Inside JokeMature

“Jack?”

The boy didn’t respond in any way, and he didn’t move.  His eyes stared into nothing … As always.

“Jack Napier, please give me a smile.”

She stroked his face tenderly.

Nothing.

She moved her head right in front of his and stared into his eyes; maybe she expected him to giggle or blink, but instead she found herself caught in his gaze like a rabbit in headlights.

It was eerie.  He wouldn’t blink or move at all.

She slapped him.

Nothing.  But he had won the staring competition, for his lack of response had given her the creeps.

“You bore me.” she muttered, and moved back into the grubby kitchen.  “You’re going to the circus later with your father.”

 

An hour later, Jack found himself at the circus as promised.

His father was indeed the one taking him.  It was very crowded.

The other children were skipping and giggling, their mouths sticky with candy-floss and toffee-apples.  Their parents were holding their hands, something done for two reasons: One, for the safety of the child, and two because it was affectionate.

But Jack’s father’s hand, which was holding his own son’s now, was more like a muzzle on a vicious guard-dog: It was there for the safety of others … and possibly himself.

“Be on your best behaviour today, Jack.  Please?”

Jack looked up at him, wide-eyed.  “I’m always on best behaviour.” he responded, solemnly.  “Can you imagine what I’d be like if I were bad?”

Jack’s father suppressed a shudder.

“You know what I mean kid.”

Jack sighed.  “Don’t ask me to be boring, dad.”

The boy’s tone was impatient and annoyed; like that of a computer-hacker whose tired old machine is crashing.

Jack’s father never knew what to do when his son behaved like this. The man was wrestling with some kind of internal struggle: Far from being a parent dealing with a ‘special’ child, he looked more like a man handling an unexploded bomb: Just because it hadn’t blown up, didn’t mean it couldn’t.

Jack’s father bent down so that he and his son were on eye-level.

“I heard you were bullied at school yesterday.”

For the first time, Jack looked unsettled.

“I heard they were laughing at you, because of how you look.”

Jack had always been a very pale boy; passers-by always stared at him, muttering to each other that a child that ill should be kept indoors until better.  His hair was jet-black, a heavy contrast with his thin face.  Jack’s eyes were large and dark, and he seemed to be able to stare for unusually long periods of time.  Needless to say, this made people around him nervous … And he never -

“-smiled!  You know?” His father encouraged.  “I don’t mean laugh like crazy, I’d just like you to smile ever now every now and then!  It never hurt anybody.”

“I’ll smile when I see something worth smiling about.” Jack answered.  He looked round, sharply.

A girl with thick, blond bunches was staring at him; he stared back, blankly.

She pulled a face before smiling at him then running off, giggling.

He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully for one moment, but said nothing.

“Is she a friend of yours?” Jack’s father asked him.

“She seems to think so.” Jack answered.  “That’s what’s important.”

“Come on.  Let’s go inside and see the show.”

Jack allowed his father to steer him through the crowds towards the big top.  He looked up as the gaping mouth of the red-and-yellow circus tent swallowed them up.

Jack’s father led them both to the front row.  Most of the other seats were empty, but gradually the room filled.

Jack, who’d been sitting with his chin in his hand, perked up as he saw someone he recognised.

“That’s the boy at school who bullied me yesterday.” he murmured, but more to himself than his father, who was looking the other way.

Jack got up and made his way over to the other boy; he was also in the front row.

“Damian.” Jack said, forcefully.  The boy looked round and scowled.

“What are you doing here?” Damian sneered.

Jack looked slowly at the empty seats on either side of Damian.

“Where are your parents?” he asked, darkly.

“Getting me sweets and presents.” Damian replied, smugly.  “They’ll be back very soon so you’d-”

“Don’t bother lying, Damian.” Jack interrupted. “I know that they’re not getting you anything.”

The boy’s eyes narrowed.  “What do you mean?”

“They snuck off to be alone together for a while.  I saw them earlier when I was in the crowd.  They don’t care about you.”

“Now you’re lying!” Damian spluttered but was getting frightened.

“Good parents never leave their children.” Jack answered, simply.

“Jack!”

Jack’s father had found him again and had grabbed his son’s hand.

“Don’t you ever walk away from me again, young man!” he shouted.

Damian began smirking now that Jack was being told off, but it faded as he saw Jack’s expression.  It was completely calm.

Nothing ever seemed to upset him.  He wasn’t … normal.

Jack’s father looked terrified when he saw Damian.

“Did he do anything to you?” he asked, anxiously.

“I was just talking.” Jack answered, flatly.

“I’m not asking you!” the man snapped.

Jack’s father was a big man and the other kids at school were scared of him; Damian couldn’t understand how Jack wasn’t frightened or upset … or anything at all.  He never even smiled.

Before being led away Jack had his last word with Damian.

“Never laugh at me again.” he whispered. “Or I’ll kill you.”

When they were both gone Damian breathed out in relief, and right on cue, his parents appeared, dishevelled but smiling.

Jack’s father rebuked him when they were back in their seats but the boy might as well have been dead for all the response he made.

At that moment the lights dimmed and everyone’s eyes turned to the circus ring.  The looks on the children’s faces were ones of excitement, the temptation to giggle too much for some of them.

Only one small, pale face registered unimpressed.

Jack Napier folded his arms, his expression colder than the polar ice-caps.

“Make me laugh.” he muttered.

Then the circus-show began.  It was very predictable.

The animals danced, the acrobats leapt, fire was breathed and magic was made.  The audience applauded and gasped accordingly, every eye alight with excitement.

Jack’s father looked down at his son, nervously.

“Doesn’t this entertain you, Jack?” he asked.

A Black Panther was hissing at its tamer.

“Does this entertain you?” Jack echoed, coldly.

Jack’s father had to admit it didn’t, but he said nothing.

He cringed at the sound of the lion-tamer’s whip.  Jack didn’t.

Jack’s father disapproved of animal cruelty, and had hoped that his son would inherit the same empathy.  But after what young Jack Napier did to their neighbour’s cat …

The Panther’s hisses had changed to snarls and it had begun swiping.

The audience gasped and there were squeals from the children, they were beginning to get frightened.

Jack blinked and raised an eyebrow, his pale face now tinged with colour.  This was starting to get interesting.

His attention was now were fixed, resolutely, on the Black Panther as it bared its fangs and struck out with razor-like claws.

Some of the children were beginning to cry now.  Jack noticed this, looking from the Panther to the audience and back again.

The corner of his mouth twitched.

Noticing the shifting mood in his audience, the ring-leader decided to restore calm.

“Perhaps this wild creature will be tamed another night!” he cried, dramatically. “A round of applause please for our valiant tamer!”

There was an audible breath of relief, followed by clapping.

Jack didn’t clap; he felt disappointed as the Panther was forced back into its cage and dragged to the back of the ring.  Something entertaining could have come of that.

Then the clowns appeared in their baggy costumes, some yellow, others white and red.

