Chapter 8: The Devil's Backyard
The Mersey family had valued its privacy. They had taken advantage of the rises and dips of the island terrain to keep their mansion concealed from the idle sightseers who had, back in the day, passed along the river. To the centuries-old oaks and white pine trees, they had added hedges and shrubs, and encouraged riotous undergrowth. The lone road up to the main house twisted, bent and wound its way around imposing boulders and grassy hills, keeping the structure out of sight for as long as possible. Finally, though, for the second time in nearly as many days, the imposing stone walls and high wrought-iron gates of Arkham Asylum came abruptly into Roy's view as the car rounded the last curve in the road. It didn't look any more inviting on his return.
"Any word from Team One, Red?" Dinah spoke into her radio.
"Not since they went upstairs," Oracle responded. "I wasn't really expecting to hear from them, though, unless they needed me to run some data or the mission was over." She made a disgusted sound. "It took forever, but I finally got those files back." She let out a breath. "It was just what we figured: Bruce downloaded a virus program, presumably the same thing Hush got Harold to set up, which gave the Black Glove access to the security overlays. They were bloody careful. Bruce would've noticed if any of his files were sent to an outside source, but all Black Glove did was figure out where the blind spots were and how to disable the secu-cams, and then they went in and did what they had to do manually." Her voice turned thoughtful. "There was subliminal suggestion involved—that Zur-en-arh business—but that's only been going on for the last couple of months. And it looks to me like it was all set up to accomplish one primary goal: incapacitate Bruce long enough for them to get in and take over."
"Wait," Roy said. "They couldn't have been camped outside the manor waiting for Bruce to say that trigger phrase. I mean…"
"I know," Barbara said. "The subliminal suggestion had one goal, but it was in two parts. First, it had to work on Bruce's subconscious, so that it would have the," she stopped for a moment, then took a deep breath and went on, "the effect they wanted, but second," she stopped again. "Second," she continued, "it was only after the Black Glove had him in the right frame of mind that they could start implanting the trigger phrase—and they did it with a catch. Seeing the trigger phrase did nothing. Less than nothing—they'd programmed Bruce not to register that he was seeing it. But if it were said aloud, then that would trigger the… the—well, you saw him, before—the 'seizure', I guess."
Dinah frowned. "But if he couldn't see the phrase…"
"Yep," Barbara confirmed. "Someone else would have to recite it, once the others were in position."
"So," Roy's voice was hard. "Now we know what Jezebel was doing in the cave."
The main gate was open and unguarded. Dinah raised an eyebrow and exchanged a quick look with Jason. He nodded grimly. As she looked through her rearview mirror, she saw Roy's expression tense as well. Then, the archer shrugged and smiled.
"Guess I don't get to manhandle the admin, this time out," he remarked.
"That doesn't leave you too disappointed, I trust?" Dinah asked, amused. She homed in on a parking spot.
"Nah. I just hope we won't have to rescue him." Roy made a face. "He'd probably make us fill out a mountain of paperwork before he left with us."
Jay arched an eyebrow. "Just conk him on the head and throw him over your shoulder," he suggested. "No fuss, no muss, no bother."
"Y'know," Roy said, "I do believe I'm starting to like the way you think."
Dinah parked the Mustang and the three piled out. "I guess we'd better wait a minute," she said, as Talia's blue car entered the lot.
Roy sighed. "Think about it, Red Jay. Do you really want her out of your sight in Arkham? Ten-to-one odds she's just going to go right to Hurt and company, and tell them we've arrived. You ask me, she's one enemy we definitely ought to keep close."
Jason frowned. "What did you just call me?"
"Red Jay," Roy said with a surprised expression. "Why? Did I hit a nerve or something?"
"No," Jay shook his head. He seemed to be turning something over in his mind. "Red Jay," he repeated softly. "Red Jay…" All at once, he smiled. "Keep using it." He turned away, but Roy could still hear him repeating it under his breath. "Red Jay…"
From the confines of his clay prison, Damien watched as the strumpet slid her hands easily into the wrist restraints on the arms of the wheelchair.
Simon bent over the chair to tighten the straps. He did not buckle them, however.
"And how is that, my dear?" He asked.
