Friday, 24 December 2010

Sentence first- verdict afterwards. Chapter Five.


A CAUCUS-RACE AND A LONG TALE. In which two unwelcome truths are learned.

-------------------------------------------------------

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...”

_____________________________________________________________________

“Lyle Bolton?”

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 fa├žade 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.

Arkham was not what it used to be.

_____________________________________________________________________

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.

_____________________________________________________________________

“And you?”

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.

He had lied.

A great deal more had happened at Arkham.

_____________________________________________________________________

It had been three weeks.

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.

“Tetch?”

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.

“… Heh.”

“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.”

“What?”

“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-“

“Haha… Hahaha… HahahHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAA!

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.

“So, why…?”

“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.


And laughed.



And 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.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Sentence first- verdict afterwards. Chapter Four.

LOOKING-GLASS HOUSE. In which two alliances are made.

-------------------------------------------------------------

Where Jervis Tetch was at that particular moment was the other side of Gotham, a good many miles away from the sewer that had initiated the voyage, as he opened the door to the run-down hat shop for the second time in as many days to allow his weary guest to enter.

Alice couldn’t even remember how they had got there, the nervous exhaustion from the whole ordeal having left her in a daze. She had been vaguely aware of exiting the underground labyrinth somewhere near the water front before taking some sort of boat from somewhere to somewhere else, part of the journey spent passing through a plane of sweet-smelling rushes that she had never known grew within the city limits. After that there might have been five minutes or two hours of walking, for all she could recall; some amount of drawing back into side-streets to avoid people distorting the time, but with the early night drawing in to their advantage nobody had given a second glance to the couple hurrying back to their lodgings in the December chill.

Now finding herself in a narrow, old-fashioned boutique, Alice fell into the first chair she came across, almost falling asleep against the radiator right there and then as her guide set to lighting a gas lamp. She blinked at it in bleary confusion as he explained something about the electricity still being shut off apologetically, unused buildings, something along those lines.

“Oh, that’s fine… Jervis, I don’t mind…” Her half-comprehending response cut itself off in a long yawn behind her damaged hand before she finally succumbed to sleep, her body and mind relapsing from the shock and exertion.

How many hours later she woke she couldn’t tell, save that it was light, and from the angle it was falling in across the bed she found herself in it must have been well past ten in the morning. Sitting up she rubbed her eyes, trying to process the most peculiar dream she’d just been having, when she realised her hand was wrapped up in something.

A sleep-smothered second of figuring out that it was not bedding as she’d supposed resulted in her blinking in mild confusion at the neat binding, the scent of ointment issuing from beneath the small bandage. Attempts to flex her fingers summoned a dull but entirely real pain which dispelled the last of her drowsiness, along with the remaining impression that what had happened had simply been a dream.

Looking around the unfamiliar room with its unfamiliar ceiling and unfamiliar curtains sent the revelation slamming home like a judge’s gavel; she hadn’t dreamt all that. She really had run away from home. She had run away from her husband by following a white rabbit to fall down a hole and escape underground to some unknown location with a notorious villain, a man condemned as insane as the product of her own influence on him; the Mad Hatter.

She sat back against the pillow, quite winded from the analysis.

“Jervis…” Straining her ears above the distant sound of traffic she could make out some sort of activity taking place downstairs. Looking down at her sleep-crumpled clothes she wondered whether one ought to feel so self conscious about one’s appearance regarding an escaped lunatic.

“But he did save you, my dear,” she reminded herself, “and one really ought to try to be presentable for people who do that sort of thing. Besides,” she patted down the worst of the creases in her dress as she made for the door, “he did sound terribly sane for a lunatic.”

But how did one know what a lunatic sounded like? Alice wondered, as she made her way down the narrow stairs, finding herself in the shop front along with a good many dusty shelves and plastic-wrapped hats, the sounds of what might have been cooking floating from behind the door marked ‘employees only.’ Deciding that if Jervis counted as an ‘employee only’ then she probably did as well, the curious lady opened the door incrementally, the fact that she could have just as easily walked out of the front door to her freedom not even crossing her mind.

“Oh, Alice! You’re awake, excellent.”

The man who was beaming at her, waving a spatula cheerfully over something that Alice could only suppose had been potentially edible at some point, hardly looked like a mad-man escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane. Indeed, it was taking her some effort not to laugh at the sight of Jervis trussed up in a faded chequered apron, evidently enjoying his new-found freedom, if in a rather disastrous way. It was beyond her not to smile and wave a shy greeting, as she walked up to see what he was doing to unfortunate contents of the skillet, waving aside plumes of oily smoke.

