The Joker: 1981: It Takes One to Know One, Chapter 1: When the Bat’s Away

by HarveyKent

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“Daddy?” the ten-year-old girl said. “Daddy, I’m scared.”

The father sat down on the sofa next to his daughter and put a comforting arm around her shoulder. “No need to be scared, sweetheart,” he said. “Everything will be fine. I promise.” The father was in his early forties, dapper and distinguished. He didn’t dare betray an iota of fear, for he needed to be his daughter’s pillar of strength.

The doorbell rang, and the father breathed a sigh of relief. He got up and crossed to the front door of the luxurious apartment. He opened the door and gasped in surprise. The man on the other side of the door was not at all who he was expecting.

“Ten-fifty,” the man in the green and yellow uniform of Ma Jong’s Pizza said laconically. The bill of his cap was pulled down over his forehead. He held the flat, square pizza box balanced on his left palm.

“There’s some mistake,” the father said, irritably. “I didn’t order any pizza.”

“Wait, wait,” the delivery man said, suddenly animated. “This is the Dozier Arms, isn’t it? Apartment 1901?”

“Yes, yes, but I’m telling you I didn’t order any pizza!” the father insisted.

“Aw, geez,” the delivery man said. “Not another practical joke! Third one this week, and it comes out of my pay! Look, buddy, do a fella a favor, huh? How about taking this pie off my hands?”

“Look, I’m sorry,” the gentleman said, “but I don’t have time for–”

“Aw, come on!” the delivery man insisted. “It’s great pizza! Sausage and mushrooms! Here, take a whiff.” The delivery man reached to open the lid of the box; the father was so irritated by his insistence, he didn’t notice that the delivery man turned his own head away. As the cardboard lid was lifted, a jet of yellowish gas sprayed into the father’s face. Before the man had time to react, the gas had done its work, and he crumpled to the floor in a heap.

“Easy as pizza pie!” the delivery man said with a high-pitched giggle, leaping over the father’s prone form. He whipped off the cap to reveal a head of slicked-back black hair, crowing his high forehead with a sharp widow’s peak.

Hello there, little girl,” the Riddler said, grinning at the girl sitting on the sofa. She stared back at him in fear. “Now, no need to be scared,” the criminal said in a placating manner. “You’re just going to take a little trip with Uncle Riddler. If your daddy’s a smart man, you’ll be back home with him before you know it!” The disguised villain took a fat magic marker from the pocket of his uniform. “First, though, I have to sign my work. A good artist always does!” The little girl watched in horrified fascination as the strange man wrote large words on the walls of their apartment, giggling all the while.

***

“Commissioner, I cannot impress on you strongly enough the importance of this!” the dapper father ranted in the Commissioner’s office. “My daughter must be found!”

“I understand, Ambassador Coleworth,” Commissioner James W. Gordon said soothingly. “And I understand why. Believe me, I do. We have every available man on this one. Your daughter will be found.”

“What about that costumed vigilante you have on retainer?” Coleworth demanded, pointing at the red phone on the Commissioner’s desk. “My daughter was kidnapped by the Riddler! Have you called him in?”

“I don’t have Batman on retainer, as you put it,” Gordon said evenly. “He is a free agent, operating in cooperation with the Police Department but independent of it.”

“Yes, yes, but that–”

“And,” Gordon continued, “yesterday he informed me that he was called away to an emergency meeting of the Justice League of America, and would be out of Gotham City until further notice. He didn’t expect to be more than a day or two, but I haven’t heard from him yet.”

Ambassador Coleworth gaped at the Commissioner for a moment, then collapsed into a chair, defeated. “Then my daughter dies.”

“No!” Gordon snapped. “Get that thought out of your head, Ambassador! Your daughter will be found! I swear it!”

“Commissioner,” Chief Clancy O’Hara said, “what about Robin? Perhaps we can call him in on this! I know he’s been away from Gotham for a while, but–”

“I already tried that, Chief,” Gordon said. “The voice on the other end of the hotline informed me that Robin is on a case with the Teen Titans and cannot be reached.”

“Begorra! The Teen Titans!” O’Hara cried. “Sure’n I thought they disbanded a while ago!”

“They recently re-formed,” Gordon informed the Chief. “Something involving Doctor Destiny, or Doctor Light, or similar. In any case, Robin is unavailable.” Gordon’s brow wrinkled. His own daughter, Barbara, was similarly indisposed as Batgirl, though he couldn’t inform the Chief how he knew that. “Anyway, is the Gotham City Police Department a collection of fools? Can no one in our own department solve this maniac’s clues?”

