Chapter 8: Changes
I’d like to take this moment to confirm that, while cats do not necessarily hate water, I, both as cat and woman, absolutely hate sewers.
I reflected on this as I crept through the dank, reeking tunnels beneath Gotham, trying very hard not to step in the ‘water’. This, I realized, was why Killer Croc or Solomon Grundy never hosted Rogue get-togethers. Real sewers weren’t cool, scary subterranean labyrinths ideally suited as the lair of a discerning villain. Real sewers were cramped and smelled beyond repulsive, and nobody even remotely sane would go wading in the murky sludge of waste water and human excrement and expect to come out with any less than six severe diseases. Real sewers were no place for a cat, and I felt the growing urge to take out my disgust with the environment on the block-headed Batman who was responsible for me being here.
Of course I was fortunate that the architects of Gotham City had applied the same obsession with grandiose, gothic Zeerust to Gotham’s waste water system as they had to the rest of the city. The tunnels were man-sized, with oddly vaulted ceilings and walkways on either side. There were open sections further in that would have seemed more at home beneath a fanciful version of Paris or Venice. Someone had clearly seen or read Phantom of the Opera about eight times too many. But I didn’t feel fortunate. I was regretting never having designed a Cat-gas-mask and not having thought to borrow a Bat one. I was imagining how long it would take to wash the smell out of my hair. I was hoping to get this over with and I admit I was hoping for a chance to put my fist in the face of the man I’d come to see, to repay him for forcing me to chase him around in such a pleasant locale.
Otis Flannegan. The Ratcatcher. Not exactly an A-list Rogue. He was quite popular at Arkham for his ability to gather information from the outside through his little furry friends. But he wasn’t invited to the Christmas parties; he wasn’t a regular at the Iceberg. Granted, most Rogues aren’t particularly gregarious creatures, being for the most part sociopathic lunatics, but the Ratcatcher was a real recluse, and who could blame the guy? With a moniker like that and his choice of company, he wasn’t going to be pulling many henchwenches.
My violent urges faded when I found him, huddled in a corner. I didn’t recall him to be well-presented the last time I saw him, but he looked terrible now. He was sobbing, surrounded by piles of dead rats, clutching a few that were still alive close to his chest. His eyes were puffy and red from crying. I’d been readying the Cattitude for hours now – “Kitty’s not happy with you, Otis, so you’ll appreciate that since I’m going to have to burn this costume and soak in sea salts for about a week before I feel passably clean again, you’re going to tell me everything you know before I claw it out of you.” But now I saw him, I found myself folding up my whip, crouching gently opposite him, and saying –
“Hi, Otis. Long time no see. You don’t look so good. What’s happened?”
“My rats. My rats are sick. My rats are sick…” He repeated in a blubbery whisper, blinking at me. “My friends, my poor friends…”
My stomach clenched. I normally wasn't the type to pity other Rogues for their... issues. But sitting there, crying his eyes out, surrounded by his dead ‘friends’ and regarding every little cold body with genuine grief – it was heartbreaking.
I reached with a claw to gently turn over one of the dead rats. Its lymph nodes were swollen; ugly lumps under the fur. I recalled that the plague often killed the rats that carried it.
Damnit. We were too late. The plague wasn’t just being carried by Dracula’s cargo-ship rats anymore; the plague fleas had multiplied and begun infesting the local Gotham population. It was what Batman and I had feared all along. While Black Plague itself was curable once identified, the squalor of Gotham’s less pleasant neighborhoods and the large population of rats in the city meant the plague could settle in and linger, perhaps even indefinitely, cropping up in the human population at intermittent intervals. A dangerous enough thing in itself, but it was also perfect cover for the predations of Dracula and whatever new vampires he chose to make. It would make hunting him down incredibly difficult.
“When did this start, Otis?”
