Under the Red Sky

Under the Red Sky (Joker) Part 31

When I finally came to, my head was thumping softly against the frosty glass of a window. I abruptly drew away from the bitter cold, blinking away the lingering haze of my stupor, feeling mildly bemused. And then quite suddenly, I remembered.

At that precise moment, pain flooded my body, trickling down through my ribs, shaking my spine, and finally settling into a blunt, throbbing ache in the back of my skull. I moaned silently, smacking my lips dryly.

It was then I realized I was back in the van, its boxy body of rusted steel gliding smoothly along the snow lined streets. Glancing around, my eyes found the dull glint of metal; a gun nestled in between the seats. The Joker was at the wheel and beneath the shadowy, amber-liquid light of the passing street lamps, he did not look at all happy. Clenched jaw, eyes all stone and ice fixed intently on the road before him.

Well, damn. The party was over.

“You gunna explain?” he asked suddenly, without even glancing my way, sure that I was aware and conscious.

I eyed him cagily. “Explain what?”

“Explain what?” he mimicked, his voice cracking girlishly, “Don’t think I didn’t notice. You knew that Rachel woman….”

“So what if I did,” I hissed. I was hit with an unexpectedly melancholy notion. “She’s gone anyway, thanks to you.”

He scoffed. “Yeah, thanks to me. Put the bitch out of her misery.”

My temper flared like the strike of a match. “Don’t…call her….that.”
The Joker stared at me, his painted face fixed with what looked like disbelief and rage. I held his gaze, unafraid.

“Is there something I’m missing?” he asked, a dark chuckle trilling on the edge of his voice, “I mean, just fill me in cause I’m in the dark here. What’s the attachment, hmm?”

“There is no attachment,” I snarled through clenched teeth, drilling my poison nails against my bare leg, “I met her once. We had dinner.”

“Dinner?” he ribbed, laughing meanly, “And that suddenly makes you two the best of friends?”

“No,” I growled forcefully, “But she didn’t deserve to die.”

The Joker lost it then, throwing his head back and roaring with maniacal laughter. He banged the steering wheel and the car gave a short burp of a honk. My eyes flicked to the road for a moment, ready to grab the wheel if necessary.

“Didn’t deserve to die?” he repeated, cackling and smacking the dashboard raucously, “Oh, that’s a good one….”

He broke off into another fit of giggles and I had just about had it when his laughter fell silent, so abruptly that it took me by surprise.

“Don’t you get it, Bijou?” He voice was a croak and the gravity of his tone alarmed me. “We all deserve to die. You and me especially…”

There was a moment of intense silence, so thick you could cut it with a knife. When he spoke again, the mirth in his voice had returned.

“But I’ll tell you something else,” he cried, “What I do not deserve is for the Batman to beat me senseless like he did. Where were you, huh, when that imbecile was using my face for a punching bag? I mean, look at this, look at this.”

He gripped the steering with one hand, the other slipping into his mouth. I watched with mild disgust as he gagged, giggling around his hand. And then with an unpleasant squelch, he wrenched his hand away and in his fingertips he held a tooth, one of his molars, considerably yellow, bloody at the base from where it had been joined to his gums. He laughed, cursing as he held it up like a child at show and tell.

I sneered, watching a trickle of blood roll down his chin. “Hey, even the Mona Lisa’s falling apart.”

His laughter faded slightly, a callous look crossing his face. He tossed the tooth into my lap with a malicious chuckle, and I brushed it away with repugnance, turning away from him to glare out the window at the passing cityscape.

There wasn’t much to see. We had slipped into a hazardous side of town, a haven for poor consciences and bad intentions a like. Shadows moseyed along the concrete and smog hung low about the streets like the foul breath of the beast. The sidewalk rolled by like film, clotted with snow that was glaring and orange from the street lamps above.

And then, I saw them.

There was struggle beneath the burning shadows of rose. Two persons. The first, a coltish figure, inevitably a girl; too slight yet to be a woman. And the second, the solid build of a man. His arm was an iron bar across her neck; her limbs were flailing miserably, like a drowning victim attempting a pathetic fight with her fate. Her red mouth was wide in a shriek of terror and how his hands did roam…

I felt a sickness roll through me in that moment. My mouth went dry, my head felt heavy. And I felt the helplessness of the girl. What I had felt on my own skin. And I knew at once what I must do.

“Stop the car,” I cried, moments after we had passed the pair lurking in the gloom.

The Joker inclined his head my way, mild confusion on his face. “Pardon?”

“Stop the car,” I repeated, twisting in my seat and craning my neck to peer back at the fateful alley way which was fading in the distance.

“How about no?” he sneered, a mean smile creeping across his crimson lips.

