Don't Fear the Z
Chapter 1: He Asked Me the Strangest Thing
Scarecrow had lost his mojo.
Well, that's what the puerile lowbrow idiots would say. It would be more accurate to say "Recent observations have brought the efficacy of the Scarecrow as the personification of Fear (Null Hypothesis) into question. Specifically, commentary amongst a small sample group of civilians suggest that the entity known as the Joker may present a greater personification of Fear (Alternate Hypothesis #1) or could provide insights that can make the Scarecrow more effective in championing the cause of Fear (Alternate Hypothesis #2). Exploration of this situation is clearly worthy of further investigation."
That sounded better. At the very least, that description would make a decent start to an abstract. Though Jonathan had to admit, the crude simplification that the peons and test subjects were more likely to use did have a certain elegance to it.
Regardless of how one chose to phrase it, Scarecrow needed to study the Joker. That would require a base of operations. A sanctum where one could set up a lab, devise experiments, make observations, analyze the results and formulate new experiments.
And that would require the services of a certain group of talented individuals.
Zoiks looked up from his laptop. "Is anyone gonna answer that?"
Time to try again. "If it's a potential client, whoever picks up doesn't have to go to the meeting."
Zed immediately jumped up and launched himself at the phone. He belly-flopped on the table, sliding along it towards the phone, and scooped it up. Unfortunately, he still had enough momentum to continue sliding off the table, through the air, and into the wall.
He crumpled to a heap, out of sight of the other Zs. His voice cheerfully rang out from the floor. "Zach's Diner! How may we help you?"
Zound and Zowie exchanged a sympathetic glance. Zed rarely went out to meetings, get-togethers, or any encounter with a client. Mostly because he had the worst possible luck. The last time he went out, he got ambushed by Robin and Batgirl. He got away, mind you, only to get ambushed by the client. Catwoman. Who thought that HE'D fucked up and led the capes straight to her. The only reason he didn't get clawed is because he blabbed the details on the last client.
The time before that was when the Zs picked up the payment for the hidey-hole the Zs built for Scarecrow. It was their first encounter with Scarecrow's "henchmen insurance"—some special fear toxin blend that kicked in when the adrenaline spiked. Naturally that happened when Batman tracked them down. He burst through the window, they all jumped... and then they all freaked out. Batman was nice enough to administer some kind of cure after he slapped the handcuffs on, though. Neutralized the fear toxin in a jiffy. Except for Zed. Some unique quirk of his metabolism prevented the cure from working somehow. As a result, he spent a full two days caught up in the throes of a fear attack.
And the first time? Zed went to meet a client. Which turned out to be the Joker. 'Nuff said.
Needless to say, Zed had developed a certain aversion to the public side of the Zs unique occupation. No wonder he answered the phone so cheerfully, despite the self-inflicted injury.
"You want to order the Blue Plate special, you said?"
Everyone perked their ears at that code, only used for hidden business. Or real business, from the Zs perspective. Certainly Zach's Diner wasn't a completely legit establishment. They didn't advertise. They had no actual building from which they could serve any customers who were actually looking for edibles. And the few times that some civilian actually managed to get a hold of them with the intent of ordering something, they just went around the corner to McDonald's to buy something, prettied it up a little, then dumped it in the lap of the unsuspecting sap.
After charging an arm and a leg. That was part of the Zs shtick, the other part coming from passing off something from the Land of the Golden Arch as an original creation.
Anyways, the real clientele knew that hanging around the Iceberg Lounge hoping one of the Zs would show up was too hit or miss. They used to rely on texting to get around, but that had been shelved after Batman intercepted one of their texts and sent his junior Bats after the client, Catwoman. After she took out her grievances on Zed, the Zs had devised this new fake business as a means for clients to contact them, complete with hidden code phrases.
"Will that be delivery or pick-up?"
If it was the former, they'd be meeting at some place or other, to be determined by the potential client. In the latter case...
"All right then. It'll be ready in an hour. Thanks!"
With that, Zed stumbled to his feet. "That was Crane. Blue Plate special to be picked up in an hour."
Zoiks nodded in approval. That meant a meeting at the Iceberg at 6pm. Early enough to avoid the majority of Rogues who might interrupt an otherwise pleasant business meeting with their usual spontaneous violence—not that they would risk raising the ire of the people who might be building their next hideout, but you never know—but not so early that the representative couldn't grab a quick bite to eat first.
"Who's going to the meet?" Zooks asked.
"It's your turn," Zoiks replied, turning his attention back to his laptop.