“Jervis, what are you making?” Other than a glorious mess, she wondered.

“Why, breakfast of course! Or, well,” the blond-haired man looked down at the smouldering substance in a puzzled way, “I thought I was; only it doesn’t look quite right, does it?”

“It doesn’t look quite left,” she giggled down at the charred food through a small fit of coughing- it was a wonder the fire alarm hadn’t gone off, “it’s all but disappeared! Whatever did you do to it?!”

There was some discussion over the fact that scientists evidently shouldn’t take up the culinary arts before the pair disposed of the blackened stuff, laughing like school children after a chemistry experiment gone awry in the most spectacular manner. It took them both a good five minutes of talking like this to notice that they probably ought not to be; a moment of soberness falling over the pair as the mirth left the atmosphere along with the smoke.

“… Perhaps,” Alice started, after an awkward silence that was about as hard to swallow as the ill-fated breakfast would have been, “I could cook for us instead?”

“You?” The escapee blinked at her in abject surprise at the suggestion; “But, you couldn’t possibly, after I…”

“After you what?” The former secretary rested her knuckles on her hips in a manner that he found quite charmingly stubborn, if rather surprising given the circumstances.

“Got me out of a terrible mess that I got myself into? I’d be the one returning the favour.” She pointed at the remaining charcoal attached to the pan, not giving Jervis so much as a second to point out that she had hardly gotten herself into that situation in the first place, let alone deserve it.

“Please,” any further thoughts about arguing flew swiftly out of his head when he found a familiar hand squeezing his in a kindly insistent way, “I… know we haven’t seen each other for a long time, and things have been rather… odd, between us,” wasn’t that the understatement of the year, “but I really wouldn’t mind, and I really am terribly fond of cooking, you know.”

“You are?”

Alice nodded, honestly, lighting up as she expounded on the topic. “I could make you an omelette I tried making last week? It’s got courgette and red onion and paprika and, oh, all sorts of things in it! Billy really li-” Another awkward silence practically clouted her over the head, as she stalled, replacing the impetus of speech with a bite to the lip.

“W-well, I think it worked out pretty well, anyway; it’s my own invention.” Her optimism recovered itself at the last part, which she announced with innocent pride. Part of Jervis was tempted to ask whether it was based on blotting paper and sealing wax, but the ramblings of the white knight would probably have confused the matter more than aiding it.

“That sounds positively frabjous! Oh, only, there aren’t any eggs…”

“I could go and get some?”

“You would?” He regarded Alice yet again with surprise, as her platinum locks bobbed in confirmation. He knew he ought to protest and offer to go out himself, but with the news having circulated so far and wide, and his distinctive appearance… a gloved hand rubbed guiltily on his sleeve as he tilted his head in admittance; “It might prove more successful than my own endeavours… are you sure you’re alright with going alone?”

Alice smiled fit to out-do a Cheshire cat, the prospect of exploring an unknown part of a dangerous city seeming to be quite a delightful prospect to her. “Oh yes, of course! I’ll be careful, don’t worry; and I’ll try not to be recognised.” She confirmed, although she wasn’t really sure of how to do this last part at all.

Jervis seemed to have some idea though, as he smiled in an appraising manner. “Well then, you needs must have the appropriate headwear for the purpose…” Walking back through to the shop frontage, the scientist sent a hand skimming along a row of boxed objects before landing on a wide blue parcel, faded to grey on the edges.

Lifting the lid after blowing off the worst of the dust he extracted a superb piece of millinery craft, holding the object up to the light to make sure it was in good condition; it was a generously brimmed hat, the carefully formed felt a fine-brushed light blue elegantly trimmed with white lace, a wide satin ribbon in a warm, translucent pearl colour flowing over the side to accompany the bow and arrangement of feathers seated on the left side. It was an astonishingly beautiful thing, more beautiful than any hat Alice had ever seen before, as Jervis placed it over her head in a gentle sweeping motion, tying the ribbon under her chin in a surprisingly practiced manner. Tilting it by just the slightest degree he stood back to observe the result.

“Picture perfect, in every way.”

Alice blushed to the tips of her ears, touching the sides of the bonnet with reverent fingers as she stuttered; “Y-you think so? Really?”

“Absoposilutely. Why, I’d venture that hat was made for you!”

