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Chapter 7: He's Laughing

Batman met me on the roof of an empty apartment block on Loeb street that was said to be haunted by a woman in a blue bonnet. True or not, she was quiet tonight, and I'd been waiting there with no sign of ghosts, vampires - or bats - until that one landed right beside me in a whirl of black cape, his eyes seeming so white in the cowl, narrowed in rage. Bat-intensity crackled in the air.

It didn’t bode well. But it was still God. Damn. Yummy.

“You didn't get him, huh.” I wasn't afraid to be blunt.

Batman spat a little blood on the roof tiles, and I could see his lip was split. “He knew I'd tail him, of course, knew I'd know where he was going. He bypassed security with a fake ID as Ledger's stunt double and went straight for the director - to audition.

“Sounds like Jack logic.” It was the only thing in Batman's world that made less sense than Feline logic. I'd give Joker that much.

“When the director refused to see him, not knowing who he was, Joker threw a tantrum.” Batman snorted. “He broke into the costume department and he - he -” Batman was livid with rage.

I felt a cold chill. Joker must have done something truly awful to get that look from Bruce. Dozens, maybe hundreds of people must have died -

“...What did he do?”

Batman mumbled something.

“Bruce, I can take it. Please tell me. What did Joker do?”

HE GLUED RUBBER NIPPLES TO THEIR BATSUITS, OKAY!?”

I clapped my hand over my mouth so hard I nearly clawed my own cheek.

“It is NOT FUNNY Selina. The costume designer liked the changes and they wanted to hire JOKER as a consultant. HIRE HIM!!”

I flopped to my knees as if bowled over by a Bat-fist. They just gave out under me. Poor Bruce, but I couldn't stop laughing.

Batman folded his arms, and levelled his best bat-scowl at me. Nope. Didn't stop the SmileX-alike hysterics he'd managed to reduce me to. Finally I managed to wrest control of my breathing.

“Are you finished?” He growled.

“Y-yes. Sorry, stud.” I wiped my eyes with the back of my glove, and looked up at him from my knee-flopped sit on the rooftop. “Just...images of Joker winding up as a host on FAB! ... and you, swinging around in a bat-*snort*-nipple suit...must be really cold in the cave...”

“Selina, it's no laughing matter. Joker's still at large.”

“Allright, you've made the point." I purred at him, sliding up his legs and body till we were face to face - “...did you at least grab one of the suits? I might like the changes too.”

“Ha. Ha.” Batman wouldn't deign to smirk at that. His mouth stayed a thin, pursed line. I kissed it anyway.

“You're sexy when you're swallowing your pride. Serious though, how'd he get away?”

“I...” Batman scowled again, and cleared his throat.  “I almost had him. I tracked him to the costume department and then -”

“Mm?”

“Then I met the director.”

“Don't tell me he wanted to hire you too.”

“No” Batman gravelled. “He thought I already was hired. He - kept calling me 'Christian'. I told him two dozen times that I was Batman. He refused to believe me. That stubborn, insolent -”

Selina Kyle held her face together, because Catwoman's Cheshire smirk might have made him clam up and ruin the story.

“- said “I appreciate the depth of your Method acting there, Christian, but we have to keep to schedule” - I told him I had to apprehend the Joker, lives were at stake...he told me Heath was in makeup and wouldn't be ready for fifteen and I was absolutely required at the Batcave set -”

Images of a fretting Hollywood director - though to be fair, this guy was supposed to be English - herding the real Batman in front of the lights and cameras thinking he was the actor playing himself were just too damn surreal.

“So did you get to meet Liam Neeson?”

“No.”

“Gary Oldman?”

“No.”

“What happened, then?”

“I couldn’t exactly take off the cowl and prove I wasn’t this Bale person, and nothing I said got through to the director, so I decided to play along until I could locate the Joker.” Batman paced on the rooftop, cape flowing behind him, hands by his sides. It made him look very animal, very predatory. I sat, amused, and watched him. “They sent me to a part of the set where they were setting up for a stunt. Remembering that Joker was disguised as a stuntman and aware of the amount of dangerous props and materials he now had access to, I told them I would do my own stunt and while they were briefing me, I spotted him.”

Batman really had no idea how good a storyteller he was. When he got going he had that gravelly, first-person Sam Spade thing down pat and he played through events in his mind and his words in a paced, cinematic way. As a result, while I should have probably felt bad for him - Joker getting away was going to lead to grief one way or another - I found myself enjoying the story too much to share his airs of foreboding doom.

"And then?"

