Friday, April 2, 2382
New Gotham City, Kane's World
Conroy Sector, United Federation of Planets
It hardly seemed possible to Dick Grayson that the Joker could really be dead. The man had been his archenemy, and Bruce's before him, for so long he was like part of the background music of life. An unpleasant part, to be sure, but always recurring, always there. You didn't look forward to it, but it would seem strange if it wasn't there.
Besides which, it had all seemed too convenient, too... pat. The Joker? Killed on April Fool's Day? How blatant. Obviously, it had to be part of some enormously convoluted plot. The Joker had "died" before, after all, and it had always turned out to be something else. But Dick had seen the body - what was left of it. More importantly, Dick had scanned the body. He'd had the Bativac running and rerunning the numbers all night, and every time the result was the same. There was no imposture here, no dressing up some hapless victim and flinging him off the roof, no single-bit cloning errors or teleporter traces.
There could be only one conclusion: On the first of April, during a mundane, everyday foot chase with the police, without Batman anywhere in sight, New Gotham's most feared psychopath had zigged when he should've zagged and fallen to his utterly banal death from the roof of a 40-story building on the Upper East Side.
It seemed like cheating somehow.
But if the Joker's end was unsettling and strange, what happened the next day was even stranger.
One of the changes Dick had made when he took over as Batman was to establish a hotline so that certain people and organizations in the city could get in touch with him, rather than go through the police and the Bat Signal. To Dick this made good sense: it preserved the Signal for genuine life-or-death emergencies, but let various other worthy concerns reach him without relying on the urban grapevine. Bruce had kvetched that it would erode the mystique, but truth to tell, Dick didn't mind if the mystique got eroded just a little. It was one thing for criminals to be afraid of the Batman, but why should, for instance, the good people in charge of the St. Bonaventure Sanctuary for Victims of Domestic Abuse?
So it was that, while he was out patrolling the industrial areas near the spaceport, Batman received a phone call on the Batmobile's encrypted line.
"This is Batman," he said, noting (as he did every time) that even seven years after taking over the job, saying that still gave him a little thrill.
"Batman, it's Sister Joanna at St. Bonaventure's."
Here was another difference between the Wayne style and the Grayson: Bruce would just have sat there in silence until the nun got nervous and went on. Preserving the mystique. Dick, on the other hand, said, "Good evening, Sister. How can I help?"
"Well... I'm not sure," said Sister Joanna. "it might be nothing, but... we have a guest here tonight who wants to talk to you, and... well, I have a feeling she's for real."
Dick considered. He would normally shy away from a call like this - community outreach was one thing, but he'd had run-ins before with women (and men, let's be fair) who thought what they needed to complete their lives was the personal attention of Batman, or Nightwing before him, or even Robin before him. He was far from unsympathetic to anyone whose life's path might lead her to St. Bonaventure's, but on its face this had all the hallmarks of a crazy.
On the other hand, he knew Sister Joanna generally had sound judgment in these matters. She'd been working on Gotham's mean streets for longer even than Dick's 40 years in the caped crusader game. If she believed this woman was genuinely in the kind of distress she needed Batman to help her with, Batman believed it too.
"I'll be there in five minutes," he said.
He parked the Batmobile around the corner from the shelter, a converted and still unobtrusive brownstone, then approached the back entrance from the alleys. He'd be doing the sisters no favors by parking the beast right in front of their establishment and hitting the front stoop like the milkman. People didn't come to St. Bonaventure's because they wanted to attract attention.
"Thank you for coming," said Sister Joanna when she met him at the back door. "She's right through here. I don't know what's happened to her, or why she insists on speaking to you, but she's obviously been through the wringer, so I've let her wait in my study."
"Thank you," said Batman. He followed the elderly nun down a hall and to a heavy door she gestured him through. He entered, and she closed the door behind her. The room beyond was indeed a study, decorated with only a painting of Christ and an old-fashioned brass cosmosphere. Batman wondered whether Sister Joanna had an interest in astronomy or had inherited it from some previous holder of the office.
