Chapter 2: The Coming Guest
Rain pounded on the roof of the dockside warehouse, dribbled from the rusted gutter, gushed down the stormwater drain - and fell like a million tiny bullets all over Batman’s cape as he rose impressively from the crouch in which he had landed on the rooftop opposite the gangling grotesque he now stared down.
Crane could appreciate the imagery; the way the little white splashes of water burst off that wall of impenetrable black that was Batman, framing his outline in a way that was strikingly reminiscent of the bristling fur of some huge, furious beast. Scarecrow himself, he reflected, would be cast by the same effect as more of a ghastly chalk-and-charcoal sketch, all spindly lines and blurred, uneven silhouette. Something out of a half-remembered, evil dream. The thought pleased him.
“Batman…” He whispered, in his best gasping death-rattle. “Come to share the ambience?”
“I’m watching you, Crane.”
“Then you’ll know I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Oh, Batman. No bravado. You can’t touch me and you know it. Arkham released me with a clean bill. I’m simply enjoying a stroll in the rain.”
“In your Sunday best.”
Crane gave a raspy laugh and theatrically lifted his taloned fingers to his face. It was an uncanny, spider-like move that sent shudders into everyone who saw it - except the Bat, of course. “Perhaps I just like the feel of sackcloth against my skin…there’s no crime in unusual fashion sense, now is there?”
Suddenly, the Bat was there, gripping the Scarecrow’s collar, hoisting him up as he had so many times before, staring without the slightest trace of fear - without the slightest trace of anything but raw, animal rage - straight into, straight through, both of their nightmare masks.
“I’m watching you, Crane.” Batman reiterated, the narrow eyes that seemed so white against all that black becoming mere knife-slits. “I know you. What you eat. Where you sleep. Where you walk. One slip.”
Crane felt the initial hot sting of shock and surprise melt away into a cold crawl of dread, and somewhere deep within him shivered with delight. Fear was his tool, his weapon, and he felt a special, intimate kind of thrill watching it freeze the souls behind people’s eyes. But he had to confess, if only to himself, that he felt a similar rush from being on the receiving end. From being the prey as well as the predator; from the epic game of trick-or-treat he played with this relentless, intimidating bastard in the pointy-eared cowl. He let the Bat continue.
“So you can tell me right now what you’re planning for Halloween…or I can find out, and stop you.”
So much primal, seething violence pouring off that cape and out of that cowl and through that voice. Batman never killed anyone; everyone knew that. But somehow he managed to inject a thousand times more threat into a humble word like ‘stop’ than any lowlife thug ever could, even if they had you strapped down with a gun pressed to your temple.
Batman would never pop you; he would never cut you open and pull out your lungs. He wouldn’t even sever your finger as a trophy. Yet somehow the fear he generated in the criminal community was palpable, pervasive, and lingered far longer than any emotion stirred up by people who were capable of doing things like that. The worst Batman ever gave you was a few cracked ribs and a stint in Arkham, yet there was not one criminal in Gotham who went about their business without jumping at every shadow that might turn out to be the silhouette of a black cape.
The fear of Batman, Crane had concluded, was an actual, classifiable phobia, because it was as irrational as it was inescapable, and it all stemmed from the persona, the mythos, deliberately created by this one man.
Brilliant. Breathtakingly brilliant. Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, had never been able to achieve that kind of legend. He hated the Batman; he envied him - and worshiped his genius.
“Thinking of poisoning the water supply again? I’ll have the entire city inoculated against your toxin before you can blink. You should think about sitting this one out, Scarecrow, in the comfort of a padded cell.”
Scarecrow began to laugh. It was a hollow, breathless kind of sound, but it added a slight tilt of the head to Batman’s scowling, dagger-eyed glare.
“Joker got your tongue, Crane?”
“Not the toxin, Batman! Not this time. I’m better than that. You’ll see. I’m not some sad featherweight who can’t let go of his gimmick. You know me better than that! I know the human mind, as you do. I know what makes flesh crawl in the dark. I am Terror. I am Nightmare. I am Scarecrow.”
I am Vengeance, I am Justice -
Batman threw him down.
“Trick or treat, winged harbinger.” Scarecrow crooned, when he’d managed to pull the wind back into his lungs. And just as he did, a vast shadow loomed out of the wall of steaming fog and rain to their left - from the ocean - and Batman’s eyes widened as a 40,000 deadweight tonne cargo freighter with all of its lights out careened through the harbour, shattered the nearest jetty into kindling, and jackknifed straight into the warehouse they were standing on.
Batman seized Crane’s collar and jerked his lanky body out of the way of exploding sheets of corrugate and beams of iron. He leapt down to the wharf on the warehouse’s other side, and slammed Scarecrow into the damp wood.
