PRESSURE DROP

 

            As he sat in his squad car, third-year Detective Josh Laney finished his cup of coffee and glanced over the morning paper.  “HURRICANE AMANDA AIMING AT GOTHAM—MAYOR CALLS FOR PARTIAL EVACUATION.”

            “Great, even more overtime.  What does he think we are, robots?”

            His cellphone rang, and he brusquely answered, “Laney.”

            “Josh Laney?” the odd voice on the other end asked.

            “Yeah.  Who’s this?”

            “I’m calling about the money you borrowed from Eddie ‘the Hammer’ Mancini.  Your loan is now due.”

            “Huh?” Laney yelped.  “No,  I worked it out with Eddie personally.  He gave me until the end of the month.”

            The voice sighed.  “Guess you haven’t heard.  Eddie’s out of the business.  I took over his assets.  And debts.”

            “When?”

            “About a week ago.  You could say it was a hostile takeover.  Very hostile.  Heeheehahahaha!”

            “Joker?”  The blood drained from Laney’s face.  “Oh, my God!”

            “Mmm, not yet, I’m still working on sainthood.  Now about your loan…I see from Eddie’s book that you’re in for twenty grand to cover gambling debts, and like a good little boy, you’ve paid back nearly half.”

            “That shows I’m good for it, Joker.  I’ve got a lot of overtime pay coming in, and I should have no problem paying it all back by the end of the month.”

            “No go, gumshoe.  I’m renegotiating the terms.”

            “You—you can’t!”

            Joker smiled.  “Why not?  I am the one ‘toting the note,’ as they say.”

            “But Eddie—”

            “Eddie is fish food!  And your debt’s going to be due in forty-eight hours.”

            “Two days?  But there’s a hurricane on its way, and the mayor’s gonna order an evacuation,” Laney pleaded.

“Mother Nature has her schedule, and I’ve got mine.”

            “I can’t get my hands on that much money in two days.  Be reasonable!”

            “Moi?  Reasonable’s my middle name, flatfoot.  I value my relationships with customers, be they old or new.  So, just for you, I’m lowering your loan balance to zero.  You don’t have to pay me one red cent.  I’ll convert your debt from cash to service.”

            Laney’s anxiety grew.  “Service?  What do you mean?”

            “Instead of owing me money, you now owe me a favor.”

            The detective swallowed hard.  “What kind of favor?”

            “Information.  I want you to bring me the police file on Batman.  Everything they have on that winged pest.”

            “Those are securely locked away in Gordon’s office.  And the storm….”

            “Not my problem, Laney.”

            “What if I won’t do it?” he asked defiantly.

            “Tsk, tsk, tsk.  You’ll forfeit your collateral.”

            “My car?”

            “No, your wife!  Say hello to hubby and tell him I mean business.”  Joker moved the phone over.

            “Don’t do it, Josh!” a terrified Rose Laney shouted.

            “Rose?” Laney gasped.  “If you so much as put a scratch on her, I’ll—”

            “You’ll what?  Tell the teacher?  Make me go to bed without my supper?  Listen, Laney,  you have forty-eight hours to get me that file.  If you don’t, or if you tattle to Gordon and involve Batbrain, your Rose won’t smell so sweet.  In fact, she’ll be joining Eddie as shark chow in Gotham Harbor!  Understand?”

            Laney began to weep.  The very thing he feared about his gambling problem was coming horribly true.  “Yes…yes.”

            “One more thing.  If you think Rose is tied to a chair in some abandoned warehouse, you’ve been watching too much TV.  As we speak she’s being put inside a special chamber.  In forty-eight hours, the air runs out.  Period.  But if you cooperate, I’ll tell you exactly where she is, after I see the file.  I’ll be in touch.  Have a pleasant day!”

            The detective looked down at his service revolver.  For an instant he thought about ending his misery then and there, but the impulse passed.  He gazed outside at the rain falling in advance of Amanda and knew what he had to do.

 

            Commissioner Gordon held a nine a.m. briefing for officers ahead of the mayor’s special address at ten to officially announce evacuation of the city’s low-lying areas.  All leave was cancelled, and officers were on mandatory overtime until the crisis ended.  “We haven’t had a hurricane make landfall in Gotham in seventy-six years, and I pray it’ll be at least that long before we get another one.  All I ask of you—and of every man and woman in this department—is that you live out our motto, ‘to protect and to serve.’  Dismissed.  Report to your units as outlined in the emergency plan.”

            While the room emptied, Laney walked up to Gordon.  “Sir, I need to talk to you.  Alone.”

