“Professor.” The professor corrected. Dr Bartholomew pinched the bridge of his nose and waved a hand in impatient surrender.
“Professor, you must surely realize that this farce simply cannot continue?” He splayed his hands in an imploring fashion, though his features remained stern and strained, “Miss Pleasance has been missing for two days now, considering the visit she made the other day I am certain this is more than mere co-incidence.”
“You seemed slow enough to recognize that at the start,” the thin-limbed man replied with a knowingly raised eyebrow.
“Jonathan, please, the fate of an innocent young woman is at stake here.”
The only response the doctor received to this plea was an even colder eyebrow raise. He sighed, leaning back on the stuffed chair with an expression of understanding resentment.
“You really aren’t going to tell me anything, are you?”
“I believe we both know the answer to that.”
The psycho-analyst regarded his stubborn client with begrudging acknowledgement.
“… Yes, I suppose we do.”
“Then there really was very little point in asking.”
Dr Bartholomew frowned in a smiling way; “Now, you’re starting to sound like those books of his.”
“Humph.” This appeared to be all that Jonathan had to say on the matter, and after another few pointless minutes of haranguing, the doctor conceded that there perhaps had been very little point in asking, as he permitted the professor to be escorted back to his quarters yet again.
He watched the neatly polished door to his neatly polished office shut with a comfortable squeak behind the inmate and his solidly built entourage, resting his chin on his steepled fingers in that manner that doctors seem innately trained to do when pondering something in a ponderous manner. It really was exceedingly unlike the Scarecrow to be so defensive. Usually he would taunt or brag or let slip little teasing snippets of information, or even try bargaining with the staff to allow information to pass as ‘good behaviour’. For such a seemingly unscrupulous and ominous figure to clam up so completely on a matter he obviously had some insight into, well, it was puzzling to say the least.
“Curiouser and curiouser…”
As the doctor chased his own thoughts in circles, Jonathan Crane was watching his own unwillingly return to moments and memories that he did not usually dare to chance upon, and yet it was this very same curiosity that caused him to do so, caused him to play with the words in his mind, as he placed one foot back in front of the other, back to his cell, back to locks, back to, to back, too back, too far back…
Jonathan Crane didn’t even bother looking up from the hands his face was buried in. Even with this shocking break in the taboo of discussing the very idea of escaping Arkham he expected no response from his cohorts, less still sympathy; it had been some five days since the fear-toxin incident, and although nobody could deny that it had hardly been the Professor’s fault, it was still difficult to converse with the man who was partly responsible for such a traumatic experience. Besides, what honour was there amongst thieves? Certainly there was little to be found in this bloodthirsty arrangement, and he could hardly say that he would offer consolation to someone in the same position- the very concept was laughable.
Still, with this flagrant denunciation of the unspoken rule of not discussing the concept of escape, the dishevelled, sleep-deprived creature was obviously clinging to the very last threads of his sanity, fingers clutching at his pale scalp through the mop of auburn hair as if to hold his remaining wits inside it, as he continued to expounded feverishly to nobody in particular.
“They put me in here, saying I was mad, I didn’t believe them, don’t, I mean, certainly, probably, I think…” It was hard to tell whether Crane was even denying it or trying to persuade himself of the fact, “but, I surely will go mad if I stay here much longer. For pity’s sake, I don’t know if I’ll be alive if I stay much longer.”
He sent an imploring look up at the indifferent inmate sat next to him; “He wants to do it again, you know. The treatment.”
What response there was from this singularly unnerving declaration was hard to pick up unless one was sat in the room, as it travelled out and through the sleeping, mumbling crowd in a terrible creeping tsunami of quietude, reducing the whole to a numb silence that was all too familiar by this point. Crane wasn’t particularly paying attention, as he had resumed expounding in a state of near delirious trepidation to the coffee table in front of him.
“He wants to put me out of my mind, perhaps out of the way, so I can’t say anything else…” A shiver convulsed the terrified prisoner for a moment before he could continue to follow this gruesomely valid theory, “I tried, I really did; there were new recruits on the staff, thought they might… should have known better… he knows how much is too much… could be considered as an accidental overdose, never should have, never should have…”
On this note he sank into repeating this same message over and over into his hands, eyes glazed with a paralysis born of fear. What had he been expecting? If only he’d held out, never given Bolton the correct dosage- but then, the Warden had threatened to ‘experiment’ how much to use, he could have died right there and then. No, he couldn’t have… but then, what was to come now? He’d been too careless, he might as well have signed his own death warrant; he was already considered one of the city’s worst enemies, but oh the humiliation, to be slain by one’s own invention. Turning his own art against him; it would seem the ultimate justice to most. There’d be no grief over his demise, and surely, who would suppose the hard-working and honest chief of security had planned it? No matter what the injection had been, it would surely have been in an attempt to cure him? Wasn’t that what Arkham always promised; to rehabilitate its prisoners, to give them the opportunity to turn themselves around? Earn a second chance… but he’d lost that, lost everything, lost, lost, lost…
A voice that was not as thickly oiled with smugness as it usually was poured into his ears from some place far overhead. Jonathan was vaguely aware his legs had lost all feeling below the knees.
“I require your presence.” Something that might have passed for a smile if it hadn’t been so unpleasant carved its way around the cliff-face jaw looking down upon Crane from its lofty position;
Bolton’s thick-fingered grasp curled itself around the back of the Scarecrow’s collar, and in that moment Jonathan Crane gave up all hope of coming out of this alive.
At some point they had exited the common room without so much as a whisper of protest passing. In his stupor of fevered terror Jonathan had not even noticed the rest of the inmates being ordered to leave; private business was a private business, after all.
No eyes to see, no lips to tell.
