La Mort Rit En Dernier

Chapter Three

Harley had kept to the shadows, as Mistah J had instructed her, and had not let herself be seen; instead she watched as the three tall and thin figures had sedately left the large bare room and walked down the large bare corridor. She'd tiptoed after them very carefully and very quietly. Mistah J did not want them to know she was here just yet. Mistah J trusted no-one, least of all a fella like Frollo, and he wanted to have an ace up his sleeve. Harley was proud to be that ace, and was determined to do a good job. She hoisted the duffel bag high up over her shoulder, and clutched the thick black gun in both hands and crept along at a safe distance behind the three in front of her.
They reached the large marble staircase she and Puddin had first climbed up and went down it. Turning a sharp corner, they reached another set of stairs and went down them as well. From then on it was steadily downwards. They were going into the dungeons, Harley realised, a thought that was confirmed by the stench that hit her nose suddenly! Phew!!!!!! Yuk!! It was worse than putting all of Arkham's incontinents in a room together! Worse than the way Two-Face's scarred half smelt when it got wet! Yuk yuk yuk!!! Harley wrinkled her nose in disgust. Oh pleeeeeeease let them finish up in here quickly!!!!
The dungeons were cramped cells along the walls, the floor loosely covered with filthy straw, the doors thick black bars. Infrequent oil lamps blazed, throwing orange and red shadows on the wall and adding to the frightening nature of the place. In the centre was the torture area, a place that reminded her vaguely of one of Mistah J's "special" rooms - large spiked chairs, huge clamping devices, a large flat board to stretch fragile little bodies on... Man, she was thankful bondage and a bit of spanking was as far as Mistah J got when he wanted to play with her. The rest was saved up for others. She didn't know the names of half the instruments in the dungeons, and to be honest, she didn't *wanna* know!
Harley peeked around a pillar stained with something dark. A good way in front of her, Frollo had stopped in front of one of the cells, and withdrew a large ring of keys from one of the folds in his robes, as Joker stood behind him, hands on his hips, grinning gleefully. The other one, the bitchy-looking chick, stood behind them, her nose wrinkled in disgust, her facial expression one of *just* tolerating her surroundings. Before they'd come down, all three had interduced themselves, and the chick's name was - er - Victimessie Ginebakjgfsdjkgfsk or something. Yikes! Whatever. The other one, Claude Frollo, Harley really *didn't* like the look of. He reminded her of that Demon's Head Dude - Ra's Al Ghul. Looking all superior and high and mighty and stuff, as though he thought he were better than her Puddin!! Harley's blood boiled to think of it. Oh well - at least Mistah J was *reeaaaaalllly* gonna prove him wrong. She grinned to herself and waited patiently with her gun cocked.
In the cell Frollo had unlocked, he and Joker entered, Frollo kicking at the three huddled forms curled up in the straw. They awoke frantically, and sat up, clinging to each other desperately, and blinking blearily from beneath red rimmed, dark eyes. Three women. Beautiful (had they not been so dirty) and dark and soft and warm. Joker smiled at the deliciousness of it all. Women could be the most fun to play with at times. They were so fragile and they smelt so good and they were always so warm to touch, and he loved the way that in the end, their eyes always had the same soft and bleary expression as they gazed out at him. 
Frollo looked down at them with a gaze of disdainful disgust, then gestured towards them contemptuously. "Well, 'Joker', here is your opportunity to show your worth. Again I warn you, you had best not to be wasting my time."
Joker barely looked at Frollo. He could taste the women's fears as they gazed up at him, seeing him with the bare sight so many gypsy women had, seeing him for what he really was, and terrified of him because of it. It tasted so good. He could see himself in their eyes, a gory white god of death. Shaitan, their eyes screamed, it is Shaitan, he has come for me! Joker reached into his pocket and pulled out his vial. Reaching into his other pocket, he pulled out a corked syringe, and all the while his gaze never left the three frightened women. He filled the syringe with the liquid from the vial, carefully resealed it, and put it away again. Then he leaned forward, bending right over, and seized the first woman by her dark, thin wrist. She screamed in terror as Joker's icy touch burned right into her, and struggled to get away, not daring to touch what she thought to be Death Itself, but struggling savagely to escape his grip.
