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Chapter 13: Masquerade

Halloween in Gotham had been a muted affair for years now, deemed too dangerous in the light of the maniacs running around in the city to celebrate with large, public festivities - not since that concert parade when Scarecrow had poisoned half the crowd through the fog machines and induced a panicked riot. Partygoers had fled in terror from the horrors and demons that were really just Uncle Bob in red paint with a cardboard trident and Little Molly from down the street in a plastic goblin mask. Ironically, his efforts to inject actual primal terror into Halloween had been the primary contributor to the City’s decision to tone down the festivities, effectively killing the holiday in the eyes of Gothamites.

But a holiday spirit was a hard thing to keep dead, and Halloween wanted out of its crypt, badly. So it became a private affair, celebrated indoors with friends, booze and horror movies. Costumes became optional, and tended to theme themselves around the city’s criminal celebrities; it was more common in Gotham to see a Mr Freeze or Catwoman at a Halloween party than a witch or a werewolf.

Notably, however, it was considered poor taste to dress as a scarecrow of any kind. Or a clown, for that matter…

That left the only big Halloween events for those too rich and bored to care if a costumed psychopath hijacked their evening to provide extracurricular entertainment. It somehow slipped under the radar of the Wigglesworths and Muffingtons that Rogues, no matter how colourful, were dangerous master criminals who spent a good deal of their time – with the exception of a particular kitty – either behind bars in the hardest prisons on this coast or twitching in padded cells in Arkham. The fact that a few of them, like the Joker, were amoral mass-murderers who’d killed more people than some terminal diseases also seemed to bounce off the illusory shield of wealth and status that protected the High Society crowd in their own minds.

Thus, the Wayne Foundation Halloween Masquerade Ball.

As I watched Bruce drive, with his eyes fixed on the road as if he could simply stare the venue into coming closer, I wondered if I should remind him that he had originally set up the annual Ball for similar reasons to the ones I’d brought up in the cave.

Bruce Wayne always hosted the Ball, because he knew full well that if he didn’t have a big shindig for the rich and famous to flock to on Halloween, someone would. Better to be have them all under his watchful eye in the ballroom of a five-star hotel he owned with security systems he had put in place than congregated at some swanky nightclub or private residence, where it would be so easy to slip fear toxin into the punch or pump Smilex through the ventilation system.

The timing of the event was calculated; it was held within a day or two of Halloween, but never on the 31st itself. For the partygoers, that was a mild inconvenience at best; they’d get their Halloween fix regardless, and Bruce made sure they were too hungover come Halloween morning to keep partying in the evening. But he knew to the obsessive mind of a Rogue, ‘a day before Halloween’ or ‘the day after Halloween’ would never do for a crime spree; it had to be on the exact date or never.

Bruce also held the Ball at a different venue every year, cycling between Wayne-owned hotels and surreptitiously revamping the security every time to thwart anyone planning an attack in advance. The location of the Ball for the year was mailed out only a day before the event in a sealed envelope to an exclusive shortlist; the guests, of course, thought it was just a game to add mystery to the event.

Once the entire guest list had arrived, security guards would close the hotel and the Ball would begin. No one was allowed in or out until the closing speech, usually given by Lucius Fox, a more eloquent public speaker than ‘Fop’ Wayne. What seemed to be a hidden show of extravagance for the eyes of Gotham’s elite only was in fact an iron-strong cocoon protecting them from the Night. Bruce knew the way Rogues thought; they wouldn’t attack some suburban house party for no reason, but they might target a gathering of the crème-de-la-crème simply because it’d make the news, and as Bruce Wayne, Batman was uniquely poised to thwart them. That all revenue raised went straight to the Foundation’s good work was simply his way of killing two birds with one stone.

The security and secrecy of the Halloween Ball had so far prevented any successful Rogue attacks, but this year, Bruce had been too distracted chasing the Count to organize it as he always did. Well-meaning but clueless, the Foundation had arranged the hotel and sent out the invitations, and someone had thought it a novel idea to hold the event, for once, exactly on Halloween. They had also chosen to theme it as a gothic Masquerade.

