Chapter 14: Dance of Illusions
The eyes, windows of the soul, are where the vampire make his bid to take the mind, and control the mind.
Just the phrase to keep in mind when Count Dracula Himself cuts in on your dance partner in the middle of the party whose sole purpose was for you to offer yourself up as vamp bait.
Eye contact is his window to steal his victim’s will.
Good advice to be sure. My brain conjuring Van Helsing’s voice out of the written words of his diary Dutch accent and all, however, added an unnecessary veneer of melodrama to the proceedings in this kitty’s opinion. With the band segueing to Cole Porter’s “I've Got Some Unfinished Business With You” just as Dracula puts his hand around my waist, there was drama enough.
“It has been a long path to this moment, Ms. Kyle,” he said, and lifted his masque away, smiling at me. I got a quick glimpse of his face – sharp, angular features, clean-shaven, would have been quite nice looking if not for the coils of black hair slicked back from a widow’s peak. Was he serious?
“It has,” I said, meeting his gracious tone with an equally gracious, but slightly more matter-of-fact one of my own.
He danced well enough—certainly expected considering—but his lead was eerily light. He was steering us away from the center of the dance floor where Richard had left us, towards the north corner.
“You dance very well, Count,” I offered.
“And you give the small talk very well,” he replied. “Shall I remark on the number of couples, perhaps? Or the merits of the orchestra?”
As we moved effortlessly through the other couples, I looked off to one side, searching the crowd as if only half-interested in what he was saying – to needle his ego as much as to avoid meeting that snake-stare.
I felt Bruce, knew he wouldn’t have taken his attention off me for a second, but I couldn’t see him. When I ran out of crowd, I turned my eyes back to Dracula. I could have focused on his chin, but there had been too many verbal duels like this with Batman when that chiseled chin was his most prominent feature and I didn’t relish the thought of making unconscious comparisons. So I let my eyes flicker lower to his throat—And I got a shock.
He’d dressed for the occasion. High-collared cape, black with red lining, velvet and satin, sleek, black waistcoat with embroidered crimson cuffs and lapels right out of the 1600s. I’d taken it all in peripherally when he first approached me and Richard to cut in. Now I saw detail: the lacy sleeves, the ruff at his throat pinned with a blood-red ruby brooch that made my Cat-instincts tingle. It was the epitome of everything ‘Dracula’, the distilled essence of the legend the books and movies and theatre and video games had given us…
But it wasn’t.
It wasn’t an outfit he’d dragged out of his closet in some medieval castle in the Old Country in case this adventure in Gotham gave him an occasion to wear it, nor was it some cheap costume from a Halloween dress up supply. It was new, brand new, and I recognized the handiwork: the same deft, meticulous craftsmanship that I knew from Eddie’s wardrobe, from Bruce’s, and my own.
Once the implications sunk in, it floored me.
“Do I have your attention now, Ms. Kyle?” Dracula said pleasantly.
“Undivided,” I said, looking at the ruby at his throat, “What do you want?”
“An answer,” he said softly, and what little of his expression I dared see showed calm, contemplation, “Tell me, my dear, what do I mean to you?”
What an interesting thing for the King of all Vampires to care about. I clamped down on that little thought—as well as the echoes of the Kittlemeier revelation. This was a ballroom after all. This was a dance…
“You?” I asked—more to play into the rhythm of the conversation than because I needed the clarification.
“Dracula,” he said—on the down beat, his left foot forward as mine bent back.
“Capes and bats?” I said with a smile.
An uncomfortable association, but given my known ties to Batman, an association that should please him.
“Old horror movies perhaps…” as we neared the edge of the dance floor and he turned me back to drift back towards the center. “Fine gothic castles, thick with atmosphere… the mood dark and foreboding… dominated by something powerful… lurking… unknown…” Do I know how to push a man’s buttons or what? “Women in bodices,” I purred. I could tell I was getting to him. That feather lead at the small of my back got just a touch firmer, but only on the turns. And I was timing my words for the turns, playing off the music. “Those flowing Victorian nightgowns… lacy and virginal white…” It was the answer he was expecting, but I think he wasn’t prepared for the details or the little charge added by my voice - or the purr. I doubted his blushing medieval damsels and proper Victorian maidens purred. I swore I’d sparked a hunger in his smile, and I wasn’t sure I liked it, but since when have cats been the type when to stop when they know they should?
