The visiting psychiatrist presented all the appropriate paperwork at the entry to Arkham’s high-security wing. He signed the logbook and was escorted to the Joker’s special cell. That was all the guard remembered or needed to remember. He returned to his station and fell into a deep, relaxing sleep from which he would awake in ten minutes feeling rested and refreshed…
“It’s done,” Hugo Strange reported to the Joker, “When do I get paid?”
“When I’m satisfied it was done right, you’ll get what’s coming to you.”
On the whole, Joker avoided killing people he knew. On the whole, he wasn’t done having fun with them. Murder was for the nameless extras. But if Hugo was going to insist on being paid, an exception might have to be made…
It all started with Whose Line is it Anyway: Joker was bored in his lonely cell. Harley had disappeared during the attack at Wayne Manor, so he’d asked Riddler to bring his tapes from the Ha-Hacienda. Good ol’ Riddler was such a pal; he’d brought them all.
When Joker saw that Harley had taped over Whose Line is it Anyway!—taped over the one where Colin Mochrie does the dinosaur walk! - he was ready to kill her.
But she wasn’t there.
So he watched the tape instead.
She was there.
Giving a party.
But wait… Santa hat, it was the Christmas party. That was ok. Then he saw it…
“Oooh!” (RIDDLER PINCHED HER!)
“Oieee!” (HE DID IT AGAIN!)
…And she was giggling. She was playing up to him! The tramp!
“EEIKF!” HE DID IT AGAIN!
Oh, he would kill that funnyman now, oh yes he would.
Then came a deeper voice… “If this JokerCam setup is two-way, Riddler’s a dead man.”
Too right, you tell’em, Brucie!
“He’s the only one who really understands me,” Joker told the remote control.
Dr. Hugo Strange was forced to return to his improvised laboratory without being paid. The Joker. Who the hell did that ghoulish Pagliacci think he was—Batman’s greatest foe, indeed! The man’s only claim to great criminal enterprise was a shit-eating grin, an annoying laugh, and being utterly insane. What kind of nefarious arsenal was that?
While he, Hugo Strange, had achieved the ultimate criminal epiphany: he had deduced Batman’s secret identity! And was this achievement recognized by his peers? It was not.
Just because he didn’t have a wild outfit and a goofy moniker. Strange was an old and distinguished name.
Hugo blanched as the thought reminded him of his first meeting with his current victim:
“Eddie Nigma, get it. E. Nigma—clever that.”
“But I don’t use it professionally, you understand. I still go by Riddler.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that.”
“So why stick with a loser handle like Hugo Strange. I mean, Hugo is okay in a dorky way, but STRANGE, c’mon.”
“It’s an old and distinguished family name, Mr. Nigma.”
“Go on, old and distinguished, it means, what? ‘That guy outside town who, when he walks past the farm, makes the pigs nervous.’”
That was the respect he received from his peers.
Like that Harlequin bitch excluding him from the Christmas party.
Hugo had been gratified when the great and mighty Joker came to him. A personal matter, the clown had said… Joker. An arrested adolescent that went from thinking “girls have cooties” to “riding a Harley.” There was no justice in the world; there truly was not. But that was neither here nor there. The Joker had come to him, Dr. Hugo Strange, for help!
He only did so, it turned out, because Hugo was due to be released from Arkham, not because he appreciated the special talents only a criminal genius like he could bring to the task…
Still, the task Joker had in mind, driving Edward Nigma mad, would be a satisfying one. Revenge for that insulting remark about his name! And later: Revenge on Harley Quinn for blackballing him! For Hugo was sure she would be the Joker’s next target.
Oracle sat at her console eying an unlabeled silver button from the corner of her eye. She slowly brought her hand up from under the desk, as though sneaking up on it, then depressed it quickly, held it for four seconds while holding a calm, attentive expression, then let it go with a flourish. The procedure disconnected the scans of her head movements and facial expression from the hologram displayed in the Watchtower conference room. Now the other members of the Public Relations Subcommittee would see only the calm, attentive expression. She could safely adjust the volume and tune out Diana’s endless prattle about civilian opinion.
The talk with her father hadn’t gone well. That was the only civilian’s opinion she cared about.
“Barbara, that man’s world isn’t safe,” he insisted. “You’ve had enough pain as it is without taking on more needlessly. This is nothing but hurt waiting to happen, it’s suffering and risk and worry that can all be avoided by just turning your back on it. Shake the dust from your feet and don’t look back.”
“Daddy,” she began softly, “I love him. Can’t you understand that? I love Dick; I want to marry him. This is my decision. It’s my life we’re talking about.”
“It’s your life, so I’m supposed to stand by while you get yourself killed! It’s your life, so I just ignore that you’re deliberately putting yourself on a path where you’ll encounter that madman again! No, Barbara, no! I said it then and I’ll say again, it will be over my dead body that you marry into that, that, that family.”
It stung. There was no denying it stung. But Barbara convinced herself she was calm enough to continue. And she began calmly enough…
“Dad, it’s like you want to draw a line as to how much…” she searched for a word and, in her frustration, lost the advantage of remaining calm “…how much hurt or pain or…shit…your daughter will endure in her life, and if no one else will abide by this line, then fuck’em all to hell!”
“Oh, screw this!” She was near tears now she was so frustrated.
“Barbara Louise, stop this at once,” Jim Gordon ordered. “I won’t have you carrying on like this.” He stroked her hair lightly, like she was a little girl. “Barbara, listen to me,” he continued with a new intensity, “I will never go back to sitting at your bedside watching you almost die.”