“A few – few days ago – some new rats came. Foreigners! But we welcomed them. They were visitors. Guests in our Gotham! So we made them welcome, didn’t we, we never knew what they were carrying…” Otis wasn’t usually much of a headcase besides being more sociable with rodents than people, but it sounded now as if he’d really flipped – “-they betrayed us, us and our friends, they serve the Devil! They’re spreading his pestilence! We’re all infected, infected!”
“Otis.” I repeated his name, waving my hand in front of his eyes, getting him to focus on my hand, then my face. “Look at me, Otis. I’m working with Batman. Shh. I know. He wants to help you. We want to help you. Everyone is in danger, people and rats. We need you to help us catch the…foreigner rats.” I felt ridiculous saying that last part, but he seemed to be responding well to it, calming down. “…then we can help you cure your friends.”
It was the right thing to say. The Ratcatcher’s eyes cleared and he looked at me directly.
“Yes. Yes. I’ll help you. I’ll do anything. Anything to stop the Devil murdering my friends! Tell Batman I’ll help! Tell him!”
“I will, Otis. But you have to come with me.”
Now he was sitting up a little more, I could see the discolored lumps underneath his throat. Oh, God. I had to get him out of here.
“Come? Come where? No…No, I can’t leave. I can’t leave my rats, not while they’re suffering so much! I just can’t!”
He’d be dead within days. Fighting off nausea, I tried to come off as calmly authoritative as I could. “You’re sick. You need to come to the hospital with me. Please. We can help your friends as soon as you’re better.”
That was the wrong thing to say. His eyes went wild and he started to get up, evidently meaning to do something – fight me, run away, I don’t think even he was sure which. I sighed.
It hurt me to do it, but a quick strike with the butt of my whip brought Otis down like a sack of potatoes. His limp fingers spilled his rat friends onto the floor, where they lay twitching, too weak to flee. I moved to pick up Otis, and felt a pang.
His rats wouldn’t have a chance without him.
I slipped Otis' coat off him, emptied the many pockets, and picked up those of his rats that were still alive. I bundled them into the pouches, hung the coat on my shoulder, and then gently lifted Otis over the opposite shoulder. He was a deadweight, but so scrawny from malnourishment that dragging his unconscious carcass out of here would be possible. I started shuffling down the corridor, back toward the nearest manhole, thinking that this was about the strangest interaction between cats and rodents in history.
You know, if those ignorami in medieval times hadn’t considered cats to be witches’ familiars, and therefore minions of Satan, and killed them en-masse when the Plague started, they’d have gone a long way to stopping the spread. And right now, centuries later, I’m picking up where those poor murdered kitties left off.
Goddamnit, Bruce. You owe me for this.
Across town, Harley Quinn was also burdened with carting someone home in a dubious state of consciousness.
“Hold on, Red. We’re almost there. Wanna play I Spy?”
After Dracula’s outburst, he had simply gotten up, gathered his imperious dignity and left without a word. They hadn’t heard from him again and after resuming their argument about actors for another half hour, Ivy had requested to be taken home.
Joker of course had insisted she could stay the night at the Hacienda, provided she and Harley put on ‘a nice raunchy girl-girl show’ for his benefit to make up for the lamentable death of Big Mouth Billy Elvis. After prying Ivy’s fingers from her Puddin’s throat and noting the ugly purple bruises she’d left behind, Harley decided Red was feeling better and she should drive her friend back to the nearest Ivy lair. It gave her time to collect her thoughts and let the evening’s events really sink in.
Wow. Dracula, I mean, Dracula had come to the Hacienda! Dracula had bitten Red right in front of her. Dracula had wanted to bite her too, only Puddin’ had come in and she’d whumped him with a sledgehammer. It was enough to give a girl the shivers.
