Knives. Scissors. Razors. Blades everywhere. Everywhere you looked, everywhere, everywhere, everywhere—in an asylum full of homicidal psychos. Kevin Boda turned on his heel and quietly made his way to the door. No job was worth it. No way…
Eyes. Eyes were watching. Rosa Crite was no longer doing her job at the check-in desk. She was acting the part of doing her job. It was all poses and pantomime for whoever was watching her. There were cameras, of course. It was the entrance to the high security wing, even the staff had a special check-in station before they could pass beyond Rosa’s desk into the red zone, so of course there were cameras watching all the time. That was the norm. Not like today. Today, there were other eyes watching, she could feel it. Rosa played along, pretending to do her job. She wouldn’t do anything to attract attention. She would wait for her break, then she would collect her things and walk down the hall, like always. Instead of going into the break room, she’d walk right past it like she was going to the soda machine. Nobody watching would think anything of that. Then she would walk just as calmly and naturally out the door. Whatever they were planning with those peering eyes, they wouldn’t get her. No sir, she was going straight home, close all the blinds so that nobody could see in, and stay there for a very long time. Nobody would see her do anything for the rest of the week.
Worms! Snakes! Slithering, creepy, crawling—AHHHHHH! Gavin Worsted ran screaming from the parking lot. “Don’t forget your nametag?” the thin, bookish figure called after him, picking the combination nametag/key card from the puddle where it had fallen. “Oh, look at that,” Jonathan Crane smiled wickedly. “Try and warn a fellow he’s getting a flat tire, what does he do but leave his ID in a pothole.” A malevolent snicker followed, while Jonathan slid the card into his pocket. He returned to his car, adjusted his wig, and turned back onto the main road towards Arkham.
It really was much easier, getting to the Arkham staff from the outside, as they went about their daily lives. Much easier. Their guard was up on the inside, but out here in the world, at the laundromat, at the supermarket, pumping gas at the mini-mart near the asylum, it was shooting fish in a barrel. The only real challenge was figuring out the time release on Boda and Crite’s doses. Boda was a 220 pound guard, Crite a 130 pound nurse administrator, and he didn’t know when either of them ate dinner. It was difficult to be precise about when, exactly, the toxin would kick in, so he hedged his bets, giving each a phobia that should provoke a quiet exit rather than the screaming flight Mr. Worsted had just demonstrated.
So much for getting in. Jonathan Crane’s knowledge of the asylum procedures let him waltz in through the employee entrance and passageways as far as Rosa Crite’s desk. Gavin Worsted’s keycard got him through security station as it had through all the others, and no Rosa Crite was sitting there to check that his appearance matched the photo on the keycard. No Kevin Boda was there to relieve, and once again, no Rosa Crite was there to notice his absense or expect either of them to sign a shift changeover sheet. It really was ridiculously easy getting as far as Joker’s cell. Once he got there, however…
…the situation became a bit more complicated.
It’s not unusual for a man to make some gesture after a particularly enjoyable date. Most send flowers the next day, but Bruce was not “most men.” He was Batman. He wanted to do something personal. So he took a few minutes before his morning workout and set up a new keyword matrix to sift the autodownloads.
“You made me a search routine?” Selina asked, that ‘you’re so cute when you’re a geek’ smile dancing on her lips.
“Selina, every night the Batcomputer downloads massive amounts of information from all sorts of public and private mainframes.”
“I know, I remember my first visit to this cave very well, thank you. You download everything that exists in digitalia and you’ve got this Gordian knot of algorithms sifting it while you sleep, tagging all the keywords that pertain to all the rogues and ferreting out potential targets and clues for you to read through after your workout. Everything works splendidly (grunt) until some soccer team in Barcelona calls themselves ‘Demons’ and you have to recalibrate. I get that. I just don’t quite get—oh my god, a new Bastet temple in Alexandria? When did they find that?”
Bruce’s lip twitched.
“Four hours ago,” Bruce said coolly, the pride in his equipment and his subroutines betrayed only by a subtle pat of the control as his fingers slid to the keyboard to pull the full datastream. “These digital photographs were sent to the Supreme Council of Antiquities funding the dig, and it looks like a Mr. Hendawi from the Cairo office will be writing up the press release later this week once the details are confirmed.”
