Michael Stanton scratched the side of his nose with the capped end of the pen, staring down at the paperwork, then up at the man standing across from him.
The guy honestly looked more like some rich European banker on vacation than a senior Customs official. He had his hands folded and was smiling pleasantly at Stanton as he went through the reports, but there was something straight-backed and immobile about his stance - though Stanton would not have thought to use either term for it - that said he wasn’t in the mood for compromise.
“Well it’s all here,” said Stanton, turning over the last of the papers - “My people have been working at it since last night and we can’t find any traces of disease in the soil samples, but we can’t possibly know for sure until we’ve completed all the tests. Once the fumigation starts we won’t be able to continue work inside the ship -”
“The clients assured me, my dear friend, that their cargo was appropriately checked before it left port, and as you can see, all of the required papers were completed.”
Stanton turned the papers over in his hand a few more times. Yes, it all seemed fine. There it all was; the reports signed by a selection of Bulgarian customs officials, the receipts of purchase, it all checked out. A strange uneasiness that had been building in the back of Stanton’s mind began to clear - or rather, it was dulled. Mike found it hard to concentrate. He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“Look, I just don’t know if it’s policy to release the cargo to the client at this stage. Fumigation hasn’t started and the ship is still a red zone -”
“The clients are concerned that the - fumigants - may contaminate their samples.” The official’s voice gave Stanton the creeps - he had an odd accent, so faint as to be unidentifiable, it was more the deliberate way he lingered on certain words, as if tasting them for the first time. “They have passed to me their assurances, my good friend, that the soil samples were thoroughly treated for any dangerous bacteria before they were packed. I was also informed that the samples came to them only at great expense and with some difficulty in preserving them intact for seaborne transport. The first time the crates were unsealed since they were packed at port was by your workers, so they could not be tainted by anything carried by the rodents. It is indeed a terrible tragedy about the crew - whatever fate has, how is it you say, befallen to them - but the clients would still be at their most comfortable if their property were released to them, post-haste.”
Stanton shook his head, trying to free it from the haze. Maybe it was just the way the man kept calling him “dear friend” every few sentences. Yes, that must be it. All the reports were there in his hand - the soil samples were clearly clean, and the science nerds at Corvinus Laboratories were perfectly within their rights to be worried about the fumigants. Why was Stanton bothering to make a fuss? The guy was a high-up anyway, it wouldn’t do to argue with him. Stanton didn’t know which branch of what agency he was from. Better safe than sorry.
“Allright, you got it, sir,” he finally relented, adding his signature to the papers. “You’d better have your boys load them for transport, though, the Coastguard guys are getting twitchy about the possibility of the fumigants getting into the bay. But someone’s gotta kill all these rats, and we don’t have time to wait for the lab tests on the ones they caught to come back. Honestly, this whole thing is a huge mess and I can’t wait for it to be over.”
“Ah, of course,” The official said, smiling that unpleasant-pleasant smile again. “It would indeed be a difficult task to contain this event entirely. Rats are, after all, excellent swimmers.”
He took the papers from Mike’s hand and melted away, leaving Stanton scratching his head, wondering what the conversation had actually been about.
He was sure he’d figure it out when the dizzy spell passed.
Bruce hadn’t emerged from the cave much in the past day. He’d come out, done a brief patrol, come back, spent a few more hours in the cave before crawling into bed with Selina and sleeping like a log. Not a word. It was like this when he was working on a lot at one time - and things had gotten pretty hectic since the docks incident.
Scarecrow was being held for observation, officially due to any ‘traumatic stress’ that might’ve been inflicted by his near-death experience at the docks, but without any real dirt on him he might even be able to slip a release before Halloween and he was busily being a model patient to ensure it would be so.
The Joker hadn’t made a move and was still in his maximum security cell. Attendants were keeping a close watch on him and noted that he was his usual self - as much as Joker had a ‘usual self’ - and hadn’t yet shown any signs of extreme violence or intent to escape. Batman had sent them a warning to closely check any incoming correspondence from ‘Patient H. Quinzel’, but if they weren’t subtle about it, that alone might pique Joker’s interest. It was a dicey game.
