A/N: Prompt fill for Darkfest 2012.
Characters: The Joker, Alfred Pennyworth, Wilfred Pennyworth
Warnings: Character death, violence, language
Disclaimer: Characters belong to DC Comics.
The Joker pulled up in front of the tallest structure in the abandoned factory complex. He parked the car and got out, closing the door quietly behind him. Then he looked around, checking his pockets to confirm that all the usual accoutrements which one might need when attending an uncertain business meeting like this were all in place. As he did, a vague memory stirred and it occurred to him that he'd been here before.
He frowned as he tried to pin the errant memory down, briefly turning his usual nightmarishly cheerful expression into an even more grotesque mask. It wouldn't come to him and he sighed, momentarily annoyed at his increasingly capricious memory. Oh well, he'd probably used this place as a hideout at some point; nothing to worry about, really. Honestly, by now it would be harder to find an ownerless or derelict building in Gotham that he hadn't used as a lair or rendezvous point at one time or another. He couldn't expect to keep track of them all, for goodness' sake.
As he approached the door titled 'Office', he reached into his coat and patted the sheaf of envelopes tucked into its inside pocket. There were a dozen of them, all dark green and speckled with black question marks. Each one contained a message presenting a different puzzle or brainteaser, the solutions to which had revealed a plea for a private meeting between the Joker and the author, at this time and at this address.
The Joker had to admit, he was intrigued. Edward Nigma had gone to ground almost half a year ago, disappearing without a trace. No one in the Gotham underworld had seen or heard from him since then. If the Riddler was coming out of deep hiding now and expending this much effort to set up a clandestine meeting between himself and the Joker, there must be a damned good reason for it. At least he hoped so, for the Riddler's sake. The Joker hated having his time wasted, almost as much as he hated being bored. If it turned out that Nigma was going to both bore him and waste his time tonight, well, he really couldn't be held responsible for what happened next.
Of course, he mused, despite whatever pickle Riddler had gotten into this time, the idiot still couldn't just make a phone call and ask for a meeting. True to form, Nigma'd gone his usual convoluted route, anonymously delivering a series of little secret messages, puzzles, and clues.
"And they say I'm coo-coo," he thought, grinning. If any of the other Gotham rogues had done this, the Joker would have simply chortled and sent back a venom-impregnated response politely declining to show up for what was obviously a trap designed to get him alone somewhere. But the Riddler was a different sort of animal than, say, Penguin or Two-Face. Setting up a solitary ambush like this for a fellow Rogue just wasn't the Riddler's style.
It was a well-known fact among the elite of the Gotham underworld that you couldn't trust the Riddler not to turn tail and leave you holding the bag if things turned sour during a caper. However, it was also well known that above all other loves, the Riddler most prized his own precious hide. And if there was one thing that anyone who was anyone in criminal society knew, it was that screwing the Joker over in any way, shape, or form was a particularly painful, messy, and humiliating form of suicide. The Riddler just wasn't that ballsy. There was no way this was an ambush. No, Nigma desperately wanted to speak to him in absolute secrecy about something.
It had been touch and go really, up to the very last minute, for the Joker to decide whether he'd actually show up or just let the little weasel stew in his own juices to see what he'd do next when he got really desperate. Eddums better have something really interesting to say to me. Otherwise, I think I'm going to have to actually kill him this time, member of the Old Gotham Rogues' Society or not. That boy never did know when he was well off.
It was a matter of seconds to get past the locked front door. Inside, a quick inspection of the room revealed a familiar-looking green envelope lying on the floor next to the door to the hallway. Rolling his eyes, the Joker picked up the envelope. Of course, the Riddler couldn't simply greet him at the door. That was too easy. He ripped the envelope open and read the message inside, which was penned in an all-too-familiar script.
"What did the monster say when it devoured the youth at one minute to midnight of the boy's twentieth birthday, that he couldn't have said one minute after midnight?"
Joker heaved a long, long sigh. "Oh, Eddie. Even if this does turn out to be something worth my time, I think I need to slap you around a bit after this just to cheer myself up. You know, I could be doing something really fun right now, like driving a bus full of nuns and orphans off a pier into Gotham Harbor, but noooo..."
