In Shakespeare only the Fool can mock the king. In Gotham... It's Harley's birthday.
Chapter 1: Sing-a-long
Harley Quinn watched the digital timer counting down, second by second…
It was almost time.
She struck the match. 29…
Touched it to the wick. 28…
Watched the flame dance. 27…
Happy Birthday to me… 22…
Happy Birthday to me… 16…
Happy Birthday Dear Harleen… 8…
Happy Birthday to me… 2…1… Midnight.
Harley blew out the candle, wiped a tear, and ate her cupcake.
Twenty-nine. She was twenty-nine years old. And she was behind schedule. She was supposed to have her own talk show by now. Her book, written while a brilliant young doctor at Arkham, would have become a best seller in its first month and now be in its third paperback printing. Then the radio call-in show, a stepping-stone only since her looks made her a natural for television. She should, at this moment, be using her star-studded birthday party upstairs at the Russian Tea Room to announce the release of her second book timed to catapult her TV talk show into national syndication! And instead, where was she? Alone in her new HA-HARLienda eating a cupcake.
And it was HIS fault.
"This is Harleen from Gotham," Harley said sadly, although there was nobody but a couple slobbering hyenas to hear. "I'm a long-time listener, first-time caller. I just love your show.
"Why thank you, Caller. What did you want to talk about today?
"Oh Dr. Quinzelle, my life is just gone all off track somehow. I'm supposed to be this brilliant, beautiful superwoman, sittin' on top-a-the-world and restin' my footsies on the moon. I'm supposed to be you, Dr. Quinzelle!
"That's sweet, Caller. What did you say your name was?
"Harleen, let me ask you a very important question. Have you read my book?
"Oh of course, Dr. Q! I read it cover to cover. Twice!
"That's great, Harleen – but if you're going to read it twice, you might want to buy a second copy next time, okay? Just kidding. Anyway, I'd like you to think about Inmate Isley, profiled in Chapter 7: Flowerbeds: A Gardener's Guide to Personal Inventory. You need to sit yourself down, Charlene.
"—And take long look at the flowerbed that is your life. Make a list of all the weeds cluttering it up that you don't want to be there, and yank 'em out by the root!
"Then write down all the flowers you do want and get out there and get yourself some seeds.
"Thank you, Caller. And good luck to you. Next up we have Debbie from Croton Falls concerned about her husband's foot fetish. Stay tuned…"
Harley ran a fingernail around the dried wax that had dripped from her birthday candle. She felt exactly as if she had been blown off by a real talk show help-jock spouting a lot of useless platitudes.
Make a list of all the weeds cluttering up her life: Mistah J. It was all his fault. She would have the life she always dreamed of by now if that grinning maniac hadn't made her fall in love with him.
Make a list of all the flowers you do want in your flowerbed: Mistah J. Her Mistah J. His winsome grin, his merry laugh, his green hair, his purple pinstripe. It was too cruel that he would let something as trivial as that stupid octopus joke come between them.
What could she do? There must be some way to teach him a lesson. Pay him back but good for all her pain and suffering and unfulfilled dreams. And get him back to be her Puddin' again… "Pay back, get him back," she sang to a made-up tune. "Pay him back and get him back… Ha-haa, Ha-haa…"
Well why not? She was an expert in the field of human psychology, wasn't she? Even if she did fudge her way through a few classes, it's not like she didn't have a piece of paper saying she was a doctor of psychiatry just like the guys who hadn't slept with the professor to get a grade. Besides which, anything she didn't know going into Arkham that first time, she certainly knew by the time she broke out for the sixth or seventh time. With the likes of Jonathan Crane and Hugo Strange as her colleagues – well maybe not Strange, he was pretty much a slimy loony-toon. But anyways, she had certainly seen enough of them, from both sides of the glass, to be ranked as the foremost expert on rogue-psychology in the world. So why not? Why shouldn't she be able to push her Puddin's buttons, this way and that like a joystick, until he came running back into her arms!
