Dance With the Demons
Once, Bruce Wayne claimed that he didn't have nightmares. That he gave them to other people. For the most part, both statements were true.
When his father showed up in a dream, Bruce (who found himself dressed in his Batman uniform) was not panicked. Thomas Wayne appeared to him in a smoking jacket, pants, and brogans, the way he dressed around the house when Bruce had been a boy. He was not hostile or reproving, but there seemed a bit of distance. Bruce was grateful for that, somehow.
Thomas Wayne produced a pipe and a tobacco pouch from nowhere. "Care for one?" he asked his son.
Bruce shook his cowled head. "I'm in training. I'm always in training. What's up, Dad?"
The elder Wayne took his time about answering, loading the stuff into his Meerschaum and lighting it (again, with a match that appeared from nothingness and returned to such after Thomas had used it) and taking a puff or two first. "You haven't even asked about your mother."
"How is she?"
"I can't tell you."
"Thoughful of you, Dad," said the Batman, evenly. He crossed his arms and waited. When Thomas did not speak, he finally took the initiative.
"Why have you come to me now?", asked Batman.
Thomas shifted his pipe in his mouth. "The nightwings slip twixt brain and lip and yet we can't speak for fear we'd trip. Dreams are illogical, you know."
"All things are illogical," the cowled man answered. "Until you impose logic upon them. And logic can be imposed on all things. Even dreams. Freud proved that."
Thomas Wayne took his pipe out of his mouth and laughed till he coughed. "Freud. Most annoyed. Heavens to Murgatroyd, boy, Freud knew so little about the territory. In some ways, he was flat off the beam. In others, he'd barely scratched the surface."
"Your wife's life's near the knife," said Thomas, and his face seemed to pale a bit for a second. He grinned. "Yet you gadabout like a bat out of swells and don't know what you're chasing. Why? Try."
The caped man wheeled in anger. Then he caught himself. Even in a dream, this was his father. Yes, he was angry at him. For dying. For putting him on this cruel, dark treadmill. For leaving him.
For making him have to be the Batman.
But he was still his father. Even in a dream.
"I seek the man or woman who tried to kill her," he said, with an undertone of menace. "She won't be safe till I capture him."
"A him? How long has it been since you sang a him?" Thomas looked gravely upon his son.
Batman stepped closer to his father. "I'll sing his dirge. I've got an urge to sing his dirge. I do."
Thomas said, "Come. Sit." An easy chair appeared behind Thomas, made of alligator hide and gold, and he sat in it. Batman saw he was standing on nothing. So he knelt on it, and felt more comfortable.
"Now then, son," Thomas Wayne continued, "I was quite luckier than you as a boy. Martha and I got killed at the same time, no rhyme. Or reason. That meant I didn't have to waste my time or season on dressing up in my old Helloweenie costume and hunting down Joe Chill to make him spill. Or Lew Moxon to put his rocks on. Or socks on. We were together and fine. She says hi."
"You said that you couldn't tell me about her," pointed out Batman.
"Did I? Well, then, she doesn't say hi."
Thomas kicked his leg up over his knee and bent it about three times around his other leg. "You see your problem, boy? You just don't have a sense of timing about these things, or kings. You should have arranged to die so high with your wife. That's life. You die at the same time, that's no crime. You're together forever. All weather. No more bills to pay, no more dragons to slay, no more kids to worry over, no more patients to hurry over. Life's endurable, but death's incurable. You see what I'm hearing?"
Batman took a deep breath of something. "Dad, this isn't doing any good. Neither Selina nor I am dead. We're going to make babies. We're going to raise a family."
"Will you?" Thomas thrust his face so close Batman was sure he could smell the pipe smoke, if there was any to smell. "If you die so high, who'll make the babies? Maybes? Shouldn't you let bygones go on and begone? Tell the shooter to scoot ‘er, you'll forgive and let live and give. Go home and not roam. Nor foam."
"You know I can't do that," said Batman. "Whoever did it knows who I am."
"Do you know who you are?"
Thomas wasn't smiling.
Batman exhaled. "Sometimes, I'm not sure. But there's more to this than just someone trying to kill my wife. I can sense that. I just haven't got all the pieces in the puzzle tray yet."
