Sweating in his suit, staring down into the room through the grill of an air vent barely large enough to fit his skinny body into, James Turnbull had never before been so deeply aware of his heartbeat. It thundered, thudded, pounded like a drum, and he prayed to whatever God was listening that nobody would hear it.
Below, two women in lavish masquerade outfits and a grinning clown with razors for teeth were circling another beautiful woman like a pack of wolves. This would have been alarming enough, but Jimmy recognized the women he’d let in with ‘V. Lucarda’ – recognized Lucarda himself, standing off to one side with his arms folded and a cold smirk on his face that certainly wasn’t shared by the terrified partygoers around him. Jimmy noticed the man’s black and red cape with the high collar and something about the word ‘Lucarda’ swam around in his head – but he was too shell-shocked to let it sink in.
And there were horrible wooden tentacle root things breaking through the walls; he’d crawled into the vent to escape them when they burst through the foyer and up the elevator shafts. He didn’t know where Sally from Reception was. He didn’t know where Mr. Wayne was, or where anyone else was, or what on earth was happening, but he was also fairly sure the demon clown, who was most definitely not on the guest list, was the Joker. Worse, he knew the woman; Selina Kyle, Bruce Wayne’s gorgeous date. Catwoman.
Jimmy T. was not a heroic man. But he knew a life or death situation when he saw it. Something deep down inside him screamed don’t just watch and you can’t let this happen!
The rest of him had not the faintest, foggiest idea of what to do, but when he heard the Joker shout “YOU’RE ALL ON THE MENU!” and saw the giggling nightmare zombies lurching into the room, he knew he had to do something and the first step in something was getting out of the air duct.
Jimmy backpedaled furiously, huffing, puffing, panting, and hung his legs over the lip of the opening and finding himself, in an uncharacteristically religious mood, praying to God again that there weren’t any giggling zombies or carnivorous plant snakes in the kitchen he was about to slide back out into.
Then something grabbed his legs and yanked him powerfully out of the vent. Jimmy screamed, flailed, and found himself set down and something huge and black looming before him.
“James Turnbull,” rasped a voice like Satan himself.
“Jesus Christ!” shrieked Jimmy, hands up to protect his face.
“Not exactly,” said the Voice, and Jimmy stopped and stared as the nightmare shadow settled into the silhouette of a black cowl with pointed ears.
“Batman?” Jimmy said.
“Do you know the location of the manual pull station for the sprinkler system?”
“Do you know where it is?”
“Y-yeah…” Jimmy swallowed, trying to control his breathing. His gaze flicked behind Batman, seeing an older gentleman standing there, looking equally terrified – a man whose high black collar did not conceal the flash of white at his throat.
The bishop, Jimmy realised, blinking. Well, with the Church’s connections to charity, he had been on the guest list.
“Yes,” said Jimmy again, more confidently, “All staff do, it’s a deluge system, unusual for a hotel, but Mr. Wayne insist-”
“Go there. In two minutes and eighteen seconds, when you feel this beep,” Jimmy felt Batman press something into his hand, a small, black electronic device. “Pull the lever.”
“Y-yes sir,” Jimmy said.
Batman nodded to the old man in the black and white collar, who smiled at Jimmy nervously and then hurried to follow Batman as he strode to the kitchen’s door.
“Wait, where are you going?”
Batman growled over his shoulder, “Water main.”
“Everybody behind me NOW!”
It had come out of her lips with the furor of a thunderclap and cut through their terror, and the sight of the whip uncoiling from its hiding place – what did they think a girl kept in her handbag? – quickly clued in the partygoers who didn’t know Selina Kyle that this woman was not just another of their number.
She sprang in front of them, between victims and vampires, lashed the whip in a wide arc above her head, and stung Harley in the cheek with it, sending her back with a shriek, while kicking a table into the first of the giggling undead things leaping at her.
Ivy circled from one side, and Selina slashed the whip across the room and drove her back, hissing, beside her new Master.
He was still smiling implacably. Bastard.
Jesus – Bruce – HERE - NOW!
It went on and on like a mantra in her head. She had no time for other thoughts. Drac and the Bride-bitches hung back, and Joker was still busy laughing his hideous ass off, but the giggling vampires came at her like maddened bullfrogs. Behind her someone shrieked and she whipped a vampire that had slipped past her around the neck, pulling it off – Wigglesworth? – and flinging it into one of its cohorts. Someone back there got smart enough to start overturning tables and barricading behind them – wineglasses were hurled. Good. She had some support, inane though it was.
One of the Joker-vampires got close and she smelled its stinking blood-breath and saw its wild, bloodshot eyes before her fist cracked up under its jaw and sent it back. Shitshitshit! She had garlic and silver nitrate spray in her handbag; they weren’t giving her a chance to get to it. She kept moving, leapt over another table, shoved a vampire’s head through one of the speakers, they kept coming –
One raked elongated fingernails for her face – she blocked, shoved it back, smashed a chair over its head, flipped the second that lunged in its place, but another came at her from one side. She saw its jaws snapping, its wolf-like teeth. There was no time to defend.
And a flash of black interceded, slammed the thing in the face, kicked it in the chest and sent it howling with mad laughter away. A black shape; but not Bruce. Smaller, leaner, lither.