“The Dracula of fiction is a metaphor,” I said breathily. “The old fears of the night in a world moving on into daylight, a modern world overturning one ancient scourge after another… And of course sex… ‘Victorian prigs fight nosferatu with modern marvels like the wire recorder and shorthand,’ that is not a tale that endures for a century… The hook is sex, Vlad… The hook has always been sex… Those Victorian men thought they had the world at their feet with all that enlightened Western thinking…” I stopped and laughed with amused pity. “Except the one thing that scared them senseless was women. Women’s sexuality, it terrified them. That’s why they tried to put it in a box, and whenever it got out, they demonized it… Hence, the enduring lure of Dracula, a horror story… Visiting all of your women in their beds and freeing them from their corsets…”
The song ended and another began, which was lucky because the break in the music made me pause as well. I had gotten a little carried away. Men who are men in name only, afraid of women and afraid of sex, demonizing and demeaning that which frightens them, it’s a hot button and I get carried away. Miller’s hatchet job on me would have been next, and that’s not what this conversation was meant to be about. The new song: ‘Slow Sinks the Sun’, set the perfect tone.
“You have grasped that much, certainly,” said the Count, “the fear of the civilized man that within every proper and goodly maiden lurks a starving creature, ruled by powerful lusts. Perhaps,” here, he smiled, “he fears not only this sensual monster that is Woman, but he fears himself for wanting her, and being too weak to hold her attention.”
“That’s where you come in?”
“Yes. To the Victorians, that was Dracula. A man, a foreigner, of the corrupt, licentious, ancient world that was Old Europe. The same world these pious men with their theories and their prayers and their inhibitions had been fighting to remove themselves from since the fall of Rome. To have the ghost of that world walk among them and steal their chaste virgins from their beds and turn them into Dionysian harlots, thirsting for Christian blood...”
“So more than sex,” I said, staring through him, beginning to understand, “You were a symbol of everything their world was trying to cast off. You were a kind of…Victorian Antichrist?”
“To that age, yes,” he said, “And that is no doubt why Van Helsing’s tale has endured so long and so well. He thought himself cunning when told it to Mr. Stoker, no doubt to spread the knowledge of how to destroy nosferatu without earning himself a cell in Bedlam House. But now we come to an age of exploration and hedonism. This is an age that embraces everything the Victorians loathed or politely buried.”
“So you want to know what Dracula means now.”
Once again we began to sway to the music, and the extent that I could tilt my head up to meet Dracula’s without looking into his eyes, I did so as I asked:
“What do you want to mean to me?”
“Everything, my dear,” his lips tweaked in a dry smile. “Everything.”
He knew I wasn’t going to meet his eyes; he knew it was out of fear. And the bastard liked it.
“That spot’s taken. Sorry.”
“When I awoke from my last death,” he said (as if I hadn’t spoken at all. Typical.) “It was to an empty ruin of my House and the ashes of my Brides. A century of plans and preparations undone by one scheming Dutchman and his little band of murderers, and everything I had held close destroyed.”
“That’s a sad story, Count,” I said, noncommittal, neither mocking nor sincere—like I always do. One scheming Dutchman, one interfering alien, one wretched fishman, speedster, amazon, cyborg, mutant, telepath, or masked vigilante stuck his nose in and all my beautiful plans were overturned. This part of the conversation was not new. But I did wonder what he was getting at.
“We Nosferatu are creatures of habit, dear lady,” he continued, “Much like cats. This irreversible change to what had been my world was unforgivable.”
I blanched at the comparison, and it only deepened his smile.
“So you wouldn’t stay in Romania and you wouldn’t attempt London again,” I said, “You waited, and watched, and built up your strength, until history gave you a place that suited you.”
“Correct,” said Dracula, “And in coming to Gotham City, I faced the unforeseen surprise of discovering that I was already here. Thanks to Mr. Stoker, indeed, through irony thanks to Van Helsing himself, I am omnipresent throughout the world. And therein lies my question, dear Lady. This Dracula, this creature of cape and coffin, of page and screen - who is he?”
