Under the Red Sky

Under the Red Sky (Joker) Part 34

“So…what did the cat drag in?”

The Joker and I exchanged sour glances, our eyes colliding in the rearview mirror, and he grunted as I roughly kicked the back of his seat.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Forgot my manners,” he exclaimed and I smiled wickedly. He cleared his throat, eyes dashing away from the glass, lazily spinning back to the road before him. “Where was I? Oh yes….who the hell are you?”

I felt Maude stiffen beside, petrified that he had addressed her personally for the second time. I gave her a comforting pat on the knee and what I hoped was a reassuring smile as I nodded at her. Her blue eyes were wide on the back of the driver’s seat.

“My name is Maude,” she murmured, absentmindedly grabbing at the hem of her dress. I eyed her curiously; it was a nervous habit of hers, I supposed.

“Maude?” the Joker repeated, tossing his head back to take a gander at the girl riding in the backseat. “That….is an old lady name.”

She looked slightly taken aback and I shook my head, rolling my eyes at his blatant disregard for civil conversation.

“I suppose so, yeah,” she replied, looking down at her lap where her hands were folding and refolding themselves. She peered up at me from beneath her curtain of bangs as if to say ‘See. I told you it was frumpy’.

“You live on a lovely side of town, Maude” the Joker chimed brightly, fingers flexing at the steering wheel. “So many wonderful people to see and do…” Sam laughed, a bit uneasily, and I felt my neck get hot and prickly with tart anger. Our eyes met in the mirror once more and his held a dark glint of mischief.

He looked to Maude once more. “Bijou tells me your prostitute. Interesting line of work for someone so young. Tell me… has the recession affected you at all?”

“Oh shutup!” I yelled, giving his seat another sharp kick, “Don’t be such an ass!”

“What?” he cried incredulously, making a face at me. “I’m just being friendly.”

“Well, don’t” I spat, glaring at the back of his seat, “I’m trying to make her comfortable and the last thing I need is for you to scare her off with your big mouth. So just-"

“It’s fine,” Maude called suddenly and I fell silent. “Really. It’s alright. It doesn’t bother me. Not anymore anyway.”

“You see, Bijou?” the Joker ribbed, smiling at me. He was obviously very pleased with himself. “I don’t bother her. Don’t be so anal.”

I rolled my eyes, not even bothering to argue. I turned slightly in my seat to address Maude. “Don’t pay attention to him; a few weeks living with him and nothing will bother you. I should know.”

Maude looked from me to the Joker and he grinned in accord, nodding his head overzealously. She managed a weak smile in return.

The car jostled violently as the Joker narrowly missed being t-boned by a compact car headed through the intersection. A chorus of horns and cries of protest howled in our wake. It was nearly loud enough to drown out Maude’s question.

“How long have you been with him?” she murmured just loud enough for me to hear, her bubblegum pink nails clutching the seat beneath her. Her lack of seatbelt was making it awfully hard for her to keep still.

I pursed my lips, trying to ignore how her question made it sound as if we were some lovely, old couple that’d been together for ages. “Maybe a month or so. Enough time for me to lose my mind and then some.”

Maude giggled quietly, that little smile returning to her heavily painted lips. But it fell suddenly and her blue eyes clouded. “That reminds me…”

We swayed with the car once more as we turned a corner. My gaze settled on her, waiting for her to continue.

“My…” she struggled with the word, before finally spitting it out, “Pimp…won’t be too happy about me leaving. He’ll come looking for me.” Her face darkened and a look of sallow guilt and fear spread itself across her face.

I bit my lip, watching as her face fell, imaging her heart settling in the pit of her stomach. My mind whirred away and I felt sparks fly. Of anger, disgust. Igniting that old lust for revenge.

“Well,” I murmured, feeling the car slow beneath me. I gave her leg a heartening pat. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Maude gave me a look that bordered on blatant disbelief before glancing away to take in her surroundings. She had arrived at her new home.