“WHAT DID YOU DO?!”
“TELL ME NOW!”
He only stopped when he saw Scarecrow’s eyes; wide and blinking and dull with confusion, not concussion. The Bat-mind didn’t take long to snap to the fact that the freighter had narrowly missed turning Crane into a smear on the wall and probably would have killed him if it hadn’t been for Batman. Scarecrow was many things, but suicidal was not among them. So either something had been bungled, or -
It wasn’t him. He had no idea.
“N-not my…trick.” Crane managed to gasp.
Batman let him drop and jabbed a gloved finger into his chest. “Stay.” And then in a ruffle of black, the Bat was gone.
:::: You’ve reached Selina Kyle. She’s a little busy right now doing things good little girls shouldn’t talk about, but if you ask nicely she’ll think about getting back to you. Leave some catnip after the meow. Meow.::::
***Selina? It’s Eddie. Listen, if you don’t have any romantic plans with Bruce for ONE AW HELL, why not join me at my apartment for a B-movie marathon? I promise it won’t be ‘Pumpkinhead’ or ‘Children of the Corn’. ‘Cat People’ if you ask nice. Call me.***
***The original. Not the remake with Natassja Kinski running around in the buff for half the movie.***
***Not as if that’s in my collection, or anything. SON COME ALL ***
“Oh Hell.” I muttered.
Eddie leaving a message that started with “Selina? It’s Eddie,” instead of “Riddle me this, my dearest!” The slightly strained, mousy quality Eddie was trying to keep out of his voice. The mention of us spending a quiet Halloween together, at Eddie’s apartment, not the ‘berg. Not at the requisite Jonathan Crane Halloween Shindig that you really, really didn’t want to miss, lest you wind up huddled in terror of the monster under your bed or trapped in a hallucinatory murder mystery like Bruce was last year for snubbing the invitation from ‘crow.
That could mean only one thing. The invitations weren’t sent. Which meant Scarecrow wasn’t throwing his little pumpkin bash; he was either holed up in Arkham, or loose and planning a more inclusive party.
I lived with Batman. I knew the At Large list, and I knew Scarecrow wasn’t in the loony bin right now. Shit. No wonder Eddie wanted to huddle up and fortify himself in his apartment with some old movies and a close friend (one capable of snapping Crane like a matchstick) for company on Halloween. I should’ve been angry that he wanted to use me as Guard Kitty, but I was verging on being touched that he was just plain making sure neither of us was going to be alone on Scarecreep’s Night of Nights. Anyone who’d offended him in the past year might potentially be a target, and everyone had rubbed Crane the wrong way at some point or other.
He was Scarecrow. He was physically a pushover for the likes of Bruce and I, he (generally) wasn’t as sick as Joker, his schemes weren’t always that creative and sometimes amounted to cheap carnival scares. And then there was his over-reliance on the good ol’ fear toxin. There were times when the Iceberg crowd treated him as a bit of a second-rater. But there were other times when he chose to remind us that he could live up to his hype when he felt inspired.
And he was always inspired by Halloween. He was like Jack Skellington’s murderous redneck cousin.
I knew in advance that Bruce would be occupied on the big night, either thwarting whatever scheme straw-head was planning or keeping an all-night vigil in case he’d left any surprises. That left me free to accept Eddie’s invitation. And it’d been a long time since I’d watched Cat People.
The original, anyway.
I hit Eddie’s speed-dial.
Batman sat at his console, fingers steepled, brow creased beneath the scowling mask, staring at an incomplete log and the blinking cursor that marked the point at which he had stopped.
…no survivors, no bodies, no traces of gunfire, chemicals or explosives. No sign of sabotage. The navigational equipment was left functioning and the engines were running and maintained, suggesting someone was guiding the ship into port. The ship’s logs, however, are missing. It’s as if every trace of the people aboard that ship had been deliberately, almost supernaturally erased.
And that was where the cursor sat. Why had he used ‘supernaturally?’ There were a thousand logical possibilities. Some kind of danger or threat that forced the crew to abandon ship. But an emergency like that wouldn’t explain the removal of the logs. Perhaps a relatively bloodless act of piracy - or one that was covered up very, very well, but maritime piracy was almost completely unheard of this close to the US. Batman had found nothing unusual in the Coastguard’s records over the past few days; the last contact with the ship had been a Coastguard radio officer warning the vessel of the large storm building in its path. There had been a note that the response from the ship sounded unusually strained, but the officer probably expected it from sailors nearing the end of a long run and needing to navigate a heavy squall. That call had been made two days ago.
