Chapter 14

Disclaimer: Batman and related characters are the property of DC Comics.

Author's Note: I think if I rewrite this final chapter one more time my eyes may fall out! So - here it is.

The woman who runs into the room (and it is a woman, I can hear the heels even more clearly at this range) knows exactly where she's headed, and oh God, it's directly for me. But she doesn't see me. I see her thin legs, her feet in their broken shoes, as she leans over the child's bed, her breath gasping in her throat. She's been crying. The rawness of her emotion is clear as she leans over the pillows.

"It's all right darling. It's all right. Mummy's here. Mummy's here. Don't be frightened. Don't be frightened…."

Mrs Wright. Jesus, why's she still here? She must be thinking she can take her child to safety, but she can't. The kid's on full life support. If those tubes and wires come out she'll be dead in a very short while, unable to breathe on her own and with her little heart unable to keep rhythm.

"Don't be frightened," Mrs Wright whispers, her voice breaking as she struggles to comfort a child who probably can't even hear her. For a moment I remember what it was like when I was young and my mother picked me up after I fell from my bike. The feeling of safety in the arms of your mother is incomparable, and I would give anything to feel that safe right now.

Even if I live through this, I don't know if I'll ever feel safe again.

Mrs Wright breaks off with a choking sob as the Joker's voice sings out once more in the corridors, this time sounding as if he's right outside. "Honey," he croons, "I'm home."

Then he kicks the doors open too and I instinctively flatten myself against the wall further, trying to hide.

Gotham General Hospital, Corridors, 8.25 a.m.

"Honey, I'm ho-ooome!"

Batman made an immediate left at the next available intersection. The grey hospital corridors flicked past in his peripheral vision. All look the same. Keep talking, Joker.

As if in response, the madman's cheerful, invasive voice crooned out again and Batman growled inwardly as he paused for precious seconds to make sure of the direction it was coming from. "Oh baby…"

Intensive Care Ward, 8.26 a.m.

"Oh baby," sings the Joker, his throat sounding much improved from when I last examined it. "I love it when you look at me with those come-to-bed eyes. Shove the depressing sick sprog aside, sweet cheeks, let's bounce on the mattress."

I hear the mattress creak as Mrs Wright pushes herself up onto the bed. She must be practically lying on top of her child, trying to shield the helpless little body with her own. She says nothing. I can hear her breathing, ragged and harsh, and the echoes as the madman walks forward. Even his walk is theatrical, the rhythm of his steps carefully measured. One step, two step…he must be walking like a dancer, placing one foot carefully in front of the other in a balanced swagger. My hand cramps and I panic, flexing the fingers desperately, trying to stay silent even through the pain of muscle spasm.

"I love what you've done with the place," says the Joker, and as he speaks I can almost see his thin, chalk-white face turning assessingly from side to side. His voice bounces off the walls. "A bit of a fixer-upper…but hey, I understand. A single mom. Life can be tough." The tone has changed again. Now he's a solicitous social worker, genuinely concerned about the trials and tribulations of widows and their kids. Hell, he sounds so genuine I'd almost believe that voice myself if it was speaking to me through my front door.

He's drawing closer now, those graceful, measured steps sounding loud on the floor. Walking like a gunslinger, making an entrance, making a scene. If I lean down further I could probably catch a glimpse of those sooty Cuban heels: but I hardly dare breathe, let alone move.

The mattress above me creaks again. Then Mrs Wright's voice, tremulous, but filled with something I did not expect: cold fury, overwhelming her fear. "Don't hurt my baby. You bastard, you won't hurt my baby again."

There is a moment of silence. I can only imagine the expression on his face - the look of a cat who lifts his paw to find he has been bitten by the mouse.

Then he laughs. In the face of her defiance, where the poor woman must have screwed up every ounce of her strength, her emotion, to confront him: he laughs. Laughs as if it's the most wonderful, frivolous joke in the world.

"Oh," he gasps after a moment, "oh, my dear. You are priceless."