It really did look like it had been, as well; the felt was almost a dead match for the colour of her irises. Jervis had to catch himself before he started looking too smitten (although really it was already far too late for that), as he turned to the counter to extract an amount of money from the till that caused Alice to inhale sharply; there had to be at least two month’s worth of Billy’s wages there. Noticing her expression as he handed her the cash the former work-colleague shrugged with a confessing smile, if not an entirely innocent one.

“Sadly, my less-honest methods of living proved to be somewhat more lucrative than my former employment… don’t worry, it isn’t stolen.” Not exactly- more a voluntary donation of sorts, he added mentally, as she looked on the verge of handing it back; although he couldn’t read her mind to understand it was the generosity, not the origin of the money, which had flummoxed her for the present. “There’s a high-street just to the South of this area; you’ll be needing some new clothes and other such conveniences. I’m afraid this establishment wasn’t designed with visitors in mind... Please; get anything and everything you want, it’s the least I can do.”

Walking down the main street, which she had found with little difficulty, Alice had to confess that life under the hat was a vast improvement. There had been some continued argument on her part that she simply couldn’t take such a beautiful object and such a vast sum of spends, but there had been no acceptance of any such claims on the Hatter’s part, Alice eventually having to give in and leave the shop with a final farewell smile and a wave.

Now looking up at the tall, graceful buildings that rose either side of her with their long glass windows and brightly varnished doors, Alice had to check that she wasn’t skipping instead of walking; she felt elated. How wide the pavement was here, how very like a horse’s whinny that woman’s laugh sounded, how bracing the breeze that chased itself amongst the bustling crowd was. Realising that she herself was a part of this crowd, an individual amongst a great mass of individuals, Alice had to find the excuse of laughing at a street performer to permit the bubble of joy that had found its way of her mouth. She threw a coin into the musician’s hat on the floor, touching the brim of her own to him when he bowed obligingly.

Continuing on at a spritely pace she considered her reflection as she walked alongside it, watching it skip between clothes shops and bookstores as easily as a ghost. And how very lovely that hat looked on the mirror girl, and how well it hid her profile behind the slanting rim and ribbon; it made her feel as if she were wearing a mask. Even from behind one could only catch sight of a little of her long yellow hair, and in this part of town, why, she couldn’t even claim to know the postman. She smiled to herself again, thinking it a terrific game- to be able to walk a street, as invisible as any other stranger.

“Ah, but you aren’t quite yet, you know,” she reminded herself, looking down at her familiar grey-green dress, earning an odd glance from a couple walking past her as she spoke to nobody; “-and it would never do for you to turn down such generosity.”

Noting the shop that she had stopped outside was a dress-makers of some sort, a smile lit up her face at the pantomime display in the window; the outfit between the rendition of Peter Pan’s Wendy and the Sugar-Plum Fairy seeming to leap out at her from the glass, as she eagerly stepped in through the door to converse with the old lady at the till who looked uncommonly like a sheep.

“I won’t have it!”

The young man with the blockish jaw smote the commissioner’s office with the flat of his palm a second time, as the white-haired gentleman attempted to pacify his ill-tempered client.

“Now, Mr Antrim, you have to understand; these procedures take time, and if the neighbours say you had an argument before she left… well, we can’t afford to spare the police force on-”

“You think I’m jumping to a conclusion?!” Billy leaned over the hard-working man’s papers in a manner that didn’t intimidate the experienced Gordon in the slightest. “Well perhaps I am- because it’s the correct one! Don’t tell me you’re going to take this as a co-incidence; that lunatic breaks out, and Alice goes missing the very next day?”

The commissioner grimaced in a slightly more relenting way; “The two do lend themselves to the suggestion…”

“Lend themselves to the-?!” Billy threw his hands into the air in a passionate gesture; “It’s as near to infallible proof as be damned! We can’t waste time debating it as a possibility! For all I know she could be trussed up in some car’s trunk, or tied to the mast of a sinking ship, or being forced to-“

“Yes, yes, I get the point,” Gordon held up a hand to stem the tirade; “I have dealt with these sorts before, you know…”

“So you agree?”

The experienced man pondered for a moment, fingers pressed together under his chin as he considered his opinion despite the impatient agitation that Billy was exuding.

“I agree that these two instances may well be related,” he tapped a finger against the papers on his desk indicatively; “however, with the police forces spread so thin at the moment, I simply cannot spare the man power at the present time, and considering Jervis’s history with Mrs Antrim, I do not believe her to be in any immediate danger. Dr Leland supports me in this theory.”

