Once Upon a Crime
Giselle hadn't been to too many other places in this strange world besides New York City. She'd visited Robert's mother in a land called New Jersey, and their honeymoon was in the land of Florida even further away, where they spent magical days in vast amusement parks that reminded her so much of her life in Andalasia. But other than that, she hadn't spent much time away from her new home.
So when Robert had to take a business trip, she sat him on the couch and begged him to let her and Morgan come along.
"It'll be fun!" she said. "We won't intrude on your work at all. You'll go to your meetings and we'll go shopping and to museums and parks..."
Robert laughed, but not in the joyful way she liked. It was the way he laughed when she didn't know she was being silly. "Gotham City is no place for Morgan or you. It's very dangerous."
"Oh." She thought for a moment. "Well, you always say New York isn't a very safe place, and I've never gotten hurt."
"Much to my surprise!" he said wryly. "But Gotham is different. Gotham has Batman running around."
"A man like a bat?" She was suddenly enthralled. "Is he under a spell?" Her fingers flittered, as if sprinkling fairy dust.
"He's dressed up," Robert replied, displeased with her enthusiasm. "It was bad enough when he used to fight crime outside of the law," he added pointedly, "but then he went over the edge and killed some mobsters and crooked cops and the district attorney."
Giselle clapped her hands over her mouth. "Oh, no! But you said he fought crime! Why would he...?"
"A vigilante like that is bound to snap."
She didn't like that answer. "Well, it sounds odd to me. There must be more to it."
"It's always the way with those things," she said knowingly.
Robert shook his head. "Regardless, it's not a safe place."
"What if Morgan stayed with a friend or your mother, and just I came with you?"
"Giselle, no. I won't let you wander around that city."
"I'd stay in the hotel, and we'd wander together when you're not working."
Oooh, it was coming, that anger and frustration. She still wasn't quite used to it. "Robert." She sat up straight and looked him in the eye. "I know you worry about me, but I'm not a child. I won't be sequestered to this city like a damsel locked in a tower." She shook her finger chidingly. "Believe me, no good comes from that!"
He frowned. "I'm not trying to trap you here."
"So you'll let me come?"
He hesitated, looking down at the floor. Then, taking hold of her hands, he said, "Only if you promise to keep to the hotel when I'm not around."
"I promise!" she chirped and wrapped him in a hug. "See? Compromise! Was that so hard?"
And Giselle had been truthful when she made her promise. She knew plenty of ways to entertain herself-- singing, cleaning, dancing, reading-- and the hotel would have a game room and a television and a pool. She could easily make friends with other guests. She saw no reason to leave the hotel without Robert.
But when she batted a beach ball around the pool with a group of children, the ball flew over her shoulder and bounced through an open gate leading into the alley. She thought nothing of those few steps outside the hotel boundaries to retrieve it, and as she glanced down the alley she noticed someone else there. A man struggled to shove something cumbersome in a dumpster. It looked heavy, so she tossed the ball back to the children and waved goodbye.
She hurried to help the stranger. "Excuse me!" she called, and the man's head jerked up just as the last of his burden slid into the dumpster. He slammed down the lid. "Oh," Giselle said apologetically. "I thought I would help you."
And here she got a better look at his face, at his sullen eyes and the scars that swept up his cheeks from the corners of his mouth. It would be rude to stare at them, so she didn't, taking the rest of him in. His blond hair was long and messy, and he was a little too tall for the pants he was wearing. He tugged at the hem of his polo shirt with the hotel's logo on the breast. Ah, so he worked there!
"If you like," she offered eagerly, "I can let out that shirt a bit. It seems a little tight on you, if you don't mind me saying. I'd expect a nice hotel like this to provide better fitting uniforms!"
He still said nothing, regarding her with a measure of stand-offishness. For a moment she thought perhaps he didn't speak English, but then he licked his lips and said, "You must be a tourist."
"Oh, yes, I'm staying here," she said cheerfully, poking at the logo on his shirt. "It's a lovely place. You all do very good work!"