He huffed, and frowned down at the message. "Fine...monster, midnight, midnight, minute of, minute after, ate the boy, eat, ate before his...oh!" He growled and muttered, "I ate a teen...I ate teen. I eight teen." He crumpled the message in one fist and tossed it over his shoulder. Then he yanked the door open and strode down the dusty hall, looking for room 118.
The hundreds proved to be downstairs, and his footsteps ticked faint echoes in the empty corridors he prowled through dusty hallways and down a long flight of stairs. As he ventured further into the rusting heart of the derelict factory, he couldn't shake the nagging conviction that he'd been here before.
Joker's thoughts began to wander (as they were more and more wont to do these past few years) returning to their favorite subject; the Bat. It had been a while since he'd engaged in any sort of really meaningful communication with the yin to his yang. Speaking of buses full of drowned orphans and nuns, maybe it was time to present Batman with a fresh token of his affection. It occurred to him that that sort of thing really ought to be Catwoman's gig, shouldn't it? Leaving presents of dead things for the object of one's affection? But then again, why should cats have all the fun?
"Finally!" he grumbled when he saw the '118' stenciled over a door. If that wasn't enough, a familiar brass cane with a gleaming head curved in the shape of a question mark was propped up against the doorjamb. The Joker inhaled, gearing himself up for some truly epic intimidation. Then he snatched up the cane and barged through the door into room 118, shouting "BOO!"
There was nobody but him in the big circular room. As he absorbed this fact, the Joker heard a soft click as the door swung shut behind him, then a louder click. The shape of the room combined with the sound of the second click to fuel the engine of memory, and the Joker finally realized why this place was so familiar; why this room was so familiar. He whirled and lunged for the door. But before he reached it, a sliding panel dropped down over the door with a loud 'clang!', sealing off the exit. The same thing happened to the door on the other side of the room, effectively turning the room into a sealed chamber. Pneumatic valves hissed as gaskets snugged into place around the doors and he snarled, furious with himself.
It had been so, so long ago when he'd last been here, but now he remembered. This place belonged to the old days, the days of shtick and pranks and pointless traps that killed no one. The old days when he'd had a sidekick named Gagsworth A. Gagsworthy, when things like giant ears of popping knockout corn, and jack-in-the-boxes which flew open and disgorged gallons of skunk spray onto a crowd, and the Joker's Jupiter Jalopy had all seemed like such grand ideas. The days when devising overly complicated and humorously kitschy death traps for Batman and Robin (which they always somehow escaped) had been one of his prime obsessions.
This room was one of those old traps. If he remembered rightly, he'd rigged this room to slowly fill up with sand. Or water, he wasn't sure which. And one other thing that he remembered was that he'd designed this one to be particularly escape proof.
An enraged roar escaped him and his features twisted into something that would send toddlers screaming for their mothers. He bellowed, "NIGMA! You little SHIT! What the hell is this supposed to be?" Joker took a deep breath, and the terrifying grin that was never long off his face returned. He growled, "You'd better have a good explanation for this, young man, or your Uncle Bingo is going to have to take you out behind the woodshed after supper!"
As he ranted, the unwelcome thought occurred to him that perhaps, like him, the Riddler had also finally evolved. Perhaps, just as the Joker had grown and left behind playing silly pranks like exploding bake sales to become a genuine agent of chaos, maybe the Riddler was no longer satisfied with spewing puzzles and brainteasers and being a third-rate name in Gotham who commanded no real respect. Maybe he wanted to make a bold leap of his own, all the way into the Joker's shoes. The thought made him burst out laughing, and he yelled, "Come on, Eddie! What's the story, morning glory? You know this is a BAD idea, don't you? Come on, riddle me something!"
He spun around, looking for seams in the walls. Come on, come on, I know there's a two-way microphone and a viewing portal here somewhere...talk to me Eddie, I want to see your face...aha! There you are.
A panel in the wall slid open behind him, and the Joker spun around to peer through the shatter-proof glass to get a good look at-
His thoughts stuttered to a stop. Seated comfortably in an old office chair on the other side of the unbreakable glass was not the expected Riddler, but an elderly man dressed in an elegant dove-gray business suit. From his impeccably shined shoes to his neatly turned Homburg hat, this man was the picture of a refined and proper gentleman. A vaguely familiar gentleman, he realized.