They had already passed through two corridors before Crane’s feet started attempting to arrest his progress, screeching in a futile dance against the sterilised floor tiles and Bolton’s relentless, Neanderthal march. It didn’t even so much as slow him down.
“You- c-can’t… th-this is…” The words grated against his regard of the immense manas much as the strangle hold, Bolton ardently ignoring the fear-weak protests, stamping down on the pathway in front of them as if he were laying gravestones with every footfall.
Step. Drag. Step. Drag.
It was the surprise more than the impact that made the immense man take a blustering step back. “What th-?!”
Something dressed in grey with a dash of blonde and blue-ribboned black had briefly made an insubstantial dent in the warden’s midriff, but enough to leave the clattering sound of stolen keys in its wake. The whole confusing instant lasted as long as it took Bolton to bellow “TETCH” in a thunderous tone (which, considering its monosyllabic tendencies, did not take a great amount of time at all), before launching himself after the rapidly receding footsteps.
Jonathan looked mutely at the ceiling, the breath clawing its way back to his throat after the shock with the liberty of his windpipe. Pulling himself to his feet he looked wondering down the now empty corridor, listening to the waning clamour of two sets of feet, one heavy and fast, one not fast enough to stay ahead of the other for long.
His head was still spinning so much that he noted the presence of a single key on the floor almost without any surprise, except that he might have wondered whether it ought to be on a little glass table with a bottle marked ‘drink me’.
He would only think to ask 'why?' a great deal later, with a great deal more distance at his leisure.
Jonathan Crane was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, after all.
Jervis had often wondered exactly how much the warden weighed, if only in sympathy for the floorboards which seemed to tremble beneath him as much as the inmates under his keep. That was not, however, to say that he desired to find out.
Mind you, he had not exactly been planning to commit to a spontaneous kamikaze dash for a man he owed no debt to either, as he willed his flagging spat-clad feet to round just one more blessed corner, almost mounting the wall in his haste to escape the behemoth in pursuit.
He pushed for one last sprint for the double doors ahead of him- but it seemed he was not to be given such an opportunity, as the full metric weight of the volcanically irate security guard drove him to the ground in a tackle that would have taken out a grizzly bear several times the Hatter’s girth.
What small amount of restraint the colossal man usually exercised seemed to have been expended by this outrageous stunt, as Bolton lost no time in slinging a battle-axe fist under the target’s ribcage in punishment for his upstart. Jervis thought he felt something crack.
“Why you- WHERE THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING?”
Even if Jervis had not been utterly winded by the first blow he wouldn’t have been able to reply, as the sledge-hammer knuckles had transformed into a fingered vice, constricting around his neck like vein-laced snakes. His heels struck out in a vague semblance of resistance against the floor in a badly constructed dance, gloved hands ineffectively prying against the noose he had strung for himself.
“I knew you were up to something, right from the off…” The warden’s glowering suspicion only seemed to increase his grip, the prisoner’s face now an unhealthy shade of rose. “Playing dumb all this time- so you thought you could escape? Escape from me? Well…”
Merciful oxygen seeped back into his lungs for a glorious instant, as the warden’s sneering victory bought him a second’s release, Bolton’s face a repugnant portrait of triumph; “Maybe you are that dumb after all, to try pulling this sort of shit on me… well?” He leered down at the captive in a stomach-turning impression of benevolence. “What have you got to say for yourself now? Those nonsense words of yours don’t seem so clever anymore, do they?”
More or less literally spitting the last part out onto the back of captured inmate's neck, Bolton sneered down at the prisoner, and waited, waited to be right about everything he'd ever thought about the Hatter and his pathetic schemes and jibberish. The Hatter considered the floor he was face-down into for a moment, considered how nice it was not to have something that felt like an anvil pressing down on his trachea, considered how absolutely he loathed the boarish man kneeling down on his spine with his disregard for anything save shackles, and finally considered precisely how much time has passed and how much ought to before he recited his response in a remarkably calm manner.
“‘Will you walk a little faster?’ said a whiting to a snail,
‘there’s a porpoise right behind us, and he’s treading on my tail…”
Even if Bolton had been aware of the stretched possibility of Tetch replying in rhyme, to have the miscreant sing his answer was something that caused such an expression of incensed wrath to appear on the guard’s face as to be comparable to Tweedledum’s on discovering his brother’s antics regarding the famous rattle. He rolled the still-lyric-spouting Tetch over.
A fist accompanied the order. It earned but a pause.
“Will you, won’t you, will you, wo-”
“I said shut up.”
“-can really have no notion how del-”
“-ail replied ‘Too far, too far!’, and gave-”
And so it continued, but it seemed any sense the Hatter had had remaining had left before this stubborn onslaught of song, as he simply continued, increasing in volume if slightly discordantly, word after word and impact after impact.
“The further off from England the nearer is to Fr-”
Both hands succeeded in stemming the maddening melody, as Bolton, who appeared to be surprisingly unnerved by this reaction, shook the wretched man from side to side until his face was blue. “Enough of this! I’ll make it so you never speak another word of that blasted book you incomprehensible piece of scu-”
It was a noise that hadn’t been heard for so long it actually took the warden a moment to recognise his own patented warning siren sounding, as his hands slackened from around the Hatter’s neck involuntarily from the surprise.
Someone had escaped.
“Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the-”
Bolton didn’t even bother telling Jervis to shut up this time, as the last blow rendered the man soundly unconscious. Lyle sat for a moment, not quite looking at the wall opposite him; a feint, how could he have not seen it. How could he have left someone in such an obvious a blind-spot, let someone just… get away like that…
“Well,” he grumbled down bitterly at the senseless heap of grey uniform and yellow hair beside him, “not all of you are so lucky…”
Hefting the object over his shoulder he set back along the corridor to return the creature to his cage to await the rewards for his actions after regaining consciousness. Crane wouldn’t be away for long either, not with the Batman scouring the streets, and when he returned… well.