            The commissioner put on his overcoat.  “I haven’t got the time, Detective.  I’m sorry.  I have to get over to City Hall for the mayor’s speech.”

            “Please.”  Laney grabbed his arm.  “It’s urgent.”

            Gordon looked around at him.  Seeing fear in the man’s eyes, he said, “Five minutes.”

 

            In the Wayne Manor study, Alfred Pennyworth watched the latest news reports on the gathering storm.

            After finishing a phone call, Bruce Wayne walked up behind him.

            “Still a Category Two, sir.  The city is evacuating areas along the waterfront in anticipation of the storm surge.”

            “I told Lucius to use today to get things shut down as much as possible.  Tomorrow and Friday, essential personnel only.”

            “Do you wish to leave, sir?”

            “No, Alfred, I figure we’ll just ride it out downstairs.  Gordon may need help in the aftermath.”

            “Hopefully not,” the butler replied.  “Have you any worries about the basement getting deluged?”

            “Nah.  Everything can withstand a hundred-year flood.  Plus, we’ve got the automatic storm shutters on the house.”  Bruce patted him on the shoulder.  “This’ll be one of the safest places in Gotham.  Just rent us a few movies.”

 

            Once inside Gordon’s closed office, Laney heaved a sigh and threw his badge on the commissioner’s desk.

            “What’s that for?”

            Laney avoided eye contact.  “Figure it’s better if I do it now voluntarily.”  He then spent several minutes explaining his predicament.

            Gordon listened, but said nothing.

            The detective pulled out his police ID and tossed it next to the badge.  “I’m resigning, because I know what I did was wrong.  It compromises me as an officer and makes me a liability to the department.  ‘You lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.’ ”

            “Are you finished?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            Gordon gave him back the badge and ID.  “Resignation refused.  I need every available officer to help get this city ready for Amanda.  Internal Affairs will have to be notified about your gambling issues, but you’ll probably get by with a letter of reprimand.  You’re still young, and I don’t think it’ll have an adverse effect on your career.  Consider it a painful lesson learned.”

            “Thank you for understanding, sir.”

            Folding his arms, Gordon gave Laney a sour look.  “Off the record, detective, I’d like to wring your neck!  Getting in debt to a loan shark who just happened to run afoul of the Joker, then getting blackmailed by Joker himself.  I’ve got a hurricane to deal with, a city to protect, and maybe half a million people to evacuate.  Thanks to you, I’ll have to divert manpower and resources to look for your wife.  Frankly, I don’t know how long they’ll be able to search, because time is not on our side.”

Laney uneasily put away his badge and ID.

“Get to work.  I want you back here at eight, though.  You’re going to explain to Batman why he needs to go on a manhunt with a Category Two storm breathing down our necks.”

“Yes, sir.”  He turned to leave.

“And Laney, you should forget about gambling, because your luck absolutely stinks!”

 

            That afternoon, the Gotham police and fire departments assisted in evacuating 480,000 residents from areas vulnerable to flooding.  All mass transit systems became one way, out of the city.  Citizens who stayed behind stocked up on bottled water, batteries, and other emergency supplies.  Hardware stores sold out of plywood as shops and homeowners boarded up windows in hopes of saving them from the storm’s wrath.  At seven p.m., Amanda’s sustained winds were clocked at eighty-five mph, with landfall expected in about thirty-three hours.

           

Bundled up in rain gear, Gordon and Laney stood atop police headquarters with their backs against the wind and waited for a response to the glowing Bat-signal.

            Laney felt especially miserable.  Gordon was mad at him, he was mad at himself, and he feared he would never see Rose alive again.

            “Bad night for an emergency,” said a deep voice from behind.

            Gordon said, “And an unnecessary one, at that.  Detective Laney here managed to get in quite a predicament.  I’ll let him explain.”

            The detective summoned his courage and looked up at the Dark Knight’s imposing form.  “I, uh, I made some mistakes, got involved with the wrong people, and now my wife’s been kidnapped by the Joker.  She’ll die in about thirty-six hours unless I do a ‘favor’ for him.”

            “And that would be…?” Batman asked, his cape billowing in the squall.

            “To hand over the Gotham PD file on you.”

            The demand surprised Batman, but he remained stolid.  “Tell me everything he said.”

            Laney relayed the exchange as best he could remember.

            “Hand me your phone.”  Batman took a thin, square device from his utility belt and attached it to the back.  “When Joker calls you again, this will record your conversation and transmit it to me for analysis.  Any background noises could provide a clue to his location.”

