The Third Night
The Terror Ends
Deep in the Batcave, Bruce Wayne absently accepted the proffered meal, eating one handed while he ran over the facts of the case once more. Time was of the essence, but it was equally important that he keep his strength up.
"Just before he died, Ra's seemed to recognize his killer," he said.
"I should imagine his acquaintances would make quite a long list, sir, even restricting it to those still among the living."
"Yes, he's worked with or against almost every criminal or politician in Gotham," Wayne replied. "But that isn't what I meant. He seemed surprised that it would be this person behind it all."
He paused, looking at the summary of the case displayed on the Batcomputer's main screen. The list of victims ran down one side, and possible connections down the other.
"I'm not so sure any more that the killings are supernatural," he said after a moment. "Ra's was well-acquainted with all kinds of sorcery and witchcraft and would have known how to protect himself from it. But something more local, more specific, and more recent just might have caught him off-guard."
Wayne thought a moment, weighing his words.
"I have an idea," he said. "And it shouldn't be hard to settle it. I just need to pay a visit to Arkham…."
"I beg pardon, sir, but that will have to wait," said Alfred.
"Why?" Wayne demanded sharply.
"Perhaps you haven't seen the morning paper, sir."
Alfred took the neatly-folded Gotham Times from under his arm and set it before him. On the front page enormous print blared the headline:
NIGHT OF TERROR: BRUCE WAYNE DEAD!
"A stirring obituary, if I may say so, sir. Nearly moved me to tears."
Wayne cursed under his breath. Urgent as the Terror case was, the potential ramifications of being declared dead were too great to be ignored. He had, of course, disappeared for long periods in the past, even been suspected to be dead, but to have a body exactly matching his in the police morgue was a very different matter. There were many powerful men who would be only too quick to take advantage of such a circumstance to claim control of his assets, and any delay in disproving the allegations could give them an opportunity to fortify their positions. He wouldn't put it past them to attempt to seize Wayne Manor that very day, which under the circumstances could prove disastrous.
Reluctantly, therefore, Bruce Wayne was obliged to leave the Batcave and spend most of that day in company with his lawyers, medical examiners, and the police trying to explain that, contrary to appearances, the man who had crashed onto the pavement in front of Wayne Tower was not in fact him. With such an enormous estate and so many business interests at stake, however (and, he suspected, with his corporate enemies exerting all their powers to force the issue), he was obliged to undergo numerous tests and to spend hours being grilled by police and lawyers before they would, grudgingly, accept his identity.
It didn't help that he was tired, angry, and fearful of what the next night would bring.
Meanwhile, the Terror lay thick upon Gotham. Its shadow spread to every bar, every alley, every tenement and slum. Its fingers reached under the streets, scratched at the doors of crackhouses and nightclubs, and penetrated the mansions of the mafia dons. From the lowest thug hunting for drug money in the streets to the highest reaches of the mob, the Terror held the entire Gotham underworld in its icy grip. Some fled the city outright, others put on extra security, still others went and turned themselves into the police, seeking the safety of jail cells. One and all, they watched the sun anxiously as it marched slowly across the sky toward another night.
Nor were they the only ones. The brutality of the murders and the impunity with which Gotham's most feared criminals had been eliminated struck dread into the hearts of the ordinary citizens. Much as they may have welcomed the deaths of people like Killer Croc, Two-Face, and Poison Ivy, nevertheless there was hardly a man or woman in the city who didn't wonder:
If it can do this to people like them, what could it do to someone like me?
Wayne sensed the fear all through his tedious day of trial. He even thought that some of the opposing lawyers seemed a little less cocky than he would have expected. They too felt the force of the Terror, and even in their cold, soulless minds, it seemed, there lurked the nagging question: Does the Terror see me? Is there a chance it might come for me tonight?
Meanwhile, the police were running ragged trying to manage the crisis. Gordon, to judge by his appearance on the news (seen during a brief pause in the legal battle), hadn't slept in days.
"Commissioner, what about Batman?" asked Jack Ryder.
"What about him?" Gordon demanded.
"In the light of reports of his being seen on the scene in several of the murders, don't you think he might be the one behind it?"
"No, I don't," snapped Gordon. "I happen to know that he's working just as hard on this case as we are. Probably harder."
"But Commissioner," Ryder persisted, "isn't it true that all the victims thus far have been known enemies of Batman?"
"All the victims thus far, as you put it, have been notorious criminal lunatics," said Gordon. "I'd say by your logic, every decent citizen in this city is a suspect!"
"Yes, Commissioner, but not every decent citizen has an arsenal and a history of exacting violent retribution on criminals. Maybe he thinks this is just the next logical step."
"Maybe you should start talking sense for a change."
It was not a very convincing defense, Wayne had to admit.
At last, late in the day, it was admitted that Bruce Wayne was indeed alive, and that the man who had jumped – or been thrown – from Wayne Tower was merely a look-alike. The retraction was duly printed for the evening edition of the Times, on page three. It was a comparatively minor piece of news for that day of sensation.
The first thing Wayne did when he was safely ensconced in the back of his car was to demand of Alfred whether the Terror had struck again.
"Not exactly, sir," he said. "However, it has come to light that there was at least one other...incident last night. It seems some of Roman Sionis's henchmen have come forward with a tale of their own. They report that they discovered him while taking refuge in what they thought was their safe house."
"Discovered him?" Wayne demanded.
"Yes, sir. They say that his mask had been torn off and hung on the wall alongside the rest of his collection."
There was a heavy pause.
"His mask is fused to his face."
"Just so, sir."
Wayne took a moment to process the implications. So the Black Mask too had met his end last night.
"After seeing that, his men ran to the nearest officer to turn themselves in. More or less begged to be arrested. And they are not the only ones."
Wayne looked out the window at the city streets, where people hurried to and fro, perhaps coming home from work or going out to dinner or shopping. All alike, young and old, men and women, rich and poor held the same anxious, hunted expression. All moved with a hurried step, casting watchful glances at each other and avoiding eye contact.
Somewhere, perhaps, among those teaming multitudes there lurked the man, woman, or creature that had wrought such terror upon the underworld in two nights that criminals were fleeing for safety into the arms of the law. One of these people now held the entire city in the grip of a deadly fear.
He needed to find him. He needed to end this madness tonight.
Dr. Bartholomew was the psychiatric head of Arkham Asylum. Unlike many who had previously held the post he was both honest and sincerely dedicated to helping the patients and making their lives as comfortable as possible. He had not, unfortunately, had much success, but the cherubic little man remained hopeful nonetheless.
It was not the first time that Batman had appeared in his office, yet he started nonetheless when the Dark Knight stepped out of the shadows shortly after sunset.
"I need to speak with the Mad Hatter," he said.
"Oh! Uh, yes, I suppose…" Batholomew stammered. He collected himself. "It is urgent, I assume?"
"I won't have you upsetting him, Batman," said the doctor. "Tetch's condition has considerably deteriorated since his last incarceration. He's losing himself more and more in his delusions. The strain of that...device…."
"I know," said Batman. "That's what I need to see him about."
Dr. Bartholomew hesitated, wringing his plump little hands.
"Yes…though, before you speak to him, there is something you perhaps ought to know," he said.
"Something very...strange happened yesterday morning."
Batman waited, but Dr. Bartholomew seemed unable to get to the point.
"There are lives at stake, doctor."
"Of course, of course. I...it would probably be best just to show you."
He turned to his computer and pulled up a log of security footage.
"We, naturally, have him under constant surveillance, like all our high-security patients," he said. "About eleven o'clock yesterday morning, however, we lost the feed for some minutes. This is from when we were able to get it back."
The screen flickered on. Jervis Tetch was on his knees, looking into the corner just below the camera, where it didn't reach.
"I swear, your majesty, that is all I know!"
Then a voice; a large, but clearly feminine voice answered.
"I will be back soon, and I will expect to be told the rest!"
"I promise, I don't know where Alice is! Nor the Knave of Hearts! He's fallen out of my deck…."
