Under the Red Sky

Under the Red Sky (Joker) Part 33



My feet were sinking into the dirty slush at the mouth of an all too familiar alley way. That fateful alleyway.

But I supposed that was making it sound more fabulous that it really was. In reality, it was nothing more than a small space of bloody brick and jagged stone, carpeted with melting ice and filth. Though I thought the police tape gave it a nice touch.

The yellow ribbons, barking with authoritative bold words, flashed in the mid-morning sun, which was spinning out from behind the eggshell clouds. They told me to stay away. I disobeyed.

I ambled into the break, the ice crunching with each step. I ducked under the day-glow boundaries that had squared away the area where I had left the body. The poor idiot had already been hauled away. Another pretty picture for the morgue.

But his blood remained; wine stains in the snow, fermenting still. There were numbers on the wall, standing out brightly alongside the dark stains of red that his skull had left behind.

For a mere moment, I mulled over the idea of trashing the scene, kicking away what evidence I may have left behind. But I reconsidered; I couldn’t bring myself to care. What were they going to do? Arrest me?

Don’t make me laugh.

I walked on.

I could recall seeing the harlot’s footprints in the snow, trailing farther into the alley. They had long since been buried; I was following a memory. A ghost.

Moments later, the alleyway spit me out into another side of town all together. It was as though I had fallen through the looking glass into this….disaster.

It was gloomy on this side of town. What little sunshine reached down past the clouds illuminated the yellow smog that hung ominously about the streets. The filth was in the air, the grime coating my skin like ash. Loose newspapers danced in the streets. Some of them lingered too long, like foolish children, and were swallowed up by the rain gutters, gurgling with their sewage.

Neon letters screamed at me through the mist; a beacon of light for the weary traveler. A weary traveler looking for a good time. And a beacon of light advertising sex.

I crossed the street, glancing around. The road was deserted save for a few cars, some of them cruising at a leisurely pace and others parked a long the curb waiting for the right woman to walk by.

There were hoards of women on the sidewalks, ambling in front of shabby looking buildings. Brothels. They paced back and forward calling out to potential customers, eyeing each car that rolled by. They fell silent as I passed; a few of them jeered. I ignored them, casting a glance or two into their painted faces.

I didn’t know if they knew me. I didn’t really care.

There was a seedy bar a little ways down the block and there came a melancholy chime above the door as I entered. The gloom and all its children turned to glance at me where I stood in the doorway. I fixed me face with apathy and they turned back to their drinks.

“Can I help you, miss?”

The bartender was an older man, unshaven and pot-bellied with a shock of red hair combed across his balding scalp.

I smiled saucily, leaning across the bar. “The question is, baby, if you can help me.”

His brow shot up, surprised at my brash comment. I reckoned not many women talked to him that way. Even in this part of town.

He shuffled over to where I stood, placing his elbows on the bar and returning with a greasy smile. “I think I can. What’ll it be, sweetheart?”

My nails danced on the oily wood under my palms. “I’m looking for a girl.”

There was a chuckle from a man who sat a few stools away, slouched over the bar. “We got plenty of those around here.”

He shot me a toothy smile and I returned with a sharp look. “She’s young. Maybe fifteen or sixteen.”

“The only place I know of that has underage girls is Peter Lavelle’s. Called Cottontails. It’s a couple blocks down,” the barman explained, scratching the stubble on his dimpled chin.

I nodded, winking slyly, before turning and heading for the door without another word.


I closed my eyes, sighing as I did an about face. The bartender was looking at me oddly. There was suspicion in his swampy eyes.

“What business do you have here anyway?” he murmured, raising an eyebrow. He narrowed his gaze. “You a cop?”

I threw my head back and laughed, the sound pushing at the wilting walls of the smoky tavern. The man at the bar, looked up from his drink, alarmed. The rest of the degenerates, skulking in the shadows, shifted in their seats as if the sudden noise had awoken them from an ancient bout of sleep.

Straightening up, I smiled and shook my head. “I’m no cop. Don’t be silly. Thanks for the help, ginger.” I shot him another salty grin and a wink and I was gone.

