Author's note: one-shot taking a look at some collateral damage; set after the events of The Dark Knight. No infringement intended, just borrowing the characters, yadda yadda.
A gloved hand clamped firmly down across her mouth. The gasp of protest was smothered before it could begin.
"Shh, shh, shh…" the low voice shushed with a chuckle, tickling her ear.
The shortcut hadn't even been through a particularly dangerous street. She'd lived in Gotham for three years, trying to escape a boring, humdrum small town life. She wasn't an oblivious out-of-towner who couldn't tell the common or garden mugger/hooker/street rat infested blocks from the areas where the wrong accent or a funny look at a gangbanger would get you shot, and the police would wait until sun-up for the day-shift to stop by and bag what was left of you. Hell, on this particular block there were even a couple of mom-and-pop stores with windows that weren't boarded up, and if you parked your car on the street you probably had a fifty-fifty chance of coming back an hour later and finding more than a gutted shell up on some bricks!
Not exactly the white-picket-fence suburban dream, but for Gotham that made the area not too shabby.
As a girl who worked six double shifts a week in a squalid bar in the Narrows, and still had to stretch to pay the rent on one room above another even more squalid bar-cum-strip club (coarse pun intended), she would have done some pretty graphic things to be able to rent a place in this street. It was mostly the sights and smells of the more drunken strip-club patrons, passed out next to the entrance to her cramped accommodation, that had so far deterred her from seeking such alternative employment, no matter how better paid it might be. That and some possibly misguided sense of self-worth that just wouldn't let her go one more step down the ladder or turn tail and run home to mommy and daddy. Not yet. But give her time; the stubborn pride seemed to weaken every morning she had to drag herself out of bed to face another exhausting day.
She had assumed that the men in the alleyway were in a similar condition to the drunken clients she saw every night. One was lying on the ground, seemingly too senseless to walk, while the others were bent over him. Scruffy clothes, muttered voices. Friends drunkenly encouraging him up, muggers stealing his wallet, she didn't really care.
From long experience she knew not to get involved. Just keep on walking, look straight ahead, try not to attract attention. Ignore any cat-calls. Most of all don't look nervous. Looking like a victim was putting yourself half way there, like a gazelle lying docilely on a plate.
She didn't want to be a victim tonight. She just wanted to crash out, get a few hours sleep and start the never-ending toil that was her life again in six hours. Maybe it would be a lucky day and she'd win the state lottery. Maybe her slobby, disgusting boss would only letch at her and not grab her ass every time she squeezed past him to get a case of beer from the backroom. Maybe she'd even just manage to make it through another day and get the chance to crash out and sleep again. That was normally the most luck she got.
But then she saw the guns clutched in the hands of the men leaning over the prostrate body. And she realised for the first time that he was wearing a uniform of some kind, almost like a cop... And then she suddenly noticed that he was still. Far too still.
She hadn't been able to prevent herself from staring, and now she was too close. They would look up at any second and see her there, stock still just a few yards away and gawping at them. If she turned and ran they would shoot her without blinking, she was sure of it. They seemed to have already killed or pretty badly injured a cop; whatever they did to her wouldn't make much difference to any jail time.
It was at that moment, nerves jangling with indecision and adrenaline, so very nearly ready for flight and damn the consequences, that a strong arm had snaked around her waist from behind and the gloved hand darted across her mouth.
"Shh shh shh… no screaming now, missy."
She found herself pulled in tight against the owner of the voice, his arm locked around her. She tried to twist her head away from the hand that covered her mouth but it seemed glued in position as she darted her head left and right.
"Tut tut." The voice admonished quietly. "Be still." The arm around her waist grew tighter, constricting. It became harder to breathe and she swore she felt her ribs creak, but it certainly reduced both her ability and enthusiasm for squirming.
The men around the body had stopped what they were doing and now looked over towards her struggle. She noted for the first time, with an almost detached interest that she attributed to rapidly becoming short of oxygen, that they were wearing cheap-looking clown masks. This caused a rising sense of panic that immediately overrode her concerns about oxygen.
Thugs with clown masks. Unless there were now copy-cat gangs of circus mask-wearing psychos running around Gotham that meant they were part of the group that had killed all those people with the shooting and explosions and car chases with frickin' trailer trucks. Then they'd tried to get hundreds more people to blow each other up on those ferries. Working long hours and without a tv she only knew what she'd heard from staff and patron gossip, and some out-of-date kept newspapers behind the bar for wrapping broken glasses in. She wasn't up on current affairs but even she hadn't missed all that a month or two ago.
She was just thankful that the lunatic with the face paint who they said had planned the whole thing was locked up tightly in Arkham Asylum. Some amateur wannabe-psychoanalyst in the bar said the guy was a sociopathic anarchist terrorist, which sounded like the technical term for a mass-murdering fruitloop to her. From the picture in the newspapers he certainly looked it. She recalled he'd been smiling. It was unclear if he was happy with his position or if those horrible facial scars just made it look that way, presenting a permanent grin to the world.
She tried optimism for a change. With him in a padded cell somewhere maybe his clown-masked followers were just mugging people to try to make a few bucks in his absence. She could give them what she had and then they'd let her go. Unfortunately the man who had such a crushing grip on her didn't seem inclined to start demand her money any time soon, and that dead police officer screamed that this was not a normal mugging.
She found herself being half-dragged, half-propelled across the alleyway towards the tableau of a dead cop, blood now visibly pooling on the ground underneath him, surrounded by clowns with guns drawn.
