A/N – Nothing happens in suburbia.
At least that's what they say, anyway. Look at any action film, or any comic for that matter, and you'll notice they almost always happen in big cities, rarely in suburban areas. And for good reason too – nothing interesting happens there, neighborhood watch programs supposedly keep crime relatively low, and the trials of the Average Joe pale in comparison to the struggles and conflict someone like Batman, James Bond, John Bourne, Superman, or Neo go through. Who wants to read a comic or watch a movie about an average guy who moved to the suburbs and thereafter has nothing happen? After all, the main reason baddies have such eccentrically decorated or obvious lairs could be because they are daring the hero to enter (the Riddler, for example), or could be because they need special conditions to survive as metahumans (like Mr. Freeze). Still others are incredibly vain or highly eccentric and actually have that strange a taste in décor (the Joker, for example). For some, the reasons are multiple. Think about it and you'll see what I mean – why would Superman look for Lex Luthor in a small community when he's far more likely to be in a tower somewhere in Metropolis? Villains just love big, boisterous lairs, the bigger and more imposing or impressive, the better.
Yet some villains are smarter than the average criminal, and this is what separates the ordinary criminals from the true super villains. Most of them are very intelligent, as well as very insane, very evil, and very dangerous. These villains are either just smart enough, or just twisted enough, to make their abode in a suburb. After all, Spider-Man would never look for Doctor Octopus in a community with a neighborhood watch, right? A suburb is seemingly too boring for a villain to set up shop – you'd expect Sinestro to be leading the Sinestro Corps, not in a suburban neighborhood a few miles outside of Hal Jordan's hometown. People living there feel safe, near the booming business and convenience of the city, but far from the crime the city contains, confident it won't spill out further (except in cases of inner-city areas). In some cases, they're even protected from villains that set up hidden lairs in more rural locales – The Killing Joke wouldn't have worked without the carnival the Joker dragged Jim Gordon to, after all, and you just don't find a carnival anywhere else but a rural setting.
And that, in comics, is precisely what makes a suburban neighborhood a great place for a super villain to set up shop, especially in a gritty comic universe like the one in Batman. Nobody expects the Penguin to be hiding in the house next door, and nobody dares to dream that Mr. Zsasz might be committing a murder in the neighborhood while your children play blissfully unaware in the backyard. Nobody ever expects to find Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy having a pool party three blocks down, or for Scarecrow to hand out candy to children on Halloween. The concept of a super villain setting up shop in our neighborhoods, where they could be our next-door neighbors, standing on the doorstep and asking to borrow a cup of sugar so they can make poisoned cookies for Batman and Robin tomorrow, is a terrifying concept – one that few have tapped into, which is very unfortunate. This story is an attempt to play with that idea, the idea that suburbia can very well become, as pop star Rihanna once put it, "Disturbia", and that even an unassuming neighborhood in the Comicverse can be a medium in which epic battles between good and evil are fought.
Disclaimer: The characters represented herein except for the protagonist and his family are the property of DC Comics. They are not mine, not created by me, and I am only borrowing them for the purposes of the story. I promise I'll put them safely back in Gotham where they belong when I'm done. ;) As a caveat, this story takes place in the DC Universe Pre-New-DCU. It was written several years before the reboot and as such places the characters in the setting before that point; it is in continuity with THAT universe and refers to events from THAT universe, not the DCnU. This story also takes a MUCH less violent interpretation of the main antagonist and makes the danger more psychological, though there is some violence there as well (it's just not as important to the plot).
Chapter One: Newcomers
He did have to hand it to his wife as he peered out the living room window onto the street outside – the house was very beautiful. Or, at least, as beautiful as a Gotham suburb could promise.
The ad in the paper hadn't lied – the grass outside was well kept, if slightly dingy from the city's pervasive smog, the walkways trimmed and neat. Rounded yew bushes flanked the driveway and front of the house, their reddish berries bright against the evergreen foliage. The house itself bore the pale, soft baby blue hue of the sky on a summer's day, its two stories containing a master bedroom, a kitchen-dinette, two bathrooms, and a pool (currently empty) out back. The inside of the abode was plainly furnished, since they had just finished moving in from a small, two-room apartment four states away. It was still by no means a very large home for a two-story building, but it was a mansion compared to the box-like hovel they lived in before.
