Chapter 1: That's Unusual
"Selina… Kitten… I'm not saying it'll always be easy, but, no matter what happens, we're different people now. We could never go back to that, even if we wanted to. Whatever happens, we'll have to work through it as we are now, who we are now…"
That's what I said. She was upset about the fight with Dick. Barbara told her it was a return to the norm. Fighting was the norm for us ever since he'd become Nightwing and the few months of getting along was an aberration. Selina was afraid that might mean the same thing for Batman and Catwoman. So I reassured her.
We're different people now. Whatever happens, we'll work through it as we are now.
We are different people. Since the fight about Two-Face and the protocols, we've come through Christmas, Hell Month, the wedding, Bludhaven. We've grown closer than either of us would have thought possible when it started. If it happened today, she would know. She would know I wasn't trying to use her; it was just business.
Besides, Joker isn't her friend. She said so the night I discovered the Rogues' IM network. I said I hated that she was friends with those people, and she answered "The Joker is not my friend. He's a homicidal maniac."
Eddie, yes. And Harvey. But not Joker. "Joker is not my friend." That's what she said.
So she really should have no objection. A few innocent questions is all I'm asking.
I looked back at the monitor. A map of Gotham with red circles denoting the Joker sightings of the past week. No comedy clubs. No clown tie-ins. No laughter, smiles, grins, teeth, or lips. No wordplay on Ha-Ha. No discernable pattern whatsoever. There had to be a logic to it, just had to be. It would be insane logic, like making a fish that smiles, and therefore look like him, so he should be allowed to copyright it and collect a royalty… Insane logic, but still logic.
One crime spree, if you connected the dots—literally, on a map, drew a line connecting the locations where he used SmileX—it made a grin over the lower half of city. The sites where he used regular, non-lethal laughing gas were the eyes, and the intersection where he attacked a homeless man with a crowbar was the nose. A smiley face. Sick bastard. But still it was a pattern—an insane, twisted pattern, but a pattern.
No deaths yet.
And no Harley.
Active for a week and not one fatality, and not once was he accompanied by Harley Quinn.
It had to mean something.
It had to mean something, and I had to figure out what before the killing started. She'd understand that.
Or maybe she wouldn't have to if Barbara came through. I touched a button on the console, and a new window opened with the videofeed:
"Oracle, any leads?"
..:Sorry, Boss. I've interfaced with every database I can think of going back to 1990. There is no common thread. These places have no connection that I can find.:..
So that was that.
Joker walked casually into a midtown Sharper Image, stationed a henchman at the door with a machine gun, and nonchalantly connected a canister of laughing gas to the Ionic Breeze air purifier. He then marched to the Mr. Karaoke display and started playing Surrey with the Fringe on Top.
"Your attention, please!" he announced through the microphone, "Here's a funny story. A guy goes to the grocery store to buy some Spam. He sees a blonde in a car parked next to him. Her eyes are closed, and her hand is behind her head. It looks like she's sleeping. He shrugs and goes into the store to buy his Spam. When he comes back, she's still there. Hand is still behind her head, but now her eyes are open. She looks very strange, so the guy taps the window and asks 'Are you okay?'
"The woman says 'I've been shot in the head, and I am holding my brains in.'
"The guy calls 911, and when the paramedics arrive, they have to break into the car because the door is locked. When they get in, they find that the woman has bread dough on the back of her head and all over her hand.
"A Pillsbury biscuit canister had exploded from the heat in the car, making a loud explosion like a gunshot, and hit her in the head. When she reached back to find what it was, she felt the dough and thought it was her brains. She passed out from fright at first, then when she woke up, she tried to hold her brains in."
Joker turned back to the machine, switched off the music, and left the store.
Tim was aware that the dangerous life of a crimefighter could make you paranoid. Batman said paranoia was useful, almost a prerequisite for the life they'd chosen. And Nightwing offered the less-than-comforting truism: "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you."
But if crimefighting made you paranoid, it also honed your awareness. And Tim's awareness was setting off alarms lately. It might be paranoia, but he didn't think so. He was feeling… hunted.
If he went to the library, Linda McVitty just happened to be there.
If he went to the arcade, it was Amanda Gardiner, "Wow, Tim, what a surprise. Haven't seen you for a while."
If he went to the mall, Nicole Renssalaer, "Early Christmas shopping!"
If he stopped at the 7-Eleven, Cathy Lawrence, "What a coincidence!"
