Gotham itself, he reflected, had perhaps had a bit of a revival in his absence. There seemed to be an abundance of neon lights now, in all the districts (which, he supposed, made the red one slightly redundant, but then again, how would he know?), and people seemed slightly more at ease in their skins. Perhaps it was due to that freak of sociology they called the Batman, but he doubted it. After all, he'd been of no help to him, when he'd been in need.
Settling into one of the granite benches near the eastern bridge, he tucked his scarf more securely into his overcoat, and glanced at his watch. 10:58, time enough for another moment or two of reflection. Just enough time to remember what had brought him away, and back again, to the town he had once been the center of. Most of the beginnings of it were a blur - more a flash of sparks and light, really, and something about blond hair and red lips, and leather, and metal claws. He didn't care to remember that much, nor did he dwell too heavily on the months spent recovering in that hospice in western Connecticut. Or the fact that by the time he had managed to return to Gotham in the proper amount of style, his son, Chip, had married some woman from Japan and gone overseas to find a more cheerful city to run his business in.
In fact, the more Max Shreck thought about it, the less he liked the way things were looking. Abandoning his reflective train of thought, he glanced down at his watch. 11:02. That decided it, then - if he had returned to a city where people he arranged meetings with didn't even have enough respect to be punctual for them ... things really, really weren't looking all that good.
Things weren't looking good at all, Jonathan Crane decided as he hurried down the cracked sidewalk on his way into the park. He was late, and if there was one thing the good doctor abhorred, it was tardiness. It showed a considerable lack of respect, of class, when one couldn't show up for a meeting on time. And considering this was his best chance at funding for his project? A lack of respect - even if it wasn't intentional, as his wasn't - was bad. Very bad.
Frowning, he shot a glance at his watch. 11:03, it read in small, green letters. Three minutes late. Maybe this wasn't so bad, maybe he could explain away his tardiness - after all, it had been no fault of his own. It had been Doctor Burton's, who had decided to page him and tell him one of his patients had just had a psychotic episode just as he was heading out of his office. A psychotic episode! Inwardly, he scoffed - if he got the funding for this project, an inmate with an episode would hardly be something he'd need to worry about.
And it was here that his gaze drifted to his briefcase. His project. His life's work. His fear gas. Something he'd taken great pains to fund and develop and hide from prying eyes, and somehow Max Shreck had found out about it. Somehow, he'd found out, and that didn't sit well with him - someone outside the Asylum knew what he was doing.
Surely Doctor Burton didn't know, or he'd be out of a job already. Meridian couldn't have a clue, or she would have said something to their boss. And Quinzel? Well, Quinzel was Quinzel - even if she did know, she wouldn't have said anything.
But still. Someone knew and someone told. The cryptic statement at Wayne's party the other night - I must admit that I am, afraid, to mention them here - was enough to vouch for that.
Rounding a corner, he glanced up and there, as promised sat a potential threat ... or a potential investor. Plastering on his best neutral expression, one honed through years of psychology courses, he cleared his throat.
"Mister Shreck. I apologize for my tardiness. The life of a criminal psychologist is never dull."
A smile of equal proportion, yet far more charisma, gleamed out at him from the darkness. "So the Asylum kept you, did it? Please. Sit."
The younger man nodded, taking the offered seat on the bench, the briefcase coming to rest in his lap. "So. What can I do for you?" If anything could be said about Crane, it was that he was to the point.
Max nodded briefly, pursing his lips. He appreciated the man's brevity - it showed that he meant business. "Well said. First, let me ask you this. How long have you been here, in Gotham?"
Dark eyebrows arched upwards over silver rims curiously. "I've lived here my entire life. Why?"
He nodded, slowly. Just what he needed. "So you remember me." He frowned, slightly. "As several here do not."
"I remember you had power and money," he answered, no indication about how he felt about those things apparent in his tone.
"Which is more than enough for muster, and allows me to pose you this: if you help me, you can have access to that." Here, Shreck spread his gloved hands invitingly, as if speaking to someone he'd known for years, and not (a glance at the watch, 11:15) twelve minutes.
A flicker of a frown touched Crane's lips and then it was gone, melting back into calm neutrality. "I suppose, Mister Shreck, that would depend on what you want."