And that's when I get it, the whole reason this one skinny madman inspires so much terror in both me and the rest of the sane world: why his guards are wired up like Animal Patrol and why he's kept on his own, isolated from everyone. All our striving, all our hopes and fears and pains, all of the things that make us who we are and the things that give our lives meaning - our children, our families - to the Joker none of that means anything.

It's as if by his careless ridicule alone he has the power to steal all your greatest loves and certainties away. I certainly never thought I'd have doubts about treating a patient, hell, I'd've treated Charles Manson if he was in pain and in my hospital. But a few scant hours with the Joker and I want to take that broken arm and twist it until he can't laugh that awful laugh anymore.

Except I don't have the nerve: and he's probably armed.

The Cuban heels click on the floor again, one step. I struggle not to give myself away, my hand cramping again viciously, the pain biting like a rat into my palm. I try to focus on something else to distract me, looking towards the next bed along and its accompanying med trolley. It's Mrs Bolland's trolley, the lady who didn't quite come out of her hip replacement operation quite as well as we'd hoped. There are various items on the trolley: towels, a kidney bowl, a line of spare IV tubing, a bag of saline drip - and a filled syringe.

The orderly making his rounds must have been surprised by the alarms in the middle of seeing to Mrs Bolland. She's not like the other coma patients, Mrs Bolland - hers is an induced state, keeping her fairly heavily sedated while her shattered pelvis tries to heal. Wouldn't normally be necessary, but Mrs Bolland is a good few sandwiches short of a picnic and has re-broken her fragile, octogenarian pelvis several times because she refuses to lie still and rest naturally.

Her family aren't best pleased about it, but to be quite honest I'm thanking God for Mrs Bolland right now, because I just know that hypo is chockfull of enough sedative to knock out a horse.

The pain in my hand is a fading memory. Now I have a plan. All I can hope for now is the courage to do what I know I must…

Gotham General Hospital, Corridors, 8.26am

The Joker's happy hollering had fallen quiet. Batman held his breath and stood statue-still for a tense second.

He must be close. Must be. But no-one wants to hear cries of pain or sounds of distress in a hospital. The doors and walls are good at muffling sound.

He was listening so hard, the sudden gunshot was almost deafening, and his muscles tightened as the bullet clipped the edge of his cape. Flattened against the wall, he counted tersely to five in his head, then said:

"It's me. Why did you take the gun?"

There were three rapid steps from around the corner, then Catwoman's masked face appeared, her lips curled in a very unflattering scowl. The cop's gun was clasped loosely in her sleek black glove. "Damn," she muttered, a small, teasing smile tweaking the edges of her pout. "Missed you."

Batman looked impassively across at her.

"Were you going to shoot him?"

"No," said Selina, sarcasm lacing her tone liberally. "I was going to give him a bullet as an early Christmas present. To make sure he didn't lose it, I was going to give it to him in his forehead. Hey!"

This last exclamation was due to Batman's heavy gauntlet reaching out and snatching the gun by the barrel. Catwoman put her hands on her hips, infuriated.

"Give that back."

Batman didn't respond. His head tilted up, listening: then he shoved past Catwoman and broke into a run once more, cape billowing out behind him. The gun he threw into a hamper of laundry as he passed. "Hey!" Catwoman shouted. "Hey!"

But then she heard it too: a woman, screaming as if her very soul was being ripped from her body through her throat. Selina turned too, then, and ran after Batman, her boots hammering the floor.

Intensive Care Ward, 8.27am

I finally persuade my terrified, locked muscles to move. Only very slightly, and very, very slowly, but we're moving and that's the important part. My blood pounds through my head, and my face feels unnaturally hot. Sweat trickles into the corner of one of my eyes and I nearly bite my own tongue off as a gunshot rings out somewhere close, very close.

"Ding-dong! Are visiting hours over?" the Joker asks sadly, and I can tell by the echoes of his harsh voice that he is right at the bedside, looking up at the big, executive clock on the far wall. "Aww, that's too bad. Lady, I'm afraid you're going to have to leave."

