Danesti. Corvinus. Hunyadi. Volkoslak. Ordog. De Laempri. Al-Daruc. What was I missing?
Ivy and Scarecrow were involved. I was certain. But neither of them were in a position to pull it off - if they did this, they had help. My attention had turned to the overseas backers; three hours of digging into Middle-Eastern terrorist networks had turned up no connection to the mysterious sheik; six hours of profiling Russian mobsters operating in Gotham had brought me no closer to Volkoslak. The laboratories who had claimed the soil samples were clean; in operation ten, twenty years each. The names swam in my head; something was connecting them, something seemed to be a common thread, but I could not place it.
The World’s Greatest Detective was stumped.
I slumped back in my chair and felt the weight of the evening’s work - of yesterday’s work on top of it - fall on my shoulders like a mantle of woven lead. I needed out of the cave. I needed to patrol, yet I was still stuck here. There would be crimes slipping under Batman’s radar tonight - muggings, break-ins - but I could not afford to leave this case sit. So far there had been no confirmed fatalities from the plague; that was thanks to the lab report, and Batman had sent a full dossier to every major hospital in Gotham of exactly how to treat Bubonic Plague to back up their own standard procedures.
However, the report had mentioned discrepancies in the shape of the bacteria, but had been unable to examine them more closely before the samples were stolen. This coupled with the fact that the planting of the disease in Gotham was a deliberate act by an unseen enemy led me to believe - no, to know with utmost certainty - that the bacteria had been modified, weaponised, that there was some greater disaster waiting to be triggered.
It was the rats. It had to be. The soil samples were clean, they were simply topsoil, apparently of Eastern-European origin. No unusual bacteria -
That was when Selina came flouncing into the cave in full Cat-regalia, with a spring in her step and a smirk across her face so feline it wouldn’t have surprised me to see canary feathers poking between her lips.
“Evening handsome. Guess what?”
I felt the grunt escape before I could congeal a more appropriate response out of my thoughts.
“I got your man.”
She dropped a book in my lap. I glanced down at the author, then the title.
The tumblers fell into place.
“Is this a joke?”
I hadn’t meant it to sound so harsh, but Selina scowled prettily at me and tossed a second book in my lap - a bigger, heavier one. I flinched. She obviously wasn’t wanting kids.
Florescu, Mirceau: Romania - A Medieval History.
“You’re still the World’s Greatest, stud, you were just looking in the wrong place and time. Matthias Corvinus, John Hunyadi, aka “The White Knight”, they were all contemporaries of Vlad the Impaler. Dracula. The Danesti clan were bitter rivals of his. Drachenskind - Dragon's child - Dracula means 'Son of the Dragon'-”
I sat and stared at her. The revelation of who was seemingly behind all of this was only part of the reason I was stunned - the other was all of that detective work. Selina. Selina Kyle, Catwoman, the woman who would never concede to becoming a crimefighter, that gloriously free-spirited cat-burglar who cased her targets once and then went at them and took them to pieces through intelligence, skill and gut instinct rather than meticulous planning...Selina Kyle had taken one night’s prowl and come back with the vital evidence I had missed.
Ironically, it was probably the greatest single victory Catwoman had ever won against Batman. She seemed to have missed that significance, but I hadn’t.
“ - Ordog and Volkoslak - it’s actually vlkoslak - are names for devils and vampires in that part of the world - L-A-E-M-P-R-I is an anagram for Impaler and A-L-D-A-R-U-C is Dracula. We’re dealing with Count Vla-ah-ah’s biggest fan.”
“Or Dracula is real, and we’re dealing with him.”
It took the haze out of my brain and wiped the smirk off Selina’s face. We stared at each other quietly, expressions mirrored in their seriousness.
“I thought you'd ruled out old-world hairdos."
"I had. But this changes everything. 'When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'" I said, in earnest, but Psychobat was glowering at me for using the sacred Holmes to justify believing in probably the most ridiculous premise for a bad horror movie ever; Count Dracula had come to Gotham for Halloween.
Where were Abbott and Costello?
