Nightwing was naked except for the mask, strapped to the orb atop the Daily Planet building while Huntress, Clancy, Megan, Stella, Cathy and Jolene circled like the biplanes in King Kong. -TWUDDTwing- An arrow narrowly missed his head, wedged into the planet behind him, and the whole thing began to rotate like it was a real planet. Now all the girls had bows and arrows and shot in time to the music of a circus calliope. -THUDDT- -THUDDTwing- ::Twitterbringngng:: -THUDDTwing- ::Twitterbringngng:: “HEY, that was close!” he cried out as an arrow sliced into his calf then burst into flame. ::Twitterbringngng:: ::Twitterbringngng:: ::Twitterbringngng::
Dick woke up.
Tried to answer the lampshade.
Then found the
“It’s four in the morning; what can you
..::That how you answer the phone?
That’s rude, Dick.:: .. Dick stared at the
receiver in wonder.
How Bruce of all people could call anybody else rude…
“At four o’clock
in the morning, that’s how I answer the goddamn phone. Rude?
RUDE? You’re calling me at
FOUR O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING, and you know goddamn well I only into bed an hour
ago, for pity sake.”
..::Come to the
diner across the street.
I want to talk.::..
Then found the telephone.
“It’s four in the morning; what can you possibly want?”
..::That how you answer the phone?
That’s rude, Dick.:: ..
Dick stared at the receiver in wonder. How Bruce of all people could call anybody else rude…
“At four o’clock in the morning, that’s how I answer the goddamn phone. Rude? RUDE? You’re calling me at FOUR O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING, and you know goddamn well I only into bed an hour ago, for pity sake.”
..::Come to the diner across the street. I want to talk.::..
Dick stared into the receiver again, hoping it might somehow transmit his malevolent glare.
“You know Tim, Barbara, and even Selina will actually come into my apartment.”
“Unless you’re afraid to look on the couch of death?”
..::Be right over.::..
Ten minutes later,
Bruce sat on the couch of death, but whatever it was that brought him here, he
Dick was at a bit of a loss how to proceed…
“Well, let’s see, last time we did this was when you saw Cat-Tales, wasn’t it. Don’t tell me another rogue has a show on. What is it this time: The Riddler on the Roof?”
It was a long time since Bruce heard one of those terrible puns, and a twitch-smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. He held it in …until Dick held up his hands and snapped them in time to a curious jig-step. Bruce did smile then—a real one that few get to see.
“So what’s really going on,” Dick asked.
François de Poulignac, if you please. That’s five names if you count the ‘de . .
.’ And six if you add that she calls him ‘Frank
“She… So this would be a friend of Selina’s?”
Bruce glared the answer.
“That sucks,” Dick noted.
“This is an ugly couch.”
“So who is this guy anyway?”
“A winemaker, some big important château, presenting at the festival.”
“This food todo that’s got Alfred all bent out of shape?”
“Alfred talked to you?”
“Yes. He calls at a decent hour, by the way.”
“Anyway, this de Poulignac is presenting, has to search every room in the house, it seems, to find one with the right temperature.”
“Already, I’m loving this guy,” Dick remarked. Dick’s unique combination of sympathy and sarcasm broke through the bat-wall of reserve and a far more animated Bruce emerged.
“You don’t know the half of it! I’m standing there for ten minutes, like a lawn jockey, waiting for pussycat to remember I exist. ‘Houseboat on the left bank and diamonds on the Riviera,’ ha ha ha. Finally, I introduce myself, ‘Bruce Wayne, I’m hosting the seminars.’ ‘The seminars? Ah oui, very good of you, so anyway petit chat…’ and they’re back to the Riviera.”
Dick did a double take. Bruce was a magnificent actor, but never had Dick seen him use the skill like this, conversationally. He had no doubt that the impersonation of de Poulignac was flawless, if unflattering, but he couldn’t quite wrap his brain around it coming from Bruce that way. In a simple effort to redirect the conversation to less bizarre territory, he asked “So how does Selina know this guy?”
“I don’t know.”
“They didn’t mention it.”
“Well you better find out!” Dick exclaimed.
“That’s tacky,” Bruce countered.
