Chapter 1: Pennyworth
"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."
The gardens of Wayne Manor were perfectly maintained and carefully designed. But when Martha Wayne referred to the garden, she did not mean the hedgerows, the flowers, the painted iron benches. She meant instead a greenhouse attached to a shed, a little retreat for the woman who had everything. They sat across from one another at a patio table in the greenhouse; the smell of herbs and of soil did not disguise whatever acrid thing hid beneath it. He did not know what she did out here, but whatever it was, she wanted the fumes far away from the house.
"You used the good china," she observed, tapping a nail against the gold leaf.
"Should I not have?" he asked. He had poured himself a cup, but had not touched it.
"I think it's cute," she said, with that faint smile that made him feel like a humored child. She took a dainty sip of her Earl Grey, and looked pleased. They said nothing for a long moment, and Alfred refused to be the first. "You look so stiff," she chided over the distant sound of birds. "I liked you better when you thought you were being clever." Her mouth pursed in a pout, but he no longer trusted the petulance of the expression.
"My apologies, Mrs. Wayne," he said, but he did nothing to rectify the problem.
"Spoilsport," she accused, but he refused to rise to the bait. "You don't have to be so nervous, you know," she said. "I don't bite. Usually. I won't be biting you, anyway, you have my word on that." She took another sip of her tea, then checked the rim for lipstick. Satisfied, she set it back down in the saucer. "Well if you're going to be this stuffy I assume you must have checked my… permanent record, or whatever it is you sort use."
She was so dismissive that his mouth twitched. "You have a Master of Chemistry with a minor in forensic science," he said, and she smiled like he'd paid her a compliment rather than stated a fact.
"I do," she agreed. "Isn't that fun? I was going to get my doctorate, you know, but then I got all motherly. It's probably for the best. If we were both Doctor Wayne then every time someone asked for Doctor Wayne I would insist on acting as if they were asking for me, even though they almost certainly wouldn't be. So it all worked out in the end."
She treated it like irrelevant trivia. It never came up in interviews, in magazine articles. It was only mentioned in passing in her dossier, because that was how she'd met her husband. Another girl who'd gone to the Ivy League to get an Ivy League husband. But most of them didn't get graduate degrees in STEM fields. He was irritated that he'd overlooked it. He was irritated that it had been so easy to.
"I take it that's your Nancy Drew collection in the library," he said, and he finally picked up his tea for a sip.
"Oh, yes," she said. "I loved those books as a girl. The early ones, you know, when she was fun. She calmed down a bit later, better editing. I think Brucie likes the early ones, too."
"Would you have been a police officer," Alfred asked over his cup, "if things had gone differently?"
"Certainly not," she said, which surprised him. "Have you ever met a cop?"
"… I may have met a few."
"Then you see why I couldn't possibly," she said, clarifying nothing. "I grew out of that very quickly, Mr. Pennyworth." She seemed to relish in saying the name still, despite her certainty that it was false. "But now it's your turn, Mister Butler Man." She crossed one leg over the other in as ladylike a manner as could be managed, keeping her skirt demurely over her knees. "I assume it's my husband's fault you're here."
"I am not at liberty to discuss that, Mrs. Wayne."
"Oh, shush, you," she scolded. "I'm the boss now, I decide what liberties get taken in this relationship."
She sipped at her tea with not the slightest indication that she might have said something untoward. He still could not decide if her proclivity for gaffes was deliberate. "Mrs. Wayne, that isn't actually—"
"I don't just mean your cover," she interrupted. "I mean that your cover has been blown, Mr. Pennyworth, and of all the people who could have done it, you've been blown by me." He choked, but she continued as if she did not notice. "I can't imagine you'll ever be able to live it down, getting your cover cracked by Martha Wayne of all people. And just by virtue of existing you've left DNA all over the place. You really ought to be more careful about where you leave your genetic material." He was silent, because if he stopped pressing his mouth into a thin line he would end up laughing. "And the fact that you knew your cover had been blown, and yet you stayed and you sat around having a tea party—no, I don't think that would reflect well on you at all, would it. You are Interpol, aren't you? I suppose you might be faking the accent, but you've just got one of those faces, you know. It's just… oh, there's no real way to explain it that won't sound very offensive, I'm sure. But your face is almost as British as your name, Mr. Pennyworth. A bushier moustache and there'd be no question at all."
Her mind seemed to take peculiar tangents. "What you're saying, Mrs. Wayne," he said as he set his teacup back down, "is that you're blackmailing me."
"That sounds so unpleasant," she said, with another impressive pout. "But I'm sure you could get out of it, if you tried hard enough, so I'm really not. All I mean is, it will be much easier for the both of us if you let me help you with whatever it is you're trying to accomplish. If we're going to work together at all, I certainly won't be the one taking orders."
"I can see that."
"The way I see it, there are two reasons you might be in my house, Mr. Pennyworth," she said, tracing the rim of her cup with a fingertip. "The first is that you think Maroni is going to kill my husband. The second is that you are using my husband as bait for Falcone. Which is it, Mr. Pennyworth?" He considered the question. "Ah. Bait, then."
"I didn't say—"
"If that weren't the reason," she pointed out, "you'd have been horrified by the very notion." She sighed. "A pity. I find Falcone the less reprehensible of the two. Not by much. But Maroni is more… viscerally unpleasant."
"It was never anyone's intent that Thomas Wayne's life be put into danger," he assured her.
"He is a Wayne and he is in Gotham," she said. "His life is always in danger."
"More, I should think, since saving Carmine Falcone."
"More if he had not," Martha pointed out. "Not that there was ever much chance of that. The thing that you must know about my husband, Mr. Pennyworth, is that he is the only good man in Gotham."
"And what of the women?" he teased with the cock of an eyebrow.
"If there is a good woman in Gotham," she said, "I have not yet met her. But to the matter at hand: your plan is dreadful for any number of reasons."
"Which you will, I imagine, be listing for me now?"
"I do not know enough of the details to give you all of the reasons, I'm afraid," she said, "but I can give you a few. Gotham is coming into a golden age, Mr. Pennyworth."
"A golden age that surely does not need men like Vincent Falcone in it."
"You sound like my husband," she said, and despite her assertions of his goodness it was clearly a rebuke. "This city is complicated. When things are simpler, getting rid of Falcone—or Maroni, Moxon, Riley, Mooney, Sabatino, Dimitrov—then, maybe, it will work. Have you considered what that power vacuum would do to the people outside that war?"
"We have done this before, Mrs. Wayne," he pointed out.
"And I am sure that it went very well for the agents involved," she said. "Commendations and promotions and bonuses all around. Until such a time as you can provide me with data on how the cities they lived in fared in their wake, however, I would prefer to deal with the devils I know."
"I do not think my other employers will accept that explanation," he said.
"I'm not sure why you think I care," she said. "You're obviously meant to be in this for the long haul. To gather information, to insinuate yourself, to put yourself in a position to influence whatever your superiors decide requires influencing. It's only that last bit that gives me any trouble—and you'd have a rough time of it, besides, when I know what you're about. But you will see things, Mr. Pennyworth, that you will confuse for openings, and you will find facts that pretend to be important. I will not have you wasting time with fool's errands when there is work to be done. You have two jobs now, you see, and one of them is to keep my boys safe."
"This does seem very complicated," he said, "when you put it like that." What tea was left in the teapot had gone cold as they spoke. "Do you have a similar arrangement with your Mr. Wayne?" She raised an imperious eyebrow. "Since you referred to him as straightforward," he clarified.
"The only arrangement I have with Tommy," she said, "is marriage. You have misunderstood, Mr. Pennyworth, but most people do in one way or the other." She uncrossed her legs, pressed her knees together and clasped her hands on top of them so she could lean a little closer. "He is straightforward in a way that allows him a moral clarity that I lack. He is a good man and he is a straightforward man, and it would not be possible for him to be one without the other. Do you see?"
She tilted her head to the side, that same gaze she'd given him when he'd been subjected to her sixth sense. Then she sighed. "Maybe an example would help. The hospital—you know about the hospital, of course."
Everyone knew about St. Rita's. One of the most advanced hospitals in the world, in one of the worst neighborhoods in America. Doomed to fail, a fitting fate for a patron saint of lost causes. Until it didn't. "Is that an example of something good, or something straightforward?"
"It is an example of something that is straightforwardly good," she said. "When that hospital was built, Mr. Pennyworth, an opportunity was created. Apartments were bought out, tenants evicted. The neighborhood is much nicer, now, just the loveliest new buildings you've ever seen."
"And none of the people he built the hospital to help can afford to live there anymore," he said.
"That is a complicated thought," she said, "for complicated people. We could dither for decades about how to build such a thing without it ending in gentrification, how to minimize the negative consequences. Thomas, he is straightforward. Better hospitals for more people is a good thing, and so within a year he had done it. He's already built most of a monorail, picked it specifically because he thought it would be easiest to work around the city without knocking anything down. Didn't work, of course, but he tried. Now he's working on low-income housing. He, not me. Because I am complicated, Mr. Pennyworth, and so I see segregation and displaced communities and white flight. But he is straightforward, and so these are separate problems and he will solve them in turn. A baby-faced murderer was brought to his doorstep, and he healed the injured body that had been brought to him, because that was the good thing to do. It was the right thing to do. He will always do what is good and right, because he has the clarity to do so. Do you see, now?"
"I believe I'm beginning to," he said, and he realized that at some point he too had begun to lean forward. Martha Wayne was, indeed, complicated. How had he missed it? How had anyone? It was no wonder people thought she had a sixth sense. "Was it really my tie that gave me away?" he asked.
She giggled. "Oh, you gave yourself away in all sorts of ways, poor thing." She waved a dismissive hand. "The tie was just an excuse to keep you trapped." Her smile took on an impish curl. "You never even looked at my necklace."
Alfred looked to the looping strings of pearls. "Why the necklace?"
"Money trouble," she said, counting things off on her fingers, "Gambling problem. Bad enough situation to move to the States. An addict at rock bottom. Necklaces are small, easy to misplace, easy to steal, easy to fence. You should have at least looked."
"Undone by a pearl necklace," he murmured. She raised an eyebrow at him again, and if he were still capable of it, he might have blushed.
"You'd hardly be the first," she said, and his mouth twitched despite himself. She hooked a finger near her collarbone and wrapped a few pearls around the digit. "But I do love a pearl necklace," she added.
"Mrs. Wayne," he said, narrowing his eyes, "you are almost certainly doing this on purpose."
She grinned at that. "You think I'm pretty, don't you, Mr. Pennyworth?"
"I am possessed of eyes, Mrs. Wayne."
"Oh, that's very clever," she laughed. "You must be very popular, under ordinary circumstances, looking so Errol Flynn and all." She released her necklace to smooth out her skirt with both hands. "So long as we are to be working together, I should make something clear up front: I adore my husband beyond all reason. I am driven to distraction by the love of him. My mouth may get away from me sometimes, but my heart never does. Please do not mistake my words for anything but that."
Uncomfortable for the first time since he'd arrived. A sore spot, men warring for affections already claimed.
"I am nothing if not professional, Mrs. Wayne," he lied.
I'm aware that in the real world, this is not a normal thing for an Interpol agent to be doing - but DC Interpol is really more like SHIELD, and so liberties are being taken.
