Dance With the Demons
Batman hadn't been to India all that often in his career, and that was fine by him. He didn't particularly enjoy the sight of poverty, overpopulation, and ethnic tension.
It was like Gotham City with wandering cows.
That was an insult, and he chided himself badly for it. No nation that produced such literary treasures, spiritual visions, and men like Gandhi could be so callously written off, and he wasn't about to.
Nonetheless, he would be glad when his business here was done. For the sake of the others, and of his wife, he wished to make his stay as brief as possible.
Halo poked her head through the doorway. "Are we there yet?"
He turned back, formed his lips into a smile. "Within the hour. Get back and buckle up, Gabby. Our descent begins soon."
"If we have time, will you let me see a man walking up a rope? Or maybe a flying carpet?"
"If we find one, and if we have time. Go sit down, Halo."
Batman steered his plane on an angle that would bring it closer to the Earth and mused on Gabrielle Doe's innocence. All this time with the team, fighting some of the deadliest supercriminals around, and she was still, mentally, so much a little girl.
He prayed she never lost it.
He feared that her loss of it would come from one of the Outsiders' duties.
The detective grasped his hand mike. "Everybody belt up. We're in descent. Prepare to deplane in 55 minutes. That's all."
Black Lightning stopped doing his Bill Cosby imitation for Katana. She never laughed, but when the edge of her mouth twitched, he knew he had her. Metamorpho was dozing, his belt already buckled on his five-colored frame.
"Best lock in, Tat," Lightning told her, buckling his own seat belt.
"You must finish the story of Old Weird Harold and the monster picture for me," said the samurai.
"Believe it," he said. Cosby she could handle. Richard Pryor she wasn't ready for.
The Joker was allied with some powerful players. Among them was Mr. Freeze, whose cold-gun had proven troublesome for Batman and Robin in the past; Poison Ivy, a diminuitive beauty whose uses of plants and their poisons in crime had gained her a place in the Injustice Gang of America; the Scarecrow, whose strange gas-pellets created tailor-made fear in the minds of his targets; the Cat-Man, a former big-game hunter inspired to crime by the example of the Catwoman, part of his costume made of a strange orange cloth which lent him nine extra lives, then renewed its power every few years; and Molech, a powerful, long-limbed giant of a man who had battled Batman only once, and very nearly killed him.
The troupe announced their presence by freezing the top five floors of the Gotham Towers building and taking fifteen people hostage.
The ice surrounding one face of the building was sculpted by Mr. Freeze's cold-gun into a Joker face, because the boss insisted on it. "Proper trademarks bring proper opposition," he said.
"All right, all right," said Freeze, and altered the huge face three times till the Joker declared that he'd gotten it correct.
"Cheekbones weren't high enough before," the Clown Prince of Crime grumbled. "Not nearly high enough."
Poison Ivy luxuriated on a couch, her gun of deadly thorns pointed towards a bound hostage. "Just remember, Big Laugh, when this gig is over, it is over. We go our separate ways. No fair killing us afterward, either."
"Wouldn't think of it," simpered the tall, gangly, green-haired murderer. "Would never cross my mind, dear Ivy. That is, unless I had a really, really good reason." He laughed and squirted Cat-Man with water from a fake flower in his buttoniere.
Cat-Man spluttered and wiped water from his lower face and the phony whiskers on his mask. "Cut it out, will you? I thought that was acid, at first."
"Oh, dear me, no, Cat-Man," the Joker assured him. He turned towards one of Ivy's potted plants, nearby. "For acid, I have to touch another button, like so."
A foul-smelling liquid sprayed from the plastic flower and turned the plant into a hissing ruin.
"Joker." Ivy was incensed, almost pointing her gun at the white-faced man. "You...killed...Harold!"
"Knock it off, Ivy, it was just a posy," said Mr. Freeze, laconically.
The girl's face was reddened by anger. "There is no ‘just a posy'. Plants are higher beings than humans. They don't betray you. They don't sell out your love. Apologize right now, Joker, or I'll..."
The Scarecrow raised his hand, meaningfully. There was a glass ball in it, containing fear-gas. He made sure Ivy saw him. So did the Joker.
Sighing with rage, Poison Ivy lowered her thorn-gun. "If you had to kill somebody, why couldn't it have been one of the people?", she simpered.
"I'd be delighted, Miss Ivy," said the Joker, with an unctuous grin. "Point to the party, and I'll do him for you. Just as a good-will thing."