“Large number of statues depicting the cat-goddess Bastet found in the ruins,” Selina murmured as she skimmed the documents. “thought to belong to Queen Berenice, wife of King Ptolemy III who ruled Egypt in the 3rd century B.C… first trace of the long-sought location of Alexandria's royal quarter… would indicate that the worship of the ancient Egyptian cat-goddess continued during the later, Greek-influenced, Ptolemaic period!” This last quote was followed by a loud, girlish squeal (which upset several of the bats overhead) and her throwing her arms around Bruce with a warm, wet kiss, as if he personally brought about the Ptolemaic-era worship of the cat-goddess Bast.
“You’re welcome,” he said softly, touching the tip of his thumb to her lips and then letting his index finger stroke gently under her chin. “Enjoy your present. I’ll be in the chem lab working on an antidote for the new fear toxin.”
“You mean just GO?!” Joker asked incredulously. “Just walk out the door, what kind of an escape is that?!”
“Out the fire exit,” Scarecrow explained again. “It’s a perfectly good way to get out. I have air transportation waiting.”
“A balloon!” Joker cried. “With my own delightful grin painted on, so they’ll see us smiling as we float away!”
“A helicopter,” Scarecrow said testily. “A balloon would be far too slow, and easily shot down.”
“It has no style, I won’t go,” Joker said firmly, and Scarecrow rubbed his brow. “A Joker escape is an event, sir. It is a happening. There are expectations. I can’t just WALK OUT THE DOOR.”
“Yes, you can,” Crow insisted, poking at the Joker’s chest with his index finger. “You put one foot in front of the other until we’re out on the roof, then we take off, you say thank you, and we’re out of here!”
“Exactly, saying thank you! No ‘Thank you, you’ve been a great audience’ before I depart? It’s rude, sir. Rude, I say. I shall not compromise the integrity of the Joker brand with such an inferior departure.”
“Fine, what’s it going to take? Banana peels? Banana cream pie? Leave a bucket of acid balanced on the door when we go? Will that satisfy you?”
Joker raised an eyebrow, then he clapped his hands and became all business.
“Okay, if we’re going to do this, we’ll need a hatchet, a willing chicken, and some snakes.”
“I literally cannot tell if you’re serious,” Scarecrow said flatly.
“I am always serious,” Joker said, with as grim a deadpan as he could manage under that permanent grin. Then… “HAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAA! Just joshing you, ya lopsided bag o’ hay. Bucket of acid over the door will do fine. We’ll make up for it next time. Instead of a chicken—flamingos! HAHAHAHAHA! Harley always did like pink. Set that up that bucket, and then we’ll go and get you that brain.”
Selina had padded silently into the chem lab and watched. Unable to see exactly what Bruce was doing at the work table, she decided to forego the pounce she had planned. A pounce was always fun—but not if there were samples of fear toxin to be knocked over. So instead of a vigorous outburst of impassioned felinity, she just quietly cleared her throat.
“Is that a purr?” Bruce asked without turning.
“More than a purr. I just found… Bruce, the downloads you tagged for me, the Joshua Bell tour schedule is in there. So is information on a chocolate tasting tour of Paris. Now, at the risk of stating the obvious: that’s not art, it’s not jewels, and it’s not cats. Even if I went for the idea of stealing Joshua Bell’s Stradivarius on the ‘catgut’ angle—which is a stretch—there’s no way to work the chocolate tasting into a cat crime.”
“Of course not,” Bruce said, turning to face her. “I didn’t recreate the algorithm for Batman to identify potential Catwoman targets, Selina, I made it for you.”
“So in with all the cats and Cartier, there’s Joshua Bell and chocolate—”
“And Irene Adler and Chanel and that Dan Brown book you were enjoying so much last week and—mph-mm-mmm.”
Caution was tossed aside, and Selina had flung herself forward to impart another passionate kiss.