Chapter 3: Floriography
"I took a look at the guest list for the gala," Thomas said, looking stunning with nothing but sunlight on his skin. Martha might have taken a picture, if it would not have found its way into a tabloid. Not that she always minded. Sometimes there was value in reminding the world that her husband was unspeakably attractive.
"Anyone you wanted to add?" she asked, not even suggesting that anyone could be removed. She rolled onto her side, arranging herself to look demure beneath silk sheets.
"I hate a third of the people on it," he said, leaving the window and the view of the gardens to find his clothes.
"Only a third?" she asked, surprised. "You're much nicer than I am, I find at least half of them thoroughly loathsome."
Thomas sighed as he made the unfortunate discovery of his pants, ignoring his wife's attempts to look alluring as he put them on. "Is this one of those things?" he asked.
"You'll have to be more specific, dear. The world is full of all sorts of things."
"The Wayne Party Plague thing," he clarified, and she rolled around in bed to better watch him put his shirt on.
"Oh piffle," she said. "If anyone really believed that, no one would come."
"Tell that to Hector Vaughn."
Martha giggled, but still made no move to get dressed or out of bed. "So now it's my fault when something bad happens to people who don't come to my parties? That seems a bit much."
"Don't think I missed you changing the subject," he said, looking for his tie. With a sigh she retrieved the one attached to the headboard and slid out of bed.
"If you're going to raise money for charity," she said, wrapping it around her husband's neck so she could pull him close for a kiss, "you may as well take money from terrible people."
"And what charity are we raising money for this time?" he asked as she began to tie the red silk for him.
"Cancer," she said, as he rested his hands on her hips and kissed her forehead.
"That's remarkably vague," he said.
"Specifics get specific money," she said, not for the first time.
"That feels disingenuous," he said, not for the first time.
"Tommy, love," she said, "if you can think of a way to get terrible people enthused about throwing money at The Preliminary Research into Causal Environmental Factors Relating to Breast Cancer Foundation, you are free to organize your own party." Tightening the knot, she smoothed out his tie for him.
"You know I can't," he said. "I just don't want you getting in trouble with any of these people."
"Says the man who pulled a bullet out of Carmine Falcone," she said, as she left his side to head toward her closet.
Thomas rolled his eyes. "You're never going to let me live that down, are you?"
"Neither will anyone else."
"You know, the police came by the office again yesterday."
Martha paused in her selection of a new dress. "And what did you tell them?"
Thomas raised an eyebrow. "The truth?"
Martha raised both eyebrows. "Which truth?"
"It's the truth, Martha. There's only one." In the silent battle of their incredulous brows, Martha's, being better groomed, won out. "I didn't tell them anything I hadn't already. I don't know what they were hoping to find."
"Evidence," she said, and Thomas was already approaching to help her with her dress. "An excuse to arrest someone for being shot." He ran his hand up her spine with her zipper, kissed the shoulder that her dress left bare. "Turn them away next time."
"Won't they think I have something to hide?"
"Better that than Falcone thinking you told them something." She sighed again, turned to wrap her arms around her husband's waist. "What am I going to do about this mess?"
"You could always try inviting them to one of your parties," Thomas suggested. Martha narrowed her eyes at him, and he grinned. "Maybe not."
"Don't think I won't do it, Tommy."
"Oh, god," he laughed, "please don't."
"If I do," she warned, "you'll have no one to blame but yourself."
"I take full responsibility for this hypothetical comedy of errors," he said, feigning solemnity. She pressed her ear to his sternum to listen to his heart beat. "At least promise me that I won't have to pretend to like Ryers next week."
"Darling," she said, "have you ever known me to make a plan that depended upon your ability to lie?"
"For the flowers—and this is very important, Mr. Pennyworth, so do be careful—we will be wanting yellow chrysanthemums, orange lillies, asphodel, pussy willow, and… sweet-briar. Lotus flowers, as well, mustn't forget those. Floating in little crystal dishes, perhaps, with tea candles. Lots of candles, the room should absolutely sparkle. I want to give the fire marshal conniptions. He despises me, you know, with how much I love candles. He's just waiting for the whole house to burn down."
For the first time, Martha stopped to turn around and see how her butler was faring. He was trailing a great distance behind her, writing furiously in his notepad. Writing and walking at the same time would have been easier if there were not already a room full of people, arranging tables and chairs around him according to what could only have been some kind of obscure mathematical formula.
"Do try to keep up, Mr. Pennyworth," she chided, placing her hands on her hips. Her dress was a red confection that matched her husband's tie, the same scarlet as she'd painted her nails and her lips. The color of rubies, if he was giving her the benefit of the doubt. Blood if he wasn't.
"My apologies, Mrs. Wayne," he said as he caught up to her. "Lotus flowers, candles, conniptions. Is that all for the florist?"
With a tsk, she tapped a nail against the crook of his nose. "What did I tell you about trying to be clever?"
He raised an eyebrow. "You like it better than when I'm stiff?"
She paused, pressing a fingernail to her lower lip. "That doesn't sound like something I'd say," she said, thoughtful. "But I suppose that would make you the very opposite of Tommy, wouldn't it?" She smiled, and the effect was dazzling. Then she snatched the notebook away from him, and took his pen for good measure. "Here," she said, writing out a phone number. "Tell them you're calling for Dr. Holland on behalf of Mrs. Wayne, they'll put you right through. If you try to get flowers from a florist, I'll shave your little moustache off. Only Alec will do. Pretty man, prettier flowers. Don't believe him if he says he can't do it, he always says that." She handed back the pad and pen, her writing all in curling, looping script not befitting the way she'd dashed it off. "Threaten him, if you must, but sweetly."
She made it sound so easy.
"We ought to have plenty of candles in storage," she said. "We buy them in bulk at the beginning of the year—easier that way, you know. Security will need to be doubled, James will try to tell you that we don't need anyone higher than the second floor but that is a lie and you may tell him I said so. The string quartet is already taken care of, I wouldn't dream of telling Sofia what to do and so you'll only need to tell her how many guests there will be. Is that everything?" She looked at him expectantly.
"It certainly sounds thorough," he said.
"Well, we'll know when something goes terribly wrong, I suppose. Something always goes terribly wrong, I should warn you about that right from the start. Do you know, once Alec sent me prosthechea cochleata instead of calanthe triplicata? I nearly had a heart attack. In fact, be sure that he knows I mean salix discolor, and if he sends me some that aren't flowering to try and be funny, I will be very cross with him."
"Discolored flowers," he said, "got it."
"Please don't try to be funny," she sighed. "It makes me sad."
"Wouldn't dream of it, Mrs. Wayne."
"You'll have to keep an eye on Bruce," she warned. "He always tries to sneak into parties. He hasn't managed it in a while, but the last time he did he got a toad into Mrs. Cobblepot's décolletage. Which, while terribly amusing, did not end well for the toad. Heartbroken for days, after that, but did he learn? Of course not."
"That sounds logistically impressive," he said mildly.
"Ah, but you only think so because you have not seen Mrs. Cobblepot's décolletage." Her mouth curled impishly. "Nor will you," she added, "as you will be quite busy with Bruce. I hope you aren't too disappointed."
"Heartbroken, in fact."
"Good," she said, with a touch too much relish. "It serves you right." For what, she did not say. Her eyes dragged over him, and he stood a little straighter. "You'll be tempted, of course, to go through our things while we're distracted."
"You will," she said, clasping her hands together in front of her. "You shouldn't. If you make the mistake of taking your eyes off Bruce, you'll regret it. Especially if he gets into the tunnels."
That gave him pause. "The tunnels?"
"The tunnels," she confirmed. "It's an old house. It has tunnels. As old houses do."
He was not sure that this was a common feature in old houses. "And you have not closed them?"
"Of course we close them," she said, an exasperated wave of her hand, "once we've found them. He just keeps finding more of the damned things. He's like a little… rat." She frowned. "No, that isn't a nice thing to say about my son, now is it? What's something more flattering that scurries around in walls?"
"I'm not sure that there is such a thing, Mrs. Wayne."
"Then he is a very cute rat," she decided.
"And how often will I be monitoring young Master Wayne for ratlike proclivities?" he asked.
"Oh, only when we have parties," she assured him. Her face tilted upward as she performed a mental calculation. "Some seasons are more active than others, so I suppose, averaging things out, that's… once a week?"
Alfred sagged visibly.
Martha grinned, leaning close to give him a pat on the elbow that was not at all comforting. "By the time you're done here," she said, "you'll be thick as thieves, you two."
Somehow he doubted that enormously.
Chapter 4: Party Games
He'd only taken his eyes off the boy for a second. He'd thought he was sleeping. He'd assumed that a little boy could not possibly have the attention span necessary to feign sleep for a half an hour.
Alfred did not know if he had underestimated little boys in general, or only Bruce Wayne specifically.
"Bruce," he hissed toward the walls of the dark room, hoping that no one else in the house would hear him. He ran his hands along the molding, trying to feel for cracks, drafts to suggest the presence of secret openings. "Bruce!" He knelt down to try and look underneath the bed, but there was nothing there. The constant presence of maids meant the room was unnaturally tidy for a boy so young. Not even a lone shoe to clutter up the wood beneath the bedframe. Just to be certain, he ran his hands along the floor, on his knees to reach beneath the furniture.
"You lost him, didn't you?"
He froze, then leaned sideways to see who was addressing him. Practical shoes, black trousers. Staff. He slid out from beneath the bed, and found the woman leaning against the doorframe, watching him with her head cocked to the side.
Had she been ogling him?
She'd been ogling him.
"Did you see where he went?" he asked, rather than deny it. He stood, and she looked almost disappointed. He thought her name was Myra Singh; it was hard to keep track of the housekeepers, but the braid was distinctive.
"No," she shrugged. "He probably went through a vent." She nodded her head towards a grate in the wall. Alfred stared at it.
"You're kidding," he said. She shook her head. He moved closer to the wall, bending down to tug at the metal experimentally. It gave way with ease. He tilted his head to look into the hole in the wall, but he could see only metal and darkness. "For heaven's sake." He looked over his shoulder, and the woman feigned innocence.
He suspected that she'd been ogling him again.
"Am I supposed to follow him in there?" Alfred asked, pointing into the wall.
Myra chuckled. "You can try." Alfred sighed and replaced the grate. "Let me guess," she said. "Had to go to the bathroom?"
"Something like that," he said as he brushed off his knees. She raised an eyebrow. "Exactly that, actually," he corrected. "I don't suppose you have any advice on finding him?" he asked.
"Not while he's in there," she said. "He'll come out near the party, though, if you want to try and intercept him."
"I think I'm going to have to," he said. She did not move from where she leaned in the doorway, and so he was forced to make his way around her. He wondered if it was deliberate. "Thank you, Ms. Singh."
"No problem, Jeeves."
He narrowed his eyes at her, but she only feigned innocence again, all wide brown eyes and fluttering eyelashes.
"Careful," he warned as he made his way toward the ballroom.
"Always," she called after him.
He finally found the heir to the Wayne fortune hiding beneath a table against the balustrade of the mezzanine, overlooking the party below. He was so absorbed in watching the goings-on that he did not notice Alfred's lifting the tablecloth behind him. After a moment, Alfred knelt down to crawl beneath the table and join the boy.
"What is it that we're doing, exactly?" he asked, making Bruce jump.
He didn't know why it pleased him to sneak up on an eight-year-old boy. Creepy, yes, but still a child.
"I'm not bothering anyone," he said, defensive.