Why ‘supernaturally’? Batman selected the word, and his finger hovered over the delete key.
A pair of warm arms draped around him from behind and a pair of warmer lips kissed his masked cheek.
“Hey, stud. Heard about the dockside incident. Did you get Crane?”
“He wasn’t responsible. But he’s been taken back to Arkham - for observation.”
Selina laughed softly, and squeezed Batman’s shoulders. “Thank God. Eddie can at least relax now, and I might not have to sit through Glen or Glenda again.”
Batman’s eyes narrowed as they did every time she mentioned her ‘friend Eddie’.
“Well,” she started, aware of the tension but - being Catwoman - not about to change her attitude for it. “He invited me to watch movies with him over Halloween. Y’know, I thought since you’d be busy…”
“Oh, Bruce. He’s scared, okay? We all get a bit edgy around pumpkin-time, if Jonathan’s loose, and especially if Jonathan’s loose and hasn’t sent out his party invitation. As painful as that party is, the entire Iceberg crowd breathes a sigh of relief if they get the invite, because if it doesn’t go out then he’s planning something big and it’s time to break out the fear-toxin litmus test for everything you intend to eat, drink or inhale for the next month…”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
She shifted, so she could drape across the keyboard and poke his nose playfully. “Would it really have been news?”
“As cute as you are when you go all grunt-Alpha-Male on me, gorgeous, I’m telling you seriously this time, give Eddie a rest. There’s no riddle crime, it’s a movie marathon.”
“GLEN OR GLENDA. Could be an anagram.” Batman turned back to his log, saved it, and opened another window.
“So sue the man for liking Ed Wood.”
“I don’t trust him, Selina. He’s The Riddler.”
“Gee, that’s news.” Selina rolled her eyes lightly, and kissed him. “Mmm. But this one I can give you an answer to right now; Crane free. No party invite. Scared Eddie. Wants to lock himself in his house with one baddass scarecrow-snapping kitty-cat and watch bad movies on Halloween. Riddle me that.”
Batman smirked. He kept up the gloomy disapproval, but it had - however slowly, and however much it bothered and grated him - begun to sink in that if there was any aspect of Edward Nigma’s life where there was a shred of conscience and honesty left, it was his friendship with Selina Kyle.
“I’ll let him rest. For now.” As she withdrew, his eyes followed her, and he closed Nigma’s file. The smirk remained. “But only since you asked so nicely.”
“Mmm. Do you mean to tell me that a purr in Batman's ear and a little kiss from a sultry kitty can actually change the World's Most Inflexible mind?”
The smirk became a mild glare. Bruce cleared his throat, and turned back to the unfinished log concerning the derelict freighter.
“Are you sure they didn’t scrape an iceberg and abandon ship?” Selina tossed in, leaning against a bench nearby with a languid tilt of her hips and watching. She might’ve been dressed in slacks and a sweater, but the pose was pure Catwoman. Bruce tried - hard - not to be distracted.
“No. There’s something else going on here.” Batman growled. “The ship and dockside have been cordoned off by quarantine. High alert, possibility of contagion.”
“Me-owch. What the hell was the cargo?”
“Large quantities of experimental soil samples. With the ship’s logs deleted, they’re not going to take any chances until they’ve traced the ship’s port of origin and any other ports it might have contacted on the way.”
“The cargo was dirt?”
“Nothing else. And nothing alive on the ship except an unusually large population of rats.”
“Dirt and rats. Great. No wonder they’ve put up the red flags.” Selina rubbed her brow. “I’d offer Whiskers’ services, but I don’t think he’s up to it on an industrialized scale.”
The Bat-brooding continued without skipping a beat. “Most of the rats were contained and the ship has been scheduled for fumigation, but a quantity escaped during the initial opening of the ship, and we don’t know how many more slipped out through the hull damage from the crash before quarantine arrived.”
“So do you think we might be looking at some kind of outbreak?”
“We’re going to find out. The easy way or the hard way…”
Why, Batman, how hard do you want it to get? The thought flashed through his mind, but the context was completely inappropriate.
“And did you get in and out before quarantine and the feds showed up?”
Batman smirked, and held up a vial of soil.
“I’ll have Alfred warm some milk.” Selina kissed him again and waved gently as she drew away and left the cave.
She didn’t hesitate to touch me. Even knowing I might’ve picked up whatever contagion could be on that ship. What a woman. She must’ve known right away that he wouldn’t have let her near him until he’d already run every test the Batcave’s medical equipment was capable of and probably inoculated himself against every possible pathogen carried in soil or spread by rodents.
She trusted him. Implicitly. Years into the relationship, he was still getting used to it.
To be continued...