"Look, Robert," said his wife Alicia, pointing out a small alcove attached to the master bedroom. "Couldn't we use this as a workspace? I know you like it quiet when you write…"
"Yes, that'll work very well, honey," Robert replied with a soft smile. His wife… God, he loved her, cherished and adored every aspect of her, from her strong, determined demeanor to her beautiful wavy auburn hair and the way it fell down her back in fiery waves. Even her hardheaded stubbornness on issues delighted him, for he knew she always listened to him when it came down to brass tacks, and often granted him another perspective on things he otherwise wouldn't have noticed. Her logical, mathematically oriented mind perfectly complimented his creativity, together creating an unstoppable force that could solve any problem thrown at it. The only trouble was that Alicia was always busy with her banking job – it wasn't that she loved numbers more than him, no; it was simply that the infinite beauty and clarity of numbers and calculations made her happy. And who, after all, was he to interrupt her happiness? Besides, at the end of the day Robert knew he was still her best friend and the love of her life, no quantity could change that. How such a beautiful, perfect creature came to love his gangly frame, messy black hair, and thick-framed reading glasses, he would never understand fully… but then again, perhaps he never wanted to understand.
"It's perfect," he repeated. "We could make it a shared workspace, or –"
"Don't even start," Alicia teased, drawing her sensuous arms in an embrace about Robert's form and pulling him close. "This is your workspace. I'm taking the larger one downstairs – I don't need a window to daydream out of when I'm running taxes, or finishing bank statements…"
"Well, you never know." A charming smile from Robert. "You might need a window…"
"I don't need a window!" Alicia laughed, "And besides, I need background noise, you know that… it helps my brain focus, keeps it thinking…"
"Mm, I know… alright, this space is mine, then. We can put a roll-top desk in the den, and –"
"Daddy?" a child's sweet voice asked. A tug on Robert's pants leg made him peer down at his daughter, just turned five. Two innocent blue eyes peered up at him impatiently. "Can I go play outside?"
"Yes, Tracy, you can go play," Robert responded, a kind smile beaming at her. "But stay in the front yard, I don't want you going near that empty pool."
"Okay daddy I won't!" Tracy chirped, already turning on her tiny heels and skipping off down the stairs, her long black braids bouncing behind her.
"I'm worried, Robert," Alicia said as she watched her daughter run off. "There's not very many kids around here her age… Will she be okay on her own? She's such a social child…"
"Well, we could put her in daycare if you're concerned," Robert offered.
"That might just be a good idea," Alicia replied, "But let's let her acclimate first. We've been moving an awful lot, and the last thing we need is for her to get stressed…"
"Oh, you mean any more than she already has with Kindergarten starting soon?" Robert joked. "That's enough to drive anyone half-crazy with the stress…"
Alicia laughed, hugging Robert tightly.
"She's such a smart girl, Robert, and so creative. I'm so glad she got that from you…"
"And I'm glad," Robert said, smirking, "That she got the math gene from you. You know that always gave me trouble as a little boy…"
"Well that," Alicia replied playfully, resting her head on his shoulder, "Is why you get to help her with spelling and reading, and I do the finances."
"Hey! I'm not that bad!" Robert laughed, kissing her lightly. "I can add and subtract…"
"Yes, but not long division," Alicia said, kissing back deeply. "Or multiplication. Or algebra!"
"Mmhm. Someday that logical mind is going to fail you, love," Robert teased, letting go of her. "We should probably go outside, Tracy needs someone to watch her, and you know how she gets into absolutely everything…"
Tracy sung merrily as she played with the toy horse she had gotten as a birthday gift. She liked horses. They had pretty manes, and pretty tails, and pretty ladies always got to ride them in the circus. She liked the circus too; it was so bright and pretty. When she grew up she was going to be really pretty and ride horses in the circus, and then everyone could watch her and clap because she would be really good…
Alicia watched Tracy play with her toys, smiling. Horses. When she was little, she loved horses, and still did. She'd imagine vast herds of them galloping freely over the wilderness, over hills and valleys and small eddies, the endless sky above. Maybe it was her father she owed her love of the beasts to, he was a city man in presence but always was a country boy at heart. Maybe she, like many little girls, just wanted to peer into those liquid eyes, filled with trust and kindness, as she groomed her companion's mane to perfection. She always used to count those imaginary herds, she remembered; count them by twos and threes whenever she got bored or scared…
Robert's attention was not on his daughter, nor was he engaged in daydreaming. His line of sight did not focus on his home or happy family, but at a strange home next door to his, a home that didn't fit with the others, a home with shut door and shaded window, into which no person entered or left.