"I never said you were," Alfred pointed out. He raised up the tablecloth that was against the rail so that he could see, much as Bruce was doing. "Are we spying?" he asked.
Bruce continued to regard him with wary suspicion. He looked down at the room, glittering gowns and black tuxedos—and at least one glittering tuxedo. "I'm trying to figure out who the murderer is," he said finally.
He seemed very serious about it.
"Is there a murderer?" Alfred asked.
"It's a party," Bruce said. "There's always a murderer."
Alfred did his best to look just the right amount of aghast. "I never knew that," he said.
Bruce nodded sagely. "Sometimes there's more than one murderer," he said. "And there's always one person you're supposed to think is the murderer, but they're just mean. The first person everyone guesses is always wrong."
Alfred was uncertain how he was meant to respond to this information, and so fell back on 'thoughtful'. "Yes, I can see how that would be a problem."
"I'm really good at picking out the murderer, though," Bruce said with confidence, warming to Alfred's presence.
"So you've figured it out, then?"
Bruce hesitated. "It's harder," he said, "when you can't hear what they're saying."
"Hmm." They watched the party in silence for a moment. "You know, Master Wayne," Alfred said, "this sounds a little like the sort of thing one might learn from reading books with murder in them."
Bruce's eyes went wide as saucers, fixed on Alfred in a manner both stricken and betrayed. He shook his head. "Nuh-uh."
"Of course not," Alfred agreed. Bruce's wariness had returned full-force. "Not that I would care if you had."
Bruce wasn't buying it. "I'm not allowed to read those."
"I know," Alfred said. "But I think you're old enough to read them."
"You don't make the rules," Bruce pointed out.
"No, but I can keep a secret, every now and again."
Bruce did not seem to know what to make of this offer. Too clever and not trusting enough, by half.
"What about him?" Alfred suggested, changing the subject and pointing at a member of the crowd. "Do you think he's the murderer?"
Bruce leaned closer to the rail to get a better look at who was being pointed at. "No," he said, "that's just Mr. Beaumont."
"You don't think Mr. Beaumont could be a murderer?"
Bruce shook his head. "He's too happy."
"Happy people can't be murderers?"
"Only if they're fake happy." Bruce sounded very sure of himself. "Like clowns."
"I never trusted clowns," Alfred agreed. "You're much better at this than I am."
"I've had lots of practice," Bruce said.
"What about her?" Alfred asked, pointing to a woman laughing with too much enthusiasm.
"That's Mrs. Cobblepot," Bruce said, nose wrinkling. "She killed Leonard, but that was an accident."
"Your toad was named Leonard?"
"He was a frog," he said, as if this clarified anything. "They're just called toads."
"I see," said Alfred, who did not. "So she's not a murderer?"
Bruce did not answer, instead pressing his face to the railing again. His gaze was intense, and if he pushed any harder his head was going to get stuck. "Mom needs help," he said.
"What?" Immediately Alfred's attention was on the party in earnest, seeking out Martha.
"There," Bruce said, pointing. Alfred followed his instruction, found the her distinctive silhouette across the ballroom. She appeared to be engrossed in conversation, safely to the side of the room and out of the range of passing dancers.
"Is he a murderer?"
Bruce made an incoherent sound of frustration, apparently done with that game. "I don't know who he is," he said, "but Mom hates him."
Alfred squinted at the figures. It was true that they seemed a bit isolated, but that was only because they did not seem to be having a conversation that invited interruption. Thomas was on the other side of a crowd, surrounded by people that Alfred assumed were doctors. Martha was not looking in his direction. "How can you tell?"
"I don't know," Bruce said, sounding on the verge of a tantrum. "I just know." He started to shimmy backward, as if to slip out from underneath the tablecloth, but Alfred grabbed him before he could.
"Now, where do you think you're going?"
"I need to help," Bruce said, attempting to squirm out of Alfred's grasp, practically sliding out of his pajamas in the process.
"Master Wayne, why don't you let me take care of it?" Bruce stilled. "It's my job to help you, after all. And this way, neither of us get in trouble."
Bruce pursed his lips as he considered this, and the expression reminded Alfred of Martha. "Hurry," he decided, trying to push Alfred out from under the table with tiny hands.
"I'm hurrying, I'm hurrying."
"May I refresh your drinks?"
Martha's gaze went from the bottle to his face, but if she was relieved to see him, she didn't show it. She looked at her glass, holding it higher as if to confirm that it was empty. "Oh, goodness," she said airily, before giggling. "Have I had that much already?" She gave the man to whom she'd been speaking a rueful smile. "That does explain some things, doesn't it?" Rather than accept Alfred's offer, she set her empty glass down on the tray. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Collins," she said to the imperious blond, "but I'm afraid I need to go use the ladies." This last word was said in a stage whisper, easily heard even over the string quartet.
"Quite all right," Mr. Collins said, but there was something sneering about the thin line of his mouth.
"Mr. Pennyworth," she said, turning her attention to Alfred. Her hand found its way to the crook of his arm uninvited, overly familiar in the way she rested her weight against him. He kept his eyes forward, lest he be seen admiring the cut of her dress. "I'm afraid you may need to escort me," she explained with an impressive pout. "The Penfolds isn't agreeing with me at all."
"Of course, Mrs. Wayne," he said with a small nod.
"Thank you, Mr. Pennyworth." As they passed Mr. Collins, Martha snatched the wineglass from his hand; she lifted it to her own lips with a wink, and his smile was strained.
When they were some distance from the man, Martha set the wineglass beside her own, having not actually gone through the trouble of taking a sip. "Don't touch that," she instructed.
"Of course, Mrs. Wayne," he said, allowing her to continue the ruse of inebriation against him.
"Why aren't you watching Bruce?" she asked.
"He's sleeping," he lied.
"You let him get into the walls, didn't you?" She seemed very smug about it, but he wasn't going to risk looking at her to check.
"I don't know what you mean, Mrs. Wayne."
"He sent you for me, didn't he? Where is he?" Her gaze lifted to the mezzanine, searching until she found the displaced tablecloth and the boy beneath it. He dropped the cloth to hide, but it was too late. "Such a nosy little boy," she said, voice warm with pride.
"He seemed to think you were in need of assistance."
"It was the wineglass that gave me away," she sighed. "I don't drink at parties if I can help it."
"Just insufferable," she confirmed. "Awful, awful man. I'd have gotten rid of him eventually, of course, but I do appreciate the help." She patted his elbow encouragingly. "I hope you at least managed to find something interesting while you were snooping."
"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about, Mrs. Wayne," he said as they made their way out of the ballroom and into a hall.
"Of course you don't." She pulled away from him when they were alone, taking her empty wineglass off of the tray and setting it down on a side table. No longer leaning against him, she towered over him in heels. "Take that to the kitchen," she said, indicating the glass that had belonged to Mr. Collins. "No one touches it, tell them I want it and they'll know just what to do." Then she slouched a little, fanning herself with her hand. For the first time his eyes went lower than her collarbones—only for a moment, barely leaving the rose gold drop necklace that placed a single pearl at the center of her chest. She snapped her fingers, and he snapped to attention. "Eyes front, Mr. Pennyworth," she chided.
"Were they not?" he asked, and she tried not to smile. Her lips were pale pink to match her nails, her dress a black silk confection that she must have been sewn into; his eyes kept drifting to the stray black curl hanging down near her ear.
"I am entirely too drunk to play with you right now, Mr. Pennyworth," she scolded.
"Are you really?" he asked with some surprise.
"Did you think I was joking?" she asked, bending down to slide her feet out of her heels. "How flattering. No, Mr. Pennyworth, I'm afraid I really can not handle my liquor." She set her heels on the table next to her empty wineglass, a tableau that told a story. "I do hope you won't try to take advantage."
"I would never," he said, and she laughed at the hint of indignation in his tone.
"My work here is done, Mr. Pennyworth," she informed. "If you will excuse me, I really must… the ladies. If you see my husband, tell him that his wife is wasted. He'll know what to do."
"Of course, Mrs. Wayne," he said as she sashayed down the hall. He waited until she'd disappeared behind a door to do as she'd instructed.
Were they really going to be doing this once a week?
Chapter 5: Friends in Low Places
Martha had never gotten rid of her first car. Part of it was sentimental. It was a good car. Reliable. But it was also nondescript, a worn-out station wagon that had been old when she'd bought it. There were a thousand more like it in Gotham. She took good care of it, like she always had. No one else was allowed to drive it, or even ride with her. It was hers, totally and completely.
It felt like a secret passage, sometimes. A gateway into another world, another life. Martha Wayne when she got in the car; Martha Strazds when she got out of it.
She did not exactly wear a disguise when she went out in her old car. She did, however, wear jeans and an old t-shirt. This was similar, in many ways, to a disguise. No one ever recognized her, and more importantly, no one ever got confused. This end of Cherry Street belonged to the whores—but there wasn't a whore in town that would be caught dead in jeans.
There hadn't been a pimp in Gotham for over ten years, not since Mooney had taken the reins. They were a gang all their own, a force to be reckoned with. There was something ironic about the fact that no one fucked with the whores of Gotham. Martha found it pleasing on a number of levels.
She parked in an alley behind The Golden Rabbit, sparing a glance across the water. Nothing there now but the Narrows, and the burnt-out husk of a house no one remembered.
The view was the thing she liked least about coming here.
She walked past the bouncer unquestioned, keeping her sunglasses on despite the half-light of the club, a large purse resting at her hip. Her ponytail brushed over her shoulder as she surveyed the room in passing, men and women smoking and drinking and laughing. No one of interest—but then, anyone that might have interested Martha would have paid for a private room. Not that she was the sort to begrudge anyone a good time.
Martha considered herself a very open-minded person, as these things went.
Straight upstairs, to the employee-only area where Gotham's Madame watched her girls and her customers from her perch. Hazel eyes made their way to Martha as she slid the sunglasses up to rest atop her head. She smiled.
"Mars," she greeted, throwing out her arms.
"Fish," Martha said with equal enthusiasm, embracing her. "It's been an age."
"It's been a month," Fish corrected.
"Which is an age," Martha agreed as they pulled apart. "I do wish that we could see each other more often."
"And under better circumstances," Fish added. "But work is as good an excuse as any. Here—sit, sit." She waved Martha towards a table, snapping her fingers toward a man with an excess of muscle and a minimum of clothing.
"I can think of any number of excuses that I'd like better," Martha said, as they seated themselves across from one another. "But if this is what it takes to get you to call me, I'll take it."
Fish laughed as she lit up a cigarette, a slender thing sitting at the end of a gold holder. "I don't think Mr. Wayne would approve if I started making housecalls." Her impromptu waiter placed a snifter of bourbon in front of her, and a lowball glass filled with cranberry juice in front of Martha. "You're sure you don't want a real drink?" she asked.
"You know very well I'm a lightweight," Martha reminded her, and Fish grinned.
"But that's what makes it fun," she said.
"Cranberry juice is good for you," Martha countered. Nonetheless, she moved her glass out of the way, reaching into her purse to remove a folder and set it on the table. Fish leaned closer as Martha opened it, spreading out a series of pages. "At any rate: I tested the sample you gave me against Ryers, Collins, Harris, and Turner." She slid the sheafs of paper closer to Fish.
Fish raised an eyebrow, looking down at the various tables and numbers that had been presented to her. "I have no idea what any of this means," she said, waving her cigarette over them.
