The church on the corner of Lang and Furst had once been one of Gotham’s most well-kept architectural secrets: not as grandiose as the city’s larger cathedrals, it nonetheless possessed a certain disturbingly gothic aesthetic. There always seemed to be one gargoyle too many crouching amid the gutters and balconies; the belltower tapered into a tower-top reminiscent of a slightly sagging wizard’s hat and both inside and out, the lines of the building slanted at odd, nigh-Lovecraftian angles. Its stained glass windows spliced the standard theme of saints and angels with sometimes macabre images of America’s murky colonial history. It was a quirky curiosity of a building that might have towered over the surroundings in the days when it was built, but had long since been buried in skyscrapers. Those had only loomed higher since No Man’s Land, and the church, which had always attracted more tourists than parishioners, had been deconsecrated and abandoned due to structural damage from the quake. A local entrepreneur had attempted to buy it, to turn it into a theatre restaurant, but had met with outrage from the same Gotham historical societies who had lobbied, hard and successfully, to save the building from condemnation. Nonetheless, no restoration attempts had been made, and the front gates were now patched with warnings and No Entry signs.
It was from the balcony of the dusty belltower that Count Dracula surveyed the streets beyond like an emperor, fittingly, ruling from the lowest place rather than the highest.
“It is a quirk of history,” he murmured, “that men will always build tallest that which they value the most. In ages past, the grandest structures were castles and fortresses, the citadels of kings and warlords, then the sumptuous pleasure-palaces of emperors. Yet even those were superseded in time by churches, mosques, temples, the houses of God and emblems of religion’s might. And now they in turn have been overshadowed by these towering pillars of industry and commerce.” A sweeping gesture to the glittering towers beyond, and Dracula laughed. “The works of Man reveal his changing heart.”
Dracula turned, with an arched brow, to where Poison Ivy lounged in the shadows behind him, surrounded by a creeping mass of vines that were, even now, stripping the last few drops of blood from the sagging carcass of a stray dog that had been sleeping in the church.
Ivy hissed again, waving her hand dismissively. “The works of Man. Every one of them a penis! You can’t top Gotham for that! Just look out there! Rows and rows of ugly phallic monstrosities of cold concrete and glass, defiling what used to be pristine wilderness, Mother Nature, the female world. And all of them built by rich greedy fools trying to hide their insecurities and erectile dysfunctions and one-up the competition by building the biggest, shiniest prick on the block.”
She gave another languid gesture and the vines flung the dog’s corpse aside, then lifted to her brow and wove themselves into a May Queen crown of leaves for their mistress; the vampire vines, however, were so twisted that it more strongly resembled a crown of thorns.
“…well said, Ms Isley.” Dracula kept up the urbane, inscrutable smile, at least until Ivy wasn’t looking and he could let the bemusement furrow his brow. He put the mask back up, and turned his attention to a new voice. It somehow managed to lilt loudly.
“Oh Red, you’re gonna drive Mistah D nutso talking about stuff like that all the time. And that’d be the last thing we need! Poor ol’ Mistah D getting dragged to the happy house. Why, they wouldn’t let him sleep in a cawffin at Arkham! He’d hafta get used to the crummy bunks, wouldn’tcha, Mistah D?” Harley slid from the shadows, still in 50’s screen goddess mode, which was apparently her interpretation of what a sexy vampire queen should be like. She hip-swayed over to Dracula and draped herself on the Count’s shoulder.
In answer, Dracula leaned out over the city, smiling quietly, reaching up to stroke Harley’s hair with the closest thing he was capable of to genuine affection.
“It is right for them to fear us, my child.” Dracula continued, eyes on the street below. “As the sheep fears the wolf, so it shall and should be. Once, only the brave or the mad would venture out of doors after dark for fear of we nosferatu. Now mine is the last of the ancient bloodlines left – all other vampires that remain are pathetic, dying strains devoid of all the power and terror we once had. There is no comparison between the proud line of Dracula and these …mushroom-growths.”
He shook his head in disgust.
“Not to us to despair at the dark existence that is given us, not to us to grieve for the gentle life of the bleating lamb that we had before the baptism of death. Not to the Draculesti, not to my father, who answered his enemies with massacre and cruelty that terrified even the hard-hearted Turk and treacherous boyar, never again to sleep without the name of Dracula heavy upon his thoughts.” The Count bared his feral, wolf-like teeth, and sneered at the city beyond.
“We of the Dracul are beasts, we are devils, we are the grinning face of the Reaper. We come to offer temptation that cannot be resisted, power that cannot be denied, and eternal life within Death.”
He faced Ivy and Harley, the former watching him with shrewd, quiet scrutiny and the latter an expression of somewhat poorly-masked admiration. It was Ivy who laughed, however, nudging her friend with a bare shoulder.
