I stared at the ceiling. The leaky pipe outside the open window had been drumming a steady rhythm of rainwater down on my windowsill – thanks to the rain – but it wasn’t irritating me. I tried to lose myself in it, wash away the memories of the cage… of Powerhouse, and Zsasz. That kind of brutality… I shook my head. It’d been unavoidable.
I’d had to make a point. But the fact that Joker had made me do it… I cursed. No, I’d had a choice. I could’ve just left him there, had him dragged out. Zsasz, I didn’t feel as strongly about. He was a psycho killer, and that had been self-defence all the way through.
I rolled off the bed, and landed easily on my feet. I was still wearing Joker’s suit – the stab wound that Zsasz had inflicted wasn’t as bad as I’d first thought – I’d cleaned it, disinfected it, and from there, all I needed was time to heal. Although I didn’t like my chances of that.
Unless I missed my guess, Joker’s plan would be to put me through another test, something else that would try and separate me from my sanity. Maybe a walk would clear my head, help me focus, try to think of what to do… something scraped on the windowsill, and I spun, flicking the Rossi free of my coat in one easy motion.
What I saw made me stop short.
It was a girl, barely older than seventeen. She was silhouetted by moonlight, perched on my windowsill like a ghost in dark green. A hood and mask obscured her features, and functional knee-length boots of dark leather rounded off her outfit. She eyed my pistol with interest rather than alarm, easily letting herself down to the floor of the apartment. She was a taller kind of girl, slim and powerful, like a panther. I didn’t see a weapon on her, but I wasn’t taking any chances. She’d snuck up here for a reason. Why the hell she’d ever come here of all places was still a mystery to me. If I had to guess, it was less of a social visit and more along the lines of something important.
“What are you doing here?” I asked bluntly.
“Can you lower the gun? It’s just a little off-putting.”
I thumbed back the hammer. “How about that?”
She froze, seeing the look in my eyes.
No, I was not someone that she wanted to screw with.
“OK, sure. We can talk like this, then.” She raised her hands so I could see them. “I followed you back from the BlackCage fight. I wanted to know if you were actually Joker or not. It was hard to see you when you were fighting Zsasz… or Powerhouse.”
My hand stayed perfectly still, the barrel levelled between her eyes.
“If you thought I was actually Joker, you wouldn’t have followed me here. Because, the chances are, I would have pulled you into a ridiculously elaborate trap and watched you undergo some insane sort of torture. Make you beg for mercy, wait just a little longer to see you slide into insanity… and then I’d kill you, just so you know what I feel like.” My voice wasn’t my own. It was somehow colder, less human than it had been before. “So let’s cut the crap, shall we? You didn’t follow me here because you were wondering if I was Joker. You knew I was something different completely. So, this either makes this a creepy stalker moment, or a social call. Either way, I don’t appreciate people on my windowsill.”
The green-clad girl tilted her head. “That was quite a rant.”
“I’d thank you, but I still have no idea just who the hell you actually are.”
She grinned. “I’m the Green Arrow.”
Oh, this was freakin’ priceless.
“I doubt it,” I said. “Last I checked, he was dead.”
“Just missing an arm,” she reminded me. “Still had plenty of fight in him. He taught me his tricks, gave me his mantle to carry on with. Kind of like you, with Joker. Except that I’m a good guy. You’re… well, you’re confused, if nothing else.”
The smugness in her voice was so annoying…
“Nice to see that you’re confident enough to track down a potential lunatic and try to lecture him on good and evil,” I said sarcastically. “Really heart-warming stuff. Now tell me, what’s to prevent me from pulling the trigger and putting a bullet through your pretty head? Did that happen to come up in your Green Arrow training?”
“Yep,” she said.
Then she moved, like liquid lightning – one moment, she was as still as a statue, and the next, she’d swung into a kick, battering the Rossi from my hand effortlessly. The sheer speed and unexpectedness of it caught me off guard. I leapt backwards, my switchblade clicking open in my right hand, Joker’s calling card appearing in my left.
