‘Harley Quinn’ surveyed the grand ballroom of the Robinson Plaza Hotel in a series of twitchy birdlike movements that any Gotham socialite (and now all Plaza waiters) recognized.
“Brucie, Brucie, Brucie,” she muttered, “Bat-Bat-Bat, where did that man go?”
The Penguin finished his graceful dance with Poison Ivy and, with the ingrained etiquette of the ballroom, duly escorted her back to her friend before taking his leave.
“Too awful, he’s late” Harley complained. “He missed the receiving line. All the guests have arrived, band is playing, bar is serving, and still no Batman!”
“A quick and silent disappearing act, from him?” Ivy replied in a bored drawl. “That’s hardly unprecedented, Gladys.”
“Forget that it’s a Gotham After Dark party and we’ve no Batman,” Harley Ashton-Larraby answered curtly. “It’s also a Wayne Foundation Fundraiser and we’ve no Bruce Wayne. Claudia, really, I thought you of all people would sympathize, considering how many of your parties he’s skipped out on over the years.”
Claudia-Ivy merely shrugged. It was the nonchalant shrug of an experienced Gotham hostess long used to Bruce Wayne’s stunts—or it would have been in a Carolina Herrera gown. But in an unfamiliar leafy costume, the movement caused a great deal of fluttering, from the orchids draped so gracefully around her bodice through the fern leaves cascading down her skirt. Not for the first time since her arrival, the rapt attention of every man in the room was hers.
“Magnificent,” Martin-Penguin gasped appreciatively to his companion.
“Certainly should be, considering what those titties cost,” Richard-Mad Hatter-Flay replied in the campy tone gay men use to praise flamboyant divas. “But I don’t know if the garden dress will make it through the night.”
“We can hope,” Martin whispered to himself. In his secret identity as Hermoine the society gossip columnist, Martin knew he’d have ample material from the party without any “wardrobe malfunctions” (a term Hermoine herself shoved into the public lexicon after the notorious freeze ray-hoopskirt incident at the Spring Fling). Martin’s interest in Claudia was more personal. Gotham Society had always assumed he was gay, and Martin had never minded. It kept him at the front of the hostess rolodex as a handy fill-in to cover last-minute cancellations. But since his brief affair with that stunning Dinah Lance, Martin found he liked being in a couple. It was more enjoyable attending party after party with the same person, even if it would put an end to his “extra man” status. Hermoine’s social schedule wouldn’t have to suffer as a result. If he were with a partner like Claudia Reislweller-Muffington, that would ensure his place at the A-list parties, not jeopardize it.
Plus, she was beautiful, just beautiful. Just look at her, every man in the room’s eyes riveted on her as Poison Ivy. From Dick Grayson to Nightwing, every man in the room was entranced.
“Nightwing” was, in fact, Harvey Dent. Since his healing, he’d been accepted back into Gotham society and was the only true “night person” (apart from Selina) to be officially invited. He’d accepted, against his better judgment, in order to help out Selina and Bruce. Despite Harvey and Batman’s best efforts (well, despite Batman and Harvey’s best efforts), plenty of the Iceberg crowd—the real Iceberg crowd—was still at large. This idiotic idea for a costume party was sure to attract at least one crasher, and poor Bruce had already suffered a rogue encounter this year with that pompous al Ghul showing up at Wayne Manor. Harvey had helped then, shooing the miserable goatherd off the premises, and he was prepared to do the same tonight.
As such, he repositioned to get a better look at a suspicious-looking Riddler. The costume—a suit of snug green leather with matching bowler hat, set off by buttons, kid gloves, shoes, mask, and rim of the hat all in a vibrant fuchsia—was very, very good. But then, most of the costumes in the room were. The rich didn’t skimp on their appearance any more than real rogues. What set this Riddler apart from the rest was the cane: green again, with a gold question mark handle. It too was not unique in accuracy or quality, but it was the only Riddler cane in the room that looked used. The handle didn’t gleam under the lights, and there were scratches all the way down to the worn rubber base.
Harvey tapped the suspicious figure on the shoulder… and was not surprised when Edward Nigma turned in his direction—and smiled brightly.
“Evening, Harv, don’t you look spiff?” he said, clearly viewing Dent as a friendly face in a strange, hostile land rather than a bouncer fixing to eject him. “Nightwing, eh? You always were a lady’s man.”
“Er, thanks,” Harvey murmured, disarmed by the unexpectedly gracious greeting. The invited guests weren’t half as sensitive. Indeed, the most common remark on Harvey’s costume had been… exactly the one Randolph/Joker Larraby was about to deliver, Harvey guessed as the slightly inebriated host toddled their way.
“Dent. Good to see you,” he began. “Gladys was so pleased you accepted, lends just the right touch, she says. So, why aren’t you dressed as you-know-who?”
