Chapter 4: The Trees and the Big Yellow Ugly
The covered VIP Grandstand was divided into two parts, with thick black curtains sectioning off the back half as a kind of private club, shielded from view of the festival crowd. Selina sat in this backroom and politely declined Galen MacDonald's third offer of a Cardhu single malt Scotch. She nodded while MacDonald enthused about its added kick over the milder lowland whiskies. And all the while, she thought about Bruce.
He'd disappeared without a word. And while she certainly preferred that to some absurd lie he'd concoct for the bimbos, she couldn't help but feel excluded from the fun. He'd nabbed Harley Quinn earlier, a chance encounter, he said. And now he was off somewhere as Batman again, and she was stuck hearing how Scotch whiskies made at Speyside distilleries were maltier than those from other regions.
"Just smell that wonderful aroma, Lassie, sweet and malty, like a loaf of bread. Heartier grains in Speyside, where the lowlands are more grassy."
Deciding that Catwoman never waited for an engraved invitation before, she excused herself, planning to track down the fun wherever it was occurring and claw out a piece of it for herself. She had just swept back the black curtain shielding the grandstand backroom from onlookers, when her way was blocked by a tall imposing figure.
"Just the kitty I was looking for," Jason Blood smiled. He placed a hand on the small of her back and steered her away from the grandstand. As they left the Wayne enclave, anonymous in the crowd of spectators surrounding the field, Jason began talking about the offer he alluded to in his e-mail: "Some sketches have turned up in a rare bookstore in old Cairo, 'For Display Only. Not for sale. Don't bother asking.' 19th Century sketches of the archaeological digs. Those sketches include ten previously unknown hieroglyphs. The mystic pictures of ancient Egypt, every one has a special meaning and a special power. And here are ten of them we never knew existed. I have to have them. How much catnip will Kitty require?"
Jason's manner did not usually make Selina feel "catty." He stated forcefully whatever it was he wanted, not to be a bully, but simply because he assumed it would be done. Given their past history, it wasn't an unreasonable assumption. Nevertheless, Selina—and indeed, Catwoman—was somewhat annoyed. Cats were never a foregone conclusion.
It would mean money to enlarge the Catitat and make room for those tigers.
And it was in Egypt. Not in Gotham City. Not breaking U.S. law.
Not that any of that would matter to him.
Not that his disapproval was the last word on the subject, but it was a consideration. Things had gotten unexpectedly tense on Cartier's rooftop that night…
"I'm sorry, Jason," Selina started to say, "Fact is, my situation has changed and—"
She got no further when something hard and heavy swatted her to the ground.
Screaming mobs are a greater danger to themselves than whatever they're running from, so Batman and Robin's first challenge was to prevent the large crowd of spectators from becoming a mindless stampede.
Figuring out how to stop the rampaging trees the crowd was running from, that was another matter. Punching an oak tree, Batman surmised, would be like punching Superman—plenty of damage to your hand, zero damage to what your hand was hitting.
"Plan?" Robin asked.
"Take the east and south sides leading away from the field," Batman ordered. "Fire tungsten lines to make a traffic lane. Flares there, there, there and there." He pointed, and Robin nodded.
"And the trees?"
"I'll get back to you."
No bargains, My Cage,
You'll not deny my rage.
'Tis time to set dark brother free.
You ask me to cease
Once this danger I decrease?
I say, "Hell no, I gotta be me!"
I'll stop when I've tasted of sweet human flesh,
When I've chomped on crisp succulent bone.
I'll stop when…
Then you don't get out, Etrigan.
…that kitty looks fresh.
Not her or any of them. You agree to stop with the trees or no deal.
Fine. I'll roast oak trees alone.
Jason carried Selina, knocked unconscious by one of the marching oaks, to the comparative safety of the grandstand. Then he ducked into the backroom, hidden from sight, and paused. Etrigan was a demon of Hell, the son of Belial, Lord of Lies, and Raan va Daath, Pitwitch; he was evil and an agent of chaos, but he did honor a bargain. If the demon agreed to only go after the trees in exchange for being released, Jason would take him at his word. There could be a loophole; Etrigan was crafty. But with the trees attacking the fairgrounds, there simply wasn't time to analyze the terms of the bargain. Jason took a deep breath and recited the necessary spell:
Change, change the form of man.
