“So what’s the plan today, Ra’s? A round of golf with the heads of your enemies? A new black plague unleashed in Tokyo? Tearing the wings off of dragonflies?” The Joker froze and slowly turned to look at his unwitting host. “Oh, please don’t pretend to be shocked at any of those suggestions. I see how you’ve set yourself up as some kind of supreme commander here, but under all the trappings, you’re just as mad as I am. You get your jollies seeing people suffer — don’t deny it. I’ve seen the plans you have, the preparations you’ve worked on for decades. You’ve got it set up so that, anytime you want, you can wipe whole cities from the map.” Turning to a map on the wall, the Joker started poking at random locations. “Boom! Splat! You’re all gone! Boing! Whoosh! Whoops, sorry Houston, you’re a gassed-out ghost town! ZZT! London’s electricity grid overloads and fries half the people. Crack! That dam splits, and Lakeville is under the lake!”
“Do you have a point in all this, Joker?” asked Ra’s, sitting placidly at a desk.
The Joker turned to face him, leaning back against the map. “Why? You’ve found a way to live forever, or the next best thing, anyway.” Ra’s’ eyes narrowed. “Yes, I found mention of your Lazarus pits. I assume there is one in this place somewhere, right? So, you live for centuries, and what do you do? You plan how to wipe out thousands of people at a stretch! Not to rule them, not to take over the world, but just kill them off. What’s the deal?”
“The deal, as you put it, is the long-term survival of both the human race and the world upon which it dwells. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the western world has been hell-bent upon its own destruction, and determined to take the planet with it. Now, parts of the eastern world are following suit. Lifetimes on the assembly line have taken the place of slavery and indentures. An ironically named minimum wage gives the lowest classes the illusion that their governments care for them, and that the businesses that grow upon their labors value them, even as they dwell in the eternal twilight of subsistence. From time to time, I have found it necessary to engage in a winnowing of the human stock so that others might survive. The time draws near when I must step up the process as technology allows the human race to accelerate the death throes of the world.”
Throughout Ra’s’ response, the Joker stood, his face relaxing and his eyelids drooping. When the ancient man stopped, the Joker jerked upright. “Whoa! Sorry, old man, I think you lost me sometime around the Industrial Revolution!”
“Why am I not surprised?” asked Ra’s dryly.
“So, you’re killing people to help the world, while I’m just killing people for the hell of it. Is that right?”
“As I have no idea what your motivations are, I can only agree to the first part of your statement.”
“Ha! And I had you pegged as the sees all, knows all kind of guy. I figure that’s how you ended up sending your stooge to Gotham for that whacked-out trial a few years ago!”
“I assume you refer to the trial to determine who killed the Batman? The one which saw you sent back to Arkham Asylum yet again?” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed?” Batman #291 (September, 1977).]
“Yeah, that’s the one. Based on your reputation, I always figured that wasn’t really you acting as the judge.” The Joker took a seat near Ra’s desk. “Were you in constant contact with him throughout the trial, or did you leave him on his own?”
“He radioed me each night with the progress of the trial. I found it amusing that a group of costumed buffoons would compete for the honor of a lifetime prison sentence, if not the death penalty.”
“And the Batman actually asked you to get involved in that?”
Ra’s leaned forward. “Believe it or not, clown, the Dark Knight’s goals and my own are aligned more often than they are opposed. Alas, he naively hangs onto this belief that the lives of innocents are somehow more valuable in the greater scheme of life. That is where we most often come into conflict.”
The Joker’s chin was resting on his chest, but he jerked up and out of the chair. “Well, then, since the friend of my enemy is my enemy, or something like that, I’d best be on my way before I find old cape-and-cowl grabbing me by the collar again!” Before Ra’s could react, he was out the door and running down a corridor.
