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Chapter 10: Walking the Line

By nightfall Wayne Manor would be a fortress. But it wasn’t where Batman wanted to be. I didn’t want to be sitting in the cave brooding over the evidence and the new twists and turns in the case. It was daylight, Dracula would be bedded down somewhere in the city, in a coffin filled with Transylvanian grave-earth. He would be sleeping, vulnerable. If I could only catch him in that state then there wouldn’t need to be a vicious battle in which my life and the lives of my team would be endangered.

Every sunset meant a new victim for Dracula and every one of his circle. They would multiply exponentially until they overran the city like the rats they brought with them. Frustration crawled up my shoulders and knotted hotly in the back of my neck. Damnit. If I knew where he was, where he slept, I could have him, and then…

And then what?

Our focus as a team had been so strongly placed on finding Dracula and thwarting his plans that we hadn’t touched on the topic that troubled me to the very core – dealing with him once we had him.

Batman doesn’t kill.

There isn’t a single vampire hunter in the annals of history or the volumes of fiction that would flinch from putting a stake through Dracula’s black heart. He is a monster, a walking pestilence, even allowing him to exist is allowing him to add more victims to an endless list.

Is the Joker any different?

Damnit. Dracula is already dead. He has lived many times his natural lifetime; he’s even been killed before, and somehow returned from the grasp of rightful death. He should already be rotting at the bottom of a grave, not climbing out of it every night!

Ra’s Al Ghul has also lived many times his natural lifespan, extending it through terrible and heinous means over and over again. Would you stab him through the heart and hack off his head, Bruce? Would you?

Ra’s is still a man. I will not consider this thing human. You were there, you saw his eyes. There’s nothing behind them, no feeling, no humanity, no soul. This is not an Arkham case, there’s no chance of redemption or rehabilitation. He is a demonic walking corpse that drinks blood and murders people by compulsion, and then violates even their deaths by making them come back as monsters like him to do the exact same to others. If he is destroyed his curse ends and everyone bitten by him who still lives is cured. Instantly. Finishing him saves the lives not only of his potential future victims but of people he has already victimized. We cannot just discard that as a viable solution. Perhaps the only one.

Batman does not kill. That is the line. You do not cross the line. Human or nonhuman, natural or supernatural, living or undead. Batman does not make excuses, exceptions or justifications. Dracula walks, thinks, and acts like a man. He knows anger, pleasure and fear. How can you judge that he has no trace of humanity left? After one short encounter? This is a gut reaction. It is irrational, it is based on fear, and it will not be acted upon.

Psychobat had spoken.

I became aware of another person in the cave; a subtle change in the lighting, coming from a flipped-open cell phone, and a warm, feline presence carrying it. She was quiet, but it was not because of guilt. That was a rare emotion for her; her flippant, well-whatcha-gonna-do-about-that-stud attitude was a strong part of my attraction to her and she seemed to be able to justify, via Feline Logic, almost everything she had ever done. So while she knew I was angry with her, she hadn’t come down here full of repentance to beg my forgiveness. Thankfully. I think if she ever did that, I would have a heart attack.

She just looked tired.

“Hey.” She said softly. “I just got a text from Jason. Something he forgot to tell us. Says Dracula wasn’t the only person we know who was at the Scholomance, and we should, uh, ‘expect correspondence’. I can’t see this being good.”

Neither could I, but it was plain to me she’d used the text message as an excuse to break the ice and come down to see me. She clearly wanted to sort things out with me, but there was something guarded about her; her defenses were up. She was ready for me to verbally lash out at her at any moment, for Jason, for not telling me about the Brides of Dracula. But she was here anyway, even though she was expecting me to try to hurt her.

No.

If I let Psychobat win the Dracula argument, then he would concede me this one. There was another line. One I was just beginning to grasp, and one which I refused to cross for equally important reasons. It was the line between dealing appropriately with my personal life and becoming an abusive brute.

“Selina” I started, and I saw the wall go up behind her eyes. Maybe there was just enough gravel in the voice to set her off. I had to stop this.

“Selina. Thank you.”

She blinked. The wall fell down just as quickly. “For what?”

