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Chapter 3: Fresh Meat

 

Azrael, the artificial personality created by the Order of St.  Dumas in the mind and body of Jean Paul Valley, did not approve of the latter’s departure from Gotham City.  An Azrael did not seek approval.  An Azrael did not acknowledge past mistakes, let alone feel the need to make amends for them.  And an Azrael certainly felt no embarrassment in the presence of the rightful heir to a mantle he had usurped and disgraced.  If Jean Paul, the mortal man born into this body he inhabited, felt such weakness, then Azrael could be tolerant up to a point.   He was prepared to tolerate Jean Paul’s need to prove himself to Batman, his desire to make amends for AzBat, and even his awkward avoidance of Dick Grayson and Nightwing. 

But if Grayson, the aforementioned heir to the mantle, chose to go into business with a woman who, admittedly, had been present on occasions when the aforementioned Azrael’s performance was less-than-stellar… so what? Women were irrelevant.  The Dumasian programming taught that they are inferior and beneath notice.  If this particular woman’s presence seemed to bring about episodes of less-than-impressive bungling…

And this is where the programming that was the Azrael personality hit a snag.  For the chaste crusaders of the Order of St.  Dumas had never thought to incorporate into the hypnotic programming of their perfect assassin any protocol for dealing with Catwoman.  It simply never occurred to them to create a mindset from whence their assassin could respond to a seductive woman telling him to his (helmeted) face that he lacked pheromones.  And yet, on that first meeting, this is exactly what occurred.  The absence of any Azrael programming on the matter left Jean Paul at the helm, and women were not an area where Jean Paul excelled.  Simply put: he choked.  The added pressure of being “Batman” had already begun affecting his equilibrium, the power of the mantle was going to his head—and suddenly hearing that he wasn’t desirable… the shock damn near caused him to shift control back to Azrael, resulting in one sorry, confused fiasco of an encounter. 

Since then, things hadn’t gotten any better. 

If the Knightly Order of Dumas didn’t think to program for Catwoman, they certainly hadn’t prepared the Azrael psyche for dealing with failure.  He had no means to process having made a fool of himself—and so it was that every time he met her again, his responses froze up.  Always anticipating more stimuli to which he would be unable to respond, Azrael tried to throw control to Jean Paul, who didn’t want it.  The result, invariably, was another blunder that the feline fatale would add to her repertoire of “Ways you’re not half the man Bruce is and never will be, you presumptuous imposter.”

Bruce Wayne dating Selina Kyle and Grayson hiring Catwoman, it was all too much and Jean Paul had left Gotham.

But it smacked of cowardice, and Azrael couldn’t stomach cowardice.  So he returned.

He returned just in time to see a suspicious pair heading towards the Iceberg Lounge…

“Anton,” the first said audibly, “We said it would be gauche to rob Bruce Wayne since he was our host.  I don’t know why you thought it necessary to single Selina out as well.  I rather liked those diamond cats she was wearing.”

“’Tasha,” her companion replied, “the invitation came from her, don’t you realize that?  Wayne only asked us to please her.  Good god, if she’s not actually living there, the butler sure treated her like she was the hostess.  I chose to err on the side of delicacy and decorum.”

It sounded like the pair had robbed Wayne Manor, a development that excited both Azrael and Jean Paul’s interest.  Azrael saw a worthy foe to battle, and Jean Paul a way to prove himself to Batman.  He followed them as closely as he dared, until they actually entered the nightclub. 

 

In one respect, the Iceberg Lounge was no different from other urban nightspots:  there was a core of regulars, consisting of costumed and non-monikered criminals, and there were the new people.  New faces drifted in - henchmen, fences, bookmakers, working girls, assorted riffraff - they stayed a while, mixed with the regulars for a few weeks, then, as often as not, they drifted away again. 

Oswald Cobblepot had become a bit of a snob about “the New People.”  In one sense, this fresh meat was an important factor in the running of his business—both the legitimate business of the club, and the illegitimate fencing and racketeering operations for which the club fronted.  But Cobblepot wasn’t some nameless crime boss, he was the Penguin, one of Gotham’s oldest and most established rogues.  He didn’t care to learn the names and gimmicks of all these flash-in-the-pan newbies.  Hence, when the new couple entered, he barely registered them beyond “Goth woman and her companion who is too tall.”   That is…until… 

He was showing them to a table in the main dining room when they dropped the names of two valued customers:    

“You said you would isolate and distract Bruce Wayne, not flirt with him! Not make him listen to the ‘starlight in the ebon vault’ bit (on a full stomach no less, poor man).  Not drape yourself on him like a Greek toga!”