She had to admit this Dracula didn’t look anything like Frank Langella and she’d never really been attracted to facial hair (at least he didn’t look anything at all like Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds), but he was hot, in a sleazy old foreign guy kinda way. And he was Dracula. He was a celebrity. He was at least as famous as Tom Cruise only he didn’t jump up and down on couches and giggle about Katie Holmes. Puddin’ did that sometimes too and it really annoyed her, though she doubted Mistah J was giggling for the same reasons as Tom. But she didn’t think Dracula would find Katie Holmes appealing at all. He seemed more the type Harleen had been attracted to before she met Mistah J; distinguished, powerful, commanding. Just like Batman, only without the stupid tights.
She was quite comfortable being Harley Quinn, but she admitted she and Mistah J had some rough times and she’d had a couple of ‘breaks’ from him, recently, that had shown her the way she might be treated were she with someone (basically, anyone) else. Things with Matt had been… platonic, but nice. He’d been really sweet to her. And then there was that French guy, how’d you say his name? Fronz-waa? He’d been so funny and romantic! And he was a Count, just like Dracula. And if the last Count she had spent time with had taken her on a cruise of the Riviera, could being an immortal vampire Bride really be so bad?
Ivy was asleep again in the back seat and Harley’s thoughts were wandering. She saw herself as a vampire queen, with beautiful alabaster skin that didn’t even need greasepaint to stay white, floating through graveyards in a billowy black and red gown with her long golden hair flowing behind her, fluttering her lashes at any men she thought were cute, only to sink her fangs in their necks when they were unawares! And she would look totally gorgeous doing it. The glamour, the excitement, the murder and mayhem! If Red was a vampire too, she’d have her best friend with her forever, and they could make anyone do anything they wanted. They could both enslave any man to their will! Ha! Wouldn’t that be great! She could have an army of vampire underwear models to brush her hair (wearing that tasseled hood made it snarl more than the hyenas) and manicure her toenails whenever she pleased! She could have Batman do it if she wanted, she could have Puddin’ do it, she could make him to anything, she could make him…
Harley hit the brakes, stopping in the middle of the road and eliciting a muffled cry of protest from the half-asleep Ivy.
She could make him love her.
Not just love her sometimes when he wasn’t shouting at her or throwing sharp things at her head. Love her all the time, curl up in her coffin with her by day and unfurl at night for evenings of horrible, horrible fun at other people’s expense. Then a candlelit glass of blood and a few more hours of cuddling before the sun came up. It would be dreamy.
And being a vampire was really, really permanent. It made I will be with you forever really mean it. It would be even better than finally getting Mistah J to marry her, and if she was the one who bit him, he would be bound to her for all eternity…
She blinked herself out of the reverie and saw she’d stopped right in front of Ivy’s lair, a small, abandoned greenhouse overgrown with weeds. It wasn’t her main one and she only paid it the occasional visit, but it would do as a safehouse while she was sick.
"Time to get up, Red." She turned in the front seat and glanced over the back.
Ivy was curled against the back seat, arching her back, gasping as if she was having trouble breathing. Harley could see in the glint of the moonlight that her canine teeth were pushing past her lip, growing visibly while Harley watched; there was a rumbling, growling sound coming from within Ivy's chest, quite separate from the gasping for air, as if two voices were trying to speak at once.
"Red..." Harley whispered, eyes dull with shock. Then she snapped out of it. "Red?! Red! Come on, sweetuns, talks to me! You're gonna be okay! You're gonna be okay!" She shook Ivy's shoulders, but her friend wasn't responding. The growling sound consolidated into an eerie, flesh-crawling moan, and then into a high-pitched, unbroken wail that forced Harley to let go to clamp her own hands over her ears. This was bad. This was really bad.
She decided she didn't want to be a vampire anymore.
The car rocked slightly. Harley's eyes darted to the window, and to her horror she saw the grass and vines from the entrance of the greenhouse and the roadside snaking across the bitumen and climbing the car doors. More were cracking the pavement beneath the vehicle, wriggling their way into the darkened air, as if reacting to Ivy's ongoing, keening cry. The vines were growing darker, flowers budding and blooming on their stems even as Harley watched - only these flowers had gaping, suction-cup mouths and awful, thorny teeth inside them. These were flowers designed for a very warm, red kind of fertilizer, and the way they were pawing at the glass, feeling around like starving lampreys, made Harley want to throw up.