Scarecrow had been uncertain what to do about Harley. On the one hand, she was part of Joker’s shtick. If he was going to observe the mad clown in action—study the beast in his element, so to speak—he should provide everything that Joker was used to having. That’s why he had the Z make him a Ha-Hacienda instead of replacing the lair Batman discovered the night of the armored car robberies with one of a similar theme. Unfortunately, “everything Joker was used to having” included Harley Quinn and not some generic henchwench he could pick up at the Iceberg and dress in tassels instead of straw. Harley was fine as wenches went, but she didn’t have as flexible a relationship with reality as Joker did. Joker had a way of going along with whatever he was presented with. If Scarecrow was hanging around the hacienda acting as if they had already agreed on a team-up, there would be a team-up. With Harley, you could never be sure. She might just assume Mistah J had knowingly agreed to all this, or she might not. If she didn’t, he’d have to explain. That would be mortifying. Joker telling the whole Iceberg that Scarecrow had come to him for “Fear lessons.” HAHAHAHA. “A little peer review, eh, Professor?” Not funny.
On the other hand, Harley might just accept the situation as easily as Joker did. If she did, she’d be an asset. She already knew how Joker worked: what he liked, what he didn’t like—and she provided an alternative target. Even in the interests of science, even in the service of this current mission to uncover the formula for ultimate fear, Joker really wasn’t somebody you wanted to be alone with if you could help it. Harley was a distraction. So Jonathan decided to include her. It turned out to be the right decision. She was a distraction that knew her way around a regulation Hacienda. She could look over the invoice left by the Z and explain which items were expected (tangerine colored chairs, red stripped curtains, “festive” pillows, barrels of glue, glitter, silly putty, battery acid, and confetti) and which were the Z’s trademark extras bought on your nickel to entertain themselves (vintage Donkey Kong machine, paintball gear for 7, and a brick barbecue pit).
Once the ha-ha-happy couple were settled in—a process that consisted of Joker playing Donkey Kong for half an hour while Harley went out to buy Ho Hos and Ding Dongs—Scarecrow began carefully laying out his plan so Joker could, well, “Joker it up” a little.
Selina stared at the viewscreen, pale with disbelief as a pair of radiant cut, fancy yellow diamonds were displayed from several angles in an automated slideslow.
“This is the most revolting thing I’ve seen since that mummy chamber,” she said hoarsely.
“You’re not still on that Cairo story,” Bruce said, coming over to her workstation and glancing at the screen over her shoulder.
“Oh no, all done with that. I just mentioned the mummy because—long story. Temple outside of Belize. There was a jaguar god, there was a jaguar altar, there was a booby trap and I fell through it onto a pile of skulls, and there was a mummy. Occasionally, cliché is served and crime really doesn’t pay. Point is, it was really disgusting for an hour or two. It held the record for just how icky something cat-related and valuable can be—until now. These… these are lab-grown diamonds… made from cats.”
Bruce said nothing. He just stared blankly at the screen. Selina continued.
“DNA2Diamonds,” she quoted. “They say they’ll make these lab-grown, heirloom quality gemstones from the hair or ashes of—I can’t say it—of a departed pet. Now, much as I love Shimbala and Nirvana, much as I love Whiskers and Nutmeg, I don’t see making them into earrings.”
“It does seem a little odd,” Bruce admitted. He didn’t say it out loud, but privately it reminded him of the sort of thing certain League villains had attempted: encasing Superman, Wonder Woman and other heroes in high pressure, high temperature incubators that simulated conditions below the Earth’s crust, with the stated objective of pressing them into uniquely powered gemstones.
“Yep, they’ll do people,” Selina said, as if she was privy to his thoughts—but really because she was following some line of thought of her own. “Have grandma made into a broach to match the Fido and Spot earrings. This is just nuts. I mean technically it is diamonds and cats, but if I was still working, I wouldn’t touch these things with a bargepole.”
Joker threw his hands up over his head as if he was signaling a touchdown, then stretched them out wide, letting out a loud yawn.
“Bor-ing!” he sang. “It’s just so borrrrrrrring. Hey, did you hear that, I rolled the ‘r,’ like that French guy that thought he was Batman. Okay, so, straw-for-brains, why go after this bug eye dude?”
“Bugidole,” Scarecrow corrected. “Dr. Rupert Bugidole, of the Behavior Sciences Institute, because he is a BULLY!”
