Jason Blood listened to the staccato of his own footsteps on the slimy stones leading to the Vault. The only other sounds were the rush and roar of the cold grey waves of Scottish seas at his back.
Here, on this tiny island, the ruins of an ancient Pictish standing circle lay buried, undisturbed and unknown to archaeology. The power of their timeless runes of protection were undimmed and unbroken, however, the work of tribal sorcerers from an era when much of mankind had shared a primal bond with the elements themselves. It was the perfect place to seal away those artifacts too dangerous for the mortal world to hold. A hundred generations of their descendants had returned here, strengthening the wards, augmenting them with new knowledge and new power, until their guardianship had at last passed to Iason of the Blood.
His coat was torn and scorched and stained with blood today. It had been a bitter battle with the demented cult bent on summoning Yamata-no-Orochi and unleashing the monster on modern Japan – but he and his allies had been successful in retrieving the sword of the hero-god Susanoo who slew the god-dragon in antiquity. Until the cult was defeated and the sacred weapon could be safely returned to Japan, it had been entrusted to Jason’s care. It was an act of immense trust on the part of both the Shinto priests and the Japanese imperial family, and Jason had no intention of letting them down. Here, in the Vault, on the far side of the world, the cult would never find it…
Jason stopped cold as the first whispers of magic reached him, telling him the wards had been breached. They should have warned him instantaneously from across the world, but something had dampened their call –
Jason readied his magical defenses, whispering under his breath as he crossed the threshold. He cursed Etrigan, who seemed to find the entire thing tremendously amusing.
The salt circle on the floor in the first antechamber was undisturbed, but he found lodestones positioned in strategic places around the vault, weakening the wards and blocking their communication with Jason. The physical traps had been deftly disabled with no sign of any of them having been triggered.
His footsteps quickened, to the tempo of Etrigan’s laughter in the back of his mind. He passed layer after layer of wards. Some untouched, some deactivated, some defused. Lead powder blocking a crystalline sensor. More lodestones, precisely arranged in a geometric pattern to divert the ley lines converging on the vault and redirect their energies. Springs of wild ash. Holy wafers. A vial of water from the River Ganges inserted into a particular spot…it went on and on.
Whoever had done this had meticulously taken apart his defenses, each with its corresponding counter-element, almost exactly as Jason himself would have done. Chillingly efficient. Worse, Jason began to notice that there were no residual signs of spellcasting whatsoever. Whoever had done this had not used any conventional magic, but rather played rock-paper-scissors with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of rare magic-dampening artifacts.
The cult? Jason wondered, eyes narrow, mounting the stairs and passing two more layers of wards that would have teleported any other supernatural intruder to the bottom of the sea – but had not been triggered. It cannot be. They had no way to know. And they would not have made it this far…
But there were so many things of immense value in the vault that the list of those who might try to break in was nearly endless. Dark wizards, devil worshipers, necromancers, faerie queens of the Unseelie Court, demons of Hell…
Whoever has managed to do this must be powerful. Powerful beyond reckoning…
He whispered a spell to search for a life-force and found one thrumming in the direction of a sealed and warded part of the Vault. He knew what lay there, and what the stakes were. As he rounded the corner, ready to do battle with the very worst spawn of Hell….
…he found Catwoman, leaning on an ornate – and empty – chest, and drumming her claws on the silver urn containing the ashes of Count Dracula.
“Hi, I’m Selina from Bad Kitty Security, Inc,” she said, off his incredulous stare, “I’d like to talk to you about upgrading your system. Looks like you need it. Meow.”
“How did he react?”
She’d sauntered right into my cave with that got-the-canary look, toting a mysterious duffel bag, and had the audacity to look surprised when I asked her. Then she assumed her rooftop routine: her hip cocking to the side ever so slightly, the little turn giving me an eyeful of her profile… Whenever I caught up with her after the goods were in her loot sack but before she could get off the property, this was the reaction… Then a move towards me, not threatening but subtly predatory, that sly smile as she sauntered across the roof—or today across the cave—her whole body alive with movement. Then, at last, those playful, defiant, impossibly green eyes would flicker up into mine, the lips would part, and some bit of teasing felinity would come purring out…
“I’m sure I have no idea who you’re talking about.”