"I know," Martha said. "But I do. Isn't that impressive?" She fluttered her eyelashes as she sipped at her cranberry juice.
Fish nearly rolled her eyes, but restrained herself by stopping halfway. "I'm very impressed," she said, not sounding it at all. "Would you like to cut to the chase? Which one is it?"
"Oh, fine," Martha sighed, setting down her drink. "Take all the fun out of it, why don't you?" She pulled three of the piles closer to herself, tucking them back into the file. "It's Collins. I suspect he already knows it, based on what an utter nuisance he was being about the party."
Fish lifted the sheaf to look at it, making slightly more of an effort to decipher the data. "You're absolutely sure?"
"There is no such thing," she said, though Fish met this with an exasperated expression. "It's as close as you're going to get. It won't hold up in court, of course—judges don't care for backyard forensic labs, I've found."
"It'll do," Fish said, holding out the papers. "Put this on my desk," she ordered the man who'd brought their drinks, "and bring me the box."
Martha waited for him to be out of earshot to lean across the table. "So who's the lucky fellow?" she asked, coaxing.
"I thought we just established it was Collins," Fish said with a curl to her mouth.
"Not him," Martha said with some disgust. "I mean yours. And you really shouldn't be smoking, you know." Fish hesitated. Martha's eyes widened. "Was I not supposed to know?"
Fish sighed, exhaled smoke and slouched back in her seat. "You know, you're as bad as your mother, sometimes."
"Don't even joke," Martha warned.
"I just found out," Fish said, though she did not put out her cigarette. In fact, she took a sip of her bourbon, ignoring Martha's disapproving gaze. "What gave it away?" Martha's eyes slid downward, and Fish's followed, looking down at her own cleavage. "There can't possibly be that much of a difference."
"It's subtle," Martha agreed, "but there is a definite oomph."
"Maybe I wore a push-up bra," Fish suggested.
"You would never," Martha countered. Fish could not deny this, and so said nothing as she took a drag of her cigarette. "Are you going to keep it?"
Fish mulled over the question. "I'm going to have it," she said finally, "but I'm not going to keep it. I'm not the motherly type."
"Ah." Martha hesitated. "Were you thinking…?"
"No," Fish said firmly. "I'm sorry, Mars, but it has to be a stranger. It's… important to me."
Martha could not deny that her feelings were hurt, but she accepted this decision with a graceful inclination of her head. The handsome half-dressed waiter returned with something resembling a large wooden jewelry box, and Fish took it from him before waving him away. Martha clapped her hands gleefully.
"I can't imagine why you want this," Fish said as she undid the snaps on the box. "I've never known you for a history buff." She removed from the box a worn leather folder, smelling faintly of mildew.
"It's a cold case," Martha said as she took the ancient file. She untied it, opening it just long enough to confirm the general appearance of the contents. She did not bother to double-check that they were as promised before placing it into her purse.
"I should have known," Fish said. "Wayne, Kane, or Strazds?"
"None of the above," Martha said as she stood. "But if I find anything fun, I'll let you know."
"It was good seeing you," Fish said, standing as well to embrace her again. "And if you did want to keep an eye out for a family…"
"Of course," Martha said, squeezing her tighter. "If you break Collins' legs, wait until he's been to someone else's party, first. I'm developing a reputation."
"I make no promises," Fish said as she pulled away.
"Oh, fine," Martha sighed. "Ruin his veneers for me, then. I hate them."
Fish grinned. "Now that, I can do."
Martha waited outside the garage after she got home. She pulled out her ponytail, letting her hair fall to her shoulders, and spent some time skimming items in her newly acquired file. She did not have to wait long.
She wondered if she imagined that the car creeping up to the house did so guiltily.
She approached it as it came to a stop, knocking on the window. Alfred rolled it down obligingly.
"If you wanted to know where I was going, Mr. Pennyworth," she said, leaning into the window, "you could have just asked."
He was trying not to look at her breasts. He did that a lot, she'd noticed. It was a marvel he ever got anything done, distractable as he was. Then again, she could hardly blame him. They were magnificent.
"Would you have told me that you were going to meet with Fish Mooney?" he asked. There was something accusatory in the question.
"No," she said, "but I'd have told you that it wasn't anything you need to worry about." She stood, allowing him to get out of the car. He surveyed the horizon, as if concerned that he'd be caught speaking to his employer.
"Ah, yes, of course. Just a casual meeting with a crimelord. Nothing to concern me at all, there."
"You're being very melodramatic," she said, turning to walk toward the house. She did not look back to check that he was following. "You're here for Falcone—or Maroni, or both. Mooney is tangential to your investigation, at best. You're wasting time."
"If Martha Wayne is in league with Fish Mooney, that is more than tangential to my investigation."
"I'm not in league with anybody," Martha said. "We exchanged a bit of information, is all. You should try it sometime, Mr. Pennyworth."
"And what information did you need from a whore?"
Martha stopped, turning on her heel with enough speed that Alfred stumbled rather than walk into her. She grabbed his tie to pull him closer and be certain she had his attention. "Fish Mooney," she corrected, "is a madame. They are two very different things."
"Defending her honor?" he asked, and she tapped the crook of his nose.
"Correcting a factual inaccuracy," she said, before letting him go, turning to resume her walk toward the manor. "There is nothing wrong with being a whore," she said, "but Mooney has never been one. I do so hate inaccuracies. Don't you?"
"You never answered the question," he pointed out.
"Something for a personal project," she said, patting her purse affectionately. "If you're very good, perhaps I'll show you, one day."
He caught up to her by the door, stood too close and made her consider teaching him a lesson about it. "How do you know Fish Mooney, Mrs. Wayne?" he asked quietly. He was either trying to be discreet, or intimidating. Maybe both. He wasn't very good at it.
"You really need to work on the quality of your research, Mr. Pennyworth," she said instead of answering. With that, she disappeared into the house, and left him to think what he would.
"I'm sorry about your dad."
It felt like a silly thing to say, but Martha felt like she ought to say something. It felt rude not to, when they'd gone through the trouble of coming to the funeral. She still did not know if she'd be going to theirs. Would that be more, or less rude, under the circumstances?
Eyes paler than she'd anticipated turned on her, a color like honey. "Why?"
Martha hesitated, caught off-guard by the question. "Because… he's dead?" That was not well-put. "I'm sorry that he's dead." That was not much better.
"I'm not," Maria said, turning her eyes back to the coffin at the front of the room. "Your mom's the one that killed him, right?" She asked it very matter-of-factly. Martha remained silent, because there were eyes and ears all around them. Grown men and women, fascinated by the potential of a conversation between two small girls. "We won't tell," she said. "We're square, now." Martha felt very small, even though she was taller of the two of them. It wasn't just that Maria was the best-dressed in the room. It was something in her attitude. Not a princess, but a queen.
"I'm still sorry about it," Martha said.
She gave Martha a sidelong gaze. "Thank you," she said finally. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry Carlos killed your daddy."
Maria did not bother hedging her words. She didn't have to. Everyone in Gotham had seen what had happened—the ones who hadn't had read about it in the newspapers. Carlos Mooney versus Roddy Kane, two men well past their prime. It shouldn't have pulled in the ratings that it did. Martha looked to the coffin at the front of the room, shut so that no one could see the mangled corpse within it. "That means a lot," she said, sincerely.
"Come on, Maria." Maria's mother had sleeves with threadbare hems that did not quite cover the bruises beneath them. Her eyes met Martha's, dark brown that did not match her daughter. She also lacked her daughter's piercing gaze, her eyes sliding away from Martha and back to Maria. "We're done here, baby."
"Thanks for coming," Martha said as they turned to leave.
Maria turned to look at her over her shoulder, and smiled. It made Martha feel better, though she couldn't say why.
Chapter 6: The Lion
"Whose idea was this?"
Verdi paused, but finished seating himself before speaking. "Correct me if I'm wrong," he said, "but I believe you are the one who invited me."
"Not this," Alfred said, tapping on the table, his voice still a growl through his teeth. "This. Gotham, the Waynes, Alfred Pennyworth, me. Whose idea was this?"
"Don't tell me the Lion has a thorn in his paw. Did you already order drinks?"
"This is not a social call."
"No, but that doesn't mean we have to be thirsty for it." Verdi raised a hand to flag down a waitress. "Can I get a coffee and a menu?" he asked, flashing a winning smile. "Thank you, dear." He waited until she was out of earshot to get comfortable. "Now, what seems to be the matter?"
"I have been fucked," Alfred hissed between his teeth, "and I want to know by whom."
"That sounds like a personal problem, Mr. Pennyworth." He snorted. "Pennyworth. I can't believe that's what they went with. Honestly."
Alfred slammed a palm down on the table, rattling the silverware. Verdi raised a censorious eyebrow. "The prepwork that went into this," he said, "was garbage."
"We gave you the intelligence you needed to get the job done," Verdi said, "and no more."
"Like hell you did," Alfred said, though he sat back, attempting to compose himself. "I read every page of those reports. Every word. I have them memorized. I can tell you exactly what you gave me." He began ticking them off on his fingers. "Twenty pages on Falcone. Twenty on Maroni. Eight on Mooney—and you overlooked some serious shit there, I might add—and five on every other family. Twelve on Thomas Wayne. Two on the kid's elementary school. You know what I got on Martha?"
Verdi opened his mouth to say something, but shut it again when the waitress returned, setting his coffee in front of him. He smiled at her as he took the menu. "Thanks, doll."
Alfred did not let him get the first word in once she'd left. "One page," he said. "You gave me one page on Martha Wayne—not even a page. A half a page. Three pages on the goddamn Wayne family tree, and half a page on Martha Wayne."
Verdi snorted as he shook a sugar packet. "That's what you're mad about?" He tore off the top to pour it into his mug. "Pick up a National Inquirer."
"The information wasn't even good," he continued, as if the other man had not spoken. "You had her mother's name as Elizabeth Kane."
That gave Verdi pause as he stirred his coffee. "What?"
"Her mother's name was Strazds. Elizabeth Strazds. She never took her husband's name, Martha didn't change her name until later. Do you have any idea how long that took me to figure out? Those boys back at the office, it would have taken them, what, five minutes? Ten minutes, tops, to fact check this shit. I had to spend three days down at the Gotham library going through public records. Three goddamned days, Verdi. All records of Martha Kane just disappeared before college, like she just appeared one day as a valedictorian. Couldn't find her birth certificate, couldn't find anything until I went back to Roddy Kane's marriage certificate. I was starting to think I was out of my mind. This is grunt work, Verdi, I shouldn't need to waste my time with this." He ran his hands through his hair before ruffling it in frustration, leaving it a tousled mess to better express his aggravation.
Verdi sipped his coffee, made a face before reaching for more sugar. He'd always been very picky about his coffee. "Why are you wasting your time with this, Pennyworth?"
"Would you stop calling me that," Alfred said, balling up a napkin and throwing it at the other man's head across the table. Verdi avoided it with a roll of his eyes.
"Don't be a child," he scolded. Again his smile returned with the waitress, oozing charm as he handed the menu back to her. "Can I get a Reuben? Light on the sauerkraut, heavy on the beef, and a side of fries. Thanks, hon."
Alfred rubbed his hand over his face, massaged the bridge of his nose. Verdi sipped at his coffee, and still looked unsatisfied, but didn't reach for more sugar. "Martha Strazds changed her name in college after her mother was arrested for murder," Alfred muttered.