“You didn’t want to rob the host; he had to be gotten out of the way somehow.”

“So did Selina.  But you didn’t see me pawing at her that way!”

This statement, uttered as they passed Joker and Harley’s table, brought an immediate response. 

“Who’s been pawing Selina?” Joker demanded loudly, for he considered himself King of the Gotham Rogues Gallery.  He addressed the Iceberg dining room generally as his court, and anyone in it as his subjects. 

“NOT AGAIN!” Harley wailed, throwing down her napkin.   “I am sick of you caring more about Bruce Wayne’s love life than your own.”  She stood to leave in a huff, then stopped as she realized the newcomers were staring at her.  They looked… familiar.   

“Why look, Natasha, it is the delightful Harlequin who told you of this place!”  

The Thief of the Night, forgetting he wore a leotard that make him look like a potato, reverted to his natural manner of Anton, the jet-setting charmer.    

Enchanté pour vous revoir, Mademoiselle,” he murmured taking her hand, “Enchanted to see you again.  I am Anton duNuit, from the Château, you remember, you were with my brother-in-law François.”

“Heh, heh, it couldn’t have been me,” Harley squeaked meekly.  “I, uh…”

“You figure it was a different Harlequin?” Joker growled dangerously. 

“My husband is confused,” Natasha put in, “He forgets himself and forgets that the cold names and faces of the day give way to dark and delirious facades in the alluring shadows of night.”

“Huh?” Joker said.

“The Thief of the Night failed to introduce himself properly,” Nocturna went on, deftly removing Harley’s hand from her husband’s.  “He is the Thief of the Night and I am Nocturna.”

Joker eyed her suspiciously.  

“Lady, you should get some sun.  Some of us can pull off that look, but you look like Death on a Triscuit.”  

 

“That better not be who I think it is,” Nightwing grumbled, looking at a shape several rooftops away. 

Robin looked through the binoculars and confirmed, “It’s Azrael.”

“Well that’s JUST WHAT WE NEED, isn’t it.  Captain Lugnut staking out the Iceberg while we’re supposed to be tracking—what’s that description—‘Morticia Adams and a walking spud.’”

“I looked fine in my tuxedo,” Anton muttered into his glass.  

Fed-up with developments in the dining room, he’d sought a cognac and a sympathetic ear at the bar.  

“A tuxedo,” he explained to the pretty, normal-looking woman chatting with the bartender, “is a classic style of dress for a reason.  It endures because it makes a man look sophisticated, dapper and manly.”

Oswald Cobblepot walked by just then, and Nocturna cleared her throat meaningfully. 

“Well, most men,” she put in. 

“That is a rude woman,” Oswald grumbled, returning to the dining room, “with a skin condition,” he added bitterly. 

This, unfortunately, was overheard by Poison Ivy, who was offended, and by Two-Face, who was delighted Ivy now had someone else to be mad at. 

Meanwhile, the pretty normal-looking woman was working up her courage to meet the newcomer at the bar.   “Hi,” she began boldly, offering her hand, “I’m Doris.  And you’re the first one I’ve seen here that talks sense.  Can I ask you—those outfits—the tights—do they chafe?””

OraCom Channel 2:OraCom Channel 2:

..::Nightwing, I don’t know what Azrael is doing there.  I thought he’d left town.  He’s not on the channel.  If you want to know why he’s there, go and ask him.  Maybe he’s seen them!::.. 

:: Oracle, give me a break.  You want me to swing over there, tap him on the shoulder, and ask Azrael, the vigilante clotheshorse, if he’s seen Mr. Spud? ::

Roxy Rocket stormed out of the dining room and into the bar, forgetting that Sly would be there.  That was awkward, but for now, she didn’t care.  She ordered a long island iced tea and began to rant:

“The new woman, Elvira-”

“Nocturna,” Anton corrected. 

“-is impossible,” Roxy continued, undeterred.  “She’s not here half an hour and the men in there are hanging on her every word, staring into her eyes like she was the Dragon Lady.  ‘The sunless hours are serene and magical,’ she says.  ‘The songs of the nightbirds are sweeter.’ What the holy hell is that supposed to mean? -hic-

“It means that Nocturna has finished her fifth champagne cocktail and is persuading that strawman to buy her a sixth,” Anton explained bitterly. 

