Chapter 5: Casual Fridays
“Piffle,” Alfred sniffed, tossing aside an article on “molecular gastronomy” and reconsidering his subscription to Gourmand Kitchen. The day he defiled a classic dish like Leg of Lamb a la Pennyworth with the addition of some new fangled “applejack foam,” he would turn in his spatula. He was contemplating a letter to the editor, when the door to the hidden elevator opened into his pantry.
“Miss Selina,” Alfred smiled. “Is there anything you or the master require downstairs?”
“Officially, I’m here to bring us a couple sandwiches. Unofficially, I just needed a place to chuckle where they wouldn’t see me.”
“They? There are no guests in the cave that I was told about. If someone has come in through the transporter, I should offer some refreshments—”
“No, no,” Selina waved him off. “Nobody in the flesh. Oracle is on the com. See, I was in London with Bruce when he had the big breakthrough finding the chemical Rosetta Stone for Scarecrow’s fear toxins, so I already know the story. He’s ready for a fresh audience, and Oracle is it.”
“I see, miss,” Alfred said with another knowing smile. He headed out to the kitchen to make the sandwiches, and Selina followed.
“Mind you, up until five minutes ago, it was Barbara—no hologram. Bruce is out of costume, didn’t exactly have his feet up, but he was leaning back in his chair with the keyboard in his lap. Lazy afternoon in the Batcave, right? I make one little joke to that effect—not even a joke, I just used the phrase ‘Casual Friday’—and the pair of them stiffen up like I said ‘Officer on deck, point inspection at 0-five-hundred.’ Hologram goes up, and Bruce is changing into costume. He says because he’s expecting a vidcall from the Watchtower, but I have my doubts.”
“I see, miss. I have noted in the past that Master Bruce, while not averse to informality in principle, is apt to react aggressively if it is brought to his attention in the presence of the young ones. With young Master Jason’s training in particular, what began as a reasonable relaxing of formality was too often taken as a relaxing of discipline.”
“I see. I guess I never thought of Barbara as ‘one of the young ones.’”
“Perhaps not, miss. You first came to know her as Oracle, after all. For those of us who knew her as Batgirl, however…”
*** YEARS EARLIER ***
“Batgirl? Are you serious? Barbara was the first… Oh my God, that silly cheerleader outfit! Barbara?! With the yellow boots and the gloves and the whole ‘Hi, I’m Batarang Barbie’ routine?! I don’t believe it.”
Bruce’s lip twitched, and he helped clear the table. One of the perks of living in Gotham—one of the perks he seldom enjoyed before Selina—was the plethora of restaurants that delivered. There was no cuisine unrepresented, and no delicacy so specialized that it couldn’t be obtained. In a city where half the population didn’t bother with a car and those who did would never consider using it for local errands, every business on every level delivered.
Bruce was only just discovering this ‘ordering in’ as more than a late-night convenience at the office, if the senior staff were preparing for some new product announcement or a WE presence at a tech show the next day. Even then, he didn’t stay and eat with them. He signed the tab, but then he ran off to make an appearance at Nino’s with the latest Jenni, Candi, or Fifi. The bimbos always wanted to go out, to be seen, and since that was the only reason Bruce dated them, that was fine with him. He’d drop a thousand dollars on a gourmet pizza at Nino’s, covered in four kinds of caviar, lobster, and salmon roe. Nino would serve it personally, thereby establishing exactly where Bruce Wayne was while his best people were working late at Wayne Enterprises. In less than twenty minutes, Batman had established his alibi for the night and that was all Bruce cared about. It was all he had ever cared about, but now…
A date with Selina was a very different thing. It wasn’t for appearances, he wasn’t establishing an alibi; he wanted to spend time with her. Alone in her apartment, he could say whatever he wanted; he could be himself. It was strangely comfortable, ‘ordering in’…
“She was young,” Bruce said kindly. “Dick’s Robin was no dark, imposing figure of vengeance and you don’t seem to have any problem seeing him as Nightwing.”