"Yeah. Besides, weren't you going to meet those thieves? The ones who were stripping off phone wires for copper or whatever?"
"Right, forgot to tell you," Zooks snapped his fingers. "Guys got busted by the cops."
"Just as well," Zound shrugged. "The wires they provided were hit-and-miss when it came to quality."
"Fine," Zoiks said. "It's still your turn to go to the meet."
Zooks had a rating system for pubs and other dining establishments. Up to 10 points for their selection of beer; up to 10 points for service; and up to 10 points for the hotness of the staff. Despite the pompous airs of that prick, Cobblepot, the Iceberg Lounge rated a 30. And the 10 points for service were all thanks to Sly.
Case in point: it took Zooks a minute to enter the Iceberg and make a bee-line for Sly. Maybe fifty seconds. Sly had a pint of Guinness ready for him in half that time.
"Thanks," Zooks grinned, slipping him a $20 bill. "Give yourself a big tip from me and pass the rest of the change back."
"Will do," Sly said. "Not running a tab?"
Zooks shook his head. "Just here on business tonight. Scarecrow here yet?"
"Dr. Crane's been nursing his drink for the past half hour," Sly confirmed. "Ordered an Absolut Fear, then went over to the east corner."
Nodding his thanks, Zooks grabbed his Guinness and went to the east corner. Sure enough, Scarecrow was sitting at the corner table.
"I need a lair," Scarecrow started without preamble. "Themed, of course. But not the usual theme."
Straight to business. Fair enough. "What kind of theme are we talking about?"
"What? I thought your thing was—?"
"For the third time, Joker. Surely you heard me. Unless you're going deaf."
"Hearing's just fine. And I heard you the first time," Zooks said. He took a sip before continuing: "You gotta admit, though, that ain't your usual thing."
"No it isn't," Scarecrow conceded. "But that's the job. It has to be an authentic Joker lair. A 'Ha-Hacienda,' as he would call it. With all the minutiae and nuances that would make him feel at home, whatever that might be. As if he were here placing the order instead of me."
"See, that ain't right either," Zooks interrupted. "Joker doesn't meet us face-to-face. Not after the first time. Harley handles that stuff now."
Scarecrow actually paused for a moment. Like he was taking Zook's words seriously or something. "Very well. Pretend I am Harlequin, hiring you and your crew to build a lair for Joker."
Zooks decided not to tell him that normally this situation involved covert admiration of Harley's assets. If Scarecrow knew how scary the thought of seeing him with boobs was, he might just gas Zooks on the spot.
The meeting was pretty much over by that point. Scarecrow wanted an "authentic Joker lair". That was it. Nothing more, nothing less. Never mind that he had no idea what that meant. "Fill it with whatever is considered thecomforts of home to a homicidal clown," was the best he could offer. Oh well. That's what the Z was for.
Not that Zooks went back immediately. He still had his Guinness to finish. And waitresses to ogle. And he was still trying to figure out why the hell Scarecrow wanted a Joker lair.
But he did make it back eventually. And he was relieved to know he wasn't the only one who was confused as heck.
"Crane wants what?" Zed frowned.
"That makes no sense at all!" Zowie exclaimed.
"That's what I said," Zooks complained. "But he wants a Joker lair, filled with all the crap Joker might like. Even wanted me to pretend he was Harlequin asking for a Ha-Hacienda." The very thought made him shudder. Zoiks, Zed and Zound echoed his horror. Zowie just rolled her eyes.
"Well at least we have a few ideas to work from," Zound said. "Zoiks, we still have the blueprints and details on that last Joker lair?"
Zoiks was already typing away at his laptop, though he still had time to give him a look. "We have details on every lair we've ever built. You know that." He glanced at the files before opening a custom program he wrote, one that tracked the commonalities between multiple lairs. "For an agent of chaos, he is remarkably consistent on what he wants. We should be able to build something he likes."
"That'll depend on where the lair is and what the layout's like," Zound pointed out. "Maybe we could re-use one of the old blueprints. Less work for us, not that Crane will know. We'll still charge him the same rate."
Nodding his agreement, Zoiks printed out a bunch of pages and distributed to the others. "Zound, Zooks; here are a list of potential lairs. Scout them out, make your choice. Zed; you're going shopping for all the supplies Joker likes to have on hand. Take your time: we don't need Batman tracking us down. Zowie: before you start building the furniture and whatnot, get some seamstresses on standby. Scout out the usual locations to make what we need."
Zoiks clapped his hands together and rubbed them in excitement. "Let's get to work, people."