“Almost got it,” George Szerro muttered to himself as he toiled in the laboratory he had built in the basement of the house he had inherited from his parents. “Just a bit more ammonium chloride in this batch, I think, and I’ll have it!”
After the incident with Dr. Glassman, George had trusted no one else to share his ideas. He had spent his entire savings constructing his basement laboratory, complete with walk-in freezer for storing chemicals at extremely low temperatures. He toiled every free moment he had, forsaking sleep, on a new project that he was sure would win him fame and fortune. As a child, George had seen the results of a freezing rain — raindrops below the freezing point but still liquid — that turned to ice when they touched a solid object. Young George had beheld in awe a tree whose branches seemed sheathed in crystal. If he could duplicate those conditions in an artificial formula, the commercial and industrial applications would be limitless.
“There, now… if I’m right, the solution will turn blue… yes! Yes, I’ve done it!” George cried out in enthusiasm. Lack of sleep, however, had robbed the young chemist of his motor skills, and in his own excitement, he overturned the beaker of freezing solution, spilling it on himself.
“Aaah!” he cried out. “All over me! Got to — hmm, that’s funny. I’d’ve thought it would be cold to the touch, very cold, might even give me instant frostbite. But it actually feels warm. Strange. Wonder why that is? I — whew, it’s hot in here. Blasted hot.” George tugged at his collar. Moment by moment, heartbeat by heartbeat, the air around George grew hotter and hotter. He gasped for breath, each intake searing his lungs. He staggered around the basement lab like an ant under a child’s magnifying glass. His brain reeled with the torture of the heat and soon fixated on a solution. George staggered to the walk-in freezer and sealed himself inside. In the cool darkness of the freezer, he calmed down and explored the problem rationally.
The freezing solution, he thought to himself. It’s affected me somehow. Caused a body-wide mutagenic change. I-I can’t bear high temperatures any more! Normal room temperature feels like a blast furnace to me! I’ve become a freak, a thing of utter cold! George panicked then, and in his panic thought back over his life, over how he had tried to get ahead honestly, through hard work, and of those who had surpassed him through dishonest means, often using him as a stepping-stone to do it. Jerry. Mr. Walker. Dr. Glassman. They had been teaching George a lesson, but he had been too blind to see it. He saw it now with icy clarity.
“My classmates called me Zero,” he said in a low, rumbling voice. “They called out the name with gleeful malice. Well, from now on, they will whisper it in terror! Mister Zero to you! Mister Zero, terror of Gotham City!”
“George Szerro?” the slender young man in the gray business suit said into the telephone receiver. George sat on the other side of the glass partition, speaking into a similar instrument.
“That’s me,” he acknowledged, “but you can call me 121373.” George indicated the number on his prison grays with a stab of his thumb. “Who and what are you?”
“My name is Reizod,” the young man said. “I represent Waygreen Productions.”
“The TV people?” George asked. “What do you want with me?”
“We’re producing a new television series, Mr. Szerro,” Reizod explained. “A series fictionalizing the exploits of Gotham City’s own champions, Batman and Robin.”
“Wonderful,” Szerro snorted. “Maybe that can beat the Tony Orlando and Dawn Variety Hour.”
“Naturally,” Reizod went on, unconcerned, “we will want the show to be as authentic as possible. We would like to use fictional representations of actual enemies of the Dynamic Duo on the show.”
“And, what — you’re asking me if I’ll let you use my likeness?” Szerro asked, mopping at his brow with a handkerchief.
“Just that,” Reizod said, taking a contract from his briefcase. “I’m afraid I can offer no monetary compensation; the law prohibits a criminal from profiting by his crimes, you know. However, your cooperation wouldn’t exactly be a black mark on the report to your parole board. You’re due for a hearing in, what, eighteen months?”
