Chapter 3: Gallows Humor
There are dozens of fashion institutes, tech schools, and community colleges in Gotham, but only four true universities boasting the full offerings of a diverse and bustling college campus. The 9 o’clock classes at the Wayne Forum at Hudson, for example, might include Reaction Kinetics and Reactor Design in Lecture Hall 1, Medieval French Poetry in Hall 2, and Consumer Behavior in the Global Marketplace in Hall 3. Each campus has its greeks, its exchange students, its marketing associations and its chess clubs. Each has its protests condemning animal cruelty, social inequality, the use of the passive voice in museum labels to obscure imperialist crimes against Native Americans, and of course, the blot on civilization that is Columbus Day. Every student group on every campus has at least one fundraising effort a year, usually two, and as there is a limit to how many bake sales and car washes the market will bear, students have to be creative. The result is that a haunted house outside of October isn’t that remarkable. Even on the Hudson University campus, even if Scarecrow is free. What’s the Monty Python Society supposed to do when the Tri Delts already had a fashion show, the Photography Club had a chocolate tasting, the Amateur Radio Club had a life-size Monopoly game, and the Bigfoot Society had a 10K run?
Nobody thought anything was unusual when the fliers showed up picturing a cross-eyed John Cleese with horns and a pitchfork drawn in magic marker and a few Casper-like ghosts circling over his head like twittering birds after an animated coyote is hit in the head in a Warner Brothers’ cartoon. It all seemed perfectly normal. It all seemed exactly what you would expect from a Monty Python Society fundraiser.
Eric Pike thought it would make a decent outing with Sam and her friends. Much cheaper than a movie, and then afterwards, they could split off while the rest of the gang went to McDonald’s. Get some quiet time together now that she’d finally dumped the high school boyfriend. Samantha was intriguing, but those girls from her dorm floor still traveled in a pack. Eric had wandered his own dorm looking for some extra guys to round out the group. He found two of the new freshmen in the laundry room: Drake and Randy Quad. Drake passed. but Quad said he’d go and he’d ask his roommate. That would’ve made three guys and five girls including Sam. Better than nothing, Eric figured, but then two of Sam’s friends decided to pass when they found out where the group was going. So it worked out perfect: three and three.
It was a bit of a hike finding the place. Out past Rec Hall, across the infamous Parking Lot 12 (nicknamed “The Tundra” by students who had to cross it on icy winter mornings on their way to the old computer lab), then down Bigler Avenue so they were technically off the Hudson Campus in the Gotham suburb of Harlow. They came to a very ordinary looking house, and Eric pulled the flier from his pocket and double-checked the address. Yep, this was it: 1313 Brodbank. The name of the street was real, but the house number had obviously been altered for the occasion.
“Here we go,” Eric announced, ringing the doorbell.
No one answered, but after a few seconds, the door did open by itself—but without any of the old-wood creaking you would expect under the circumstances. Randy was the first to say it:
“Just like that? We just go inside? No place to pay admission?”
That set off Amy, the tomboy know-it-all who fancied herself an expert on everything. She declared that it was illegal to charge admission without a special license, and that would require inspections from the fire marshal and paying a fee. What “they” were undoubtedly doing to get around those rules was to have a table at the end to take donations. Amy was apparently ready to elaborate on the subject further, presumably until some ghost, zombie, or chainsaw-wielding maniac appeared to shut her up, so inside they went, hoping such a maniac would appear and appear quickly.
“This is a nice house,” Sam said, looking around as they entered.
“Looks pretty ordinary to me,” Eric noted.
“Yeah, looks like my Sims’ living room,” Stacy said, pointing. “I know they’ve got that couch.”
Once again, it set off Amy. Designs for items like furniture were protected intellectual property and 3-D gaming environments did not have the right to copy anything they wanted. Why, if that sim game copied that sofa from, like, a picture in a Rooms-to-Go catalog, that game-maker could be sued…
Eric stormed off to another room. Freshmen! If tonight didn’t go somewhere with Sam, if he wasn’t in a position to start taking her on dates, one-on-one, without these stupid twits from her dorm floor tagging along, he was done.
“Hm, dining room,” he noted, looking around the room in which he found himself. It too looked incredibly ordinary.
“What’s in here?” Randy said, following down the hallway Eric had come from.
“Dining room,” Eric said.
“Lame,” Randy said. “I don’t get it. Haunted house, right? So where are the ghosts?”
A high-backed chair at the head of the table swiveled, revealing a… a very pale, grinning gentleman in a frock coat.
“I’m so glad you asked. HAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!”
