Sewers in new cities were generally not that bad, since they neatly divided the rainwater from the other, neatly piped muck. Sewers in old cities, where everything mixed together and was sorted out later, were worse.
The sewers of Gotham were some of the oldest, proudest, most disgusting sewers in the world. Attempts had been made to modernize them over the years. Pipes, scaffolding, and other evidence of these abandoned updates littered the cavernous maze and made an excellent home for rats, insects, and a variety of other creepy-crawlies that might be found in the garbage of any exterminator.
This particular area of sewer was also home to one of its most vicious denizens: Killer Croc. In point of fact, tonight it was home to two beings who enjoyed nothing quite so much as a nice fistfight in the dark. Croc was lurking here, and tonight, so was the Batman.
A pair of feet clad in chest-high hip waders splashed into the suspiciously brownish water. Edward Nygma adjusted his backpack and peered into the darkness with the assistance of his flashlight. Being a crimefighter had its perks - not having a 'Kill On Sight' order from the cops was probably top of the list - but being a criminal had its good points too. For example, if someone with a slight passion for riddles wanted to track down someone with a slight passion for bonking people over the head with rocks, he merely had to ask around the Iceberg for a few minutes and people would willingly give him the address.
Right. He was here, and Batman and Croc were...he consulted his bit of paper. They were over there, around the series of switchbacks and slanting tunnels that had probably been someone's bright idea to keep the sewers from overflowing. Not that it had helped much - this week's rainstorm had brought the water level up to just below Eddie's knees when it should have been down around his ankles.
He shouldered his rattly, heavy backpack and squidged along the dark tunnel. His bobbing flashlight beam reflected two beady red eyes as a rat popped an inquisitive head out of a hole in the crumbling brick wall. Eddie screeched with horror and hurled the flashlight at it. It missed by a good three feet, bouncing off of the ancient brickwork and sinking forever beneath the depths of the disgusting water.
Panting in terror, Eddie pressed his back against the wall, or as close as he could get with a fat backpack strapped to his spine. He closed his eyes tight and buried his face in his hands. I'm okay, he thought frantically. I'm okay I'm okay just a rat just a rat just a rat it's okay rats have rabies and rats have the plague but I'm okay, it didn't touch me and it's in the wall and it can't get me because rats can't swim it's okay just get out of here and it'll be okay!
He peeked out between his fingers. The tunnel glowed dimly from the handful of decrepit lights swinging rustily from the ceiling. Go! Go now! The rat, almost invisible in the gloom, chittered rat laughter at him as he hustled past.
He whipped around the corner and splashed wildly upward, making the shallow incline of the tunnel feel more like a mountain as he fought the water and the slick footing in order to get as far away from that rat as possible.
Finally, after the second turn, he slowed down. The rat wasn't going to get him. There were lights down here, enough so that he could see, and...well, that stupid Dick wasn't going to get the better of him. Scared of the dark? He was scared of more than that, but he was gonna show him. He'd find Batman, and then they'd have some fun. Piece of cake.
Someone was talking up ahead. He sloshed as quietly as possible toward the conversation, not noticing the family of mice that peered at him nearsightedly from their hole in the ceiling.
Batman had finally tracked down the elusive reptilian rogue by painstakingly tracking him from the last playground he'd been spotted at. Instead of racing inside, weapons at the ready, he was crouched inside a handy gap made by a crumbled wall just outside the lair, watching Croc with amazed disbelief.
Croc had been visiting playgrounds, but not to take the children. His lair was crammed top to bottom with purloined playground accessories. An old metal slide was positioned below a broken pipe in order to transform it into a makeshift waterslide. Plastic multi-colored tunnels were stacked haphazardly into a sad, filthy fort in the corner. A tangle of broken bars must have been the remains of at least three separate jungle gyms, shattered into pieces under Croc's huge hands.
The rogue himself hadn't noticed Batman lurking in the shadows. His attention was solely focused on the imaginary Batman that was chasing him through the maze of stolen playthings. "I'm gonna get you," he growled menacingly, in a rather passable imitation of the Batman. Then, cranking his voice up an octave, "No, wait! Don't you want to smell my flower?" He belted out a laugh that could have been the Joker's after a bout of throat surgery and leaned forward at the invisible Batman. "Ack! Toxin!" he growled, falling on the ground and thrashing theatrically. It would have been cute if it had been a child. The charm wore off of the game when the actor was a 400-pound block of homicidal muscle prancing about squealing in mock terror in the sewer.
Batman eased backward in his hidey-hole, shaking his head. That looked like the final death knell for whatever sanity Croc had left. Maybe he could talk the doctors at Arkham into letting him have some kind of toy in his pen...