Batman’s progress into the issue of the upcoming film had hit a dangerous bump; Oracle’s sources hadn’t been clear on the date of the production’s beginning, and it turned out to have been much farther along than either of them had realised. Security around the project had been remarkably tight - almost the envy of a CIA operation - until the intern leak there hadn’t been a whisper beyond vague rumours of casting talks. Batman was alarmed to learn that pre-production was almost complete, location scouts had been in and out of Gotham unnoticed, and the crew was preparing to move in for some preliminary shooting within the next week. They’d already been filming at studios in LA and Metropolis, under a fake script title; now the cat was out of the bag, it was time for their prime ‘location’ shoot to begin. As long as Joker was in Arkham, Batman couldn’t justify interfering with the production, but everything about it screamed danger to him.
Yet as deeply as it chafed him that they were making a Batman movie at all - painting the shadowy symbol of rumour and urban myth he had carefully cultivated onto the broad, crude canvas of the silver screen for all to see - he had to acknowledge that its existence was a tribute to the success of Batman and would bring the world’s attention to the issue of crime in Gotham and his efforts to rein it in.
That is, if they got it right.
And then there was the dockside incident. That had taken priority over everything else. The possibility of a Scarecrow attack or even of some kind of vengeful rampage from a currently-incarcerated Joker paled in comparison to the concept of an outbreak of contagion in Gotham. If Customs, quarantine and the Coastguard - not to mention the impending FBI - found nothing amiss, there might be no need for Batman to look into it. But he couldn't pretend it would be that easy. Scarecrow’s suspicious proximity just before the derelict vessel’s appearance, the missing crew and unusual cargo. Everything suggested that something very sinister was afoot, and today’s events had simply deepened his suspicion.
Quarantine had released the crates of earth to their original destinations, several small research labs and botanical institutes scattered throughout Gotham. Shortly after their removal from the ship, and just as the fumigators went in to start their work, the entire ship had suddenly listed astern, slid off the docks and sunk into the bay, taking a good portion of the mangled dockside and two quarantine workers with it.
Drowned. A third was in critical condition after part of the collapsed dock had crushed his leg. The tragedy had occurred, the word was, because of a bungle in removing the crates - the change in weight distribution in the already heavily-damaged freighter had released pressure on a breach in the hull and allowed water in, sinking the ship. Nobody was quite sure - but the result was the same; two lives were lost, as were the hundreds of rats the fumigators had been heading in to destroy.
Batman knew better. Someone had scuttled the ship, just as they had removed the ship’s logs, just as they had covered up the fate of the crew - and they weren’t finished.
He tapped the Batcomputer console in grim thought. The screen showed a police report; workers from the quarantine labs had called it in early this morning. Shortly after finishing their preliminary tests on the captured rodent specimens from the derelict, they’d returned to find the specimens missing. There was no sign of forced entry, nothing on the cameras, no fingerprints in the vicinity. Security at a quarantine lab wasn’t first-class - it was more to keep things in than out - but it would nonetheless take a professional to get in and out that effortlessly.
In the back of his mind, Batman wondered why the reports themselves hadn’t been taken. The perpetrator had so far been exceedingly thorough in cleaning up the evidence - it was hard to imagine such a person overlooking a few computer files and printouts that could blow the lid off whatever it was he or she was attempting. Either they had seriously slipped up, or the reports were spared on purpose.
It could be a she, Batman clicked suddenly. It could be a very particular she. Soil samples, botanical institutes...
And she was at large. It was unlike her to use animals, but it would be much more difficult to spread a contagion from plants to humans and she might find irony in using filthy verminous rodents to wipe out what she considered to be filthy, verminous rodents of a two-legged variety -
He would definitely be paying Ms Isley a visit. But the most immediate concern was finding out just what it had been on that ship that the perpetrator - Ivy or not - was so keen on covering up….
Deep within the fetid bowels of Arkham Asylum, Jonathan Crane sat, frustrated, like a hunkered-up spider, tapping his chin with long fingers and glaring at the wall.