When an escape is discovered in the high security wing of Arkham Asylum, an immediate Code 4 Lockdown goes into effect—unless the escapee is The Joker, in which case, it’s a Code 5. The lockdown was still in effect when Batman reached the front gate, which meant he could enter and move through the halls without half of the Rogues Gallery seeing him. It meant he could converse with Dr. Bartholomew and other staffers without the usual disruptions from the nearby cells.
He inspected Joker’s cell first—that was his primary reason in coming. He examined what was known of the Joker’s escape route, naturally, all the existing footage from the key surveillance cameras before they were deactivated, and the personnel records of the three missing employees. But this was simply for completion. Batman’s goal was not to reconstruct the details of the escape but to get some hint what the mad man might be thinking. If there was any indication that Joker had been thinking about dragons, airplanes, or rock and roll in the days and weeks before escaping, it could give Batman a clue where he was planning to strike. When Joker was involved, clues like that saved lives.
Unfortunately, all the cell’s contents revealed was the improvised nature of the escape. Joker had left a bucket balanced over the door, which had drenched an orderly in Liquid Plummer when he opened it.
“Not Joker’s style,” Batman murmured, inspecting the empty bottle from Arkham’s own supply closet found in the trash. Normally, Joker planned ahead. He would have some dupe smuggle in battery acid for this little trick. Batman did not like it when someone like Joker varied from their normal habits.
Usually he didn’t like it. In this case there was one other feature of the escape that deviated from Joker’s usual pattern: the body count. There were three Arkham employees who had to be prevented from doing their jobs for Joker to have pulled off this particular getaway: Kevin Boda, Rosa Crites, and Gavin Worsted. Normally, their bodies would have been found by now. Normally, a parting message would have been scrawled on the walls in their blood. But this time, they were just missing. Stranger still, Worsted had never clocked in for the day. If there hadn’t been a Joker escape, he’d have a reprimand by now, for it certainly looked like he just skipped work without calling in. With the Joker escape, his No Call/No Show was cause for celebration. Was it possible that he and the others were missing because they were still alive? Could it be that they’d found no bodies because there were no bodies to find?
Apart from the anomalies of the escape, however, the trip to Arkham was disappointing. Batman felt he had no real clues what Joker might be up to, and he’d lost nearly an hour while the mad clown was up to who knows what.
“Oh man,” Eric grimaced, staring at globs of a wet, tarry substance coating the walls. On the stone walls, it looked like tar. On the metal table he was strapped to, it looked like liquid rust.
This was hardcore. This was a dungeon out of a Karloff movie, right down to the slimy stone walls. What had become of the others, Eric couldn’t guess. The only sound was this faint click-click-click. Not quite a clock. Not quite a metronome. Whatever the hell it was, it couldn’t possibly be good. Not when… “Oh man.”
Eric closed his eyes tight. He had just managed to forget he’d seen the Joker—the actual, green hair, white face, shit-eating grin, honest-to-god Joker— right before whatever happened in the haunted house, right before he woke up here. He’d managed to focus on the dungeon he was in, the black muck on the walls… cheery stuff like that. Strapped to a table in a dungeon out of Edgar Allen Poe, that was the good news.
WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT TICKING SOUND ANYWAY?
Strapped to a Frankenstein table in a Vincent Price dungeon while some Pit and the Pendulum thing clicked up or down to slowly, imperceptibly sink him into something horrible, or else to slowly and imperceptibly lower some horrible thing down on top of him. Or maybe if the horrible thing was up above, he was being lifted up to it. Or, possibly, none of that was right, and the clicking-ticking thing was just counting down the time until he’d be transferred to some other medieval torture device and slowly pulled, one limb at a time, into pieces. Or maybe crushed. Eric’s Colonial History 210 was just reading about the Salem witch trials. He remembered how the colonies didn’t have all the gruesome gadgets their predecessors did during the Inquisition, so they’d torture somebody by stacking weight on top of them. That’d be a pretty gruesome way to go.
Eric knew his imagination was only scratching the surface. Hot branding irons on the soles of the feet, electrodes on the genitals, there was no end to the possibilities in a dungeon like this with all that slimy crud on the walls.
And all of that was the good news. The bad news was that green hair and white face he was trying not to think about. The bad news wasn’t the dungeon. The bad news wasn’t what might happen in the dungeon. The bad news was it was the Joker who had put him here.
Date Night might be cancelled, but Catwoman saw no reason she couldn’t nose around a little. There was no telling what sort of information a curious cat might dig up. She questioned a few nobodies on her way to the Iceberg, but that was about as productive as questioning street scum always was for her. She learned nothing that she wouldn’t have to confirm from more reliable, non-scum sources, and she felt she had tarnished the good name of cats. Dealing with gutter trash was such a Gotham Postish activity, she needed to restore herself with some supremely civilized act—which is why she did it on the way to the Iceberg. It didn’t get much more civilized than a very dry vodka martini with a twist of pickled ginger the way only Sly could make them. Meow.
