A/N: The one thing that's pitifully missing from a lot of Joker fanfics – and the one thing that probably shouldn't be missing – is the concept of Twisted!Joker. I've only seen a handful of Joker fics in which the Joker is actually twisted, cruel, and downright sadistic, as he was meant to be the entire time. And if you don't believe me, just look at some of the ways he killed even in The Dark Knight: putting an acid into one victim's drink (I believe it was the previous commissioner, the one before Gordon), shooting a bank employee to disarm him and then putting what could either be a real or gas grenade in his mouth (I always thought it was supposed to be Joker Venom), killing people by carving up their faces, the entire televised murder of Brian… If that's not the mark of someone truly twisted, I don't know what is. And those are just some of the things he's done in The Dark Knight – that doesn't even count his entire attack on Barbara and Jim Gordon in The Killing Joke, or his brutal murder of one of the many Robins in A Death In The Family, or even the numerous victims of his Joker Venom (and don't tell me that wouldn't be a horrible way to die – laughing yourself to death).

However, it seems that the handful of fanfics that present the Joker in this light; that dare to explore exactly how dark the character can be, are few and far between. The handful I've read are all very good, it's not that. I think the problem is that the Nolanverse has undergone such a massive exodus of wannabes and fair-weather fans with sappy Mary-Sue romance fanfiction and ideas of the Batman 'verse that just aren't true. These fans only saw the movie because it was cool at the time, and they've never written a Nolanverse fanfiction since. These fans also are, more often than not, the ones who write bad fanfiction. I'm not dissing anyone who got into the Batman mythos lately because of The Dark Knight, mainly because I am one of those people; rather, it makes me sad to see all these poorly developed fanfics in my fandom. I feel the same about the Inheritance Cycle, and the Harry Potter series, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and even A Series of Unfortunate Events. The one fandom I haven't seen very much, if any, poor fanfiction in is the Myst/Uru fandom, and I think that's because the Myst series and Uru Live aren't exactly the most popular of fandoms at this point in time.

Another thing that I find interesting is that fanfictions in different Batman universes are often written differently. You see fewer poorly written Comic!Joker fanfics than you do poorly written Ledger!Joker fanfics or even Nicholson!Joker fanfics. I'm not positive if this is due to more fans in these areas being mature or if it's just that fans in these areas tend to have a thing for cohesion and hate it when details are wrong, as they might be in comic arcs that span a long period of time. Either way, Joker fics in these 'verses are often much better written, have a more mature voice, know the character better, and portray the character in a way true to how he acts in the comics. For some reason, the Joker we see on the big screen is much harder to know and understand than the Joker we see printed in a panel on a page, possibly because people are better at inferring tone and meaning through words than through actions on a screen or through spoken words.

In any case, I don't see a lot of M-rated fanfiction delving into a twisted view of the Joker, the original, non-romanticized view of the Joker. It's understandable for young authors, but if you are a young author, then why are you trying to write mature fanfiction? Young authors do not have the skills necessary to accurately portray the heavy themes in much M-rated fanfiction, and until they learn to develop these skills and understand things at a deeper level, they shouldn't be trying to write these mature themes. For older authors who are building their skills, a poorly written fanfiction with no grasp of the character is not the way to go. Rather, any author who isn't just starting their fanfiction career should have enough of a knowledgebase to accurately portray a character – these are the authors who should be diving into and dissecting a character and getting into his or her head. I think the major reason people don't write for Twisted!Joker is that they're scared or disgusted by it, as they should be. However, I think that if a mature author has the skill, talent, idea, and will to do it, they definitely should. There's just not enough fanfiction out there that shows that vile, black side of the Joker, the side that comes with the rest of the character we already love to hate.

Disclaimer: All UR Characters Are Belong To DC Comics, except the Joker's unfortunate victim… Yeah, I leant the guy to him for five minutes, and he comes back mutilated beyond all reason. That's the last time I let the Joker borrow my OCs – he just doesn't know how to pay back a loan. XD And before anyone yells at me, Cassidy's referring to the Joker as 'Joe' is his way of abbreviating the title (Joe Kerr). I used a similar play on words in my short story Smile.

WARNING: This fanfiction is rated M for mature audiences only due to strong graphic violence, scenes of extreme torture, and gore. This is NOT a happy story. The Joker presented in this story is twisted and evil to the core, and his acts of torture are something nobody should ever have to go through. Due to the graphic nature of this fanfic, I strongly recommend that anyone who is squeamish or can't watch an R-rated slasher film should leave now and find a more appropriate fanfiction to read. Don't say I didn't warn you…

Ten Cuts


The voice drew the young mob boss from his incessant counting. Not enough, not nearly enough money this profit cycle; no, not nearly enough. That'd change – he'd hit up the casino's owner, rough him up a little. He'd get his dues next time…

But, he thought, he digressed from the matter at hand, the matter at hand being the man in front of him. Indeed, the familiar purple overcoat and broad-brimmed fedora of an old cut were no strangers to Brandon "Butcher" Cassidy – and he knew all too well what the man wearing them could do. He'd seen it with his own eyes even before he'd heard all the horror stories. Stories about how he paralyzed people with bullets to the spine, how he grotesquely mutilated them and left them for dead. He was sure he'd heard one particularly chilling tale about how he'd skinned a man alive just for looking at him wrong.

Cassidy knew all this, but it wasn't particularly meaningful to him. After all, this joker was on his side – he trusted Cassidy to a point, and his trust was notoriously difficult to gain. Besides, if he tried anything funny, the mob would punk this clown in an instant – one shot, one kill; goodbye freak.

He allowed himself a very small smirk at the thought of it. Deep down, Cassidy would have given anything to get rid of this lunatic, but hey, he also had a promising criminal mastermind on his hands, and he wasn't about to give that up. If only he could make a compromise…

"Joe…" Cassidy's voice was passive and calm, almost friendly – but any enemy of his worth their salt knew he was the precise opposite. "Sit."

"Arf, arf," the man in purple mocked, collapsing dramatically into an overstuffed leather recliner. Cassidy eyed him casually – casually, but warily…

"Y'gawt 'em?" he asked, the slight southern twang he used only with very close allies creeping into his voice. No, Cassidy was not a Gotham native – but if anyone knew he was the son of some backwater Alabama merchant, it'd ruin him forever.

The man in the recliner shifted slightly; smiled. Reached into a breast pocket and retrieved a long, slender… something, which he threw unceremoniously onto the desk between him and his client.

"Proof's in the puddin', Cassie-boy," he quipped. Or at least it sounded like a quip to Cassidy – one never could tell with Joe's tone of voice; it always sounded like he was mocking someone. "Go ahead, take a look. I'll wait…"

He leaned back to relax, waiting patiently, and Cassidy peered at the object on the desk. Something glinted on it, barely visible in the dim light. A ring.

It was with incredible horror that Cassidy realized what the object was. A human finger. A severed, bloody human finger…

"Jesus Christ!" Cassidy exclaimed, jumping back as if the thing had shocked him. A sickly taste welled in his throat. He'd never been good with blood, which was why he had so much trouble getting this far up in the mob food chain. Killing never bothered him at all, but the blood… just the smell of it made him ill, and he was keenly aware of the irony of a mob boss hating it.

The man in purple sat up and chuckled softly, as if he were merely playing a good-natured prank on an old friend.

"He, ah… didn't last long," he said, sliding out a careworn deck of playing cards and thumbing through them. "An' he screamed too… like ya wouldn't believe…"

The cards flicked from hand to hand with a sort of dark grace, strangely hypnotic in their promise of some unforeseen danger. Cassidy vaguely felt himself become drawn to the motion of the cards, if only to get his mind off the vile token on his desk…

He shook himself from the sight of it, feeling as a man awoken from a very strange dream. His mind was using his fear to play tricks on him, and the simple fact that Joe was in the room wasn't helping his reeling nerves.