“Don’t tell B!” Cass said, “Brought backup!” and she was into the fray, tearing into Joker’s SmileX’d vampires with a barely controlled fury. Knowing what she’d just been through, Selina’s heart clenched.
God, what a kid, she thought.
“Hi C,” said a familiar voice, and there was Nightwing, bearing another of the things to the ground and stabbing it in the carotid with a garlic injector, “Nice dress!”
“You were supposed to stay with Jason!”
A flash of bright light drove the vampires back, and Jason Blood stepped in front of the cowering partygoers with one hand blazing with light and the other gripping an ancient longsword.
“Nightwing, get the people out of here,” he said, “I cannot risk Etrigan with innocents present.”
“Right-o,” Nightwing fell back, guarding the guests, “Ladies, a little cover?”
But even as they stepped in to flank and defend him, Dracula’s voice thundered across the room –
“Ah, Count,” Jason said calmly, “It has been a while.”
Hands shaking, Jimmy T. huddled in the dark, right by the switch, listening to the turmoil above. He felt like a coward, down here hiding in the basement with his hand on a switch when people up top were fighting, maybe dying.
Batman gave you a mission, he thought, if you were ever a man, James Turnbull, you need to be one now. Don’t screw up.
Forty eight seconds had never felt like a lifetime before.
I’ll never forget the look on Dracula’s face the moment he saw Jason Blood. He dissolved in one instant from that charming, icy smirk to something that belonged carved on a cathedral gargoyle. His game face made Joker’s look like a pouting cherub.
He roared something in what I assume was whatever the hell they spoke in 15th century Wallachia, and Joker snarled, “Our turn!” and leapt off his perch. Then he blurred in and out of my vision, and he was all over Nightwing slashing and pummeling and cackling, while what I could only describe as a geyser of dead vampire strangler vines burst up under Jason, and Ivy stormed straight at him while he twirled and hacked and sliced through them with that sword.
Harley hissed like an electrocuted lizard and off she went after Batgirl, and that left me with about a hundred terrified partygoers, a dozen or so hysterically-laughing puppet vampires – and Count-Freaking-Dracula.
I’d had better nights.
I was in the middle of holding off the SmileX-vamps when Dracula flipped his cape up around himself and dissolved out of view; I saw a flutter of bat wings and he was suddenly right on top of me, chuckling through his dagger grin. I leapt back and cracked him right in the face with the whip.
A thin line opened across his cheek, but not a drop of blood came out.
“A whip?” he murmured, “Memories…”
He caught the second lash in his left hand and yanked me off my feet, right into his arms.
Clutched in Jimmy T’s grip like it held all the hope in the world, the little black beeper suddenly did exactly what it was designed for.
Feeling the tremors vibrate through his grip, Jimmy sucked in a gasp, squeezed his eyes shut, and without another thought yanked the lever on the wall.
It was all over in a heartbeat. Dracula had me, his minions were getting the better of my allies, and he was so close I could feel the cold radiating from his skin. I grappled his throat, tried to push the white fangs back, thought of all the ways I could have taken him were he a man whose vital organs still mattered.
“One kiss…” he purred, and his eyes locked to mine. I felt a dizzy spell grip my mind, a cloud of black at the edges of my vision, sweeping away my strength, my will to resist, and I felt again, something wriggling at the back of my brain. Responding to him.
Something that he hadn’t planted there tonight. Something that had already been there.
A little wriggling thing, a little nagging voice that made me get changed away from Bruce, made me wear my turtleneck sweater at breakfast, made me turn away when I put my earrings in, made me brush my hair a certain way…ever since the night…the sewer…since before we put the defenses up at Wayne Manor…
His fingers brushed my hair back from my throat, and I felt them fingering two little holes right up below my ear I hadn’t even known were there.
Oh my god.
“It will not be our first, my Bride. Nor our last.”
I couldn’t move, couldn’t fight, couldn’t scream. I lay limp as a doll in his arms while everything that was me spat and hissed and clawed to be free, to fight him, to kill him…
And then came another hiss, and salvation from above.
It started raining holy water.
Batman hurtled into the room like a thunderbolt from Zeus. He saw his clan and allies down there, fighting; Batgirl, Nightwing, Jason Blood. He would have words with all of them later; for now, their presence was a greater relief than Psychobat would ever have admitted.
The partygoers were barricaded behind the bar and a series of tables, which afforded little protection from the screaming, howling vampires – SmileX symptoms – even if he cured their vampirism, they were already well beyond brain-death.
Joker, you bastard.
He fell among them in a blazing whirl of fists and feet and batarangs and garlic darts. As the holy water hit them, sprinkling down in an unrelenting torrent, they screamed and hissed and fled him, smoldering holes burned in their flesh. Ivy’s demonic vines hissed and thrashed and curled on themselves like angry snakes, as well. He clove his way through, toward Selina, toward Dracula – he saw Batgirl punching Harley again and again, saw Jason Blood locked in a sword duel with Ivy and her vines - and he saw Joker, mouth filled with fangs, throttling Nightwing against an overturned table, at the exact moment Joker saw him.
“Batsy!” he cried, his eyes lighting up and his grin taking on a sickeningly happy turn, “Hiii!”
His skin hissed and sizzled in the holy rain like the other vampires’ – but he didn’t care. He dropped Nightwing and leapt with a smooth, animal grace over the table, bounding on all fours.
