La Mort Rit En Dernier

Chapter Six 

Where *are* those female fools? Clopin thought angrily as he threw aside pillows, frilly corsets, mattresses and scarves in pursuit of Irea and Mirage.
Columbine, Harley and himself had more or less decided on a mode of action. Clopin had found himself getting increasingly annoyed with the stony-faced Columbine who regarded him from cold eyes and had contributed little except "I'm staying with Harley". Clopin may not have had an education in a monastery, but he was not an idiot either. In fact, life on the streets had equipped him very well for sizing up people like Columbine. She was highly trained, very intelligent and a very quick thinker. Clopin had little doubt she could plan an effective mode of action against The Lunatic, but for some reason she was refusing, gazing balefully out at him from her dark eyes.
Harley had tried to be a help, but she was closer to hindrance. Her mind kept wandering to her absent lover, and she was used to doing things in an - unusual - way. For example, she wanted to climb to the belltower of Notre Dame and sing a twentieth-century drinking song to distract Joker's attention. Clopin's first reaction was one of exasperation, but narrowing his eyes at Harley suddenly in the orange flicker of the candle which stood between them, he saw something distinctly canny on her face. He wondered if perhaps she wasn't playing up her absent-mindedness just a little bit, in order to make things difficult for Clopin to fight her lover. He'd left the tent with the decision that the two women were unstable and couldn't be trusted. As a result, he was very - annoyed.
Goddamn it! He hated responsibility!!! If he wasn't King he could go outside and sing to the gadje ladies who couldn't resist but giggle in response, or dance on the fountain, or make some new puppets. What did he want? He wanted to go to the tavern and have a few drinks, play with Mirage and Irea, perform on the streets, make love to a few beautiful women, have a delicious meal, sing and dance for most of the night, sleep in the arms of another beautiful woman, and then repeat the process. That wasn't asking too much! And what was happening now? Because some gypsy fools had called his grandfather their leader he, Clopin, had to behave seriously and think out ways of looking after people!
It escaped Clopin, in his annoyance, that he had to behave this way maybe twice a year, if that. At any rate, he had called a meeting in the square and instructed the men what to do, who had hurriedly finished their dress, and gathered their cleverly hidden arms, to obey his orders, the "lame men" picking up their crouches, or contorting their bodies into their small carts, the "blind men" arranging their eyepatches or blindfolds.
After a moment of indecision, in which he searched the crowd earnestly without success, he asked that Irea and Mirage please got to his tent for a meeting. The ladies will be placated, he thought, they will think I'm planning to let them do something. He didn't want to deceive them, but it was the only way. Then, against his better judgement, he'd given some instructions to the women, but firmly insisted the children were to stay below. 
Then he'd gone to his tent.
Mirage and Irea were not there.
Rushing, he'd checked their tents. Not there. Frantic, he'd questioned every passing Rom if they had seen his two little friends. Negatives, on every occasion.
Clopin was growing more cross with every second. Concern, mixed with anger at being disobeyed, pounded in his head like a hammer. They really couldn't do this!!! Childish tricks were one thing, he adored his girls and loved to have fun, but blatantly disobeying him, an older, wiser man, was entirely another. He leaned against Mirage's makeshift desk of barrels and a plank of wood, and ran both hands through his long black hair, sighing. Damn those female fools. To run off with a dangerous madman loose on the streets, plotting against his people - he'd never forgive them for making him worry like this.
Just wait until he got his hands on them!