“Guards! Hold him!” cried Ra’s, rising from his desk and hurrying toward the door. The two guards who had been standing by the door were both collapsed on the floor, laughing uncontrollably, obviously from exposure to Joker venom. He ran back to his desk and flipped a switch on an intercom. His voice carried throughout the compound. “The Joker is loose somewhere in this installation. He shall be seized and brought to me immediately!”
The following afternoon in Gotham City, the phone on Bruce Wayne’s desk rang. He answered it, to find his secretary requesting to transfer a call to him. “It’s Jacquelyn LaFlair from the commercial realty division. She says she has a client who wants to deal directly with you.”
“Put her on.” There was a pause, and a click on the line. “Jackie, this is Bruce. What can I do for you?”
“Thank you for taking the call, Bruce. I know you must be swamped, with all that’s gone on. I have a client interested in purchasing the property at Newton and Reed, but he insists on dealing with you directly. He says you have met in the past.”
“Really? It’s unusual, but I could probably fit it into my schedule this week.”
“Actually, we’re at the property now, and he’d like to move on this quickly. Is there any chance–?”
“Jackie, I was just thinking I’d like to get out of the office for an hour or so. I’ll be there in ten minutes. By the way, who is this client?”
Bruce reached for his jacket as he prepared to hang up the phone. “I’m on my way.” As he walked out of the office, he turned and made his way to another office on the same floor. “Dick, do you still have my work-out clothes handy?”
Dick Grayson looked up from the report he was reviewing. “Yeah, they’re up in the penthouse. You need them?”
“No. But could you change and meet me down at Newton and Reed in about twenty minutes?”
Dick’s eyebrows went up as he stood and started toward the door. “Sounds interesting. I’ll see you there.”
“You realize the building is being sold as-is with no renovations. Frankly, we expect any buyer to tear down the building. The land underneath it is worth the asking price.”
“Certainly, Mr. Wayne, but the building has a certain bit of history to it. It was built in the 1840s for use as a cold-storage warehouse, hence the several smaller rooms within as well as the enclosed docking area for unloading ships out of the sunlight. After World War II, it was converted into a night club, remaining so through Prohibition and up into the late ’40s. After that, it became just one more waterfront warehouse.”
“I can see where its history might pique your interest, Mr. Cobblepot,” mused Bruce. “The cold, the criminal activity, and all.”
“Not to fear, Mr. Wayne. I’m out of the crime business,” squawked Oswald Cobblepot.
“So I’d heard. I’m curious, though — there is a law against criminals benefiting from their crimes. Where is the money coming from to finance this business of yours, if not from past criminal activity?”
“Ah, I see your concern. Several years ago, I put my knowledge of the avian world to a legitimate use and authored a number of reference books on various species of birds.”
“Published under the name Chet Oswald.” Both Cobblepot and Wayne turned at the sound of a new voice, one they both recognized.
“Ah, Batman. I should have known that word of my appearance in Gotham’s streets would reach you in short order,” said Oswald, stepping away from Bruce and displaying his empty hands. “As you see, I am unarmed. To steal a phrase, I come in peace.”
“Understood and acknowledged. Congratulations on your release,” said the caped crusader.
“Thank you, and thank you also for your part in that release. I’ve decided to take this opportunity to make a change in my direction.” The former Penguin gestured at the timeworn building before which they stood. “Please, stop by once I open my business; I’d be honored to buy you a drink.”
“Mr. Cobblepot is interested in purchasing this building and turning it back into a night club — a throwback to the days of large clubs with national musical acts.” Bruce looked up the street. “I think it may fit in well with some of the plans the Wayne Foundation has for this area.”
“Yes, the Arctic Circle, as I plan to call it, will cater to the well-to-do of Gotham, the folks that used to come down here when Park Row was the social center of downtown Gotham.”
“Arctic Circle, hmm?” mused Batman. “You know, the police department has some equipment of Mister Freeze’s that was in one of his hideouts — ice-making equipment, cold-generating panels for the floor, that sort of thing. Might help the atmosphere, if I understand your concept correctly.”