“What do you know, Harle? The famous Count Dracula is certainly more eloquent than your average Gotham boy. I could almost grow to like him if he had, you know, asked before he bit my neck. You could use some lessons in how to treat a lady.” She narrowed her eyes, and part of her couldn’t believe she wasn’t springing on him to teach him a lesson in pain instead. Something – something that had not been there before the bite – was holding her back. “And you picked dangerous girls to toy with, Count. I hope you’re ready for us.”
In answer he only gave her a courteous, familial smile.
“I do not toy with you, my dear. I do not choose my heirs nor my allies at a whim. I studied you from afar long before I came to Gotham and sought you both as my Brides. For even alive, you are already predators who grip the world by the throat and make it beg to do your bidding. With the gift of Un-Death and the powers of darkness at your command, not only Gotham City but all the waking world will tremble. You are Nosferatu in spirit and thought already; soon, you shall be true queens of the night.”
“And what about you?” Ivy asked, her eyes on the black-clad man. What remained of her free will screamed at her from within; the survival instinct of her animal brain, telling her that death by Dracula’s hand, no matter the power it gave, would still be dying, her life and freedom irrevocably forfeited. Ivy’s pride reeled at the concept of being slave to this man for all eternity; but now, so much of the vampire spell was upon her that they were distant voices shrieking futilely at a locked door. “What’s your place in this?”
“The Un-Dead need a king.” He replied, “After I was awakened in this century, I spent a decade scouring the lost and lonely places of the world for other wampyri, and found that my kind have changed greatly since my age. We have evolved with the times; these modern vampires do not fear the cross, nor need their native soil in which to sleep – they are no longer bound to superstition, for this cynical century has stripped it of its power. But there is a cost. The hungry spirits which raise them from death are weak, diluted, and do not control the husk but share it. Much of the living person’s identity survives and so too its weaknesses. Doubt, uncertainty, attachment to those they had loved, moral repulsion at what they must do nightly to survive. Their minds are not the mind of a demon, but of a human, and ill-equipped for the existence of a vampire, and they soon sink into despair and self-loathing, or become mindless brute savages lurking in the back-woods of your great America.”
“You’re gonna take over then, and whip them into shape?” Harley piped in, leaning closer in breathless awe. She nearly tripped over.
The Count laughed, shaking his head and giving a grand, dismissive gesture. “Oh, child. Why would I want an army of simpering amateur thespians and thugs in black leather? No, my lady, my own blood is stronger, and bred of older, fiercer times. My offspring are to these ones as the great wolf to the timid house-dog. I shall use Gotham City as my nesting ground, for it is a city gripped in darkness and pain, and its people are hardy and strong of mind and will. The weak Un-Dead shall be culled; if they despair so of their dark un-life, then I shall grant their wish, and end it. My clan, with Gotham’s greatest fiends as its generals, shall lead my strong children to conquest. The vampire race will at last have a king and a kingdom, and all in our path shall be ground into the bloodstained earth.”
“…” Harley was, for once, speechless. When she finally found a word, it was “Wow.”
“What about Batman?” Ivy asked, after consideration.
Dracula, she noted, was no fool. “The wolfhound in Bat’s clothing. If he is even a thousandth of the man his reputation makes of him, he already knows why I am here and he is as we speak dismantling whatever he can of my schemes. As long as he is alive he will hinder us at every opportunity, and thus, he must be eliminated immediately. I will not let him live to be another Van Helsing. But trust me, my dear Brides, events are already in motion that will see him destroyed from within.”
Ivy gave one-sided smirk and lifted from her throne-of-vines, walking over to join them. She tilted her head to a disgusting sound she could hear from the rundown catacombs beneath the church; filtering up from so deep that only a vampire’s ears could catch it.
“And what are our plans for tonight, Count?”
“To-night, the games begin-” Dracula began to reply, in a velvet purr of malice.
“-Tonight, we go to WAAARRR!” Harley interrupted him, cutting loose with a shrill, villainous cackle that, had she but known it sounded more like the Wicked Witch of the West than a sultry vampiress, she might not have been so proud of.
Dracula patiently waited it through, lifting something in his hand and tapping sharp-nailed fingers against the cover.
It was a box of cereal; Count Chocula’s goofy grin mocked him from the cardboard.
“No. To-night, I feel the urge to update my wardrobe.”
Harley and Ivy exchanged a glance and said, as one, “Kittlemeier’s.”
From below came sound of someone playing old ragtime showtunes, on a pipe organ, while laughing to raise the roof.
The Bat-Clan, with one extra feline member, hit the streets at dusk like a squad of Marines dropping into a combat zone. After Batman’s grim-faced briefing on the nature of their enemy, and the solemn handing out and arming up with such weapons as garlic-essence sprays, sonar bat-repellants and crucifix pendants, they fanned out into multiple, partnered teams. Nightwing and Robin, Catwoman and Batgirl, Batman on his own – but to work closely with Oracle from afar. All of them went forth with the knowledge that they faced the possibility of a new kind of nocturnal war.