“Justice will prevail.”
A pair of lazily sloped eyelids blinked after the doors slamming shut behind the unfairly balanced pair, sight rolling to the forgotten piece of carefully formed black felt on the sole-skidded, polished ground.
Harley interrupted the vixen-haired lady mere syllables into her turn in the common room, regarding the disdainful ecologist with childlike bewilderment. The others wisely disguised their curiosity as a mild interest in the ceiling or furniture; questioning Ivy tended to end badly outside of the blonde-haired girl with the ear-wide smile.
“Something wrong, Harl?”
“Uh, well, no, but… ain’t that from Jervis’s stories?”
Ivy looked at the ceiling and arranged her auburn locks in a disinterested fashion; “And what if it is?”
“Well… you allus think they’re kinda… silly, dontcha?”
“So I’m not allowed to fill in when he’s absent? I thought you liked them…”
Harley pouted and squirmed at the challenging look she was presented with, but still seemed very unconvinced; “W-well, maybe, kinda, but…”
All in all it was hardly surprising, the amount that she had been through, and with his slight… eccentricity, yesterday, it was perhaps overdue for her starting to realize just quite who she was lodging with, and yet she didn’t leave, didn’t want to leave. Not exactly, anyway, she was… she was tired. She needed to rest, to think about it.
And yet rest was so very hard to find, with these odd dreams. She’d often had odd dreams, most especially as a child. In her fits of small and senseless fears of the night her parents had comforted her, told her they were only dreams, not to be afraid, that it was all alright, everything would be alright.
“But will it?”
She wondered, not quite in dream and not quite awake, as she turned over for the seventeenth time to regard what might have been just a wall but was surely more a forest, as she let a deer guide her through it, her arms clasped lovingly around its downy neck. It was so terribly hard to remember who one was in this place, but then, what was this place?
Think. She just needed time to think.
Downstairs Jervis set aside the completed circuit card and picked up another. Another half dozen or so ought to do, and Alice hadn’t stirred for a good two hours- all luck willing she wouldn’t even miss him. He did not remember what Jonathan Crane remembered. He did not remember the hands pressing the oxygen out of his brain and blanking out those eventful minutes, all he remembered was that he owed a debt to those who had remained in his stead, whether intentionally or not. He plucked the watch from his pocket as he continued his work with a small shake of the head;
A darkly-leathered hand smote the crumbling brickwork by the riverside, as Batman scanned the abandoned moorings where the boat had waited with frustration. Blind-sighted again. There was the smallest chance there was a trail of some description remaining, but on water? The chances were incremental.
“But not impossible.”
Strengthening his resolve, the dark knight swept under the arches and eaves of the filth-mottled water-way, searching for the smallest sign, any sign of the transport’s journey through the city and its final destination.
On the far side of Gotham a perfectly ordinary man in a perfectly ordinary house struck a perfectly ordinary table with his fist. Pacing back and forth through the kitchen had not aided his escalating temper. The reply from the call to the hospital being a maddeningly placating assurance that they were ‘looking into the situation’ had only worsened his outlook of the legal system’s efficiency in the matter.
Removing his hand from the dent in the homely furniture he set back to striding up and down, trying to persuade himself that it was helping. Just who he was most incensed with at the moment was hard to decide; the police, the asylum, the Hatter, Alice…
“Alice…” Something in the creased brow softened for a moment, his hand losing the tension as it sought to pick up the blue-framed photograph on the mantel piece. He ran a thumb over the glass- it had the thinnest layer of dust upon it. He looked out of the window at the slow-falling snow, as if it might answer him in her place.
Alice Antrim had been staring out of the frost rimed window for nearly an hour, and it was debatable as to whether she had blinked once the entire time. Glassy eyed in the middle distance, unknowing of the winter-dark outside, her head was full of thoughts that she wished it wasn’t, but which she somehow couldn’t bring herself to ignore. Part of her felt like she owed it to Billy to remember those times, especially now, on the other side of Gotham, hiding; hiding from him, of all people. It didn’t make any sense; Billy was such a nice guy, wasn’t he? Yet looking into the fog of thoughts that surrounded her head, unseeingly staring out into the now snow-laden streets, she wondered why she hadn’t told anyone when he wasn’t.
…Oh, yes, that was why she hadn’t.
How silly of her.
A sigh cut itself short before she could finish it, as her moebius strip of thought was snipped through by an off-handed comment.
“I know what it’s like.”
The young lady blinked herself out of her stupor, sitting a little more upright as she looked over at the man working on the playing-card sized circuit boards with disengaged ease. It almost looked as if he hadn’t said anything, and tilting her head to the side in a quizzical manner she wondered for a moment whether he had; things had been so very strange, and she had been so very out of sorts lately, it wouldn’t have surprised her in the least if she began hearing voices. Still, it seemed this wasn’t the case, as he glanced up for a moment before resuming his speech whilst continuing with his work.
“Being in that sort of predicament, I mean. Being hurt by someone, scared. Not being able to tell people. Not wanting to tell people about it.” She must have looked surprised at his apparent mind-reading, as he smiled up at her reassuringly with a tap to the side of his head; “You don’t spend two years in an asylum without learning something about how people think.”
“You…?” Out of all of the questions Alice supposed she ought to be asking, the one she found herself hugging her knees to voice was one she had never supposed she would ask another person, let alone the Mad Hatter.
“You know about that?”
A nod sufficed for a reply it seemed, his fingers trilling against the card before he set it aside. “Allow me to tell you a story, Alice… although, I fear this one involves no place as charming as Wonderland...”
The Mad Hatter leaned back against the wall with his arms crossed, eyebrow arched in disdainful puzzlement as he repeated the boring title.