“JOKER!” Batman snarled, enraged as much at the threat Joker posed to Dick, to his family, to innocent people, as he was by the fact that Joker was blocking him from Selina.
He hit the clown like a derailed train – and Joker hit back. Bruce sprawled, rolled, felt the floor crack as Joker’s talons went through it, narrowly missing him. The clown howled with laughter.
“Whoop! Didn’t see that coming, didja?” and even as Batman brought his fists up in a defensive block, Joker grabbed him by the cape and hurled him across the room. But as Batman fell, Joker was already there, moving in a blur, grappling him and slamming his head into a table.
“How’s it feel Batsy?” *WHACK* “Now YOU’RE the punching bag!” *WHAM* “AHAHAHAAH!!!” *WHACK* “Glove’s on the other fist - HAHAAHAAHAAH!”
Batman gritted his teeth, twisted out of Joker’s grip, hit him, once, twice, a quick maneuver that would have taken down anyone who wasn’t this Joker. Ignoring the searing agony of the holy water, Joker sprang into Batman and struck him again and again, too fast to see.
“Ahahahahahahaha-” Joker shoved Batman to the floor, pinning his arms, “For the FIRST time ever, GUESS WHAT?!” Joker leaned close, licking blood from Batman’s split lip with a long, reptile tongue, “-I’m stronger – faster – better than YOU!”
“…brain…” Batman spat.
“WHAT?! Brains?! I’m a freaking vampire, Bats, not a zombie! BLOOD! DUHH. Don’t you watch horror movies?”
Batman gave a bloody twitch of a grin, hit a button on his gauntlet, and sprayed concentrated silver nitrate and garlic right in Joker’s face. The clown released him with a shriek and Batman kicked him backward. As Joker released him, he leapt toward Selina and Dracula.
The Count looked up from where he was bending over Selina’s neck and a twisted expression of fury knotted his features. He threw his cape about their bodies just as Bruce closed within striking distance – and he was suddenly a cloud of black bats, slapping Bruce in the face, lifting Selina’s body up and out through the crack in the upper wall where the vines had broken through…
“Go, we’ll hold them!” cried Jason Blood, as an enraged Ivy, her lovely face a mess of tiny scars from the holy water, lunged for him.
But Batman was already gone.
He found us on the roof, Dracula and me. I don’t know what he was expecting; I guess to find the Count with his fangs buried in my neck. But instead there I was, hunkered down, hackles raised, an extremely unhappy kitty, with my little bottle of garlic mace aimed straight at Dracula, who was in the process of disdainfully wiping the same off his cheek.
Batman came over the rooftop beside me with a look on his face like he’d just marched out of Hell to drag Dracula back there.
“She has an extraordinary will,” the Count commented as Bruce joined us, “Very few have the power to break free of my command.”
“NO GAMES,” Batman thundered, “WHERE IS ROBIN?”
“Very few,” said the Count, smiling, with a courteous tip of his head to me, “And fewer still who can resist me once I have already tasted their blood.”
I didn’t need to look. I felt Bruce’s blood freeze in his veins. He didn’t say anything; he just looked at me, and what could I do?
I lifted my hair away from my neck and let him see the bite.
“The night of the sewer,” I said, without emotion, “I didn’t know either.”
I can’t describe the look on his face. There wasn’t one. He just turned back to Dracula and spoke to him in a quiet gravel.
“What do you want?”
Except I knew Bruce well enough to know that it wasn’t gravel anymore; it was a mountain creaking before an earthquake. It was the snow shifting before an avalanche. I knew what would be going on behind the blank line of his mouth, the even beat of his heart, and I felt my blood freeze.
“To exist,” said Dracula, “To be, and that is all. Unfortunately, the terms of my existence are somewhat incompatible with the terms of yours,” he smiled thinly, “I am not, in truth, any more incurable than your Joker. But for him, you hold the illusion of hope. For me, hope is neither possible, nor desired. I am dead to all the world, and as I am, therefore, I feed. To defeat me, you must destroy me.”
“Where is he?” Bruce asked, again, in that voice of terrifying calm. I didn’t know if even Dracula knew what manner of hell he was about to unleash on himself.
“Batman…” I said, warningly. Drac had it coming, but I wasn’t sure what level of collateral we’d be talking and we needed to save Tim. Bruce was oozing intensity, and I knew all of his shades; there was Catwoman, put that down intensity, there was can’t find my goddamned socks Alfred intensity. There was Hell Month intensity and jealous boyfriend intensity and Ra’s Al Ghul’s in town intensity and Joker’s loose and he’s gassed an orphanage intensity and they were all different.
And this was a particular breed I had seen before, the kind he only fell into when something terrible had happened to someone he loved. I wasn’t scared of him – I never have been and I never will be – but I knew where the darkness in him was coming from. It was brushing too close to the time DEMON ran me through, to when he lost Jason, and Steph, and I was scared for what this might do to him.
“Where is he is hardly the question, dear friend,” said Dracula, and gestured. Two of his vampires – not Joker gigglers, I noticed – spider-crawled over the edge of the balcony and dropped two figures in behind Dracula. One was a terrified blonde girl, mid teens at best, still in her pajamas and probably snatched from her bed.
The other was Tim. And he was horribly, horribly wrong. He sprang up on all fours when they put him down and snapped his head around to look at us. His eyes reflected the light as he turned, and his teeth glittered sharp and feral.