Free the prince forever damned.
Free the might from fleshy mire.
Boil the blood in heart of fire.
Gone, gone the form of man,
and rise the demon Etrigan.
With the authority of a former policeman, Dick managed to take charge on the playing field and get all the athletes to safety. That done, he saw no way to change into Nightwing or join up with Batman and Robin. It was far too risky. He was too conspicuous in Bludhaven PD sweats and a blue, black and yellow kilt. His disappearance would be noticed.
While frustrated, he was also silently, secretly, relieved. There was no question who would be behind a rampage of trees. Between the tabloids and the Two-Face incident, the last thing he needed was a Nightwing-Poison Ivy confrontation in broad daylight in front of several hundred spectators, half of whom had camcorders.
From her vantage point at the northwest corner of the playing field, Poison Ivy surveyed the devastation with a smile of queenly approval. The scent of mandarin oranges was strong in the air. Just as her pheromones took on a smell of Lemon Pledge when Ivy was angry, the fragrance of mandarin indicated she was especially pleased. The games were at an end. And she had most certainly made her point.
The mandarin smell pitchshifted back to lemon; she had not yet located that horror of a Scotsman Galen MacDonald… but that would come. Her subjects (she did not have the gumption to call these massive oak trees "her babies" as she did most plants) had done well. That curious woman's potion had certainly given her powers an added oomph—at least as far as persuading the ancient oaks to do her bidding…
A new thought struck her, and again the northwest corner of the field began smelling like an orange grove. The potion had increased her control over plants. Perhaps it heightened her other powers as well. She would still see that hateful Galen MacDonald torn limb from limb by her army of trees. But it would be so much better if he were humbled first, kneeling before her to pledge his undying devotion.
She must find him.
Eyeing the VIP grandstand, she smiled a far less queenly smile. She resembled, she imagined, one of those jungle cats that Selina admired, a jaguar or a leopardess, eyeing the hapless fawn that would be its next meal.
Etrigan was pleased. The trees were burning, and that was good. But best of all was the screaming. The Poison Witch had a most unexpected and delightful scream when she saw him pick up her planties like kindling and hurl them into the flames.
It was music to his sadistic ears. For a human, she had quite a vocal range. Not since the Inquisition had he heard such sounds. Not since the righteous villagers of Monmarth burned Prudence Cavendish for joining with a wood sprite. Maybe it was flora in the larynx that did it. It warmed his infernal heart to know such wailing cries had not left the Earth completely.
: Batman, our situation hasn't improved. :
: The trees are contained. :
: They've stopped moving, yes, but they're on FIRE. They've ignited half the playing field! And the big yellow ugly looks a bigger problem than the trees. :
: Calm down, Robin. The people are the priority. :
: Getting the last of the spectators cleared away from the southeast corner now. :
: Check. Same here at the north end. :
: Batman? That yellow thing :
: The demon Etrigan. That… may not be a problem. He's on our side… for now. :
: He seems pretty happy with that fire he started. He's not going to let us put that out. :
: I know. :
: So what do we do? :
: I'll get back to you. :
: Great. :
Miriam Nash had vacated her little stall on the fairgrounds before the crowds started running. She had sensed the lines of magick shift from their normal patterns, and that there was a connection between this shift and her own magicks… the tincture she had prepared for that hysterical woman? The shifting had a focus. It was centered on the fairgrounds; it was pointed at the games themselves, so Miriam relocated to the comparative safety of the parking lot. From there,she heard the first screams, and almost at the same moment, she was struck by a whole new disturbance of the astral plane.
Another magick, this one very different from her own, had been released in response to the first. She knew Jason was a practitioner, and another time she might have paused to wonder if the new power might be him. But for one sensitive to the mystic realms, the emergence of this new force was like a hurricane tearing through her psyche, and it took Miriam several minutes to recover. By the time she had adjusted to the new supernatural environment, billows of dark smoke were rising from the playing field.
Not knowing what was burning, but aware her own magick had played some role in this situation, Miriam felt obligated to balance the scales. She shut her eyes, envisioning the three runes of Kaliki, focusing all her will on the skies above the playing field, and murmured a chant of supplication…
The clouds over the playing field turned darker than the smoke.