"You will remember. I will be back!"
Then something, a figure, moved to the door. Batman gasped. The figure was only visible for an instant before the feed fizzled out again. He ordered Bartholomew to rewind and freeze on it.
The picture was unclear, and the figure was mostly wreathed in shadow. Yet Batman could discern this much: that it was the figure of a large woman in a red checkered dress bedecked with hearts.
"When we searched his cell, we found no one," said Bartholomew. "And it was locked. I can't explain it."
Batman felt rather cold inside. The idea of something supernatural flickered again in his brain.
"Take me to him."
The shadow that lay over Gotham lay twice as thick over Arkham. Only here the atmosphere was different; the guards and inmates seemed almost excited, expectant, as though the Terror were a show from which they need fear nothing. Prisoners pressed their faces to the viewing windows as he passed through the long, dark corridors of the infamous asylum, watching eagerly as though Batman were some kind of exotic exhibit in a zoo.
"Fear, Batman!" called Dr. Jonathan Crane, AKA the Scarecrow as Batman passed his cell. "The city is thick with it! I can feel it in the very air. Now you see what power there is in terror!"
Crane was outright gloating. Batman paused, eying the lean doctor thoughtfully through the window of his cell door. Had he, perhaps, neglected a possible suspect? Crane had been in Arkham for months, but the Scarecrow was a master of escape, and in any case he might not need to be outside the walls to cause terror.
"Don't worry about him, sir," said a portly janitor moping up the hallway in front of Crane's cell. "He's been shouting stuff like that since yesterday."
Batman nevertheless thought that he would have to look into Dr. Crane's movements very closely once he had interviewed the Hatter.
Jervis Tetch appeared to be the only inmate of the asylum who feared the Terror. As the two orderlies unlocked the cell, Batman found the wide-eyed, troll-faced little man sat in the far corner, rocking himself slightly, his eyes darting back and forth.
"Late…" he muttered. "Late, late, late!"
"Tetch," Batman said. "Last week, you were working with the Joker. You were working on a new form of mind-control technology."
The Hatter blinked up at him.
"Twinkle, twinkle, little bat,
How I wonder what you're at…."
"You made a machine that could control people from a distance. How powerful was it?"
The Hatter seemed confused by him.
"I keep these hats to sell," he said, touching the green top hat on his head. "I haven't any of my own. I'm a hatter."
"Tell me about that hat," said Batman.
"Most remarkable thing," he said. "The Knave of Hearts was oh so very pleased by it. You can really have no notion how delightful it will be, when you take us up and throw us, with lobsters, out to sea…."
"How powerful was it? Could it drive someone to suicide?"
"Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance…"
"Tetch! The hat! Was it strong enough to drive someone to do anything?"
"Anything?" Tetch seemed to emerge a little from his daydream. "Oh, very strong tea. The strongest I've made. The Knave was oh so very pleased. He meant to steal some tarts from the Queen…."
"Would the queen notice the tarts gone?" Batman asked.
Tetch smiled a little.
"The hat was so that the Queen herself would take the tarts to the Knave and never miss them on her way. The Knave would have it so."
"Yes! He said the Duchess was most insistent."
"When was this?"
"At a tea party. We were all there, all three of us, and Bill the Lizard! But now, oh! I'm late, late, so very, very late!"
"Late for what?"
"The Queen of Hearts, she was here, she wanted my evidence. I told her I am a poor man, and just begun my tea, not above a week or so, and with the twinkling of the tea…but she demanded to know. I told her all I had to say, where they all had gone; the March Hare, the Mock Turtle, the Gryphon, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and all the rest. I'd seen them, you know, in my hat. Seen them all. But I couldn't say where Alice had gone, or the Knave of Hearts. And oh, she wanted them so badly! The Knave too; he wanted Alice to come to our tea party. So insistent!"
His expression changed a little. A degree of cunning came into his eyes.
"Alice has been very bad. Very bad indeed! She cheated with the cards, showed the hands. The Queen or the Knave or I; when she gets caught, it'll be off with her head for sure!"
He licked his lips, as though the thought gave him immense pleasure.
"Do cats eat bats?" he asked. "Do bats eat cats?"
Then his face fell again.
"The Queen so wanted to find Alice and the Knave, but where they were I could not say! So she went away, but promised to return today. But Alice is neither here nor there, and the Knave has run off with the tarts! The Queen will be oh so angry with me! I am late, late, late!"
"Who is the Queen of Hearts?"
The Hatter looked at him as if he were confused by the question.
"The Queen of Hearts is the Queen of Hearts," he said. "Who else would she be?"
Then he began to chant:
"'O Oysters,' said the Carpenter,
'You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none –
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one."
There was nothing more Batman could learn from him. But he had gotten what he wanted. The Hatter's machine might just be powerful enough to drive someone to kill, or even to suicide. If so, that might explain everything. The Joker – the Knave of Hearts – had kept the machine, and now was using it to eliminate his competition and discredit Batman at the same time. It all fit...except the killings themselves, and the restraint they showed.
Then, all at once, as Batman stood pondering the Hatter's words, the whole asylum was plunged into darkness.
The Mad Hatter screamed.
"It is the Queen!" he wailed. "She's come! Come to eat us, every one!"
He made a dash for the door. Batman caught him and forced him back.
"Hold him!" he commanded the orderlies as he rushed out. "Do not leave this cell!"
Though he had long since abandoned any doubts of the Terror's ability to penetrate the walls of Arkham, Batman had hoped that it wouldn't trouble itself with anyone safely locked away. But as so often happened in this case, his hopes were mistaken.
However, he had learned this much: the Terror didn't target innocent people. It took deliberate steps to ensure they were not caught in the crossfire. Therefore, if the two orderlies stayed with the Hatter, surely even the Terror couldn't touch him.
Scarecrow, on the other hand….
Batman raced back down the hall the way he had come and down the stairs. The janitor was still on the floor, now with a flashlight in hand.
"Batman! What's going on? Emergency power's supposed to…."
Batman ignored him and went straight to Scarecrow's cell, shining his own light in through the window.
For a moment, he thought the cell was empty, and he feared the worst.
Crane suddenly popped up from below the window, cackling.
"Did I scare you, Batman? Is the great Batman suddenly afraid of the dark?"
He laughed, pulling grotesque faces at him.
"You see now that it is fear that rules the world, Batman. You see the power, the vitality of terror. You see…."
He trailed off. His gloating expression faded as though it were melting. At the same time, Batman saw that an opaque, greenish gas was flowing into the room from the overhead vents.
Crane suddenly screamed, his eyes popping as he backed away from the door.
"No! No, get away!"
Batman wheeled on the janitor, who stood gaping stupidly through the cell window.
"Open the cell. Now!"
"I-I don't have the keys," the man stammered.
"Then find someone who does. Quick!"
The janitor stumbled back and ran for the stairs. Meanwhile more gas was flooding Crane's cell, and something else was coming in along with it: large brown bats, Crane's greatest fear. The bats, maddened by the fear toxin, were shrieking, fighting, and clawing at Crane and each other.
"GET THEM OFF!" he screamed. "GET THEM OFF ME!"
He flailed at the bats, howling in terror. Batman grabbed the miniature acetylene torch on his belt and began trying to burn through the deadbolt.
"LET ME OUT! LET ME OOOUUUTTT!" Crane shrieked, pounding on the door. His face was purple with terror, his eyes popping, blood spraying from his mouth with the intensity of his screams. His cries were soon blended with hacking coughs as the toxin became thicker.
The deadbolt burned through at last. Batman put on his gas mask and seized the handle, but the door still held firm. Focusing his light on the corners of the door, he realized that none of the toxin was leaking out. It had been caulked solid with a powerful industrial adhesive.
On the other side of the glass, the Scarecrow gave a final, terrible howl of unbearable fear, clutching his hands to his skull. Then his scream seemed rise beyond the pitch of what the human throat was capable of. For a moment he stood rigid in his cell, hands gripping his temples, his bleeding, purple face stretched taught in a silent scream. Then he fell backwards onto the floor.
