Under the Red Sky

Under the Red Sky (Joker) Part 32


The morning sky stretched on for miles over the grey of the city. Bleary rays of sun hit my face, bleeding in through my office window, and I peered up at it through the clouds which struck contrast against the sky; the fading color of a wilting rose with stains of brown smog smeared across the heavens. Like the dirty tarp of a circus tent.

This city is a circus, I thought bitterly. My fingers traced tenderly along my cheeks, the burns rippling under my fingertips. “Full of freaks,” I muttered through angry teeth, my hand falling down by my side. It had been two or three days since the incident but my wounds stung just the same.

The bitch had got me good; I would admit that much. I hadn’t expected to see her the night of Christmas Eve. In fact, after she’d crashed my little meeting with the mob, Selina Kyle had all but dropped off the face of the earth. In her place, came the Catwoman.

And for her first number, she blew up one of my department stores. She was sending me a message, I knew. A big “fuck you” in the form of fire and broken glass and shrapnel. What footage they had recovered from the wreckage was fuzzy and useless, but they had printed the stills nonetheless.

It was not until some days later that all speculation on the mystery arson came to a close.

Or at least speculation on my part. Footage from a mob bank robbery came to light: featuring none other than the Joker, who was already notorious for stealing mob money, and the woman who would soon be known as the Catwoman: none other than my former employee, Selina Kyle.

A part of me hadn’t been surprised. But another part of me, a larger part at that, was scared. In life, Selina Kyle had been a harmless, pathetic mouse of a woman. Disposing of her had been as insignificant an action as running over an animal, wandering along the highway. But when she came back…

I still could hardly believe that she had survived the fall. Thirteen stories. Enough to make your brains shoot out the top of your head. But she had survived. And had made a point of rubbing it in my face. In front of the mob, no less. Some nerve…

I had gone to them after handling the cost of the destruction of my department store, seeking out Maroni especially; he seemed to be the kind of man to speak with in situations such as these. Namely when someone is trying to sabotage your success and is most likely trying to kill you as well.

We never got around to sitting down for a chat though. What with one of their number dead and the lot of them being down around sixty-eight million dollars, they could care less about our agreements. But at least they hadn’t pulled some stunt like the Joker.

Double crossing me, completely ignoring my requests…and for what?

A woman.

There was a knock at the door which brought my contemplative quarries to a halt. I peered over my shoulder, looking away from the miserable city spanning out below my window.

“Come in.”

I turned back to the window, watching my receptionist in the reflection. She looked tentatively at my back before turning to set down the tray of coffee and cups she was carrying on a small table near the door, her fiery red hair concealing her face.

“Good Morning, Mr. Shrek,” she chirped, trying her best to sound cheerful, “How are you?”

“I’ve been better,” I sighed, fogging the window with my breath. Frowning, I wiped the smudge away.

“Here’s your coffee sir. Nice and hot,” she blabbed on, after pouring the coffee into my personal mug. I turned then to face Sylvia, who was making her way towards me, cup in hand. Her reaction was expected.

There was a spectacular crash as the porcelain tumbled out of her hands and onto the floor. She stared, open mouthed at my face, her blue eyes wide with horror and shock.

I made a sympathetic sound. “Oh, Ms. Ross….that was my favorite mug.”

“Mr. Shrek….You’re face,” she began, touching her own face absentmindedly, “You’re….hurt.”

“Really? I hadn’t noticed,” I sneered, striding away from the window toward my desk.

Sylvia seemed to snap out of her daze then, crouching at once to pick up the pieces of broken chinaware on the floor before tossing them into the trash. She would mop up the coffee later. As she bustled back over to the tray she had prepared to fix me another cup, her high heels clacking obnoxiously, I buried my head in my hands.

Some moments later, I heard a muted clink and looked up. She was standing a few feet away and with a weak smile, she timidly set another mug of steaming coffee before me. I slid it in my hand, and nodded to her. As much as a thank you as she would get.

