A small and pleasant smile upon a small and pleasant face beamed up at Joker in black and white brilliance. Bedazzling the inky front page of the Gotham Gazette were two big bright eyes, a bob of blonde, pale skin spattered with freckles – or was that his coffee?
GOTHAM’S OWN RISING STAR: HARLEEN QUINZEL
A tidy font beneath the photo, pulled so taut it was near enough to tearing. His jaw tightened and Joker swallowed hard on the jealousy that writhed deep within the pit of his stomach, and with white-knuckled force, he slammed the paper down upon the bar, rattling the glasses, and rattling his men.
“What. Is. THIS?!”
Apparently the citizens of Gotham had exceedingly short memories – since it had been just yesterday Joker had had Batman speeding down the narrow roads at the docklands, in chase of some serious cash Joker had rinsed from the bank only twenty minutes prior. He’d had seven police vehicles on the go, sirens blaring, one bulking batmobile – and one Bat. He’d lost three of his own men in arrests, shot two officers, and had escaped only narrowly himself. And yet – he’d flipped back to front, front to back, of the newspaper more than once and not a mention in sight of his showmanship.
“What’s what, boss?”
Joker almost broke his own finger forcing it into the face of this rising star. HA! “This,” he seethed. Again, hammering his finger into the paper with some ferociousness, his eyes narrowed at the five bewildered faces blinking back at him through the dusty dark.
“Oh, there’s a new show comin’ to town, some musical they been promotin’ it all month!”
Joker had admittedly forgotten the name of the man speaking. A nameless goon, far too animated and excitable in his gestures for Joker’s liking during this moment of crisis–
“My gal’s been naggin’ me to get tickets for ages… but since we’re still waiting to be paid and all–”
There was a pause, a cough. Joker stared, expressionless as he tried to quell his internal rage.
“You wanna see it, J? Tomorrow night is opening night!”
“Of course I don’t want to fucking see it!”
They each flinched at him, and at the spittle that flew from Joker’s mouth in fury. He compulsively fisted the front cover until he tore through the face of this doe-eyed dunce, Harleen Quinzel.
“Where is my mention?!” Joker seethed.
There was a sudden murmur of understanding amongst the men before him, a few subtle glances exchanged, and a chorus of praise and encouragement promptly proceeded on cue.
“They only care ‘cause it’s new boss–” piped up one, waggling a fifth scotch and lacking conviction.
“The robbery probably features first on the website… probably, I can get it up on my phone if you wanna–” another rummaged through his loose jeans in order to find it.
“Maybe they storin’ up your stories for one big scoop–” Not how a newspaper works – where the fuck did he find these guys?
“They’ll have forgotten all about it in a week, you’ll see, boss, you’ll see–”
“They just ain’t fully comprehendin’ the poetry in the work you put out, boss.”
The ink had blackened Joker’s knuckles, and Gotham’s newest doll-faced, dull distraction grinned up at him from the bar, smug and taunting. The only remnant of the image left. Eyeless, faceless, it lacked the previous sweetness and warmth, the photo no more now than a smudgy ruined grimace. A temporary diversion, satiating a famously fickle audience. So they’d chosen this, over their clown prince? So be it. Joker’s teeth squeaked as they ground together, and he lingered in thought.
“When is opening night, did you say?” He asked quietly, amongst their continuous supportive chatter.
“Tomorrow night, boss! It’s got some glowin’ reviews so all they’ve been sayin’–”
Joker’s steely expression cut their enthusiasm dead. “I’ll need a car, two men, nice suit– do you really need to be writin’ that down?!” His hands flitted idly to his temples in agitation, though they were twitching to be around somebody’s neck. All in due time.
“Get it done,” he snarled, tossing the paper and scattering his lackeys from their drinking booth. “And get those tickets boys – we’re seein’ that show!”
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“Alright, take a break!–”
Harleen breathed a heavy sigh of relief, centre stage and skin glistening under the furious spotlights. Her arms outstretched and aching as she held the freeze-frame concluding their final dance number. The cast surrounding her began to break out from the tableau and down towards the stands, reaching out for bottles of water and a seeking a moment of rest. Panting, Harleen dropped her jazz hands, about to follow suit –
“Not you, Quinzel, you stay right there.”
Harleen’s breath hitched in her chest, and she squinted out towards the empty seats of the theatre. A curious stillness fell upon the cast and crew at the sharp tone of the director, and though she couldn’t see their expressions through the brightness, could feel all their eager eyes upon her. It wasn’t with the glowing admiration she had always imagined it would be.
Harleen teetered on stumbling upright. She was drained, anxious. They had been rehearsing their numbers non-stop for weeks. She had been dancing, tapping and singing herself to exhaustion in order to beat the competition at every turn.
“Your footwork, once again, was too clumsy and too slow,” piped the choreographer from somewhere beyond the white glow of the stage lights. “Riley, get up there, and from the top, please.”
Harleen’s heart sank, and her signature jovial expression dropped along with it. She stood, highlighted in her embarrassment, as Peyton Riley made her way up the steps to join her.
Peyton Riley wasn’t all that dissimilar to Harleen, except in all the ways considered important. She was flawless, beautiful, living out of her daddy’s fat wallet, and pursuing her hobby in a casual and careless manner. It didn’t seem to matter anymore that Harleen had endured nights of repetitive, boring fucking from the director, under the assumption this had solidified her status within their artistic company. It didn’t matter that Harleen had approached her interview, broke but determined, willing to do anything to claim the illustrious main part. It didn’t matter because Riley was always just a single misstep behind her, as Harleen’s understudy, her replica with many improvements.
Harleen forced a wide smile, struggling to block out the avalanche of disappointment and humiliation. It was opening night tomorrow night, and Riley was at her heels, Harleen’s shadow after a spotlight of it’s own. Over my dead body. And she stood to watch Peyton take her stage, tap her number with an effortlessly grace.
“Beautiful, Riley, thank you.”
Her cheeks burned with anger – but Harleen’s smile remained steadfast all the while.
“We need to see a lot more of that tomorrow night Quinzel, if you really want to make it big in this city,” though she couldn’t see the director’s face, Harleen could hear the entertainment in his voice, and the wave of awkward chuckling that followed through the ensemble.
“Of course,” Harleen responded, as lightly as she could though her veins were fire and her mouth dry. “That really was somethin’ Riley,” she offered a tiny, rather manic applause. “Bravo.”
Riley gave a brief and casual “thanks–” before heading back out towards the crew in the auditorium, and Harleen watched with loathing as Riley perched herself close the director, much closer than was necessary. It wasn’t due to the lights, that Riley was glowing.
“Tomorrow night is the night ladies and gentleman, get as much rest as you can, and I’ll see you all at ten for full dress rehearsal. Thank you very much, and goodnight.”
And Harleen watched, stunned, as Peyton got ready to leave, chatting with merriment alongside with the director and senior crew.
Harleen stormed backstage and threw herself into the dressing room, shunting all of her pearls, jewellery and make-up onto the floor. Despite every attempt not to, a small and ugly cry escaped. And she screamed at her reflection beyond the orange-white bulbs.
She tore at her glittering costume and heard a seam, somewhere, tearing. But Harleen no longer cared. She scrubbed with anger at her face, until her cheeks and lips were sore from it. And cried loudly, with frustration at her other self inside the mirror. She was a sad and sorry state to behold. I’ll show them. I’ll show them all what Harleen Quinzel can do. And with that, she grabbed for her things with a new sense of purpose, left through the back entrance and out into the cold night.