Cover image by adabsurdum.
Visit the website at wwwdotcatversedotcom. You can find an alternate universe comic book adaptation of this story under "Photo Spreads," or find a handily in-order listing of the stories under "Story Arcs." Also, as of June 2010, this series is undergoing a pretty extensive overhaul. Some things will be added, more things will be cut, everything will be tightened up, all in the name of bringing a better product to you, the reader. So if you have any advice or constructive criticism to share, please drop a line to me or BiteMeTechie. As always, your support is greatly appreciated.
And it begins...
This is a Christmas present for my first mate. If I actually owned these characters, I would wrap them up and stick them underneath the Christmas tree. (Okay, so it's not really a tree. It's a traffic cone. That hardly matters.) Unfortunately, I own nothing DC-related (an oversight that will be rectified someday, I don't doubt.) And so I offer this instead.
Now, all I want for Christmas is for TheNoblePorpoise to finally post something in return. It doesn't have to be The Year Without a Santa Claus snuff-smut (although I'm not writing it for you this time!) Just post your first Scarecrow fic, sweetums. I love that one, and I am hereby encouraging everyone who reads this to go and badger TheNoblePorpoise until she finally bloody well posts. Bother, bother, bother.
On with the story! Which is full of inside jokes, not the least of which is that one of the characters is named after one of my other characters. It's not intended to be the same person.
Now, imagine if you will, a Scarecrow voiced by Jeffrey Combs, drawn by Tim Sale, with Cillian Murphy's eyes. Yummy.
And as for the Riddler, let him be the unholy lovechild of Robert Englund and John Glover. (Unfortunately, my muse was unable to reach Frank Gorshin.)
Any other characters may be imagined as you will...
(P.S. A group of crows is called a murder, of course, but did you know that a group of ravens is called an unkindness? This pleases me.)
The Unkindness of Ravens
By December 20th, the Christmas decorations had already been up for well over a month. In the good parts of town, things could be replaced when they began to show signs of age.
In this part of town, things just got old before their time. Light bulbs burned out, got broken, or were stolen and never replaced. Posters faded into obscurity, if they lasted that long before being torn from the walls or painted over by vandals. Gaudy tinsel snowflakes and plastic Santas decorated every available pole, but the snowflakes were looking battleworn by the middle of the month, and more than one of the Santas sported a bullet hole or two.
No one walked alone there at night. Few people walked alone in broad daylight.
But this was twilight, the hour between dark and light, when the sun no longer brightened the grimy city streets, but the city wasn't yet ready to give in and put on its remaining functional lights.
It was a time of greasy grey shadows, in a place that did shadows best of all. And in a city that had seen everything and more, it was not at all surprising that one of the shadows moved.
This was a shadow that sometimes had a face and a name, walked on two legs and lived the life of a human being. Today it was simply a shape, flitting through lesser shadows with a single purpose.
It was following a man.
A man who did not belong there.
There was nothing truly spectacular about his appearance. He was past thirty, probably not past forty; he didn't leave himself open enough to make it easy to guess. The man was taller than average, and painfully thin, with a slightly downtrodden expression that was not at all uncommon in a place like this. He walked hunched over, apparently lost in thought, with both hands stuffed into the pockets of a jacket just (barely) good enough to mark him as a potential target for a mugging, although it was old and worn and didn't look like it was doing much against the cold. His face was mostly obscured by a thick fringe of rather shaggy light brown hair, a wide red crocheted scarf over his mouth and nose, and thick spectacles—on most people, they would have been glasses, but on this man, they were spectacles and nothing else.
He stepped into an alley, apparently oblivious to the blatant danger, and the shadow followed him, poised to strike.
But someone else followed him, as well. The shadow melted back, unseen among the other shadows on the wall. A shadow could not be impatient, and the plan...the plan could be adapted.
The absent-minded professor seemed not to notice the young man walking up behind him, or the older one up ahead, blocking the other end of the alley. Their intentions were brutally obvious to the trailing shape, as were the bulges under their jackets that could only be guns. So, their purpose in this game was deadly serious—the only people who ever carried guns around here were the ones who meant to use them. The gang that owned this territory policed its citizenry far more strictly and efficiently than Gotham City's actual police force ever could.
These two wore the colors of the ruling gang, but they were not part of it. Their movements were all wrong. These two were something more.
The shadow stayed close.
"Hey, you," said the man blocking the end of the alley, when the target seemed ready to just squeeze past him. Now he looked up, and immediately lost his dejected air.
"What do you want?" he snapped. "I'm working. If your interference costs me my new test subjects—"
"You think a stupid mask gives you immunity, Crane?" the leader growled. Intensely blue eyes narrowed behind the spectacles.
"I think you, of all people, should know better than to cross me again." His voice, though muffled by the scarf, came out icy, almost frightening in its absolute calm. The two young men were not intimidated.
"Filters," the leader said, tapping the side of his nose. "Some of us learn from our mistakes."
"Business," said the other man, who had been silent up until now. "Not pleasure." The intended victim turned to face them both; the movement put him within sprinting distance of a fire escape on one side and a set of garbage cans on the other.
"If you have business with me, speak and be done with it. I have more important matters to attend to."
"You know who we're working for, Crane. You've got to pay what you owe."
"Scarecrow," he said coolly. "If you insist on playing out this charade, you follow the rules."