“Scarecrow,” Oswald scoffed, “if he’d been half as discriminating about his victims as you were and not gone attacking Bruce Wayne, he’d have more blood in his veins now.”

Roxy looked daggers at this other newcomer at the bar—another newbie who somehow managed to leapfrog over her.  She was only too aware that she wasn’t an old-school villain like Joker, Riddler, Penguin or Catwoman; but she’d worked hard to overcome that and fit in among the established rogues.  How these new people managed to waltz in and carve out a niche for themselves in one evening, getting attention from all the biggest names…

“And who the hell is Nocturna,” she asked bitterly. 

“Nocturna is my wife,” Anton answered politely, “And I am the Thief of the Night, enchanté.”   He punctuated this last with a courtly bow over Roxy’s hand in which his lips gently touched her glove.  This brought more daggers from both Oswald and Sly. 

“Whew,” Eddie entered from the dining room with a fascinated glow.  “Damn but that woman can work a metaphor.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Hugo said something about her being pale—and that led to pale moonlight reflected on the water or something and she took off.  It’s been like twenty minutes on the moon and the stars and the twilight…”

Anton sighed. 

“Another drink please, I’ll be here a while.”

SAY,” Eddie looked Anton up and down with new awareness, “You’re the guy in gray who told Doris that costumes chafe.”

“OH, REALLY,” Roxy chimed in, but with an emphasis that meant she was speaking for another’s benefit rather than Anton’s.  “So you’re another one of these anti-costumed criminal bigots, are you?  What’s the matter, a shapely woman in tights too much for you to handle, you gutless wonder?  You gotta have everything dowdy and gray in order to feel safe?  Is your lousy manhood threatened by a real woman that isn’t afraid to act like it?”

“Roxy, for pity sake,” exclaimed a new voice—and both the bar and the dining room were stunned into silence at the unprecedented sound of the unflappable Sly flipping out.  “How many ways do I have to say it?  Roxy! I don’t care if you’re a bad girl! I don’t care about the outfits! I just DIDN’T want to DIE in some freakish sexual daredevil incident that will become ‘a cautionary tale’ circulated on e-mail forwards for the next six hundred years!”

There was a long, long silence. 

Finally, it was Two-Face who broke the silence.  

“We’d like to hear more about that, Roxy.” 

OraCom Channel 3:

..:: Robin, O.   This is a 30-second advance warning, I’m about to tell Nightwing that Batman has extricated himself from the situation at homebase and is now proceeding into Gotham.  ::.. 

:: … ::

..:: Robin, acknowledge.  ::.. 

:: … ::

..:: Clear your throat, cough, do something, kid.  ::.. 

:: … ::

..:: Robin, acknowledge the message.  ::.. 

..:: NOW! ::.. 

..:: Robin, say something, you’re scaring me.  ::.. 

..:: ROBIN!!! ::.. 

 

:: -cough-can't talk now.  ::

..:: WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING OUT THERE? ::.. 

:: -cough-later.  ::

OraCom Channel 2:

..:: Nightwing, Batman proceeding into Gotham.  ETA at your location in ten minutes.  ::.. 

:: Not now, Babs.  ::

..:: Soon as I open the channel, he’ll expect a report on the perps you and Robin are tracking and-excuse me? Did you say?::.. 

:: Not now˜˜˜ρρэơ!˜˜˜˜::

..:: What’s that noise in the back? NIGHTWING! ::.. 

OraCom Channel 1:

..:: Batman, proceed to location now transmitting to your GPS.  ‘Wing and Robin are there but- ::.. 

:: They’re not responding.  ::

..:: They’re responding, but they’re not saying anything ::.. 

OraCom Channel 3:

..:: Robin, come in.  What is that noise I hear on the back of Nightwing’s signal? ::.. 

:: Hold on.::

..:: ROBIN! ::.. 

The blip that represented Robin’s transponder hopped a small distance from Nightwing’s, indicating a move to another rooftop…

:: Jesus, Barbara, it’s an earpiece, remember?  Do you have to SCREAM INTO IT every time you get EXCITED?   The background noise was Azrael.::

..:: Oh, shit.  ::.. 