"I c'n see that," he murmured softly, becoming quiet and contemplative in an attempt to unfrazzle his nerves. "Sweet Jesus, his ring n'everythin'…"

The man in purple smirked proudly and leaned back once again, drinking in Cassidy's commentary like a vintage wine. His face was ungodly pale, Cassidy noted, and it always seemed to be smiling, bleeding in a mockery of mirth. That smile… That perhaps was what scared Cassidy the most about Joe. He never stopped smiling. Never.

Or were they mere scars? The way the meager light played across his features made them look all too surreal…

The man leaned forward again, arms resting defiantly on Cassidy's desk. His clownishly pale face sat only a few feet from Cassidy's own.

Cassidy shuddered ever so slightly, but shook himself from it, hoping his frightening friend hadn't seen his momentary weakness.

"So," the man said, prodding the severed finger with his own gloved digit, "Y'said if I did this for ya it'd be 'worth my while'." His tone belied a sense of promise Cassidy was sure he hadn't given… but he must have. Joe remembered absolutely everything about a compromise, and he knew how to work an argument in his favor, too. If he hadn't gone into crime, Joe might just make a respectable lawyer.

"Yeah… yeah, shore thing," Cassidy stammered, taking much longer to hide his accent again than he would actually have liked. "W-what were you thinking? Cut of the profit? The ring…?"

The clown giggled strangely in response, his eyes glinting with the fervor of a madman's.

"No, no… nothin' like that," he murmured in false soothing and shuffling the deck once more. "See, I'm not that complex… I'm, ah, a simple man. Money corrupts, y'know. No, I don't want money."

Another softish laugh, darker this time, escaped him as he organized the deck. A single card slid off the deck as easily as a well-oiled piston, pulled smoothly from it by his blood-stained fingers.

He peered at the card; casually flipped it over on the desk. A joker.

Cassidy swallowed nervously. That card… That card wasn't a good sign in Gotham. It was an unlucky card in this city – it meant defeat in any card game, and drawing one never meant anything good… especially not if it came from Joe's deck…

"I want… hmm…" The clown paused; licked his lips thoughtfully.

Locked eyes with Cassidy.

"I want half'a yer crew," he said finally. "I'm runnin' low on crew people myself, an' the show just can't go on if y'don't have a crew! So, half… or we gotta negotiate…"

Cassidy stared at Joe in disbelief. Half? He really want half of his mob? God, he really was a lunatic!

"Joe…" he laughed nervously, praying it was all a sick joke on Joe's part. "I… I can't just give you half my men…"

" 'I can't just give ya half my men!' " The clown mocked, grinned wolfishly at Cassidy's stumbling block. "Cry me a river, Cassie-boy – s'only half'a your men, after all. Now, y'want some cheese to go with that whine, or is it a deal?"

"I got no extra men!" Cassidy exclaimed, getting more than a little irritated at Joe's constant repartee. The gloves were off. It was high time he gave the freak what he deserved…

"Gettin' a little worked up there, aren't ya, Cassidy?" the clown responded, standing. "I'm tryin' ta make a civilized deal here; if y'don't wanna pay up, I'll find somethin' else."

He sauntered around the desk, and it amazed Cassidy how truly menacing he looked when he didn't get his way…

"Look here, Cassie-boy," the clown murmured, getting far too close for comfort. "Yer not gettin' a free ride off'a my work. Y'got no idea how damn long I had ta chase that guy to bring him down. Y'know I never work free; y'know I never do other people's dirty work without a price. S'not me gettin' the credit for knockin' that crime lord off his high horse – it's you. I made damn sure that crime lord got his, an' yer not gonna screw me over. Now, can we make a deal, or do I gotta get serious with ya?"

The darkness in Joe's eyes brought a calm chill over Cassidy, and he slowly reconsidered his options. Option one, give up half his men and watch his hard won empire slowly start to crumble from the inside out. Option two, defy the deal and renegotiate.

That last one seemed pretty tempting…

"… C-can't give you half…" he mumbled timidly, "B-but I'll r-renegotiate… If y-you want…"

"Oh, well that's just dandy!" the clown responded in mock-cheer. "But, ah… I don't want ya to change yer mind again… so how about we go somewhere more… persuasive, hmm?"

"I… I don't have any idea what you're –"

Cassidy didn't even get to finish his sentence before a sharp blow struck the side of his head. The last thing he remembered before the stinging sensation faded to numbing black was his fall to the ground, closely followed by the sound of foreboding laughter.

The first thing Cassidy felt upon waking up was the sensation of vague, groggy pain in his head, clouding all capacity for rational thought. It throbbed back and forth through his skull like a dimming tidal wave, painting the insides of his eyelids red, then black, then red again. It pulsed with his heartbeat, as surrealistically slow as time; it took him a good five minutes to realize he was even awake.

The next thing he felt was his eyes open, only to find them greeted by a painfully bright fluorescent light glaring coldly into his face from an oddly white, uneven ceiling. From what he could tell, the room was small and horribly bright, bright enough that Cassidy thought for a vague moment he was in a hospital bed. But no hospital room had such small walls, such jaggedly thrown shadows, or such a cold and unforgiving temperature. No hospital made him feel this uneasy… and why did his limbs feel so heavy?

Slowly his senses returned, and his mind began to make coherent sense of his surroundings. It was extremely cold here. The ridged walls and ceiling had the iconic pattern of sheet metal, like a shipping crate or warehouse storeroom. A single fluorescent light flickered unreliably, barely enough to light the room; it obviously connected to some outside power source. He was lying down on a cold metal table, stripped down to nearly nothing. And his arms and legs were bound to the table somehow, bound with what felt like yards and yards of rope.

An awkward glance at his wrist confirmed his suspicions. More frightening yet was that the table looked exactly like the kind he'd seen in all those CSI shows; the kind used as an autopsy table.

There was only one possible way, Cassidy knew, that he could have gotten in this situation. There was only one person he knew of that would put a person in this situation. And the implications sent panic surging down his spine like electricity through a wire as thoughts of his potential fate oozed though his mind, paralyzing his ability to do anything but struggle in an effort to tear himself free.

And then he heard it: a horrific sound, a sound that might have been laughter if it weren't such a clear parody of it.

It began as a peculiar wheeze, smog belched from smokestack lungs that defied even producing such cacophony. The cancerous sound spread horrifically outward from there, filling the small room with a dark and chilling noise. It was as if insanity itself gained a voice, one that attacked from the outside in and rung inside its victims' minds forever. Cassidy had never before known a sound quite as evil, as plainly mad as that noise, and it drew a horrified cry from his throat in an attempt to drown the noise with yet more noise. And yet somehow, he knew that one man alone could not destroy such lunacy…

A hand clasped his shoulder roughly, and Cassidy jolted back in shock. He looked up and around, searching for the source of that mind-rending sound, but he saw only Joe, standing over him like some absurdist guardian angel. His hat was off; his characteristic greenish hair hung limply in his face, barely obscuring a malicious gaze paired with a wolfish grin.

Cassidy felt his heart sink. This was exactly not who he wanted to see standing over him in a small, metal room, not when he was so vulnerable.

"Heya, Cassidy!" Joe exclaimed cheerfully. He had all the demeanor of an overly excited child, his black-rimmed eyes glinting with wicked glee. "Y'ready to strike a deal now?"