I took a half-step back and he stepped to follow it, twisting around me, turning it into part of the dance. We twirled and stepped and counterstepped.
“I already gave you that answer,” I said—realizing he had sidestepped my question in a way I’d often done with Batman. I’d asked what he wanted to be in my eyes, and instead, he told me why he wanted to know what I thought of him.
“You offered up phrases of literary criticism,” he said, matching me move for move, even without the eye contact. “But not, I think, what you yourself think of me.”
“Since you want to be ‘everything,’ you want to know how far you’ve got to go?” I teased playfully.
Dracula chuckled, “No. Because this is an age of identity crafted by the Self, no longer passed down in blood. Drăculea, Son of the Dragon, inherited from my father’s father. That name meant something so very different then. While I have slept in death, it has been given a new meaning. This is what I wish to understand.”
The ballroom floor began to feel uncomfortably like a rooftop; this dance had been a sparring match, now it became something more. There was always more going on between me and Batman than what was said, and even what was done as we fought. And there was a point in each confrontation where that unspoken something tipped. Which way determined the outcome of that particular night…
“That does explain the question,” I admitted. “But why ask it of me? Eight million people in the naked city, why ask me?”
He smiled, “You are Catwoman.”
“Meow,” I answered. It seemed apt, but that’s not why I said it. I said it because I knew. There, suddenly, those three simple words, “You are Catwoman,” I knew.
I knew why Kittlemeier. I knew why the black cape with the red lining and the ruby and the slicked back hair. I knew everything:
It was the themed persona he didn’t understand—Vlad was ‘The Impaler’ in his day, but he didn’t run around in a bright red suit with an iron spike in a circle displayed on his chest. Catwoman, Batman, Two-Face, Riddler, we were all identities, symbols. We represented something in the public mind that might or might not match up what the real living person. The stuff F. Miller had concocted about Catwoman said more about him than it did me, and what it said wasn’t good. To a lesser extent, it was the same for Batman and Superman, Two-Face and Joker - hell, Bruce and Jack had just dealt with the addition of bat-nipples and lipstick to their respective ensembles. Creative license was everywhere. Every couple years, there was a new version on the newsstand, a version that reflected the hopes and fears of the moment more than Bruce or Clark or Harvey. Or Dracula. Vlad had suddenly discovered he was in this club and had no idea how he got there or what it all meant. And at his age, he didn’t like not knowing as much as these young’uns around him.
In a way, I really was the best person he could have come to. Those years at the Sorbonne, I had the perspective to tell him a moniker like ‘Drăculea’, a dragon signet ring and a coat of arms were not so different from a themed identity. It was bound up in traditions of heraldry and medieval thinking that were centuries away from the way we lived now, and that’s why he couldn’t see it. But the core idea was the same. And the way it all came to mean something very different because of some jerkoff you never met writing a complete fiction to allay his pathetic and well-deserved insecurities… Yeah, I could have explained quite a lot to the good Count.
“What? You want to be one of us?”
“I already am, it seems,” said Dracula, “without my knowledge and against my will. Now, I must decide what to do about this other Dracula; to mock him, to embrace him, or to destroy him.”
I laughed in his face. It was almost absurd enough for Joker. The Count had come to the table in the middle of someone else’s game, sat down, played his hand, and then asked to be explained the rules.
“Oh, poor you. Count Dracula, slave to his own PR? Here you almost had me thinking you were something new; but you’re already halfway to being Ra’s Al Ghul.”
He stopped in mid-twirl. The pause gave me time to re-register just how dead his hand was in mine – and how strong. I’ve judo-flipped Killer Croc when he got too friendly. I’ve gone toe to toe with Batman. I’ve finessed my way around Supeman and Wonder Woman. I know what strong is and I know how to handle it—when it’s quantifiable. Tangible. Strength with muscles and tendons behind it. Dancing with Dracula, that’s another animal entirely. I’ve tangled with undead before—of a sort. There was a mummy whose arms and legs had no business moving, seeing he’d been dead for 40 centuries. It wasn’t the same. He was chasing me and swinging at me. We weren’t dancing.
But Dracula, with that cold, unbreathing body pushing and pulling me with perfect rhythm and exacting control, I couldn’t judge for a moment just how strong he was or wasn’t. If he grabbed a hold of me I’d have better luck wrestling a marble statue. I was completely within his power.
