“Put him down!”
“Make him bleed…!”
The crowd’s encouragement wasn’t for me – it was for my opponent, in a backlot fight which he’d set up. Nothing new from Gotham State High School, but, quite frankly, I was disappointed that he hadn’t brought more of his friends with him. Mark was a heavily-built bruiser, a kickboxer, if half of his brags were true. He carried himself with enough confidence, that was for sure – he radiated it, power and speed, and the look in his eyes was anything but pleasant as he looked at me. I just smiled humourlessly back at him, and glanced left and right.
“What, you waiting for a starting bell?”
The taunt had him barrelling forwards in a second, a streaking kick racing straight for my midsection – one that would break ribs and probably cause internal bleeding if it connected. I swung to the left, snagged his ankle, and shot a knee into his groin. His supporting leg buckled, a high-pitched squeak escaped from him, and he toppled to the asphalt, completely out of the fight. There was dead silence for two seconds.
Then the others moved in.
I hadn’t counted them, but it didn’t matter – they had no idea who they were dealing with. I didn’t fight fair. A mix of skill and sneakiness was what had ensured my survival on the streets for so long. I needed a second and a half to put down any one of them at a time – if I got my fingers around an arm or leg, they were screwed. In less than a minute, I was finishing off the last of Mark’s buddies – I slammed his skull into the nearest wall, concussing him, before snapping his knee with a flat-footed kick, and, just for good measure, put a second, higher kick into his gut, which sent him spinning down the alleyway and into a pile of trash. Mark moaned, sitting up, and his eyes widened as I came up to him. He scrabbled at the ground, backing away.
“Learn who the hell you’re fighting before you fight him,” I told him quietly. “Might mean that you don’t get your sorry little ass kicked next time you go looking for one.”
“Where did you learn that?” Mark asked shakily.
I just shook my head. “Clean up your boys and go home.”
There was a moment of icy silence.
“Next time, I’ll make sure they don’t walk away from this.”
Mark whimpered softly, and I stepped over him, heading out of the backlot, wrapping my coat around me as I walked. It was a chilly night in Gotham – normally, the weather was like this, but just to make things better, it’d started to rain slightly. The freezing drops hit my skin like needles of ice, and I grimaced as I walked on. At least I was assured some peace at school now. Twelfth grade was more than just fights and lessons – once I graduated, I was out of here, heading out of this stinking city and onto something new. There were too many bad memories here – thugs, crooks, pimps… humanity at its worst. Even the cops were useless – they’d returned to the corruption of earlier years, and crime was at an all-time high. You could practically smell the evil in the streets.
I kicked a stray can, and then frowned. Instead of clattering forwards, like it should’ve done, it had just vanished. I looked up. A figure in heavy biking gear, with a steel-studded belt and boots, blocked my way. His face was hidden by a pulled-up collar.
“Then you’re wasting your time,” I said, pushing past him.
He caught hold of my shoulder, and I turned, pinning him with an icy glare that shouldn’t been enough to make him realise that I was going to destroy his arm if he didn’t let go.
He didn’t budge.
I caught hold of his wrist, and then twisted, suddenly pistoning my body up and around, aiming a knee at his elbow, a strike that would disintegrate half of the bones in his arm. An elbow crashed into my face and threw my head back. I cursed as he twisted out of my grip, and shot a kick into my gut. I caught most of the force on my arms, stepped back, and ignored the pain. He reached out for my throat… just as I flicked my knife free from its place up my sleeve and rammed it into the hard muscle of his arm.
He swore, backing off, and I tossed the knife easily to my other hand.
“You still want to play this game?”
He shook his head. “Not my game to play, kid.”
The stranger ripped his jacket off and tossed it to the side.
What I saw made me stop short.
His arms, neck and part of his head were marked with the ink that I knew only Blackgate prisoners wore. They’d been run out of Gotham years back, and none of them had returned… especially as their boss had put himself out of action. I’d been among them before – I knew what they were like. Most of them, murders, brutal thugs, rapists. Not exactly the kind of people you’d invite to your little sister’s birthday party. He stemmed the flow of blood from his arm with his hand – he’d been cut before, then.