To say the home was merely odd would have been an incredible error, and an even more tremendous understatement. The house was downright surrealist, eye-catching, and louder than his uncle's tackiest tie. The paneling of it held a rich and regal purple unlike any Robert had ever seen, the trim an eye-shocking fluorescent orange. Its green shingles made its roof appear to be as moss, the only one in such a hue on the block. The walkway wound in a serpentine pattern, leading to an intricately carved, emerald green door that looked more like the entrance to a funhouse than a home, each of its eight squares holding a differently colored glass panel like some sort of absurdist checkerboard. The lawn, while well-manicured, shared equal space with an assortment of strangely-shaped topiaries, and the surrounding picket fence alternated colors between a shocking lemon yellow and a venomously bright green. It literally looked like a madhouse, or at least as though it had been caught in the crossfire of a vicious drive-by paintballing.
"Lord, can you imagine the guy who lives there?" Robert mused aloud.
Alicia peered up at the home in confusion, knocked from her daydreams by Robert's statement.
"Huh. Maybe he's an artist," Alicia replied. "All I know is that it looks hideous. Who in their right mind pairs neon orange with royal purple? To each his own, I guess…"
"Maybe he owns an at-home business and wants to stand out?" Robert suggested, shrugging. "The tenant's gotta be an interesting guy, though. Someone energetic and quirky. Some sort of character, I'll tell you that much… You know, it's almost oddly beautiful, the clashing colors and all…"
Alicia smiled in amusement.
"Well Robert, you always did see beauty in the strangest things," she pointed out. "It makes you interesting. Maybe you should go say hello, introduce us…"
Robert turned to look at the house again. Those colors, that dizzying array of purple and orange and green… it made him nauseous just to look at it. And besides that, it didn't look like anyone was home – from what he could see of the driveway, there wasn't even a car parked there, and besides, all the windows had their shades pulled down. The last thing Robert wanted to do was interrupt their new neighbor if he was sleeping, making a fool of himself, his family, and said neighbor in front of the entire neighborhood…
"Strange folks, them," came a soft, aging voice from the front yard of a home to the left of theirs.
Robert jumped at the intrusion into his thoughts and turned to find a friendly-looking elderly woman smiling at him from behind a rosebush, a tin watering can in one hand and a pair of garden shears in the other. The broad-brimmed straw hat she wore dwarfed her shrunken stature, giving her the appearance of a loving grandmother.
"Oh?" asked Alicia, peering up at her. "What makes you say that, Ma'am?"
"Well for one," the old woman replied, "I never seem to see anyone go in or out of that house, except this nice young blonde lady. Energetic little thing, too! I think she's married, but I don't speak to her that much beyond a simple hello, and I've never met her husband… nobody around here has. He's a very private man…"
"Well that's a little odd," Alicia murmured. "Must be a busy man if he never leaves the house, or maybe he just really likes his privacy… I'm Alicia, by the way, Alicia Clearwater. And this is my husband, Robert, and our daughter, Tracy. We just moved in today."
"Well, how nice to meet all of you," said the old woman with a laugh. "I'm Rose Penbrooke. Welcome to the neighborhood!"
"Thanks for the warm welcome," Robert replied with a polite smile. "And it's nice to meet you as well. We were actually about to have dinner, would you like to come in and join us? It's nothing fancy, just sandwiches…"
"Oh no, dear, I've actually already had supper," Rose answered, "But thank you for inviting me. You'll have to remind me one of these days, I make an absolutely wonderful peach cobbler. I'll bring some over someday. Now you go have your supper, I have to deadhead these bushes or they'll never grow back right… Do take care, dears."
"Alright, it was nice meeting you, and we will, thank you," Alicia said. "Come on, Tracy, time for dinner."
