For more MAYHEM, check here, and make sure to read Renee Montoya #2 before reading this, for the whole story!
“I look good,” he whispered, straightening his tie in the mirror. “I do. I look good. Heh.”
Time could pass quickly, at times. Especially when you were in the position of Edward Nigma – detective; supervillain; genius; recovering addict. Since last night, and his talk with a certain Miss Montoya, Edward had made progress. He had a job, now, and while he wasn't sure what would come of it, it was a goal. Something he could move towards.
His face was smooth, clean-shaven for the first time in months. His hair was washed (and shampooed, again for the first time in a good while), with a light application of pomade for that cultured, gentlemanly look. Couldn't hurt.
“I look good,” Eddie assured himself. The words were foreign to his mouth at this point, and even his highly-advanced mind barely accepted their validity. He still looked like he had endured a rough few months, but he was recovering. He was eating, he was drinking, he was sleeping. A few days had made a noticeable difference. He looked like a man again, rather than some kind of elderly tatterdemalion, born of garbage and bred in ruin.
The only thing that terrified him, was that he was beginning to look like the Riddler.
But he had to force those things out of his thoughts. Now could not be the time for a crisis of identity. He had an appointment to meet in....
Edward looked down to his wrist, staring vacantly for a moment before realizing that it was bare. He raised his eyes to the wall behind him.
In an hour, apparently.
He inhaled softly, and slipped his sunglasses on. Gotham had, seemingly just for him, parted its thick layers of smog to let the sun shine down and scatter blindingly across the endless network of barren streets, skyscrapers, and litter. After spending months inside or in alleys, the brilliant rays almost stung his skin amidst the cold January air.
His shoes clicked quietly along the sidewalk, along with the soft, continuous rattle of his cane. He was ashamed to admit that, for once, it was not merely for style – he was making a good deal of use out of it, while pretending he wasn't. It had been some time since he had actually walked from one place to another, and Gotham was a large city. He set off a bit early (according to his calculations of distance, walking speed, waiting time for lights, and potential mishaps, to which he had allotted approximately forty-three and a half minutes, give or take a few seconds for rush time and unseen events), as any good detective knows to – perhaps, if she did not suspect his coming, he may be able to catch a clue, something she was covering up. Then again, perhaps not.
The walk was uneventful but tiring. Even on a relatively warm day, walking down these filthy streets reminded Edward of a time not far gone that he would rather forget. Still, he had already taken long strides to his own betterment. Soon enough, he wouldn't be walking, and he wouldn't be working cases that could possibly tangled with the Order of St. Dumas (yes, he knew of them – nothing escaped the tendrils of his informants. Back when he had informants, anyway). At least, that was what he was hoping for.
No mishaps occurred, so by the tail end of the walk, Edward began to slow his pace to better fit his own timeline. By 11:13am, he had arrived at the address in the email. He checked the mailbox on the way in – “Hernandez”, as it should have been. Clean so far.
Voices could be heard as the lean detective approached. A man's, a woman's, and one somewhat in between. The man's was the loudest, and a distinct tone of anger – rage, even – did not escape the detective's practiced ears. Mayhaps there was a Mr. Hernandez after all. Eddie lingered near the mailbox for a long moment, waiting, listening, focusing, before the front door to a quaint, lower-middle-class home in a barely suburban neighborhood (in Gotham, “suburban” meant “you might see a tree”, as far as Eddie could tell). Peeling white paint, a screen door. Nothing impressive.
The man storming out of the door was tall (only a few inches shorter than Ed himself) and overweight, hispanic by his coloring. Mr. Hernandez indeed.
Eddie patted the pockets of his coat, jacket, pants, everything, out of sheer compulsion. While he did feel like he was forgetting something, the motion was to look “busy” – rather than simply spying on a household. When the Hernandez patriarch (by his guess, anyway) hopped into a gray compact car and slithered out of the driveway, Edward dropped his act and made his way back towards the house. By his internal clock, about four minutes had passed, which was reasonable. He was still early.
A single sharp knock at the door, and it swung open before he could drop his fist on the door once more. Mrs. Hernandez was as he had expected – middle-aged, thick-boned but in fair shape. Slight signs of poor health, most likely derived from stress. A worrying, working mother in a low neighborhood. Exactly the kind of woman to call in a bogus investigation for a rebellious son who simply wanted to spend time with his friends.
