Arkham Asylum. The name conjures up Lovecraftian visions of tentacled monsters residing within an unsuspecting town, waiting for the chance to spread their evil upon the world. The name was accurate, for locked within the dusty confines of its cells were the worst kind of humanity, monsters with faces and names on the tips of every Gotham resident’s tongue. Here was Two-Face, who, like the coin which never left his grasp, was scarred on one side. The conflict of good versus evil is not always hidden within. Here, the cunning Riddler sat in a chair at the desk the guards had allowed him after finding that constant doodling and problem solving with the felt tip marker they gave him kept the loud shouting spells at bay. Besides Batman, the Riddler’s worst enemy was boredom. Further on down the hall, in a specially-designed wing of the institution, resided the tragic Clayface, whose ability to mold his flesh into any appearance he desired had deteriorated to the point where the skin hung from him in ribbons, in places it pooled around his limbs, practically dripping from him. Without the special stabilizing chemical he needed, his skin had lost any semblance of cohesiveness. The cell had been designed by Batman himself to keep Clayface from dripping through the cracks in the floor. A grid of electrical insulation in the walls, ceiling and floor stopped any escape attempt dead in its tracks. After a couple of tries, leading to some very singed flesh, Clayface had accepted his fate.
Around the corner from Clayface, apart from the others, was an empty cell. This was usually where the Joker was placed. The reason for the distant location being the madman’s penchant for maniacal laughter was such that it prompted the other inmates to complain, especially the Penguin, who had once paid a guard handsomely to beat the grinning inmate within an inch of his life. This plan succeeded, though not quite how the Penguin had envisioned. The guard, having gotten in a couple good hooks, was thrashed with all the joyful glee the Joker could muster. He had broken all the guard’s fingers, shattered his nose and snapped a knee before the remaining guards on duty could drive him back with pepper spray. After that, the Joker found a new home in solitary confinement. The Penguin, for his part in the debacle, was deprived of the carrier pigeons who kept him company. Though the Penguin was unhappy, for a while at least, there was peace.
For a time, anyway. Peace only visits Arkham, it never stays.
Two months ago, on a moonless night with no wind, the Joker escaped. No one knew how it had happened. One minute he was there, the next he was gone. It was whispered among the guards that the Devil had come to take him home. It was an event so eerie in its perfection, so confusing yet so simplistic that a massive manhunt like none Gotham had ever seen before was launched. Every street, back alley and avenue was combed through but to no avail. The madman had vanished. Some people thought he had left Gotham for good. That was the unspoken hope, anyway. Let it be someone else’s problem for a change.
Then the murders began.
No, that was not right. To call them murders was to put them into a category. These were slayings of the most vicious kind. The killer had taken his time and enjoyed his work. The bodies reflected a confusing modus operandi. They had been stabbed first and then shot, sometimes the shots coming long after the life had left the ragged hunk of meat that used to be a living person. No, these were not just murders. They were statements. Batman knew the message behind them even without seeing the macabre death’s head grin that was unnaturally thrust upon the mouths of the victims.
Sam Gordon had considered himself lucky to be assigned to Arkham. His wife hated it, but he wanted to be where the action was and for that Arkham was definitely the place. As he stood with his partner, Stuart Raimi, outside the heavy iron gate waiting for the FBI to arrive, he wondered if maybe his wife had had the right idea. Maybe he should have been a teacher instead.
“They say this guy can read minds, Stu.”
“Jesus, Sam. Don’t tell me that. I’m about to piss myself as it is.”
“Maybe he’s one of those mutants or something. You think he’s gonna be any help capturing the Joker?”
“I don’t know. They say he helped get this guy in Atlanta. The Tooth Fairy or something.”
“Tooth Fairy? How bad could he have been? What’s next, the Easter Bunny?”
“He got that name ‘cause he wore these false teeth with fangs. He bit the lips off some tabloid reporter before he set him on fire. Bit his fuckin’ lips off, Sam.”