But to my disappointment she did not flutter away like she was supposed too. She stayed beside me, an oddly curious look fixed on her pretty face.

“It was her wasn’t it?” she asked, her voice quiet, almost scared.

I gave her a look. “If you’re referring to my ex-wife, no. Jennifer did not-"

“No,” she interjected. She lowered her voice to a whisper, “I meant…the Catwoman.”

My face twisted into a glare. “You mean, Selina Kyle. That is her name.”

“But that’s not what they call her. Not since she joined up with that freak with the painted face,” she went on, shuddering a bit.

I was quiet for a moment, smoldering, glaring into my coffee cup. My angry reflection glared back. I exhaled sharply, sending ripples across the glassy surface.

“Yes, it was her,” I answered finally, tapping my fingers on the desk irritably. “Happy?”

“Of course not,” she said, her face contorting in a look of concern. She lowered her voice once more, casting a look around the room though it was obvious we were alone. “I thought you said you took care of her.”

“I did!” I was nearly shouting and Sylvia flinched. I looked away from her, directing my glare elsewhere. “I pushed her out a window for Christ’s sake….”

“Then how did she-"

“I don’t know!” This time I was yelling. “I don’t know how the hell she came back after knocking her skull on the pavement from a thirteen story drop! But I do know she’s after me…”

Sylvia looked wounded, but kept on. “When did she-"

“Christmas Eve,” I snapped, already tired of her stupid questions, “She showed up at Wayne’s party. With her little boyfriend, no less.”

Revulsion crossed her face. I didn’t blame her.

“What are we going to do?” she inquired, her eyes wide and inquisitive.

I mulled this over for a minute, considering whether or not to let Sylvia in on my business. She had been a loyal confidant in the past; had kept her mouth shut about my dealings with the mob, though the press had hounded her as much as they did me. But something about this whole mess terrified her. You could see it hidden behind her sharp facade. I wasn’t going to lie. It frightened me too. But only a little.

I cleared my throat finally, and she straightened at once, a soldier waiting for a command.

“Sylvia,” I murmured, fixing her with a pointed stare, “Listen closely. You know the terms: tell no one of what we are about to discuss. I need you to do a little background check on Selina Kyle. Let’s see what makes this bitch tick. Let’s find out her weak links.”

She nodded fervently. “Yes sir, Mr. Shrek. I’ll be right on it.” She turned to leave, clacking across the marble toward the door. Another thought came to mind and I called after her.

“And Ms. Ross?”

She turned to look at me, an alabaster hand on the door knob. Waiting.

I cleared my throat, smiling down at my reflection in my coffee. “Start with relatives. Find out if she has any family in the city. And if you do…bring them to me.”


“So what do we got?”

It was a question I was used to asking on early mornings such as these. The young patrol officer standing beside me at the mouth of the alley looked flustered and slightly panicked, and kept fidgeting with his coat pockets.

In. Out. In. Out.

I took a sip of my second cup of coffee.

“Some homeless men stumbled on a body in the alleyway around seven o’clock this morning. One of them had enough change to make a call; dialed nine-one-one at the payphone on the corner. We arrived at the scene maybe an hour ago. We figure the guy’s been dead for a couple days now. He’s frozen solid.”

I peered up at the two decrepit buildings that sat on either side of the break, before looking down through the shadows at the chaos within. It seemed nearly impossible for all those cops and medical examiners and crime scene investigators to fit in that tiny space. But they managed, even if they were breathing down each other’s necks.

“So…shall we?”

My gaze flickered back to the officer beside me, whose hands had found their way out of his pockets; they were instead gesturing to the scene before us.

I almost didn’t believe he was suggesting that we go on in, but he most certainly was and I obliged with a muted look of opposition, following behind him.

Daylight disappeared behind us and we were swallowed up by the murk. The snow crunched beneath our feet; it was fresher, colder here in the gloom, untouched by the sun. Much like our frosty friend.