“Bruce! You used a camera in the Batcave to spy on me and Barbara!”
“This is a really ugly couch.”
After Alfred’s literary hero, Jeeves, the most famous butler in fiction is probably Stevens in Remains of the Day. Alfred remembered fondly that book’s account of an unflappable butler serving in India, who interrupts his master’s tea to report a rabid tiger has entered the house and rests beneath the dining room table. The butler calmly asks permission to use a particular weapon, after which the guests hear three gunshots. The butler returns to refresh the teapot and reports “Dinner will be served at the usual time, milord, and I am pleased to say there will be no discernable traces of the recent occurrence by that time.”
Perhaps it was the gift for dignified understatement that put Alfred more in mind of Stevens than Jeeves at this particular moment. Or perhaps it was that Stevens’ duties brought him into contact with Nazis and Nazi collaborators, while the worst Jeeves had to contend with were chaps called Tuppy Glossop and Gussie Finknottle.
“There is a matter in the library requiring your attention, sir,” Alfred announced soberly. Bruce turned from his place where Signora Rinaldi was measuring counter space for a demonstration on olive pressing, and Alfred continued. “Your immediate attention, sir.”
Assuming this was yet another of the endless preparations for the festival, Bruce entered the library with a distracted air, totally unprepared for the sight that would greet him. The transition to Batman was instantaneous as his brain registered it - the Joker! - sitting in an easy chair - feet up on an endtable - balancing a leather-bound volume of Emily Dickenson poems on his chin.
“Brucie! You’re not the one I wanted! I knew that old fellow didn’t understand me. Should I kill him for you before I go? Listen, I’m looking for Selina, got a bit of a problem I want her to help with. Have you heard that I’m dead?”
“Dead! The papers all say that I’m dead! Where would they get an idea like that? Don’t I look the image of a happy healthy Joker?”
Before Bruce could answer, Joker picked up the book and sung a verse to the tune of Yellow Rose of Texas…
Because I could not stop for Death,
Strangely, after a wildly atonal wail on the last word, the madman became completely lucid.
“So anyway, Bruce, you mind if I call you Bruce?”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” was the cold reply.
“So anyway, Bruce, your li’l gal Selina’s the reigning queen of bitch-slapping these damn newspapers. I’m sure she’ll know what to do about this.”
“Selina’s not here.”
“Oh. That’s what the old guy said too. Y’think, maybe, not kill him after all? Well then, how ‘bout this, I’ll leave you my calling card…”
The phrase meant a gas bomb, a mortar shell, or at best a squirt of acid …except this time it only produced … a calling card.
“Now, this number is the Hacienda Central in the East Village. Always try there first. If there’s no answer, try this one—that’s out by the expressway, I don’t use it much, too noisy, but there’s a machine! Leave a message and then if I don’t call back in two days, call this number and say ‘Blind bats bite blowfish’ and they’ll tell you where I am. Got all that? Ta!”
And he was off. Bruce looked down at the card: locations of two Haciendas, phone numbers, e-mail, pager, and a password for getting more information from an answering service. This was the motherlode! Absently, Bruce flipped the card over and read: Harley’s Hyena Chow - take 10 lbs ground meat and 10 lbs cornmeal…
“Say, Brucie, one other thing…”
Oh hell, Bruce thought,
I knew that was too easy. He’s
back. And now he makes the card
“Something’s been nagging at me since that Christmas party, maybe you can help me out with it. I wasn’t there in the adorable flesh, you know, and it’s the funniest thing, nobody will tell me what happened. Hatter and Scarecrow are a pair of old hens after most parties, but this time, nothing.” He made a light “look, the coin is-a-gone” gesture, then took on a dangerous tone. “You see my point, Brucie. It’s suspicious.”
Brucie growled silently, but Joker continued undeterred.
“If they’re not saying anything, it means there’s something to not say. And the others, Roxy, Penguin, Two-Face, it’s almost like they’re avoiding me.”
“Mm. Imagine that.”
With any other obnoxious visitor, Bruce would have slid into fop mode and made some excuse about the event being planned: lots of details to see to, must run (Ta!) …but Batman would not relinquish even that much of the helm. This was the Joker. DefCon-2!