Jack sighed and rolled his eyes as they pranced about with their accordion-playing monkeys, telling weak jokes.

He was nonplussed when the audience laughed: Why was this funny?

He was on the verge of asking his father if they could go home when something happened that no one predicted.

The Black Panther had been growing steadily more restless inside its cage, at first pacing, then striking at the door.  Suddenly it made an explosive bid for freedom, bursting through the door of its cage and tearing into the centre of the ring.

Needless to say there were screams from the audience.

For the first time at the circus, Jack was on the edge of his seat.

The clowns scattered and made a break for it, but one of them had been too close when the Panther broke loose.  This one was Pagliacci, the Crying Clown, dressed in a costume of pure-white with soft red bobbles down the middle.  He had fallen away from the Panther in shock, but in his haste he stumbled and plunged backwards into a paddling-pool.

The panther targeted Pagliacci and bunched itself up, preparing for a pounce.

Jack’s little smile grew wicked as he imagined what was about to happen next.  As if in slow motion, the Black Panther made a single, graceful leap through the air, teeth and claws gleaming in the red spotlight.

As one the audience rose and fled in a seething screaming mass also, it seemed to Jack, in slow motion.  The boy’s face had split into a fascinated grin as blood coloured the pool’s water and stained the screaming Crying Clown’s costume.

The other performers seemed to have vanished; it was like no one was there to save him.

Even as his father scooped him into his arms, Jack kept his eyes fixed on the scene.  His heart pumped excitement through his veins, a feeling of exhilaration he’d never known before.

This generated so many amusing ideas!

 

Twenty-five years later

It was a cold night but that didn’t stop the young man from sweating.  He was stood with his back to the brick wall.

The reason for this was because of the man standing over him, threatening his life.  The second man was obscured in the shadows, but every child In Gotham City could tell you who he was.  No other mass-murderer had the nerve to portray themselves as a clown.

What is it about clowns that’s scary and not funny?

Gleaming in the light of the single street-lamp was a switch-blade.

“Consider yourself lucky, my friend.” the other man murmured, “I’m only pointing a knife at you.  It’s for your own good, understand?”

His voice was confusingly kind, almost hypnotic.  Maybe that was the intention.

“How can it be for my own good?” the young man stammered.

“Because you need to get a sense of humour.”

“No – Please!  Please don’t-“

“I knew someone with a sense of humour … I remember little of my past, but, there was a little girl who used to live near me.  She was an asthmatic and her parents bought her a cat.  Thick-haired thing it was.  It made her wheeze all the time and she found it hard to sleep at night.”

I’ll know how that feels if I get home, the young man thought.

“All I wanted to do was get rid of it so she’d be able to breathe again, but you-”

He moved so swiftly the young man didn’t even get to blink.

“You have a fine pair of lungs you were too selfish to donate when you had the chance.  I’ll make sure they go to someone asthmatic.”

The man slid slowly down the brick wall and slumped onto the alley-way ground.

“Oops.  I think I may have burst one!”

The Joker’s maniacal laughter filled the night air; everyone close enough to hear it ran for their lives.  Ironically they were mostly criminals themselves:  Thugs, pick-pockets, and vandals.  But even they knew what was good for them.

Yes.  Other criminals ran from The Joker, everyone else just prayed to God.

The Joker stepped into the dirty-yellow street light.  His painted-white face was creased in his trademark grin.

“The classics never die.” he whispered.

Returning the switch-blade to his pocket, he went on his way.

 

In a not too distant future …

What is it about clowns that scare people?  They’ve never made you laugh, have they?  Their behaviour is wild and unpredictable, their actions violate taboos, and they’re quite often dismissive of empathy.  Yet their laughter sounds forced.  They’re tragic characters.  Sad people.  And we, the audience, are always laughing at them.  They’re the butt of each other’s jokes, and of their own.  They are their own worst enemies.

I never laugh at clowns but not for the above reasons.

I can’t help but be reminded by them of The Joker; that insane, cold-blooded killer that may never be cured …

                                  *

The Joker had arrived home.  It was a small room which comprised of a kitchen area, a sofa, and a single bed.

It was gloomy with neglect.  A corner of the ceiling was green with mould and the floor was littered with newspapers.  Their articles had been cut-out meticulously, and they papered every inch of the walls.  They were all about Batman.

A young woman lay on the sofa.  Her wrists and ankles had been tied expertly, and she had a sack over her head.  Apparently she was gagged because she didn’t make a sound.  More likely, she didn’t dare to.

A figure turned from the washing-up in the kitchen area.

“Hi, Puddin’!” Harley Quinn called, brightly.

“Don’t call me that!” The Joker growled.

“Sorry, Jokes.” She replied.

His on-and-off girlfriend, renamed ‘Harley Quinn’ as her super-villain identity, greeted him with a beam.

The Joker didn’t return the smile.  His watchful eye had fallen on the plastic bag by the sofa.  He strode over and snatched it up.

“You’ve got the-”

“Groceries?  Yeah!” she answered brightly, bouncing over and inspecting the bag’s contents as The Joker did.

She bent forward to kiss him but-

“They’re not groceries, Harley!” The Joker hissed and she recoiled hastily.  “You just don’t get it, do you?” he growled.

The girl on the sofa moaned.

Harley looked round distractedly but The Joker didn’t blink.

He had just removed a tomato from the bag and was using one of his daggers to slice it.  Some of the juice dripped on the floor but he did nothing to prevent it.

Harley’s eyes flitted back and forth from the tomato to the girl.

“Don’t you have anything better to do?” The Joker snarled.  “Go sit in the kitchen and stay.”

Disobeying wasn’t an option; she pulled up a kitchen chair and sat down next to him.

“Which part of ‘in the kitchen’ do you not understand? I need SPACE, Harley!”

His hand whipped the side of her face, almost knocking her off the chair.  She took a few seconds to collect herself.

“I’m sorry, dear.”  Her tone was as light as if she’d changed the channel to something he didn’t want, and Harley retreated into the kitchen area.

The Joker approached the girl on the sofa.  Her top had damp patches and she struggled against her bonds.

The Joker dumped his plastic bag, grasped the sack covering the girl’s head, and pulled it off.

You could see now that her mouth was gagged which was why she hadn’t shouted for help.  Her eyes widened in horror at the sight of The Joker.  She scream was muffled by the gag.

The Joker raised his knife.  The girl tried to scream louder, burying her face in the sofa.  He shushed her like a parent trying to comfort a child – “Calm down, look at me a moment, look at The Joker.” He twisted her face round towards him and used his dagger to cut the gag away.

“Now then,” he murmured, “What did you say?”

The girl started trembling uncontrollably, “P-please -” she gasped in a barely audible whisper.

“Be quiet.” The Joker answered, and stabbed her in the chest.

The girl’s mouth gaped in a now silent scream.

The Joker stepped back, leaving his knife where it stuck, and studied the girl as she spluttered and bled.  He had one gloved hand over his mouth, considering.

“Ah!  I know what’s missing.” he declared. “Harley?”