"Someday you'll hang up the boots, the suits, and the bandicoots," said Thomas. "Unless you die with them on. Wouldn't that be a con?"
Batman got as far as opening his mouth. He found himself unable to make a sound. He groped his throat, and found two holes near his jugular vein.
"Begone," said Thomas.
Bruce came awake all at once.
For a second he stared around wildly at the rock walls and scientific equipment about him. Then he caught sight of the woman sleeping in the other bed, the one with the monitors hooked to it. Actually, his "bed" was little more than a cot, but he didn't mind.
He was in the Batcave.
That was reassuring, but not as much as it should have been. Instead of charging straight after Kobra, Batman had opted to head back to Gotham to catch some sleep and allow the Outsiders some down time. Lord knows they'd need it, when they went against the man in the snake suit.
He looked to the bedside tray where he'd placed his wallet and watch. It was almost noon. Bruce usually knocked off Batman duty around 5 a.m. and slept till early afternoon, then took care of business at the Wayne Foundation. He intended to do a little of that today, and to show Bruce Wayne's face in public. Alfred had told him of Gordon's words before he had hit the sack. Bruce knew that it would look a bit wrong not to be by Selina's side in her condition. But, at the time, it couldn't really be helped.
Selina was waking up. He moved over to her bed and took her hand as she opened her eyes. "Morning, Bruce," she said, tiredly. Her hand was a bit shaky.
"Afternoon, Selina," he said. "You're keeping the same hours as me, these days. How are you feeling?"
"Oh, better, I suppose. It'll be great when I don't have to use a bedpan. I'm not used to this sickie stuff, Bruce. I want to put on the dress and hit the roofs with you. Come here." He bent closer and she raised herself up and kissed him. Then she fell back in bed. "That's about all I've got strength for," she said, forlornly.
He pulled up a chair and sat in it. "You'll be fine, Selina. We'll all see to that. After this is done, we'll spend quality time together. I promise you that."
She looked at him. "I know, Bruce. Quality time, until Mr. Green Hair and Red Lips breaks out of Arkham again. Or the Penguin, or Nigma, or any of those types. Remember, I used to be one of them."
"You're not any more. You're my wife."
"Right, ‘n' I'm still the Catwoman. Going to be your partner, Bruce. That way, we can be together no matter what suits we wear." She shifted about in her bed. "But I'm not sure how many years we can keep on wearing ‘em, Bruce."
He looked at his feet, then at Selina. "Nor am I, Selina. But as long as the Batman's enemies are about, there has to be a Batman to fight them."
She looked at him sadly. "What about a Bruce Wayne to be father to our son or daughter? Or both?"
Bruce sighed. "I'm going to be that, too. My father was a great influence in my life, even with the hours a doctor keeps. He was--" Pausing, Bruce knew he had to admit the truth to himself, as well as Selina. "If I hadn't become the Batman, I would have wanted to be like him."
"You think you could have become a doctor?"
"No. But whatever I did, I would have done it in the manner he would have. As a good man."
She reached out to him. "Bruce, darling, don't you understand? You already have."
The two embraced for a very long time.
Blinky Whyte and his gang (both of them) had been involved in breaking into an ATM in the wee wee hours, and were confident their lack of technical expertise could be overcome by the weight of the sledgehammers they used to bust the mother open. Sure, the alarm would go off, and the cops would come. But they could be out of there long before the cops arrived.
Or they would have been, if somebody hadn't started laughing that horrible laugh just as they got started.
Blinky and his two companions, Sam and Eddie, heard a tremendous thump on the roof of the ATM booth a second or two after the laughter had started. Somebody was on top of the thing, and he was still laughing.
Then a head hung upside down in their view. A head with a tremendous grin on it, and the clincher: grass-green hair.
At that point, Blinky and his boys weren't too concerned with niceties like the head's skin color, or the fact that a red-dyed sheepskin was hanging down from the newcomer's shoulders on either side of the head. The three of them had processed two pertinent facts.
2) Green hair.
They managed to get out a string of frightened obscenities, but the only really relevant thing they said was two words: "The Joker!"
In such cases, you didn't stop to wonder why the Joker would want to horn in on you busting up an ATM and grabbing the money. Maybe it was his territory. Maybe he needed the dough, too. Maybe he just didn't like your looks, or it had been too long since he killed somebody. It really didn't matter.