The plague had, within the scant days of its coming, claimed eight lives. Doctors were at a loss to explain the mortality rate of what should have been an easily curable infection. Batman did not have to examine the bodies to know that the true cause of death would be massive loss of blood.
By Batman’s calculations, Dracula may have created through cumulative nights more than a dozen vampires. Those who had died from the ‘plague’ were the prime suspects, and they would be, as Van Helsing’s diary explained, fully-Undead and unable to be saved. But recent Missing Persons and unreported disappearances might account for more. Batman held onto the hope that, in trying to make such a large number of vampires in such a short time, the Count would leave many of his victims infected but alive, and thus able to be salvaged back to humanity – though Batman still did not know how to accomplish that without killing Dracula himself.
The At Large list weighed heavily on Batman’s mind, for there was always the possibility that one or more of Gotham’s rogues had crossed paths with Dracula, whether by accident or the Count’s design, and become infected. To that end, Batgirl was to stake out the newly-rebuilt Iceberg, while Catwoman went inside and dug around – to find out if any prominent Rogues were MIA. This task would be difficult, as with Scarecrow’s inevitable Halloween plotting and no party invite, any number of the shrewder Rogue population may have battened down in a secure lair as Riddler had been planning to.
Cassandra Cain squatted against a familiar rooftop on a familiar stakeout point; the Iceberg Lounge, looking cleaner and newer since the incident she had unfortunately been a part of had burned it down. She watched Catwoman slink inside, one charming half-smile given to the bouncer as she passed him – he’d already been moving aside as soon as she approached. A tiny jolt of envy sprang upon her heart. Cass could’ve flitted past the man, an unseen shadow, or she could have walked up in full view and taken him down in a blaze of fists and feet. But she couldn’t ever seem to walk, as Selina did by sultry, feline nature, the path of least resistance.
The stakeout. It was more important. Selina was inside; thermals showed Killer Croc at the bar, Mad Hatter at his table, a few DEMON thugs and King Snake engaged in a heated argument, by their body language. Another night, it might have warranted her attention. Tonight, it was more important to note where Selina Kyle was going.
Cass checked the list off in her head as more Rogues were identified. She knew them well, by body shape and size, even from an indistinct thermal image. She could hear their distinctive voices from the microphone Catwoman was wearing. Batman had theorized a vampire might give off a different heat signature to a normal person – so far Cass had identified quite a few of the Iceberg crowd in their usual places, unaware or unafraid of the growing danger threatening Gotham. But no cold-bodied vampires were among them.
Cassandra, for her part, had reacted the least strongly to the news that Count Dracula was raising an army of vampires in the heart of Gotham City. She was unfamiliar with decades of pop culture and horror movies; to her, he was just a name, just an enemy, and this was just a mission. She was glad to have been partnered with Catwoman instead of with Robin or Nightwing, whose incredulous quips had not ceased since the briefing. The further away from them she was tonight, the better.
Inside, she noted, Joker and Scarecrow were absent; and the only women inside other than the Cat were Roxy Rocket, Penguin’s hostesses, and a few groupies and henchwenches. No Ivy, no Harley Quinn. Selina was approaching a table, and Cass shuffled to another position on the rooftop, as a ceiling support was blocking the thermals; it was only when she identified Riddler’s voice that she knew who Selina was talking to, but a moment later, the Cat had surreptitiously rubbed her wrist, and switched off the mic.
“What the hell you do?” Cass muttered under her breath.
“Riddle me this; when does the Cat wear a bell by choice?”
I gave Eddie a wry glare and slid my hand along my forearm, stretching just enough to flick the tiny mic-switch to off. Cass would’ve figured out who was in here and who wasn’t by now, and I’d be doing Eddie a disservice to leave it on even after he’d noticed I was wired. Whatever else could be said about the Riddler, he knew his gadgets.
“You got me, Eddie. But what are you doing out of your bunker? It’s nearly Pumpkin Time.”
“Looking for you, Selina. You haven’t been answering your phone.”
I cursed. Between the mess of rooftops and sewers and long calls to Jason, I hadn’t even checked my voicemail.
I shook my head, “Not here, let’s go to a booth.”
“Mine. I’ve de-bugged it.” Riddler sniffed. “Oswald’s been even more paranoid than usual since the rebuild. GOSH, EDAMAME WALL?”
He offered an arm, and we wandered casually to Eddie’s corner, sliding into the plush, outrageously comfortable seats. I’d give Oswald this; stingy as he was on his presently-limited budget, the old bird had too much pride to skimp on creature comforts. I wriggled in delight, then settled in for business.
“You haven't answered my riddle, either.”
“Listen, Eddie, it’s not what it looks like. They’re scanning the place to make sure D. hasn’t gotten to anyone in here. It’s in all our best interests to know who might put bite marks in our necks while we sleep.”
Eddie snorted. “D. situation bad, I take it?”