She cocked her head. The green eyes looked straight into me as they always did. "Am I missing something?"
I opened my mouth to reply. Was she? She had all the evidence - first - and she had come to the quite logical conclusion that there was some new Rogue out there running around with the same obsession for Bram Stoker that Jervis Tetch had for Lewis Carroll. I had leapt immediately to the possibility that it was Dracula himself. Why? Gut instinct was useful, but relying on it was for dime novel detectives. Research, analysis, protocols, hard work. That was Batman. So why had I typed supernatural in that log? Why was I thinking vampires in Gotham now? Maybe Selina wasn't the one missing something.
For a moment there, when I'd first suggested Dracula, she'd frozen. There was a very rare fear in her eyes, an instant when she realized that the game we were playing was not the game she'd started to play. Now she, studying me intently, seemed to take my silence for an answer unto itself. She began pacing in a way that was far too feline to be called anything but 'stalking'. Thinking was not an act of stillness for her. Like all cats, she thought in motion, with fluidity, with all of her senses alert and awake.
“I’ll call Jason.”
I was - troubled, uncertain. I don't know. But there was only one response I had to that; Psychobat flared. “No.”
“Bruce, if anyone is going to know about a real Dracula, it’ll be Jason Blood. I won’t invite him into things, this is ou- this is your case -but we should at least use all of our available resources, right?”
Magic. Just because Dracula was a supernatural monster, she was going to bring magic into the game. As if my methods were somehow inadequate. As if I was somehow inadequate. Use all of our available resources - we had intelligence, we had detective work, we had an intimate knowledge of Gotham City that our enemy did not have. We had the evidence we had collected. And her kneejerk reaction was to abandon all of that and turn to a medieval leftover and his incense and candles, and that hateful, unnatural manipulation of the laws of physics that his kind used as an all-purpose, fix-everything excuse for...
The Bat loosened his stranglehold enough for me to see Selina's expression; the hurt exasperation in her eyes. I realized that I must have blurted 'NO' again while Psychobat was in command, and now she was irritated. Upset that, even after all he had done for us in the past, I hadn't been able to move beyond this and consider Jason Blood a friend and ally the way she did. That I had, by proxy, once again shut her out.
I wanted to apologize. Naturally, Psychobat chose instead to make it worse.
"You're staying out of this." I found myself saying. "I appreciate that you helped me identify the perpetrator. But this is not a Rogue issue and it’s not some competitive game between you and me. It's much bigger than that, and it's out of your field of experience. You'll be putting yourself in danger. I want you out of it, or you will get hurt."
Her eyes hardened. "No kidding, genius. Haven't you figured out that's why I am involved? Because I wouldn't be bothered if it was Freeze breaking into the zoo to score some new pet polar bears. You're right that it is bigger than that and I'm in danger. Everyone is, Bruce! I'm not going to sit in the tower pining and brushing my hair while you're out hunting vampires. We all know what happens to that girl in the storybook, don't we? And incidentally, honey, I'd appreciate you toning down the Bat-jerk, because it's really getting old, and we have work to do."
We. She really wasn't going to back down. I grunted, but there was just enough of a sigh in it to signal her that I wasn't shutting the door. She continued. "So am I calling Jason Blood to ask him for information, or not?"
I felt the tension deflate a little. She'd won, or at least held her ground, and it was pointless trying to push her. But neither was I going to let her think I'd compromise on the magic issue.
"Fine. Do it. But I am not having him sending his little glowing light balls into Wayne Manor again."
She smirked, and shifted to her other side - giving a casual, almost dismissive shrug.
“You won’t have to. I talked him into buying a cell phone. Just for you.” The way she said that last part made it clear it hadn’t been easy. “If we’re in luck, they’ll turn out to be old college buddies.”
“This is not a joke, Selina. There’s a contagion spreading in Gotham, we’ve lost all this time tracking it down, and the culprit may just be an immortal blood-sucking monster.”