A cold, steely something bit into his arm; a quick glance told Cassidy that the clown towering over him was slowly cutting into his arm with what looked like a serrated steak knife. Oh God, the blood… he could feel the blood trickling down his arm; he could smell the sickening iron tang…

"I… J-Joe…" Cassidy nervously chuckled, desperately trying to convince himself not to panic at the sensation. "J-Joe, you… you wouldn't really –"

"Kill ya?" the clown interrupted, his grin widening as he expertly cut just a bit deeper. "No, no… Not 'til ya pay me back, Cassie-boy… An' since ya said ya wanted to negotiate, here's my offer – give me half yer men, or I will kill ya."

"Joe… Joe, please… T-there's gotta be some other way…"

"Oh, 'course there is." The knife cut just a bit deeper, the tip now penetrating muscle. "Death is the other way. But, ah, if ya really wanna strike up a better offer, I'm game…"

Cassidy looked up at him in utter astonishment. Joe was actually willing to compromise. Joe, the guy who never made compromises, who killed mob bosses just to see the mob itself dissolve. Joe, the guy who always had one ace up his sleeve or another long before the game even began.

The guy you just didn't trust unless you were truly desperate.

But I am, Cassidy thought. God, am I ever. If I don't take this chance now, I'm gonna be dead before sunrise…

He swallowed hard and replied in a timid voice.

"W-what were you thinking?"

Joe laughed oddly, and Cassidy recognized it as the same sound as before, the same cacophonic cadence as before. The knife jerked painfully from his arm, and Joe, that undying showman of chaotic whim, leaned his elbows against the metal table and propped himself up on them.

"Weeeeeeeeellllll…" he murmured, drawing the words out like poisoned taffy on a taffy machine. "S'only fair that ya pay me back equally, right?"

His tongue prodded the corner of his mouth in thought, the same idiosyncrasy Joe always did when thinking – the same gesture that made Cassidy ill to watch. Something about it looked… wrong, fundamentally wrong, and he couldn't quite place his finger on the exact reason it disturbed him so much…

Joe suddenly leaned in precariously close to Cassidy's face, and the proximity began to become unnerving…

"D'ya wanna know," Joe murmured, "Just how long it took me to find yer little kingpin playground bully friend an' put him six foot deep?"

He leaned in closer, his mouth resting mere inches from Cassidy's ear. Cassidy had the horrible, nagging image of a monstrous predator pinning him down, testing him for any subtle sign of weakness, its breath hot and moist on his skin…

"No…?" He sensed a smile in his captor's tone. "Ten days. Took me ten days, Cassidy. Ten days I could've spent doing something other than be yer little errand boy. Hell, I only took the job 'cause ya let me have free reign on what I did to the guy. Y'wanna know what happened to him, Cassidy? Here's a hint: he wound up in the same situation as you, but not after he gave me the runaround for ten fuckin' days."

The predator was angry. Cassidy could feel it in the way Joe's grasp on his arm tightened; he could sense it in the subtle shift in tone his voice took. Hell, he could hear him noticeably growling now, and he didn't like where the implications of that lead…

"So, Cassidy, here's my new deal," the clown continued. "An' ya can't back outta this one, 'cause I won't let you. Yer gonna spend ten days in here, with me. An' I get free range on what happens to you. As of right now, yer on my turf an' you're alive because I feel like lettin' ya live. Ya better start countin' yourself as a casualty, Cassie-boy – 'cause as of now, that's all you are!"

He leaned back, cackling in wild delight at the idea of it all, and Cassidy slowly felt the impact of Joe's words sink in like a knife to the gut. He wasn't a mob boss anymore, not in here. He was Joe's next victim. And Joe was going to make damn sure that every waking moment of the next ten days would be horrific.

Somewhere in his chest, arrested by the terrible thought of his slow demise at the hands of the clown that had driven men insane, his heart froze in terror – and there it quivered uselessly.

Cassidy awoke screaming. The fog of sleep still clung unshakably to his mind, blurring his thoughts and slurring his speech. Truth be told, Cassidy had not slept well that night, his uneasy nerves compressed by the heavy weight of finding himself in Joe's 'care' – yet his shriek was not one of terror, but of a stabbing, constant pain in his back left shoulder. Indeed, it took him so long to fight off both the pain and the drowsiness that, at first, he didn't even realize his new position.

It seemed, in the middle of the night, his clownish captor had snuck into the room, untied him, turned him over onto his stomach, and tied him back down that way. The stabbing sensation directly connected to something all too familiarly smooth – a knife's blade, slid precariously underneath the skin… and someone was still holding the knife in place.

"G'mornin', sunshine!" Joe crowed, a clear sound of anticipation in his voice. "Sleep well? … No? Well, I guess I shouldn't be surprised or anythin'… Yer not exactly in the most comfortable of places right now, are ya…?"

Cassidy could hear the grin in Joe's voice, that grin that warned a person to trust nothing about his next actions…

"Now," Joe murmured, wriggling the blade just enough to cause his victim discomfort, "The way this works, Cassie-boy, is this – every day yer here with me is one part'a my payment back. Think of it like, ah, interest. For me. Which brings me to my first question – ya ever take an anatomy class in high school, Cassidy?"

Cassidy blinked numbly, far too groggy and in far too much pain to respond. Not that Joe let him get a word in edgewise before he continued explaining.

"No?" Joe asked, answering for him. "That's just lamentable, Cassie-boy… Means y'don't know exactly all the little muscles an' tendons I'm slicin' through right now, y'know that? Can't have ya not knowin' exactly every little detail of what I'm doin' to ya… So, let's start ya off real slow…"

The blade dug deeper; Cassidy swore he felt the blade slide beneath his shoulder blade. The blade curved around suddenly, and he felt his arm weaken painfully.

"Now, y'feel that, Cassie-boy?" Joe asked, half mocking. "That's yer left trapezius muscle. It attaches at yer spine an' inserts at yer shoulder blade. It holds yer left shoulder blade in place."

He jerked the knife suddenly, and Cassidy's arm became almost immobile.

"Well…" Joe quipped, a cruel smile on his face, "It used to, anyway. Now, under that y'got two more muscles called rhomboids, an' those also hold yer shoulder in place… Y'payin' attention, Cassidy? This is important stuff. Might cost ya an arm an' a leg if ya don't listen!"

Joe laughed his wild, insane cackle again, and it became very painfully clear to Cassidy what Joe intended to do to him. He felt the blade lurch sickeningly through the raw, strong muscles that held the shoulder in place; he felt blood ooze down his back and sides, and a sickly sweet sensation filled his throat. And as he felt the bone dislocate, slick with synovial fluid as it rested against his torn flesh, he could hear Joe cackling just as madly as he had been when starting this horrific amputation, besides himself with sadistic glee. Cassidy was almost thankful he couldn't see it, despite the excruciating agony that threatened to render him comatose.

But somehow… somehow, not seeing what he's doing to me is so, so much worse…

The needless carving continued for what seemed like an eternity of screaming, agonizing pain to Cassidy, especially when he first realized that Joe was deliberately preserving as many nerves as possible in order to further his victim's torment. It only got worse when he felt Joe begin to saw through the bone, like a broken arm from Hell. Even then, the nerves were barely disturbed, left to transmit their agonizing signal repeatedly, like a broken record. Finally, once the nerves and a few tendons were the only things left holding the remains of his arm in place, Joe neatly severed each and every nerve at the socket of Cassidy's arm. With a sickeningly wet, meaty sound, Cassidy felt the tendons tear horribly, then a gut-wrenching vacancy where his arm once was.

But the torment wasn't over yet, and he was a fool for thinking so.

A hideous sizzling sound and awful burning sensation immediately followed, and Cassidy knew it could only be Joe's own twisted method of cauterizing the wound. A brief, distracted glance told him it was the same knife Joe had used to amputate his arm; now the blade glowed with heat and pressed against his destroyed socket, slowly and horrifically sealing the carnage shut.