A barely human howl from Mrs Wright as the Joker obviously lashes out or makes some threatening move that I can't see from this angle. Words eventually emerge. "Get away! Get away from me! You won't hurt my little girl, not again, not again!"

"Tchah," sniffs the Joker, obviously to himself, "poor woman's deranged. Quite coo-coo. Sad really. Honey - "

Mrs Wright yelps again as he moves. At a guess I'd say he was leaning close enough to her now to reach out and pat her pale cheek. "Honey. I've never seen you or your charity case Cabbage Patch kid before today. And I certainly haven't hurt her." I can hear the awful grin in his voice as it spreads across his face, pulling that wide gash of mouth up at the corners. "Not a curly golden hair on your angel-baby's ickle tube-infested head. Now don't cloud the issue, please, I'm busy." A pause. "Now what was I busy doing again? Dear, dear, mind like a sieve - an exceptionally brilliant sieve, obviously - but what was it, what was it…"

He's playing. I wish I could see exactly where he's standing so I'd know better if I had a clear shot at getting hold of that syringe.

"Ooh yes," the Joker says suddenly, and I can imagine one of those thin white fingers stabbing triumphantly at the air. "That was it. I was getting hold of you so that when Bats gets here I get to see that marvellous look of disgust on his pvc-covered puss." The bed creaks alarmingly and Mrs Wright chokes out a cry. The IV stand a few inches away from me rocks and slides in toward the bed, pulled by the feed. I'm guessing she's lifting her child up, cradling her, doing all she can to get between her baby and the monster.

"Still holding on to Momma's apron strings?" the Joker says in a sing-song mocking tone, and I realise with a jolt of shock that he's actually addressing the unconscious child now. Jeez, this guy's unbelievable."Oh, Sleeping Beauty. It's about time you realised your Prince ain't never gonna come for you."

A very tense pause, then Mrs Wright shrieks, a banshee wail.

"Don't you touch her! Don't you dare touch her!"

"And you," the Joker sighs, his attention drawn back to Mrs Wright. "You need to learn that children need their independence, cupcake. You have to let go. You have to…"

Mrs Wright screams so loudly at this point that I think I've missed the end of the Joker's sentence, and adrenalin burns through my veins. I have to do something. I can't let him hurt her.

"…cut the umbilical," the Joker concludes, and I can hear the smile. "Nurse? Scalpel."

To a soundtrack of the woman's screams I lurch upright from my hiding place and dive for the syringe. I have time for one glimpse, and one glimpse only, of the scene on the bed. Mrs Wright has flung herself at the Joker, her pale arms grabbing and scratching for his face, his hair, anything to try and hurt him. The madman himself is hunched over the bed like a long-limbed spider, and my heart lurches as I see the gleam of the scalpel in his good hand. The long, clever fingers are at work doing something, but through the flurry of the mother's hair and her frenzied blows, I can't see what.

I have eyes only for the sharp resting on its metal tray. I'm aware as I reach out that I have to be very careful with this: I'm only going to get one try, and if I fumble it I'm a dead man. Mrs Wright's screams are hoarse now. A dull thumping rings in my ears, and I only belatedly realise that it is the sound of the desperate woman's fists as they beat a frantic tattoo on the madman's arms and chest.

I turn, scrambling to gain my balance and try to collect myself for the thing I have to do. I decide to aim for the shoulder of the bad arm, if I can. Oh God, oh god. The muscles in my hand cramp with renewed terror. But I've got the sharp, and with that I've got a chance to -

Something unbelievably hard that goes clang with a metal finality hits with cold force right across my nose as I turn. Through the almost immediate blurring of pain and my eyes watering, I see the Joker pulling back, and then the same cold, hard thing hits me again, with more force.

"Doctor Kelly," says the Joker, sounding delighted. "Is it time for my shots again already? But I only had my tetanus last week."

