"Mr. Pennyworth, I presume!"
His name was not actually Alfred Pennyworth. He gave his best and most servile bow, and Thomas Wayne met this with a hearty slap on the back. He thought that he was, under the circumstances, allowed to look a little pathetic. "Yes, Mr. Wayne."
"Mr. Fox tells me good things about you," he said, ushering the man who was not Alfred inside. "I'm sorry if we seem a little informal, around here — never had a butler, before."
"That's quite alright, Mr. Wayne."
"Most of the housework is taken care of," he explained, "but with my wife and I having the schedules that we do, we've been needing someone to help around here. Especially with Bruce. A real handful, that kid. You have experience with children?"
"Oh, yes," he lied. "My previous employer had three children, though I confess that their care was not among my responsibilities."
"Sorry about that," Thomas said, "but, well. We do things a little differently here in the States, so we're going to be making this up as we go along. You'll let us know if we're asking too much of you?"
He had not yet said a word about Mr. Pennyworth's supposed money troubles. This was, from Thomas Wayne's perspective, an act of charity — but one wouldn't know it to listen to him. It was really a shame the man was such a twit. "I believe that I should be able to handle it, Mr. Wayne."
"Of course, of course. Here, come this way, I believe my wife is — Martha!" Thomas called down a hallway, and it was a marvel they ever crossed paths in a house so large. Heels clicked on marble, and the woman who stepped into the foyer looked like the cover of a magazine whose target audience could never afford to look like her. Flawless from her updo to her manicure, wasp waist and flared skirt like her silhouette had fallen out of the 1950s. Hardly the image of a harried housewife, but he had not expected her to be. She had married into money, after all, and women who married into money did not get dishwater hands.
Green eyes swept over him, taking in the threadbare suit and the worn hems, the unfashionable cut. Her eyelashes could not have been natural, the thick fringe that they were. Her gaze lingered on his tie, a nasty old thing in a faded print. "Is this Mister… Shillingsweight?"
He bristled, even though it was not his real name that she was butchering. "Pennyworth," Thomas corrected, good-natured as he leaned toward her to kiss her cheek. He was still smitten with his wife, and it was easy to see why. She smiled, dazzling white and utterly empty, the perfect pageant smile he'd seen so many times before. In the dossier, on television, on tabloid covers: Martha Wayne, the luckiest woman in Gotham.
"He's younger than I thought he'd be," she said. She did not apologize about his name. "I thought he'd be more… oh, I don't know." She tapped a thoughtful finger against her lipstick. "I suppose it doesn't matter. Are you taking him to meet Bruce?"
"Not before I've run him past you!" Thomas said. Martha laughed, a dainty thing she hid behind her fingers, coquettish in ways that did not suit her reputation. "She's psychic, you know," he said conspiratorially to Alfred, nudging him in the side with his elbow. "Got a sixth sense."
"Is that so?" he asked, feigning interest. The American wealthy always did have an unhealthy obsession with the occult. It had not been in the briefing, but then, why would it have been? It was not necessary information. Not much about her was.
"Tommy," she scolded, putting her hands on her hips. "Don't just say that, he'll think I'm silly." Thomas did not look apologetic. "You don't think I'm silly, do you, Mr. Pennywork?"
"Of course not, Mrs. Wayne," he lied, and though she continued to pout, she looked mollified by the falsehood. He couldn't help the slight upward curve of his mouth. "And what do your powers tell you about me?" That came out more flirtatious than he'd intended, but neither of the Waynes seemed to notice. A bad habit, that. He was being tested, thrown into a house with a pretty woman and an unobservant husband.
"If you really want to know," she said, "you'll have to give me your hands." She held out her palms upright, and Thomas gave him an encouraging grin. Obligingly, he set his hands in hers. He thought she'd close her eyes, but instead she flipped his hands over to look at the lines of his palms, squinted at his face. He couldn't pinpoint the smell of her, unsettling in its familiarity. There was something piercing about her gaze, but it was gone as soon as it had come. He might have imagined it. "Harmless," she chirped, letting him go.
"Your sixth sense said harmless?" he repeated, and he could not help the slight note of incredulity. Surely anyone would be offput by such a trite dismissal. Thomas laughed.
"That's what I said," Martha shrugged. "Am I wrong?"
It was the most wrong thing she could have said, aside from 'honest'. "I suppose not," he said with a feeble smile, because to have said anything else would have made him an idiot.
"I guess that means you're hired!" Thomas said, and if this was their standard hiring practice it was a marvel they weren't dead already.
"You'll have to run him past Bruce first," Martha reminded him. "He's in the library, and I imagine he'll be in there for some time yet."