“Avoiding me! Why would they want to do that? I’m such a warm and charming guy. And I’m such a fuzzybunny at parties. So why won’t anybody talk to me? I know why, oh yes I do. It’s to do with Harley. She’s boffing one of them, isn’t she? You were there, Wayne, you can tell me…”
If it weren’t for the absolute certainty that it would be signing Edward Nigma’s death warrant, Bruce might have told him, if only to reinforce the new form of address. If Joker had to call him something, he’d do almost anything to remove ‘Brucie’ from the list of possibilities.
“’Excusez-moi,” François appeared in the doorway, evidently still hunting for that room in the manor with the perfect temperature differential for his wine seminars. “I couldn’t help but overhear, and I must say you are looking at this all wrong. I am the Comte de Poulignac.” He offered his hand to the Joker, who regarded it with an air of puzzlement. He looked to Bruce, who shrugged. Joker carefully shook François’s hand, and the count continued…
“So your mistress has taken another lover, what of it? They are like that, les femmes. So much passion and impulse, and so little thought. It is very endearing, no?”
Joker again turned to Bruce, hoping for confirmation that this idea was as loony as he thought.
“That make sense to you?” Joker whispered.
Bruce was forced to admit, it didn’t.
“To object to your woman’s new lover, it is so unsophisticated,” the Frenchman continued, “so—what is the English word? The black and white, big collars, and the hats with the buckle—pilgrim? No, Puritan. It is so puritan to make an issue of these things.”
Joker gave François de Poulignac the same wary-but-friendly, mustn’t-spook-the-lunatic look the orderlies always gave him at Arkham. He pulled Bruce aside.
“Brucie, reality check: I’m wearing a purple suit?”
Reluctantly, Bruce raised an eyebrow and gave a regretful half-nod.
Another grudging nod.
“Kill people by the dozen.”
“And the cheese-eating surrender monkey just called me a Puritan.”
Joker turned his head, seeming to process this information.
“Well that’s a first,” he remarked finally.
Bruce was at a loss for words, but the Joker was unperturbed. He looked back at François then back at Bruce. “Cover me, I’m going in…” he confided, then turned his attention away from Bruce.
“So, Count,” Joker began in a firm I’m-not-the-crazy-one-here tone. “Let me get this straight. Let’s say you have a girl.”
“The doctors tell me it’s best in these hypothetical scenarios if you have a very definite image in mind. So, some particular girl—say a blonde, petite, squirrelly laugh, lot of energy, and a luscious little tush. With me so far?”
“And you hear she’s screwing around.”
“Oui, but in France we would never say this ‘screwing,’ but I know what you say, she takes a lover.”
“Right. And you’re not upset by this?”
“Mais pourquoi? But why? Any woman with spirit enough to be interesting is bound to want a hobby.”
Joker spun round to Bruce with a distinct “You heard that too?” then turned back to François as though to continue. Then his head snapped up and he turned back to Bruce. He suddenly realized there was a subtext to this discussion he’d completely overlooked: Bruce Wayne was dating Selina Kyle, the Catwoman—and the whole world knew about her thing with Batman. Oh shit, no wonder the guy looked like that. Joker’s suspicions about Harley were just a theory, but Catwoman and Batman were common knowledge. Why, he and Wayne were brothers really, they were commiserating like brothers in arms whose women were stepping out with damnable faceless man-beasts, and this French pastry came in spewing nonsense that was painful to them both.
“This guy should die,” Joker said to no one in particular.
“A dilemma,” thought Bruce.
“No, wait, that’s too good for him,” Joker reconsidered.
“Dilemma solved—maybe,” thought Bruce.
Joker began pacing, trying to work out a fitting punishment. From a crimefighting perspective, it was fascinating to watch as the clown paced, hummed a few bars of Deutchland, Deutchland, paced some more, and snorted “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”
The psychopath was sufficiently absorbed in his ravings that Bruce was able to step nearer François and whisper, “You might want to leave now.”
