Chapter 4: Octopus, Cave, and Other Secrets
Harley Quinn stood on the stage in the Great Ballroom of the Robinson Plaza Hotel, twirling a microphone by the cord, singing Love for Sale. After a few bars, she pulled Randolph Larraby from his place at Table 5 and urged him, at gunpoint, to sing along.
At Table 1, Dr. Bartholomew observed the performance with concern. Harley was his patient whenever she was incarcerated at Arkham. This stunt was likely to get her sent back to the asylum, back to his couch, and that meant he would probably hear this ditty reprised twice a week for the next six months.
-Like the poet's type of love in their childish way-
I- know every kind of love better far than they-
-If you want the thrill of love-
-I've been through the mill of love-
And all the while, his other patient, Edward Nigma, sat across from him, pounding his head into the table.
Meanwhile, "the guy who looks like Gandalf," Alfred Pennyworth, was doing as instructed, removing the antique Punch and Judy puppets from their place in the display of auction items and preparing to hand them over to Quinn's henchman, Ha-Ha-Harry.
Randolph Larraby pleaded that he didn't know the words to Love for Sale, so Harley urged him to at least join in on the refrain.
Zatanna murmured something barely audible and Nigma's head shot up and looked at her: "You cheating wench," he accused. Then all the auction items, including the puppets and the Tome, floated into the air. Ha-Ha-Harry was alarmed and began fidgeting with his gas mask. Fearing he was preparing to unleash the SmileX, Alfred grabbed the nearest object, Houdini's Tome of Secrets hovering a foot overhead, and smashed it into the henchman's skull. The Plaza waiters who had been taking orders from Alfred all evening looked at each other with concern.
On the stage, Harley Quinn continued to coach Larraby on the harmony chorus of Love for Sale, but pandemonium erupted throughout the rest of the ballroom.
Love for sale
Zatanna called to Alfred to toss her the book for safekeeping. Bruce slipped silently towards the exit, neatly tripping up a second henchman as he went.
Advertising crazy love for sale
Alfred tossed Zatanna the Tome, and an outraged Edward Nigma tackled her at the waist crying "Loose Book!"
Love that's fresh and still unspoiled
Love that's only slightly soiled
Love for sale
The Tome flew from Zatanna's fingers to land at Dinah's feet. In a hurry to get away from the crowd and change to Black Canary, she picked it up and passed it to Dr. Bartholomew, who set it on the table.
Who would buy?
Who would like to sample my surprise?
LOVE for SAAAAAAEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE—
Harley's last note turned into a wail when Batman swung in, kicking the last henchman in the kidney, picking up Quinn and hurling her off the stage into Table 1 with a resounding crash.
"That hurt," she whimpered. Then, as one of the plainclothes policemen in cheap shoes handcuffed her wrist, she added, "My head hit something hard."
"That would have been the table," Barbara observed with wicked sweetness.
"No," Harley argued, "It had a corner. Oh, it must've been this book?"
Edward Nigma did a double take and backed towards the door. He was four paces from the exit when he backed into something large.
"What'd I miss?" asked the Fop.
"BRUCIE!" Harley Quinn squealed, dragging the policeman to whom she was handcuffed with her to speak to Bruce. "Mistah J says you're the only one who really understands him. Oh, hiya Eddie; nice tux. Anyway, Brucie, I'm kinda stuck for ideas for a Christmas present for my Puddin'. This Punch and Judy idea doesn't seem to have worked out too well, heh, heh." She gestured with the handcuffs.
"Harley, my dear," Eddie cut in, putting an arm around her shoulder, "You touched the Tome of Secrets. You're screwed. Your deepest and darkest secret is about to be revealed to the world. I wouldn't sweat the Christmas thing if I were you."
"I don't have any secrets," Harley insisted, "except that I don't think Mistah J's octopus joke is funny. Oops." She brought her hand to her mouth, dragging the policeman's wrist with it and hitting herself in the nose with the cuffs.
"And so it begins," Eddie said stoically.