Until I said the words ‘Ra’s Al Ghul’, that is.
“Ah,” he said.
You don’t come out of fights against Batman and Superman without recognizing those openings when you find one.
“So let me ask you a question, Count,” I smiled, my most charming, feline smile as I raced through that opening before he recovered himself, “We both know you didn’t come tonight just to talk about yourself. I’ve shown you mine now, you show me yours. Count Vlad Drăculea, son of the dragon, et cetera, et cetera, what am I to you?”
“Woman,” said the Count, without skipping a beat, “in all that she is and must be; demure, playful, seductive. Powerful and untamable,” he tugged on my arm – forceless, but it pulled me to him before I could react, and then the cold arms were around me, and the eyes – the damn eyes! – looking right into mine before I could close them, “To allow such a precious divinity to grow old, to wither and fade and lose her fire and at last to die, would be a greater sin…” I froze in that stare and the white fingers touched my cheek, “…than any condemned by God.”
In the back of my paralyzed mind, fighting to free myself from the eyes, I felt Bruce’s storm of pain and fury building from afar, and I felt within myself something tugging and wriggling in response to the Count’s touch that was derailed by yet another revelation.
“You will, and must, be mine,” said Dracula.
Dracula was a collector.
I was a thief and not a petty one. I knew the mentality well: diamonds, Impressionists, Meissen porcelain, Etruscan antiquities, Bakara rugs, Fabergé eggs…. “Each the finest of its kind.” That fetish for seeking out the perfect specimen and claiming it. Possessing it. This man collected people. He collected women. He froze them in time with his vampire kiss and kept them preserved for eternity, as beautiful as a butterfly pinned in a glass case.
And he considered me a prize worth risking it all for.
“Oh, hell,” was all I could say before it happened.
All plunged into darkness, and chaos exploded in the room.
Cassandra stirred to the quiet, rhythmic blip of the infirmary machines monitoring her vital signs. With a groan, she pushed herself up. Everything ached, but as her memories of where she had been and what she had done returned, her heart ached most of all.
“What I do?” she murmured, shaking her head in protest.
She didn’t want those memories.
“Miss Cassandra,” came Alfred’s voice, and he approached the infirmary doors, giving a cursory scan of the readouts before turning to her with a stern set to his brow, “Please lie back down. You have been under considerable duress, and Master Bruce wishes you to stay resting until you have made a full recovery.”
“B out there,” she muttered, “Where Dick, where Tim?”
“Master Dick is with Mr. Blood,” said Alfred, and fell silent.
“Tim?” Cass asked.
Alfred put down the tray he had been carrying, lined with small medical bottles and bandages. Without speaking more he checked the scratches the vampires had left on her. Claws had raked her but their fangs had thankfully not. He dutifully cleaned and dressed them; Cass clenched her teeth, but it was not from the pain. Pain was an old friend.
Fear was an unwelcome guest.
“Please lie down, Miss Cassandra. It will do you no good.”
“Where Tim?” she insisted.
Alfred sighed. “Sit down,” he said, but the stern grandfatherly tone had left his voice. Left it soft and sad and very old.
Numb, already knowing what was coming, she sat.
I knew what had happened the moment it went dark. There was a chorus of gasps and little screams, half-terrified, half-delighted; the partygoers clearly thought a Halloween game was afoot. But the excitement receded and the fear grew as a kind of rumbling sound slithered through the dark, on the periphery of the room, all around…
To my relief, I couldn’t see Dracula’s eyes anymore, but I felt his cold grip on me and knew he still had me. I struggled, twisted, tried to initiate a few good judo moves, but he wouldn’t budge. He was like a damned marble statue nailed to the floor.
Somehow, they’d cut the power. Cut the power?! It was the very first thing any Rogue would do. Bruce had contingencies for this built into every place he owned. Where was the auxiliary power? Why wasn’t it kicking in? And what the hell was that sound?
I was answered by a sound I did know.
“HAAAAA HA HA HA HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAA!!!”
I swear, Jack has the most irritating sense of timing in the cosmos.