“Oh, as if you’re so unused to dealing with those. You can hear Ra’s shrieking “I’LL GET YOU NEXT TIME BATMAAAN!” across the Atlantic every time you hand his cadaverous ass back to him on a silver platter. You’re seriously worried you couldn’t handle Dracula? Are we talking about the same Batman here?”
I rose from the chair and stood watching her. Damn her. People's lives were on the line. The plague was spreading. Hundreds of rats were disseminating throughout the sewers and alleys and hovels of Gotham's underbelly, spreading it inevitably further. And if it was Dracula, really Dracula, then the plague itself was just a cover, and another disease was spreading underneath it, with every victim the vampire chose - vampirism itself. I couldn't possibly fathom why Selina would be making light of something like this.
No. She wasn't making light of Dracula, She was ribbing me. Challenging me. Impossible woman. What was she aiming for?
“So should we start by rounding up anybody who looks suspiciously like Bela Lugosi?”
The playful demeanour dropped, and she met my eyes with a small sigh. Then she smiled and took my hands in hers. Even with the claws, the touch was gentle.
"Bruce. I know this is serious. I'm taking it seriously. I just don't want you to fall into the trap you do every time DEMON comes calling. So what happens if it's Dracula? So he's a world-famous vampire, he's six hundred years old, and he can turn into a bat? You deal with things like that in the JLA. So they don't come to Gotham that often. So what?" She leaned close, brushed her lips over mine, and smiled again. "You're Batman. You will take him down."
Trust. Faith. In everything I, and Batman, represented. I couldn't find words to answer. Psychobat, shamed, crept back into his cave.
With a knowing wink, she slipped her hands from mine. “I’ll make the call.”
But even as she reached for her phone, the Oracom suddenly bleeped.
Our eyes met, and we knew before we heard Barbara’s voice.
:: B. This is O. Cuckoo has flown the nest. Repeat. Cuckoo has flown the nest. ::
Joker’s sudden silence had alerted the attendants and surely enough, the orderly, Driscoll, had been sent up to check on him.
As innocent as it sounded, checking on the Joker was one of the worst parts of working at Arkham. Staff drew straws to choose the unlucky member of their number who had to do it. If you drew the short straw, you’d better have your affairs in order and a good deal of medical insurance, because there was about a 20% chance you weren’t coming back with all of your appendages intact, and about a 10% chance - 60% if it was Tuesday - you weren’t coming back at all.
The Joker was at his worst when you put him in solitary. At least in the common room, the other Rogues could be trusted to keep him mostly in check (for their own sakes, of course, not out of charity) and if Harley was around she diligently bore the brunt of his pranks. But a few days of stewing in solitary worked all manner of nightmares in his brain. Sometimes he got bored, and sat there in the gloom coiled up like a spring waiting to pounce on the first person to open that door. Sometimes he would withdraw into himself, quite happily alone, which was even worse - because it meant he’d spend all of that time merrily cooking up the next mad jest and everyone would feel it when he came out. Sometimes he’d be perfectly docile. It was impossible to predict.
Driscoll found him sweeping about the room, eyes closed, arms swinging theatrically, and humming There’s No Business Like Show Business, like he was the star in a musical only he could hear. When Driscoll opened the door, Joker burst into full song, and despite drowned-out, calm pleas of “Patient J. Please calm down. Patient J. It’s time for your medication. Patient J…” he ignored the attendant and kept going until he’d finished with a grand, vaudeville flourish in the centre of his cell.
“DRISCOLL, you hairy old scrote, it’s been a while! How’s the fingers?”
Driscoll winced, unconsciously flexing the once-crushed digits. “Fine. Much better.”
“You’ll really have to accept my apologies. Vices are my vices after all, just like the one I squashed your little fingsies in. HA HA HA. Served you right for sticking them where they didn’t belong. HA! You think you got it bad, you shoulda seen what I did to my proctologist. HAAA HAHAHAHAHHA!”
“Patient J, I’d prefer we changed to a different topic-”
“Oh, no hard feelings, Drizzy, you know, not like the ones it took six months of physio to get back in your hand. Bet that smarted. But I digress!” He slung one arm around Driscoll’s shoulder, and the orderly wrapped his fingers around his whistle, both to warn Joker about the physical contact and to keep him from doing anything dangerous with it.