Harley gave a start and looked at him.

Quite suddenly The Joker’s tone was one of irresistible charm. “Could you be an angel and put on a CD for me please?”

Harley beamed, putty in his hands, and ran to the stereo.

Next second, Michael Jackson started singing:

‘Smile, though your heart is aching,’

“Perfect.” The Joker drawled.

Harley giggled and went back to her seat in the kitchen area.

The psychopath returned to the girl on the sofa; her face was clammy with sweat and her lips were pale.

He tugged the knife discompassionately from the wound.

“Smile, even though it’s breaking,” he sang along.

He proceeded to remove fruit and vegetables from the plastic bag, and arranged them around his victim’s dying figure.

‘- you’ll get by if you smile with your fear and sorrow,”

He was unbuttoning the girl’s top as he sang.  Harley made a slight movement as he did this but said nothing.

The Joker stopped when only the girl’s wound was clearly exposed, before taking the last of the fruit, including a lemon, from the bag and squeezed the juices over her face and body.  Some of the lemon-juice ran into the wound.  The girl retched.

‘Smile and maybe tomorrow you’ll find that life is still worth while.’

The Joker grabbed a nearby roll of thick, black tape and stuck a strip over the girl’s mouth.

The Joker ordered Harley to retrieve something from under the bed. She hurried over and drew out a large, artist’s canvas, complete with palette, paint, and brushes.

Staggering under the thing she propped it up in front of The Joker.

He hadn’t moved his eyes from the now ashen-faced girl’s all the while Harley had been doing this.  There was not the slightest glint of empathy in the psychopath’s eyes.

Harley handed him the painting tools and like a gentleman he took them from her.

The girl’s streaming eyes went to Harley.  Desperate.  Begging.  Harley’s own expression was completely blank, neither encouraging nor rejecting The Joker’s actions.

‘Smile!  What’s the use of crying?’

The Joker cleared his throat pointedly and Harley returned to her place.

The Joker bent over the bleeding girl – “Excuse me,” - dipping his brush into the wound – “AAAGGHH!!!” – before applying it to the canvas like paint.  When it ran out he went back for more.

The Joker continued doing this, occasionally using paint but always returning for blood.

As his image began to take form he beamed at his subject, whose expression changed from horrified to groggy and nauseas.

The Joker hummed along to the music, dipping his brush leisurely, and continued his work …

 

A good hour or so later, The Joker put down his art tools and admired his painting.  “What do you think?” he asked, pleasantly, turning it round for his ‘subject’ to see, and grinned.

The girl was dead, eyes dull, mouth half-open, head lolling grossly to one side.

He scowled at her.  “Some people just don’t appreciate art.  The least you could do is humour me!”

The Joker gave a screech of maniacal laughter which almost shook the newspaper-clippings from the walls.

“The classics never die, Puddin’!” Harley cried.  She began to laugh with him and then she screamed and ducked.

A knife quivered in the spot just above where her head had been.

“You flinched!”  The Joker teased, smirking cruelly.

Harley found herself trembling and looking at the body of the dead girl.  The Joker glared from Harley to the girl and back again.

“Don’t tell me you don’t appreciate art either!” he sneered.

Just then the telephone rang which spared Harley from answering.

She looked timidly from the phone to The Joker.  He was cleaning his knife, precisely. “You gonna get that?” he asked, carelessly.

Harley rushed and grabbed the receiver.

“It’s for you, Dimples.”  She hurried back and handed it to him.

The Joker sighed and snatched it from her.

“This had better be funny.” he growled into it.

“Boss!” The voice on the other end sounded frantic.  Batman’s on his way over – AAGH!!”

The Joker picked up the all-too-familiar sounds of a fight on the other end of the line.

“That does make me smile!” he said with relish.  “What could be so urgent that he’s had to interrupt me on my time off?”

He smiled sweetly at the dead girl on the sofa before eyeing his painting critically.

“Perhaps it would’ve been cheerier had I painted the Mona Lisa?  She always had a nice smile.”

His terrible trade-mark grin spread across his face, making deep creases.  Then he hurled the phone across the room.

“Harley, we’re moving home!” he snarled, grabbing his knives together.

“What!” Harley cried.

“Don’t argue!” Joker barked, grabbing Harley by the arm and bundling her roughly out of the door.  He dragged her all the way down the stairs and outside where a fine rain was falling.

They needed a ride out of here.  Ordinarily, The Joker’s thugs drove him everywhere, but they were being beaten up at present.

The Joker resorted to his own clapped-out car.  Harley raced around the vehicle, knowing too well how short her boyfriend’s patience was: He would drive off without her if she wasn’t fast enough.

The engine roared as she buckled her seat-belt, and the tires screeched as they pulled away.

From out of nowhere, something very solid and very black shot out in front of them; it glided silently to an instant halt, barring their path.

Harley screamed as The Joker’s car smashed straight into it, the bonnet crumpling like tin-foil.

Harley’s arms were over her head, but The Joker was beaming, ecstatic by what they’d hit: It was the Batmobile, formidable and intimidating, its matt surface invisible in the dark.

Far from fleeing, The Joker got out of his car and approached the Batmobile.  He was armed with only his dagger.

“Why did The Joker cross the road?” he whispered as he drew near.

The Batmobile door slid open to reveal … an empty car-seat.

“To kill the girl on the other side.” Batman’s voice growled from somewhere in the darkness.

A blow, like a rock in the face, knocked The Joker flat on his back, but Batman was nowhere to be seen.

The Joker wheezed with laughter where he lay, scrunching his eyes.

“You knock me out!” he cried, cackling in falsetto.

He began to get to his feet, expecting to be hit again, but he straightened untouched and his smile gave way to disapproval.

“Come on, Batman!” he snarled.  “If you’re gonna do stand-up comedy you’ve got to have good timing!”

“What have you done with the body?” Batman hissed, his voice coming from another place.

“I didn’t do anything with it.  No thanks to you I’ll have stains on my sofa.  She offered to pay me for her service but you know how I feel about money.  How do you feel about art by the w-”

WHAM

The Joker was flattened, face-down, as the jet-black form of Batman swooped on him like a Devil from Heaven.

Batman gripped The Joker’s knife-hand in an arm-lock behind his back.  The Joker grinned into the tarmac.

“I’m no Picasso but I can make lifelike copies!” he giggled.

Shut up!

“You’re right.  Artists need quiet.” 

“I said-”

“You know another thing artists need?  Good light.”

BOOM

The building beside them exploded in a ball of orange flame.  Harley braced herself in the car as the blast pushed it ten feet.

Everything else was up in flame, everything that is except for the impenetrable Batmobile.  The Joker had been shielded by Batman’s form as the explosion sent glass and rubble everywhere, but the superhero was lifted bodily into the air.

While he was unconscious, The Joker seized his opportunity and sprang to his feet.

When Batman came to, all that was left of The Joker was a single giant smiley with that he’d stuck to the side of the Batmobile.

