I inserted in an earphone as I switched on the iPod. Joker had only one song on there – a voice recording. I heard a dull crackle, and picked up the Rossi again, marvelling at the craftsmanship of the revolver. Sure, compared to a semiautomatic, they were practically useless and only had six bullets. But hell, they looked good. There was something inherently more terrifying about a gun this big…
“Finally. Freakin’ sound system. You got any idea how many people it takes to switch this damn thing on? Five. And none of them survived the process.” Joker laughed maniacally. “Still, not my issue. It’s working, I’m recording. You’re hearing this in the future. So, you passed my first little test. Glad to hear it. Although I’m dead. Hell’s pretty warm, just in case you’re wondering. Although Satan’s a wonderfully interesting chap. I make fun of his horns and fire starts coming out of his nose.” Another laugh. “Heh. Still, onto Stage 2 of my plan. You probably would’ve had this delivered by a few of my boys. Blackgaters.”
I paused as I walked to the door.
“They’re about as useful as a handful of dead rats. People will scream and run when you toss them around, but they can’t think for themselves. You need to make sure they know who’s in charge. You’ve got the suit, you’ve got the gun… but you haven’t got the face. They won’t believe it’s you until you shoot a few faces. Busted heads are the best way to make a point sometimes. Hell, even if you’re not, it’s still fun!!”
Joker cackled to himself.
“They’re lurking around the edges of Gotham. Like little jack-in-the-boxes.”
“That’s your play?” I muttered to myself. “Hostile takeover?”
“Find them. They’re your loyal dogs now. You just have to prove it. Oh, by the way… if you’ve got this i-thingy in your pocket, I’d take it out. Thermite charges and undergarments are not a fun combination if you’re on the wrong end of the prank.”
I hastily scooped the iPod out of my pocket, and watched the track end.
The iPod Nano hissed, and I tossed it onto the ground. There was a flash of molten metal, and within seconds, the entire machine was a puddle of glowing slag on the floorboards.
I strode out of my apartment, down the stairs, and out onto the street. Dinner, Mouse and Beck were waiting on the street corner for me, smoking cigarettes. They hastily extinguished them as I appeared, and I nodded to Beck as I approached.
“You know what Joker left me to do?”
He shrugged. “Not sure, boss.”
“Take control of the Blackgaters.”
There was a stunned silence between all three of them.
“Might be harder than you think,” Dinner told me.
I glanced at him. “Why’s that?”
“Because they’re already being run by someone else.”
That made me grin humourlessly. “Well, we’ll have to remedy that, won’t we? You boys have hangouts, right? There’s places you’d meet to do deals, talk about the glory days. Where am I going to find the boss? I think he and I need to have a chat.”
The boys looked uneasily at each other.
“There’s an old fighting ring that called BlackCage. The leader’s been pumping out black-market deathmatches over cable for a couple of years now. The kind of dough he makes off that is crazy, man. We all know where to find it.”
“Then let’s quit chinwagging and get moving,” I said.
They nodded and hastily started down the street. I followed at a distance, keeping my eyes peeled for anyone following us. No shadows flitting across rooftops, no sleek black cars sliding out of the shadows to block out way.
Not yet, anyway.
The Blackgaters knew Gotham like the back of their hands – they knew exactly where to avoid, and where to head. Open, big streets weren’t an option. Instead, we opted for back alleys, abandoned parking lots and the dirtier parts of Gotham, where no-one in their right mind would venture in the dark. Finally, we reached the outer districts of the city, where an old warehouse streamed light and loud music out of it. I frowned at it.
“Not exactly a good way to keep a low profile.”
“No-one’s game enough to try and stop us,” said Dinner with a grin.
“Not yet, they’re not,” I told him quietly.
Dinner caught the cold menace in my voice, and shut up.
“Beck, you mentioned a death match. What are you talking about?”
“No-holds-barred fights. Weapons even get tossed into the mix sometimes.”
I felt the weight of the Rossi under my arm and smiled. “No guns?”
“Too fast,” Mouse said, and I nodded. Fair enough.
“And the last guy alive wins?”
“That’s pretty much it,” confirmed Beck.
“I need you to get us in quietly. Set up a fight.”
Beck hesitated. “You sure, boss?”