Molech reached out his hand, cupped a hard clay mug of coffee, drank it, then crushed the mug in his hand without ill effect to himself. "This is meaningless. You make futile gestures, play at theatre, make your robberies, play at entrapment, then lose the prize, your money, your freedom. Where is the Batman? He is the only reason I came with you."
The Joker regarded his large cohort. "Forgive me, dear Molech. I know it's been a long journey from the Louisiana state pen, ma cher, and, unlike us, you weren't so gifted at escaping prison. But you were reccommended to me for your brains as well as your brawn, and it did take some expense to bring you here. I suggest you remind that, consider the power we can accumulate, and even the money. Which, in toto, should be a lot more than you would have gained from that gold mine you killed that blues musician to try and acquire."
"Blues man?", said Cat-Man, suddenly curious. "I hope it wasn't B. B. King."
"To hell with that," roared Molech, rising to his 7-foot-4 stature. "I want the Batman. Where is he?"
The Joker looked somewhat annoyed. "Actually, dear boy, we're not entirely assured he is here. From what I've learned, the Batplane was given clearance by the FAA not long ago, it was bound overseas--"
"What?" Moloch grabbed the Joker by his lapels and hauled him up, the criminal comedian's feet dangling in the air. The Joker had his hand at his belt, prepared to loose a dart tipped with Joker-venom into Moloch's thorax.
"Put him down," intoned the Scarecrow, in a voice made sepulchral by the device in his headmask. "Put him down, or you shall fear."
Poison Ivy glanced at a monitor hooked into a camera set in the building lobby. "Damn," she said. "Look!"
Cat-Man, Scarecrow, and Freeze turned to the monitor immediately. The Joker slapped Moloch's arm. The giant grudgingly released him. Both of them went to the monitor and saw what there was to see.
"The cops," muttered the Joker, looking at the invading force in blue uniforms. "How dull. I usually try to leave them alive, but business is business. Mr. Freeze, if you please."
The villain in the cold-suit was about to head for the elevator, but something else stopped him.
Four metallic barbs on the ends of harpoons punched their way through the ice into the penthouse windows around them. The heads of the barbs opened up and disgorged four small spheres.
These hit the floor and produced four small explosions, bowling the villains off their feet. The fifteen bound hostages were discomfited, but not greatly.
The barbs then extruded four hooks apiece, which abutted the ice sheath around them, and then the harpoons were retracted. The ice broke away from the four windows with a series of cracks. All of this happened within ten seconds.
The four Whirly-Bats outside were on automatic pilot. Nightwing, Batgirl, Huntress, Robin, and the Robin of Earth-Two leapt from the open cockpits through the holes in the ice sheath, into the penthouse.
"Batman's outta town," snapped Nightwing, rushing forward. "Will we do?"
Battle was joined.
Batman and his crew had endured some photographers from the Indian newspapers and video reporters as well, waving off all questions. Halo wanted to talk, her bubbly nature coming to the fore, but Katana told her not to. They wanted cooperation from the government in their venture. Ergo, no bad press. But none of them liked having it announced that they were in India in the first place.
It gave Kobra time to prepare. Then again, Batman figured that he'd probably already been doing that, a bit.
One photog leaned in a little too close and triggered a flashcube right in Looker's and Element Girl's faces, almost blinding them.
The Creeper went into a crouch, sent his yellowish body into a spring, and hit the man like an arrow seeking a target. He was grinning as he bore the man to the floor, both feet on his chest. The crowd of onlookers gasped and drew away from the scene.
"Creeper! NO!" barked Batman, getting the words out while the other was still in the air.
The outlaw hero smiled at the Masked Manhunter, his hands on the cringing man's camera. "Awww, Bats, have a heart. I wasn't gonna hurt him, just his Polaroid here."
"I said ‘No,'" Batman replied, quietly. "And I meant it."
Just as the Creeper was grudgingly getting off the man and trying to extend a free hand to help him up, a red-sleeved, elongated arm snaked out, wrapped about his chest, pinned his arms to his sides, and yanked him back to the group.
In the process, the Creeper dropped the camera and it broke, exposing the film. The photographer cursed and wept.
"What'dja do that for?" complained the Creeper to Plastic Man, who was just now releasing his pliable arm. "I was gonna let him up!"
"One, it looks better if we keep our own kind in line," said Plas, his expression neutral. "Two: I'm electing myself as your official keeper, on this gig. You need one."
The Creeper fumed at him. "Plas, I've got the feeling this is the beginning of a really terrible friendship."