"Heh heh heh," he chuckled, smile crumpling the scars on his face. "I don't work here. I like to think of myself as, uh, self-employed."
"Oh!" Giselle wasn't sure if she should feel sad for him. "You quit?"
"Let's just say someone got an unexpected pink slip," he replied. He guffawed suddenly, banging his fist on the dumpster lid. His teeth were a terrible shade of yellow, but as he laughed, his mouth stretched wide, giddiness closing his eyes. My, he was exuberant!
"I must say," Giselle said, clasping her hands, "you have a wonderful smile!"
She didn't know why her remark set him off again, but she didn't mind. She didn't think she'd met anyone so happy outside of Andalasia! She giggled herself, head down and smiling into her hand, and that was when she noticed the dumpster dripping.
"What's that?" she asked, pointing at the growing red pool beneath a hole in the corner.
"Haha... hm?" He looked down, and he shrugged. "Oh, nothing but the effuse of the hopeless hopeful," he said, putting an arm around her shoulders and leading her out of the alley. He pulled a cap out of his back pocket and slipped it over his head, tugging the brim down low. The poor man must've been self-conscious about his scars! "What's your name, Sunshine?" he asked as they walked past the pool.
"Giselle," she replied. She swiped her room card to let them back into the hotel.
"Giselle." He snickered. "I think I prefer Sunshine."
She stopped in the hallway and folded her arms. "Perhaps it sounds strange to you," she said, unable to hide her offense, "but it's a perfectly good name." He didn't seem sorry at all, still giggling. Hmph! "Well, what's your name then?"
"Oh, nothing. Anything. If anyone asks about me, just call me Jay. I'm sure they'll figure it out," he said idly. He turned and set off down the hall. "Nice dress, lady," he called over his shoulder.
Giselle watched him go with a mixture of disappointment and annoyance. What a dismissive man! Well, she just wouldn't bother saying 'thank you' then! Maybe that would make him think twice!
Big elaborate tricks were fun. For example: hiring a few schmucks for a robbery, convincing each one to kill another for a bigger piece of the pie, until they'd all kicked the bucket leaving the whole pie for the slappy-happy clown who'd brought them together. Run-of-the-mill crooks were so greedy, it was almost too easy to pull their strings, but still glorious to watch their own irredeemable flaws take them down.
But sometimes the Joker liked to do a job alone. It was a thrill, especially walking out in the open like this, where anyone could step out of a room, see his scars, flash back to special GCN bulletins, and barricade the door to call the cops. Unless he or she was a lunkhead who needed to see him in make-up for the bell to go off.
This weekend the Gotham Continental Hotel was hosting the annual Business Leaders Organization Conference, which meant lots of rooms occupied by lots of affluent men and women, which meant lots of cash and goodies collected in one place, which meant one-stop shopping.
A posted itinerary stated that the day's luncheon began at one o'clock. The Joker got into the main elevator and stood in the corner, holding an open Gotham Times in front of his face. He waited there, staring through eye holes cut in the paper, watching how many suits got off and on at each floor, listening to their conversations. Plenty of them noticed his not-so-inconspicuous cover, but no one said a word to him. They either fell into awkward silence or muttered to each other about the "weirdos" and "smartasses" employed by the hotel.
The conference attendees seemed to have been slated the eleventh floor and-- when he was alone in the elevator at one twenty-five-- that's where the Joker got off, leaving his paper behind. It was quiet; the squeak of the cleaning lady's cart was the only sound as she took the opportunity to clean up after nights of hookers and drugs, or drunken solace, depending on the kind of businessperson, Joker supposed. She didn't hear him follow her into a room. She only realized he was there when she turned to grab a spray bottle and found his grinning face a mere inch from her own.
"¡Dios mio!" she cried, eyes locked on the gouges in his cheeks.
"Hola, bonita," he replied. "¿Quieres saber como he recibido estos cicatrices?"
With her card key, he strolled from room to room with a pillowcase, throwing in whatever money he found stashed away or left behind in wallets, as well as watches, rings, cameras, and other shinies that would get a good price. Funds were running low, and besides his hankering for a new suit, his clowns did need to eat sometimes. It was no big plan-- those were still gestating-- but it had its perks, like imagining the looks on the business leaders' faces when they found their rooms flooding with water. Not to mention the bonus surprise when they'd rush into the bathrooms to turn off the faucets.