In a flash, the gun which sat between us was in my hands, my finger slipping over the trigger with firm determination.

“Stop the fucking car now,” I hissed, and the malice in my voice was enough to frighten me. But only a little.

The Joker got the message, slamming down hard on the brakes. The van screamed to a halt, its occupants lurching with the vehicle. I popped open the passenger side door, slipping out, the gun still aimed at the driver. We stared at each other for a moment, a rare expression drawn on his face: startled confusion. Without a word of explanation or a second thought, I tossed the gun back into the car and slammed the door shut.

The ice crunched under my heels as I turned and began back towards the alleyway. I was moving fast. Fast enough to warrant a catastrophic fall onto the slick cement. But I kept my balance, my heart beating fast in my chest, my hands moving to unwind the whip from around my waist.

I stood at the mouth of the alley now, the street lamps burning against my back, outlining my figure against the dirty slush that spilled into the break. Behind me the orange fluorescence flickered, and my shadow abruptly disappeared. There was only me and them and the darkness.

They pair had moved farther away. No doubt the man had been startled by us as we cruised by, not wanting to get caught. I could see the impressions down below in the grime and wet ice where she’d resisted his force. I could hear the girl whimpering up ahead in the gloom as I crept closer. And hear him growl as he told to keep quite, you little bitch, or I swear I’ll-

And then quite suddenly, the path was illuminated, the lamps sputtering back to life.

I watched them silently, feeling my anger toil within me. I could see them clearly now. The girl was young. Maybe fifteen, sixteen at the most. The black swatch of velvet and lace that hung on her skeletal frame hardly passed for a dress. Her face was gaunt and eerie in the murk and the garish makeup did not help.

It was undeniable. She was a prostitute. Whether the man harassing her was a customer or some horny bum looking for some free fun, I didn’t know. I didn’t care. My shadow passed over them, long, monstrous, and daunting. The girl’s frantic eyes found me. And my presence was made.

“I just love a big strong man who’s not afraid to show it with someone half his size,” I purred, twirling my whip idling.

“Look, lady, I paid for this cooze, so let us be,” he called, not even glancing my way. I moved for his back, taking him by the shoulder and wrenching him around to face me. I could smell the alcohol on his breath.

“But, baby, I don’t cost a thing,” I hissed, throwing him away from the girl. An ugly look crossed his face. It seemed to fade as he took me in. And realized who I was. He came at me, more out of fear than anger, fists poised and ready.

I met him with a kick to the face, knocking him back into the alley wall. The girl yelped in surprise and seeing that freedom was hers, she made to run away.

“Stay where you are,” I commanded and she froze, petrified, plastering herself against the alley wall some feet away.

By now, her customer had near recovered. Blood was spouting from his bottom lip and he sneered at me, pushing off from the brick behind him.

“You bitch,” he grumbled, coming at me once more.

A strike. A crack of the whip. Another kick. And he was down in the dirty ice, making everything red.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” I growled, crouching over him, winding my whip around his neck. “So,” I murmured, pinning him to the slimy concrete, “You like to mess with little girls, huh?”

He gargled through the blood leaking into his mouth from his gushing nose. I smacked him hard, making sure to rake my nails across his face. He shrieked in pain as his flesh sizzled.

“Answer me,” I hissed.

“Yes! Yes, I do. Please, please, don’t do this,” he whimpered, sounding much like his potential victim.

“You should have thought of that before, big fella,” I cooed, stroking his face, “Cause you’re playing with a big girl now. And I like it rough.”

I jumped to my feet, grabbing the front of his jacket and hauling him up with me. I slammed him up against the wall and tugged him back, my whip tightening around his neck. Against the wall again and then once more. I relished the sound of his skull cracking against the reddening stone. He was a human yo-yo. I cackled.

He thumped against the wall once more with a pitiful moan, his face a lump of red, a bluish hue. I held him there, my foot at his throat. I leaned towards him, my hands poised at his face, dragging my nails across his flesh, pulling away from the center. My trademark seared into his flesh.

“Merry Christmas, baby,” I purred, smirking at him as he uttered a feeble scream of pain. “Say good night.”

I unwound the thick cord from his neck and launched back, twirling my whip fiercely. And with a violent crack, I delivered the fatal blow, the lash splitting his throat with a fine line.

He fell, sputtering, coughing, clutching at his neck as if that would stop the crimson tide now spilling out into the alley. I gazed down at him for several moments, my fury fading slowly, feeling a mixture of disgust and curious delight simmer in the pit of my stomach. I fought the urge to vomit. And the urge to laugh.

It had begun to snow, the powder falling silently around us, speckling the man’s bloodied face like flakes of salt. I wondered idly if his body would be buried by morning, a frozen treasure for the scavengers of the alleyway and the stray cats and dogs. And the rats.