“No…” I whispered.
Bruce betrayed no movement, no sound, no expression, but I knew every muscle in his body had drawn taut as a piano wire and saw him speed toward a brink he couldn’t come back from.
Tim sniffed the air like a dog, saw the girl, and snarled. He leapt toward her as she screamed, and Bruce leapt toward him – and they both stopped as Dracula lifted a hand. Tim shrank back, and the Count locked eyes and wills with Batman.
“No closer, my friend. Only my will holds him back,” said Dracula.
“I swear to you,” Batman said quietly, “If you’ve turned him…”
He didn’t need to finish the sentence with some dire threat. The silence implied terror in store for the Count even Bruce’s impressive vocabulary didn’t have words for.
Dracula wasn’t intimidated. It wasn’t hard to imagine him as his father Vlad, overseeing the kind of obscene tortures that would make his name a byword for medieval cruelty through the centuries. “He is not true Un-dead yet. But I think you will find it were better that he was.”
“What did you do to him?” I said, saving Bruce the trouble, circling, looking for an opening – if I could use my whip, if I could give Bruce a means to get past Dracula and get to Tim before he pounced on the girl, we might have a chance…
To do what then, I didn’t have a clue.
“He has taken a concentrated dose of your Scare-Crow’s poison; terror enough to shut down his mind and allow raw instinct to consume him. As the Jester’s little pets below have shown,” Dracula lowered his hand, still pointing it in Tim’s direction, and the boy hunkered away from the girl, “the vampire kiss can seal a mind in such a state indefinitely.”
“Oh God help me…” the girl whispered, “I don’t – this can’t be real…”
“Destroy me,” said Dracula, “And my curse ends. He will become mortal again…and in that instant, his mind will shatter, and he will die,” his eyes narrowed lazily, and with a flick of his wrist, Tim was released, snarling and snapping at the girl again – another gesture reined him in like a pit bull on a leash, “Or if I so choose it, he will kill.”
“Robin…” Batman said. He was in control, but his corner of the rooftop seemed darker by the second, “Fight it, Robin. Fight it. Fight him.”
Tim looked at him again, and there was nothing in his eyes. Nothing of Tim at all. Less of him than there had been of the people who’d been the dead cackling vampires below.
“Make your choice,” said Dracula. He smiled.
Something snapped. Not in Batman. In me.
I saw Jason Todd’s gravestone; I saw the graves of Bruce’s parents. I saw Steph as I’d known her; I saw Steph’s funeral. I saw the loss weighing down on his shoulders, poisoning him, and all those kids he’d tried to give a home and a thing to fight for, and it just went.
I heard the wild scream from my throat and felt the whip unfurl and in the tiny moment of lucidity I had before I made a suicidal mistake, I changed the target of my lash from Dracula to Tim Drake and coiled it around his neck.
Even the Count hadn’t expected that, and as his face snapped into its devil snarl and he wheeled just as Batman flew straight at him. Bat and vampire clashed together and I couldn’t see what was happening amid the flying capes and claws and fists and fangs. I saw Tim go for the girl the moment Drac’s control of him slipped, and I saw his vampire minions lunge to help their master.
But I still had my whip, and I still had my garlic spray, and I still had Tim. I yanked him back, at the same time as I dashed to intercept one of the vampires and mist it in the eyes. When it recoiled, I gave it a good hard kick over the balcony rail and over it went, and down. No conflict of conscience for me; I knew a fall wouldn’t kill the thing.
The other one came at me, and I shouted at the girl to run for it, and run she did. Tim went back to his feet and went after her, and nearly tore the whip out of my grasp while I grappled with the second vampire. The monster was clumsy, but ludicrously strong; I gave it the butt of the whip to chew on, and open-palmed it hard in the chest. No pain reaction; expected, but it knocked the vampire back for the moment I needed to let it get momentum. When it charged me, I ducked and flipped it over my back. Over the balcony railing it went, to join its friend peeling itself out of the tarmac far, far below.
That left Tim. I’d lost hold of my whip, but the girl had made it to the rooftop door and was trying to hold it closed. While Bruce was still dealing with the King of All Vampires and barely holding him off behind me, I had to somehow stop Tim Drake from peeling the door off its hinges and guzzling on cheerleader soda pop.
I snatched up my whip and gave him a crack across the shoulders to get his attention; the inward wince I’d never have had tussling with a Robin in the old days didn’t last long as he turned back to me with that awful feral face and came at me. He went into moves I knew from fighting Robins and their trainer, but they were instinctive, used without awareness, and it put me at the advantage despite his sudden boost in speed and strength. The kid was suddenly hitting like a drug-crazed streetfighter on a murder spree, not a Robin. None of the precision and restraint I’m used to from the Bat-family, who aren’t fighting to kill. I had to adapt quickly, duck, block his talons – Tim has talons – and give him one right in the face that I knew I’d regret if this ended well, and worse if it didn’t…
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Batman still going at it with the Count, and Dracula’s fighting style was something to behold. Batman was quick as a panther, and he had all those skills in all those obscure martial arts from across the world that Drac had no contact with; but from what I dared see, the old bastard had tricks up his sleeves that hadn’t been seen in six hundred years. We have this weird impression that because the warriors of medieval Europe didn’t have kung fu, their guys didn’t know how to kill a man with their bare hands – Dracula was crushing that notion. He had this mix of aloof, military grace and sudden, utterly brutal strikes going that made me glad I was fighting Tim. And he was flicking and whirling and slashing with his cape like it was a weapon unto itself, and I was fairly sure Kittlemeier hadn’t built that into it.