The two men struck without warning, or so it seemed, but the Scarecrow was halfway to the fire escape in the time it would have taken a normal man to blink.
"Hold it," the lead thug bellowed as they both drew their guns.
That was about as effective as saying "stop" to a speeding bus. The Scarecrow swarmed up the fire escape, climbing like a gangly little monkey. He swung around, trying to put the scant protection of the ladder between his body and their guns. And at the moment when his balance was at its most precarious, the leader fired.
The shadow twitched. The second man dropped without a sound, a dart in his neck. His leader didn't notice.
The Scarecrow fell, clutching his bleeding hand, and landed hard on his back. Quicker than thought, the thug was on top of him. The butt of the pistol crashed down on the Scarecrow's nose, snapping the bridge of his glasses neatly in half.
The shadow moved closer, a second dart glistening dully in the dim light.
But assistance didn't seem to be required just yet. The Scarecrow managed to get a hand up to stop the next blow coming at his face. His hand closed around the other man's wrist, and a simple twist sent the attacker flying. A kick to the groin would have ended the fight then, had the man not rolled away, taking the blow in the thigh instead. He grunted in pain, but still managed to come up before the Scarecrow was well on his feet.
"You scrawny little bastard," he growled, and dove forward, slamming the Scarecrow against the nearest wall. With his left hand, he held the much smaller man pinned. With his right, he held the gun trained an inch from his face. "Joe, hold him." Joe, of course, was nowhere near able to respond. Not-Joe risked a glance over his shoulder at his fallen comrade. "What did you do to him?"
"Nothing," the Scarecrow said, wide-eyed. "Honestly."
"Damn you." He ripped off the scarf. A small plastic breath mask, defense against the Scarecrow's own weapon, clattered to the ground. "Open your mouth."
"Mmm?" Instinctively, the Scarecrow pressed his lips together.
"Now." The Scarecrow's lips parted just enough for the man to ram his gun inside.
Now the shadow quivered on the verge of action, calculating how best to take down the threat without causing the gun to go off. The last thing the shadow wanted was a messy death.
"How does that taste, Scarecrow? Taste like fear? Are you scared, Scarecrow?" He cocked the gun. "Answer." The Scarecrow said nothing, but he might have nodded, or it might only have been trembling that made the gun move slightly up and down. Either way, the answer was the same.
The shadow stepped away from the wall as the thug shoved his gun deeper into the Scarecrow's mouth, making him gag.
Having abandoned all pretense of subterfuge, the former shadow revealed itself to be a rather ordinary looking young woman dressed all in black, both hands clenched with suppressed rage, but otherwise apparently calm.
She stumbled theatrically into the garbage cans, setting off a ruckus that drew the attention of both men.
"Hi," she said, flashing a disarming smile. Not-Joe's eyes narrowed.
"Who are you?" She spread her hands, palms up.
"I'm here on business. Are you going to kill that man?" Her friendly smile widened. He refused to be charmed.
"Who wants to know?"
"I want to know. I told you, I have business with him. And I promise it's not anything he's going to enjoy. If you are going to kill him, maybe you could let me talk to him first?"
"Yeah? What do you want to talk to him about? I've got a schedule to keep here."
She gave him a measuring look.
"Does your schedule account for the time it takes to pistol-whip him? Come on. I have questions. I need answers. Simple as that."
The Scarecrow spoke up then. Whatever he said was completely unintelligible, but she mentally translated it as, "I can't even breathe with this gun in my mouth."
"I'm not asking you to let him go," she said gently. "I'm just asking for a few minutes of his time."
With a shrug, the man pulled his gun back. Coughing, the Scarecrow started to double over until the thug shoved him back up against the wall.
"Keep your hands where I can see them, Crane. You want to talk to the nice lady or not?" The Scarecrow collected himself enough to stare coolly into the other man's eyes.
"I told you what you can call me."
Not-Joe jerked the Scarecrow off his feet, swinging him around into human shield position. It was a good idea, but there was a split second when the gun was pointed at nothing in particular, and that was when she dropped her pose of harmlessness and struck.
Not-Joe went down with a dart in his neck. The gun went off, striking nothing important. The Scarecrow started to run—very quick, he was—but she caught him and brought him down as well.
And her smile was very different from her previous goofy grin, and far more genuine.
For such a tall man, there wasn't much weight to him. Still, she didn't compare in size with the average criminal goon, and he was far too heavy for her to cradle in her arms as she carried him to her car, so she had to settle for dragging him along behind her.
The tranquilizers would keep him thoroughly sedated for a good long while yet. There were other restraints for later, but they wouldn't become necessary for some time. Some of them wouldn't be necessary at all, she hoped.
She looked over at her captive, sleeping as soundly as a child in the passenger's seat. That peaceful expression wouldn't be on his face too much longer, she judged.
He was in for the surprise of a lifetime.
As for Joe and Not-Joe, she left them unconscious just inside the territory of a gang rival to the one whose colors they so brazenly displayed. They would most likely get just about what was coming to them.
And the Scarecrow…well, dealing with him was going to be quite a treat.
"Enjoy your nap, Squishykins," she said sweetly. "I get the feeling you won't be getting much rest, these next few days." She wrinkled her nose. "Just don't try too hard to get away. I had planned on bringing you in walking and talking."
He didn't answer, of course, which only made her smile all the more.