All that mattered was getting the hell out of there before he did something that left you on a slab with a toe tag and a big grin all over your face.
The three of them leaped at the glass and metal door like so many college kids crowded in a phone booth. Sure, the Joker was out there, but there was a lot more "out there" than there was "in here," and thus a lot more space in which to run away from him. Blinky, Sam, and Eddie were operating on survival instinct. None of them was very big on analysis, anyway.
Mister Green Hair swung down from the top of the booth like an Olympics acrobat and targeted two of the gang with his feet just as they got the door open. Sam and Eddie were knocked back inside. Blinky, between the two of them, got caught briefly in a head scissors and was thrown back himself by an unbelievable move the guy executed.
The guy was still laughing.
Sam, who was the only one packing heat, pulled out his .38. Blinky shouted, "Sam, no!", thinking about the cramped quarters and the chances of being hit by a stray slug. But it didn't matter to Sam, or to the guy they were facing.
The Joker, or whoever the guy was, grabbed Sam's wrist and yanked it upward hard enough to dislocate the crook's arm at the shoulder. Sam cried out. Green Hair whacked him with an elbow and then bashed Sam's head hard against the metal portion of the money machine on the wall. Sam went down and did not come up.
Eddie was scared as hell, but he was carrying a switchknife which was all business and had seen much usage before in such situations. He yelled something unintelligible, more or less like a soldier shouting when he hits combat. The Joker-guy had his back to him. It was all covered with that red sheepskin stuff. Blinky noticed that the Joker was wearing green trunks, too, and his arms and legs were yellow.
If that was the way the Joker looked, no wonder he freaked people out.
It was unbelievable, but Green Hair did a handstand in the cramped quarters and tagged Eddie a good one in the face with his red-shoed foot. Eddie fell back against the glass wall of the booth, almost breaking through it. Green Hair got back on his feet. His left hand came out in a slap and hit Eddie's knife wrist. Eddie had a good grip on the knife, but his foe knocked it loose from his hand as if the handle was coated with melted butter.
Then he lifted Eddie by his shirt in one hand, held him right off the ground, and laughed in his face. Eddie was turning white. "Don't kill me," he sputtered. "Please. I got two wives and four kids and they'd all die if they heard you killed me. Please. I didn't know it was your turf. Please."
The guy's fist shot out and escorted Eddie to dreamland.
Then he dropped Eddie to the floor, and Blinky took notice of another problem.
Mr. Green Hair was between Blinky and the door.
"Muh," said Blinky, shrinking against the slightly broken back wall of the ATM. "Muh, muh." He had something he wanted to say, but the connection between brain and mouth seemed to have a few lines down.
The green-haired man dragged Blinky up by both shoulders and banged his back hard against the wall. He was grinning like he was measuring Blinky for a midnight snack.
"If you have any weapons, I'd suggest you forget about them," said Green Hair. His face, Blinky noted, was all yellow too. Mutely, Blinky nodded.
"If you have any knowledge of the hit on Selina Kyle, the Catwoman, I suggest you tell me." The guy's hands tightened on Blinky's shoulders. The crook cried out in pain.
"I, I don't know nothin'! I don't know no Selina Catwoman. Honest I don't! I ain't lyin'!"
The grinning guy paused, then nodded. "Good. That's good. I believe you. You can imagine what I would do if I didn't."
"Yeah," said Blinky. "I can imagine. I can imagine real, real good."
"The police will be here soon," said Green Hair. "After they take you, spread the word to everyone you meet in jail: anyone who has information about the hit on the Catwoman must give it to Commissioner Gordon or Bruce Wayne, or face my wrath."
"Y-y-you got it," Blinky affirmed. "I'll, I'll tell everybody I know. Tell the cockroaches in my cell."
"Do that," said his captor. "Especially the human ones."
Then he let Blinky down. Blinky slumped, sitting on the floor. The green-haired man turned to go, not giving a damn that his back was to Blinky and that a .38 still lay on the floor of the booth. Both he and Blinky knew that Blinky had more sense than to try and use it.