Batman growled. “And then we went through the stunt as planned. Both of us.”

“Wow.”

“The director said the fight scene on top of the giant crane looked particularly realistic. The fight choreographer was furious.”

“Congratulations, Bruce, you’re a movie star.”

“This is not how I imagined revealing Batman to the public.”

“Oh, lighten up. Nobody will know it’s you. You HAVE to tell Dick and Tim. They’ll be hanging out waiting for your big moment.”

Growl. “Yes, seeing the real Batman and real Joker fighting it out in a movie because the filmmakers mistook them for their stunt doubles!”

“You seem pretty miffed. This would be the part where the Joker gets away.”

“He rigged one of the stunt nets,” Batman growled, rubbing his jaw, “and clocked me with a fire extinguisher. By the time I’d escaped all the set medics that swarmed all over me trying to make sure ‘Christian’ was okay, Joker had slipped out and stolen a car. I don’t know where he is now. They must have a new Hacienda, the old ones are abandoned.”

“Ugh.” It sobered me up, and explained the split lip. I slipped an arm about him. “Sorry, love. At least nobody else was hurt. You being there at all probably kept him on the run enough to stop him from setting up anything lethal. Who knows, maybe he’s had his fun with this movie crowd now and he’ll let them be?”

Batman gave me a dark glare. “Your call to Jason?”

“Ah.” I'd almost forgotten, but that was entirely Bruce's fault. Bat nipples indeed. “Yes. He’s real, no, they didn’t go to college together. Jason seemed to consider Dracula to be extremely dangerous, though, and you know how serious Jason is about supernatural threats. Not as serious as some.” I nudged his ribs with an elbow. “Though at least he has better manners.”

Grunt. “Then the plague is a distraction. Dracula is using it to cover his tracks. With the outbreak and the hysteria it will cause, none of the hospitals will notice an unusual surge of patients complaining of sudden pallor, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping.”

“Right. And he chose the Black Death because not only is he familiar with it, but he knows it’s easily curable, so it won’t kill off too many of his potential dinners.”

“Yes. But there’s more to it. I don’t know what. Scarecrow is involved. Possibly Ivy.”

“Through Danesti.”

Batman nodded. “That’s his one mistake. Using a criminal as well-known as the Scarecrow in one of his puppet companies to make whatever modifications he’s made to the plague bacillus.” The eyes narrowed. “I intend to make him pay for it.”

I opened my mouth to tell Bruce about the Brides thing, and ...nothing came out. It was one of those moments where even at the time, I knew I'd regret it later. But I also knew it'd send him off on an overprotective freak-out right when he needed to be fully focused on bringing Dracula down, and I guess I didn’t want to bring up anything that might make it more complicated than it had to be. Instead, I found myself saying, simply enough;

“How do we stop him?”

“The earth-boxes. According to Stoker’s book, Dracula can only sleep in his native soil. He brought tons of it here…” Batman growled, clenching his fist. “But not just this time. He’s been sending boxes on and off to his puppet companies for almost a year. And as you know, all of those boxes are missing. This is a war, and this enemy is a master strategist. He deployed all of his pieces long before he made his opening move. So far, he’s winning.”

Batman crossed to the edge of the rooftop, gazing out across Gotham. His city. There’d never seemed to be more truth in those words than now.

“Dracula’s out there somewhere, Selina. In my city. I can feel him. And he’s laughing.”

I am…Dracula. I bid you….velcome.”

*click* The TV screen glowed with a Hollywood-devised reflection of a man who would never cast one of his own.

I never drink…wine…”

One reflection after another. Each time growing more distorted, more diluted, more of a caricature.

*click* *whzzz*

“I…am…Draculéa. And I bid you welcome Mister Harker to my house.”

*click* The Count’s ghost-pale hand clenched slowly about the remote.

Children…of de niiight. Vhat a mess dey make!”

Dracula’s fingers squeezed, cracking the plastic.

Allow me to re-introduce myself. I am Count...Vladislaus…Dragoolya.”

*click*

"Vun apple! Two apple! THREE APPLE!! Vlah ah ahh!"

Finally, the remote control gave way, crushed to powder in the vampire’s iron-strong grip. He dropped it in his lap and sat staring at the television.

Joker, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn watched the Count’s stunned, blank face with bated breath. Whole minutes passed; Harley’s face was slowly turning blue from lack of oxygen. Still, Dracula didn’t move.

“…”

Lugosi, Carradine, Shreck, Lee, Oldman, Langella, Palance, Kinski, Roxburgh, Hamilton, Nielsen, the names and the faces - all claiming to be his - lay etched into the covers of the DVD collection scattered over the pillows around him. Decades of emulation, of glorification, of mockery.

