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ANTHEM - THE BAT AND THE FERRET
By Paul E. Jamison
At the moment, Les was thinking about the disagreements he’d had with his parents about his choice of college.
He’d known that they’d be upset, so he’d approached it gradually. He’d started off by announcing that he wanted to go to University in the States. His parents hadn’t liked that, which was understandable; they kept up with the news. Mom had suggested that perhaps he might consider a local university, like the University of Toronto or York, so he could be in the city and could still stay at home. Dad had pointed out that if he wanted to move out on his own, the University of Winnipeg was good. But Les had replied that he’d looked into all of those institutions, and they didn’t quite have what he was aiming for, but universities in the States had some interesting curricula, and that he’d made up his mind to go south.
The discussion had so far been quire reasonable. But then Les said which university in the States that he’d decided on, and his parents almost lost it.
Mom ran into their bedroom, and Dad said he was nuts. Les pointed out that Gotham City University had a terrific Liberal Arts program that he thought was just what he wanted. Dad replied that Gotham City had one of the highest crime rates in the United States, which was saying a lot, and that there were a large numbers of lunatics running around in weird costumes, and, what, was he suicidal? Les countered with, oh, come on, no place could be that bad, the news media always exaggerated things, and besides, he’d heard that bad things rarely happened on the University campus. Dad then said that, look, if he really wanted to go to the States for an education, the University of Metropolis seemed to be a fine institution, and Metropolis was a nice, clean city with nice, clean, tall buildings, a lot better place to live than Gotham. Les replied that Metropolis had just as many people in costumes running around, and to add to that, pieces of those tall buildings tended to get broken off quite often, and pedestrians were always running the risk of getting hit by falling masonry. But Dad said that at least Metropolis had someone flying around who’d catch the falling masonry before anyone got hurt. After that the discussion had gotten acrimonious.
The disagreement was never completely resolved, and when Les had left Toronto for Gotham City, his parents both had given him that look. They promised that they’d keep in touch with him, and they did. Whenever someone like the Scarecrow or Two-Face had gone on a rampage, Les was sure to find about a dozen messages on his answering machine or to receive a phone call in the wee hours of the morning. After two years, his parents had relaxed a bit; they didn’t leave quite as many messages, nor did they call quite so late at night; even then it might just be Dad asking how a villain calling himself Clock King could ever be taken seriously.
Right now, Les was remembering those arguments vividly. He wanted to tell his parents that he was very wrong about his choice of university and that he wanted so very much to be back in Toronto. He also wanted to tell them – over and over again – that he loved them.
Les was tied to a chair in an abandoned warehouse in Gotham City, and he was almost certain that he wouldn’t get out of there alive. The scrawny man standing in front of him – the man with the Smile – wouldn’t let him.
Les had heard of him, of course, and he’d heard that the man was crazy. He’d always thought that the white skin and green hair were some sort of makeup. But, face to face, Les could see that it wasn’t makeup – the skin and hair color were all too real. The smile was real, too, but it was too big and too wide to be considered natural. The teeth were dazzlingly white, like a happy shark that used the best whitener in the world. And the eyes – the man’s mind was twisted in ways that went beyond the mere word “crazy”. Les had heard that Gotham University’s Psychology Department had entire shelves devoted to graduate theses about this man, and he could believe it.
The madman’s eyes were mesmerizing, and Les was doing his best not to get lost in them. Focusing on the bizarre sandwich that he was holding in his hand wasn’t much better.
That remarkably controlled voice said, “Now, Lester, my boy, I’m sure you’re starving by now, so why not pig out on Uncle Joker’s Good Old hero sandwich?” He waved it around. “Now doesn’t that look just scrumptious?”
It looked horrible. The submarine sandwich was a foot long roll, stuffed with several kinds of meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato and the usual other ingredients. What made this one grotesque were the model airplane parts. Sticking out of either side were miniature wings; a propeller stuck out from one end and a horizontal and vertical tail was on the other. Stuck to the top was the “birdcage”-type canopy of a World War II fighter. The whole concoction – wings, prop, tail, canopy, bread, meat and other ingredients – had been painted Aluminum Silver. If the paint wouldn’t poison him, he’d choke to death.
Les’ heart was pounding. He shook his head and muttered, “No – No – It’ll kill me –”
“What, this, after all that cafeteria food you’ve been living on?” The Joker looked disappointed. “And I went to so much trouble with this.” He admired the sandwich. “I must have used about four tubes of model cement putting it together. The diced peppers kept falling out.”
The Joker turned to the thug standing next to him. “Al, I think our friend Lester doesn’t want to eat. You’ll have to help him hold his mouth open.”
The thug smiled in a not-nice way and said, “Sure thing, Joker.” He flexed his hands.
“That’s good. Les, like it or not, you’re gonna –” He giggled. “– wolf this hero down –”
The Joker frowned. “Hold on a moment.” He examined the bizarre sandwich more closely. He paid special attention to the canopy. “This doesn’t look right. Al!”
Al was leaning over Les. “Yeah, boss?”