Walking against the bitter wind, I fought my way up the sidewalk, the cold tearing at any open flesh. I pulled my coat tighter around me, turning up my collar to the ice in the gale.

My shoes pounding the dirty pavement, I wondered idly how the Joker took my leaving him so suddenly. No warning, no thorough explanation. No goodbye. I simply…left. I had done worse. So had he. I wondered how he would take me bringing the girl back.

If she comes with you, if you can persuade her…

It shouldn’t be too hard, I countered mentally. The girl was a prostitute for Christ’s sake. I seriously doubted that she enjoyed it. She’d be willing to leave. If not dying to leave…

I slowed my pace, peering up at the decrepit, haggard looking buildings. They stood over me like dictators, blocking out the sun with their massive form. And then, I saw it.

Standing out brightly against its grey, hazy surroundings, Cottontails was spindly, leaning, and drenched in faded, filthy bubblegum pink. A sign of flashing blue neon was perched on the roof, like a ridiculous, gaudy hair piece. Yellow light was huddled against the window panes behind curtains of lace and I watched the shadows slip past, transforming the windows into blinking eyes.

I stepped toward the building, moving out of its shadow. The door was a dreary, off-white, the rusty knob glowing bluntly in what dim light the day had to offer. I took it in my right hand and stepped through the doorway, shutting the door quietly behind me. To my relief, the hinges did not scream. Only the blithe sound of chimes announced my presence.

Nothing stirred within the green shadows of the brothel. I was facing a hallway, lit with humming fluorescent lights. The vestibule broke off into several different rooms; the one immediately to my left, looked like a sitting room of some sort. Or a lobby.

For check in, I mused, sliding my hands from my pockets and brushing several loose wisps of hair from my face. I began down the hallway, my eyes wary and vigilant, combing every inch of my surroundings.

I could hear passion from behind closed doors. Smell the heat winding through the lock holes, like smoke. The air was humming with sex. I could taste it: sour like sweat and dirty flesh. And then sickly sweet, like rotting teeth and boiling sugar.

I had no idea where I was going, who I was looking for, who I might meet. But I had memorized the girl’s face. Even beneath the garish orange light of the streetlamps, she had been pretty with dainty features, a pretty mouth, and child-like blue eyes that were haunting and yet somehow, drilled with innocence.

The journey down the hall had brought me to a set of stairs that wound up into the ceiling, the destination unknown. I stared dubiously at the rickety metal stairway, itching with rust; but after a moment of cautious hesitation, I started to climb.

The steps shrieked with each step, a murmured curse following close behind. The railing shook like old bones under my steady hands, the tarnish peeling away and pasting itself on my sweaty palms. When I had reached the top, I wiped it away, casting once last glance over my shoulder at the distance I had covered. My breath caught in my throat.

There, at the bottom of the steps, a congregation had gathered. An assemblage of women, a variety of age and color. Their faces held against the light, staring at me with curious eyes, glossy lids of blue and purple and green drooping like window shades. Their lavender bodies were falling out of their clothes, and they stood, watching me.

I stared down at them, waiting for them to speak. But they said nothing. As if they were made of wax. I wondered, for a moment, if they were even there at all…

I shook my head, swiveling around, turning my back to the stairs and to the harlots below. I found myself facing another hallway, this one nicer than the last. Dusty lamps of stain glass hung from the ceiling, casting a dewy honey glow on the peach colored walls and the intricate patter of the carpet below.

I knew this was where I needed to be. It seemed Peter Lavelle offered a more luxurious experience for the customers willing to pay a little extra for a younger girl.

This hallway, like the first, broke off into several other rooms, a pretty little white door fit nicely into each frame. They were all shut tight, save for one, which stood open, spilling laughter and voices out into the foyer. I crept closer, my steps muffled by the carpet, until I came to a stop some feet from the doorway, pinning myself to the opposite wall, making sure to stay in the shadows.

I peered in at a quant room, as pleasantly furnished as the hallway. The windows were hung with flowery lace tapestries, concealing the room from the dreary, grey world outside. Sitting about the room were several girls; some lounging in sagging plush chairs, others settled on the floor, nestled against the bed frame. All of them dainty and beautiful and none of them over the age of seventeen. They were talking and giggling, as if they were normal teenage girls at a slumber party, miles away from this horrible place.