“It’s different. I practically watched Dick grow up. Even so, the hardest thing to pull off in Cat-Tales was the whole ‘coming on to Nightwing’ bit, even to make fun of it. I mean he was so cute when he went from ‘Holy Kitty Litter’ to ‘eyes straight ahead, for God’s sake don’t look at her tits.’”
Of course, tonight’s ordering in wasn’t about that comfortable casualness. It was more like a defense mechanism. The last time Bruce took Selina out to dinner, they’d run into Joker and Harley Quinn at d’Annunzio’s. The night resolved satisfactorily, with Joker checking himself into Arkham, but only after a costume change and a joint Bat/Cat appearance at the Iceberg that neither party wanted to repeat. Both felt they needed a quiet night in, without any Bat/Cat surprises intruding on Bruce and Selina’s time together. After dinner, they’d change and go out, he on Batman’s business and she on Catwoman’s…
*** YEARS LATER ***
Batman, now fully costumed, sat at workstation 1 as molecule after molecule appeared on the giant viewscreen, the 3-d renderings turning slowly as chemical formulae scrolled in a text field beside them. The Oracle hologram hovered on one of the side screens, the occasional sound of her typing clicking softly over the com. Despite the stark appearance of the scene, the conversation was a casual one. Batman’s tone in particular evoked Bruce Wayne in the board room more than the Dark Knight Detective in the heart of his crimefighting base:
“When LexCorp went under, I only bought those tech divisions to save jobs in Metropolis. I never expected them to produce any actual benefit for Wayne Enterprises, let alone for Batman. There was too much overlap with existing WayneTech products, and too much Luthor had patterned on us. But he did have a better distribution network in Europe that somehow escaped Talia’s meddling. WayneTech doesn’t need it, but the WE medical divisions can make good use of it.”
“Good news,” the Oracle head said wryly. “But how does that lead to chemical warfare with Jonathan Crane?”
“It doesn’t; it solves an old mystery. Scarecrow’s toxins all work pretty much the same way: a hallucinogen and a set of chemical triggers to get the hallucinations moving in a certain direction.”
“Because if my body temp is up, I’m more likely to hallucinate that I’m in a fire than a field of daffodils.”
“Correct. All emotions are grounded in brain chemistry, so if you produce the physical symptoms of ‘fear’—elevated heart rate, vascular constriction, rapid breathing, etc.—in the presence of a hallucinogen, that’s a powerful suggestion for the victim to hallucinate something frightening. Since they’re going to be seeing things anyway, their imaginations conjure something to ‘explain’ why they’re frightened. The mystery with Scarecrow was that he’d have several toxins doing the same thing in different ways, with no common chemical alphabet. I’d find a sample of toxin that induced claustrophobia and one that produced arachnophobia. Both boosted adrenaline production, both blocked GABA receptors in the brain, but they didn’t do it the same way. They didn’t share a single chemical marker. That made no sense at all.”
“Because if you know how to shut off the calming mechanism in the brain in the first formula, why not do it the same way when you made the second.”
“Correct. It’s not logical to keep on searching, if it’s the same chemist working on both toxins. I was forced to conclude that it wasn’t. That whoever made the second toxin was not only a separate person, he or she had no knowledge of the first chemist’s work. The more samples I collected, the deeper the puzzle became. Different types of hallucinogens that all worked in different ways, paired with different triggers to mimic a fear response—sometimes! Sometimes there were similarities and overlaps, sometimes there weren’t. There was no logic to it.”
“That is a puzzle,” Oracle said. “So what’s the answer?”
“Just like that, ‘What’s the answer?’ More than a decade I’ve been wrestling with this. It made no sense, absent some common link somewhere in Jonathan Crane’s past. I scoured his work history, his education, even the papers his students submitted, and I could never find the source.”
*** YEARS EARLIER ***
“The reign of Crane falls mainly on Lois Lane?” Oswald read, bewildered.
“Put zats down! Zats from other clients.”
Kittlemeier snatched the paper napkin off the counter and ushered Oswald Cobblepot into his back room. It was lucky, Catwoman finding him in the hospital after the mugging. All his clients received the time of their next appointment whenever they left the last one. He missed almost a week’s worth of fittings and pick-ups while he was in the hospital, and he certainly couldn’t allow his clients to start dropping in whenever they felt like it to see if it was a good time. What would happen if Batman showed up when Mr. Freeze was ordering ice grenades, or if Joker breezed in while he was taking Spoiler’s measurements?