I can't think straight any more. All my thoughts are arriving in my mind broken, in the wrong order, fuzzy and faraway like dreams of childhood. The smell of disinfectant is suddenly overwhelming: I'm drowning in it, sickening on it. I open my mouth to try and speak and taste blood like liquid metal on my tongue.

Oh God. Forgive me. I failed.

end of diary extract

Batman shouldered his way in through the doors in time to see Doctor Kelly slumping to the floor at the Joker's feet, his face bloodied. The madman still had his good arm raised: in his fingers was gripped a large, stainless steel kidney bowl, which he had obviously just finished beating the doctor about the head with. A screaming woman was clinging to his broken arm and thrashing out at him with all her strength. The Joker looked a wreck. Blood dripped out steadily from under the strapping on his arm, and his eyes were bloodshot and wild above the manic expanse of grin. He had a short, shiny scalpel clutched in the fingers of his bad arm.

"Oh, do stop henpecking, dear," he said with a world-weary roll of those jaundiced eyes. His good arm swung back and grabbed the woman by her hair, dragging her head back painfully. Still she fought, kicking at him, clawing like a captive wildcat, as he gradually forced her to her knees at his side. "We have company. I hate it when we have to have our little tiffs in front of guests."

Batman's eyes flicked around the room as he advanced slowly, taking in every little detail. The uniform rows of beds with their silent occupants. The syringe lying a few inches in front of Kelly's outflung hand. The IV stand leaning drunkenly over the bed where the little girl lay. The weeping, hysterical woman hanging cowed by her hair from the Joker's hand. And finally, the Joker himself, chest heaving with exertion, blood dappling his clothes and the shining floor.

"You must be in a lot of pain," said Batman to the madman, almost absently, and took a few more steps forward.

"Oh please," snorted the Joker. "I'm starting to think you're stalking me. I may have to get a restraining order issued."

"You'd never do that," said Batman, quietly. He was getting ever closer, and had the satisfaction of seeing the Joker glance around for exits uneasily.

However arrogant he is, however crazy he's gotten over the years - something in him, some purely animal instinct is telling him he's at the end of his rope. He's injured, weakening, and cornered.

He has never been more dangerous than he is at this moment.

Batman turned his attention to the woman at the Joker's side. "Mrs Wright. Alison."

The weeping, red-rimmed eyes turned to stare at him. She had stopped fighting and her expression was empty. Batman felt something twist in his gut as he met her eyes. He recognised that look from the mirrors of his youth: the face of someone who has lost too much to want to fight for life.

All at once his fury at the Joker returned, doubled and reinforced by the impotent fury of his grieving child self at the murder of his parents. Careful. "You don't know who she is, do you?" he said, coldly, stopping a careful distance away from the madman. Too close could result in disaster, but equally too far away could be just as hazardous. The Joker frowned, red lips pursed thoughtfully as if pondering a particularly engrossing math problem. He seemed utterly unaware that a fine trembling had started up in his limbs, the sure sign of muscles on the verge of collapse.

"Hmm. Lemme see."

He tilted down briefly and pulled hard on the woman's hair to yank her face up to look. He grimaced. "Ugh. No. I'd remember crows feet like that."

"Sam Wright. Tobacconist. Had a shop in Lower Hart Boulevard." Batman noted the shift of the scalpel in the Joker's bloodied fingers and took another half step forward. Years of experience had taught him to sense the crisis points in confrontations, and this one was rocketing, out of control, towards an explosion. The Joker's weakness was that he loved to hear the sound of his own voice, and he was as curious as a cat. Keep his interest, keep him talking, and I have a chance. This is risky, but unless I can wrong-foot him, put him off -balance, his arrogance will keep him going far longer I'd like. I know something he doesn't. Time to use that knowledge.

"You killed him."