I gave a snarl – my kind, unladylike maybe but feline to the core – and made another attempt to slip the Count. This time, his fingers released me, though I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t on purpose, and I could feel him hunting me in the dark. Now I could see his eyes – two shiny crimson discs, glowing between the globs of black that must have been people moving about and blocking them briefly.
All of my senses sprang to high alert. Bruce. I had to find Bruce. If he wasn’t already in the thick of it he’d be suiting up in record time. We had tried to trap Dracula – and he had sprung a trap on us. I was deeply, deeply aware of the danger of him, amplified a thousand times by the darkness. I felt his eyes boring into me. I didn’t dare meet his gaze directly but I didn’t dare face away. As long as I could see them, I knew where he was -
God damnit, why was the clown here now!?
I turned, and the lights came back on – dim and flickering – and I found myself inches away from the Joker’s grinning mug.
This is enough of an unpleasant prospect to be faced with when you’re chilling out at the Iceberg.
“Hii-i--iiiiiii there, Catty-pie,” A hungry rattle in his voice that wasn’t there before. A metallic stink on his breath, “Sorry I didn’t RSVP, but someone forgot to send our invites.”
When you’re facing the Joker, and he has fangs, it’s a hell of a lot worse.
“Hi Jack,” I said warily, trying not to back away from him, “You’re looking…sharp.”
I don’t know how it slipped out. It was just – a train wreck kind of moment - right there – yes, right there, glistening in his mouth. Sharp. It’s hard not to notice the Joker’s grin, especially at this proximity. He’s a thin guy, and that charming smile takes up most of his face. But now it was a face full of steak knives. The canines were the longest, but they weren’t the only ones; every tooth in his mouth, flecked with blood, tapered to a razor point.
It was as if vampirism had latched onto the evil bubbling up inside Joker and dragged it all up and painted it all over him. I felt sick to see it. He didn’t look even remotely human anymore. His eyes bulged and blazed red. His skin was already white as death but now it had a kind of waxy quality to it that made it even more corpselike. The delicate veins around his temples stuck out like a spiderweb. And the hair – wasn’t green anymore – he’d stained it a dark, carnal red, and judging from the smell, not with dye.
It’s amazing how little details like this stick with you.
“SHARP?!” Joker howled, “HA HA HA HA HA! GOOD one Catty!” He clapped me on the shoulder, and pain shot through me at the strength he wasn’t controlling. Then he wheeled – snarled at the partygoers – even the stupidest amongst them shrank back in terror when they realized it wasn’t a mask. “Hell-o my – HAHAHA- tasties,” Joker said, licking his teeth, his tongue long as a lizard’s, “You-hehhh-all smell deeeel-hhahahahha-ectable this evening-huhhhh. Especially those – eheh eheh! - among you whohhhhahahaha - just pissed yourselves! What a bouquet!! AHAHAHA – I feel FANGTASTIC! – I hereby dub myself COUNT JOCULA – Whatcha think of that one Catty-haaahhh?? – from jocular, get it?? Rhymes with Dracula and JUGULAR too – aaah it’s a work in progress – ahahahaha - AAAHAHAHAHAHAHA-AHAH-hhhuhhhhhh-”
There was something wrong with his laugh, wronger than usual. It boiled up out of him, rasping and wheezing, breaking his words. As it took him completely he half-slumped to his knees and his whole body shook. It was the only thing preventing him from leaping among the partygoers and ripping them apart, I realized, but it wasn’t a pretty sight, because I’d seen those tremors before…
“Jesus, Jack, did you Smilex yourself!?”
“I JUST WANTED TO SEE WHAT IT FELT LIKE!”
I backed away, temporarily forgetting all about Bruce, Dracula, the partygoers, and the fact that I’d just registered the slithering sound from earlier had something to do with the huge, thorny vines as thick as tree trunks breaking through the walls and circling the edges of the room like angry snakes. Ivy was here, which meant Harley was here, which meant Harley must have vamped Joker and they were all in on this together, but none of that mattered because Jack had once again managed to demonstrate that just when you fool yourself into thinking you know Joker, he’ll pull something out of his ass that you didn’t think even he would be crazy enough to do.