She flexed her wrists experimentally, and nodded with satisfaction. "I'll be able to free myself when the proper time comes," she said with satisfaction. Her amused gaze fell on Damien. "What of the boy?"
Simon Hurt walked over to the long coffee table, where Clayface had unceremoniously dumped his captive. He patted his chin thoughtfully as he regarded Damien. "It is something of a dilemma," he admitted. "If it weren't for the child's grandfather, I fear I'd yet be languishing in a place not dissimilar to this one." He smiled down at the sudden hope that sparked in the boy's eyes. His smile froze. "Of course," he continued in a sharper tone, "I do have the child's father to thank for leaving me in those circumstances in the first place."
"Have we yet need of the Demon's help?" the woman asked lightly.
Simon turned his gaze from the boy. "That, my dear, is an excellent question. It's usually wise to maintain cordial ties with powerful friends."
"My father told me something once, Simon," the strumpet said thoughtfully. "If one chooses to accept the aid of powerful allies, it's best to be sure that those allies do not, one day, turn their power against you." She smiled at Clayface, who had positioned himself in the opposite corner of the room—a hulking man-mountain. It was difficult to say whether he stood or sat. He simply was.
"It seems to me," she continued with a brilliant smile, "that our companion has handed us the perfect tool to ensure the long-term cooperation of friend and foe alike."
As she spoke, Simon's lips stretched into a broad smile of their own. "My dear Jezebel, you amaze me," he beamed. "How could I have missed something so obvious?"
He turned to Clayface. "We need to get the young lady into position," he said briskly. "Keep the boy here. Try to keep him alive." He gazed down at Damien again, and his smile shrank slightly. "If that proves untenable, see to it that you dispose of his remains in a way that would make it difficult to identify them." He sighed. "I imagine we should be able to… I believe the word I'm searching for is, 'bluff,' for awhile."
Damien blanched, and seemed to shrink further into his cocoon.
Clayface leered. "Sure thing, Doc. I'll… handle him."
As Simon pushed Jezebel's wheelchair out of the room, Clayface oozed over to the table. "Looks like it's just you and me, kid," he chuckled. "Now, how are we going to pass the time?" He crooked a massive index finger under his equally massive chin. Then, his yellow eyes seemed to grow brighter. "I know! How about Uncle Clayface tells you a story? About the last time I ran into a bunch of kids, some a little younger than you, some a little older… and I had them working for me and catering to my every whim for weeks!" He settled himself a bit more squarely before the coffee table as Damien squeezed his eyes shut.
"Once upon a time, there was a band of kids who lived all alone in a big park with no grownups to teach them good values. They didn't know nothing about no work ethic—just ran around eating berries all day! Now one day, those kids met up with a green-skinned, redheaded witch, who…"
Batman and Nightwing pushed open the rec room doors carefully. Nightwing lifted an eyebrow. Someone, quite obviously, had a flair for the dramatic. A single beam of light illuminated a wheelchair at the far end of the room, before a painted screen. Restrained in the chair, hair disheveled and eyes wide and staring above her gag, was a woman.
As she leaned forward, straining against her bonds, the dynamic duo heard a loud click. One row of ceiling lights came on, shining a narrow path to the woman. The rest of the windowless room, however, remained dark.
It was not silent, though. Within the near pitch-blackness, they could hear muffled laughter, the rustle of garments, the faint slaps of thin-soled slippers against a wooden floor, and the soft scrapes of chairs shifting under the weight of their occupants.
"Cover me," Batman said quietly.Nightwing nodded. I'll do better than that, he thought to himself, as his mentor started forward. Star-Lite lenses allowed them to see in anything but total darkness. And for the infrared to fail… He flung a handful of nightarangs to each side.
Loud protests—and illumination from the emergency lights along the walls—rewarded his efforts, when two enormous black curtains came crashing down over a number of spectators. At least, Nightwing presumed that the lumps struggling beneath the heavy folds were spectators. The chairs and their occupants faced forward, ten or twelve rows deep on each side. Someone had done a good job arranging the chairs, alternating five and six seats to a row, to give those seated further back a less-obstructed view of the stage.