“Count?” Ivy whispered in the silence, hesitant to break it.

“…heh.”

“I think he’s upset about the hair-buttocks.” Harley murmured in Joker’s ear.

“…heh…hm hm hmh.” Dracula lowered his head into his lap, and they couldn’t tell if he was actually about to break down in tears until they heard the muffled chuckling.

“Uh oh.”

Dracula threw his head back and peals of bitter, self-mocking laughter broke from his throat, to echo through the midnight sky.

“Heh,” chuckled the Joker, “I like him more already.”

Jonathan Crane sat in the dark, fingers twitching, staring down a fat, juicy black rat he had spent the past half hour patiently luring out of the hole in the wall with a sample of Danesti’s wholemeal grain.

He could claim it was an experiment. Yes, that was it. A final test, even though they already knew the modifications had been a success. Oh the Master would be furious if he saw Crane risking exposure of their best-laid plan like this. But it wasn’t his fault! It was that rat, watching Crane as he worked like that, with those beady little eyes and that sleek, furry black body so ripe and full of rich, red, delicious life.

Yes, the little bastard had it coming, and as soon as he took a nibble at the grain, he wouldn’t even care about Crane’s fingers around his neck.

Crane.

The evening lacked a punctuating flash of lightning, but Jonathan paused and widened his eyes anyway, slippery-sliding to his feet and turning to face the giant caped silhouette looming behind him. He tried – very hard – to seem like a dangerous criminal confronting a crimefighter and not a teenager trying to hide a porn magazine he’d just been caught reading, but with the rat behind him and all it could spoil, the latter image certainly sprang to mind.

“Batman! What a perfectly pleasant shock you are. Welcome to my laboratory.” Crane gave a deep bow, which would’ve looked far more disturbing had he been wearing his Scarecrow garb and not a simple white lab coat.

God damn it, why was the rat not moving?

Batman glanced between Scarecrow’s lanky legs at the rat squatting passively near a small pile of grain behind him.

“Trying to catch the plague, are we?”

Damnit. The little furry bastard chose now to finally eat the grain. Scarecrow’s eyes didn’t flinch away, though, and he stared back at Batman to keep the Dark Knight’s attention fixed on himself. “Is that what you think, Batman? Perhaps I am! Wouldn’t it be a frightful way to end my career as a criminal? Unfortunately you’re wrong. I am already a criminal no longer.”

Batman’s fist shot out, grabbing his collar and hauling him close.

“I know who you’re working for, Scarecrow.”

“Danesti Botanical Research Institute, dear Bat, and you will find that I am doing nothing illegal here. I was offered this job. I am doing what I am being honestly paid for, no more and no less. I, Professor Jonathan Crane! You can’t throw me back in Arkham! I’m a reformed citizen, I’m…”

Batman’s patience wore thin and he swung Crane away from the rat and slammed him hard into a filing cabinet. “WHERE IS DRACULA?”

He knows. SHIT!

You’ve crossed the line, Scarecrow. You’ve brought a monster to Gotham and endangered thousands of lives. IT ENDS NOW. WHERE IS HE!?”

Scarecrow hadn’t seen him this level of pissed outside of Hell Month. It made their dockside confrontation look like a kindly schoolteacher chastising a kindergartner. His gut twisted at the thought of months wrapped in plaster in the Arkham infirmary. No! Not this time! Not when he was so close to the perfect scare!

“D-dracula?” He blinked innocently – “-what have you been sniffing, Batma-OOF!”

Crane doubled over as Batman’s fist met his belly, and was caught by his rising knee and flung back against the cabinet. Batman grabbed him by the collar again and swung him in a wide circle. Then he kicked his prey again, sending him sprawling. Dizzy, Scarecrow coughed a few times and shook his head.

“N-no Batman…” He snarled, blinking away tears of pain. “It’s you who’ve crossed the line. You who’ve committed assault on an unarmed civilian engaged in the - *cough* - legal activities for which he is employed. You’ve had it!” He laughed, taunted the great bat-eared bastard, lured him into the trap just as he had lured the rat Batman had, mercifully, seemed to have forgotten about. “You’ve finally snapped! Breaking into my workplace, ranting about vampires, harassing and attacking me for no reason! There’s only one tinfoil-hat Arkham headcase here now, Batman, and it’s you!”

“You’re not convincing anyone, Crane.” Batman growled, cracking his knuckles and taking a menacing step forward. “I know what you’re doing and I am stopping you.”