Batman cracked a smile and led his party on.
After seeing the jumping yellow man and the strange being whose limbs behaved like a python's body, the press corps and the looky-Lous gave them a lot of space.
That was just the way he wanted it.
Several men in policemen's uniforms stood not far away, flanking a man in plainclothes with an air of officialdom. Batman recognized him from a photo. He led his band in that direction and went and extended his gloved hand to the official. "Inspector Singh," he said, firmly.
Singh shook it. "The Batman, of course. Apologies, esteemed guest, for the reception."
"Please follow me, with your associates."
On Earth-Two, a man and a woman were sharing a telephone call.
"I don't like it, Karl," said the woman. "I don't like it at all. If those two are involved, we should be involved, too."
"Kathy, be reasonable," Karl answered. "I've got a kid. You've got kids. We're old. We don't do this sort of thing anymore."
"Oh, yes we do," Kathy retorted. "We just don't do it as often. And we use more gadgets. But we still haven't hung it up."
"You're going to want to play hero when you're in a rest home," he declared. "I swear, that's just what you're going to do. You'll be lying in bed in a costume. Only time you'll take it off is when they bathe you."
"How will you like it if Selina dies, Karl? Think you can live with that on your conscience?"
"No. No, I can't. But she's going to be in danger all her life. I mean, she was before she got married."
"Not like this, Karl. Not like this."
Karl sighed. "You've met the other guy. Once. What was he like?"
"Just like our Bruce. Only a little nobler, if possible. We can do our part, Karl."
"Not without me doing a lot of explaining to the wife, who has to sit with Junior and his asthma tonight. Not without you getting me into that Transporter thing."
"I can do that. The Society gave me honorary access."
"You're crazy," said Karl. "Believe me, this is the last time I ever do a thing like this. Ever. Especially with you."
"You really mean that?"
"Probably not. Come pick me up in an hour."
In his office, Singh had traded information with the Batman, while the Outsiders crowded into the room in wooden chairs. Some of the offices had gone chairless because of their number, and some of the officers on duty were hanging around the door, hoping to catch another peek of the American heroes.
"So, essentially, you are going down the list of your most powerful foes, and trying to eliminate suspects," said Singh, a bit dubiously.
"That's right," admitted Batman. He had not told Singh that Kobra knew his true identity.
The inspector took his time about sipping a cup of warm tea. Then he said, "Very probably what I would do, in such a situation. We know of Kobra, of course."
"Of course," said Batman. "The Cobra Cult's main basis has always been your nation."
"But we have no assurances that he can be found here," said Singh. "Kobra is, after all, an international criminal. He could be anywhere on the globe. If he is your foe, and he has struck down your friend, then most likely, he is in America."
Halo piped up. "You know, he's got a point. Didn't you think of that, Batman?"
"Shush, Gabrielle," hissed Katana.
Batman favored them with a glance, and turned back to Singh. "It is possible Kobra is still in America, if he is our perp, and if he was there in the first place. He could have struck through agents. However, my strategy is twofold. First, we show ourselves on his turf--in his territory. An act of arrogance calculated to draw his attention. Second, we strike at his home operation. A man such as Kobra cannot afford to overlook such a challenge to his authority. To his power."
Singh said, "Kobra has no authority in this land. Power, yes. But the two are not one and the same, friend Batman."
"No, not the same," agreed Batman. "But power often masquerades as authority, and can prove at least as effective. If we break Kobra's power, we break his pose of authority."
"Have you," said the policeman, "given thought to the view that Kobra may be luring you into a trap? He is, after all, an old enemy of yours."
Batman smiled wolfishly.
"I'm counting on it," he said. "The best way to spring a trap, quite often, is to walk right into it."
"Just so," said Singh. "However, many an animal has found that the springing of a trap leaves them without the odd limb."
"Just so," the hero agreed.
Unexpectedly, Singh pointed at the Creeper. "This man," he said. "He is not one of your team. He is, I believe, an outlaw."
"Me?" The Creeper was dumbfounded. "Hey, sahib, I've had a few bad raps laid on me, but I'm a real straight-and-narrow guy. I'm clean, pinky square--"
Metamorpho stretched his neck out to give him a shut-up look.
Batman was already speaking. "The Creeper is with me. We have worked together before. It is true, he is wanted for questioning in the United States in connection with a number of crimes. I am assured, however, that those charges are false."
"But neither you, nor he, have demonstrated that they are," said Singh.