He'd cleaned out a wing before the hall carpet began to squish under his shoes. He checked his new Rolex. Quarter past two. They'd be done soon. Time for a swift exit! He slung the pillowcase over his shoulder and took the stairs, whistling as he descended. The cheery tune trailed off when he reached the maintenance door at the bottom and found it locked. He'd meant to slip out the back, but judging by his empty pockets, the nice young man in the dumpster didn't have a key. He rapped on the door, thinking some sucker might be nearby to open it, but a minute passed and no one came.
Oh, well. Walking out the front door wouldn't be very problematic. It was a busy hotel; he could breeze right out before anyone gave him a second glance. He headed back to the first floor, coming out of the stairwell into another hall of rooms. The wing connected to the lobby, and he didn't even stop to check the scene.
He was halfway to the revolving doors when the beveled hanging lamps flickered overhead. Employees and guests all stopped and looked up as the lights flashed sporadically. Perhaps that's what he should have done too, blended in instead of smirking and continuing on. As a moving man in a crowd of brow-furrowed statues, he caught the attention of a white-collared man with a manager tag. He took one look at the Joker, his shirt, and his stuffed pillowcase and shouted, "Hey!"
Hrm. Not the attention he needed. Two burly security guards converged on him, in the way of the front doors. How to handle this, how to handle this...
"Jay?" a voice rang.
He looked down. There at his side in one of the lobby's stuffed leather chairs sat Sunshine, all confused in her pretty little head, looking from "Jay" to the manager to the guards.
Joker grabbed her by the arm and hoisted her up. "What do you say to a walk?" he said, grinning maliciously in the manager's direction.
The hotel staff stopped in alarm, and he was about to bring out his knife to confirm their fears, but their attention was ripped away when the elevator dinged. The doors slid open and spat out two green-faced men. "Oh, God!" one shouted. "I can still smell it!"
That instant of distraction was all Joker needed. He hurtled between the two guards with Sunshine in tow and flew through the spinning doors.
Hand like a vise around her wrist, he raced down the sidewalk. She could barely keep up, but he dragged her through each stumble and ignored her protests. He shoved pedestrians aside as they passed, hearing some of them grunt in annoyance, while others got a better look at him and screamed. He ducked into an alley, knowing they wouldn't be caught. The Bat wasn't the only one who'd learned to disappear into the nooks and crannies of the city, like filthy water into a storm drain.
Giselle lost count of the alleys and side streets. When they finally stopped, she could hardly breathe. She leaned forward with her hands on her hips and took in ragged gulps of air. "What was that about?" she panted.
"Getting away," Jay replied, looking around the corner. He grabbed her arm again and pulled her across the street, out of one alley and into another. They didn't run, but his pace was still quick.
She tried not to trip over the garbage strewn around the alley. "Oh, dear. You mean you're in trouble?" She eyed the bulging sack in his hand. "Did you steal that?" she gasped.
"Steal?" he repeated. He stopped and turned to her, doe-eyed as could be. "I hardly know you, and you call me a thief!"
"Oh, I-I'm sorry, it's just, they seemed so upset and... So it's yours?"
"It's in my hand, isn't it?"
"But... they seem to want it back."
"Those thieves!" he cried. "We better hurry before they catch up!" he added, grabbing her hand again.
Giselle looked over her shoulder in the direction of the hotel, blocks and blocks away and even further with each step. "I'm flattered you think so much of our fast friendship," she said, "but I promised I would stay--"
"Aw!" he said as they emerged onto a sidewalk. They were in an entirely different neighborhood now, not as nice as the one around the hotel. The buildings were cracked and stained, even crumbled in places, but they were so close together they seemed to hold each other up. A car parked at the curb was missing its wheels, and someone slept in the back. Jay wrapped an arm around her shoulder and led her past a cluster of smoking teenagers passing around a bottle. "You'd leave me all alone?" he asked sadly. "With those fiends in pursuit?"