The Joker's eyes narrowed. "Who are you? Wait a minute, wait a minute...I know you. " He frowned, thinking hard. "Haven't I held you hostage before?" He pinched the bridge of his nose, then brightened. "Ha! Got it. You're that old prune of a butler who belongs to Bruce Wayne. Now, don't tell me-Alvin, Albert, Alphonse..."
The old man nodded, tipping his hat. "Close. But no cigar, I'm afraid. My name is Alfred Pennyworth. And I'm sure that by now, you realize where you are."
The Joker frowned at him, stroking his chin and wondering what the hell kind of connection Wayne's manservant might have with one of his old Bat Death Traps. Then his eyes widened, and he burst out laughing. His manic hilarity echoed off the chamber walls, rolling on and on, while the elderly observer on the other side of the glass looked on, bemused.
"Aahh, hoo hoo, hee. You know, I really am getting too old for this. Of course, your employer, Bruce Wayne. He's Batman. Obvious, really." As he said it, he wondered whether this was one of those things he might have already known at some point, but had inexplicably slipped his mind somehow. It just seemed so obvious, now that he said it out loud. He cocked his head at the old man, baring his teeth in what looked like a smile, but wasn't.
"So you're working for the Riddler now? That's a bit of a come-down. What happened, did the Bat fire you? You serve him hot vichyssoise one too many times, or order the wrong brand of bat-themed boxer shorts?"
Alfred favored him with the kind of tolerant half-smile people generally reserved for tediously unfunny jokes made by a boorish stranger at a party. "No, my employment status remains unchanged. I'm afraid that the Riddler actually has nothing to do with this past the unwitting loan of one of his old canes, which I took the liberty of borrowing from its trophy case in the Batcave. To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Nigma is currently working in Sydney, Australia as a private investigator. I assume he is attempting to make a fresh start of it. A doomed effort, of course; doubtless his compulsions will soon drive him back to Gotham to resume his own attention-seeking behavior toward Batman. But God bless him for making the attempt, at least."
He shook his head, looking thoughtful, then continued. "No, in this case, I'm the sole culprit. The Riddler's unique habit of communicating important information remotely via puzzles afforded me a unique opportunity to effectively masquerade as him. I flatter myself that over the years I've observed enough of the Riddler's work that I'm able to produce a close imitation of his distinctive communication style. I'll even indulge my own hubris so far as to say that in this case, my conceit seems justified, since here you are." He smiled benevolently through the glass at his captive.
Nonplussed for once, the Joker had a rare moment of speechlessness. It didn't last long. Fixing the old man with a cutting and malevolent stare, he started to slowly clap his hands together, the sound echoing sharply around the sealed chamber. "Well, Alfred old bean, good for you! I mean it, old chap, really. Top form! You've caught me fair and square, bamboozled me into your snare, you caught the monster."
He grinned and spread his hands wide. "Go ahead, call the Bat and tell him to come by for a gloat. Tell him to call my home away from home and have them come get me; Bats must have Arkham on speed dial by now. Then you can return in triumph to stately Wayne Manor and get a pat on the head and a cookie from Master Bruce."
Inside, the Joker was seething with fury and indignation. Oh, but the Bat was going to pay for this little bit of humiliation. Sending his butler out to bring him in? This affront called for a quick escape from Arkham and something really imaginative in the way of retaliation.
Well, it solved one dilemma, at least. As soon as he was out of Arkham again, he wouldn't have to worry about choosing which token of affection he'd leave on Batman's doorstep in messy pieces, sporting a rictus grin. Alfred Pennyworth, bless his doddering old heart, had just waltzed effortlessly into the position of Number One Volunteer Victim.
Joker folded his arms and leveled his most terrifying glower through the thick glass at the old geezer. Seemingly unaffected, Alfred continued to sit and watch him curiously, hands clasped and resting on one knee. The Joker started to feel uncomfortably like a monkey in a zoo exhibit. After several more minutes went by, he started drumming his fingers on his upper arms and drawled, "So, Alfred. I can't help but notice that you haven't called for backup yet. What's going on? You want to lecture me a little before the Disoriented Express arrives from Arkham?"
He strolled up to the glass and leaned against it, grinning. "Are we going to have a little...heart to heart talk now? You going to appeal to my better nature, spew out some pearls of wisdom that'll penetrate my thorny twisted heart and reach that frightened little boy inside? Aww, maybe that is all I need; a kind father figure to show me where I went wrong. After all, you raised old Bruce and see how well-adjusted he turned out to be."