I couldn’t tell which way it would go; Batman was using every trick in his book to keep the vampire from landing a decisive hit. I had to make mine quick. “Sorry Tim,” I hissed under my breath as the kid hit me, putting claw marks across my arm, and in return I gave him a face full of garlic.
I glanced back over my shoulder just in time to see Dracula come out of one of his bat clouds with Batman hoisted up by the throat and his other hand drawn back for a killing blow. I whipped around his wrist and yanked with everything I had, and he turned and looked at me, and right at that moment Tim lunged for my unprotected back, and the rooftop door flew open…
Time stopped. No, really, it stopped, at least for Tim Drake. He was frozen in midair with his jaws wide open and his hands outstretched to grab me, and it looked like Dracula was frozen the same way; except he sort of blurred out of it, leaving an after-image where he had been, and dissolved back into existence from a thread of moonlight.
Jason Blood stood in the doorway with the pajama girl fleeing down the stairwell behind him; he was chanting a rhyme about lulling time itself to sleep, but I didn’t bother to take note of the words. Dracula had somehow slipped Jason’s spell, and he was looking up at us with an enraged expression.
It gave Bruce the chance he needed to pull free, but Dracula flattened him with a backhand and stepped back to the edge of the roof, cutting a winged shadow against the sky and looming over us all.
“Fools,” hissed the Count, “Do you think you can set your will against mine? Behold, your deadliest foes are in my thrall…”
I felt a click at my ear. And a gun barrel pressed to my temple. And the corner of my eye was full of Jack’s pretty new steak-knife grin.
Dracula smiled in triumph.
“Hey, Catty, remember that joke I told you that time? The one about, ahh…” Joker twitched, looking between frozen Tim, chanting Jason, Batman back on his feet and his hand going for his belt… “Was it the harpsichord player and the contortionist?”
“Not sure which one you mean, Jack. Can you remind me later?”
“Put the gun down, Joker,” Batman growled.
Joker ignored him and pouted at me, “Hehhehhh hehhh – how’d it go? The one with the sailor and the Swedish milkmaid – no – the one about the rabbi and the four midget drag queens – hehhh – Aw, sod it. Here’s the punchline!”
I opened my mouth, there was a click, whistle and a thunk, and the Count sprouted a stick from the left side of his chest.
I blinked, and saw Joker pointing his gun right at Dracula, and his lips folded down to a sour smirk.
“Impossible…” Dracula whispered, staring at the wooden shaft protruding from his heart. The BANG flag unfurled audibly in the silence.
“Was a gas while it lasted,” said the Joker, “But I’m nobody’s hench. Commitment issues, yanno?”
As the rest of us stood and stared, Dracula clamped his hands around the BANG-flag and gave a garbled snarl of hate.
“You really thought,” Joker continued, “You could control MY mind? THIS mind?” He spat on the rooftop. “You don’t deserve this town, grandpa.”
Dracula’s face locked in his look of outrage and something whispered out of him. Just like that, he toppled backwards off the roof, falling apart as he did. We saw the edge of his cape flapping as he went over and flakes of ash falling after him.
Below, there was a tremendous shrieking howl from multiple throats that faded away to nothing. I felt movement, and by the time I’d turned my head, Joker was gone, and Bruce and Jason were by Tim’s side.
“What did you do to him, Jason?” Bruce growled.
“I’ve taken him out of time,” Jason said, “And I cannot hold that long. Time is …complex, and its will to do what it does is overwhelmingly powerful. Work fast.”
My heart drummed in my ears. Bruce and I shared a look that said we both knew even if we could flush the toxin and loosen its stranglehold on his nervous system, it might be too late. We’d both seen his eyes.
But we gave him the antitoxin anyway. And when we’d done all we could, Jason, looking whiter than a vampire himself, let time slip back into its natural flow, and sank back exhausted.
Tim fell, and Bruce caught him in his arms and held him tight as his body spasmed and jerked and twitched. When he fell still, Bruce lay him down on the rooftop and checked his vital signs.
The wind seemed suddenly colder.
Nightwing and Batgirl joined us on the roof. Their voices, explaining that Harley, Ivy and the giggling vampires had a simultaneous freakout and fled the scene in unison, sounded distant and flat. We were all focused on Tim, waiting to see if his eyes would open, and when they did, if he’d be in there at all…
There was a flutter. He coughed, hard, and gave a little groan and put his arm up over his face.
“Where’zis?” Tim mumbled, and I think I heard my whole damn world breathe out.
“Rooftop,” Bruce said gently, and the gravel – well, it was there – but he was controlling it so well I was almost startled, “Don’t speak. You don’t have to think about it. It’s over.”
Jason pursed his lips and looked at me, and he knew I was thinking Tim should be dead or crazy, how is this possible?
I wasn’t about to question a miracle.
“Dracula,” growled Bruce, “He’s gone. Whatever he did to you, whatever you saw, Robin, it’s over…”
“Dun remember,” Tim coughed again, and smiled up at us, lingering longest on Cass. I wondered if, under her blank Batgirl mask, she was looking the same way at him.