"Don't need ya dyin' on me yet!" Joe shrieked, pressing the blade harder against the raw wound.

Be strong don't scream don't scream don't scream don't –

But try as he might, Cassidy fought to suppress the terrifying ideas that filled his head – and lost. No, of course Joe wouldn't want him dead, not yet. His gruesome debt was far from repaid, after all, and judging by Joe's tone, today's installment was far from finished.

Already half dazed with pain, Cassidy barely noticed a sharp, shooting pain in his right knee, the opposite of his now excised arm. As the awful realization of what Joe's punishment truly was set in, the kneecap popped painfully out of place, the precious joint slowly separating as flesh and connective tissue alike tore brutally asunder. Joe was going to render him lame, unable to walk without a prosthetic, forever a pitiable reminder of Joe's hellish methods and spitfire temper…

Cassidy didn't dare to look at the wound. He'd surely faint if he did, if not from the idea of slow, live dissection, then from the sheer amount of spilt blood. The blade was so cruelly hot against his torn flesh; his eyes were wet-hot with tears…

Don't cry, Brandon… not in front of him… Don't cry... Men don't cry…

And all at once, the pain subsided to a dull ache, and Joe leaned over Cassidy to brush a tear from his face in mock sympathy.

"Oh, Cassie-boy, don't be so modest," he murmured, mockingly tousling Cassidy's hair. " 'Sides, that's all the payment I want fer now… Oh, an' you'd do good ta remember what ya learned here today… might be on the, ah, final exam."

He gave Cassidy a demented grin, a dark promise of things worse to come. Then, without ceremony, he calmly left the room, listening to the soft sobbing of his victim as he quietly and deftly closed the door behind him.

The heavy door squealed open in protest, invading the otherwise tense peace of Cassidy's cell. The pain of so many severed nerved was starting to ebb away. The phantom pains that replaced them were a bitch, but he'd been through worse in his life. Compared to getting some good ten or so bullets to the torso – or the anguish, he noted sternly, of an impromptu amputation with a switchblade – the phantom limb pains were nothing.

But Joe… Joe was another thing entirely. His experience with Joe's first payment last night gave Cassidy a lot to think about, and in that time, he eventually concluded that Joe was another breed of criminal entirely. Despite his words, Joe didn't act like he wanted Cassidy to pay any severe price; he wasn't forceful or demanding or even overly vengeful – no, he just wanted to take something, anything, in return for his services.

Bullshit, Cassidy, he thought, staring at a peculiarly patterned rust stain on the ceiling. He just wants to take.

The thought hung heavily in the air, disturbed only faintly by the sound of footsteps on the metallic floor.

"G'mornin', sunshine!" came Joe's abnormal, nasal voice, as full of childish glee as it had been the day before… when he…

Cassidy brushed the thought from his mind. To think of his missing limbs brought to mind his weakness to blood, and to show weakness around Joe was suicide; he thrived on it. Joe's eyes were always searching for flaws, always scrutinizing. Waiting. And when they found one, the dark laughter that glinted in them was nearly unbearable.

He could see it now, just barely, faintly in his black eyes. Just the barest hint of mirth. I know, it seemed to say, And I will prove to you who you really are… Joe's eyes seemed to see some weakness in his prey even now, and they leapt to life in quiet joy. Cassidy barely noticed as Joe tightened something around his head; he could no longer move to see his captor, but it wouldn't have mattered – those inky, cold, soulless eyes could easily transfix him with fear…

"So, 'nother day, 'nother payment. Right, Boyo? Hmm?" His scarred mouth twisted into a grotesque grin.

If he had a free view, Cassidy would have turned his head to avert his eyes. But it wouldn't have helped much – Joe wanted people to look at his scars; he wanted them to stare in morbid curiosity, silently questioning how he got them and why. If Cassidy could have turned his head, Joe would merely have turned it back again, forcing him to look at those wickedly humorous fissures… and by extension, the horrible black pits above it. As it was, Joe was already forcing him to stare, his face disturbingly close to Cassidy's own.

"S'only a little one this time, Cassie-boy," he murmured. "Just a little one…"

His hot breath brushed against Cassidy's skin; it reeked of something primal and predatory and what might have been yesterday's lunch. He even looked predatory when he was this close; his tongue darted out and around his mouth like some sort of alien worm probing his scars. The effect was that of a carnivorous beast licking its chops impatiently…

"Tell me, Cassidy… ya like card games?"

The sickly flavor of bile climbed into Cassidy's throat again. Oh, he knew exactly what happened to the losers in Joe's 'card games'…

"N… no…"

Cassidy was almost surprised at how feeble his voice sounded. He was never unsure with words, never. But here, in this room, with him… This was a far different jungle than the streets and alleys of Gotham, another breed of fear entirely. Cassidy was out of his element, and it made him feel like a lost little boy. And Joe, the predatory prophet that he was, knew it.

"No…?" Joe's eyes sparked with inward laughter. "No, ya don't like card games? Not even a little. Bit?"

Cassidy suddenly whimpered, and immediately flushed crimson when he realized what he'd done. He, Brandon "The Butcher" Cassidy, was whimpering like some scared, pathetic little girl. He'd let Joe get a rise out of him.

Cassidy had never been more ashamed in his life.

"Y'know what's wrong with you Mafioso types?" Joe prodded, scrutinizing Cassidy closely. "Yer all too damn serious. Sittin' in yer high-back chairs, starin' across the room all Mufasa-like. All of ya think ya just got it made, doncha? Well, lemmie tell ya this, Butcher Boy – you self-righteous Don Juan mafia freaks never learn from yer mistakes, so ya never grow a sense'a humor an' ya never. Smile. It's depressing, I'll tell ya what."

Something glinted suddenly in the palm of Joe's hand, a horrifically serrated knife. The blade looked dull and old, as if its owner had never found the time to sharpen it – or as if he'd simply let it dull on purpose… Oh yes, Cassidy knew countless horror stories of Joe's knives – tales of how he did indeed dull them just to make the bite more painful; how he could do countless terrible things with a simple butter knife. Some said he even purposefully marred the edges of some of the blades, carving microscopic niches and scratches so small you couldn't see them… but you could certainly feel them

Dear God, thought Cassidy with a shudder. Please, for the love of God, let the stories be wrong for once…

"So…" Joe continued, pausing to lick at the corner of his mouth, "I feel compelled to cure yer delusions of grandeur. I like to think of it as a, uh, social service…"

He grinned maliciously as he flicked the knife closed, open, closed again...

"Now," he muttered, snapping the knife shut and pulling out something else, a deck of playing cards. "First step's admittin' yer powerless. Looks like ya got that down pat, so yer ready to admit ya got a problem… by smiling…"

Cassidy felt a lightbulb burn on in the back of his mind, and the revelation it brought him wasn't pleasant…

"No… No, Joe, please don't…"

Joe clucked in mock sympathy and shuffled the careworn cards with grim expertise; once, twice, thrice they flicked between his hands…

"Oh, Cassidy…" he shook his head in dismay, or something like it, and his seaweed hair bounced to life. "I try to show ya the funny side, an' that's how ya repay me…?"

The cards fluttered nervously back and forth, back and forth; five, six, seven times they flittered before he stopped. Joe peered at his prey curiously, looking for the entire world like an absurdist version of a wise sage.

"Didja know that if ya shuffle a deck's cards seven times it becomes completely random?" he asked, his tone eerily nonchalant.