“I can speak with the Commissioner about turning it over for your use,” said Bruce. “As you probably already know, most of the equipment they seize from costumed criminals ends up being destroyed rather than merely decommissioned.”
“I know — believe me, I know,” replied Cobblepot.
Before the conversation could continue further, shots sounded from a block away. “Sounds like my cue to leave,” said Batman, pointing his arm and pressing a button on his glove. A dart fired from a launcher in the glove, trailing a thin line. When the dart embedded itself in a wall far above, Batman took to the air.
They saw him come down at the far end of the block, just as three young men came running from the side street. He dropped one with a kick to the head and pulled a pair of wooden rods from his boots. One of them spun faster than the eye could follow as he swept backward with the second one. That one caught a second youth under the chin, lifting him off his feet to land on his back. He launched the spinning escrima stick at the third runner, who was already twenty feet down the street. The rod struck behind his knees, bringing him to the ground.
“Impressive,” commented Bruce, watching from a distance.
“Yes, it is,” replied Cobblepot. “But it’s also strange. In all the years I’ve had dealings with Batman, I’ve never seen him use this sort of fighting style. Much more acrobatic and free-flowing than I’ve ever seen him before.”
Bruce turned and looked down at his companion. “Really? I can’t say that I’ve ever paid that much attention to how Batman fights. Not much interest in that part of it, I guess you’d say.”
“I guess you could,” said Cobblepot, watching down the street as the Batman bound the three criminals to a lamp post. Turning back to face Bruce, he smiled. “So, do we have a deal, Mr. Wayne?”
Bruce put out his hand. “I believe we do. If you’d like to come back to the office, we can get the paperwork started.”
“All of the exits are secure, Master.”
“Have the guards check in again. It has been almost twenty-four hours. There can’t be that many places to hide in here.” As he listened to the five different security squads reporting their status, Ra’s al Ghul radioed his daughter. “Have you seen any sign of the madman?”
“None, father.” Talia and Ubu were watching a sixth exit from the under-mountain lair, one known only to Ra’s and themselves.
“Very well.” Ra’s raised his voice so the security leader could hear him. “Have your other men start sweeping through the compound. The Joker only leaves here as a corpse.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when a light on the security leader’s panel lit up. “Master, someone has entered the chamber of the Pit!”
“Curse me for a fool!” Ra’s turned in a swirl of green cloaks. “Send your nearest men down there now! Have them wait for me outside the chamber.” Exiting the room, he broke into a run.
Two minutes later, Ra’s entered the chamber. No lights were needed, as the room was bathed in the reddish glow from the room’s only feature: a low-walled pit full of glowing, lava-like chemicals. As Ra’s entered, followed by eight armed soldiers, they were greeted with laughter.
“Looks like I found it, eh, Ra’s? Your sanctum sanctorum, your holy of holies!” The Joker stood on the stone wall surrounding the pit, a pistol in one hand and a flimsy toy umbrella in the other. He turned and walked along the wall, tilting from one side to the other. “Whoop-dee-doo, best watch that step there! Ha-ha-ha-ha!”
“Come down from there, you demented fool!” shouted Ra’s.
“Or what? You’ll kill me?” The Joker turned and crouched down. “Go ahead and shoot! You’ll knock me into the frying pan here, and I’ll be right back! Isn’t that the idea here?”
Ra’s raised a hand to calm his soldiers. “It isn’t that simple, Joker.”
“Ohhh, I see! You don’t want me going in there for some reason. Doesn’t that make things interesting.” The Joker turned and walked back along the pit wall. “In that case,” he said, raising the hand with the pistol in it, “I’m free to do this!”
One of the soldiers leaped in front of Ra’s, prepared to take the bullet himself. However, the Joker turned the gun to point at his own head and pulled the trigger.
Ra’s and his men watched as the Joker’s body, with the top of his head torn apart by the bullet, toppled into the Lazarus Pit.