There was a woman sitting in the leather wingback chair facing the sister's desk. At the sound of his entrance she rose, drawing her buff- colored trenchcoat close around her, and turned her eyes toward him.
"You came," she said, sounding as if she didn't quite believe it.
Richard Grayson had a great deal of experience in not looking surprised when he was, but even so, it was a challenge to keep his face neutral as he realized that the woman in the trenchcoat, with her bedraggled blonde hair and red-rimmed, dark-ringed blue eyes, was Harley Quinn.
He immediately considered the possibility that this was some kind of elaborate revenge scheme - he hadn't had anything to do with the Joker's death, but Harley wasn't exactly the most rational person herself. He discarded the notion in fairly short order, though, just because she looked so stunned that he'd answered her call. Harley was many things, but a great actress had never been one of them.
"You wanted to see me?" Batman asked, a bit more harshly than he'd really intended.
Harley nodded. "I wanted... I wanted you to tell me... 'cause you're the only person in this town who can. 'Cause I know that... whatever happens... you won't lie to me." Raising her eyes to his, she looked imploringly into them and asked in a tiny, brittle voice, "Is he really gone?"
Batman considered his response carefully. She might be looking for an excuse to start a rampage... but, again, he didn't think so. When had Harley Quinn ever needed an excuse?
So, keeping his eyes on hers, he nodded gravely. "Yes."
And then, as her eyes filled with tears (obviously not for the first time today) and her lower lip trembled, he heard himself, quite ridiculously, say, "I'm sorry."
She stood trembling before him for a moment, and then - even more ridiculously - threw her arms around him and bawled like a toddler into his chest, streaking the bat crest there with the pancake makeup she'd plastered on to conceal her chalk-white skin from the sisters. Dick, completely at a loss but still possessed of ordinary human compassion, put his arms around her and just let her get it all out, which took maybe ten minutes.
Then she lurched backward, sniffling and wiping at her eyes with a handkerchief. Seeing the mess she'd made of his costume, she tried to clean it up with the handkerchief, but really only managed to smear it around a bit before giving up and just resting her hand against his chest.
"Sorry," said Harley, her voice small and hoarse. She leaned her head against him once more, not weeping this time but just standing there quietly, and Batman was starting to wonder what he ought to do about it when she said out of the blue,
"I'll be honest with ya, I thought about roundin' up all the stuff we had left and goin' out with a bang, an' takin' half'a this town with me, but... " She sighed, stepping back, and made eye contact with him again. "My heart just ain't in it. With my puddin' gone - " She put a fingertip against his lower lip before he could speak, if indeed he'd been considering it. " - and don't make that joke, you don't think it's funny either, I know you - there's just... no fun." She turned away from him, taking a couple of slow and listless steps across the room, then turned back to face him, face downcast. "I'm done," she said. "Take me in."
Batman would've raised an eyebrow if his mask had allowed for it. "You want me to take you back to Arkham?"
Harley shook her head. "No, not to Arkham. I'd be better off in Blackgate. People don't get well at Arkham. I used to work there, remember? I've seen it from both sides. It ain't a hospital, it's college for crazies." With a barely-suppressed sneer, she added, "The best thing that place could do for Gotham is burn down."
"Speaking of which," Batman put in, "where's the 'stuff you had left' and how many people will I need to send to get it?"
"I already called it in before I came here," she said. "That way I wouldn't be tempted to chicken out and go back. The cops are probably takin' the place apart right now."
As if on cue, the voice of Bruce Wayne spoke in Batman's earpiece. "Dick. I just traced an alert from NGCPD Hazmat. They say they've been tipped to the Joker's last hideout. What's going on out there?"
Batman quarter-turned away from Harley and replied in a low voice, "Later. Just... later. I'm handling something else here. Batman out."
Harley smiled slightly for the first time since he'd entered. "That must be Batman the First," she said. "I knew he couldn't be dead." At Batman's puzzled look, she added, "Mr. J thought he was."
"I should be so lucky," Batman replied, drawing a short, sharp laugh that surprised its utterer almost as much as its hearer.
