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Contagious

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Jim is straight as a board listening to the call. Speeding causes the car to take turns more violently and makes it difficult to hear, but that stopped bothering him a long time ago and now it’s just something he has to account for. The Gotham noise, on the other hand, is muted, frozen in waiting. Something big is about to happen, and she knows it.

Hell, everybody knows it.

Jim didn’t know it, until Maggie barged in, opening his door with such force that it bounced off the wall and broke a glass panel. Whatever he’d wanted to object was lost the moment she said, “Somebody killed the Joker.” His first thought was that he expected her to tell him the city was melting down, not to give good news.

His second was, ‘Is the killer worse than Joker?’

The answer to that was not forthcoming, so now Jim, after reassuring himself that SWAT was deployed to make sure it isn’t a trap and making sure a fleet of ambulances is waiting nearby, goes to see for himself.

Jim hits play on the recording again, even though by this point, he could recite the thing.

“I killed him,” a young man’s voice rings clearly. “I killed all of them.”

Every time Jim hears it, it seems wrong. The young man seems lost, in pain or shock, but the quality of the recording doesn’t show it. It should be crackly, broken.

“Killed who, sir?” the operator’s—Suzie, if Jim’s not mistaken—voice is calm. On the one hand, she’s a professional. On the other, this is Gotham.

“The man with the creepy laughter.” The man swallows. It sounds painful. “And so many others.”

“S-sir,” Suzie’s voice trembles. If that’s Suzie, she had an older brother who died young because of Joker’s schemes. It was the event that made her seek a career in law enforcement. “Where are you?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s all right, sir, I can trace your call. Stay on the line, help will come.” Suzie has recovered nicely. “Are you hurt?”

“Yes.”

“Where are you hurt?”

“There’s so much blood… Everything hurts.” There is a long pause. “I can’t tell.”

“Can you tell me your name, sir?”

“I… I don’t know.” Before Suzie can say anything else, the young man manages, “I don’t think I… Hurry.” He doesn’t say anything further.

“Jerry is calling,” David says.

“Put him through.”

David puts the call through. “Jerry, you’ve got the Commissioner.”

“I’ve got twenty-three bodies,” Jerry begins. “My boys are checking pulses, but I’m not hopeful. They’ve got mostly headshots. And…” He stops. Breathing can be heard on the line. “One of them looks like the Joker.”

“Looks like?” Jim asks incredulously.

“It could be a clone or somebody who looks like him even after death,” Jerry tries dubiously.

David isn’t impressed. “Isn’t Joker in Arkham?”

“I don’t know, not my business,” Jerry asserts. “But would you be surprised if he got out and none of us knew?”

“Point.” David sighs.

Voices are heard on Jerry’s end. “We’ve got a live one. Wasn’t the shooter alive?”

“Yes,” Jim confirms.

“He’s in a bad way,” Jerry says somberly. “He’s slashed, not too bad, he’s got two gunshot wounds: thigh and shoulder, and he’s bruised all to hell. He’s got a couple of ribs broken, that’s for sure, maybe even internal bleeding.”

“Make sure the building’s clear, get him some help, then take the bodies, and leave the building,” Jim orders. “Now’s not the time to risk anything.”

“Yes, sir,” Jerry responds and the call ends.

“Call Maggie,” Jim says into the dashboard. He starts speaking as soon as she picks up. “What have we got from Arkham?”

Maggie doesn’t waste time. “The Joker is out of his cell.”

Jim and David share a look.

“There was a life-sized puppet in his place who kept laughing, sir.”

Could it be?

*

As Jim gets to the site—Amusement Mile, who’s surprised?—a young man, with a shock of white hair through his black curls, gets hurried out of there.

“Find out where they go and put people on him,” Jim tells David. “Make sure you trust them.”

David nods.

Jerry takes his place. “Batman found explosives in the funhouse. The bombs are now inert. And you should see this.” Jerry gestures with his head.

There’s blood. A lot of it. Everywhere. It would be funny because somebody was obviously too enthusiastic, but this is Gotham and Jim knows it’s real. And there’s…

“Was one of them here?” Jim asks, looking at the remains of a chair.

“I can only presume, but yes.” Jerry studies the crowbar next to the chair. “It looks like torture.”

“You think it was our caller.”

“If it was—and he survives—he’s out free.” Jerry smiles. “Twenty-two people. The Joker. It’s self-defense.” He shrugs. “The Joker,” he repeats gleefully. “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.” Jerry turns to go, but then stops and turns to Jim again. “Just saying and all, but I kind of want the kid as my sniper.”

Jim sighs.

*

“Is the building safe?” Jim asks the air because this is Gotham and she has…

“Yes.”

Batman.

“I’ll order another sweep and then turn it over to the techs,” Jim answers. “Do you know what happened here?”

“A slaughter.”

Jim doesn’t say anything to that. It’s different from what he heard and what he observed, but he fears he doesn’t have all the information. Again, this is not surprising because it’s Gotham, but it’s still frustrating. In these situations, it’s better to keep quiet.

“They were all slaughtered by him,” Batman says after a long moment of silence. “All on his conscience.”

“When did you get here?”

“About two minutes after the phone call.”

So Batman hadn’t seen it either. Jim might be the one with more information. That is a… novel place to be.

Then Jim had an idea. “Do you know him?”

“I am familiar with his work,” Batman says stoically.

What does that mean? “Did he work with Joker?” Because Joker doesn’t have enemies. Nobody likes—or is it liked?—him, but no one stood up to him. Just the Bat and his ki—birds and bats.

