater sharks into the Gotham River? No one knows.

But as every hostage-taker is aware, threats pall quickly without a show of credibility. So while I’m happily programming and sending out the occasional puzzler, I keep an ear out for interesting tidbits of information — such as, for instance, the recent assaults by Carmine Falcone’s crew on anyone else trying to enter the train yards to ship contraband, because history has proven that monopolies don’t stay that way if you’re not willing to break some people’s bones. So my next riddle is sent to the Gotham Globe: “At 2300, a red-tailed hawk flies south at 30 miles per hour. Where is it at 2312?” The answer? The train yard six miles south of the Gotham Globe building, which Falcone has meticulously ensured will be clear of anyone but his own traffickers in goods of dubious provenance between the hours of 11:00pm and midnight.

It turns out that Gotham’s greatest and possibly only detective has no trouble deciphering this clue on a night when Falcone is particularly invested in avoiding Gotham’s 17% excise tax on alcohol. Now, I understand wanting to avoid paying taxes. We all do! But most people don’t stay out late and shoot people with guns just to keep from having to give the government money. Where would we be if everyone did that? The American Revolution?

Long story short, people get arrested, Falcone has to pay bribes on top of taxes, gang tensions flare across the city, a few people get assassinated to send a message, no big deal. The papers are now convinced the Riddle Robber is working for Falcone and is fallible, neither of which is true. And me? I’ve somehow become a hero to the type of men who would normally feel the instinctive compulsion to stuff my head down a toilet. Every time the Russian sends someone to check on me, all I hear is “Hey, Riddle Robber! Hey, Riddle Man! RIDDLERRRR! Tell us a riddle, Riddler!” So I ask something like, “What four-legged animal can jump higher than a house?” and invariably they just laugh and respond, “I have no idea!” like this is all just part of the Riddler experience. It is at this point that I begin to comprehend that being forced to confront the finite nature of human understanding is an impulse buried deep in the human psyche, probably in the same part of the brain that houses fetishes and the overwhelming urge to kill your father.

(For legal reasons, I am obligated at this point to state that my father died of natural causes and I was nowhere near him at the time.)

So things are going great for a month or so, when the Russian calls on me again. He says, “Listen, you do good work, but the Batman is getting on our case again. I’ll give you $500,000 to get rid of him once and for all.” And I immediately think, “Whoa! That is more money than I have ever had in my life at one time! How do I get it without performing the service I’m being paid to perform?”

Do I convince the Batman of the futility of his mission via an irrefutable argument in our cat-and-mouse medium of puzzles and clues? Do I blackmail the entire GCPD into retiring, one cop at a time, so that he hangs up his cape, satisfied that he is no longer needed? Think, Riddler, think! This is the one thing you’re good for, damn it!

So I say, “Listen. This is a big ask, so I’ll need half up front.” Because, you see, a quarter million dollars is nearly as good as half a million dollars. It is fifty percent as good, which is exactly infinity percent better than zero dollars.

And the Russian says, “I’ll give you a quarter up front.”

And I get real serious, and I lean forward like a man with approximately one leg to stand on and say, “Three-eighths, or I walk out that door.”

And he says, “Done.” And I say, “Done!”

Game theory!

So now I’m on the hook for getting rid of the Batman. Fortunately, I am surrounded by morons, which is good because that means none of us know what I’m doing. If I were surrounded by intelligent people, I would almost certainly have been killed by this point, most likely in an appropriately ironic way like getting chopped up and the pieces distributed around the city for the police to put back together like a macabre jigsaw puzzle.

(Hopefully some other murderer wouldn’t have dismembered their victim around the same time, because that would complicate things a lot.

“Hey, Sarge! Guess what we just found! Another arm!”

“Are you sure, Davidson?”

“Pretty hard to mistake something else for an arm, Sarge.”

“Well, this puts me in a difficult position, Davidson. Because that makes three arms.”)

But the fact that most of the Russian’s gang wouldn’t recognise a traveling salesman problem if it tried to inveigle them into a pyramid scheme meant that I could do pretty much anything and get away with it, as long as it was sufficiently incomprehensible. So I did! No one knew what I was doing, me least of all! I can’t imagine what the Batman must have thought, other than that perhaps there was some maniacal terrorist out there in Gotham City with the most boring hobby in the universe. I would read about cold cases and take credit for them. I’d bug other gangs’ hideouts and rat them out. For about an hour a day, I’d read the local news and try to solve the crimes there, you know, like when you’re reading an Agatha Christie novel and you try to beat the main character to the punch? And then I’d send that paper a cryptogram with a clue that might even have something to do with the culprit. And any time the Russian started getting suspicious, I’d just rub my little hands together like a Hanna-Barbera villain and pronounce, “Aha! Soon all the pieces of my master plan will come together!” as if my master plan involved more than just keeping anyone else from finding out that I was fleecing a city of over ten million people.

It was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life.

I don’t know, maybe other people can dissemble for months at a time with their entire future hanging in the balance and not let it get to them. But for me, it was like being back in school again, telling my teachers less and less plausible excuses about where my homework must have gone before having to walk home past a bunch of man-sized thirteen-year-olds with testosterone poisoning and transference issues so my father could critique my academic performance with his fists. —Yeah, that line never gets a laugh, but you let that cat out of the bag once and it’s never going back in.

Anyway, I think I’ve painted an adequate picture of why I started making mistakes.

