Chapter 1: Joker-Schmoker, Who's This Frenchman??
Optimists, romantics, and devotees of Star Trek like to believe the deadliest enemies with the most turbulent histories can come together, learn to understand one other, and live in harmony and peace. What these three groups have in common, Alfred Pennyworth reflected, is limited experience with the French.
They say no good deed goes unpunished. For Alfred, there could be no greater proof than Le Grand Festival Français de Vin et Nourriture. At Christmas he had gone to the neighbor's chef, Anatole, his arch-rival, in order to salvage Dick and Barbara's engagement dinner from the havoc wrought by "Bruce Wayne: Crimefighter with a Cuisinart." He had begged a favor of the odious Frenchman and he knew, sooner or later, his nemesis would come to collect. Now he had.
Anatole's employers, the Finns, were hosting delegates for an international food and wine festival. The Finn estate, right next door, would provide accommodations (so much more civilized than a crass commercial hotel), and it would be so very convenient if Wayne Manor hosted the actual seminars. This way the attendees would not have to venture into the city at all. It would be like the whole event was happening amidst the vineyards in the French countryside.
"Why not just have it in the French countryside?" Bruce Wayne asked when Alfred brought him the proposal.
"I couldn't say, sir. I have never found the continental mind particularly logical in such matters."
"Well, I'd rather not have anything to do with it." Bruce disliked opening the house to large groups of strangers, except for Wayne Foundation functions or to stage a trap for Batman's enemies.
"That would be my preference as well, sir, but there is a debt of honor to be settled. If I might be so bold as to remind you, it was your own yuletide interference in my kitchen…"
"Alfred, really, we agreed—"
"…in the matter of the puff pastry, sir."
"We had an agreement. We had an agreement not to mention that again."
"Sir, it was on that very occasion you spoke to Ms. Kyle most firmly on the subject of taking responsibility for the consequences of one's actions."
Bruce stared. It's a poor crimefighter that doesn't know when he's about to be threatened.
"You wouldn't dare."he growled.
Bruce's eyes narrowed to slits – it was terrifying behind the cowl. Without the cowl, it looked rather like Mickey Rooney's gross caricature of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
"I very much doubt the lady would be sympathetic, sir, if she learned you yourself refused to honor an obligation incurred solely…"
"How many rooms?"
"How many rooms will they need? And for how long?"
It was Alfred who told Selina about the upcoming festival and the role Wayne Manor was to play in it. This he did with great ceremony, although she had no official position in the household. He was pleased with her. She voted with him in any deadlock about the wedding preparations. Alfred realized she only did this to vote against Master Dick, but the result was the same: The ceremony would be spared homemade vows, dim sum, a red velvet groom's cake, a Caribbean theme, novelty napkins, good luck punch, and a samba band.
While Alfred delivered this message, Dick and Barbara were in the car, on their way to the manor for the ritual of "Family Dinner." They were also discussing the great house as a suitable setting for a festive event.
"I do not have a grudge against Wayne Manor, Barbara, I grew up there. It's home. But I don't want to get married there. The curse is real. Why doesn't anybody believe me?"
"Dickey, it's not that we don't believe you, not exactly. We believe that you believe it."
"It's real. The curse is real: Bruce entertains, disaster follows. And just think who all's going to be there, all those identities… JLA, Titans, just consider the possibilities! You have any idea what kind of good luck mojo you'd have to work to overcome that?"
"Dick, you're blithering. It's unattractive."
"Greek tragedy, isn't there always some crazy old bat off in the corner spouting prophesies that all come true, that ABSOLUTELY NOBODY LISTENS TO?"
"Richard, I really think you need to stop and think back to the last moment you were sane."
"That'd be right before 'will you marry me.'"
"Ha. Ha. First, this isn't even a Wayne Foundation event, it's our wedding. And I want it somewhere nice. And Bruce wants to do this for us."
"…crazy old bat off in the corner muttering prophesies no one will listen to…the Ides of March and Birnam Wood marching on Dunsinane…"
"Just say to yourself: 'I am a rational being. I know there is no such thing as a curse, there is no such thing as a crime-magnet.'"
"First, I didn't say crime, I said disaster. And what you said before, it's not the Foundation, it's Bruce himself. Bruce is a disaster magnet!"
"I'm engaged to a crazy person; I can see that now."
At a normal family dinner, it would be rude to take calls from a cel phone at the table. The Bat-Family had a different set of priorities. If a ten foot beacon in the sky could summon away half the company before dessert, Selina saw no reason not to answer the modest beeping in her handbag.