“Yeah, learn a new song already,” Joker yawned. “I mean, why pick on the bully all the time? Where’s the funny?”
“Bullies dominate, blame, and use others,” Scarecrow said in his stiffest Professor Crane delivery. “They lack empathy and foresight, and do not accept responsibility for their actions. They are concerned only about themselves and crave attention, due to their deservedly low self-esteem. It is that lack of self-esteem that leads them to put other people down in order to feel better about themselves.”
“Pbbbbbbt,” Dr. Quinzel replied. “Completely outdated thinking, Dr. Crane. The typical bully has an inflated sense of self-worth, a sense of entitlement and superiority over others, which results in the lack compassion, as well as deficiencies in the areas of impulse control and social skills.”
“Oh I must object,” Crane said, shaking his head vigorously. “The supposed ego and sense of superiority is a blind, an attempt to conceal from themselves their own self-loathing. They despise themselves for their many inadequacies, and mask it with a superficial arrogance. They would prefer to interact normally, but lacking the capacity to do so, they tell themselves that they are above such things.”
Joker sat there, staring into space, as Harley and Jonathan debated the finer points of paranoia, sadism, borderline personality disorder, socialization disorder, and negative trickledown.
“It’s just not funny,” he said at last. “Not ha-ha funny. Not COULDN’T YOU JUST DIE funny. It’s the other funny. The odd funny. The ‘reason people like you two never had a date in high school’ funny.”
“Heeeey! I went on plenty of dates,” Harley cried.
“Guys named Todd don’t count,” Joker said simply.
Harley had to think about that for a second… she hadn’t dated a single guy named Todd, but by the time she was ready to say so, Joker had moved on:
“The thing is, Craney, when a bully gives some little twirp a wedgie, that’s funny. Why would you want to ruin it? Cancer survivors, that’s who you want to go after—or maybe liver disease. Oh, or maybe those kids with the cleft palates. Basically, anything there’s a colored ribbon for, that’s some USDA Prime Grade-A funny.”
“Too bad those department store Santas are outta season, ain’t it, Puddin’?” Harley said. “No wait, not department store, oh you know what I mean. Those whatchamacallits, the bell-ringers.”
“The Salvation Army,” Scarecrow said absently.
“YEAH THEM!” Harley cheered.
“See, there ya go!” Joker said happily. “There’s nothing funnier than a heap of dead Santas. They’re like baby seals in red hats. HAHAHAHAHAAA!”
It wasn’t helpful. Okay, Joker was crazy. Scarecrow knew that when he began. But “crazy” on its own was nothing. You couldn’t say a mad man did mad things because he is mad—not unless you were Jervis, and that was another conversation entirely. But there had to be something that made the screwy inanity make sense. A guy walking around in a sailor suit, no pants, speaking unintelligibly and getting into fights—well, he’s crazy. Until you find out he thinks he’s Donald Duck. Still crazy, but now the crazy makes sense.
Joker’s crazy didn’t make any sense. It all seemed so random and so extreme. A put-on. You’d almost think he was a perfectly sane sociopath pretending to be a madman—except, of course, that that would be crazy. Ha ha ha.
“Look,” Scarecrow said, exasperated. “Assuming I can find us some… ‘funnier’ victims, what do you think about the rest of it?”
Joker scratched his head.
“What are we doing to them again? Oh, right, scaring the pants off them.”
“Without fear toxin,” Crane said quickly.
“Thank Chaplin, something new. Okay, scary, scary, scary… what’s scary. Oh, HAHAHAHA, I got it, werewolves!”
“I really don’t think—”
“Yeah, you’re right. They shed on the carpet. Okay what else?”
“Ventriloquist dummies are pretty creepy, Puddin’.”
Joker and Scarecrow considered it, but they decided Arnold Wesker would take it the wrong way.
“Key-4,” Selina said, scrunching up her nose. “A paper-thin square of C-4 to slide into a reinforced door to blast it open.”
“Sounds effective,” Bruce noted.
“Pfft, I hate blowing safes, I hate blowing doors. It’s for amateurs. I like to take the high road.”
“The… high road,” Bruce said, sensing feline logic was about to enter the conversation.