YES! This was a plan. This was a plan worthy of Dr. Harley Quinn. "Payback and get him back, Ha-haa Ha-haaa," she sang again. She paused and rolled her eyes towards the ceiling, concentrating, as she repeated the song deliberately "Pay…back…and get him… back… Doo-da, doo-da." The hyenas whimpered. Her made-up tune had morphed from a schoolyard chant into Camptown Ladies. "Ooh-di doo-da-day…"
"Well shit," she declared, stomping to the kitchen for another cupcake, "I can't come up with a brilliant scheme to bring my Puddin back to the tune of Camptown Racetrack! That's NUTS!" She turned on the radio to drive the siren song of the bob-tail nag out of her brain.
Staring at the ceiling
Makin' friends with shadows on my wall
"Sing it, Brother!" Harley told the radio-voice while she searched for a piece of paper.
Hearing voices telling me
that I should get some sleep
PUDDIN'S WEAK SPOTS, Harley wrote in thick block letters.
Because tomorrow might be good for something
"Yeah it sure will," Harley muttered darkly, she was starting to like this song. She was gonna play that clown like a puppet on her own personal can of Silly String, and this song would be her anthem.
"Holding?" Harley told the radio promptly, her pen poised over her list.
Feeling like I'm headed for a break-down
and I don't know why
"Well maybe it has something to do with letting a grinning clown screw up your life plan and never getting your book deal or your talk show or your guest appearance on Frasier…"
Well I'm not crazy
I'm just a little unwell
I know right now you can't tell
—stay a while and maybe then you'll see
A different side of me
"But I gotta be crazy!" Harley wailed, "It's what brought me and Puddin' together. It's what makes us so perfect for each other."
I'm just a little impaired…
"I don't like you anymore," Harley told the radio.
I know, right now you don't care
Harley stuck her tongue out at the speaker and then returned to her list.
BATMOBILE, she wrote carefully. Puddin' really did have some kind of fixation on Batman's car, quite apart from his hatred for the crimefighter. Some kind of Oedipal hostility transference complicated by a displaced manic aggression.
But soon enough you're gonna think of me
And how I used to be
Jason Blood unlocked the door to his apartment, slammed his keys and backlog of mail onto the carved table in the entranceway, and glanced up at the painting hung directly above it. Andrea Mantegna's Descent into Limbo. Limbo from the Latin limbus meaning literally the hem or "border" of a garment. A temporary location on the border of the afterlife for souls not ready, for one reason or another, to proceed to their final location. Not unlike California.
How typically ETRIGAN! Manipulating him into leaving town for no other reason than some scaled-winged-demonic ex-girlfriend was whipping up a little Apocalypse in Gotham, and Etrigan didn't want to see her.
The worst of it was, Jason had enjoyed San Francisco. And he would have been no more than perturbed to have missed something "big and mystical" in Gotham. But it was the principle of the thing. Etrigan had played with his mind – again! He'd been maneuvered into taking a holiday because the Prince of Hell couldn't manage his relationships.
Jason sorted through his mail, collecting the pieces he wanted to read, and retired to his favorite chair in the living room. He tried, as he had throughout the flight home, to settle in to the balanced state of 'resignation' and 'pissed at Etrigan' in which he lived the bulk of his waking life. It was not an easy state to achieve when Etrigan was being so bloody quiet. He detested that demon's voice more than any sound in the world, but its absence was always a worry.
In a case like this, embarrassment was a likely enough explanation. That his hated adversary could be so disconcerted by an old flame's return that he would actually miss the chance to be released into the world, that would be shameful enough. But that Blood himself now knew of Etrigan's predicament…
Embarrassment was the most likely explanation, but with Etrigan you could never know for sure. The son of Belial, Lord of Lies, deception was literally in his blood, or whatever it was that coursed through demon veins. It was probably simple embarrassment keeping Etrigan silent. But you could never be sure.