The curtains, Nightwing realized, had to have been treated with lead chromate, or something else capable of repelling infrared light. Thick though they were, they wouldn't hold their captives long. He had to do something to level the playing field quickly.
Nightwing emptied the contents of one of his glove compartments into the palm of his other hand. As the draperies began to slide away, he pulled on his gas mask and scattered the fistful of small round pellets. He waited until the dense smoke had nearly covered the area before he switched to tear gas.
He smiled. They couldn't see him through the haze, and between the smoke and the tear gas, they were probably more concerned at the moment with breathing than with fighting him. Behind him, he heard the rec room doors swing wide. A breeze from the air conditioning stirred the clouds, sending a good portion of the swirling vapors out into the corridor with the fleeing inmates. That was good; it meant that much less of the stuff was going to drift in Batman's direction.
All at once, he heard loud applause. His smile fell away quickly, as an all-too-familiar voice proclaimed, "You just had to spoil it, didn't you? You just had to go and fight dirty!"
The Joker shook his head mockingly. "Tears. In my asylum? And chasing out paying customers, too!" He gestured toward the rec room doors. "Do you have any idea what a ticket to 'Fall of the Batman' cost those people?" He smirked. "Well. A few of us are still going to get our money's worth!"
Instinct made him turn around, just in time to see Two-Face rushing toward him. Out of the corner of his eye, he registered several more figures who seemed content to keep to the sidelines for now. Nightwing sidestepped Dent's attack, darted in again, and slammed the edge of his hand against his assailant's throat. The former DA fell back, wheezing.
Nightwing watched him for a second, to make sure that the man wasn't bluffing. A purple-sleeved arm encircled his neck and he turned his attention back to Joker. Batman was going to have to manage without him for a little bit longer.
Batman sprang forward, trusting Nightwing to have his back. There was little choice and fewer options. He had to free Jezebel, get her out of the crossfire, and help his partner deal with the rest of the inmates. He judged that they had—at best—another twenty-five minutes before the Thorazine-counter started to wear off. They needed to be well away from here before that happened.
He took vague note of the blackout curtains collapsing and the increased illumination. Nightwing did have his part under control, for now. Good.
His jaw clenched. He might need to call in the League on this, after all. Not for the first time, he wondered why he found that so galling. Was it that hard to admit that maybe forcing over two hundred rampaging inmates back to their cells might require the work of more than three masked vigilantes? If the truth were known, he'd faced the prospect of being unmasked with greater equanimity.
Ego aside, neither he nor Nightwing were currently operating at peak efficiency. And Jezebel was going to be a distraction. Enough. Reach the chair. Free her. Get Nightwing and get to safety. Then…
He stopped. Why would the audience only occupy the rear half of the room? He frowned as he noticed something odd about the ceiling, as well: there seemed to be something like a… checkerboard shag rug… hanging from it. It started almost exactly where the chairs stopped. Whatever it was, it was obviously not meant to affect the spectators. So. That, then, was the trap.
Batman considered his options quickly. The ceiling fixture covered the area from wall to wall. Edging around it was out. Even with a running start—and judging by the melee behind him, and the slowly drifting haze of gas and smoke, he didn't have that luxury—he doubted that he'd be able to gauge a leap so that he would clear the trap but stop short of the wall. And, going by the obstacles that he and Nightwing had already faced, it was extremely likely that he'd fling himself clear of one trap, only to run headlong into another.
A grapnel on a de-cel line could snare the wheelchair, but if he went that route, he'd be dragging Jezebel through the very pitfall that he was trying to avoid.
He steeled himself to the task at hand. There was no help for it: he had to spring the trap and deal with the consequences. He donned his breathing mask again—the tear gas and smoke were starting to waft closer. Then, he squared his shoulders, braced himself, and started moving forward.
He was one third of the way to Jezebel when a black rectangle detached from the ceiling and fell with a clack to the floor, mere millimeters to the left of his position. He took another step, and a red one fell to his right. As he looked up, he could see more rectangles—painted playing cards, he realized, now that he had a better view—loosen and descend from the ceiling. His eyes grew wide. Those weren't cards... they were blades! He had to move—and fast!
