HE WHO LAUGHS LAST

 

            Bruce Wayne trotted down the stairs of the Batcave with a glass of grapefruit juice in his hand.  “You’re at it early.”

            Removing her glasses, Barbara Gordon turned from the computer screen and smiled.  “I could say the same thing, given the late night you and Tim had bringing down Black Mask.”

            “It was worth the overtime.  So what are you up to?”

“Just doing a bit of electronic housekeeping before work.”

            “The Oracle never rests.”

            “Something like that.”  She clicked on a news feed.  “Would you believe Penguin is opening a nightclub?”

            He frowned.  “You’re kidding.”

            “Nope.  According to Gotham Business Daily, the Iceberg Lounge will offer, ‘drinks, dancing, and dining in an elegant, arctic-themed environment.’”

            “With a criminal record like his, how in the world did he get a liquor license?”

            “Better living through bribery, I’d guess.  And if that news wasn’t disturbing enough,” she said as she rolled her chair over to another monitor, “look what popped up on GothSpace this morning.”

            A familiar, fiendish smile appeared in the low-resolution video window.  “Young people of Gotham!  Joker here, and I’ve got a message just for you.  Do you enjoy serious fun?  Are you fascinated by working with firearms, explosives and dangerous chemicals?  And most importantly, do you hate bats?  If so, then I want YOU!  I realize I’m a tad late to all this Internet stuff, but it’s important to me to reach the next generation of Gothamites and show them how they, too, can make a positive contribution to the degradation of this worthless society.

            “If I’ve piqued your interest, then submit a video telling why you should be a part of Joker, Inc.  I also want your ideas for new adventures.  If I choose your idea, you’ll have a chance to join me in carrying it out.  So get those warped minds working.  Bye for now!”  The video ended with his trademark maniacal laugh.

            “Joker advertising.”  Barbara shook her head.  “I’d say he’s hit a new high in low.  The video’s gotten over three hundred hits already.  Who knows how many nut cases are already sending in suggestions?”

            Bruce finished his juice, apparently unfazed.

            “No reaction?”

            He sighed.  “Have I been at it too long?  Nothing surprises me about Joker anymore.  Except maybe that it took him until now to try the Internet.”

            “I bookmarked the site.  I’ll check back regularly and see if there’s anything new.”

            “Given how big his ego is, I wonder if it’s even possible to make a suggestion he’d like.”

            “God, I hope not,” she said.

 

            The next day, a second video appeared.

            “Greetings, Gotham!  You-know-who.  Thanks for responding to my first foray into cyberspace.  Two thousand hits in one day.  Impressive.  Not so impressive is your lack of response.  Only nineteen people want to work with me?  I’m insulted.  Don’t be shy, send in those videos.  What have you got to lose?  Hahahahahahaha!”

                       

            Joker’s efforts paid off slightly in numbers, if not quality.  When he and Harley Quinn started plowing through the thirty-plus videos that were submitted, most of them shared a common trait.  They were terrible.

            “…and that’s why you should paint all the trees purple, Joker.  Remember the name, Tony Mazelli.  I want you to say it right when you call me.”

            Joker gave Harley a nauseated look and a “thumbs-down” sign.

            She nodded and covered her face with her hands.  “Awful, Puddin’.”

            “I wouldn’t even give those ideas to the Riddler, they’re so bad.  What is wrong with these losers?  Where’s the next generation of criminal geniuses?”

            Dunno,” she said.  “Maybe Batman’s already locked ‘em up.”

            “It wouldn’t surprise me.  How much more of this crap is left?”

            “Four.  You wanna take a break, or watch the next one?”

            With a sigh, he said, “Might as well get it over with.  Whenever I decide what to do, I’m going to double it to punish this town for its lack of imagination!”

            A truly disturbed-looking man with shoulder-length black hair and a long beard appeared on the screen, but the setting was so dark, neither of them could make out all the details of his face.  “Joker, um, hi.  I bet you’ve, uh, gotten some really good ideas so far.  And, uh, no offense, but here’s your winning idea.  I just heard, like, on the news that the, uh, president—as in president of the freakin’ country—is, um, is making a speech in Gotham two weeks from now.  I was thinkin’ you could, you know, kidnap him.  Or kill him.  Your choice.  Maybe both, what the hell.  My name’s Eddy, but, uh, you don’t need to know that.  So, um, good luck, man!  Heh heh.”

            Joker shook his head and pulled on his hair.  “Rank amateurs!  You see what I mean, Harley?  We are part of a dying breed.  These kids have no style, no panache.  Kidnap the president?  You’ve been watching too many movies, ‘Eddy’!  Go back to your room and play Risk.”

            “Uh, y’know, Puddin’,” she said cautiously, “I kinda like the idea.”

            “What?  Are you serious?  I couldn’t get within a hundred feet of the president before his guards used me for target practice.”

            She looked indignant.  “When have obstacles ever stopped you?  Since when does the one and only Joker shy away from a challenge?  Think about it.  This could be your biggest crime ever.  Guaranteed national attention—global, even.  They call him the ‘Leader of the Free World,’ right?”

            “Yeah.  I’m listening.”