If Billy had spluttered any more he might have been in danger of literally choking himself.

“No immediate danger?!”

“I’d extend that to ‘any’ danger, myself,” the Doctor stood, having been sat quietly in the corner watching the proceedings until now, as she endeavoured to explain; “Mr Tetch’s case is a particularly unique one. As… unpredictable as he is, from our observations of him during his stays at Arkham, I would say that the concept of harming Alice would be as abhorrent to him as it is to you, Mr Antrim.”

Billy frowned at her persistent logic, and really, ‘his stays at Arkham’? What was that place meant to be, a hotel? “So that’s it. You aren’t going to do anything? Just leave her to whatever depraved imaginings that buck-toothed freak had planned for her?”

“Now, we never said that,” again, Gordon defused the irate man by placing sagacious hand in the air, ignoring the icy look Dr Leland was giving the irate husband, “I’ll set however many men I can spare onto it straight away, but I can’t say I’d expect that to be more than half a dozen, and Bullock is still following a lead on Posion Ivy. Until we’ve settled the panic this whole affair has caused that’s all I can offer, but I assure you that we will do everything in our power to return your wife to you, safe and sound.”

Seeing that the commissioner seemed unlikely to take this discourse any further, Mr Antrim muttered a few black sounding words under his breath as he swung himself out of the room, Dr Leland breathing out through her nostrils with narrowed eyes as the door closed behind him.

“Well, he was a pleasant customer.”

Gordon wiped a tired hand over his face with a sigh; “Now, Leland; he has good reason to be concerned. His wife was at the heart of the matter that started all of this, after all. He was a victim himself at the time; becoming distressed over a development like this is quite forgivable.”

Dr Leland made a noise that could have been interpreted as begrudging acceptance. Gordon took it as sufficient signal to proceed with their discussions; “Now, you were telling me about your theories as to where Miss Isley may have retreated to…?”

_____________________________________________________________________

Having bidden Alice farewell on her voyages, Jervis had decided to set about making the shop look a little more like a shop and less like a derelict hide-out. Dusting the front of the store had taken a great deal longer than he’d thought, but finally the place could be traversed without a cloud of dirt rising behind your every footstep, and he stood back to observe the layer of polish he’d just given to the service desk with a glimmering of pride at the accomplishment; circuitry, yes, but woodwork had never really been his forte.

“There now, that’s at least two impossible things done before breakfast;” he commended himself, as he set about arranging the packaged hats in order, selecting a few to take out to put on display, “and I dare say that you could count it as three, with dear Alice being so accommodating.”

Who would have supposed she’d even talk to him after all that, let alone after causing her to fall down a manhole? The fact that she’d offered to make breakfast, well; it was enough to make a Mock Turtle dance! He swept a fine wool bowler onto a hat-stand, setting it at a becoming angle whilst humming a snatch of something that might never have been written. Still, pulling the watch out of his waistcoat pocket, he had to wonder how she was faring; certainly she needed the time to get her bearings and adequate supplies, but it had been quite a few hours since…

“Oh, you foolish, foolish man.”

A gloved palm smote his forehead at the obviousness of the situation. Of course she’d fled; gone to the police, little doubt, and who would blame her? Certainly not he: sighing in resignation he couldn’t even bring himself to contemplate making a run for it. No, he’d earned this, and she’d every right to be the one to turn him in. Then again, perhaps she just wanted to escape from everything; leave this city and its bad memories behind, and him with it.

He smiled a sad smile of acknowledgement at this plausible notion;

“Always such an intelligent girl.”

“I do hope you aren’t talking about me behind my back.”

The hat Jervis had been reluctantly removing from its box almost shot straight out of his hands to the ceiling, as the voice came in through the door laughingly- he’d been so occupied he hadn’t even heard the bell sound when she’d stepped over the threshold.

“A-Alice! Ah, I was just…”

Just…

What had he been doing?

Whatever he’d been doing, thinking or otherwise, had completely evaporated from the poor man’s mind, along with his mind, for the sight that greeted him on turning around had quite robbed him of any and all remaining senses he had.

It was if an illustration by Sir John Tenniel had come to life. Everything, right down from the charmingly natural blond hair down to the shining silver buckles on the simple black shoes, was something that only his most wonderful dreams could have conjured. For a moment he wondered whether he had become trapped in his own dream machine, as he observed the young woman beaming from ear-to-ear conduct a spritely twirl in the sky-blue dress, swaying it from side to side whilst admiring it herself.

