Don't Fear the Joker
Chapter 1: Irene Adler
Germs. The worst thing about winter. Marty Parks started the day with a hot shower—his showers were a lot hotter and a lot longer than they had been a week ago—and he scrubbed his skin raw with the scratchy new loofah. He'd always considered the loofah one of those silly, new agey things, but lately, he really didn't feel like a washcloth got him clean. He wanted something that would SCRUB. He wondered how sanitary they were though. He knew the loofah was some kind of fishy plant thing. It might not be that hygienic after you used it a couple times and then left it there, all wet, in the steamy bathroom. There was no telling what kind of mold or mildew might start growing in there. Impulsively, Marty threw his new loofah away once he had toweled off. They were cheap enough; he could get a new one. He was a working man, not made of money, but it was cold and flu season. You couldn't be too careful. If he got sick, he'd lose a lot more than the cost of buying a new loofah every week, that was for sure.
He checked to see that the iron was hot and laid out his uniform on the bed, giving the shirt and pants a good pressing before he put them on. He didn't used to be this meticulous about his appearance. He certainly didn't care about a few wrinkles in his shirt, but it occurred to him a few days ago that the heat of a really hot iron would kill any bacteria in the fabric. As an added bonus, it felt good, putting on the still-warm clothes before venturing out into the cold city. And he must look better. Patty in dispatch asked if he'd lost weight and Rick thought he got a haircut.
Once dressed, Marty put on his coat, but he waited until he was outside before using the hand sanitizer. After all, there was the doorknob inside his apartment, the one outside, the key and the lock. He'd touch all four on his way out. No point in sanitizing his fingers only to start rubbing them on all those microbe-infested surfaces seconds later.
"You know, Bruce, when we used to go out together, not only did you have fun, you weren't ashamed to admit you were having fun."
"I'm enjoying the company," Bruce said affectionately. "I enjoyed the steak. I'm just not sure about the movie."
Alfred Pennyworth once observed that Bruce and Selina were married in every way that mattered and the difficulty was that they appeared not to have noticed. One of the many traits they shared with traditional married couples was that once they moved in together, they stopped dating. Catwoman might refer to the nights she joined Batman on patrol as "date nights," but for their non-masked personas, a regulation night on the town was a rarity.
It was Selina who insisted it was time to renew the practice. A new Sherlock Holmes movie had been made. That's not something the World's Greatest Detective and his adversary-cum-love interest could ignore. Since he was a boy, Bruce loved Sherlock Holmes. His father introduced him to the Conan Doyle novels and was careful to explain that this was a work of fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor before he ever became a writer, and all of Holmes's methods were based on the tools of observation and deduction that doctors used to diagnose disease, which Doyle learned from his mentor, a Dr. Joseph Bell. Bruce was quick to notice that the stories were narrated by another medical man-turned-writer, and Doyle must have thought a lot of Watson to have made him his stand-in in the stories that way. Thomas Wayne beamed proudly, and he told Bruce to remember that when he eventually saw the movies based on these books. "The actor Basil Rathbone gave the world a fine portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the best there will ever be, but the Dr. Watson you'll see in those movies is a fool and a buffoon. Nothing like the decorated soldier and professional man you read about here." For Selina, Bruce's love of Holmes was pivotal in recognizing her own feelings for him. It was seeing him so excited about a Sherlock Holmes exhibit at the mythology museum that obliterated any divisions that remained between Bruce and Batman in her mind. In that moment, seeing him so uncharacteristically exuberant putting a costume together for the party opening the exhibit, she saw the whole, complete man. It was so different from anything she had ever seen him do, in costume or out, and yet it was so utterly and completely HIM… and she loved him so much, it made the soul ache.
So, if a new Sherlock Holmes movie was about to be unleashed on the world, they simply had to see it.
Germs. The awful thing about winter. Everybody had a cold. Everybody was coughing and sneezing, saturating the air with their infectious breath. Just waiting in line for his coffee, Marty heard a half dozen coughs and sniffs from his fellow patrons.
He looked around to see if maybe the freebie guy was back. Tuesdays and Thursdays for the past three weeks, there had been a guy at the door with a basket of free samples. Little packets of Kleenex, lip balm, hand sanitizer and cough drops. Said he was from some company called Mommet & Hodmedod. It was a nice service, cold and flu season being what it is and then all the added concern this year with that H1N1 thing going around. Was a real public service. With the depot across the street, so many of the patrons in this particular Starbucks were drivers. The way they went all over the city, coming into contact with so much stuff—you never realized until you thought about it just how much germ-infested STUFF you touch in a single day—why if they got sick, they could spread something nasty all over the city. That's why the freebie guy saved the hand sanitizer for the drivers. Most of the other patrons got the Kleenex or the cough drops, but whenever the freebie guy saw one of those uniforms, he reached into the basket and gave them…
Hey, there he was. Freebie guy from Mommet & Hodmedod, standing at the door with his basket of cold and flu season survival aids.