Rose watched with kindly grey eyes as the young family headed inside. My, but there were a lot of young people coming to Gotham lately. It was almost as if something kept drawing them all. She couldn't imagine what, particularly with the city's reputation, but then again, that was why she never went into the city herself…
"Yanno, Dick, the Spratsville Strangler don't leave clues. Not a fingerprint, not a drop of blood, nothin'. And there's only so much the police can do when we don't got clues…"
"I know," the private eye responded, looking up from a single faint shoeprint in the dust, "Just footprints and rope, knives and lint… but this, this looks like it came from his shoe… only the Strangler wears shoes of this size and sty-
The loud, insistent knocking at the door was more than enough to startle Robert from the paragraph he'd been writing, especially in the middle of the detective character's discovery of the first clue. And try as he might, it was far too persistent to ignore.
Robert stared at the blank white space beneath the paragraph on his computer's screen, groaning inwardly. He hated having to leave in the middle of a paragraph, but Alicia was at work and he was the only one around to get the door. Sighing, Robert dragged himself to the door, his young daughter watching from the stairwell with wide, innocent eyes.
"Who's at the door, daddy?" Tracy asked, poking her head over the stairway railings on the top floor.
"I don't know, pumpkin," Robert murmured as he opened the front door, "And please be careful, Tracy, I don't want you to fall. Hello?"
The woman standing at the door had more the appearance of a girl than a woman, though she clearly appeared to be in her late twenties despite her smiling round face, bright baby blue eyes, and blonde pigtails. She had a nearly infectious aura about her that one could only describe as 'energetic', and the friendly sparkle in those youthful eyes brought a smile to Robert's face in spite of himself. Her clothing itself was plain – a white t-shirt and blue jeans. In her hands, she held a colorful purple wicker basket full of cookies, covered by a green cloth with a tessellated playing card pip design to keep the baked goods warm.
"Hiya!" she chirped brightly, her smile broadening. "I jes' herd you was new 'round heah, an' I thought ya might like a present! It was awl my idea!"
She held the basket out proudly, the same wide grin on her face.
"So welcome to da neighborhood! Mista… um…?"
"Clearwater, Robert Clearwater," he replied, amused by her cheerful exuberance. "And that's very nice of you, thank you." He extended a hand in greeting.
"Well, nice ta meetcha, Mista Cleahwatah!" she responded, hanging the basket on Robert's outstretched hand. "An' my otha half says hi too!"
"Thank you, this is very kind of you," Robert acknowledged, slightly surprised by the woman's refusal to shake his hand as well as the sudden gift. "And your name is…?"
"I'm Harleen, Harley foah short!" A pleasant, sweet smile. "Ya can call me 'Harls' foah short-short if ya wanna. Everyone else does."
"It's very nice to meet you, Harley," Robert replied. "And that's a very unique name, 'Harleen'. Would you like to come inside?"
"Yeah, my daddy liked real unique names," Harley replied. "An' shuah, I'd love ta come inside!"
She flounced brightly past Robert and into the house, settling comfortably on the loveseat in the front room.
"Nice place," she said, curling up demurely. "Kinda needs a lil' color, though."
"Well, we haven't really gotten around to decorating much," Robert answered as he set the basket of cookies aside for later and took one for himself. "We just moved in the other day. And speaking of color… you wouldn't happen to know anything about that house next door to ours, would you?"
"Shuah do, sugah!" She replied brightly. "That's ouah house. Mista J painted it! Nice job, huh?"
"Well, it is… very unique," Robert murmured politely, nibbling the cookie. "And Mr. Jay? Is 'Jay' your last name?"
Harley giggled an infectious, girlish giggle.
"Nah, s'just what I call him," she said. "But you can call him 'Jay' if ya want! He's usually kinda busy, I don' get ta see him sometimes, he works so late… Ya like the cookies?"
Robert swallowed the bites of cookie he'd been chewing. It was excellent, soft and chewy, with cinnamon sugar and tiny icing smiley faces on the top. He did have such a weakness for cinnamon sugar…
"Yes, they're very good," he replied, already reaching for another. He'd always had a terrible fondness for cookies – they were his drug. He could never resist Alicia's chocolate chip cookies, nor gingerbread, not even a simple sugar cookie. Unfortunately, they weren't as fond of him as he of them – it was as if the damned things had declared all-out war on his waistline.