“I digress!” said the Joker again, ignoring him, swinging his free hand out to gesture about the room. “Mister Driscoll, I hereby declare myself cured! I am a sane man. I have looked into the abyss, found it looking back, and blown it a raspberry. I’m ready to rejoin polite society, get a job, and a little house in the ‘burbs with a white picket fence and two and a half kids, and I’ll even be a sport and make sure it’s the top half!”
It would’ve been too good to be true even if he wasn’t still an obvious box full of crazy on legs.
“Patient J, don’t you think that’s for the doctors to decide?”
That was a mistake. Joker’s eyes glittered dangerously, and he pulled away, affecting an offended sniff.
“What? Am I hearing this right, Drizzy? Are you putting yourself in the way of a man’s path back to the righteous world of the drab and morally-retentive middle-class? Are you denying me my God-given Constitutional right to swill beer, bitch at my wife, and hunch over a desk for eight hours a day whoring out my self-esteem to put my brats through college?” Joker stepped back, staring, appalled - “-a-a-are you saying - that I’m not good enough to be NORMAL!?”
“You’re the Joker.” Driscoll blurted. Mistake number two - never, ever refer to a Patient by their chosen delusional moniker. Dr. Bartholemew would be furious, if Driscoll made it out of this cell alive for him to be furious at.
“Not anymore! Haven’t you heard?! I’ve been replaced.” Joker wailed, thrusting his hand dramatically to his brow. His other held up a printout of some kind, looked like a webpage, with a large-print heading: AUSSIE HEARTTHROB NAILS JOKER ROLE - “What’s a man to do, when the man he was is no longer the original? You know what, Driz? Sod it. Who was I kidding, thinkin’ I could go blue collar? I’ve gotta think of my SKILLS-”
Murder, mayhem, volatile chemicals… Driscoll mentally listed, watching the madman warily and readying to call for assistance.
“- And, hey, I’m due a change of pace! ...WAIT! That’s it! I know what I’ll do!”
“Replace me, will he? I’ll replace him right back! I’m headin’ for the big lights, Drizzy! The glam! The glory! The babes! Home of sex tape scandals, cocaine parties, the casting couch!”
“Oh Hollywoood-” Joker segued into his Broadway best, springing off the rubber wall and pirouetting across the floor - “I’m headed for the walk of fame! I’m done with Gotham! I’m done with mister Why So Bat-Shit Serious! I’m done with being the Joker! It’s ME who’s going to be serious business, Driz! I’m gonna be on every gossip rag’s front page, my gorgeous puss is gonna be grinnin’ off the covers of Time and Woman’s Day alike - I’m gonna be A-list! HA HA - Oscars! MTV awards! Razzies! Strollin’ down the red carpet with Scarlet Johanssen on one arm and Orlando Bloom on the other! Yes, Mister Driscoll, from this day on, you can call me…” He thrust his hands out as if he were Spielberg framing a shot - “The ACTOR!”
Driscoll couldn’t help it. He snorted.
“....Do you think that's funny, Henry Driscoll?”
The sudden drop in the Joker's voice froze the blood in Driscoll's veins. His smirk fell from his face, but he didn't back away from the madman. He kept to his training. You didn't back down from them. You didn't run away. You didn't lower your eyes. You faced them firmly, you stood your ground, like you would with a dangerous animal, until they tired of it and wandered off. The moment you folded and turned your back to run, they'd have you...
That's what he kept telling himself. But he found it so very hard to meet the Joker's eyes.
He had his lips drooped down into recursive frown. They say it takes more muscles and more effort to frown than to smile; this was doubly true in the Joker's case, where his mouth when it relaxed slipped into the chemical grin by default. To see him frown was dire.
“Patient J, we're finished here. Step back.”
“I really don’t wanna leave, you know.” Joker stepped forward. “I was just getting cozy in here again. Thinking of installing Cable.”