My eyes found her almost immediately.

She was sitting near the window, feet tucked up under her, hidden beneath the cotton of her dress. She was as gaunt and hauntingly pretty as I remembered except this time, as she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, I noticed something different.

An ominous ring of violent blue and green around her right eye and a small, pink cut just below the pout of her lower lip.

My stomach turned, remembering how I had looked down at the trail of blood she’d left behind. The man had done that to her…

“Who the hell are you?”

I was abruptly pulled out of my thoughts at the nasally voice that acknowledged my presence. With tentative steps, I slipped into the light spilling out from the room.

“I’m sorry to sneak up on you like this,” I began, glancing at each of them before my gaze settled on the beaten girl, “I-"

But I never got to explain myself. The girl, by then, had recognized me.

“You…” she breathed, her eyes widening and her mouth forming a perfect ‘O’ of shock.

The other girls seemed to notice her evident horror and quickly looked from me to her and back again.

She stared. I stared. And the only sound was the occasional rustle of bed sheets when one of the girls shifted uncomfortably in their perch. And then finally, blinking rapidly, she broke from her trance of disbelief, taking her eyes from my face.

She glanced around at her friends.

“You guys should go,” she murmured, fiddling with the hem of her dress absentmindedly. They eyed her warily, but one by one they stood and shuffled past me, giving me suspicious looks.

When it was finally me and the girl, she, again, was the first to speak.

“What are you doing here?” She sounded surprisingly hostile as she left her seat, edging away from me, toward the window. “What do you want?”

I felt a slight twinge, which I struggled to ignore. I remembered a time I was the one asking those questions….

“Don’t be scared,” I murmured, stepping lightly into the room, “I don’t mean any harm. I just want to talk.”

“You saved me from getting raped by some drunken asshole. What’s there to talk about?” she spat, her voice wavering slightly. A sneer fixed itself on her face suddenly. “And I’m not scared of you.”

“Good,” I replied, “You shouldn’t be….” I took a seat at the end of her bed, my hands spreading out along the scratchy linen sheets. Taking a breath, I smelt lavender. I smiled.

“Why are you here?” she asked again, only this time her voice was different. It lacked command. It sounded almost pitiful.

The grin slipped from my face. I stood, making my way toward where she stood, back against the wall. She seemed to stiffen with apprehension but my own face remained void of emotion.

“I want you to leave with me.”

There was lengthy moment of silence; another staring competition. I didn’t blink. Neither did she. My blue eyes bore into hers. They were almost the same shade, I could swear…

“Leave with you?” she cried finally, a pained look of incredulity crossing her face. “What the hell is wrong with you? I don’t even know you!”

I raised an eyebrow. “Yes, you do. You know exactly who I am.”

Her eyes narrowed in distrust. “All the more reason for me to stay exactly where I am.”

“Don’t be stubborn!” I spat, my temper flaring suddenly. I turned away, pacing. “‘Stay exactly where I am…’” I spun back around to face her. “Why? So you can keep turning tricks for Peter Lavelle and getting raped every other night?”

Color filled her face and her eyes flashed with anger and shame. “H-how did you know…?” She shook her head briskly. “It doesn’t matter. And it’s none of your business.”

“None of my business?” I cried, my hands settling on my hips. “When I saved your life, it became my business. And that night…how many times has that happened? How many times has that happened without anyone around to stop it? Tell me. And don’t lie.”

Her eyes fell away from my face, her mouth turned down in a disgruntled frown. She remained silent. I sighed, hating that I felt guilty for getting so angry. I turned away from her once more, shuffling my way back to the edge of the bed where I reclaimed my seat.

After I had calmed down, I looked back at her; she was still staring at the carpet.

“Look” I began, “I know what it’s like to be trapped. In a circumstance, in a life you don’t want, in your own body…The other night happened for a reason. And I’d be a fool to play if off as coincidence. I can help you, offer you another life. Away from all this mess. I can promise you that much.”