There was a choking sob from the woman. Batman, pushing her distress from the forefront of his mind so that it didn't distract him, pressed on before the Joker could lose interest. "Three years ago. You'd been on the loose for nearly a month. You went into the shop, attracted by the window display. Mr Wright had a weak heart. You intimidated him so much that he died of fright over his counter. No-one suspected you'd had anything to do with it. Heart attacks happen." In his mind, Batman could see the little scene, the terrified man cowering back from the skinny lunatic with two heavy, masked henchmen at his side, his plump back shoved up hard against the bottles and packets behind the counter."Six days later, you blew up the County Square Mall. Mr Wright's six-year-old daughter was in the creche at the time." The woman's sobs were relentless now. "Josephine Wright. She's been in a coma for three years." Batman took a final step forward and played his riskiest card. "You said you wanted your revenge for what was done to you, Joker? So did Alison Wright. And she has had it."

The Joker was standing very still now, and that in itself was frightening. "Look at yourself," said Batman, harshly. "You're beaten, and she has done it all."

There it is. Crisis point. But which way will he go? Explosion or slow burn?

"Blah blah blah," said the Joker, his voice sounding cracked again, and affectedly bored. His white fingers twitched as he hauled Alison Wright to her feet at his side, and his arm was trembling as he held her inches from his face. "Too bad, sweetheart. You and I could have been great together. If only you'd learn to stop the waterworks and smile once in a while." He grinned, cheek muscles flinching away from the widening mouth. "But then you went and spoiled it all by doing something stupid like sedaaating meeee…" he sang, and continued to hum as his bad arm, dripping blood lazily and with the scalpel shining in it, came up and he began to slice into the woman's face.

Explosion. Batman was already moving: when the loud report of the gunshot clamoured in his ears his fist had already connected with the Joker's jaw. The bullet tore through his billowing cape and ripped through the Joker's suit at the shoulder as the madman staggered backwards from the force of the blow. Batman pounced, arm pulling back for a follow-up punch and driving his knee forward to pin the Joker across the chest as the madman lay sprawled on the floor: but it wasn't necessary. Weak, wounded and at the end of his strength, the Joker lay felled by the single blow, his jaw already beginning to swell and bruise and eyes rolled senselessly back.

Batman, hunched like a shadow on the floor over him, turned his head to look over one shoulder. "Your aim is terrible."

Catwoman, leaning in the doorway with the gun hanging carelessly from one hand, gave him a delicate shrug. "Why are you complaining? I didn't hit you, did I?"

"And your timing is worse."

Batman carefully turned the Joker over so that he was lying face down and then snapped restraints round his wrists. Never underestimate him, even when he's unconscious. Odd. When he's conscious his very vitality distracts from the fragility of him. It's like glamour, in the old sense, a magic that conceals who you really are. A mask. A flim-flam. Now he just looks...very human and very sick.

He turned, rising, and walked over to the bed where Mrs Wright was huddled on top of the bedclothes. She was rocking backwards and forwards with her child in her arms, crying with dry eyes now as if there were no more tears to shed.

"Alison," Batman said softly. She didn't look up until the heavy black gauntlet touched lightly, so lightly to her back, just below the neck.

"He didn't even know," she cried. "He didn't even know…"

Batman looked down at the slumped figure of Josephine Wright as her mother sobbed and rocked her. All the tubes and wires that should have connected the little girl to the machines that were keeping her alive had been neatly severed by a scalpel.


Batman stayed crouched at Alison's side like a shadowas the ward was invaded by police.

I failed…

Private Ward C-1, Gotham General Hospital

Two days later


The voice brought Leslie Thompkins out of her light sleep, and she turned her head to see the figure sat at her bedside.

"Well," she said, smiling. "I might have known you'd come and see me eventually. Too busy to visit an old lady, I suppose? Although I gather I do have Mr Wayne to thank for this move to a private room."

The mouth under the line of the cowl did not even twitch.

"Bruce," said Leslie, lowering her voice. "What's wrong?"

"I failed."

The tone was matter-of-fact, but with an underlying layer of complete despair that tore at Leslie's heart.