I gave her a faint, grim smile. “Jason Blood.”
“You knew,” she smiled, her voice soft, just above a whisper. I couldn’t decide if she was pleased or acknowledging the checkmate. I opted for the former and deflected it with a grunt.
“I suspected,” I said, turning back to my work. Five Riddler crimes in the last month. Her ‘friend Eddie’ was testing my patience, and off she goes doing this. Well. “I knew you weren’t satisfied with his explanation of his secure facility to contain Dracula. I know you’ve been stewing over it for the past six months since it happened.”
It being one of those episodes, the kind we didn’t like to refer to in too much detail. Not only the circumstances of Dracula’s coming to Gotham, what he had done here, and the troubling aspects of his final downfall, but also the mess he had left behind: the Plague, the modified toxoplasma bacillus, and one other form of residue...
“No, I wasn’t satisfied,” Selina said, “Neither were you. I would have told you what I was doing if you’d asked, but…”
She had nightmares she wouldn’t talk about. For three nights in a row. Then I saw that gimlet look in her eye and I knew she’d found a solution. Catwoman being Catwoman, I guessed it was a form of ‘theft therapy,’ and I was glad. I had a great deal to do cleaning up the rest of Dracula’s mess. People had died, and I had to pull all my resources into action to clean both the Plague and the modified toxoplasma bacillus out of the Gotham population. My contacts in the JLA had proved extremely useful, but the most unexpected ally in the fight against the plague had been Otis Flanegan, the Ratcatcher.
Soon after his release from Arkham, I investigated reports that he had stolen samples of antibiotics from several veterinary hospitals, and found that he had been working in secret the whole time on a rodent vaccine that would make biting any treated rodent fatal to plague fleas. Otis had taken on the task of curing the plague at its source – the rats – and with a few donations of certain chemicals and research from an anonymous source, in a few months the plague outbreak was over. There were still traces remaining, cases that popped up here and there, but the plague faded from the media frenzy it had been to something that was just accepted as the cases dwindled.
Which left only the aftermath closer to home: Selina, and my own concerns about Jason’s “secure vault.”
“You’re right, I wasn’t satisfied,” I said, “But you haven’t answered my question. How did Blood react?”
“He was pissed at first, as expected,” she said, “But unlike some, Jason’s a gentleman. He admitted it was more important to address the flaws his setup than to ‘blame the messenger,’ and he agreed to let me… improve things. I start on Monday. It’s in Scotland, by the way. You won’t mind if I take the jet this time, right?”
“I’m surprised you waited this long.”
She pouted slightly at me, running her claw over my chest insignia as she used to back on those rooftops so many lifetimes ago.
“Take Batman’s plane to a heist? No way. But now that it’s no longer a Catwoman break-in and I’m just doing a favor for a friend—”
“I meant I’m surprised you waited this long to break into the vault.”
“Jason doesn’t exactly have a Phoenix 9000 or a Diebold, stud. I had to do some serious research. Haven’t dealt with magic protections since the Aztec jaguar cult back in the day.” She purred and stretched, distracting me from Riddler’s file so much I sighed and closed it, giving her my full attention. “Powders and crystals and runes, I’d forgotten what a headache it is looking up all that crap. But at least this time I had your Mr. Gerard ID to bid on artifacts in all those collector’s auctions. Thanks for letting me use him, by the way.”
I couldn’t keep the twitch from my lips. She wouldn’t borrow ‘Batman’s plane’ for her heist, but she had no qualms using the shield identities I’d sent up to acquire items at auction without revealing Bruce Wayne as the buyer.
Selina grinned, “So, you going to ask me about where the flaws in his defenses were, or do I get to make you guess?”