Miriam continued to chant…
A thunderclap was heard in the distance.
And Miriam continued to chant…
The first thick droplets fell onto her lips, and still Miriam continued to chant.
Reaching the grandstand, Batman's head throbbed as that final surge of adrenaline subsided. He shook his head, willing his body not to relax yet. There was still Poison Ivy to be apprehended…
His body wasn't listening. After the trees, the mob, the fire, the storm, and staring down a demon from hell, his body had simply determined that the worst of the job was done.
He'd drawn a line, stood face to face with a demon, never shifting his gaze while hot, fetid breath stinking of sulfur washed over his skin. "Enough, Etrigan. You've done what you came for."
"Yea, curse-ed trees I vowed to burn,
And burn-ed trees there be.
But for more hellish screams I yearn,
While yet I remain free."
Etrigan might be evil, but he was not an irrational being. He would work with the heroes when it suited him, he would fight the enemies of good when it suited him. And he would back down from a bad situation when it suited him. The trick, Batman knew, was manipulating the situation so it "suited" Etrigan to depart.
Batman's face remained hard and expressionless, his voice cold and dead. "The trees are ash. The rains doused your fire. It's over. Time to go back."
"When Jason, the foolish, this peril appraised,
I swore only trees would I set ablaze.
What my gullible keeper failed to espy?
There are other ways for you mortals to die."
Batman didn't flinch, didn't react, he merely regarded the demon coldly.
"No," he said finally, taking a pellet from his utility belt, "You won't be doing any of that."
Etrigan sniffed the air, but said nothing. Batman's manner changed, becoming more conversational as he held up a small tube the size of a cigarette.
"You know who is here, Etrigan. You know what happened last time. All that fire inside you, and no way to set it free." Batman put the pellet inside the tube. "If you think the fire extinguisher arrow was unpleasant, consider that it's been a year since Green Arrow gave me the idea. And I am considerably more… imaginative… than Green Arrow."
Etrigan snarled, and Batman resumed the hard, dead expression.
"You've done what you came for," he repeated, "Time to go back."
Etrigan seemed to think about it a moment, then departed with a laugh. At the time, Batman stood firm and immobile, not allowing any visible reaction to escape him. Now, reliving the moment in the privacy of the deserted Wayne enclave, he permitted himself a sigh. It was one thing to bluff a lunatic like the Joker, or even a once-mortal man with an artificially prolonged lifespan that called himself Demon's Head. But to bluff an actual Demon of Hell with nothing more than a blowgun and an Extra Strength Tylenol capsule, that, his body decided, was quite enough for one day.
But Poison Ivy was still to be captured, his mind argued!
No, the rest of him didn't care: Harley Quinn. Trees. Mob. Fire. Demon. Done now.
Resolving to go on despite the growing fatigue, Batman continued into the grandstand—only to encounter Selina coming through the door to the backroom.
"Don't go in there," she said simply.
"Poison Ivy," he explained, brushing past her.
"Oh, the Ivy situation is under control," she purred, that curious touch of Catwoman's sarcasm in her tone. That made him stop for a second, hand on the curtain leading to the backroom. "Just don't go in there," she repeated.
Ignoring her, Batman double-checked his noseplugs and continued through the curtain into the backroom. Taking in the scene, he checked the noseplugs yet again, just to make sure what he saw could not be a hallucination.
"You'll like this one best of all, Lassie, the Highland Scotch whiskies have the sweetest floral notes of any in the world. It's in the water. From the snow on the mountaintops, it flows downhill as it melts, running through miles of heather until it hits the streams. Here, try this Dalwhinnie; you'll see what I mean."
Sitting on Galen MacDonald's lap, Poison Ivy produced a sound that, coming from another woman, might be called a giggle. Then she took the glass he offered, smiled, and sipped.
Batman backed silently from the room. He could feel Selina's eyes on the back of his head and he turned to face her.
"Told you," was all she said.
Much as he hoped his scowl projected a stern demand for instant and complete explanation, he could feel the dumbstruck 'What the hell happened?' face leaking through the mask.
"It started with Pam storming into the grandstand looking for MacDonald, and before I could stop him, he stepped right up and introduced himself—which seemed to throw her for some reason. She thought he was 'taller, younger, and ruder'… whatever that means. Then she saw her trees going up in flames and had one of those screaming fits. MacDonald offered 'a wee dram' to calm her down and that's when, frankly, it all got a little weird for me."
