DUET

 

            The sun had been below the horizon a scant half hour when the Dark Knight emerged from his cave.  The sleek Batmobile glided across Gotham City’s streets toward a familiar but most unwelcome destination.  More than matching wits with Riddler or hand-to-hand combat with Bane, he absolutely detested going to Arkham Asylum.

            He parked outside the front gate, activated the car’s shields, and marched into the building for which the word “godforsaken” was too mild a description.

            The front desk attendant escorted him to the third floor office of Dr. Eric Schilling, the asylum’s lead psychiatrist.

            Schilling’s receding hairline and quiet demeanor made him seem an oddly appropriate man to deal with the psychopaths and misfits in residence.

            He extended a hand and gripped the Dark Knight’s glove.  “Thank you for coming.  Please, have a seat.”

            “I’ll stand.”

            “As you wish.”  The doctor picked up several pieces of paper and gave them to Batman.  “These are the four notes.  As I told Commissioner Gordon, the first one arrived two weeks ago.  Initially, we dismissed it as the sort of ‘hate mail’ one might expect a man like Joker to receive.  But they kept coming, the most recent one yesterday.  Also, as you can tell, they get progressively more disturbing.”

            Batman read them in sequence.  “‘You’re going to die, Joker.  I will kill you.’  ‘I haven’t yet made up my mind as to what way you’ll die.  You’ve killed so many, it’s hard to decide what’s most fitting.’  ‘How does it feel, Joker, knowing that you’re going to die?  I know when, but you don’t.  Think about it.  Think about it often.’  ‘Imagine the scene, Joker.  Picture your blood pouring out on the cold floor of your cell.  Realize it’s your very life, and you can’t stop it from flowing away.  Won’t that be fun?’”

            Schilling cleared his throat.  “It doesn’t take a degree in psychiatry to tell those are the product of a sick mind.”

            “Any clues about the source?”

            “None.  The police tested for fingerprints.”  He held up a fax page.  “The forensics report says they were written on an Underwood typewriter with standard office paper and mailed from within the city.”

            “Mind if I keep them?”

            “Please do.”  Schilling seemed almost relieved.  “It’s very unpleasant having them on my desk.”

            “Has Joker seen them?”

            “No, but we did tell him we’ve received threats on his life.”

            Batman’s eyes narrowed.  “What was his reaction?”

            “I believe his exact words were, ‘My adoring public!  What would I do without them?’”

            “Doctor, have you considered the possibility that Joker wrote these himself, or at least had someone on the outside do it?”

            “How could he?  He’s under constant surveillance and allowed no visitors.  Besides, why would he do such a thing?”

            “To get the publicity he loves so much.  Or as a prelude to his next escape.”

            “You can talk to him if you’d like, but I seriously doubt he had anything to do with them.”

            Batman clenched his fists.  “I wouldn’t mind a word or two with the Clown Prince of Crime.”

            Schilling led him out of the office and down the stone steps to the second floor, where Joker and the other maximum security residents were held.  As they made their way through the dim halls, Batman did his best to tune out the catcalls and boos from the inmates he helped incarcerate.

            Tapping his keys on the steel door, Schilling said, “Joker, someone’s here to see you.”

            “Send them in.  Although I am somewhat tied up at the moment.  Hee!  Hee!  Hee!”

            As Schilling opened the door, he explained, “We had to put him in a straightjacket a little while ago.  He tried to attack the orderly who brought his dinner.”

            “When are you going to stop giving me chicken?” Joker demanded.

            “How about some Bat?” the Dark Knight asked.

            Joker’s smile immediately vanished.  “Batsy?  Well, well.  Come to see how the other half lives?  You know, I’ve never taken the opportunity to compliment you on your wardrobe.  It’s the one thing I admire about you.  You do look good in black.”

            “The straightjacket is quite becoming to you.”

            Pish!  Ivory is not my color.  It clashes with my face.”

            Batman took the letters out of his gauntlet.  “Dr. Schilling tells me you’ve been receiving death threats.”

            Smiling again, Joker said, “It goes with the job, I guess.”

            “Why don’t you stop wasting everyone’s time and admit you wrote these yourself?”

            “Kinda hard to write with this contraption on, dontcha think?”

            “One way or another, you’re responsible, aren’t you?  It’s part of your next twisted scheme.”

            “Methinks he doth protest too much,” the Clown Prince replied.  “I didn’t write them.  I didn’t tell anyone else to write them.  In fact, I’ll bet you did.”

            “Me?” Batman asked incredulously.

            “Doctor, why don’t you weigh in on this?  Batsy has an irrational hatred towards me.  He’s clearly got a vendetta.  Nobody knows who he is.  He’s the perfect suspect, right, Doc?”

            Jabbing a finger at him, Batman shouted, “I ought to—”

            “See?  See?  What did I tell you?”  Joker pressed his point as Schilling held Batman back.  “The guy runs around in a mask, dressed like a bat.  Hell, he belongs in here with the rest of us.”

            Batman pulled free of Schilling’s grip.  “I didn’t write them, and you know it.  If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it long, long ago.  But that’s where we’re different.”

            “There’s still time for you to change.  So, Detective, if you know you didn’t do it, and I know I didn’t, then who did?”