Harley did, in fact, go to Blackgate, after a week or so of wrangling with corrections officials. They couldn't quite grasp the notion of one of our local costumed crazies, particularly one who could probably have made it stick, dropping any pretense of non-guilt-by-insanity. To widespread surprise, she owned up flatly to everything the DA's office cared to enumerate and took her sentence - 20 to life in maximum security - with a straight face.
The Joker's funeral was handled carefully and privately. Harley was granted a day pass for it, as she was his only known companion - the closest thing he ever had to a next of kin. It was... very closed-casket. She laid her hand on the casket and said something softly; I didn't listen. Bruce presumably did. Then I escorted her to the police car, and they took her back to jail.
Only three people know where the Joker is buried: Bruce, Jim Gordon, and me. Both to keep people away, and because Harleen Quinzel asked for his grave to be anonymous. I'm pretty sure she could find it if she wanted, but I don't think she wants to.
Monday, April 22, 2402
The Bat Cave, New Gotham
Terry McGinnis emerged from the double-secret elevator, dropped his backpack on the table by the batarang machine, and said, "I hope you've got a quiet evening planned, boss, 'cause I've got a ton of real-life work to do."
At the Bativac's console, Bruce Wayne made no response for a few moments; then he swiveled to face Terry and replied, "Just one thing. Harley Quinn's getting out of Blackgate today. I want you to go and meet her."
Terry arched an eyebrow. "Why? Does she need a ride?"
"Don't be funny. Just remind her that we haven't forgotten her."
"Oh, that's nice," said Terry, rolling his eyes. "Let's harass the only villain you've ever had who stuck out an entire stretch in prison."
"Just do it," Bruce growled.
Which is why, half an hour later, I was lurking on the street side of the Blackgate Penitentiary prisoner release gate, watching Prisoner #4843-298 resume her life as a regular citizen.
I'd read her file, of course; I've read all the files on Bruce and Dick's old villains, even the ones who are dead, because in this business you never know. Like so many of the old guard, she had a story that was tragic and stupid at the same time. Harleen Quinzel had been a psychiatrist once, not long out of med school and newly hired at Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane - fresh-faced, optimistic, and ready to heal the world. Unfortunately, she was also gullible and easily manipulated (and maybe she had some psychological fault lines of her own that no one had noticed before), and one of her first assignments was to treat the Joker during one of his many stays in Arkham.
Before long she'd decided she was in love with him - don't ask me how, I've never understood the criteria women use to make that call - and had not only helped him break out of the asylum, but also gone with him and become his moll, in the old-fashioned Gothamite sense of the word. She'd spent something like 20 years with him - the tail end of Bruce's career and the beginning of Dick's - by the time he took his one-way trip to 94th Street.
The woman who emerged from Blackgate's prisoner release exit now didn't look all that remarkable, but I knew by then that such things didn't mean much in Batman's world. For instance, she still looked young, maybe in her early 30s, but I knew she was over 70. Her hair was still blonde, carelessly chopped into the standard butch prison cut, and by the way she carried herself, I could tell in spite of the old trenchcoat she was wearing that she had been, and probably still was, an athlete. The only visually striking thing about her from where I stood was her paper-white complexion.
She reached the sidewalk, where thousands of ex-cons have stopped, turned, and had a look - most hoping it'd be their last, many knowing it wouldn't - at the prison... but she didn't do that.
Instead, she looked straight at me with an expression that was not quite scornful and said, in the same Bensonhurst accent she had in the Bativac's old file vids, "Well, that didn't take long."
Terry considered remaining still and seeing if she'd reconsider having spotted him, but something in her eyes said she wasn't going to go for that. Oh well. If he didn't want Bruce bitching at him all night, he'd have to confront her sooner or later anyway. Now he switched off the Batsuit's camouflage mode and emerged from the shadows of the alley across the street where he'd been watching her from.
"Ms. Quinzel," he said.
"That's Doctor Quinzel to you, Bats," she replied. "I ain't licensed, but I still got my degree. Not even the Board of Corrections can take that away from me."