            “And the Feds do his security, so you know they won’t let Batman anywhere near him.”

            “Got a point there.”

            “With your arsenal of gas bombs, acids, and stuff, a genius like you shouldn’t have any problem outwitting the Secret Service.”

            He gave her a kiss.  “Harley, I like your thinking.  It will be a huge challenge, but hey, if I can devastate half the city, I can certainly take out one guy, even if he is surrounded by guards.  Let’s start on a plan.  I need to know where he’s going to be and when.”

            “I’ll get right on it, Puddin’.  Oh, what about Eddy?”

            “Send him some Prozac.  He can use the help.  Hahahahaha!”

 

            The evening before the president’s scheduled arrival in Gotham, a third video from the Clown Prince of Crime appeared online.  Gordon and his officers watched it at their final security review meeting.

            “Mr. President, on behalf of the citizens of Gotham, I want to welcome you.  My name is Joker, in case you haven’t heard.  You might say I’m the unofficial director of fun and games.  I hope your visit will be memorable.  I’ll do whatever I can to ensure that you have an unforgettable time.

            “I should warn you, though, that Gotham can be a dangerous place, especially at night.  We’ve got bats, cats, and a bunch of other crazy people running around, so be careful.  We wouldn’t want anything to happen to the Leader of the Free World while he’s in town.

            “Well, enjoy your stay.  Hopefully, I’ll get to shake your hand or have a photo op while you’re here.  Good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow.”

            Detective Harvey Bullock sneered, “He’s plannin’ something.”

            “Or he wants us to think he is,” Renee Montoya countered.

            Nodding, Gordon said, “That’s the thing with him.  You never know exactly what’s on his twisted mind.  This could be a decoy for some other plot, or he could actually be intending to harm the president.”

            “Commissioner,” Montoya said, “he must know that the hotel will be crawling with police and Secret Service agents.”

            “If you were Joker, would that stop you?”  Gordon looked at his watch.  “The head of the president’s security detail was supposed to be here by now.  While we wait, I think I’ll go ‘phone a friend.’”

 

            Batman was en route to police headquarters anyway, so it only took four minutes for him to answer the Bat-signal.

            “Been on the Internet today?” Gordon asked.

            “I saw it.  Typical Joker.”

            “What do you think his intentions are?”

            “In that video, he all but threatened the president,” Batman said.

            “That would be difficult to carry out, even for him.”

“Difficult, not impossible.”

The commissioner wondered, “Could it be a red herring?”

            “Not likely.  You know he craves spectacle and attention.  There’s no bigger stage than the one he’d have if he killed or kidnapped the president.  It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”

            Gordon massaged his aching head.  “Just what we needed on top of the normal security concerns.” 

            “I’ll be at the hotel tomorrow,” Batman assured him.

            The rooftop exit door opened, and a dark-haired man in a suit stepped out.  “There you are,” he said as he walked toward Gordon.  “They told me you’d gone out for some air, so I assumed they meant downstairs.  Bob Turner, Secret Service.”

            “Good to finally meet you,” Gordon said as they shook hands.

            “Yes.  We’ve got a lot to discuss, especially the video from this Joker person.”

            Feeling awkward, Gordon turned to introduce Batman.  “Mr. Turner, this is—now where’d he go?”

            The Dark Knight had disappeared.

            Your so-called Batman?” the Secret Service director asked.

            “You know about him?”  Gordon turned off the signal.

            “Yes.  With all due respect, Commissioner, I’m astounded that this is how you do law enforcement here.  You allow a vigilante to operate unhindered?  In my book, men like that can be just as dangerous as this Joker, who I understand from your security packet is quite a psychopath.”

            “I have more than thirty years’ experience as a police officer in Gotham, and I can guarantee you Batman is no threat to anyone except criminals.  He’s battled the Joker for ages and understands him better than anyone.  My advice is to focus on protecting the president and let Batman worry about the Joker.”

            “I would be abrogating my responsibility if I relied on one wacko to keep another away from the president, Commissioner.  It’s my business to worry about every potential threat he might face: poisoned food, bombs under manhole covers, foreign operatives disguised as hotel staffers, biological or chemical agents in the HVAC system.  The list goes on.  Your Joker is no different.”

            “Oh, that’s where you’re wrong, Turner.  The Joker can be more of a threat than any of those, and even with all your resources, you are not prepared to deal with him.  He’s highly intelligent, fearlessly audacious, and insanely violent.”

            “All the more reason for us to guard against the danger he poses.  As for your Batman, I don’t care what he does as long as it isn’t anywhere near the Excelsior Hotel.  You keep him away from the president and out of my sight.  Or else.”

 

            Oracle was on the comlink to Nightwing in Blüdhaven.  “That license plate is registered to a J. Henry Dusseldorf of New York.”

            “Just what I suspected.  Thanks.”

            “Is Robin doing okay?” she wondered.

“Oh, yeah.  He’s one sharp cookie…keeps up with me real easily.”

“Good to hear.  Anything else I can do for you?”

“Not right now.  Nightwing out.”

            She noticed a cup of tea had appeared next to her arm.  “Thank you, Alfred.”