It took Batman another five minutes to cut through the adhesive and get the door open.
A flood of fear toxin flowed out of the cell, along with the few maddened bats that hadn't already died from stress. The asylum's ventilation system kicked in, quickly dissipating the gas from the hallway as Batman entered the cell and bent over the still form of the Scarecrow.
As he had expected, Crane was dead. Batman quickly surmised that the combination of lack of oxygen and the extreme terror brought on by his own fear toxin had induced a fatal stroke. But for now that didn't matter as much as the question of who had done this and how.
He shone his light up into the ventilation system. One of the cage-covered vents had been pushed open a little to allow the bats egress. Batman pulled it the rest of the way off and shone the light up the narrow shaft: a shaft far too narrow for a person to fit through.
That meant the gas and the bats would have to have been somehow directed through the shaft from another location.
But even with mind-control, how had the gas been transmitted only into this cell?
Batman left Crane's body where it had fallen and rushed back in the direction of the Mad Hatter's cell.
In the stairwell, he found the two orderlies coming the other way.
"What are you doing here?" he snapped. "I told you to stay with Tetch!"
"Yeah, but...Norman said you needed help with Crane. He said you said to forget about the Hatter, and…."
Batman pushed past the man up the stairs. He found the stairwell door shut and locked.
"Norman!" called one of the orderlies. The two of them had evidently decided they should follow Batman. "Open up!"
There was no answer.
They didn't have time for this nonsense. Batman shot a grapple up the middle of the stairwell to a high arched window: so high that its bars were a mere formality and gave way as soon as he put his shoulder against them. The window shattered outward and Batman went with it, firing his grapple again to catch on the side of the roof and swing him around and down into another high window looking over the third floor cellblock.
He kicked in the glass, but the bars here were more securely fastened. Standing on the window sill, Batman was obliged to pause and use a small pry-bar from his utility belt to loosen the bars from the wall.
The moonlight was spilling in on the blackened asylum hallway, casting a pale, silvery light upon the cell doors and the stone walls. There was no sign of Norman the janitor, and the stairwell door was still securely closed.
Suddenly, as he worked, Batman heard a scream from the one of the cells. A scream that was suddenly cut off.
The bars came loose enough for Batman to slip through. He landed lightly and sprinted for Tetch's cell.
It was unlocked and opened into utter blackness. Batman shone his light around the little room.
The Mad Hatter's body lay on its front in the middle of the cell. His top hat was just rolling to a stop a few feet away. And between the two and separate from both lay his head, an expression of shocked terror fixed upon it.
There was no one else in the room, and no way that anyone could have left save the door itself, unless they could squeeze through the steel mesh and up the narrow ventilation shafts.
Batman threw open the stairwell door, and the two orderlies jumped back in alarm at grim specter before them.
"Take me to the Riddler," he ordered. "Now!"
Edward Nygma's cell was near the top of the asylum. It was larger, more spacious than any of the others. In fact, it wasn't much of a cell at all. More like a workshop.
The lights had still not been restored when they arrived and the guard unlocked the door. Batman stepped inside, shining his light about.
One entire wall was covered with monitors. On a table were several tiny drones, like mechanical insects. Other bits of mechanical debris lay strewn about on and around the table, including what Batman recognized as some of the Mad Hatter's mind-control bands.
On the wall beside the door was an enormous map of Gotham, marked over in little figures: a bird, a crocodile, a coin, a cat, and so on. All but two were crossed out: the cat and a joker card pinned over the pier.
The Riddler himself sat in a chair in the rear corner of the room, facing Batman, his green bowler upon his head, his question-mark topped cane at his side. He was resting his chin upon his interlocking fingers as though in deep contemplation, but he smiled faintly as Batman's light fell on him.
"Well, well," he said in a slow, deliberate voice. "Have you figured it out yet?"
"I know more than I did," said Batman slowly. "Scarecrow and the Hatter are dead."
"Yes," said Nygma. "I thought so. And yet you still haven't guessed the truth. Perhaps you are afraid to see it…afraid to see how simple, how clear, how you might have known all along…."
"I know that you know who is behind it," Batman snapped, cutting him off. "And I am done playing games."
Slowly, the Riddler chuckled. Batman started forward.
"Oh, I wouldn't do that, Batman," said Nygma. "Not unless you can thread your way through these trip wires. Or figure out the correct order to cut them in the next…" he glanced down at something in his lap "...thirty-five seconds."
Batman froze. Dozens of thin wires glistened faintly in the light, all running in different directions, but all originating from a square metal object secured upon the Riddler's lap.
"What is this?" Batman demanded.
"Arkham, it seems, was not so safe as I thought," Nygma answered. "Quite the puzzle, isn't it? I have been studying it for some time now and I don't…really think it's solvable. So I will leave you, Batman, with a final riddle:
"What does a man most hope to gain
Before he returns from whence he came?"
"Give me a name, Nygma!" Batman shouted. "Who is it?!"
"Answer the riddles, and you will know," he answered. "But always remember: the Riddler was smarter than you!"
The device on the Riddler's lap beeped a warning, and Batman just had time to dive for the door before the room exploded.
He must have lost consciousness for a moment, because the next thing Batman knew, he was sitting up, his ears ringing, looking at the fiery wreckage of what had once been the Riddler's cell.
Damn you, Nygma, he thought. If you had simply told me from the start….
Yes. If Nygma could have resisted turning it into a puzzle, he would be alive now. But if he could have done that, he would not have been the Riddler. It was fitting in a way.
Fitting. All the murders were that way. Fitting. Artistic even.
Batman had the sense that this should have told him something. That if he could only follow the idea to its conclusion….
But nothing came. The idea slipped away into darkness, leaving Batman as frustrated as ever.
The power was at last restore to Arkham and an accounting was made of the inmates. Apart from Crane, Tetch, and Nygma, all were safely contained in their cells. Indeed, most of them now seemed too scared to move.
The police had arrived. Commissioner Gordon, accompanied by Bullock and three large uniformed police officers was waiting in the entry hall. Gordon looked even more exhausted and haggard than he had at the press conference, but was nonetheless resolute.
"There he is," said Bullock as Batman appeared. "Gotham's new self-appointed executioner."
"Come on, Commish, you know as well as I do…."
"Bullock, if you value your badge you won't push me tonight," Gordon snapped. He turned on Batman. "Well? Have you found the Terror yet?"
"No," Batman answered.
"Do you have any leads? Any ideas of who it might be?"
Batman didn't answer. Gordon ground his teeth.
"Listen, Batman, if you know anything, if you suspect anything, you'd better hand it over right now. This has all gone far enough. Too far!"
"You're right," he said. "I'm going to put a stop to it."
"Yeah, I bet you are," said Bullock. Gordon didn't reprimand him.
"That's what you said last night," he said. "And in the meantime, more and more bodies keep showing up. Now Arkham suddenly becomes a slaughterhouse just after you arrive."
"Not only that," put in Bullock. "But we finally tracked down two of the guys who were in Strange's lab. And who do you supposed they said did the deed?"
There was a heavy pause.
"More than twenty people are dead," said Gordon. "The city is in uproar, you seem to be on the scene each and every time, and now we have witnesses positively identifying you as the culprit." He lifted his hands in a helpless gesture. "What do you expect me to think after that?"
"I don't kill," said Batman. "You should know that by now."
"I don't know anything!" Gordon exploded. "After all that's happened, you can't expect us to dismiss you from the suspect list on the grounds that you say you don't kill."
He drew a deep breath and wiped his forehead.
"Look, even after all that, I don't think it's you. I don't want to think it's you. I'd like to believe I know you better than that. But with things as they are...I'm afraid I've got no choice. I've got to take you in."
He nodded to the three big, uniformed police officers.
"Take him. And please, Batman, don't make this harder than it already is."
The officers advanced cautiously. It was clear they would rather have been doing anything but this. Batman let them get close. He let one of them grab his arm, ready the handcuffs...and then he made his move.