Her eyes found mine. And beneath the disquiet, there was…hope. Just a glimmer of it, but it was enough.

I stood, licking my lips, my hands slipping back into the pockets of my raggedy coat.

“There’s nothing more to say, really. I’ve laid my cards on the table, made my point,” I looked to her, my eyes searching her face. She stared back uncertainly. “If you’re willing to come with me, to start over…I’ll be waiting outside. Pack your things, say nothing to anyone. After fifteen minutes, I’m gone. And I won’t come back.”


I was watching a pair of pigeons across the street, nipping at each other and ruffling their feathers when I recalled my reoccurring dream. The nightmare of the white lark struggling against its cobweb cage. And the ominous death rattle of the spider, waiting to devour it.

It didn’t make any more sense now, than it had on those dusty white dawns when I’d scare myself awake, clutching at the fear drench sheets, my fingers rushing to find the man sleeping beside me; for reassurance, I supposed. To make sure I was really awake, to make sure I hadn’t left one frenzied dreamscape for another.

After my night of blood and delirium, after my fever had faded, the days had rolled by smoothly. Jack’s concern and care had fled with my elation. When he was sure I was little more than okay, he’d gone back to himself. Taunting me, heckling me, and going about his own business, muttering about his own plans. I was never nosy; he told me what he was up to if he wanted to. When he didn’t, I was left to mull over my own thoughts. Most of them revolved around the girl, a familiar curious voice in the back of my brain.

My thoughts had finally grown up into words this morning; for better or worse, I didn’t know. But I’d know soon enough.

A quiet peal of bells wrenched me out of my thoughts. I turned, the soles of my shoes scraping across the sidewalk. My face split into an appeased smile.

She had come.

She stood in the doorway, a small duffle bag in hand. Her dress caught in the wind and it flashed beneath the old tweed coat that now adorned her gaunt frame. She had a small, wary smile to offer my own and she brushed her blunt bangs from her face with a free hand, as she shuffled toward me.

“This doesn’t mean I trust you,” she mumbled, trying to fix her face with stern misgiving. But she couldn’t fool me; she was frightened.

“That’s alright,” I replied, patting her shoulder tentatively. She flinched away from me slightly, like an animal that had been abused, but my fingers lingered on her rigid shoulder, on the bone wearing against her paper skin. “Trust can be built.”

She cast a worried look over her shoulder at the pink tower and its frenzied blue sign. I gently squeezed her shoulder, drawing her attention away from the brothel.

“I know how hard it can be to leave behind something familiar. To step away from what you’ve always known. But…it’ll get easier. I promise.”

“You make a lot of promises,” she murmured, transferring her bag from one hand to the other.

I smiled, turning from her to begin down the sidewalk. “I’m a woman of my word.”

She walked quietly beside me for a few minutes, staring at her feet. I grinned down at her in admiration, proud of myself, proud of her.

“He says that,” she said suddenly, glancing up at me. “Right?”

I shrugged, knowing exactly who she meant. “Doesn’t make it not true.”

She fell silent again, glancing away from me. I stared down at her, aware of the unease on her face.

“You’re scared, aren’t you?” I inquired, tucking my hands into my pockets, “Of him?”

“You haven’t given me any reason not to be,” she barked, her voice ragged with nerves, “He’s a psychopath for Christ’s sake. He’s killed people!”

“I’ve killed someone,” I murmured quietly, “Am I so bad?”

She made a face, her brow furrowing and her lips turning down in a wavering frown. She shook her head finally. “No. You’re not.”

My mirth returned instantly and I beamed. She returned with a hesitant smile. “Thank you. And don’t you worry about him. He won’t lay a finger on you. He’s not like that, you see. He’d never hurt a child.”

“I’m not a child,” she spat, that stubborn temper flaring once more.

I laughed, nudging her gently and her smile widened by a centimeter or so. “I know, I know. What I mean to say is, he knows not to touch you. Mostly because, he knows I’d kill him if he ever did.”

That seemed to put her at ease. For the moment anyway.

“I didn’t get your name,” she murmured, pulling at her coat as a harsh wind blew down through the city.