“So, he’s a new warden, so what?”
“You don’t understand!” Professor Crane’s lips were pulled back around his teeth in agitation, his hands making similar affronts to his hair. Jervis Tetch remained quite unmoved, but he had to concede; he did not understand. He’d never seen the Scarecrow behave this way about anyone- not even the Batman.
“If this is another of your pranks, Jonathan, I’ll have none of it…”
“It isn’t! I swear! This man…” Crane seemed genuinely distressed, as he babbled on about this fellow, talking about him like he was some sort of golem, calling him inhuman, a monster- Jervis found his scepticism lifting despite his caginess around what the Professor usually labelled as ‘honesty’. They were as close to what you could call ‘friends’ when it came to occasional inhabiters of the mental institute-come-stronghold, but that didn’t mean that the chap was any less of a villain towards his fellow criminals than he was to the innocent populace.
Still, tilting his head to the side as if to observe the wild-eyed inmate the better, Jervis had to admit he really didn’t think that Crane was putting it on this time. Having just been returned to Arkham after his most recent exploits (which had gone swimmingly enough until that overgrown flying mouse had upset the apple-cart, as usual), the Hatter had been out of the asylum for long enough to know that he didn’t want to be back here exactly, but he hadn’t forgotten what it was for; a prison, yes, but also a centre for rehabilitation.
“Now see here,” Jervis interrupted Jonathan’s panicked descriptions with a hand, “this is a load of Jabberwocky; they wouldn’t let someone do the things you’re describing? We have human rights, after all. It’s against the law-”
Jonathan groaned, a hand to his head as he tried to explain the miserable fate that his companion had unwittingly stumbled into; “Jervis, in Arkham, Lyle Bolton is the law. Can’t you listen to what I’m say-”
The sound of heavy, sharp-heeled shoes approaching the common room summoned a deadly quiet from every single prisoner, the newly returned inmate observing this with some unease as the professor hissed his last piece advice in a petrified whisper;
“Speak nothing but verse, man. Pray that your Carroll might save you.”
Any more explanation was stemmed, as the door opened to permit the entrance of a man who looked too large to be allowed to exist. It was beyond the Hatter to feign indifference, as he swallowed involuntarily; the Scarecrow looked openly terrified.
Lyle Bolton rotated his bullish features to scan the silenced room, observing the down-turned heads with a grim smile of satisfaction before-
“Oh~!” He clasped his bear-like hands together besides his chest in a delighted manner; “It appears we have a prodigal son, returned to us by our favourite donator!”
Just how such elephantine bulk could walk in a manner that didn’t demolish entire buildings from within was not entirely clear, but the colossal man stepped over to the reclaimed madman with easy strides, smiling in a fashion that was far more chilling than any scowl would have been. Jervis did his utmost best to look disengaged from reality.
“Jervis Tetch. What an honour to meet you! What is it that you fancy yourself as again- ‘the Mad Hatter’, isn’t it?”
The Hatter appeared to not notice the addressal. Jonathan was severly regretting his seating arrangement but dared not move so much as an inch, as Bolton’s façade of friendliness seemed to be slipping already. The smile was tugging at one corner of his mouth now, as if half of it wanted to break off so as to bite the room in half; with a jaw that size Jervis wouldn’t have wondered if it were possible.
“Now, Mr Tetch; didn’t your parents ever teach you it’s rude to ignore someone when they’re talking to you?”
“Then you shouldn’t talk.” The Hatter replied, regretting the fitting quote that he’d automatically landed on as soon as he’d said it, as the room inhaled in unison at the comeback.
Quite how large and quite how terrifyingly swift the warden’s hands were in snatching the unfortunate wretch up by his collar is difficult to describe, but perhaps if one were to imagine what it would be like to be accosted by a steam locomotive with fingers then you might be halfway there. Jervis was reminded in a painful instant that walls were hard and that it often hurt to be forced up against one with great impetus, as he found himself nose-to-nose with the intemperate guard; thin, laser-like eyes boring a hole through his skull whilst Bolton’s fists ground into his collarbone like twin cannon-balls.
“What. Did you say. To me?”
Jervis attempted to regain some control of his voice, which seemed eager to leave the room regardless of the rest of him, as he let the words fall out of his mouth as quickly as his brain had fallen upon them at random;
“’Tis the voice of the Lobster: I heard him declare
‘You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.’”
The warden twisted the fabric around the unlucky man’s neck so as to raise him a little higher off the floor, but he looked sufficiently puzzled for Jervis to continue, the rest of the common room frozen with both horror and curiousity as to the outcome of this catastrophic first encounter.
“As a duck with his eyelids, so he with his nose
Trims his belt and his buttons, and turns out his toes…”
A moment’s further suspension, and then the scientist found that he had been released to land breathless and shaking on the bench below, the mountainous man making a noise of disgust; “Tch, you really are mad as a hatter, not even worth my time… and what are you all looking at?”
The crowd hurriedly diverted their eyes from the tempestuous guard, Jervis maintaining the wisely suggested act, remaining quite where he was and continuing in a disjointed tone as Bolton set to leave the room;
“When the sands are all dry, he is gay as a lark,
And will talk in contemptuous tones of the Shark…”
The door shut, and locked, behind the imposing man; the room seeming to breathe a sigh of relief as one person at his departure. Jonathan seemed to be fascinated by his own shoes, as Jervis finished in a rather more quavering tone, sitting up and straightening out the hat he’d landed on as he watched after the broad-shouldered back receding down the landing outside.
“But, when the tide rises and sharks are around,
His voice has a timid and tremulous sound.”