With a sudden twist of his wrist, he caught the officer by the arm and clicked one of the cuffs onto him. Before he had quite realized what was happening, Batman pivoted him into the second officer and snapped the other cuff onto him. The third man reached for his gun, but Batman swung the two bound cops into him before he could clear the holster, then threw a batarang at Bullock as the big detective reached for his sidearm, knocking the weapon out of his hand. Bullock gave a bellow like an enraged ox as he clutched his stinging hand, but before he could do anything else Batman had already fired his grapple at the wide open window above the main door.
Gordon drew his sidearm and aimed. On the windowsill Batman paused a moment to look back. The eyes of the two old friends met.
"Please don't make me do this," Gordon said in a low voice.
Without a word, Batman turned and disappeared into the night.
He was rapidly running out of both time and options. But his suspect list was narrowing. He now had a clear idea in his mind about how the killings were being done and why. It was far-fetched, but not impossible. Or at least, he didn't thing it was impossible.
In any case, the only way to find out for sure would be to catch the Joker and make him talk.
And if he was wrong, if it wasn't the Joker after all…
Well, there was one other possibility. If it turned out the Joker wasn't the culprit, then he would know.
Batman raced to the old pier. The Riddler had thought the Joker was here once more, and Batman would trust that his information was good. He had no time to do anything else.
There was no mist tonight, yet the pier looked all the more deserted for that. Its lights were all on, which only served to emphasize how empty and desolate the once-bustling walkways and thoroughfares now were.
The PA system crackled and squeaked.
"Well, well; look who's come crawling back after all. How're things in Arkham tonight, Batman?"
Batman didn't bother to answer, he simply headed for the midway, keeping alert for any signs of danger.
"Whatever will you do without any more baddies to fight?" the Joker went on. "I guess you'll just have to spend more time with little old me, won't you? Assuming, of course, that Gordon will let you. How does it feel to be on the crazy side of the law, Batman?"
"Is that what this was all about?" Batman asked into the night. "Trying to turn the Commissioner against me?"
"Maybe," said the Joker. "Or maybe it's just a way to move the next line of merchandise: the old batch was getting a bit stale, don't you think? Or maybe the Terror was just bored."
"You seem pretty unconcerned," Batman said.
"Oh, I'm not going to be taken out by some amateur-hour psycho," Joker replied. "Or maybe I'm the Terror myself! Is that what you're thinking?" he laughed. "It could be, it could be. Why don't you come on and find out?"
That was exactly what Batman meant to do. The gatehouse loomed before him, and he strode under the arch.
As soon as he entered the tunnel, gates clanged shut on either side, trapping him in. Garish lights blazed about him, and calliope music started up. A great flashing sign and a pasteboard wall dropped down reading "Hit the Dead Crooks!"
On the wall in front of him were seven masks: caricatures of Penguin, Killer Croc, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter, Riddler, and Catwoman. Batman's heart flinched upon seeing the last one: could that mean…? No, Joker would have made sure he knew about it.
"Have fun, Batsy!" laughed the clown. "See you soon, if your victims don't get you first! Harley! Harley? Where did that girl get to? Look sharp, woman! We're about to have company…."
The faces began firing; razor-sharp darts no doubt laced with poison. Batman dodged and hurled his batarangs in answer, knocking each face off in turn. As they were hit, the eyes were marked off with Xes.
He finished off the last one – Catwoman – and the trap retreated. It had not been intended as the main event, only as a delaying tactic.
The pier resumed its eerie stillness as Batman approached the funhouse. He expected the Joker to deliver more of his taunts after he escaped his trap, but the clown, it seemed, had something else in mind.
The funhouse loomed before him, looking somehow larger and more twisted than it had before, as though Batman were seeing it in a nightmare. Bracing himself, he grappled up to the second floor window once more.
The room was empty, as before. Batman paused and listened, but heard nothing. There was, however, a faint but pungent oder, sharp upon the nostrils.
If the Joker were silent, that meant he had a truly grand punchline waiting.
With great care, Batman moved into the next room, the break room. It was dark, but he could see something, a figure draped over the sofa. A lithe female form, dressed in an outfit that clung tight to its wearer.
His alarm upon seeing that form was so great that Batman nearly rushed in without thinking. But with what felt like a greater effort than he'd ever needed to put forth before, he controlled himself and checked the entrance.
There was nothing. No trap that he could find, no ambush. This only made him feel all the more uneasy, but he could restrain himself no longer. He rushed across the room and bent over the still form.
His first reaction was intense relief, but swiftly followed by horror tinged with shame. For the figure was not Catwoman. It was Harley Quinn. Her eyes were wide, shocked, disbelieving, and her face was blue and puckered. He felt her neck.
She was dead. Suffocated.
That made no sense. The Joker had no genuine love for Harley, whatever she had deluded herself into thinking, but there was surely no reason for him to kill her, was there?
Dread, cold dread seeped into Batman's heart as he began to suspect the truth. The truth that he had feared almost from the start.
He turned to the final room. The door was closed. Whatever he found in there would settle the matter once and for all.
Cautiously, wishing he could do anything else, Batman pushed open the door. Again, there was no ambush, no trap. But there was something waiting for him.
The room held several full-length mirrors, some normal, some of the funhouse variety that made one appear misshapen and grotesque. One of these mirrors, which stood near the middle of the collection, had had its glass removed from the frame, showing the shadowy alcove created by its fellows. The strange smell was at its strongest in here.
Lying in front of this mirror was a body: a body dressed in green and purple clothes, a body whose white-skinned hands were clutching at its face.
Batman bent over the body and withdrew the hands, then gasped in horror at what was revealed.
The flesh had been almost completely burned away from the grinning skull beneath, and bits of flesh and interior matter still smoked and bubbled faintly, as though it had been destroyed mere minutes before. Greenish steam rose from between the grinning teeth.
It was all that remained of the Clown Prince of Crime.
For a moment, Batman stood stunned, looking down at the body of his nemesis. Though Joker had faked his death many times before, something told Batman that it was not so this time. Harley's death, for one thing, and the mode of his destruction: the silent and almost secretive nature of it. The Joker would certainly have gone for a big, public spectacle if he meant to deceive. Not to mention the simple fact that the Terror was abroad.
It felt strange, eerie almost to realize that the Joker was indeed gone at last.
But such feelings were nothing compared to the dark conclusions that his brain was working towards, for there now seemed but one possible solution to the mystery. Batman even cursed himself for not accepting it sooner. How many lives might he have saved if he had only allowed himself to see the signs?
A woman running away from the Penguin's death and into the arms of Zaasz. A woman warning the tenement occupants to flee. The Mad Hatter's insistence that the Red Queen was behind it all, and his own glimpse of her on the security footage. The lithe figures in black glimpsed at the deaths of Hush and Ra's al Ghul and Killer Croc.
And could anything but supernatural power explain what had happened? Scarecrow and Mad Hatter killed in locked cells. Two-Face slain by a statue. Clayface buried alive. Ra's stalked and killed by a shadow.
And at every turn, in every death, Catwoman stood nearby, or could have, while she alone remained untouched. Catwoman, who had recently stolen the Midas Ruby, said to be cursed to bring about the possessor's secret desires. Could he dismiss the idea of such a curse? And what did Catwoman desire more than survival? Survival that had lately been put more and more in jeopardy as she made enemies of Gotham's greatest criminals, all of whom were now dead.
He had to believe that she had had no idea what she was doing. But even so, she would have to be put away. She was too dangerous to allow on the streets.
Batman turned to go. He would have to find her, track her down, bring her in for the last time.
But as he went, something caught his eye, and he paused. There was that empty mirror…how did that fit? What need would Selina, or whatever force she controlled or was controlled by, have to remove a mirror from its frame? Why would anyone do such a thing?
Then, all at once, he understood. He understood everything.
Catwoman approached the pier with great caution. Her first instinct had been to avoid the place entirely. She'd even deliberately left off mentioning it when Batman had asked for all the hideouts she knew. She didn't want the clown to be saved, and she definitely wasn't willing to put Batman in danger to let it happen.
