Chapter 4: Then again, maybe the Frenchman isn't the problem afterall
Gordon's plans for a frank chat on the delicate subject of "Bruce Wayne: Item 2" were overturned when he reached the manor and encountered a prime example of "Bruce Wayne: Item 1."
There was some kind of gourmet extravaganza in progress, and some puffed up headwaiter-type met him at the door and said deliveries should be brought round to the back! Alfred intervened before it got ugly, and Gordon was escorted past a table of more headwaiters that all looked him up and down and sniffed like he was being allowed to contaminate the air they breathed.
Alfred led him past the closed doors to the library where he normally met with Bruce, and showed him instead into a small sitting room Gordon had never seen before. The butler made a vague apology about some wine event going on in the main rooms, but if Gordon would wait here for a bit, Bruce would be along shortly.
"Wonderful," Gordon muttered, "I'll just wait in the lobby and try not to get my miserable working class germs on the Persian carpet."
"Oh dear," Alfred gasped softly.
Gordon looked up petulantly, but saw Alfred's disapproving gaze was directed not at him, but at the library across the hall. Through the now-open doors, several figures could be seen: a stocky man in black with a hand-held camera, a second man with a microphone, two men with machine guns, two more with gas canisters. Between the guy with the microphone and the ones with the guns stood two more figures: Harley Quinn and the Joker.
"DEAD/NOT DEAD Pilot, Take 1!" Harley Quinn announced happily.
"Hi there," Joker addressed the camera lens eagerly. "Have you heard that I'm dead? Too often, a popular figure such as myself wakes up one morning to find some nobody news writer trying to make a name for himself by killing off his betters." Joker paused here to take a gun from one of the armed thugs and sprayed the ceiling above the cameraman with gunfire.
"Just where they get the balls…" and with that he smashed the butt between the cameraman's legs "…I don't know. But they do!"
"Puddin', I don't think that's a good idea," Harley observed, as the cameraman crumpled into a coughing whimpering ball. "With the camera on the floor like that, they'll just see feet."
"It's reality TV, Harl, that stuff adds atmosphere."
Harley shrugged, "If you say so, Puddin'."
Joker pulled the still coughing cameraman to his feet.
"Okay, let's try another one."
"DEAD/NOT DEAD Pilot, Take 2!" Harley chirped.
Damn the festival, damn the Joker, and damn DefCon-2, Bruce thought bitterly.
Under the best of circumstances, it was difficult getting away from a crowd to change into Batman. With the enhanced failsafes he had in place for the festival, it was all but impossible.
"Let me illustrate the difference," Joker was saying, pulling a terrified Anatole from the crowd. "This is not dead," and he smiled at the camera. "This is dead," and he pointed the gun at Anatole's temple. "And then I'll blow your brains out," Joker explained politely. "Okay then, everybody, ready for a take?"
"Have you heard that I'm dead? Too often, a figure such as myself wakes up one morning to find some hack writer trying to make a name for himself by killing off his betters…"
"You tell'em, Mistah J!"
"CUT! WHO SAID YOU COULD TALK?"
Joker thundered at Harley and looked around the cooking demonstration for a suitable implement to express his displeasure. He found it in some hot oil, which he flung at his devoted sidekick. Harley had never learned to contain her enthusiastic outbursts - but she had learned to duck when they brought on one of these tantrums. This she did, and the oil meant for her went flying past and landed on a prize leg of lamb a la Anatole, splattering the creator's trousers with hot grease and dripping more onto his shoes.
"That was certainly uncalled for," commented an unflappable François de Poulignac.
The Joker turned slowly in the direction of the new voice.
"Hmm, Count Franco de Bat-Bat," he muttered dryly. "Didn't know he was here."
Then he put on a jovial manner to greet his accursed enemy with equal sophistication:
"Count Francula! I didn't see you back there! Lurking in the shadows, eh, but you're so good at that. HAHAHAHAHAHA!"
"It is pronounced 'François' si vous plait," corrected Count Franco, still oblivious to the fact that he was talking to a deranged killer.