            “You’re welcome.  How is Master Dick, by the way?  I haven’t seen him in quite a while.”

            “Just fine.  He and Tim are giving the bad guys fits over there.”

            “I would expect nothing less.”  Alfred sat down next to her.  “How are things between the two of you?” he asked softly

            She took off her headset and looked sad.  “We’re still friends.  Why?”

            “You used to be more than that.  I know he did some things that hurt your feelings, and—”

            “Correction—he pummeled my feelings.  Like a gorilla.”

            “Even so, I had hoped that with the passage of time, things might have improved.”

            “You’re so thoughtful, Alfred.”  She forced a smile.  “I still care about Dick, and I can’t totally rule out the possibility of getting back together.  Someday.  But we both have stuff to work through and emotions that need to heal.  Now is just not a good time.”

“Understandable.  It’s never wise to rush these things.”

“It gets worse.”  She hesitated for a moment.  “I’ve started having feelings for Bruce.  But neither of us needs that complication in our lives.  He doesn’t know—and he isn’t going to—so promise me you won’t say a word.”

            “My lips are sealed.”

            “What I really should do is get my own place to work from.  Establish a healthy distance with everyone so I can clear my head and get reorganized.  Basically, I need…independence.”

            “You’ve got your own apartment,” he said.

            Which lacks both the security and technology of the Batcave.  I’ll have to do some looking around for the right place, but I think it’ll be good for me.”

            He patted her hand.  “We shall certainly miss you if you leave, but you must do what’s right for yourself.”

            “Yeah.  And I’m just starting to figure out what that is.”

 

            “Mr. J., Moe just brought over the uniforms you wanted him to steal.”

            “Good.  I’m so glad his parole officer got him that hotel job,” Joker replied.  “Now we can blend in and keep track of El Presidente’s movements.  Have you heard from Manny?”

            “He tested the website, and everything’s a go.  What exactly are you gonna do once we kidnap the big guy?” Harley asked.

            “I’ve been thinking about it a lot.  If I just kill him, it’s over and done with.  A moment of infamy.  Where’s the fun in that?  We’d definitely get more mileage—and viewers—out of a slow humiliation.  Let the world see its most powerful leader helpless before little ol’ me.  Much more compelling drama.  And after the big buildup, then we kill him.”

            She gave him a hug and kiss.

            Smiling broadly, he told her, “Harley, tomorrow night we’ll make history…the world’s first online execution!”

 

            To an outside observer, the Excelsior—Gotham’s grand dame of hotels—looked like it was under siege.  Barricades fenced off an entire block around the building, uniformed officers and squad cars were everywhere, and the police helicopter circled overhead.  Guests at the invitation-only dinner and speech had to show their invites before police would even let them in the barricaded area.  They then had to go through metal detectors and a pat-down upon entering the hotel.

            As Gotham’s movers and shakers began arriving, Turner met Gordon in the lobby.  “Good evening, Commissioner.”

            Gordon said, “I’ve never seen so much security.  It’s like going through Checkpoint Charlie just to get inside.”

            “And that’s only what’s visible,” Turner said.  “I’ve got agents dressed as cooks, bellhops, busboys, and maids.  The president should be here in about ten minutes.”

            “Looks like you’ve got everything under control.”

            “Absolutely.  There’s no way the Joker is getting in this hotel tonight.”

            What Turner didn’t know is that he’d already been there for four hours.

 

Batman suited up, not really knowing what he would be facing.  That feeling didn’t set well.  When and how would Joker go after the president?  Would he bypass the hotel altogether and try to intercept the motorcade, either before or after the president’s appearance?  Too many uncertainties.

As he pulled on his gloves before heading out, Oracle motioned to him.  “I think you might stand a better chance of breaking into Fort Knox.  I’ve tapped into the hotel security cameras.  Looks like they have more Secret Service agents and police than guests.  They’re everywhere.”

He looked over her shoulder.  “Somehow, he’ll find a way in.  So will I.”

“Steer clear of the Secret Service director.  Dad says the guy wants you far away from the president.”

“People don’t always get what they want.”

“You were invited to this shindig, weren’t you?”

“Yeah,” he said, opening the Batmobile canopy.  “Lucius will convey my regrets.”

“What’s your excuse this time?”

“Migraine.”

With a laugh, she said, “And its name is Joker.”

 

The splendid Excelsior ballroom was packed.  When the president arrived, he worked his way through the crowd shaking hands and greeting city leaders and supporters before taking his seat at the dais.

Dinner began at eight.  Before going to the podium to give his opening remarks, Mayor Brandenburg walked down front and got Lucius Fox’s attention.  Pointing to the glaring empty seat on the platform, he asked, “Where the hell is Bruce?”

Fox smiled in an attempt to soothe the mayor’s displeasure.  “He can’t make it, I’m afraid.  He really wanted to be here, but he came down with a serious headache this afternoon.”

“Has he ever heard of aspirin?  His no-show is a headache for me, Fox.  Do you realize how bad an empty chair at the guest of honor table looks?  Hopefully, the president will be too busy to really notice.”

“I’ll tell Mr. Wayne he was missed.”