Alfred shook his head, regarding him with a sickeningly sad gaze. He stood up, his eyes never leaving the Joker's face, and said in a quiet voice, "Oh, no. I think we both know that it's far too late for that sort of thing. You've mistaken my intentions. My apologies, I didn't mean to mislead you."
The old man moved away from the observation window and did something out of the Joker's field of view. A disturbing deep rumble started and a faint vibration in the walls shivered dust down from the ceiling. Alfred stepped back in front of the window and resumed talking, his voice still gentle and eerily calm. "I'm afraid you're not going back to Arkham. Your journey ends tonight, right here."
The rumble in the walls turned into a groaning squeal as air was pushed through long-dry pipes. Then water sputtered out of several long thin vents in the walls, and a steady stream of rusty liquid pattered down, raising puffs of dust from the floor and forming tiny pools of sludge. As the water flowed, it turned from reddish brown to beige, then to clear as the pipes cleared themselves of old residue.
Alfred nodded toward the puddling water and continued. "The room you're in will take about two hours to fill completely with water. During that time you might wish to make your peace with whomever or whatever you may consider to be your deity, if such exists." He stopped and looked pensive, as if he were considering how best to proceed. Then he shook his head, and said, "I'm truly sorry, but you simply cannot be allowed to continue. You've killed too many people, crippled and destroyed so many lives and caused far, far too much misery. I cannot, in good conscience, allow one more person to die for your amusement, or as incidental damage in your campaign to destroy Batman-or this city." Alfred sat back down.
Joker thought, hard. He knew that there had to be some way to con this creaky old buzzard into shutting off the waterworks and turning him over to Arkham, instead. Maybe he could even trick him into opening the door and getting within arms' reach. The old man was angry and full of self-righteousness (he could see now where the Bat got some of it), and right now he was talking a good game. But at the heart of it he was just another one of the deluded, like Batman and Gordon; an idealistic humanist who clung slavishly to The Rules. There had to be some way to sting his conscience about committing cold-blooded premeditated murder.
"So, you're just going to sit there and what...watch me drown in front of you? That's a little harsh for a man of good conscience like you, Alfred."
Alfred's eyes narrowed. A hard, cold gleam came into them and for the first time, he looked angry. And the Joker, who was really quite good at sizing people up (especially when it came to whether they had a truly dark side to them or not), understood then that although Alfred was obviously very good at playing the genteel manservant, that was actually his mask; deep down, the old man was something else altogether. Joker chuckled, appreciating the joke on Batman. He'd bet dollars to donuts that old Bruce had no idea what kind of person was laying out his toiletries and pressing creases into his dress trousers.
His voice lowering, Alfred fixed the Joker with an icy stare. "I won't allow you to push Master Bruce to the point where he finally concedes that you're far too dangerous to let live, and breaks one sacred oath to uphold another. I know that you'd probably welcome it in a way because you think it would prove something if Batman were to break his vow not to kill, even to save innocent lives. But that's not what's going to happen. I won't allow it."
The Joker chuckled. "Not when he has you to take that tough decision out of his hands for him, right?"
"Precisely." A quick, wintry smile quirked Alfred's mouth. "My conscience can bear it. His could not."
"Hmm. Don't you think it might lower his opinion of you, knowing that he has a murderer starching his shirts?"
"Not really, no. Because he isn't going to find out about it. You're simply going to disappear; there will be no body to find. And Master Bruce sends his shirts out to be laundered." The flash of humor disappeared from his eyes and Alfred's gaze once more became serious. "I will protect my family from any further harm at your hands. My only regret is that I didn't do this sooner. But you are right about one thing. I'm not just going to sit here and watch you drown."
With that, he reached down to pick up a hefty stack of paper, almost the thickness of a phone book. He settled himself comfortably in the chair and took a sip of what the Joker supposed must be tea from a steaming Styrofoam cup perched on the desk beside him.
"Although I'm sure it's by no means a complete roster, I have here a list of the people you're known to have killed during your criminal career, according to the police records and the archives in the Batcave. As you can see, it's a very long list. But we have a few hours, which should be enough time to read them all, though I might have to hurry a bit." He cleared his throat and began to read aloud.