"Well, however you say it, Frenchie, it was good of you to turn out for the pilot episode. I figured we wouldn't see you 'til sweeps week! Mon FrancoBat, you are too good to me!"
And with that the Joker saluted, grabbed each of François's arms and kissed both his cheeks. Then he turned abruptly and screamed…
"HAR-LEEEY, TAAAKE 4!"
Alfred tried, unsuccessfully, to get Gordon to sneak out a back corridor to summon help. Gordon tried, unsuccessfully, to get Alfred to do the same. Each man felt they were in a superior strategic position to stay and fight the good fight:
Alfred knew the secrets of Wayne Manor and assumed Gordon did not.
Gordon was a retired policeman and assumed Alfred was a hapless civilian.
Harley needed a mirror to straighten her hair before filming and assumed the little brown door behind the bookcase was a washroom. She opened it to find Alfred and Gordon gesturing wildly at each other to do something.
"Puddin, come look!" she squealed excitedly, "I found two more!"
Jean Paul watched the scene unfold from the surveillance monitors in the Batcave. The madman was playing one of his incomprehensible games, and it was bound to turn deadly if he couldn't get up there and put a stop to it.
Except Bruce had made changes to the system. Nothing was where he remembered it. Last time, he taken the whole network down just checking his e-mail. Who knew what could happen if he tried unlocking a manor access-point.
The mysterious Frenchman Joker had greeted so warmly was standing behind Harley, eyeing her in a way she found most puzzling from a hostage about to die.
"You MUST be Harley Quinn," he said finally.
"Ah, yeah," she smiled. Didn't everybody know that? "You figger that out from the outfit?" she asked, flicking one of the tassels on her hat.
"No," he replied solemnly, "un derriere magnifique!"
"If Gerard Depardu is the sexiest man in France," Joker was saying, plagiarizing Dennis Miller, "this whole Jerry Lewis thing is starting to make sense… OH COME ON, THAT ONE WAS DAMN FUNNY!"
Neither Bruce, Gordon, Alfred, nor any of the festival attendees saw the humor - although that was probably attributable to the presence of the machine guns rather than absence of wit - or the fact that most of them were French.
"Now, look," Joker tried again, "this is to be the pilot episode. I need a lively crowd. I need everybody who's not dead to seem NOT DEAD! How about this, a little laughing gas to warm up the room, then we'll sing a few rounds of Frère Jacques and then we'll kill Batman."
"Kill Batman?" Harley repeated, awed.
"Kill Batman?" Gordon sputtered, confused.
"Kill Batman?" Alfred whispered, worried.
"Yeah, Batman," Joker exclaimed, "He's right over there." He waved vaguely, then addressed the room like they must be morons: "The guy who's been boffing Catwoman! Jeez, you people are slow on the uptake!"
Gordon turned to Bruce with the idea of saying goodbye, when Joker continued:
"No, not him! HIM! Frenchie! The Dark Kehnnnnigget!" And he pointed past Bruce at an astonished François de Poulignac.
"Oh, COME ON!" Joker was nearly in tears now. "The Dark Kehnigget! Get it! Monty Python and the Holy Grail? The French castle? What's wrong with you people, this is killer stuff!!"
"Puddin," Harley began tentatively, looking at François (who seemed to be standing behind her no matter which way she turned), "I don't think this guy is Batman. Batman doesn't have a French accent."
She also didn't think Batman would keep eyeing her bottom that way, but she didn't say that.
Before "Puddin" could respond, there was a distant sizzle, a boom, a thunk and the entire manor went dark. In the blackness, there were cries of "Le tueur clown! Étaler de tous son long! Maintenant les lumières hors! De lui est toute la noire! Aide! Aide!"
There was a crash of broken glass, and a smooth British voice: "Take that, you cretin."
Then Anatole: "Sacre bleu, le Grande Cru, You smashed the Grande Cru"
Another crash, and then Alfred intoned: "Once more into the breach, dear friends. God for Harry, England, and St. George!"
"LIGHTS!" Joker cried, "I'M MISSING GREAT FOOTAGE! SOMEBODY TURN ON THE LIGHTS!"