However, reading people had become just as much a business to Shreck as the management of department stores had been, and he caught the frown the way Buddhist monks have been known to catch flies with chopsticks. "I'd simply like to ... regain, the place that I lost by leaving this fair and shining city, Doctor. And to do that, I need to reach, people. Who better to help someone such as, myself, than a fine psychiatrist such as, well, yourself?" The comment seemed mild enough, but at the last, Max made sure to catch Crane's eyes behind his spectacles, past the moonlight that glinted there. His gaze was wide, disarmingly so, a gaze that had once been known as the one that overturned votes, sealed board meetings, silenced protests.
Silence followed. Long, painful silence, in which Crane ran a finger along the silver border of his otherwise black briefcase. And outwardly - aside for the almost idle motion - he was a brick wall, no feeling, not even the concept of thought touching his features. Inwardly, however, was a different story.
Inwardly, the gears were turning.
If he helped Shreck, he would in turn gain money, gain funding - the very thing he had been bowing and scraping to board members and university science departments for nearly a year to receive. With money would come the realization of his dream, his fear gas, a prototype of which was hidden in the briefcase he had so desperately touched a moment ago. And with the realization of that, he would have understanding of fear. Control over it. The final answer to his ultimate question.
But what did helping Shreck entail? The former - current? - business man hadn't exactly been specific. Oh, sure, Shreck thought he was making a convincing attempt at being specific, but Crane was a psychologist. He had sat through countless sessions with countless patients who attempted to dodge questions with equal grace. And he'd learned to see through such subtle slips.
He wanted to reach people, maybe that much was true, but it didn't answer his question. At least not in the way Crane had meant it.
And even beyond that, even beyond the masterful sleight of hand - or of word in this case - there was something else Crane wanted before he agreed to anything. He wanted to know how much Shreck knew and how.
So, it was matter-of-factly that he answered, like two old friends discussing the weather, but there was suddenly something deeper in his eyes. Something hard. "I'm just one man, Mister Shreck. What could I possibly do?"
The elder man ran a hand over his white hair, which managed to look distinguished and stylish, rather than old, somehow, and glanced from side to side before leaning in. "Okay, look. I am not going to tell you how, I know, or who told me so. For it's a breach of professional conduct, and highly, highly rude ... but I know. I know, what you have. In there." So saying, he nodded subtly toward the briefcase. "And if there is one thing, that being at the center of Gotham has taught me, it is that what you have, is very crucial. To what I'd like to do. To what I'd like the people to do. I don't suppose, you get, what I'm saying here."
"Depends," he answered honestly, dropping the careful act now that the truth had more or less been revealed. "There's a lot one can do with fear."
"For starters, I'd like to see, perhaps, a little leverage." And here, he handed Crane a paper folded in thirds, from within his coat.
Curiously, the doctor unfolded the paper and peered down at it, managing to keep himself from looking like a high schooler who'd just been passed the answers to an algebra pop quiz. And considering the fact that the paper turned out to be a contract for the return of Shreck Enterprises to the company's namesake, this was harder than it looked.
A frown poisoning his features, Crane looked up from the contract dubiously. "I don't know how much you do know, Mister Shreck, but I should inform you that this would be more than temporary leverage. This would be ... a permanent solution."
And considering that due to lack of time and money, the fear gas caused permanent, violent hallucinations and paranoia, this was true. Very true.
Now that things were out in the open, Shreck supposed, it wouldn't hurt matters much to let the slow, calmly malicious smile he'd been holding in poison his pleasant features. "Even better," he said, at length.
"And all I have to do is get him to sign the paper?"
"All you have to do," Shreck repeated. "... Of course, it would be worth a little more of your while if you made the resulting ... whichever .... look like a perfectly innocent what have you." He paused, thinking. "Maybe almost twice your while."
There was a brief silence, and then a small smile touched Crane's lips. "I think I could manage that."
"Excellent." Max stuck out a gloved hand, his near-sigh of relief puffing into harmless steam in the night air.
Carefully, Crane took the other man's hand in his for a brief handshake, and even as he did so, a small voice in the back of his head warned him that this was wrong. It was alright to test the gas on the inmates - most of them were either already insane or on the road to it - but testing it on someone else? On someone who had a perfectly good, sane life ahead of them? It was unethical, wasn't it?
Reservations or not, however, he'd shook Max's hand - he'd signed the deal. Besides, he reminded himself, desperate times called for desperate measures.
And wasn't he desperate?