"Roland Abrams, age twenty-seven. Survived by his wife Bonnie and two year old daughter, Mary. Carlo Abruzzi, age forty-five, survived by his wife, Amelia..."
After twenty minutes of furious searching and testing, Alfred's voice a constant drone in the background, the rusty-smelling water was almost up to the Joker's knees and he was no closer to finding a way out. The escape hatch he'd originally built into the trap (something he did with all his traps; you never knew when an accident might happen or a henchman might get overly ambitious while you were inside adjusting something) wasn't there anymore. Alfred had evidently found it and welded it shut during whatever restorations he'd had to make to the old apparatus.
He had to admit it, the old man had thought this out and chosen well. There was no way to engage him in combat, hand to hand or otherwise, and no way to get a dose of toxin out of the sealed room. And the Joker knew only too well how strongly this room was reinforced; a gunshot would only ricochet around and probably end up lodging in the only soft target there; himself. No, there really was no way out of this trap that he could find, unless he could somehow get Alfred to let him out.
It was at that point that the Joker finally admitted to himself that he might really be in trouble this time.
Alfred kept on reading, page after page, his cultured voice strong and steady. As he read, his captive audience of one went from laughing and jeering to blowing raspberries in the background, to singing the names back to him like a responsive prayer in church, then to just simply screaming insults at him to drown out the drone of his voice.
The Joker whirled around the trap room in a frenzy of rage (there was more sloshing then dashing going on at this point, since the water was now waist high). As he ranged back and forth like a trapped leopard, he roared a frustrated torrent of abuse and hideous threats at his unperturbed jailer, who simply kept reading (he was now well into the 'L' names).
When the water had risen to lap at the Joker's chin, he stopped ranting and started a steady pounding on the glass, which made Alfred finally pause and look up. Joker shouted at him, voice now cracked and hoarse, "Listen to me! You can't just kill me like this! If you do, you'll be killing part of Batman, too. You obviously don't understand how important I am to him. What we have together is unique. Between us we, we...personify the conflict between order and chaos! You can't pull the plug on our epic struggle and take all that away from him, just because of some peripheral damage!"
He slapped the glass, desperate to get the old man to understand, to somehow make him stop, because it was unthinkable that his monumental creativity and all his great works should end this way. When he finally went out, it was going to be with an apocalyptic bang. Not with a soggy little whimper like this. "If I just disappear, Batman will never be able to let it go. He won't rest until he finds out what happened to me. He'll find out what you did, you know he will!"
Alfred's gaze flicked away, then back toward the Joker (who felt a surge of hope) and he frowned. "There is that possibility, of course. I've taken serious precautions to ensure that he never will, but he is a great detective. It's a chance I'll just have to take." He took another sip of tea before continuing. "Oh, and regarding the rest of your argument? What is that phrase the children are fond of using nowadays, 'get over yourself'? Yes, that's it. The depressing truth is that, despite what your massive ego tells you, you really aren't that important in the grand scheme of things. And every single person on this list is more deserving of being remembered than you are. You're going to disappear today and no one will ever know what happened to you. That knowledge will die with me, and in an insultingly brief time you will be mostly forgotten."
His voice cracking and breaking with white-hot rage, the Joker screamed through the glass at the impossible old man, "You senile old shitrag! I'm Batman's other HALF, his opposite pole, he defines himself through me! What do you think he'll become, without The Joker around to keep him sharp and inspired?"
Alfred laid a finger across the list, carefully marking his place. Then he leaned forward and really smiled for the first time, his expression warming. He said, "You know, I'm really looking forward to finding out." Then he settled back and resumed reading.
At one point during the 'T' names, when he reached the name Jason Todd, Alfred's voice quivered and he stopped to clean his glasses, his hands trembling a bit. Then he resumed reading. As he read on, his hands became steady again. From that point on, he ignored the noises and churning water on the other side of the glass.
Some time later, Alfred finished reading, and rose from the chair. He placed the thick document into a valise, to be taken back to the Manor and disposed of by fire, leaving no trace. Then he stood in front of the glass for a while, regarding the dark water on the other side and the darker mass which had sunk to the bottom, revolving slowly in the dying eddies near the floor.