"Ohhhh," squealed Harley, followed by François's silkiest "'Scusez moi, Mademoiselle."
"LIGHTS!! BATMAN'S FEELING UP MY HARLEY!! SOMEBODY TURN ON THE FREAKIN' LIGHTS!!"
Harley squealed again.
"THIS ISN'T TEMPTATION ISLAND!" Joker wailed in the blackness, "IT'S DEAD/NOT DEAD! I'll show you A-HA!"
Thinking he had hold of the machine gun, Joker tried to fire the heavily greased leg of lamb a la Anatole in the direction of Harley's squeals.
Despite Jim Gordon's proximity, Bruce had vanished into the first seconds of blackness. He made his way quickly to the grandfather clock and prayed the power outage would short-circuit the failsafes. A moment later, having entered the cave without an obstacle and standing before the costume vault, he reconsidered the prayer. His costume was missing.
When the lights came up…
A remarkably well-greased Joker lay on the floor throttling a leg of lamb for no apparent reason.
A remarkably convincing Batman stood with his foot on the madman's back.
A remarkably threatening Alfred held two thugs at bay with a broken bottle of Grande Cru.
And a remarkably unaffected François turned to a remarkably unfoppish Bruce Wayne and said: "This is a very interesting way you have to apprehend the criminals in America. I do not think I could live here all the time."
Gordon looked at Bruce slowly, then at Batman, but he said nothing.
Joker looked at François slowly, then at Batman - then muttered "That phony accent doesn't fool anybody, you know. Ya cheese-eating surrender monkey."
Within an hour, the police had come and gone. The intruders had been cleared out, leaving a curious assembly of loose ends:
Alfred calmed a hysterical Anatole, surveyed the carnage in the library, and calmly suggested to François de Poulignac that tomorrow's seminar be moved to the south parlor. Though the temperature was not so ideal, there would be no gunpowder or plaster dust in the air to spoil the tasters' palettes. François agreed, and complimented the Englishman's connoisseurship, and the two departed to view the south parlor as a suitable venue, leaving Anatole to return home in a defeated huff.
Jim Gordon, watching the exchange, fished in his jacket for the Cumberland and chewed the mouthpiece disapprovingly. "So it's to be business as usual at Wayne Manor," he thought bitterly. "Gun-toting psychopaths with video cameras run around trying to kill people? Clean it up, dust it off, get everything ready for the next criminal's entrance…"
At this unfortunate moment, Selina walked in, stepped lightly over the shards of a blood-stained brandy snifter, daintily kicked the remains of the leg of lamb out of her path, and dropped six shopping bags beside an easy chair. She flopped into the chair dramatically and kicked off her shoes.
"Your daughter's going to be the death of me," she told Gordon, massaging her ankle, "Eight designers we went to this afternoon shopping for the damn wedding dress, and that's only half the list! Do you know how many shades of white there are? I do! There are 67! It's WHITE for godsake! Lace or satin, cleavage or not, let's go. But nooo…"
Gordon turned to leave, as Anatole had, in a defeated huff. In the doorway, he barreled into Bruce and Batman (Bruce and Batman, how the hell was that possible!) coming in as he was going out.
They each turned as he passed between them, grumbling "effete snobs think they're too good for regular people… lunatics out to kill regular people, c'est la vie…be damned if I'll let this go on… over my dead body."
Selina didn't give the paradoxical appearance of Bruce and Batman walking side by side so much as a second glance. It was "Pheromones," obviously, AzBat, and she didn't deign to acknowledge the imposter's presence in any way:
"I don't want to stir up the whole black-white-gray thing again," she said directly to Bruce, "but how in the hell can there be 67 SHADES of WHITE?"
AzBat looked daggers at her. He had finally vindicated himself: he had kicked the Joker's ass, got Bruce out of a devilishly awkward situation with Gordon - he was the hero of the hour! And for this he was to receive no recognition whatsoever?
"This is a crime scene," he snarled in his best imitation of Bruce's batgrowl, "You not notice all the yellow tape at the door?"
"You know," Selina answered, unknowingly echoing Joker's parting shot, "that phony voice doesn't fool anybody."