It was with uncharacteristic ceremony that the usually gruff Jim Gordon had presented his daughter with the setting of her grandmother’s engagement ring. “The Gordons didn’t have much when they came here,” he recited as it had once been recited to him, “but a young man proposing marriage was expected to show he could provide for a girl. Your grandfather made sacrifices for that.” Barbara looked down at the thin silver filigree that swept gracefully around to a gaping hole at the center. She knew the history, but Jim told it anyway, as part of the ceremony: “The diamond was hocked during the depression. After the war, when they had the money, your grandma would never have it replaced. She said the hole was a better symbol, because it represented something they went through together.” That ended the ceremony, and Jim was forced to improvise a finish in his own gruffer style: “So, you take this humble bit of Gordon with you, have Grayson use some of those Wayne millions and buy a godawful rock to put inside it.”
Dick accepted this readily enough. Instead of an engagement ring, he would buy a diamond for the family setting. Besides what was the saying: “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed and Something Blue.” Good luck mojo, they were going to need it if Barb persisted in this idea of getting married at the manor.
So he’d buy a stone for the family ring. Simple enough—at least it should have been.
Alfred had called Mr. Bastion, Bruce’s “man at Cartier’s” to set up an appointment. Mr. Bastion had volunteered to bring a selection of stones to the manor any time for Barbara and Dick’s consideration. Alfred had sighed into the telephone as a half-dozen visiting chefs critiqued his kitchen…. you need a gas flame to make balsamic reduction… we need sweet country butter not pasteurized bricks…
Alfred explained to Mr. Bastion that it was not a convenient time to visit Wayne Manor; Mr. Grayson and Miss Gordon would come to the Fifth Avenue showroom. Alfred then perceived an excited chirp on the other end of the line. He didn’t like it. The man was too eager, too excited, and all together too oily. Alfred tried his best to ignore the debate now raging as to whether a stainless steel ricer would infuse the potatoes with a metallic flavor, and whether ‘theese meeserable English” would know the difference. He mentally recited a passage from Henry V: the Battle of Agincourt—20,000 dead French, and only 25 English. And Waterloo. Let’s not forget Waterloo.
Preoccupied with the headaches of the festival, it is understandable that Alfred turned to the one person he saw as his closest ally in the wedding plans: Selina. That Selina was Catwoman and Catwoman had a long and checkered history with Cartier’s never occurred to him.
It occurred to her, of course, but she didn’t much care. It might be fun to walk into Cartier’s through the front door and let the salesman get the stuff out of the vault.
Dick did not think it would be fun. He didn’t need a chaperone to go to the jewelry store. And if he did, Catwoman (no offense, Selina) wouldn’t be it.
Unfortunately, Dick was learning, it didn’t matter what he thought. His function as the groom was to wear what he was told, stand where he was told, and when somebody asks a question, say “I Do”—up until the last part, it was a lot like training with Bruce.
And so it was that, at the very moment Alfred was showing Joker into the library at Wayne Manor, Mr. Bastion was showing Dick, Barbara and Selina into a private viewing room at Cartier’s. Selina sat quietly in the background as Bastion declaimed about cut, color, clarity and carats. She sat quietly as he looked disapprovingly on the setting Barbara set before him. She sat as he muttered “so small…not platinum, not even white gold.” She sat as he showed Dick and Barbara a number of stones, as Barbara selected one, and as Bastion wrote a number on a slip of paper in answer to Dick’s discreet inquiry. She could sit no more when Dick blanched, swallowed, then looked up with an expression that - if you had the imagination to take off ten years and draw on the mask - looked like the first time he saw the whip uncoil.
“Mr. Bastion, could I have a word with you outside?” Selina asked sweetly. The two left, and a moment later, Bastion returned and wrote a different number on the slip of paper.
Dick turned and looked at Selina. “Could I have a word with you outside?”
“What did you say to him?” Dick glowered as soon as they were in the hallway.
“Don’t give me your B impersonation,” Selina answered levelly, “that gets nowhere with me. Besides, you don’t do it that well.” She smiled. “Ask nice.”
Dick huffed, produced a plastic grin, and said “Selina, please tell me what you said to him?”
“I merely said that the combination to the inner office is 25-42-19, the main vault is 1004873, and the owner’s private safe is 6412298748. I may have mentioned the exact location of the 16 security cameras in the main showroom, the 2 in that private room, and the 8 in the vault. I said I didn’t care whose son you were, I didn’t think it was very nice to be charging 4x standard retail”
“Selina, I’m a cop. I can’t have you blackmailing people to get me a discount on ….”