He pulled the hat onto his head with the slightest tilt towards his companion; Jonathan acknowledging the silent thanks with an expressionless nod at his laces. The Hatter sat back against the wall with his arms crossed, not in contempt, but in an attempt to cover the shaking of his hands that he had yet to overcome as he sighed, not out of relief, but out of reluctant and fearful acknowledgement of the truth behind the professor’s prior warnings.
The weeks that followed were an unhappy experience for the inmates of Arkham; not that staying in an institute-come-prison was supposed to be pleasant, exactly, but even the medical staff and guards seemed to be on edge every second of every day, a heavy sensation of dread hanging over the austere building like a cloud of ice.
Everywhere you turned, during every possible moment of organised movement and daily routine and during every second of conceivable respite, there was Bolton. Vast, immoveable, and unyielding.
Most of the time it was simply a cloying atmosphere of oppressive fear that choked the conversation out of the lines of prisoners, shuffling from where-ever they had been to where-ever they had to go to. There was nothing inhumane to even complain about at these times, but with the warden’s search-light glare following your every step it constantly felt as if the world was about to end by it falling upon your head. What the weather was like outside was unknown even by those who were led onto the grounds to conduct their exercises, as not one set of eyes dared to turn sky-wards. Even at night-time, rest was far from the minds of the captives, and in fact to be told to retire for the night was to hear full-grown men wailing in piteous misery at the prospect of another eight hours of torment.
If you were fortunate to be a ‘minor offender’ the worst you had to fear was the humming of your electrified door and the unrelenting cold of your blanket-less bed. To be counted as one of Gotham’s elite in crime society, however, was to earn a different form of blanket all together, as Jervis discovered that attempts to sleep whilst being buckled and shackled to a slab-like mattress with a leaky roof were about as successful as attempts to protest this treatment to the guards, who looked as scared of the warden as those who had committed crimes. Arguably the worst nights were when it rained, causing water to drip down through the crack in the ceiling directly onto his face; but without the sound and distraction of constant dripping, being forced to listen to the absence of Two-face’s coin flipping, the absence of the Joker’s laughter, the absence, in fact, of any living sound save for some wretched soul sobbing in a distant corridor before some unpleasant sound silenced that too, was enough to drive you insane- even if you were already. The Joker had been removed to solitary confinement long before Jervis had arrived; precisely what had become of him and his yellow-toothed grin, nobody knew.
Fortunately, Bolton couldn’t be everywhere at once, and the inmates still had their routine common-room sessions; a staple form of group interaction that, despite Lyle’s protests to the quaking doctors, was maintained as a necessity for the prisoners’ rehabilitation. These small fragments of respite were the community’s only and much treasured moments of relief from their tortured existence, and while most were content to sleep, sprawled on the floor or hard plastic chairs, the ‘costumes’ (as Bolton often referred to those with such infamy as the Hatter and his cohorts) would group together to exchange their thoughts and break the tension as best they could, whilst they could.
There was no discussion of plans for escape; any such subject would be picked up on immediately, and the results were never pleasant. Instead they talked about their interests; taking turns in a sort of impromptu rota of entertainment, those who were too tired or scared to talk listening to those who could, each gaining some form of comfort from the normality of casual conversation. They each had their own specialist subjects- Jonathan would discuss his research, giving brief lectures on phobias and psychosis and such, although they occasionally spiralled into monologues of his superiority. The Ventriloquist, or rather, his companion Scarface, would regale them with ‘amusing’ past exploits of his mob and tales of his hero, Al Capone. Harley would tell jokes and sing, and Ivy would discourse about botany and ecology; how each plant had a voice, if only you would listen, and of course how the petty human race would some day rue their callous treatment of Mother Nature and her children.
Alice couldn’t help interrupting the story, looking eagerly over at the teller with eyes wide with quietly horrified fascination at this unknown chapter of Arkham’s dark history. Jervis blinked, not at all put out of the flow of the tale by the question, having spoken in such a way to countless psychiatrists before now, but a little surprised that she would ask; it seemed so obvious to him.
“Well, I recited Carroll, of course.”
He rotated the large, blue-ribboned hat in his hands as he contemplated this matter with a shrug;
“Sometimes I would explain a little of my previous work in micro-circuitry, but it made for poor listening compared to the Hunting of the Snark, although, the Adventures in Wonderland were always the best received.” He permitted himself a slightly nostalgic grin; “Harley always did like those, the poems especially.”
“And in the meantime you all had to go through all that…” The young lady ran a hand over the fading mark on her arm; the small amount of pain that remained seemed laughable compared to what Jervis had been describing.
“So… what happened?” She looked at him with the curious expectancy of a child being left with a terrible cliff hanger that showed no sign of a happy ending. To her surprise he raised a rather unknowing eyebrow and splayed his hands.
“Somebody said something,” he placed the hat back on his head as if it might help him decide what had happened himself; “I don’t quite know the ins and outs of it, but an informal inquest was held by the head doctor and a few other big shots, calling three of the inmates as witnesses. Nobody thought anything would come of it, what with everyone being too scared to say anything; I was certainly surprised when Bolton was forced to leave on charges of extreme behaviour. What happened during that inquest… well, I can only imagine someone spoke up, or something happened to make him snap in front of the panel.”
“So, all that someone needed to do was say something… but I wonder what made them hold the inquest? Someone must have mentioned something, despite all that pressure…” She shrank in her seat slightly, feeling quite ashamed of her own behaviour; “I mean, it’s not like my case, where I could’ve just walked out and told anyone if I’d been brave enough…”
“What?!” Looking up she found herself jolting backwards at the sudden close proximity of the scientist, who was looked for the first time during this whole escapade both rather mad and just the slightest bit angry; “Alice, that’s quite the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, and trust me, I’ve said a few supremely ridiculously things myself.”
A gloved hand landed on hers, and she was surprised to find that she didn’t object in the slightest.