Down the hall and through the door to Maximum, Joker was laughing his ass off at something. Joker was always laughing his ass off at something. The doctors had, helpfully, tried soundproofing his cell, but that only meant the next time he cut the camera feed and hogtied the attendant with the straps of his own straitjacket nobody was able to hear her frantic screams for help. So that nixed that great idea.
They’d then considered building a new wing just for him, but the budget hadn’t come through, so the peace of mind of the other inmates - few had any illusions of actually being ‘patients’ - was sacrificed for the sake of security.
Thus Crane’s patiently-acquired unsupervised time in his cell was being interrupted, as his methodical plotting of the next step after his release was being consistently derailed by pleasurable thoughts of a ball-gag (or perhaps one of those magnificent bladed mouth-traps meant to silence gossipy women in ye grand old medieval days - ah, misogyny!) stuffed between Joker’s yellowed choppers. Possibly assisted by a sledgehammer just to make sure it fit.
“Ignominous codpiece.” Crane hissed, clunking his head against the wall - no, better not start that, that way cliché madness lay - “Why does he never run out of air?” He was beginning to envy Mr. Freeze, who from what Jervis said had found a way to soundproof his cell against Joker’s constant cackle by insisting the acoustics were interfering with his delicate medical equipment, required to revive his precious, his beautiful Nora, and how if he were only given the silence in which to work, he would surely be able to heal the terrible aching pain within his frozen heart, and once more rejoin society as a whole human being instead of but a frigid shard of a once warm and caring soul…
So the docs had doubled the thermal padding on Freeze’s specialised cell and included a soundproofed layer so that he could sit in his little bubble of misery and emote at his snow globe without hearing so much a pipe of La Serenade de Joker. Smug bastard.
“HAAA HA HA HA HA HAHAHAHA HAHAHAHA EEHEHAHAHA AAAHAHAHAHAH -”
Then, from a few cells over -
“Jack SHUT HELL UP or Croc PULL JAW OFF AND BEAT JACK SKULL IN WITH IT!!”
“HA HAH-HEE HEHEHEHE HOOOO AHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHA…”
Crane doubted the jaw Croc was referring to was his own. Whatever jest the Clown was giggling over this time, it must’ve been a cracker, because he’d been going for - six hours and counting. If it kept up, the other rogues might just finally put their differences and mutual fear of Joker aside and kill the scrawny bastard. Preferably with every fork in the lunchroom, plastic or no. Crane had a feeling the doctors wouldn’t miss him much either.
And then, just like that, the laughing stopped.
Scarecrow wondered if someone had beat him to it and a surge of jealousy shot into his gut like a gloved bat-fist. Who would dare!? Croc, that lumbering brute, Jervis, that twittering buffoon -
Crane felt an oozing chill seep through the walls of his cell. He crept to the heavily barred window as if drawn by an unseen force - and, staring out, spied that dead tree that had always so inspired him, save that silhouetted in the moonlight it seemed somehow thicker, darker, and more knotted.
The voice seemed to resonate partly in his ears and partly in the back of his mind, bouncing around his skull like the echo of a dream -
~I am very pleased with you, Jonathan. Your services have been well-timed and well-received. It is time to move on. You will leave this house of fools to-morrow morning.~
“I don’t want to escape. It’s almost Halloween…” he found himself whispering. “I can’t afford to waste time evading police and Batman - I can only have that freedom if I’m released.”
~Do not fear, my dear and faithful friend. I have arranged for your pardon.~
~You will see. Trust in me and you shall be rewarded.~
Crane swallowed, as he saw a pair of gleaming red eyes open at the top of the tree, staring right into him, and he felt the will to protest and question drain away.
~Trust repaid with recognition, loyalty with protection, obedience with a gift most treasured. Will you obey?~
After the first pair, others - hundreds, thousands! - the tree became a seething mass of eyes, all of them red like His, all of them turned toward Crane, pouring out further into the field beyond. The Scarecrow felt his heart catch in his throat, and his lips tweaked into a grin that would have frightened the Joker himself.
“I will obey, Master.”
To be continued…