“You do that,” Brandenburg said before returning to the dais.  “I swear, the man’s going to miss his own funeral.”

 

Joker, Harley, and his two henchmen were hiding out in the unoccupied Room 3108, one floor above the ballroom.

“When do we move?” Moe asked.

“After their little soiree is finished,” Joker answered.  “If the cops are watching for us, they’re probably expecting me to make a grand entrance and disrupt the festivities.  Once it’s over, they’ll think they dodged the bullet and let their guard down ever so slightly.  That’s when we’ll nab him.  Somewhere between the ballroom and the lobby.”

“Pretty small window there,” Manny commented.

“These should help maximize the time we have.”  Joker handed everyone a wireless over-the-ear headset.  “This way, we can stay in contact.  Moe, I want you milling around outside the ballroom.  Look like you’re working, since that’s what they pay you for.  When the president comes out, tell us where he’s going.”

“Can do.”

“Manny, you have the keys to the laundry truck?”

“Right here in my pocket.”

“How long are we gonna hafta wait?” Harley asked.

Joker said, “Until that windbag gets through talking.  And from what I understand, he’s very good at it.”

 

The president’s speech concluded just before 9:30.  Following Brandenburg’s closing remarks, the gathered throng applauded enthusiastically and began exiting.  Unable to resist a political opportunity, the president lingered and chatted with some of the VIPs in attendance.

After waiting patiently for several minutes, Turner marched to the front and touched the president’s arm.  “Sir, we really need to leave now.  The limo’s waiting.”

The president said an abrupt goodbye to Brandenburg, then looked at Turner.  “Bob, you’re acting like I’m a teenager with a curfew.”

“I’m acting like I want to keep you out of danger, sir.”

“Relax, we’re among friends.”

“With all due respect, I’m sure JFK thought the same thing in Dallas.”

The president grimaced.  “Point made.  Listen, I gotta take a whiz first.”

Turner signaled two nearby agents.  “The president needs to use the restroom.  Go with him.  It’s down the first hall.  Turn right and it’s next to the stairway.  Pretty isolated, so you shouldn’t attract much attention.  I’ll meet you at the car in ten minutes, sir.”

 

Moe watched the president walk toward the men’s room.  Tapping his headset, he said, “The john, east hallway.  Two guards.  One cop by the stairs.”

“Excellent,” Joker replied.  “He’s ours.  Everyone to the middle stairwell.”

 

“Batman, anything happening out your way?” Oracle inquired.

“No.  All quiet.  Or should I say, too quiet?”

“You just can’t stand it when nothing’s going on,” she said playfully.

“That’s because it usually means something is going on.”

“Where are you, anyway?”

“The roof of the Excelsior,” he answered.  “I couldn’t get any closer because of the security zone.”

“The roof?  I’d say that’s pretty close.”

“Not when the president is eighteen stories below me.”

 

After checking the restroom and giving the president an all-clear, the two Secret Service agents stood outside and waited.

Moe smiled at the police officer stationed by the stairway door as he went out.  He returned a few seconds later and said, “I’m not positive, but I just saw a guy who kinda looks like the Joker.”

“Where?”  The officer stepped into the stairwell and was immediately shot twice by the Clown Prince’s silencer-tipped pistol.

Joker smiled.  “Dead men tell no tales.”

Moe pulled his body out of the way, then returned to the second floor with the rest of Joker’s gang.

The four surprised the Secret Service agents by the restroom and sprayed them with knockout gas.

Immobilized, the guards dropped to the carpet before they could respond.  Joker pumped two shots into each one, ensuring they would never wake up.

Just then, the president opened the door and got a cloud of gas in his face.  Moe and Manny caught his fall and put him inside a large canvas laundry bag, then dragged the dead agents into the restroom.

The team removed their gas masks and fled down the stairs.  When they reached the first floor, they went left, headed down a narrow corridor, and dumped the president into a prepositioned laundry cart.

Harley and Joker climbed into the cart to hide while Moe and Manny picked up two other bags of laundry and covered them.

Under the watchful eyes of two Gotham cops on the loading dock, the henchmen calmly wheeled the cart into their waiting truck, secured the rear door, and drove away.

Inside, Joker and Harley climbed out of the cart laughing and high-fiving each other.  They had done it.

 

Turner fretted when ten minutes had passed with no sign of the president.  He paced anxiously next to the limousine.  Thirteen, come in.  Over,” he radioed.  Getting no answer, he called, “Seven, come in please.  Over.”

Silence.

“Gordon, are you still in the hotel?”

“Just now leaving the ballroom, Mr. Turner.”

“The president and two of my men went to the bathroom ten minutes ago.  They haven’t shown up here, and I can’t raise them on the radio.”

Gordon felt a surge of anxiety.  “I’m on my way.”  He grabbed the nearest officer and dashed down the east hall.  Rounding the corner, they saw a small bloodstain on the carpet.

Gun drawn, the police corporal charged into the restroom.  “Oh, my God, Commissioner!”

Gordon joined him and saw the agents’ lifeless bodies.  “Turner, your men are dead, and there’s no sign of the president.”

“What?” Turner yelped.