“Familiar?” he asked, seeing my reaction to his tattoos.
I folded the knife and slipped it back into my pocket.
“I thought you people were staying out of town.”
“We are. But the Boss left us a message for you.”
I felt my mouth go suddenly dry. “He’s dead.”
“He still left something for you, kid.”
Curiosity mixed with paralysing fear mixed in my mind.
I had no idea what the leader of the Blackgaters would have left for me. Knowing him, probably some elaborate death-trap designed to clean up whatever remained of himself. But then, there was the matter of his legacy. Several people had tried taking it up, but none of them had managed it – they’d gotten themselves killed far too quickly. I looked over the thug in front of me, and then nodded.
“I’m coming. Don’t screw with me. I’ll cut you to shreds.”
He turned, scooped up his jacket, and pressed it to his wound, walking quickly through the street. I followed him, and pulled my knife out of my pocket again, taking solace in its solid, dependable feel. The Blackgater knew exactly where he was going – he turned to the left, and I found myself in the red-light district of Gotham. Neon signs flashed obscenely bright in the night, and the smell of gasoline and pot filled the air. Girls languished by street corners and in front of flashy cars, looking hopefully at passers-by. My fingers tightened around the handle of the switchblade. I could remember a fight back here, years back… a particularly untidy knife fight that had involved a pimp and a lot of blood. I repressed the memory of his screams, and then saw the Blackgater turn into one of the clubs.
I kept my eyes down as I stepped in.
People danced, led by tabletop dancers, encouraged by deep, thrumming dance music, flashing lights and smoke. The Blackgater cut through the crowd like a knife through butter, and I could feel my insides tightening and tightening as I followed him towards the back rooms.
“Here,” said the Blackgater, opening a door.
It was dark inside. I slipped in and he closed the door behind me.
A light flickered on – an old TV set, crackling noisily. The room was dead silent – I couldn’t hear the people or the music outside. A single chair sat in front of the set, but I opted to stand behind it. A familiar face flickered past on the screen, and a manic peal of laughter confirmed it – he had left me something behind. It might have been a trap, it might not.
The Joker grinned at me.
Green hair, white skin… eyes that were so intensely devoid of human emotion that you could never tell just what the hell he was going to do next. He was dead, I knew that much, but this had obviously been put together before that. For my benefit. I took a deep, shuddering breath, and tried with all my might to keep my eyes focused on the screen
“Hey, sonny. I’m dead. You hear about that? Chances are, Batsie had something to do with my demise, but I’m sure that he feels terrible about it.” Joker tilted his head a little. “You probably look like your mother. I never got to see you, but I’m sure you inherited my devilish charm and charisma. And my legacy. Y’see, that’s what all this is about – keeping the legend alive. That’s why you’re here.”
He cleared his throat.
“You should get this about ten years after I die. Gotham… stinking little cesspool that it is… it should be full to the ears of scum. Everywhere. I’d put money on the police being corrupt again… and my boys should be hanging back, too. I promised all kinds of fun things if they didn’t keep out of Gotham. Now that you’re here, though... well, things just get better.”
“What do you want, you murdering bastard?” I murmured softly.
“The boys have my video tapes. First, though, I’ve put together a little celebration for you. This nightclub you’re sitting in? It’s full to the ears of my little toxin. The air ducts are loaded with the stuff. It’s going to release in…” Joker glanced to the left… “should be about a minute. In the future. Heh, time travel. Tried that once. Not funny. Anywho, I’ve got no idea what you’re like. Whether you take after the mundane, soulless meat sacks that live in Gotham, an idealist like Bats, or truly a son after my own heart.”
I stared at the screen, horrified, and yet somehow strangely elated.
“What you decide to do next decides whether or not you turn out to be a disappointment or not. Honestly, I couldn’t care less if you die… hell, I’m dead!! But we’ll have a lot more fun together if you live. I’m putting money on your living, actually.” Joker nodded over my shoulder. “There’s some living history behind you there. Make sure you take it with you when you head out of here.” He grinned, winked and then tapped his watch. “Get moving.”
The TV went static.
I stood there, frozen.