"They definitely passed this way." Red Jay pointed to the doorframe. "Nightwing deactivated that one. He showed me how, once." He pointed to fresh scratches in the lintel. "That's from a batarang. He used it for leverage to force the door open, after he'd defused the bomb."
"How do you know it wasn't Batman?"
Red Jay shrugged. "Maybe Batman forced the door, Blondie, but Nightwing has a certain style when it comes to disarming bombs." He smirked. "You just have to know what to look for."
Behind him, Talia sniffed disdainfully. The young vigilante grinned at her and continued.
"In this case, I'm looking at the nightarang he used to cut the wires. He jammed it into the detonator when he was done. Any more questions?"
When silence answered him, Jay pushed the door open.
"Hold it," Red Arrow said. "Wait one second." He bent down to the floor, scanning the epoxy surface carefully. "That way," he gestured, as he got up again. "Batman and Nightwing went straight, but Damien," he turned to Talia with a frown. "Damien came in from somewhere over there," he waved vaguely to his left, "and then cut across and went off in this direction," he pointed right.
"Okay," Jason said. "Have fun, then. "I'll catch up with the others." He blinked innocently at Black Canary's glower. "What? You asked me to come along to help Batman. I'm fine with that. You want to go after that little sonova… bat, go right ahead! But don't expect me to come along." He gave her a crooked smile. "It's been a fun ride, Blondie, but I think it's time we parted ways. No hard feelings."
Whatever Dinah was about to say was cut off by Red Arrow's sneering remark. "I had a bet going on how long it would take you." He looked disgusted. "You couldn't have held out another ten minutes? Now I have to foot the bill for Robin's next pizza run." His eyes bore down on Red Jay's. "Do you have any idea how much that kid can eat in one sitting? First time I saw him chow down, I thought he was Wally's kid brother. Ah, why am I bothering?" He turned away. "Donna warned me. I should've listened." He sighed. "Come on, ladies. Good luck, Red Jay." He pivoted back and placed a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "For what it's worth," he added quietly, "I do understand your point. And I know the kid's an arrogant, irritating, little twit with homicidal tendencies…"
There came an enraged gasp from behind. Roy didn't turn around.
"If what you're overhearing bothers you, Talia," he said without turning to face her, "stop listening." Still focused on Jason, he continued. "I just don't think being young and reckless and stupid ought to net you the death penalty, you know?" He shrugged. "Be seeing you."
Jason watched them turn to leave, feeling as though he'd just been sucker-punched. He took a step to follow them, then stopped. He was right. He knew he was right. Damien was trouble that they didn't need. And he's probably going to get himself killed. So? The kid had planned to kill him not that long ago. He deserved it!
Jason's heart missed a beat. He hadn't thought about the diplomat's son in years. The first man he hadn't saved. The first man he'd killed. He hadn't meant for it to happen, but he wasn't sorry that it had. He'd been young and angry, then. All he'd understood was that a man who preyed on innocent women was going to escape with impunity. He hadn't let that happen. Bruce hadn't seen things his way, naturally. It had put a strain on their partnership. The final straw had been when Bruce had barred him from the Robin suit, indefinitely. Jason had run away then. Sure, he'd told himself that it was to look for his mother, and that had been a big part of it. But more than that, he'd been so furious that he'd just wanted to get as far from Bruce as he could.
…And he'd careened directly into Joker and that damned crowbar.
Red Jay realized that his hands were trembling. No wonder he'd gotten himself killed! He'd had so much anger, back then…
…Not to mention recklessness. And… stupidity.
He took one step down the corridor, and then another. His foot froze mid-step. No. Don't let Harper get to you. It's not the same thing. It isn't. Don't give in. Just keep moving. It was no use. He spun around and took off after the others, cursing Roy under his breath as he raced to catch up.
Batman twisted his torso sideways and narrowly avoided the black-backed playing card.
"You can't dodge them all, you know."
He recognized the voice. An Oxford education and the best elocution teachers hadn't completely eradicated the cadences of Hell's Crucible. The speaker had grown up in one of the worst slums of Gotham City's Lower East Side.
The Dark Knight pivoted left and another card fell harmlessly to the ground. On the plus side, the cards weren't directly targeting him. On the minus side, Strange was right: he'd never evade all of them. Fortunately… "I don't need to."