Before AzBat could follow Gordon and Anatole in the cue of huffing exits, Selina added, "Incidentally, Pheromones, you shouldn't hang around here in that getup. Dick's picking Barbara up. He sees you in that suit again, there'll be more broken things for poor Alfred to clean up."
Bruce watched the exchange without comment. He watched Selina taunt Jean Paul for no reason except her own amusement. Another time he might have intervened, but now that the crisis had passed, he was reconsidering the Joker's words about "the guy who's been boffing Catwoman." Besides which, she was right about one thing: if Dick saw Jean Paul in the Batman costume, there would indeed be, figuratively as well as literally, 'more broken things' for somebody – but not necessarily Alfred - to clean up.
AzBat took Bruce's silence for agreement and turned from his planned exit through the front door to a hidden route to the cave.
After he left, Bruce turned to Selina.
"Oh yeah, you're 'miss sweetness and light,' alright."
"Give me a break, my feet hurt. Besides, can't that idiot ever foil a crime without breaking something?"
"That's not the point."
"Usually something expensive."
"That's not what—"
"Usually something expensive of yours."
"I don't want to talk about him, I really don't."
"Okay, Brucie, NOW you're part of the family."
"What I want to talk about is why Joker is referring to 'Call-me-Count' de Poulignac as 'the guy who's been boffing Catwoman'…"
At this unfortunate moment, AzBat, having found the post-quake remodeling had removed the route he generally took to the Batcave, returned to the library, prompting Bruce to continue:
"…and while we're at it, I want to know what this 'Pheromones' business is about."
AzBat watched in awe. He had never fully appreciated the raw power and bravery that was Bruce Wayne – to wantonly bait Catwoman that way was to unleash a force of nature. Except rather than the volcanic eruption he expected there was a terse and intensely controlled:
"I'm going to go back to the beginning here because that's how completely you've missed the really important points: I spent hours today at Georgio's, Fernando's, Anatelli's, Anton's, Chapel's, Flavel, Wenelio's and Mr. Jose at the House of Shri while Barbara pretended to see a difference between 67 shades of white. My feet hurt. I'm going to repeat that last part because it bears repeating: My. Feet. Hurt. And I am absolutely not going to put these damn heels back on to walk across that rubble and kick your sorry ass…"
AzBat departed again in search of the new entrance to the Batcave. Finding only the washroom that eluded Harley earlier, he returned to hear…
"Okay, fine. I'll make it simple, you can hear about François or Pheromones, but both you're absolutely not entitled to—"
"You're not in any position to be making deals, Selina, not after 'the guy who's been boffing Catwoman' si vous plais…"
"I was shopping with Barbara!"
"…Diamonds on the Riviera and totally nude on the left bank…."
"Samba band! I'm changing my vote on the Samba Band."
"AND the groom's cake, AND the morning coats, AND the vows."
As before, the mere mention of "boffing" seemed to summon François de Poulignac from wherever he might be lurking: "Ah yes, boffing," he began without preamble, "this is like the 'screwing around,' no? This I can explain."
"Don't help me," Selina interrupted.
"It was that remark of the laughing man, I thought it would cause some small consternation. But…"
At this unfortunate moment AzBat cleared his throat, thinking that this stranger might have the consideration Bruce and Selina lacked to not have embarrassingly personal conversations in front of him. The strategy backfired as François enthused:
"Ah, but yes, we did not get a chance to meet before. You are the famous Batman, oui? I am Le Comte François de Poulignac." He looked over at Selina with a smug "so there, didn't even have to rob a gallery" expression. "It is very suitable, I think, that we three should meet at last…"
Selina massaged her eyebrows again and whimpered, "How the hell did this happen?"
"It's the curse," Dick announced flatly. He stood in the doorway like a messenger in a Greek Tragedy, looked at each of his listeners in turn – the solemnity of his statement may be guessed by the fact that he didn't so much as blink at the sight of Jean Paul in the Bat-costume.
"Bruce entertains – disaster follows… It's the curse. The wedding is off."
©2002, Chris Dee
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Mon Dieu! Un Cliff-Hanger!
The Bat-Family will return in:
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