Batman snorts and it’s such a rare sound that Jim is sure that this young man is an exception to that Gotham rule. “No. He was definitely not working with Joker, but he behaves too much like him.”

That is too much bitterness for somebody who is supposed to be objective. This is personal. But how?

A question for later, because now Jim has one that’s more time sensitive. “Was that the Joker?”

“Probably.” His chest plate moves in what Jim has learned to mean ‘Batman sighs’. “Joker had an obsession with the… killer”—his jaw tightens—“that came to be reciprocal. I would not be surprised if it were Joker.” But he’s sad, Jim could see it plainly. “Since Joker isn’t in his cell, chances are good that the body belongs to him, though one should never rely on chances when it comes to Joker.”

That’s fine, except Batman is more forthcoming with the information than usual. It makes Jim suspicious. Just who is that young man?

“We’ll find out in three days,” Jim says. “For such a high priority”—Crime? Murder? Celebration?—“event, the city will find money for expedited DNA and other tests.” He studies Batman. “I don’t suppose that you’ll let me know before then?” Because Batman always finds out first.

Batman nods.

Jim turns, knowing that the conversation is over and expecting Batman to do his disappearing act when Batman surprises Jim.

“What is going to happen to him?” Batman asks.

And Jim is so shocked that he retorts, “To whom?”

“The…” Batman can’t seem to find it in himself to repeat the word and sort of gestures uselessly. But then his jaw sets. “The killer.”

‘Definitely personal,’ Jim thinks while he feels the urge to rub his temple, hoping that maybe that’ll impede a coming headache.

Is that too optimistic?

Well, it’s not like he’d still be fighting for Gotham if he didn’t have his own healthy dose of idealism, would he?

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Jim tells Batman.

And when Jim turns to him, there’s no one there.

Figures.

*

“How is he?”

Ortiz sighs. “He has chances.”

“That’s not very encouraging, Doctor,” Jim observes.

“He should be dead,” Ortiz says. “We think he might he might be a little meta.”

“A little?”

“While we were doing the preliminary investigation, we noticed that he has a… somewhat enhanced healing factor.”

Jim frowns. “How enhanced?”

“If you were to take a rapidly healing baseline human, he’s a notch above that.” Ortiz raises her hand to show her fingers almost touching. “I don’t think he qualifies as a meta but I wouldn’t call him baseline either. He’s young, has a strong will and a well-trained body that, with the exception of scars, seems to have been kept in fairly decent health. When you help that a little, it may go a long way.”

“What are we talking about?”

“He has four broken ribs, three cracked ones, a lung got nicked, two bullet wounds, a sprained ankle, and hairline fractures on both hands and legs,” Ortiz says. “But the main injury and the reason you’re talking to me is that he has brain swelling due to blunt force trauma. In fact, most of his injuries are caused by a blunt instrument. He was beaten badly.”

“With a crowbar, we think,” Jim told Ortiz. “Would that fit?”

“It depends on who used it,” Ortiz says. “Like I said, he should have died, but we got him stabilized.” She pinches the root of her nose. “What you may not know about a meta’s healing factors is that they seem to have a degree of sensitivity. They always work on the most life-threatening wound first.”

Jim nods to show that he’s listening.

“It was lucky that we noticed it in the first place.” Ortiz changes tracks when Jim’s expression must’ve shown his confusion. “We were about to go in and do brain surgery when I asked for more pictures because he was hit twice and I had to work based on the already fractured skull. In those, I noticed that it seemed like the swelling had gone down from the first ones. It would have been imperceptible if I wasn’t used to seeing this type of wounds every day. This is perfectly normal, especially since he was put on fluids immediately, but it doesn’t quite work with the time frame.”

“Which is how you discovered the enhanced healing,” Jim says.

“Yes, but here comes the issue.” Ortiz takes a deep breath. “If the swelling doesn’t go down quick enough he might have permanent damage, but if I drill into his skull, his body might consider that to be the main injury and stop healing his brain.” She looked to the kid’s room. “And bones are hard to heal so I don’t know how much would even focus on that. Besides, if we take the focus from the brain, he may not make it. Even if it did, brains are notoriously tricky so we can use all the help we can get.”

“Bother,” Jim murmurs. “How do you know so much about enhanced healing?”

“Batman has kindly provided me with study material.”

“Right.” Jim nods awkwardly, thinking of all the villains that Batman has beaten up. “So what are you going to do now?”

“He had surgery to repair his lung and the damage done by the bullet wounds, but as I said, I think that our best option for his brain is his enhanced healing so that’s all the work we’ve done on him so far. We’ve lowered his body temperature, put him on fluids, and now we wait.” Ortiz isn’t a big fan of waiting, Jim can tell. “If the swelling is going down at an acceptable rate, we won’t do surgery.”

“Can you guarantee that he won’t have brain damage?”

“I can’t.” Ortiz huffs. “He was hit twice hard enough or with a hard enough object to produce fissures on his skull. That’s where it stopped depending on me. I can only manage the harm done, I can’t undo it.”

“He indicated that he didn’t know who he was. Is that something that you’d confirm after seeing his injuries?”

“Definitely,” Ortiz pronounces. “Both for the swelling and for the damage.”

Jim nods. “Permanent?”

“Before I answer that, memory loss doesn’t have to be physical; it can very well be emotional trauma, especially after a beating like that,” Ortiz points out. “But, on my side of things, I’d say that if he has amnesia it can be temporary, permanent, or anything in between. It depends on how much he heals.”

Jim’s headache blooms.