 

Harley looked sideways at the insane clown who sped her through the night.  “You could have told me you were gonna blow up our home.” she muttered, sullenly.

“I was in a rush, Harley.” The Joker sighed. “And don’t whine!  One of my contacts provide for us for a while.”

Harley blinked.  They were staying with someone else?

“And when were you going to tell me that?” she asked, crossly.

The Joker blinked slowly.  When he looked round at her his eyes were full of danger.  Harley shrank away from him.

“Do you always need telling everything?” he asked, softly.

She shook her head quickly and fell silent.

The Joker continued to look at her. Harley’s eyes flitted nervously to the road.  Why wasn’t he looking where he was going?

An old man was crossing the street ahead; he’d neither seen nor heard the car coming.

The Joker slammed into him without even breaking eye-contact.  Harley did her best not to cringe and forced herself to smile.

The Joker raised his eyebrows, approvingly.

“You’re getting better.” was all he said before returning his gaze, casually, to the road.  “Uh-oh, speed-bump.”

He slowed the car right down and they gently bobbed over the hump in the road before he sped up again.  “That was lucky.” he said.

Harley looked away, swallowed, and said nothing.

The Joker hummed softly to himself, idly twiddling the wheel …

A man was towering over him, swinging a beer-bottle and shouting.  A woman shielded him by moving between them-

“Puddin’?  Are you alright?”

The Joker looked round to see Harley tapping him.

He gave himself a tiny shake – “Of course I am.” - and glared straight ahead.  This was new, and it was going to need attention.

Harley’s eyes narrowed ever-so slightly, but she didn’t say anything.

                   *

Edward Nigma, a.k.a ‘The Riddler’ to Gothamites, was at home leisurely tinkering with one of his inventions.  Although he was dressed in lime-green pyjamas he had on his trademark bowler.

The invention in his hand had the ability to pick up brain-waves to which he was making minor adjustments.  Riddler squinted at his delicate handy-work through an inch-thick magnifier, tweaking hair-like wires.  What this baby had just picked up was pure gold, but only a nugget, so to speak.

DAMN!  He had just jolted, ruining his work.  Most people jolt when several rounds of ammo are peppering their front door.  Riddler whirled round as it banged to the floor, and a menacing silhouette stood in the doorframe, blocking out the light.

“Riddler!” The Joker purred. “I’m gonna be staying here a while.”

Far from screaming, Riddler’s face lit up at the sight of his new flatmate.  He swept off his bowler, revealing spiky hair that was so orange it looked like carrot-gratings.

“Joker, my man!” Riddler gushed. “Any enemy of Batman’s is a friend of mine!”

He scurried over like a hyperactive ant.

“Come in!  Make yourself at home and don’t do anything I wouldn’t! Oh, just one thing,” he added. “You’re gonna have to pay your share of the rent.

The Joker clenched Riddler’s throat in his fist, pinning him to the wall.  “Mind if I pay in lead?” he breathed, pressing his gun to Riddler’s forehead.

With the rest of the air in his lungs, Riddler laughed, loudly; it wasn’t bravado: He knew it could save his life.

The Joker looked at him and smirked, amused by this choice of response.

“You had only one card left to play,” he said, softly. “But you treated it like the winning one, and …”

Riddler held his breath, waiting for the fateful moment which The Joker called ‘The Punch-line’.

“You got lucky.  Good gamble!” The Joker grinned, releasing him.

“I like the way you think!” Riddler slurred, greasily, and did a double-take.  Harley Quinn had entered the room, and she collapsed, exhausted, onto the sofa.

The Joker appeared not to be aware her presence but Riddler eyed her up and down.  “Wow!  Where do you find them?”

“Arkham Asylum.” The Joker answered, indifferently.

“Why didn’t I meet someone while I was in there!” Riddler sighed, dramatically.  Then he noticed The Joker’s look at him ogling his girl.

“Alright, Chuckles,” Riddler declared, brightly. “I’ve learnt something about you that I’d like your confirmation on: According to my mind-reading machine here,” -He waved the invention in The Joker’s face- “You have been having flash-backs, some might call them recollections, others … long-lost memories.” He finished, mysteriously.

The Joker went perfectly still.

Next moment, Riddler was half-hanging out of his own bathroom window, shards tinkling to the pavement far below.

JOKER!

The Joker cackled as he watched Riddler flail, then the clown grew radio-active deadly.  “You have the nerve to read my mind?!”

“If one is capable of building a mind-reading machine,” Riddler yelled.  “How can one not resist exploring the mind of Gotham’s Most Wanted?!  Yours is the only one of value round here … besides Batman’s of course.” he added, slyly.

“That’s right,” Riddler went on, at the look on The Joker’s face. “I’ve been inside the Bat-brain and it’s not as roomy in there as it sounds!  But your brain - Now that’s a roller-coaster ride with a break in the track!  I couldn’t make out your memories clearly ‘cause they’re deeply embedded in your unconscious, but … if you wanna know the whole story … you’re gonna need my help.”

“Not interested.” The Joker grunted.  “I don’t need you.”

“Oh I think you do, Giggle-Pot, because it’s possible that Batman knows everything by now.”

The Joker’s hesitation was all it took for Riddler to know he’d got him.  The Joker always wanted to believe that Batman had some central role in his life.

Even so, the psychopath’s eyes glinted suspiciously; he didn’t trust Riddler as far as he could throw him out this window.

In fact, the only reason Riddler wasn’t a corpse on the pavement was because The Joker thought he could be useful.

“What do you want?” he growled at length.

“I need you to help me kill Batman!” Riddler answered, happily.

The Joker looked Riddler in the eye and assessed what he saw.

“You’re hanging out of a window that’s at least four floors high … and yet your eyes are creased in a genuine smile.”

“So what do you say?” Riddler asked, beaming now.

“I say we have a deal.”

Being yanked through shards of broken glass by the hand is the closest one gets to a handshake with The Joker; it was the closest Riddler ever got to being friends with him.

Grin all you want, Clown! he thought maliciously, I’ll make you smile on the other side of your face!

 

Next morning, the sun glowed gold through the tall windows of Wayne Manor, but Bruce was grimly watching the latest News Flash.

“Is the Winged Avenger losing his touch?” the broadcaster began. “Judging from the devastation of last night’s fiasco, Gothamites are suspecting that Batman isn’t handling the infamous Joker with the justice he deserves.”

Bruce felt Alfred standing over him behind the sofa.

“The Joker is a murderer and a mad-man!” a local was telling the camera-crew.  “If Batman wanted to save Gotham he’d kill him!”

“What do you make of this, Alfred?” Bruce asked.

“If Batman were a killer, he wouldn’t be you, Master Wayne.” Alfred answered, simply.

Bruce smiled, comforted by the warmth of these words, but he wasn’t completely put at ease.

“What they’re saying is right.” he murmured, gesturing at the angry and frightened citizens on the flat-screen.  “Finishing The Joker would save future lives.”