The corporal said, “Commissioner, officer down in the stairwell.”

Turner was incredulous.  “Are you saying the president is missing?”

“Yes,” Gordon replied.  “And from the looks of things, I’ll bet Joker has him.”

“The Joker?  How the hell could he have gotten in?  He couldn’t—it’s impossible!”

“You have a better explanation for three gunned down officers and a missing Chief Executive?”

“Shit!”  Turner was ready to strangle somebody.  “All units, Code Black.  Repeat, Code Black.  Seal off the entire hotel.  Nobody leaves until I say so.”

 

Oracle activated the comlink.  “Batman, something’s up.  They’ve locked down the hotel and declared Code Black, whatever that means.”

“They’ve lost contact with the president.  I knew Joker would find some way to get to him.”

“How do we get him back?”

“Try scanning the XHF frequencies for an RFID transponder signal.  The president always has one somewhere on his person for just this situation.  I’m going to try to reach the commissioner.”

 

Gordon made his way outside to the presidential limo where a seething Turner was barking orders to his agents.  “I don’t care who gets inconvenienced.  Screw their feelings!  I want every inch of this place searched!”

“You’re wasting your time,” Gordon said.  “If it is the Joker, he’s long gone.  You won’t find him or the president anywhere inside.”

Turner was unhinged.  If?  You told me not to worry about the Joker.  Let the Batman handle him, you said.  Well, your damn Batman didn’t keep the Joker from getting to the hotel!  Your reliance on some oaf in a costume proves what I said last night: your law enforcement is pathetic.  If the president gets out of this alive, it’ll be a cold day in Hell before I let him set foot in Gotham City again!”

Gordon would have none of it.  “People who live in glass houses, Mr. Turner.  This isn’t exactly the Secret Service’s finest hour.  The hotel was filled with your personnel.  Your men had direct responsibility for and custody of the president.  You read Joker’s file, so you knew what he’s capable of.  Don’t try to make us the scapegoat for your own mistakes!”

“And I thought New York was a crazy town,” Turner muttered.

Glancing up, Gordon saw the Dark Knight peering down from the roof ledge.  “I’m confident Batman will find the Joker.”

Turner gave him a disdainful look.  “You…are…an…idiot!”  He stalked away and climbed into the Secret Service tactical command van.  “Roy, see if you can pick up a signal from the transponder in the president’s shoe.”

The agent pressed a button, and his computer screen lit up.  Almost immediately, a flashing red dot appeared.  “Got it!  It’s moving east on Conroy, near Fifteenth Street.”

Another agent tapped Turner on the shoulder.  “Sir, a couple of the cops reported that a Jenkins Laundry truck left the hotel just before the president went missing.”

 “All agents, POTUS is in a vehicle traveling east on Conroy Avenue near Fifteenth.  Probably a truck marked ‘Jenkins Laundry.’  Pursue and intercept.”

Every Secret Service car near the hotel headed out to join the chase.

 

While Gordon monitored the Secret Service radio, he mobilized his own officers.  “All units, we have a moving hostage situation involving the Joker.  We believe he is in a Jenkins Laundry truck heading east on Conroy.  Any units in the vicinity, locate and pursue.  Set up a roadblock at Nineteenth.”

 

“Batman, I’ve picked up the signal,” Oracle said.  “It just made a right on Ninth from Conroy.”

“I’m on the way.  Who else knows?”

“Everyone.  Gotham PD and the Secret Service are in hot pursuit but far behind.”

“If I detour onto Grand, I can cut five minutes off Joker’s lead,” he said.

“Watch for construction at the Riverside intersection.”

“Oracle, you’d make a good traffic reporter.”

“What, and give up my night job?”

 

“He’s stopped!”

“Where?” Turner demanded.

“Corner of Ninth and Archer.”

 

“The signal isn’t moving,” Oracle reported.

“Location?”

“Ninth and Archer.  Looks like the northwest corner.”

Batman frowned.  “That’s a vacant lot...strange.”

 

Between them, the Secret Service and Gotham Police had thirteen vehicles homing in on an empty patch of concrete where a decaying, Depression-era building had been leveled some years before.  Parked in the middle was the now-infamous brown and white Jenkins Laundry truck.

The first cars to arrive surrounded the lot, and the rest blocked the adjoining streets, effectively cutting off any chance of escape.

As the Batmobile pulled up, fifteen officers and agents were encircling the truck with guns drawn.  The metallic clicking of so many weapons being readied echoed for what seemed an eternity.

Every vehicle with a spotlight shone it on the truck.  No one was visible in the cab.

 

“Signal’s still coming in,” said Oracle.

“The truck looks abandoned.”

“I sure hope there isn’t a body inside.”

Batman moved to get a better view of the back of the truck.  “We’ll find out soon.”

 

Turner got his bullhorn.  “Joker, you’re surrounded.  Come out with your hands behind your head.”

Detective Bullock looked at Gordon.  “Just gimme one shot at the clown, and we’re done.”

“Give yourself up, Joker,” Turner continued.  “It’s the only way you’ll leave here alive.”

There was nothing but silence from inside.