**

Above, on the uneven cobblestones of a particularly rank and filthy street in the slums of Paris, Mirage and Irea were skipping animatedly, completely unaware of Clopin's anger. In fact, almost all of the bizarre string of events, including their former plan to do something, had escaped their thoughts as they chatted light-heartedly about this, that and the other thing - how to get some new dresses that weren't so patchy, wasn't Clopin quite gorgeous (that was Irea), no, he has a big nose (that was Mirage), did they think the take on the streets would be good this winter, or should they try to save, what were the benefits of hiding Puppet from Clopin? Holding onto one another and laughing rather a littler louder than women should on the streets, they skipped daintily out of the way of muddy puddles, and suspicious eyes, and let their brown faces grew even browner under the bright glare of the sun.
Their cavorting came to an abrupt halt suddenly, when they noticed Mauro, Dimitri and Francis, three Romany from the Court, behaving very oddly. Francis was examining the roof of one of the dingy houses that populated this area of the town. Mauro was carefully poking around the shabby garden, steps and barrels that surrounded the house. Dimitri was looking around very carefully, keeping a watch out. Dimitri also carried a sack over his shoulder.
Looking at each other with bewildered expressions, Irea and Mirage wondered what exactly was going on. They had turned to daylight thievery? What? But the girls knew better than to question older Rom men they didn't know, so clutching hands, they turned and moved out of the filthy lower streets of the city, heading for the town square, and the cleaner, more pleasant part of town, where an audience would be with coins in their pockets.
But as they made their way through the streets, Irea and Mirage noticed with ever increasing confusion, that there were many Romany men out and about today, and all doing the same thing - poking carefully in carts, looking through rubbish in the gutter, scouting carefully along roofs like giant spiders. They were very careful about it, that was certain. Dressed in rags, and with mud on their faces, their swift, silent movements went virtually unnoticed, but the two girls knew their people and knew how to recognise such activity. And as they went further into the business area of the city, where the streets were cleaner, and more filled with hustling, bustling Parisians going about their business, they noticed an inordinate amount of performing Romani, brilliantly dressed in vivid skirts, and dripping with gold jewellery, dancing, singing, telling fortunes - and growing particularly noisy in the peddling of their trades anytime a Parisian should look a little long at a raggedly-dressed Romany man.
Irea and Mirage stopped in a sun-dappled lane, sweet with the smell of hay and fruit from the nearby stall, its neat and clean stone huts lining the streets up and down. Walking over to a small fountain, they drank greedily, and hoisted themselves up on the cold stone, dangling their dirty feet in the water, heedless of their skirts getting wet. In this street alone there was a Romani dancing elaborately with a scarf, another singing impassioned love songs to any Parisian man who stopped long enough to stare before being bossily hustled on by his plump little wife, and two younger women who told stories, acting them out as they did so. They were generously spaced out, but so many in one street? And each performing so loudly, so ostentatiously? Looking up at the roofs, shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand, Mirage was not surprised to see a darting figure leaping gracefully about. Squinting, she raised an eyebrow when the figure picked something up and put it in the sack he was carrying.
Irea nudged her. Looking around to where her friend indicated with a shake of her shaggy head, Mirage's eyes narrowed as she observed another Romany surreptitiously hunting in the window box of a little house. Something was definitely going on. Irea and Mirage did not like it at all. When the dancer, a heavily-bosomed woman by the name of Josephina, stopped at the fountain for a drink, Mirage and Irea pounced.
"Josie!!" Mirage exclaimed. "Tell us immediately, for we have to know, what on earth is going on?"
Josephina chocolate-brown eyes looked at them incredulously, the black freckles over her nose crinkling as she sniffed. "You don't know then? Clopin was calling for you two! What did you do, run away to put spiders in his shoes?"
Mirage pinched her brown arm insistently. Josephina swiped at her savagely with her gauzy scarf and glared at them. "Come now, Josephina, tell us, we have a right to know!!!!" Mirage insisted.
Josephina put her hands on her ample hips and huffed at them. "This is Clopin's orders!! He has instructed us Paris is under a hidden attack. The men are scouting for the attacker's hidden weapons, we women are distracting the Parisians so they do not shout 'Gypsy Thief' like so many parrots!"
A soft Romany voice spoke up behind them and the three women turned around with a gasp. A Romany man crouched there, the same one from the roof, Mirage realised, his face dark and his eyes hooded.
"Ay, 'tis true what the wench says," his wheezy voice told the girls. "I've found these weapons hidden up on the roof. Some devilry is happening to be sure. Take a look at this."
Reaching into the sack he carried, the man pulled out a small round object, purple and green. In the front of it, a garish face protruded, white, with a mass of green hair and purple eyes and a demonic grin. Irea felt a little shiver go down her back as she looked at that unholy grin.
"What do you think of that, then, eh?" the man whispered, shaking his head as he put it carefully back in his sack. Without another word, he moved silently and swiftly onwards. Josephina gave another sniff, then turned back to the streets to resume her dancing.
Mirage and Irea slumped on the fountain, thoughts racing through their heads. "What can we do, Mira?" Irea spoke up finally. "Clopin told us nothing. I don't want to just do some magik tricks on the streets. That's nothing."
Mirage was sulking to herself. Clopin had called for them after they left the Court, and they'd missed him. Now they wouldn't know what he wanted from them. Opening her mouth to complain loudly to Irea about the fickleness of men's decisions, she was interrupted suddenly by a very loud, strangely-accented voice singing bawdily and jauntily, approaching the street they were in. The two girls sat up with a frown.