Harley Quinn, Batman thought, Trees. Mob. Fire. Demon… And now, Feline logic.
"That's when it got weird?" he growled as once he might have questioned her half-hearted excuses for being in Christie's vault with a sack full of Catherine the Great's emeralds.
"Yes," she answered distinctly, "THAT'S when it got weird. He started telling her about some 'Angels' share moss,' this stuff that grows on the ceilings in the distilleries and nowhere else in the world, feeds off the evaporating fumes of distilling whiskey, the 'angels' share'. Well, you know Pammy: it's plant trivia, they bonded."
Batman massaged the bridge of his nose, a pointless gesture he couldn't feel through the cowl, but sometimes an outward show of frustration lessened the internal.
"Well," he grunted, "I suppose it will make it easier to take her in. I wouldn't have thought that physiology of hers would respond to alcohol."
"Only if she chooses. She was really upset about those trees."
The drive out to Arkham was uneventful. Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn together were usually a handful. But in Ivy's present state, she thought the story of Harley tripping over bagpipes was the funniest thing she ever heard. She was too busy laughing to be any trouble. And Harley was too abashed by the sight of her friend cackling and snorting like she'd had a noseful of SmileX.
During the drive back to the cave, Batman reflected on the day's haul. Two dangerous criminals were off the street for a while. Jason Blood was back in Gotham. The games were a shambles, but there were no serious injuries. Galen MacDonald did not appear to have any pheromone exposure at all, but Batman insisted the hospital run a toxscreen anyway. It would keep him out of the manor until his departure in the morning.
Reasoning that the others should all be home by now, he punched into one of the Batcave relays, accessing the camera feeds from the manor. He saw that Dick, Barbara, Cassie and Selina had all returned from the games—and that Jason Blood was with them. He saw too that Jason was sitting next to Selina.
Postponing the log entry for this incident, Bruce changed quickly and joined them all in the drawing room. He moved behind Selina's chair and touched her shoulder lightly, all the while making eye contact with Jason. It was a proprietary gesture, which Selina would resent, and Bruce knew he would have to pay for it later, but for now she simply murmured "Hello, darling."
Jason watched this exchange with faint amusement, then resumed talking to Dick.
"Indeed, it was one of the more impressive demonstrations I've seen for one of your years who never actually trained for that type of sport. And I'm sure your two Titan compatriots will agree."
"Two?" Dick blurted in surprise, "I only saw Roy."
"Yes, I'm sure. You only saw Roy."
"Uh oh," Barbara put in. "I smell decoy."
"Him and the rather quick-footed one…" Jason finished.
"Wally," Dick hissed.
"…with the digital camera."
"He'll have shown all the others by now, of course."
"Barbara," Dick turned on his wife, "where is my all-seeing Oracle in all this? Aren't you supposed to be one step ahead of anybody with a digital camera and an addressbook full of Titan e-mails?"
While Barbara and Dick spatted, Selina spoke up in an attempt to divert attention, "Alfred, what's your take on all this? I was surprised you didn't come with us to the games."
"If I had realized the food and demonstrations that were offered, Miss, I might have attended, but I was told only about the games themselves. I have often thought those Scottish sports result from having too much time on their hands in the Highlands. Throwing a weight into the air, it is undignified. Not British."
"I'm sure that's the whole point as far as the Scots are concerned," Jason offered as an in-joke.
Alfred gave a half-nod in acknowledgement, and replenished the plate of biscuits between Jason and Cassie. He always approved of the girl's appetite.
Jason, noticing that Bruce was occupied with Selina and Dick with Barbara, took his opportunity to speak quietly with the enigmatic young Batgirl.
"It is quite wrong of you, my dear, to blame yourself for not being more aggressive on the field today. An able fighter you may be, but there are monsters no amount of skill will propel that little body of yours into beating. If you had challenged Etrigan, you would be quite dead now."