Remembering the girl, I turned only to find that I was alone. Well…I glanced at the man, who was shaking violently in a large pool of his own gore. I would be alone soon enough.

Squinting through the dim light, I stared down the alleyway. The street lamp was flickering fanatically, but I could see her footsteps leading away from the area. They were small, like the tracks of a fawn. Little droplets of blood coupled her prints. I frowned. She was hurt.

A part of me wanted to run after her, a part that threatened to dominate completely. And it would’ve, if I had not suddenly remembered the Joker and his goons, sitting in the van some blocks away. With a heavy sigh, I wound the whip around my waist once more, casting one final look at the man. He was very still, eyes glazed, his hands relaxed at his throat. Now, I was alone.

I began to make my way up the alley, trudging through the quickly accumulating snow. Hastening through the frigid night air, striding along the sidewalk toward the van up ahead, I was breathing hard. Too hard for the small distance I had covered. The stammering lights were getting to me, making all the black and white and rose shadows swirl before my eyes. I shut them quickly and tried to steady my breathing as I made the last few strides toward the van.

It was idling, smoke billowing up from the exhaust, the brake lights glowing red with impatience. I stumbled to the passenger side door, yanking it open with much difficulty. I felt weak, soured, and horribly sick to my stomach. The moment of hilarity I had felt had buried itself deep within the churning knots of my innards and now refused to show its bright, ruddy face. I resented it.
“About time,” the Joker called, glaring at me.

I frowned at him, a blurry splotch of purple and red and white. I climbed unsteadily into the car, and with a shaky hand, pulled the door after me.

“Shit,” he murmured as he took me in, “You look like hell. What…happened?”

I looked down at myself. A mess of red, standing out like neon against my alabaster flesh. My dress was ruined. My shoes were soaking with slush. I did look like hell. I giggled through the vertigo.

“Drive,” I managed, my mouth unusually dry and my tongue feeling heavy, “I’ll tell you…when we…get home. Take me home.”

He stared at me, his brow furrowed in unease, concern, suspicion? I couldn’t tell. But after a few moments, he lamented, putting the vehicle in drive and peeling away from the curb.

The van was silent, but my head was buzzing, my ears ringing with white noise. There was something horrible clacking around in my brain, like marbles, round and glassy and glazed like dead eyes. They shook my skull like thunder, pounding against the walls of my mind, threatening to slip down and lodge themselves in the nooks and crannies of my back bone. I felt flighty and my stomach rocked like a boat caught in a storm. Something was wrong. Something was broken.

I kept my gaze fixed on the forsaken yellow tooth on the floor near my feet. A distraction from the delirium, wily and slick, that was slowly leaking from my brain, down through my veins, into my bitter, frozen fingertips. My breathing was shallow, my vision a haze of red and gold and all I could think, the words ringing with the mad crackling in my head: I’ve killed a man. I’ve killed a man. I’ve taken a life. And despite my own jumbled defenses and faulty, ill-intentioned reasoning, the shock was like a jolt from a defibrillator, jump-starting the fear and clandestine panic in my heart.

A millennium seemed to pass before the van rattled up to the mouth of a familiar alley way. There was the sound of metal, doors opening and then closing. Footsteps muted by frosty glass as the goons shuffled out onto the pavement. The driver’s door opened and then slammed shut and I took that as my cue to get out the van as well.

Easier thought than done.

I pushed the door open with a quivering hand and half-fell, half-slid from the passenger seat, dripping out onto the concrete like melted ice cream. The Joker was ambling to the mouth of the alley, his goons up ahead in the darkness.

“Hurry up, Bijou,” he called over his shoulder, annoyed, “I’m tired of waiting for you.”

I opened my mouth to retaliate, but the air shimmered brilliantly before my eyes and I found I could not speak. I felt the blood leave my face, a chill run through my body, felt my knees tremor violently.

The Joker, who was a purple slant amidst the gloom, turned to look at me when I did not reply.

“Oh shit,” he murmured, striding back towards me. I felt his arm at my waist, his hand closed around my arm. He pulled me into the shadows, roughly and yet with the blunt, awkward affection of a little boy.

The hallway came and went like a far off speck of land. And I, a passenger tossed overboard by the storm, struggling to keep my head above the blackness. Then there was the chill of his office, the dim light in the corner. And then the grey of the bedroom and suddenly, light.

Everything was yellow, like home-grown sun. I watched the dust dance above my head, as I felt my dress fall away, crumbling to the bathroom floor like a bag of bones.

“Shit, shit, shit,” the Joker cursed in my ear, gripping my shoulders as he steered me toward the bathtub. He sat me down on its molded, porcelain edge and turned away, moving to the sink, grabbing up a small wash cloth, and wetting it thoroughly.