“We’ve been tryin’, Commissioner,” O’Hara assured. “The first riddle was easy. ‘Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?’ Grant, o’course, everyone knows that. But the second one. ‘Why is a man with a broken leg like a fisherman?’ Sure’n that’s a puzzler!”

“Well, if we don’t figure it out, and fast–” Commissioner Gordon did not finish his statement.

***

“I’ve got it!” Chief O’Hara said sometime later, banging his fist on the table.

“What is it?” Gordon demanded. Ambassador Coleworth had returned to his home to await news from the police. Gordon had about given up hope of solving the Riddler’s demented clues.

“Well, a man with a broken leg has broken a bone,” O’Hara explained. “And a fisherman might catch a herring! Herring-bone, get it? The Riddler’s someplace where they have herringbone suits!”

Gordon stared at Chief O’Hara silently for a moment, then sighed. “Keep trying, Chief.”

“Well, blast it all, Commissioner,” O’Hara railed. “I’ve been a policeman for thirty years, but solvin’ fancy puzzles is beyond me! Saints be praised we’ve got Batman to deal with clever crooks like the Riddler and the Joker, because their shenanigans are beyond the likes of me!”

“Yes, well, we don’t have Batman this time,” Gordon said. “So we’d better–” The Commissioner stopped short and stared ahead of him.

“Something the matter, Commissioner?” O’Hara asked.

“Something you said, Chief,” Gordon said. “What was it you said?”

“Eh? What I said?” O’Hara asked. “All I said was, it’s a good thing Batman can handle the likes of the Riddler.”

“And the Joker,” Gordon whispered.

O’Hara’s eyes widened. “Commissioner, sure’n you’re not thinkin’–”

“Ordinarily, I would never think anything of the kind,” Gordon said. “But this is a very desperate situation, Chief O’Hara, and it calls for desperate measures.”

“But, sir!” O’Hara insisted. “You’re talkin’ about fightin’ fire with gasoline! Don’t ye see, what you’re contemplatin’ can only make things worse?

“That’s a possibility,” Gordon acknowledged. “And yet, it’s the only hope we have.” Gordon rose from his desk, pushing his chair behind him with a single motion. Chief O’Hara watched in gape-mouthed wonder. Gordon couldn’t be serious. Could he?

“Let’s go, Chief,” Gordon said, striding purposefully for the door.

“Saints preserve us all,” O’Hara whispered.

***

“I’m back,” the thin man with the greasy dark hair said as he entered the small apartment. He carried two white paper sacks in his left hand as he closed and triple-locked the door with his right. “Got you everything you wanted. Quarter pounder with cheese, small french fries, strawberry milkshake, and a hot apple pie. Be careful with the pie — the filling is just like lava.”

“No onions?” Jennifer Coleworth asked.

“No onions,” Edward Nigma said, sighing. “I had to wait twenty extra minutes, but no onions. I don’t know why I couldn’t have gone to Burger King; special orders don’t upset them.”

“Burger King is yucky,” the ten-year-old said as Nigma handed over the paper sack. “Thank you,” she said politely.

“You’re welcome, kid,” Nigma said, opening his own sack. “You know, it reminds me of a riddle. What did the mayonnaise say to the refrigerator?”

Jennifer thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know — what?

“Close the door, I’m dressing!” The Riddler waited for the little girl’s reaction. The ten-year-old looked at him with a puzzled expression.

“I don’t get it,” she said finally.

“It’s a play on words,” Nigma explained patiently. “Mayonnaise is a kind of salad dressing. Get it? I’m dressing?

Jennifer thought about it for a moment. “It’s not a very funny riddle,” she decided.

“Everybody’s a critic,” Nigma complained, lifting a french fry to his mouth.

***

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t the top cop and his aide-de-campy!” the Joker giggled upon seeing Gordon and O’Hara enter his cell. The Joker sat on the floor of the padded room, his back to the wall. He was bound in a straitjacket, but he glared at his two visitors as though he were in total control of the situation. It gave O’Hara the creeps. “To what do I owe the nausea of your company?”

“We wanted to ask you a couple of riddles, Joker,” Gordon said. “Thought you might be able to solve them, if you’ve got nothing better to do.”