“Really bad. ‘Crow was working with D. at Danesti all along. He’s spliced something into the wheat products that, long story short, is going to make anyone infected by the plague rats completely unafraid of hickies and give D.’s kids a free buffet.”
“Sounds tasty. But come now, Selina, you’d best spill the IL SATED. You know I like my long stories long.”
“I’ll say it has to do with Toxoplasma, then, and let your brain fill in the blanks.”
Riddler whistled. “Smart.”
“Can I trust you to pass the relevant details, and the relevant details only, along to the rest of the crowd?”
He gave me an incredulous arch of the brows for that one. “You want me to warn everyone that D. is in town? I’d be laughed out of the ‘Berg, Lina! They’ll think I caught a noseful of fear gas a day early.”
“I’m just giving you the medicine, you pick the spoonful of sugar, Eddie.” I caught myself glancing back to the crowd, picking up as the evening ticked by. “…Can’t see Pam.”
“Pam or Harley. Laughing Boy’s not in, so that might explain Harley’s absence, but you know how Pam likes to, alas the tired cliché, rule the Penguin’s roost and she left on amiable terms last time, so she’s not sulking in her lairs.”
“D.’s looking for Brides.”
“Can’t see Pammy as the marrying type, myself,” Eddie paused to slurp a cocktail straw, “I’d pity D. if he tried. Talk about a homewrecker! Can you imagine an entire Transylvanian castle overgrown with vines and stinking of Lemon Pledge? Ugh.”
I found myself smirking. The humor was appreciated; it wasn’t what we needed right now, but it was appreciated.
I was about to speak again when a small squawk alerted me to Oswald Cobblepot’s approach. It set off alarm bells right away; when the Penguin had something to say to Catwoman, he usually waddled over waving his arms and trumpeting suave salutations to the felicitous feline felon or something equally odious. This time he didn’t say a word, just squawked to let us know he was coming and then settled down into Eddie’s booth and glared at us both. I had to wonder if he’d somehow figured out about my wire…
“Not often that I see you in here anymore, Catwoman.”
He meant ‘Not often’ as in ‘not every night after a successful prowl, allowing me as a senior rogue of your own stature to fence your plunder, rather than letting nameless nobodies feather their nests at my expense-kwak’. We’d been over this before, several times. Oswald’s constant complaining to anyone who would listen that Catwoman used out of town fences reinforced the impression that I was still stealing.
“Interesting that you two choose to come in, not even greet me, then huddle in a corner, disable my audio security and mutter into your cocktail glasses right as an outbreak of – wark! – Black Plague is keeping half of my clientele indoors.”
“Implying something, Ozzie?” I narrowed eyes at him, and let my claws drum visibly on the tabletop. “I thought you’d have learned by now never to rub a cat’s fur the wrong way, especially when she’s trying to relax.”
Penguin jabbed a shiny-gloved finger at me, then pinched his monocle in a scowl that ran between Eddie and I. He wasn’t taking the intimidation tactics tonight, and that didn’t bode well either. “You know what’s going on. This is some ploy of Crane’s, is it not? You can’t – gwak – keep me out of the loop – and expect to continue to patronize my bar. I want answers. He’ll be banned for a year if his antics cost me any more customers!”
“Ozzie…” I began, but Eddie cleared his throat and sat up in Penguin’s face -
“Customers like Joker, Harley and Ivy?! What do you call a birdbrain club owner that can’t see the tip of his own nose?”
He shook his finger at Penguin and for a moment I thought he was going to poke him in the aforementioned beak.
“Listen, Oswald, you ODD PARTI IN GAOL, if we allow you into our confidence, you will have to keep it. Trust us, we’re—Listen to me, I sound like Dent.” He coughed “-Selina and I are not involved in any plot with Jonathan Crane, of all people. What do you take us for? We are trying to put a plug in this mess for everyone’s sake. So if you’re in, you’re in on our side, and you’re agreeing to help us, understood?”
Oswald chewed on his cigar filter, eyeing us shrewdly. Then he gave a wide grin, and a quacking chortle. “Very well, o perfidious purveyor of puzzles. Let’s hear it.”
Eddie looked at me, and took a deep breath.
Nightwing and Robin were to perform a sweep of the hospitals and attempt to seal the rooms of the plague patients from entry by Dracula’s offspring, unnoticed by the hospital staff. This was made harder by the sheer volume of patients; but made easier by the staff having clumped most of them together in the same wards, doing their best to isolate them lest plague-fleas spread to the other patients. Thirteen hospitals with garlic-smeared windows and tiny crucifixes hung over the doors later, the two found themselves at Gotham General, with no vampires in sight.
“You’d think we’d have caught at least one by now.” Tim huffed, perched against the outer windowsill of an empty hospital room.
One sill over, Dick laughed. “You’re excited? I thought you’d be scared.”