            Batman said, “I intend to find out.”

            “When you do—if you do—tell me, and I’ll sue them for harassment.”

            “As you can see, he’s been a rather uncooperative patient,” Schilling told Batman, “despite all the hours I’ve spent working with him.”

“Why you?”

“After the ‘Hell Night’ debacle, it was thought that someone with more experience should be the lead on his case.  Of course, I wanted to do my part to help so I agreed to the request.  My days are long and frustrating, mostly because of him.”

“I know exactly how you feel, so I won’t take up any more of your time.  Thank you.”  Batman turned to walk out.

“I am ready to call it a day.”

            “Excuse me!” Joker shouted.  “You never told me what those letters say.  They were addressed to yours truly, after all.”

            Batman looked at Schilling, who nodded.  He took out the most recent letter and read it aloud.

            Joker’s eyes got wide, then he began laughing hysterically.

            “What could possibly be amusing about that?” Schilling demanded.

            “It’s so awful,” Joker chortled.  “That wouldn’t even win a bad poetry contest.  Whoever it is, I love ‘em.  He’s got my sense of humor.  What a character!”

            Batman and Schilling exited the cell, leaving Joker to enjoy his laugh of the day.

 

            On the drive home, Batman asked himself who would want to kill Joker.  “Who wouldn’t,” he wondered aloud.

            A potential suspect list began forming in his mind almost immediately.  All the other master criminals who ended up on the losing side of Joker’s Hell Night destruction spree.  Relatives of the victims.  Perhaps even misguided public officials.  Even his own crime fighting associates, although he felt sure they were too well trained to go over the edge without warning.  Still, he had to officially rule them out, and that was job one when he got back to the Batcave.

 

            “Lieutenant, this better be good,” Commissioner Gordon barked, slamming his car door.  “What is it about a dead hooker that’s important enough to pull me away from a night at the symphony with my daughter?”

            Visibly shaken, Lt. Dan Marco answered, “See for yourself.”

            A patrol sergeant lifted up the sheet over the body.

            Gordon gazed down, then instinctively shut his eyes.  “Sweet mother of God!”

            The sergeant said, “Yeah.  Just what we need.  Another killer with ‘style.’”

            The Hispanic woman in her early 20s had been strangled and her throat neatly sliced open from ear to ear.  Her face was spray painted white and the tip of her nose tinted red.  A downturned red smile was painted on her mouth.

            Marco handed Gordon what looked like a playing card.  “This was found on the victim’s chest.”

            “A tarot Death card?”

            “It’s signed ‘The Clown’ on the back.  Sir, this has all the hallmarks of Joker.”

            “Agreed.”  Gordon looked at him grimly.  “There’s just one problem with that theory, Lieutenant.  Joker’s locked away in Arkham.”

 

            The bizarre murder made the morning news and immediately drew the attention of Bruce Wayne.

            Alfred brought breakfast down to the Batcave, where his employer was busy searching the criminal archives.  “Good morning, sir.  Your poached eggs, toast, and orange juice.”

            Staying glued to the computer screen, Bruce said, “Thank you, Alfred.  Just put them on the work table.”

            “Busy night?”

            Leaning back, Bruce reached around and grabbed the juice.  “Yeah.  Someone’s sending death threats to Joker.”

            “A lot of people in this city would gladly pin a medal on such an individual.”  After seeing Bruce’s frown, he added, “Even though that isn’t the right thing to do.”

            “There’s surely no shortage of suspects.  On top of that, it looks like we’ve got a new psycho running loose.”

            “I saw the TV news, sir.  Most disturbing.”

            “I’m looking through the police files to see if there’s any related murders.  Apart from Joker’s gas attacks, I haven’t found any serial crimes where the victims’ faces were disfigured.  Certainly nothing where they were painted up like clowns.”

            The butler’s eyebrows raised up.  “Serial crimes?  Has there been a second murder?”

            “No, but there will be.  Count on it.  Somebody like this is not going to stop at one.  He can’t.  He needs the publicity.”

            “Sounds quite a lot like Joker.”

            “That’s what bothers me, Alfred.  It couldn’t have been him.  It has to be some sort of copycat.”

            “Oh, dear.”

 

            It happened again that night.

            Gordon had gone home early—for him—with a bad headache, and was actually asleep when the phone rang just after ten.

            “We’ve got another one, sir,” the officer on the other end said.

            “Another what?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.

            Murdered prostitute with that sicko clown makeup.”

            “Where?”

            “Grand, just south of the Cathedral.”

            Gordon turned on the light.  “That’s all the way across town from the first one.”

            “It’s gotta be the same guy.  He left another Death card signed ‘the Clown.’  No witnesses, just like last night.”

            “Are we absolutely certain that Joker hasn’t left Arkham?”

            “Captain Bain verified it, sir.  Joker’s been in his cell all night.”

            “Fingerprint him.  I want to be sure he hasn’t switched places with an imposter.”

 

            Things didn’t get any better with the dawn.  The media began making comparisons to Jack the Ripper, a level of hype the police did not need.  Then there were the threats against Joker.  Gordon hoped Batman was making progress with those.