Blinky gathered all his courage. "Uh. Mr. Joker. Will I be all right if nobody, like, knows anything?"
The man turned, and, impossibly, his grin was wider than before.
"You might be better off in the hands of the Joker if you disobey. As for me, know that anyone involved in the Kyle incident will learn one thing, to their great regret. They will learn to beware the Creeper!"
With that, the guy threw back his head and laughed again, and didn't stop. Not even when he burst out the door of the ATM booth and did handsprings and somersaults over the asphalt of the parking lot outside and bounded to the roof of a nearby building and scampered away like a jungle creature on the prowl.
"Oh, God," breathed Blinky, his arms hanging uselessly at his sides. He looked at Sam and Eddie, still mercifully unconscious, at the gun and the money on the floor. He heard, unmistakably, the sound of sirens coming nearer, and felt more secure for hearing them.
The guy hadn't been the Joker. But he was close enough for Blinky Whyte.
When the cops finally arrived, Blinky said, "Do either one of you guys know anything about this Selina Catwoman getting whacked?"
The two flatfeet had looked at each other, then back at Blinky. "You have the right to remain silent," one of them said.
"I've got to ask everybody about this Selina Catwoman," said Blinky. "It's important."
As they cuffed him and pushed his head down to fit him into the back seat of their car, Blinky reflected that he was glad to be going where he was.
There were a lot of guys at the precinct desk and in the holding tank he could ask about this Selina Catwoman broad.
Surely one of them would know about her, if she was that important.
Alfred Pennyworth served turkey sandwiches at brunch to master Bruce and the Outsiders, and was thankful that Looker, though a model, was not a vegetarian. It was reassuring to him to see that Metamorpho and Element Girl ate the things without trouble, though he doubted that their multicolored elemental bodies took much sustenance from normal food, if anything. He served coffee and tea to them while Bruce Wayne spoke to his team.
"We'll start the Kobra operation tomorrow," said Bruce. "With him, you have the benefit of having faced him several times before. Not that he's any less deadly than Ra's, but the devil you know, and so forth."
Halo said, "Um, will Black Lightning be coming along with us? I know he's teaching today, but d'you suppose he could, like, take a day of abscence or something? If he got a note from the principal?"
The rest hid their smiles, especially when Katana gave them a nasty look. She was almost Halo's surrogate mother, and none of them particularly liked to cross her.
Bruce's small smile was friendly, not mocking. "Jeff will probably be absent, but we'll keep him posted. He'll join us when he can. Educating the young people of Gotham is as important as fighting crime, and he's excelled at both professions."
"Oh. Okay," said Halo, pleased that she hadn't gotten a you're-dumb response from Bruce. Then again, she reflected, from him she never did.
Looker, finishing her turkey on Swiss, said, "We're not going to try another frontal assault like we did with Ra's, are we? For all we know, he and Kobra could be in contact."
The millionaire turned his head towards the supermodel superheroine. "They're not exactly friends. Kobra once usurped the Lazarus Pit for a short time. Ra's Al Ghul doesn't forget such things, despite the even-tempered front he showed you. But, yes, it's possible they do communicate through backchannels, although not proven. And no, we're not going to go charging in again like Marines taking a hill. But this time..." Bruce emphasized the point with a pause. "This time, I want to take him down. Whether he was involved in the attempted hit on Selina, or not. He did kill another good man, as I watched...his brother, Jason Burr. I don't forget such things, either."
Element Girl shifted on the couch, crossing her legs. Despite her power, and despite her trust of Batman, there was always something in his demeanor that scared her. With the others, she thought they felt more respect than fear...but Rex had confessed that, in dealing with the Batman, there was always an element of low-level nervousness.
That didn't keep them from liking him. But it did make him hard to live with, sometimes.
Geo-Force said, "Then, I take it that we will go in civilian guise? And where, friend Bruce, are we headed tomorrow?"
"We'll be in disguise, all right," answered Wayne. "As for our destination: we're going to try India first. That's where the Cobra Cult was originally based, and Wonder Woman had an encounter with him there. I don't have to tell you how dangerous the man can be. But I will tell you this: if our outfit performs as well as we did against Ra's Al Ghul, then I'm putting my money on the Outsiders in this fight. Agreed?"