Add me in a slinky dress, and it was the perfect trap for Dracula.

But I could tell from Bruce’s expression that the idea did not sit well with him. I knew he’d been buying time to make an excuse for me not to go right up until Dick’s call. But now, with Cass out of action and Tim’s life in danger, there was no time and no choice. We had to bring Dracula out of hiding, take him down, and save Tim, and we had to do it all tonight.

Getting dressed for the ball had been weird as hell. I’d never known that slipping into a silk dress and applying perfume could feel so much like a ‘lock ‘n load’ scene from a bad commando movie. Watching Bruce slip on his tie felt like I was watching Batman suit up for a mission; Heck, I felt like I was Batman suiting up for a mission. Putting on Catwoman had never been associated with this kind of cold, purposeful intensity. It’d followed us into the car, squashing all conversation.  But there was no way I was going to a freaking party like this. We had to loosen up or Drac would see through us like a glass-bottomed boat.

I tried to break the silence.

“Bruce.”

No reply.

“Hey, honey. Eyes this way a second.”

A glare. It jolted me for a moment before I realized he wasn’t scowling at me, he simply hadn’t changed the stare he’d been using on the road. He still said nothing.

“I know this sucks. I know it isn’t the best plan and we don’t have time to make another, but don’t forget to smile.” A beat. I bounced it off him again – “Because we’re going to a ball, Bruce. You need to put Tim out of your mind for a few moments and at least pretend-“

Those go on last.” Pure Batman gravel. The person sitting next to me was barely a shell of Bruce Wayne, CEO of Wayne Enterprises. My mind’s eye kept conjuring an imaginary cape and cowl around him and it was making my stomach turn somersaults.

“Huh?”

“Smiles. They go on last.” It took me another moment to realize he was talking about a facial expression as if it were a piece of equipment to be activated before entering the fray. It made me flash back to how intense he’d been when Steph died. It made me thank God I hadn’t been around for Jason. “Do you have your piece?”

“Yeah”. I did. My left earring hid a tiny Oracom; it was a fairly obvious place for one, by Rogue standards, but we figured the Count wouldn’t be so modernized as to pick it up. We hoped.

“Take mine.” Bruce passed me a larger com from the glove box. “And call this number. It’s a secure line.”

I blinked. “Who am I calling? The League? I thought you didn’t want them involved.“

“Not the League. A friend.”

“Got something planned?” It perked me up. Even at a tense moment like this, damn him, he knew how to throw me a ball of string.

“No. Just a contingency.” He flicked his eyes to me and back to the road. “If Dracula slips us tonight...” He shook his head. “Would you mind making the call?” It was unexpected courteous tone amid all the commanding gravel. It piqued my interest even further.

“Sure thing, handsome.” Burning with curiosity, I glanced up to see the shadow of the hotel drawing closer. Taking a deep breath, I punched the number.

James Turnbull thumbed down the list and rubbed his aching temples. Figuring out which Rolls Royce Ms. C. Muffington would be bringing to the Halloween ball this year would not be half as challenging as anticipating whose she would go home in, and that made things awkward for the valets at the Royal Birmingham Hotel when it came to what to do with the vehicles that remained in the parking zone in the morning.

James, ‘Jimmy T.’ to his friends, was a strong proponent of organization. The last time the ball had been hosted at the R.B, three years ago, Bruce Wayne himself had passed a memo down the chain of command to make sure the guest list was checked and doublechecked, the vehicles secured, and any uninvited guests turned away at the door. Wayne had the reputation of being a rich kid playboy who had more money and free time to play with it than he had sense or restraint, but his wealth and position and the fact that he owned the hotel made his word law as far as Jimmy was concerned.