Footsteps pattered on the cement behind him. He whipped his head around to see the Riddler, grinning (appropriately enough) like a lunatic and hauling a tattered backpack on one shoulder. "There you are!" he exulted. "I've been looking all over for you!"
A black-gloved fist pinned him to the wall by his throat. "Shut up," Batman growled.
"Who's there?" Croc demanded. "I heard you." Through a crack in the bricks, Batman saw him standing uncertainly at the edge of the water. He peered around, examining each corner, and quickly spun around as if to catch someone sneaking up on him. "No such thing as monsters," he mumbled, trying to reassure himself. "No such thing."
Batman looked along his arm at the Riddler, whose eyes were dancing with mischief. "You're a big scary monster," Nygma whispered gleefully. "Go get him!"
"Shut. Up." He pressed Nygma harder against the rotted wall. A crack snaked upward and freed a half-brick, which tumbled into the water after smacking Nygma resoundingly on the head.
"Who's there? I heard you that time!" Croc yelled, his deep voice echoing down the tunnels. His nostrils flared. "Batman," he snarled. He splashed into the shallow water, sending up twin plumes of filth as he barreled toward Batman's hiding spot. "I'm gonna get you!"
In one smooth motion, Batman dropped the mildly concussed Riddler and swept a handful of explosive-tipped batarangs from their pouch on his belt. BANG! BANG! BANG! The little explosives connected with their targets, sending Croc staggering backward into his badly-built fort.
Dirty plastic tubes tumbled down around him, thumping hollowly as they bounced off of his head. "Not fair," he muttered, sliding into a heap on the ground. "Not -" A final tube dropped from above and whacked him on the skull, silencing him.
The Riddler peeked out from behind the pile of bricks. "Great!" he enthused, leaping to his feet. His backpack fell open to reveal a plethora of brightly colored boxes. "Now that he's out, do you wanna play a game? We could play Scrabble, or Trivial Pursuit, or Scattergories, or chess, or..."
Batman ignored him and picked his way across the shallow pond to Croc. He lay unconscious on the rubble, black scorch marks marring the rags he wore as clothes. The plastic tube that supported his neck had a large green sticky circle of latex on it that was almost identical in color to Croc's neck. In the center of the circle, almost invisible, was a little black device that blinked teasingly at him.
"...or Tic-Tac-Toe, or erk!" The Riddler spluttered nonsense as Batman grabbed him by the head. "Hey! Get offa me! Hey!" Nygma aimed a protesting kick at Batman's knees, which was easily deflected by his body armor.
There it was - a little beige circle right on the nape of Nygma's neck. Rrrrrip. "OWIE!" he bellowed, wrenching himself away from Batman and rubbing the back of his neck indignantly. "Ow!...that really hurt," he grumbled, examining his fingertips for blood. He stiffened, looking up with a rare look of complete confusion. "Why am I in the sewer with a bag of board games?"
"You wanted to play a game with me," Batman explained, letting a tiny sharklike smile curl one edge of his lip upward.
This was the familiar first move in a game that the Riddler had played all too many times. "Well, look at the time, gotta run - " he chattered, uneasily edging around the Batman as if he was a rabid dog. "People to see, places to - erk!"
The pair of weights at the end of Batman's silently-thrown bola thudded hard into his sternum. He went down in a splashing, kicking plume of dirty water, coughing frantically as the disgusting stuff got into his mouth. "You could have just said please," the Riddler grumbled miserably as Batman loomed up in front of him, batcuffs at the ready.
Sometimes detective work relies on countless hours of searching, finding clues, beating information out of people and painstaking research. And other times, like now, it involved nothing more than looking at the giant obvious neon sign of a clue that blinked wildly under one's nose, screaming I DID IT LOOK AT ME I DID IT!
There was only one person in all of Gotham who specialized in miniature devices that changed people's personalities. After making sure that Nygma and Croc were securely ensconced within Arkham's forbidding walls, Batman headed upstairs.
"No. Wait! Will you just...will you wait a minute!" Dr. Carlson yipped, delicately avoiding the occasional drip of sewage that flicked off of the end of Batman's cape. "Where are you going?"
In answer, Batman tossed the device that he'd peeled off of Nygma's neck at the doctor. The man caught it with one flailing hand. "This is...oh. Tetch did this?"
"Yes," Batman said flatly.
"Well, that's...I mean, we can take it from here. You don't have to..."
Batman turned and gave the flustered doctor one of his patient, I-know-what-you're-up-to glares.
The doctor wilted. "We..." He straightened, remembering that he was supposed to be in charge here. "We are trying to handle this from our end of things," he declared, stuffing his hands into his labcoat pockets. "They're all behaving like children. What if we could give them a better childhood?"
"In Arkham," Batman pointed out.