            As he finished his second cup of coffee, the intercom buzzed.  “Dr. Schilling on line two, sir.”

            Picking up the phone, he sighed.  “Gordon.”

            “Good day, Commissioner.  We received another death threat against Joker in this morning’s mail.”

            “Read it to me.”

            “It is rather disturbing, and—”

            “Read it, Doctor.  I haven’t got all day.”

            “Very well.  It says, ‘Pain.  Do you know what pain is, Joker?  Deep, searing pain.  The pain of death.  Excruciating, violent, soul-scarring pain.  Do you know it?  You soon will.  A most painful death awaits you, Joker.  He who has shown no mercy will be shown none himself.’”

            Gordon remained silent for several moments.  “Lovely.  The guy better not count on working for Hallmark.  Thank you for letting me know.  I’ll have Patrol come by and pick it up as evidence.”

            “I wonder how many more of these there’ll be before he decides to act,” Schilling said.

            “Maybe Batman will find some answers for us.”

 

            The welfare of Gotham’s most infamous criminal was of less concern to the commissioner than the “Clown murders,” as the media dubbed them.  Because of his doubts and the similarities to some of Joker’s past crimes, he lit the Bat-signal that evening.

            An autumn chill was in the breeze as he awaited the Dark Knight’s arrival.  He gazed across the city’s skyline and again felt the full weight of his job pressing in.

            “Commissioner?”

            Startled, he turned to find the silhouette of his shadowy friend beside him.  “Batman, I didn’t hear you come up.”

            “Got to keep in practice.  What’s on your mind tonight?”

            “Clowns.”

            “The killing kind?” Batman asked.

            “Can you tell me without a doubt that Joker is not responsible for these two murders?”

            “Yes.  It isn’t him.  His only contact with the outside world is the death threats he’s receiving.”

            Gordon rubbed his hands to keep them warm.  “Do you think there’s any connection between the two?”

            “It occurred to me, but I haven’t found a direct link yet.”

            “What do you make of this ‘Clown’ fellow?”

            Batman began pacing.  “It could be that he admires Joker.  The killing of prostitutes suggests anger at women, or sexual repression.”

            Gordon’s cell phone buzzed, interrupting the conversation.  “Yes?  Where?  Better notify Bruce.  I’m on the way.”  He looked over at his caped companion.  “I’ll bring Batman along.  He may want to see this.”

            “What is it?” the Dark Knight asked.

            Switching the Bat-signal off, Gordon said, “Another Clown murder, just outside the Wayne Enterprises parking garage.”

            “Prostitutes don’t usually congregate there.”

            “The victim wasn’t a hooker.  She’s a Wayne employee.”

 

            Illuminated by the pulsing red and blue squad car lights, officers were holding back a small group of onlookers when Gordon and Batman arrived.  The crime scene photographer moved aside to let them view the body.

            Batman instantly recognized the victim but made no show of his anger and shock at the sight of her slashed, grotesquely painted face.

            A sergeant approached Gordon with the victim’s purse.  Name’s Lucy Holt.  She worked in R&D for WayneTech.  Her car’s still in the garage, untouched.  Guess she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

            Gordon turned to Batman.  “What do you think?”

            Fighting his revulsion, Batman forced himself to look at what the Clown had done to a gifted woman with a promising future.  “The guy’s giving Joker a run for his money in the psycho department.”

            Motioning for his men to cover the corpse, Gordon said, “Great.  Now any woman’s a possible target.  What I can’t---how the hell is he doing this without anyone seeing him?”

            Batman studied the Death card, carefully sealed in an evidence bag.  “For what it’s worth, in tarot, the Death card seldom refers to physical death.  It’s used to represent transition, change, or conclusion.”

            “Does he know that, or is he like us simpletons who think Death means death?”

            “Too many movies, Commissioner.  I’d say the Clown knows quite a lot.  He may be a butcher, but he’s a very smart one.”

 

            And daring.  Less than an hour later, the Bat-signal lit up the night sky again.

            Batman turned on the Batmobile’s comlink.  “Commissioner?”

            “More bad news.  The City Manager’s teenage son was found dead in a car at Club Roxx.  The unit on the scene says it’s a Clown killing.  So he’s not just going after women.  Or is he trying to throw us off?”

            “On the contrary.  He’s very clearly saying, I can kill whoever I want whenever I want.”

            “Hold on a minute.”

            While Gordon spoke to one of his officers, Batman considered the wave of killings.  Were they random murders like Joker indulged in, or one long, grisly, and as yet incomplete message?  He didn’t know.  If only he had more insight into the Clown’s mindset….

            “Batman, you still there?”

            “Yes.”

            “Someone outside the club snapped a picture of the Clown with his cell phone camera.  It’s blurry and pretty dark, but it shows a guy in a black trenchcoat and clown mask fleeing in between rows of cars.”

            “Can you see the face?”

            “No, unfortunately, it shows his back.  I’m going to see if we can clean it up before we send it to the media.  It’s the first solid piece of evidence we’ve gotten.”

 

            Below tasteless headlines like “BAD CLOWN” and “NOT FUNNY,” the fuzzy photo topped the front page of all the papers in Gotham.  Gordon himself appeared in live interviews on two of the local morning newscasts, pleading for help in catching the city’s newest killer.