But Joker was imperturbable. Fully intent upon his goal, his strength was at the fore, and his grip on the woman was immovable. Pulling her to her feet, he let go of her wrist, and then seized her curly black hair with lightning speed. Wrenching her head back, he jabbed the syringe into her neck, then let her drop back down again. The other two women, clinging to each other and weeping, were taken care of just as quickly, and Joker recorked his syringe, and stood back with a grin and a sneaky look at Frollo who watched the goings-on with curiosity.
It didn't happen right away. The three women clung to each other again, their heads buried down as far as they could, and so Frollo did not even see it happen when it begun. Then he noticed the first woman's shoulders were shaking. A strange noise began to come from her, quiet at first, but growing in volume. The woman's shoulders shook harder, and the noise grew louder, and Frollo realised she was laughing! The other two began to join in, and within a few seconds the three women had thrown their heads back and were laughing uncontrollably as tears ran down their cheeks and their hands clawed at the air.
Frollo's mouth fell open as a chill trembled down his spine, and he took a hasty step backwards, straight into the Vicomtesse who had stepped forward in amazement to see what was causing the noise. For a minute which seemed an hour, the doomed gypsies rolled on the floor in convulsions, laughing maniacally. Suddenly the first one let out a strangled noise, shuddered and was still. Her two companions followed suit. Frollo saw, with a wave of nausea, that their mouths were stretched into a hideous grin, a death rictus unlike any he had seen before. Their eyes stayed wide open, staring blankly outwards, and their skin was paling quickly. Joker let out a happy little sigh. That had been bliss. He turned to the two stunned medieval Europeans who continued to stare in amazement at the corpses, the Vicomtesse, despite herself, clinging to the Minister's shoulder, both pairs of eyes wide and disbelieving. Joker wiped the sweat from his brow with a green silk handerchief and spoke to them then, startling them out of their thoughts.
"The way I see it, Claudie ole pal, a terrible plague could strike the Gypsy population, bumping 'em off quicker than that old Black Death thing. And just in case anyone questions the Finger of God, well they've got those big ole smiles don't they? I'm sure the Minister of Justice could convine the public that Shattin or Shutdown or whatever the hell they call the Devil, marked them with his Unholy Hand so that all may know they delighted in Vice!" 
Frollo swallowed, and ran a hand through his sparse white hair. He looked down again at the gypsy corpses, barely daring to believe what he had just witnessed. He looked again at The Joker, who leaned causally against the bars, grinning at him amicably. Frollo suddenly realised the benefits of this madman's visit.
"You realise no-one must ever know of our meeting tonight?" he said to Joker hoarsely. 
Joker outstretched his hand with a "would I tell?" grin. "Frollo, my friend, you'll be Mr Innocent! I promise!"
After a moment's hesitation through which the Vicomtesse gazed at the Joker suspiciously, Frollo reached out his own skeletal hand and shook Joker's firmly.
Joker threw back his head and laughed delightedly. "Alllright then! Let the good times roll!!!!!!" 

Keeping on the trail of the two gypsy girls had been no problem. Columbine deftly wove her way through the maze of streets that they had darted randomly through, clearly their means to lose any would-be tracker. Columbine was relatively unfamiliar with the layout of medieval Paris, but she was mentally mapping out the streets they traversed and committing them to memory. She wondered if the girls were headed for an encampment on the outskirts of the city, or the famed Court of Miracles. She'd be highly irritated if it were the Court, as the Court was now a tourist attraction in twentieth-century Paris. Still, she consoled herself, this is medieval Paris, and things change greatly in five hundred years. But it was small consolation.
