Arkham's lunchroom was never a particularly quiet place. There was always someone yelling, singing, chanting, swearing, laughing, or grunting. Plastic silverware clicked against plastic trays and scarred wooden tables. Every so often, a metallic clatter cascaded out of the kitchen, sometimes accompanied by the cringe-inducing sound of a full tray of sub-par food glorping onto the floor. The constant flow of noises hammered at the inmates until they no longer really noticed the constant susurrus of insanity that puddled around them.
But today - ah, today was different. Even the rogues at their carefully guarded table felt the change in the air. It was the twenty-seventh day of the month, and that could mean only one thing.
Edward Nygma felt a little shiver of anticipation dance between his shoulderblades. On one hand, it was humiliating to be this excited about a snack treat. He had nearly conquered Gotham and the Batman in times too numerous to count! He had stolen some of the world's finest artifacts! He was the most brilliant man ever to live! How could one tiny cup of semi-frozen extruded dairy product have such a pull over him?
On the other hand, it had been a rough month inside his dank cell. His complaints about the stuttering lights in the halls and the steady drip-drip-drips of numerous pipes that had managed to leak through their padded bandages of duct tape had been thoroughly ignored. Between the uncertain lighting, the humid atmosphere, and the rising tide of angry squalling coming from the inmates down the way, it had not been a particularly restful handful of weeks. And since nothing else in this hole seemed to be aimed at making them happy - well, why not enjoy a brief taste of sugary sweet happiness?
The lunchroom attendants, carefully clutching their trays, drifted from table to table to dispense their goods. Eddie's mouth watered as the little paper cup bounced down in front of him. Eagerly, he ripped the top off and stuck his spoon in. A heaping bite of fluffy whiteness was raised to his lips.
The disgusting excuse for dessert landed squarely on the table. He scrutinized the label. "Frozen yogurt?" he demanded shrilly.
"This is three weeks past its expiration date," the Scarecrow scowled, squinting at the tiny numbers on his cup.
"Mine's vanilla!" shrieked Harley Quinn, who looked forward to her monthly amount of chocolate like kids looked forward to Disneyland.
"Where are the sprinkles?" the Joker scowled, poking a long white finger distastefully into his portion and stirring it in a vain hope for a rainbow of colored delights.
"Babies," sniffed Poison Ivy, taking a delicate spoonful.
"Well, if you like it so much, Pammy..." the Joker drawled. With a flick of his plastic spoon, a glob of frozen yogurt spiraled through the air and smacked her on the forehead. It glopped directly into her unbuttoned jumpsuit and nestled in her cleavage.
With a look of stormy fury on her yogurt-smeared face, the green-skinned rogue threw her entire cup of yogurt at the clown. The Joker, expecting it, leaned backward just far enough for the little paper cup to soar past him and impact directly on the Scarecrow's forehead.
Crane's growl of rage was almost immediately dwarfed by the cheers rising from every table. As one, the inmates rose to their feet, hurling the terrible treats at each other with all the joy of people whose entertainment options had previously been limited to jigsaw puzzles and daytime TV.
A lunchroom attendant, shrieking with fear, yanked her tray up to protect her face. The remaining cups of frozen yogurt sailed through the air like individually packaged snowballs, raining down on the rogues' table and exploding as they hit.
Sticky, wet, and miserable, the Riddler sought refuge beneath the table. Crane had already folded himself into the tiny space. With a scowl on his face, he polished his glasses uselessly on a fairly clean bit of his jumpsuit. Eddie scrunched in, leaning against a well-placed table leg. Across from them, the Mad Hatter scraped happily at the bottom of one yogurt cup with his spoon. Three more were lined up, waiting for his further attention.
"I can't see how you eat that stuff," Eddie grumbled, wiping a smear of thin, watery yogurt from his eyebrow.
The Mad Hatter brightened. "You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see"!" he chirped happily, waving his spoon like a conductor's baton.
"Now you've set him off," groaned Crane, perching his glasses back onto his nose.