Bruce started to excuse himself, then called Harley back before the police took her away:
"Um, Miss Quinn," he drawled in his best Fop, "since you don't find this joke funny, and I presume you laugh at it anyway whenever your, what do you call him, Pudding, tells it, then in a sense, you've been 'faking it.' I think you should tell him that just as soon as you see him up at Arkham. It will make his day."
"Do ya really think so?"
"Absolutely," Bruce said in earnest.
Harley skipped off to the paddy wagon, telling the policeman she was reevaluating dear Brucie. Time was she was dead set against him, what with the fuss her Puddin' always made about him, but he really did come through this time. Puddin' was right, nobody understood so well…
Bruce turned with a satisfied smirk into the judgmental stares of Selina, Dick and Barbara. After a beat, it was Dick who spoke.
"So another rogue is about to be hospitalized by the romantic advice of Bruce Wayne, Crimefighter Yenta."
"Let's all just sit down, finish dinner, and let things get back to normal," Bruce suggested.
The trio laughed. "We're all that remains of the table, Darlin'," Selina informed him. "Eddie's left spouting conspiracy theories more deranged than an Oliver Stone pitch meeting."
"Dr. Bartholomew," Barbara added, "also left, having spilt a little secret of his own."
"That he's in love with Leslie Thompkins," Bruce declared in his firmest I-Know-I'm-Batman tones.
"No," Barbara volleyed with a distinct You're-Batman-and-you're-wrong twinkle. "He's in hate with Batman. Batman keeps sending those nutjobs back to Arkham. Bartholomew left muttering about back to back sessions with Harley and Joker, guzzling Maalox straight from the bottle, double dosing Advils, and hoping you would die."
"Lori's backstage," Dick took up the recitation, "getting the Hudson U choir ready to perform."
"With Zatanna, Dinah and Martin, that still leaves seven. We'll make the best of it," Bruce pronounced, ushering them back to the table. "Let's set an example, before too many people leave."
The waitstaff had just finished righting and resetting the table, under Alfred's direction. As the party seated themselves, a woman seated directly behind turned and complimented him.
"You've done a remarkable job," she said appreciatively, "and that was very brave before, the way you stood up to that lunatic."
"Hey, that's right," Dick elbowed Barbara as realization hit, "Alfred pummeled that henchman with the Tome. He touched the book, and nothing bad happened to him."
"What is your name, my good man?" asked the woman.
"Pennyworth, Madame," Alfred answered. To his surprise, her face lit up with recognition.
"Oh good heavens, Pennyworth – and Wayne Foundation – why Pennyworth and Wayne, Pennyworth at Wayne manor! You're the man who wrote that play! Jodie, come here, this is the owner of that manuscript I found. You must meet him. Oh, Mr. Pennyworth, you simply must reconsider getting that play produced. It's so funny."
Alfred could feel the eyes of Table 1 upon his back as the woman continued to gush:
"I simply couldn't resist reading a few pages, and it is so wonderfully funny. Mr. Pennyworth, you must reconsider! That ridiculous playboy having his Man Friday making up all those lies to juggle all his women, the man keeping all the excuses organized, what excuse went with which bimbo, in a palm pilot, then quitting to take a better job in Tierra del Fuego!"
"Okay, now I'm scared," Dick said.
"You?" Dinah cut him off, "I actually touched the thing."
"Zatanna!" the gushing woman interrupted her outing of Alfred Pennyworth—Playwright, when she recognized an old friend, "Zatanna, my dear, it's been ages. We never see you at the Sisters of Sappho luncheons anymore."
Dick and Dinah turned to each other and mouthed in unison: "Sisters of Sappho?"
Then Dick turned to Barbara, "Honey, I'm scared, I want to go home." While Dinah turned to Martin, "We're leaving, go get the car."
Another charlatan exposed, another con man prevented from taking money from grieving mothers and widows. And yet, for every false medium I put out of business, another comes forth to take their place. It's this dreadful war. So many good people have lost someone on the battlefields at Gallipoli, or in Belgium or France. So many will grasp at any hope.