The Green Arrow wannabe eyed the items in my hands, frowning a little.
“I dare you to try that again,” I said, grinning humourlessly.
“Well, it won’t be any good, you’ll be expecting it…” She sidled over to my bed, and sat down on it, pulling a knee up under her chin, and pulling her hood up off her head. Blonde hair spilled down her shoulders, and blue, green-masked eyes twinkled at me as I stood there, tense as a cat. “Maybe we can talk, instead. You know that I’ve been following you?”
I slipped the card back into its hidden place up my sleeve. The knife, though, stayed in my hand. I spun it idly as I considered this, not liking this at all. It seemed too neat…
“Since when?” I asked.
“Since you gave the GCPD the slip,” she said. “That was nicely done.”
“They’re not exactly in their prime,” I reminded her. “What do you want?”
“Well, I was thinking maybe we could team up,” the green-clad girl suggested.
The offhanded suggestion made me laugh. “You’re serious?”
“Of course. You’re talented. You hesitated before you killed Powerhouse last night. Means that you still have a conscience. That you can still discern right from wrong. That you still care. And now you have control of the Blackgaters. Not a bad combination. You could do a lot of good with those two.”
“Yeah, preaching to meatheads is definitely on my priority list…”
She ignored my sarcasm. “I have my own skill set. Between the both of us, we could clean up Gotham. Just like Batman did in his glory days. Except that you could do it as Joker.”
“Are you in marketing?” I asked. “Because I can smell small print.”
The Green Arrow girl flashed me a charming smile. “You’re good.”
“No, I just know a lot of salesmen. Or I did know a lot of them.”
“So, are you in?”
I leaned against the wall behind me, still toying with my knife.
“Joker left the city in chaos. Bats managed to straighten it out of absolute anarchy, but it’s still messed up on a fundamental level. The police are corrupt. The people are scared. There’s crime and vice everywhere. But us, working together? We could help. We could clean up the streets, knock gangs out of commission.” I laughed mockingly. “Sounds like a hoot. Then, once one big boss and one gang runs the entire city, Miss Green Arrow gets all the glory by taking him out of the equation. Fame. Adulation. Hero-worship.” I shook my head, and saw fury creep into her eyes. “Go on. Prove me wrong.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” I nodded towards the window. “Go home. You don’t belong here. This world isn’t as simple as you think, and you have no idea of who you’re dealing with. You keep following me… it won’t end well for you.”
“Is that a threat?” she said softly, her voice wintry cold.
“You’re a big girl. I’ll let you figure it out.”
My sarcasm hit her like a blow. One thing she hadn’t been expecting me to do was think for myself. But other people’s motives always factored into my own life – usually, it was the difference between life and death. I’d nailed the girl to the floor – her motives were wide open to me now. She didn’t possess the kind of poise to lie flawlessly to my face. She was new to this whole thing – I had to admit, the kick had been impressive – but she was raw, vulnerable. She’d had a lot riding on my cooperation, and now that I’d spat in her face, she had no idea where to turn. What to do.
She stood up, straight off my bed, eyes on me.
“I should really just kill you. Stop all of this before it begins.”
The nonchalant way she said it made me raise an eyebrow.
“Trust me, that won’t be as easy as you think.”
We stared into each other’s eyes for a moment.
I could see the rage in her. The anger that drove so many people to try and maim or kill their fellow human beings. It usually made for extremely predictable frontal attacks, easily countered and taken care of. But I didn’t want to kill her. Firstly, because that meant that I’d have to clean the floor and dispose of a body, but secondly because, somewhere in the depths of my mind, this girl fascinated me. Her brazen confidence…
“This isn’t the last you’ll see of me,” the girl told me.
She turned to the window, and my knife hissed past her ear and slammed into the windowsill, shivering with the force of the blow. The girl froze, and I spoke again.
“I’m counting on it. So you can at least tell me your name.”
“I told you… I’m the G-“
“That was his name, not yours.”