“Yes, the high road. You crack a safe, you pick a lock, you show the scowling crimefighter a little leg and suggest fun and novel uses for a batarang that never occurred to him. Nothing goes boom.”
Scarecrow was beginning to think he was being played. He had stolen a helicopter, broken Joker out of Arkham, and paid for an entire furnished Hacienda including buying the Z a vintage Donkey Kong machine. He was supposed to be getting some kind of insight into Joker’s power to generate fear, but Joker didn’t seem to be taking the scheme at all seriously. This couldn’t be how he planned his own crime sprees. He was just… he was having Harley dress up in these little outfits. He sat there, while Jonathan preferred to stand, as she pranced out in one getup after another. So far they’d seen her as Morticia Adams, a zombie with a disgusting amount of gore oozing from a gaping wound in her midsection, Anne Boleyn after the beheading, and a Lovecraftian Elder Thing (which Jonathan found strangely alluring and if Harley was anyone else’s wench…)
“Okay, this is the best one yet!” Harley called, before making her appearance as...
“That Christmas Future guy?” Joker said.
“The Grim Reaper,” Crow corrected.
“The what?” Joker said blankly.
“The Grim Reaper.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Death incarnate. Reaper of souls. See the scythe, that makes it the reaper.”
“You know, Puddin’, the guy from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey?” the Reaper said helpfully, before breaking into an abbreviated macarena and rapping “You might be a king or a little street sweeper, but sooner or later you dance with the reaper.”
Joker’s eyeballs rolled up towards Scarecrow and then Harley without moving his head.
”I really don’t think this is going to scare anyone without toxin,” Joker said firmly. “Maybe even then. The lemmings are sheep, but it’s hard to fear a guy who let a couple stoner wannabe musicians sink his battleship.”
“Puddin’, I think lemmings are actually lemmings. Sheep are different.”
“Could we possibly get back to the original subject,” Scarecrow said, ripping the scythe from Grim Harley’s grasp. “Look, the reaper is DEATH. Everyone’s afraid of death. Here, give me that.”
He hurried Harley through removal of the cloak, donned it himself. Even without the black gloves and ski mask, the costume was far more imposing on his tall, pencil thin frame. Giving the hood a final adjustment, he raced at Joker scythe in hand, and hovered over him poised to strike, a petrifying apparition that would shrivel the soul to an icy jelly.
Joker peered up at him silently for what seemed like a full minute, and Jonathan’s spirit soared as he began to realize—incredible as it might seem—impossible as it might seem—yet every passing moment making the impossible dream seem more and more probable—every moment of silence making it seem all the more likely in fact that—yes—he had in fact—he had done it—was doing it—he had pulled off the impossible—he, Jonathan Crane, had scared the living piss out of the—
“More cowbell,” Joker said at last.
“HAHAHAHAHAAAAA! I get it now, the Reaper. You need more cowbell, Craney. HAHAHAHA. More—HAHAHAHA—Cowbell.”
“That’s what’s been missing, Johnny-o. That’s what you’re doing wrong. HAHHAHAHAAA! You’re doing a disservice to yourself and this whole band—er, yeah, this whole band—you got to get more cowbell.”
Scarecrow did not get the reference.
“So try it again and really, y’know, explore the space.”
After Ra’s al Ghul and Vandal Savage, he was probably the least attuned to popular culture.
“Más cencerro, mi amigo.”
At least, pop culture outside of horror films.
“Plus de sonnaille. Mehr Kuhglocke. Mais sino da vaca. Meer koeklok.”
And since he didn’t get the reference in English, he certainly didn’t get it in Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, and Dutch.
Bruce reached out to touch Selina’s hand, signaling that she shouldn’t click past this screen yet. He read the document a second time. Of all the articles, documents and video that had been tagged by Selina’s search routines, this was by far the most interesting. An internal memo at the CIA proposed an investigation and debriefing of bestselling fiction writer Dan Brown.
“It looks like he put some thermal imaging equipment into the hands of the fictional special ops agents in his book, equipment which the real CIA actually does have. They want to know if he got lucky making it up, or if he really knows something.”