His earlier musings on Azrael, however, kept his mind open. He had to be careful not to fall into old patterns of obsession and arrogance. Had to prove himself here, to the extent that he could begin to build a reputation. “Madam,” he cooed quietly, offering a short bow and a subtle flourish.
“My-- Mr. Nash. I wasn't expecting you for another--”
“Thirteen minutes, yes. I'm early. My apologies if I startled you.”
The woman swallowed briefly. Nerves, if he had to guess. Stress, again. “No, it's nothing. Come on in – my son's upstairs in his room, and the walls are thick enough if you want to talk privately.”
“That's up to you, madam,” Nigma clucked, his eyes instantly entering a state of perpetual motion as he scanned the room. He attempted to absorb every detail, every little bit of information that he could force through his optic nerves and into his brain. “Do you want this to be a private investigation, or a public one?” A play on words. How would she react, he wondered? How were her powers of observation?
“I am paying you for a private investigation. If it's possible, I'd like you to give me one in every sense of the word, but I don't know how you operate. Do you plan to interrogate my son? Talk to him? Should he know you're here?”
Impatient, direct, observant. Less submissive than she seemed in the email, which meant one one of two things. One; that she was in an emotional state right now, possibly as a result of her husband, that led to her more assertive attitude. Two; she carefully worded the letter to seem vulnerable, which would mean she was cunning. Cunning enough for Edward to disregard this being a false alarm.
“I'd like to speak with him, if that's acceptable. More importantly, I'd like to see his room. And if I may ask, Mrs. Hernandez, what church does you family go to?”
“St. Christopher's,” she answers resolutely, inhaling steadily.
“And your son goes to the same church?” Employee of the Month plaque. Mrs. Rosemary Hernandez. Hard worker indeed.
“He... has missed the last few sundays, actually. Said he had to study.”
Dammit. “Well that hardly sounds... in character. I'd like to speak with your son now, if that's alright.”
The woman nodded, and her features softened. She was staying strong through this, he'd give her that. Not that he would pretend to relate what she was going through. Edward glanced down to Mrs. Hernandez's sneakered feet, and, without removing his own dusty black shoes, walked up the stairs. He made no prints on the featureless beige carpet, but you never could tell. Some people simply would not accept shoes in their house. Clayton's room was easy to find, being the only door adorned with a cross.
A red, flared cross.
Nigma offered a sharp knock at the door, and stood around for a moment waiting. There was a groan, followed by a little bit of mild shuffling. It took a few moments for the door to open, and when it did, Edward Nigma (or “Detective Nash”) was faced with the initial target of his case.
Clayton Hernandez was a boy – sixteen, the woman had said, though he looked a little older. He was fit, perhaps even athletic, but even before the buzz-cut boy could grunt out a distasteful “Yes?”, Riddler was noticing irregularities. His muscles were not the ones built by sports, but the ones built by combat. The ratio between his triceps and deltoids, among other things, made it thoroughly obvious that Clayton was not developing his physique running and throwing a ball around. Advanced grappling, if he had to guess. Extensive swordplay, weapons training. Maybe archery. Also a bit of heavy lifting if the formation of his back and shoulders were any indication.
“Riddle me this, Clayton,” Nigma tilted his head to the side, carefully removing his thin-framed sunglasses. “I'm never wet, but I can drown a man's soul in fear. I stand from nature's beauty, but I dress in its fury. I was the ultimate symbol of peace, but now stand for a declaration of war.”
The boy stared up at him, his eyes narrowing. He didn't show shock, or even confusion.
“What am I, Clayton?”
“I don't know,” the boy lied.
Nigma inhaled, and slipped his sunglasses back on. “I'm a burning cross. Goodbye, Mr. Hernandez. It was a pleasure speaking with you.”
Without waiting for the boy to close the door, Eddie turned and walked back down the hall, down the stairs. He paused briefly beside Rosemary, who was already moving towards him.
“Does your son study fencing, madam?”
“What-- I-- no, he doesn't, Mr. Nash. Not that I know of.”
Edward nodded. “Thank you. I'll be back – I need to follow a few leads, first. I think I've confirmed a few suspicions. You shouldn't keep worrying, everything will be alright.”
His walk home involved quite a bit of thought. His suspicions were easily confirmed – at the core of this case was the Order of St. Dumas, and the current Azrael: Michael Lane, the man who wanted Nigma dead without parole. He'd need to plan carefully for this.