Besides, Wayne Enterprises was always in the black despite Mr. Wayne’s layabout rep, actively donating huge sums of money to charity, scientific research and urban development. Jimmy knew this. He read the Wall Street journal every day. The way Jimmy figured it, Wayne must have some kind of head for business behind it all, and Jimmy liked his job. Mr. Wayne was known as an easygoing, reasonable employer.

If only his circle of friends were quite so amiable. He had just spent half an hour listening to an irate Gladys Ashton-Larraby complain about her seating to the receptionist at the front desk; clearly they were unaware of her status and her position at the table absolutely must be closer to the host and the main stage. Her husband had managed to calm her down slightly but Jimmy could still hear the occasional sharp word.

He cringed. Sally, the receptionist, was patient and a darling and Jimmy was half-sure he was in love with her. She really didn’t deserve a Gladys-browbeating for what was ultimately the Foundation chairwoman’s mistake. If Mr. Wayne had been here to organize the event in person, Jimmy knew, none of this would’ve happened.

He now found himself faced with Penelope and Angela Vraag, who had helpfully worn colour-coded masks and costumes to make telling them apart easier. It hadn’t worked; it only meant Jimmy didn’t have their faces as a reference point. He resorted to politely addressing them as “Ms. Vraag, Ms. Vraag,” and leading both of them and their dates to the ballroom, before returning to his post to await the arrival of the last unchecked names on the guest list.

“Oh, Jimmy, won’t you take these?” Bunny Wigglesworth, glittering head to toe with sequins and toting a porcelain half-mask plumed with peacock feathers, dangled her car keys in Jimmy’s face. He’d have been flattered if he’d thought she had actually remembered his name; unfortunately, his nametag was clearly visible and he knew that woman’s tactics all too well, “-and tell me, has darling Claudia arrived yet?”

Apparently, Bunny and Claudia Muffington had recently started a competition to be the most fashionably late to each society event; a complication that made Jimmy’s job at a closed-guest-list event like this that much more of a pain. He was thus somewhat delighted to inform Ms. Wigglesworth that ‘darling Claudia’ had misread the time on the invitation and arrived half an hour early, and to look for the Swan Princess dancing with the Phantom of the Opera by the punch bowl.

Bunny’s eyes glittered victoriously, and she giggled over the arm of her – is that fourth or fifth husband now? – all the way to the ballroom.

Which left two names unchecked, surprisingly late; Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. Jimmy had to admit he was a little nervous. Mr. Wayne he knew, but Ms. Kyle had not been with him the last time and everyone knew who she was. He made a note not to make any kind of badly-timed cat puns. This would be Jimmy’s first face to face encounter with a notorious Gotham criminal. He was nervous, scared, excited. Now if only they would show up…

“Evening, Jimmy.” Mr. Wayne, right on cue, “Happy Halloween. How’s the guest list coming?”

Jimmy felt his back tense; not because Wayne was particularly scary, nor even the knowledge he was about to come face to face with Catwoman; but he hadn’t heard either of them approach, and Jimmy was an attentive fellow, usually very hard to sneak up on...

“All here, Mr Wayne, sir.” He managed to get out, thumbing through the couple of pages and trying to keep his eyes off the stunning brunette at Mr Wayne’s side. She noticed his look and smiled warmly at him.

Jimmy fumbled with the pen. He hadn’t really known what to expect; a sneer, or at least someone who looked hardened and dangerous, maybe. He hadn’t expected gorgeous.

Wayne was dressed in a slick, ultra-expensive black dinner suit, of course, though he wasn’t wearing a mask of any kind; maybe nobody had told him it was going to be a masquerade, since they seem to have organized it without his knowledge this year; Jimmy noted he was wearing a tie patterned with goofy-looking pumpkin faces, the kind of touch a rich idiot with no day job would find thunderously appropriate.