"Too bad you're CRAZY!
Too bad you're looney as HELL!
SO LONG we coulda been SWELL
TO-GEEEE-EEEETHER!!!!!! *da da daaaah da da!*

Too bad you're WHACKO!
How sad your marbles are GONE!
We could be dancing till dawn - 
But you're too WEIRD for WORDS!!!!!"

Stopping in mid song, the voice chuckled, and the girls heard the clatter of sharp heels on the pavement. Other people in the street, Rom and gadje alike, were stopping what they were doing, and turning around to see who was behind this strange song. Mirage and Irea sat up, leaning forward curiously, and with the others, gave a gasp at the creature who appeared before them.

It was Joker, resplendant in a plum colored suit, this time with a brilliant orange shirt, having remembered to pack a spare. The blue silk tie knotted at his throat burst forth in an explosion of color, and he wore a green waistcoat. His purple fedora was perched jauntily on his head, and he swept it off with a maniacal grin to bow lowly before the big-bosomed Josephina who gaped at him in wonderment.
"Beautiful Gypsy scum, it's a pleasure to watch those hips in action!" he said gallantly, shaking his long green hair out, and laughing, turning his face towards the sky so that his white skin was even more bright under the sun.
It was the laughter that got to everyone, as it invariably did. The people were quiet, uncertain, not sure what to do. They looked at Joker warily, moving out of the way, as he spun happily down the street, his coat tails swirling around him. In one hand he carried a large fluorescent green object - very, very strange. No-one in Paris knew what it was, of course. Actually, it was a very common object in the twentieth century. A "super soaker" water pistol. Except this one wasn't filled with water. It was filled with a liquid form of Joker's laughing toxin. A very nice modification of it, Joker had happened across whilst playing with his chemistry set one night. This one was absorbed through the skin. You didn't need that much.
Irea and Mirage realised quickly who the strange creature was, and their hearts beat faster in their chests as they truly began to get an idea about what was happening here, in their city. But surely - surely he couldn't really be what they said he was?? He was only one man. Irea grasped Mirage's slender wrist.
"Mira - you run down to the end of the street and hide there," she hissed.
"What?" Mirage responded, baffled.
Irea looked her in the eye earnestly. "If we're going to do something against this man, we might have better luck if we split up for now. Quickly - go!!!"
Mirage heard the urgency in Irea's voice and it panicked her momentarily. She leapt up, and darted gracefully down the street, holding up her dusty skirts, staying as close to the buildings as possible so not to attract Joker's attention.
Irea in the meantime, had hidden behind the fountain. Joker had a peculiar aura, and it upset her greatly. She wasn't close enough to him to know what it meant, but she was uneasy about it. On the streets, the others had also began to recover. Several Romany gathered together, whispering fiercely, and the same one who had spoken to her and Mirage a moment ago, reached inside his sack and pulled out one of the strange round objects he'd found on the roof. Showing it to the other men, she could see them comparing the face on it with that of The Joker's. Then their foreheads furrowed in anger. No matter the chilling effect this man had on them, he was the enemy they were fighting against, and they didn't know what Irea knew about him. Her heart plummeted and she could feel her stomach turn to ice as they strode angrily forward, calling out to Joker with an aggressive "Hey!!"
No, her stunned mind whispered, don't go out there! But she couldn't say anything.
Joker turned to his aggressors, an exaggerated expression of questioning on his face, his eyebrows raised high, his mouth pulled down in a small 'o'.
"Hey you, white man!! What do you want here?" a black-bearded Romany questioned him savagely. Joker lay a gracious hand on his chest.
"My dear sir, I wish for nothing more than to admire this fair city! I am but a humble tourist, taking in the sights, the sounds, the considerable pleasures, of Paris in Autumn!"
The romany, of course, were not convinced. Another stepped forward, wrenching the small round object out of his sack, brandishing it before Joker.
"We were told the city is under attack, and these are the weapons. Looks an awful lot like you, wouldn't you agree?" he snarled.