Batman nodded, conceding the point. Truth to tell, Terry felt a kind of perverse admiration for this woman. Sure, she'd been a dupe and done a lot of bad things for what any reasonable person would have been able to tell was a poisonous parody of love, but since when was love reasonable? That was kind of what it was about. Besides, easy as it was to dismiss her as weak and gullible, he figured she had to have something pretty sturdy inside her somewhere just to have survived that ride. He could only imagine what life had been like as the Joker's squeeze. And then to pass up the revolving door of Arkham and deliberately opt for a 20-year stretch in Blackgate? Yeah, she'd earned the right to stand on ceremony about her academic qualifications if she felt like it.
While he was mulling all that over, Harley crossed the street and stood looking him over with a critical eye.
"You're a new one, ain't'cha," she said. "Not just a new suit, you're taller. Face is thinner. What happened to my Batman?"
Terry blinked, unsure of how he could or should respond to that. "... He retired," he finally said.
Harley peered closely at him again, unnerving him further, and then smiled a slightly sardonic smile and shook her head. "Jeez, you're just a kid. Oughta be studying for final exams at this hour."
"Tell me about it," Terry replied before he could stop himself, and Harley surprised him by letting out a high, clear, not at all crazy-sounding laugh.
Then she sobered and said, "The old man gotcha runnin' his errands for him, huh? Well, you tell him message received... and I ain't scared of him."
Terry considered his answer, then nodded, smiling faintly. "He'll be thrilled to hear it," he said dryly.
"Is that it? You just here to show the flag?" Harley asked.
"More or less," Batman replied. Then, gesturing to the low, dark shape of the Batmobile parked at the other end of the alley, he asked, "Give you a lift somewhere?"
Harley eyed him skeptically, then laughed again and clouted him on the armored shoulder. "Yer awright, Batguy. No thanks, I'll walk. Been a while since I had the opportunity."
"Where are you headed, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Let's be honest with ourselves, you're just gonna follow me anyway."
"Of course, but it's only civil to ask."
She laughed once more. "Fair enough. Better than havin' a parole officer. I'll be at St. Bonnie's for a week or two, then I got a few things in the works. Everything goes according to plan, next couple'a years, you'll be able to find me at Gotham State Med or Mercy West." At his puzzled look, she said, "I gotta retrain before I sue the state to get my license back. Even if I wasn't 40 years outta date, I need a new specialty." She rolled her eyes. "I'm so over psychiatry."
Batman blinked at her, then smirked slightly - at himself, and what Bruce's reaction was sure to be, not at her.
"Good luck, Dr. Quinzel," he said.
Harley inclined her head graciously. "Thank you, Mr. Batguy," she replied, and then turned away and sauntered off down the street, hands in her coat pockets. True to his word, and not entirely for reasons of personal suspicion, Terry shadowed her to St. Bonaventure's. There he found himself laughing in spite of himself as she paused on the threshold, turned, and gave a huge Nixon-boarding-the-helicopter wave in the direction she assumed - correctly - he'd be watching from.
When he got back to the Bat Cave, Bruce Wayne asked him without turning around from the Bativac's console, "How'd it go?"
Terry pulled off his helmet. "Not bad," he said. "We'll have to keep an eye on her, obviously? But I think she's gonna be OK."
Bruce grunted. "When you've been disappointed as often as I have... " he said, leaving the rest of the statement unsaid.
Thursday, August 18, 2405
East End, New Gotham
"So how do you want to play this?" Catwoman asked. "Good cop/bad cop? Bad cop/worse cop? Dibs on worse cop."
Robin shook his head. "That won't be necessary."
"Tim's right," Batman agreed. "We already know she has a good reason. I just want to see how she takes finding out that we know."
Catwoman looked skeptical. "She appears to have a good reason," he said. "I've read her file, though. The whole thing is a textbook setup for - "
Batman sighed. "You sound like your old man, Lena."
Catwoman frowned. "Well, if you're going to put it that way," she said, settling her goggles over her eyes. "Fine. Let's go be nice to the lady who's experimenting with her notorious dead boyfriend's lethal neurotoxin. I'm wearing my nose filters."