“Hahahahahahaah-WHAT A RUSH!” said Joker, “I snorted enough to kill EVERY PANSY IN THIS ROOM – but with my resistance n-not quuuiiiite enough to kill ME – ahahaha just in case something happens to Ol’ D, natch, but I-I-I-I thought it was tooo hahahahaha interesting a joke not to go the whole hog on SOMEONE ELSE-”
I searched the crowd, and there was Dracula, smiling implacably, and there was a voluptuous girl in a red velvet dress stalking like a cat around the perimeter. I didn’t recognise her hairdo or her clothes, but I knew her for Harley from the grin, and that meant the redhead circling in the other direction was Pam. The maenad getup was a dead giveaway.
On a good day, I can take metas. I could probably take Joker or Harley or Pam on their own, because even vamped, I know their tricks. Drac was an unknown quantity but I was confident I could take him, if he was on his own. All of them at once – I was screwed, and they knew it. They circled me like a vicious new pride readying to take an old lioness from her territory.
Bruce, get your ass down here NOW.
“And you thought this would be a good idea…” I said to Joker, amiably enough, waving a shaking hand as casually as I could, “…why, again?”
“BECAUSE,” said Joker, “I like this jive, kitty-cat. You…you have noooo idea what this feels like. What you’re missing.”
“Uhhh-huh,” said I, eyes searching the tangle of vines that blocked the exits, the screaming rich folks hiding behind tables. Any time now, stud.
“That’s right, kitty-Catty-bumpkins,” said Harley, swaying closer to me, laying her arm on the shoulder Jack hadn’t deadened. Her skin was cold. She was as white as usual, but not wearing any makeup, “Think about it…Gotham’s greatest female felons, ruling the night, forever, together,” she gave a romantic sigh, “C’mon, sis, join the club!”
“You always were a stubborn one, Cat,” said Ivy, alabaster at last, from my left, and I felt her breath tickle my ear. I smelled cinnamon – and blood. She was pulling the ‘queen of darkness’ vibe off a lot better now than she used to, and I didn’t like it, but I stayed where I was – better them getting cozy with me than the goddamned Joker.
“Right,” I said, flicking eyes between the two, the hyperventilating Joker, and the still-silent Count, “Listen, girls, I’m afraid I never really bought into your whole pseudo…faux girl band…Thelma-and-Louise-meets-t.A.T.u-on-a-bad-acid-trip…gig. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you, it’s just not my style.” I un-draped Harley’s arm from my neck like a handler carefully removing a python – it was about as cold and strong as one - and gave them as gracious a smile as I could as I backed away, “And cats are all about style.”
“Awwww, Catty,” pouted Harley, “But it’s so amazing. You really have to.”
“You really…have to”, said Ivy, unblinking, snake-staring, with eyes that were just like his.
“As you can see,” said Dracula at last, smiling, spreading his arms, the black and red cape rippling with the movement, “It would be best for you to accept our offer, my dear.”
“I’ll pass,” I said, cursing in the back of my head – exits, plenty of exits, and all of them blocked by her goddamned vines – “Looks like you got a third Bride anyway. Jack always was a bit of a queen, isn’t that right, Jack? So you don’t need me anyway…I’ll just be on my way. Be sure to try the punch.”
“SCREW THE PUNCH!” Joker said, and hunkered into a crouch on the floor, shaking like a crack addict, “I need blood. Blood. Blood. BLOOD!”
“Blood?!” cried Claudia Muffington, clinging to her date’s arm, “But I gave at the office!”
Joker grinned at her, “Don’t be greedy, baby, you’re talking pints, I’m talking gallons!” With that, he leapt onto one of the tables amid a gasp of horror from the crowd. He laughed, and as that charming HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH filled the air, I was blessed with a horrible gut wrenching sensation, because he wasn’t alone.
HA – HA HA – HA HA hA HA HAHA HAHAHA aHAHAH AHAHAHA!
It echoed from the walls. It echoed from the cracks spreading in them as Ivy’s vine monsters tore through the plasterwork.
And it echoed from the throats of the figures materializing out of threads of mist creeping in through the cracks. Figures wrapped in hospital gowns, their bodies shaking and trembling and spasming with Smilex of a dosage that should have killed them a dozen times over.
If they weren’t already dead.
“HAPPY HALLOWEEN, SOUP TINS,” boomed Joker, “YOU’RE AAAALL ON THE MENU!!”
To be continued...