“What do you think?! Isn’t it darling?”

Alice deposited the half-dozen bags on the counter, holding the skirt out at the sides as she conducted an experimental curtsy, though she didn’t really know how to do one. She explained brightly to the stunned looked scientist; “You ought to do that, when you’re thinking. It saves time.”

This seemed to send Jervis into even further dizziness, as he quite forgot about the hat which had tumbled to the floor, taking a step back from the vision of beauty. “You… that’s… you know that line?” He pinched himself quite hard to ascertain that he was not dreaming; to his astonishment it hurt. Regardless he repeated the action just in case.

“Of course!” Alice pouted so prettily Jervis thought there ought to be rules against that sort of thing; “My parents used to read me Alice in Wonderland when I was little- I mean, I am called Alice, silly, of course they would!”

“Of course they- no… no this is all wrong, I can’t, you can’t possibly…”

Watching the flummoxed man back himself against a wall Alice quirked her head to the side curiously; why, he almost looked afraid! And what on Earth would he ever be afraid of me for? She wondered, justifiably.

“What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?”

“Don’t I-?! I, of course, but you-” Jervis’s head looked as if it didn’t know how to nod or shake properly, as it ending up doing a funny sort of diagonal twitch occasionally. “You really shouldn’t have… I mean…”

It appeared to be something that had to be addressed whether he wanted to or not, as several therapy sessions at Arkham about the subject came back to clock him around the ears as he sighed in explanation, remembering what Dr Leland had said about the matter; “Alice, you’re you, not that Alice… you’re your own person, you didn’t have to… this is degrading for you, isn’t it?”

“Stuff and nonsense.”

His eyes couldn’t have looked any more shocked if he’d had ten thousand volts sent through his nervous system, as Alice assumed the same hand-on-hips pose of indignation that she had before. “I’ve not had this much fun in years; and it matches this hat perfectly. Besides, you gave me the money, and I absolutely refuse to take it back.”

Grinning in a comfortingly teasing way, Alice’s face fell slightly when she saw that Jervis still looked utterly guilt stricken; really, some people were impossible to please.

Sighing with gentle reproach she walked over to take his hands, ignoring the look on his face which might have been comparable to a frightened deer.

“I got this for myself, and to say thank you.” She gave his numb fingers a little shake of encouragement with a final smile before returning to the bags, extracting an array of ingredients;

“Now, won’t you please let me make you something to eat? I kept you waiting an awfully long time for breakfast.”

She smirked, ignoring him as she walked past him into the kitchen with her arms laden with food; “How many impossible things did you manage?”

_____________________________________________________________________

“Useless.”

Billy spat the word venomously to himself, setting to work cutting out the jagged black shape that he’d marked out on the vinyl he’d purchased on the way back to the apartment, the craft knife working around the silhouette in ill-tempered scores.

“The whole lot of them, completely useless, sitting back twiddling their thumbs while a maniac runs around the place kidnapping people, it’s like they’re waiting until it’s too late to do anything-!”

Mr Antrim had not returned to his very big and important job at the very big and important office that evening, having stopped by a general wares suppliers to pick up some materials. Holding up the finished icon he looked at it with grim determination; the helipad floodlights on the office roof would have to suffice for the rest of the signal.

“Well, even if they’re not going to do anything about it, I know someone who will.”

_____________________________________________________________________

“Now come on, Crane. We know you and Tetch have had a close relationship ever since he walked in here. You're hardly the type to adhere to the idea of honor amongst thieves, but you must know something.”

The professor returned the head doctor’s scrutinising look with one of perfect boredom; “He was an interesting subject, other than I can safely say that I had no particular affections for him, or any other inmate. Have you known me to before?”

The bespectacled man frowned through his lenses at the stubbornly laconic inmate. The questioning had been going on for twenty minutes, and hadn’t turned up so much as a single clue as to why Jervis Tetch had escaped this time, nor where to.

“Perhaps not, but are you telling me that you had no knowledge of this ‘interesting subject’s intentions? Come now, he must have told you something for you all to have allowed him to escape rather than hold him back with the rest of you?” His fingers laced together in a professionally reassuring manner; “You understand that we only want to help him, don’t you? This is all for his own good.”

“That’s exactly what our former warden used to say.”