"You got him," she said, reaching out with her unburnt hand to touch the black-clad arm. "I saw it on the TV yesterday. And by the looks of him you got him good. I've never seen a man look so ill and beaten, and believe me I've seen a lot in my time at the clinic."

"That wasn't me."

A pause. "That was the work of an ordinary woman. The Joker killed her husband, frightened him to death in his own shop, and she was the only one who suspected the truth. Barely a day after her husband was buried, the Joker blows up a mall and her daughter is caught in the blast, hospitalised and on full life support.

"It then takes her the best part of three years to complete her plan. She sells all she has, her husband's business, her house in the good part of town, and she goes to live in a low-rent apartment building, where she eventually manages to track down a contact for a hitman through her neighbours. It takes half of all her money just to hire him and provide him with the equipment he needs to break the Joker out of Arkham and keep him subdued for a while.

"The other half of the money goes on explosives. She wants him dead, but she also wants to make sure that the police and all of Gotham believe that his own cowardly actions caused his demise. And what does the Joker do best? Chaos, and murder, on an extravagant scale. If she'd simply had him taken out in Arkham, all hell would have broken loose to find his killer, both within the police and in Gotham's underworld, too. This way she thought she was ensuring a clean end to it all, a justifiable death for the man who stole her life and the lives of so many others. And if he had burnt to death as she intended, he would have suffered greatly as he died."

Batman realised he had the sheets of Leslie's bed gripped in his hands convulsively: he let them go.

"It's horrible, but it's ingenious," said Leslie, slowly. "Poor woman."

"She thought about what she was going to do," Batman went on, softly. "She thought about it for a long time. She had nothing else to think about once her family was gone. But she didn't think about it enough. The targets she chose to detonate were empty factories, shipping depots - minimum casualties, or so she thought." He looked into the doctor's eyes. "But she didn't anticipate that the blasts might take out not only the building they were triggered in but the buildings on each side as well. "

"The carpet cutting factory was next to my clinic," Leslie sighed.

"She wasn't an expert on explosives." Batman paused and bit back on the immediate thought: like the Joker. "She didn't really appreciate the full power of the bombs she had set." I wonder what she thought when she realised she had killed? Did she see it on the news? Did she care? I saw her at the hospital visiting her child directly after the explosions. Her enemy was lying wounded in the same hospital, but she didn't know…

The doctor reached up with one bandaged hand to run her fingers through her hair: then she asked, gently: "How many died? They won't tell me. They keep telling me to rest, not to worry. How can I not worry? There were children in my clinic, Bruce…"

The eyes under the cowl held her gaze steadily. "Seventeen died, in all.A night watchmen. A fireman crushed under debris at the Amway warehouse. Two night shift workers at the cold storage building on Terrace Hill, killed instantly when the bomb went off right under their rec room." He paused. "The rest were from your clinic."

Leslie closed her eyes and her face, grey with fatigue, creased in tired lines across her forehead. "Thankyou," she breathed quietly after a moment, "I knew you of all people wouldn't lie to me."

"I never could."

The doctor opened her eyes again and looked at Batman seriously. "I want the names," she said, with as much force as she could manage. "It's my duty. Those people were in my care and I will not completely abandon my responsibility simply because they are dead."

The cowl nodded. "I understand. I'll make sure you get them." He paused. "The child died. Couldn't be revived."

Leslie reached out again and traced the flat of her palm down the side of Batman's face.

"You haven't failed," she said. "Please don't beat yourself up over this. There was no way you could have anticipated it. She was an ordinary woman. It's not as if she had a pattern you could predict or an agenda you could have guessed." Batman looked away at that moment, and Leslie's final words to him caused him to clench his teeth.

"She's not one of your super villains, Bruce."

Wayne Manor, evening.

"I'm not staying, Alfred."

The butler, who was stood calmly in the study with a silver tray balanced on one hand, did not make any display of surprise. Bruce removed Batman's cape and poked a finger through each of the two bullet holes with a quizzical expression. Hmm. Forgot about these.

"Shall I get my sewing kit, sir?" said Alfred, a flicker of disapproval crossing his face.