Turner pointed at two of his men, then at the truck.  The agents rushed up and took positions on either side of the rear door.

“Go!”

One agent shot away the lock, and the other forced the sliding door up.  Everyone else aimed and prepared to fire if necessary.

The only thing inside was the hotel laundry cart.

Cautiously entering the truck, the lead agents examined the cart.  “Two bags of laundry, a pair of shoes, and some other stuff.”

Turned charged over and peered in.  “Those are the president’s shoes.  And his watch.”

“Joker knew about the transmitter,” said Gordon, who had come up behind Turner.  “Apparently, he was determined to get rid of it,” he added, noticing the president’s lapel pin and tie tac next to the watch.

Turned kicked the cart and cursed a blue streak, while Gordon walked away shaking his head.

“We’ve been had,” Batman told Oracle.

 

Now driving to their hideout in an old station wagon, Joker and Harley listened to news bulletins about the president’s kidnapping and laughed.

“Puddin’, you sure faked ‘em out.  They fell for the decoy hook, line, and sinker.  How’d you know the Big Cheese had a homing transmitter?”

“I saw it in a documentary while I was at Arkham.”

She kissed him.  “You’re a genius.”

“I do have my moments, don’t I?”

“And you even fooled Batman.”

“That may be the most satisfying part.”  He glanced at his watch.  “Manny and Moe should be at the server room by now.”

“Yeah.  Can’t let anything disrupt your historic webcast.”

 

Batman returned home to discuss options with Oracle.

He had barely gotten out of the Batmobile when she drew his attention to the large computer screen.  “This just took over every local news website.”

An image of the president, gagged and firmly tied to a chair, filled the screen.  The camera pulled back slowly to reveal the face of Joker.

“Citizens of Gotham—and anybody else who’s watching—you are about to witness a night of firsts, for democracy and for the Internet.  As you can see, I’ve kidnapped the president of these United States, and I need YOU to tell me what to do: kill him or let him live?  Should he die for the sins of the government, like greed, injustice, taxation, and corruption, just to name a few?  Feel free to add reasons of your own.  Or should he go free because he loves baseball, apple pie, motherhood, and the Fourth of July?  Go to Joker dot com to cast your votes and see exclusive live updates.

“At the stroke of midnight, I’ll announce the results live on my website.  And if you vote for the president to die, he will, in the world’s first online execution!  It’s democracy in action like you’ve never seen it before.  Get on the web and let your voices be heard.  Vote, and vote often!”

Seemingly unmoved by the macabre video, Batman said, “First priority: take his website down, and fast.”

“Already working on it,” she told him.  “Once I find his IP address, I can run a traceroute and get the host server name.  Then I’ll use the Batcave’s mainframe to hammer it with a denial-of-service attack.  At best, it’ll crash the server.  At worst, it’ll keep people from voting because they can’t get through.”

 

On the ground, police and Secret Service agents frantically combed the city for Joker and the president, though their task was almost impossible.  At police headquarters, Gordon and Turner warily put aside their differences to coordinate the operation.

Turner glanced at the clock in the operations room.  “Ten-thirty.  It’ll take days to search all of Gotham.  We need a miracle.  Are you a praying man, Commissioner?”

“Sometimes.”

“Now would be a good time.”

“Would finding Joker’s website help us find him?” Gordon wondered.

“It’s doubtful they’d be in the same place.  Hell, they may not be in the same country.  The FBI has their cyber-security unit working to get the site offline.”

“Even if they do, that still leaves the president in Joker’s hands.”

“Yeah.”  With a sigh, Turner leaned back and rubbed his eyes.  “The Batman, who is he?”

Gordon shrugged his shoulders.  “No one knows.  After all this time, I’ve even stopped wondering.”

“Is he really that good?”

“His detective skills are second to none.  He has an understanding of criminal psychology that surpasses the best in the FBI.  He’s agile, tough, and absolutely brilliant.”

“Maybe he’s the miracle we need.”  Turner chuckled.  “I can’t believe I just said that.”

 

“You’re not going to like this,” Oracle said.

“What?”

“I’m getting nowhere with trying to take out Joker’s website.  He put as much effort into this as he did snatching the president.”

“Lots of firewalls?” Batman asked.

“If only.  He’s got a router spitting out fake IP addresses that change every five minutes.  Plus, it looks like somebody’s hacked into the Domain Name System and taken control of the database, because now every site on the web redirects to his.”

“You’re right, I don’t like it,” he said.  “I’ve never seen a criminal plan so flawlessly carried out.  We both know that regardless of the actual vote, Joker’s not going to let the president go.  We need to focus on finding him instead of the website.”

“He could be anywhere,” she said.

“But he isn’t.  He’s somewhere, probably in the city.  Play that video again.  Let’s see if it might yield a clue.”

 

The FBI’s cybersleuths had no more luck than Oracle.  The forged IP addresses of Joker’s site threw them off, and they ended up inadvertently shutting down a major newspaper, a Japanese automaker, and an adult site in Bulgaria before they gave up.

As the minutes counted down, the pressure on law enforcement increased exponentially.  Turner and Gordon heard from the vice president, the FBI director, and the Treasury secretary, Turner’s boss.  Everyone pressed for results, but no one had a feasible idea for how to achieve them.