It looked like a quiet night at the ‘Berg. Clayface was at the bar talking to Sly. The bartender had his phone out and was showing Matt a video of something that barked. Selina couldn’t see the screen, of course, but judging by the few words overheard while she picked up her drink, she deduced that Sly got caught up in some Adoption Day street party held by the Wayne Animal Shelter. He came home “with a furry friend” as the posters say, and the video was one of several featuring his yapping new friend doing his special trick. She gave bartender and clay man a wide berth and scanned the room for a more suitable informant.
Hugo Strange. Ick. No…
Crazy Quilt. Hardly…
A-ha! Mad Hatter, sipping tea from a souvenir Igloo glass, pinkie extended in his prissiest I-have-gossip-to-share pose.
“Evening, Jervis,” she said with a twinkle. “What was that greeting you always had for the Cheshire Cat?”
“’It’s a Cheshire cat,’ said the Duchess.”
Selina laughed and took the seat next to him.
“I don’t think that was it, but close enough,” she smiled. “Any news?”
Normally, that was all the prompting Jervis Tetch needed, but tonight, his attention wandered at exactly the wrong moment. “Does the new Peahen look superliciously like an Alice?”
Catwoman glanced at Oswald’s new waitress.
“Not from where I’m sitting.”
“Really? She seems positively Alicious to me.”
“She has straight blonde hair. Is that really all it takes, Jervis? Because a wig will do that much.”
“I suppose,” he said sadly.
“Any news?” Selina tried again, picking up a menu and glancing at the appetizers to make the query seem all the more casual.
“Not a new,” Jervis replied with a heartbroken shake of his head. “Oh, other than Roxy getting cozy with one of those Two-Face henchmen Harv brought in from Star City,” he said, perking up considerably now that he had thought of something. “And um, Oswald caught Magpie holding out on him after the Darlington job, so she’s on the black list for the duration. Cluemaster nearly hired a henchwench who wasn’t a wench at all but a drag queen from Club Nero… Double Dare stole some sort of golden orchid from one of the triad elders and had to go running to King Snake for protection. He hadn’t forgiven them for stealing his tarts way back when, and he’s making them work for him now in exchange for his smoothing things over with the triads… Signal Man lost $30,000 playing blackjack at a Bludhaven casino over the weekend. Oh, and Hugo has a frabjous Batman cowl spattered with barbecue sauce that he’s trying to pass off as the real thing stained with blood. What else, what else… Nobody seems to know where the Z have got to. Noah Cutler was apparently making some inquiries, but nobody can find them. It’s like they’ve all disappeared. Maxie Zeus had a three-way with his ex-Aphrodite and a Rainbow Raider from Keystone. He has yet to discover his lair is missing several valuable artifacts since that encounter.”
“Interesting,” Selina said. “But back to the Z…”
“Well apparently, these Rainbow Raiders are quite—ker-snick, ker-snack, Kitty the Cat, you want to know about the Z? Everyone else wants to know how I know Maxie was robbed before Maxie knows himself, and it is a tale fit for a Jabberwock. You see, the former Aphrodite is also a former Alice who goes to the same gym as a former—”
“The Z, Jervis. Any idea where they were seen last? Or who they might have been working for before they disappeared?”
“I don’t know anything for certain, Cheshire Cat. For to know, you have to be in the know, and once you’re in the know, it can be very hard getting out again. For there are forget-me-notes and forget-me-knots in a vase on the table as you leave, and if you take the one instead of the other for your buttonhole, it makes such a tangle. So all I could do is speculate.”
“Do,” Selina said, taking a sip of her martini as if it all made perfect sense.
Rather than answer, Jervis looked fixedly at her left index-claw and said it looked awfully sharp.
Selina sighed. That was the problem getting information with Jervis. You did have to sit through an awful lot of nonsense.
Samantha tried very hard to focus on her breathing. In and out, in and out, in and out. Pay absolutely no attention to the—oh god, oh god, oh god, don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down—Pay absolutely no attention to the warm fuzzy thing crawling over… foot. Oh god, oh god, oh god, it was crawling on her foot.
Keep breathing, don’t look down. Keep breathing, don’t look down. Keep breathing, don’t—EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
A trickle of urine was dripping down her leg now, a sensation that penetrated Samantha’s paralyzed mind for one reason and one reason only: how would the tarantula react if she dripped on it?
Selina’s head was reeling when she left the Iceberg. It wasn’t the martini, she hadn’t swallowed more than a sip of that. It was the undertow of talking to Jervis for nearly than an hour, then being spirited off to Oswald’s office and hit with a proposition like the Muziri Tigers. When she finally did unearth that final bit of information about the Z (even if it was a guess), her head was spinning too wildly to think through the possibilities.