“Me? Solve riddles?” The Joker threw back his head and roared with laughter.

“What’s so blasted funny, ye grinnin’ gargoyle?” O’Hara demanded.

“That you expect me to help you solve Eddie’s latest clues, what with Bat-brains being out of town,” the Joker laughed.

Gordon gasped. “How — how did you know?

“Oh, come on, Commish!” the Joker said. “Why else would you come all the way down here to play riddles in the dark with little old me? To use your own words, surely you’ve got something better to do. Unless it’s what I think it is.”

Gordon sighed resignedly. “You’re right, Joker, it’s just as you say. Will you help us?”

“Maybe. I might be persuaded,” the Joker said. “I’m waiting to hear why I should.”

“You devil!” O’Hara snapped. “There’s a little girl’s life at–”

“Hold it, Chief,” Gordon said, touching the Chief’s arm. He knew that wasn’t the way to get the Joker to play along. “What about outsmarting the Riddler?” Gordon offered. “He’s been stealing your thunder for years; isn’t it time you paid him back some of that?”

“Nice try, Commish,” Joker shook his head, “but no dice. People have been trying to make that comparison for years, saying Eddie is a pale copy of me. It’s booshwah. He does his thing, I do mine. If I felt differently, he’d have been dead years ago! I don’t begrudge him his schtick. Try again.”

“Well…” Gordon thought for a moment. “What about putting one over on Batman? Imagine his surprise when he finds out that you solved an important case in his absence! His face’ll be red for months! He may never live down the humiliation!”

The Joker’s eyes lit up like a child on Christmas morning. “Now you’ve got me, Commish! Count me in!

Commissioner Gordon breathed a sigh of relief. “Very well,” he said. “Here are the riddles. First–”

“Whoa, hold on, Commish!” Joker interrupted. “It’s not going to be as easy as that.”

Commissioner Gordon raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m not just going to sit here in my extra-snug overcoat and solve your riddles for you. You want Eddie found, you let me find him for you.”

Gordon gaped in outrage. “You mean — you expect us to let you out?!

“Sure,” Joker said, shrugging as best he could in the straitjacket. “I’ve been cooped up in here ever since Bat-brains and his two JLA buddies tossed me and Harvey back in here. (*) I want to walk in the sun, buy a hot dog from a vendor, smell clean fresh air…” Joker wrinkled his nose. “Well, this is Gotham City, after all. Two out of three.”

[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Claws of the Emperor Eagle,” The Brave and the Bold #129 (September, 1976).]

“No!” Gordon snapped. “Absolutely not! Under no circumstances! Forget it!”

“Suit yourself, Gordo,” Joker said, settling back against the padded wall. “I’m not out anything if you walk out of here. But I think Lucky Charms over there said something about a little girl’s life?

Gordon stood there fuming in silent rage. Finally, he turned away from the Joker and walked to the door of the cell, motioning for Chief O’Hara to follow. O’Hara put his head close to the Commissioner’s.

“You can’t be considerin’ it, Commissioner,” he said in a hushed whisper.

“What choice do I have?” Gordon whispered back. “You know the timetable we’re on! If that girl isn’t found soon–!” Gordon didn’t finish the sentence; O’Hara knew how it ended.

“But Commissioner, we’re talkin’ about the Joker!” O’Hara insisted. “Think of what could happen!”

“I am thinking, Chief,” Gordon whispered. “I’m weighing the risks. We have the possibility of the Joker escaping… and we have the reality of Jennifer Coleworth.” Gordon turned back around to face the Joker.

“Here are the terms, Joker,” Gordon said evenly. “Chief O’Hara and I will be constantly at your side from the minute you leave this facility. We’ll be like Siamese triplets, we three. You solve the riddles, you find Nigma, you lead us to him. The police do the rest and rescue the girl. Then you will be brought right back here, to this very cell. Understood?”

“Understood, Commish,” the Joker said. “I just have one more question.”

“What is it?” Gordon asked, suspiciously.

“What’s so special about this case? Obviously there’s a catch, or you’d never even think of asking me for help. I’ve got to be the lesser of two evils, and I’m curious to know what could possibly be the greater. So clue me in, Jimmy ol’ pal. What’s the four-one-one?”

Gordon sighed and told the Joker what was so special about this case. The Joker’s eyes bulged with surprise, then he threw back his head and laughed.

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