“Kinda a bit of both.” Tim admitted, shaking his head. “I mean, vampires – crazy people I can handle, we do that all the time. Even mutant plant monsters. I mean, that’s weird as hell, but –“
“But there’s something about the idea of a dead person up and running around biting people that feels really off, huh?”
“I’m not scared of the movies.” Tim added defensively. “It’s just…it’s a bit different when it’s real.”
“I hear you, bro.”
A few minutes passed in silence. Tim, fidgeting, broke it again, whispering across the chill air between them.
“I just kinda want to see one. You know. I mean, what do they look like? Do they have those scrunched-up foreheads, like on Buffy?”
“Doubt it. Sure we’ll get the chance soon. Just keep a lookout for anything suspicious.”
“What, like that?” Tim pointed, and Dick followed his finger to a bizarre shimmering in the air below. An arcane symbol etched itself across the alley wall behind their hospital; it was at an angle where nobody who wasn’t perched on the hospital windowsill would be able to see. Six feet in diameter and smouldering, then the wall rippled like the surface of a pond, and through it stepped a tall man in a long coat.
“What the-” Dick stared, but it registered after a moment – "Ah. Jason Blood.”
“The demonologist guy? What’s he doing?”
“Demonologising, probably.” They watched him step by the road, surveying the building like a construction foreman for a long moment before leaning down to pour something out of a small bag onto the sidewalk, drawing a line around the front façade. “It’s best not to ask.”
Tim felt a strange little shudder. He was watching a real wizard cast real magic right in front of him. “Glad he’s on our side.”
“Yeah, when his better half is in control at least.”
Jason looked up, and spotted them; how he know just where to look was anyone’s guess. He was far away, but the two men were suddenly thrust into the experience of hearing the sorcerer’s voice echoing around as if he were standing right in front of them.
:::That is an unfortunate truth, Mr Grayson. Mr Drake. I hope you won’t be as upset as Etrigan was that I’ve been following your trail of garlic and crosses across Gotham.:::
“Not at all,” Dick replied, sharing a glance with Tim before returning his gaze to the distant man, wanting to make some clever quip about Ventriloquists and dummies but finding nothing springing to mind.
:::I’ve been augmenting your wards with some of my own, and filling in a few spots you may have missed. I’ve made an unpleasant discovery; Dracula’s forces have been bedding down in different spots each night and are now gathered together and headed straight toward us.:::
“Guess you’ll get to see your vampire soon, Tim.”
:::Chances are, you already have. Because when the fully-Undead vampires get here, their proximity will ‘awaken’ anyone inside this hospital who may already have been bitten over previous nights, and call them to… join the pack, so to speak.:::
“What?” Tim and Dick exclaimed at once.
:::Gentlemen, I cannot claim the right to command you in battle as does Batman. But due to our current circumstances, I must solemnly request that you yield to my leadership for the moment. Will you accept?:::
Both came to the swift conclusion that when a ravening pack of vampires is bearing down on you and immortal demon-hunting wizard offers to take charge of things, it’s best to just say-
“Sure, you got it.”
:::Thank you. Then it is your task to ensure that none of the patients inside leave this hospital, nor, should they become awakened to vampirism, attack anyone else. I do not need to tell you that nonlethal methods are preferable to subdue them. I shall do my best to hold the others out here and repel the invasion.:::
They heard the rustling of the wind through the trees of the small park opposite the hospital pick up. In the dark they could see nothing coming, but there seemed to be movement in the foliage. Jason Blood turned back to face the road, standing in front of the hospital doors and staring out.
Eight people were suddenly standing across the road from him. They were dressed normally, but stood deadly-silent, too still to be alive. Not speaking, not moving, not breathing. Their faces were colorless and expressionless in the moonlight.
“Here we go.” Tim whispered to Dick, and the two of them without another word pulled the hospital window open, slipped into the empty room beyond, and drew their Batarangs.
Within a few minutes, the hospital stakeout would become a siege.
Two-Face left the Iceberg in a grouchy mood; since his return to crime, he’d not had the opportunity to pull off anything truly spectacular, and once the Iceberg’s triumphant re-welcoming had died down, everything had returned to business-as-usual.
Except that tonight, Selina Kyle, one of Harvey’s closest remaining friends, had come into the ‘Berg, walked right past him and gone straight to Edward Nigma without so much as a ‘hi’.
Was she still smarting from that double-bladed knife in the arm?
In the old days, a few injuries between friends – and fellow crooks – were par for the course, no hard feelings. Something had changed, recently, and he couldn’t put his finger on it. Regardless, the Iceberg was suddenly not the place Harvey or Two-Face wanted to be, and they’d left without so much as a coin-toss to decide if they should’ve.
“Hiya there, Twofers.”
He would have recognized Harley Quinn’s voice from half a mile away while blindfolded. Short of, say, Lucille Ball, or maybe Fran Drescher, there was no other voice like it. But when he saw her, he had to double-doubletake.