Bruce nodded, dropping the cape on the desk where it lay like a pool of shadow. "Please."

With Bruce Wayne's clothes I would never even think of mending them. Bruce Wayne would throw an imperfect suit away and buy ten new ones. But these clothes…

He turned away from Alfred, who was still patiently holding the tray of sandwiches. "I'm going to change into a new suit before I go out again."

"Evening dress, sir?" said Alfred, without a hint of sarcasm. "A society function perhaps?"

"No." In his mind he was already there, walking the corridors, feeling the claustrophobia and hate that permeated the very walls. "Social call."

Arkham Asylum. Night.

Snap. Snap. Snap.

The cheap, plastic-coated cards made a repetitive sound as they were dealt endlessly onto the table.

"How does it feel?"

Snap. Snap. Snap. The Joker never paused. His wrists were shackled in carefully padded steel restraints that gleamed cheerfully in the light. Batman watched him intently from the shadows by the door.

The rogue influenza strain had proved vulnerable to a veritable cocktail of antibiotics, so the Arkham doctors had told him. The Joker's own ridiculously robust immune system had already done the greater part in killing off the virus even before he had been admitted, senseless and bleeding, to the mental hospital's infirmary wing. Now clad in familiar bright orange shirt and slacks, with the soft matching canvas shoes on his feet, the madman looked almost comfortable, wearing his fading bruises and band-aids like trophies.

"How does it feel?" Batman repeated, leaning forward just slightly so his cape and shoulders were carved out of their shadowed darkness by the spill of light from above the table.

"I won't feel like chatting," said the Joker levelly, "until I've dealt you in." He picked up the cards already scattered before him on the table, shuffled them with a flourish. Batman watched impassively as the Joker dealt out six cards, then another eleven, one after the other. The madman's white hand extended with a rattle of cuff. "Pick one."

Batman never moved. The Joker held the pack extended for a few seconds, then grinned and drew the top card himself, holding it out for inspection.

Queen of Hearts.

"How does it feel, Batsy, baby," murmured the Joker, tapping one long finger against the table. The rest of the arm was bound up tightly in surgical tape and bandages. "What a question. What a silly, silly question."

Batman recognised he was being baited, and waited patiently as the Joker drew another card, holding this one close to his chest and peering out from behind it at his visitor.

"She got the better of you," said Batman quietly, after a while. "How does it feel?"

The white fingers holding the card fluttered once in a dismissive gesture. "How keen you are to put me down, old friend," said the Joker with a sad little smile. "I think you should be asking yourself first. She got the better of you, really, didn't she?"

He laid the card he was holding down across the queen on the table. It was, of course, a joker.

"I hear she's gone down hard," the Joker went on, one long finger tapping each of the cards he had previously dealt as he walked his hand across the table. Batman found himself counting in his head at each tap.

one, two, three, four, five…

"I hear you were the one who handed her over to the cops as soon as you'd dragged her away from clinging to her poor wee infant's cold, dead body…"

Batman refused to show any

thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen…seventeen.

"Seventeen people, Bats." The Joker leant forward over the table, his thin face alight with a sudden enthusiasm. "I could almost be impressed if it wasn't all so terribly passe. One fat cancer-jockey pops his clogs at the mere sight of my incredibly gorgeous face, and three years later seventeen people are dead and there are eleven lovely barbecues heating up Gotham City." He picked up the queen and the joker and pressed them together. "A credit to my genius. A disciple learning at my feet. A priestess at the shrine of the eternal jest."

He's taking credit for this…this travesty?

The thought passed through Batman's mind in a swift silver flicker, followed instantly by the slower, more world-weary thought: of course he is.

"I would rather have had you charged with those seventeen deaths," he said, voice still level and giving nothing away. "But that's not the way it works. You were the victim in this situation, not the villain. She killed them. She will pay the price. That's justice."