Batman knew something was wrong the moment he got out of the Batmobile. It had been a satisfactory patrol: stopping a mugger was always gratifying, more so than any other criminal scourge that afflicted his city. A mugger with a gun was doubly gratifying. The scum AND his weapon were off the street and out of circulation; that dwarfed all other accomplishments of the evening. Although strictly speaking, finding the location of Scarecrow's new hideout would probably prove more valuable in the long run as far as the war on crime. It was nearly a week since Jonathan Crane had been released from the hospital, and until tonight Batman had been unable to pinpoint his location. He had been thinking over the log entries since the final turn from the public road onto the Wayne property. He only put that mental outline aside as he stepped out of the Batmobile and sensed the disturbance in the cave.
He couldn't tell offhand if it was something about the bats overhead, if it was what Sensei taught about opening your awareness as you entered a room to sense if it was occupied, or if he was simply that connected to the cave that he knew instinctively if something was amiss. He proceeded cautiously from the Batmobile's turntable into the main chamber. He eyed the workstations… they didn't appear to be disturbed. The tray with his untouched sandwich had been removed and the coffee mug washed and replaced… that was routine. Alfred's presence would not feel this way. Alfred belonged in the cave; this was something that wasn't as it should be.
There was a sound in the costume vault and Batman raced to the door, silently, swiftly, nerves tensed, senses hyper-alert. Just as he got there, Stephanie stepped out.
"OH!" she gasped. "Oh…. Oh ah, um. Oh."
"What do you think you're doing here?" Bruce graveled suspiciously. To Stephanie's ears it sounded like Batman challenging the worst of the worst in the back alleys of Gotham. If she had known him better, she would have realized that this wasn't the crimefighter at all, but merely an adult all-too-familiar with teenage hijinx.
"Wait here," he ordered and stepped into the vault. "Lenses engage. Infrared." He noted the heat marks lingering on the last items touched and shook his head wearily. Children. They were so fascinated by the trappings. He often worried about it. It didn't necessarily mean that they didn't understand the somber nature of the Mission and all the inherent dangers, but it always struck that nerve.
He returned to Stephanie and removed the cowl, giving her the full benefit of his sternest glare.
"Well?" he asked, when the glare produced no result.
"No more of that. What were you doing with Robin's costume?"
"Speak up," Bruce ordered.
"I was getting a picture taken. One of those Glamour Shots type things. It's… a present for Tim."
Bruce stifled any visible reaction, although if he were alone he would have allowed the minor tickle at the corner of his lip to twitch.
"I see," he said at last, sounding as stern and disapproving as he could manage without resorting to the Batman voice.
"Sorry, Batman," Stephanie mumbled, addressing her feet.
"Don't ever do it again," he ordered, turning and leaving her alone.
Well this sucks.
It's not a surprise. You get into a knife fight, you're going to get cut. You need to know that going in and accept it, not be intimidated by it, use an arm to block a strike like always, even when it means turning into the blade. So now I've got a few cuts in the costume, and yeah, the skin underneath. That much isn't a big deal. They'll heal and Kittlemeier will make me some new gloves and fix the slashes in the catsuit. In two weeks it will be like it never happened.
Except for him. He's going make this into a thing, I just know it.
And it's none of his damn business! What I do on a prowl is my own affair. It's hardly the first time I've gotten banged up. It's just the first time since we've been living together. He's going to see it and he's going to freak out. I can just sense it.
I don't even do stuff like that in the usual course. I'm not a crimefighter, I don't have that "this is my territory and no crime shall be committed here" chip on my shoulder. That's his kink, not mine.
But there is such a thing as professional pride, and there is such a thing as respect: for the city, for the prime targets, for the…. I don't even know what all. But it's about respect! You go breaking into Cartier or the Gotham Museum of Art, then you damn well better live up to it. I absolutely can't stomach these goddamn know-nothing wet-behind-the-ears wannabes sitting around in their grimy little hovels deciding they could take on a target like CARTIER! It's offensive. It offends every fiber of, every molecule in my… It just fucking pisses me off, okay! There they were, these goddamn punks that know nothing about anything, and they DARED to break into MY PLACE!
That was simply unacceptable and I went down there, whip in hand, to explain it to the ignorant little shits.