The Z were simply not interesting enough to hold Jervis’s attention. Every time she thought she had led him back to the subject, his attention flickered: Oh look, Hugo is showing off his fake Batman cowl again, and even if it is Hugo, and even if it is barbecue sauce instead of blood, isn’t that the best-looking Bat-fake you ever saw? It’s the sheen that makes the difference, don’t you know. Graphite do you think? Or something like that gypsum stuff that blackboards are made of, sprayed with Teflon or something to give it a little gloss? Oh, or maybe oil is applied, that would make it shine too, like the Queen of Hearts own crown, don’t you know. Say what you will about the wretched Bat, he does have an eye for quality headgear…
It was a relief when the new Peahen came by with a note from Oswald, asking to see Catwoman “when convenient.” Selina decided it didn’t get much more convenient than the moment Jervis Tetch started speculating if Hugo might use shoe polish or Vaseline to give his fake Batman-cowl “a nice Queen of Hearts crown shine.”
It wasn’t the first time Stacy had blacked out. Not the first time she’d woken up somewhere strange, feeling like shit, with some serious holes in her memory about how she got there. Unfortunately, there was no smell of stale beer and vomit this time. The air had a cold, clammy feeling, and the last thing she remembered… was not a keg party.
She sat up, looking around the… uh, room, I guess you’d call it. It looked kind of like a dorm room, if your dorm had damp cinderblock walls and no window. There was a nice bed, a book shelf and posters on the walls: Whit Morsing, one of the Hudson football players, and another one with the whole team and cheerleaders. That one was thumb-tacked to the back of the door… More thumbtacks in a bulletin board over the desk. On the desk, a couple text books and one of those lamps from the student bookstore... Definitely more of a dorm room than a prison cell, but seeing that Stacy was pretty sure she was a prisoner, she had to think that door was locked. She tried it anyway…
And found it opened… Except it didn’t open into a hallway. That really would be too much to hope for. It opened to a smaller room that she would have called a closet except for its contents. There was a curtained shower stall and a little table with a shower cap, a bar of soap, a miniature bottle of shampoo and a folded bath towel, all sitting next to a small paper card reading:
Please enjoy these fine toiletries
provided for your convenience. Enjoy your stay.
–The Management, Bates Motel.
As always, Catwoman had to sit through several minutes of Penguin puffery before he got down to business. Oswald was never quite so happy as when he had a scheme to a) make money and b) work with an old school Rogue whom he deemed “on his level—kwak!” Happiness in Oswald Cobblepot tended to manifest in litanies of alliterative prose, in this case celebrating the supreme suitability of the proposed partnership. Oswald concluded his preamble by leaning back in his chair with a fat, contented gesture, and stretching out his hand like the statue of an old world saint posed high on the façade of a grand cathedral, conferring his blessings on a devout populace below:
“I have said before, my felicitous feline, you and I are the aristocrats of crime. It’s only right that we give our peers first refusal when opportunities present themselves—kwak!. Give our custom to lesser mortals only after our equals have declined the honor. Don’t you agree?”
“I know Magpie stiffed you, Ozzy. You went to her first because she’s cheap. And now that it’s blown up in your face, you’re coming to me.”
Catwoman smiled sweetly, and Oswald chewed his cigarette holder, looking put out. After a long, sour moment, he conceded the point:
Randy stared at the cold, recessed eyes of the vintage jack-in-the-box that shared his cell. The jack-in-the-box stared back. It grinned too, but Randy did not feel like returning the grin.
He thought Joker looked creepy, but even Joker—even Joker in the flesh and not in the newspaper—even Joker’s smile wasn’t as heart-pounding flesh-crawling I-want-my-mommy creepy as that jack-in-the-box. Maybe it was being alive. Joker was a deranged lunatic, a homicidal maniac, but at least he was a person. He was an evil person who was probably going to kill you, but even so, he had a mouth. So… so scary as his smile was, it wasn’t all that unnatural for it to be there made up of lips and teeth. Joker moved, he laughed, he did all the things that living people do, whereas this jack-in-the-box just sat there.
Randy thought it was bad when it was a closed box sitting there. You wake up chained to a wall, the weight of your body falling on your arms while you’re unconscious, so they feel like they’re ready to drop out of their sockets if you ever get free—that’s bad. And there’s this closed box sitting there that’s probably a bomb or something, it’s really, really bad. That’s what Randy had thought—until it started making noise. That creepy kiddie music, really soft and slow. Randy realized that chained to a wall with a closed box is one thing, chained to a wall with a closed box that has music coming out of it is infinitely worse.