“For your help with the case. For bringing Jason into it when I was too stubborn to see that we needed his advice. For the sewer.” I felt a wry smile go up, and saw her faintly return it. “For being there when I needed you without even being asked.”

“Bruce, you know I wouldn’t leave you to handle something like this alone. I’d have to be either stupid  or completely callous. That’s not me and you know it. You wouldn’t be with me if it was.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, I just…”

“It’s okay.”

“You were so – focused, driven. You were going to catch Dracula and that was it. I didn’t want to force you to worry about protecting me on top of that, right when you were hitting your stride. I did what I felt was right.”

“I know. It’s okay.”

She shook her head, almost in disbelief, and gave a quiet laugh. “Oh, honey. Stop it. You’re being so reasonable. It’s scaring me.”

I could still feel Psychobat squatting, brooding, in the back of my brain, muttering about how she had placed herself in danger, how she had brought magic into my house. I felt a surge of anger at myself; everything she had done was for the right reasons. Why couldn’t I let it go?

I took a deep breath. Training. Meditation. Let it flow through me; let clarity take my mind, like a river bearing those ugly emotions away, cleansing me enough to think and see and speak my truths clearly. Psychobat’s bitter grumbling faded into a distant murmur.

“I’m not angry with you, Kitten.”  I found myself saying instead. The words flowed easily. “I could pretend it’s because the case is serious and we don’t have time or energy to spare on argument. All of that is true, of course, and the case is important. But the real reason is that you are too important to me for me to justify attacking you for doing what, as you just said, you felt was the right thing.”

She let out a soft breath that whispered lightly in the air. “Oh. Now you’re really scaring me." She stepped closer, and her teasing smile softened. "Don’t stop.”

I rose from my seat and her arms slid around me. We held each other there in the cave, saying nothing, sharing a silent intimacy. She rocked gently from side to side in my arms, her cheek pressed to my chest and her eyes closed.

When she finally opened them, their gaze fell on the table I had been working at. It was covered in plans and schematics. Sketches, really, rough and disorganized, an idea I had devised but not yet been able to consolidate into something plausible.

“New coffee machine?”

I chuckled, and she smiled up at me. “A containment chamber.”

A beat hung in the air. “For Dracula?”

“Arkham can’t hold the Mad Hatter. How could it imprison a man who can turn into mist, squeeze his body through a crack in the mortar, or simply mind-control the orderlies to let him go?”

Another strange, heavy beat.

“You’re not going to kill him, are you?”

Her tone was impossible to read; it was a blank statement phrased as a question. She read that half-instant of hesitation before I answered.

“No.”

Psychobat had spoken. Selina simply nodded.

“It uses mirrors to bounce refracted solar rays around the entire chamber. Attached solar panels collect the energy and store it for nightfall, robbing him of his power to shapeshift 24/7. The entire thing is sealed with bulletproof plexiglass and a titanium shell. Airtight, since Dracula doesn’t need to breathe. I believe if he is deprived of blood long enough, he may go into a dormant state. Hibernation, if you will.”

I didn’t mention that I would never conceive of trapping a living enemy in a sealed containment chamber and starving them into a coma. It was not the same, and Selina knew this well enough not to bring it up. Instead, she broached the other obvious issue.

“When are you going to get the time to build this?”

I winced. Yes, that was it, wasn’t it? We needed to catch Dracula as soon as possible and we would need to contain him immediately once we had him. She was right. It wasn’t feasible. But it was something. A hope that there was another way to end this than taking that step. Than crossing the line.

She picked up on it, leaning her head over my shoulder as I looked at the plans. “Maybe you should make a call to the Watchtower. Assembly time would be nearly nil with Clark and Wally on the job, and you could add alien technology to it on top of what you have.”

“Good idea.” I replied, “I’ll consider it. I didn’t want to bring them into this, though. This is Gotham business and I…”

And I don’t want flashy meta-powered superheroes blundering around in this case when I am matched against this kind of subtle, elusive enemy. This is a detective-work case in Batman’s city and Batman will deal with it. Bottom line.

But that wasn’t the bottom line. I still didn’t trust my comrades. I still hadn’t gotten over what Zatanna did to me. I still couldn’t be certain that they wouldn’t go over my head again if they caught up with Dracula before I did. Batman doesn’t kill; Batman wouldn’t have lobotomized Dr Light either. If one of them had him cornered and felt they had no choice...

