Wednesday morning in Arkham Asylum.
The mail van drove away from the delivery doors with a little extra gas. It was always the way – he drove up a little slowly, drove off a little too quickly. Keen to put the gothic monstrosity safely behind him for another twenty-four hours. Not once had he ever even gotten out of the van.
Rory couldn't blame him, really. He'd been working at Arkham Asylum for a little over six months and the joint was already under his skin. If it wasn't for the unusually high pay he received as a guard there, he might already have ditched the job.
Sorting the mail was one of the more pleasant tasks. Mainly because it didn't require any interaction, or even any proximity, to the inmates – for the most part. He and two others took care of it first thing in the morning when it came in every two weeks, grouping the mail into piles addressed to recipient. There was never very much, and it was all anonymously and safely concealed within sealed envelopes so none of them were ever subjected to whatever weirdness the inmates of the Asylum received or sent out.
The mail had already been scanned for explosives, sharp objects, powders, liquids, poisons, toxins and other miscellaneous booby-traps. In the past all the mail, both ingoing and outgoing, had been opened and read before being redirected; but the current staff had voted on preserving the privacy of personal correspondence, in conjunction with a few other minor adjustments to Asylum policy. They were constantly experimenting with little things like that, trying to assess if it had any affect at all on the inmates.
Of course, by staff, they meant the Asylum doctors. Hoi polloi like security was not consulted as to their feelings on such matters. But in this case, Rory was content. Although other guards had taken advantage of that sort of access to secure a few souvenirs for personal collections or to flog for a few dollars on eBay, Rory wasn't into that. He preferred not to know, as much as was possible. One of the other mugs who worked the mail with him – Bill – had been around when part of their task had been reading the letters addressed to and from the Asylum's infamous population.
"Gave me a peek into humanity I could've done with the curtains staying shut on," he'd rasped over a cigarette break one day, his prison-tattooed arms sun-browned and brawny, his eyes hooded and focused somewhere, far away.
That week they had a new kid on shift, having lost yet another guard to early retirement. He was full of bravado, the way young kids were these days, masking his nervousness beneath a veneer of anxious excitement at working at so notorious a place. Rory could already tell they were going to have to watch him in his interaction with the inmates – he was a prime candidate for underestimating them and being sucked into their ploys, seduced by their glamour. The inmates at Arkham were tricky in more ways than one, and most of them were crazy-smart as well. Rory had seen way too many good men go down at their hands – and he hadn't even made it through a year yet.
At any rate, the kid – Kenny – was at that point wondering out loud what it was that Pamela Lillian Isley had received in a mint-green A4-size envelope. Bill glanced up from the pile he was sorting and half-raised a bushy eyebrow.
"That's the National Rare Plants Appreciation Guild Newsletter," he said flatly. "She gets it every month."
Kenny's eyes were a little misty as he laid the envelope to one side. Rory and Bill exchanged a look, rolling their eyes. Poison Ivy's seductive charms extended beyond the realm of her pheromones. That is, until one got close enough to get a nasty rash – or a constricted throat.
"That's a big pile," Kenny nodded to a steadily growing stack of letters in all shapes and sizes by Bill's elbow. Bill snorted a little and tossed another envelope onto a smaller stack. Rory glanced up at the large pile and flinched. Many of the envelopes were in shades of green or purple and heavily decorated with images in crayon and marker, elaborate or simple, with a common motif of bright, smiling faces and grinning mouths.
There was a moment of silence as Kenny waited, his wiry arms uncertainly drawing another bundle of mail into his lap for sorting, his chocolate brown hair curling over his slightly dull eyes. Rory said nothing, just looked back down at his stack.
"The Joker." Bill finally replied, shortly, and Kenny's eyes widened, clearly impressed. "He gets a lot. Well, for a place like this anyhow."
Kenny's eyes flickered to The Joker's stack. He all-too-obviously wanted to touch some of it. Rory felt himself tense. Bill scratched the back of his head and shrugged. "He's always been a popular one. Gets it from all sorts. Lotsa freaks and poofs a'course. But mostly from women."
"Women, wow." Kenny was star-struck and Rory wanted to backhand him.
"Yeah," Bill's upper lip twitched in disgust. "Never could figure it."
Bill swept the assorted jumble of letters into a neat stack and laid them on top of a huge pile of newspapers crammed in a large mail bin. Kenny gestured towards it with a jerk of his head.
"All those newspapers too?"
The three of them looked at the assortment of publications: Daily Planet, Gotham Times, Austin Chronicle, Las Vegas Sun, New York Post, Bludhaven Traveller, Daily Record, Jamestown Sun, City News Los Angeles, Central City Bugle, San Francsico Guardian, Kansas City Star, Detroit News; and on it went. Rory had never bothered to ask. Didn't seem worth the wondering. But Kenny, of course, did.
"What's he use them all for?"
Bill shrugged again. "Can't say. Doctors haven't figured it either. A whole bunch of Feds were in once, combing through them every week, trying to work out what he was doing. Thought maybe messages in the personals, or something like that. Couldn't find anything. He's got his regulars, but every now and then he'll ask for some small county paper for a couple of weeks too, then lose interest in it."
Rory smiled wryly and quipped: "Maybe he's building himself a giant paper plane to fly outta here."
The three of them chuckled and the mystery was forgotten. They finished sorting the mail, then pushed back their chairs and stood up, Kenny with a spring and Bill with a groan and Rory with the crack of several joints in his spine. Bill gestured with a jerk of his head to Joker's bin.
"You want to do the honours today?" He queried Rory, but before he could answer, Kenny spoke up.
"Is it okay if I do it?" He stared at them both hopefully. Rory and Bill turned slowly to look at each other in silence, features fixed in an attitude of quiet resignation. "Please?"