“Yeah, I saw that,” Selina said, her fingers still poised on the next arrow. “I guess you would like that one, for the same reason I don’t. Night lenses and heat sensors that can spot the warmth of a body in a darkened room, big whoop, I’ve been getting around that kind of thing since the Phoenix 9000 was a 6000. But this ‘differential sensitivity and multi-source integration’… if I’m reading that right, you can essentially look back in time. So you’re not seeing where the cat burglar is right now—that’s not going to do you any good because I left ten minutes ago—but you can actually see where I was. Where I moved. Do you realize what that means? I’ve got to get a set of Victor’s frigid-field generators now for my boots! Like my feet don’t get cold enough this time of year. Not like my costume is insulated. That’s why I always take the extra time to disarm the heat cameras instead of wearing those awful cold suits. Now they’ve got thermal lenses that look back in time, and I have to start toting around frost cores in my boot heels.”
Bruce couldn’t suppress a chuckle.
“Selina, you don’t have to do any of that anymore. You’re on the other end of the lenses now, remember?”
“I prefer not to think of it that way,” she said simply.
Joker was disgusted at the Scarecrow’s ineptitude. Clearly he needed more cowbell. Since there was no cowbell at the new hacienda (an oversight for which someone would have to pay dearly), Joker just hit him with the scythe for a while, then kicked him out onto the street. A short while later, Harley let the hyenas out to play with him and cheer him up, but he had gone.
Another day in another mood, Joker would have forgotten the episode completely in an hour or two, but today, for some reason, he kept finding little bits of straw as he wandered around the Ha-hacienda. Each new find served as a reminder: Scarecrow.
“A man so lacking in the fundamentals, he didn’t even bring a chicken to an Arkham escape. What’s the world coming to, Harls?”
“Cheer up, Puddin’. Have another Ho Ho.”
“Nah,” Joker pouted. “Well, maybe just one. I couldn’t reach him, Harley. These are the ones that haunt you. He had such potential. If only—heh, heh-heh, HA!”
“Ooh, that sounds like a good one, Mistah J. Ya got an idea?”
“HAHAHAHAHAHAAA-Right! Why was the Scarecrow not able to achieve his goals?”
“Not enough cowbell,” Harley declared loyally.
“WRONG! Because he’s not me—HAHAHAHAAAAA! Why didn’t I think of it before? I can do this fear thing much better than that scrawny old friend of Dorothy. Pack up the whoopee cushions, Harley, we’re going to try something new. HA-HA. HA-HA-HA. Oh, HA-HA HA-HA HA-HA HAAAAAA! This is going to drive Batsy bonkers! HA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAA!”
There was silence in the cave, apart from the bat Walapang warning the other bats off his favorite stalactite, a soft shuffling from the worktable where Bruce was testing lenses, and a few frustrated grunts from the gymnasium where Selina was testing out a new harness. The discussion of the new heat view technologies had escalated into a bet: Batman was going to build a set as a crimefighting tool, Catwoman was going to plan a heist to defeat it. If she pulled it off, he would fly her to Cairo in Wayne One to see the new ruins of the Alexandrian Temple of Bastet. If she didn’t, she would donate a sum to the Wayne Foundation to underwrite security improvements at the Gotham Museum of Art.
Not a bet she intended to lose. She had already called Victor for some basic information about the size, weight, consistency, and placement of the devices she would need. She had made up “rehearsal props,” basically, filling rubber balloons with flour or gelatin and affixing them to her boots, hips, and gloves at key points. After a little practice on the uneven bars, she would have a better sense how they moved and how their weight affected her moves. Then she would be able to describe her requirements to Kittlemeier and—
“Catwoman!” the deep gravel pulled her from her reverie as she adjusted her balance on the bar.
“No peeking!” she called without dismounting. “We had an…” She trailed off when she saw his posture standing between the outcroppings that acted as the doorway to the gymnasium. Words weren’t necessary, she could sense it. Bruce was gone, there was only Batman, weighed down with a heavy burden. “Game over. Something’s happened,” she said, sliding down from the bars without any of her usual flourish, and walking up to him without any slink or sway in her hips.
“An alert just came in. Arkham escape. It’s Joker.”
To be continued…