“Bijou,” I extended a white hand and she offered me her own.

“Maude,” she returned, raising her blue eyes to my own. “I know. It’s frumpy.”

I gave her a smile and it was sincere. “I think it’s quite lovely, actually.”

She smiled that crooked, hesitant smile that seemed to be quite at home on her pretty face. The ice seemed to be melting; she was thawing, warming up to me and what lay ahead. If only a little.

It was then I noticed we were being followed.

At first it had been the crackle of tires, inching along sand and dirt and sodden snow. I could see the black van in my peripherals. Following us, crawling along the curb like some monstrous beetle stalking its next meal. The grey ball of sun was bearing across its frost bitten windshield and the driver was safely hidden behind the glare.

Maude and I walked in silence for few more minutes; I said nothing of the van, not wanting to alarm her. But the vehicle and its driver announced itself, before I could do the honors.

Behind us, there suddenly came an earsplitting fanfare: the blast of a car horn. The girl jumped in fright and let out a quiet squeal and I stiffened with a gasp. There was a scream from those once listless tires, as they burned rubber and I glanced around just in time to see it pull up beside us. There was another screech as the driver abruptly hit the brakes and my stomach clenched as the window rolled down an inch or two.

“Hi there, ladies.” The voice was like crackling gravel. It sounded like the tires on the van. “What can I get for ten dollars?”
I made a face and threw a glance at Maude. For the first time in my company, she looked completely at ease. I figured this happened to her a lot. Turning back to the van, I took the liberty of answering for both of us.

“Pardon me, mister, but we’re not selling anything,” I spat, shooting a glare at my own reflection, hoping that my harsh stare could bleed through the tinted, smudgy glass. A sneer crept over my face. “Now, why don't you go drive yourself into the river? ”

“Hmm,” the driver grunted and a shadow shifted within the vehicle as if he were titling his head in consideration, “That’s too bad. Guess I’ll just have to use the five finger discount…”

My breath hitched in my throat. I peered closer at the black glass, past my own reflection and saw a familiar face, an inane grin slitting his crimson mouth.

I rapped the glass with sharp knuckles. “That is not funny, you stupid idiot! What the hell are you doing here?” The angry smack of my palm on the window beat out a tune beneath my words.

Laughter came spilling from the gap and the sound widened as the Joker rolled down the driver’s seat window. Maude, who had been so comfortable, stiffened beside me, inhaling sharply out of shock. Her blue eyes were wide and she took him in.

He leaned one purple arm out of the car, smiling like oil. “What’s new, pussycat?”

I frowned, still a little upset by how he had frightened me. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I was in the mood for a good time,” he sighed. He waggled his eyebrows at me and I glared. “Can you dig it?”

“You followed me here,” I accused, my hands resting on my hips. “Didn’t you?”
He replied with a roll of his eyes, and I realized then he wasn’t alone. I craned my neck to see past him. Sam waved feebly at me from the passenger seat. By the way he was slouched in his seat, I could tell he was less than happy to be here.

“You couldn’t just tell him to let it be, could you Sam?” I raised an eyebrow at him.

He shrugged, smiling lackadaisically. “He’s got a way with persuasion.”

The Joker laughed. “And I’ve got a gun!” He patted the van roughly and the empty street rang with the bark of hollow metal. “Your chariot awaits, Mademoiselles. Hop in.”

I rolled my eyes, shaking my head as I moved to wrench open the doors. They clanged open and I gracefully leapt up into the back seat, turning to help Maude in. But she remained frozen on the sidewalk, that look of alarm and hesitation etched on her face. The Joker swiveled around in his seat to shoot me a look of annoyance; I shot back a plea for patience. He ignored it, as he turned back to the girl.

“Are you stuck?” he sneered, raising a coal painted eyebrow. “Get in.”

She looked to me in panic and I nodded, beckoning her forward with a gentle smile. And slowly, cautiously she climbed in, settling into the seat beside me with a tremulous sigh .

“Buckle up kids!” the Joker shouted, yanking the gear into drive.

I wrenched the back door closed, the hinges shrieking in protest. And with the howl of tar burning on ice and without a witness, we were gone.