Soft, mocking laughter greeted his response. "That's right. Very good, Batman. How ever did you figure it out?"
He hadn't, of course. But he'd guessed. One of his senseis had put him through just such an exercise, decades ago. Of course, that time, the ceiling design had been kanji: the two Chinese characters that denoted courage, in black on a red background. They'd been ordinary rectangles, too—not playing cards, although their edges had also been razor-sharp and coated with a topical anaesthetic. Batman suspected, however, that he was facing something deadlier this time around.
"Red or black alone won't give you much more than a paper cut," Strange's voice emanated from speakers set at intervals along the walls. "Not with your suit's armor. But combine them…"
Batman felt a sudden stinging and looked down at his arm in horror.
"Oh my," Strange said. "Well… let's hope for your sake that you only get nicked with the black ones from here on in, Batman, or else the two different compounds will combine in your bloodstream to form a most effective neurotoxin." His laughter seemed to reverberate through the room.
Beneath his cowl, Batman felt a bead of sweat form. He'd figured that it would be something along those lines. It wasn't lost on him that Strange had waited until he was more than halfway across before springing that surprise on him. He steeled himself and took another step. A red card skimmed past him, slicing through the outermost level of Kevlar on its way down. Once again, he was reminded of the difference between shank-resistant and shank-proof. Two more steps. A card rammed point-first into his shoulder. He pulled it out and looked at it. Black again. He was still sa—he felt a sharp stinging sensation in his upper leg, followed almost instantly by an ominous tingling.
"Dear, dear me," Strange's voice practically oozed sympathy. "I guess you missed that one."
Batman couldn't respond. Under the Kevlar, he could feel his thigh beginning to swell, straining against the weave of the costume. He sank to one knee, his heart thudding in his chest. His limbs trembled; his lips began to go numb.
Simon Hurt, or, more properly speaking, Hugo Strange stepped forward from behind the screen and walked over to Jezebel. He had exchanged Thomas Wayne's bat-suit for the more contemporary model. "You see, my sweet," he said, resting a hand on her shoulder, "it worked perfectly. The Batman is ours."
Through the last fading threads of consciousness, Bruce saw Jezebel pull her hands free of the chair restraints. Her gag was gone. And she was smiling.
"Well," Red Jay said quietly, "The good news is, he's in there."
Black Canary frowned. "I guess the bad news is, he's got a guard detail?"
The young man nodded. "It's only one," he said, "but that one is Clayface."
"And he will have me to deal with." The ice in Talia's voice belied the fire in her eyes. "Come along," she commanded. She took a step forward, then turned back, incredulous when she felt Red Arrow's hand on her arm. "You dare?"
"Stop you from getting us all killed? Yeah, I think I dare." He looked at Red Jay. "Which one was it?"
Jason did a double take. "There's more than one Clayface?" He shrugged. "I dunno. This one is massive, yellow eyes, talks like…" He hesitated, then grinned. "He pronounces everything perfectly. Kinda reminds me of Kelsey Grammer, that way. Only he's mangling the grammar worse than some of the gangs I've worked with, not so long ago. Oh, and he likes to hear himself talk. A lot." He looked away, but not quickly enough to hide a smile. "You and he'll probably get along."
Roy reached over and cuffed the back of his head. "Brat."
Jason flinched and took an involuntary step backwards.
Roy blinked, but he pulled his hand away. "Okay," he said, returning to business. "I think I remember the League's dossier on Basil Karlo. That's who it sounds like." He grimaced. "Not good. He's the original version, and maybe the deadliest. His voice softened. "He… doesn't exactly have a soft spot for kids, Talia."
"That would explain why Damien's in a cement straitjacket," Red Jay said. "Okay. If the guy's living clay, conventional weapons are going to be worse than useless. He'll just ooze around arrows and so on." He glanced up sharply. "What about a fire arrow?"
"Risky." Roy shook his head. "First, shooting it directly into the clay might just smother the flame. Second, I don't think he's got any vital organs to hit—being a pile of living clay and all—so even if he feels it, it's only going to make him mad."
"Which could make him careless."
"There is that," Roy nodded. "I'm also trying to avoid a situation where he gets to use the kid as a hostage."