Batman frowned beneath the cowl.
“You don’t…remember anything?”
“Mmmrm,” Tim shook his head, “Ivy…needle…bit me…thought of…training. No mind. No mind, so I dun remember…an’thing,” and his eyes fluttered closed. We had another little heart-in-throat moment before it clicked he was sleeping like a baby.
“No mind…” Batman shook his head. Twitch of his lip. He looked up at me. “No mind. Zen meditation.”
I’d gotten it right before he said that. And I knew why that feral thing that’d been trying to claw me limb from limb wasn’t Tim; why he’d looked at me and I hadn’t seen or sensed Tim in there at all.
“He wasn’t in there,” said Batman, echoing my thought, “He knew they’d injected him with Scarecrow toxin and he went straight to Zen meditation.”
“He shut his conscious mind off,” I finished, “All that was responding was his animal instinct. He wasn’t aware of any of it at all…”
I confess, I teared up. We’d thought we’d lost the kid and then he goes and proves why he deserves to be Robin.
“His training,” Batman said, trying to hide his beaming pride in his protégé behind a typical Bat-scowl.
It didn’t work. I grinned ear to ear at him, “Your training, handsome.”
Batman’s twitch faded. He glanced back at the edge of the rooftop, then stood up and faced his crew.
“It isn’t over,” he said, “We still need to apprehend the Joker, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn, and find out what became of the remaining vampires.”
“If Dracula’s really dead,” Jason said softly, “They won’t last long without him. His curse is tied to his unlife, as it were. Any of the true-undead he’s made will be dead by now, and there’s nothing we can do about that. The living will have returned to normal, such as ‘normal’ might be for your Rogues.”
I shook my head, imagining Jack’s self-inflicted SmileX fit tonight. I doubted it’d kill him, but that’d be hell in the morning. I wondered if he’d think it was worth it.
Bruce had his hackles raised, though. I could tell he didn’t like the way Jason had said that. Dracula was dead, and the Joker had killed him; he’d taken the moral dilemma out of our hands, and I was thankful to the cackling jackass for that. But it wouldn’t sit well with Bruce. The crisis had been averted by a cold-blooded murderer committing cold-blooded murder. Bruce, I knew, would count it as a moral defeat.
Frankly, this kitty was too relieved to be bothered by the moral implications. Dracula was out of the picture, the party had not been turned into a slaughterhouse, and Tim was safe and back with us. Good enough for me.
When we spied on the foyer to check that everyone was safe, so that Bruce could make a bewildered Bruce Wayne appearance amid the crowd and secure his alibi, I noticed they’d somehow nominated the valet that ushered us in as the hero of the day and were thronging him with cheers and applause.
I also noted the ‘hero of the day’ was too busy locking lips with the pretty receptionist to care.
“Did that guy have something to do with your holy water sprinkler trick, Batman?” I purred in Bruce’s ear as he slipped out of the cape and cowl a few minutes later.
He gave me a little glare, and a twitch, “Let’s just say I think Mr. Turnbull is in line for a raise.”
Good enough for me.
A few hours later, and I was showered, robed, and ready to curl up with Bruce and let this whole hell of a night breathe through us and out of us, and…
Grunt. Punch. Backflip. Zogger.
The junior Bats were out with Jason Blood, tying up the remaining loose ends of Dracula’s scheme. Batman and I were going to hook up with Oracle and supervise the search from the Cave.
So far, they hadn’t needed us. I was hoping to take the chance to try to ease the stress of, well, a pitched battle with Count Dracula.
Instead, we come home from fighting vampires, Tim goes to the infirmary to rest up, Alfred makes us coffee, we get the all-clear reports from our field team, and Batman grunts at me, suits up again and goes to duke it out with Zogger. Amazing.
“We need to talk, stud.”
Grunt. Punch. Block. Kick.
“You can relax for five seconds, you know.”
Batarang. Rolling dodge. Roundhouse kick. Grunt.
“Bruce, it’s over. He’s dead. It’s done. You can at least take the suit off. There’s coffee getting cold that you do have time to drink with me.”
Bruce emerged, all burning eyes and bristling tension in a cape and cowl. I’d have given him a meow if the mood wasn’t already blown.
“C’mon, handsome,” I said, sliding arms around him, “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“I know Joker swinging in to save the day like some grinning Deus ex Machina isn’t anybody’s idea of perfect resolution, and I know how you feel about killing. But in this case, he was already dead, and at least you didn’t have to face the choice—”
He slipped free of me and went to the Batcomputer. He sat down, scrolled through a few files, and ignored me.
I hopped up on the adjacent bench, put one bare leg across his view of the screen and sipped my coffee. He gave me a Look. I gave him a Wink.
“Out with it,” I said, “Or I’ll have to do this all night. And if my leg cramps, I’ll be one cross kitty.”
Bruce chuckled, but it died halfway out.
“He bit you.”
Ah. So that was it.
“Not a big deal,” I said, “And not as suave as he’s supposed to be. You’d think a supposed ‘great seducer’ would have at least let a girl know he was there-”
“Bruce, it’s no big deal,” He just couldn’t be comparing this to the time I was stabbed. Could he?
He sat and smoldered and said not a word.