“Can you see the future, Master Wayne?” Alfred asked, reasonably.  Bruce had to admit that he couldn’t.

“These people keep saying how death is the only justice The Joker deserves,” Alfred continued, carrying freshly-cleaned clothes to the ironing-board.  “But there are far more effective punishments.”

Bruce frowned at these words, unsure if they applied to The Joker.

How to punish a psychopath?  They didn’t respond to that kind of treatment; nothing touched them.  But The Joker was arguably no regular psychopath.  He was a special case according to doctors.

“Now all Batman has to do is find him again.” Bruce sighed.  “He had him in his grasp and The Joker slipped through his fingers.”

“And at a price.” Alfred muttered, pointing out the devastation on the TV.  “That was a desperate escape-attempt. Destroying his home must have been a last resort.”

Bruce shrugged.  “What did he have to lose?  The guy’s broke.”

“Now you, Master Wayne, of all people should have learnt by now the difference between something expensive and something of value.” Alfred countered wisely, ironing Mr. Wayne’s shirt for him.

Something of value? Bruce thought.  What could The Joker possibly value?

 

“Puddin’?” Harley asked, timidly.

The Joker grunted without looking round, sharpening his knives.

“Do you believe Riddler?  Do you think he can help us kill Batman?”

The Joker stopped sharpening.  He looked at her and raised an eyebrow.  Harley looked back with large unblinking eyes, but he was unconvinced by this display of innocence.

“Why do you think that he won’t?” he asked, slyly.

Harley swallowed and checked the door for eavesdropping maniacs.

“I think he wants to kill us.” she whispered.

He sniggered at her patronisingly and held up one of his blades; she watched her reflection in it who stared back nervously.

I think he just wants to kill me.” he answered. “But people who want to kill me have an ironically short life-expectancy.”

Harley was hurt by his selfishness and folded her arms.

“What would you do if he tried to kill me?” she asked.

“Ok, Punch and Judy!”  Riddler had entered the room.  “We’ve got guns and I declare Bat Season officially open!”

The Joker’s eyes moved from Harley to Riddler; he got to his feet.

“What if Batman does have my memory files?” he asked threateningly, pointing his blade at Riddler’s face.  “I’m not an idiot, Riddler.  He found out where my home was and destroyed it.”

“Actually, you did the destroying part yourself.”

The Joker advanced on him but Riddler raised his cane in answer: It had a button on the top that, if pushed, would kill someone with something.

“You’re in Riddler territory now,” he hissed back, finger poised, “and if you kill me then I can’t help you kill Batman … Or don’t you want to kill him?”

Harley laughed, barely believing such a stupid question, but The Joker’s face was remarkably unreadable.

“Alright, Puzzler.” he taunted. “Where do you suggest we start?”

Riddler’s eye twitched in annoyance at the nick-name, but before he could answer Harley piped up excitedly.

“I found out that Batman is Bruce Wayne, Puddin’!”

They both stared at her.  Riddler was dumbfounded: He was the only holder of that information!

“How do you know that?!” he bawled.

Harley checked her finger-nails with a smug little smile, “I hacked into your computer last night.” she answered, casually.  Rising to her feet, she sauntered over to them.

“I’ve been thinking.”  She turned to The Joker again.  “If Batman had any files about you Puddin’, anything at all, where’s the best place he’d hide them?”

The Bat Cave was The Joker’s first thought, but that was too obvious.  He thought for a few seconds, and then he grinned.  Riddler took a second longer figuring it out but he mirrored The Joker’s expression.

“Arkham Asylum!” They said in unison.

Of course!  Batman would surely have sent the files there for doctors to analyse.  Batman was a sentimentalist, always hoping for a cure.  Even for the most criminally-damaged brains of Gotham.

And now the well-used, chemical-stained cogs of The Joker’s brain began swiftly turning.  He grabbed the phone and called his thugs.  “This is The Joker.” he barked.  “You’re to cause some chaos at Arkham Asylum.  No bombs, just guns.”

There was no way he’d risk Arkham Asylum getting damaged, not now he knew what value it contained.

The Joker hung up, and then whipped round and cut off the top of Riddler’s cane, the part with the button on it.

“Get in the car.” The Joker ordered, taking charge. “Both of you.” he added harshly to Harley.  “Go to Arkham Asylum, find my files, and don’t come back without my permission.”

Riddler lamented the loss of his cane; he’d made that himself!  He’d almost killed Batman with it (Good times, good times), but unlike the clown he had an Ace up his sleeve.

“Hold your Hellhounds, Devil-in-The-Pale-Moonlight!  I need equipment for this plan to be successful.”

He bounded off to collect his equipment.  They were things that went ‘bang’ probably.

“No bombs!” The Joker barked after him.

“As if I would!” Riddler simpered back.

The Joker’s eyes narrowed.  The sooner he lost this slimy pest the better.

Suddenly, Harley took hold of The Joker’s lapels; he looked down at her in surprise.

“What is it you want to know so badly, my darling?” she asked earnestly.  “What could be so interesting about who you were before you became Mr. J?”

The Joker’s eyes met hers.  His were dark and unfeeling, hers were blue, bright, and sparkling.  The corner of his mouth twitched in enjoyment.  She truly was putty in his hands.

Whatever he’d been suspicious of her earlier, he appeared to doubt it now.

“I don’t know exactly what I’m expecting to remember,” he admitted, every inch the charming gentleman again. “But I believe the memories will inspire me to deliver Batman The Ultimate Punch-line.”

Harley’s eyes grew large.  “What’s that going to be?” she whispered.

“I don’t know yet.” he breathed. “But whatever it could be … I hope it makes people happy.”

“You make me happy.” she murmured back, smiling coyly.

“Topsy and Turvey, I’m baaaack!” Riddler called in a sing-song voice.

Harley was maddened by the interruption but The Joker had had enough of the nicknames.

His fist knocked Riddler all the way across the room; he fell against the front door which opened, and Riddler tumbled all the way down the steps and out of sight.

For the first time ever, The Joker and Harley laughed together.

 

And now there was a tense silence as Harley and a very bruised Riddler sat in the car together.  They looked at each other, trying to keep the daggers out of their eyes.

“Let’s make the most of this, Brain-teaser.” Harley smirked.  “Let’s.”

He winked back at her and drove them off at top-speed. Harley gasped and fastened her seat-belt.

“So,” Riddler said, conversationally.  “You and The Joker, huh?  The Joker and you.  I’ve been wondering, which part of him did you find the more attractive: His sick insanity or his taste for blood?  ‘Cause I can give you that, Arleccino!”

A dimple appeared in the corner of Harley’s mouth. “He does have a nice smile.” She replied, coyly.

In next to no time, Harley and Riddler were joined by The Joker’s thugs who pulled up beside them in their black van.

They all burst into Arkham Asylum like demons let loose.

Harley punched the guards unconscious and whipped aside as Riddler stabbed them with his sword-like (spare) cane.