“Voldemort?” Harvey asked, unfazed (for it was the sixth time he’d been asked).
“Ha, ha!” Randolph snickered, and then, noticing Claudia/Ivy making her way to the dance floor again with Martin/Penguin, he relocated for a better view in case her foliage slipped.
Harvey turned back to Nigma, whose mouth had dropped open in shock.
“Why aren’t you dressed as you-know-who? Lends just the right touch? Even Batman’s not that… that…” Eddie exclaimed, and Harvey reconsidered ejecting him from the party.
Instead, his eyes drifted back to the dance floor and Claudia/Ivy. Talking now with the only man in the room that knew his history with the real Poison Ivy, Harvey could finally speak the thought that had echoed in his brain since first seeing the imitation:
“Now that’s alabaster skin,” he croaked in a hoarse but admiring voice.
“ALA BREAST” Nigma agreed. Then when Harvey’s neck snapped fiercely in his direction with a dangerous Two-Face glint in his eye, Eddie quickly exclaimed “Alabaster, it’s an anagram for alabaster. A ABEL STAR, A SLAB TEAR, A BRA STEAL.”
Harvey growled at this second reference to Claudia’s stunning orchid-draped bosom, but he couldn’t really blame Nigma for the chain of thoughts. Both men returned their attention to the dance floor and watched in awed silence.
Across the room, Dick tore his eyes away from the image and moved in on a “Robin” helping himself from the buffet… a Robin who was, in fact, Robin.
“You’re supposed to be in hiding with BG,” Dick whispered angrily. “Monitoring the situation and waiting to swing in as the first response if something goes down.”
“Yeah, but it’s a costume party, Bro. No reason I can’t sneak down for just a minute and get a sandwich is there? Besides, Cass said to bring her a cookie.”
“If he saw you, Psychobat would go—well—psycho.”
“Yeah, he would,” Robin agreed. “If he was here, but he’s not. Why isn’t he, anyway?”
“I’m not sure,” Dick sighed, glancing towards the door. “I heard he and Selina were here earlier before the party started, checking in with Ashton-Larraby and all. I think B wanted to quash the red carpet, keep any press from snapping pictures as guests arrived. Then something happened. They took off. Bruce said they’d be back but…” he checked the door again. “Check it out. They’re late.”
“Late or… late?” Tim asked carefully.
Dick turned in a slow, even burn.
“Don’t even go there,” he pronounced firmly.
Across the room, Harvey/Nightwing was delivering a warning in similar tones to his companion.
“Glad as I am for the company, Edward, I don’t want you making trouble for Selina.”
“Why would you think I’d make trouble?” he queried.
“Why else would you be here? These shindigs are never something one goes to expecting to have a good time. The only reason to crash—this one in particular—is if you’re planning something.”
Eddie’s face puckered into an offended grimace and then brightened into an I’m-so-clever grin.
“Two holes in your theory, counselor,” he declared triumphantly. “First, riddle me this: what makes The Riddler ‘The Riddler?’ Why, announcing every crime as a puzzle to be solved, of course! And has any such clue been delivered? No. And secondly, when is a Rogue more than famous? When he is ‘infamous!’ This party is like a Neilsen rating for the ‘Berg crowd, Harvey, old man! What other reason do I need to attend but to gauge name recognition and popularity?
“Look at all the Jokers—not surprising, really, although you have to wonder. The idea of people—husbands and wives, especially—dressing up as Joker and Harley. It’s just so… How clueless can these people be? But fine, Joker is the most popular, regrettable but expected. Who is next, I ask you? Look around the room, and who do I spy with my riddling eye? There—and there—and there—and there. Why it’s me! I count six proper Riddlers, and three regrettable GenX versions from the Post. No one else has so many repeats. I see three or four Penguins, a few Scarecrows, two Mr. Freezes, three, eh, You-know-whos, and one silly ass dressed as Cluemaster. Chap must work in television.”
Eddie broke off suddenly, and he and Harvey parted to allow a… figure to pass. The figure was presumably attempting a Clayface costume, although he looked more like a “Giant Pile of Walking Poop Monster” than a Gotham Rogue.
The true rogues simply watched in horror as the “Clayface” made his way across the dance floor… past a woman in a wheelchair talking to a decent looking Robin by the buffet… and finally took a plate and heaped it with several spoonfuls of what appeared to be chocolate pudding.
“One can take a theme too far,” Nigma said thoughtfully.
“Quite,” Harvey agreed.
Barbara had wheeled up behind Dick and Robin/Tim. She wore a man’s suit and held a plush Batgirl doll in her lap. Tim figured she was supposed to be Ventriloquist, but he waited for some confirmation rather than asking.