And suddenly, with a lunge to rival a panther's pounce, he pried Cassidy's mouth open with his bare hands and shoved the shuffled deck in, effectively holding his prey's mouth open. Cassidy was alarmed to discover just how strong a simple 52-card deck was – try as he might, he could not close his mouth or even spit the deck out. The knife slid easily into the gap between cheek and cards, the edge resting just at the threshold of the skin…

"Now, are ya sure ya don't just wanna smile nice an' big for me, Cassie-boy?" Joe teased. He knew all too well that Cassidy couldn't even move his mouth, let alone smile…

"No?" Joe responded, his pitch increasing excitedly with every word. "Well then I guess I just gotta make ya!"

Cassidy felt a rough jerk, and immediately after that a searing pain in his jaw. The knife tore roughly through his skin, first on one side and then the other; something hot and sticky trickled from the wounds. Blood filled his mouth, and at the first taste of that metallic fluid, Cassidy began to panic. Inescapable fear flooded every synapse; he wanted to shriek, but his ruined muscles would not comply. He wanted to vomit; he feared he was going to die…

Instead, he saw the world go black, blessing his terror-filled consciousness with merciful oblivion.

Cassidy's eyes flicked open, cautiously surveying the rusted ceiling, its paint flaking to reveal the metal below. His head… God, his head was killing him, it felt like he'd been flattened by a semi. His jaw ached in sympathy, twinging and stinging in a constant throb.

Oh God, he recalled, paling in horror. The cuts… That's why…

He gingerly prodded the inside of his cheek with the tip of his tongue. The wound twinged painfully, and he felt what might have been a row of either stitches or staples, he couldn't tell. Somehow, Cassidy felt dread instead of relief at this development. Joe had closed the rough wounds with crude stitches… just to keep his new toy from bleeding to death.

"You sick bastard," Cassidy murmured to nobody, his torn facial muscles painfully protesting every word he spoke as he returned to his native drawl. "You… y'all really are gonna do anythang ta keep me alive through awl'a this…"

He suddenly began to feel very, very cold… And quickly realized it was no illusion of his mind. He could feel the cool metal table on the skin of his back, could feel the chill air on his stomach and certain other areas. Joe had fully stripped him of every scrap of clothing he owned, why, he didn't dare contemplate. With revulsion, he noticed that he was bound in a very specific position – spread-eagle – and he quietly hoped it was simply for his embarrassment and not something much more revolting.

Cassidy somehow highly doubted it was merely for his embarrassment.

Footsteps followed the sound of a heavy door squealing open, and Cassidy felt his heart sink. Was it already another day? Dear God, why did another horrible, agonizing day of God only knew what hellish punishment have to dawn now?

"G'mornin', sunshine!" came the voice he'd so come to loathe. He hated the sharp, serrated edge it put on words; he hated the vicious, feral growl of it and the obnoxious, nasal Gothamite twang. God, he wanted nothing more than to rip Joe's vocal cords from his body, just so he'd never again have to hear that horrible, grating voice that he hated so much. But he couldn't let Joe know that… no, if Joe knew, he'd surely tear Cassidy to pieces with it…

Joe circled the table, a carrion bird surveying its next meal, and Cassidy tried his best to avert his eyes and keep calm. Every attempt failed – his heart pounded in more panic than ever, and his head continued to reel in dizzying fear. Somewhere in his predatory spiral, Joe paused casually, observing Cassidy's nude, supine form. Cassidy peered into his eyes, quietly wondering with a shudder if Joe was… admiring the view

"Mm, mm, mm…" Joe murmured in what sounded like pity. He shook his head in disappointment before turning to stare directly into Cassidy's eyes.

"That's, ah… that's just sad, Cassidy…" he taunted, smirking. "Y'got all this power an' presence, but yer really all bark n' no bite…"

Cassidy felt a tinge of pure anger spark in his chest. Had Joe really just insulted his manhood? Cassidy wasn't a calm man, and his enemies clearly knew this…

"I mean, I've heard some really bad jokes in my life, but that's gotta be the worst!" Joe quipped, half-laughing as he started to circle again. "I mean, really? C'mon, that looks like a toothpick! Maybe I should call ya 'Toothpick Dick' from now on…"

"Shut up!" Cassidy snarled, eyes narrowing to rage-filled slits.

Joe halted. Whipped his head back towards Cassidy. Irritably flicked his dark gaze towards his prey's eyes.

All the anger Cassidy previously felt abruptly melted into fear.

Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid…

A knife slid snakelike into Joe's hand, seemingly appearing from nowhere. Cassidy felt as if he'd been doused in ice water. Was today to be the final day of his life, taken from him by a nightmarish clown…? He braced himself for the killing blow, praying it would be quick…

Instead, Joe's eyes softened as he chuckled softly, as if he'd merely been telling a good joke to a close friend, and twirled the blade in his hand playfully.

"Just, ah, just kiddin' around with ya, Cassie-boy… No hard feelin's, hmm?"

Cassidy chuckled nervously, and Joe laughed with him. It looked, for the moment, like Joe wasn't going to do anything. Not now. And that was a good thing - the longer Cassidy could keep him from using that blade on him, the better off he'd be. He was safe for now, safe as long as he –

Joe abruptly lunged at him knife-first, and a searing pain spread through Cassidy's groin, gaining horrible traction. It lasted for what seemed like eternities. And Cassidy did what he swore to himself he would never do in front of Joe again.

He screamed.

And Joe's mad laughter rose above the shrieks, and the shrieking became a dull sob, then a whimper, then horrified silence. Joe's laughter halted suddenly, and he stared at Cassidy in wicked triumph. A fleshy, lumpy something rested in his blood-stained hand.

"Don't think with yer dick, Cassie…" he said, his voice tinged with the promise of worse agony to come.

The quivering flesh lump hit the metal floor wetly, and Joe quietly, absurdly, triumphantly strode to the door, leaving a horrified victim in his wake.

The pain was so intense it made Cassidy want to vomit.

Each tug, each terrible pull on each of his toenails sent a searing pain through his foot that also sent a shriek from his chest to shake and rend the corrugated metal walls. Maybe, maybe someone would hear him if he screamed loud enough. Maybe someone would arrive to help him, putting an end to this nightmare…

But nobody heard him, and nobody came.

Joe leaned back in pause, giving his victim a brief respite from his torment. Not that the pain stopped, and not that Cassidy believed such a short break in the middle of near eternal, hellish pain made it any better – if anything, it only haunted him with the question of when it would start again… and the sheer thought of that only made the inevitable pain all the worse…

"So," Joe murmured, leaning on the table. His free hand snapped the pliers open and shut; the sound grated on Cassidy's fraying nerves like a schoolboy repeatedly clicking his pen. "How ya doin' with all this, Cassie-boy? Ya havin' fun yet? I know I am…"

The pliers snapped shut, squealed open, a terrible ouroboros of sound. That's all this was, Cassidy thought. An agonizing, monstrous cycle; a serpent devouring its own tail forever. He was going to do this for the rest of his life – every morning Joe would be right there taunting him, right there torturing him. He was going to go mad in here, unable to escape from the cycle…

He thought over all of this as he watched Joe stand up again, unsatisfied at getting no better response than a whimper. Calmly, Joe returned to his position at the foot of the table and took the pliers to the only remaining nail on Cassidy's foot. The pincers cruelly jolted and yanked at the nail, slowly tearing it from the nail bed with excruciating precision. The blood dripped down between his toes in rivulets; it trickled down his exposed foot…

Cassidy screamed in agony. When, dear God, when would it finally end? Joe had already been at this for hours now; it had to be hours. It had to be hours, because it felt like days… He couldn't take the thought of it having been days since Joe began this warped payment. If it had been days, that meant he had no concept of time anymore, and if that was the case…

"Oh look, yer all ready for a pedicure now!" Joe taunted, shattering the protective barrier of Cassidy's fragile thoughts. His crimson fissures warped into a sinister smile. "All the other girls at the Prom'll go absolutely green with envy…"

Revulsion snaked through Cassidy's body. Why did he have to keep bringing up that torment? It was enough to lose his manhood once; he didn't want to relive it! But Joe would make him keep reliving it, it along with the torments he knew Cassidy had dreaded and hated the most. Whatever had caused Cassidy the most pain and fear, whatever slowly corroded the scaffolding of his mind, that was what Joe would return to. That was what would inevitably drive Cassidy to lunacy, and then… Well, then he'd be no better than Joe, would he? Then he'd be just another madman locked up in Arkham – and that was only if he survived

In the midst of this dreadful thought, Cassidy thought he felt something wet slide across the exposed nail beds… and it burned. It really burned. It burned like Hellfire. All five toes felt as if they'd been set alight. And it kept getting worse.