“ORACLE, what are your thoughts on this?” Diana was asking impatiently.
Barbara double-clicked the silver button, re-establishing the feed from the scanner above her face to the hologram generator.
“I… think… Diana makes an excellent point. One that needed to be discussed. Maybe she’ll go into a little more detail for us,” Barbara sputtered. She felt bad for the rest of the committee who were actually in the room and didn’t have a mute button to hit, but that guilt was overshadowed by another when she regained her train of thought.
“Daddy. Daddy-Daddy-Daddy. You can’t keep bad things from happening to people. You can try, you can rationalize, I guess, but they still do happen.”
“Barbara, would you please stop talking to me like I’m an insurance salesman! I am, was, the commissioner of police. You think I don’t know about the risk you take just living in this city?”
“Then what are you—”
“A policeman lives and breathes that risk. Any simple pullover, broken taillight, could be the end. ‘Can I see your license and registration’-BANG! So there are procedures. You minimize the risk whenever you can. Before you move to the door, your partner stands there, at this angle, to observe the passenger seat. You do it that way because people who are more experienced tell you to. You do it because your superiors learned the hard way this is what’s best.”
“Daddy…” she broke off then tried slowly, “…I know all that. But this isn’t pulling over a speeder, it’s marrying Dick Grayson.”
“I’m your father, Barbara Louise. You have to trust that I know what’s best. I know what’s safe. You want to throw out the rulebook and walk into this incredibly dangerous situation, and I’m saying no. Not while there is breath in my body to say ‘No, no, no, no, NO.’”
Like many of the Gotham night people, Jervis Tetch (a.k.a. The Mad Hatter) slept through most of the day and arose around four or five in the afternoon to begin his day’s work. So even though the frantic (but strangely rhythmic) knocking that woke him did so at 9 am, he still went to the door complaining about rude callers pestering him “in the middle of the night.”
“You gotta help me Jervis—I have 76 Trombones stuck in my head. …Thundering, thundering louder than before… You gotta get it out. I’ll pay anything, just make me forget this damn song.”
While Jervis tried to calculate how “I’ll pay anything” might translate into a dollar figure, Nigma produced a slip of paper.
“Look what I just wrote—it was supposed to be a clue for the Crane Brokerage House!”
Jervis took the slip and read:
76 black crows on the Great White Way
with 110 blown fuses on the sand
He looked up quizzically. Edward Nigma nodded sadly, and Jervis realized he could name any price he wanted.
“Why do your cats hate me?” Bruce asked in a strange mixture of his natural speaking voice and Batman’s deepest growl.
“Nutmeg doesn’t hate you,” Selina assured him, setting down a jug of orange juice and a plate of toast. He pointed.
Nutmeg had appropriated a strip of shredded fabric that had once been part of Batman’s cape and was hurling it into the air as though to break its neck. Whiskers watched this performance and would snarl at the inert form with satisfaction when it landed.
“That’s just play,” Selina laughed, then took on a husky tone as she added, “I thought we settled that a long time ago.”
Bruce smiled, blushed, then managed an embarrassed, “Somehow, it’s not the same.”
“It’s after nine,” Selina observed, changing the subject. “Do you have to call in or something?”
“No, Lucius is used to my coming in at odd hours, if at all. Still, it’d be nice if those clothes got here.”
“I offered you an outfit to go home in.”
“Look, my reputation can actually benefit from having Bergdorf’s deliver a sweater and pants to Bruce Wayne at some woman’s apartment because she destroyed what I was wearing last night. But it will not survive my going home in a Cat-Tales sweatshirt!”
Selina’s shrug said “Whatever.”
Nutmeg’s crouch said “Soon I shall pounce on my unsuspecting prey.”
Whisker’s growl said “Die, wretched strip of blue, die!”
Bruce studied the scene carefully.
“No, that tone I recognize. That wasn’t play; it was ‘Die, Batman, Die.’ The little gray one said it, just now.”
“Well,” Selina smiled, “It’s possible. Truth be told, Whiskers does have a bit of grudge. But it’s not personal. That’s his balcony you’re always landing on.”
Bruce looked at Whiskers who looked right back. “Damn right, Buddy,” was the unspoken message. Rather than submit to a staring contest with one of Catwoman’s cats, Bruce turned and noticed scribbles in a familiar hand on the back of a magazine:
Clarinets of eve’ry size and trumpeters who’d improvise
a full octave higher than the score.
Then the words Score, More, Bore, Core, Door, Floor. This last was underlined. Then “Higher than the door. Higher than the floor.”
“What the hell is this?” Bruce asked.
Selina glanced at it, then chuckled. “Oh. That’s Eddie.”
Bruce’s eyes went square, focusing hard on the scribble. A break at last—a clue he wasn’t supposed to have. His eyes snapped up and met Selina’s, and he heard Batman asking “Do you know what this means?” before he even considered the ramifications. He had just asked her to help take down one of her “friends” among the rogues, a good friend, one she’d turned to when they had that fight during hell-month. That kind of request hadn’t gone over well when the friend was Harvey in genuine agony… Except… so far from shutting down like last time, she gave a bright smile and answered immediately.
“Of course, it’s 76 Trombones.”
There was a stunned silence as he processed what just happened. She was helping him. No hassles. No accusations.
Except she mistook his surprise for confusion and started to explain.
“76 Trombones? You know… ♫ Seventy six trombones hit the counter point ♫ while a hundred and ten cornets played the air. ♫ Then I modestly took my place as the one and only bass, ♫ and I oompahed up and down the square… ♫ Man, you gotta get out more.”
To be continued...To be continued...