"Baked 'em myself!" Harley declared. "Only thing I'm kinda good at makin', really… They're snickerdoodles. Mista J jes' loves 'em. He'll eat a whole batch'a them at once; always spoils his dinnah…"
"Daddy?" came a small bright voice. Robert turned towards the doorway to find Tracy standing expectantly at the base of the stairwell. "Who's that pretty lady?"
"A visitor, Tracy," he replied. "From next door. Say hello."
"Aww, s'that yer kid?" Harley cooed. "She's a cutie-pie! How old's she?"
"I'm five!" Tracy replied proudly as she held up an open hand.
And then her tiny eyes traveled to the basket, seeing the cookies.
"Cookies! Daddy can I have one? Pleeeeeeeaaaaase?"
Normally, Robert would have said no. Normally, he'd have Tracy wait until after lunch. But between Harley's Oh-Come-On-Let-Her-Have-Just-One look and Tracy's pleading eyes, he had no choice. Besides, what harm could one cookie do?
"Alright, Tracy, you can have one." A kind smile warmed his features as he reached into the basket and passed her a cookie. "Any more than that and you'll ruin your appetite."
Tracy beamed as if given the world's greatest treasure and skipped merrily off to her room.
"So, how long have you lived here, Harley?" Robert asked, pulling the conversation back on topic. "You sound… Well, you don't sound like a native Gothamite… New Jersey, maybe?"
"Lessee…" She trailed off in thought. "Well, I moved heah ta work maybe five yeahs back… an' close, I'm from Brooklyn! An' Mista J's from heah, lived heah his whole life as far as I know… We kinda met on the job, actually…"
"Oh?" Robert asked, finishing his first cookie and taking another. "What do both of you do for a living?"
"Well, I'm a psychologist," Harley replied, "An' Mista J? He jes' does odd jobs, yanno? Workin' late when he has ta… Speakin' of, what time is it?"
Robert glanced at the clock on the wall nearby.
"Oh shoot, I gotta leave!" Harley cried, springing out of the loveseat as if ejected. "I gots stuff ta do! Thanks fer havin' me over!"
And with that, she turned and ran out the front door, nearly knocking a bewildered Alicia over in the process.
Alicia turned in confusion to watch the girl leave.
"Robert," she asked, her tone incredulous as she peered into the front room. "… Who was that?"
"That…?" Robert smiled meekly, praying Alicia didn't think the inevitable. "That was just the girl from next door."
"Oh. And what did she want?"
"Just to bring over some cookies," Robert responded, pointing to the basket. "Speaking of, want one?"
"No," Alicia replied curtly as she carried her briefcase into the workroom. "But I do want you to focus on your novel and not on the neighbor girl..."
The squeal of tires pulling into the adjacent driveway was loud enough to wake the dead. It was no surprise that Robert jolted upright at the noise, his heart pounding with the shock of the rude awakening, his mind still fuzzy from sleep. His weary eyes peered curiously, cautiously about the room, vision blurry without his glasses.
Maybe Tracy needs something, he thought tiredly, reaching towards the bedside end table to retrieve his glasses and put them on. The lenses slid over his eyes comfortably, perching birdlike on his nose's bridge as he looked into the shadows beyond his comforter and sheets.
Robert blinked in confusion. There was no Tracy standing afraid of monsters at his bedside, nor was any other source of the noise apparent. But there was the sound of a motor idling from next door, and a thinly dispersed beam of bluish-white light from a car's high beams shining through the slats of the window shade.
Robert glanced at Alicia, sound asleep next to him in bed. How she managed to do it was beyond him. That woman could sleep through a category nine hurricane! To tell the truth, Robert ever so slightly envied that power of hers. If only he could rest so well through noise and confusion.
The sound of a car door slamming shut emanated from the house next door, followed by two distinct voices chattering, one male and the other female.
His eyebrow shifted in interest. The masculine voice… Robert could have sworn it sounded like that of a salesperson, or magician – a showman's voice, luring in a crowd's intrigued eyes for the illusion… And yet it was so soft, so calm and easy-going, it could only be that of a socialite. It was almost entrancing in its strangeness, the odd way it rose and fell, the energy brimming underneath its surface…
Instantly, the realization struck him. It had to be the voice of his neighbor, the one that friendly young woman from next door had said was her 'other half'. She did say he worked late, after all.