“Nice dress.” Two-Face growled, pulling up his side of Harvey’s shocked expression in a wicked grin. “Little …looser than your usual, but we can’t complain about the neckline.” They checked. “Or the legs.”
“Maybe I just felt the winds of change, blowin’ across me.” Harley breathed in her best Marilyn, looking around for an appropriate grill vent to stand over. Unfortunately, her slinky red dress was too tight around the legs for the desired effect. She decided on the Veronica Lake approach, brushed her hair over one eye and swayed out of the shadows to imaginary saxophone music. “Little early for a handsome glass-and-two-halves like you to be leavin’ the bar, ain’t it Harv?”
“Maybe we're lookin’ for an after-party,” he replied warily. In one half of his brain, about two dozen Two-Face fantasies long forgotten suddenly sprang back to life; in the other, Harvey Dent was watching the shadows for signs of her maniacal, grinning boyfriend, and trying to read her like he’d read a hostile witness for signs that she might be about to make him the butt of one of the Happy Couple’s pranks.
“Party for two…” She eyed him up and down, about as subtle as a speeding Mack Truck with a dead guy behind the wheel and a brick on the accelerator. “…or can we make it three?” A sultry wink.
“Long as it isn’t four.” Normally he’d find the even number a lot more palatable. But while Two-Face was a horn-dog, he wasn’t stupid. Harley Quinn, out of makeup, dolled up like a gangster’s moll, hitting on him like a femme fatale on a deadbeat P.I in a bad dime-bin noir novel, and no sign of the Joker? It set off alarm bells on both sides of the mind.
“Naw.” She winked at them both again and took his hand. “I promise, our little secret. Just between the two of you and little ol’ me.” She glanced to a back-alley leading away from the Iceberg, away from prying, drunken Rogue-eyes…
Harvey resisted. Everything about this screamed 'giant neon sign reading DANGER' to him. Two-Face, laughing, barked in his mind that he’d always wanted to ‘bone the Joker’s broad right under his pointy nose’ and he could take whatever the clown tried to dish out. It’d be worth it. There was only one way to settle this.
Harley grinned sweetly as the coin flashed and fell.
Scarred up. She tugged his arm again and he followed her into the alleyway.
A soundless shadow flitted after them.
Mr Kittlemeier dusted off his palms, scrutinizing the 12-gauge, pump-action parasol lying on his desk. For ‘personal defense’ and ‘sports-shooting, kwak’, Herr Cobblepot had said, but both of them knew it was a formality. The repairs would be simple enough – it wasn’t like the days when that particular client was an active criminal mastermind and he had to regularly pluck a smoldering batarang he had also made out of various parasols and such. A pity in a way; Herr Cobblepot had always paid extremely well.
Kittlemeier tisked, and glanced at his clock. His evening’s next appointment would be arriving within minutes. A newcomer, though the referrals had been clear. He did not yet know the new client, nor his order, but he trusted the stranger knew enough from his referrers to abide by Mr Kittlemeier’s rules right away.
He moved to the front room, leaving the umbrella on his workbench. He glanced at the clock – precisely on time. The fellow had better not keep him waiting.
“Herr Kittlemeier.” The voice made him jump; he saw the tall silhouette a half-second later. The man in black had already been there when he came in.
Adjusting his glasses and clearing his throat, the old man looked up at his new client. “Yes, yes, you are being on time, it is gud, gud. Shall we to business? I have a very busy schedule, you understand, very busy.” He didn’t, tonight, but it was good business practice to always be busy whether one truly was or not.
The man smiled, and then spoke – in excellent, if old-fashioned German. “It is an honor, mein Herr, to make your acquaintance. I trust that my request will be easily within your abilities. Here are the designs, to be crafted exactly as specified.”
He gave a courteous bow, and passed Kittlemeier a set of sketches; the famed gadgeteer darted his eyes about them for a moment before looking up at his guest, with one brow perked.
“Begging your pardon, but for something so simple, could you not have gone to a tailor?” Kittlemeier glanced at the designs again, and held back a snort. He was almost insulted. “Or even to a Halloween costume shop…”
A thin smile from the stranger. “No, my good friend. Your special touch is absolutely required for this task, and your services came very highly recommended.” The man leaned closer, and Kittlemeier noticed the sharp nails on his folded fingers. “I will accept no lesser substitute.”
Kittlemeier sighed, and opened his ledger, flicking through the pages to record the new commission. “Very well. Under what name should I be placing this order, hmm?”
“I should think that you already know.”
Kittelemeier furrowed his brows, and began to speak again – when he caught himself staring at the polished silver tray that habitually rested next to the bell. He would often surreptitiously watch the expressions of his clients in it as he pretended to fussily ignore them.
But all he could see where the man should have been was an empty doorframe. He cast no reflection whatsoever.
“Mein Gott…” Kittlemeier whispered. “It’s you.”