Metamorpho, Element Girl, Geo-Force, Katana, Halo, and Looker all gave their individual confirmations. Rex Mason smiled, slightly. The best part about being an Outsider was that, as a unit, it was even tighter than the Justice League.
Katana spoke up. "What has Firestorm discovered about the source of the dart that struck Selina?"
Bruce said, "Practically nothing. It appears to have been sent by a mechanical device, as we've determined from riflings on the sides of the dart. But neither he, Green Lantern, nor Superman have been able to find out much more. Which would be in keeping with the efficiency of Kobra...or Ra's Al Ghul."
He stood up. "That's it for right now. Be prepared to leave around 0600 tomorrow morning. We'll be up against one of our toughest enemies. But don't forget...he's going to be up against his toughest ones, too." Alfred held out Bruce's coat, which he put on while talking. "Right now, I'm going to consult with Commissioner Gordon, then pay a visit to Lucius at the Wayne Building. I'll see you in the morning."
"‘Ta, Bruce," said Looker. "Even though I'll probably look like an absolute hag in the morning."
"Oh, you will not," said Halo. "Even if you don't wear that silly blue makeup on your eyes."
"Silly?" Looker gave Halo a piercing gaze.
Leaving the crew to their post-briefing shenanigans, Bruce Wayne exited the room.
James Gordon and Barbara sat behind a wall of bulletproof glass and metal, looking at the man in the straitjacket seated before them, and wondered if even that barrier would be enough to withstand Killer Croc if he wasn't sedated.
The man had to be a mutant of sorts. His strength was far greater than normal, and his skin, thick and mottled like a crocodile's, had given him his name. He was an outcast from humanity because of it. That was what had led him to his profession as a hitman for hire, and then as a crime boss so feared that even the Joker had been loath to cross swords with him.
In one of his sprees, he had been responsible for the deaths of young Jason Todd's parents, circus performers. Gordon had flashed back to the killings of Dick Grayson's parents, also circus people, which had happened years before in Newtown, not far from Gotham. Both boys had been adopted by Bruce Wayne, and both seemed to be parented well by him. Now young Jason might have a mother, too, if she survived the attempt on her life.
Gordon was damned well determined to learn what the inmates of Arkham knew about the event.
"Croc," said Gordon. "Can you hear me?"
The eerie man in the reptilian skin and the gray asylum uniform looked up at him from his seat. "Sure," said Croc, slurring it a bit. "Sure, I can hear ya."
The commissioner glanced at his daughter, seated beside him. Barbara was alert, but not fearful. He was proud of her moxie, but a little fear of this freak before them might well be in order. Croc hadn't racked up as many murders as the Joker, but only because he hadn't had time to. Yet.
"A woman named Selina Kyle was the victim of a murder attempt a few days ago," said Gordon. "You've met her. She was the Cat--"
"The Catwoman," said Croc. "Yeah, I know her."
Barbara broke in. "Do you know anything about the hit attempt? Or do you have any ideas about who could be behind it? Cooperating with the police on this would be the first good mark on your record."
"Barbara, please," said Gordon. He hated it when people stole his lines.
"Oh, I dunno who was behind it," said Croc, amiably. "But I do know who could have done it. All hypothetical, y'understand."
Gordon found himself hesitant to ask the question. But he plowed ahead. "All right, Croc. Who?"
At that, Croc stood up, pushing back his chair. The two armed guards behind him started forward.
They were a little too late.
Croc ripped his arms out of the straitjacket, tearing the reinforced fabric asunder like wet paper. His freed hands whipped out, grabbed the two burly guards, and cracked their heads together in a guaranteed skull-fracture impact. They fell unconscious. He had their guns in the next instant.
Gordon and his daughter fell to the floor, instincively. He dragged the police special out of his shoulder holster as he heard the bulletproof glass shatter beneath the impact of a large, heavy object: Croc's body.
There were two guards on the other side of the glass, behind Gordon and Barbara. They shot at Croc, but he shot better. He dropped them both.
Croc grabbed the redheaded woman and held her between himself and Gordon, as a shield, his arm levering her head back painfully. She elbowed him in the gut, but only collected a bruise for her trouble.
"It coulda been me," Croc said.
He aimed his gun at James Gordon.