And Lifts The Latch
She doesn't like working the night shift. But that's all that's available at the moment, and even jails have to be cleaned; especially jails. There's a ridiculous amount of bodily fluids that find their way to the floors, the walls, sometimes the ceilings, urine as a display of contempt for authority, blood as a display of contempt for life. Almost as if the police weren't present at all. Maybe some of it is from the police. She has no way of knowing. She is not there for the actions, just for the residue.
She doesn't have to be there on her own, anyway. There's a uniformed officer, official and impassive, standing with his hands clasped in front of him, back to the wall. His presence is reassuring but she's beginning to doubt, to wonder. There's enough stories about the occupant of this particular cell to make her lose faith in men and firepower. Not all of the stories were in the papers, some made the rounds of the poor apartments and the tenements by all the glad bearers of sad tidings. Told with a certain amount of glee, the way people crowd around train accidents and commemorate holocausts.
He's been stripped of practically everything. She wouldn't know, really, except she, of course, like everyone else, like the whole city, was watching. His home videos, aired on the TV. She doesn't dare to look at him, she thinks he'll kill her with his bare eyes. That first night as she's sweeping, mopping, as quickly as she can because she knows the officer will understand her haste, she can't hear anything except his breathing. She hurries on. He drags in one particularly deep breath, and she tenses, and he says, "Well, hello there."
"Don't speak to the prisoner," the cop tells her. She snorts.
"You don't have to tell me that," she says, but it's under her breath, and the officer doesn't hear. He does, however, and he laughs, loudly, clapping his hands She gets out of there fast.
She sleeps through the day.
Ten o'clock the next night she's back, working diligently, working hard, earning her wages. It goes smoothly till she reaches the room with his cell, a different officer this time. She doesn't sweep; she's nervous. She slops water across the floor with the mop.
"Careful, there," he advises her. His voice is low and curls around itself like smoke, like a sleeping tiger. Deliberate. She swallows. "You know," he goes on thoughtfully, steepling his fingers in front of him and tapping the pointer fingers together, "the nature of imprisonment is a curious and elusive thing. From here, it looks as though you're the one behind bars." This catches her breath right away from her and she looks up, so quickly, so briefly, but she sees his bright mad eyes and his smile, although he's not smiling. "What are you in for?"
She moves faster, and escapes, shaken, and though she sleeps through the sunlight she is restless and plagued by nightmares that are also memories, And he's waiting for her again, and takes up the conversation where they left off, as though they hadn't stopped at all.
"What were you in for, anyway?" She swallows hard, doesn't reply. He begins to guess. "Can't be theft. You've got that disturbingly honest look about you. A strange thing, honesty. Leads to such— expectations. As soon as people start expecting thing from you," he snaps his fingers, "you might as well blindfold yourself and hand them the gun. No, not theft or general crookedness." He's pointing a finger at her, she can hear it, feel it, everything but see it. "I got it. Grievous bodily harm, mm? A little assault and battery. Am I getting warm?" Her shoulders are hunched as if to ward off blows and all he's throwing at her as of yet is words. "Attempted murder? Lying in wait. Conspiracy to commit genocide. You tried to assassinate the president. Nah, that can't be it. Who would blame you?"
"Watch it," says the cop, and the prisoner makes mouth noises in response, gleefully, moistening his lips with his tongue.
"A Republican policeman. How terrifying."
"That's enough," says the cop, and he subsides, to her surprise, and she leaves, grateful to the officer. An unanticipated emotion; she hasn't felt gratitude to them for a long time. Because what good have they done her so far?
Next night, a new guard on duty. He resumes, and he's conversational, and seems understanding and merciful as though only he can begin to comprehend what she's been through. "It was self-defense, right." The cop says nothing. She straightens up from her stance, leaning her weight onto the mop.