Bottom line.

“It’s a thought for another time.” I said neutrally, and kissed Selina’s lips. She pursed them immediately after, thinking, but again she didn’t pursue the subject. Instead she looked off to one side and tapped her fingertips against her shoulder.

“Halloween tomorrow.”

“I haven’t forgotten.”

“Do you think Scarecrow will try anything?”

“It’s possible. I’ve known he was tangled with Dracula since he was hired by Danesti. When I confronted him at the lab, he tried to pretend he’d gone clean, and actually attempted to frame me to the police.”

“What?!”

“It was a setup. Dracula attacked me and I barely escaped with my life. I’m assuming he won’t show up on the security film, so Scarecrow’s going to try to convince them that I went insane and assaulted him without provocation.”

“Honey, if even a fraction of Gordon’s old guard are left at the GCPD, they’re not going to buy Batman having a fit in front of a man famed for his use of hallucinogenic fear toxins as proof that you’ve snapped. That’s ridiculous.”

“Exactly.” I growled, thinking it over, “Scarecrow knows that, too.”

Selina blinked, then gave a little hiss. “Damn. He just wants to get the police watching Danesti.”

I curled my fingers into a fist. “He knows complications with the GCPD are the very last thing I need right now. They’re going to suspect he’s up to something and investigate Danesti to find out why I went there. Which means that’s what he wants them to do. There won’t be any incriminating evidence at Danesti the police might find but it will keep them busy looking, and me busy trying to skirt around them and get back in to look for clues that aren’t there. It’s a smokescreen.”

“That’s pretty damn clever for Jonathan.”

“It isn’t Crane. It’s Dracula.”

Selina didn’t look entirely convinced, and I could detect a hint of sass in the way she tilted her hips and rested her hand on one that suggested she was thinking that I was ‘doing that Ra’s thing you do’, overestimating Dracula, that Jonathan might have come up with that on his own. She didn’t need to say a word.

Crane. What was it about bringing up the topic of Scarecrow that –

A very small memory returned.

I tore my gaze away, to the glass cases set against the wall of the cave where Otis Flannegan’s rats were now slowly recovering from the Plague.

“What is it, Bruce?”

“At the lab, I saw…”

Crane, squatting on the floor, feeding a fat black rat with a pile of grain. A rat that had stayed there placidly through the entire confrontation with Dracula. The Count can control rodents, but why would he go to the effort just to make one rat sit quietly and watch?

Selina tilted her head, feline curiosity radiating from her; if she had a tail, it would be twitching right now. She had no way to read my thoughts, so she simply watched as I hurried to the cages, already focused on my work.

I chose the strongest of the rats, carefully reached into the cage, and took a small blood sample. Then I ran a simple pet store flea-comb through its fur and extracted several fat black fleas. I had washed the rats with a flea dip earlier; the fleas were already dead.

Comparing the blood sample with bacteria taken from the stomach of the fleas, I noticed something I had not previously seen; something missing from the Customs lab reports.

The plague bacillus was there, and so was something else; another, common bacterium that would not be paid attention to, as it was normally not harmful to humans. Something that would be injected by the flea’s bite, alongside the plague, and lurk in the victim’s bloodstream until their system was weak enough from the plague to be vulnerable to the…changes.

This bacteria had been altered. In Otis’ rats, it lay dormant, behavior more common to a virus than bacteria, and I noticed that their sluggishness was a result of the plague, while Crane’s rat had seemed quite healthy. There must be a catalyst, then, something in the grain that Scarecrow had been plying the rat with, something that had triggered its unusual behavior.

Professor Crane the psychologist with the penchant for biochemistry had apparently also taken up experimental pathology.

I returned to the Batcomputer and entered the data on the new bacteria. It did not take long for the computer’s sophisticated database to find a match.

“Toxoplasma. Crane, you bastard.”      

Selina joined me, hunkering up and reading the screen; quick, sharp-eyed and alert. And she thought I was sexy when I was thinking like that.

“So it’s a protozoan that infects people who eat undercooked meat?”

“It infects 33% of Americans over the age of twelve, to be precise. It rarely has serious effects, however, scientists are still uncovering just how it affects human behavior, because its presence severely influences the behavior of other animals. For example, rats.”

