Mist oozed in a cloud of vaporous poison from the wound of an open grave. Amid the headstones, a brutish, hulking shadow moved with shuffling inefficiency, arms outstretched, dead white eyes staring in every direction and none, fingers hooked in nerveless rigor mortis -
Edward Nigma flicked the TV off and tossed the remote aside with a sigh. It was a tragedy. He had “Rogue’s block” - the next scheme of genius would not leap to mind - and he had turned to more relaxing pursuits. Yet tonight, and there lay the tragedy, he simply couldn’t find the mood for Plan 9 from Outer Space.
He would never, of course, admit to being an Ed Wood fan in front of the other rogues. They wouldn’t understand; they’d see only the irony of the great Riddler dulling his famous brain on Z-grade flicks by the infamous ‘worst director’ in Hollywood history. They’d only laugh.
But Eddie saw deeper into the director than even the cult film enthusiasts who loved his films for their zany eccentricities and Wood himself for his tenaciousness. To Nigma the director’s zeal hid obsession; his films were puzzles, riddles no less, not particularly well thought-out but nonetheless iced with layers of meaning. Edward D. Wood did not direct films for profit any more than Edward Nigma committed crimes to get rich. There was an underlying passion, a compulsion, to pour his soul out there, reel after reel of hastily-painted canvas for the world to see. Eddie imagined him to have felt the same wild, burning feeling racing up from his heart and throbbing in his temples when he was in his element that Nigma himself felt when arranging a spectacularly perfidious riddle-caper and stroking his fingers while watching Batman’s brain tick over trying to figure it out.
Yes, Ed Wood would - a pun, lament! - have made a magnificent Rogue, had this unrealized genius been of a criminal bent. And then there was the name. Edward D. Wood, Jr - Edward - Ed-wood - DO DRAW, DO WED? - oh, for an I to make DEAR ODD WIDOW! - the only Hollywood-spawn with a better name was Edward Woodward.
Of the Rogues, only Selina and perhaps Oswald would have the tact not to blurt out ‘he has the same first name as you! Ha ha ha!’ and dismiss his interest as merely stemming from that association. Cretins. SINISTER LENS CRAB -
Nigma jumped from his couch, hand snatching up the question-mark cane, as something black fluttered back from his window and into the night. SINISTER LENS - no crustacean, but he could have sworn he saw something watching him, staring through the glass – something that fluttered away on leather-black wings...
He was absolutely not hiding behind the couch right now. He was tactically using it as a brace against impending attack, a stratagem honed in many confrontations with Batman. Yes, that was it. He was absolutely not hiding behind a couch brandishing his cane from seeing a bat - a stupid little bat of the non-riddle-solving, non-leg-breaking kind - at his window.
A bat. A stupid little bat. And Riddler knew that fear of the other Bat wasn’t even the reason he had reacted with such paranoia. It certainly wasn’t the ‘horror’ of the Ed Wood film he’d been viewing.
It was something else entirely, and it was the reason tonight wasn’t a good night to be watching Plan 9 or anything else that might remind one of B-grade horror antics in any way. It was the calendar.
October 26th. Halloween was coming up, and Jonathan Crane was about to be insufferable.
Halloween. It was his time. A kitschy, laughable modern holiday cobbled together out of a jigsaw of ancient, world-wide traditions. Pagan rites, harvest festivals - invoking the whispering gasp of the autumn’s cold wind through fields of corn - the stench of rotting pumpkins, their carved orifices more and more corpse-like as they grew putrid - the death-omen cry of ravens - NEVERMORE - a time of simultaneous growth and decay, when the spirits of the dead and the devils of the Pit were free to walk the world and sow terror wherever they went. It was truly meant to a celebration of the macabre, a festival of Fear.
The other rogues would never understand. He was the Scarecrow. This went far beyond mere theme. The fools would see only ‘Halloween, pumpkins, scarecrows, Trick or Treat. Boo! Ha ha!’ The fools! How could they understand? He didn’t like Halloween. He hated what it had become. Commercialism had wrapped its clammy paws around the holiday and strangled the fear out of it. It was all about candy and children in silly costumes and that Disney Halloween special with its comical - but in places, pleasantly chilling - interpretation of Sleepy Hollow. All Hallow's Eve as it was meant to be had been mangled into a mockery that was safe, complacent, and comfortable. That would need to be rectified.