"Self-defense. That's what I always say." It's like a confidance, one killer to another. She's looking at him before she realizes it, before her mind can catch the furtive turn of her head. He looks almost more grotesque without his makeup to hide behind, dressed in prisoner's orange; he looks like someone snuck him into reality, a fugitive from the space inside someone's head, someone who'd had a bad childhood. His skin is rough with that particular roughness men get, about the chin and temples, when they work in the sun for years, and the scars cut across it without neat edges, puckered and worn. When they were fresh, they were uncared for, had not been allowed to heal. She tries to tear her gaze away. It's like looking at a beggar, an amputee veteran on the sidewalk. Except worse because he's staring right back and not asking for anything so free as charity. "Self-defense. Am I right?" he prompts. "Didn't anyone ever tell you it's rude to stare"
"It's also rude to make assumptions about people's pasts," she manages at least, and his face, improbably, relaxes.
"I was beginning to think you were mad at me," he says. "I'd hate there to be two mad people in a room as small as this." The cop is doing nothing. She's fascinated despite herself.
"Is that what you are, then? Mad?"
"My momma always said," he says, stressing his sibilants with undue emphasis, "crazy is as crazy does. So you're going to have to ask yourself, I guess— what's crazier? Being a psychotic murderer—" Large, exaggerated air quotes around the phrase, and she bets he wishes he had his gloves to flesh out the movement, the meaning. "— or making sure his floor is clean?" He fluttered his hands like wings in the air around his face, his lank hair not even stirring. "Cuckoo— cuckoo."
It's the absence of malice that gets her. He is having a little joke at her expense, and he wants nothing more than for her to join in the fun. She comes closer to the bars, though she knows she shouldn't. The cop still says nothing and she wonders if Gotham's finest has fallen asleep on the job. She doesn't dare turn her gaze over her back to find out. "How dare you pass judgement on me," she says, still torn between anger and a sick sort of fascination, the kind that fueled the spread of news around the tenements.
"It takes one to know one," he informs her chidingly, then adopts an air, an expression, of sanctimonious apology, clasping his hands together in front of him. "Go easy on me, I've had my faith in humanity recently restored. It's enough to make anyone shaky."
She puts a hand on the bars. "I want to you take it back," she says. He stands up.
"Never move back. Only forward. If you don't want to trip on all the people you stepped on on the way—"
"Take it back," she repeats. "Please."
He wraps his hand around hers on the bar with a swiftness bordering on the supernatural, but it's how normal his hand feels that frightens her. How like a human's. He leans his grinning face into hers. Why so serious? She can feel the words coming before she hears them; she tears her hand from its captivity under his and she runs away. The cop has been awake, unblinking all this time, and she knows not to expect any help from that quarter. He shrugs back against he wall, affects an air of boredom.
The next night, he says, "This is our fifth date, you know, and, well– I got you something." He is faking a look of abashment rather well. She doesn't want to see it so she turns her eyes away. "No?" he prompts. "You scorn my attentions? Really? I'd better warn you— hell hath no fury like a psycho with a sense of humor. Didn't your mother ever tell you, 'Just say yes?'"
She bends into the work, and he watches her.
"So did you kill someone with a mop? Household cleaner, hmm? With kindness?" He sees her flinch. "The deadliest of all weapons," he says wistfully, "because they never see it coming. And if they do, it's not like they can complain. 'Uh, excuse me, officer, my wife is being really nice to me recently. She made me 3-alarm chili and she's going like a bunny rabbit. I think she's got it in for me.' No. Did I ever tell you about my wife? Remind me to tell you about my wife when I'm at liberty to demonstrate." He watches a moment more. "So what did he do to you?" he says at last, and she slams the mop into the bucket, starts to walk away.
"You missed a spot," he calls. She looks at the cop. He looks back impassively. She turns, and sees that the prisoner is pointing at a spot very near the cell which, as a matter of fact, is dry as a bone. She heaves the mop out, slops it across the floor without wringing it out first. Water makes a small river and a definite pool under the bars and into the cell. He watches her with his hollow eyes and then she looks back at him, for the briefest time, just before she begins again to walk away. He steps backwards, sighing in misplaced contentment, and his booted feet slip on the wet floor, he falls; his head hits the cement with a sickening thud, a crunch. She stands arrested, aghast, memories flooding up from their banishment in her mental cellar. The cop sighs harshly, and takes a moment to lock the door. She stares a bit wildly at him.