The door to the back of the van slid open with a shriek, rattling down the empty street like death itself, and I slid out, my heels slapping contentedly on the pavement. Maude hesitantly followed after. She peered down the deserted street, her eyes then scaling the height of the abandoned warehouses, before at last her gaze settled on the alleyway.

The Joker and Sam were up ahead, already making their way into the break. The clown uttered a joke and his henchman laughed. Maude and I watched the men disappear into the gloom.

I set my hands on my hips, my fingers grabbing for the weapon that wasn’t there. A creature of habit was I. I did not look at the girl but rather gazed wistfully at the barren wasteland before me, admiring the eerie beauty of the dust and the ice and the rotting brick.
“You do understand, Maude,” I murmured, feeling my hair bristle with the chill, “That if you walk into that alleyway with me…right now…if you walk into the shadows…there’s no going back?”

I turned to her then, searching her face. It was oddly blank, a messy canvas of magenta and blue and raspberry plum. She blinked slowly a few times, as though her feathery lashes held weight all their own. Then, a leisurely nod of the head and her eyes found mine.

“Yes. I understand.”

She surprised me by slipping her delicate hand into mine. My paw closed around her snow white fingers with a minute squeeze. And with that, the wind blew us into the break, the dark swallowing us up with one efficient gulp. Like a beautiful monster.


“You’re not happy with me….are you?”

The Joker did not reply. One sooty eye open, he glared at me, his faded lips turned down in a frown of utter distaste. His eyes snapped shut with bitter finality and he was silent still. There was no need for words; his look said it all.

Time had passed since our return to the warehouse. An hour or so at the least. I had reluctantly and hesitantly, left Maude in Sam’s care. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust him; it was that I didn’t trust anyone else. But I had stood by, watching and listening, as they chatted amiably like compatible strangers on the subway. It occurred to me that he wasn’t much older than she. I figured they were bound to get along.

The Joker himself had allotted a room for Maude: a small, boxy space with concrete walls and dust coating the floor. He had muttered somewhat begrudgingly about getting her a mattress to which she returned with shocked gratitude. I’d left her with a wink and a pleasant smile as she settled into her new room, unpacking the few belongings she had stuffed into her duffle. She seemed almost…happy.

My partner, on the other hand, did not.

He lay upon the bed, his head propped upon several ratty pillows, his hands cradling his greasy skull. He would not look at me. He would not speak to me. A stubborn, rotten little boy to the very core. I smiled.

“Ah,” I murmured, nodding as I stood from the chair in the corner of the room, “I get it. The silent treatment. The cold shoulder.” I ambled closer to the bed, my bare feet smacking loudly on the floor. I nudged the edge of the mattress with my leg, but he did not stir. “That’s all very well and good, mister, but let me remind you….”

I reached over, letting my hand dance lightly over his calf before slowly dragging my fingers along the inside of his leg. I felt him tense as I let my hand wander and I smiled. “Ve haf vays of making you talk.”
That eye rolled open once more. He glanced first at the fingers drumming patiently on the purple polyester of his thigh and then at me. “Stop stealing my lines.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Stop being such a baby. If you want to get treated like a big boy,” I gave his leg a squeeze and he winced, “Then start acting like one.”

He hurriedly sat up, glaring at me with both eyes, his mouth fixed in a sour little bow of bother. Daggers in our eyes, we stared at one another for a good long moment, until eventually those daggers wore away to blunt sticks of kindling.

He sighed and rubbed his scars furiously, like a normal man would abrade his five o’ clock shadow. His gaze had softened considerably and he eyed me with interest as he pried my hand from his leg and placed it in his own.

His palms were rough and his fingers like sand as they traced across the gloss of my nails. I attempted to pull my hand away, not wanting to burn him, but he held on. I watched, curious and lightly amused, as he brought my hand to his face and began to stroke his scars back and forward, first with my red glass nails and then with the soft, flesh of my fingertips.

This seemed to pacify him. Whatever clash had been brewing behind his scarred lips had been forgotten. For the moment at least.