“Good evening, Goy Wonder,” the doll seemed to say in a far more skillful feat of ventriloquism than Arnold Wesker ever achieved.
“Heh. Hi there,” Robin grinned. “Boy, that’s really clever. And you’re good, Babs, really.”
She smiled as if she had no idea what he was talking about and no awareness of the doll in her lap. It answered rather than Barbara.
“I am cute, gagycakes, gut you’re in gig trougle. You’re not supposed to ge here.”
“She’s been doing this all day,” Dick said with a theatrical wince. “I’ll be discussing it in my upcoming book: Why I Kill.”
“Goo hoo, Girdygoy,” the doll said. Then Barbara seemed to notice Tim for the first time and smiled warmly. “Don’t let them pick on you. Dickie wasn’t above making an ice cream run or two when he was supposed to be staking out the docks.”
“’Scuse me,” Dick said, still eyeing the door and moving suddenly in that direction. Tim gave Barbara his full attention. “Okay, I get that you’re Ventriloquist. But what’s Dick supposed to be?”
Barbara laughed. “He’s Clayface impersonating Dick Grayson.”
“Sweet!” Tim exclaimed.
“Not really, it’s not as clever as it sounds. He had been planning to come as Batman, so we’d have an extra on the premises if something happens. But then the Post came out this morning and, well, this way he gets to introduce the subject of a Dick Grayson imposter to everybody he sees tonight.”
“Babs, it’s the Post. You guys know that nobody takes it seriously, right?”
“I know, but… it does make you wonder if maybe Selina is right about them.”
“Yeah,” Tim nodded—then his attention riveted on the dance floor.
“Is that?” he gasped.
“Harvey Dent, yeah.”
“No, not him, who he’s dancing with. That Ivy, that’s not… it is! It’s… oh god.”
“She’s some socialite, I can’t keep them straight. Dick knew her, but I don’t remember the name.”
“Muffy,” Tim said soberly. “Technically, Claudia Reislweller-Muffington… of the Reislweller-Muffington School of Debutante Ninjitsu.”
Barbara laughed at the joke, but Tim didn’t.
“It’s not funny,” he insisted. “She’s the oldest, and she’s got sisters. Georgiana, Clarice and Madeline. They cast no shadow. They make no sound. All of a sudden, they’re just there and they want to waltz.”
Barbara’s laugh was building to a cackle.
“I accidentally threw Randy-quad into a fountain when Madeline was stalking me at the Colonial Ball last year.”
Barbara’s laughter became strident.
“I hear men can tell if another guy has ‘waltzed’ just by looking at him,” she teased. “That’s a 1-2-3 limp, not a pressurized ice dart limp.”
“Something like that.” Tim answered with dignity, then he grinned. “I said I was trying Capoeira, the rhythmic dance-based martial art of the former slaves in South America. Nobody bought it.”
“But I’ll bet Bruce hasn’t laughed like that in years, sans SmileX exposure,” Barbara smiled.
“He did say he remembered the time Becky Rutherford tried to teach Dick Capoeira. And Alfred mentioned that ‘the charming Miss Hellinsford’ (or, as Bruce refers to her, “whatshername-Gretta”) might have been a factor in the decision to get kicked out of Princeton and go to Oxford, on the theory that ‘England’s got to be far enough.’”
Barbara’s chortle defused into a knowing smirk.
“You’re lying through your teeth,” she declared. “There is no way—simply no way. That’s not Alfred, that’s not Bruce. Some things just do not happen in this world and that—”
She stopped short, her eyes growing wide with some shocking sight behind him.
“Oh my god,” she murmured.
Tim turned, and felt his mouth drop open at the sight.
“Bruce?” he gasped.
It certainly looked like Bruce… in a batsuit. It looked exactly like Bruce in a batsuit, minus the mask.
It looked exactly like Bruce in a batsuit, not wearing a mask, and escorting Catwoman into a room full of…
“What were you just saying?” Tim asked feebly.
“Some things just do not happen in this world,” Barbara recited dully.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought you said,” Tim nodded, still stunned.
It was a suit he had only seen in a case in the costume vault: black gloves, boots, and briefs over gray tights. There was a small black bat printed directly on the chest, no oval or other enhancement of the emblem. The belt on the other hand was yellow. Bright yellow, road sign yellow, “Look at this” yellow—which would be more than a little off-putting on a BELT where “Look at this” meant “Look at my pelvis”—if it wasn’t completely upstaged by the CAPE! The costume in the case, Tim remembered, had a black cape and cowl. Bruce was wearing neither. His face was bare, but the cape… the cape was a rich royal blue, thin and shiny, like silk. It almost looked like a bedsheet, except it was properly scalloped at the bottom, just like a regular batcape.