“Do you?” Crane murmured, narrowing his eyes, “Do you really? Let me enlighten you to a few things you aren’t aware of. One is that the security cameras you disabled on the way in were functional decoys and I’ve been recording this entire conversation. Two is that I’ve already taken out a restraining order against you that the police are processing as we speak. They’d have handed it to you already if you had a legal address. I guess they’ll be leaving it at your bat-signal.” Crane smirked, straightening and looking the Bat in the eye. The fear was delicious; and he detected a hint, just a hint, in the eyes of his nemesis.

“That won’t hold up in court once I hand them the evidence proving yours and Danesti’s link to the plague outbreak.”

“What? Are you insane?” Scarecrow said just a little too loudly – for the unseen camera’s sake, no doubt - and then broke out into a full rant. The emotion in it was not entirely faked; the fear and frustration at having been caught unawares despite the meticulous plan was very real, and he poured it into every word.

“What could my work here possibly have to do with the plague?! That was an accident at the dockyard I had nothing to do with and you know it! There’s no such evidence because there is no such link! You just can’t stand the thought that one of your punching bags might have actually gone clean! Admit it! You don’t want ANY of us to reform because it would deprive you of the excuse to vent your violent sociopathic urges on those you don’t have to feel guilty about brutalizing!”

That gave Batman pause. The Dark Knight narrowed his eyes. For a moment, Crane thought he may have taken his pantomime too far. But when Batman spoke, it was in a calm, level, and lethal tone of voice.

“Crane. Enough. Give yourself up and tell me where Dracula is. Now.”

Backed into a corner. But not out of the game.

“You’re crazy! Crazy! I’m calling the police!” Scarecrow stumbled back against his lab-bench, dramatically, but his thin fingers closed around an object he had hidden there. Batman didn’t miss it. His eyes narrowed and he stepped closer; but he was now a little more cautious about pummeling Crane on camera without probable cause.

Crane smirked. “Batman! I believe after all this time, I just figured out what you really fear. The very law that you claim to enforce.” He straightened, stepping closer to Batman, gathering his dignity. “Or is it something a little more primal?”

At that precise moment, Batman saw two things; the rat Crane had been examining earlier sitting on the floor, licking its forepaws, perfectly placid despite the chaos taking place very close to it. And an oozing shadow pouring in through a crack in the wall – something that congealed into a tall, humanoid shape.

Dracula.” Batman hissed, turning his full attention to the new entrant. He felt a cold chill enter his body, seeping straight through the suit. It could be an illusion. Crane could have somehow slipped him his toxin during the struggle…but somehow, Batman knew he was not facing a hallucination. There was a tangible presence that had entered the room. It was him. The vampire lord had finally made his appearance.

Batman clenched his fists and prepared to take him on. His mind snapped into protocols designed for the JLA missions, for confronting enemies of superhuman strength, speed, and supernatural abilities. He would opt for a strategy of strong defense, while harrying the enemy with fast and constant hit-and-run strikes, forcing the Count onto the defensive and preventing him from using his metahuman powers in offense while conserving Batman’s stamina for the critical moment. In this way, using an attack that seemed more aggressive and undisciplined than it actually was, he would play on the monster’s arrogance until it made that one, fatal slip.

Only when the white face coalesced momentarily into being, and Batman saw Crane’s victorious grin, did he realize he himself had fallen into a trap.

Dracula exploded. What had for an instant seemed to be a humanoid form became a cloud of flapping, fluttering, chittering beasts, and they poured straight into Batman’s chest and swarmed around him with a vicious, controlled aggression that real bats would never possess. His vision was obscured by snapping, slavering white teeth and tiny red eyes amid a wall of roiling black leather; he stumbled back, fumbling for his belt, for something that would repel the damnable mass. Their fangs couldn’t penetrate the Batsuit, but they came at his face, his mouth, his eyes…

A childhood terror long since suppressed by creating a persona modeled after the object of his phobia (and working in a cave full of them) suddenly returned in full force.

And Crane smiled as he watched what the hidden camera would record only as Batman having a mysterious conniption fit. Dracula cast no reflection in a mirror, no matter what form he happened to be in, and they had discovered to their pleasure that he was also invisible to the medium of film.

Crane slid the object into his palm and turned it over, pressing buttons. It was, of course, not the controls of a death trap at all.