There was silence for a couple of beats.
"No," admitted Batman. "No, we haven't."
Singh took another long swallow of tea. In that interval, the Outsiders (especially Katana) and the police in the room read each other. Neither group wanted to start a fight. All were hoping to avoid conflict. And all knew that, if the Creeper were detained, there might be hell to pay.
That, for a man most of them had never met before yesterday.
Plastic Man spoke up. "Inspector Singh, I, too, have been a criminal in the past. I followed the path of thievery, of preying on my fellow men. That changed the day I gained my powers. A wise man in my native land taught me to follow the path of justice, helped me become the Plastic Man. Not long after, I received an official pardon, became a liason agent with our Federal Bureau of Investigation. If no forgiveness had been extended to me, then I would be as much an outlaw as the Creeper. Yet, I can stand before you today, a man of no small repute, and I will tell you this. The Creeper may be accused of crime. But he is no more a criminal than myself."
The green-haired hero's jaw dropped. He looked at Plas, unable to speak.
"Way to go, Stretch," whispered Black Lightning. Then the Ebon Bolt raised his own voice. "Your honor, if I might add my own voice to that: I come from a part of one of our great cities that isn't too much better-looking than one of your own city slums. I've met a lot of bad people, a lot of good people, and a lot of folks that were just in-between, until somebody gave ‘em the proper nudge. I don't rate the Creeper as a bad person. I think the police gave him a bum rap. But he can't set the record straight without revealin' his secret identity...and he just can't do that. There's a $50,000 reward on his head by the syndicates. For his sake, he has to keep his secret."
Halo stood up from her chair. "Mr. Inspector, I've got something to say." She clasped both hands behind her back, and crossed her fingers for luck.
Katana tugged on her sleeve. "Halo, sit down," she insisted.
"No," Gabrielle answered, not looking at Katana. "My words may not mean anything. I may not even say ‘em right. But part of me...this body, anyway...trust me on that...it started out as somebody really bad. I mean, really, really bad. Like mega. Truly. But, um, something happened, that I just can't tell you about. And here I am now, and I'm, well, a hero. Or a heroine, I guess, isn't that right, Katana?"
The Japanese woman looked up at her with something like unbelieving horror.
"So, I guess the point is, we don't have to stay bad if we don't want to, just like Mr. Plastic here said. Or if something happens to you like an Aurikle fusing with your body. Aw, heck. I guess what I'm trying to say is...I'm standing by the Creeper, too."
"Aw, jeez," said the Creeper, wondering if he should react with gratitude, disgust, or both.
Metamorpho was the next to speak. "Me, too," he said. "I don't know this Joe too well. Just met him a few weeks back, in the Crisis...you know, that thing with the red skies. But Batman thinks he's a right guy, and I know Bats is a right guy. So I'm sticking with the Creeper. He's got my vote."
Element Girl grasped Metamorpho's hand. "And anybody that's all right by Rex is all right by me. I'm for the Creeper, too."
"Thanks, honey," said Rex, nonchalantly. He didn't pull away from her hand.
Katana did not rise, but she said, clearly, "I support the Creeper." She did not waver her eyes from Singh.
Geo-Force added his booming voice next. "Most esteemed Inspector Singh, I come to you in three distinct aspects. As a man of royal blood, the prince of the proud nation of Markovia. As a super-hero called Geo-Force, whose power stems from the very Earth upon which we tread. And, most importantly, as an Outsider. You may assure your ruler that the prince regent of a distant but proud land stands beside this man called Creeper, and will fight beside him to the very death. Especially against our mutual foe, he who plagues your land, he who is called--Kobra. To the number who stand beside him, let there be counted, most emphatically--the man called Geo-Force." He went to stand beside the Creeper, and placed his hand upon the other's shoulder. The Creeper was flabbergasted.
Looker grinned, and gave Singh her sexiest smile. "I'm Spartacus. Sorry, you may not get that ref. What I mean to say is--I'm a Creeper booster, too."
The inspector tapped his empty cup against his knee. Then he said, "Most impressive. And you, friend Batman?"
Batman smiled. "I've known him longer than anyone in our line. If you can trust the Batman--then you can trust the Creeper." He looked at Singh, pointedly.
Singh sighed. "You place me in a difficult situation, legally. He is, then, one of your Outsiders?"
The masked man looked behind him, at all of his group. Especially at the Creeper, and at Plastic Man. Then he turned back to Singh. "All of them. Myself, as well. We are all--the Outsiders."