But she was wearing a floor-length satin evening gown in rich, dark violet, almost black, slit up one long bare leg and tall heels that made an intimidatingly sexy click on the hotel floor. She hadn’t gone for the gothic masquerade look at all, unlike the rest of the crowd he’d let in, half of whom were near asphyxiating in their faux-eighteenth-century ballroom dresses. And she wasn’t wearing or carrying a masque; Jimmy didn’t know if he’d expected her to be wearing some kind of panther or jaguar mask, but he did note she was wearing a hairpin, conspicuous by her ear and failing to hold back her wild raven tresses at all, in the shape of a cat. If he hadn’t known who she was already, that would’ve been his only hint.

Wayne seemed oblivious to the amount of attention the valet was paying to his date, flicking a breathmint in the air and catching it in his mouth. Ms. Kyle, however, didn’t skip a beat, and flashed Jimmy a small wink. “Better doublecheck.” She said as the two moved on to the ballroom – “Just to be sure.”

Jimmy T. swallowed, glanced after them, and caught a humbling scowl from Sally at reception.

What a night. Jimmy would be glad to see the end of it; he turned to doublecheck the list and send security the go-ahead to close everything up, and nearly bumped into a tall man, accompanied by two stunning women he was sure he had seen somewhere before.

“Good evening.”

Jimmy looked up at the newcomer. “I’m sorry, sir. May I have your name?”

“V. Lucarda. Party of three.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but your name’s not on the-“

He coughed slightly, catching a strange, heavy perfume in the air. Glancing up, his eyes caught those of the woman on the man’s left arm, the lovely redhead; through the mask, her eyes were startlingly intense, and he found himself unable to pull his gaze away.

“Perhaps you should look again.” the man suggested, and Jimmy did so, his eyes swimming. He was sure he could make out the name Lucarda on the list. Where did that headache come from? The names on the list were blurring in and out, but he was sure he could see ‘Lucarda’, right there under Mr Wayne’s. How had he missed it before?

He then remembered, vaguely, a V. Lucarda from the party three years ago. European, from the accent, old money, maybe a banker or the heir to some old aristocratic house. Was that right? Jimmy couldn’t quite place it, but the sense of deja-vu was strong. Yes, he’d surely seen this man there.

“Right, Mr Lucarda. Go right on in.”

“Thank you, my dear friend.”

Ball gowns swished and twirled; champagne glasses clinked, and laughter tinkled and bubbled – sometimes screeched – from the hubbub of conversation that surrounded the rich and senseless of Gotham City.

After the opening speech by Lucius, and Bruce fumbling with the mic to declare the Wayne Foundation Halloween Charity Ball commenced, Bruce and Selina gave a turn of the floor, earning a few envious glances from the bimbos congregated around the edge of the room like vultures around a Serengeti watering hole waiting for some poor buck to get mired in the mud. Their eyes quietly scanned the room as they turned, but neither could see any sign of an uninvited guest. Though the masks made it hard to tell who was who, Bruce and Selina were both masters of reading body language and it wasn't hard to pick the familiar crowd.

After the song, Selina broke away, as was planned, brushing Bruce's arm affectionately as she hip-swayed across the room to lean languidly on the bar and order another glass of fine red. This gave Claudia Muffington the window to pounce, again, as was planned, leaving him occupied and distracted while Selina lounged boredly at the bar, waiting to catch the tender's attention.

"Look at them," came a voice, not as planned, as an uncharacteristically somber Richard Flay - dressed as Louis XVI - appeared next to her, shaking his head, "a little sad isn't it?" He took a sip of sherry and gave her a wry smile. "I hadn't really thought of it quite this way until now, but something about the mood and the dress code really made it leap to my mind."

"Hmm? What's that?" Selina turned to rest her elbows on the bar and lean back on it, crossing her legs and eyeing the room full of puffy skirts and lace and painted masks.

"Gotham's aristocracy," he coughed quietly, "at least, that's what we're all pretending to be. A family that goes back a few generations, or has roots in the Old World, and enough money to afford a few yachts and mansions and we're considering ourselves royalty." Another sip. "But we're the only ones playing this game. Do you think any of the punters even know who Bunny Wigglesworth is, let alone care who she's married this week? Your darling Bruce gets a few mentions in the paper, and his name's on a lot of buildings, but come on, Selina."