            “What about the file he wants?” Laney wondered.

            Batman stared at Gordon.  “I imagine that would be files…lots of them.”

            The commissioner said, “Two banker’s boxes and counting.”

            “Nothing digitized?” Batman asked.

            “Not yet.  No time.”

            “But Joker wouldn’t know that,” the Caped Crusader said.  “Can you make up a couple of data CDs that look like official documents?”

            “I can,” Laney offered.  “I figure I ought to do something to help.”

            “Go ahead,” Batman told him.  “Then arrange the drop-off with Joker.”

            Laney wiped the rain from his face.  “What should I put on them?”

            “Anything you want—stupid videos, disco music, recipes.”

            “What if he won’t tell me where Rose is?”

            A flash of lightning momentarily highlighted Batman’s grim visage.  “I’ll be there to make sure he does.”

           

            Rose Laney felt reasonably sure she wasn’t dead.  Beyond that, she had no idea if she was awake or dreaming, if the utter blackness surrounding her was reality or illusion.  She had room to move around, but not to sit up or stand.  She could feel a soft stream of fresh air flowing in every few minutes.  Periodically, she noticed a strange-smelling gas, which inevitably made her fall asleep again.

 

            The next morning, Joker phoned Laney again.  “How’s my newest client on this dark and stormy day?”

            “Lousy,” the detective answered.

            “Aw, too bad.  Thought about our little deal?  My offer expires in twenty-four hours.  So does your wife, for that matter.”

            “I’ve been making some calls, and I think I can get the ten grand I owe you.”

            “Pfff!  If I want money, I’ll rob a bank.  Why should I settle for mere cash when you can give me something priceless, like information on Batman?  There has to be something in those documents that can give me an advantage over the Dork Knight.”

            “I don’t know.  Haven’t read ‘em.”

            “That’s not important for our purposes.  You have something I want, and I have something you want.  Let’s make a deal.”

            Laney gave a sigh of defeat.  “I suppose I’ve got no choice.  I’ll get the file when Gordon’s out of his office for the afternoon briefing.”

            Joker smiled.  “Now that’s what I like to hear.  A young man who knows his priorities.  I’ll call you at six to arrange delivery.”

            “Public transit is shutting down at noon.”

            “Oh, I never take the subway,” Joker chuckled.  “You can get mugged down there!”

            The laughter made Laney’s tension headache worse.  “I just want Rose back.  That’s all I care about.”

            “Relax, detective.  I have no gripe with you—other than the fact that you’re a cop.  But, hey, nobody’s perfect.  Don’t take any of this personally.  It isn’t about you, it’s about leverage.  Once I get that file, I’ll tell you where your lovely wife is, and the two of you can ride out the storm safe and sound, just like Bogie and Bacall in Key Largo.”

            Laney prayed that Joker would be a man of his word for once.

            “And remember, no Bats.  One sign of him and you’ll be saying, ‘My love’s like a dead, dead Rose.’  Hahahahahahahaha!”

 

            Bruce and Alfred listened in on the conversation from the Batcave.  As soon as it finished, Bruce ran the recorded stream through a digital analyzer to boost background sounds and mute the voices.

            “Robert Burns must be spinning in his grave,” Alfred said contemptuously.  “That clown has no respect for the classics.”

            “Or anything else.”  Bruce played the processed audio, but nothing caught his attention.

            “What’s that echo?”

            Bruce boosted the volume and replayed it.  “Could be cellphone reverb, or maybe he’s in an empty room.  Hmm…an empty room.”  The wheels of his detective mind started spinning.  “Joker told Laney he was putting Rose in a chamber that would be out of air in two days.  Everyone breathes at different rates, so how could he know exactly when the air would run out, unless he had control of it?  And that would require some large equipment, like a hyperbaric chamber and air compressor.”

            “Which I take it are quite noisy?”

            “Exactly, Alfred.  Even if Joker was in another room, the sound would bleed though.  Instead we have silence…and echoes.  An empty room!”

            “You’re assuming he and Mrs. Laney are at the same location.”

            “They’d have to be, if he truly had her in one of those chambers.  But I don’t think he does.  He only learned about Laney’s debt a few days ago—not enough time to set up such an elaborate scheme.  Also, he made a big point of saying Rose wasn’t tied up in some abandoned building.  Why?  Why knock down an idea that hadn’t yet crossed Laney’s mind?  I think he tripped himself up from the start.  He surely knew Laney would talk to Gordon no matter what.”  Bruce put his hands together.  “This is looking more and more like a red herring to throw me off his trail and make me search where he isn’t.”