With each new case, I become convinced the charlatan's greatest tool is not any knowledge of the conjurer's art, but the client's own desire to be deceived.
Never underestimate the power of self-fulfilling prophecy, or of self-delusion.
Bruce reread the last sentence as the Schubert Impromptu on the CD transitioned into the second movement.
He thought back to the night of the Gala… Had Nigma's obsession with the curse foiled his plans for the Tome exactly the way he feared? Riddler didn't have anything to do with Harley's appearance, that much was certain. But the Harley incident was a minor one compared to most criminal interruptions at Wayne Foundation events: it ended before the salads were served, there were no casualties, no paramedics, and only one table overturned. After Quinn was removed, the evening could have continued if Nigma hadn't planted all those suggestions:
He told Harley her secret would be exposed, and within seconds she opened her mouth and blurted it. Bartholomew too had heard Eddie talking about the curse at dinner. Of course, Alfred and Zatanna had no hand in their secrets being revealed, but so what? If it hadn't been for all of Nigma's curse talk, Dick and Dinah never would have interpreted the revelations the way they did.
Within fifteen minutes of Nigma's departure, so many people were leaving the ballroom, the party broke up. By midnight, when the sale would have formally concluded, only Bruce and Selina were left in the ballroom.
Never underestimate the power of self-fulfilling prophecy…
Indeed. Look at Dinah's behavior, so rattled after the party, she thought the valet who brought Martin's car looked like Oliver Queen. Then they passed a delivery van for Green's Dry Cleaners, saw a taxi advertising Quiver Printing, and Dinah made Martin turn the car around and take her back to the Plaza. She found Bruce in the empty ballroom and insisted if a secret of hers was to be revealed, she would decide which one and to whom.
"Can I borrow him, Selina?" Dinah had asked, "I'll bring him right back, I promise."
Selina gave an amused shrug and Dinah led Bruce away.
"It's the cave," she whispered when they were alone, "the secondary cave, under the Wayne Building. We've – we, the girls and I, - I mean, Batgirl, Spoiler and I have been using it as a clubhouse since July."
Bruce gave the most piercing Bat-stare he could manage without the cowl. As expected, it brought about a more detailed confession:
"It started when you and Dick were having the big quarrel, and we all sort of wanted a flee square… then after a few weeks… I guess we sort of… got comfortable."
The stare continued, but no new details were forthcoming. Bat-stare gave way to Bruce-smile.
"I know," he said with a surprising lack of 'I'm-Batman' arrogance. "There was a certain amount of cheese doodle residue."
Dinah sighed with relief.
"Thank goodness. Because Ollie and J'onn said if you found out, JLA meetings might become the OK Corral again and–"
"WHAT!?" Bruce exploded, a much angrier Bat-scowl replacing the smile. "Oliver and J'onn, do you mean there've been JLAers involved in this? That there's been… they've been in town, my town, using my cave as a, a… clubhouse!"
"Oops," Dinah deflated, "didn't know that part, huh. Well, um, Martin's waiting in the car, I really have to go. Tell Alfred how much we enjoyed… oh never mind."
She slunk away defeated, muttering how you can't outsmart a curse.
I have mastered the arts of escape and deception in order to entertain. But since the death of my beloved mother, I feel I am called to use this secret knowledge for a higher purpose. I will put a stop to these fraudulent spirituals profiteering on the grief of others.
Bruce had returned to this page for the fourth time. At first, he never intended to read the section on mysticism at all. It didn't interest him. He was curious about the chapters on escape, for obvious reasons. Houdini was the greatest escape artist of his day, and Bruce had made the pilgrimage in his years of travel to Appleton, Wisconsin, to a museum that housed the thousands of locks, shackles and contraptions the famous illusionist defeated. Some were rigged stage effects, but most were genuine. The notes the museum had preserved revealed a little of Houdini's methods, to those who knew enough to understand, but were not nearly as complete as the Tome.