"Richard, honey, it’s way too early in the night for that kind of talk. Just what have you been drinking?" She pulled his glass over, jokingly peering into it, and he laughed.

"Oh, don't mind my waxing philosophical. My point is, there isn't a single person in this room who'd have more pull with the public than, say, Angelina Jolie or Steven Spielberg if they walked in here. Or even, God help us, Fifty Cent. We in Gotham's upper-crust might have more money and certainly more taste-" he sniffed "-but the only society we're important to is our own. You don't see us in the tabloids or the gossip rags. Nobody cares. Celebrity, that's the real modern aristocracy. Pop singers, rappers and movie stars...even those of a, if you'll pardon me, criminal bent." He eyed her knowingly, taking another sip. "Catwoman, for example, or Two-Face or the Joker. Everyone knows who they are. The public loves to hate them. Every time one of the Rogue's Gallery pulls a crime and the headlines start rolling, the whole city stops to stare in train-wreck fascination and pretends to be outraged. But they’re lapping it up. Like Paris Hilton's latest publicity stunt, except with more police tape and arrest warrants. Amazing, isn't it?"

"It has its downsides." she made a face, wondering what he was trying to get at. He had to know she was thinking of the Post debacle right away.

Richard finished the sherry and twirled the glass deftly between his fingers, and got to the point. "Did you hear they're making a Batman movie? There's darling irony there, don't you agree?"

Selina had to give Richard this; he had bigger balls than any straight man she'd ever met who wasn't wearing a cape and pointy-eared cowl.

Which had to make her wonder about Batman.

“Pardon me again, dear,” said Richard, offering his arm, “Shall we?”

Her fortune in luring Dracula seemingly thwarted, Selina cast a quick glance over her shoulder before acquiescing with a lopsided smile and a hand slid to his arm.

Jonathan Crane drew in a slow, deep breath behind the horrid burlap mask that obscured his features. He fought to keep a less-than-terrifying spring from his step that might have drawn unfortunate comparisons with a certain other scarecrow. But he couldn’t help thinking, himself, that he was nearing the end of the Yellow Brick Road.

And leading the legions of Fear along it in his wake. He glanced down at the artifice in his hand.

Otis Flanegan, the Ratcatcher, was a rare visitor to Arkham Asylum. Like the Penguin, he had been profiled by psychologists as at worst eccentric, and more often wound up at Blackgate, but on rare occasions, his eccentricity was judged worthy of study and the staff of Arkham Asylum had brought him into their premises.

The last time had been around seven months ago, when Batman had caught him trying to lead his rats to ruin a restaurant chain run by an old high school bully. Blockmates, he and the Scarecrow had begun a sort of camaraderie, built upon a shared love of things that others found repulsive.

At this point, Jonathan Crane was already working for Mr. Volkoslak of Danesti Pharmaceuticals.

Otis Flanegan had been pleased to finally have a human who understood his fascination with the shadowy lives of Gotham’s vermin population. Crane had lured him, little by little, with teasing hints that his own next scheme might involve a rodent element, and little by little Flanegan, his interest piqued, had revealed his own secrets – how his power to control rats was a combination of his deep knowledge of the animals’ behavioral patterns, certain sounds and chemical odors he produced to steer them where he wished, and an almost supernatural affinity he was at a loss to explain.

Crane had explained that he, as a psychologist, was interested in the possible existence of psychic fields; the idea that a person’s brain might produce electromagnetic or electrochemical signals unknown to science that might affect other living things on hitherto unexpected levels. Once both men had been released by Arkham, Crane had magnanimously invited Otis to take part in his experiment and see if there really was a psychic explanation for his power over rats.

The Ratcatcher had agreed.