            “That’s a lot of assumptions, sir, though I must say they do make a certain sense.  However, if you’re wrong.…”

            “Yes.  But I don’t believe I am.  I know Joker, and it would be just like him to do it that way.”

            “Then you’re right back at the beginning.  Where is Mrs. Laney?”

            “Still in danger.”  Bruce unrolled a large atlas of the city’s buildings.  “And with that hurricane bearing down, the danger’s only increasing.”

 

When Rose Laney drifted back to semi-consciousness, she immediately noticed a change in her pitch black environment: it was wet.  “Going…to…drown…,” she mumbled sleepily.

 

Tropical storm force winds were battering Gotham by six, with landfall only twelve hours off.  High tide was in ninety minutes,  and waterfront areas had started to flood.

Laney was waiting in his apartment when Joker called.  “Yeah?”

“Did I catch you at a bad time?” Joker mockingly inquired.

“Shut it, clown!  I have what you asked for.”

“Ooh, getting a bit testy there, flatfoot.  Remember, I’ve still got your wife.”

“Where is she?” Laney asked in exasperation.

“Now, now.  All in good time.  Meet me in thirty minutes at Bert’s Cafe on Eighteenth Street.”

“That place has been closed for nearly a year.”

Joker said, “Then we shouldn’t have any trouble getting a table.  Heeheeheeheehee!”

Laney wanted to reach through the phone and strangle him.

“Better put that file in something waterproof and wear your galoshes.  It’s going to be a bumpy night!  Ta-ta!”

Laney picked up his pistol and shoved in a fresh clip.  “Enough’s enough!”

 

Batman didn’t bother recording the call.  As soon as Joker mentioned Eighteenth Street, he pounced on his commercial atlas and flipped to a map near the middle.  He pinpointed the restaurant and studied the neighborhood.  Three buildings to the east, he stopped.  “Has to be it.  So obvious….”

Two minutes later, he was in the Batmobile and on the radio to Gordon.  “I need paramedics to meet me at 367 Eighteenth Street.  Rose Laney is there.”

 

            Laney had trouble standing up when he got out of his car.  The gale threatened to blow him over, and the horizontal rain stung like a volley of needles.  Clutching the two data CDs, he made his way to the door of Bert’s Cafe as the tail of his raincoat flapped furiously.  He noticed waves had broached the seawall a block south, filling Eighteenth Street to the curb.

            The wind’s fury made hearing difficult.  “Come in!” Joker shouted.

            Laney barreled through the dark, abandoned bistro’s entrance.

Joker shut the door and turned to face his infuriated adversary.  “Good meeting you, Laney.  It’s always nice to put a face with a name.”

Grabbing his collar, Laney shoved him into the bar and jammed a .45 under his chin.  “I’d like to put your face all over this wall for what you’ve put me through!”

“Better work on that anger management, Dick Tracy.  You kill me and you’ll never find out where Rose is.”

“You’re probably gonna let her die anyway.”

Joker freed himself from Laney’s grip and smiled.  “Now that wouldn’t be very sporting, would it?”

“Who knows?  Life seems to be one big, sick game for you.”  Laney warily backed off and put away his gun.

The storm winds blew the door open, making an eerie whistle as the driving rain flew in.

Joker forced it shut again and locked it.  “I think that was our cue to hurry up.  “Where’s the file?”

“Files.”  Laney tossed the two CDs onto a table.

“What?”

“They’re going digital.  Keeping old paper records takes too much space.”

Clearly displeased, Joker picked one up.  With its labels, stamps, and scribbled initials, it looked official.  “Eh, welcome to the future,” he said before pocketing the discs.

“Okay, now for your part of the bargain.  Where’s Rose?”

 

Water covered almost half of the Batmobile’s wheels as Batman parked in front of 367 Eighteenth Street.  A fading sign above the entrance read, “Industrial Aquarium Supply - Manufacture – Sales – Service.”  The store clearly had been out of business a long time.

He kicked in the door and took a flashlight from his utility belt.  The front showroom was completely bare.  Going around the sales counter to the back rooms, he saw broken aquariums and parts scattered haphazardly on workbenches and the swampy floor, where the storm surge had risen to his ankles.

Most of the damaged units were large, the type seen in business lobbies and doctors’ offices.  The beam of his light landed on an enormous black box against the north wall, and he ran to it.