Joker Toxin… his gas that invaded the nervous system and made the victims scream their lungs dry with laughing, before leaving them horribly contorted corpses, faces stretched in a grotesque grin. I hadn’t expected this. I’d walked in here like a blind idiot… I glanced over my shoulder, and in the flickering light saw a distinctive purple suit and shoes waiting for me. A plan, a desperate one, was starting in my mind, and I knew that it was last-ditch. But I had less than a minute… and I had to move. I tore my clothes off, and rapidly pulled the suit over myself. It came on amazingly quickly – he must’ve designed it to be easy to remove – and then pulled on the shoes. Then I kicked the door open, startling the Blackgater, who was still standing outside. His eyes widened, and he backpedalled.
“It’s me, you idiot,” I snarled at him. “We need everyone out of here, now.”
“Where the hell did you get the suit…?” the ex-con said, still staring.
“Got a gun?” I demanded. He nodded, pulled it from his waistband and gave it to me. “You get as many people out of here as you can, you understand? Start freaking running. This place is going to be full of funny gas in less than thirty seconds.”
My words finally cut through his thick head, and he turned, racing for the doors. I cursed him under my breath, and then glanced over the gun in my hands. I’d seen a couple like this before – a SIG Sauer P220 Equinox. High-end semi-automatic pistol. My guide knew his hardware, then. I walked onto the dance floor, finding the cold metal of the gun strangely comforting as I raised it and cracked off three shots straight at the DJ. The SIG bucked in my hand, and the shots echoed devastatingly loud through the nightclub, triggering screaming. People ran for the exits in a mass exodus, just as new smoke, a rich green tint, started to stream out of the ducts.
Joker hadn’t been lying.
I heard thin, high laughs tearing from the DJ as I leapt up onto the stage. He was bucking, giggling insanely to himself, tears streaming out of his eyes as the neurotoxin started to act on him. I caught him by the collar, and then dragged him out, over the dance floor, towards the doors. People were screaming, some of them in hysterics, caught in the toxin’s area of effect. Even the bouncers and security were racing out of the nightclub. I hurled the DJ out onto the asphalt of the street, and then worked as fast as I could, dragging the still-breathing survivors out onto the pavement. The gas had almost completely filled the nightclub now, and was beginning to stream onto the street. I slammed the doors shut, and locked them. Something finally occurred to me.
I wasn’t being racked by lethal laughs.
The Joker Toxin wasn’t affecting me.
That made me laugh. Humourlessly.
Word on the street was that Joker had always been immune to his own poison. As his offspring, I guess that I shared his immunity. His offspring. The word was the only one that made sense – I wasn’t his son. Joker had been a monster. The fact that he’d raped my mother made no difference. I was his biological descendant.
Wearing his suit.
I shook my head, and then tucked the SIG into the back of my purple trousers, under my coattails, and then ran for the air-conditioning controls. The ventilation would be pumping the toxin out onto the street, and the last thing that I needed was more damage than had already been done. I found it in a back room, and switched it off. My plan hadn’t been completely successful – I might have resembled Joker, and the gunshots had certainly sped things along, but not everyone had made it out. A few people had been caught in the gas, and died before they could escape. Their sick, twisted corpses weren’t pretty to look at, but I felt so strangely detached that the sight of them didn’t affect me as strongly as I’d expected. They had been living, breathing people. Now they weren’t.
I knew what would happen next.
The police would come.
I’d be surprised if they weren’t here already – ordinary criminals, they’d handle. But something on a Joker kind of scale hadn’t been seen for almost ten years. They were paid up with the big bosses. But the likes of Joker… that was dangerous for everyone. Especially cops. FBI, probably, with riot gear and fully-contained gas masks. One of the more practical things about Joker Toxin was how fast it tended to dissipate – usually, it’s potency only lasted a few minutes before it began to fade to mild cases of poisoning, until finally, it had no effect at all. I’d seen it before – my childhood among the Blackgaters had been rife with experimentation, even with Joker’s toys, which most them handled with extremely care.
Now I had to figure out where to go. Giving the cops the slip would be easy enough.
Chances are, Joker had more plans for me.
Cunning bastard – he’d set all this up before he’d died…