“Oh, you’re no fun,” she said, tapping her claw on my insignia and pawing at my shoulders, “Well to start with, Jason’s good, at what he does. If I had been any kind of evil warlock or whatever trying to break in using magic, I’d have had to be Merlin himself to make it past the first few wards. And if I were a demon or whatever else – forget it. He had wards built in that, going from my research, would have blasted me back to Hell before I knew what hit me.”
“But…” She shook her head, “The best at what he does is not the best at what I do. Just like the security firms that stake everything on motion sensors in the floor, like that doesn’t mean I’ll just have to work out a way to come in through ceiling. Jason apparently never conceived of a regular non-magical human who isn’t under any kind of mind control sauntering in of her own free will and disabling his stuff. Dark wizards? Sure, got that covered. Demons, extradimensional demigods? No problem. Cat burglar? I waltzed right in. I could have been picking through his Assyrian sacrificial urns before I’d even hit the first decently locked door.”
I snorted, “He could use some lessons from the JLA. We’ve had to deal with magical and technological threats, including unforeseen alien tech, since we formed the team, so we’ve learned to be ready for anything.”
She gave that dismissive little laugh she always gives when the League is mentioned.
“Thanks mostly to you,” she said, “Who designed the security systems for the Watchtower, again?”
I twitched, “Back to Jason.”
“I convinced him that his magical stuff wasn’t enough,” she said “There were physical traps as well, sure. Some scary Indiana-Jones type things he probably should tone down if he’s ever working late there and decides to order pizza. But even those wouldn’t stop a determined pro of even half my caliber. And a good seventy percent of the magical wards only work on magical beings, or on wizards trying to use magic to get past them, instead of, you know, feet.”
Her tone was still playful, but I felt a surge of anger blotting out any enjoyment of her ‘theft therapy.’
“You’re saying all it would take was one of these demon cults wising up and hiring a high-level professional instead of trying to break in by exclusively supernatural means?”
“Bingo,” she said, with a sweet smile, “But not for long. Stand down, Dark Knight. Kitty’s on the job.”
“That doesn’t explain why you were gone so long.”
“Well, honey, Edinburgh’s gorgeous this time of year.” She strolled back over to my desk, tisking at the amount of Nigma-related notes I had scattered around, “And so’s Kyoto,” she added casually.
“You detoured to Japan?”
“Well,” she said, “Jason felt grateful to me for pointing out the flaws in his security, so he let me tag along on his mission.”
I narrowed my eyes, “What mission?”
She waved a claw, “Some kooky Babylonian snake cult trying to steal the imperial regalia of Japan and resurrect an eight-headed immortal dragon-serpent-monster… thing.”
I glared at her.
“What?” She blew me a kiss, “It was fun. Our Japanese partner was a blast to work with. I haven’t seen a pro like that since I still worked with Sensei and I very much doubt I’ll see her like again.”
“Why would that be?”
“Out with it.”
“I don’t know if I should tell you.”
“You’re not going to believe me.”
“Selina.” I said, “I’m Batman.”
She sighed, “Allright, I get your point. Well, we were going along assuming she was just the head of a secretive order of shrine maidens trained in shinobi arts by Tengu mountain-spirits in antiquity.”
“Just,” I caught the sarcasm even as I said it.
“Turns out the real shrine maiden had died thirty years ago and our contact was a disguised Shinto goddess.”
“Amaterasu herself, no less.”
“Suffice to say the cultists got a little more sun-tanned than they expected,” she said, casually, “Really, don’t mess with someone’s divinely-given imperial regalia, lesson of the day.”
“Do I look like I’m joking? And I’ll have you know that some people’s deities are a lot better mannered than others,” she grimaced, “Janus and Hel could take lessons from Amaterasu. She’s a real lady. And she has a sense of humor.”
“I told her to pass my number on to Bast if she ever needs a cat burglar,” Selina said cheerfully, “And she winked at me.”
“Winked at you.”
“A goddess winked at you.”