The result was the object that now rested in Crane’s spindly grip; a device that mimicked the unusual ‘pulse’ emanating from the brain of Otis Flanegan. A device that was also a remote control for the network of ‘rat lures’ he had planted all over the city, triggering a release of chemicals and subsonic sounds in strategic control nodes all over Gotham, hidden in its warehouses, its sewers…

To add a final layer of power to the device in his hand, Count Dracula had cast his black magic upon it, enchanting it with something of his own power over verminous animals and amplifying its effects exponentially.

Magic and technology mingled within this innocuous little box. It looked laughable, like an expanded joystick for a child’s remote controlled car. None would know the power it held; though it was not as effective as either Ratcatcher’s or Count Dracula’s command over rats on its own, combined with the control nodes and the modified toxoplasma spreading through Gotham city’s rodent population, making them docile, fearless, completely submissive to the pulses he sent…

Jonathan Crane, with the touch of a button, could control every rat in the city.

And like a demonic Pied Piper, he would lead them, tonight, to swarm out of the sewers, the warehouses, the dumpsters and the alleys, a horde of black-furred minions to carry the deadly plague fleas out into Gotham’s streets – and into Gotham’s homes. When Dracula’s army of vampires was at last unleashed, they would find the citizens of Gotham City placidly waiting to be prey.

No-one can be everywhere at once, the Count had said, Not even the Bat-man.

Let the Count finish Batman and his squad of bat-fools. He, Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, had already won. But the touch of a button, and the invasion would begin…

He strode to the edge of the rooftop, looking out at the threshold of the ultimate Halloween, a night of terrors unending, and the beginning of an age of darkness for Gotham City, in which he, the Scarecrow, had been promised to rule…

The laugh started as a wheezy, asthmatic whisper in his thin chest and bubbled up until it broke from his lips and howled into the still night.

“My Lord and Master,” he cried, “Your kingdom welcomes you! Let the Nightmare unending be unleashed upon these sniveling maggots! Let their throats bleed raw from screams of horror! Let the devastation of Gotham commence!

His arms spread, Jonathan laughed and laughed and laughed-

A gunshot rang out; Crane’s laugh became a shriek as the device tore from his hand. He watched the precious controller and his dreams of conquest fly from his grip, soar through the air, and shatter into a million pieces on the street far below.

For a long moment he simply stared after it, slumping, his breath stolen by the numbing tide of disbelief. Then he turned, and followed the gunsmoke to a twin-barreled pistol pointed at his head and a slick black-and-white two toned suit that only served to draw attention to the mangled ruin of its wearer’s visage.

“Hey, Jonny boy,” rasped Two-Face.

DENT?!” Crane howled, “What have you done?!”

“Rained on your Halloween parade, evidently,” said Oswald Cobblepot, stepping up beside Harvey Dent, clad head to toe in his finest Penguin regalia right up to the top hat. He paused to blow a swirl of smoke from one of his long filtered cigarettes, then lifted his umbrella and pointed it at Crane with a menacing, ballistic click - “I would advise against any sudden moves, Dr Crane.”

“You-you-Cobblepot!-Dent!” said Scarecrow, his voice trembling with outrage, “You’ve ruined it! Ruined everything! All my plans, all my dreams! You backstabbing TRAITORS!”

“Hardly,” said Two-Face.

“Indeed,” said Oswald, and his cold, serious tone and lack of quacking would have jarred – to anyone who had never met the Penguin at his deadliest, “Traitors, are we? A rather slanderous accusation. ”

“And a little ‘O, HAIL CRYPTIC’, don’t you think, Scarecrow?” said the Riddler, joining them to face Scarecrow - resplendent in a deep emerald suit, bowler hat and question tie in place, leaning on his cane, “All things considered.”

“You cannot comprehend what you have done-”

“Sure we can,” said Two-Face, “See, we just paid a little visit to the hospital, to see Otis Flanegan. He’s recovering well, by the way.”

Crane hitched a sharp breath.