Now the big noble idiot had gone straight into the Joker's lair after all. Well, if he wanted to run the risk, that was his business. Hers was to keep moving, to not let the Terror get a bead on her. As it was, she was uncomfortably aware of the fact that it was running very low on alternative targets.
Selina Kyle would never admit to being scared, but scared was exactly what she was.
Yet she hadn't been able to make herself do the smart thing. Come to think of it, she'd been doing a lot of very stupid things lately trying to help him out. Hadn't she once promised herself she'd never make a fool of herself over a man?
Yeah, so much for that, she thought ruefully.
She crept along the boardwalk, keeping close to the shadows and avoiding the lights wherever she could. Batman was around somewhere, assuming he wasn't already….
Get a grip, Selina, she told herself, like the fool would go and get himself killed that easy.
She paused beside a dark storefront and listened. All was silent, except the breaking of the waves. The garish lights of the midway were on, but the gatehouse stood still and open, as though inviting visitors to enter under its shadow.
Then, just as she was about to move on, something darted out of the darkness and streaked across the light. She jumped back, but it was only a cat, as black as the night.
A smile pulled at her lips.
"Poor little pussy," she whispered. "All alone in the world, with no one to care for you."
The cat curled around a post and fixed its luminous yellow eyes on her, then darted off again down an alley between two shops. Something in the look it had given made her think that it wanted her to follow it. She slipped through the shadows after it.
The cat wound its way into the back street of the boardwalk, the hidden spine of dumpsters and crates behind the shops. Catwoman slunk along behind it, faintly mystified. Was it, perhaps, going to lead her to Batman? She'd known stranger things to happen.
It paused before the back entrance to the amphitheater. The cat looked at her, mewed, and slipped through the back door, which stood ajar.
Catwoman readied her claws, just in case, and pulled the door gently open. Inside was the shadowy rear of the theater, a mass of dark shapes only faintly outlined by the light – itself only the spray of the streetlamps – spilling in from the stage. She slipped inside, listening intently.
She had taken perhaps three steps into the darkness when a light suddenly sprang into bloom overhead. It was directed, not at her, but at the wall to her left. Selina gasped and stumbled backwards, bumping into a pile of crates that rattled like thunder in the silence.
The Penguin hung on the wall, limp and lifeless, the handle of his umbrella protruding from his stomach.
But that was impossible: the Penguin had died two nights ago. His body was in the police morgue.
Confused and deeply unnerved, Selina turned to flee out the way she'd come. But the door was shut tight, bared by the massive form of Killer Croc, strung up by his ankles like a hooked fish, dripping blood and larger, more solid parts from his many gaping wounds.
Selina stifled a scream and backed away. This was not right. This was definitely some kind of illusion. She thought of Scarecrow, or the Hatter; supposedly dead, but…
She turned to flee up into the stage-right wing, but found the way blocked by Two-Face lying on the floor with his head and part of his upper body split down the middle. Too desperate to give any thought to the uncanny, she sprang over the body and made for the stairs leading up to the wing, only to find the huge, twisted form of Bane blocking her way. She would have to actually crawl over him to reach the stage, but she wouldn't have touched one of these nightmare corpses for all the jewels in Gotham.
Selina turned back, meaning to circle behind the stage and exit through the left wing. From the darkness around her came low, rapid laughter.
"Who's there?!" she demanded.
The laughter continued. She swore and raced around the rear of the stage.
About the middle of the passage, another light switched on overhead and a silvery statue glittered before her eyes: Mr. Freeze. Even as she watched, he suddenly shattered into a thousand piece. Selina dodge past the shimmering pile, shaking her head, trying to fix her mind onto something, anything that might clear her brain from this nightmare.
She passed by a storeroom, the door open wide. As she passed, the lights inside bloomed and she instinctively looked inside.
Hugo Strange, his face a blank, eyes empty, smoking holes, sat propped up next to the Scarecrow, his eyes popping out of his head, his face fixed in a rictus scream. Beside him was what was left of Poison Ivy: crushed and looking half melted away.
The laughter continued. It grew louder as Selina raced for the stage.
The Mad Hatter's head, still wearing its green top-hat, goggled up at her from the middle of the stairs. With a cry of disgust, she leapt past it, up out into the light and open air. There, surely, the nightmare would end!
It didn't. In the center of the stage were two figures, lying seemingly locked in each other's arms. Facing her was Harley Quinn, her face blue and swollen over the Joker's shoulder.
Dreading what she would see, Catwoman couldn't prevent herself from crossing the stage to see the Joker's face, to discover whether he was alive or….
A grinning skull, still with spare bits of flesh clinging to it, greeted her.
Selina backed away, drawing deep, heaving gasps. She couldn't understand; this was all impossible. It was a nightmare. It….
She caught sight of something else in the corner of the stage. Something that, she was sure, had not been there a moment before. A lithe body, dressed all in tight fitting black leather, lay face up upon the wooden boards. It wore no mask, and the black halo of hair spread out around its pale, strangely bloated face looked wet, as if it had just been immersed in water. Dark, lifeless eyes stared unseeingly upwards.
For a moment, Selina stared down at the vision, her breath coming in rapid, shallow gasps, her eyes wide behind her mask. But she couldn't bring herself to give the body a name, even in thought.
Then the dead eyes suddenly fixed on her.
That broke her. Selina screamed aloud and turned to run, but something blocked her way; something big and dark and solid.
Desperately, Catwoman clawed at him, but he caught her arms.
"Selina!" Batman snapped. "Calm down! What's the matter?"
Relief! Sweet, wonderful relief flooded her heart.
"Oh, thank goodness!" she gasped, instinctively clinging to him. "I...I don't know what…"
She looked back over her shoulder. The Joker, Harley Quinn, and...the other body were all gone. The stage was empty.
"I think…I think someone's gotten into my mind," she said, turning back to Batman. "I think it was the Terror."
"The Terror?" Batman said sharply.
She nodded, looking anxiously about her.
"He's here," she said. "I can feel it."
"You're right," he said, looking past her, sweeping the amphitheater with his eyes. "So can I."
"What do we…." she began, but before she could finished something struck her hard on the back of the head and she fell into darkness.
Selina Kyle returned to consciousness with a jolt. Heavy steel wires bound her wrists tight behind her back, encircled under her chest, and wound around her legs, cinching the black leather of her suit tight and nearly piercing it through in places. She turned over, but even moving a little caused her to wince in pain from the cinching wires. She tried to extend her claws to cut through the binding wires, but found they had been removed.\
With an aching head, Selina looked around at the dark, narrow chamber she found herself in. The floor rocked gently back and forth beneath her, and the wet smell of salt water was in the air. She was on a boat.
Twisting painfully about, she put her face to the porthole beside her. They were on the ocean. The lights of Gotham glittered on the shore perhaps a quarter mile off like so many gold and red stars.
At that moment the engine stopped, and Selina's breath quickened as she realized the implications of her position.
Batman strode calmly down from the wheelhouse, holding a large sack, heavily laden.
"It was you, then?" she said. "All the time?"
"Yes," he answered. "It was me."
"I had a revelation," he said. "It's scum like you who make people's lives miserable. Who make them afraid to go outside, to live decent, normal lives. Well, from now on, you're the one's who will be afraid. You're the ones who won't dare show their faces after dark."
He shook the bag, and she heard the familiar clink of jewelry. The bag was full of precious stones. Batman reached inside and lifted a handful of gems. She recognized them; they were all objects from her personal storehouse. All things she had stolen. He dropped them back into the sack and twisted it shut. Then he produced a thin chain and bent over her bound feet. Selina tried to kick, but he caught her legs, holding them in a vice-like grip that made her gasp as he bound the chain to the wire around her ankles.
Selina's dark eyes went wide. Her breath was coming very fast now, her chest straining against the wires.
"Bad cats get drowned in sacks," he said, pulling the knot tight on the chain. "With your ill-gotten loot to pull you down."