Until the music stops—until the music stops and absolutely nothing happens—then you realize that okay, this is it, all that stuff before that you thought was creepy, that was nothing. This, right here, right now, THIS is as bad as it could possibly be. This is it, this is as bad as it gets. This is rock (gulp) bottom.
Until the top of the box bursts open and that head pops up, scaring the living shit out of you.
Ah, the good old days, Randy thought. Such happier times. With that creepy clown head bobbing up and down on its spring. Randy thought he was creeped out then, but he realized now that was nothing.
This was the scary part.
Its spring had run out of springiness. Bobbly Sinister Jack-in-the-Box Head was now an Eerily Still Sinister Jack-in-the-Box Head.
Randy stared at its cold, recessed eyes…
And it stared back…
It grinned at him with a frozen smile of eternal mirth…
Smiled at a joke Randy did not know…
And Randy did not feel like returning its grin.
It was the kind of job Catwoman was offered once a year when she was working: Sir Edward Montrose got screwed with his pants on when all the screwing he’d been doing the regular way overturned his prenup. He’d lost the bulk of his fortune in the divorce, leaving him with the upkeep on a 40-room ancestral home he could no longer afford—as well as a magnificent art collection he was forbidden to sell under the terms of his great, great grandfather’s will. The family trustees had blocked every attempt to get around the no sale clause, so the only way for Sir Edward to liquidate any of his holdings was if an item was stolen. Then he could collect the insurance while his buyer paid off the thief. He was therefore prepared to lend several pieces to a Gotham museum if he could be assured they would not be coming back. He would even provide the would-be thief (or her agent, in this case Oswald) with the names of certain collectors who had expressed an interest in them over the years.
“The Muziri Tigers,” Oswald said. “Twelve statues, wedding present for some maharajah. Half are solid gold encrusted with rubies; the other half are silver set with lapis lazuli. All about yea high,” he added, pointing the tip of his umbrella several inches over his desktop.
Catwoman arched an eyebrow.
“You better not be including the height of the desk, Ozzy, because I’d need a squad of henchmen and a couple moving vans.”
“Eight inches,” he quacked.
“I’ll think about it.”
Oswald settled a little more comfortably into his chair, stroking the handle of his umbrella like Blofeld petting his cat. Selina let him enjoy the moment, let him start spending the proceeds from the stolen tigers before she continued:
“Of course, a job like this is apt to attract some Bat attention. I should have something prepared. A new lair, purr-haps with a trapdoor and something nasty set up in the basement. Something to teach our favorite hero that what Kitty takes, Kitty keeps. Nosy capes who try to take it back make the acquaintance of bigger tigers than that.”
“As I said, Catwoman, you are truly a fellow aristocrat of crime.”
“Yes, well, deathtraps like that don’t build themselves. Get a message to the Z for me?”
“Kwak! Problem. They dropped out of sight a few days ago.”
“Don’t tell me somebody finally went after them for padding the bill with all those flat screen TVs and helicopter tours of Gotham harbor.”
“No, nothing like that. If they didn’t go into hiding after KGBeast and the Vespas, I can’t imagine what would drive them to it. Kwak, kwak-kwak-kwak. I’m fairly certain this is a case of ‘once bit’ prudence. Remember when they worked for the Scarecrow last time? He doesn’t trust freelancers. Opted for his usual henchman insurance.”
“Injecting them with a special fear toxin that will only kick in in the heat of a Bat interrogation.”
“Precisely—kwak. Crow lost a lair recently, after that armored car business. If he hired the Z to replace it, a sensible bird would fly the nest as soon as the job was completed.”
“Get out of Gotham until the toxin wore off, so there’d no chance of Batman catching them and setting it off like last time. I guess that’s possible.”
Amy had screamed herself hoarse in the first fifteen minutes. She’d torn her fingernails down to the quick clawing and scratching at the coffin lid. All she could do now was whimper.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
She couldn’t believe she was going to DIE being so stupid.
Here she was, buried alive, and she’d wasted all that air screaming. Then she wasted more air clawing at the lid. She was supposed to be better than this. She was supposed to realize at once what was happening. She was supposed to remain calm and save her strength, start meditating and slow her breathing. Astonish her rescuers when they came with having the presence of mind to conserve her precious oxygen.
NOW SHE WAS GOING TO DIE JUST LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE!!!!!
After the Iceberg, Catwoman hit the rooftops. She was pissed at the wasted evening.
Not that she’d expected to learn that Harley Quinn set up a Twitter account and was tweeting Joker’s plans and location to anybody who would listen. She just… she expected something more from that trip to the Iceberg. A half-tempting proposition about tigers and a half-plausible theory about a possibly irrelevant rumor about the Z. No wonder crimefighting wasn’t her—
The thought was cut off by a shaft of light throwing a dark symbol onto the clouds: an emblem of the one facet of crimefighting that was very much her kink.