"If it's not a trick, then he's probably dead. Don't want anyone trying to revive him," he tells her grimly, and she knows that no matter how many of the police are in his secret employ, none of them ever want him on the streets again. They don't conform to his idea, his plan, of a cancerous society laughing at the flames; they just want to earn a little extra, not take over the world. They are no one's right hand man.
The cop unlocks the complicated impediments to freedom, enters the cell. Not without caution; lethal jokes have been played by this man before now. Real blood-spillers. He advances to the prone body after swinging the cell door shut again after him, knees crooked, arms at the ready. He walks carefully to the body, watches for breathing and finds none. She isn't breathing much herself, halfway to the door which she can now not get out of, finding herself unable to move. The cop bends down, puts his fingers on the prisoner's neck to feel for a pulse.
The prisoner's eyes spring open.
"Surprise!" he bellows, and begins to laugh, and continues laughing. What happens next is both disturbingly complicated and deviously simple, and when it is over the cop lies in his place, and isn't moving, and the prisoner is advancing towards the cell door, holding the bloody keys out like well-wielded knife. He wasn't faking all of it; blood streams down the back of his head, makes inroads on his face.
"You know," he says conversationally as she bleats panic and beats on the door which withstands her easily, not even bending. "I find that there's nothing like a little fresh air to help the senses. Clear the head, and that. Why, with a little freedom and a mind like mine, who knows—" The cell door swings open. There's nothing between them now.
"Don't you want to know what I got you?" he says.
She backs up to the door, and he advances on her, reaching coyly down his shirtfront and coming out with a spray of violently-colored plastic flowers. He shakes these and they shift into a string of flags, the colors no less bright. He wraps them around her throat and pulls lightly. She can't breathe to scream or protest even without the pressure, can only grip the flags with all her fingers and try to hold on to light, air and consciousness. He tilts his head and peers at her.
"You never did tell me what he did to you," he prompts. "Come on. Let me in on the secret. I promise not to tell anyone— unless they ask— and his lips are sealed." He jerks his head towards the policeman lying still in the cell, and narrows his eyes at her, runs his tongue around his lips. "Was it— was it bad? Did he hurt you? Were you being noble, did you both reach for the gun, did you— slip him a little arsenic in his coffee, what, come on? Rat poison?" His words spooled from him, calculated chaos on a string. "Who was he, your husband? Boyfriend? Father, brother, priest, gay roommate, what?"
She can't do anything but shake her head, and open her mouth to gasp for breath. He loosens the string of flags, nods deeply as though he understands her predicament and will allow her a little leeway for her obvious handicap.
She says, "My son."
She doesn't want to tell him anything else, and he doesn't want to hear it. His eyes light up in the most horrific way, and he breathes a quiet, "Oh," in sheer delight. And then, "You know what's wonderful? What's great, what's just so fan-freaking-tastic? You're all so close." He breathes into her face. "Five seconds away from madness and rubbing up against each other. You're all freaking nutjobs with pretensions. I don't have to do a thing except set the top spinning." His brilliant grin is all she can see. "Thank you," he tells her. "And I mean that sincerely. You've restored my sense of purpose. That whole city out there is desperately in need of an enema. And I know I got a turkey baster somewhere." He pulls her away from the wall, spins her around so her back is to him. "Let's pretend," he grinds out, "that you're a hostage. From reality. I'm offering you a chance to step into a better world, see, but in fact all I'm doing is using you as a human shield. You— I never did get your name, what was it?" His hand slides familiarly up her front till it finds her laminated identity card, and he tucks his chin into the crook of her neck to peer at it. "Ms. Quinn. You, Ms. Quinn, are something else."
His laugh vibrates right through her.
She wishes he would put the makeup back on, and she could forget her secret belief that there was still a man somewhere inside there.
"I'm going to find me a captain's hat," he spins out. "I fancy somewhere sunny."
Both hands now, creeping upwards, to find her neck. He disdains the flags now as being beneath him. His finger span her throat, and he squeezes lightly; then harder, but only as hard as it takes.
She's surprised, practically shocked, to wake some time later in the same place. Outside the door, which is now ajar, the jail is ominously silent.
He's used her mop, finished her job. He's left nothing behind, no trace, no calling card. Not even blood.