Batman had, for whatever reason, Hell Month. Calendar Man - ha! - had all his little ‘events’. The Scarecrow needed Halloween. Oh, the other rogues used it, too - in the early days there had been the ‘Holiday’ killings, all but wiping out the Mob as it existed in Gotham, paving the way for the rise to power of costumed lunatics, and starting on Halloween - and Joker sometimes used the holiday to play some particularly murderous prank. Crane would be offended, but the jester’s penchant for a gruesome body-count left the city quivering in fear, which the Scarecrow could redirect with ease to his own efforts. Yes, this Halloween - he had said it many times before, but now he really meant it - would be one Gotham city would never forget…
Crane unfolded from the hotel room couch and crept to the bathroom mirror, studying his reflection. He had little love for his own face or his own body; ‘thin’ was the only description that stuck to him. He was not handsome; he was not ugly. His appearance other than his height and gangling build was unremarkable in every way. He did not enjoy the benefits of macabre features sported by many other Rogues - Penguin’s beaky nose and rotund body, Joker’s ghastly rictus and bleached flesh, Two-Face’s scarred visage, Ivy’s green-tinted skin, not even approaching the real freaks - Killer Croc, Clayface, Manbat. Jonathan Crane could walk into a McDonald's and ask for a burger and the perky little bint behind the counter wouldn’t skip a beat, or even register his face as belonging to a well-known, murderous criminal. The face of Jonathan Crane did not inspire attraction or repulsion, awe or disgust, hate or terror. Aside from, perhaps, a jolt if they met his watery blue eyes and saw the hollow coldness there, the face of Jonathan Crane did not inspire much of anything. He was utterly forgettable.
Hence, the Scarecrow.
As a psychologist, he had delved into the psyche not just of individual humans but of humanity as a whole. In his early days as Scarecrow he had been motivated by revenge - and, he admitted, in many of his capers since he had been motivated by money. But there was a secret he held close to his shriveled black heart. He had truly come to believe that civilization was making mankind weaker and weaker. As Joker in his more lucid, anarchist-Messiah-wannabe moments would often rant, human society was a house of cards just waiting for one push to come tumbling down.
But in Crane’s professional opinion, the human race, especially the decadent industrialized world with its massive middle-to-upper class comfortably squandering lives that had never known a greater fear than failing a high school exam or missing the train to work, was not psychologically ready for the kind of apocalypse Joker or that ridiculous Al-Ghul fellow fantasized about. If they met a killer in an alleyway in a seedy part of town, most modern humans would not have the fight-or-flight instinct to escape and preserve their lives and dignity. In case of a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or the end of the world, they would be utterly helpless. They would die in droves because they no longer knew how to feel Fear - how to use it. Fear was primal, necessary, essential, for survival in a harsh world, and it was slowly being forgotten.
Really, he was doing them all a favor.
Jonathan Crane looked at the nondescript man staring back at him from the mirror. He reached without looking to the hideous costume hanging from the cramped bathroom’s towel-hook. He broke eye-contact with his reflection only for the moment it took to pull the stitched burlap mask - his newest, the most horrific yet - over that fake face, replacing it with his real one.
Stepping away from the bathroom, he glanced over at the TV. The fools would, of course, all assume he was watching The Nightmare Before Christmas. Or maybe one of the old-school slasher flicks, Friday the 13th or more fittingly Halloween. How little they knew his tastes.
Soundless, in the otherwise-darkened room, a wild-eyed ship’s mate wielding an axe against a sea of rodents looked up and froze in terror as Max Shreck rose, stiff-backed, from a crate full of grave-earth. White talons outstretched, the rat-like mouth, the horrible staring eyes.
Nosferatu. Now that was a face to be feared.
Smiling, Jonathan Crane opened a window and snuck his spidery frame through it like a silent-movie silhouette brought to life.
“A movie?” Bruce spat with enough gravel that it would’ve hardly been surprising to find pebbles in the bottom of his coffee mug.
He stared at the printout in his hand, then flicked the paper down and looked across the room to Barbara.
“You came to visit me in person, at the Manor, in the daytime, with ‘urgent work-related business’, in broad daylight instead of the Oracom, and it’s about a movie?”
That’d been his initial reaction when she’d wheeled into the kitchen, Alfred having shown her in, and thrust the paper into his hands, wearing Oracle’s stern face instead of Mrs Grayson’s cheerful smile. He’d met it with incredulity.
Then he’d checked the title.
“You know Hollywood rumor mills aren’t Oracle’s usual scene, Bruce, but when I saw this, I didn’t know how to, uh, properly get the point across over the ‘com.”
Lies. She was here to see his face.
“They want to film in Gotham?” he asked, resisting the urge to voice the former deduction.
“Dangerous. Irresponsible. Do they have any idea -”
“They wanted to contact Batman.”
“Futile. He’s not interested.”
