The Joker at a children’s hospital. How many innocent people have I seen die at his hand? How many more would there be before I finally stopped him for good?
I stop thinking, and the world becomes a blur of images as my training takes over. Out a window, the ground rushing at me. I studied with acrobats for nearly a year before I could fall five stories and land unhurt. On the cycle, barreling over crowded sidewalks and through alleys. I worked as pit crew at motorcross events for six months studying racing and how to fix an engine. Scaling a building. I served in the Andes as part of a scientific expedition until I could climb anything with anything. Sitting on a rooftop and watching, the hospital a tall, square building with wrap-around windows.
Nothing prepares you for the waiting. Nothing prepares you to look for things about to happen. Nothing prepares you to fail, to hold your mother in your arms while her heart stops.
I don’t see anything so I swing over to the other side of the hospital. That’s when I see it. There’s a van parked in front. It’s a bright, purple van with orange polka dots painted all over it. The words “Spanky’s Fun Circus!” are written on one side. He’s already here. I hold up my thermal imaging goggles and look again; the van’s engine is cold. I’m too late.
I scan the windows of the hospital like a madman. He could be anywhere inside. I could call in a threat to make them clear the building, but that might take too long. What is he up to? It wouldn’t be a bomb, because he returns every year. He wouldn’t want to do anything that would make it impossible to come back. No guns. No knives. That left something harder to trace. Poison. Once a year, he came to this children’s hospital and poisoned someone.
I see it suddenly through a window in the middle of the fifth floor. A crowd of children in hospital gowns are sitting on the floor. They’re all bald and stare at a man juggling ten balls, an I.V. bag, and the wheel off a wheelchair. He drops the balls one by one, catches the wheel with both hands, and lets the bag land on his head. The children laugh and cheer as he pretends to be knocked silly and wobbles around in front of them.
I take a laser bounce listener out of my belt and point it at the window.
“Thank you, thank you!” the Joker says, bowing. “You’ve all been wonderful. I have to go now-”
The children make a sad “awwwww” sound.
“Now, now, children. All good things must come to an end. However, before I go, I understand it’s someone’s birthday today!”
He puts a hand over his eyes as if gazing into the distance.
“Dennis? Where are youuuuuu?”
A little boy, no older than eight, stands. He’s very ill and has trouble getting to his feet. The perfect victim: nobody would ever suspect he was poisoned. The Joker beckons him forward, and he walks sheepishly up to stand at the front.
“I have something special for you!” he says, and takes a piece of green taffy out of his pocket and holds it up. “Magic candy!”
I’m out of time. I launch myself off the side of the building at the window of the hospital. If it’s made of tempered glass, I’ll be scratched but okay. If it’s not, even if I turn just right, even with my cape and stab vest, there’s a good chance I’ll be sliced in half. I’m out of time.
I shatter through the window, right shoulder first, and crash to the floor. Dozens of eyes turn my way. The children gasp. Some scream. The Joker turns towards me and pushes little Dennis aside.
“Oh, no!” he screams. “It’s The Batman!”
He reaches into a pocket under his jacket, going for some weapon. He’s used guns hidden in teddy bears, marbles filled with acid, and countless other weapons disguised as toys on me in the past. Before he can pull anything out, I’m on him, punching him in the solar plexus with a right uppercut. He seems ready for it; his muscles are tensed, and I don’t even knock the wind out of him. He’s still trying to bring out a weapon. I hit him across the jaw with a left cross. I think I feel a bone crack.
He topples to the floor but still digs in his pocket with the single-minded determination of the truly insane. His hand comes out holding a blue and white plastic hammer. He takes a swing at me with it from the floor, but I step out of the way.
“Get him, kids!” he shouts at the audience. I step on his wrist and he drops the hammer.
I’m completely unprepared for what happens next. The crowd of children, all three dozen or so, charges me at once. They’re all holding blue and white plastic hammers just like his.
I don’t know what to do. I can’t hit children. I dodge and weave, backing away, not letting the hammers touch me. I manage to avoid them for a few seconds, but I’m overwhelmed, and I can’t fight back. I trip and fall on the floor as the flood of kids set upon me with the hammers. I hold up my arm to shield my head.
“Squeak!” the hammers go as they hit me. “Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!”
Nothing happens. They gleefully pound me with the toys over and over again, screaming with delight, but doing no harm. After several minutes, I see him. The Joker is standing behind the kids, watching me with a satisfied smile. Finally he holds up a hand.
“Okay, kids,” he says, his voice thick as he tries to talk with his injured jaw. “I think that’s enough. You’ve beaten the big, bad, Batman. He’s learned his lesson.”
The children back away, giggling and return to sitting on the floor. I stand up slowly, warily, watching the Joker hand a card to an orderly and promising to pay for the broken window. He grabs his bag of props, walks back to me, and holds my arm while he waves and bows to the children.
“Come on, Batsy,” he says out of the side of his mouth. “We don’t want to traumatize the little kiddies.”
Perhaps he’s drugged me, put something in those plastic hammers, but I let him steer me over to the elevator. He pushes the down button and waves goodbye to the kids as the door closes. We’re alone. My senses return, and I slam him against the far wall, my arm pressing against his neck.
“What are you doing? Did you put poison in that candy?” I say.
He smiles as if I’m not choking him.
“What, this candy?” he says gruffly, holding up the green taffy. Then he tosses it in his mouth, wrapper and all, and chews. When he swallows, I stand back and stare at him.
As we ride down in silence together, I watch him. I’ve been alone with The Joker before. He was always fidgety. He could never seem to sit still or stop moving his hands. Now, he hardly breathes as he stares at the floor. I get the impression he’s embarrassed.
“Did you ever read The Prince and the Pauper?” he says.
“No.” When would I have had the time?
“It’s about a young prince who wants to know what it’s like to be poor, just for a little while. It’s good to know how your life would be if things had been different. It’s good to see what you’re missing. Haven’t you ever wondered what life would be like if you hadn’t been… You know?”
He makes a circle by his right ear with his finger, crosses his eyes, sticks out his tongue, and says “Huh-hoy!” I feel the familiar anger well up in me again.
“I’m not crazy,” I say.
He looks down at the bat sewn into my tights.
“No. No, of course not. Not like me,” he says, and takes a deep breath. “Once a year, I get to be someone else. I play the good guy. I’m a hero to those children. And you… Well, now you know what it’s like to be me.”
The doors open and he walks out, still carrying his bag.
“The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain. You really should read it. ‘A full belly is little worth where the mind is starved!’” he says and walks off, a spring in his step.
I watch him go. Just this one day a year, I’ll leave him in peace. When I return home, I get a glass of wine and retire to the library.