“Police? Hello. I… I want to report a break in and – and assault - it’s Batman, and he’s gone crazy, he’s having some kind of violent fit. Please hurry.” Pause. “Danesti Botanical Institute, corner of fifth and-”

Batman lurched out of the cloud, grabbing for the phone, the demonic bats that made up Dracula’s body still clinging to his suit, while more regrouped in the air behind him for another surge.

Crane dropped the phone, snatched up the second object he’d strategically placed, and sprayed Batman full in the face.

But it wasn’t the fear toxin. Batman habitually carried his cure for that in his belt. It was something a little more mundane. Something a civilian fearing for his life might use on a menacing, crazed assailant. Something like… mace.

Batman’s world burst into a white wall of pain. Choking, blinded, and very aware that he was still surrounded by a six-hundred year old supernatural monster who could change forms and go for the killing blow at any moment, Batman conceded defeat. It was time for a strategic withdrawal and he had a split second to make it. He open-palmed the Scarecrow in the chest, hurling the thin man over his lab bench, and pushed away. He dove through the maelstrom of bats and rolled as he hit the ground. His hand went for his belt, for the Bat-sonar.

It was a gamble. He had no idea if Dracula would be affected, but it was his only chance. He cranked the sonar to levels that would be paralyzing to normal bats.

Evidently the Count’s chiropteran mode had senses similar enough to real bats to feel the high-pitched sonic pulse; the bat-swarm screeched and scattered, if only momentarily, but it was long enough for Batman to haul himself to his feet and leap through the window, landing with a less-than graceful, jarring thud. He hit the controls for the Batmobile’s emergency autopilot and followed the sound of the wheels he heard, with great relief, tearing around the corner of the building. It took him scant moments to get inside the car and activate the Batmobile’s shields; but he was just in time, as he heard a sinister fluttering and, moments later, felt a series of soft thudding strikes as Dracula, still in bat-cloud-form, futilely attacked the windshield.

Then the fluttering stopped and there was a wolven snarl from outside. As Batman fumbled with anti-irritants to cleanse his eyes and restore his sight, the entire Batmobile was suddenly rocked by a heavy impact from the left side. Then another. The car tipped up onto two wheels, despite weighing as much as a tank. If it was hit again it would overturn. It was time to go.

“Autopilot. Batcave.” Batman barked, and the car’s computer blipped in recognition. The engines roared and the Batmobile shot like a bullet out of Danesti’s carpark, winding down Gotham’s narrow streets, dodging traffic with pre-programmed ease. As he applied the anti-irritants, Batman muttered a series of further commands to the car – ‘Evasive route’ – the vehicle would take an indirect trip home and throw off any pursuers – ‘Detect intrusion’ – to make sure the damned vampire wasn’t clinging to the hood. The car beeped a negative. Batman had escaped.

Joker. Scarecrow. Dracula. Batman was having a really bad night.

He could only hope Catwoman’s mission had fared a little better.

Plucking himself from the tangle of limbs in which he had landed, Scarecrow brushed off his labcoat and resisted the urge to chortle and gloat until he had deactivated the hidden security camera.

When it was done, however, he fairly whooped with glee, slapping his hand against the overturned bench. “We got him, we got him we got him! Ha ha! Master! Master we got him!”

He turned around, only to be suddenly lifted from his feet. His laughter was choked off by white fingers around his throat; they were bitingly cold, and the effort with which they lifted him was minimal to the point of nonexistence.

Dracula leveled his terrible red eyes straight on Crane’s own. Scarecrow stared in terrified fascination as the crimson tint in the irises seemed to darken and spread, snaking in wet veins through the whites until the entire eye was red. It was like watching blood spill on a frozen lake.

“M-master, wh-why?”

Dracula lifted his other hand, dangling the placid, plump black rat by the tail. Even now, held in the grip of an unnatural Undead horror, the creature did not squirm or panic.

Dracula threw Crane down and tossed the rat on the floor in front of him. He did not say a word, but such was the storm of fury behind those eyes that Crane knew with utmost certainty the exact meaning of the vampire’s rage; he had nearly been caught doing something that would have clued Batman in to all of their plans, and if he made another mistake like that, he would end his alliance with Dracula as a red smear on the floor.

The icy red stare remained, unblinking, as Crane groveled and fawned in apology. Then the eyes narrowed and shifted from Crane’s own to the rat at his feet, then back. The command was unmistakable.

The police were on the way. He was to remove the evidence, while his Master watched. If he flinched, if he choked, if he vomited, he was dead.

Trembling, pulling his eyes forcibly from that demon’s glare but feeling it beating down on him from above, Crane grabbed the rat and forced it whole into his mouth.

To be continued...

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