Bruce did not like going out to the movies, and Selina had offered to buy a bootleg on the street. Naturally, the judgmental jackass couldn't allow that, so out came the datebook and they decided on Friday night (since he had a finance meeting at WE that afternoon anyway. If he actually went to it, it would placate Lucius for a while, freeing up Bruce to blow off next week's budget meetings, which he couldn't stand). So Alfred booked them a table at d'Annunzio's, and Selina bought a new dress for the occasion.
During the short walk from the restaurant to the theater, Bruce expressed his misgivings. He had seen a television ad for this movie several times on the jumbotron in Times Square, and as one who loved Sherlock Holmes since he was a boy, he had some very serious misgivings. Holmes wasn't anybody's idea of an action hero. Yes, there was more adventure than true detective work in the original stories, but the thing about a legendary character like Holmes was the image that everyone had of him: consulting detective, deerstalker hat, pipe, "elementary," "the game's afoot."
"And Inspector Lestrade is a moron," Selina added happily. "Please don't forget that part. It's a detail near and dear to my heart."
Bruce grunted, and Selina suggested that, moron cops aside, Bruce should try to keep an open mind. Worst case scenario, it was a night out…
Germs. Marty could feel them on his hands. Squirming around in his pores. Germs. Bugs. Cooties. Bacteria. Fungus. Viruses. Spores. There was a little film on his fingers. Not quite oily, not quite sweat, but if he rubbed the pad of his thumb against index and middle fingers, he could feel a little trace of something. The skin wasn't bone dry, there was just enough moisture that the skin felt… well, it didn't feel like rubbing his thumb along the paper cup from Starbucks. There was no telling what microbes were swimming around in that film and diving into his pores. It made your skin crawl if you thought about it. There was no telling what was in there. Germs. Bacteria. Fungus. Spores. Swine Flu. Bird Flu. Horse Flu. Ferret Flu. There was even a Seal Flu listed on the internet. Asian Flu. Spanish Flu. Hong Kong Flu…
Marty set down his coffee and reached into his pocket, pulling out the new sample bottle from Freebie Guy and gave his fingers another good treatment. You couldn't be too careful. There was no telling what might be in the air in this filthy city. Germs, Bugs, Viruses, Spores. He could just feel them, crawling all over his hands and fingers.
It was no wonder, you touched so many things in the course of a day, things that were teaming with germs and microbes—right now, his keys, the handle on the truck, the steering wheel, all breeding grounds for germs and disease…
Two hours later, walking from the theater to a little wine bistro Selina wanted to try on 44th, Bruce was quiet.
"It's okay to admit you liked it," Selina prompted.
Bruce said nothing.
A block later, she tried again:
"That the sort of thing that goes through your mind when you fight? 'First, distract target. Then block his blind jab. Counter with cross to left cheek. Dazed, he'll attempt wild haymaker. Weaken right jaw. Then fracture. Break cracked ribs. Heel kick to the diaphragm…'"
"Not in that kind of detail," Bruce graveled.
"Summary," Selina continued quoting, mimicking his gravel, "ears ringing, jaw fractured, three ribs cracked, four broken, diaphragm hemorrhaging. Physical recovery: six weeks. Full psychological recovery: six months."
"You memorized the entire film?"
"That bit made an impression," Selina giggled. "It was very sexy. It was very you."
They entered the bar, sat at a table, ordered, and Bruce checked his watch.
"Very good, you've held out for twenty minutes. You can go ahead and say it."
"Say what, that the scrumptious combination of detective intellect and kick ass fighting skills wasn't the only thing in that movie that was 'very you'?"
"Yes, you've gone this long without speaking her name. Let's get it over with."
Bruce glared. And Selina grinned wider.
"Her name… a woman?
His jaw tightened.
"Irene Adler, yes."
Selina sipped her wine with a canary-feather smile.
"How many times did they mention that she'd always outwitted him?"
"I counted four."
"She kicked ass, too."
"And got in over her head and needed to be rescued."
"Ah, but so did he. She reciprocated quite quickly."
"He caught her in the end."
"It was perfectly obvious she was going to be out of those cuffs in two minutes—even if he didn't slip the key down her blouse."
"He recovered the maharaja's diamond."
Again she sipped, and so did he.