"Are you waiting for more passers by to, uh, join the party?" The man holding her asked the clowns lightly, using the encircling arm to lift her off her feet and shake her slightly, emphasising his point. "Really we can't have too many attend – otherwise some of you would have to… miss out on cake." The clowns looked across at each other hesitantly, shifting on their feet and seeming nervous behind their masks. She wasn't sure if they followed the joke. She wasn't even sure it was a joke.
Her captor's demeanour suddenly shifted and he growled. "Get that body inside now… unless you want to join him." She felt the voice rumble in the man's chest against her back. "Start loading up the drums of gasoline, and get the patrol car around. Plus one of you find me a club sandwich. I'm hungry and you know I get… twitchy when I'm hungry."
The men evidently did know as they quickly rushed into action, several grabbing the body and some darting off down the alley. Those clutching the dead man, stumbling slightly with the unwieldy weight, disappeared through a side door to what looked like a haulage company. She didn't have long to wonder where they were taking him as she was quickly propelled in behind them. A faded sign on the door read "We'll deliver the goods".
As the door clicked shut behind them, she began to miss the alleyway.
The space had probably once been a noisy, bustling warehouse full of deliveries, trucks and activity. Now it seemed thoroughly abandoned aside from one battered old truck, a few scattered crates and what looked like a small mountain of oil drums. A strong smell of gasoline filled the air and made her gag as much as was possible behind the obstructive glove. From her position near the door where the man holding her had stopped she could see the clowns dump the cop's body unceremoniously in a corner of the warehouse, and begin loading drums into the truck. Others raised some shutters and a patrol car, driven by a masked clown, backed up next to the truck.
This was definitely not a minor mugging operation. This was explosion time again. And the man with a painfully tight arm still restricting her breathing seemed both very much in charge and fairly fruitloopy. But that meant…
All she had seen in the poor light of the alley was a dark glove, and the swish of a dark coat. Being pinned to the man like a butterfly to a card the whole time didn't allow her to see much else. She tried to crane her neck and catch a glimpse of his face.
He seemed to notice her attention.
"Yes missy? Is there something I can… help you with?" He purred in a curiously solicitous voice. Then he clucked and chuckled, the noise tickly in her ear once more. "Oh but silly me – we can't really have a proper conversation with you like this. Tell ya what – I'll let you, uh, breathe, for a bit, if you promise not to scream. Can you do that for me? I think you can. You seem like a good little girl – you haven't even tried to bite yet. That's a bit disappointing in some ways but I think it says a lot about your… character."
The gloved hand slid smoothly down, away from her face, and latched firmly onto her wrists. Evidently satisfied that his grip was firm, the encircling arm loosened slightly. She was able to breathe freely once more but had to fight to stop herself from launching into full on hyperventilation. She swallowed down a sudden feeling of nausea.
"Look… I, I… I won't tell anyone anything." It was disconcerting talking to him when she couldn't see his face, and she found herself yearning to see if those scars really did make him look like he was grinning, whatever his expression, but she found herself unwilling to test his grip on her wrists by trying to twist around again.
"Of course you won't." He purred, chest rumbling with what might have been silent laughter. She wasn't sure if she liked that, what he meant by it.
"Really… please, just let me go… I won't say anything. I don't know anything."
The laughter wasn't silent this time. "Liar, liar, pants on fire! Unless you're blind it's pretty hard to miss that there dead police-man," he leaned into her, turning her to face the body as he spoke, then twisting her back to face the truck. "And this here gasoline-loading party Are you blind, missy? Or are you a lying-liar?"
"I, I don't… I don't know what your plan is." She could make some pretty awful guesses, but was trying not to. She heard the man suck in a hissing breath behind her, as if he was sucking on his teeth.
"Plans, plans, plans. Over-rated in my opinion. How about this: maybe I've been bored stiff tied up in a strait jacket for several weeks. Maybe I've staged a daring and dramatic escape from the neighbourhood crazyhouse using only a paperclip and a lively imagination." It didn't help in the slightest, but she screwed her eyes tight then opened them again. No; she was still in the warehouse in the grip of a madman. There was no waking up from this.
The voice behind her softened to a confidential whisper. "Maybe now I'm back on my old stomping grounds I just want to drive a big ol' truck of gasoline into a public building, say, maybe a police headquarters, and 'ooh' and 'ahh' at the explosion. Maybe get a certain flying rodent's attention. That doesn't require much more planning than we have here. And you know enough to squeal and tell everyone about it." He sighed, breath puffing against her neck as his hands snaked upwards once more. "And we can't have that. I hate spoilers."
With a sudden clarity she realised that she didn't have to get up tomorrow and face another soul-destroying day at work. She wouldn't have to take one more step towards finally selling her self-worth to pay the rent. She would quit her job and tell her boss where to go. She would move out of her crummy room, taking just what she could stuff in a backpack, and go back to the small town she grew up in. Maybe try to patch things up with her parents, enrol in some courses so she could get her diploma. She'd never be a high flyer, but with a second chance maybe she could make something of her life. She just needed one second to…
The Joker dropped her body casually, a puppet with its strings cut. Necks snapped so easily when you knew just how to squeeze. He couldn't have naughty puppets squealing and interfering with his plans, not when he was just itching to blow something up. It was still impossible to tell if he meant to smile or the scars were forcing him into a cheery grin.
"Where is my sandwich, boys?" He called to the clowns in a sing-song voice. "I'm still hun-gry…"