She looked up at him with all the arrogance of youth that thinks it cannot die. Jason wondered why he even bothered. Comforting children was not his way, but something about the little thing's anxiety… and then he realized. Etrigan was not at the heart of the girl's hesitation during the battle; it was Poison Ivy, and therein lay Jason's empathy. Poison Ivy was not much of a witch by his standards, but she was a witch of sorts, and Jason could feel kinship with anyone who was tricked by a witch.
"And as for the other one, Poison Ivy wants to forget that 'Vine' episode every bit as much as you do. She too was seduced, you see. To take on a protégé, that is not her way. To teach you 'her moves', to experience reflected victory in another's triumph—or humiliation at another's defeat, as it turned out. If you want to forget having tried your wings at playing the vamp, I assure you, she wants to forget putting you up to it."
Jason stopped, sensing attentive and inquisitive eyes pointed at the back of his neck. He turned and saw… first Selina, her face looked stern except her eyes were smiling… then Bruce, also looking stern… except for a curious twitchy movement at the corner of his mouth.
"Jason, we've been talking."
"Indeed," he said, sensing a curious undertone he'd never heard in Selina's voice before. He glanced again from her to Bruce, and considered: he liked Selina and he respected Bruce—but he was not especially comfortable with the thought of those two minds huddled together, plotting.
"Yes," Bruce took up the narrative, "You're still living in that brownstone downtown."
It was a statement, not a question, so Jason didn't bother to answer it.
"It's a little small for you, isn't it? And surely you'd prefer something more… uptown?"
This was the first actual snobbery Jason had ever perceived in Bruce Wayne when he wasn't playing the role of a Society fop, and it threw him. He looked back again at Selina, whose lips were now smiling as brightly as her eyes.
"I have a delicious classic six on the park that I'm not using anymore. Why don't you take over the lease?"
HA HA HA HA HA,
Jason cannot comprehend,
He's gone and made himself a friend.
HA HA HA HA HA,
This bat and cat would make me sick,
But they make you look like such a—
"I… will be delighted, Selina. Thank you."
HA HA HA HA HA!
HA HA HA HA HA!
"HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAA!" the laughter rang through the Arkham infirmary. "So they give the bagpipes to the octopus, but he doesn't play them. He crawls all over them, fiddles with the pipes, you know, all that shit, but he doesn't play the bagpipes. The man who brought him in, by now he's getting a little jumpy, 'cause he knows he's losing the bet. He's pulling at his collar, sweating a little…"
"Excuse me, Mr. Joker," the night nurse interrupted in that polite humoring-the-lunatic voice they all used, "but I do have to be distributing the evening meds now. The other patient will be in great discomfort if those painkillers wear off."
"See what you get, Harley," Joker called across the room, "gallivanting around with that Hothouse Harlot. How many bruises?"
"Depends, on if you count this one on my shin as three little ones or one big one."
"Reminder, Harl! I can't SEE THEM!" Joker sang out angrily.
"I'm sorry, Puddin'," Harley mumbled as the new injection dulled the throbbing pain. "But I got troubles of my own."
Dangerous muttering was heard on Joker's side of the room and the night nurse decided to make himself scarce. Joker squinted hard until he convinced himself he saw a patch of yellow (that'd be Harley hair)… over a patch of pink (Harley skin)… over a patch of white (hospital gown). He got up from the bed and moved towards it.
"So, little miss, you got problems, do you? How'd you get so banged up anyway? Batman?"
"Bagpipes," Harley whimpered.
Joker's eyes popped open wide as the image of Harley snapped into sharp focus.
"BAGPIPES! BAGPIPES!! YOU DARE MOCK MY OCTOPUS JOKE! YOU DARE!! MY A-LIST MATERIAL. THE OCTOPUS JOKE—YOU'VE ALWAYS HAD IT IN FOR THAT JOKE, YOU HA-HA-HARLOT!! THIS IS A CALCULATED AND DELIBERATE INSULT! MY OCTOPUS JOKE!! THAT DOES IT, QUINN, WE'RE THROUGH, I TELL YOU! 'T' like in 'Take the faithless bitch by the ankles and swing her head into the wall', 'H' like in 'Hold on to her hair and pull it up and down, 'Roo' like the cute little Winnie-the-Pooh character you want to toss in a food processor and make furry thing puree. We. Are. Through!"
©2003, Chris Dee
Joker and Harley, the Big Split?
Seismic shockwaves rock Gotham next time