“Probably just for ‘consultation’ or something.”
Bruce grunted, staring down at the paper. It wasn’t a newspaper article; the production company had been keeping a tight lid on this, but some nameless crew intern had leaked it onto the net and the fan sites were going wild.
“They have some Australian guy playing Joker.”
“They were talking about Nicholson, but he’s really getting too old. This guy Ledger, though, he’s a hunk, he can act, and he’s getting rave reviews from on-set, but...”
“What is wrong with these people? Joker is a real homicidal maniac, not a god damned matinée idol. They must be -”
“Bruce, they have him wearing makeup.”
The air temperature in the room palpably dropped.
“No chemical vat, and the grin’s just lipstick smeared on the scars from a Glasgow smile.”
Bruce’s mind snapped into Psychobat-mode the moment the last word had breathed between his lips.
He didn’t really need to ask; he had current At-Large list memorized at all times, especially Joker’s whereabouts, but with someone as volatile as the Clown Prince, it never hurt to be sure.
“Arkham, for now. I don’t think he or anyone else in there has Internet privileges after that incident with Hugo Strange and the subliminal Flash video, but…”
“Harley’s at large.” Batman rumbled through Bruce Wayne’s unmasked face. “And much more likely to pay attention to Internet trivia. We need to stop this. Get me every detail you can on the production. Names of cast and crew, shooting locations, names and addresses of the manufacturers of their equipment…”
“Bruce, there could be a good five hundred to a thousand people connected to a production of this size, and millions of dollars invested in it. The Hollywood machine doesn’t know Gotham, doesn’t play by its rules. It won’t stop even if Batman asks nicely. What are you going to do? Sabotage the production?”
“If it comes to that.”
“Hundreds of people, Bruce, millions of dollars…”
“…Millions of dollars in property damage and hundreds of SmileXed corpses if Joker gets wind of it, Oracle, and that’s only if no other Rogue beats him to it! Filming a movie about Batman! On location in Gotham City! With a Joker who wears makeup and dyes his hair!!”
“You forgot Halloween.”
“No, I haven’t, and I can’t afford to.” Batman-through-Bruce growled again, “Scarecrow is loose, in my city, with Halloween only days away, and these Hollywood idiots want to play Russian roulette with the Joker!”
“You didn’t even ask who they have playing you.”
Bruce grunted, gave her a death-glare, and snatched the paper from the desk he’d placed it down on. A moment later he vanished through the door. To the cave, no doubt, to his console, to Work.
“You’re welcome, Bruce,’ Barbara called out with only a hint of sarcasm. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll see myself out.”
She glanced out the window, in the direction of Gotham. Even above the haze of smog that perpetually swathed the distant towers, she could see the thickening clouds of an almighty thunderstorm rolling in over the ocean.
It was going to be a dark and stormy night in every sense of the cliche.
“May I fix you a tea before your return home, Ms Barbara?” Alfred’s pleasant tone interjected. He had made one of those silent butler entrances of his, and stood a respectful, practiced distance behind his guest’s shoulder, just within the corner of her vision - making himself visible without being obtrusive. “Though perhaps we may wish to hurry, lest you be caught in the storm.”
“Coffee please, Alfred,” she decided, watching the rolling clouds and deciding to call Dick and tell him she’d be a little late getting home. “I think I’ll consider waiting it out - but only if you’ll join me until Selina gets home.” She grinned up at him. Come out all the way to Wayne Manor just to get snubbed by a Bruce-grunt and then drive home through a raging storm? Forget it. She was here, she’d relax. Preferably with Alfred's friendly company, and a plate of -
“I shall fetch the cookies, madam.” Alfred replied, with a subtle shift of his eyes in her direction that was his equivalent of a grand, conspiratorial wink.
It was the kind of black that felt thick and alive, and it encased the silent form that lay within it completely, barring even a sliver of light from piercing through. It was in every sense a womb, save its construction of cold, dead metal and colder, damp earth rather than warm and living flesh.
It could not have suited its occupant more.
For anyone else it would have been a claustrophobic nightmare. Every sense available to human beings would be choked in the cloying morass in which he was engulfed. But this one had senses beyond those dull and flimsy five, and he knew that he was not totally alone. His surroundings had been efficiently stripped of human life, but not all life. There were eyes and ears even now joined to his, staring out into the gloom, watching the skyline of Gotham approach. There was a will at work guiding even the blackened heavens beneath which the vessel moved. A will concentrated within the womb of earth, borne to the new city upon stormy waters.
It had taken longer, this time. Much had changed, and needed to be adapted to. But he was nothing if not patient.
To be continued...