The huddle in the heart of the alley dissolved as we approached, many of the cops shuffling past us back into the street. A few of them nodded their hellos, but most of them plowed right past. I was used to this by now. Having some affiliation with Harvey Dent had boosted my popularity in some circles, but in many of their eyes my nightly associations with the Batman, a man who was widely considered an outlaw vigilante, was a black stain on my image.

The body was lying beside a couple of empty trash cans some seven yards from the mouth of the alley. I stood a few feet away, observing silently and drinking my coffee.

He had been young, maybe early thirties. Brown hair, unshaven face. Brown eyes. An average Joe as ever. The man had been tall, with an adequate amount of muscle.

But not enough, I mused, cracking a grim smile as I stepped closer.

“Cause of death?” I inquired, leaning over the body to get a look at the victims face.

“Bled to death. A slit throat. But we concluded that he probably suffered massive head trauma as well. If you notice the blood on the walls…”

I glanced up at the markers that the investigators had placed along the brick wall. Sure enough. Whoever had killed him had played with him first. Like an animal with its prey.

Turning back to the body, my gaze raked across his throat where I found a thin somewhat jagged line, the color of wine standing out against the bluish tint of his skin. I peered closer at his face, frowning.

That was odd.

There were flecks of what looked like paint embedded in his skin. And…burns. Or scratches of some sort. Spanning the length of his cheeks, starting at the center. Like whiskers.


I jumped, startled by the sudden noise behind, turning around abruptly. The officer’s hands flew out of his pockets, his eyes wild. But he and I had overreacted.

Only the seemingly empty trashcan toppling over onto its side. I settled at once, adjusting my glasses and exhaling sharply. The officer shoved his hands back into his pockets, looking sheepish.

I glared at the trashcan as if it could be blamed after realizing I had sloshed more than half of my coffee onto the ground. It gave another rattle and I looked on with much surprise as a scraggly black cat slinked out of the tin cylinder, mewing loudly, obviously annoyed.

The officer gave a little chuckle and shook his head. “Just a cat.”

I stared at the animal. It stared back, gray eyes teeming with that unexplainable hostility that only cats possess. I had never liked them much. Proud, aloof creatures they were. But it was their eyes that frightened me most...

I licked my lips, nodding absentmindedly. I poured out the rest of my coffee seeing as there wasn’t much left, before chucking the empty cup into the other trash can and turning away from the animal and its frigid gaze.

“Get this body to the coroner. Have it checked for prints,” I murmured, glancing at the cadaver once more before turning to leave. The officer quickly followed after me; he was obviously put off by the body.

“You got a hunch?” he asked, not bothering to hide the curiosity in his bright face. “About who the killer might be?”

That unbridle interest would fade soon enough, I knew. Along with the nervous habits, the constant compulsive motion. And the space they’d leave vacant would be filled with one too many cups of coffee, late nights, dead bodies, and trouble by the buckets for your home life.

But that was only if you kept your nose out of the mob’s business, and if you kept their hands and their money out of your pockets.

I shrugged, pushing up my glasses which were sliding down the bridge of my nose. “Not sure. But if you guys find anything more, you know where to find me.” I set off towards my car, parked at the end of the block, men and women in uniform walking past me in the opposite direction to take care of the body.

But that had been a lie. I did have a hunch.

I just hoped I was wrong.


I smiled at my masterpiece, leaning back in my office chair, working my chalky hands through my already greasy hair.

“A perfect house of cards,” I mused a loud though I was alone, smirking proudly. I could almost hear my father’s nicotine growl of a voice dragging along the walls of my skull.

Gotta set your cards up just right, Jackie boy. Or it’ll all come tumbling down…

The old, drunken bag of bones had been right about one thing. My brow furrowed, my fingers scratching my head feverishly. Tearing at the itch, the memories coming away with the dead skin collecting under my fingernails…

I slouched on the desk, my elbows thumping loudly as they made contact. I rubbed my face furiously, what little make-up that was left coming away on my palms. Peeking through the cracks in my fingers, my eyes swiveled in their sockets to find the clock on the wall. It’s yellowing numbers and crooked, trembling hands told me a quarter past nine.