Of course the nature of ignorant little shits is that they're very attached to their ignorance. You can never explain anything; the only satisfaction to be had is—to use his expression—taking them down. They won't be desecrating Cartier again with their seedy incompetence any time soon, and I guess there is some satisfaction to be had in that. But not much. The only real gratification I got from the whole thing was the release of punching the one with the knife into next week.
It wasn't really enough. I begin to see why Bruce has such a stick up his butt so much of the time. It is downright sickening, and the satisfaction of punching some payback out of them doesn't quite balance this infuriating! goddamn! frustrating! need to… ARGGHH!!
And on top of all that, I've got these slashes in my costume.
I just don't need him making a thing of it on top of all the rest.
I really don't.
Batman finished his log entry then looked around. Selina usually came padding around by now, not always but most nights, with a cup of cocoa and a neck rub and encouragements to come to bed…
Since Scarecrow was still at large, he updated the toxicology database with the latest information on adenosine inhibitors and adrenaline activators. This data he transferred to a memory stick no larger than a piece of chewing gum. He retrieved the portable vapor analyzer from the Batmobile and removed a similar stick, replacing it with this new one. You could never be too careful with Crane…
He returned the analyzer to the Batmobile and was about to call it a night when a red light flashed on his workstation: once, twice, and then on the third flash was joined by a soft yet urgent tweet of the JLA Communication Net. The call, Bruce noted, was from Atlantis. Aquaman. He replaced his cowl before opening up the A/V connection.
"Accept," he ordered, and the system bleated. Then the sea king's scowling face appeared on the giant monitor. "Evening, Arthur," Batman said curtly.
"Hello, Bruce. Glad you're there. Didn't want to interrupt if you were on patrol."
"Back an hour ago. What do you need?"
"That's, eh… tricky to explain. You're sure you've got the time?"
"You know the situation with California?"
"You mean Sub Diego?"
Arthur stared at him disgustedly from the screen. His baseline contempt for the surface world's press always spiked when they treaded into his realm with their catch phrases and buzzwords. Sub Diego was only the latest of their presumptions.
"San Diego, yes. You're aware of what's been happening?"
"The survivors of the earthquake last year, genetically tampered with to become water-breathers: living beneath the surface, presumed dead all this time, and unable to ever return home because they can no longer breathe air."
"Thanks for the statistical analysis, Captain Compassion. You do realize that people's lives have been ruined by this…"
Bruce tuned out the rant. He could understand the frustration behind it.
"What do you need, Arthur?" he repeated when the rant had spent itself.
Arthur puffed out a belligerent sigh.
"I need to borrow your pet cat burglar."
I know they've all been talkin' bout me
I can hear them whisper
And it makes me think that there must be something wrong with me
Out of all the hours thinkin'
Somehow I've lost my mind
Well I'm not crazy
I'm just a little unwell…
Harley reconsidered her thoughts on the song, the list of Puddin's weak spots, and her own life plan.
Maybe it wasn't that crazy after all. She was in a better position now to write her groundbreaking book on the psychology of Gotham rogues than she would ever be working as a wage slave drone at Arkham. She had been one! She was already famous, so she didn't even need the book to put her on the map. She was already known – so maybe she hadn't lost so much time after all. The book would give her credibility in the world, that plus her notoriety as The Clown Prince of Crime's handpicked Tasseled Princess…
It would work. She would bring enlightenment to the world about the nature of costumed rogues, achieving fame and fortune for herself, and at the same time taking her vengeance on the clown for taking the best years of her life and giving nothing in return. That would teach him! The Great Joker, his reputation stripped away, his darkest, most humiliating secrets revealed to the world. They would all know of his secret love for… the mundane! That dream he has about washing the car on a Sunday afternoon before the game - and not a hot car either, or his steamroller or even his pogo stick – a Subaru Minivan. Just wait 'til they all find out about that one at the Iceberg!
Ha! Take that Puddin! Ha, I say HA!
…stay a while and maybe then you'll see
A different side of me.
...to be continued...