“I shall return at dusk to-morrow.” Dracula replied, touching his fingers to his brow graciously. “Good night, my dear friend, and good luck.”
Then he was gone, and Kittelemeier was left with the blueprints clutched in trembling hands.
He mopped his brow, shook his head, and returned to the workshop.
Halfway across Gotham, Batman lowered the night-scope binoculars and narrowed his eyes at the sign he had just read. Schroedinger’s Antiques hung above the boarded-up door to a dilapidated shopfront. Just another condemned building the overworked Gotham urban-renewal board had forgotten to bring down; it had been out of business for years. It was his first lead in the hunt for Dracula’s earth-boxes, and he’d stumbled on it by complete chance.
After a fruitless early evening, he had returned to an old patrol route on a hunch, and found a small pile of dark soil, very different to the familiar brown Gotham clay, spilled on the sidewalk near the antique store’s former loading zone. A quick comparison to the soil sample he had taken from the docks confirmed the match and a visit to a snitch who lived three blocks away told him that a two-bit black market courier named Left-Hand Luke had delivered a small industrial crate via a pickup truck to the rear of the abandoned antiques store, something the snitch had thought odd since the place had been condemned for at least eight years.
He knew Luke well. He was a former Penguin contractor, someone you called when you wanted goods transported quietly and untraceably, and FedEx just wasn’t going to cut it. He also knew that as good as he was at covering up any papertrail the moving of goods might generate, Luke was not a hardened criminal, and he'd squeal like a leaky tap for the Batman. But that would come later.
He entered the antique store, and it took him less than five minutes to find the box. It had been dragged across the floor by Luke’s deft left hand. The marks left by the size of the box and the dusty environment were easy enough for Batman to follow to the concealed trapdoor. Below, he found the box, in a cramped basement filled with a stale, nauseous grave-stench that did not belong there.
Clearly, Dracula had been using this lair.
As he pried open the lid, he was not surprised to find that Count Dracula had not resorted to the usual assortment of spring-loaded poisoned needles or hair-trigger explosives a native Gotham rogue might seal a box with.
He was, however, confronted with an instant, squeaking, writhing mass of black plague rats, pouring out of the box - and then out of every crevice in the basement, filling it up with chittering bodies.
A puff of irritant spray drove them squealing away; but Batman suspected Dracula would soon know that the first of his soil-hotels had been found.
Good. It was exactly what Batman wanted.
He gave a tiny smirk not even the rats would see, and began to dismantle and consecrate the lair, exactly as Van Helsing’s diary had suggested. There were aspects of the ritual he would be unable to complete, as he was not exactly an ordained priest…
But it would be enough. One down, twenty three to go.
“One down!” Robin shouted, quickly hogtying the man – the vampire – he had just paralyzed with a garlic-essence-laced tranquilizer dart. He hoped the tensile rope, designed to hold the likes of Killer Croc, would hold. “How many to go?”
“You tell me bro!” Nightwing ducked a clumsy but savage swipe from a woman who had only moments ago been confined to a hospital bed. She gave a hiss, twisted her face into a nightmarish sneer and leapt vertically upward, clinging to the ceiling like a lizard for a few moments before the dart thudded into her shoulder and she fell at Nightwing’s feet. “This wing’s clear, secure it, I’m heading onward.” And he was running down the corridor to the next ward.
“Roger!” Tim, breathing hard, glanced back to the ward. Sweat ran down his face. These things were fast, even the newly-awakened ones, and while they were wild combatants and no match for trained martial artists like Robin and Nightwing, they’d fast learned that the vampires hit like a freight train and it was preferable never to let them land a blow. It’d taken them a lot more effort to get a clear shot to bring two of the ‘awakened’ within the hospital down than it would have to K.O a room full of Joker mooks. He wondered how Mr Blood was faring outside.
The other plague sufferers in the ward looked terrified, and Tim tried his best to reassure the frightened patients. But what the hell was he supposed to say?
“Listen,” he began, after tying up the second vampire. “Just stay in your beds, we’ve got this handled, whatever you do just stay calm and do not attempt to leave the hospit-NO!”
One man, eyes wide with terror, had flung open one of the windows, breaking the cross that Tim had fastened to the outside pane, and was struggling to climb out.
The moment he crossed the threshold, before Tim could reach him, something snaked out of nowhere and wrapped around his midsection, like a black, thorn-encrusted tentacle. He gave a horrified shriek and was yanked out the window into the dark.
“Everyone down-oof!” Tim barely had the time to shout that and ready his batarang before a mass of writhing tendrils burst in through the window, splayed out over the hospital beds like some kind of demented spiderweb, and trapped the screaming patients beneath them. One of them hooked Tim around the ankle and flung him down the corridor Dick had run into.
He slid across the floor, dazed, looking up to see a slinky, silhouetted figure borne in through the window on a mass of thorn-encrusted – vines – endowed with snapping, toothy jaws. He saw the gleam of her red eyes a moment before he heard the familiar, sultry voice, echoing with new and terrifying malice.