“Go on.”

“A rat infected with toxoplasmosis completely loses its fear of cats. Its other behavior remains unchanged, but it not only does not react to the smell of a cat, but it is actually attracted to spots urine-marked by felines. When the rat is inevitably eaten, the pathogen propagates within the cat, which then passes it onward through its feces.”

“Ugh. Cats are part of this? I felt dirty enough after the sewer.” Selina shuddered. “I see the fear connection. That would be Crane’s doing. But what kind of modifications did he make, and how does that benefit Dracula?”

“I can’t say for sure just looking at this. But I have a theory.”

Selina tapped her finger to her lips – “Cats and other animals freak out in the presence of supernatural monsters like Dracula. Even humans, with much weaker senses, get a feeling of ‘wrongness’, yes?”

“I felt it myself at the lab.”

“So this would be a kind of fearlessness disease? Could it remove the self-preservation instinct a human would feel when faced with a vampire?”

“Yes, that’s the theory. This modification actually hitches a ride alongside the plague bacillus. People who catch the plague are then cured and released, but the modified toxoplasma protozoa linger in the bloodstream until they’re ‘activated’ by something in Danesti’s grain, like the rat at the lab. If there’s no evidence at the lab that Crane is afraid of me or the police finding, then it means the modifications are already on the market, and Crane was working with Dracula long before he came to Gotham.”

“Damn.”

“Once the toxoplasma is activated it begins reproducing and influencing the victim’s behavior. Theoretically, rendering them completely unafraid of vampires, and therefore defenseless if they are attacked by one.”

“I wouldn’t think Dracula would need help hunting his prey. Isn’t that cheating?”

He doesn’t, but any of his new vampires will, like Lucy in the book, be taking baby steps, slowly learning to hunt. Dracula knows he’s in a different age; the Victorians were very closed off to the idea of vampires, but now, thanks to pop culture – ironically, thanks to Bram Stoker - people are familiar with the symptoms and might clue in to a vampire outbreak, however absurd the idea at first. And he knows he’s coming to Batman’s city, and that means going toe to toe with me.”

“So how do you raise an army of vampires in a very short time right under Batman’s nose? Answer, Toxoplasma.” Selina paced – no, stalked – and her face tweaked into a sour, disgusted expression. “And all he’d need was a quick peek at the hospital records and his kids have a lunch menu.”

I simply nodded. She gave a soft groan and turned to lean against the bat-console. “Okay. At least we know what the bat-bastard is doing now.”

“Yes, we do. This is his idea of Blitzkrieg.”

“So what do we do?”

“Tonight?” I growled a reply, pausing as Alfred silently appeared from the elevator with a mail parcel held gracefully forth. I took it without looking at it, giving Alfred only a casual nod – “Tonight, we take the fight to him. Tonight, we…”

Alfred cleared his throat, and I stopped, turning the package over in my hand, eyeing the symbol marked clearly on the wrapping. The look on Selina’s face suggested she too had spotted the return address; somewhere in Outer Mongolia.

Jason had said we were to ‘expect correspondence’.

“I trust you scanned this.”

“Of course, sir. No traces of explosives, traps or harmful chemicals. It’s a book, sir.”

But his assurances did little to ease my suspicion as I opened the package. I knew that symbol well; it was not one that I enjoyed seeing in Wayne Manor.  There was a note attached - in the form of a papyrus scroll fastened along the spine of the book. I knew the handwriting I would witness before I'd even unfurled it; as expected, it was deft, spidery, and elegant, the hand of a man accustomed to writing in languages dead to the rest of the world.

My dear Detective,

It has come to my attention that you have an unpleasant visitor in Gotham City. It seems we have an unprecedented occasion on our hands; it is very rarely that you and I share a single goal. It is, unfortunately, inevitable that you will suspect some scheme of treachery on my part, but you may rest assured I have my own reasons to wish to see Count Dracula humbled and destroyed. I will say only that I too was a student of the Scholomance, and that through shameful deceit, that vile gypsy half-breed stole from me the fruits of my labor and the rewards that were rightfully mine. He has made a fatal error in attempting his quaint, medieval ideas of conquest on Gotham City, this we both know, and the time has come for Dracula to blight the world no longer.