“You are brave, Alice. Exceedingly so; your case is completely different to ours. You didn’t just stay because you were frightened, like us- although I’m sure you were-” he added with something of a growl, which quite alarmed Alice until she remembered just who was talking to her, which reminded her that really ought to have been alarmed from the start.
“You stayed because… you loved him.” The words seemed hard for him to say, but he pushed himself to continue; “He may even have loved you back at some point, but… if you think he does now, I would contest that point most strongly.”
These words seemed to sting more than Alice could have ever anticipated, considering she was staying as far away from the man in question as she possibly could at this very moment, as she asked in a very small voice; “… you mean, you think he doesn’t? He doesn’t love me?”
Part of him was pained to see her so hurt, but part of him was vindicated, as he nodded, observing; “It’s a poor sort of love that makes the life it’s given to unliveable.”
Giving her a very sincere and not entirely sane glance he finally relinquished her hand and returned to his own seat, commenting as a parting note as he resumed his work on the cards; “You can’t be complete together if only one half is trying to make a whole; I suppose I learned that the hard way.” He sent her a calmer, apologetic smile. “‘Love is a two-sided coin’… an acquaintance of mine once told me that.”
Alice sat for a long while then, thinking. Everything he’d said made sense, and yet it hurt so; Billy had always said he’d loved her, and she had always supposed that she’d loved him. They’d been married, after all, and that was what people did when they loved each other, wasn’t it? He’d stuck by her, supported her, helped her recover… but then, had he really done any of those things? Everything seemed so terribly uncertain now, or was that only because things were being put another way, placed at an angle that she simply hadn’t seen before?
These thoughts were too hard and too new to deal with all at once, as she lifted her head up after a good few minutes of silence, endeavouring to return to the story. “How come the doctors or the other staff didn’t do anything about him? Did anything else happen when he was there?”
Jervis paused his work again, as he considered how to respond to these further inquiries; “Quite simply put the staff were as scared of Bolton as the rest of us were; perhaps in some cases more so, with the threat of being put in with the prisoners if they sympathized with them being held over their heads. As for what else… well,” he left off soldering, “not really. Come now, I’ve answered three questions, and that is enough.” He beamed at her jokingly, but made a shooing motion to indicate he meant what he said (or at least, he said what he meant) “It’s late, to bed with you, or I’ll have the Red Queen run you off your feet for staying in one place for so long.”
So, with reluctant and slightly unsure goodnights, Alice retired to the bedroom, Jervis taking to the age-worn chaise lounge, casting his long blue coat over his legs as he reclined, sleep far from his mind even as it took him. Took him back to a time and place that he had no desire to return to, but would never really leave.
Three weeks since returning to a familiar place that was no longer familiar, no longer a sort of running joke to the collection of brilliant, twisted minds that it contained. Perhaps there was some argument to be made that this was for the good. That this extreme oppression that had squashed almost all thoughts of rebellion out of their heads and hearts was doing the city a great service, quelling a great force of evil that would otherwise still be running free to blow up innocent civilians and raid banks and employ ridiculous props in attempts to kill a man who dressed up like a bat every night.
Whether one shared these sympathies or not, however, anyone looking in at the numb quietude of the corridor that contained the most extreme of these ‘forces of evil’ would be hard put not to feel some amount of sympathy for their plight. Each had had their own reasons for the crimes they had committed; some understandable, some outrageous, some utterly mad, but for the moment it seemed like every soul on this effective ‘death row’ had forgotten why they had been put there in the first place.
Certainly, a lot of the time they felt forgotten, the stretches between their permitted time together growing longer and more uneventful without even so much as the ticking of a clock to let them know how much time had passed. There was no sound proofing in their cells, but it didn’t matter, as any speech between them was now strictly forbidden; the fact that it was possible was merely an excuse to punish those who were tempted to try it.
It was one such stretch of silence that was being undertaken, Jervis attempting to let his mind escape into his memorised stories (the books he’d had long since burnt in front of him in an attempt to ‘cure’ his obsession), when the hush was broken by an unusual noise; a door being opened. Taking a second to realize what it was that he’d heard, the Hatter looked up through the glass panelled wall to see the Scarecrow being led down the corridor, looking utterly bewildered by the unwarranted trip himself, the other prisoners’ sight similarly following the silent procession of Jonathan and his two-man escort until they exited through the double doors which locked solidly behind them.
Situated opposite Harvey Dent’s cell, Jervis exchanged looks of bewilderment with the split-featured man; even his grotesque half looked plainly surprised at this development before settling back to its permanent scowl. Jervis knew it would be pointless to try and lean against the window to see down the hall, as there was nothing to see save a locked door. So he waited along with the other curious inmates in a shared cloud of mute foreboding; whatever Jonathan’s fate was, nobody had any expectations of it being positive.
They were well founded in their pessimism.
Some thirty minutes or so later a sound broke through the corridor that was no less alarming for all it was muffled by distance and doors, as several pairs of eyes widened in synchronised astonishment at the sound of Professor Crane screaming.
Screaming in fear.
Nobody was entirely sure why, but Bolton had taken a severe dislike to Crane from the moment he had arrived, his constant, bullying observation of the man intensifying with every encounter to the point that Crane flinched when someone so much as mentioned the warden’s name. Still, he was an educated man, and a proud one; for all his fear of the man, the Scarecrow hadn’t done anything more than looked scared in the warden’s presence. For the master of fear himself to make such a chilling sound… well, there wasn’t a word frightening enough to describe it, not even out of Carroll’s vocabulary.
Jervis thought he heard something that sounded like a whimper from Harley’s cell.