The thugs fired machine-guns, pelting the surroundings at random.  What with the explosions and wailing alarms, chaos followed.  People fled the area, spilling onto Gotham street, screaming.

The asylum’s doctors rushed around, frantically grabbing extremely important data.

Riddler hooked one with his cane; aided by a thug with arms like a gorilla’s they pinned the doctor to the floor.

“What do you want!” the man cried as the thug aimed his gun at him.

Riddler bent down on one knee, his smile like a hungry snake’s.

“We’re looking for a very special memory, none other than The Joker’s himself, and I have reason to believe that it’s here in Arkham Asylum.  So where are the files, doctor?”

While he’d been distracted, Harley had stolen from the room.

“I – I don’t know where they’re kept.” the poor doctor stammered.

“Oh dear, I think the brain-surgeon needs brain-surgery.”

Click-click

“WAIT!”

Riddler smiled, icily.  “Funny how those things come back when you most need ‘em, eh, Doc?”

“Quinzell!  Dr. Harleen Quinzel has them.”

Riddler narrowed his eyes.

“Harleen Quinzel?” he echoed.  Then the penny dropped.

He straightened up and looked round, slowly.

Harley Quinn.” he breathed.

The white door across the room creaked slowly to.  She was gone.

Riddler gritted his teeth, his eyes glittering with rage.

If Harley got to The Joker before him, the deal would be off and he’d never kill Batman!  Speaking of which-

“Riddle this.”

A solid ball of black knocked Riddler off-balance.

The thugs looked upwards just as Batman whirled down from the ceiling (What had he been holding onto and how can something so black hide in a white room?!).  Batman expertly proceeded to take on each thug with unforgiving punches and head-buts, his bat-cape whirling around him.  A distant thug targeted him with his rifle but the weapon was whipped from his hands.  A sharp, thin, metal bat was stuck in its side.

The biggest thug dived on Batman like a pro-wrestler, driving him to the floor under a weight of solid muscle.

“As much as I’d love to stick around and watch the Bat splat,” Riddler sneered, “I have one Harley Quinn to catch.”

Riddler broke into a run and leapt smartly through an open window (No more being thrown through closed windows for him, thank you very much!).

Once outside, Riddler was outraged to find that Harley had taken his car – “That does it!  No more clowns! – and stole the thugs’ van instead.

Batman couldn’t move the big thug off him so he released an electric gadget from his belt.  The man flipped sideways, smoking and crackling where he lay.  The other thugs had been smart enough to flee.

Batman groaned as he got up, cursing himself for allowing Riddler’s escape.  He was only grateful that the maniac hadn’t left a bomb in the Asylum before doing so.  It was exactly the sort of thing he’d do … So why not now?

Batman froze and assessed the devastation.

What had this all been about?  What had they wanted from here?  And most importantly of all: Why hadn’t The Joker been with them?

A terrible thought struck him.

The doctors on the floor gingerly unshielded their heads.

“Thank you, Bat-”

But they were alone in an empty white room. 

Bruce arrived fast back at Wayne Manor and the Batmobile glided to a halt inside the Bat Cave.  He leapt from the vehicle, unceremoniously tugging off the Bat-cowl before racing up the stairs and out of the Bat Cave. 

“Alfred!” he yelled as he ran.  The lack of response frightened him greatly - and that’s when he saw it:

HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA

It was everywhere written in something dark red.  Bruce’s heart almost stopped, but upon closer inspection it was revealed to be paint, not blood.

That was what Bruce hated about The Joker: He constantly pulled the rug out from under your feet.

The phone rang, jolting him, and he raced to answer it.

Sure enough, The Joker was on the other end, but his voice wasn’t to the receiver.  He sounded like he was talking to someone else.

“Say it!” he was hissing, evilly.

There was the short silence of someone … of Alfred … refusing to speak.  Then there was the click of a gun.

“ALFRED!” Bruce bellowed.

BANG

Bruce’s legs half-crumpled and he slid to the floor, his face reddening with grief.  ‘I’ll kill you’ he mouthed, breathlessly.

Now say it.” came The Joker’s growl.

“Batman?” came Alfred’s voice.

Bruce’s heart gave a leap. “Alfred?!” he gasped, voice rising in hope.

There was a low, amused chuckle on the end of the line.

“No, not that.” The Joker purred.

Bruce could almost see Alfred gritting his teeth; he tried to smile.  The old man’s faith knew no limits.

“Master Wayne.” Alfred muttered, grudgingly.

The Joker let out a stream of laughter like run-away circus flags.

“I’LL KILL YOU!” Bruce bellowed into the receiver.

Will you, Bruce?” The Joker snarled.  “That’ll be the day!  And why not make that day today?”

Bruce seethed and clenched the receiver in his fist.

“What do you want?” he growled.

There was a short silence, but The Joker wasn’t considering his answer.  Unknown to Bruce, he was having another flashback, but it was wrong: Batman was glaring at him from inside a barred cage while a large surrounding crowd cheered him.

“Circus freak.” The Joker whispered, absently.

Then he was back again.

“I want you to jog my memory, Batman. But first I have to jog yours.”

“Where are you?” Bruce snapped.

“You’ll find me at the key place where it all began, and where you’ll find your butler.  I’ll give you clue, shall I?  Chemicals.

Bruce’s eyes widened slightly as he realised where The Joker meant.

He dropped the receiver and sped to The Bat Cave.

 

The Batmobile glided silently to a halt at Batman’s destination: The burnt-down remains of Axis chemical factory.

Batman got out, unseen, making no more sound than a gentle breeze.

It wasn’t the place that was important, it was what had happened here that would never leave anyone’s memory.

The scaffolding was the same, if not new; and … Good God, it was still there: The fateful vat which had contained the chemicals the once ‘Red Hood’ had plunged into.

‘Red Hood’ had been The Joker’s criminal title before he had - before Batman had - changed him into a monster.

Drawn by a strange compulsion, Batman slowly approached the vat.  It was dull with age and he was almost tempted to peer inside-

“I’M CURED!”

A torso half-rose from the vat.  Bruce’s eyes widened in horror.

It wasn’t The Joker, it was Alfred, bound and gagged, hanging unconscious in his bonds.  A trickle of blood oozed from his head which lolled as The Joker grossly manipulated him like a puppet, laughing his head off.

Bruce grit his teeth in revulsion.  He lunged forwards but at the exact same instant a series of thick, metal wires sprang on him like boa constrictors.  The wires had been unleashed by a Riddler trap, the empty shell of which rolled nearby.

Batman fell to the ground, unable to free himself.

The Joker’s head now rose from the vat, his manic laughter echoed by Riddler’s.  Batman could see the green menace approaching him at a steady prowl.

“At last!” Riddler growled and pressed a gun to Batman’s forehead.

“NO!”

Riddler, Batman, and even The Joker looked round.

Harley Quinn had appeared, somehow taller where she stood with feet apart. Her arms were spread wide, pointing two guns, one at Riddler’s head and the other, amazingly, at The Joker’s.