“C’mon, you’re serious? These little pinpricks? I’ve lost more blood fighting you.”
Bruce slammed his fist against the computer table and the keyboard jumped, my coffee jumped, and I jumped.
“He was in my house,” he snarled, and there was all that black smoldering Bat-rage again, “You were sleeping in my bed, in my arms and he came in and took you and I didn’t even know.”
Oh, shit. I guess I should’ve seen it coming, but I had never thought Bruce – Batman – would be the one to take it there.
“I’m sorry,” he said, deflating, when he saw the look on my face, “I failed you, Selina. But never again. Never again will I let anyone do that to you.”
Okay, I’d been bitten, infected. It wasn’t a pleasant idea, joining Dracula’s undead brood and being trapped in an eternal afterlife of hunting human beings and drinking their blood. It was a pretty horrifying notion, and only a fool would let Dracula’s sales pitch of ‘being beautiful forever’ blind them to that. But we deal with the possibility of horrifying consequences to a misstep on a daily basis around here. Every swing off a gargoyle, every landing in an alley, things can always end badly. It’s all part of the life we lead. If this was a different flavor of bad ending looming if we failed, I hadn’t had time to dwell on it and neither had Bruce. And now Drac was dead, which meant I was cured, and there wasn’t any point in dwelling on it.
But from the weird way Bruce was edging around me, gently, while barely restraining his outrage – he was treating it as a violation verging on rape. It took me a while to get it and when I did, I shook my head.
“Oh, no no no, Bruce. Honey,” I wrapped my arms about him and kissed his cheek, “I’m fine. Don’t think of it that way. Shh. Not what happened. If it was anything like that I’d be a lot more upset, trust me. Look, Victorian prudes, tooth penetrates flesh, it was a big deal to them. They freaked out over the sight of an ankle. Now, today, it’s just not…it’s not sexual. It’s just annoying. Like Krypto pawing my hair.”
He tensed, searched my eyes. I wasn’t sure what he was expecting to find there; did he think I was holding it in, putting on a brave face for him? But after a moment I saw him break away and realized he was searching himself as much as me.
“That isn’t it…” he said, “This…it’s just…this is our home, Selina. Every step out that door, every breath we take, we face danger. I know you can handle it. So can I. But this…is the one place you and I are safe. Were safe. And he just came right in.”
“Oh, Bruce,” I said again. I got it. The very few times Rogues had broken into the Manor, it had been bad enough, but they’d been here for Billionaire Bruce Wayne, targeting the carefully-constructed and very well-defended persona Bruce had created for the public.
This was something more intimate; by coming into our home and attacking me in our bed, Dracula hadn’t violated me as much as he’d violated us at our most vulnerable, and everything that stood for. And that wasn’t all that was bothering him.
“I almost lost you,” he said, “to something worse than death. If he’d…”
Turned me, he didn’t say. And he was right. The dilemma of what to do about Dracula would have been a thousand times worse if he had permanently turned me, or Tim, or any of us. Jason and Stephanie were dead, but they were at peace in their graves. I winced at the thought of Bruce having to face them as monsters who killed and feasted on people.
“…What would I do?” he shook his head, “If it had come to that, I don’t know what I would do.”
The times when Batman was completely at a loss for what to do in any given scenario, I could basically count on one hand, and most of them had been my doing.
“Let it go,” I told him, “It’s all over and done with now. We’re all safe, and you’ll clean up the mess with the plague and catch the rest of them by tomorrow.”
“He was in my house,” Bruce repeated.
“-before we put up the anti-vampire defenses,” I added, “We had no way of knowing he’d come here.”
“What if we did?” he said, “What if he followed me home after our confrontation at Danesti? What if he knew?”
“That Bruce Wayne is Batman? Then we’d be neck-deep in crud, Bruce, but he’s dead-again, so it’s not a problem now. Let it go.”
I tried to give his shoulders a rub, but I’d have been better off massaging a girder. I sighed and let him go. I couldn’t be angry with him. He wasn’t going to let it go, because he was Batman. The very existence of vampires that could infiltrate Wayne Manor, that could potentially turn members of his team into undead monsters, target the woman he loved and turn her into an undead monster, was unacceptable. He’d stay down here, smoldering over it, and by the morning there’d be dozens of new protocols. I couldn’t be angry. This was who Batman was, and Batman was the reason a whole lot of people were still alive tonight.
But I was going to get some sleep. I would have stayed, just to keep him company, but I could see how even looking at me was reminding him of what had happened. He needed time to come to grips with it by himself. So I kissed him and took my coffee and slipped away.
“Don’t take down the garlic,” he said as I reached the elevator.
He shot me another look. This one masked a very rare and very human fear. And I wasn’t going to let it beat him. I didn’t want to be flippant. I didn’t want to be dismissive when he was hurting. But I just couldn’t let him give into that fear.
“Honey,” I said, “I like Italian food as much as the next girl, but I just had a shower with that nice lavender shampoo, and I have no intention of waking up in a room that smells like the pantry at Capriccio’s. If you want to come up, I’ll be waiting.”
As I left him down there, brooding away, I saw him turn from the computer and start flicking through Van Helsing’s diary.
Alone, in the cave, fighting my feelings about what had happened to Selina right here in my own house, in my own bed, I went through Van Helsing’s diary, looking for something I’d missed, some clue as to how it had happened.