She only knew one thing to do. She punched Red in the face.
Pamela's head snapped back from the impact and the scream choked off. Her eyes rolled back and, still conscious, she seemed to be fighting off whatever it was that had taken her over, and in the process, the vegetation that was slowly swallowing the car gave a shiver and started to retreat.
Harley wondered if even Dracula knew what he'd done by biting Poison Ivy. Her powers over plantlife were going berserk, mimicking the changes within Ivy's own body and becoming just as vampiric as she was. If this kept up she'd have to change her name to "Venus Flytrap". Harley would have laughed if she weren't trapped in a car with a psychotic vampire plant-woman. I mean, "Venus" yes, but "Flytrap?" Ew. Least it was better than "Pitcher Plant Lady"...
Harley turned the key and gunned the gas, thinking with uncharacteristic strategy of all the places she could take Pamela - quarries, industrial sites - where there'd be no vegetation for her to unleash if she had another fit. She found, however, that she wasn't going anywhere - the damned vines had snaked into the engine and clogged the wheels - the car made an unpromising gurgling sound and then fell quiet.
Harley glanced into the rear view mirror and had another terrible shock. Red was sitting in the back seat again with her head tipped back, but Harley could see the seat through her body. She looked over her shoulder, but Ivy was sitting there, solid as ever, while in the mirror her reflection was slowly fading to transparency.
“Oh, Red…” Harley murmured, feeling tears on her cheeks. “You can’t fade away on me. You’re my best friend. You hafta stay! You just…hafta!”
In response, Ivy’s eyes finally opened. Gleaming, ruby red, just like her now-smiling lips. Her canines glittered long and white beyond.
Harley kicked the car door open, tearing the vampire vines away, and leapt out of the car, intending to run for it, but something snaked out and wrapped around her foot. Her fingers scrabbled in the dirt as she was pulled back – back to where her best friend now squatted on the front seat like a hungry beast – back into the dark.
Batman stumbled up from the Batcave just as Catwoman was dragging herself to the secret staircase. They met there at the top of the steps, pausing as each took in the other’s miserable condition.
“Look what the bats dragged in.” She murmured wearily.
“Speak for yourself. You’d think you were the one who just went ten rounds with Dracula.”
“Your eyes are so bloodshot I thought you were Dracula.”
“You smell awful, Kitten.”
“Gee, thanks stud. Way to make a girl feel welcome. Are you going to tell me my hair’s a mess and the catsuit makes my ass look big, or can we draw a bath and call it a morning?”
Bruce’s lips twitched up at the corners. Perhaps it was just his stoicism weakening in the face of pain and exhaustion. Perhaps – no, probably – it was just Selina.
Joker had brained him with a fire extinguisher, Scarecrow had sprayed his eyes with Mace and Dracula had nearly totaled the Batmobile. Yet he was standing here smiling, because of Selina. He really couldn’t fathom this effect she had on him.
She was smiling back, and weakly punched his shoulder “The smell is your fault, by the way, for sending me to a sewer, and you’re very lucky I’m too tired to claw the hell out of you for saying that.”
“So how was your date with the Ratcatcher?”
He was expecting her to make a face and level another playful barb at him, but instead she sighed.
“Bruce, it was damn lucky I found him when I did, because the Plague found him first and he was in a bad way.”
“Where is he now?”
She took a deep breath, and explained how she had hauled Otis halfway across town and taken him to Gotham General Hospital, only to find the place swamped with Plague patients and a waiting list a mile long. Other hospitals in the area were suffering from the same problem and some of them refused to speak to Selina on the basis of her costume – assuming, instantly, that Catwoman the dangerous criminal was up to something, she’d had more than one reception staffer threaten to call the police before they’d even taken a close enough look at Otis to see his condition. Having no time to fill out reams of paperwork or provide medical insurance documents – damnit, it wasn’t as if she carried a purse with ID in the catsuit, what was wrong with these people? – she had been forced to move on, dragging Otis with her all the way.