            There was nothing revelatory in any of this for Bruce, so instead he spent the morning in the Batcave rereading texts on the criminal mind and searching for historical data on psychotic serial killers.  He watched interviews with Charles Manson and David Berkowitz.  He reviewed Joker’s extensive psychiatric records, all in an effort to pry open the door to the Clown’s psyche, whoever he may be.

            “Under other circumstances, I might question the wisdom of your choice of reading materials.”

            “Oh, hi, Alfred.  What time is it?”

            “Noon, sir.  I brought you some lunch.”

            “Thanks.  I know what you mean about this stuff.  Really disturbing.  You spend enough time with it, and it may just make you crazy.”

            “In an effort to keep you anchored to the real world, I should remind you that the Wayne Foundation Charity Golf Tournament is tomorrow.”

            “Yes.  I’ve let my game slip horribly, so I may be a no-show, anyway.”

            “You’re scheduled to play with Mayor Brandenburg and Mr. Fox.”

            “They’ll understand.  Especially Lucius.”  He stared at an enlargement of the Clown photo.  “I’ve got to figure out who this guy is.”

            “As you wish, sir.  Master Tim asked me to tell you he is studying for his college entrance exams at the library.”

            “Thank you, Alfred.”  He put a mug shot of Joker onscreen next to the Clown.  “Two sides of the same coin, or the same side of two coins…?”

 

            Another night, another murder.

            A waitress was killed not long after her shift at the Waterfront Lounge ended.  Her body was dumped in an alley on 19th Street, where two officers patrolling for public drunks found it.

            The look of terror on her altered face made the sight of her corpse that much harder to take.  One of the officers was so unnerved that he turned away and vomited.

            “Sweet Jesus,” the other one commented as he radioed for an ambulance, “if we don’t catch this wacko soon, the whole department’s gonna end up in Arkham.”

 

            The comment, though exaggerated, underscored another problem confronting Gordon and the Gotham PD: the murders were taking a psychological toll on the cops involved.  From the detectives investigating to the patrol officers who found the bodies, anyone who had seen the Clown’s demented “work” soon found themselves questioning their own soundness of mind.

            Gordon would’ve been only too happy to hand the entire case over to Batman, were it possible.  Before he could even decide which problem to tackle first in the morning, a phone call from Dr. Schilling threw his plans a curve.

            “Commissioner, I know how busy you are, but I must see you at once.”

            “Did Joker get another death threat?”

            “Yes, sir, but it’s much more than that.  I really can’t go into details over the phone.  Please, come by my office as soon as you can.  You won’t regret it.”

            “If it involves Joker, I already do.”  He mulled over the request, despite his disinclination.  If he went, it would give him a chance to ask Schilling some questions about what the Clown case was doing to his men.

            “Okay.  I can be there in half an hour.  And this damn well better be worth it.”

 

            Like Batman, Gordon found the atmosphere at Arkham about as appealing as a night in the morgue.  He wondered how anybody could stand to work there.

            “Commissioner, thank you for coming.”

            Gordon didn’t even bother to remove his overcoat.  Closing the door behind him, he asked, “What’s this all about?”

            “Joker got another letter.  With one of these inside.”  Schilling held up a Death card.

            The lawman’s eyes bulged as he took the card.  “It’s just like the others.”  Flipping it over, he added, “And signed by the Clown, too.”

            “Your killer and my letter writer are the same person,” the doctor said.

            Which means this nut probably has every intention of doing what he said he’ll do in those letters.  What did the note with the card say?”

            Schilling picked it up.  “‘You’ve seen what I can do.  Now it’s only a matter of time until you see what I do to you.  Your turn is coming, Joker, very soon.’”

            Gordon took the letter from him and pocketed it along with the card.  “I had some questions I was going to ask you, but I’m sure you understand why I can’t stay.”

            “Absolutely.”

            As he opened the door, the commissioner paused and turned around.  “You were right.  I’m glad I came.”

            And just as glad to leave, he said to himself as he exited the building.

 

            Like a second moon, the Bat-signal beamed across the Gotham sky as soon as darkness fell.

When Batman arrived, Gordon informed him of the unexpected development.  “I have no doubt this Clown will make good on the threats in his letters.”

            Batman nodded.  “Yes.  Odd that all the murders may have been just to send a message to Joker.”

            “If you’re right, then the guy is as sick as him, or worse.  We’ve got to catch him, but how?”

            “Joker.”

            Frowning, Gordon asked, “What?”

            “It takes a psycho to know a psycho.  The best chance of understanding the Clown’s mind and identifying him is to get inside the head of someone like him, namely Joker.”

            Gordon chuckled.  “The quacks at Arkham have been trying for years, with little to show for it.  Why, the last person who seriously tried was Harley Quinn, and he made her fall in love with him.  What makes you think it’ll work now?”

            “One, I’m not Harley Quinn.  Two, there’s more than a little self-interest at stake for him.  If he thinks it’ll actually save his life, he may be quite willing to cooperate.”

            “With you?  I’m not gonna hold my breath.”

            “Only Nixon could go to China.”

            “Fine.  Just be careful, Batman.  He’s still one sick, manipulative bastard.”