He took a seat on the toilet beside me, leaning forward and mopping my face with a somewhat aggressive touch.

“Now, kitten, I’ve brought you home,” he grumbled, sounding almost angry as the washcloth began to redden, pink with the blood he had wiped from my face. “Talk.”

I forced down the bile bubbling in the back of my throat, fighting the urge to be sick. I did as he said, though I hardly knew how I found the words.

“I…killed a man,” I murmured, blinking away the silver flowers clotting my vision. “He was hurting a little girl….I slit his throat.”

The Joker inhaled, and blew the air out from between his crimson lips. He held the towel at my forehead for a moment, before taking it away. He looked at me for a good long moment, his dark eyes searching my face. I stared blankly back.

“The first time is always a little weird. The first kill, I mean...,” he said finally. He brought the towel along my neck, along the ridges of my collar bone, and then along my arms. Droplets of water rolled down my chest, pooled in the cloth cradle of my bra, and I shivered. But I could feel my fever leaving me, as though he were peeling it from my body like an ominous second skin.

When he finished, he stripped out his coat, his vest and tie, then finally his collared shirt. They were flung aside like my dress. He washed his own face then, rinsing away the monster to reveal the man.

He heaved a heavy sigh, rubbing his face with damp hands. He shuffled over to me and kneeled at my feet, laying his head in my lap like a small child, tired from play. And strife. I could feel his warmth, moving from his form to my own, seeping into my bones. It felt golden.

“Did he deserve to die?” he asked after a few moments of delicately strung silence. His voice was slightly muffled but the banter in his tone was evident.

I smiled, too tired to come up with smart retort. “Yes. Yes he did.”

“Doesn’t matter, I suppose,” he replied, sighing, “Wasn’t anyone important.”

There was a pause, another musty pocket of breathing and warmth.

“You know…when you got out of the car,” he mumbled finally, running his hands along the length of my calves, “I thought you were going to run away again. I got a little, uh…worried.”

“That was a stupid thing to think,” I sighed, stroking his hair.

“I know, I know,” he muttered, “I just thought maybe I’d scared you off.”

I laughed softly, tracing small shapes and letters into the nape of his neck with my fingertips, being careful not to graze him with my nails. “Please…I’ve been thrown out of a window, poisoned, knocked off a building. I think it’ll take a little more than cheap talk and teeth to scare me off.”

He huffed, his breath sending shivers along my skin. “Good point.”

He raised his head from my lap to look at me. His clean face was drawn up in a tired smirk. His hands stole across my flesh, gliding along my calves and then, daring a dance up along my bare thighs. “I don’t suppose this means I still get my Christmas present…”

I smiled, throwing my head back with a laugh. This time there was no shimmering air, no flashing lights, no shadows of rose. Only the blond light of the restroom burning across his face.

His handsome face….

And to think, an hour ago, I might’ve wanted to kill him. Funny little world we live in. Filled with funny little people.

I beckoned him with a red spade finger and his lips found mine as they always did: with brute haste and a madness that you could only taste on jumper cable lips. Like his. Like mine.

He took me to bed then and there was a sweetness in the way he touched me, corrupting me with a gentle touch, handling me as though I were glass. There was that hunger simmering just beneath the surface, as always, but for now, he was tame. Or as tame as he could be with me in his arms.

When we were through, entangled in the bed sheets which still smelled like the morning, bathed in the dust yellow light spilling from the bathroom, we slept. He snored like an engine, his face buried in my neck, and I wallowed in the reassurance of the drone. I dreamt of endless gray spaces, until some time near dawn when, from out of my blissfully barren subconscious, came moving pictures and morbid majesty.

There was a small white bird, swaddled in thick milky cobwebs, a silky network of strands branching out in a million directions, flashing like steel. Beads of ice had settled along the silken lines like rosary beads; they shook as though nestled in the palms of some frightened believer, kneeling before the Christ on Judgment day.

The lark struggled in its bonds, wings shuttering against the sticky walls of its cloudy cocoon. It cried out, its tiny beak wide, trilling on and on and on…

The web shook then, jostling the bird into silence. Its hazy, pupil-less eyes were wide as though it knew of what was to come. Knew its captor, an eight-legged wily thing, with eyes to decorate its ugly head like family jewels, each a glassy orb of black. Like marbles of jet.

The fowl resumed its squalling still, a cry of petty refusal, of hollow denial, writhing in its satin chains. The web blurred into silver glass and the prayer beads danced, whirling on their spindles, like tiny dancers in a music box. I counted down to the gray spaces, until the night was shot dead. I counted down until its heart burst across the sky and the clouds were wet with blood, heavy and viscid in the day-glow of a garnet morning.