"You liked the movie?"
Disease. H1N1, H2N2, H5N1, H7N7, H7N2, N7N3. Marty could smell it in the closed air of the driver's compartment. There was a global pandemic, after all, that's why they were giving out the hand sanitizers. And here he was, in a closed in compartment. He foolishly turned on the heat without being really clear on how car heaters worked. He seemed to remember the air was drawn in across the engine, where it picked up the heat from all the gears and pistons. There was NO TELLING what else it might pick up as it was drawn across all that filthy metal.
What was even worse, the air was recycled. Just because the car was armored, how ridiculous was that? What was more deadly: the one in a million chance that some whacko would be pumping knockout gas into the cabin or the dead on certainty that he was breathing air poisoned by the billions of microbes teaming over all that cash in the back? There was more bacteria on a twenty dollar bill than there was on a toilet seat, for god's sake! Cash was the filthiest, most unsanitary substance you could handle, and here he was riding around with bundles of the stuff!
Marty had to pull over, he was so sickened by the thought. He could practically feel the germs squirming in the air as it traveled up his nose, squirming down his throat, squirming around inside his very lungs! He couldn't sit in this enclosed cabin with air being poisoned from all those toxic dollars a moment longer. He fumbled with his keys, searching for the one that would open the rear doors so he could rid himself of that poisonous payload.
The woman… not a bad title. Selina wouldn't have minded it, but of course, Bruce was more territorial than Holmes. In the mind that stuck that emblem on every item he owned, it would be "The Batman's woman." All in all, she was better off as she was. Well, apart from the waiting. Catwoman stretched out on a gargoyle across from One Police Plaza, lying on her stomach, legs bent at the knees, her feet moving back and forth in a slow rhythm. Waiting… waiting… waiting…
It was bound to happen eventually. Two nights a week hanging out with Batman, sooner or later that signal was going to light up. She went as far as Pearl Street, swinging on a path parallel to his, he on his batline and she on her whip. She veered off towards Chatham when he went straight at the intersection, towards police HQ. She headed for the rooftop where she occasionally hid in the old days to watch the proceedings at the Batsignal. Batman had spotted her both times. She was sure he remembered, but she didn't expect him to comment on it tonight. Yet, as soon as she lashed the fire escape at the corner of Pearl and Chatham, breaking off the parallel path from his, he graveled in the OraCom: ..:: Be sure to check under the fire hoses. ::..
She did. The hoses on that particular roof were kept in a white metal casing, and affixed to the bottom with magnets, she found what could only be described as a "Bat box". Black metal, roughly the size of a phone book, with the inevitable bat emblem in a gold oval etched on the face. He was so territorial, you had to love him. Catwoman pushed the emblem, guessing it was a pressure release, and the front of the box opened to reveal a pair of binoculars and a pillow. She passed on the pillow, useful only if you meant to kneel on the edge of the roof, but she took the binoculars and settled on the gargoyle to watch.
That was nearly fifteen minutes ago. After the first minute of conversation, Batman followed Commissioner Muskelli inside. Since then, all she could see was the occasional swish of a cape inside his office window. She made a note to herself to return to the roof in the morning and add a few candy bars to the Bat box.
"Seven armored cars altogether," Muskelli said grimly. "That we know of. Only the first driver recovered enough to contact anyone. The others were still hiding out in their homes when we went looking for them. Naturally, you'd think if any more cars didn't reach their destinations, it would have been reported by now, but—"
"Legitimate recipients would have reported it," Batman interrupted. "But Gotham Armor services the First Bank of Brighton Beach, which launders money for the Russian and Irish mobs and King Snake. There are regular runs from the bank to the airport. First order of business is to make sure none of those runs were scheduled for today or tonight. If any were, confirm the car arrived at its destination."
"And if it didn't?"
"Then Scarecrow bought himself more trouble than he can possibly imagine. If he's absconded with several million of the Russians' money, they'll hit back hard. Assuming they fail, which is likely given their track record against rogues, he'll hit back hard."
"Am I terrible person if I like the idea of Constantine Volsky in the grip of Scarecrow's fear toxin?"
"Well, it's the worst case scenario," Muskelli said, resuming a serious tone. "I'll let you know as soon as we find out for sure if there are any more missing cars that didn't complete their deliveries."
"And I'll track down Crane based on the cars and drivers we do know."