Joker frowned. A real frown. Irea shivered. When Joker spoke again, his voice was quiet and careful.
"May I ask where you found that, my good fellow?"
The Romany gave a hoarse laugh "We've found more than one, you skinny goat!" The insult was a bluff. "We're finding all these little balls all over the city, and are removing them! What do you think of that, eh?"
Joker's lips were trembling, his brows were one long fierce line, and his eyes blazed with a purple fire. "You're.... ruining... my... joke!" he managed to spit out through gritted teeth. 
Thinking the anger would play to their advantage, the Romany men laughed. The Romani women had slowly left their performing positions to come and watch cautiously over the shoulders of the men; even the Parisians were curious, and they gathered around the Joker.
Joker was furious. All this time, all this effort, to play a totally brilliant gag on Batman, Frollo AND World History, and these ignorant medieval peasants were ruining it!!!!! Joker growled viciously as the men laughed around him, clenching his fists, his left hand squeezing the plastic of the supersoaker he carried.
Instantly, Joker's anger faded. The supersoaker!!!! Well - it's not like this trip had to be *all business*, now was it?
Joker lifted the supersoaker and "cocked" it, grinning his deathly grin once more, his tone again light and bouncy.
"Well they say in the world of comedy, that you have to keep the show going! If one gag goes wrong, work it into another! And guess what? This time, you're all it!"
The brittle snap of his voice had caught the people's attention, and their eyes widened quickly as Joker pulled the supersoaker's trigger and a long stream of pale green liquid burst out, hitting the first insolent Romany in the face, then spreading in a long arc over the faces, hands and necks of the other surrounding gypsies and Parisians. With cries of disgust and alarm, the people backed away, perhaps ten in all, each hit somewhere. From where she hid, Irea watched with wide, frightened eyes. What was going to happen now?
The Romany man began first, chuckling into his thick black beard, shoulders shaking helplessly. Then the others began to join in, like a macabre round of song, the laughter spreading from person to person, growing increasingly more violent. In convulsions, Josephina fell to the ground, writhing and laughing helplessly, tearing at her face with her nails. Another Romany was beating his head against the wall in his frenzy, unable to stop himself. The Parisians tore at their hair and their clothes, one by one falling to the hard cobblestones of the Paris streets, twisting and turning in an agony of laughter. And in the middle of it all, Joker, like a priest in a ceremony of sacrifice, spread his arms wide, and threw his head back, laughing joyously with his victims.
Irea ducked down around the fountain, blocking her ears, squeezing her eyes shut tight. At the far end of the street, Mirage also watched the proceedings with frightened tears pouring down her cheeks. She shook her head stubbornly, not wanting to believe what she was seeing. It couldn't be happening! Clopin, she had to tell Clopin! Praying that Irea was all right, Mirage gathered her skirts up and darted swiftly out of her hiding place, not daring to look behind her as she ran, heedless of her feet being cut on sharp stones, trying to get as far away from the frenzied laughter as she could.
Back under the fountain, Irea thought she had finally succeeded in blocking the noise out, when she realised she could still hear one person chuckling. Joker. Carefully edging up, she dared a peek over the side. Joker was spinning in a slow circle, grinning delightedly, nudging at the people at his feet. They were all very still. Each one had their face twisted into a hideous grin. Irea realised they were all dead.
She turned away and vomited violently.
Joker heard it.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are!" he called playfully, idly spinning his supersoaker on one finger, clacking his heels as he danced over towards the fountain, and the mess Irea had just made.
"Whoops! Lucky I saw that, wouldn't want to ruin my heels," he chuckled, as he avoided it, and saw the small, huddled figure crouching as close to the fountain as possible. Leaning against the fountain, he bent over and leered into her pointed little face.
"Hi!" he said cheerfully.