He stole a quick glance at his alarm clock. It was one-thirty in the morning. Yes, this had to be him, the late-worker husband of the woman next door; the strange neighbor who never, ever left his house…
Robert couldn't sleep now. Now he was curious, feeling like the Private Eye from his crime novel. So many pieces the puzzle now had to solve, so many clues to intrigue him… Could he use this for his writings? And might this be his only chance to 'meet' his mysterious neighbor in some form or another?
I have to know… he thought, curiosity outweighing his exhaustion as he carefully, quietly slid out of bed. I have to know or it's going to bug me for the rest of the night…
Robert crept softly over to the window, gingerly pushing aside the drapes so they didn't rustle against the window and awaken his wife. If she caught him snooping on his neighbors like some sort of spy with a grudge, what would she say?
From the second-floor master bedroom window, he could see the whole of his neighbors' front and back yard, including the incredible car idling in the driveway of the strange house. The car was absolutely gorgeous, a sleek-built vehicle of a sporty and expensive make (Lamborghini? Ferrari?) painted a rich and regal shade of violet that seemed to glow strangely beneath the moonlight. The inside liner – was that leather? – held the hue of freshly cut grass; the spiral-patterned, chrome rims of the wheels glowed with neon green backlighting that set the whole of the undercarriage aglow as well, spilling eerily across the concrete below. The engine purred in satisfaction, not unlike a panther purring in pride over its kill. This was a vehicle that commanded both respect and attention, and although Robert was by no means an automotive fanatic, the more he gazed upon its splendor, the more envious he became of it. Standing not far from the car's passenger side door was a feminine figure in a newsboy's hat, one that he identified as the neighbor girl that had visited earlier that day. She was speaking to someone inside of the car, someone who was laughing.
Suddenly, the driver's side door opened with a flourish, and out strode a tall, thin, and masculine figure. His long, dark-colored coat swished around his rangy legs restlessly as he walked; his broad-brimmed hat lent him the air of a gentleman from a much older time. Robert watched intently as the man approached the woman, exuding a strange and imposing energy so strong and intimidating that Robert swore he felt it penetrate through the second-story window to stand the hairs on the back of his neck bolt upright. There was something peculiarly menacing about this man, and yet Robert couldn't place what it was…
The man and woman spoke a moment – of what Robert could not decipher – and a set of keys was handed to the girl. The two then parted ways, the man into his house and the woman into the car in order to park the fantastic machine neatly in the home's garage, the garage door sliding shut mechanically behind it.
Robert stepped back in shame from the windows a moment and allowed the curtains to drop from his hands. Just what did he think he was doing? These were his neighbors for God's sake, they deserved just as much privacy as anyone else! And yet here he was, spying on them like a jealous conspirator, as if he thought they had something to hide and weren't merely just private people.
But, Robert thought, eyes swiveling back towards the window, What if they did have something to hide?
His curiosity overwhelmed him, and he slunk back towards the window, gently shifting the drapes aside. Inside the house, a light flickered on in what Robert assumed was the bedroom, illuminating the opaque window shades like a projector screen. The man's shadow played against it eerily, a lithe and wiry form with short, wild hair. He was speaking with someone, presumably the neighbor girl, and laughing. Off first came a jacket or suit coat of some sort, followed by the start of a half-unbuttoned shirt…
The figure paused in mid-action, seemingly troubled. A motion towards an unseen person to be quiet.
And then his head snapped up towards the second-story window, his eyes burning through the cloth window shade like lanterns.
Robert ducked down in alarm, the curtains brushing against his short, ebony hair; his heart pounded drum-like in his chest and threatened to burst out.
Oh God. Did he see me? Robert glanced up at the window as if it were a rogue gunman. Did he really see me? Christ, now what will they think of me…?
The guilt plagued his mind like a locust swarm. Maybe he had only imagined that the shadow had noticed him. Maybe it was all in his head, a guilt trip. But if that was so, why could Robert still feel the man's eyes on him, judging him, scrutinizing him…?
Robert slunk guiltily back to bed, resting on his side and staring at the window. Through the shades, he saw the bedroom light next-door flicker off, and next to him, Alicia slept soundly. But all that night, all into the next morning, Robert slept fitfully, dreaming that eyes were upon him, his shame playing tricks with his mind…