Or so I assume. I’m still not really sure what did it. I’ve thought about it a lot, and all I can come up with is that it was the combination of a moment’s inattention and the fact that America is a dictatorship that thinks “dictatorship” is such an ugly word. How else do you explain police setting up booths in school libraries and county fairs to fingerprint children? Make a day of it! Put your kids into the national criminal database for the rest of their lives, get a sticker that says “I Heart The Surveillance State!” How can anyone believe that kids can meaningfully consent to something like that? What excuse do they even put forward that makes adults think this is justified? “Make sure we can always find your children, no matter where they are or what they did! Just in case.” I mean, it’s not exactly like giving blood, is it? I can’t believe I’ve never seen a cute little side booth at one of those events where you can get novelty mugshot photos of your tots, because parents think that putting tiny people in situations normally reserved for grown-ups is hysterical.

I bring this up because I’ve never even gotten a parking ticket before, albeit mostly on account of never having owned a car. But I was careful. Oh, was I careful! I’d wear gloves while I was handling letters, print them out so my handwriting couldn’t be identified, mail them from random mailboxes throughout the city, the whole shebang, because I was absolutely paranoid that I’d get caught and go to jail and then get killed in jail to keep me from talking. And yet, one evening I’ve just finished a lovely meeting with Sergei or Igor or whichever enormous indistinguishable Russian man this one was when I feel a draft coming from my office window and nearly piss myself because there is a seven-foot-tall cryptid watching me from the corner of the room.

Now, I pride myself on my resilience. (That’s what they call it when you survive being beaten up a certain number of times and are still able to chew your own food.) But part of resilience is a life skill I like to call “making people feel so bad for you that they become embarrassed about getting your blood on their fists”. In this case, my subconscious assessed the situation in an instant and chose to accomplish this by screaming like a six-year-old girl, throwing both hands into the air like it was 1999, and yelling “I surrender!”

Just like that. “I surrender!” Like a carnival barker who’s just seen the lions escape from their pen. Like a French army major in World War II. “I surrender!” Like Christine Daaé succumbing to the music of the night.

The Batman grabs me and growls, “Edward Nigma.”

And I say, in as dignified a tone as any man can manage when he’s being held off the floor, “Oh my god please don’t hurt me.”

“That depends on if you cooperate,” says the Batman.

“I’ll-tell-you-anything-you-want-to-know-in-exchange-for-leniency-and-witness-protection,” say I, because I’d had a lot of time to stew on this subject. And — coincidentally — because my noncompete contract with Competitron was tied to my legal identity.

This seems to give the Batman pause, in much the way I imagine it gives James Bond pause to find that the bombmaker is a little old man locked in a back room who hasn’t seen his daughter in a month. “Go on,” he says.

So I explain the past six months to him, and when I’m finished, he says, “You need help, Nigma.”

And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s fair, because I sort of became a supervillain because I don’t know how to say no to people and that might be a red flag, you know?”

So I end up in Arkham.

Arkham Asylum has a bit of a reputation as a revolving door for criminals, which I think isn’t really fair. It’s a great place! I got housed, and fed, and I got the first anxiety medication I’ve ever had in my life, which is a great time — and I had to pay for none of this, because in fact the state paid for it for me — and in exchange all I had to do was learn my truth and spend time in the same room as people who weren’t allowed sharp objects except under close supervision. Three months later, I’m out on parole, and the Batman even pulled some strings to make sure I got a new job under Wayne Enterprises’ felon employment program.

So I walk into Wayne Enterprises, my first day on the job, and who is there to meet me in the lobby but Bruce Wayne himself. You may not know this, if you have not looked at a screen or piece of printed media for years, but Bruce Wayne is a very attractive man. He looks like an actor playing a billionaire. You know what I mean? Most billionaires look like the portrait of Dorian Gray after all the sodomy, like they sank all their lifeforce itself into accumulating more money than any human being can possibly spend. They look like Emperor Palpatine after killing the Jedi. But apparently the stories about Bruce Wayne are true, because the man looked like a walking fashion shoot for three-piece suits. I expected to see photographers in every corner of the room, flashing their cameras and occasionally vamping, “Work it, baby! You’re perfect! Now let’s see that three-quarter angle!”

What I am saying is that it is very hard for folks of a certain persuasion not to focus on the man’s lips. But I, with my newfound self-assurance, did not even hesitate. I walked right up to Bruce fucking Wayne and shook his hand, you know, that nice strong manly kind of handshake where you both grip the other person’s forearm like you’re about to do a judo kata, and I start to say, “Bruce Wayne. I love your work.”

But I’ve been meticulously studying the shape of the man’s jawline since the moment I walked into the room, and suddenly I realise where I’ve felt that grip before, because it was arresting me in my office three months earlier. So instead of “work,” what actually comes out is “your hands on me.”

“Bruce Wayne. I love your hands on me.”

Yeah.

He freezes. Everyone in the room freezes. It feels like Mr. Freeze has just passed through and flash-frozen the entire room. My life flashes before my eyes. All I can think is that I’ve screwed up my fresh start completely from word one, because I’m so socially awkward I have no idea what the proper etiquette is for realising your new employer spends his nights as a vigilante detective. My only hope to salvage this situation is to explain what happened so we can both laugh it off and move on with our lives.

Instead, my panicked brain assesses the situation and decides that its best defense is to demonstrate to the world that Bruce Wayne is more than he appears.

And that, Dr. Strange, is how I ended up back in Arkham for assault and battery.