“Oh for pity sake, Dick, you’re still paying 2˝ times wholesale, and three times black market.”
He considered this.
“This is a FAIR price?”
“Does your doing this mean I’m forgiven for Hell Month?”
Selina looked at her shoes, then mumbled, “Yeah, I guess.”
“Okay then. Thanks.” He started back into the office to accept the deal, then stopped, turned back to her and said: “Hey Selina, next time, you could just say so.”
It was an exhausted shell of Bruce Wayne that finally cleared the house of homicidal maniacs, olive oil experts and Frenchmen for free love. He closed the door on the last of the advance team and looked at Alfred, the demon butler who had brought this hell down on them. No, that wouldn’t do. Much as he wanted, much as he dearly wanted to blame Alfred for forcing him into this mess with the festival, Selina was coming over tonight and that meant instant retaliation from Alfred if Bruce reopened hostilities.
Alfred had made his position more than clear: He was more piqued about the house being overrun by Anatoles than Bruce could possibly be, but he was carrying on, undaunted. He would not tolerate complaints and recriminations from ‘upstairs’ when it was his kitchen that was under siege.
“When Selina gets here,” Bruce managed wearily, “tell her I’m downstairs.”
“Of course, sir,” replied the demon butler.
Bruce logged into the Batcomputer, reflecting that today’s encounter with the Joker was the weirdest meeting they’d ever had—which meant it was the weirdest meeting that ever was. He punched the access codes taking him deeper and deeper into the system, all the while muttering “Blind bats bite blowfish… Yellow Rose of Texas… I’m such a fuzzybunny at parties… boffing… cheese-eating surrender monkey?!?!?!”
He completed the login and came up on his main desktop.
There was no reason—no reason at all—for Batman to investigate François de Poulignac. Knowing Selina, and even knowing Catwoman, was not a crime. Nor was being an unjustifiably arrogant libertine with repulsive ideas about other people’s girlfriends being free to screw the free world. That should be a crime, but alas… No, the man was a guest in his house, and Bruce would treat him as one. He bypassed the controls that would link his system into Interpol, and went instead to a menu to reinforce the failsafes on all the manor-to-cave access-points. There were triple-locks in place for the duration of the festival, but Joker’s appearance warranted an extra level of precautions.
The moment Bruce accessed the controls, an alert light blinked. He thought at first there was a short in the system, but no, an external monitor revealed Azrael entering from the Batmobile entrance.
Azrael… More to the point, Jean Paul. And what kind of a name was that for a man anyway. Well, no, that was unfair. It might be a French name, and St. Dumas might be a French order, but no one could accuse Jean Paul Valley of being a womanizer.
Bruce’s eyes narrowed as the subject of his musings entered the cave… There was that remark about “pheromones” Selina had made once… Someday he would have to find out just what transpired between Catwoman and that ersatz Batman… How did they ever get to… In a hundred sexually charged stand-offs with Catwoman he’d never once…
This was pointless—and inappropriate. What was past was past, and for better or worse, Jean Paul was an ally again.
The ally needed a secure terminal—something about checking his E-mail—Oracle used to handle this for him but she was always busy now. Bruce said go ahead.
There was a series of pings, then a soft buzz, a louder buzz, a sizzle, and finally a boom. The cave went dark. After a moment, an emergency generator kicked in and dim blue work lights shone for a moment, until a second sizzle-buzz-boom brought a second darkness.
There was a long, long silence.
Finally a distant click, a creek, a careful step, and then Alfred’s voice “I really think…” followed by Selina’s “Don’t be silly, Alfred, it’s pitch black. I’ll go, I’m used to it.” Then a crisp clip-clip-clip, and the tiny glow of a Maglite appeared. It panned this way and that.
“Getting a little carried away with the whole Dark Knight thing, eh, sport?”
Bruce rolled his eyes. Was he to be spared nothing?
The light came to rest at last on the chestplate of Azrael’s costume.
It’s you! Pheromones!”
To be continued…