She half-turned from the rest of the diners, who burned with curiosity to learn the meaning of: "Well, what does Harley say?… In shrinkwrap?… As far as I know it's still in Sarasota, Florida…. No, the museum is in Florida; how would I know about the… ok, hang on…" She turned to the group and asked, "Hey do any of you guys know where the Ringling Clown College is?" Then returned to the phone: "Blank stares all around, nobody here knows either… Well you know who'd know?… Why not?… You're kidding… You're KIDDING… Why for god's sake? (laughs) Oh. Oh, I forgot about that. You should have seen his face too. (more laughter, and then…) Well you should've thought of that before now, shouldn't you… Alright, I'll talk to you later - assuming you live…. Laterbye."
She hung up, put the phone back in her purse, and then turned back to the table to see Bruce, Dick, Barbara and Alfred all staring at her still.
"What is it now, morning coats or tuxes?"
"What the hell was that?" Bruce found his tongue first. Much as he delighted in the 'naughty-girl' grin under other circumstances, he was dismayed to see it now.
"You so don't want to know," Selina answered and primly took a bite of lettuce. Then she added, "By the way, you boys know Joker is out?"
"That's just what I said! You'll love this. Remember last time he checked himself into Arkham, well that means he could check himself out. Since it wasn't an escape, those clowns at Arkham, if you'll pardon the expression, didn't think to tell anybody. Turns out they've been trying to get rid of him for months. He completed their fast track rehabilitation program two or three times – wouldn't leave. Guess that night at the Iceberg was more traumatic for him than we thought."
"They've been trying to get rid of him?" Dick sputtered. "Like: you are now safe to rejoin society; here's your purple suit and spats, mazel tov?"
"I guess that's why nobody stays in Arkham very long," Barbara mused, then started to chuckle. "They want them out of there fast. They're dangerous psychotics, after all."
Dick got into the spirit of her joke and completed the thought, "Sure, you survive three months with Joker on your couch, you figure don't press your luck; you've earned a reprieve."
Bruce eyed the three of them dangerously.
"I don't see anything funny here."
"Darlin," Selina told him, "if you can't laugh at this one, you're not having enough fun in show business."
James Gordon removed the elegant Dunhill Bruyere pipe from his mouth, set it on the table, and looked at it. It felt wrong; somehow it even made the tobacco taste wrong. He fussed in his desk drawer until he found his old Cumberland. Nice sandblasted texture, rough around the edges. Smoking was his only real vice and damnit, he wasn't going to ruin it with this slick uptown pipe.
He surveyed the papers displaced by his search for the Cumberland. They had the slightly wilted look of paper that hasn't been touched in a while.
Gordon was not finding the transition from overworked police commissioner to retired gentleman of leisure to be an easy one. It was annoying, after a life of too much to do and no time to get it done, to find hours at the end of the day for those books he 'never got around' to reading.
He tried rekindling a boyhood interest in model railroads. Occasionally in the past, he'd revisited the hobby and always found it relaxing. He'd wished he had the time to really delve into it. Now that he had, he found that a hobby that offers escape from the daily grind is a poor entertainment if there is no grind to escape from.
Barbara's engagement made welcome news on many grounds.
First, of course, she was his daughter. Her happiness was the most important thing in the world to him, and she loved young Grayson dearly.
But there was that secondary consideration too: it gave him something to do.
His daughter's wedding. Little Barbara. Married. God Almighty. With that thought, he felt old. But before that depressing idea could take root, he returned to the prior one: something to do.
When Barbara first called with the news, the proud papa response had shouted down every other thought and feeling. But soon after, the policeman's mentality kicked in, and there were more than a few aspects of this "engagement" to occupy it.
Item One: Bruce Wayne. Whatever else you might say about him – and there will be a time for that discussion later – but whatever else you might say, he was rich. And the rich are different. Just look at this locket business. No ring. How long was that going to go on? And why: The butler told them a gold locket first. Walk outside the door, Gordon thought, stop the first hundred people you meet and ask what item of jewelry a man gives when he proposes marriage. I guarantee you'll get this response:
Well, there was a solution to that. There might not be a Gordon Manor, a Gordon financial empire or a Gordon in the Social Register. But there was a Gordon item of distinction that should settle the question of just how engaged they really were and how serious young Mr. Grayson was on that point.
Even by the standards of Bruce Wayne, Fop, this was one puffed up set of pretentious snobs. The reception for the food and wine festival VIPs to meet their American hosts would have been called a cocktail party at any other gathering in the world. But for epicureans of Le Frand Festival Français de Vin et Nourriture, "cocktail party" was too unaesthetic a concept. So this was a tasting.