Columbine felt her temper rise as the two girls reached a large graveyard, beautifully-carved stone crypts dotting the lush earth, the moon hanging overhead like a dead eye and illuminating cold grey and silver tombstones. The graveyard was the well-known entrance to the Court. So she had wasted time tracking these girls!! Columbine took a deep breath and crouched low behind a stone angel, watching as the two girls darted in and out, careful not to tread on any of the graves, glancing surreptitiously behind them, before arriving finally at the large cross which headed the sarcophagus that was the cleverly disguised entrance to the Court of Miracles. She supposed it wasn't all bad. The gypsies would doubtless be aware of all the news within the city. She could hide herself amongst them and listen. In the morning she could leave again and begin doing what was important - that is - looking for Harley.
After some struggling during which Columbine noticed the taller of the two girl's hands were glowing, the girls pushed the sarcophagus lid to one side and clambered inside, pulling it over above them again. She waited a few seconds, then in three backflips was crouching before the sarcophagus. She tittered to herself a little as she thought over the entrance. It was clever yes, but perhaps on retrospect not so clever, as sarcophagi were commonly housed within a crypt, as opposed to sitting above the earth for all the world to see. No matter, no medieval Parisian would ever dare to desecrate a grave by peering inside it - not unless they knew what to expect within.
Columbine gritted her teeth, grasped either edge of the heavy slab of stone, and pushed it quickly out of the way. That hadn't been so bad. Easy, in fact. Pleased, she slipped gracefully in, and heaved the lid back in place. She darted down the roughly-hewn steps which led down below the ground and on into the ancient catacombs. She wrinkled her nose in disgust at the stench of sewage and dead flesh, but stayed where she was, in an attitude of alertness, until her eyes adjusted to the light, and then began to make her way speedily down the tunnel. She had no particular desire to trudge through the sewage. Not only would her shoes get dirty, but the noise would alert anyone nearby of her approach. Leaping into the air she swung onto one of the manmade wooden beams which stretched across the natural stone ceiling of the cave. Bracing herself she flung her body forward, long years of training guiding her by instinct and strength, and grasped the wooden beam several feet in front of the one she'd just leapt from. She pulled herself up onto that one, then repeated the process. The tunnel was short, and it was not long before she reached the end. 
Snatches of song wandered out to her, a warm yellow glow lit the side of the tunnel. Opposite it she could see a passage. Leaning to the side a small way she caught a glimpse of more crudely cut steps. No guard. There had been none down the tunnel either, which she thought very strange. The likelihood of her being defeated by untrained street vagabonds who were probably in poor health was so slim however she didn't allow herself to think about it much before leaping elegantly down to land silently in front of the passage and that steps which would take her down to the Court. Edging forward carefully she peered cautiously on into the huge natural cavern the Gypsies had chosen for their Sanctuary. 

The Court was set out just as though it were a Gypsy encampment on a hillside in the country. To the left of the entrance from the graveyard, a large stage dominated the area, flanked by huge strips of elaborately patterned fabric, offsetting the malevolent nature of the gallows that were the main feature of this platform. A large square area spanned out in front of the stage, and set up within this space were Gypsy caravan stalls. The purpose of the Court was to be as self-sufficient as possible, so to reduce the necessity to do too much business with the prejudiced Parisians. The stalls sold meat, linen, vegetables, crockery and other essential wares. Opposite the stage, a stream had been dug into the Court from a natural spring that had been discovered, and it was here the Romani women did their washing, gossiping to each other about their rascally husbands and wicked children. Tents fanned out in wide circles, "streets" dividing them. The first row were tents used for baths and sickrooms. From then on it was personal tents, in no particular order. The gypsies had a King, whose leadership they followed, but there was no other ranking order. The King himself, whilst he loved attention and adoration, had no desire to be placed higher than his fellows, he much preferred the company of others. The whole encampment was sparked with the scent of incense and spices, and flickered in a friendly way in the warm orange and yellow glow of the lamps set up at frequent intervals. The tents were a motley of colors and fabrics, and the whole effect was one of a bazaar in India, as the colorfully garbed and dark-skinned gypsies wove their way around their home, speaking the soft, guttural Romany, communicating with large dark eyes.