"Oh God…" he moaned, at both the pain and his previous thought. "Oh dear God! OH MY GOD!"

His voice rose to an unholy shriek of uncontrollable anguish. Something warm and wet and full of misery sprung from his eyes to trickle down his face. The pain… it was too much. It was all too much…

Good Lord, what did he do to me? Cassidy frantically thought, feeling horribly vulnerable even inside his own mind. What did he do?

The tears wouldn't stop, couldn't stop for anything. And throughout it all, the grin splitting Joe's face apart never left; never faded… It was a joke; it was all a joke. It always would be to him

"There ya go, Cassidy!" Joe chirped, his grin wide enough now to devour the world. "Now the chemical burns'll match yer Prom dress!"

He cackled dementedly and set a small bottle of some clear liquid on an end table. The label read, Sulfuric Acid, 4.3 mol. CORROSIVE.

Corrosive. Somehow, that only made Cassidy's heart sink further into a tailspin. Joe was nowhere done with him, not by a longshot. He could tell by his laughter, he could always tell by his laughter…

And why shouldn't Joe have laughed, mocking his victim's torment? After all, Cassidy still had a whole hand left…

The days grew progressively more and more horrific, and nothing Cassidy did or thought could ever make them stop. Time began to blur and warp together until Yesterday and Tomorrow melded freakishly with Today. The only night he knew was that which came from passing out from pain and the sight of his own blood; the only day he knew was a hellish one, full of Joe's cruel laughter and demonic machinations.

Oh yes, Time was indeed an enemy to him now, and the more Cassidy thought on it, the more it became a cruel mistress bent on destroying every rational thought he'd ever had. But even with its crusade against his mind, Time was nowhere near as cruel as Joe. Nothing could ever, ever be as vicious as Joe…

Yesterday, or at least Cassidy thought it might have been yesterday, Joe used thin, mildewed wooden barbecue skewers on him, shoving them far beneath the skin. Purposefully going by Cassidy's anguished cries, Joe first prodded for, then skewered and mangled the large nerves – not enough to sever them fully, but enough to cause horrific pain. A few had broken off inside the wounds – some by accident, some on purpose – and every time Cassidy shifted his weight, the fragments of wood shifted as well, sending fresh waves of pain to break on the shore of his straining mind.

The day before that came simple knifework – simple, but intricate. Apparently, Joe had an artistic side, judging by the poetry he'd carved onto his victim's hide. Lovely words they were; lovely, bloody words they were. Some spoke insults to Cassidy; everywhere he looked his own skin called him sinner, monster, freak. Some of the words marked him as Joe's plaything. Some simply read HA repeatedly, laughing at his anguish in long, twisting strands that went on for miles. Some simply asked, Why?

Why? That was the ultimate question for him, carved and burned into his skin for the rest of his life. Why had he not taken Joe's first offer? Why was Joe taking such an agonizingly long time to destroy his target? Why did he ever think it was a good idea to hire him as a hitman? Why did he have to suffer like this? Why, why, why…?

But there was no knowing why. There was no answer to all the questions that haunted him, burning like sulfuric acid freshly applied to a wound. There was no answer and no way to answer, just himself and Joe locked inside a box somewhere in Gotham, somewhere nobody would ever hear his screaming. This whole situation was a nightmare, pure and simple, save for the fact that Cassidy could not end it, because he could never awaken from something real.

There was no knowing how many times, between then and now, Cassidy had prayed, silently, for a swift death. God only knew how many times he'd asked. Sometimes, Cassidy wondered if Joe had already cut just a bit too deep, if his hand had slipped and he'd killed his prey. Maybe he was already dead, the result of just a little too much blood lost or a little too much acid in a wound. If he really was dead, then this surely had to be Hell – and if this was Hell, then that of course made Joe a demon. It was likely enough a theory – after all, Joe certainly bore the Devil's grin…

Cassidy briefly wondered just what layer of the Inferno he resided in now.

He heard footsteps echo from behind him suddenly, and the sound brought such horrible recollections that he nearly broke into terrified, broken sobs. Oh, he wanted to; he certainly wanted to, but all he could muster as his intestines did acrobatics was a tiny, horrified whimper. Something warm and pungent trickled down his leg, stinging where it hit his multiple, still healing wounds, but all disgust at such a relapse was drowned by panic.

No more of this… Cassidy thought, for he was too afraid to speak. Dear Lord, not again… Please… not again…

"G'mornin, Sunshine," came Joe's nasally, mocking voice. He paused halfway between the wall and the table, peering impassively down at his whimpering toy, perhaps noticing some flaw or dent in his work.

His greasepaint-caked nose crinkled in disgust; at what, Cassidy was too frightened to imagine.

"Oh, c'mon, you bumpkin," he exclaimed after an awkward pause. "Were ya raised in a damn barn'r somethin'? I mean, I know yer a redneck an' all an' it's kinda yer job ta piss everywhere, but have a little self-control, wouldya? God, I've seen cleaner mental patients than you…"

He leaned in close to Cassidy's ear, making Cassidy jump back with an alarmed yelp.

"An', ah, just between you an' me…" Joe murmured, grinning oddly, "I've seen a lotta mental patients in my time at Arkham…"

Something jolted in Cassidy's mind as Joe pulled away, giggling dementedly at some internalized joke or another. That… that was true? All those stories about how Joe was so insane he practically lived in Arkham's most high-security ward were true? He… he really was dealing with a lunatic. A real, full-blown, honest to God lunatic.

This…Joe really wasn't acting; it really, honestly wasn't just some gimmick. Joe was insane…

Joe switched his eyes lazily towards Cassidy, prodding the edge of his upper lip with his tongue, and Cassidy trembled. How had he never noticed the dark, psychotic laughter in those dark eyes before…?

His eyes remained locked with Joe's, despite all attempts to look away. Something silver flashed in Joe's hand. Cassidy quietly began to panic.

Oh God. Oh God, he knows I know about him. He knows, and he's gonna kill me. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God...

Joe walked calmly, slowly towards him, and the object in his hand began to look more and more like… a grapefruit spoon?

"W… What…? Why…?" Cassidy mumbled in confusion. Oh, something particularly horrific must be on the way for him today if Joe planned to use a grapefruit spoon as his weapon of choice…

Joe calmly peered at the spoon, considering its scalloped edges…

"Y'know what this is, Cassidy?" He asked, his tone assuming the lazy, passive quality that never meant anything good.

"It… I-it's a… a grapefruit spoon," Cassidy whimpered as he lowered his eyes. He didn't want to see Joe's eyes spark in psychotic delight; he didn't want to know what new torment Joe was whipping up next.

"Very good," Joe muttered derisively, setting the spoon onto the end table. He turned to stand behind his prey, and something suddenly tightened around Cassidy's head; he could no longer turn to see he captor's actions.