The doctor’s face blanched- he’d been hoping that Crane wouldn’t resort to that topic as a means of defence. Observing the red-haired man’s unreadable face for one last time he finally sighed in resignation, waving to the escorts; “Alright. Take the professor back to his cell, I do not believe we will make any further progress today.”

The Scarecrow having been permitted his leave, the doctor ran a hand through his greying brown hair to look askance at Leland; “What do you make of all this? Do you think we might be wasting our time here? Perhaps it was just co-incidence that forced them to work together…”

“I don’t know,” Leland shared his looked of puzzlement, although hers was more thoughtful than fatigued; “It’s just so unlike Jonathan; spreading mass panic amongst the inmates, yes; letting other villains out and helping them to escape? No.”

“Perhaps he owes some debt to Tetch? Something that happened back then-?”

“Let’s hope not,” Leland stretched, her finger hesitating over the intercom to summon the next interview subject; “Or won’t have a hope of getting any clues out of him.”

The buzzer sounded dully as she requested; “Alright, you may send Miss Quinzel through now.”

It looked like this long day was not going to end any time soon.

_____________________________________________________________________

Two people who didn’t mind this notion were two who both knew they really shouldn’t be having such fun, or talking like the old friends they were as if nothing strange had ever happened between them, but really, with it being so close to Christmas, what was the harm in it?

The rest of the day seemed to pass far too quickly for the pair, as they caught up with each other, discussed what their respective families used to do at this time of year, and generally whittled away the hours with pleasantly aimless conversation. Alice absently marvelled at the fact she was laughing at a joke that Jervis had told her as they chatted, not a day removed from their usual routine back at the Wane Corp’s laboratory. Everything in this place seemed so entirely opposite to the world that she had left yesterday before she fell down the rabbit-hole; the world was backwards, mirrored from everything that had been usual. The convict was a funny and faithful companion, her husband a deranged and frightening spectre. She was almost in danger of returning to the realization that she shouldn’t be enjoying herself at all, when the topic shifted again, and she happily went along with it

Well, it had been an awfully long time since she’d had such a good conversation with someone who wasn’t herself; why not enjoy it?

At some point during the discussions Jervis had commenced some repairs on the remaining cards before he set about constructing more, the only allusion to it in the dialogue being a mere question as to “why” he was making them from Alice, which was responded to by his simply replying that he’d “run out”.

Naturally this made perfect sense, and really seemed all that needed to be said on the matter, so the talk proceeded, blithely ignoring any questions that a more demanding audience might have had to contribute.

So it continued; a perfectly ordinary day spent between two old friends who hadn’t seen each other for a long time. Nothing more, nothing less, and neither could have been happier with the arrangement.

_____________________________________________________________________

“You called?”

The shadow-black voice caused Billy to jump considerably, as he turned around to come face-to-face with the cowl and cape that had surely not been there two seconds ago. Recovering himself, Mr Antrim produced the photograph he always kept in his wallet, handing it to Batman as means of explanation. It was downright surreal, meeting a costumed vigilante in the middle of the night on his workplace building’s roof; goodness knows what they’d do if they found out he’d broken in to use their helicopter lights to summon a man most of the police classed as an outlaw.

Batman’s unreadable visor scanned the picture. “Alice Pleasance?”

“You remember then, and it’s Mrs Antrim, now,” Billy corrected the imposing figure; “She’s missing.”

This caught the masked man’s attention, as the thickly eye-browed husband registered the sharp look up with a feeling of satisfaction; finally, someone who recognized trouble when he saw it.

“Since when.”

“When do you think?” Billy took the photograph back with a grim look that turned to an imploring one. “The evening after he broke out. The police won’t act; say they don’t have enough men, not enough evidence to be sure…”

Watching the eyes that seemed to pierce the darkness around them narrow into slits, Billy accurately guessed that Batman was sharing his opinion on this matter already. No great wonder; he wasn’t about to say it out loud, but with the Hatter posing as the Joker like that, it seemed that even the Batman had had the wool pulled over his eyes. At least, that was the general feeling that had been circulating thanks to the media, who seemed more intent on making the criminal look like a genius than a mad man.

“I’ll look into it.”

“What? Bu- wait!”

But he was already gone. It was hard to even tell when he’d swept off the roof in that pitch-black cape of his, but the sound of fluttering cloth and of a rope pulled taught was all that Billy had to look after; the man already vanished into the silhouettes of the night. Giving a small grimace of annoyance-come-content, Billy turned off the light and set to removing the evidence before heading home; forget the police, if anyone could return her to him, Batman could.