“Mr. Flanegan was most pleased to see a few familiar faces,” added the Penguin, adjusting the aim of his umbrella as if pleasantly imagining the trajectory of the bullet, “Especially former business partners. He was an excellent and useful contact at Blackgate Penitentiary…”

“And since you betrayed him and left him to die,” said the Riddler, “He was only too happy to fill us in on everything he knew about your ‘plan’,” he rapped the cane against his shoulder, “Catwoman deserves the credit for sniffing out this Dracula debacle first. Once we knew about your experiment with Otis the rest was easy to piece together,” he tapped his temple lightly instead, smirking, “No challenge for a mind like mine.”

Jonathan Crane faced the three of them, looking between them like a cornered dog with Animal Control closing in.

“Why?” he whined.

“A question,” said Nigma, “that I think we should be asking YOU.

“You sold us out, ‘Renfield’,” said Two-Face.

“You sold out Gotham City,” said Penguin, “To a foreign interloper.”

“More to the point,” Riddler added, “You sold out the entire human species to an undead monster. Tell me, were we going to have a say in this new Gotham of yours, or were you lining the Iceberg crowd up to be on your new Master’s menu?”

“I bet you led him right to Pam and Harley, didn’t you?” Two-Face growled, with a dash of an outraged Harvey Dent, and his fingertip teasing the trigger like a lover’s tongue, “Harv and I happen to be in agreement this time; if this coin comes down, you’re not going to like either option, Crane.”

“I…I…” Crane wrung his long hands, then his shoulders tensed and he curled his fingers into claws, “I was moments away. A button press away…Gotham City would have been mine, a new age ushered in – You fools can never understand my vision – You can kill me if you like, it will only prove you to be cowards – That’s right! COWARDS! You’re afraid – Afraid of me, afraid of the future, afraid of yourselves-”

Two-Face shared a glance with Riddler. Penguin simply rolled his eyes, nearly losing his monocle in the process.

“-It is FEAR that drives you, as it drives Batman. Ha!” Crane spat, “Batman! You only pay lip service to being his enemies! In thwarting me, you have only done his work for him, you imbeciles – why don’t you sign up for some red and yellow tights while you’re at it? You’re just like him – JUST like him – driven by cowardice and fear to protect the status quo, when you KNOW Gotham is sick, and must be cured!”

“Jonathan,” said Nigma, rubbing his temples, “are you quite done?”

“YOU HAVE BETRAYED EVERYTHING WE STAND FOR!” Scarecrow shrieked, bunching his thin shoulders.

“I think he’s mistaking us for Joker,” said Two-Face.

“A fatal error, Dr Crane,” said the Penguin, regarding his esteemed-gwak-fellow-criminals, “I cannot speak for these generous gentlemen, but for my humble self the status quo suits rather well. Gotham City is, like any comfortably-sized burg, an eco-system. It has its hawks, its sparrows,” he eyed Crane with a twitch of his lip, “and its carrion-crows. As unfortunate as it may seem, a certain chiropteran is a part of this macrocosm, as are we, and he is useful in keeping the –kwak-competition on their toes.” 

“Vampires, however, are a few chiropterans too many,” said Nigma.

“Agreed,” Penguin said, “Gotham has no place for this Dracula. It is our turf, and we will not be challenged here.”

“We’re in this game for our own reasons, Crane,” said Two-Face, “not to destroy Gotham to make way for some idiot ‘vision’. If that’s your game, it’s over.”

Crane stiffened, straightened, and gathered his dignity, “Do what you will with me, then. If I die here, it proves you fear me too much to let me live. I’ll win.”

“Oh, shut up, you great hammy queen,” said Riddler, “We’re not going to kill you.”

“What?”

Two-Face released his thumb from the hammer of his pistol and grinned, then graveled in his best – rather impressive – Batman impression “Crane. You’re going back to Arkham!

“-and so is Otis Flanegan,” added Penguin, smirking, “as his condition has stabilized, but his mental state is nonetheless rather – frayed - he’ll be transferred within the day.”

Scarecrow stared between them, and then laughed, shrilly, “You cannot be serious. Do you think I am afraid of The RATCATCHER?”