Irea looked up at him through stunned black eyes. She saw now why his aura was so peculiar. He'd been touched by some kind of Faerie Magik in his life. Not a good kind either. She didn't know how strong it made him, but she knew some magik of her own. Stumbling to her feet, she gazed up as the Joker straightened to full height and eyed his supersoaker thoughtfully, clearly wondering whether to spray Irea with it straight away, or talk to her first.
Not wanting to give him the chance to reach a decision, Irea began to talk rapidly.
"Your plan is going to fail," she said, hoarsely at first, but increasing in strength as what he had done sunk in and she began to grow furious about it. "We will stop you!! You might as well give up right now!!"
Joker raised another eyebrow. "Well, is that a fact now?" he said. He boldly reached out a hand and ran an icy finger down the length of Irea's snubbed nose. She trembled, but continued to stand her ground, calling to her certain magik phrases, working her hands as slightly as possible so that he wouldn't notice the movement, as Joker leered down into her face. 
"Are you saying something, toots?" he asked, and at that second, Irea directed her magik at him. 
It whacked him in the chest in an orange haze, and knocked him back. As she feared, the Magik he'd been touched with was too strong for her simple spell, but it loosened the grip on the supersoaker. She wrenched it out of his hands as he shook his head dazedly, his Cuban heels striking the cobblestones, and stumbling back, rubbing his eyes. 
She didn't know what to do with this thing, but holding the pointed end away from her, she fiddled with it frantically for several movements, until squeezing something that gave way beneath her finger and let loose some of the liquid within. Triumphant, Irea turned to the dazed Joker, and caught sight of Josephina's crumbled dark-skinned form, like a discarded doll, on the pavement behind him. Her temper reached its peak and she shrieked at Joker hysterically.
"Let's see how funny you think it is NOW, you bastard!" and squeezed as much of the toxin on Joker as she could.
Joker recovered from the choom of magik, and stood gaping at her with open mouth as the liquid hit and spread over his silk shirt, staining it rapidly. He shut his eyes in irritation, as the toxin ran over his face, and got in his nose. Then he opened them and glared down at Irea, who was staring up at him, wide-eyed with expectancy, holding the supersoaker clumsily. She'd just ruined his hair, and stained one of his favourite shirts.
Irea waited, waited for the laughter, and when the low chuckle finally burst forth from his lips, she gave a gasping laugh and kept waiting for more. But it stayed the same, and she realised the eyes were still focused and canny, and very very angry, on her. Shaking her head in despair, Irea backed hastily away as The Joker menacingly started forward and snatched the supersoaker out of her hands, once again leering on her as she reached the wall of the hut behind her and realised she was trapped.
"Tsk tsk tsk," Joker said chidingly, getting closer and closer, like a menacing shadow. "Sweetheart, nice try, but it just so happens that this little toxin of mine is made from the same stuff that runs through my blood. You want a translation, you primitive, dirty, humourless excuse for a peasant?" He grabbed the terrified Irea by her hair and yanked her forward, knocking her to the ground. "I'm immune to it!"
Irea was crying as Joker started to laugh once more. This is it, she thought, my life is ended!
And I never did tell Clopin how I felt. She shut her eyes and waited for the liquid to hit her but it didn't. Hesitatingly, she opened an eye and took a peek at Joker. He was standing, one leg outstretched, hand on his hip, other one stroking his chin thoughtfully.
"Now, let me see," he mused. "Someone's obviously been giving out the punchline to my little joke before I've had time to play it." His cold gaze slithered over Irea again, and a snakey smile crossed his features. "'*We* will stop you', didja say before toots? Hmmm? Maybe you and I should get to know each other a little better, whaddya say, huh?"
And grasping her by the hair once more, Joker dragged her unmercifully over the corpses of her former companions, laughing at the sun which beat down hard and burned their dead skin and the flies that began to crawl over their frozen smiles.

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

On to Chapter 7!
 

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