“Well, it is supposed to be Date Night,” Selina purred.
She’d intended to call Batman on the OraCom and tell him her one bit of news about the Z laying low. Now she could surprise him in person. She headed for Chatham, the rooftop and gargoyle that offered the best view of the One-PP roof, but as soon as she got there…
“What the hell?”
Catwoman twitched her head as if trying to knock water from her ear. Then she looked towards the Bat-Signal again.
“What the hell?”
Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, the most recognizable piece of organ music in the annals of classical composition—as well as the preferred horror soundtrack from the era of silent movie Draculas, dark castles, and opera house phantoms. Something you expect to hear if you’re attending a Lon Chaney retrospective or a midnight screening of The Golem. Not something you expect to hear coming out of the Bat-Signal.
Catwoman unfurled her whip and swung in to take a closer look. If anyone was watching, well, she had used the signal to get Batman’s attention back in the day. It wasn’t unheard of for her to be there. And if Catwoman did come by to use the Bat-Signal for some purpose of her own and heard it playing organ music, she would certainly take a closer look.
..:: STAY BACK!::.. she heard crackling over the OraCom a moment before Batman’s bulk swung into her, pulling her off course. His trajectory carried them farther than she intended, and they landed together in the northernmost corner of the rooftop. He held the embrace he’d begun mid-swing, as if shielding her from an explosion with his body.
The embrace was nice, and normally Selina wouldn’t be the one to break the moment. But since Scarecrow was involved, she figured she better make sure he wasn’t shielding her from some explosion, fireball or monster that wasn’t really there:
“Are we being extra-careful,” she whispered, “or do you see a raging inferno that I don’t?”
“Careful,” he graveled. “There’s an object under the lamp producing the music. Looks like an ordinary boom box, judging by the infrared, but I won’t know for sure until I can perform a more thorough visual inspection and then, ideally, take it apart. There’s a second object in front of the base. I haven’t determined its function yet, or if it’s connected to the boom box. It could be rigged to explode or release SmileX if the music is stopped, or if a body steps too close to the—”
“SmileX? Not fear toxin? C’mon, Stud, that thing’s playing Toccata and Fugue not circus music.”
“The second object, whatever it is, it’s balanced on a pair of clown shoes.”
Chuck was doing his best not to have an all out panic attack after the snakes. He knew he’d fainted, and he was pretty sure he was in the same room he was in before. Except now, the snakes were gone. Should be good news, right?
Then he heard the footsteps. That should be good news too. Footsteps meant feet, not snakes. Long as it wasn’t more hissing or slithering, footsteps should be—
Hissing wasn’t so bad. Hissing meant snakes. But that was laughter, and that meant—
“Hiya there, prisoner guy. Time to get dressed for school!”
“I got you a notebook and a plastic ruler…”
Harley Quinn, the Joker’s girlfriend, was standing in front of him in a cap and gown, with little tassels sewn onto the cap!
“And ooh, lookee here, a nice sharp number 2 pencil.”
Two cowls were silhouetted in front of the Bat-Signal as Batman and Catwoman’s heads tilted at the same angle, looking down on an ordinary cigar box balanced on a pair of clown shoes.
“What now, X-ray it?” Catwoman asked gingerly.
Batman had performed every test he could without touching the box or the shoes, and he’d determined that there was no explosive, corrosive, or contaminant to be triggered, exposed or released if the items were moved.
“Negative. No wrapping. Easy to open. Easy to see it can be moved without risk. The logical thing is to X-ray it, which means the radiation of the X-ray could be the very thing that springs the trap.”
“So… just open it?”
Grimly, Batman handed her a rebreather and said “Yes.”
Harley escorted the last of the students to Room 101 of Buster Keaton Hall, put away the cattle prod she used to get everyone seated according to Mistah J’s seating plan, and fished out a nice shiny apple which she sat on his lectern.
Seeing that he was late, she did what any good teaching assistant would do. She wrote his name on the blackboard:
And then, since that was done, she gave a short talk on how to squeak the chalk to make a nice, loud one that gets your ears shuddering.
No one understands how Joker’s mind works, not completely, but Batman did have a rudimentary grasp of the lunatic’s thought process, based on past experience. So did Catwoman. Their experiences were very different: his from battling the insane clown, hers from Joker drawing her name for a Secret Santa. Despite these differences, there were surprising areas of overlap. Looking down into the cigar box, both could conceive of only one possible meaning for its contents.
“Is this what I think it is?” Catwoman said sourly.