Irea and Mirage, still clinging hands and waving cheerfully at a few random friends, headed straight for the stage, but did not climb up upon it. Instead they squeezed around the back of it and found, as they expected to, Clopin Trouillefou - Gypsy King, and their own dearest friend. Clopin was sitting with his legs lazily up against the stone wall, his large blue hat with it's straggly yellow feather pushed up high on his forehead, his expression bored and indolent, as he fiddled idly with his favourite puppet - one naturally in his own image. Right then Puppet had grasped hold of the King's nose and Clopin was half-heartedly begging him to let go when he heard a titter, and turned, with furrowed brow and Puppet still hanging off his large nose, to face his two lady friends.
"Oh ho, and what's so amusing then?" he questioned darkly, and dropped Puppet in his lap with a bored sigh. Irea clambered over Clopin's lanky form to squeeze down beside him whilst Mirage filled the space on the other side. They squeezed their friend affectionately and pinched his cheeks while he batted at their hands disinterestedly and humphed as though he resented this intrusion on his boredom. 
He didn't, of course, as he lazily stretched his arms up and around the two girls. In fact he was quite pleased by their arrival as he'd just been getting ready to create a girlfriend for Puppet, so bored he was and so unwilling to go into the general Romany population and find out if his services were required anywhere. He had even imagined how the girlfriend would look - modelled after his current favourite, a street performer who didn't live in the Court, but who had lovely dancer's legs and long red hair and a very nice, sly smile, especially when Clopin came to visit her at night. She wore a mask on the streets, like the Italian Harlequin, and she smelt very good. Clopin grinned to himself as he thought of her, ignoring the chatter his two friends kept up on either side of him.
A sharp finger jabbing his ribcage started him out of his reverie and he glared at Mirage who merely waggled her eyebrows at him and grinned cockily. Irea tickled his stomach and he sighed and blew on her face as she squealed and ducked away. Mirage and Clopin had been best friends since they were very small children, and the two were extremely close. A lifeline for each other, Mirage helped Clopin deal with the reluctant responsibility of leading the Court, as Clopin was a comfort to Mirage when she reflected on past hurts. Although Irea was the third and a recent edition to the group, she was in no way excluded, because the bond that had sprung between her and Mirage had been immediate. Clopin was very fond of Irea, and loved her wicked humor and pretty black eyes, and protected her as fiercely he did Mirage. But the normally astute Gypsy King did not see past the tip of his long nose in this instance, for Irea was quite passionately in love with him. But young, charming and very good looking, Clopin was often times far too busy with some of the more direct young ladies of the Court to notice her feelings.
Clopin, like Mirage, was a full-blooded gypsy. Tall, skinny and very athletic, he was a talented acrobat, storyteller and comedian. His bronzed skin gleamed with a healthy glow, despite overindulgence in drink, and his face was clean cut and well defined, with large expressive features that mixed together for a very pleasing effect. Clopin, being very aware of his considerable talents, both as a performer and with women, was vain and kept himself cleaner than a lot of the gypsy men did. His long black hair, though scruffy, was clean and shining, and his goatee was kept neatly trimmed. Despite that, his clothes were still ragged and he was young enough to still enjoy a bit of rough and tumble on the dusty streets. 