            “No one knows that better than me, Commissioner.”

 

            By the time he drove to Arkham, Batman had gotten Dr. Schilling’s consent.  Now he had to get Joker’s.

            The Ace of Knaves was surprised to hear his cell door open, close, and lock, all in quick succession.  Lazily rolling over in his cot, he bolted upright when he saw Batman leaning quietly against the wall.

“What are you doing here, Batsy?”

            “I thought we’d have a little chat.”

            “Why?  You’re a terrible conversationalist.”

            Batman approached the cot and stared into Joker’s eyes.  “I need your help.”

            The villain burst into laughter and fell back onto the cot in hysterics.  “Now that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in years!  You aren’t much for jokes, but when you tell one, it’s a doozie.”

            “I’m not joking.  I need your help to catch a criminal.”

            “I wouldn’t help you catch a cold.”

            “There’s a lot in it for you.”

            Joker raised an eyebrow.  “This I’ve gotta hear.”

            Batman handed him a small stack of crime scene photos.  “A very sick killer is loose in Gotham.  This is a sample of what he’s done.”

            Leafing through the pictures, Joker smiled.  “Ooh, nice.  A bit derivative, but stylish.  Now the frown, that’s a great touch.”

            “He leaves one of these on each victim,” Batman said as he passed along a tarot Death card.

            “‘The Clown?’  That’s the best he can do for a name?”

            “He’s imitating you, Joker.”

            “Ah, well.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Can’t argue with the man’s taste in role models.”

            Batman got in his face.  “He doesn’t want to be like you.  He want to eliminate you.”

            “What?”

            “You received another letter today.  Only with something extra.”  The Dark Knight slowly pulled another Death card from inside his gauntlet and held it up.

            Joker’s jaw dropped, along with the pictures.

            “That’s right.  The same Clown who’s committing these murders is sending you the letters.  The killings are just one more, written in blood instead of ink.”

            Joker wasn’t smiling anymore.  “So…you think he really is coming after me?”

            “Absolutely.  He kills without a trace.  No witnesses, no fingerprints, no evidence.  The only thing he leaves behind is his grotesque ‘art.’  He hates you and wants you dead.”

“Why the sudden concern for my welfare?  I figure you’d be happy to see me taken out.”

            Batman stood up angrily.  “You still don’t get it, Joker.  I protect innocent life.”

            The Clown Prince laughed heartily again.  “Me, innocent?  You’re on a roll tonight, Batsy.”

            “Right now, you’re serving your duly imposed sentence.  The justice system has confined you here, and you’re entitled to the same protection as the other people in Gotham.  It’s got absolutely nothing to do with what I think of you as a person.”

            “Fortunately for me, huh?  So what’s my reward if I help you capture this guy?”

            “You get to keep living, breathing, and taking up valuable space.”

            “And here I thought you were getting sentimental.”

            Batman scowled and picked up the photos. 

            “How can I help?  I don’t know who he is.”

“But you think like he does.  If you can give me some insight into you, perhaps I can understand him.”

            “And give away all my trade secrets?” Joker protested.

            “The life you save will be your own.”

            Joker looked at him earnestly.  “Give me a few minutes to think it over.”

            Batman turned away.  “Take your time.”

            Lying back, Joker looked up at the light.  Part of him was scared, very scared.  Now he knew how his own victims must’ve felt.  If he could do something to save his skin, he’d certainly be foolish not to.

            The rest of him--the devious psychopath who hated the Dark Knight with a passion—thought of the old proverb about the Chinese word for danger also being the word for opportunity.  And what an opportunity was presenting itself.

If he opened up and let Batman into his head, he just might be able to trap him and warp his mind in return.  A few carefully planted psychological bombs could work through the Caped Crusader’s psyche like a virus and send him into a breakdown.  The chance to preserve his life and destroy Batman at little personal cost was too good to pass up.

“Okay,” he said without sounding overeager or revealing any trace of fear.  “I’ll do it.  Not like I have much choice.”

“You always have a choice, Joker.”

“If I don’t help you, I may never leave this place again, except in a pine box.”

Batman showed no reaction.

“When do you want to start?”

“Now.  We’ve lost enough time already.”

 

The Clown struck again, this time killing a derelict and painting his face in the same macabre style.

The officer who notified Gordon asked, “Do you want us to signal Batman?”

Gordon hesitated a moment.  “No.  He’s already working as hard as he can on this case.  In fact, he’s about to go beyond.”

 

“So how’s this supposed to work?” Joker asked.

“I ask questions.  You answer.  Simple.”

“What if I’d like to ask my own questions?”

“Why?”

Joker pulled on his hair and lay back.  “Believe it or not, Batsy, you’re more likely to find what you want by having a dialogue instead of an interrogation.  A sort of duet, you might say.”

“I don’t sing.”

“You know what I mean!”

“Fine,” Batman conceded.  “But if you try to turn this into an interrogation of me, I’m gone.  Which means there’s no guarantee I’ll catch the Clown before he pays you a visit.

“Very well.”  Give a little, get a little, Joker reasoned.

“What would make you want you dead?”