The notes were circumspect, careful. It was expected they would eventually fall into lay hands, and Houdini was most careful his words would not reveal the secrets of his trade to those not already in the know. In the Tome, he was writing for himself, and he let himself go. The pages revealed not just techniques, but the mind of the man who wrote them. Bruce found that mind intriguing, and interested in knowing it further, he delved into those other chapters he originally thought were irrelevant.
He discovered a man driven by the death of a parent to a mission to stop those preying on innocents.
On the CD, the third movement of the Schubert began…
"Merry Christmas," Selina had purred with that naughty grin that still stirred him, even as it signaled something he would undoubtedly object to.
"Three days yet," he frowned.
"And you know what a stickler I am for rules like that."
He took the gift from her hand, kissed her cheek, and pulled on the ribbon. As the paper fell away, he stared at the object it concealed:
"The Tome? But this is…"
He looked up at a raised eyebrow framing Catwoman's delighted, taunting gaze daring him to finish the sentence.
"Technically," she chirped, intolerably pleased with herself.
"You stole the… from a Wayne event… you stole the Tome with the… the cursed Tome… with the curse on it… rightful owner… and you… took it…" he sputtered on incredulously, voice pingponging between Bruce and Batman, while she laughed.
"Well first," she began, in that tone that always made his neck muscles tense, the voice that said Buckle up, feline logic ahead. "It was the Wayne Foundation selling the thing to raise money for the Wayne Clinic, so if you want to be completely anal about this, write yourself a check."
He grunted out of habit. It was the only response he'd ever devised to "feline logic" that didn't lead to claws and blood loss.
"And second?" he asked, bracing for even more felinity.
"And second," to his surprise, it was Selina's voice that answered, gentle, tender, without a trace of Catwoman's amusement, "I don't think 'rightful owner' has anything to do with who paid for the thing."
"An opinion you've made abundantly clear over the years."
"Houdini wanted the thing destroyed," she insisted, "Do you really think he'd care if Eddie or Zatanna or Randolph Larraby pays you 5000 for the privilege of taking it home? No, if Harry's avenging spirit is watching over that book, he'd want it in the hands of his true heir. And who is the greatest escape artist since Houdini?"
Bruce grunted, and looked down at the book.
"You're welcome," Selina concluded.
The third movement of Schubert's Impromptu #90. This is what he was listening to the night Catwoman broke into the manor… a distant click, a meow, and he found her opening his safe, inviting him to act out his fantasy.
It was dawn. Calculating that was nearly noon in Paris, Bruce picked up the phone and dialed the Paris Ritz. He confirmed that certain arrangements were in place, and then…
:Hello?: a sleepy voice murmured.
"Good morning, Kitten. Slept off the jet lag?"
:Well I hadn't: as she spoke, the voice deepened from sleepy to sultry, :but the café au lait that just arrived should help. This is your doing, I take it.:
"Read the card."
"Between the chocolate croissant and the rose, there's a card."
There was a tap as she sat down the phone, then after a pause:
"I'll let you go now, you're going to view the collection at Dior at two. I just wanted to call and tell you, I stayed up reading last night. I'm enjoying my Christmas present."
:That's nice. Mine sucks.:
"Yeah, being flown to Paris, put up at the Ritz and expected to go shopping on a billionaire's tab, that really bites."
:It's the thought that counts, Bruce. And the thought behind this sucks.:
"Selina… you know what I'm like this time of year."
:Yes, I do. And I know why. And that's why I should be there. Not sent half a world away.:
There was a long pause.
"Dior at two, then Balmain at four, and Chanel tomorrow morning. They'll keep you busy with fittings after that, and in between, there are the perfumeries and museums."
:I know where the art is in Paris, Bruce.:
"I got you a ticket to the opera for Saturday night."
:Bruce, this is ridiculous.:
"And go to Cartier. Buy yourself something nice, something extravagant. Money's no object."
:And now we've reached the guilt portion of our phonecall?:
"Anything but pearls."
There was another long silence, then an audible sigh.
:…You win. I'll see you in three weeks.:
©2003, Chris Dee
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It's Hell Month again
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