He glanced back out the window, as if he was seeing something there that Driscoll couldn’t. Many of the orderlies didn’t like Joker having a window, but they’d found out the hard way what he could do with an air conditioner and a ventilation system. At least it was too small to crawl through.
“But there’ve been developments, Drizzy - see - first I get this -” He held up the AUSSIE HEARTTHROB NAILS JOKER ROLE note, and Driscoll observed creases indicating that it’d previously been folded into a paper plane. God damn Quinn. “From my darlin’ Harley. Then I see...”
He fell silent, staring out the window a little more, the frown becoming more thoughtful. “HEH. I won’t tell you what I saw, Drizzy. You’d think I was crazy.” He licked his lips, the smile starting to twitch up again. “There’ve been some changes outside. I need to take a walk, you see. You understand, right? When a man’s just gotta do what he’s gotta do...”
“Patient J. It’s time to sit down now. You’re not going anywhere.” Driscoll swallowed. The hole kept getting deeper.
Joker’s gaze snapped back to him. “But I haven't told you my latest! My last great joke before I hit the silver screen. You wouldn't begrudge me that, now would you?” Joker was almost purring, and it was the single most disturbing sound Henry Driscoll had ever heard.
Suddenly, Joker was grinning to beat the Devil. “See, there was this guy, let's call him Henry - HA HA - funny coincidence, that, don'tcha think? Well he had this co-worker Bob, you know, we'll say he's as fat as your buddy Bob down in Laundry, thinning hair, kind of a slob, you know? Well Bob and Henry, they go way back, but Bob, you see, he's got - HA HA - wouldn't you know it? This ROWZA hot piece of patty-cake for a wife...”
Driscoll swallowed, and reached for his whistle as the Joker advanced.
How did he know!?!
“Well, Drizzy, so our boy Henry just can't keep outta her panties. Poor old Bob, he doesn't know, won't hurt him, right? And what right does a fat slob like him have to get a stunner like that anyhow? Why it's our Henry's calling to fulfill her needs...”
Joker flicked his wrist, and something appeared from his sleeve. But it wasn't a razor-edged playing card. It was something worse, so much worse, and he dropped it on the floor at Henry's feet.
His fingers shook about the whistle. How did the bastard KNOW?!!
“...on the sofa...in the pool...on Bob's desk - OUCH! - Bob’s favorite tie as a bridle? That’s cold -” Joker dropped another photo on the floor. Another. Another. “- my, is that a Russian schoolgirl costume?”
Henry forgot utterly who he was dealing with and lunged at the Joker, trying to snatch the awful photographs away. But the madman simply swatted him aside and ducked between his arms, slippery as an eel - Driscoll was forced to quickly switch positions to remain between the Joker and the unlocked cell door.
“...who knew fatty Bob could afford so many 'household security' cams on his lousy salary? Certainly not Mrs Bobbinson! She wouldn't be making THAT face for the camera if she did, now would she?” He held up another photograph, grinning wickedly, and hammed on a girly voice with a bad accent. “Oh Boris! You can put the beef in my Stroganoff any day!”
“And heere's the punchline. HA HA. You're gonna love it.”
Henry had more than had enough. He figured he had enough time to grab the photos before security made it to the room. Not enough time for Joker to finish him with his bare hands before they did. He hoped.
He blew his whistle.
Only instead of the shrill sound he expected, there was a tiny, wet click, and a stabbing pain in his tongue.
“Poor Bob, right? Desperate guy. Crazy for revenge. Sucker for a pretty girl to boot! So when the former Doctor Quinzel asks him oh-so-sweetly 'why the long face, Baby-Bob?' he tells her all about it. Even shows her the photos. Even agrees to make sure his good pal Henry Driscoll pulls the short straw...”
Henry clapped a hand to his mouth, swaying, staring at the Joker. He tasted blood, and something else, something - chemical.
Joker's eyes were fixed on him.
“Even let her lend him a little helping hand sterilizing the staff's whistles. Such good behavior, Drizz, got an early release for my Harle, an early grave for Bad Boy Henry...HAH!”