Selina had always expected to die young. She had had any number of close calls already, and had thought that death didn't frighten her. But she was afraid now. More afraid than she had ever been in her life.
"This...this isn't you," she stammered. "You don't do this."
"I do now," he answered, and he lifted her, lifted her easily, and carried her out of the cabin onto the deck.
"No!" she gasped, squirming in his grip, trying to look into his eyes and not at the black water below. "Please, not like this! Not...not you."
Something in her mind slid into place, even as he carried her to the edge.
"Not you…" she repeated, but in a different tone. "You're not really him, are you?"
He paused and looked at her. Their eyes met...and she no longer had any doubts.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
His lips curled into a sardonic smile.
"I am the Terror."
He raised her up over his head, Selina screamed aloud, one final cry of desperation….
Something flashed through the air and struck the Terror. A surge of electricity coursed along Selina's body, but only for an instant as she fell from his grip...no, as his grip collapsed like melting wax. She landed painfully at the very edge of the deck, her face hanging over the cold black water, while above her the figure that been Batman contorted into a series of weird, grotesque shapes, screaming aloud as the electricity surged through its body.
Batman sprang from his own boat, which had run up silently alongside theirs, and faced them from the other side of the deck as the grotesque nightmare figure dislodged the electrical batarang and solidified again, but not into the form of Batman. Instead, what stood on the deck was a huge, hulking, golem-like monster seemingly made of mud.
"Clayface!" Selina gasped.
"Get away from her, Karlo," Batman ordered.
Clayface glared at him, then suddenly shifted into the form of Killer Croc. With a roar, he sprang at Batman, who dodged just in time and threw another batarang. This time Clayface knocked it out of the air before it could impact him.
"So, you figured it out at last?" he said, and his face and voice became those of the Riddler. "My my, took you long enough, didn't it?"
He swung his cane at Batman's head. Batman ducked the blow and retaliated with a punch that made him wince as the Riddler's face cracked like sandstone.
"I never would have expected it of you, Karlo," said Batman, stepping back and shaking his injured hand. "What did you have to gain by it?"
"Maybe the satisfaction!" said Karlo, shifting into the form of Victor Zaasz and thrusting a knife at Batman. "The pleasure of seeing these animals put down for good!"
Batman dodged the blow and tossed a flashbang into his face. Selina shut her eyes just in time, but the explosion made her ears ring. Clayface snarled, blinking as he reformed from the blast.
Meanwhile, Selina twisted her feet around to try to bring her ankles in reach of her bound hands. She was flexible enough to accomplish it, but the tightness of the wires made her grit her teeth in pain as she did so. She began fumbling with the chain.
"A garden can't grow unless the weeds are pruned," said Clayface, shifting into the form of Poison Ivy. He raised one hand and it became a long thick tendril lashing out at Batman. Batman stepped out of the way and the vine struck the deck, rocking the boat. Selina gasped as she slipped a little further over the edge.
"Yet you still refuse to do what is necessary, Detective?" said the form of Ra's al Ghul, slashing at him with a sword. Batman ducked the blow, stepping nimbly back out of reach.
"There's nothing necessary about wholesale murder, Karlo!"
"Au contraire, my unfeathered friend," retorted Clayface, shifting into the Penguin and slashing with his umbrella, cutting a deep gash in the armor over Batman's chest. "It's the only way to find justice. True justice!" he declared as Two-Face appeared.
"Justice is for the courts to decide."
"In a sane world, the courts would declare 'off with their heads!'" said the Mad Hatter just before shifting into the Queen of Hearts and swinging a great ax at Batman.
Again he evaded the blow, and again the boat rocked, and Selina felt herself slipping further towards the edge. She dug her nails into the deck and tried to shift herself into a safer position. But the chain was loose.
"Instead, the whole city lives in fear!" Clayface continued in Scarecrow's form. "And its people have their spirits broken night after night," added Bane, aiming a punch at Batman that smashed through the wall of the cabin. "Restraint is cold comfort when it cannot bring justice," said Mr. Freeze. Then Clayface shifted again, this time into Professor Hugo Strange.
"Tell me, why have you been so reluctant for so long to take that final step, Mr. Wayne?"
Selina almost forgot her precarious position in surprise.
Wayne? Bruce Wayne?!
"It isn't my place, or yours!" Batman answered.
"So instead, you let people like me run free!" said Clayface from behind the Joker's visage.
"Well, no more!" roared Clayface, resuming his 'natural' form. "I've cleansed Gotham! And now it doesn't need you!"
He caught Batman with one hand, extending it out in a glue-like mass of mud. The other formed an ax that he raised over his head.
Selina twisted as hard as she could, ignoring the pain shooting through her muscles as she swung her bound legs around in a rapid arc. The heavy bag of jewels flung from the end of its chain and struck Clayface on the back of the head. He staggered, momentarily distracted, and that was all the opening Batman needed. His hand snapped onto his utility belt, and a wave of high-frequency sound burst forth. Clayface screamed and staggered back, his body contorting violently under the frequency, twisting into a thousand shapes and colors until he plunged over the deck and into the sea.
But the effort of the throw had caused Catwoman to slip too far. She tried to catch the edge of the deck, missed, dangled on the razor's edge for a moment, then with a cry of despair she fell.
The cold water enveloped her instantly. She thrashed hard, but even without the bag weighing her down the tight bonds made swimming impossible. She sank into the depths, surrounded by utter blackness.
Selina hadn't thought she was afraid to die. But now it was really happening, she found that, after all, she wished she didn't have to. If only she'd done things differently, or if she'd had more time. If only she'd...well, if only a lot of things.
At least I got to learn who he was, she thought as the darkness consumed her. Never would have guessed Bruce Wayne….
This really was it, then. She could even feel something like strong arms lifting her up, up and away….
The next thing she knew, Selina Kyle was coughing herself back into consciousness.
She was lying on the deck of the Bat Boat, her bonds had been cut, and Batman was bending over her. His mask was off, and his face was very close to hers, as if he had just been giving her mouth-to-mouth.
There really seemed only one thing to do, under the circumstances. Selina had never been one to deny herself anything that seemed to promise a good time, and besides, she'd just been within an inch of death, so why not?
He didn't push her away. On the contrary, he responded with encouraging enthusiasm. They held each other for what felt like a long time. A long, wonderful time.
Finally, they broke apart, but she didn't let him go. Instead, she gripped him even tighter, pressing her face into his chest, as though afraid she might tumble back off into the darkness.
"Don't let me go now," she whispered. "Please."
For answer, he tightened his own grip on her.
At last, she let herself fall back upon the deck, gazing up into the at once familiar and strange face. She grinned, pushing her sodden, night-black hair out of her face, realizing dimly as she did so that her own mask was off as well.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Wayne," she said.
"Miss Kyle," he answered. "I'm going to want my paper clips back."
She laughed. It burst forth in an uncontrollable torrent of mirth like she'd never experienced before. It was almost too much to realize that she was alive after all, and not only alive, but here in his arms at last.
But her sobriety quickly returned as she recalled the shadow that still hung over them.
"Clayface!" she said, sitting up sharply. "Where is he?"
Batman rose and looked around. The boat that Karlo had used to take Selina out still bobbed ominously a short distance away, but seemed abandoned.
"I think," he said. "That he's returned to the city."
"So it was him all along," she said.
He nodded as he pulled his cowl down again and piloted the boat toward the shore.
"Riddler figured it out from the start," he said as she joined him at the helm. "Probably saw him on one of his drones. It didn't do him much good though. I should have guessed sooner; so easy for Clayface to fake his own death, especially when the concrete blends with the mud. And who else could get so close to everyone, arrange everything as he liked, all without anyone being the wiser? I wondered why the Terror had destroyed Freeze's gun, and why Riddler was so certain Freeze would be an early target: because that was about the only thing in the city that posed a threat to him.
"But it was the mirror in the Joker's room that put the pieces together. The only reason to empty a mirror like that would be to pose as a reflection. And the only one who could have done that was Clayface. Once I saw that, I knew."