“Did you see her face?” he murmured finally, slowly dragging my fingertips across his cheek. “The girl, I mean.”

“Of course,” I frowned, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, “Kind of hard to miss.”

“From the other night, do you think?”

I shook my head, my brow wrinkling in thought. “Maybe. I’m unsure now that she’s mentioned her pimp. He would have hit her - for not reining in the cash. Hmmm…”

“Hmm-hmm,” he jibbed and I flexed my hand in his grip, tearing his flesh lightly with my nails. He smiled and I relaxed, feeling his scars stretch beneath my fingertips. “And what are we going to do about that little problem?”

“We?” I gave him a dubious look, slipping my hand from his, “I believe I said Maude and I would cross that bridge when we came to it.”

“Oh,” he sneered, snatching back my hand with urgent fingers, “What a lovely girl’s night out. But enlighten me, kitten: why is it whenever you go to cross a bridge you end up making a big bloody mess of some lonely sinner?”

I smirked. “Maybe they’re standing in my way.”
He grinned that wicked grin that fit so well on his face, his black eyes dancing with bemusement. “Or maybe your moral compass is a wee bit out of whack.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And you would know all about that.”

“You know what they say,” he murmured, letting go of my hands. He gave the waist band of my jeans a hearty tug. “It takes a monster to know a monster.”

My fingers clasped around his neck and my body welcomed the mattress and the warmth of his flesh, beating through his clothes.

“I don’t think such a phrase exists,” I laughed hazily, the filth and must of the bedclothes wafting into my mouth in one gulping breath.

“Oh Bijou,” My name rolled out on a yawn; it sounded like the howl of some neighborhood mutt. His grip tightened around my waist and I settled into the cradle of his chest, drinking him in. My ear fixed between his ribs, above the beat of his heart, I could hear his murmurs. “It’s called reading between the lines.”

He rambled then, as he often did after a few fumbled hours of fooling around. But we did not touch one another; at least no more than necessary. No, we were completely content. My ear to his bones and his fingers at my waist. He held my hand as though we weren’t who we were. As though we did not play these parts, read these lines from burnt paper and bleeding ink. As if we didn’t enjoy reveling in our storm and in our folly.

Like this, we lay; our bones, like bows tied. And like this, we were quite satisfied.


It was not until much later, after blurry dreams of white and lace, the trill and hum of a heart bleating in my skull, that I realized I had fallen asleep.

And when I awoke, I awoke alone. The sound of galloping blood had been replaced with still, silent bedroom air and the inaudible clack of dust settling on the pillows. I looked about, groggy, the seedlings of a headache crackling at the nape of my neck.

It was in his nature to do something like this, I mulled bitterly pulling myself into a comfortable position, the mattress sighing beneath me. He’d get too close and then run off. I couldn’t complain; I did it too.

It was then I noticed the small crinkled piece of paper that lay folded where the Joker had once reclined. Torn from a legal pad, scrawled with red; in a hurry too, I mused, eyeing the jagged edges and unusually shitty script.

Went out. Be back whenever. Here’s to payback.

I laughed fuzzily, my throat coated with sleep. I stretched, arching my back and reaching for the cakey plaster ceiling, my bones cracking with sharp delight. The mattress and I sighing in union, my feet met the floor. I wondered idly about Maude and her well-being and decided upon a visit.

Moving from the bedroom and making my way through the office, I could instantly feel that something was different. The cork board looked bare and less littered than usual; the miscellaneous weapons that had sat around the room in odd places were gone. And if I listened hard, I heard nothing. Not the hum of the television, nor the raucous talk of henchmen.

My bare feet made fat smacking noises on the cold hardwood floor of the hallway, echoing off the ragged walls. They quieted as I reached Maude’s room; the door was closed.

“Maude?” I called, giving the chipping white paint a crisp knock.

Three brief distracted seconds. “Come in.”