“Evening, all!” Bruce greeted them, grinning with foppish cheer.
“Um,” Barbara said.
“Hi?” Robin asked.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Bruce graveled through clenched teeth, then ran his fingers through his hair and announced loudly. “Of course not, mustn’t muss the hair. Besides, how else would everyone know it’s me?!”
“I’ll get back to my post,” Robin murmured apologetically.
“Do,” Bruce graveled, then broke into another foppish grin and slapped Catwoman’s backside. She’d been eying various women in the room, and when she thought they were looking her way, she turned to display her profile. At the slap, her eyes snapped back to meet Bruce’s in a murderous stare.
“I’m getting a drink,” she hissed. “Strong, alcoholic, and the first of many.”
“Selina,” he said quietly. “Alcohol impedes judgment. Not in this room, not tonight, please.”
“That’s not all it does,” she spat. “You have your point to make and I have mine. I am going to be seen drinking alcohol, especially in this room, especially tonight, and all night long.”
Before he could answer, a mad Joker-like cackle ripped through the room. It wasn’t any of the fourteen Jokers present but the Riddler, the real Riddler, Edward Nigma, pointing vaguely in Bruce’s direction as wave after wave of helpless hilarity rocked his insides. He slapped his thigh, pounded his fist up and down as if on an imaginary table, and finally doubled over, hyperventilating with mirth.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say that’s a SmileX attack” Barbara said dryly. “Are we absolutely sure Joker is in Arkham.”
“We’re sure,” Selina answered as Bruce wandered off to belatedly greet the other guests. “He’s so despondent, he’s on suicide watch.”
“Because he’s missing this,” Barbara noted.
“Best joke ever,” Selina said absently, looking across the room.
“I was sorry to see your Post troubles,” Barbara said kindly.
“I was sorry to see yours,” Selina answered—when Harvey approached. Selina glanced twice at the redheaded leaf-garbed woman beside him, but she held her tongue. After the introductions, Harvey left Claudia with Barbara and pulled Selina aside.
“Is Bruce all right?” he asked, concerned. “He seems to think the phrase ‘judgment of Paris’ from Greek mythology has something to do with Ingrid Bergman from Casablanca—and that Ingmar Bergman the Swedish director is somehow connected to Paris Hilton.”
Selina looked in the direction Harvey indicated, and Bruce had the cape swept up over his shoulder and across the neck like a World War I fighter pilot.
Selina rubbed her temples and said, “Excuse me,” before heading off in the direction of foppish laughter.
“Hey, Selina, this is interesting,” he said, gesturing with a fistful of cape as she approached. “Did you know flying aces wore those silk scarves so their bulky flight jackets wouldn’t chafe their necks? I’ll bet that’s what the capes are for, because this thing isn’t Kevlar or anything and it’s really uncomfortable.”
She pulled him to a quiet alcove, checked to make sure they were alone, and then snarled.
“Would you tone it the hell down! This goes beyond being foppish or stupid; people are going to think you’re drunk.”
“Kitten, I have been doing this long enough without any direction or assistance from you.”
“They’ll think you’re getting drunk because of the… you know,” she gestured, “the story in the Post about the…” she gestured again, helplessly.
“Look, I know you’re upset about that story, Selina. I am standing here in public in a batsuit because of it. I have gone this far. But that image has to be counteracted in their minds, and the only way to do that is—”
“That’s how you got me pregnant in the first place,” she hissed venomously.
“Look,” he said firmly, “you can blame me for the blonde East End imposter if you want, but I did not… You got yourself pregnant with that dictaphone.”
“You got me pregnant fopping out with that dictaphone.”
There was a spurting noise above them, then a soft click, then the grate above opened and Batgirl climbed down. She walked up to them solemnly and said, “Tim say tell you we can hear. In vent. We hear everything. Please stop. Him no can breathe for laughing.”
“I hate you all,” Selina said sweetly.
Batgirl put her hand suddenly to her ear, and her head tilted as she listened.
“What is it?” Bruce asked sharply.
“Is starting. Scarecrow in ballroom. Is real one, Robin say. He get into position. I go.”
“No, I’ll go,” Selina declared instantly. “I feel like setting someone on fire; he’ll do nicely,” she added, meeting Bruce’s eyes before he could interrupt. “All that straw.”
“Thirty seconds,” he declared, “and then Robin and Batgirl will be in position to support you. The rest of us will be there in four minutes tops.”
“Take your sweet time, Jackass,” she said counting off the rest on her fingers. “Zatanna mindwipes, East End goggle-imposter, knocked up by the Gotham Post, and now I’m at Gladys Ashton-Larraby’s rogue party with bat-fop. At this point, there isn’t a thing fear gas can do to me the rest of you don’t already have covered.”
To be continued…