:: ‘Wing asked about this pair we’re tracking, Az saw them go into the Iceberg, ‘Wing asked why Az didn’t follow them in, Az asked what ‘Wing is doing back in ‘‘his city..’  Zany hijinx ensued.:::

Anton had had enough.  His wife’s costume was a Vera Wang.  His was a leotard and speedos.  She was flirting her way through the entire male population of the Gotham Underworld.  He was stuck at the bar with a salesgirl, a stuntwoman, and three men who took turned hostile if he so much as smiled at either woman. 

Enough was enough.  He tossed Sly a bauble from the robbery as payment, broke a bottle on the edge of the bar, and stormed into the dining room. 

Nocturna was prattling to Hugo Strange about “the true lure of darkness and the mysterious truths hidden in the folds of its languorously pulsing heart…”

“YOU WANTON HARLOT,” Anton bellowed, “IF YOU HAVE FINISHED YOUR INDULGENT WALLOWING IN THE ATTENTIONS OF OTHER MEN AND THE SOUND OF YOUR OWN VOICE, CAN WE PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF THOSE BEDAMNED STARS YOU ENDLESSLY INVOKE, GET OUT OF THIS PLACE AND GO HOME BEFORE SUNRISE!!!”

The Iceberg was accustomed to violent outbursts.  This explosion, while more eloquent than most, did little to distract Joker and Harley from the argument they’d been having since she got fed up with his Bruce Wayne fixation, and he learned of her dalliance in a Frenchman’s château.  It did little to distract Poison Ivy and Two-Face from their quarrel, which began with his ill-concealed interest in Roxy Rocket’s thrill fetish, and escalated when a skirmish between Hugo Strange and Scarecrow led to some flying dishware—which Oswald assured them they’d pay for—reminding Harvey of the injuries he’d suffered at Ivy’s hands from the airbourn planter of the late flytrap Ivan. 

In the bar, Roxy and Sly were out-shouting Eddie and Doris, and in the dining room, another airborne platter hit Hugo Strange in the head.  Again, Oswald assured the perpetrator she would pay for damages—in this case, the platter had been thrown by Nocturna, who repeated her earlier remark about Penguin’s lack of sartorial elegance.  She suggested a day at Barney’s might improve his fashion sense. 

“A 42 stout, I would think.  There’s a mannequin your size in Window 4,” she sneered coldly. 

Jonathan Crane was quick to snicker, then pounce. 

“A mannequin, eh,” then he winced theatrically.  “Ooh, sorry, Hugo.””

“So you see,” Selina told MirrorBitch again as she stepped out of the shower, “this is really not my fault.”

“I warned them,” she reiterated as she toweled off, “they didn’t listen.”

She poured coffee, sighed at the blinking light by her phone, and pushed the button beneath it. 

::You have _16_ new messages.  ::

-beep- Kitten, it’s me.  You won’t believe what went down last night.  I can’t handle D’Annunzio’s this afternoon.  Come to the house so we can talk privately. 

-beep- Selina? Harvey.  She’s still punishing me for that damn flytrap, can you believe it!  Free for lunch?  Come up the hideout and talk. 

-beep- Catty, Pam.  The men are all shits.  We’re having a girls’ night out.  You, me, Harley and Roxy.  Call me. 

-beep- Hi, Selina, it’s Tim.  Look, I don’t know what you heard about last night, but now even Barbara’s mad at me.  Look, I stuck it out between Bruce and Dick, but Dick and JP on top of that was too much.  She wants to make that into ‘abandoning my post,’ I can’t help that, can I?  Enough is enough.  Can I come over and talk?

-beep- ‘Lina, Eddie.  You won’t believe this.  These two Gothic drama queens show up at the Iceberg last night.  This guy who’s way too pudgy to be wearing tights in the first place turns Doris off on the whole thing. 

-beep- Catty, say it isn’t so.  If that anemic tramp came between you and Brucie, I’ll splatter her brains into…PUDDIN! PUT DOWN THAT PHONE! NOW! I SAID, NOW…

-beep- Sorry ‘bout that, Catty.  Girls’ night Thursday.  See ya then!

-beep- Selina, it’s Dick.  Stop by the office today.  Had a run in with ‘Pheromones’ last night you won’t believe. 

-beep- Selina, this is Oswald.  A curious couple presented themselves at the Iceberg last night, using your name as well as that of Ms. Quinn.  They caused rather a lot of damage, and I found the woman quite rude.  Would you know where I can get in touch?

-beep- Selina, Jervis.  WHAT HAPPENED?  I miss one night at the Iceberg and I’m behind on all the gossip.  Call me!  I can’t stand being out of the loop!  

To be continued...

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