“Clear as day,” she said, “Well, naturally, because she’s a …sun…goddess…yeah. So. Bottom line, cult thwarted, regalia returned, Jason grateful for my help, vault to get an upgrade, Count Suck-face still safely napping on the mantelpiece, and…”
She reached into the duffel bag and withdrew an elegant but extraordinarily old-fashioned Japanese sword. From the style I was guessing it dated to the Kamakura period at the youngest. She slid the blade partway out; it was the most exquisite workmanship I had ever seen.
“A little souvenir,” she said, “A thank-you, she said, to Nekohime and Komori-no-kishi. That’s us, by the way.”
“A replica. The real thing’s back in the Imperial Family’s custody, of course.” She paused, “Jason got a magical ukiyo-e brush. He seemed stoked with that.”
“Impossible woman,” I said.
“Little something for your treasure vault,” she said, kissing me, and laying the sword reverently on the table, “And happy birthday. Pre-emptively.”
“Good work, Catwoman,” I said quietly, when I meant thank you, Selina. I saw from her little smirk that she knew it.
“Mm. Don’t mention it. Looks like we got our happy ending,” she said, wrapping an arm about me, “Except for one loose end.”
I frowned, “Yes. The…movie.”
“Premiering this week. How is that possible? It was only shooting six months ago-”
“As it turns out they shot most of it over seas, before they came here. Post production was already underway. The scenes Joker and I stumbled into were reshoots . Last-minute… Meant to be discreetly captured on cell phones, leaked to the net and generate buzz.”
“And it doesn’t just premiere this week,” I growled, “It premieres tonight.”
As I leaned over and pulled up the at-large list on the computer, Selina groaned.
“Oh hell,” she said, “Guess I’m going to have to postpone your other early birthday present. You’re going to be working late.”
Right there, at the top of the at large list, the cursor sat blinking next to the word Joker.
“HA-HA-HA-hoo-hoo-hahahaha-hooo-whee – *CRUNCH* - hoo hoo – aaahhh – uhuhuh ehehe haaaaa - *CRUNCH* - AHAHAHAHHAHAHA HAAA HAAA HARRR HROOOM-WAHH HOHOHOO-mmm - *CRUNCH CRUNCH*”
The cinema sat empty. Popcorn spilled over seats, drinks left in their holders. The credits of Batman: Knight of Shadows scrolled down the black ending screen to the pulse of ominous orchestral music, but only one figure was there to hear it, aside from the terrified cinema staffer up in the projection room who’d been instructed to keep it rolling while everyone else fled in terror when they realized the fellow in Seat 13-A who started cackling his head off around the third act wasn’t a cosplaying fan.
The cinema’s only occupant squatted on one of the seats with his feet up and his arms full of about six buckets of super-sized popcorn, each which he was grabbing handfuls from at random and stuffing them in his perpetually grinning mouth in between laughter, occasionally spitting white chunks of popcorn out as he came across another particularly amusing name in the credits.
Then, suddenly, there were two shadows in the rows.
“Ooohhhhh hiii Batsy!” said Joker, “Oh man, you missed the best part! I’d just barbecued Harvey’s face and then – then hahaha they think I was responsible for that, what a hoot - then there were these two boats, see, and I’d taped up the hostages and switched them with my goons, and I had a bunch of Dobermans and a crowbar, and in you came like-”
“I saw it.”
“You swine!” Joker grumbled, slurping from a vat-sized Coca Cola, “HOO!! AHAHAHA! – GAFFER - REGINALD POOT- POOT! WHAT A NAME!! Hey wait, I REMEMBER that guy! I think I tied him up with his own tape on the way in, remember? WHAT A GAFF THAT WAS!! Hahahahaha. Oh and there’s the Best Boy, Freddy Ferbles! Good old Freddy. What’s a ‘Best Boy’ do on set anyway, Batsy? Sounds a little dirty if you ask me, just like ‘Boy Wonder’. Ewwwww. FILTHY PERVERSIONS I say! If they do that with the ‘Best Boy’ what do they do with the WORST Boy? Yikes!”