“Man, you really need to get off the Internet.”
They heard the cars approaching before they saw them. The wind carried the sound of tires crunching gravel to their nervous ears. Sam’s fingers danced a jittery staccato on his leg. Action or not, the thought of Hannibal Lecter approaching was enough to fill any rational mind with fear. The squad cars lined up along the drive, flanking the truck which pulled up a little ahead of the others. The armed policemen and FBI officers exited their cars and walked to the rear of the truck.
“They tell me you’re the man I should speak to.”
“Well, I have to say I’m a little nervous about this whole arrangement. This place isn’t exactly known for its... security.”
“If you think this was my idea, think again. The governor wants results and thinks this man can help. So much so that he’s willing to let this monster call the shots for now. Lecter was brought in on his own insistence. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner he leaves my breathing space, the happier I’ll be.”
“Well, I certainly can’t call you dishonest. By the way, my name is Frederick...”
“I know who you are, Dr. Chilton. You’re the man who’s willfully joined himself to Lecter’s hip. I haven’t decided yet if you’re crazy or just stupid though I suspect the latter. Maybe next time you write an essay about how damned brilliant Lecter is you ought to remember that he paid for his fame in blood.”
Chilton cleared his throat before replying.
“Yes, well, and you are...”
“Busy. Excuse me.”
Just as Dr. Chilton was cursing a world that did not understand genius, the light raindrops turned into a downpour.
Chilton’s views on genius were the only thing that Hannibal Lecter found agreeable about the man. As mouthpieces go, Chilton was an especially embarrassing one. Always looking for the nearest camera or naïve journalist, he was on a self-imposed quest to prove he had something to say. Too bad his theories and suppositions about the criminal mind were lifted from people with far better qualifications than he. Lecter found it amusing that Chilton had gained his own spot on the Chesapeake State Hospital for the Criminally Insane’s board of directors simply by repeating what had already been written about Lecter. Proof that stupidity is its own reward.
As Lecter was drawn to the opening gate, he glanced at the nervous guard on his right. The man was practically trembling and not because of the cold rain. Lecter took in a deep breath.
“You should have gone before you left home,” he said in passing.
As the party of law enforcers, with Chilton bringing up the rear, retreated into the asylum Sam looked over at his partner after closing the gate.
“What do you suppose he meant by th...” He cut off his words with a glance down at Stuart’s lap, where a dark stain was now spreading.
“Shut up, Sam. Don’t say a word.”
Sam turned away with a hand over his mouth to keep from braying laughter and bumped his head into a muscular chest encased in a midnight blue suit with the symbol of a bat on it. Gasping back his laughter, he staggered back a couple feet in surprise. He had not even heard footsteps on the gravel.
“On the gate,” said Batman in a gravelly whisper.
“Y... yes sir.” Sam tripped over his own feet trying to carry out the Batman’s wish. As the dark knight slipped through the still-opening gate, Sam noticed the stain on Stuart’s crotch had spread further. This time he didn’t think it was funny in the least.
The FBI had finished unlocking the chains from Lecter’s straitjacket, allowing him to roam freely around the cell which usually housed the Joker. It had stayed exactly as he had left it, per Lecter’s instructions. The paintings on the wall. The books on the shelf. Even the blood on the wall where the Joker had pulverized an unlucky rat that had wandered into the wrong cell at the wrong time. All had been preserved for Lecter’s perusal.
Commissioner Gordon approached the yellow line in front of the barred wall of the cell.
“Dr. Lecter, I am Commissioner Gordon. While I will not welcome you to Gotham, I would welcome any advice you can give on our... problem.”
Without turning away from the paintings, Lecter said, “I share in your distaste for the situation, Commissioner. I had quite grown used to my own four walls. However, I shall endeavor to...,” he turned to Gordon,”...adapt.”
“I don’t understand. I thought coming here to observe was your idea.”