There was a hesitant knock at the door. Alfred moved to open it and let his brother in. Wilfred walked over to the glass and peered through. After a moment, he whistled. "I figured enough time had gone by." He looked back over his shoulder. "You all right, Alf?"
Alfred frowned at him. "Yes, of course. Had to be done."
Wilfred nodded. "You're right. I just know it's been a long time since you've had to get your hands dirty like this. Well, let's start draining that room so we can clean up." He turned around to look back through the glass again and said, "I know one should never take pleasure in a fellow creature's misfortune, dear brother. But on special occasions such as this, I think one may be excused a twinge of pleasure. You've done well."
Alfred looked at him for a long moment, then nodded. "I hope you're right. I assume the Maharajah's men are waiting for us upstairs?"
Wilfred nodded. "Yes. They've already taken care of the Joker's car. I didn't bring them downstairs with me; I wasn't sure that you'd want them helping with the cleanup. I assumed that you'd rather it was done privately."
"Quite right. Not to impugn the integrity of the Maharajah's men, of course. But this is a family matter." Alfred looked at his brother. "It's very decent of the Maharajah to offer his help with the disposal, though. Please convey my sincerest thanks to him and let him know that if there is ever any service I can perform in return, he need only ask." Then Alfred smiled warmly. "And it goes without saying, of course, that your help has been, and still is, invaluable."
Wilfred waved off his thanks. "Please, brother. As you say, this is a family matter. And the Maharajah was simply delighted at the chance to demonstrate his appreciation for my many years of service to him and his family."
It took them several hours to complete the cleanup. Finally, the two of them stood looking around at the empty room with satisfaction that there was no trace left of them having been there.
"Well, little brother, I think we're done." Wilfred reached down and patted one of the several parcels stacked in a cart, ready for transport. "Once our friend here is loaded aboard the Maharajah's private jet, it's a quick jaunt back home, after which he'll be discreetly cremated and his ashes scattered deep in the Miranjapore jungle by myself and a few other trusted servants of the Maharajah." He looked directly into Alfred's eyes. "Trust me, Alf, he won't return."
Alfred heaved a deep sigh and placed his hand on his brother's shoulder. "That's a great relief to me, Will. One of my biggest problems to resolve in this matter was coming up with a way to dispose of the body in secrecy, in such a way that there was no chance of him ever being revived or...or, recreated somehow." He shook his head. "I don't want to find out a few years from now that one of his devotees stole his remains and somehow gained access to a Lazarus Pit and used it to bring him back. Tonight had to be the true end of it."
They rolled the cart down a series of corridors, eventually arriving at the loading dock in back of the main building where a sleek black armor-plated vehicle with diplomatic plates waited for them, its engine purring. The two men unloaded the cart's contents into the plastic-lined trunk with smooth efficiency.
Before they got into the car, Wilfred turned and embraced his brother. He said quietly in Alfred's ear, "You saved many lives tonight. It's our sacred trust, to protect. Remember that."
Alfred stepped back and regarded Wilfred for a long moment, his eyes bright. Then he got into the car without saying another word. It wasn't necessary; they understood each other and their duties well, and in the end that was the important thing.
The elegant black car purred down the access road, then merged with heavier traffic on the highway. It headed smoothly toward Gotham Airport, its tinted windows reflecting the moving lights around it and revealing nothing inside.
The next morning dawned calm and bright over Wayne Manor. Alfred presided over breakfast with his usual aplomb. When he brought the paper in, Bruce Wayne looked up at him and smiled. "Good morning, Alfred. How was your visit with your brother? It's too bad he was only in town for the one day, it would have been nice to see him again."
"Good morning, sir. Wilfred's very well, thank you. He does regret that he was unable to stay longer, and hopes to be able to pay us a proper visit later this year when the Maharajah is on vacation."
Bruce sipped his coffee and nodded. "Good, I look forward to seeing Wilfred again. Did the two of you find any trouble to get into last night?"
Alfred smiled indulgently and shook his head, a tone of mild reproval in his voice as he answered, "No, sir. I'm afraid it was a very boring evening; just two old men reminiscing about their younger days. Nothing to, as you say, write home about."
His attention already moving to more important matters, Bruce chuckled and nodded. "I have a hard time believing that listening to your and Wilfred's stories would ever be boring, Alfred. "
"If you say so, sir. Here is your newspaper."
Alfred handed him the paper with a father's love.