I laughed at him. “I’m Joker Junior. You think I’m going to let a meathead get the best of me? Get moving, Beck.” I watched him slip in through a side door, and then turned to the others. “Dinner, Mouse. How much cash do you have on you?”
They quickly emptied their pockets. About four hundred dollars in cash between them.
“Put it all on me in the biggest fight. BlackCage ends tonight – might as well make sure you get something out of it.”
Beck appeared again, and motioned for us to follow him. I stepped through the doorway, and I was assailed by the scent of sweat, blood, and cigarette smoke. A funny thought. Before yesterday, I’d been worrying about school, girls, and street thugs. Now I was Joker reincarnate, walking boldly through a crowd of his bruisers. Strange toss-up. I laughed quietly, as Beck’s voice suddenly came over the intercom.
“Gentlemen and ladies, we have a very special guest for you tonight. I present to you, the one, the only, the mighty Joker!” The enthusiasm in his voice was actually real.
There was a stunned silence as I stepped up towards the Cage.
“That’s not Joker!!” one mook finally shouted. “You kidding? He’s dead!”
Then the others joined in. “In the ring! In the ring!”
“Let’s see how he likes getting his ass kicked!”
“The boss is dead! You’re just a fake!”
“And a kid! Jesus, he can’t be older than five!”
Laughter. Derision. Doubt.
I tuned it all out, and looked at my first opponent.
He wasn’t your regular Blackgater – he was slightly shorter than most of them, but so packed with muscle that I was surprised they didn’t pop through his skin and slide clean off his bones. His head was shaved, and the numbers 48309 were tattooed across his chest. His prison number. Solitary confinement. Probably a serial killer. He carried himself with such easy confidence that he was training in something. Probably something combat-based, a no-nonsense military hand-to-hand art. I could see film cameras watching every move, and studio lights streaming down into the ring to make sure that every hit, every drop of blood, was caught in high-definition.
“Powerhouse vs. Joker!” Beck announced. “Bell!”
The bell rang, and then my opponent charged forwards.
I slipped his leaping punch, snagged his wrist and kicked him in the nuts. He went as limp as a dead fish, and I twisted his arm, pressing my knee against his arm and snapped it as easily as I’d break a twig. A howl ripped from his lungs, until I drove my heel into his gut and drove all the air out of it. The so-called “Powerhouse” was out like a light. No taunts coming from the crowd now. Just a dead silence. They’d probably seen their champion best a dozen or so competitors, until a skinny kid in Joker’s suit had strolled in and beaten him in less than three seconds. I turned Powerhouse over with my foot.
“Finish him!” Beck called.
The crowd took up the cry.
“Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!”
I looked down at the unconscious form of the Blackgater.
I’d killed before. I’d taken lives. But it had always been hot in the middle of a fight, back in my earlier days, when my only friend had been my knife. I’d learned a trick or two since then – breaking limbs was honestly one of the easiest ways to put someone out of commission. Death didn’t bother me – probably why my pain threshold was so high – but killing a guy lying defeated at my feet in cold blood…. I felt my mouth go dry, heart speed up. This hadn’t been the plan. I should’ve just snapped his neck from the start. I’d forgotten that this was a death match. For me, it’d just been another fight on the street. Joker would’ve killed him without thinking, probably laughing while he did it. I tried to focus.
Powerhouse was a killer. He’d probably taken dozens of lives, and I’d be doing the world a favour by putting him down. The crowd was watching, anticipating, growing restless. I had to act now, make them believe that I was Joker. Or at least as crazy as he was. Jesus. My Rossi felt like lead as I drew it out, aimed it, and then thumbed back the hammer.
Pull the trigger, I could hear Joker grinning at me from hell. You’ll love it.
“Screw you, old man,” I muttered quietly.
Then I wrenched my finger back half an inch. A pole extended out of the barrel, a flag unrolling and fluttering down, the word BANG! emblazoned on it. Then, a moment later, the flag itself cannoned from the gun and slammed into the thug’s eye. His whole body went completely limp, and in moments his breathing ceased.
Beck and Dinner barrelled into the ring, grinning, dragging Powerhouse out with them, shouting encouragement. I didn’t hear them – there was just a dull ringing in my ears, like laughter. Joker’s laughter. I cursed him, and then shook my head to clear it, holstering the revolver again, turning to the crowd once more.