Well, when he put it like that, it wouldn't be very kind of her to go back to the hotel. But... "It's just that my husband asked me to stay while he goes to his meetings, and it wouldn't be very responsible--"
"Oh, but he's in meetings, you say!" Jay said. "Surely he won't miss you?"
"I'm afraid you don't understand. He doesn't find this city very safe."
"Unsafe? Gotham City?" he laughed, head thrown back. "Imagine that."
"Is it very unsafe?" she asked, looking at the harried faces they passed. It didn't seem too different from New York.
"Oh, Sunshine," Jay said, squeezing her shoulder and tweaking her cheek, "I think it's safe to say many people live out the end of their days here."
He seemed so confident that she'd be just fine, and she really didn't want to leave him alone so soon. She supposed she could stay out, for a little while. "Okay," she relented, returning his smile. "Where shall we go?"
"I need to stop off at wardrobe," he said.
"Are you an actor?" she asked, peering at his face again, as if she wouldn't have recognized him from the scars.
"Hmm..." They came to a corner, but he didn't look right, or left, only ahead, still urging her along by the shoulders. She squeaked as an oncoming car swerved around them, narrowly missing the pedestrians waiting for the light on the other side of the street. "A performer," Jay said as they stepped up onto the sidewalk again. "Some stagecraft while I'm at it. I like to give the world a show, bring them in on it when they least expect."
"Ohhh," she said, understanding. "Like a surprise?"
"Just like a surprise!"
"How fun!" she cheered. "I wouldn't mind coming along at all!"
Jay grinned. "Always nice to see people interested in the good work." He stopped, and she looked up to see that they stood in front of a sagging apartment building. "Here we are!" he announced, opening the front double doors for her. He followed her in and they headed up the dark dilapidated staircase to the third floor. To her surprise, he didn't get out a key. He shouldered in one of the doors.
"You don't lock it?" she said, glancing around the front hallway of the apartment.
He chuckled. "People around here know better. Don't stick around one place too long anyway." At the end of the short hall was a small living room, and he gestured for her to have a seat on the rumpled, sagging couch. "I'll just put on my face and slip into something more comfortable."
He vanished into a bathroom down another short hall. Giselle didn't sit. She was too taken aback by the state of the apartment. She planted her hands on her hips and took it all in, wrinkling her nose. The wallpaper peeled and was stained with watermarks. The lone area rug on the scratched, worn wood floor was mottled with holes. Behind broken blinds, the windows glowed gray through a layer of dirt. And what was that smell? "Oh, no, no. This just won't do!" She went to the warped window and managed to yank it open a few inches. Crouching at the opening, she cupped her hands around her mouth and sang a few notes, voice trilling throughout the ghetto.
Joker hummed along with Sunshine's singing. He stripped down to his undershirt and polka-dotted boxers and kicked the dead man's clothes to the side. He opened the medicine cabinet over the sink. Three jars awaited him-- white, black, and red-- and he set them in the basin.
He smeared on the white first, tracing his hairline and under his chin, then filling in his face, not taking particular care around his eye sockets or lips. He haphazardly washed the excess from his fingers and did his eyes next, painting black from his eyelids to the bags beneath and his brows above. Then, last, his loving red smile messily slathered over his lips and up his scars. All the while, Sunshine sang cheerily, though he was paying more attention to the devilish gentleman in the mirror than her words.
He inspected his work. Ah, yes, no more of that man so reminiscent of the day's normal, pathetic sadsack-- just the happy dappy dapper harlequin from within. Except... He rummaged under the sink and found the brush-on hair dye. He squirted it into his hands, worked up a lather, and ran his fingers through his hair, turning it green. Ah, there he was!
Sunshine knocked on the door as he washed his hands. "Are you almost done?" she asked.
"You shoulda gone before we left," he replied.
"Oh, I'm fine. We just need to get in there next."
He froze while drying his hands on the discarded shirt. "We?"
"Take your time!" she urged.