I shouldn’t have been up this early. The place was too quiet, too drowsy. And no one to make a pot of bad coffee. I had no idea if Sam was even here; but if not, though she would gripe about domestic slavery and the incapability of the male sex, Bijou would oblige. If she hadn’t been sleeping like the dead.

I leaned sideways in my chair, peering into the bedroom. I could see her form curled up under the thin sheets, and though the gray of the morning threw rays of light against her quiescent face, she did not stir.

I wanted her to wake up. I didn’t want to be alone with myself. It wasn’t safe anymore. I’d fall back into my memories, my mind flipping through the past like the musty pages of an old diary, bleeding with bitter, livid ink.

With her around, it was easier to forget. Something about her turned everything blurry and grey. She didn’t have to say or do anything; just being near her was enough. She didn’t talk much which I liked. If not I wouldn’t gotten bored and offed her weeks ago. Though that would’ve been hard to do, since she didn’t die so easily.

Watching the rise and fall of her delicate chest, I wanted badly to shake her awake. But a wiser part of me objected. Not only because I knew she’d tear me to pieces if I did, but because she needed her rest.

These past couple of days, after her little episode, had been better. Her delirium had faded. But I hadn’t been too worried.

I knew it well. The elation, the fever pitch, the red hue halo that swung low to drown you in its madness. When everything is new; the colors brighter, the noise louder, clearer, each sensation acute with brilliance. It’s as though someone’s taken off the training wheels and you’re home free, melting over the pavement and you’re dashing into mad nothing.

Yes, she needed her rest…

Oh, screw it.

I straightened up, and after throwing one last glance over my shoulder into the bedroom, swiftly knocked the lamp from the corner of the desk. It fell to the floor with a fantastic crash, the already weak light bulb flickering feebly. I waited, listening closely.

Bed springs. A muzzy groan of annoyance. And then the zipper crisp sound of bed sheets.

I smiled. Perfect.

I sat satisfied, listening as she awoke. The smack of her lips, the crack of her bones, the dry rustle as she messed with her wild nest of hair. And then finally, the soft clap of her bare feet on the floor.

She appeared then, just beside the doorway, the gloom of the bedroom behind her steadily fading and the cat that slept beside her running itself along her alabaster legs. A disgruntled frown had nestled itself on her sleepy face. I smiled at her as she looked from me to the lamp on the floor and back again.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Did I wake you?” I asked, batting my eyes innocently, “Clumsy me.”

The sulk blew away from her face and a small smile swept into its place. She shuffled towards me.

“A kiss would’ve sufficed, Prince Charming,” she murmured, kissing me briskly on the lips. Her mouth was soft like slumber and she tasted like dreams.

“Well, I’ve never been much of a prince,” I replied as I watched her scuttle around the desk, the cat following after her, before settling into the metal chair opposite my own.

“And God knows I’ve never been a princess,” she countered before breaking off into a yawn. She bent forward, taking the animal in her lap. She stroked it gently and its yellow eyes narrowed in pleasure. I watched it with envy.

There was a moment of silence; the rumble of content from the animal and the soft vibration of fake heat pouring into the room were the only sounds to break the quiet. Until-

“So,” she began, shaking a lock of hair from her eyes, “What’s on the agenda for today, Jack?”

I hardly winced at the name. Not when she said it.

“Nothing,” I mumbled, shrugging one shoulder as I stood, coming out from the desk and ambling toward her. The animal watched me warily. I winked at it as I stopped behind her chair, my hands resting on the metal back. “The day’s ours to do…” I paused, burying my face in her neck and inhaling deeply. “Whatever we want,” I breathed.

Her head lolled back, and she smirked up at me. But there was something beneath the salt of her expression.