 

At eleven, Joker went online with a live webcast.

“Welcome to ‘Gotham Votes,’ everyone.  Only one hour left to cast your ballot.  Should the president live or die?  That’s tonight’s history-making web poll.  The vote’s been really close, and as you can tell from our real-time totals, kill is hanging on to a narrow lead.

“So, you know what I thought would be interesting?  Let’s hear from the man in the hot seat himself.”  Joker walked over and removed the president’s gag.  “Nobody wants to die, right Mr. President?  Here’s your chance to campaign!  Persuade folks to vote for letting you live, just like they voted to put you in office.  Better get those tears flowing.”

The president stared at Joker and refused to look into the camera.

“What’s the matter, Commander-in-Chump?  Camera shy?  You?  Or are you lost without a teleprompter?  Come on, start begging, or panicking, or pleading…hell, do something!”

“I’m not afraid of you,” the president said firmly.  “I won’t grovel or beg just for your sick amusement!”

“How about to save your life?”

“You don’t get it.  Our country has a government of laws, not men.  Your plan—whatever it is—will fail even if I should die.  People’s lives will go on.  So will our government.  You won’t accomplish a thing.  This is all so ludicrous, I don’t think you even know what you’re doing.”

Enraged, Joker put the gag back on and tightened it.  “I know exactly what I’m doing!  I’m humiliating the leader of the free world in front of millions of viewers on the Internet.  And at midnight, I’m conducting the first-ever online execution.”

“Uh, Mr. J,” Harley interrupted, “the camera’s still on.”

“Turn it off, you idiot!  We don’t want to skew the voting…much.”

 

“Did you record that?” Batman asked.

“Every distasteful moment,” Oracle answered.

“Go back to where the president was talking.  There.  Look on the wall behind him.”

“The painting?”

Batman nodded.  “Can you zoom in and sharpen it?”

“No problem.”

The enhanced image showed a modernist-style work filled with geometric shapes in green and black.

He leaned closer.  “I’ve seen that picture before.”

“Me, too.  Kind of hard to forget something so ugly,” she said.  “But where was it?”

“You’re the one with the photographic memory.”

She closed her eyes and concentrated.  A flash of images and words came into her mind, and she smiled.

Typing furiously, she went to a website and brought up a high-resolution photo of the artwork.  “It’s called Gotham Mood, by local artist Jared Stuckey.  He won a city-wide contest with it nine years back.”

“That’s right.  I was at the ceremony and helped present his award.  Whatever happened to it?”

“Let’s see,” she said while clicking another link.  “It was put on permanent display…in the fourth floor criminal courtroom of the old courthouse.  Yes!  I saw it when I was called for jury duty six years ago.”

“The building recently closed for a major renovation.”

“So Joker decided to make himself at home.”

“Criminal nature abhors a vacuum.”  He added Batarangs to his utility belt.  “It’s just like Joker, using an actual courtroom for this travesty.”

“The bastard just oozes irony,” she commented.

He leaped into the Batmobile and started the engine.  “Can you hack into the electrical grid and be ready to kill power to the old courthouse on my signal?”

“Way ahead of you.  I’ve had an ‘in’ to the power grid for ages.”

Flames flashed from the Batmobile’s turbine, and it zoomed down the tunnel.

 

After watching the Joker’s webcast, Gordon also thought the painting in the background looked familiar.  “I’m certain I’ve seen it somewhere in town.”

Turner said, “It’s memorable alright, and not in a good way.  Yeesh!”

“No, I’m very serious.  If we find that picture, we find Joker and the president.”

“You sure it isn’t one of those mass-produced prints for hanging in hotels and restaurants?”

“Positive.”  Gordon called over Detective Bullock.  “Harvey, you’ve seen every nook and cranny of this town.  Take another look at the painting in the background of Joker’s video.  Do you recognize it?”

Bullock pulled the toothpick out of his mouth.  “Yeah…isn’t that the piece of crap hanging in Judge Fisher’s old courtroom?  I’ve seen better looking ketchup stains.”

Gordon slapped the table.  “Bingo!  Turner, that’s it!  The fourth floor of the old courthouse.  Tenth and Stanton.”

Within minutes, every available Secret Service, police, and SWAT unit made a beeline for that location.

 

It was now 11:30, and Batman had already arrived.  Up on the roof, he anchored a hook and prepared to rappel down to the fourth floor.  “Time to put an end to this voter fraud.”

“I’m ready to cut the power,” Oracle told him.  “Just say the word.”

Firmly gripping the rope, he leaped off the ledge.  “Now!”

 

Inside, Joker toyed with his revolver as he followed the voting.

“Not looking too good, Puddin’.  Save him has an eight hundred vote lead.  Maybe you shouldn’ta let him talk.”

“Ahh, who cares?” he sighed.  “Public opinion is overrated, anyway.”

The lights in the room suddenly went out.

“What the devil?  This is the worst possible time for a blackout!”  Joker put his gun down and walked to the window.  “Hmm.  Power’s on everywhere else.  I—”

Batman crashed through the window, his bulk knocking Joker to the floor like a bowling pin.