"Oh, but you can't deny that it was my touch of class that gave this whole sordid little episode of Days of Our Lives meaning," said the Joker happily, sweeping the seventeen dealt cards into a pile and putting down the joker card on top of them. The queen he picked up and toyed with absently.

"I can and I will." Even though I know you are, in some small way, correct, I can't agree with you on this. That way madness lies.

"Pfft," scoffed the Joker, and with a single gesture he flicked the queen of hearts from his hand and the card flew from the table, landing in the shadows, lost to view. "No-one ordinary could have put a scheme as much fun as this together without a little help from lil' ol' me." The grin widened as he leant forward again with a clank from the cuffs. An answering clank came from under the table as he kicked his feet in glee. "Niezsche, baby. If you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss stares also into you? Course, I'm biased - the abyss couldn't help staring at me if it tried, God love it. Sweet thing."

Batman was silent for a long moment in the darkness.

Isn't that what worries me, really, deep down? She was an ordinary woman, who when her life was touched by the supervillain, the fantastical, the terrible nightmare, became part of his madness, part of his world.

In trying to fight against him and all he stands for, hasn't she become him?

Niezsche, baby…Those who fight with monsters…is it that easy?

Batman watched the Joker, who was picking his teeth with flagrant unconcern. He had slipped his wrists from the handcuffs without apparently really noticing he'd done it.


No reply.


The Joker spoke up into the silence, but the silence was empty, all-consuming. Alone once more in his cell, the madman smiled and winked at the CCTV camera. "I'm ready for my close-up. Be harsh. Be brutal." One white finger wagged sternly at the stolid lens. "But most of all, be sure you get my best side."

The grey corridors echoed with his laughter, and his neighbouring inmates sobbed and railed and beat their fists against the walls, willing it to stop. In the corner on the floor, the discarded card lay glimmering in the darkness until the lights went out all over Arkham that night.

Gotham General Hospital, night

Extract from the diary of Ari Kelly, 32 years old, doctor of this parish:

I guess I'm a hero, although I don't really feel much of one. The girl who works on reception gave me a kiss this morning when I went back on full shift for the first time since the hospital went to hell that night with the Joker. Funny, I never even really noticed her before, but today she called me over, kissed my cheek and said "I just wanted to say thank you."

Turns out her grandma is in the same ward as Mrs Bolland, in the next bed no less. To her I'm the guy who tried to bring the Joker down. I had my photo in the papers and everything, right next to the stock photo of Batman they always drag out on these occasions.

No-one seems to mind that I didn't actually manage it. No-one seems to care that I didn't save anybody. They don't even seem to have realised that I'm not a superhero, I'm just an ordinary guy who almost got his ass kicked in the worst way imaginable.

I wonder if this is how Batman feels all the time?

He must have been an ordinary guy, once. I don't see him being squeezed into the world by his momma complete with little cowl and cape. Long ago, perhaps, but still he must once have been just a guy who saw some crap going down and decided to take a stand, even if he was shit-scared about what would happen if he failed.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about this, and as I go out the firedoors to grab a smoke in my break, it hits me: just being in the presence of extremes, good or bad, can change you for life. Batman came into this whole mess with his eyes wide open and he took a chance on me. He trusted me to do what I knew was right: treat the Joker, even though he is a killer, and not falter when I had the means to try and help.

Even though I was shit-scared about dying when I failed. Hey, who knew the crazy would turn out to be innocent?

Damn, this cigarette packet feels empty. Lousy orderlies. They keep sneaking my smokes when I leave my coat hanging up in the scrubs room…

I tip up the empty packet and a small card, no bigger than a business card, falls out into my hand. It's expensive card with a fine grain, and printed on one side with a single line of black text. I run my finger over its surface and realise it's embossed, with the curving shape of a bat, and then I read the words.

Try giving these up.

And I laugh, the first time I've laughed properly in what feels like months. Hell. If I can survive the Joker, cold turkey should be a breeze.

"Well, what d'you know!" I grin into the darkness as it starts to drizzle with rain. "I'm feeling heroic!"