"Really?" Verdi lifted his eyebrows, then shrugged, returning his attention to his drink.
"Not only did she confess to the murder of a senator's son, she also claimed to have been responsible for the murder of Carlos Mooney."
"Huh." Verdi did not look as shocked by this as Alfred had assumed he would. "Do you think Fish is going to be a problem, then?"
"That's not—no. That isn't the issue, here."
"I'm not clear on what the issue actually is," Verdi said, and his calm demeanor only irritated Alfred more.
"Did you know about this?" he asked.
"Carlos Mooney killed Roddy Kane, that was in your report. We gave you all relevant information."
"That is not at issue here," Alfred hissed. "That is not remotely the same—that does not even come close. You sent me here to watch Thomas Wayne without telling me that murder and madness run in his wife's family, that doesn't seem relevant to you?"
Verdi set down his mug with a sigh. "Some things may have fallen through the cracks," he admitted. "Do you think the wife's a threat?"
He waited too long to answer. "No," he said, and he tried to sound confident in the answer. "This is just—I don't know what else you aren't telling me. I don't know what else you may have missed. This whole city feels like a powderkeg and I don't have enough intel to know if I'm in a house with the fuse or a bucket of water. If I didn't know better, I'd think I was being set up to fail. I'm not happy with this assignment, Verdi, I'm not happy at all."
"Oh, yes," Verdi said, "living in a mansion with the most beautiful woman in Gotham sounds miserable. Just awful. My heart breaks for you, Simba."
Immediately Alfred balled up another napkin and threw it again. "Go back to Pennyworth," he said, "if that's the alternative." He gathered his things to stand, running a hand through his hair. "If there's anything else you've neglected to tell me," he said, "I expect you to contact me immediately."
"Oh, but of course, sir," he said. "You're the one in charge here, after all."
"I should be," Alfred said, "and in a perfect world I would be. Now if you don't mind, there's a party tonight, and I get to babysit."
"Please," Verdi murmured, "spare me your tales of horror."
"Alright, Master Wayne, up with you."
Bruce Wayne continued to pretend he was sleeping. Alfred would not be fooled again. Martha Wayne could handle this party without the intervention of a small child. "This is a limited-time offer, Master Wayne," he warned. "Up, or I'm going to change my mind about letting you play with swords."
At this, the boy cracked an eye open.
"Ah, so I have your attention," he said, pleased. It had been a bit of a gambit, because Bruce was not at all typical of little boys. Despite this, Alfred had found it extremely likely that Bruce shared the common childhood affinity for swords.
"What kinds of swords?" he asked cautiously, still in bed.
"The kinds that pirates in movies use," he said, having carefully considered the best possible way to present the suggestion.
Bruce had both eyes open, now, and was sitting upright in his bed. "We're going to play pirates?" he asked.
"In a manner of speaking."
"Your parents don't have most protective gear in your size," Alfred said, "and so we're just going to have to wear masks, and be very careful not to actually hit each other."
Bruce looked extremely disappointed by this prospect. "I thought we're supposed to hit each other," he said, swishing the épée through the air with obvious relish at the sound it made.
"Eventually, yes," said Alfred, resisting the temptation to do the same thing. "We have to work our way up to that."
Bruce frowned. "That sounds boring."
"Getting good at things is always boring," he informed him. "That's the price of being good at things." He couldn't tell by the look on the boy's face if he didn't believe him, or didn't understand him.
"Will I get to jump off lights and curtains and stuff?" he asked, looking over the épée. His interest already seemed to be flagging. That wasn't good.
"Hmm." Alfred looked to the gymnastic equipment on the other side of the room. "Wait here." He strode towards it, épée still in hand, leaving a dubious Bruce to wait on the mat and continue swishing. There were not exactly chandeliers available to swing from, nor tapestries to fall down with a dagger. Which seemed an egregious oversight. Swashbuckling was much easier to get excited about then exercise.
He lifted the épée to hold it in his teeth, which was neither hygienic nor practical, but which would probably look very impressive. He was hardly an expert gymnast, and a suit was hardly the ideal costume, but it wasn't as if he'd never done this. Never to impress a small child, and never using actual equipment, but in theory he had practice.
His focus went entirely to not falling on his ass, because if he did he would immediately lose all claim to authority. Handsprings along a balance beam were almost always impressive to someone who did not know how to do them, even if—technically speaking—his form was atrocious. Then a swing from the horizontal bar and a somersault on the dismount, and he removed the épée from his mouth with a flourish. "Was that the sort of thing you meant?"
Bruce was staring at him, wide-eyed. "Yes. Show me how to do that."
"Eventually," Alfred said, making his way back to him. "Even pirates need to start small."
"I'm ready," Bruce said, fists raised to his chest, an action which nearly resulted in his hitting himself in the face with his own épée.
"Lesson one: don't do that." Bruce lowered his arms with a pout. "Keep your feet shoulder-width apart." Bruce looked down at his own feet, and slid them apart until he was halfway to a split. "That's… how wide do you think your shoulders are?"
"You didn't say my shoulders," Bruce said, "you just said shoulders."
"Body parts are not units of measurement."
"What about feet?"
Alfred rubbed his forehead. "Switch to metric like a civilized country and fix your feet. Like this." He put his own feet in the appropriate position, bending at the knees, and Bruce carefully mirrored him. He looked from Alfred's longer legs down to his own, making minor adjustments that Alfred did not actually think were necessary. He didn't interrupt, anyway, because Bruce looked very serious about getting it right. Finally, Bruce looked to him for approval. "Good," he said, and the boy beamed. "Now hold the épée like this," he said, putting his hands into the proper pose.
"You mean the sword?"
"Yes, the sword." In his haste to whip the épée in the right direction, Bruce swiped it across Alfred's stomach, stinging enough to make him wince. He froze, watching Alfred's face. "It's fine," he assured him, doing his best not to look irritated. Again, Bruce carefully tried to perfectly mimic Alfred's posture, making minute adjustments.
"Now you advance."
"Like a backflip?"
"No." Alfred lifted his feet slowly so that Bruce could see exactly what he was doing. "Front foot first, just the heel—then your back foot, heel-ball—and then the ball of your front foot. Yes?"
"My feet don't have balls."
Alfred swallowed a snort of laughter. "The—that's the front of your foot. The balls of your feet are the front part."
"Oh." Slowly Bruce repeated the advancing motion. "Like that?"
"Just like that. And then you retreat."
"I don't want to retreat."
"It just means moving backwards."
"Then you should call it that," he insisted. "Not retreating."
"There's nothing wrong with a retreat, Master Wayne," Alfred said. "Rear foot backward, then the front foot," he instructed as he went through the motion.
"That's it." Bruce mirrored the action. "Now advance again. Now retreat."
Bruce lowered the épée, looking down at his feet. "I'm just walking back and forth."
"You're advancing and retreating," Alfred corrected.
"I thought you were going to show me how to do cool stuff."
"How are you supposed to do… 'cool stuff'," he asked, trying not to sigh at the phrasing, "if you can't even walk back and forth?"
"Advance and retreat."
"Exactly." Bruce did not look pleased. "Everything starts with walking," Alfred said. "Give it a few months and your mother will have thrown enough parties for things to get much more interesting."
Bruce fidgeted with the épée, running his fingers over the blade and the ball at the point. "Can we do this when there isn't a party? Sometimes?"
Alfred hesitated. His primary goal had been to keep the boy from running around in the walls during parties—and to tire him out enough to get him out of the way. He had not considered what his parents would think of it, because he had not expected him to actually learn enough to be dangerous.
They had to have the equipment lying around for a reason, didn't they? Thomas had been complaining about Bruce needing more exercise. It was fencing, not boxing.
Best not to mention boxing where Martha might hear.
"Please, Mr. Pennyworth?" Bruce tried, giving his very best puppydog eyes. It did not work very well, since he was still far from cute, his blue-black eyes and his ghostly pallor. It was still a valiant attempt, and his willingness to try was almost charming.
"After school, then," Alfred decided. "When you've finished your homework." Suddenly, and much to his surprise, Bruce pounced forward to hug him. It did not work very well, because he was very small and Alfred was not, and Alfred stiffened and held up his arms out of range. Slowly, he lowered a hand to pat him on the head. "Do pirates do a lot of hugging?" he asked cautiously.
Bruce did not take the hint. "I'm still learning."
Chapter 7: Beasts
"Now, what do we have here?"
Alfred and Bruce both froze as Thomas Wayne strolled into the gym, hands in his pockets. Then Alfred stood at sudden attention, held his épée behind his back as he pulled the mask from his head. Bruce tried to follow his lead, but he was too short and the épée was too long, and so it was visible above his head like an antenna. His mask, always too large for him, fell loudly to the floor. It was not the most successful attempt at subterfuge.
"My apologies, Mr. Wayne," Alfred said. "I was only showing him a few things—nothing dangerous, I assure you."
"Don't tell Mom," Bruce added, which did not help his case.
Thomas looked between the two of them. Then his face split into a grin, that impossible boyish charm that had no place on such a mountain of a man. Waynes going back generations had shoulders as large as their wallets. "You're teaching Bruce how to fence?" he asked Alfred.
"Only the basics," Alfred said, "as there isn't gear in his size." He found himself wanting to emphasize as much as possible how safe it was. It was not Thomas that worried him; it was Martha. If he could convince Thomas that this was a worthwhile thing for them to be doing, then maybe he could be saved.
"That's great!" Thomas said, completely taking the wind out of Alfred's defensive sails.
"Yeah!" One would think they had done this as a pleasant surprise for him, the way that he acted. "Hell, it's almost family tradition." Thomas rolled his sleeves up to his elbows, intimidating despite his cheerful attitude. He held out a hand and gestured for Alfred to give him the épée, and Alfred obliged. Thomas looked it over, like he was getting reacquainted. "You know," he said to Bruce, "your mother and I were in a fencing club in college."
"Really?" Bruce had given up on trying to hide his blade.
"Oh, yes," he said, the pleasure of nostalgia writ across his face. "That might be how I fell for her." Bruce stuck his tongue out in disgust.
"A whirlwind romance," Alfred said.
"Oh, no, absolutely not," Thomas said. "It took forever. One of those boy meets girl, boy hates girl because she goes against everything he stands for, boy realizes he's attracted to girl but has been pushing her away due to unresolved intimacy issues his parents gave him, girl has no patience for boy's nonsense, girl marries boy kinds of things. You know?"
Bruce's face was scrunched up in confusion. "What?"
Alfred was glad someone had asked.
"You'll understand when you're older," Thomas sighed, then paused. "Actually I suppose ideally you won't. We haven't been giving you intimacy issues, have we?"
"I don't know what that is," Bruce said.
"Good! Probably good. You'd know if we had. Right?"
This last was directed toward Alfred, who nodded the universal nod of a man who had no idea what was happening.
"And what have we here?" asked Martha, accompanied by the familiar clicking of her heels. Everyone stiffened again, Thomas included. Thomas did not, however, attempt to hide the blade. His grin returned, and he turned to face his wife.
"Mr. Pennyworth was just in the middle of a fencing lesson," Thomas said, as if it were the most ordinary possible thing. Martha's eyebrow arched dangerously.
"And who told Mr. Pennyworth this was an acceptable subject?" Martha asked.