She paused. “Casey. My name’s Casey Laughlin.”
“That makes more sense,” I agreed.
“What about you?”
I smiled humourlessly.
“Never had a choice,” I told her.
She glanced over her shoulder at me as she stepped up onto the windowsill. “You’re not him, though. You’re not insane. Not yet. If he’s playing you… stop it. Walk away. It doesn’t matter what the cost is. Gotham’s dying, and a new Joker will kill it.”
“If I walk away, people die,” I reminded her.
“They’re going to die anyway, JJ. At least it won’t be your fault.”
Then she was gone. I strode over to the window, and saw dark-green figure leaping from rooftop to rooftop, using a mixture of acrobatic ability, parkour, and improvisation. As I pulled my knife from the windowsill, and watched her vanish behind a building. Nice of her, really, paying me a courteous visit and reminding me that I wasn’t insane. Yet.
I chuckled humourlessly to myself.
If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought that she’d taken a liking to me.
Someone knocked on the door, and I could tell from the heavy footstep that it was a Blackgater, probably with Joker’s next step in the plan. I called him in, and he tossed me a small, rectangular box that looked vaguely like something that you’d put a watch in. I nodded to Beck, who hastily backed out. Then I picked up my Rossi and opened the box.
Inside were two things – a metal syringe, filled to the brim with an insidious bright green charge – and a note. It was quite tidily written, in a beautiful cursive that you normally wouldn’t attribute to a psychopath who spent most of his time killing people.
Hey, JJ! Glad to see that you’re still alive. Figuratively, of course. In any case, you’re looking at a dosage of superpowered Venom… they used to call it the Titan formula before a bunch of perfectly respectable (and DEAD) chemists went and did their absolute best to destroy it.
It’ll be good if you need a decent distraction.
Heh heh heh….
Which you will.
The boys will fill you in… they’re not the brightest, but you’ve made enough of an impression on them that they’ll still follow you. Ask for a guy called Dinner – Harley was going to eat him, long story – but he’s got the keys to the car.
I looked up from the note and cursed. Rapidly, I found a lighter on my bedside table and burned the paper to cinders, before making sure to cap the syringe and slip it into my back pocket. Then I walked down the stairs and into the kitchen, where I found Dinner, Mouse and Beck smoking. They looked up at me, and I nodded to Dinner.
“Joker said something about a car.”
Dinner looked guilty. “Yeah, about that….”
The others looked at him.
“I lost it in a poker game,” the Blackgater admitted.
“The boss’ car? Are you freakin’ insane?!” Mouse started across the table.
Joker’s calling card hissed out of my hand faster than seeing and thudded into the table two inches from his elbow, making him stop rapidly. I walked up to the table, and tugged it out of the wood, glaring at Mouse.
“If I want his head kicked in, I’ll do it myself.”
“OK, boss…” Mouse said, putting as much distance between himself and me as he could.
I turned back to Dinner, who was looking at me with a mixture of fear and respect. So he should. I’d probably just saved him from a brawl, and Mouse was a hell of a lot bigger than he was. I wouldn’t have liked his chances in a scrap with him.
“Dinner. The car. Who did you lose to?”
“Some rich guy,” Dinner said. “In one of the casinos, towards the centre of town. He was some big-shot businessman dude. I know his name, but I just can’t remember it…”
“What did he look like?” I asked.
“Tall. Dark hair. Needed a bit of a haircut, to be honest.” Dinner frowned as he tried to remember. “Definitely American. His suit wasn’t exactly top-of-the-range, but the amount of money he was putting on the table was insane, man…”
Someone trying to keep a low profile, then.
“Wayne! That’s it, it was Wayne,” Dinner said, his eyes suddenly clearing. “Richard Wayne.”
I looked at the others, who looked at me in anticipation of a fight.
Of something exciting.
Shaking my head, I nodded at Dinner.
“Thanks for the heads-up. I go alone. You boys check up on the others – make sure that they’re keeping in line. The last thing I need at the moment is attention, understand?”