“Seventeen,” George said. He thought for a moment. He hated the idea of some buffoonish TV actor prancing around pretending to be him. And yet he had to get out of prison. Exposure to superheated steam during his fight with Batman had seemingly cured him of his affliction, but he had felt it returning, little by little, day by day. He had to get out of this place, find a cure. “Give me the contract, Reizod. I’ll sign.”
“Wonderful,” the television executive smiled. “You won’t regret this, Mr. Szerro.”
“Hurry up, will ya?” a convict in gray overalls shouted from down the long line. “There are other people wanta use the phone, ya know!”
“Reizod?” George shouted into the pay phone receiver. “I’ve been waiting twenty minutes to talk to you! What? This is George Szerro! Yes, I saw it! What in the world was that? Mister Freeze? My name is Mister Zero! What? What the hell do Democrats have to do with it? I’m a Repub — oh, demographics. Well, whatever you call it! Mister Freeze is a stupid name! And since when do I have a German accent? I swear, Reizod, I’ll sue you! I’ll take this — what? The contract? What paragraph? Complete creative control? What does that mean? You what? Reizod! Reizod, I swear–”
“Take it easy, Szerro,” the guard standing beside the phone said. “You know the doc doesn’t want you overexciting yourself.”
“Reizod!” George screamed into the phone, heedless of the guard’s words. “Reizod, you can’t hang up on me! Reizod!” Suddenly, George began gasping for breath, clutching his chest. He dropped the receiver, which bounced on its silver cord, and dropped to his knees.
“For the love o’ Mike,” the guard cursed, reaching down to help the convict. “Ralph, help me get this guy to the infirmary. Pete, you watch these goons, make sure they don’t try nothing.”
“How’s Mister Freeze like a penguin with B.O.?” a thin, wiry little man called out from the line as George half-walked, half-carried between the two guards. “They both stink on ice!”
George ground his teeth against the laughter of his fellow inmates.
George sat alone in a small cushioned chair in the walk-in freezer in his old basement laboratory. His affliction had come back entirely, stronger than ever. He could no longer tolerate temperatures above the freezing point, even slightly. He sat in silence, contemplating the rest of his life.
“I wanted to be a great scientist,” he said to himself. “They made me a criminal. Fine! A criminal I am, and a criminal I will remain. The greatest this world has ever known!”
“In a daring daylight robbery,” the television newscaster read, “the Gotham Art Museum was raided by the costumed criminal known as Mister Freeze. Taken were–“ The broadcast ended abruptly as a blast of freezing chemicals sheathed the television set in ice, causing it to die in a shower of sparks.
“Mister Zero, you incompetent clod!” George shouted at the mute television. “Mister Zero, not Mister Freeze!”
“Here you go, George,” the prison guard said, dropping a rolled-up newspaper into the pneumatic tube set into the wall outside George’s cell. “Have a read. You made the front page.”
George said nothing as the hissing tube deposited the paper inside his cell. George’s cell was kept at a constant thirty degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough for him to survive in. So that no crippling heat could get in, food and other materials were delivered by the pneumatic tube. In place of bars, a plexiglass wall separated George from the outside world.
He took the paper in his hands and unrolled it. The headline read, MR. FREEZE’S COLD WAR ENDED BY BATMAN. George crumpled the paper fiercely between his hands.
“Mister Freeze again!” he snarled. “That damned television company! The Scarecrow and Two-Face were smart not to sign their bloody devil’s deal! Now I’ll be stuck with this name for the rest of my life!” George turned and looked out the plexiglass window that overlooked the prison exercise yard. He saw the prisoners playing softball in the warm autumn sunshine, saw the breeze stirring the leaves. He felt a catch in his throat at this vision of a life that was forever denied him.
“Very well,” he said. “So I’m Mister Freeze. Waygreen made it the name of a clown. I will make it a name to be feared, trembled at! When I get out of this cell, I’ll show them a crime wave the likes of which they’ve never seen before!”
The man once known as George Szerro, now resigned to a life as Mister Freeze, sat on the bunk against the wall of his cell and began to carefully, meticulously, plan.