Though both wore gloves, hers had the advantage of claws, allowing her to pick up the object with the less physical contact than Batman could achieve with his fingers, and more control than he would have using tweezers. She held up the “keychain,” delicately suspended from her right index claw and thumb, permitting the fob to dangle in such a way that the visual pun was complete.
An ordinary car key on an ordinary keychain—except that the “chain” connecting key to fob was a thin length of coiled rope with a noose on one end, and the key fob was a miniature Batman figure with the noose tied around its neck.
“Only way it makes sense to me is if this is the key to a Hummer,” she said, and Batman’s scowl deepened, knowing they shared the same thought. To Joker’s mind, there could be only possible meaning, and Batman and Catwoman spoke the words together:
“HAHAHAHA! Bringing us—Q.E.D.—to the proof of our theorem, E = MC Hammer driving the nail into the square peg. No wait, the square peg into the round nail… Never mind. The point is, students, that our esteemed colleague Professor Jonathan Crane is a dipshit, HAHAHAHAHA! Why is he a dipshit, you may ask? Because he has dedicated his career to this one concept of fear, overlooking the obvious fallacy that fear isn’t funny. SLIDE!”
In the back of the room, Harley squeaked, jumped to her feet, and dimmed the lights. Then she ran back to the slide projector and hit the button on the side, producing a loud whoopee cushion noise as the carousel advanced and a timeline appeared on the projection screen in the front of the room. The illustration showed a caveman on the far left, over a length of the timeline labeled 200,000 B.C. To the right of this was a pottery bowl, a pyramid, an image of the Mona Lisa, and finally on the extreme right, a pair of Groucho Marx glasses and moustache.
Joker—in his academic gown of regal purple, topped with a cap of vivid green—picked up a pointer and, after poking Chuck a few times with the tip, pivoted to the screen to point to this image.
“Humor is highly evolved,” he declared. “Whereas fear…” He pointed again, first poking Chuck a few more times in the chest, then pointing back at the projection screen “…is at the other end of the spectrum. An animal instinct, what we in academic circles like to call ‘E Pluribus Soiledus our Trousers-us. Maximus Caca. Melita, domi adsum.’ So the key word is unevolved, the neanderthals among us who don't really belong in the human race. I won’t name names, we all know who they are and we all know they’re eating up all the bananas. Question then: HOW can we find the JOKE in FEAR? SLIDE!”
Once again, the whoopee cushion sound effect was heard as the slide carousel advanced, revealing the same caveman from the timeline, blown up to fill the screen.
“Fear is where this knuckle-dragger lives, and as anyone can see, he’s only six hairs away from being a baboon. Where’s the funny, I ask you? Inventing fire AFTER you’ve eaten the pig?”
The fight was predictable:
It was not “date night” and it was not “mumble years ago” when they wound up working together if they happened upon a case independently and discovered each other’s involvement halfway through. They were together now, they woke up in the same bed each morning, it was not necessary to invent reasons to spend time together. This was JOKER. He was DANGEROUS. And as far as Batman was concerned, Catwoman’s role in the case was over.
Catwoman naturally saw it differently. She hadn’t set out to investigate Joker, but she did happen to be there when the key clue was found. She wasn’t going to tuck in her tail and go home just because things took a dangerous turn. Batman would still be on the roof of One Police Plaza if she hadn’t noticed the parking stub tucked into the Bat figure’s utility belt. It was only thanks to her keen eye that Batman found the Hummer the key opened!
This assertion led to the Glare of Death that sent criminals and colleagues alike into hasty retreat—all except Catwoman, who merely glared back.
Yes, fine, Batman would have found the parking stub eventually, but not until he got the whole cigar box-clown shoes-boom box contraption back to the cave and took everything apart with tweezers. He had it hours sooner than expected because of her. And for that, he thought he was going to send her home?!
“This is not a state of mind,” Batman graveled. “This is not something I ‘think’ I’m going to do or you’re going to do. This is what is going to happen: You are going home now.”
“Then there’s the whole ‘Coward dies many times before his death, thing,” Joker said, pounding on the lectern. “Something is wrong there. If you die many times, you’re not doing it right. And I personally would like to see some solid research on these fraidy cats who cannot die properly. Dr. Quinn, call the Institute. See about getting us a grant. HAHAHAHA!”
It had been a long time.
Years of being Batman had produced a hybrid of keen intellect and razor sharp instinct that made decisions instantly, acted with certainty and without hesitation. It had been a long time since his feelings formed this blockage. There was the gut level instinct, the core understanding of what had to be done, and there was… there was the act of doing it. Normally, the one flowed into the other automatically, it flowed like water. It simply was, a reflex, a muscle memory. The only exception was when he encountered a certain cat burglar who put the man at odds with the Bat. What the crimefighter knew had to be done was… was somehow not enough to propel his mind and body into doing it. It required an act of will—an act of will he was not always capable of.