Fortunately, Catwoman and Batman had both found him in the hospital. He gave each a list of new appointments to distribute to their respective colleagues, and so far, everyone was showing up on time.
“Kwak-kwak-wak,” Cobblepot pronounced. Then he chewed his new cigarette holder experimentally, adjusted it between his teeth, and quacked again. “Satisfactory,” he said finally. “But it seems lighter than the handle of the umbrella—kwak-kwak. They were supposed to match exactly. I shall expect a reduction.”
Oswald really had no need for trick umbrellas anymore. He occasionally fired a shot into the ceiling to keep the Iceberg patrons in line, but his old arsenal was perfectly adequate. He just didn’t like the idea of breaking in a new tailor. Kittlemeier understood him, had his measurements, and knew just what he liked. It was worth the occasional splurge on a new umbrella.
The pick-up accomplished, he placed an order for a new suit. His Keystone City pigeon was finally graduating from law school, and Oswald had to make sure the recipient of the Audubon Scholarship understood who he was working for before getting that job in the D.A.’s office. Has to impress the kid, and the best way to impress a Keystone rube was with appropriate plumage…
“The reign of Crane falls mainly on the… Wow, we knew Jonathan had writer’s block, but we had no idea it had gone that far.”
“Put that’s down!” Kittlemeier roared. “Dat’s none of your businesses. Why is everybodys sticking zeir noses into everyzing todays.”
“Sorry,” Two-Face said wryly. “We have an Iceberg napkin of our own. This is just a rough sketch of course.”
Kittlemeier scrutinized the drawing.
“Bulletproof glass. Humidified but ventilated. Has to let air in. We need it to—”
“I don’ts needs to know what is for,” Kittlemeier said sharply. “Just tell me how bigs. It doesn’t say heres.”
“One by one by two should do it. It’s for an orchid.”
“Didn’t I just says I don’t needs to know dats?”
“We thought it would be easier,” Two-Face said under his breath.
The Lady Slipper, the perfect orchid, perfectly symmetrical petals. What a prize! If he wasn’t swiping it for Ivy, he’d take it for himself. Still, the coin had spoken: good side up. She’d been so depressed since Harley went back to Joker. He should do something to cheer her up, especially before Christmas. If he didn’t turn this around before the ‘mass ritual slaughter of the trees,’ it would be bad for Gotham (which Harvey cared about for some ridiculous reason) and worse for him personally (which both of them cared about, much as they hated to agree on anything beyond the temperature of their bath water).
So all he would get out of stealing the orchid was the satisfaction of robbing the Madison Auction House a second time, and taking his new henchmen out for a trial run. That reminded him…
“Have Twin and Twain picked up their new suits yet?”
“The brain of Crane’s gone completely down the drain,” Jervis Tetch declared, sniggering at the napkin on Kittlemeier’s counter.
“I hears he’s got the writer’s blocks,” Kittlemeier said, picking up the napkin and stowing it safely away in the cash register. “When he was in befores, he asks if I zinks ze Ouija boards is scarys. I say nos, is nothings but letters and numbers, ja? He says that’s what he zinks toos.”
“’If everybody minded their own business, the world would go around a great deal faster than it does,’ as the Duchess said. But then there wouldn’t be any gooseberry jam, now would there? I know, we’ll just hook the White Rabbit up with a splendiferous Secret Santa, that’s sure to get him directly directed in the right direction.”
“Ah,” Kittlemeier nodded. If it wasn’t an order, he just let the nonsense flow by.
“Roxy Rocket! She gives frabjous gifts, always so anxious to impress, like the Mock Turtle in a room full of March Hares. It’s early still, but one must plan ahead, don’t you know, for the doorknob is always turning. Soon it will be time for everyone to reach into the hat…. That reminds me, I need a new hat, and a new cravat at that. The wretched Cheshire Cat gave my nose such a bat. I’m a bleeder, don’t you know! And those claws are sharper than a mustard seed, so now our best hat and cravat are soaked through with blood...”