She’d finally found a small, specialized hospital whose staff, she had found to her relief, were familiar with Batman from a foiled Mad Hatter breakin on their premises and weren’t intimidated by her costume. They’d recognized that Otis was an emergency case and taken him in.
“They said it’s likely he’ll pull through but if I hadn’t brought him in tonight he would have been dead within the day.”
“Good.” Bruce said, in a particularly gravelly Bat-voice, “We’re going to have to make sure they don’t take him back to Arkham before we’ve had the chance to speak with him and find out what he knows and if he can help us.”
“He hasn’t done anything wrong.”
“They don’t know that. The hospitals in Gotham transfer known costumed felons to Arkham’s infirmary by default as soon as they’re in a stable condition. It’s the safest route.”
Selina felt a twinge of anger. Small, but it was there. “Let me guess, that would be your suggestion? A protocol?”
He couldn’t deny it. “It keeps the other patients safe, Selina. Would you really want Joker or Mad Hatter hospitalized in a building full of dangerous chemicals, surgical equipment and sick people?”
“And what part of that description doesn’t apply to Arkham?” She rubbed the bridge of her nose. Too tired to argue, barely conscious enough to think. “…Never mind. There’s something you should see.”
With that, Selina stepped back and brought out a small cardboard box. She opened it to reveal its insides stuffed with newspaper, and seven very sick-looking rats.
“Selina, did you bring plague-infected rats into my house?”
“When I found Otis he’d tried to – to set up a kind of rat hospital for his sick ‘friends’ down in the sewer, but by the time I got there these were the only ones still alive. If I took them to a veterinarian they’d be put down on the spot.”
Bruce looked at the box, the rats, and then up at Selina, wondering what had spurred her to do this. Did feline logic extend to diseased rodents?
“I promised him, Bruce.” She said softly, “stupid, I know, but they’re all he has. You didn’t see the look on his face. And I thought you would find them useful, since Dracula stole the lab samples…”
Bruce watched her quietly. She’d been through a lot tonight, for his sake, and for Gotham’s. She’d shown mercy and compassion toward a sick man and, in something unprecedented for a cat-themed ex-criminal, toward his rodent pets. And that act of kindness, Bruce realized, might have repercussions Selina had not anticipated. It might just turn the tide of their battle against Dracula.
“It was… good of you to do that.”
“Bruce, he was dying down there, and those rats mean everything to him. I don’t know Otis well and I can be a tough kitty when I want to be, but I –” she stammered just a little, and the catty voice found its stride again and concluded “–well, I just felt I might owe him one for knocking him out cold. I wouldn’t be a lady if I didn’t repay my debts.”
“I’m proud of you, Kitten.”
It was strange how those little words resonated through Selina’s mind. She had never required a pat on the head; never needed his approval for anything she had ever done. But hearing that praise left a warm glow in her chest that felt incredibly good, even if she felt she shouldn't quite be so comfortable with the wording.
He wrapped an arm around her. “Let’s take the rats down to the cave. We’ll administer treatment to them and do some tests on you. Then you can have your bath.”
She stiffened. “Tests?”
“You’ve been in very close contact with a plague sufferer and the rats that infected him. Your costume probably protected you from flea bites, given how much flesh it covers, but it isn’t a HAZMAT suit and we need to be sure. Please.”
He didn’t have to tell her twice. Her hand slid down and clasped his, cat-claws on bat-glove.
“Sure, handsome. But if you’re going to stick a needle in me, it’d better be a bath for two.”
Joker had fallen asleep in a sulk, and woke up at around three in the morning in a sulk of equal proportions.