The Joker turned the silvery sandwich over in his hands. “I threw the model box in that trash can over there. Dig it out and bring it to me, will you?”
Al shrugged. “Okay, boss, whatever you say.” The thug ambled over to the large trash can nearby and rummaged around in it. He soon straightened up, holding a flat box, and brought it over. “Here ya go.”
“Thank you.” The Joker took the box and looked at the picture on the front. His eyebrows shot up. “What the –? This is a Curtiss Helldiver! No wonder it doesn’t look right! I wanted a Douglas Dauntless! What happened?” He stood there, a box in one hand and a silver sandwich in the other, lost in thought.
Then he rolled his eyes. “Oh, I know what it was! I saw the Dauntless in the model shop and it was right next to the Helldiver! I turned around to say something to you, Al, while I was reaching for the model I wanted, and I grabbed the wrong box!” He slapped the box against his forehead. “I didn’t pay the least attention at the checkout counter – and I didn’t even notice it when I put this together!” The Joker shook his head and chuckled. “Dumb, dumb, dumb mistake! And I’ve got no one to blame but myself!”
Al said, “Well, you could still cram it down his throat. It won’t make any difference, will it?”
“Actually, yes, it does. For this to have any meaning, it has to be a Douglas Dauntless.” The Joker looked at Les, and he actually seemed genuinely apologetic. “Look, I really feel bad about this, pal. Here I went to all the trouble of kidnapping you from the University and bringing you out here, and it all turns out for nothing.” He looked over the submarine sandwich. “Ahh, the heck with this schtick. I’m starting too early, anyway.”
The Joker turned around and tossed the winged sandwich away. Surprisingly, it was able to glide through the air and drop in the trash can.
The Joker turned back. “I’ll tell you what, Lester. Why don’t we just forget the whole thing? I’ll take you back to your dorm, you go your way, I’ll go mine, and we put this screw-up behind us. How’s that sound?”
Les couldn’t answer. He just gaped at the Joker. So did Al.
Al spluttered, “But – you just gonna let him go?!”
The Joker shrugged. “Well, I think it’s only fair.”
“But – but he’s seen us! He can identify us!”
“Oh, yes, and I’ve worked for so long to keep my nice, normal face off of the police blotter.”
The irony didn’t quite escape the hired goon. “But he can identify me!”
The Joker looked thoughtful. “Actually, that’s a good point.” He looked at Les. “Oh, well, it’s nothing a little gas won’t cure.”
Al looked relieved. “Oh, the Joker Gas, huh, boss?”
The Joker rummaged through his jacket pocket. “Yes, that gas, my dear Al.” He brought out a bright yellow plastic flower and attached it to his lapel. He smiled an evil smile and said to Les, “Now, my boy, in case you haven’t been keeping up on the newspapers, this little gadget dispenses a chemical of my own invention. It’s formulated to put a laugh in one’s voice and a smile on one’s face. Uncle Joker gives it a lifetime guarantee.”
Al chuckled. “Heh. Lifetime guarantee, yeah.”
The Joker smiled even wider and held the plastic flower out. He then pointed it sideways, and the flower sprayed a cloud of green gas in Al’s face.
For a brief moment, Al’s face was wide with shock. Then he began to hack and cough loudly. Al stared at the Joker, but he was unable to say anything.
The Joker said, “I’m running this show, fella-me-lad, and when I say that someone dies or lives, I mean that they die or live.”
He grinned. “Besides, lackeys are a dime a dozen in this town, but the world needs as many college graduates as it can get.”
Al continued to cough and hack, but he began to chuckle as well. He then began to laugh.
“Oh, now, you’re being too kind. I didn’t think it was that funny.”
Al had stopped coughing, and he was roaring now with laughter. There was no laughter in his eyes – only desperation. The building echoed with his laugh. He was holding his stomach and gasping for breath, but he couldn’t stop laughing. Soon he fell to his knees, wheezing as much as he was laughing. Finally he fell on his back, and his laughter began to get weaker, his heels kicking against the concrete floor. The laughing faded and the kicking slowed down. Finally all he could do was chuckle and twitch, and he eventually fell quiet.
The Joker looked down at Al’s face. The thug’s mouth was now stretched back and his teeth clenched tightly in a hideous mockery of a smile. The eyes were bugged out and staring at nothing in this world. The Joker’s smile wasn’t any less hideous. “Oh, well, leave with a smile, I always say.”
He turned around. “Okay, now, Lester – Lester?”
Les was slumped forward, as much as his bonds would allow, and his head hung down. The Joker knelt down and waved his hand in front of the student’s face.
“Lester? Yoo-hoo – you in there?” No response.
The Joker sighed. “Figures. You meet someone that you can finally have an intelligent conversation with, you let them live, and they up and faint on you. Oh, well.” He stood up, walked over to the trash can and dropped in the model box. He then came back to Les and began untying him.
“Right. Gotta get you back to the dorm before curfew.” He picked up Les’ unconscious body and draped it over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Stepping over Al’s mortal remains, the Joker headed for the door with his burden.