Kittlemeier nodded and made a few notes on his notepad.
“…And all because we had a little fun at the mythology museum, don’t you know. She will have to be punished of course, for the more there is of mine, the less there is of yours. Joker will draw her name, and she’ll draw Ivy’s. That will teach her.”
“Anything besides ze hats and cravats?” Kittlemeier said patiently.
“Why Mr. Kittlemeier, what is the use of repeating all this stuff, if I don't explain it as I go along? It's by far the most confusing thing I ever heard!”
“Ja, dat happens sometimes,” Kittlemeier said sympathetically.
“I decided to go with trains,” Scarecrow said decisively. “I know technically it rhymes with my name in a ridiculous Hatterish way, but it’s too good to pass up. On the one hand, you can put a prisoner on the tracks with a train coming at them, they see it coming but there’s nothing they can do! That’s quite terrifying.”
“You don’t have to tell me vat is for!” Kittlemeier reminded him.
“But it’s only one person. The really frightful fun with a train is all the passengers, right? Rip up the track in front of them, they can see they’re sure to derail, and there’s nothing they can do! Just think of the screaming, how could I pass that up because of a silly little rhyme? So it’s a yes on the model railroad, the remote control, the gas canisters, and the engineer’s hat. No on the Superman action figures, the taser and the Daily Planet plushies.”
“You still wants za carousel horse and ze brass knuckles?”
The Scarecrow mask puckered as Jonathan Crane thought…
“Toss them in. Never know when they’ll come in handy.”
*** YEARS LATER ***
When Selina brought the sandwiches down to the cave, Batman’s story had reached the big discovery…
“I found the answer in Darmstadt in 1915. Mustard gas was only the tip of the iceberg in World War I. A number of German pharmaceutical companies were researching chemical methods to incapacitate soldiers. When Germany lost, all their research was seized by the Allies as spoils of war. Most of it had no obvious value, either medical or military, so it sat in a drawer. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of drugs that only existed as theory, a chemical formula in a forgotten filing cabinet that no factory anywhere was producing or would ever produce. Just sitting there.”
“Until?” Oracle prompted.
“In most cases, when the research wound up in the hands of American companies, the story resumes during the Cold War. The secret testing that produced LSD, ecstasy, and other substances that didn’t find military uses but wound up fueling the drug culture of the sixties. ‘Most cases,’ that’s always the catch: most. This tiny pharmaceuticals firm in Berkshire on a list of a dozen others going into business with WE Medical, this tiny firm with only a handful of assets… including a forgotten cache of the old German formulae. I saw it on the asset survey and sent Catwoman out to Berkshire to get into their facility and make a copy…”
“And now he sends me for a sandwich,” Selina laughed, smacking the back of the cowl lightly. “Gimme gimme gimme, no gratitude.”
“Impossible woman,” Bruce muttered. “It was hard to be certain before I got back to the lab, but the more I read of the formulae, the more I was convinced this was the missing link.”
“The missing link connecting Crane’s formulas,” Barbara said. “But you’re still missing a link between him and this cache of old research, right?”
“Wrong,” Selina sang out. “This is my favorite part because, well, ‘he’s Batman.’”
“I told you, I’d combed Jonathan Crane’s professional history in the years I’d grappled with this mystery. Crane got his undergraduate from the University of Metropolis. His junior and senior year, he lived in Prescott Hall, which was special housing open to honors students in the science departments. On every campus there’s one chemistry major subsidizing their income brewing up illegal substances. In those years at the University of Metropolis, it was Adam Wild. He lived in Prescott Hall, and he came from Thatcham in Berkshire, about three miles from Newbury Pharmaceuticals.”
“Wow,” the Oracle head breathed. “Bullseye. Not that it has any practical value when it comes to fighting Crane, though, right? Unless I’m missing something.”
“Like the formulae themselves were filed away for having ‘no practical value,’” Batman graveled. “It fills in a missing piece of the past. It may connect to something important one day, it may not.”
To be continued...