"And came after me," she said.
"You were the last major target," he said.
"That the only reason?" she asked with a smile.
"One of several," he answered, glancing at her.
"So what now?" she asked.
"Now I have to go find him. And end this."
"How do you plan to do that? He could be anywhere, look like anyone."
"No," said Batman. "Right now, I think there's only person he wants to be."
The movie that night had been The Mark of Zorro. He could still taste the popcorn, still remember that thrill of seeing the acts of daring do play out on the screen.
It was like the last memory of a dead life.
The old theater hadn't been torn down, though it had long ceased to function. The stalls were run-down and sagging, and the omnipresent smell of popcorn was now blended with mildew.
A newsreel from twenty years previous was playing: the preliminary before the feature. The theater was empty, save for one, solitary patron.
Clayface sat in the center of the middle row. He looked now as the world had long known him; Basil Karlo, the man of a thousand faces. The charming, elegant star of classy horror films, with a high forehead and compelling, deep-set eyes.
Batman went and took the seat beside him. For a moment there was silence.
"You're dying," said Batman at last.
"You're clever, Detective," Karlo answered. He chuckled. "I never knew anyone called you that. I like it. Yes, it turns out being a living pile of mud isn't good for you. What tipped you off to that, by the way?"
"What does a man most hope to gain
before he returns from whence he came?
"The Riddler's final riddle. 'Whence he came' is the dust."
"Or the clay," said Karlo. "I've got maybe a month. Maybe more with care, but not much." "Is there anything that can be done?"
"Might have been, but only with highly experimental treatments. That would take money and connections, and I didn't have either. Disguising myself wouldn't do much good either; it was the real me that needed the treatment. I was desperate and so I went to the Penguin. I'd done a lot of work for him over the years, so I figured he might help me out of gratitude if nothing else. But he just laughed at me, said he wasn't about to throw good money after a long shot like that, and that he'd been expecting this for a long time. I was so desperate, so angry, and here was this fat little man mocking my pain. I didn't think about it, I just grabbed his umbrella and stuck the little bird to his wall."
He blinked, as though surprised at his own recollection.
"I hadn't meant to do that. I panicked and ran out, trying to think what to do next.
"I was disguised as a woman. I'd taken it without thinking before I went to see Penguin: some girl I'd noticed earlier that day. Well, I was wandering about, trying to decide what to do, feeling sorry for myself, and all of a sudden Victor Zaasz stepped out of the shadows, waving that little knife of his and ranting in the way he did. It took me a minute to realize what he was doing. He meant to murder me! That seemed hilarious to me at that moment. I laughed and laughed, right in his face. That set him off and he went for me, so I grabbed his hand and gave him one more tally mark. I took my time too; let him feel how helpless he was as the knife approached his throat. He didn't like the game so much then."
He paused, thinking back over the scene.
"It was as I was looking down at Zaasz as the life left his eyes that it hit me. He'd been out looking for someone to hurt, some innocent young girl to practice his sick games on. But now, he'd never do that again. No one else would ever lose a wife or daughter or friend to him. The same thing with the Penguin. They'd both done so much harm, but now that was all over. No one would ever need to be afraid of them again. I'd done that."
There was a faint note of pride in his voice.
"I thought about all the other rogues out there. I though how I didn't have long anyway, and my hands aren't exactly clean to begin with. If I could remove them, that would be something I could...could give back. Something I could at least leave behind me, so that my life wouldn't be so completely wasted."
"So you went for Croc next."
"I didn't have much in the way of plans," said Karlo. "My first thought was that you'd be on the trail and I'd need to throw you off. So I went and gave myself a funeral: broke off a piece, filled it out a little, and buried it in the cement. I was just finishing when I saw the Joker send his signal up. I went to the pier to try to find him. I knew he'd be expecting you, so I took your form. As soon as I got there, Croc jumped me. Guess that was the clown's welcome for you. Well, I figured he was as good a place to start as anyone, so I went at him. Tackled him right off the pier."
"He sure wasn't expecting that. Joker either. I don't do so well in water, as you know, but I managed it. I formed my hands into jaws like his, tore Croc to bits, then left him in the ocean. Joker hadn't seen everything, but he'd seen enough to know I'd killed him. He made tracks after leaving that little bat toy. Then I saw you coming and quickly made myself into a cop until you were out of sight and I could get away.
"It was rumored among the underworld that the Mad Hatter had seen everything in the city when he turned on his machine last week. So I made for Arkham. Once I was in his cell and had strangled the video feed, I took the form of the Queen of Hearts. I knew he'd tell me anything I wanted if I played into his 'Alice' fixation. He gave me everyone except for Catwoman and Joker He didn't know where they were. I left him alive then, in case I needed to interrogate him further. Then I went and began to plan how I would...would do it."
Karlo looked down at his hands.
"It was all...so easy," he said. "All of them. They never even saw me coming. I made a list and worked out how I would kill each and every one of them. I wanted it to be clear that this was punishment: their crimes visited back upon them. But I didn't want to hurt anyone else either."
"That's why you evacuated the building," said Batman.
"I figured the fire would get out of control pretty quick. First, though, I spent most of the day setting things into place, making sure I could find them, preparing the ground. That sort of thing isn't so difficult when you can look like anyone you want."
"Who is he and what does he hold
That fears not danger, hunger, or gold?
"The answer is power. Riddler was telling me to think of who was the most powerful criminal in Gotham when it came to what he could do. That meant you, of course."
He thought a moment.
"How did you kill Two-Face?"
"I formed myself around the statue before he came in and took its appearance: it would only look a little bigger than usual. Then I just waited for Dent to get close and…"
Karlo made a gesture like an ax blow.
"You should had seen the look on his face. Supernatural awe. Justice come to life to strike him down…."
"What about Professor Strange?"
Clayface smiled at him.
"I knew he was obsessed with you, so I took your form again. Imagine my surprise when he called me 'Mr. Wayne'! Well, you know what I did next: strapped to his own operating table and sent a few thousand volts through that brain he was so proud of. He was pretty calm for the most part, gloating how he'd always known the truth about you. Then I showed him myself and asked if he'd guess the truth about me. He didn't take that well at all!"
Batman nodded. It was like Strange to have been pained more by being proved wrong than by the prospect of death.
"He was the only one I was afraid of. His gun could have stopped me cold, you know. I took the form of his wife to throw him off. Freeze was too clever for that, though; he guessed it was me pretty quickly. But it was enough to get hold of his gun. I froze him solid and shattered him, then snapped the thing in half."
"First I dumped a pile of salt in her garden; killed her plants. Then I sort of fed myself into one of them and used it like a puppet: pulled her in and crushed her in its trap. The thing still had some of its digestive juices too. Whatever's left of her is under at least ten feet of dirt if you still want to dig her up.
"Bane was the only one who really put up a fight," Karlo went on. "I went at him in his own shape to confuse his crew. He came out swinging, but even with the venom he wasn't a match for me. Took a bit of effort to get hold of him, but when I did, I just lifted him over my head and…."
Karlo made a motion like snapping a twig.
"Ra's al Ghul was pure improv. I didn't know he was in the city until I saw you chasing after that ninja and followed you. Once in the steel mill I split myself up and explored around to find all his people, and I took them out. It was simple. Just get up behind or above them and put a blade through their throats. They never even saw me coming. Then one of me took the form of the ninja girl and went to try to get you away from Ra's, while I let you get a glimpse of the other me. I just made myself all black and vaguely feminine to try to throw you off.
"That was the part I was most worried about. I had no idea whether Ra's's people had their own special code or language or what have you. I thought I might give myself away then and there. But I was lucky and you fell for it. Then once you were far enough away not to interfere, I went for Ra's. Tried to stab him from behind at first, but he parried and stuck me instead. Bastard was quick. So, then I showed myself to him, caught hold of him, and threw him into the pit."
There was a pause.
"When you killed Hush," said Batman. "Did you know it was him? Or were you targeting me?"