It was not a coincidence. He was not paranoid. He was being hunted.
Joker and his henchman worked their way through the tables at the posh restaurant, Lutece, distributing small slips of paper to each man seated with a fair-haired woman.
"Q: Why did the blonde scale the chain-link fence?" one read,
"A: To see what was on the other side."
Poison Ivy returned to the greenhouse she'd neglected since establishing a new lair in Riverside Park. Much as she loved the open air of the park, the controlled climate of the greenhouse could support many more species. Exotic specimens like these blood orchids that could never survive the intemperate Gotham winter.
She sighed—providing a rich stream of carbon dioxide for the orchids—while she mixed a pitcher of their special plantfood.
The dalliance with Edward Nigma was a mistake. It was that simple.
Perhaps she was lonely. Not that it's possible to be lonely in a glade full of clematis and trumpet vine.
Still, however it happened, it had happened. A moment of weakness, and she, as queen of her particular realm, chose a consort for the night. That was her prerogative.
So it was not a mistake; it was simply the whim of a moment. Edward would have to accept that—once his head was clear.
"There's just one snag," she told a tiny flytrap as she held out a bit of hamburger on a silver babyspoon. "These Rogue men aren't that bright, particularly when it comes to the concept of the one night stand, the meaningless tryst, 'just sex.'"
The flytrap closed over the hamburger, but otherwise gave no response.
"Just look at Penguin," she went on. Rogue men might not understand, but the flytrap was a plant, and surely any plant should be smart enough to grasp it. "Just look at Penguin still mooning after Roxy after that one ludicrous fling at Christmas… Roxy Rocket." Her tone turned dark on the name. "Now that I think of it, this is all Oswald's fault. If he'd been man enough to keep the little tramp satisfied, Harvey never would have strayed."
The announcer at the Meadowlands Sports Complex cleared his throat into the microphone before making the requested announcement at gunpoint:
Ladies and Gentlemen, your attention please:.. he began, looking to the psychotic clown for approval.
..:The management has been asked to read the following announcement: What's the blonde's cheer? "I'm blonde, I'm blonde, I'm B-L-O-N… ah, oh well… I'm blonde, I'm blonde, yea, yea, yea!":..
"You didn't sell it," Joker said, disappointed. "Try again." He handed the terrified announcer another slip. "And this time make me believe it."
There was a curious mix of onlookers outside the Iceberg Lounge—or rather, outside the two story husk of vegetable matter and vines that had sprung up around the Iceberg in a matter of minutes. A-list rogues like Mad Hatter stood alongside Zodiac Master and King Snake, nameless henchmen, a camera crew from WCBX, a crossing guard, the people waiting for the Lexington Avenue bus, and, eventually, Robin the boy wonder. They all stared at the hardshell green mass of vegetation that completely enveloped the bar. Finally, it was Robin who found his tongue:
"What the hell?"
It was, in Jervis Tetch's opinion, the least stupid question any vigilante had ever uttered. So he answered it.
"'It seems very pretty,' said Alice through the looking glass, 'but it's rather hard to understand.'"
"Word," Robin answered by way of agreement.
"Somebody honked off Red bigtime," Harley Quinn chirped.
"Ya think?" King Snake snarled.
"Croc think so."
These words were uttered by Killer Croc himself, hanging upside down, ankles ensnared by a particularly vicious tendril when he tried to punch through the husk.
From inside the Iceberg, there was a sudden hum, and abruptly the vines stiffened. The hum shifted up an octave and the husk turned from a healthy green to a pale yellow. Then a pounding began. It grew louder, until bits of the husk began to crumble, finally revealing a hole through which figures began to emerge…
Oswald Cobblepot, poking an opening through the now-brittle husk with an umbrella…
"This way, lads, to the egress."
"My w-w-word, that f-f-freeze ray c-certainly is effective."
"Wait'll I get my hands on gat gitch!"
...and Victor Frieze.
"See how the icy hand of liquid nitrogen cools the hot rage of a broken heart."
Hugo Strange said nothing, but he did help Magpie step over the chipped-away bits of plant carcass.
"Oracle, you're not going to believe this," Robin called in the incident. "The call at the Iceberg, I don't know what all should be dispatched to the scene."
"Someone cut Croc down," Croc asked politely.
"But a firetruck and a tree surgeon would be helpful."
…to be continued…