And even by the standards of Bruce the CEO, with twenty duty appearances a month for corporate and Foundation events, this looked to be one dull party.
"…Phylloxera is a louse that destroys the rootstocks, but Botrytis, that is 'the noble rot,' a fungus which makes a high sugar content for dessert wines…"
˜˜Somebody chain me to a pulley and lower me into a vat of piranha.˜˜
It was the secret language of whispers and signals developed in the endless round of Christmas parties. Such allusions to their other lives kept him and Selina sane while enduring nonsense like…
"…Wines from botrytized grapes are legitimately sweet, but the new-fangled 'ice wines' try to reproduce the same effect by letting the grapes freeze on the vine…"
Bruce was surprised when his quip about the piranha got no response, and he turned… to find Selina eagerly debating classic French Sauternes versus the Napa Valley equivalent Dolce.
That didn't seem right, somehow. Okay, she could cook. Cooking, it turned out, was something most adults could do, had to do, if they also wanted to eat. But most of Selina Kyle's interests were either cat-related or Catwoman-related. If these were experts on cheetahs, security systems, or Picassos, Bruce could understand. But Chateau d'Yquem?
Then he remembered, when she told him about her past. There was a lengthy period in Europe – in France, in fact, and quite possibly, in wine country. And if she wanted access to those aristocratic families and their ancient art collections… Yes, it would make sense, wouldn't it. A good theory. He'd confirm it at the first opportunity.
Hmm. And if the theory proved true, then what?
Consequences for Batman: None. (grunt)
Consequences for Bruce: Look around. Getting through parties like this the old way. Well, he'd done a thousand of these without any help from the kitten.
"…Signora Rinaldi will be keynote speaker at the Welcome Banquet. She's to speak on olive oil, which I know we're all looking forward to… Signora, this is Mr. & Mrs. Finn, Mr. Wayne and his escort Ms. Kyle…"
Still, the festival wouldn't officially begin for another three days. It looked to be a very long week.
"…Mr. Dominick, who's the world's foremost authority on the mushroom, he'll be hosting a program on Day 2 and also…"
There was a squeal. Bruce whipped round to the source to see – Selina – had made that girlish squealing sound. Selina, the woman who – there was no way he could be mistaken about it at this late date – Selina who was Catwoman – had made that girlish squealing sound! That was just weird. And there was a man, a too tall, too dark, and too handsome character, who had lifted her a foot off the ground and was spinning her around – all the while making those idiotic comments about "Five years? No, six." "No, love, it's ten." "Mon Dieu. Impossible. How can this be?"
"Simple math, Clouseau," would have been Dick's thought.
Bruce, lacking a detailed knowledge of Pink Panther movies, simply stood, waiting for the stranger to put down his date.
It took longer than expected. And even then, the two began reminiscing while the rest of the room returned to their own conversations. The reminiscing was in French, which Bruce spoke, of course. But the pair were excited, speaking very fast, and in a dialect slightly different from the university French Bruce had mastered. He caught the words "Riviera," "hotel," and "diamonds" – which was disturbing. Then "totally nude" – which was more disturbing still. Then "in a houseboat on the left bank" and they both broke into peals of laughter.
Bruce gave an Alfred-cough. Selina turned and blinked at him.
"Hi," she began. It was precisely the same "Hi" she'd give if he found her in a vault with a sack full of somebody else's property. "We're old friends."
"I figured." He convinced himself it was not the Batman voice he'd use to say "somebody else's property."
"This is Frank…or actually François… Vicomte François de Poulignac," and finally the old friend had a name. Three names in fact, which seemed more than necessary.
"Comte de Poulignac now…" Four. Even worse.
"…or Count in English, or Lord de Poulignac, if you prefer."
"Isn't that special" would have been Dick's thought.
Bruce, lacking a detailed knowledge of Saturday Night Live catch phrases, took a sip of the featured vintage of the tasting.
"Oh, Frank, I'm so sorry," Selina was saying. There followed a lengthy explanation that Vicomte was a courtesy title given to the eldest son. If François was now Comte, it meant his father had died. Now Bruce was denied even the comfort of despising the guy.
Selina and Comte François de Poulignac continued to talk, and Bruce continued to stand there, still awaiting his half of the introduction. He had the queasy feeling that it might not be forthcoming because Selina might not remember his name… what with it being so short and easy to pronounce and in only one language.
...to be continued...