It was well after hours, and though the light was (as always) on over the emergency entrance, all was quiet at the East End Free Clinic apart from the low, metallic sound of rock music turned down low in the upstairs office. The proprietress was in there, working on some of the endless paperwork involved in operating a free clinic in New Gotham.
From his perch at the window, Robin had her in a little bit less than 3/4 profile, about 10 feet away. He compared her appearance now with her various images in the Bativac's files and his own mental expectations. She didn't really match any of them, though in part he supposed she couldn't help that. She was dressed, for instance, in an odd combination of East Gotham street style (black and red leather motorcycling pants, a black tank top with the Gotham Knights football team's logo on it) and the de facto uniform of the independent urban physician on a budget (a white lab coat and old-fashioned high-top sneakers).
Her hair was drawn back into two short, fat plaits, the left side dyed jet black and the right a bright crayon red, and her skin was the color of chalk, but she didn't look all that whimsical as she sat, legs crossed at the knee, free foot bobbing in time to the music, and filled in a form. Part of Robin's analytical mind filed away the fact that she listened to Bad Religion without any conscious thought about whether that information had any prospect of being useful later.
He didn't think she'd noticed him, or Batman at the opposite window, or Catwoman at the door behind her, until suddenly, and without looking up from her work, she spoke:
"Wipe your feet if you're comin' in here, you three," she said. "This ain't a barn."
Robin blinked and glanced at Catwoman, who shrugged and stepped less stealthily than she'd planned into the room. Robin climbed in one side window, Batman the other, and moved to flank Harley's desk, but if she was at all discomfited about being suddenly surrounded by costumed crimefighters, she gave no sign. She didn't even look up until she'd finished the form she was working on and stuck it in the OUT tray on her large and very cluttered desk.
"Harley, Harley, Harley," Batman chided her gently. "Not even back in the medical business for six weeks and you're already experimenting with the Joker's old laughing gas?"
Harley swiveled in her desk chair and picked up a binder from the top of one of the piles of documents on her desk. "Before you bust me," she said, "lemme show you the clinical trial results so far." She slapped the binder down, fished out another, and held it up in turn. "And the consent forms." Putting that binder down atop the first one, she dug out a third. "And the case studies that show it's actually workin' at helpin' some of these people with their problems!" Adding the third binder to the pile, she gestured to the small but sophisticated chem-lab setup in the corner of the office. "I don't wanna get too far ahead'a myself here, Bats, but Compound 487 might just be a cure for NAS, at a net cost of about a nickel a dose. Can you imagine what that would mean for all the people who can't afford - what're you smilin' at?!"
"Relax, Harley. We know all that." Batman gestured to Robin, who bowed. "Robin hacked your computer two weeks ago. We've been following your work with great interest. So great, in fact, that we came tonight to bring you this."
Harley took the piece of paper he was offering her, looked it over, then glanced up from it to meet his eyes. "... A grant for research funding? F'real?"
Batman nodded. "If you're serious about this, well, I'm sure you figured out years ago that I have some pretty heavy backing. I might as well use it for something else to help people. Also, I've never heard of anybody de-weaponizing a chemical before. Kind of curious to see how that works out."
Harley weighed the grant, an elaborately official document printed on paper so heavy it was practically cardstock, in her hand. It authorized the East End Free Clinic, Inc., to draw on a fund maintained by the Gotham Trust Company in support of the clinic's research into medical applications for certain high-risk neurochemicals, subject to the requirements of proper documentation and the continued goodwill of the Kane's World Medical Authority. She read it thoroughly, then looked back up at Batman's masked face with a wry half-grin.
"Yer awright, Batguy," she said again, as she had when they'd first met.
"I do my best," Batman replied.
Harley put the grant down on top of the case studies binder, then got out of her chair and hopped up instead onto the edge of her desk, where she could see all three of them without craning her neck.
"Well, well, lookit you two," she said with a grin, looking from Robin to Catwoman. "Boy Wonder and Kittycat. I useta run with a Catwoman sometimes, back in the day. Good times. She had the smarts to get outta this town, unlike yours truly," she added candidly. With a glance back at Batman, she went on, "You're buildin' up a regular crew. I see on the news the other day where even ol' Vic Fries is workin' for you now. The old man would'a never done that. Surprised he lets you get away with it."