He threw open the door. She was already back in the living room, singing again, something about cleaning, he realized. And, he also realized, the apartment was crawling with vermin: rats and pigeons and cockroaches and more. He rushed to the end of the hall and stared as the vermin moved in sync with her song. The birds worked together to draw back the curtains. The roaches swept along the far wall, leaving it less dirty as they passed. Two mangy dogs used their tails to sweep dust and dirt off the floor. A dozen rats rushed past his feet. Joker's eyes narrowed as they crowded around the door to the closet by the bathroom, or as he liked to think of it, the tomb of the apartment's late owner. The rats stacked themselves to get to the door knob.
Joker kicked over the growing tower and stomped two of the rodents. He flailed his arms and barked, chasing the rest out to the living room, where he stopped dead. The work was finished; all the filth had been swept away. Sure, it was no penthouse, but now it actually looked livable.
"A little spring cleaning was all it needed!" Sunshine said cheerfully, oblivious to the rats' panic as they disappeared into a hole in the wall.
Joker stared suspiciously at the lemon-fresh room, at a ruffled pigeon hopping around with a dust rag, at Sunshine's somehow spotless robin's egg-colored dress.
She finally noticed his lack of excitement and giggled embarrassedly behind her hands. She glanced around at her frolicking friends. "This probably seems a little odd to you, that I can talk to animals." He still didn't react, and she clapped her hands, signaling for all the creatures to clear out. She turned back to him, looking hopeful that their absence would improve his mood. "But it's not so strange where I come from."
And with still not a word from him, she went on and on about her Andalasia, some bright, shiny, faraway land of charming princes and glittering castles, enormous trolls and enchanted forests, rampaging dragons and quaint villages. Every stroll was a dance and every conversation was a song, and every ending was happy.
This broad was getting a little too out there, even for him. Someone of her skill set attracted a lot of attention, something he only wanted when he called for it, and only for himself, thank you very much. He didn't need his tagalong chit-chatting with squirrels while he tried to move surreptitiously through town. As entertaining as he found her, now that he no longer needed a hostage, Sunshine was quite the liability. But did he really want to off her now?
She finally stopped talking, and she peered at his face. She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. "Oh, my," she said as she wiped around his lips. "You got a little out of the lines here..."
Yes. Yes, he did.
He pushed her hand away. "So you like fairytales."
She seemed to think it an odd question, but she nodded. "Oh, yes, they're my life."
He smiled and took a step forward. "Do you want to know how I got these scars?"
She bit her lip. "Yes?"
He smiled wider. "Once upon a time, there was a small boy who lived in a teeny village with his little sister, their father, and their old blind grandmother." Another step forward, and Sunshine took a step back. "The village was besieged by a dragon who left their land barren, very difficult to grow crops on. So they have very little to eat, if anything. No one is strong enough or brave enough to slay the dragon. But the father thinks the boy will one day, and he trains his son hard, until the boy bleeds."
Joker sighed regretfully and reached into his pocket. "But he's still a boy, and there's still no food, and he tells his father he'll never be strong enough. And his father doesn't like that, the loser's attitude, the coward's attitude. The boy is afraid, but his father says okay, if the boy works hard, he will get more food."
He snapped open the pocket knife in a flash of silver and grabbed Sunshine's shoulder, holding her to the wall. "When the boy is done training that day, he comes home to find gen-u-ine meat on the table. His father says it's all for him, and the boy is more than happy to eat it up. It's delicious: thick, roasted, juicy. He hasn't eaten like this in years, and when the last of it is gone, he thanks his father over and over. But his father tells him to thank his sister. The boy doesn't see her. His father points to the empty, greasy platter."
He brought the blade oh-so-close to her skin, almost caressing her cheek. "And oh, the boy is horrified, yes, he's pale and he can't breathe, but the grandmother who did all that chopping and hacking and slicing, she's... oh, she's a mess. And she grabs her grandson and tells him to tell her it's not true, that's it's all right, tells him to laugh and say it's just a joke. Smile, smile, she says, grabbing his face, feeling his mouth, and when she can't find that smile, she grabs her knife, and..."