"'You might just as well say,' added the March Hare, 'that "I like what I get" is the same thing as "I get what I like"!"
Eddie buried his face in yogurt-covered hands. Above him, the lunchroom rocked in a riot of slippery yogurt and overly energetic lunatics.
"You might just as well say -"
"SHUT UP!" shrieked the two trapped rogues.
The Hatter sniffed, pointedly ignoring the two crass philistines sharing his hidey-hole, and continued enjoying his snack.
One week earlier
Arkham Asylum was no one's favorite place to be. There were no brochures proclaiming their miracle cures, because miracle cures didn't happen here. There were no scenic postcards of the admittedly beautiful landscape. No one dreamed of growing up and settling down within its towering brick walls.
Dr. Carlson, who had been the unofficial head of the asylum for longer than he cared to think about, slouched back into his desk chair and idly watched his tiny television. This thirty minute long lunch break was the closest thing that he had to a vacation, and he was determined to enjoy every minute of it.
The actors on the screen - a pair of men dressed as lady office workers with matching names - chattered in falsetto to one another as Carlson carefully propped his feet on the corner of his desk. The crinkled wrapper of his gourmet roast beef sandwich, spread neatly across his stomach, waited to catch crumbs from the freshly-baked bread. Carlson opened his mouth and took one delicious bite. The muscles in his shoulders, more knotted than a kitten's ball of yarn, slowly relaxed as he enjoyed this one shining moment of free time.
The men in dresses abruptly disappeared from his screen to be replaced by a serious-looking man with a serious-looking mustache. "We interrupt this program to bring you some breaking news," he said, looking grimly into the camera.
Carlson's shoulders hunched up as if he'd been smacked on the spine with a sledgehammer. Breaking news in Gotham usually meant one thing: one or another of his charges had done something unspeakable that he was indirectly responsible for. The sandwich, forgotten, bounced to the floor as he wrenched himself upright.
The screen was filled with an image of a giant scaly foot crushing a building as if it were a cigarette butt. "Keystone City is under attack. The being in question has not been identified, though scientists claim that it must be extraterrestrial and possibly extradimensional as well. The Justice League is on the scene. We'll keep you updated as the attack progresses." The screen, which now showed the tiny specks of the world's greatest heroes zipping through the sky, went to black.
The comedy show returned. Carlson scowled and snapped it off. Then, with regret on his face, he scooped the soiled sandwich from the floor and dumped it in the trash can.
At least he still had the potato chips.
He plucked a chip from the bag and studied it, trying to will his stress away. He was going to eat his chips, drink his coffee, and forget that there was ever such a place as Arkham Asylum. Yes. That's what he'd do.
The door slammed open. "Dr. Carlson!" An accountant, a stack of folders clutched to his chest, skidded into the room and stopped dead at the apparent sight of his superior having a staring contest with a potato chip.
Carlson sighed and stuffed the chip back into the bag. "Yes, Mr...Babcock?" he asked, looking briefly at the man's name badge.
"Am I...interrupting something?" Babcock asked, looking cautiously at the bag of chips.
"Just my lunch," Carlson dismissed wearily. He balled up the bag of chips and dumped it into the trash can. So much for having time to eat. "You had something to ask me?" he hinted as the accountant stared nervously at the discarded chip bag.
"Oh. Oh! Yes." Babcock seated himself in front of the desk and fanned the folders out, yanking papers from each one and turning Carlson's desk into something that resembled the floor of a college student's bedroom. "I was going through the budget, and..." He shoved his glasses up onto his nose. "The Bloom money is gone."
Carlson stared blankly at him. "The Bloom money," he repeated flatly.
"You know, the trust fund the Blooms left us because of their son? The hamster guy? They left us a bunch of money because he got better. But now...well, it's gone. It was scheduled to run out this year, and our department asked Dr. Arkham if he was going to replace it with something, and he said he was going to..."
A very familiar throbbing pain unwound itself in Carlson's temples.