And if the green-haired man and the flexible hero in shades reacted visibly, history does not record it.
Singh said, "Then, on your recognizance, and with yourself bearing the responsibility for it, friend Batman, I will not detain the Creeper."
There was time enough for the Creeper to wipe his brow and say "Whew," and for Halo to throw up her hands and yell, "Yay!", before Singh resumed his speech.
"But," he said. "If my faith proves to be misplaced, then the rest of you will be equally held culpable, and equally liable to arrest. Agreed?"
Batman spoke for them all. "Agreed."
"I cannot guarantee your freedom outside of my jurisdiction," said Singh. "If, however, I am asked, I will repeat to them the gist of what you have given me. That is the extent of what help I can give you. That, and one other thing."
The heroes waited.
"Since your arrival, I received a call about someone who claims to be an old friend of yours, and wishes to help in this case. I was not able to confirm his identity, or his business in this area. But he said he helped you fight the Demon's Head. Does that trigger any recognition?"
Batman nodded, slowly. "I think it does. Is he here?"
Singh nodded to a lieutenant. "You may bring him in, now." To Batman he said, "Conduct your business as thoroughly and quickly as you can. We would applaud the removal of Kobra. But we also wish as little involvement in the matter as we may have."
"Understood," said Batman.
The lieutenant quickly returned with the man in waiting. He wore a white trenchcoat. "Batman," he said, sticking out a hand. "How's it hangin'?"
Batman shook King Faraday's hand. "Very good, King. Glad to see you're still about. What brings you here?"
"Same thing as you," King said. "I think I can help you out. Ready to move?"
Metamorpho said, "After coolin' our heels in this place for about an hour, you bet."
"Blessings upon your enterprise," wished Singh as the heroes filed out. "Believe me, you will need them."
Wayne Manor was one of the toughest places in the state to get into, if you weren't wanted. But that was okay. The crew had just the right equipment to do it.
The Cobra Cult members, a 12-man squad, wore body-covering uniforms of a color that was practically invisible to television monitors. They were picked up on infra-red, but by then the operation was already underway. They struck first at the power lines that fed into Wayne Manor, cutting the cables with a laser. That tipped off Alfred, who was Catwoman's sole guardian at that moment. The emergency generators cut in within three seconds. But hell was already popping.
The Cultists attacked through the concealed door which normally opened to admit the Batmobile onto a little-used road. They applied an explosive paste to the joining of steel door with metal frame, touched it off, and rushed inside. The automatic sleep-gas dispensers only took down one invader, who hadn't adjusted his gas mask properly.
Lasers employed only as sensors sprung into action, creating a web to identify the number and character of the invaders. The stun-guns that opened up on the eleven, seconds thereafter, shot projectiles that only penetrated the body armor of two of the men. The leader of the nine left standing motioned quickly for them to continue.
Alfred Pennyworth stood by Selina Kyle, a Tommy gun loaded with mercy bullets in his hands. She was alert, up on one elbow. "Alfred, who is it?" she whispered. "Can you i.d. them, yet?"
"Not yet, Mistress Selina," muttered Alfred. "But I've a feeling, God help us, that we'll know who it is before long." He only wished that the Master hadn't found the gun where he'd hidden it, or insisted that he replace its conventional armament with mercy slugs.
Even when it came to invaders of his home, the Batman preferred to disable, not to destroy.
Now he saw them. Six had made it through, past the other defensive devices. He raised his weapon and fired.
He knocked two down, but their body armor protected them from harm. Their leader pointed a wrist-device at him. A bolt of electricity shot from it and contacted the Tommy gun. Alfred yelled, involuntarily, and dropped the gun in pain.
Rubbing his numbed hand, the butler rose from a crouch and stood between them and Mistress Selina's bed. She was out of that bed now, crawling towards a cage on the other side of the Batcave, but it was going to be too far for her to reach. Before the Cultists dropped them both.
"Master Wayne, Mistress Selina," said Alfred, facing their foes, "forgive me."
The Cultists advanced.
"Hold it," said a woman's voice.
A nanosecond later, a flying, jet-propelled, winged metallic device shot forth from the direction of the grandfather-clock door and plowed into the line of invaders, sending them sprawling. It was not much bigger than a large bat, which it resembled.
Alfred turned and looked at the two figures who were running down the stairs from the mansion above.
One of them was a man in a black uniform with a catlike mask upon his head.
And the other one, Alfred was persuaded, simply had to be a ghost.