The sound of Jonathan and his escort broke the silence a second time a short while later. The movement of the man could hardly be described as walking as he returned, the two guards dragging him along almost as pale-faced with fright as he was, though Crane was so on the point of fainting outright he would have made snow look tanned. Something was incoherently muttered to someone before a collapsing sound and a sharp click announced that he had been deposited back in his cell, unconscious, the sound of another door opening following shortly after, as this time Harley was led past the row of cells.
Though just as scared looking as Crane had been, she didn’t seem at all confused about what was happening, as she was making as valiant an effort as she could to resist by digging her heels into the tiles, struggling with silent desperation against the strong armed security.
“Harley! What’s happening?” Ivy’s voice broke out first, sounding much more concerned than Jervis could remember it ever sounding before, as he joined in, unable to help it, as he placed his hands up against the glass, shouting the question as best he could through the barrier.
“Miss Quinzel! What did he tell you? What are they doing?!”
Whatever comeuppance he received for it, he simply had to know what was going on, as several of the others made similar requests for information despite the taboo. The pig-tailed girl tried to swing her weight against the guards’ momentum, but her feet continued to slide screeching down the hall as she called back over her shoulder intermittently between struggles and sobs.
“Toxin… Bolton’s… using it… please! Don’t-”
Her plea was cut off by a broad hand before she was finally wrenched through the doors, as a very different sort of silence from usual fell over the captives. Not a silence of suppression, but a voluntary silence of latent horror.
What reason the deranged warden had for exposing the Scarecrow to his own medicine was unknown, but it would have surprised no-one if there had been no reason at all, Bolton hated the man so much. Hated them all, in fact, as it sank in steadily that this was no individual fate, but one that they were all to be subjected to. Bolton did not see the ‘costumes’ as human beings, did not even see them as animals; they were less than that. Scum, depraved beings who ought to be locked away for all eternity, perhaps even erased, for the betterment of humanity. That he should devise a new torture such as this for them was not beyond belief, but had been beyond imagining until now. Jervis felt a distinct chill as he watched Two-Face cover his uneven features with his hands, a show of despair that the scientist had never thought he’d witness from the strong willed mob leader even in this hell.
His heart sinking at the sudden outbreak of piteous cries that were resulting from Harley’s treatment, the Hatter looked down at his shoes, thoughts jarring and jolting from the shock of this development as he tried to mentally prepare himself for what was to come. He didn’t even know what he was most afraid of; he’d never had any of the phobias that Crane had described during his talks, but he knew quite well he wasn’t fearless, even if he wasn’t exactly a coward. Poisonous spiders, heights, enclosed spaces, a Jabberwock, the Batman… he ran through the lists of things that he found plausible, but he couldn’t imagine that any of them could truly be considered as his ‘worst fear’.
Harley’s return was less eventful than Jonathan’s, the poor girl not unconscious but completely curled up on herself and trembling violently, speechless with terror as the guard carrying her placed her back in her cell to recover the ordeal alone.
One by one they were taken, one by one they returned, each in varying states but none less ashen-faced or shaken than the other. Ivy returned with the most poise, as she walked back stiffly with her head held-high, although she looked distinctly ill and hollow-eyed, and whilst Dent walked back of his own accord his mouth kept making alarming lurching movements, as if he were on the verge of breaking down into tears.
His neighbour returned, Jervis found his door being opened next without surprise, but his feet didn’t seem to work, and most certainly didn’t seem to want to move forwards, his gait stumbling and unfeeling as the eyes watching him pass disappeared behind the double doors which swung shut like two steel wings. Another length of corridor passed by before they reached a small, unassuming door, the guards opening it and standing either side for him to enter without them. He noted that they were different from the original pair without much astonishment; repeated trips of this calibre would have turned the strongest of stomachs, even if they were only assisting the ‘clients’.
Tripping over the threshold he felt the air push against his neck as the door closed, and locked. All doors in Arkham locked.
“Hello, Mr Tetch.”
The broad, friendly smile that spread across the familiarly immense face removed any remaining hope from Jervis’s mind, as his feet swung themselves forwards on automatic until he found himself sitting down opposite the gigantic creature wearing the neatly ironed security outfit. The warden looked happy, and Jervis didn’t his scientific genius to calculate that this was a very bad sign. A very bad sign indeed.
Lyle tilted his head chummily, as he inquired in a light-hearted manner; “So, how are we feeling today?”
Jervis’s act of complete detachment from reality had held strong since its instigation, although he knew Bolton didn’t completely believe it, and certainly didn’t accept it as an excuse for his crimes, as he stutteringly replied; “N-not quite right, I’m afraid: some of the words have got altered.”
Bolton nodded, as if this was quite understandable, a reaction that only caused the Hatter’s heart to sink even lower with dread. Even without the toxin he was already shaking with fear.
“Well then, let’s see if we can get those pesky words back in place, shall we?” The warden had fastened the belts around his chests and arms during his answer, Jervis knowing better than to try and resist or escape, as Bolton now appeared to be extracting a small syringe from a chrome suitcase on the table. Injecting it into a tightly bunged vial, he drew out a small dose into the device before holding it upright, squirting a tiny amount out of the needle to remove any air bubbles, observing the liquid in an almost admiring fashion.
“I expect you are familiar with the handiwork of your friend, Professor Crane?”
Jervis could find no words to recite, his mouth as dry as the sand the Walrus had so complained about.
“Oh, come now, I know you’re well affiliated with that… esteemed gentleman,” he gave Jervis another sickeningly sweet smile. “Don’t think I haven’t seen you two, having your little chats, talking about each others interests.” He held the needle alarmingly close to the inmate’s face, Jervis leaning his head as far back as it would go without toppling the chair over. Bolton sneered in satisfaction at the response.