“Hello, little bird…” Poison Ivy smiled with sharpened canines, and the scent of dark, ripe roses filled the room – musky, sweet and tainted with death. “…is that your heart I hear pounding?”
“Oh crap.” Tim whispered.
Harley ran her finger up Two-Face's lapel and watched him through half-lidded eyes.
"Poor Harv..." She murmured. "Yanno, I never could figure out how someone with two people in his head could seem so lonely...but now I'm all on my lonesome too, I understand. They don't really appreciate you."
Harvey's hand twitched for the coin, feeling a sense of unease rising as surely as something else might be if Harley continued to press against him like this. She was wearing a subtler perfume than usual, and it invaded his nostrils and teased at his senses; Two-Face's instincts were taking over in response, and Dent feared soon there'd be nothing he could do to stop Darth Duality from charging recklessly into a very ill-advised affair. He had to pull his trump card, and fast.
"Harley-" He started, gripping her wrists - "What's Pam gonna think if we do this?"
Harley stopped, and looked up at him with large, doe-like eyes. "Red doesn't appreciate you either, poor, poor Harvey. She shouldn'a let you go. If it'd been me, I would never have. I'm loyal...I always try to make things fun...I always tried to...I never asked anything of him....cept a little affection...I never..."
She broke down, abruptly, into tears and buried her face in his collar, sobbing and blowing her nose on his lapel - Two-Face grunted in disgust, but Harvey's softer sensibilities took pause.
"There there, Quinn." He patted her back awkwardly, stroking her hair like she was an overgrown kitten in a mood. "It's all right, Joker's not here, we're here, we won't hurt you." Unless it comes up scarred, or you turn out to like it rough. Shut up, Face.
"Oh Harv!" She bawled, clinging to him, "You're always such a good friend..." What? When did we get to be 'close'? "-Friends - whatever - you don't deserve to be treated badly..."
"Look." It was weird enough that Harvey's patience lapsed, and Two-Face finally got his two cents in - "Enough with the small talk, are we gonna do it, or not?"
The tears ceased instantly, and she smiled up at him and started crawling up his chest. "Sure thing, hot stuff. Just lemme...kiss...that handsome...face."
She tilted his head until the scarred side was facing her, pandering to Two-Face's ego, turning him on by paying him attention instead of the side that still looked like Apollo Dent. She let him tilt his head back, ran her hand over his throat, and found the jugular with her fingertips in the guise of caressing him.
Just like Mistah D. said. Even under the thick scar-tissue, it pulsed with life.
"Just a little kiss." She crept hungrily closer, and he never saw the look -
Until something flew out of the dark, collided with Harley's flank, and sent her crashing to the sidewalk.
"HEY-" Two-Face snarled.
The black shape dropped to the pavement beside him. "Face, go. Get away now."
Batgirl found a double-barrelled pistol pointed at her head. Heavily customised, she noted, and well-manufactured. "You better have a damn good explanation for this, Bat-brat, or it's scarred I blow your head off, unscarred I beat you to a pulp for interrupting us."
Cass didn't look at him.
She looked at Harley, watching as the girl flicked herself up onto all fours and sank into a crouch, baring long white fangs between pretty lips twisted in rage.
Two-Face stared blankly.
Harley's face scrunched into a red-eyed expression of demoniac fury, and she let out a thwarted, reptilian hiss - then promptly blinked, clapped her hand over her mouth, and let out an "EEP!" The fury lapsed into an expression of shock.
Harley Quinn backpedalled, wide-eyed, still covering her mouth with one hand, hit the alley wall, and scuttled up the wall, backwards, vanishing over the edge of the rooftop.
"What the hell was that?!" Two-Face demanded of Cass, his gun-hand trembling.
"Dunno. Maybe she surprised she make sound like electrocuted snake. You welcome, too, by the way."
"I repeat." Harvey snarled, glaring between Batgirl and the place where Harley Quinn had just been standing. "What the HELL is wrong with Quinn and how the hell did she just climb a four storey building backwards with her bare hands!?"
Cassandra lifted her hand, calmly took hold of the barrels of the gun, and pushed it down, looking Harvey in the eye. Then she shrugged.
"There new bad guy in town. Name Dracula." She turned to walk away, then added over her shoulder. "He probably get Ivy too. It all Scarecrow's fault. Thought you should know."
A grapnel shot into the fire-escape far above, and she was gone.
Two-Face stood there for a long time, trying to compute recent events with a mind already starting to throb from Oswald's finest Double Malts.
"Harley hitting on us...Harley with fangs going for our neck...Harley and ...Pam and...Dracula?"
He lifted the gun, and discharged both barrels into the wall nearest. It cleared his head.
Tonight, he was gonna get a damn good sleep, because tomorrow was gonna be a very long Halloween. For Scarecrow.
To be continued…