Her room was strangely warmer than both the hallway and my bedroom and the door shut behind me with a dull click. Looking around the concrete space, I found Maude sitting against the left wall, cross legged; Ms. Kitty was comfortably nestled into the white angles of her lap. Before her sat a large peach colored book, faded with age; she was gazing upon the yellowed pages with a nostalgic air. After a moment, she looked up at me, if not hesitantly.

“Hi there,” she murmured quietly, stroking the cat in her lap. It purred loudly.

“Hello,” I smiled, striding further into the room and taking a seat beside her, running my back down the wall. “I see you’ve found the cat.”

“She found me,” Maude replied that quite little smile breaking her face. There was a brief moment of silence. I found myself staring down at her book; it was then I realized it was a scrapbook, its pages littered with photographs, a woman and child in each.

“That’s my mother,” she said, so suddenly that I jumped half startled. I looked to her and found her staring once more at the pages plastered with memory. I did the same.

The woman was small and pale, much like Maude but nowhere near as skinny; she had a soft roundness to her. But her eyes held a sort of mischief as if there was some hilarious punch line just waiting behind her tart lips. There was a miniature, cheerier looking Maude in most of the photos, nestling against her mother or in her arms. I felt a pang of sadness in the pit of my stomach that I couldn’t explain; that I didn’t want to explain.

“What happened?” I murmured, now tightly bound in the melancholy of the pictures.

“She got married,” Maude replied, her voice hitching slightly, “Married to a scheming bastard.” She was quiet for a few moments and I tore my eyes from the scrapbook to look at her. Her face was full of bitter reminiscence and hate.

“It was me he wanted all along. Waited for my mother to get sick and die from all those cigarettes and then he snatched me up, dressed me up, and put me on the streets just like one of his other little whores.”

I stared at her, feeling that old rusty, ragged vehemence rise up inside of me. I bit my lip and listened.

“My mom didn’t know about his little ‘hobby’ or about any of the other plates he had spinning on the side…” She shook her head and spat her next words like tar. “Peter Lavelle. What I wouldn’t give to let that asshole have it…”

Another pocket of silence before she sighed, throwing her arms over her head and stretching lazily. Ms. Kitty chirped in protest, and I waited.

“Mother used to say everything happens for a reason,” she shrugged, shaking her bangs from her eyes, “But I’ve yet to see the sense in all of what’s happened to me.”

“It may take a little while but I think your mom was right,” I said at last, running my fingers across my skull. I barely felt the burn of the polish on my nails. I frowned; it was wearing off.

“You think so?” she asked, gazing over at me with those full blue eyes.

A smirk settled happily upon my lips. “I know so.”

There were a few more minutes of silence, that I had to admit were oddly comfortable. It was the kind of quiet I enjoyed with the Joker, when talk was unnecessary or we had run out of things to say. We were quite content simply listening to one another breathe.

I began to think which, I had long since discovered, was dangerous. But my mind was very good at misbehaving and the trouble of taming it was not at all an attractive idea.

When animals grew bored, they hunted; felines especially. And here was I, hungry for the hunt and terribly jaded. Besides, I pondered, eyeing Maude with mischief, A night out on the town wasn’t nearly as fun without a companion…

“Let’s go out,” I announced, hopping to my feet with easy grace.

Maude peered up at me in surprise from under the black curtain of her bangs. “Go out? Now? Right now?”

I nodded, tossing my hair this way and that. It was girlishly curly today; I loved it. “My idiot and his men will be gone for God knows how long and it would be….” I mulled over the word, “Counterproductive to just stay here and sit.”

She stared at me, slightly perplexed. She blinked several times and my grin widened. “Where would we go?”

I examined my nails, turning them this and that so they’d gleam in the light. “Oh, I don’t know. I thought you might want to go sock it to Peter Lavelle. You know, throw some blood on the walls…”

Her eyes got very wide, but not with fear; there was possibility, hope. Maybe even a little excitement. “Really? We can just…do that?”

I shrugged and said something I had once thought would never leave my lips. “I’m a criminal, babe. I can do most anything.”