“Indeed it was, Commissioner. It was the only way to recover the mind scent. I needed to see for myself the kind of conditions Mr. Napier had been living in.”
“I know he was a patient of yours at one time but what can you hope to gain by looking at some paintings?”
Lecter, bored now with the conversation, studied the watercolor prints hanging askew on the wall. One was a green circle, gone over again and again with different green shades and textures until it resembled a bubbling globular mass. Lecter found it quite interesting.
“Hey, I’m talking to you!” Gordon was fuming at having been ignored.
Chilton strode up next to Gordon.
“He... doesn’t respond well to hostility and if he thinks he’s said all he needs to he won’t waste another word. In fact, until he thinks he can offer us something, he may not speak for days.”
Commissioner Gordon scowled. “That’s just great. We may not have days. We’ve got five murders so far, two in the last week alone. He’s stepping up his timetable, Lecter, so when you’re done sniffing his mind, let us know. Come on, let’s get the hell out of here.” He waved to the police and FBI men around him and en masse they headed for the gate.
As the dark hallway cleared out, Lecter scanned the books on the shelf, pulling one out at random. He stood reading with his back to the barred wall. At length, he cocked his head.
“Batman, I presume.”
One of the shadows on the wall disattached itself and walked over to the cell. Batman had to admit it, he was impressed.
“How did you know?”
“Your breathing control is quite good but your suit gives off a faint rubbery tang.”
Batman marveled at the man’s mastery of his senses. Like a snake, he could almost taste the air.
“Come to compare notes or have you just come to gawk at the psychic vampire, as the tabloids are calling me these days?”
“Neither. I’ve come to offer you a warning.”
Lecter walked over to the bars, an amused grin taking over his mouth.
“How sporting of you.”
“Think of it what you will. This city is my home. I will protect it with my last dying breath if necessary. Make one move outside these bars and no amount of intimidation will spare you from my wrath.”
“How very noble. Especially the part about dying. You need not worry about my untimely release from captivity. I have no desire to stay. This isn’t my idea of a grand vacation spot. The sunlight doesn’t reach far enough down to let you see your shoes and I’m a sucker for a sunny day.”
Batman walked up to the man on the other end of the bars. He purposefully stepped over the warning line on the floor, putting his face right up to Lecter’s.
“Don’t treat this warning lightly, Lecter. Next time my suit won’t give me away.”
“Perhaps, Batman; but tell me, what will you do when I have this?”
Raising his hand, Batman saw that Lecter had procured a Batarang from Batman’s own utility belt. Cursing himself for a fool and breaking the hypnotic spell of Lecter’s eyes, Batman braced himself to snatch Lecter’s wrist. He thought better of it. Instead he did the one thing even Lecter wasn’t expecting.
He asked for it politely.
“May I have the Batarang back, please?”
Lecter paused, smiled and handed back the Batarang.
Batman secured the weapon to his belt.
“I admire a man who doesn’t let his pride get in the way of results. You’ve shown yourself to be a worthy competitor with intelligence far surpassing the useless FBI for you have at least earned some measure of my respect. I propose we work together and put these childish territorial fantasies aside for now. Might we not speed up this investigation if we pooled our intellects? A successful resolution would achieve both our goals which is to say my happy departure from your not-so-lovely city.”
“And since I work outside the local law establishment you so despise, you’re more likely to hear what I have to say.”
Lecter nodded his head once.
“Agreed. A partnership, for now. This takes nothing away from what I said before. Your memory being what it is, I know you won’t forget it. What’s your plan?”
“First, to sleep. I’ve been on the road most of the day and even people of my advanced metabolism need to sleep now and then. Come back tomorrow and we will discuss this further.” Then, as if in dismissal, Lecter walked over to the bed and got in, sleeping with his back to the bars.
Batman could not help wondering if this was how Faust must have felt as he walked down the hall toward the front gate.