“Maybe I’m tired of me.  Maybe it’s a challenge to knock me off.  Maybe I don’t like any competition.  A lot of reasons I can think of.”

Batman began pacing.  “What goes on in your head that makes you want to kill?”

“My motivation?”

“More than that.  A single act can have a dozen motivations.  What…what do you think about when you’re in a killing mood?”

He’s starting to make himself vulnerable, Joker thought.  “Why do you not want to kill?”

The Dark Knight stopped and turned.  “I warned you—”

“Take it easy, Batsy.  I’m trying to make a point.  Why don’t you want to kill people like me?”

“Because it’s wrong.  The end doesn’t justify the means.  If I kill you, I become you.  I’d rather die first.”

A grin appeared on Joker’s face.  “So I would win by losing, eh?”

“That’s not how most people would look at it.”

“Oh, but in my world, things are frequently upside down.  It’s like Alice’s trip through the looking glass.  Right, wrong, up, down.  It’s really hard to tell sometimes.  Doesn’t it seem that way to you?”

“Only when I deal with you.”

Joker stood and stared into Batman’s eyes.  “There’s an edge in life, Batsy.  You know that.  No one sees it, but it’s there.  Some people walk close to it, while others stay far away.  And you never really know where it is until you step over.  Then you can’t go back.  But that’s okay.  You’re in what these silly doctors call ‘insanity.’  It’s very freeing to stop fighting your mind about where it’s going and just follow it.  New perspectives open up.  Life becomes different.  It’s brighter…better.”

“Not from where I stand.”

“That’s your problem.  You’re not standing where you think you are.  You stepped over the edge at some point, like I did.  You just won’t admit it to yourself.  You think you can still live on the other side when you take off that mask.  But you can’t.  How many close friends do you really have?  Besides that catty female and the two kiddos you hang out with.  It probably isn’t many.”

“This isn’t about me, remember?”

“I know.  But some of the answers you want from me you can find inside yourself.  Go chat with the Bat in the mirror when we’re through.”

Batman ignored the diversion.  “Back to my question.  It sounds like there is no thought pattern when you kill.”

“Exactly.  It’s reflexive, like breathing.  Sometimes, it’s like going through a tunnel of obsession.  It just feels like the thing to do at the moment.”

“No guilt or remorse?”

Joker shook his head.  “Part of the baggage you lose in that wonderful trip over the edge, Batsy.”

“It doesn’t seem to have affected your ego.”

“Another side benefit.”

“What about the Clown?”

“Way, way past the edge.  Now, if he’s faking, if he’s trying to make it look like he’s insane when he thinks he isn’t, then he’s worse off than me.  At least I know how to hold my psychotic liquor.  Unlike some.”

Peeved, Batman said, “The personal jabs are getting old.  Knock it off.”

“I need my fun.  I never said I would sit here and let you analyze me.”

“You did promise you’d help.”

“I am helping, Batsy.  You really need to get over yourself.  Honestly, you aren’t much different from the rest of us mixed nuts.  This driving need you have to lock people away….  Take the training wheels off the cops, and let them do their job.  Go back to whatever it is you do when your not playing dress-up and making my life miserable.  A few sessions with Dr. Schilling might do wonders for you.”

“That’s a pretty thin recommendation, considering he’s gotten nowhere with you.”

“I cooperate when I want to.  Like now.”

Batman looked down the nose of his cowl.  “I’d hardly call this conversation a model of cooperation.  We can snipe at each other all night, or we can try to accomplish the one thing we agree on: stopping the Clown.”

Aww.  I was just getting warmed up.”

“Save it for the Arkham talent show.  Now, I keep coming back to one thing about the Clown.  He never mentions me or the police.  If you and the other sickos here share a common trait, it’s your hatred for me.”

“With good reason.”

Pacing again, Batman made a fist.  “So why doesn’t the Clown?  All his anger is aimed at you.  The Death cards are his signature, but his only direct communications are those letters.  There’s no connection between his victims.  He doesn’t seem to have any grudge against them.  It’s all about you.  He’s killing you in effigy over and over.  If it was a simple case of revenge, he wouldn’t kill innocent people and paint them up like you.  Who do you know that could be so messed up?”

“Besides myself?  Nobody.  If it were one of my fellow dabblers in crime, of course they’d come straight at me.  They wouldn’t waste time trying to frighten me.  I already know what they’re capable of.”

“Do you have a son?  A partner gone bad?  A zealous thug you had to kick out?”

Joker buried his head in his hands.  “No, no, and no.”

The Dark Knight pushed the cape over his shoulder in frustration.  “There has to be something we’re missing.  In your not-so-distant past, you’ve crossed paths with somebody who got very warped by the experience.”

“I do tend to have that effect on people, don’t I?  If your theory’s right, it narrows the suspect list down to maybe only a couple thousand guys, give or take.  Got a phone book in your utility belt?”

Batman grabbed him by the jumpsuit.  “You’re a smart guy, Joker, as well as an incurable smart-ass.  If you think this is all a charade and silly answers are going to get me out of your hair, think again.  It’s you the Clown’s after, not me.  I have more work to do, but I’ll be back tomorrow.  Until then, think about who might want to hurt you bad enough to go on a killing spree first.”