Thomas tsked, his nose crinkling. "He needs to spend more time outside," he said, and Martha tapped her husband on the nose.
"You will not discourage our son from reading," she ordered, a warning. A glimpse of the mother hen that hid within the frivolity, the woman who kept her son away from the paparazzi she adored.
"I don't want to discourage him from reading!" Thomas said, defensive. "But if he keeps going the way he is, he's going to end up overweight with a Vitamin D deficiency."
"His mind will only grow for so long," she said firmly. "When his age is in the double-digits, you can encourage as much healthy exercise as you see fit." She took him by the chin to kiss his cheek, the sealing of a contract. "I have something to take care of in the garden," she said, and Alfred doubted it was gardening. If she'd ever held a trowel, he'd eat his tie. "Do try not to get too ahead of yourself, love."
They watched her go, and Thomas grinned at Alfred. "Marvelous, isn't she?"
"I can see why you married her," he said.
"You don't know the half of it," Thomas said, as he began leading him in the direction of the library. "We have a certain amount of… disagreement," he said in half a whisper, "when it comes to Bruce." One would think the opinion of the doctor in the relationship would take precedence. "It's not just that he spends all his time reading," he said, "because I did my fair share of that. But Bruce can be a little… macabre. Doesn't seem healthy to me. Martha says he gets it from her side of the family, but that doesn't stop a father worrying."
"I understand completely, Mr. Wayne," Alfred lied, having no experience and less interest when it came to fatherhood.
"I hope you like him," Thomas confessed, as if it mattered at all. "I'm sure he'll like you, he's a very friendly boy, really. A big heart."
"I'm sure we'll get along splendidly," said Alfred.
The library was bigger than most houses. Sweeping stairs and two-story shelves, enough books that an army of maids must have been needed to keep them from accumulating dust. An army of maids that would soon be at Alfred's beck and call. What a strange thought. He had the feeling it would be less fun than it sounded. Thomas cupped his hands around his mouth. "Bruce!" It seemed harrowing, living in a home in which one could lose a child.
"Yes, Dad?" Thomas started, because at some point his son had appeared beside his elbow. Even Alfred had not noticed his approach, which usually took a good deal of training to accomplish. It was no wonder his father wanted him to spend more time outside, pale as he was. Wide dark eyes and a mop of black hair, he looked like a ghost.
Thomas Wayne was officially the only person in this house that did not give Alfred the creeps.
"Bruce," Thomas said, herding his son nearer to the Englishman, "this is Alfred Pennyworth. We're thinking about asking him to help out around here, but that means he'll be spending a lot of time with you. Do you think that would be okay with you?"
Little Bruce turned the force of his gaze onto Alfred, who pretended to be charmed by the waif. Abruptly, the boy raised with two hands the book he was holding, his face obscured by the cover. "Have you read this?" he asked, holding his arms out straight to offer the title to Alfred. He took the book gently, considering the worn cover and the old-fashioned art of a girl peering in a window. One would think a boy his age would be more interested in the Hardy Boys than Nancy Drew, but there was no accounting for taste.
"I can't say that I have," Alfred said, handing it back to him. "What's it about?"
"You have to read it," Bruce said sternly, though he took the book back. Nothing gentle about this dour-looking bookworm, a bundle of nervous energy wound up like a rubber band, fidgeting feet and darting eyes.
"But Master Wayne," Alfred said, "it looks like it might be too frightening for me."
Bruce narrowed his eyes, and he looked as if he was trying to decide if he was being made fun of, fingers tapping on the cover. "This isn't one of the books with murder in it," Bruce said. "Dad doesn't like those."
"How about we wait until you're nine for the books about murders," Thomas suggested, and this was clearly an argument that had been had before. Macabre, indeed.
"Well if there isn't any murder in it," Alfred said, "then I suppose I can give it a try."
Bruce fidgeted with his book as he considered this, turning it in his hands. "Do you want to see my bug collection?" he asked, rocking back on his heels. "It's really gross."
"I think that means you're hired!" Thomas said, clapping him on the back yet again.
"I'm pleased to hear it, Mr. Wayne," Alfred said.
"You go ahead and show him your bugs, kiddo," Thomas told Bruce. "I have to get this paperwork finalized, so you may as well get to know each other in the meantime."
He'd known that this would be a babysitting job, but he hadn't thought it would be so literal. In no time at all, young Bruce had him by the hand to pull him along through the halls. "The worms are the grossest," the boy was saying, "but my favorite is my tarantula."
"Is that so," Alfred said, aching for an excuse to escape.
"Oh, Mr. Pennyworth!" came a familiar sing-song voice, accompanied by the click of heels on marble.
Any excuse but that one.