"...but then he...well, and then Ms. Sinner said that she'd take care of it, but..."
Carlson gritted his teeth so hard that he could feel the enamel grinding off of them. He had no doubt that the accountant had conscientiously informed his predecessors that the asylum was running on a knife-edge of a budget. He had an equal lack of doubt that either of them had cared enough to do anything about it. After all, Jeremiah Arkham had probably been too busy setting things up for his debut as the next Black Mask, and as for Alyce Sinner...well, he'd love to sit down one day with the bureaucrats whose top choice for the asylum's head administrator had been a woman named Sinner with the seven deadly sins written on ribbons in her hair. He'd be willing to bet that her appointment had more to do with money than morality.
"...and we're not going to be able to cover payroll next month if we don't do something now," the accountant finished.
Carlson rubbed the bridge of his nose. "And you didn't tell me this earlier because..."
The accountant bristled. "I did tell you! I sent you a memo every week reminding you that the Bloom money was almost gone!"
Carlson flicked through his IN box on his desk, a towering pile which hadn't been meaningfully reduced since the day he'd stepped into this office. "There's no memo from you here," he accused.
"I emailed it to you!"
Carlson tapped a few keys on his computer. "Well?" he asked, spinning the monitor so that the accountant could see his inbox. It was packed full of things labeled URGENT and ATTENTION, but it was remarkably empty of anything from the accounting office.
"Not to that account. I sent it to the admin address," the accountant said helpfully.
"There's an administrator's address?"
"Of course! Ms. Sinner didn't tell you?"
Carlson spun the monitor back into place. "Ms. Sinner failed to inform me of many things," he said grimly. In fact, by the time that he'd found himself occupying the top office, Ms. Sinner had been gone for weeks. Had he known that he was going to have to teach himself the job - and if he'd known what exactly this job entailed - he would have laughed in the face of the board of directors when they'd approached him with the job offer.
Carlson blinked, removing himself from a quite satisfying fantasy of strangling the chairman of the board of directors. "Mmm? Yes. Exactly how bad is it?" he asked, eyeing the piles of paper.
The accountant burrowed in the heap and extracted a printout stuffed with numbers. Tentatively, he pointed at a circled number.
"And that's how far below maintenance we are for the year?" Carlson said dismally.
The accountant coughed. "Uh. This month," he corrected.
"Ah...yes," Babcock said.
Carlson raked a hand through his thinning black hair. "Any ideas on how we can fix it?"
"Win the lottery?" Babcock suggested hopelessly.
Carlson glared at him for a moment, then sighed. "All right. Go back to your office. Try to think of something, all right?"
"Yes sir." Babcock packed up his papers, stuffing them into his folders with the energy of one trying to get away before the other shoe dropped. As he reached for the final stack, the back of his hand collided gently with Carlson's paper cup of coffee. It tipped slowly, gracefully, and arced quietly through the air to splat onto the floor. Coffee spread in a widening, steamy pool on the ancient linoleum.
"Sorry," the accountant muttered, bundling his papers together. He scuttled out of the office, slamming the door behind him.
Carlson dropped his head directly onto the desktop, forehead pressing on the corner of a legal pad. He had known that their funding had been cut - every mayor and government nitwit elected in this city ran on a platform of cutting Arkham's funding - but to have it come to this? Was Arkham Asylum doomed to be disbanded?
"No," he snarled, shooting up in his seat. He'd be damned if he let this place sink without a fight. So the government wouldn't fund them? Fine. There were other people with money in this city. Surely one of them would chip in!
He lifted his phone. "Charlotte?"
"Yes, Dr. Carlson?" his secretary mumbled through a mouthful of her lunch.
"We've got work to do." His stomach growled as the scent of his deceased coffee wafted across his face. "And bring a mop," he added.
(to be continued)
Author's Note: Everything Jervis says in italics is a quote from a Wonderland book. Alyce Sinner and Jeremiah Arkham's forays into roguedom are canon, or at least they were before the reboot. I don't think I could out-weird DC if I tried.