He shoved Joker back onto his cot, turned, and departed without another word.

 

Fatigue played as much a role as frustration in Batman’s hasty departure.  Dealing with Joker was always an emotional drain, but especially this time.  It was their first meeting since the Clown Prince almost snuffed out Catwoman’s life on Hell Night.  Somehow, Batman resisted the urge to pummel the crap out of him for that.

He knew he was taking some dangerous gambles with his strategy, as Alfred had studiously pointed out.  Immersing himself in the world of criminal insanity and trying to get inside two psychopath’s minds at once, all the while avoiding Joker’s attempts to mess up his own mind, was a tall order for anyone.

It would have been hard even if his own mental health wasn’t questionable.

To top it all off, he couldn’t be certain Joker was telling the truth at any given point.  After all, the man had a knack for making the most outrageous lies seem somehow believable to those he could pull under his influence.

Once back in the Batcave, he felt a strange desire to actually take Joker’s advice.  He looked at himself in the mirror, and the doubts came rolling in.  Was he wrong to dismiss the notion that a man who dressed like a bat was no less in need of help than the inmates at Arkham?  Where were the limits beyond which he could no longer push himself?  Was his existence keeping criminals in check, or in business?  Did he really have some sick, deep down need to keep fighting with Joker?  Had their lives become that intertwined?

Forcing himself away from the mirror, he undressed and went to bed accompanied by his host of dark thoughts, which begat dark dreams starring Joker.

Had he not been so exhausted, he would’ve awakened several times and escaped the nightmares.  But his weary body held him captive and forced him to endure the long, terrible movie of his life in which every person but himself was Joker.  His parents.  Alfred.  Robin.  Penguin.  Riddler.  All replaced by the ashen countenance of his most durable foe.

 

The next evening, still short on sleep and long on exposure to diseased minds, Batman made good on his promise to return.  This time, he decided to take a more aggressive and structured approach.

Before he said a single word, Joker gazed into his eyes and glimpsed the storms lurking behind.  Very nice, he told himself.  You’ve got him right where you want him.

Batman, too, could see the wheels in Joker’s mind and was just as determined to resist the man’s tactics, despite how ragged he felt.

“Another day, another note from my ‘secret admirer?’” Joker asked playfully.

“Something like that.  I’m not even reading them anymore.  Dr. Schilling says the Clown is coming after you in two days, according to the letter.”

“That’s…not much time.”

Batman nodded.  “Unless you can give me more to work with, you might as well consider it your execution date.”

The phrase unnerved Joker.  “Why?  Can’t you or the police protect me?”

“One, the skill the Clown has shown in avoiding witnesses and law enforcement tells me he’s smart enough to find a way in here no matter what we try.  He could easily disguise himself as a cop or an orderly.  And two, you know you’re popularity is right below the sewer rats and roaches.  I respect the integrity of Commissioner Gordon’s men, but I’m afraid in this case some of them might ‘accidentally’ let their guard down.”

“They wouldn’t!” the Clown Prince said mockingly.

“Now, knock off the jokes and give me some help!”

“What do you think I’ve been thinking about, Batsy?  I know of nobody who would want to do this to me.”

Batman was anticipating that answer.  “I read an interesting case file this morning.  Young man, frustrated songwriter, obsessed with a rock star.  He began to think the musician was stealing his songs.  Then he became convinced he was the rock star.  The real one.  Which meant the real musician was an imposter, a phony who had to be eliminated.  One night, he waited outside the star’s hotel room and shot him dead.”

Joker swallowed hard.

“The Clown may think he’s the real Joker and you’re a fake.”

“So why does he need to kill me over and over out there?”

“Because he admires and despises you at the same time.”

“What a sick, messed up….”  Joker looked at the Dark Knight.  “Don’t say it.”

Batman suppressed the urge to smile.

Okay, so this guy thinks he’s the real me, huh?”

“More and more, that seems to be the most plausible answer.”

Joker gave a weary sigh.  “He could be anybody out there.”

“Or in here.”

“What?”

“Just thinking out loud.”

“What’s your plan?  After all this talking, how are you going to catch him?”

“Give our inability to identify him, our options are limited.”  Batman then explained in detail what he had in mind.

Joker pondered it for a minute, then nodded.  “I like it.  Ha!  Imagine that.  What is the world coming to, Batsy?  Maybe this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

“Not likely.”

“Still sore about the whole Hell Night business?”

“Among other things.”

Joker’s forced smile faded.  “If this works, it does sort of mean I’m in your debt, doesn’t it?  Egad, what a distasteful notion.”

“I know you better than that, Joker.  What you do today you would gladly undo tomorrow.”

“Not tomorrow.  I’ll wait until after the Clown is in jail.”  He laughed giddily as Batman walked out of the cell, still amazed that he was trying to save his archenemy’s life.

 

Batman earnestly hoped the following night would be an easy one so he could rest and clear his mind for the anticipated showdown.

No such luck.  The Bat-signal lit up just before ten.  He dutifully donned his suit and drove to meet Gordon.

The first thing he noticed was how upbeat the commissioner looked.  “Something good for a change?”