We had no way of knowing, she’d said.
But that wasn’t it. Dracula had been in Wayne Manor. In my house. A private residence. My information was sketchy on the boundaries of these mystical superstitious rules he was forced to abide by, but I assumed he had to have been invited in by a resident of the household. Just where the ‘private residence’ began and where it ended was vague. Windows? The lawn? The front gate? The front door?
If he had come seeking Catwoman, knowing her only as Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, he would have been limited to only the obvious entrances. And he would have to be invited in.
This meant that either he had met and hypnotized her earlier, and she had invited him in, or Alfred had. Neither possibility was likely, but I would have to speak to Alfred about it regardless. The possibility that the monster had mind-controlled Alfred into letting him in was chilling enough. Dracula was not the only enemy I had with the power to control someone’s mind. I would need to adjust half a dozen existing protocols and add a few more to take this scenario into account.
But how had he gotten in?
Once the vampire has gained himself access to a residence, Van Helsing’s diary read, He may come and he may go as he will, and only the methods I have described may seal him out, and only if applied very thoroughly to every conceivable entrance.
A crawl ran up my spine.
The Oracom beeped.
::B, this is O. Nightwing’s reported in.::
“Speak freely, Oracle.”
::He’s at the morgue. They’ve brought in what’s left of Dracula.::
“Describe it to me.”
“Miss Selina,” Alfred said as he passed me in the corridor, “You are looking quite well. Will Master Bruce be requiring anything before he retires this eve?”
“Thanks for the coffee, Alfred.” And the lie, I almost added. I didn’t look quite well, I looked the way I felt—as though a truck had hit me, stopped, backed over me a few times, and then brought Bruce over to have a look. The shower had eased the muscle pain, sure, and relaxed me, but it hadn’t eased what all this had done to Bruce. I wasn’t going to be looking or feeling “quite well” for quite a while yet.
“I think Bruce will be busy down in the Cave for tonight,” I said. I could tell by the look in his eye that he knew what I meant: Brooding with an intensity to bend light. I was sorry to burden him. I know Alfred hates leaving him in that condition as much as I do. You feel so helpless, knowing there’s no way to take that weight for him. “Might as well turn in and get an early one,” I added pointlessly.
“Ah,” he said quietly, “I expect the situation was not quite resolved to his liking, then.”
“No,” I admitted, “But he’ll be okay. He just needs a little Bat-time to make sense of it all,” I patted his shoulder affectionately, “Go to bed, Alfred. And happy Halloween.”
“As much as such a thing can be had in Gotham,” said Alfred, “A Happy Halloween to you as well, Miss Selina.”
::In the lungs, yes. The forensics guy was puzzled as hell, because the body looked fresh when they brought it in but it’s decaying rapidly now, just falling apart for no reason, and it seems it was biologically dead long before it hit the pavement. Which I guess was to be expected, considering. But that’s not the weird part, B.::
There was something coiling in my gut. An instinct. A warning.
“Cause of death?”
::That’s where it stops making sense.::
“Cause of death.”
I gave her silence.
::That’s what the report says, B. The lungs are full of seawater and all other symptoms are consistent with recent drowning.::
“Send the report to the Batcomputer. I want everything they have. Fingerprints, DNA samples.”
“Stand by, Oracle.”
I switched off the com and waited thundering moments for the data to arrive. When it had, I muttered “Computer, compare incoming data to obituaries, missing persons. Drownings, recent.”
::Confirmed:: it replied.
As my software went to work, I opened the diary, ferociously scanning the pages for something, anything I might have overlooked, some clue to break through the sense of sick unease in my stomach and tell me the scenario falling into place in my head was wrong.
Please, God, let it be wrong.
My fingers froze as I found it.
An oft-forgotten power of the master vampire is his command over his true-undead children. This bond is permanent and cannot be broken by either party. Though the child-vampire become more independent as he age, and the bond grow weaker, he never able to resist the direct command of his undead-maker, nor turn against him.
I fought the wave of bile. We had been duped. I had been duped.
Furthermore, if the master vampire is old and strong, and the child still newly-made, the master may project his will and his powers through the bond – to the extent of possession. The master vampire will become the child, for a time, and the young vampire become as his puppet…
::Match located. Plogojowitz, Piotr::
I looked up, into a face staring back at him from a missing persons file from an incident dated October 27th, location; Gotham Harbor. The face of a second-generation Serbian immigrant working as a quarantine officer, presumed drowned when a derelict ship sank shortly after the removal of its cargo. A face with high cheekbones, coils of black hair, and deep-set, penetrating eyes.
The face of the man at the ball in the black and red cape.
“No,” I heard myself whisper, and then the crawl in my spine and the rustle of velvet movement made me look up.
Up, into the bats gathered on the ceiling of the Cave. Up, into thousands of animals for whom the Cave and by extension the manor itself was home, who flew freely into and out of my sanctuary through the one entrance no garlic and holy wafers could ever seal.
Their eyes shone red in the dim light. There were more than there should have been.
I went for my batarang, and the Cave exploded into cacophony. They poured down on me in a pillar of beating wings and snapping teeth and I felt myself stumbling, pushed back, lifted by unseen hands, and the last thing I saw before he hurled me into one of the Cave’s bottomless crevasses was Dracula’s white face, his true face, smiling.
To be continued…