"Now," Joe continued, returning to the spoon. "An'do ya know what we use a grapefruit spoon for, Cassie-boy…?"

His scarred mouth twitched upwards into a devious smirk, and the eventual use of the spoon came to sudden, horrific light in Cassidy's mind.

But it was too late. It was useless for Cassidy to resist wailing in pain and terror as the spoon plunged towards his eye cavity to painfully scoop out the delicate organ. His vision blurred madly as the twisting spoon split his cornea painfully in two. Vitreous fluid oozed down his face like jelly, mingling with blood and making him too ill to vomit. He felt the optic nerve painfully sever, sending his left-hand view of the world into a sudden, numb blackness…

Joe held up what was left of the eyeball triumphantly, destroyed as it was by the spoon's assault. What remained of the pulped organ was nothing more than a nightmarish jelly.

Joe's eyes locked with Cassidy's as he grinned cruelly at his sobbing prey.

"Hungry, Cassidy?"

Cassidy's response was a violent retch, releasing only clear acid from his starvation-gnawed stomach. He hadn't eaten in days. He wasn't sure he'd ever eat again after… that. With nowhere else to go, the vomit spilled down Cassidy's neck, face, and chest, stinging inside his multiple wounds…

"J-Joe…" his voice was a weak half-whimper of pain. "J-Joe, why…?" The acrid taste of stomach acid hung in his mouth like a restless phantom.

"Oh, Cassidy, where're your manners, hmm?" Joe responded, tutting disapprovingly as he tousled his victim's hair. "Ya really shouldn't be so formal around me, y'know…"

And he leaned forward, his breath hot and rancid against Cassidy's face.

"Call me by my real name. Call me… Joker…"

The impersonal distance of his response hung like a question in the still air, and the weight of it threatened to crush Cassidy to death.

Cassidy did not sleep well that night, nor the next. He didn't even see his captor the next day. In fact, the day never came, and so the night seemed to last for eternities – all the fluorescent lights lay dim, so dim Cassidy could not have seen his hand in front of his face, assuming he could have moved it. So dark was it that even once his eyes had grown accustomed to the lightless interior, still he could not see details. Every wall looked an unfathomable dark shadow to him; not even the vague ghostly shapes of the meager furniture showed friendly intent. It was strangely feverish, that darkness, and deathly cold.

Every so often, eerie sounds echoed through the darkness, punctuating the silence with disquieting, sudden cacophony that disappeared as quickly as it came. And always, always it was a different sound, or a mix of sounds, or some other horribly grating noise altogether. Sometimes he heard footsteps, echoing from everywhere and nowhere all at once, teasing him with the promise of yet more pain. Sometimes they came as a regular rhythm, like clockwork beating against whatever was left of his carcass of a mind. Sometimes, they started and stopped without a pattern, and Cassidy was never sure if Joe was pacing just outside… or waiting inside the cell, taunting his victim with footsteps that just kept coming closer…

Sometimes he heard the grating noises of a sharpening blade. This sound terrified him, because it always came suddenly, and always near to his table. It scraped across his ears, just as it scraped across the inky blackness. It was painful to listen to, because it reminded him of everything he'd suffered so far, and everything he'd yet to suffer…

Sometimes – and this was the most hellish sound yet – sometimes he heard the sound of mad, cruel laughter, and it always, always differed every time he heard it. Some of it came as a soft chuckle, an anticipation of his demise. Some of it came as a raucous cackle that shook his unsteady mental state into an uproar. Always, it sounded a little bit closer to him than the last time. Always, it frightened him to the core.

Time was a painful awareness to Cassidy. Constantly, his wounds throbbed, pulsing like angry clockwork, vibrating sympathetically with every sound around him. Especially with the laughter. Always with the laughter.

Cassidy began to fear he was insane. That his mind had decayed here like a corpse, and that he'd spend the rest of his days quivering in a cell somewhere in Arkham, forever haunted by his captor's unearthly laughter…

A flash of fluorescent lighting suddenly blinded his remaining eye, making him yelp in pain as he squinted. He was thankful for it, though – thankful that it banished the sounds, thankful that it brought just enough lucidity to his mind for him to think clearly again.

He was not thankful, however, that it brought Joe – no, not Joe, the Joker – back, and he was not thankful that he could perceive his captor looming over him ominously, more than likely with a razor sharp blade in his hand, ready to dissect whatever meager portion remained of his sanity…

"Aww… did that hurt, Sunshine?" the Joker teased, his voice reeked of mocking delight. "Maybe I oughta turn it up a little for ya. Maybe you'll fry ta death if I do…"

He giggled again, and Cassidy wanted to disappear. He wanted the darkness back. He'd rather sit in that black void with those awful sounds until he lost his mind than deal with the Joker ever again…

"… Well, don't ya worry about a thing, Cassie-boy…" he continued, turning his back and, presumably, setting up the next horrific 'payment'. "I know how ta make sure ya never ever hafta worry about bein' in pain ever again…"

Cassidy whimpered. Whatever this madman planned to do next, he was sure it was going to be something awful. In any case, he was determined to say something before the end, one final testimony against every scrap of agonizing torment he'd experienced. One last shot. Just one last shot…

Mustering what little courage he had left, he spoke, his throat crackling with the effort of speaking after days of screaming it hoarse.

"W-whatever you do to me," he begged, his words escaping as broken whispers, "D-do it fastplease…"

The Joker peered at him apathetically. He honestly couldn't care less if the man had said he wanted a bowl of cereal; they always pleaded for their lives, always asked for a quick death. He particularly enjoyed making sure that beggars got a slow, excruciatingly painful death by the blade instead. Death by knife was always much more satisfying to him than a quick gunshot to the head…

"… S'been ten days, Butcher Boy," he muttered in careless thought as he toyed with a switchblade. "I ain't got nothin' left for ya after this…"

Cassidy felt a vague twinge of hope. Could he finally, finally escape this Hellhole? Was he really going to survive this nightmare?

Oh God, please let me live; I swear I'll never go back on an agreement again! I'll do my own dirty work next time; I swear I will!

Cassidy's eye flicked warily towards the Joker's coal black ones. The psychopathic spark in them ignited into an ever-growing inferno before him, and a hungry, vicious mirth gleamed in those dark eyes, like a vulture's eyes before a particularly pestilent feast.

"So…" his captor murmured, swooping upon him suddenly. His tone held all the charm of a spitting cobra; his tongue darted between his blood red lips in a flash of pink. "There's only one thing left I can do ta ya…"

Cassidy's mind clocked into overtime as it imagined what the Joker could possibly mean. None of the images it conjured bode well for him…

A soft snikt sound caught his ears. His captor now held a small, thin blade, one that looked horrifically like a vegetable peeler – and he kept staring fondly at it, as if hypnotized, as if remembering a long lost friend or lover…

"… Y'ever skinned a animal, Butcher Boy?" A thin smile crossed his features as his eyes shifted upwards to stare dreamily forward, as if transfixed by some demented thing just beyond the veil of reality.

Cassidy's own eye widened in sickening terror.

"No…" he murmured desperately, hoping that the truth would disappear if he denied it enough. "No, no, no! NO!"

The Joker's eyes took on the calm, soulless guise of a shark's as he lowered the blade towards Cassidy's trembling form.

"Y'know how ta skin a man alive, doncha Cassidy?" The thin smile twisted into a monstrous, triumphant smirk. "Only takes a few. Little. Cuts…"

The blade calmly found its place along the inside of Cassidy's neck. It fit as if the groove were made just for it, only for it. As if that were precisely where the blade had always belonged…

"See, it always starts right here, with the first cut…"

The blade gently arced over Cassidy's throat (not quite deep enough to sever the carotid artery) and around his neck like a morbid choker. Cassidy wished so fervently that it had been deeper, if only to put an end to his misery.