“Joker,” Batman graveled again, patiently, “The movie’s over. Are you satisfied?”
“Oh hell yes!” chortled Joker, “I had so much screen time! So much material! They should have called it ‘JOKER: KNAVE IN PURPLE’! Granted, the LOOK was all wrong, like some unwashed hobo bum version of myself – in makeup! Aahaha. You and I know I have better hygiene,” Joker sniffed, “But huzzah, what a performance! If I don’t get an Oscar for that one, I’ll be forced to paint the Red Carpet a proper shade, eh Bats, get my drift? That Joker was fantabulous!” Joker stopped ranting for a moment and pouted, “Pity they didn’t go with the Bat-nipples though. I will be recommending that for the sequel. BUT! I will forgive them, because they put me in a nurse outfit!”
“It’d look better on Harley,” said Batman.
“Well, true,” said Joker, “Though I look spiffing in her pink teddy. The rest of her wardrobe, though – ugh - a teency bit tight around the nether regions, if you catch my drift.”
“What?” said Joker.
Batman just shook his head, as the last of the credits rolled.
“It’s time to go.” Batman said, “You’ve had your fun, Joker. You’re going back to Arkham.’
“Aw, Batsy,” Joker said, fluttering his eyelashes, “Offering me a ride home after our movie date, you shouldn’t have.”
Batman stood up, grabbed the Joker’s shoulders and turned him around. The bat-cuffs snapped shut around his wrists.
“You know seeing this movie,” Joker continued, as if being apprehended was not a concern at all, “Reminds me of that big mess six months ago when we paid our little visit to the production…”
“Save it,” growled Batman, tugging his captive toward the aisle.
“Nostalgic, really,” Joker sniffed, “And wasn’t THAT a fun Halloween we had after? HA HA HA – DRECKU-BLAH in GOTHAM, who’d’a thunk it? And let me tell you, being a vampire was rather fun. Blah ah ahhh! You know I’ve had this song stuck in my head since then - Ooh oohh can we play it on the Bat-iPod on the way back? PUHLEEEEZE??!”
“I bet you can’t guess what it is. I betcha can’t. I betcha can’t guess it-”
“Bauhaus,” sighed Batman, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”
The Joker drooped, “Am I that predictable?”
Joker pouted, and glanced back at the movie screen as the credits rolled, and clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
“Poor old Count,” he said, “Never could handle his own fame. Not like us, Eh Batsy? It’s funny how we ended up here, isn’t it?” Joker’s voice suddenly shifted, deepened, his accent mutating, becoming heavier, more breathy and nasally.
“You and me, up there on the silver screen,” Joker licked his lips, “Changes us, makes us fantasy, keeps them all blind to the reality of it all. You see, everything about us appeals to their inner thirst for chaos…”
Batman stopped dragging him toward the exit and glowered as he picked up the shift in accent and tone. He was mimicking the movie version, word-perfectly.
It didn’t bode well for what else of the film’s ideas he might try to mimic. Batman made a mental note to get hold of the script – and since the movie hadn’t killed off its Joker character, the shooting script for the next sequel in advance.
“Nice try,” said Batman, “but that isn’t your voice.”
“Ohhhoh, no, no see, this month it is,” Joker said gleefully without losing the impression.
Batman shook his head. He had little time for Joker’s nonsensical rants, but the clown seemed passive and introspective, which was rare, and the lack of violence with which this encounter had proceeded had him cautious, looking for any information Joker might let slip - “If it keeps you out of trouble.”
“Let me tell you a little joke,” Joker said, dropping the accent, “Here it is: BATMAN: KNIGHT OF SHADOWS,” Joker said, gesturing at the screen as best he could in the cuffs, “Tickets sold out in advance. Talk of Oscars. They love us! All the police tape, all the property damage, all the body bags you fight so hard to keep empty, and they can’t get enough of it. They might call us freaks but they’re really lapping it up.”