The aftereffects of fear toxin can continue from 48 to 72 hours after the hallucinations run their course. The victim may hyperventilate, experience headaches, earaches, heart palpitations, and sweaty palms. Those with high blood pressure or poor circulation often suffer hot flashes or chills. Batman had worked through more fear hangovers than anyone, and he knew it's not a time when anyone wants to entertain. If you absolutely had to admit visitors into your home and answer questions from a faceless stranger in a mask, he figured Catwoman would be the less terrifying inquisitor. She'd do the talking while he looked around.
The first stop was Ray Penkel on Staten Island, the first driver to abandon his route. Penkel was a twenty year man, divorced with no children. Lived in half a rented duplex that he shared with a high school math teacher. While Selina walked him through his story, Batman noted that the math teacher was the sloppier roommate… that both men skimped on food and furnishings but splurged on a flat screen TV, PS3, and football-based video games… Penkel read the Gotham Post while the math teacher read the Times… and given the number of photos on the premises, Penkel was still fond of his ex-wife. There was nothing to cast any light on the Scarecrow angle.
The next guard-driver, Mike Dopple, was a retired cop. He did not consider Catwoman the kind of person to open up to after a day becoming scared out of his senses. He particularly didn't like the look of her claws. In the time it took him to tell her so—and for her to respond that she didn't like the look of his beer gut and double chin, but you didn't see her refusing so speak to him because of it—Batman looked past him into the living room. It looked like a dozen other officers' homes he'd seen over the years. Sensing that Dopple was the kind of cop who considered Batman more of a criminal than the rogues he fought, he decided to table the interview. There were five other drivers to talk to, and if those interviews told them nothing, he could always send Robin.
Tamra Ramirez was next. Having driven a Humvee for three years in Iraq without incident, she was pissed more than traumatized. Less than a year after getting back to Gotham – less than a year, after surviving three in Iraq, three – Scarecrow – Fear toxin – it was infuriating. To be turned into a whimpering little wuss by a straw man with a chemistry set! Selina had her work cut out for her, getting a coherent story from Ramirez when every few minutes in the telling, her anger spiked all over again. Rather than defusing it, Catwoman seemed to share the indignation. Everything in their body language said the women understood each other perfectly, and Batman heard an edge in their voices that made him think that if Jonathan Crane were to walk in the door at that moment, he could just stand aside and let the women tear him to pieces.
Larry McKenna was next, since he lived in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as Ramirez. Then it was out to Queens to see a Leonard Washington and back to Gotham proper to interview a Marty Parks. By this time, Batman knew what to expect. All the drivers were telling the same basic story. Different details, different times, places and payloads, but they all had the same basic experience: a gradually mounting concern about their health, perfectly reasonable given the H1N1 coverage in the media, erupting to acute germophobia that caused them to open their armored cars and dump their payloads in the grip of a full out panic attack. Parks was just getting to the point where he opened up the truck to get rid of the germ-infested cash—and either he would notice the blue pickup like Ramirez, Penkel, and Washington had, or he wouldn't, like McKenna…
"So then it occurs to me, you know what's covered in germs? Money. And here I am in a closed up car that's filled with it. So I start to think—"
"What's this?" Batman asked sharply.
"AAH!" Parks screamed. He leapt up from his chair, his eyes as big as saucers, and even after Catwoman got him settled again, he was panting like he'd run a marathon. "I forgot he was here," Parks told her, embarrassed.
"He does that," Catwoman said soothingly. "It's part of the whole 'cape' thing. Don't worry about it. Everybody yelps, even the ones who didn't have a Scarecrow episode a few hours ago."
She smiled conspiratorially, and Parks smiled back.
"You had a question?" she said, turning to Batman with a smooth mistress of ceremonies manner.
"This bottle," Batman said, holding out a small plastic bottle he'd taken from the living room trashcan. "Insta-Pure. Ramirez had one identical to it on her kitchen sink."
"Yeah, that's a hand sanitizer. I got it a few days ago. Guy was giving them out at the coffee shop by the depot."
Batman's eyes met Catwoman's as he slid the bottle into his belt.
"That one's empty, that's why I threw it out," Parks said unnecessarily. "I got a new one this morning. It's in my coat pocket if you want to see."
Frightful! How could so much go so wrong in so little time? How was it possible?
Scarecrow must have repeated the question a thousand times since escaping—if putting a spin on his own body after Batman's right hook could be called "escaping." It's not like he was free yet. He managed to be thrown out the window instead of onto the floor, and then he ran-tumbled-ran-stumbled-fell down three flights of rusty fire escape. He might be free momentarily, but something on the rusty fire escape had torn into his costume, leaving a trail of straw as he ran. He couldn't get that far before Batman showed anyway, so his best option seemed to be hiding.
How could so much go so wrong in so little time?