“Not at all,” said Riddler, “From what he said, he’s really just looking forward to catching up with an old friend.”

“One who was kind enough to send him correspondence in the hospital. Flowers and a letter, delivered in a bright blue top hat.”

Scarecrow fell silent.

“Aw, how sweet,” said Two-Face, “A bromance in the making. Scarred, I puke, unscarred, Harv pukes. ‘Scuse us.”

“The Mad Hatter,” Scarecrow mumbled.

“Yes indeed,” said Nigma, cheerfully, “Otis was so touched by the flowers he poured his little ratty heart out to Jervis in reply. And you know how Jervis is. By the time you get back to Arkham every inmate there will know exactly what a great big sellout you are.”

“I hear they’re preparing an extra-special welcoming party,” said Two-Face, “All for you.”

“Harvey and I are checking ourselves in,” Riddler added, grinning ear to ear “Just to watch the show. How about you, Ozzie?”

“No…” whispered Scarecrow.

“Hmm,” said the Penguin, musing, “For once I regret not possessing the …personal history with Arkham that you fine gentlemen share, but I have been feeling rather down lately. Possibly a relapse into the-gwak-depression lingering from the loss of my dear old nest at the hands of the bat-brats.”

“Feelings of failure, inadequacy?” Riddler mimicked a concerned Dr. Bart.

“Deep-seated uncertainty, Doctor,” Penguin mourned.

“Lustful fantasies about your mother dressed as a Christmas turkey?” added Two-Face.

Penguin deadpanned, “Don’t push it, Dent.” He circled Crane with surprising speed for his weight and jabbed him in the small of the back with his umbrella, “This crow’s wings are clipped. Gentlemen, let us escort him thither.”

“No…No…” Crane moaned, getting louder and louder, “No!”

As Cobblepot and Nigma grabbed his arms and began to drag him away from the roof, he flailed and kicked and burst into a full, banshee wail – “MASTER!! I HAVE FAILED YOU! FORGIVE ME AND COME TO MY AID! MAAASTERRRRRRRRRRRR-!”

Apollo Dent’s right hook cut him off.

“Trick or Treat, Jonny boy,” said Two-Face.

On the third ocho with Richard, I saw it; the flash of black and red amidst the crowd, and then him, stock-still among the tottering partygoers, staring at me. Hungry wolf-eyes burned through the sockets of a porcelain cherub masque in a tasteful, old-world Venetian design.

My heart started pounding. For another woman it might have been off the yummy scale, but I, Catwoman, non-complex and dressed in purple spandex, know exactly what it feels like to have men trying to peel you with their eyes. With most, it’s just amusing – they have no idea who they’re messing with – with Batman, it’s delicious, but even when he was chasing me as his criminal target, there was a deep undercurrent of, I don’t know, respect? Rooftops, we were two predators dueling over disputed territory, fierce and deadly and free. Rowr. Even now, when he looks at me like that, it makes my knees weak.

This look was different. This look was starving, cold and invasive. For the first time in my life I knew what the innocent little ingénue feels when she’s cornered by the handsome lothario in the garden at midnight and has nowhere to run, except that I wasn’t an innocent little ingénue. I was old enough and smart enough to know what men who look at women like that want to do to them, and it both clenched my stomach and set the Cat’s hackles bristling. Woof.

So far, Drac had not impressed me.

As the song segued into another and Richard twirled me gracefully away, a cold hand caught mine and I saw those eyes again from inches away. It hurts to say it, but for a moment there, I forgot who I was, and I really did freeze like a rabbit.

“A dance,” he purred, accent like Lugosi on sex-appeal-steroids, “with the most beautiful woman in the room, it is not a small thing to ask. May I?”

“Selina?” Richard asked quietly, sensing the sudden change in mood.

“Go on, Richard,” I replied to him, squeezing his hand that still held mine, “I’ll take it from here. And thank you, honey.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Richard, and the concerned look on his face is all I remember before the crowds engulfed him and I was alone, dancing with Count Dracula.

To be continued...

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