Driscoll felt his cheeks tighten, and the corners of his mouth twitching, and something bubbling up in his chest, burning in his nostrils, stealing his breath, leaving him frantic, drowning -
Joker pushed Driscoll's chest with a bony finger, sending him to his knees, and stepped over his collapsing, shuddering body. “See what happens when you wet another man's whistle? BA-CHINNG! It's been a gas, Drizzy! See you on the Red Carpet!”
He ducked out the door.
“-at the funeral parlor. Natch!”
Joker winked at him and vanished, strolling cheerfully down the hallway just as Driscoll finally burst into shrill, howling, terminal laughter.
“There's nooo business like Showww-business...”
Jason Blood closed his eyes and rubbed his temples, trying to blot out Etrigan’s howls of raucous laughter long enough to concentrate on Selina’s voice. He was glad she couldn’t see his face.
“Yes, he’s real. No, we never went to college together.”Bitter tongue spills lies without end,
Speaks false to true and faithful friend,
The Scholomance did we attend,
She’s close to truths you can’t defend!
“Not in…normal terms…at least.” Jason conceded, cursing Etrigan inwardly.
:: Okay. I’m not gonna pry, Jason, as long as you promise not to get involved in this one unless we really, really need you. You know how Bruce is and it’s his case. ::
“Selina. You really, really need me.”
:: Come on, Dracula? Cape and tux, bad accent, smooth with the ladies? He can’t be that bad. ::
“He’s not like the movies, Selina.”
:: I figured. It'd be too easy if he was. Go on, give it to me straight. ::
“He’s - Evil. Cunning. I know, that doesn’t tell you anything -” if only Etrigan would shut up, maybe Jason could collect his thoughts enough to - “He isn’t your run of the mill immortal knave and he isn’t your average vampire either. There are Demons of Hell who are less of a threat than Dracula, because they might outpower him a thousandfold, but they rely too much on it, they allow arrogance to delude them. He knows his weaknesses, and he uses them as well as he uses his strengths. He is…like a Gotham rogue, in the way that he thinks. A mind like Riddler or Joker with ten times the strength of Killer Croc, Ra’s Al Ghul’s experience, and Etrigan’s moral compass -” The Demon took a mental bow - “Not to mention shapeshifting, mind-control, a grab bag of all-purpose black magic, and a virulent supernatural plague dripping from his fangs with every bite.”
:: Woof. If you wanted to scare me, Jase, you’re almost there. ::
“Selina, I know you’re having a hard time separating the Hollywood fiction from the reality, but I am here to tell you, Dracula is bad news. Out of respect for Bruce, I won’t get involved until it becomes absolutely necessary, or unless you call on me. But you will call on me.”
:: That’s all I needed to hear. But if you'd like to clear up just how he's different to the movies, or you have anything else that might put Bruce and I on the fast track to catching this bastard, feel free to enlighten us. ::
"Mm." Jason would have preferred to be face to face for this part. He would summarise as best he could. "Stoker's novel is essentially fiction. He already had half of it written when his friend Arminius introduced him to a Professor Van Helsing from Amsterdam. Yes, he was real too, and he was the one who defeated and destroyed Dracula in 1892, five years before the book was published. I don't know why Van Helsing chose to tell his story to Stoker, but nonetheless, due to Van Helsing's input, much of the vampire lore in the novel is accurate, if only to Dracula's particular strain. I'll do what research I can, but until I have more, you can consider the book a fairly reliable source."
:: Understood. Jason, do you have any idea why he's in Gotham in the first place? What is he up to? ::
"That one's harder, Selina. All I can say is that he will be wanting to spread his vampire curse. It's almost a compulsion for him. Living people are compelled to breathe, to eat, to sleep. Dracula is compelled to drink blood and make vampires. Other than that, Dracula is unlikely to stick to a predictable plan, but there is one element he cannot resist.”
:: Lead on, Exposition Guy. :::
“The Brides of Dracula. There are always three. He will make new Brides before he bites anyone else, and he will seek out the most beautiful, most powerful, and most dangerous women in Gotham. He will settle for nothing less.”
…to be continued…