At least she'd gotten his name right.
"May I speak to you alone for a moment?" she asked, and she did not have the look of a woman who'd been gardening. Doing anything strenuous at all, in fact.
"But mom," Bruce began, stopping in his tracks but continuing to hold his hand, "I was going to show him—"
"I'm sure you were, dear," she interrupted, "but you'll have all the time in the world for that, won't you? I only need him for a minute, and you can arrange the things you want to show him in the meantime."
The boy pouted and fidgeted and looked fit to burst, but Martha continued to smile beatifically, as if it did not even occur to her that he would be anything but delighted to do as she bade. In the face of such optimism, there was nothing for Bruce to do but retreat, and under other circumstances Alfred might have been relieved. "Something I can do for you, Mrs. Wayne?" he asked, endeavoring to look servile.
The force of that smile was brought to bear on him, the kind of smile that had no right to exist outside of mid-century laundry detergent advertisements. There was that smell again, that oddly familiar and comfortable smell. "Mr. Pennyworth," she said, in a way that could have been confused for apologetic, "may I?" She gestured to him, and his brow furrowed slightly.
"Your tie," she explained, and she looked almost impish as she stepped closer, taking his tie in her hand without waiting for a proper response. He almost backed away from her, that glint in her eye, though he'd faced far worse than a walking stereotype of Americana. He'd almost think this was an attempt at seduction, if they weren't in an open hall. "I know it's astonishingly petty of me," she said in a confidential tone, "but it's been bothering me since you came in." She began untying the knot, and it would have seemed a motherly gesture if she hadn't been looking him straight in the eye as she did it. She was almost as tall as he was, and somehow he hadn't realized that, had been making the assumption that she was quite short. "It's a four-in-hand knot," she continued, each sentence flowing into the other with no room for him at all, a woman quite accustomed to taking as much space for herself as she thought she needed. "It is a knot for schoolboys and office workers, Mr. Pennyworth," and he realized she hadn't misstated his name even once since she'd returned, "and does not at all suit a butler of so many years experience, in such a fine house. Don't you think?"
He had made a serious miscalculation. "I apologize, Mrs. Wayne," he said stiffly, and he did not make excuses, because a butler wouldn't. A small detail, one he'd missed; who would ever notice the knot in his tie?
"Oh, no," she said, still smiling as she rearranged his tie into a Windsor knot, "don't apologize Mr. Pennyworth. Pennyworth. I just love saying it, Pennyworth. It's the sort of name you'd get out of an Agatha Christie novel. Absurdly British. Did you choose it because you thought it would make you seem harmless?"
It made his blood run cold, the way she said it. "I fear your sixth sense may be steering you astray, Mrs. Wayne."
"No, no, none of that," she chided, that same way she might say it to Bruce, "we both know I'm not psychic. Do you know what a woman's intuition is, Mr. Pennyworth?"
"I have a feeling you're going to tell me, Mrs. Wayne."
"A woman's intuition is her subconscious mind's way of telling her when a man wants to murder her," she said matter-of-factly, and though she had finished with her knot she was still holding his tie, like a leash. "That's why men pretend it's silly, you see."
"I take it you have voiced your suspicions to Mr. Wayne?" He'd been undercover a hundred times before, yet he could count on one hand the number of times he'd been sniffed out so quickly. Interpol had accounted for everything, it seemed, except for Martha Wayne.
"My husband is a simple man," she began, before stopping, correcting herself. "No. My husband is a straightforward man. It isn't my intuition that tells me you're dangerous, Mr. Pennyworth. If it were, you would be gone by now. I only want to be sure that you know — that we are very clear — that my boys will be safe." She hadn't stopped smiling, not once, and something in his expression lead her to tap her index finger against the crook of his nose. "Don't give me that look," she scolded. "You think I'm two-faced, don't you? That's what that look is. But I assure you, Mr. Pennyworth: this is the only face I have. I'm as sweet as arsenic." She released his tie, and straightened it for him. That smell, he recognized it now: she had the unnaturally sterile smell of a crime lab. Hydrogen peroxide and gunpowder and glue, smells as familiar to him as English roses with no place at all on a socialite, on a gold digger, on a mother hen.
No, not a hen. "You're a wolf," he accused quietly, though it was not the butler thing to have said.
"I'm an Aries," she corrected, stepping away from him and straightening her skirt. "I don't usually take tea," she said thoughtfully, tapping a finger against her lower lip, "but now that we have an Englishman in the house, I suppose I may as well take advantage. At three in the garden, do you think?"
He knew a challenge when he heard one. He crossed his waist with his forearm, inclined his head and bent forward in a slight bow. "Of course, Mrs. Wayne."