It had been a long time since he felt this.
Batman was quite aware that she hadn’t gone home. He knew she wasn’t going to when she left him at the Bat-Signal. He knew she would follow him to the 14th Street Parking Garage and he permitted it only because he knew the Hummer itself would not be the Joker encounter. Opening the vehicle now, he saw exactly what he expected: a GPS. That’s what would lead to the Joker encounter, and that’s why the feline shadow tailing him had to be stopped here.
It had been a long time since he felt this. Like a tightness in his chest requiring the deepest of breaths to fill his lungs. An effort to breathe, an effort to move. A studied and deliberate act of will to make himself do what had to be done, to make his body move where it needed to in order to draw her eye to the alley, to lead her into the shadows, and to… to swing her into position to apply the nerve pinch. Cuffing Catwoman to the fire escape conscious would be a waste of effort. This way, he could expect a six or seven minute head start, and when she came to, it might take her a full three or four minutes to get herself free, rather than the 45 seconds she’d take normally.
“When corn got to $2 a bushel, I sold. HAHAHAaaaa—Anybody? No? Abe Feldspar? Just put it on my bill? The other one is in a snow tire in Cleveland? Well anyway, the joke with fear is: you do it to yourself, HAHAHAHA! The tarantula in your head is a thousand times worse than the one in the tank with you. The real one isn’t poisonous. The real one isn’t biting you. The one in your head, THAT’S the one that’s gonna kill ya. Get it?
“Let’s have a look at your lab work: chained to a wall over a tank of snakes, chained to a wall over a tank of furry spiders, chained to a wall with a jack-in-the-box. You two stopped screaming soon as we took you out. That guy’s still shaking like a leaf. Now, who had the Chinese water torture?”
Batman had entered silently and observed the scene from a duct above the ceiling tiles. Joker was too engrossed in his performance to notice a square of acoustic tiling moving over his head, which gave Batman ample time to count the hostages and determine why they were so well behaved. He could see that they were not chained to their desks, nor did there appear to be any pressure plates on their chairs. That eliminated the “rise from your seat, receive an electric shock” possibility. A cross-spectrum sweep of the room confirmed there were no explosives that could be detonated…
“Reviewing: Fear isn't funny. This is because fear is the currency of lower life forms. Laughter is evolved, other end of the spectrum. Hence the existence of gallows humor: Use funny as garlic to shoo away the vampire-werewolf-big bad beastie of fear. Making it very hard to find the FUNNY in FEAR. Professor Joker had eight to ten hairs turn BROWN while he was trying. But what was the ultimate solution? Mr. Freckles in the Third Row?”
Eric looked around, terrified.
“Um, tarantulas and Chinese water torture?”
“BANANAS!” Joker screamed. “Bananas, bananas, bananas!”
He pointed to the blackboard and frantically underlined words and arrows connecting his previous illustrations:
“Fear is unevolved. Caveman is unevolved. Caveman is like a monkey. Monkey eats banana. FEAR to CAVEMAN to MONKEY to BANANA. Get it? Now…”
He paused to erase the lower half of his equations, which permitted Batman to drop into position without attracting attention…
“Banana PEEL,” Joker continued, writing these words below the first equation, “slip on the banana peel — Fall — ‘Ah, we are all subject to gravity—just as we are all subject to DEATH’
Here, he drew a wild curved arrow connecting DEATH back to the original word FEAR…
“We’re all subject to gravity, physical law, death, ACK! And that’s why slapstick is FUNNY. HA-HA-HA. So you see, Class, BANANAS are the Stargate on this.”
He turned back to face the class—and into a gloved fist. He staggered back, hitting the blackboard with considerable force. It’s what Batman intended, but he didn’t figure on the blackboard being a false wall on a turntable. The blackboard wall opened up, letting Joker fall back into a flee space. Harley Quinn stepped out of the void with what looked like a fire extinguisher, and aimed a spray of pungent banana-smelling cream into Batman’s face.
It was his turn to stagger back, the banana smell triggering a convulsive hiccup that was all too familiar. He struggled to get to his feet as his mouth contorted and his lips pulled back in an involuntary grin. He struggled through hyperventilative giggles to get the antidote from his belt and into his mouth. And then he struggled to get the students to calm down until the police arrived. He could feel the stiffness around his mouth and knew the grotesque appearance that lingered after even mild SmileX exposure. He knew after the ordeal they’d suffered, his appearance wasn’t helping.
He knew it wouldn’t make his reconciliation with Selina any easier either.
Worst of all, he knew Joker had escaped.
He knew the worst was yet to come.
To be continued...