“How does a huge break in the Clown case sound?” Gordon asked.  “Two officers found what at first looked like another victim.  Male, late forties, face painted like all the others, but one big difference.  He had an upturned smile.   That, and a long knife in his abdomen.  We traced the keys in his pocket to an apartment half a block away.  Inside we found a confessional suicide note, a bunch of knives, and newspaper clippings about the murders.”

“Who was he?”

Gordon flipped open a small notebook.  “Hank Metzler.  Divorced.  Until two months ago, he worked as a janitor at Arkham.  His daughter got killed on Hell Night.  In the note, he admits to being the Clown, apologizes to the families of his victims, and goes on about how he hates Joker.  He certainly fits the psyc profiles we’ve been looking at.  If forensics match any of those knives to the victims, I say case closed.”

“Just one loose end: he still hasn’t moved against Joker.”

“Evidently, the guilt just got overwhelming.  You know criminals don’t always carry out their plans.”

Batman shook his head.  “Not this one.  Hatred for Joker is what fuels his killing.  It all sounds too neat and convenient.  One night before he’s promised to whack Joker, he kills himself?  No, it’s a red herring.”

“This town’s teeth are on edge, Batman.  They need the case solved.  And now we have a suicide and a confession.”

“Faked.  You watch--the coroner will say Metzler was murdered.”

“Why are you so positive?”

“What better way to get the police off his trail and make it easier to kill Joker tomorrow?  Nobody hunts for a dead man.”

Gordon looked into the distance.  “How sick can this guy be?”

            “He’s beginning to make Joker seem almost normal by comparison.”

            “If you’re sure Metzler’s death is a diversion, what should we do?”

            “Use his cleverness to your advantage.  Make him think it worked.  Call off the hunt, and impose a news blackout with hints of something big to come.  I’ll catch him tomorrow night at Arkham.”

            “But what if you’re wrong?”

            Batman scowled.  “I’m not.”

 

            A thick bank of low clouds obscured the night sky twenty-four hours later, and a stiff breeze rattled the front gates of the asylum.

            An exhausted Joker finally drifted off to sleep after twitching nervously at every strange sound for most of the evening.  He had no choice but to trust Batman for his survival, something he found supremely ironic.

Just before midnight, a man dressed in a dark suit and rubber clown mask quietly unlocked Joker’s cell door and crept inside.  His left hand held an empty syringe, drawn back and needle exposed.  The plan was quick and simple: inject an air bubble into Joker’s bloodstream.  The bubble would travel to his heart, silently killing him.

Before he could approach Joker’s cot, he heard a soft rustle of wind and looked up to see the black form of Batman rapidly descending.

The Dark Knight tackled him hard, knocking away the syringe as they wrestled fiercely on the stone floor.  The Clown managed to break free, but his mask came off in the scuffle.

Both men scrambled to their feet.  The unmasked Clown pulled out a pistol and aimed it point-blank at Joker’s head.

“Dr. Schilling,” Batman said without surprise.  “Why?”

            Out of breath, the disheveled doctor appeared in the grip of lunacy.  “Why?  Isn’t it obvious?  You of all people should appreciate how much better off Gotham City would be without this murderous prankster.  You won’t do it.  The police won’t do it.  Am I the only one who has courage to do what should have been done ages ago?  Instead of trying to stop me, I would think you’d welcome this.  You’ll get what you’ve always wanted, and your hands are absolutely clean.  But I’ll be the real hero in Gotham.”

            Batman slowly drew out a batarang.  “I won’t be party to an illegal execution.”

            “Make another move, and I pull the trigger.”

            “Looks like a standoff.”

            “Yeah,” Schilling replied.  “Three loonies in the loony bin.  Joker’s right.  You are as messed up as he is, if not more.  What sane man would keep letting these creeps slink away only to come back later with more diabolical plans?”

“Why did you kill the others?”

“To show that I’m better than him.  And now when I kill him, I show that I’m better than you.  I end it.  I don’t leave things hanging.”

“What happened to you, Doctor?”

A wild look filled Schilling’s eyes.  “Him.  He happened to me.”

“Why would a distinguished physician lower himself to Joker’s level?”

“Working in this hellhole.  Hour upon hour, day after day of getting inside his head.  He’s toxic.  Now I’m poisoned, too.”  He chuckled.  “That’s the one thing I’ll give you.  You somehow managed not to let him mess with your brains.  Instead of me reforming him, he drove me insane.  Now, time for me to say thanks.”

“No!”

Schilling pulled the trigger twice.

The silence that followed the gunshots was quickly broken by a burst of laughter from the cell next door.

“Your aim was a bit off, Doc,” Joker cackled.

Schilling realized he’d been set up.  Yanking back the covers, he saw he had fired into a special effects dummy with a lifelike Joker head.

Batman knocked him to the floor with a solid punch to the jaw.  “The ultimate irony.  All you’ve done is ensure you’ll never leave the place that made you crazy.”

As he marched out of the cell, he nearly ran over one of the police officers arriving to take Schilling into custody.  They picked the doctor up and cuffed him, accompanied by the soundtrack of Joker’s giggle.

 

            Uneasy and rattled, Batman climbed into the Batmobile and zoomed away.  Arkham was soon miles behind, but Joker’s eerie laugh echoed loud and clear inside his head.