Clopin had a light heart, always ready for hedonistic pursuit, though concern for his friends and people was never far from his feelings. He worked hard to make sure everyone in the Court stayed safe, and whilst he never stopped the Romany from getting into trouble, he would always help them get out of it if he could. But apart from that, he did little in the way of leadership, preferring to be left to his own ends and pursuits. Clopin told stories in his puppet cart on the streets above, his golden singing voice ringing out across the streets of Paris and drawing audience from far and wide. He did not like the Parisians, and made no pretence of doing so, indeed using any opportunity he could to show them up for fools. Mindful of his position as a man, he encouraged his two dearest lady friends to do likewise, but while they were wary of the Parisians, Mirage and Irea had not so much dislike for them. Although Clopin merrily caused trouble on the streets above, he would often get anxious if Mirage and Irea did, and hustle them quickly out of the line of fire. In defence of his friends, Clopin was fearless, and although he truly knew the younger girls could well take care of themselves, his machismo inclinations dictated that he be just slightly over-protective, an attitude the girls bemoaned. But on the whole, the three had a good life in the Court. They were warm, generally fed, and they had each other for company and comfort. They were happy in the life destiny had chosen for them.
It was this life that Columbine gracefully leaped in upon.
Clopin had finally allowed himself to be persuaded to be pulled out from behind the stage, and lazily let his strong body be yanked by either arm by either girl. Laughing, they teased his sluggishness, and grinning good-naturedly he whacked their backsides and wrapped long arms around them as they made their way to the front of the stage and prepared to sit in front of the large blazing fire to eat and share stories of the day. "And what did we do today, my lovely ladies?" Clopin asked the girls as he filled a tankard with beer and drank thirstily.
Mirage grimaced at Irea. "Darling Irs got jealous because people ignored her parlour tricks to listen to my playing!!"
Irea crossed her eyes at Mirage "You were playing in my usual spot! It had nothing to do with jealousy!"
The accusations were entirely good-natured, no true grudge was ever borne between the two, but Clopin well knew the sparring could continue for hours. Holding up long, elegant hands he interrupted them both. "Hold on, hold on! Did you ever consider perhaps working together? Mirage's music *accompanying* Irea's tricks?"
The two girls stared at him incredulously. "NO!" they both cried simultaneously, then laughed at each other.
Clopin shrugged. "And I'm accused of conceit!" he muttered. "Go get me some food, Mirage." 
Mirage kicked him gently. "Get it yourself, you lazy ass. I'm not one your little bed friends who walk around scraping the grounds with their noses behind you!" 
Clopin wriggled restlessly and sighed. "Please get me a plate of food, darling sweet Mirage, my oldest dearest friend?"
Mirage snorted and turned away. "You must be joking."
Clopin pouted. "Jack-ass," he mumbled, then gasped as Mirage whacked him in the stomach. 
Irea snickered and then stood up. "I'm hungry. I'll get some for you, Clopin." 
Clopin's smile instantly became very wide and very flattering. "Thank you, beautiful Irea. It's truly a pleasure to have a real lady around here."
Mirage only smiled to herself. She knew very well why the normally stand-offish Irea was willing to play wife to Clopin and let her girl-friend know with a knowing wink. Irea ignored her and picked up a large bowl and ladle, wandering over to the huge cooking pots the older women of the Court patiently stirred for their men of an evening. "What do you want, Clopin?" she called loudly in the direction of her friends. "There's chicken and vegetables, or stew, or - "
A flash of blue and a thump distracted her attention, and the accompanying cries from the gypsies around her made her whirl around and gasp with amazement at the newcomer. Every man, woman and child within view had their mouth gaping open, and their eyes bulging. Not so much at the newcomer's unexpected entrance, but more at her dress. Or *lack* thereof.
"And they thought I wore little!" Irea's stunned mind told her. The newcomer was about Irea's height, very slender, and very muscled, something that was just as odd as her dress. Her exquisite face was hard and expressionless, and her silky dark brown hair swung down past her shoulderblades. The woman wore some kind of blue bodice, and a very short gauzy blue skirt, that people could literally see through. Her stockings were not held up by suspenders, and were striped in two shades of blue, and a vivid purple. Matching armbands stretched from her wrist to her elbow. The woman's hair was held back by some kind of blue scarf, and her face was painted with a blue diamond over one eye, and her lips were painted blue. As the Romany continued to stare in a shocked silence, she made a bow towards Clopin, who gazed at her with a strange expression of admiration and amazement, an edge of humor in her dark brown eyes and her velvety voice.