"He has my full approval," Thomas said, and it escaped no one's notice that this was not actually an answer.
"Really." The set of her mouth was a challenge in red.
"Is there a problem with that?" Thomas asked. The tip of the épée was now pointed toward the floor, and his posture suggested he was ready for a fight.
"I just don't understand why this is the first I've heard of it," Martha said. She'd come to a halt, her hands clasped behind her back in a pose deceptively open.
Bruce had started to shift toward Alfred, trying to decide if he was in trouble and should therefore hide behind him. Alfred was not deliberately hiding behind Thomas, but Thomas had made something of a shield of himself regardless. Alfred was trying to decide if they ought to leave—if this was the beginning of some kind of private marital dispute.
"It's not as if we discuss every decision," Thomas said, and yes, this felt like an old argument rearing its head.
"We do when it involves Bruce's health," Martha countered.
"In my professional medical opinion—"
"Oh, don't you start," she snapped. She took a deep breath, stood taller as she recovered from her fleeting loss of composure. "Mr. Pennyworth, we may be discussing this a while. Would you mind escorting Bruce to the library?"
"No," Thomas said immediately, turning to point his épée at Alfred. "Go have a seat on the balance beam, we'll have this sorted out in a minute."
"Will we?" Martha asked, equal parts incredulous and affronted. Alfred and Bruce inched awkwardly away, exchanging glances. Since Martha's ire was focused on her husband, they seemed to be in the clear. Though Bruce sat as instructed, Alfred remained standing. It felt more professional. "And how," Martha asked, "are we going to do that?"
Thomas grinned again, buoyant as ever, raised his épée in front of his face. "The old-fashioned way," he suggested.
Martha opened her mouth, then shut it again with a huff, putting her hands on her hips. It was difficult not to let that enthusiasm rub off on her. "If you're resorting to that, it's because you know you don't have a leg to stand on."
"You don't want to because you know I'll win," Thomas countered.
Martha's eyes were a cold green flame. "I'm not falling for that."
"Of course you're not," Thomas said, swishing the épée through the air with the same idle amusement Bruce had shown.
"Don't say that like you've proven something."
"I think I proved myself fine in Kansas City."
"I let you win," Martha said primly, a haughty tilt of her nose. "A more honest example would be Utah."
"Where I let you win," Thomas said easily.
Martha turned on her heel, but not to leave the room. Rather, it was to walk around her husband to retrieve her épée from her son. "You know what? Fine. If this is how you'd like to settle this, then let's settle it." Bruce surrendered it by holding it aloft with both hands, unnecessary gravitas that Martha rewarded with a bow of her head. Her acceptance of the challenge changed the mood of the room, no longer awkward but an odd excitement instead. Turned it from something they shouldn't have been watching to something meant to be watched.
"Do they do this sort of thing often?" he murmured to Bruce when she was out of earshot.
Bruce frowned. "No. I mean not with swords."
"If nothing else," Martha said, "I can remind you of how dangerous this can be." Neither of them had any intention of putting on protective gear, which Alfred thought set a bad example. Not that he was going to say anything. Martha was also not taking off her heels; Thomas did not protest, or even seem surprised by this. But then she passed the épée to her left hand.
She was not left-handed.
Thomas frowned. "Oh, so that's how we're going to play."
"We are," Martha said, haughty enough that one would never know it was her husband born to money.
"If you insist," Thomas said, passing his épée to his own non-dominant left hand.
"You really ought to let yourself have the advantage, darling," Martha said as she readied herself.
"Being better is all the advantage I need," he said, posture mirroring her own.
"You always were insufferable about this sort of thing," she said, neither of them yet moving.
"You're kind of into it, though," Thomas said with a wink. Beside Alfred, Bruce rolled his eyes, already bored. Then blades clashed, but only for a moment, exploratory.
"It is your least attractive quality," Martha said.
"I thought my sense of humor was my least attractive quality."
"That, too." Again a brief clash of their épées without progress.
"That's also what you said when I tried to grow a moustache."
"You have many equally unattractive qualities, and you'd do well to stop reminding me of them." This time, Martha advanced, forced her husband into a retreat though she did not manage to land a strike. Their forms were hardly orthodox, having abandoned such things once they'd left their college fencing days. There was something unmistakably piratical in the way Martha lunged, in the way Thomas dodged as often as he parried.
"Would you be less opposed to teaching him fencing if he were older?" Thomas asked, their blades still moving through the air.
"We'll have to see when he's older, won't we?"
"Can you clarify the grounds of your opposition?"
"Fencing," Martha said, only barely missing his waist, "is dangerous."
"Everything is dangerous," Thomas countered, and a trick of footwork put him on her other side, enough to give him the advantage and put her on the retreat. Her retreat seemed more risky than his had been, what with the heels. "We get him some gear and it will be safe as anything."
"Swordfighting is an inherently unsafe hobby," Martha said, "regardless of accoutrement. Martial arts are designed by their nature to be unsafe." She did not look at all out-of-sorts, but something in her face and the way she moved her wrist betrayed irritation.
"It's barely a martial art," Thomas said.
Martha got her arm away from his épée just in time. "Barely is not nothing."
"So your opposition is to martial arts as a concept?" It was as much a statement as a question, an accusation.
"There's no reason at all why Bruce should know how to fight." This was technically an answer, a response, and yet it broadened the argument into something so much larger than slender pieces of steel.
"Aren't you usually the one opposed to letting him grow up spoiled?" Thomas asked, as if only a brat could ever go through life without throwing a punch.
"Darling, this may have escaped your notice, but you are a very large man." Thomas nearly said something, but was silenced when he had to block Martha's épée. "I'm not finished," she chided, no longer retreating, a little more aggressive than she'd been. "You are a very large man, my father was a very large man, and your father was a very large man. No amount of inactivity is going to change the fact that our son will be a giant. If I'm going to raise a giant, Tommy, I would prefer to raise a gentle one."
There was something less amused in the lines of Thomas' eyebrows. "You raise an interesting point. May I raise another?"
"I'm rarely opposed to you raising a point," she said, unable to help a moment of flirtation. Alfred glanced at Bruce, but of course the innuendo went over his head. He was absorbed in watching steel against steel.
Thomas switched his épée back to his right hand, putting Martha at a sudden disadvantage. "Why are you assuming our son is going to be a bully?" he asked. Even more a disadvantage when for the briefest split-second Martha glanced at Bruce, Alfred doing the same. Bruce did not seem to recognize what was being implied. Martha only barely managed to recover, her retreat a backward stumble and her parry lacking its usual flourish.
"Don't you dare," she said, furious. "Don't you dare. I am not the bad guy here."
"I never said that," Thomas said, his nonchalance an alarming affectation.
"Violence is a hammer and there are no good nails, it's a habit I don't want him to have."
"We've drifted a bit from the original point," Thomas said, and he wasn't wrong. "This is fencing. It's chess with sticks. We've had dinners more violent than this."
"That's not saying much," Martha said, droll in a way that did not suit her frantic avoidance of a strike.
"This is as far removed from violence as a martial art can get," Thomas persisted. "It's fencing, not boxing."
Alfred had thought the same thing, but he would never dared have said it. Thomas must have known the effect he'd have, but he didn't look at all alarmed. Without missing a beat, Martha switched hands, and even Thomas' rapid retreat had that forced air of nonchalance about it. Distancing himself with indifference, his emotional range seemed to bottom out at boredom.
"Don't say it like boxing is some clumsy, oafish thing," Martha said, careful enunciation on every word. "Swords were made for killing, boxing gloves were not. A good boxer is an artist, a dancer, a good boxer is disciplined and doesn't waste punches and knows when to quit. I'm aware that I'm straying from the point again, but your point was poorly made and I will not tolerate such poor performance."
"Let's put fencing and boxing on equal ground, then," Thomas suggested. She'd been backing him into a corner, but he maneuvered himself away, they were at an impasse and they both still looked flawless. It was deeply unfair. "Wouldn't it be good to teach him discipline? To know when to quit? Nothing's more dangerous than a man who doesn't know what he's doing."
"I don't believe that you'd considered any of this," Martha accused. "I think you're making excuses for a decision you already made because you'll take any chance you can find to try and make Bruce more like you."
"Do you not want him to be like me?" It was hard to follow what happened when he said that, Martha taking an unexpected step sideways and back, Thomas following as much as leading. It was hardly a legal maneuver, but Thomas had his épée at his wife's throat, while she'd pointed the tip of hers to the floor, her chin held high.
"I surrender," she said, and her posture left no doubt that she'd allowed herself to be caught.
Thomas blinked. "Really?" he asked, surprised. Back to his more usual tone of voice, good-natured and boisterous with a hint of befuddlement. It was shocking how far it had drifted into something cold and academic, not as noticeable until he was himself again. "Are you sure? I thought we were just getting to the fun part." Martha rolled her eyes. "Why did we ever stop doing this?" Thomas asked, bringing his face close to hers. Bruce made another face of disgust, sticking out his tongue and scrunching up his nose. Half as a joke, Alfred put a hand in front of Bruce's eyes. He seemed to appreciate it.
Martha turned her head to look pointedly in the direction of Bruce and Alfred. "I got pregnant."
Thomas turned to look as well, to where Alfred was shielding their son from the scandalous display of affection. "Ah. Yes. Good point." Thomas stepped away, then, gave his wife more breathing room as he offered to take her épée. She handed it to him with the attitude of a gracious victor.
"Regardless of your victory," Martha said, "I won't have him fencing until he has the appropriate gear."
"What gear?" Bruce asked, pulling Alfred's hand out of the way and looking above it at his mother.
Martha smiled, dazzling as ever. "Brucie, dear, you need protective gear if you're going to fence," she explained.
"You didn't wear anything special," Bruce pointed out.
"That's because we're grown-ups," Martha said, as if that was the rule. "Think of it like armor! You can be my little knight." She clasped her hands, seeming to relish the thought. Thomas was busying himself putting equipment away.
"How am I supposed to do backflips in armor?" Bruce asked, his brow furrowed over his frown.
"Backflips?" Thomas asked, baffled. "Who told you there would be backflips?"
"Mr. Pennyworth," Bruce said, and Alfred tried not to be annoyed with the boy. "He said he'd show me how to do backflips like him."
"I presented it as a possible outcome, with enough practice," Alfred said. Mostly he had implied the backflips. He thought. It was difficult to recall, when it had been such a trivial little lie.
Thomas came up behind Martha, rested an arm over her shoulders. "You know you have to tell me if you used to be a pirate, Mr. Pennyworth," he said. Martha was amused, of course, knowing what she did and what Thomas did not.
"Nothing so interesting as that," Alfred assured him, his sheepishness only a little fake. "I took a lot of extracurriculars unrelated to my chosen vocation." If they could fence in college, so could he. His backstory included college.
"But now it's related!" Thomas said, enthused. "Isn't it fun how that worked out?" His sincerity was terrifying.
"You know, Bruce, doesn't your friend Andrea take gymnastics?" Martha asked. "Maybe you could join her."
"Andrea hates gymnastics," Bruce said, sullen as he stood. "She says it's hard and boring." The way he said it made it sound as though he'd been the one forced to endure it.
"Maybe it will be less boring if it's the two of you."
"Are you trying to tempt him away from fencing already?" Thomas asked, dramatically suspicious.