“Oh, crap!” Harley said.

Joker tried to push Batman off, but the Dark Knight punched him in the mouth.  “There’s my vote, scumbag!”

Joker grabbed a piece of the broken window frame and hit Batman in the head, temporarily stunning him.  He then knocked Batman down and attempted to strangle him.  “Maybe I should’ve left your fate up to the masses instead, Batsy.”

Batman kicked him in the ribs, breaking his choke hold, and threw him against the wall.

“Harley, kill him!” Joker shouted.

She picked up the revolver and fired at Batman.

The two enemies were in constant motion as they fought, and her shot narrowly missed Joker’s head.

“Not Batman, you bimbo!  The president!  Kill the president!”

Batman threw a Batarang at Harley, knocking the gun from her hand before she could fire again.  He then got Joker in a headlock and flung him into a high stack of wooden chairs, which collapsed on top of him.

Wincing in pain, Harley reached for the pistol, but Batman decked her with a right hook to the jaw.

Satisfied, he said, “Lights, please.”

“That was fast,” Oracle replied.

The overhead fixtures flashed on just as the doors of the courtroom burst open.  With guns drawn, police and Secret Service agents swarmed in.  “Nobody move!”

Turner entered and saw Batman towering above the defeated Joker and Harley.  He couldn’t believe it was over.  “What the hell happened?”

“Not what, who,” Gordon corrected him.  “I told you he was good.”

Still stunned that one man had safely ended the hostage situation, Turner immediately freed the president.  “Are you okay, sir?”

“Yes, all things considered.”  The Chief Executive rubbed his wrists.

Turner called to two agents, “Get him outta here fast.”

The president turned and looked at Batman.  “Nice work.”

Batman merely nodded.

The police had Harley in handcuffs by the time the Secret Service pulled Joker out from the pile of chairs and cuffed him.

Still a bit woozy, Joker smiled at her.  “I’ll see you back at Arkham, my dear.”

“No, you won’t,” a visibly angry Turner growled as another agent clamped leg irons on Joker.  “Your next stop is the ADX supermax prison in Colorado, and you’re going to be there a damn long time.  Kidnapping the president is a federal felony.”

Joker scoffed, “Nice try, but I belong in the asylum.  I’m crazy.  Tell him, Batsy.”

Turner stared him down smugly.  “Less than an hour ago, you told a global audience that you’re sane.”  He pulled out his PDA and played back the video of Joker arguing with the president.

“I know exactly what I’m doing,” Joker’s voice blared out.  “I’m humiliating the leader of the free world in front of millions of viewers on the Internet.”

“The insanity defense won’t work, Mr. Joker.  Read him his rights.”

While he was being led away, the flabbergasted Ace of Knaves glanced back to see Batman grinning fiendishly.

 

By midnight, the room was empty, save for Batman and Gordon.  “What a relief,” the commissioner said.  “I wondered if this day would ever come.  Gotham’s biggest headache, finally gone for good.”

“But he isn’t the only one.”

“I know.  There’s still Two-Face, Riddler, and the rest, plus the remaining elements of the mob.”

“Which means I’m not going anywhere, unlike Joker,” Batman said.

 

Less than half an hour later, the Dark Knight was back on rooftop patrol.

            “Batman, you still out?” Oracle asked.

            “Yes.”

            “I thought you might actually knock off early this time.  Your biggest nemesis just got permanently caged by the feds.  If that isn’t cause for celebration, I don’t know what is.”

            “It’s one victory in a very long war.  When all the other criminal scum in Gotham are locked up, then I’ll celebrate,” he said.

            “Party pooper.”

            “This is no time to give them any breathing room, Oracle.”

            “Relax, I’m just teasing you.  Speaking of room…it’s gotten a bit crowded here in the Batcave with all three of us.  I’ve been thinking about branching out, getting my own place.  Maybe even recruiting an operative.”

            “Want to be the boss, huh?”

            “More like ‘career advancement’ and independence,” she said.  “I’ll definitely need a good base of operations.  It has to be secure, but not the kind of place a bad guy would suspect as a hero hideout.  And it shouldn’t have much people traffic.  If you see something in your travels, let me know, okay?”

            He scanned the downtown skyline.  “I believe I’ve got just the place.  The old Clocktower.  No one’s there.”

            “Sounds intriguing.  Who owns it?”

            “Bruce Wayne.  But I bet he could be persuaded to sell.”

            She chuckled.  “Batman: crime fighter and real estate broker.  Who knew?”  Stifling a yawn, she added, “I’m going offline now.  I plan to celebrate Joker’s downfall by getting a good night’s rest.  You sure I can’t convince you to do the same?”

            He watched the moon shine over Gotham Cemetery in the distance.  “‘I have promises to keep.  And miles to go before I sleep.’”

            “Understood.  Try to have a pleasant night, anyway.  Oracle out.”  She turned off the comlink and smiled wistfully.  “Bruce, you are the best.”

 

            Batman fired a grappling line to the high-rise next door.  In two minutes, he was perched on one of its gargoyles like a silent sentinel, watching and waiting….