"Clopin Trouillefou, Gyspy King, I may presume?"
Clopin slowly recovered, stretching out his long legs, and grinning warily. "You certainly may, that is my name."
The woman smiled to herself and straightened up. "My name is Columbine Mountebank, and I've come to ask your assistance."
Clopin cocked an eyebrow, and continued to watch her warily. "Is that so? Any particular reason I should listen to you, an intruder who bursts in unannounced?"
Columbine looked at him steadily. "Have I tried to assault you? No. Have I accosted any of your people? No. I might have announced my arrival, but I'm familiar with your methods, Gypsy King. I would have been trussed up on your gallows before having a chance to breathe this rank air."
Clopin smiled a little wider, and a little more dangerously. The woman certainly had made no attempt to attack, but Clopin did not trust anyone he didn't know or didn't recognise. Although the woman's skin was olive, and her eyes were almond-shaped, she did not look to be of Romany blood. Besides, she called the air of Clopin's Kingdom rank. He didn't much care for that. Behind Columbine, gypsy men, recovering from their initial shock, were stealthily creeping up towards her. Clopin looked at them quickly then returned his gaze to the woman. As beautiful as she was, Clopin decided there was no reason to hear her out, at least not while her arms and legs were free like that. 
Clopin shrugged and grinned. "Get her!" he said cheerfully to the men. 
Columbine moved so fast none of the Romany were even aware of what she was doing until she had done it. The gypsy men pounced, but with a few disciplined moves, she kicked, punched and floored all five of them within a few seconds. With a hint of barely controlled rage she turned again to Clopin who was sitting up straight now and staring at Columbine dazedly. "That was beneath you, Trouillefou!" she snapped. "Like yourself, I am an outcast in this world, and have come here to ask you for assistance. I wish no harm upon you or your people. But I will warn you right now. Any of your men attack me again and I will not be so gentle."
Clopin stared with raised eyebrows at his groaning, moaning men who lay stiffly on the floor, clutching their sore parts. He raised his eyes to Columbine again. The woman was one tough piece of flesh. No reason to trust her. But her face was direct, and her eyes burned into him with openness. She gave an impression of honesty and honour. He looked around at his startled people who continued to gape at this strange, strong woman, with fear and uncertainty. A spy? No. There was no way that Frollo would employ such a woman, and no way a spy would burst in like this. There was no-one else who had a reason to send a spy amongst them. Clopin decided to take a chance. He rose gallantly to his feet and bowed to the woman, hat in his hands. "I beg your pardon, mademoiselle, but we Romany must be wary at all times of attacks from our enemies. Being familiar with my methods, as you claim, I'm sure you're aware of that also."
She continued to gaze at him. "Yes, I am."
He smiled. "I assure you now, no-one here will attempt to harm you again. I am quite willing to listen to your dilemma, and help you if it is within my power." And, so she should know he was not lying, he looked her in the eyes and returned her steady gaze.
The woman relaxed and smiled, her pretty bow lips curving slightly. "I'm glad to hear it, Trouillefou. And you will please call me Columbine." 
He gestured for her to take a seat on one of the long benches that stretched around the fireplace. Mirage was nudging him furiously, and Irea gazed with a small frown furrowing her brow, but Clopin ignored both of them, as did the woman. The other Gypsies, who had faith in their leader, slowly began to return to their former activity, though they still glanced at her uncertainly from time to time.
"And you must call me Clopin," he said graciously. "May I get you a drink? We are just having supper here."
She shook her head. "I do not need sustenance right now. I'm more concerned about finding my friend. Tell me, what is the political situation in this city right now?" 

Copyright © Harley Quinn 1999 (harley_quinn@cheerful.com)
May not be reproduced without permission.

On to Chapter Four!

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