“Sounds like fun,” she purred vaguely, sounding far off even though she was just beneath my fingertips.

More seconds of silence, my hands at the nape of her neck. I frowned, cocking my head and fixing her with bothered look. “You’ve got something on your mind.”

She raised an eyebrow. “What? No, nothing at all. I’m fine.”

We stared at each for a moment; I said nothing.

“Really,” she insisted, “I’m fine.”

“Don’t lie to me,” I said finally, “Besides…” My hands bit into her shoulders and she tensed, “Ve haf vays of making you talk.”

She made a face, shaking me off and getting up, the cat slipping to the floor. “You’re accents are terrible. Keep your day job.”

I watched her as she strode across the room toward the cork board hanging on the wall, littered with paper and random thoughts and quips of red ink. “They said that about my jokes too. And then look what happened.”

She did not reply. Simply paused some ways away, gazing up at the mess of Post-It notes without really seeing them, staring past them into God knows what.

And then suddenly, it clicked.

“It’s the girl, isn’t it?” I murmured after more strained silence. She did not reply still. I walked over, coming to rest beside her. “The one you saved…

It was like talking to a brick wall. “Let it be, Bijou,” I claimed slightly exasperated, “Forget her.”

She broke then, whirling around to look at me, this wild look in her eyes. “I-can’t. She’s all I can think about. She’s in my head. And…she was hurt the other night, Jack. I was barely came in time to save her. And God knows how many other times she’s been attacked. And with no one there to help her….”

I took her by the arms, giving her a brisk shake. “Forget her, Bijou. You don’t even know this girl. She’s not worth the trouble…”

She stared at me, eyes chillingly wide and pallid. “Was I?”

I scowled, my hands falling away from her. “This is…different.”

“How?” she insisted, “How is this different?”

“IT JUST IS, OKAY?” I shouted, throwing my arms up in frustration. She didn’t even flinch. Her eyes were hard and shallow, her mouth a pink stitch cutting sharply across her face. My eyes searched her for a moment longer, before I turned away, growling.

I stomped back over to my desk, rubbing my scars furiously. My skin burned beneath the fat of my hands. I glowered down at my house of cards, clenching the edge of the desk.

How pathetic they looked now, their red-checkered backs glaring up at me in the dim light.

Gotta set your cards up just right, Jackie boy. Or it’ll all come tumbling down….

I heaved a sigh, anger slipping out on my breath. “Even if you were stupid enough to go after her, you wouldn’t know where to find her.”

“It wouldn’t be difficult,” she replied, sounding somewhat far-off “It’s never really hard to find someone in this city. Not if you really want to.”

I shook my head, my frustration returning. The edge of the desk bent beneath my grasp. “Why, now of all times, did you decide to grow a conscience?”

She was quiet for a moment. “It’s not a conscience. It’s an obsession. And you’d know all about that.”

There was more silence. The minutes were strung out like the steel strings of a guitar; just another moment or two, another turn of the dial, and it would pop. The quiet would burst, leaving us to stand about, drenched in our anger and embarrassment and our stubborn worry; leaving us to pick up the pieces.

I swallowed, turning to face her. Only to find that I was alone.

The hush split down the middle and my empty breathing filled the space.

She had left. Left me to pick up the pieces. Alone. She had merely slipped away, like a secret you would’ve caught if you’d only tried to listen a little harder. I would’ve been appreciative of the shock if I hadn’t been so…embarrassed.

It was a muddled, prickled emotion I wasn’t used to wearing on my skin. I whirled back around, turning away from the jeering emptiness of the room. With a quick swipe of my hand, I demolished the mansion of cards, sending a flurry of red and black and white to the floor. They fell with a quiet ripple, like a splatter of red upon the walls. And then there was more silence.

And I was alone to listen to the creak of my bones, my own haggard breath. Until the memories bled slowly back into my skull, flushing out time and space like they had always done. Like they always did.

When she was gone.