“You like that, you meat sacks?” I shouted at them.
They roared their approval.
“Come on, then. You want to take turns?”
Dead silence. Uneasy shifting.
“Didn’t think so. Any more contenders?”
“There’s me,” hissed a voice behind me.
I turned and saw a legendary criminal step through the Cage door.
Shirtless. As skinny as I was, a cruel, insane glint in his eye. Irregular tally marks carved everywhere in his flesh. Completely bald head, and the beginnings of a grey beard on his face. I knew who I was looking at, and his legend preceded him. Probably the creepiest sucker you could have pawing at your door in the middle of the night. Mr Zsasz.
Just my luck that he was still alive after so much time… a knife gleamed in his hand, and as he looked over me with those dead grey eyes of his, I knew that this wasn’t going to be easy. He was just as unpredictable as me. Probably more so. How are you supposed to anticipate the actions of a lunatic?
The bell rang, and Zsasz was beside me in the blink of an eye, his knife flashing for my throat – I caught hold of his wrist, but the sneaky bastard somehow reversed his grip on the knife and stabbed downwards. He was as slippery as a snake, this guy... the knife opened up my chest, slashing through the fabric of Joker’s suit like paper. I ignored the pain, and tried not to shiver at the blood sliding down my bare skin. I tried for a knee shot, but he twisted out of the way, barring my leg and flipping me over onto the canvas so easily that it hurt my pride. I rolled to the left, Zsasz’s knife barely missing my throat. I tried for a leg trap, but he danced to the left, ripped his blade free from the canvas. I still had the Rossi, but reaching into my jacket would only work if I could get some space and time, neither of which Zsasz was happy to give me.
“I’m going to help you transcend this horrifying existence,” Zsasz muttered.
“Funny thing – transcendence has never really been my style,” I grinned at him.
He slashed again, but I saw him coming and whipped out of the way. His blade skipped from his right to his left, over his shoulder, like an insect, and slid into my thigh. I swore, then caught hold of his fingers, squeezing as hard as I could. I felt a few joints pop, and Zsasz grunted, his grip loosening. I smashed my head into his face, making his nose fountain red, and then pulled the knife out of my own leg. It was well-balanced – he’d picked a good blade – and as he came at me again, hands aimed for my throat, I moved ever so slightly to the left, brought my palm up under his jaw, my fingers clawing into the soft flesh of his throat… Zsasz writhed, trying to bite his way to freedom, just as the knife came up into his mouth and deep into his brain.
“Your mother ever tell you not to play with knives?” I told him, releasing my grip.
Zsasz, all nerves to his body severed, crashed to the canvas and twitched for a few seconds, the blade protruding up and out of his head like some crazy fairground sword-swallowing trick gone horrifically wrong. Kind of was, now that I thought about it…
The Blackgaters were going nuts.
I looked down at myself. The pain was minimal – the chest wound was barely a scratch, I was lucky that I was fast – but the leg was going to be problematic if I didn’t bind it up. Ripping the knife free of Zsasz, I sliced off a section of my trouser material and rapidly tied it around my thigh, stemming the flow of blood. The Blackgaters would know how to deal with wounds like this – I doubted that any medical staff in Gotham were going to help someone who looked like a homicidal lunatic in a clown outfit.
I waved my hand, and the crowd went instantly silent.
“Two words, fellers. Get. Out. BlackCage no longer exists – you’re wasting your time and your resources here. Hell, your lives. Sort out your debts, stay low and don’t draw any attention to yourselves. I’m talking nothing criminal. Some of you might not be able to help yourselves, but if you can’t… well, I’ll give you a reason not to.” The threat hovered in the air, and I sensed that they were taking me seriously. “Until then, Beck overlooks cleanup. This can stay as your meeting place, but go back to your families. If you don’t have any…well, that’s not my problem. If I need you, I’ll call. Screw with me and I’ll make sure you regret it.”
They nodded, and within moments the cameras had vanished, the lights were switched off, and the music had vanished. Suddenly the entire place was a hive of activity – in moments, practically everything that had created a makeshift arena was being dragged down and put away. I stepped out of the arena, and then nodded the Dinner and Mouse, who were still watching me. They both had big grins on their faces.
“Don’t spend that cash all at once,” I advised them.
Then I headed home, alone.