"Then… Look at me, Cassidy… Then ya gotta make the second cut…"

The Joker's words became increasingly more distant-sounding, and his eyes now glinted a hungry, lustful black. The blade slid easily down Cassidy's torso and beyond, reopening old wounds that ached horribly. There was so much blood; he felt it, he could smell it. His stomach twinged in panic and illness…

"Third cut…" intoned the predator above him, and the thought hit Cassidy like cinderblocks. This was no longer a game to the Joker; it entranced and enthralled him like a ritualistic ceremony. It was his drug. Most normal people just did crack or played cards with a few buddies to escape from it all, but this… This was what he did in his off time – torturing people. This wasn't just a job to him…

The knife slid easily down Cassidy's remaining leg, and for the first time, he saw what the Joker really was.

He was a monster.

"Fourth cut…"

It was three days before Commissioner Gordon's men found the scene in all of its gory, rotting glory.

They never would have found it if not for the anonymous caller, either. Granted, they couldn't trace the call, and the caller seemed all too familiar and… strangely happy to report the murder, but whoever he was, the Gotham City Police Department owed the entire case to him. If not for the mysterious caller, the murder case might have gone cold, one more unknown and unsolved murder amongst millions of other Gotham murders.

The Crime Scene Investigation unit arrived at the scene – an abandoned storage unit not far from where the old loading docks used to be – at approximately 8:00 PM. From the awful stench emanating from the storage unit, it was obvious they'd entered a bloodbath. It didn't take long to find the small, hinged door the murderer used to enter the unit. It was unlocked, most likely on purpose.

Neither the Commissioner nor the CSI unit had any idea how to deal with the sheer carnage they discovered inside the storage unit. Upon entering the unit, three recently hired officers had to excuse themselves from the scene in order to keep from contaminating the evidence with their vomit. Indeed, a grisly mess awaited those remaining officers: blood spattered the walls and floor; something that looked like a whole, extensively carved human skin and head lay at the entrance of the door like a bearskin rug; a skinned and decapitated body rested on an old, rusting metal autopsy table, confirming the human skin on the floor. Nearby, an arm, a leg, and something later confirmed to be a mutilated human eyeball rested in a pile, arranged as neatly as an intricate and abstract sculpture. Bloody playing cards littered every possible surface – they rested in pools of blood, they stuck to the walls, they stuck into the corpse. All of them, every single card, bore the same design on its face – a dancing joker.

Commissioner Gordon walked over to the corpse, not without a little silent uneasiness of his own. None of it showed on his eternally calm face, however, not even as he quietly examined the cadaver's torn muscles and broken bones. Normally, he wouldn't even have gone on a crime scene investigation, but this… he'd had a bad feeling that this wasn't going to be an ordinary homicide. A disquieting feeling that this homicide edged into the territory of a certain Dark Knight…

The tired-looking Medical Examiner leaned over the human skin, carefully judging the features of the victim's face with a gloved hand. He murmured to himself quietly as he worked.

"Missing left eyeball," he noted, shifting to get a better look at the severed head. "A clean sever of the optical nerve… Extensive scarring of the facial region, about three inches on both sides of the mouth. Wait… wait a minute… Well, would you look at that? Sure looks like our guy… Commissioner, you better come take a look at this…"

Gordon shifted his attention from the corpse to the skin. Dr. Michael Stern rose from a crouch and fixed Gordon with the eerily calm look he always used when explaining a corpse.

"From what I can tell, Commissioner," he said, lacing his fingers together, "It looks like we've finally found that mob boss you were looking for. He's got the scar over his right eyebrow and everything. He's a perfect match – in fact, I'd be very surprised if the DNA evidence didn't match up with the DNA on this guy's record."

"Brandon Cassidy…" Gordon muttered to himself. "Alias 'The Butcher', known for his extortionist rings and hitman loaning services. Also known to hire hitmen for his own purposes…"

"Well, looks like he hired the wrong hitman," Dr. Stern quipped grimly. "There is absolutely no question that he's another Joker victim. The body's worse off yet; we found jagged little pieces of what look like wooden barbecue skewers in a few wounds, as well as trace elements of Sulfuric Acid in the tissues of his hands and feet. It looks, for all intents and purposes, like the Joker really wanted this guy to die a slow, agonizing death…"

Gordon contemplated the royal flush of jokers safety pinned to the body's hand. The more he thought about it, the less this whole thing made sense. Why was the Joker suddenly targeting all these minor mob bosses? Why was he killing them in these uncharacteristic ways? Why didn't the Batman know about this already, and if he did, why hadn't he stopped the damn clown yet?

"… I just want to know how he got out of Arkham," he sighed wearily, pulling off his thin latex gloves and adjusting his glasses in thought, "And why he's going after all these insignificant mobsters. This… this just isn't like him. From our records, gory death of this magnitude isn't even his M.O. –Zsasz, he might do this if provoked enough. But the Joker…?"

"I couldn't answer that question, Commissioner," Dr. Stern responded with a thin smile. "I'm not a Profiler, just a corpse-whisperer."

He smirked wryly, and if it were the time and place, Gordon might even have smiled. Stern always did have a rather dark sense of humor, as well as an uncanny talent for figuring out the secrets of the dead…

"If I had to hazard a guess, though," Stern said as he turned back to examine the corpse, "I'd have to say the psychopath did it for the sheer irony of it. Because he can, and because he thinks it's funny. Some kind of sick joke…"

"… There's more to it," Gordon murmured in thought as he started to leave the trailer. "I've seen how his mind works; I know how he thinks… He… he wouldn't just do this without a reason. No… I think he wanted something. Maybe just his dues, maybe to send a message. He's a lunatic; he could just have wanted his yo-yo back from the schoolyard bully, for all we know. Hell, if he thought it'd be funny to paralyze my daughter and drive me down to his level, he'd do it…"

"If you say so, Commissioner, but I still think he did it for his own twisted pleasure," Stern responded, peering at the body again. "Hmm… that's odd, most of these wounds are already… already healing…"

And it suddenly hit Dr. Stern like a semi truck, a conclusion he'd hoped he would never have to reach.

"… Oh, no," he murmured, his heart skipping a beat. "Jesus Christ, no… That… That can't possibly be correct..."

Stern took a step away from the body as a medical student from his first cadaver. His face bore the deceptive pallor of ash. For the first time in his twenty-five year career, Dr. Michael Stern really, honestly felt frightened of a corpse.

Commissioner Gordon stopped walking, sensing the Medical Examiner's sudden tension. He'd never, never known Stern to behave like this at a crime scene before…

"Commissioner…" Dr. Stern's voice was hushed as that of a man finding himself surrounded by the enemy, unable to escape. "They're… they're half-healed. All of his wounds are half-healed. This man was alive when he got these wounds… He… the Joker didn't kill this man. He tortured him. Possibly over several days…"

Commissioner Gordon paused at the door of the trailer in reflection, his eyes peering calmly into the grey Gotham skyline. It was raining. Torture… now that sounded a bit more like the Joker's M.O., but not like this… Not like this…

Without another word, he stepped down onto the cracked wet pavement and began to walk, first under the yellow Crime Scene tape, then further yet. He'd had enough. He had to get out; had to think. Had to warn the Batman. Raindrops clung to his hair, dripping down his face to land futilely on the ground. The water surrounding the piers splashed and lapped the cracking concrete walls, desperate to cover the land, the place it had yet to know; the thing it relentlessly chased. And Commissioner Gordon walked, and kept walking until his disappeared into the grey shadows of the Narrows docks.