“Depraved crimes like yours,” Batman replied, narrowing his eyes, “Always make headlines. It’s unfortunate but unavoidable.”
“It’s natural, Bats! I mean Ted Bundy and O.J Simpson cause a media circus? PLEASE. Even the most worthless Z-list costumed clown in Gotham has a zillion times their charm. By the time you get up to the likes of me, there’s no contest.”
Batman remained silent, but he had to admit the madman had a troubling point. The larger-than-life personas of costumed rogues and crimefighters were perfectly suited to the mass media. There were tabloids like the Post and even more legitimate newspapers that made most of their money printing the wild and lurid tales of Gotham’s costumed underbelly, to say nothing of television, books, and the internet…
And now there was a movie.
“No wonder Hollywood came calling,” Joker chortled, “We’re putting them out of a job. Hoo-haha.”
“Are you finished?”
“Not quite,” said Joker, pointing his bound hands at Batman and wiggling his finger, “You see,” he dropped back into his Ledger impersonation, and Batman inwardly winced, “there’s a point I’m trying to make, here! The public loves a good villain; look at Dracula. You know he’s been played on stage and screen more times than any other character in history? If you hadn’t done a Buffy Van Belmont on him he’d be PRESIDENT by now. The rest of us?” Joker laughed, “Let’s not be naïve. If we weren’t so entertaining, we’d all be dead. Y’think the insanity plea is really what’s kept me from Death Row? The cops and judges would all love to see me and Harv and Jonny Crane – hahaha he’s still munching bugs and whining about being betrayed, hilarious – where was I? – oh, the ‘guardians of peace and order’ all want to see us sizzle in a chair. And the shrinks and lawyers – HA HA HA – Oh they love us, as long as we’re bringing in their paychecks, giving them materials for bestsellers – You know that’s what Harley was trying to do to me, right? Guess she got a little too into character-”
“You mentioned a point,” Batman said patiently.
“I’M GETTING TO IT!” Joker shouted, “The point is, Batman, we’re celebrities. You, me, all of us. That’s what keeps us tolerated. We bring a little excitement to these people’s tawdry dreary worthless lives. Without us Gotham would be so dull, everyone would move to Metropolis. Or worse, New Jersey. Ha.”
“You call that a point?”
Joker turned his head to find Batman suddenly behind him. A gloved hand prodded him in the back and pushed him toward the exit of the cinema, and down the old hall lined with flashy new movie posters. It hindered his ranting only a little.
“No,” Joker said, “I call this a point; the moment we ceased being entertaining, not a single person in this city would care if every last Rogue was pushing up daisies. Nobody but you, Batman.” He licked his teeth, and his grin slowly spread from ear to ear. “Everyone knows we’re a lost cause. You’re the only loony bat-shit enough to think we can be saved. ”
Sirens wailed right outside the cinema building, and the Joker strolled onward, whistling the movie’s theme, suddenly aware that the shadowy figure was no longer at his back.
His smile faded. “Batman?” He frowned, “Batman, you had better have been goddamned listening, I put effort into that lecture! I rehearsed!”
Joker shouldered the cinema doors open – staring into a row of police cars, flashing red and blue lights, and the barrels of a dozen police firearms pointed at him.
Joker heard a chilling chuckle from somewhere above him.
“I’m listening. And I look forward to proving you wrong,” said Batman’s voice.
“You really think you can, Batman?”
“Oooh, like how?”
“To start with, Dracula isn’t the most filmed character.”
“We have you surrounded, Joker,” one of the cops called, “Put your hands above your head.”
“WHAT!?” Joker shouted, completely ignoring the police, “Bullshit! If he isn’t, who is?”
“Sherlock Holmes,” said Batman.
Joker didn’t bother replying. He knew Batman was gone. Turning to face the officers charging up the steps to arrest him, he blew out a sigh, shook popcorn from his cuffed sleeves and stuffed it into his mouth.
“Next time,” he said, “I’ll wait for the DVD.”
To be continued...