"We have an understanding," Batman said. He'd concluded from the first that it would be futile to pretend that his activities weren't directed and supported by the person Harley thought of as the Original Batman, just as those of Dick, the man she still regarded as "her" Batman, had been. She was too sharp a customer to fall for that.
She nodded. "Good. You need all the friends you can get to get by in this screwed-up town, especially nowadays. You oughta send Vic by sometime. We can reminisce about the pepper steak they used to serve on Tuesdays in the nuthouse." She sighed with mock nostalgia and said again, "Good times. Speakin' of, what can ya tell me about that li'l hottie in the tuxedo? The new Penguin? Is he really related to old Ozzie?"
"His son," Batman said, nodding.
"No kidding," said Harley, wide-eyed. "Good for him. Poor old Pengy, he deserved some lovin' in his life. I always said all's most of us needed back then was a hug."
Robin was starting to feel that the day had gone well past the off-ramp for Surreal Boulevard at this point, and a glance at Catwoman confirmed for him that she felt much the same way.
"You're... very up-front about your past," he observed, trying to steer the conversation back to somewhere a little less bizarre. "Does that cause problems for the clinic?"
"Not so's you'd notice it," Harley told him. She gestured to the window he'd come in through and the rough neighborhood beyond it. "This is the East End, Boy Wonder. People around here are desperate enough they don't care if the doc is a crazy clown lady with a criminal record so long as she's good at the job." Then, becoming fully serious for the first time since they'd arrived, she looked him in the eye and said flatly, "And I am. I'm the best damn doctor this neighborhood's ever had."
Batman gave a faint chuckle. When she looked a question at him, he explained, "I guess you're over your assertiveness problem."
Harley snorted. "I'm over a lotta my problems, Batguy." Then, her little grin returning, she added, "I only got one left, and she gets outta the joint next year."
"She could be a big help to your project... or a big problem," Batman agreed.
Catwoman raised her hand. "Excuse me, um, are we talking about who I think we're talking about?"
"Probably," Harley said easily. "What about it, kittycat? Plant people need love too."
Catwoman blinked, momentarily flummoxed. "I... yeah, OK, sure. It's the 25th century, why not."
"I'm not sure we should take this topic further with a minor in the room," said Batman sardonically.
Harley made a dismissive gesture, hopped down from her desk, and ruffled Robin's short black hair on her way to the coatrack in the corner of the room.
"Timmy's a big boy, he'll survive a couple'a vague allusions to the love that dare not speak its name," she said airily, plucking a bell-bedecked jester cap from the rack and settling it on her head. She breezed past Catwoman, jingling merrily, then paused in the door and looked back to see all three of them staring at her in silence.
"What?" she said. "You guys ain't the only detectives in town." Grinning, she added, "Protip, Boy Wonder: Next time you hack a crazy clown doctor's computer, don't do it from home."
Catwoman and Batman both looked at Robin. He, in turn, shot Batman a faintly fierce, challenging look. Batman withstood it for a couple of seconds, then looked away and mumbled lamely, "Max said it was untraceable."
Harley laughed. "I'm just messin' with ya, McGinnis," she said. "Tim was actually the hardest one to nail down! As it were." She angled a thumb at Catwoman. "Lena was easy. Her mom warned me she was comin' to town. Then it's on the news that her father turns out to be Bruce Wayne?" She gave a jingly shake of her head, smiling with satisfaction. "It was all downhill from there."
Catwoman palmed her face. "Dad's going to kill all four of us," she said, but Harley just laughed and clapped her on the shoulder.
"Relax, kid, it ain't gonna be a problem. Brucie and me, we go way back. 'Course, he doesn't know I know that yet, buuuut... " She shrugged. "Anyway, you guys can stay here if you wanna, but I'm done for the night. I got me a cravin' for some Whitmore Diner home fries. Who's comin' with me?"
"Reinvent" - a Future Imperfect mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins and Geoff Depew with Chris Pinard
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