In the absence of my own hand to bear the stroke of divine vengeance into Dracula's heart, there is no other man who walks the world I would rather claimed the honor than you, Detective, my most worthy opponent. Indeed it is with still greater pleasure that I shall watch his primitive and childish games crumble to dust from afar, as he learns at last that this world no longer has a place for him.

To this end, I gift you the greatest assistance I may; the knowledge contained within this diary, which fell into my possession through the effort and sacrifice of elite DEMON agents who tracked it down at my behest during the Second World War. I trust you will not hesitate to use it as it must be used.

Yours in glorious enmity,
Ra's Al Ghul.

“This just gets better and better,” I felt the Bat-gravel return full-force.

“You’ve got to be joking.” Selina shook her head in near disbelief. “Ra’s too? This Scholomance place is sounding more and more like a summer camp for crusty immortals. There’s a hell of a story hiding here.”

“If he was there, he could well be in league with Dracula." That was an unpleasant thought. "I don’t trust him.” I turned the book over in my hands, still yet to open it. Selina gave me a curious-kitty look and I passed her the letter; within moments of finishing it, she suddenly laughed.

“I do,” she said, “He’s telling the truth. Listen to him waffle on about how much of a pathetic backwards loser Dracula is in comparison to himself. When you and I both know Ra’s hasn’t exactly kept up with the times well either.”

“Wounded pride?” It wasn’t something I’d immediately have detected from the language. That was the difference between myself and Catwoman; I’d been scanning his wording for hints of potential deception, clues as to what he would have to gain from aiding me strategically. Approaching it from a crimefighter’s mindset, where she approached it as a woman. I’d been trying to read Ra’s mind through his words; Selina looked straight at his heart.

“Exactly. This letter’s dripping with it.” She continued. “He’s trying very hard to conceal the schoolboy tantrum behind eloquent words, but that only makes it come through even stronger. I mean, wow. Talk about holding a grudge – four hundred years later, and he’s still so sore about it that he’d immediately jump to helping you as soon as Drac shows his face. And the language – ‘vile, gypsy half-breed’? Ouch.”

“Whatever Dracula did to him, it must have been humiliating.”

“I wonder what it was.” Selina carefully rolled up the scroll. “I bet if we found out, Ra’s would never live it down.”

“Sadly, we don’t have time to look the gift horse in the mouth, no matter how much we might want to.” And she knew I did. Any leverage on Ra’s might prove to be a pivotal weapon against him the next time he chose to enact a scheme. For Selina, of course, it was a matter of having a trump card to knock his ego down a peg and prove to me again that he wasn’t the deadly arch-nemesis I built him up to be. Impossible woman.

I must’ve drifted into thought, for a moment later I felt Selina’s gaze on me, intensely. Curiosity had woken in her, and for a moment she seemed like a much younger woman, all twinkling green eyes and impish tweak to her lips that wasn’t yet a smile.

“Well? What’re you waiting for, handsome? Christmas?”

I grunted, and opened the book. It was squat, fat to the point of exploding, hand-written on time-yellowed pages; the design of the volume was Victorian and it must have once been an elegant hand-bound volume; but now it was crammed with sketches, schematics, newspaper clippings pinned hither and thither, a scrawl of firm but somewhat unusual English writing with numerous notes in German or Dutch scribbled into the margins. Fascinated, I thumbed quickly through and returned to first page, searching for the identity of the author. I was not to be disappointed.

January the First, the year of Our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Fifty-Eight. Here begins the journal, and also the journey, of a fool young doctor of Amsterdam looking to awaken his brain over the seas. I hereby commence what I humbly hope to be a volume of some interest or to entertain not only its author, and thus hoping for my very good friends in England to read it when I next reach those so-white cliffs, I have undertaken to write in the English, of which I am nonetheless but a novice and not yet of the natural inflection. I shall hope you will forgive me some mistakes and informalities, Dear Reader, for life, of which this volume is composed, is full of them.

Yours in diligence,
Abraham Van Helsing.

Selina caught my expression, and we shared a look that said it all. Tonight, we would go hunting. Tonight the tide would turn.

To be continued...

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