"Not at all!" Martha insisted. "I'm only saying that if Bruce is interested in learning how to play Errol Flynn, classes are only three days a week. He can carpool with Mr. Beaumont, spend more time out of the house. Aren't you the one that wants him to get more exercise?"
Thomas' suspicion remained. "Gymnastics can be much more dangerous than fencing, just so you know."
"We can discuss this later," she said, patting his hand. "Right now I think we need to get cleaned up, since we seem to have gotten a bit… sweaty." She lifted his hand to drop his arm off of her, turning to leave. Despite her claims, she did not look capable of sweating. Her heels clicked as she left, same as they'd clicked coming in, even her skirt still neatly starched.
Thomas enjoyed watching her go a little too much, entirely distracted from the other people in the room. Then he turned back to them with almost surprise. "Right. Yes. Mr. Pennyworth, get a suit ordered in Bruce's size, I need to go clean my wife." He turned to leave, then paused. "Clean myself," he corrected. "With my wife." His exit kept getting interrupted, his thought processes all tangled. "Adjacent to. Hm."
Bruce was making another face as his father left. "They're going to go do gross kissing stuff," he informed Alfred with disdain.
Alfred sighed. "Gross."
Chapter 8: Being Green
Martha and Thomas were curled together on the loveseat in the den when Bruce came in. He was covered, head to toe, in dirt. It looked like he'd been rolling in it. In his hands was a small wooden chest with brass fittings, dirt and wear all conspiring to make it look much older than it was. His footprints stained the rug, and when he had decided he was close enough, he turned the chest in his hands upside-down. The lid flopped open after only a second's delay, and little metal stars plated gold cascaded to the floor. It formed a pile at his feet, looking much more impressive because he was small and gave a poor sense of scale.
Bruce Wayne had inherited his mother's flair for the dramatic, and she was delighted despite the dry cleaning bills.
"What are your demands?" Thomas asked seriously. If Martha would let him grow a moustache, he'd have stroked it.
Bruce very clearly considered dropping the chest, before setting it down carefully on the floor instead. Dramatic, but still meticulous. He'd never go so far as to risk it breaking. Then he stood as tall as he could manage, crossing his arms over his chest. It was not as intimidating as he wanted it to be. "I want a new frog."
"Oh, Lord," Martha said, a roll of her eyes as she lifted her book back up. "This is all you, Tommy-love."
Thomas sighed. He surveyed the glinting pile of treasures on the floor. "Fifty?" he asked. He knew he wouldn't need to check. His son was, after all, meticulous.
"Fifty-two," Bruce corrected.
"What are the extra two for?"
Thomas squinted, cocked his head to the side as he did the mental math. "You're assuming a four-percent tax on frogs?" he asked, and Bruce's posture faltered. "… what do you think taxes are?"
Bruce's arms dropped. "Tax is why toys cost more than they say they will?" he said, uncertain now in his own answer. Martha, still reading, snorted.
"That's…" Thomas rubbed a hand over his face. "Well, he's not wrong, is he? Bruce, why would I make you pay a tax on your frog?"
Bruce frowned. "Because I'm going to be a grown-up soon."
"Grown-ups do pay taxes," Martha noted.
Bruce was very good at being not technically wrong.
"You're not going to be a grown-up that soon," Thomas said. "No taxes."
Bruce hesitated, then knelt down to carefully put two of the gold stars back into the chest, latching it shut with small precise fingers. Thomas checked the time on his wristwatch. "What do you think?" he asked his wife. "Should I get this over with?"
"You may as well," Martha said.
Rex's Reptiles was not Bruce's favorite store—that was still White's Books—but it was very high up there. On stepping inside, he'd immediately gone to the glass enclosure belonging to Monty the monitor lizard. Monty was not for sale, a fact for which Thomas was grateful. He liked to think he'd be capable of telling his son he couldn't have a lizard bigger than he was, but he didn't want to test it.
"Uh-oh," said Rex, standing behind the counter. "Did something happen to Carl?"
"Carl is fine!" Bruce said, still watching Monty's every move. "I take good care of him."
"That's what you said about Leonard," Rex said, and Bruce pouted.
"That was an accident," Bruce insisted.
"He's still very sensitive about it," Thomas said. "We've all learned an important lesson about bringing frogs to parties."
"Frogs don't like people parties," Rex agreed. "What are you here for?"
"I want a new frog," Bruce said, finally leaving Monty to look at the other enclosures.
"Thinking another tree frog?" Rex suggested. That would be the easiest thing, something he could put into one of the enclosures they already had.
"Maybe." Bruce had a serious frown on his face as he considered a scorpion. Large insects and arachnids cost more than frogs because Thomas liked having them in the house even less. This had the unexpected side effect of making Bruce treasure them more.
He'd named the tarantula Nancy. It was enormous. It gave Thomas the creeps. Bruce loved it. Bruce was admiring snakes again. Thomas drew the line at snakes. Even being around so many snakes was more than he would have found ideal. Fatherhood was hard.
Bruce's first frog had been found in the garden. He'd put it in a jar with a twig and a leaf. It hadn't lasted long. Bringing him to a specialized pet store had been meant as a learning experience, because Thomas had somehow not anticipated his son wanting all of them.
The tarantulas. The snakes. The fat, ugly toads. Martha had found it completely predictable. Thomas had never gone through a phase of liking creepy things, and so it had all come as a terrible surprise.
"What's this?" Bruce asked, pointing at one of the newer enclosures. Inside it was, inevitably, the ugliest frog that Thomas had ever seen in his entire life. It looked like a slimy hamburger bun with eyes, or maybe some kind of swollen and rotting cucumber.
"Lepidobatrachus laevis," Rex told him. "Budgett's frog, or hippo frog, or Freddy Krueger frog."
"Freddy Krueger frog?" Thomas asked with some dismay.
"Freddy Krueger frog?" Bruce asked at the exact same time, eyes all alight with interest.
"They've got long fingers," Rex explained. "And they scream."
"You're kidding." Thomas was morbidly curious even as he was horrified.
"Oh, yeah," Rex said, clearly enthused. He came out from behind the counter, all lank and muscle beneath long hair and piercings and tattoos. Very much the opposite of Thomas, clean-cut in every way that a person could be.
Thomas liked Rex. He was always polite, and he was nice to Bruce. He liked to think that Rex liked him, but Thomas generally liked to be liked.
"Here, watch this," said Rex, opening the top of the enclosure to reach inside. He gave the frog a gentle poke on the back. It puffed up, growing taller. Rex poked it again. The frog began to scream. It sounded like a toy baby being murdered while low on batteries. It was completely horrifying. Bruce was enthralled.
"That," Thomas said, "is the worst thing I've ever seen in my life. And I'm a surgeon."
Rex laughed, a boisterous thing that revealed the split in his tongue. "They can be tricky to take care of," he warned Bruce. "They need to be kept alone, you need to have heat lamps and water filters, at full size you have to feed them mice—"
"Mice?" Bruce repeated, this time a hint of horror.
"Mice," Rex confirmed. "They'll eat your other frogs, if you let them. That's why they're not very popular."
"They're not?" Bruce asked, looking back to the hideous screaming frog. Thomas knew this was the exact wrong thing to dissuade him.
"Not around here, at least," Rex said. "Not everyone shares our appreciation for slime."
Bruce frowned at the frog, and Thomas knew that they'd be taking the hideous screaming lump home. Bruce could never say no to something no one else wanted.
He got that from his dad.
"We'll take it," Thomas sighed. "How much will it be to just…" Thomas gestured vaguely to the setup.
"If you don't mind waiting until Wednesday, I can install a new tank and get him all moved in for you." Rex was, appearances aside, a consummate professional. Thomas appreciated that about him. "It'll give me a chance to check on the rest, take care of anything else you might need."
"Sounds… great." Thomas was having difficulty mustering enthusiasm at the prospect.
"Great!" Either Rex didn't notice Thomas' discomfort, or he was ignoring it. He offered his hand for a shake, before looking down at Bruce. "My T-Rex is done," he informed him.
Bruce went wide-eyed. "Can I see?" he asked. Thomas cleared his throat. "May I see?" Bruce corrected.
Rex knelt down to Bruce-level and pushed up his sleeve to reveal the finished artwork on his arm. It was no mere dinosaur adorning his skin; this was a dinosaur in an old sci-fi movie spacesuit, bubble helmet and all, floating through a blue and purple depiction of space.
"Awesome," Bruce said, with a genuine sense of awe that the word no longer encompassed.
"I'm getting one of Monty next," Rex said, and Bruce nodded his approval.
"It's rare to see someone who enjoys his work as much as you do," Thomas said, and Rex grinned, stuck out the split tip of his tongue to dramatic—and demonic—effect.
"Lizards are my thing, man," Rex said as he stood. "Destiny. It's even in my name." He tapped the dinosaur on his arm.
Thomas considered this. "Or it could mean you were meant for politics," he suggested.
Rex shrugged. "Nah," he said, dismissive. "Definitely dinosaurs."
As they left the store, Thomas hoisted his son into the air, placing him on his shoulders.
"Mom says you shouldn't do that," Bruce scolded, holding on despite that. "She says you're going to hurt yourself."
"Pshaw," Thomas said. Bruce was small for his age, even if all signs pointed toward that changing.
"I'm going to be big when I grow up," Bruce reminded him. "Then you won't be able to pick me up."
"The hell I won't," Thomas said, holding on to his son's legs to keep him steady.
"Even when I'm ten?"
"When I'm twelve?"
"I'll throw you in the air if I want to."
"What about when I'm thirty?" Bruce pressed, which must have seemed impossibly old to an eight year-old. He probably imagined thirty as looking white-haired and feeble.
"I'll pick you up at your own wedding and make you do the whole ceremony from my shoulders," Thomas declared, making Bruce laugh. "Your mom will have to carry whoever you're marrying, of course, since you'll be too tall otherwise."
"Mom wouldn't do that!" Bruce protested.
"True. This might present a problem. Maybe we can get them a ladder."
"Maybe Alfred can carry them," Bruce suggested.
"Now there's an idea," Thomas agreed. "How are those fencing lessons going, anyway?"
Bruce sighed dramatically, small hands resting on his father's head as he read the signs on passing stores. "Boring," he said morosely. "He still hasn't taught me any cool stuff."
"How about that gym thing, with your friend?"
"That's boring, too. We just fall down a lot."
"It can't be that bad."
"It sounds more fun in books," Bruce said. "Books should have to say that you have to run away and fall down a lot before you get to do anything cool."
"If they warned people, no one would ever try to do anything cool."
"Maybe," Bruce said, dubious.
Thomas looked at the street signs of their intersection and checked his watch. "Hey, Brucie," he said, his tone conspiratorial. "What would you say if I said we don't have to go home just yet?"
Bruce leaned down over his father's head. "Where are we going?" he asked, barely controlled excitement as his mind raced through all the best possibilities.
"That depends," Thomas said. "Can you keep a secret?"
Bruce nodded solemnly. "I'm the best at keeping secrets."
"And then where did Daddy take you?" Martha asked, resting her chin on her palms. Bruce was engrossed in stirring his hot cocoa, pushing little squares of gourmet marshmallow beneath the surface to watch them melt. They were in what Martha called the tea room, though really it was one of many little rooms whose original function had been forgotten. It had pretty floral wallpaper and a cute dining set, and a lovely view of the roses out front.