Hiding options were limited in an alley: he could dive into a smelly dumpster or he could follow a smelly homeless guy through a door. There wasn't time for fact-finding, Batman would be there any second—and he was likely to search the dumpster. Scarecrow tore away as much extra cloth and straw as he could while running around in a circle. He looked like one of his own toxin victims, but at least there was less chance of leaving a trail. He bolted through the door, and then—
"Welcome to St. Swithuns's Shelter, my son."
"I don't think I've seen you hear before. Is it your first time?"
"Don't worry, my son, there's no judgment here. Here's a ticket for a hot meal when the kitchen opens at seven. You can have a warm bed for the night, right over there."
How, how, how could so much go so wrong in so little time?
… … … … :: Duty Log: Batman :: … … …
small type on the bottom of the bottle reading "Packaged by Mommet & Hodmedod" with an address on Water Street. Contacted Oracle to activate Crane Protocol 4-B on my mark. Robin was placed on stand-by to defuse and dismantle whatever trap was waiting at the Water Street location. Proceeded to satellite cave with Catwoman and analyzed contents of bottle.
Contents proved to be a functioning hand sanitizer with an alcohol content of 62% and a fear toxin compound of 4% to trigger slow onset germophobia, which naturally fostered repeated use of the product. Consulting formula for this particular toxin (REF: Directory K3M-W4R-CR4N3, Sub: Formulas 17), I identified unique combination of ingredients which had been recently purchased through mail order. Items were delivered to an "agricultural chemist" on Fletcher Avenue, only eight blocks from the trap location on Water Street.
Catwoman elected to stay home, as face-to-face rogue confrontation was inevitable. Coordinated with Robin so he tripped the Water Street entrance just as I burst in on Scarecrow on Fletcher. Caught him literally counting his money. Recovered in excess of $3 million cash and additional $1 million in diamonds from the seven armored car robberies, although Scarecrow escaped capture.
Batman saved the logs, then swiveled the chair slowly towards the costume vault. The one downside of the satellite cave, the downside of spending the night at the penthouse: no Alfred. There would be no kimono to change into. He could either ride up to the penthouse in costume, or change back into the suit he'd worn on the date before patrol.
He stepped into the vault, removing his cowl – and saw the suit had been removed. Folded in its place lay an embroidered robe from the penthouse. Pinned to the top was a note:
Be smarter than your counterpart, Sherlock.
Don't keep your Irene waiting.
Every rogue suffered setbacks. Since the moment Batman started pummeling crooks in Gotham, every rogue knew what it was like to have your perfect plan split apart at the seams. First one stitch pops, then two, then six, then there's a loud ripping noise and the whole side falls open at once—much like Jonathan Crane's trousers. A scarecrow costume in tatters may have helped him blend in at the homeless shelter, but that was a small comfort under the circumstances.
Every rogue suffers setbacks, but usually the rock bottom moment happens in the Arkham infirmary, not in the St. Swithuns Fletcher Avenue Shelter under a sign reading "Therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.' Deuteronomy 15". At least in Arkham you were surrounded by your peers. They might not be sympathetic, but there was a sense of camaraderie. There was a common language, a common experience. Sometimes the guy in the next bed could even help you figure out what went wrong with your perfect plan. But here? Here they were in a lockdown because the Batmobile was sighted in the area.
"Yeah, I heard that too," somebody said in a hushed tone. "The Bat, too. Bluxo said he seen the Bat chasin' somebody."
This was met with murmurs of fear that Scarecrow normally would have enjoyed. The people around him were afraid. You could feel it in the air, hear it in their voices, see it in their shifty eyes and their fidgeting hands. They were afraid—but they weren't afraid of Batman, and they weren't afraid of the rogue he was actually chasing (oh, if they only knew he was sitting right there, huddled among them). No, what made this a true rock bottom moment for Jonathan Crane was that the entire shelter was in lockdown and the inmates inside petrified with fear because Batman was in the neighborhood and he might be chasing Joker.
He. Was. A. Clown.
Yet people feared the Joker. Despite the smile, despite the laugh, despite the big shoes, everyone was terrified. Harley Quinn was a jester and a giggly twit, but simply because wherever she was, Joker might not be far behind, they were afraid of her too.
This was rock bottom, alright. Sitting around with the human refuse of Fletcher Avenue, hearing the celebrities among them (two guys called Bluxo and Sarge) relating their long ago encounter with the mad clown himself. Scarecrow only half-listened. The story didn't interest him. Only the rapt fear of the listeners. He didn't scare anyone this way. He had to use chemicals to get a rise out of anybody.
Clearly, he had a lot to learn from Joker.
To be continued…