            Sitting on the ground, the two foot-high object resembled an oversized coffin but was actually an intact aquarium whose glass had been painted black.  An eight foot black canvas tarp covered the top, and a small hose connected to an oxygen tank snaked down into a hole in the tarp.

            He made several gashes in the cover with a Batarang and ripped part of it away.  Shining his light inside, he saw a barely conscious Rose Laney lying in four inches of water.

            He heard a commotion out front and a voice calling, “Batman!”

            “I’m in the back!”

            Two paramedics with a stretcher hustled through the doorway.

            “She’s alive,” he said, “but it looks like she’s heavily sedated.”

            The paramedics carefully lifted her out of the aquarium and onto the gurney.

            Batman stepped aside.  “We have Rose Laney,” he radioed Gordon.  “She’s groggy and wet but fine otherwise.”

            “Fantastic!”

            “Better let her husband know.  He’s meeting Joker right now.”

 

            The atmospheric pressure continued dropping as Amanda edged closer to Gotham City, but the tension kept rising inside what was Bert’s Café.

            Joker silently stared at Laney.

            “You’ve got the files, now give me Rose,” said Laney, accompanied by building creaks and the storm’s roar.

            “A deal’s a deal,” Joker told him.  “Go two doors up to the old Avery Butcher Shop.  She’s locked in one of the back rooms.”

            “Thank you.”  At that moment, the detective’s cellphone rang.  “Laney.”

            “It’s Gordon.  Rose has been rescued.  She’s unharmed and on her way to Gotham General.”

            Closing his eyes, Laney felt a staggering weight lift.  “Thank God!  Where was she?”

            “The abandoned aquarium shop at 367 Eighteenth Street.”

            “Really…thanks for the information, sir.”  His relief quickly turned to anger as he put away the phone.

            Joker had his hand on the door lock, ready to slip out.

            Laney fired a shot into the door and froze him where he stood.  “That was the commissioner.  He told me they found Rose—and where.  You lied to me!”  He fired another shot into the floor behind Joker.

            The Ace of Knaves flashed an embarrassed grin.  “Well, I never was good at directions.”

            With a furious backhand, Laney pistol whipped him, knocking him to the ground.  “We all know how you like to dish out pain, but can you take it?”

“Ooh…police brutality,” Joker groaned.

Laney calmly stepped on Joker’s back with one foot and put the warm pistol to the base of his skull.

            “Laney!”

            The detective looked up to see Batman walking out of the shadows.

            “Rose is safe.  Don’t do it.”

            “Why not?  If he lives he’ll just make somebody else’s life miserable!”

            “Think long and hard,” Batman cautioned, “because there will be consequences.  Is it worth it?  Three minutes of vengeful joy in exchange for your future?  That’s what it will cost.  You swore an oath to uphold the law.  The judge won’t go easy…a decade in prison, maybe two.  Pull that trigger and you’ll lose far more than this clown could ever steal from you.”

            Joker took advantage of the distraction and kicked hard, striking Laney in the crotch.  While the cursing cop doubled over, he jumped to his feet.

Before he could even open the door, Batman charged him like a stampeding rhinoceros.      The Bat’s momentum carried him into Joker, and they crashed through the diner’s window, landing with a splash in the foot-high floodwaters outside.

            Ignoring the force of the winds, Batman pulled the Clown Prince to his feet and sent him sprawling back into the water with a strong right cross.

            When Joker fell, the CDs slid out of his coat pocket.  He started crawling to retrieve them, but the fast current carried them off.  “No, no, noooo!  All that information on you…it was mine…!”

            A police car sent by Gordon arrived as Batman and Laney were restraining the waterlogged Joker.

“One day I’ll find those discs, Batsy, and learn how to beat you.”

            Laney shoved him into the back of the squad car and laughed.  “The only things you’d learn from those CDs are how to repair toilets, bake banana bread, and play guitar chords for a hundred country-western songs.  We faked you out!”

            Joker put his face in his cuffed hands.  “Ohhh…crap!”

 

            Rather soggy himself, Batman returned home to dry out.

            “Good news, sir,” Alfred greeted him after he climbed out of the Batmobile.  “Amanda has been downgraded to a Category One and is moving slightly to the east.  The forecasters are saying we’ve dodged the worst.”

            Bruce removed his cowl and looked at the mud line on the car.  “Part of me was hoping she’d inundate the whole city and wash away the scum.”

            “No such luck.  But isn’t that what Gotham has Batman for?”

            “So it would seem, Alfred.”  He took off his gloves and utility belt.  “So it would seem.”