There was no trace of humour in those blue eyes now.  Her face was stern, cold, and set.  “You’re not going to kill him.” She ordered.

There came a slow, mirthless clapping from The Joker.

“Cleverly done, my dear.” he purred, creeping out of the vat in a spider-liked fashion.

“What?” Harley blinked in surprise.

“But not that clever.” The Joker smirked.  “I knew you see.  I knew you had my memory files all along.”

Harley’s jaw dropped, and both Batman and Riddler were frowning. The Joker looked from Harley to the other two and back again.

“I see an explanation’s in order.” he sniggered. “Bat-Brain and Puzzled over there need filling in.”

Batman was listening intently. Could he be on the verge of discovering an extraordinary mystery?

The Joker sneered at him.

“I noticed your ears have pricked up a little higher there Batman, and you heard me correctly: Harley Quinn holds what I want.  I merely sent her and Riddler to Arkham Asylum as a decoy while I captured your old man.  But I also sent her there so she could pick up the files herself, her being the only one who knew where they were.  If you didn’t know already, she used to work at the Asylum herself - ironic as it sounds - as Dr. Harleen Quinzel.”

“When?!” Harley shouted, furiously, pointing her gun at The Joker’s face.  He looked back at her, lazily. “When what?”

“When did you know that I had them?” she yelled.

“In Riddler’s flat, my sweet, shortly after you told me you feared Riddler wanted us dead.” The Joker answered, pleasantly, not caring Riddler heard him say this.

He turned to face Riddler who now looked almost as white-faced as the two clowns.  The Joker knew that he wanted to kill him!

“You wanted me dead so that you could kill Batman yourself.” The Joker said in a low voice, his eyes like two lead bullets.

Riddler’s gun hand was trembling.  His unconscious had worked out something he hadn’t realised yet.  His pale forehead was beaded with sweat and he licked dry lips.

The Joker was … too clever to be insane … But if he were sane then didn’t that make all the more evil?

Everyone seemed to have forgotten about Harley, who was mortified that her power had been stolen by her fearless boyfriend.

“But - B-but if you already knew that,” Riddler stammered before he could stop himself, “why did you bring me here?”

He gestured at Batman with the gun he’d forgotten he was holding.

“So I could do this.” The Joker answered, quietly–

BANG

The Joker shot Riddler in the centre of the forehead.

Riddler fell backwards slowly, his body as stiff and unresisting as a wooden mannequin … Or a wooden puppet … Just another puppet controlled by The Joker.  All people were puppets to him.  Something that Harley had finally worked out.

Ignoring Harley’s gun still pointed at him, The Joker approached the dead body and knelt over it.

“You see, Riddler,” he breathed, dipping his finger into the bloody hole. “I’m the funny man round here … And you-” He painted the blood in curved lines either side of Riddler’s mouth. “-are just another lunatic not laughing at my jokes.”

He straightened up and offered his hand to Harley.

“Come here, Angel.” he cooed, winking at her.

She stared at him for a moment, then appeared to melt before hurrying over and putting her arms round him.

Behind The Joker’s back, Harley looked down at Batman and saw that he was discretely cutting himself free with a Bat-blade.

Batman braced himself, waiting for a swift foot in the face; to his amazement, she winked at him, secretively.

Just as Batman broke free, The Joker whirled Harley round, restraining her and holding his blade to her throat.

“You know I’ll do it.” he rumbled.

“Yes I do.”  Batman looked at Harley.  “But did you, Harleen?”

Her eye leaked a single tear but she wasn’t beaten yet.

“Give me what I want, my darling,” The Joker whispered in her ear, “and your job as a doctor may not have been in vain.”

She jerked her head backwards, butting him hard on the nose. Instinctively, he shut his eyes and reeled back, dropping the knife and putting both hands to his face.

Batman ran straight to the vat to check on Alfred.  Reaching inside, he felt for his pulse.  Alfred was alive but weakened, and Batman reached in with both arms.

Harley had whipped away from The Joker, pointing both guns at him.

“You can’t be cured!” she shouted.

“What are you talking about?” he asked, chuckling even as his nose bled.

In answer, she whipped the files from the bag she’d had on her.

The Joker’s smile faded as he stared at them.

“Because you were never insane … Jack Napier.”

A light clicked on in The Joker’s mind, illuminating the pitch-black area of his brain which had been collecting dust for years:

That man and woman had been his parents.  He remembered his father shouting at him now: “You’re NEVER happy!  I work my arse off all day and I come home to this?!”  Then he turned on Jack with his belt.  Jack never made a sound when he did this, it was his mother who made the noise … while he watched with an unseen smile.

“You’re just a sick, twisted bastard and you always have been!” Harley continued.

The cat screamed and whirled, its fur aflame, but he watched it, the smell of burning hair in his nostrils. Just seven years old.

“And you never changed, not even when you had your chance with her like you did with me!”

Genie.  He remembered Genie now.  She’d been in love with him, and this was before the acid bath; she was blond.  She’d been pregnant and they’d had a girl.  Then he’d come home to find them both dead, and then …

And then The Joker looked at Batman who had both his arms in the vat, half-lifting Alfred out - The Black Panther pounced on the Crying Clown in that paddling pool-

Harley was crying now.

Batman lifted Alfred out of the vat and lowered him to the ground.

“Harley.” The Joker muttered, sternly.  “Give me those files.”

But he wasn’t the only one who wanted to read them.

Bruce had only heard from what Harley had said, but The Joker alone had seen it in full.

There were more sheets besides the one Harley had read from, assuming she’d just read from the top.

Maybe it was all a lie.  Maybe she didn’t really hold The Joker’s memories; just blank sheets.

But there was one thing she’d said that was arguably wrong:

Evil is made, not born.

You can’t be cured because you were ever insane.

Each layer of irony brought a fresh wave of hysterical laughter bursting from The Joker’s lips. He cried tears of laughter, but whether they were tears of joy or sadness no one could tell.

Had he just found The Ultimate Punch-line?

“But you were - NEVER - funny!” Harley snarled, her gun-hand now moving steadily to point at The Joker’s chest.

He sneered at her.

”You were laughable!” she added with relish.

“Maybe you’ll think differently after The Ultimate Punch-line.” The Joker declared and pointed his gun at Alfred, but Harley had the last word. “Cry you son of a-“

BANG

Both Harley and The Joker fired their guns at the same time.

The Joker fell to the ground but Bruce barely registered this; neither was he aware of Harley running off into the night, because Alfred had just been shot.  After a few seconds of blind panic, he rushed to bundle the old man and then The Joker into the Batmobile.

Before getting into the car himself, Bruce handcuffed The Joker’s wrists behind his back: He always pulled the rug out from under your feet.

Bruce sped them all to the hospital, white-faced and trembling.

“I should have killed him … I should have killed him when I had the chance.” He gasped in shock as he drove.

Now he was trying to save the man who’d shot his only family, and he’d just said he wanted The Joker dead.

Was he a potential murderer?