Pooh-pooh on Harley Quinn! He had been having a great night! He’d scoped out the movie set, humiliated Batman, and made a charming aesthetic change to the very Batsuit itself that the real Bat would no doubt take years to iron out of his rep, especially after the Post got those secret insider scoop photos of ‘Batman’s hidden fetish wardrobe’ that the Joker had mailed to them on his way home. HA HA HA! Priceless! You couldn’t buy that kind of win! For his next trick, Joker had an idea about calling that gullible costume designer and suggesting that what the audiences really wanted to see were crash-zoom closeups of an extra bulgy Bat-codpiece…
Then he’d come home to find COUNT FRICKING DRACULA having a threesome in the moonlight with his Harley and that god damned weed lady! And she’d even whacked him with their sledgehammer!! How could she?! That harlot! That hussy! That scarlet wench! They had such fond and intimate memories of that sledgehammer, memories she had heinously betrayed! And how dare she refuse to give him a repeat performance! After her CALLOUS AND UNFEELING MURDER OF KING BILLY BASS, she owed him! He had loved that bass like a brother, like a son, like a sister he thought had pretty lips and a great singing voice! HOW DARE SHE!?
He decided he was going to have an extra surprise for her when…when he…
Wait, where the hell was Harley?
“HARLEY!” He shouted, groaning as the headache of last night’s near-asphyxiation at the hands of Poison Ivy leapt into recurrence – “HAAAAAR-LEY! GET DOWN HERE!!”
“You dun hafta holler, honey,” purred a silky voice, “I’m right here.”
Joker turned. His eyes bulged. Harley was leaning against the wall, half in the shadows, wearing a low-cut satin dress, a red silk choker, and nothing else. She had one bare leg slightly raised, sliding out of the dress, and her hair was unbound from its usual pigtails, and it flowed down over one eye and pooled around her shoulders in a kind of Veronica Lake way that evoked all sorts of images of 50’s Hollywood goddesses and sultry film-noir lounge singers – the kind of image she was clearly hamming up now.
Many inside and outside of the Rogue community frequently wondered at the Joker’s sexuality, since he was ostensibly going out with a gorgeous and devoted blonde bombshell he seemed to brush off and ignore most of the time and randomly abuse for the rest of it. Some of them suspected he didn’t even have a sexuality, or that it was just as fragmented and arbitrary as the rest of his personality. But somewhere buried in the Joker, there were still splinters of a red-blooded man, and they were now very, very awake. She had his attention.
“Heh. Why, snugglebumpkins, you’ve got a new dress.” He licked his teeth. It bothered him that she bothered him. There was only one thing to do; crack a joke! “What’s the deal? When did I start dating Jessica Rabbit? Have you been shopping with my credit card again!?”
Normally Harley would’ve pouted and fussed when he teased her. This time she just gave a voluptuous smile and shifted slightly, baring even more of her leg. “Oh, my love! How could I keep any secrets from you?” She flung her hand melodramatically to her brow, tipping her head back, then letting her hand drop slowly, sliding over her cheek, lips, throat, and chest as it did. “I dun it. It was me. I’m a bad girl, after all.” she murmured, her one visible eye vanishing in a wink, “But you know what I think, Puddin’?”
She stretched an arm, gesturing for him to come closer. He crept toward her with a suspicious glance, noticing for the first time that there was a red, swollen mark peeking from under the choker, and that her flawless skin was marked in several places by what looked like round, angry red suction-cup rings…
Funny place for a hickie, Joker thought absently, has she been cheating on me with an octopus or what!?
She leaned closer to him and slid an arm around his shoulder. “I think you’re gonna let me get away with it.” She pressed her cheek to his, nuzzling him, rubbing her face against his jaw, his ear, his throat…
“Ha ha, you know…” Joker vocalized a thought that had popped suddenly into his head, as her lush red lips pressed to the skin over his jugular “…if you were a vampire, this would be a perfect opportunity to-”
To be continued...