"He can only do that," Jason said with a savage smile, "if we actually care whether the kid lives."
"You might. Me?"
Roy looked at him. After a moment, Jason's eyes slid sideways.
"Alright, fine. But Clayface doesn't need to know that."
Talia reached into the folds of her flowing jacket with her free hand and pulled out a grenade. "I have two more," she said. "If they were detonated within his torso, perhaps…"
Black Canary shook her head. "I'd chance it, if Damien weren't a prisoner." Talia started to protest, but Dinah kept talking. "From what Red Jay just said, Clayface is restraining him with clay." She glanced at the younger man. "He's not… stuck to Karlo, is he? The straitjacket is separate?"
Jason nodded. "Totally."
"Which implies that Karlo can lose a certain amount of his… body… and still function." She frowned. "I know that at least one of the Clayfaces can do better than that. If a clump of him gets cut off from the whole, he can still control it through telepathy. I don't know if our boy in there has that capability, but blasting him to smithereens won't help us if those smithereens all start attacking us."
Talia sniffed. "What," she asked, sounding as though each syllable she uttered came at a heavy cost, "would you suggest, then?"
Black Canary rested one hand on her hip. "Oh," she said nonchalantly, "I've got this talent for turning men… to mush."
"Dinah," Red Arrow ventured, "if you're referring to what I think you're referring, just how selective can you be? I mean, can you take out Clayface without…"
"Affecting Damien?" She nodded. "If I can take down a concrete building without hurting a dog's eardrums, I think I can turn Karlo to jelly and not hurt the kid."
"Jelly," Talia muttered under her breath.
Black Canary grinned. "Well, I seemed to have that affect on your father, even without the Canary Cry, remember?"
Talia flushed bright red. "Just… see that no harm comes to my son!"
"You got it," Dinah said. "Jay, get ready to grab Damian. Harper, stand by with cold arrows. Clayface won't be that malleable if he's on ice. Talia, watch our backs. And Heaven help Damian if you don't, because if someone gets the drop on us, we may not be able to fight our way out and save your son, too."
Nightwing had lost track of how long he had been fighting, and how many opponents he was currently facing. His body reacted faster than his mind could process the situation. Before he registered the high kick speeding toward the bridge of his nose, he had dodged it. Even as he perceived that his attacker, unable to stop, had slammed full-force into another assailant, he was twisting out of the melee and engaging a new foe. Where was Bruce in all of this? Had he reached Jezebel, yet? Nightwing mentally shook himself. There was no time to worry about that now. He had to keep fighting.
A shadow darted in front of his face. He took a step backward, pivoted—and someone pinned his arms unceremoniously behind him. He brought his boot down, hard, where he imagined his captor's instep to be. He was rewarded by an expletive, and one arm was suddenly free again. The grip on his other one, however, did not slacken. Had to be two of them grabbing me, he realized, as a fist plowed into his abdomen. He doubled over, wheezing. More hands gripped him, immobilized him, twisted both arms behind his back and forced him to his knees. Somebody grabbed a fistful of his hair and pulled his head up with a painful jerk.
His heart plummeted. Across the room, he could see Batman lying still on the floor. Nightwing had to look hard to reassure himself that his mentor was still breathing, albeit shallowly. Standing against the far wall, their hands linked, stood Hugo Strange and Jezebel Jet with identical triumphant smiles on their faces.
Strange motioned to his right and a large hulking figure detached himself from the crowd and approached Nightwing. The young vigilante fought a surge of panic. The last time he'd seen this man, he'd been in the intake unit!
Le Bosseu smiled and brought a small plastic tray forward. On it, Nightwing could see two cards: one red, and one black. "You don't look particularly comfortable, my young friend," he leered. "Well. Let us see whether we can grant you an… extended rest?" His tone hardened. "Caligula, Scorpiana, hold his arms out straight! I want his hands where we can see them."
Nightwing struggled, but to no avail. His captors gripped his wrists like twin vises. Le Bosseu's smile grew positively predatory as he held up one of the cards and lightly slashed its edge against Nightwing's cheek. He nodded with satisfaction at the thin line of blood, which welled up almost instantly. Then he picked up the second card. "This will only sting for another moment, monsieur…"