"No, I don't think I ever meant to kill you," said Karlo. "I knew Elliot, of course. I'd done work for him before, you remember. He had a...style to his acting. The kind that comes from people with no training at all trying very hard to imitate someone. Not hard for me to pick up on, especially since I knew by then that you were on my trail. I had hoped to be able to pay out Elliot, that bastard."
Batman brooded a moment in thought over his former friend.
"Tell me about Scarecrow. How did you get the toxins in?"
"The Hatter told me about one of his safe houses, where he kept canisters of that fear gas of his. I got a couple of them and brought them into Arkham, hiding them in the cart while I was pretending to be the janitor. First I caulked Crane's door shut, to make sure that none of it escaped and that no one could get in to help him. Then I split myself and carried the canisters into the ventilation system, holding them inside my body. I took out the power along the way."
"Yes," said Batman. "You were the only one who could have fit through those shafts, especially carrying those canisters. What about the bats?"
"That was more ad lib. When I was making my way through the vents I found a nest of them in one of the big shafts. I remembered Crane was terrified of bats, so I caught a few and pushed them in after the gas."
"After that you finished off the Hatter and the Riddler."
"Should've gone to the Riddler sooner; he had all of Gotham under surveillance. The only ones the Hatter couldn't tell me were Catwoman and the Joker, and there they both were on the Riddler's wall."
"How'd you rig up that trap so quickly?"
"Well, it wasn't really a trap," Karlo admitted. "The wires were just hooked to the bomb. He could have taken them off and walked away any time. But I told him that they would set it off if they weren't cut in exactly the right order. Made it a challenge for him to figure out what the pattern was, only there was no pattern. The fool was so obsessed with puzzles it never occurred to him it might be a bluff."
"You staged them all to fit their crimes," he said.
"The world is I, and I the world
All life held tight in velvet furled.
"A stage. A theatrical performance."
There was a pause.
"Tell me about the Joker."
"I killed Harley first," said Clayface. "I took the form of the Joker and invited her in for a kiss, then I just...spread my face out a little.
"After that I slipped into the room with the mirrors and took the glass out of one of the frames. I took the form of the Joker, took one of those squirting flowers of his, and waited for him to come in."
"Duck Soup," said Batman. "The mirror routine."
"I thought long and hard about how I'd take the Joker down," Karlo said. "I knew he was damn clever and might have anything up his sleeve. But I thought that the one thing he'd let his guard down for would be a good gag. So I arranged one. I got behind the mirror frame and imitated his movements, inviting him to try to fake me out. Then he put his hands to his lapels, like he was trying on a suit, admiring himself. And as soon as he did that, I sprayed him with his own acid. And just to be extra sure, while his face was melting off, I went up to him and shoved the whole flower down his throat."
Karlo clenched his fist, which momentarily assumed the form of rock.
"He wasn't laughing so much at the end."
Batman could picture the scene; the two Jokers, the one clutching his burning face, the other tearing his hands away to plunge the squirting flower, still half-full of deadly acid, right into his mouth, then standing back and watching the clown's final, agonized convulsions.
"Why kill Catwoman?"
Karlo looked sideways at him.
"You do care for her after all, then? I'd never believed that. I would have gotten to her sooner, but I needed to find her lair first: plan was to get her loot and weigh her down with it. Found it on the Riddler's map and then I stopped by on my way to the Joker to pick them up. Then when she arrived I arranged a little show for her. It...it seemed appropriate, somehow. Just like the end of one of my movies."
He thought about it.
"As I got to the end of the list, there just didn't seem anything else to do but to keep going: to keep taking down criminal after criminal until...until the end."
"That's not going to happen."
"You know, I'm glad it worked out that way. Perfect climax: the dashing hero rushes in and saves the beautiful damsel in distress at the last second. Maybe in the process he realizes just how important to him she really is."
He turned a smiling face on Batman.
"Life is short, my friend," he said. "And she loves you painfully. I could see it in her eyes."
Batman didn't reply.
"You know what has to happen now," he said after a moment.
"Yes," nodded Karlo. "Now you'll take me in. Now I'll go back to Arkham, to that sealed cell they keep for me, and I'll sit there and wait to die."
"Don't try anything," Batman warned.
"I won't. Like I say, that was the perfect ending. Why spoil it? I'll come quietly, don't you worry. At least…"
He smiled and looked at the screen.
"After the movie."
Batman nodded and turned to face the screen as the title card of that classic horror film blared.
"Basil Karlo is The Terror."
Bruce wore a tuxedo. Selina wore a black silk dress that hugged the lines of her body and went well with her ebony hair and dark eyes, contrasting beautifully with the whiteness of her bare shoulders and the sparkling diamond necklace at her throat. They sat across the table in Newmar's, the high-class restaurant high up in Wayne Tower.
"It feels weird to not be scoping out the place," she said in an undertone. She fingered the necklace at her throat. "Helps that this is a lot nicer than anything anyone else is wearing."
"I thought you'd like it. You stole it two years ago."
"Oh, right. I thought it was familiar.
"It was my mother's."
Selina cleared her throated and looked down.
"I...I don't know what to say to that."
"Neither do I," he admitted. "Except that it suits you."
She smiled. It was a surprisingly shy smile. Not at all her usual cocky grin.
"This is going to take a lot of getting used to," she said.
"I know," he answered. "For both of us."
"Really? I thought this was your speciality: playboy man-about-town Bruce Wayne, with a new supermodel or ballerina on his arm each week."
"You're neither," he replied. "That makes a difference."
She turned away to hide how much his words gratified her. Looking to change the subject, her eyes fell on a woman sitting a few tables away.
"Look at her bracelet," she said. "Leopards in amber and opals."
"Easy Selina," he said warningly.
"Oh, just admiring," she said. "Don't worry, I'll behave myself from now on. Well…" she winked. "Most of the time."
"You did put all the jewels back, didn't you?"
"Yes, yes, all perfectly respectable. We're all making sacrifices."
"Including the Midas Ruby?"
"First thing. After all, I already got my heart's desire."
Her hand touched his, again in that gentle, almost shy manner so different from her usual bravado. He took it and squeezed reassuringly.
At that moment, his cell phone rang. Bruce momentarily considered just letting it go to voice mail. He was, after all, trying to ease back a little. Surely the city could get by without Batman for one night, especially considering how quiet it had been over the past week or so. But that was a step too far too soon. He'd work on it.
"Yes?" he said, picking up the phone.
"Begging your pardon sir, but I have just had word from the Commissioner…."
Bruce's expression changed as he listened.
"Thank you, Alfred," he said.
"Duty calls?" Selina asked.
"No," he said. "He just wanted to let me know that Basil Karlo is dead."
"Oh. I hope you don't expect me to tear up."
"Not at all."
There was a pause, which she covered by gulping some champagne.
"I thought...I thought you said he had longer than that. A month or more."
"Yes...he would have. But the doctors at Arkham told me that he'd been holding to his original shape nonstop. As he looked when he was acting, I mean. I think the strain of maintaining it accelerated his death."
Selina looked out the window at the city spread out below them.
"And still no one knows who the Terror really was," she said.
"Gordon and I agreed that it might be best to let the criminal element continue to believe that it's out there."
"Well, I'm not about to forgive him for trying to murder me," she said sharply.
"Nor am I. And I still wish it all never happened."
"But, in fairness," she went on, "I've never seen the city so quiet."
"And Gordon's starting to move against the rest of the underworld," Bruce added. "The evidence he got from the Iceberg Lounge was enough to put half the mobsters in Gotham away for life."
She fingered her glass thoughtfully.
"So good comes out of evil," she sighed.
"He said he wanted to leave something better behind him than just crime and pain," said Bruce, and once again he recited the Riddler's final puzzle:
"What does a man most hope to gain
before he returns from whence he came?
"The answer: Redemption."
"Well," she said, raising her glass grudgingly, "here's hoping the bastard got what he wanted."
Together they silently toasted the dead actor who became a monster who became the Terror that had swept Gotham clean.