Alfred answered, in an almost inaudible whisper, on the seat beside him.  “If Batman were a killer, he wouldn’t be you, Master Wayne.”

 

The worst part was not Batman delivering The Joker to hospital and roaring at the doctors to do their jobs.  Neither was it carrying a possibly-dying Alfred to be operated on.  The worst part was leaving Alfred so that he could return home to become Bruce Wayne before coming back.  The two trips lasted an eternity, and when Bruce returned, he suffered even longer in the waiting room.

 

By some bizarre twist of coincidence, the local from the Newsflash was here in the waiting room too.  The same guy who thought Batman should have killed The Joker to save the city.

The man’s eyes were apologetic when he looked at Bruce Wayne.

‘You’ve learnt the difference between something expensive and something of value.’

Alfred’s sentence echoed gently in and out of his mind.

A doctor appeared, but it was not Alfred’s doctor.

It was The Joker’s.

Bruce leapt to his feet and strode over at once.

The doctor had on a pair of thin, white, surgical gloves that were spoilt with blood.  He caught Bruce’s enquiring look at them.

“Yes, it is his.”  The doctor said, answering the unasked question.

He had a rather posh accent.  “But I do hope, Mr. Wayne, you understand the serious blood I’ll have on my hands if I save him?”

He looked stressed and Bruce didn’t envy him.

The man was facing the toughest decision ever: Would he save a murderer’s life?

“Will he live?” Bruce asked, gruffly.

“Do you want him to?  Does anyone?”

Bruce gave the doctor a disapproving frown. “It’s not my decision who lives or dies and, as a doctor, the same applies to you.”

“And if I save that monster’s life then that decision will rest with him, won’t it?”

He was attempting to challenge Bruce with the question Bruce hadn’t answered; the one about the blood on his hands.

“If he’s given that decision,” the doctor continued, sternly, “won’t that make me a murderer, Mr. Wayne?”

“Not if it can be helped.” Bruce answered, gazing in the direction of The Joker’s room.  The doctor followed his gaze, catching on.

“There’s no helping him now.  It might actually be kinder to let him d-”

“Will he live?” Bruce repeated, even more gruffly.

“The bullet’s out.  The wound’s dressed.  He’s having a blood transfusion (God have mercy on the soul of his donator).  All we can do now is hope.

But the doctor’s tone strongly suggested that he hoped The Joker would die, as did everyone in Gotham City, Bruce suspected.

He had mixed feelings on the matter, as always.

As much as he hated The Joker, he couldn’t help hoping that there was hope for him.  Bruce had just one last question to ask.

“Is he conscious?”

Bruce waited while the doctors and nurses argued whether anyone should be left alone with The Joker.  At that moment, a rather relieved-looking man passed by.  He looked back at Bruce and stopped abruptly.

“Wow!  Bruce Wayne!”

He offered his hand and it was all Bruce could do to shake it. 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”

“You’re looking in surprisingly good health for a man in hospital.” Bruce noted.

“I am.  I’ve just donated blood.  Apparently it’s going to a guy who’s just been shot.  I kind of know how he feels.” he added, grimly.  “I’m lucky to be alive to donate anything: I was stabbed once …” He leant forward and dropped his voice to a whisper.

“… by The Joker.”

Bruce stared at him in complete horror as the full meaning of this sank in.  He’d just delivered two men to this hospital who’d been shot.  He hastened to collect himself.

“Do you know who you donated your blood to?” he asked, slowly.

“No.” the man answered.  “But I’d better go.  Goodnight, Mr. Wayne.”

He shook Bruce’s hand a second time and Bruce’s eyes followed him all the way down the corridor.

Yeah, you go, my friend.  He thought.  You go somewhere far away where the name of ‘Joker’ can never haunt you.

 

Fifteen minutes later, Bruce found himself standing alone in The Joker’s room.  He faced an ugly sight before him.

It looked like it had been a difficult operation.

Even though the patient had been under a general anaesthetic he’d been strapped down, all the same, for the doctors’ safety.

Slowly, The Joker’s puffy white eyelids opened.

For a while he seemed to be having difficulty recognising Bruce … then he smiled.

“There’s no place like home.” he whispered.

“No, sorry.  You’re not in Hell, Joker.” Bruce murmured.

“You gonna send me there now?” The Joker mumbled, groggily.

Bruce stared back darkly and didn’t answer.

“’Didn’t think so.”

The Joker blinked very slowly, motionless in the hospital bed.

“What was it you said before Harley shot you?” Bruce asked, conversationally.  He casually sauntered over to the bed, mimicking The Joker’s walk when approaching his victims.

Perhaps the way to get to this guy was to think like him.

To get an inside joke, you had to be on the inside.

“Ah, I remember.” Bruce said, sarcastically. “‘The Ultimate Punch-line’. What was that exactly?  Bringing down Batman’s image to an all-time low in the eyes of Gotham?  Almost destroying him by killing his one and only parent-figure?  Killing your rival, The Riddler, perhaps?   Killing him in front of Batman to burden him with the guilt of failing to save another citizen … because he didn’t kill The Joker?”

Bruce leant in close to that white, bleary-eyed face.

“Well guess what?  Here’s The Ultimate Punch-line, Jack:

I’m not gonna kill you, I’m gonna let The Joker live so that you and he may suffer another day together.”

‘There are more effective punishments.’

Thank you, Alfred.  Bruce thought, and left The Joker’s room in silence.

The Joker’s laughter was hampered by the agony in his chest so that he could barely get above a wheeze.

As it so happened, the blood donator who’d shaken Bruce’s hand earlier had indeed given it to The Joker.  But thanks to Harley, The Joker had a pierced lung, unlike the one he thought he’d given that same man in the alleyway.

Not long after Bruce had left the room, the doctor he’d spoken to earlier entered.  He shut the door behind him.

The doctor crossed to The Joker’s bed and waved a hand in front of his eyes.  The Joker looked at him.

“You alrigh’ boss?” The ‘doctor’ asked, his posh accent no more.

“Of course I am.” The Joker sniggered.  “It’s all gone to plan … almost.  I must admit I rather thought Harley would shoot me in the leg rather than the chest.  She’s going to take some winning back.”

“We’ll bust you out of Arkham when you’re well enough to be back in there again.”

“Absolutely.”

The Joker grinned at the hospital ceiling.

“Everybody loves an encore … The show must go on.”

 

What is it about clowns that scares people?  They’ve never made you laugh, have they?  Their behaviour is wild and unpredictable, their actions violate taboos, and they’re quite often dismissive of empathy.  Their own laughter sounds forced because they’re tragic characters.  The audience always laughs at them.  They’re the butt of each other’s jokes, and their own.

They are their own worst enemies.

I never laugh at clowns, but not for the above reasons.

They remind me of The Joker.  That cold-blooded killer who can never be cured because he’s not insane.  He’s pure evil.

But Batman is not like the Black Panther from that circus-show, because I’m no man-killer … I’m Batman.

THE END

The End

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