“Oh yes, I know all about you and your little group therapy sessions, but you know, we’re the ones who are supposed to be helping you here...”Commencing rolling up the inmate’s right sleeve the warden shook his head in a motherly way; “We can’t have any of this ‘doctor heal thyself’ business, it’d make us look like we’re not doing our jobs, and what better treatment for the mind is there than facing our fears?”
“Yes, fear; the source of all madness, the inability to cope with something, what we can’t face within ourselves… but don’t worry,” a grin that was anything but reassuring accompanied a thick-knuckled grip on the captive’s bare-skinned arm.
“I’m going to let you have the chance to change that, by getting a good, long, look at it.”
The injection took all but a moment, the pain barely existent but the knowledge of what the result would be causing Jervis to screw his eyes shut as he bit down on his lip so hard he thought it might tear.
“It’s all for your own good, you understand.”
The dosage administered, Bolton sat back, smiling to himself in grim satisfaction as he waited for the formula to take hold; it had taken a good deal of time before the professor had told him the correct amount to administer, the solution having been labelled as too dangerous even to experiment with. The red-haired man himself had confessed that he had left off using it, as it had proven too concentrated, the results being too fevered to be accurately catalogued. Yet what marvellous medicine it was; if not for the patients, then certainly for the sadistic warden, as watching the inmates writhe and shriek out their innermost fears was not only vastly entertaining for him, but also gave him a new archive of material to use against them in the future. This toxin was invaluable.
One minute; Bolton looked up from his watch expectantly, the time for the drug to take hold having passed, but he was forced to double check, as the man in front of him was showing no symptoms of terror. In fact, he showed no signs of movement; his head slumped down to his chest, eyes all but covered by the cascading mass of forward-swept blonde hair.
The warden leaned forwards, head tilted sideways in puzzlement with the slightest sensation of anxiety. Not for the man’s wellbeing, but if he’d administered an overdose, things might be a little tricky to explain to his superiors… well, he supposed, accidents did happen.
“Pardon?” The immense man had inadvertently drawn back at the minute sign of life, the Hatter’s head twitching once with the small, smirking sound. Bolton’s fearsomely over-slung forehead creased like granite in a frown; had the toxin not worked? “Oi, are you in there, Tetch? What’s your game?”
“A caucus race.”
“A caucus race! Don’t you see?!” The scientist chuckled in a cracked way; “It’s all a caucus race!”
“What’s a caucus race? Tetch you aren’t making any-“
For the first time during his employment at Arkham, Bolton looked startled, as the small statured man with the over-sized teeth positively exploded with maniacal laughter. Not the raucous, malevolent noise the Joker would accost him with, not the anxious giggling of the Ventriloquist when his ‘boss’ made a joke, but an unbroken stream of completely unhinged, fantastically disturbing hysteria.
“S-stop! What the hell’s the matter with you?!” A pair of tomb-stone slab hands slammed down on the madman's shoulders, Bolton's jugular bulging with distemperate unease; “I command you to tell me! What are you afraid of? Why are you laughing you freak?!”
The Hatter seemed quite unable to reply, laughter pouring out of him like a waterfall of ragged delirium.
Down the hallway Jonathan Crane and Harley Quinzel listened to the distant sound of this deranged mirth along with the other recovered or yet un-tested subjects, the blond girl sitting on her bed far away from the glass, her face riddled with curious anxiety. Crane mused to himself lightly;
"I see... How interesting."
“Gee… I’ve never heard anybody laugh like that before, not even Mr J…”
“Nor are you ever likely to again.” Crane observed, dryly, looking at the blank wall opposite to him with an unreadable expression. Both were still utterly fatigued by their exposure, slumped on the meagre furniture in their opposing cells, though Harley summoned the strength to sit upright and hug one knee nervously.
“Wha’sa matter with him? A-ain’t it working on him?”
“Oh the toxin is working perfectly; you may be certain of that, dear child,” Crane reassured her, although this knowledge was hardly comforting.
“Why is he laughing fit to out-do a hyena exposed to nitrous oxide?”
Harley nodded mutely, staring as far down the corridor as she could from her seat as she listened to the never-ending laughter, unaware that at this very moment Bolton was leaving the hysterical man to his music, spitting a venomous diagnosis of “mad, completely up the wall, that one,” as he shut the door behind him. Crane simply shifted his sight to the ceiling, crossing his arms behind his neck as he posed a question as means of an answer.
“Miss Quinzel, let me ask you; what do you think you would you do if you realized your worst fear was already a reality. One that you had brought upon yourself, no less?”
Miss Quinzel thought on this for a moment, before looking up with a semi-understanding expression; “I guess I’d go mad.”
“Precisely,” the laughter continued, brokenly, cracking against the stale air as the professor concluded the analysis; “Our Hatter was quite mad already, at least, as mad as the rest of us, make of that what you will… but finding out that being hated by the woman he loved, causing that woman to hate him, was his worst fear… well,” he nodded down the corridor indicatively, his face void of guilt or any other emotion; “you have your answer.”
Back behind the locked door the Englishman continued to bark out peels of splintering laughter, even as the toxin began to fade, teeth pulled back in a grimace of pained, ironic hilarity as he shuddered against the restraints, orbs of salt water casting themselves from his cheeks to seep into the leather below, as he laughed.
Swooping down to land on the slime-slicked tiles under the cylindrical channel of light from above, the manhole cover discarded with as much as ease as if it had been made of Styrofoam, the detective scanned the sewer with analytical eyes.
The alleyway above had been the last place Billy had seen his wife, and with no further evidence or leads presenting themselves above ground, it followed…
Something glinted from behind a piece of broken piping.
A black-gloved hand reached out to grip the small tin toy with the run down clockwork mechanism, frowning at the object as though it were more sinister for its childlike charm.
“Follow the white rabbit…”
Turning on his footprint-scanning night vision, Batman continued his own journey down the rabbit hole.