"Well, yes. Yes! We could...we could take them outside occasionally, to the zoo, or...if we can alter their behavior now, maybe we can alter their behavior as adults!"
Batman scowled. "Or perhaps you'll waste years re-training them to be nice, only to discover that they don't remember any of it when the mind control wears off."
"Why wouldn't they remember?" Carlson seethed.
"Because they don't." They stopped in front of the plexiglass wall that made up the front portion of the Mad Hatter's cell. Batman held Croc's sticky green circle of latex up for Jervis' inspection. "Well?" he graveled.
Jervis grinned cheekily.
"Why did you do it?" Dr. Carlson demanded, flushing crimson with rage as he watched all of his latest hopes and dreams come crashing down around him.
Jervis waved a hand in the air. "This is a child!" he exclaimed, pointing to the green circle. "I always thought they were fabulous monsters," he confided cheerfully to the irate psychiatrist.
"I take it that you did this for your own amusement?" Carlson demanded coldly.
"What do you suppose is the use of a child without any meaning?" the diminutive rogue demanded, sitting bolt upright. "Even a joke should have some meaning - and a child's more important than a joke, I hope. You couldn't deny that, even if you tried with both hands."
"What possible meaning could you find in turning the entire criminal population of Gotham into children?!"
Jervis sighed dreamily. "...find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days..." He shook his head, his dreamy happiness banished. "You must be very happy, living in this wood, and being glad whenever you like!"
Dr. Carlson drew himself up furiously. "Am I to understand that you brainwashed this entire wing to make them happy?" he snarled.
Jervis nodded cheerfully. His smile faded as he noticed the angry glare on Carlson's face. "Of course it would be all the better...but it wouldn't be all the better his being punished."
"You're wrong there, at any rate," Carlson said flatly. He turned to the nearest guard. "Take him to solitary and leave him there...for a week," he corrected himself lamely as Batman gave him a seemingly casual glance.
The week passed with surprising quickness. Jervis skipped merrily down the hall to the recreation room, accompanied by a silent orderly. (Most staff were silent around Jervis, given that at times it took a fair amount of mental gymnastics to understand him.) The doctors hadn't understood, but who cared? He'd given his fellow rogues a lovely reminder of their happy childhood days, and they'd be certain to welcome him back with open arms.
He trotted into the room and slid into his customary seat at the chess table across from the Scarecrow. Crane looked at him coldly and turned his back on him, revealing an angry red patch on the back of his neck.
"Don't mind him," Harley Quinn said as she sat herself on the table in front of him. "He's just a little sore." She giggled. "Mistah J wanted to say thanks for the laughs. Go on, he's right over there!" She lightly shoved Jervis toward the clown lurking in the corner.
A little thrill of apprehension ran up his back. No, that was ridiculous. He'd done the Joker a favor! Certainly he wasn't going to do anything...mean.
"Jervis, Jervis, Jervis," the Joker said, shaking his hand. "What a thrill - what an absolute delight to be so close to the man that upset the entire rogues' gallery in one fell swoop. Bravo, Jervis, bravo! Though I do have to say that you missed the very best part of childhood. Tsk, tsk."
"I didn't -" Jervis stuttered.
"Hey!" Harley interrupted, pointing at his chest. "Ya got somethin' on yer shirt, Jervis!"
He instinctively looked downward. Her long, sharp fingernail flicked him hard on the nose. He stumbled backward, eyes watering.
"Oh, Harley, that wasn't very nice. Tell ya what, Hatsy, I'll make up for her." The Joker drew the Hatter in close with one companionable arm around his shoulder. "You like snacks, right? D'you want a hertz donut?"
Jervis, rubbing his nose, nodded dumbly. The Joker looked at him with a friendly smile and stomped on his foot hard enough to break his big toe. "Hurts, don'it?" he drawled.
Jervis freed himself from the Joker's grasp and limped backward. His shoulderblades collided with something soft. He looked straight up into Ivy's angry gaze.
"Flat tire!" she announced, stomping hard on his as-yet-uninjured heel. His shoe crumpled beneath her foot.
Jervis lurched away from the avenging rogues, stopping only when the Riddler blocked his path. "Bairn dun in," he growled, seizing Jervis' arm in both hands and twisting the skin viciously back and forth.
With panic surging into his throat, Jervis whirled to escape, only to find the rest of the rogues' gallery lined up to stop him. With the same evil grin on their faces, they leaned forward eagerly.
Author's Note: It's good to be back.
Like always, everything Jervis says in italics is a direct quote from either 'Alice in Wonderland' or 'Through the Looking-Glass', everything Eddie says in bold is an anagram, and everything I say is completely ridiculous. Oh, and rats can swim, though very few people know it.
Stay tuned next week for an extra-special story starring someone...er...extra-special.