"We went to the movies," Bruce said. "It was on Truman Street, between two bakeries." Intermittently in the telling of a story he would shut his eyes to recall specific details, and it always made her smile to see him do it. "One was called Eastern Bakery and the other was called Lucky King. The theater just said wuxia on the front. The only soda they had was in cans and it was kind of warm but I didn't want to say anything. The guy at the front counter was named Willy and he had really little ears and instead of two front teeth he just had one big one in the middle." Bruce grabbed one of the square marshmallows, and impaled it on his front teeth. "Like dish," he said.
"That sounds amazing," Martha assured her son. He licked the marshmallow off his teeth so he could eat it.
"It was," he agreed. "The movie was called The Master of the Flying Guillotine."
Martha sighed. "Of course it was. The one with the silly hat?"
"After all his complaining about murder books," she said with a roll of her eyes.
Bruce's nose wrinkled thoughtfully. "Those are more realistic, though," he offered in his father's defense.
"Are they?" she asked. Bruce nodded. "Did you not like the movie, then?"
"It was good," Bruce said mildly, as if he hadn't left the theater pretending to throw flying guillotines at passers-by. "It was just a little silly. I think there should have been more blood, to be more realistic."
"A reasonable complaint."
"And it was kind of mean how the guy said he was just going to kill all the one-armed guys. If you only have one arm you're already having a bad day." He was leaning forward on the table with both elbows, holding his mug by the handle and looking for all the world like a very old man drinking very bad coffee in a very old diner.
Martha attempted to subtly cover her mouth with one hand so he wouldn't see her trying not to laugh. He was, she could tell, completely serious.
"Oh!" Bruce put his mug down. "But after the movie, Dad took me to the Eastern Bakery—I said I wanted to go, because it looked old and kind of ugly and I thought it must have really good food to still be open."
"Good deductive reasoning."
Bruce beamed. "They had papers all over the windows and the walls in Chinese—I think it was Chinese—and the menu was really big." He liked to talk with his hands, gestures to indicate sizes and shapes and turning his body to represent different people speaking. "Dad asked what I wanted, but I didn't know, and then a lady came out of the back with something on a tray and I said I wanted that because I wanted to know what it was but I didn't want to ask. The lady had her eyebrows connected like that painting—Frida Kahlo?" He pressed a finger between his brows, and Martha nodded. "Yeah, her—and I wanted to tell her I thought it looked cool but I was being shy. But Mom. That stuff. Was so. Good." He patted his hands on the table for emphasis. "It was the best. I asked what it was called because I knew you would want to know what it was, and she said it was jian dui." He took his time saying it, having clearly practiced to get the pronunciation right.
"It was so good, Mom. Can Chef Sofia make them? They were these hard ball things but then they were chewy and they had this black goo on the inside and it was like eating a weird alien egg and they were so good. I want them for my birthday. Like a ball pit, except full of jian duis. They'd be hot, though, so people might get burns. We would have to put a sign up not to jump in the ball pit because it's actually hot food. Because what if someone jumped in there, and he got all the hot goo on him, and it was so hot all his skin came off, and we had to go to jail because he had no skin. That would be a terrible birthday. It would be gross and all the food would be ruined."
"Perhaps we could serve the jian dui on plates," Martha suggested delicately, "rather than in a pit."
"That would probably be safer," Bruce agreed with a nod. "Then if someone gets covered in jian duis and his skin falls off we'll know he did it on purpose."
Martha tapped a fingernail against the table as her son sipped at his cocoa. "Bruce," she said finally, "why exactly would someone want to burn all of his skin off at your birthday party?"
Bruce set his mug down, going cross-eyed as he tried to lick marshmallow foam from the tip of his nose. "So he can sue us for ten million dollars, and then use it to buy better skin. Like. Snake skin. Or a robot body. And then he'll rob banks, and the police will say, this is impossible because no one could have done this without having a robot snake body. It'll be the perfect crime. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for the… meddling kid. The one meddling kid. Me. And you helped, too, Mom."
"Well thank goodness you were here to stop it from ever happening," Martha said, and Bruce beamed again.
"Why was I not supposed to tell you about the movie?" he asked.
"Because your father is silly," she said, "and thinks I'll be angry with him."
"So he lies?"
"Everyone lies," she said, lest he think poorly of his father. "Sometimes adults think that secrets make things special. He wanted to have a special day with you, that's all."
Bruce's eyebrows furrowed, already formidable things. "Did I make it not special?"
"Does it feel like you did?"
"Not really," he admitted.
"You had a good day?"
"It was a great day. It was the best. I want to go back, and I want to eat all of the everythings. All of the stuff that they have. And I want to learn how to say everything so I know how to ask for stuff and I can watch the movie without having to read the whole time."
"Good," she said, smiling as she watched his constant movement, never still for a second. "I'm glad."
Nothing made her happier than when her boys were together.
"What's your schedule for tomorrow?" she prompted as he tipped his cup upside-down into his mouth, trying to get the thick chocolate sludge that had collected at the bottom.
"I'll check," he said, even though she was sure he knew. He always brought his bag with him to the tea room, a brown leather satchel carefully chosen for its adventurous aesthetic. He mostly used it to carry his pens, and impractically tiny notebooks from various bookstores. He pulled out a notebook not much bigger than his hand, with a picture of a bird stamped on the front. Flipping through it to find the page he wanted, he squinted at it. It was a child's approximation of a planner, little more than a date and a list of activities with half the times chosen at random. "I have fencing, and violin, and I found a book about a cat who talks to ghosts so I'm going to read it and write a book report."
"No," Bruce said, reminding her in that moment of the world's tiniest accountant. "I just like to have structure."
Martha pressed her lips together, covering her mouth again. "I see."
"That will probably take most of the day."
"I have something for violin tomorrow," she announced, reaching into her own purse. She pulled out a toy pipe, a long stem in faux-wood plastic designed to blow bubbles. His eyes widened; he picked it up, and blew experimental bubbles through it. Then he set it down, looked through his bag again until he found his worn-out hand-me-down deerstalker. He put it on his head, then picked the pipe up and began blowing bubbles with an intense expression on his face.
"The catch," Martha warned, "is that except for right now, you're not allowed to use it unless you're practicing violin."
Bruce puffed bubbles through his pipe, practicing holding it in his teeth. "Do I look like a great detective?" he asked, rolling his shoulders back and trying to sit tall.
She smiled. "None greater."
Chapter 9: This Little Piggy
There was a dead pig on the kitchen floor. A whole, refrigerated, dead pig, split down the middle with the head still on. Alfred stared, uncomprehending, at the snout.
"Now, all I need," Thomas said, "is for you to help me get this thing up on the slab here." He'd stripped down to his undershirt, which made him look very much the part of a meatpacker—or a blacksmith.
"I… see..." Alfred said weakly.
"It's not as heavy as it looks," Thomas assured him, which was a fine thing to say with biceps that must have been the size of Alfred's head. "Just a bit unwieldy, that's all. The back end ought to be lighter, you can take care of that."
Together, Thomas taking the front hooves and Alfred taking the back, they hoisted the porcine corpse onto the steel countertop. It was just a little too much like dealing with a non-porcine corpse.
"It's a lot like a real dead body, isn't it?" Thomas asked, resting his arm on the pig's shoulder and leaning on the counter. Alfred froze. "Wait, what am I saying?" He laughed. "Sorry, sometimes I forget not everyone's been through medical school. You've probably never had to dissect a human body."
Right. Surgeon. That was all he meant. "I most certainly have not," Alfred lied.
"Right, right." Thomas opened a drawer, and pulled out an enormous meatsaw.
Alfred took a slow step backward when he wasn't looking.
"You don't have a weak stomach, do you Mr. Pennyworth?" Thomas asked. "We haven't had many chances to talk, so..."
"I, uh." Alfred cleared his throat. "Mr. Wayne, why is there a hog in here?"
"Oh, I used to just get the useful stuff," Thomas said, as he positioned the saw over the pig's neck. "But this way's cheaper per pound, anyway, and Martha likes having all those spare parts." He started to saw.
Alfred averted his gaze from the other man's arms and attempted to look casual about it. "I was asking more generally, sir, if I may."
Thomas laughed again, baritone over the sound of metal through bone. "It might be a weird hobby for a surgeon, butchery," he admitted, "but better here than in the hospital, eh?" The sawing stopped as the pig's head came away from its body, and Thomas held it up by one ear to look at it. "There's actually some good meat on the head, you know. Kind of a waste." He tossed it up enough to catch it by the neck, holding it out to look at its face. "Alas, poor Yoroink."
Despite himself, Alfred groaned.
"That's how I know it's a good one," Thomas said, pointing the saw at Alfred with a waggle of his eyebrows. Then he tossed the pig's head into a metal tub a few feet away. "There's just something about charcuterie I like," he said, setting the saw down and pulling apart the split corpse into two halves. "Making your own bacon, turning organs into sausage." It looked like the organs had been removed and then put back by whoever had processed the pig. "Can you bring that tub over here?" Thomas asked, pointing at the one he'd tossed the head into. "Sofia gets pissy when I get stuff all over the floor."
Alfred complied, though it was large enough to be awkward. Sliding it would have been easier, but might have scuffed the floors. Heaven forbid.
The organs Thomas wanted were set aside into bowls, future pate and sausage skin. Others—like the heart—got tossed in with the head.
He picked up a large cleaver and slipped the blade between muscle and bone, slicing it in neat lines, all the precision one would expect from a surgeon and none that anyone would anticipate with a cleaver. "It's nice to know that, if all else fails, you can still take a dead thing and make something useful out of it."
"Feeding your family at the end of the world," Alfred suggested.
"Something like that," Thomas agreed, pulling thick sheaves of lard out of the pig with his bare hands. "Martha'd have to be the one getting the pigs, though."
"Not much for hunting, sir?"
"No, god no," Thomas laughed. "My father liked hunting, but I never cared for it." He paused in the middle of tearing out the tenderloins he'd cut. "Well. I say that, but he didn't really like hunting so much as he liked getting drunk in the woods and beating the shit out of me for being a sissy."
It was hard to know how to respond to that.
"Sorry," Thomas said. "Was I oversharing?" He pulled at the pig's leg to pop the joint with a crack.
"Not at all, sir."
"You can tell me if I am." He slammed the cleaver down to cut the limb away from the body. "It's a bad habit." He picked up the separated leg to admire it. "Hello, next year's Christmas ham." He set it aside in his growing collection of usable parts.
"I cannot help but wonder, Mr. Wayne, what possible use Mrs. Wayne could have for these... parts."
"Oh, one of her little hobbies," Thomas said, moving on to the other half of the pig and the other leg. "She used to be in forensic chemistry, you know—I don't think we ever told you that."
"You didn't, sir."
"She liked all that kind of thing, how bodies rot and so on. Really, it's no wonder Bruce is such a little weirdo." He cracked the other leg joint. "I mean that in the best way, of course, wouldn't want him any other way."
"Of course, sir."
"Comes by it honest." Again the cleaver came down. "Anyway. Martha likes running experiments, still, and pigs make a decent human analogue." Thomas held up the other leg. "Hello, prosciutto." He kissed the skin of it before setting it aside.
That hint of something unpleasant in the air out by the greenhouse.
"She has a body farm."
Thomas' eyebrows shot up. "You've heard of those?"
"I saw a documentary, once."
The cleaver sliced at flank, but didn't cut it away just yet. "It's a little like one of those," Thomas admitted. "You know, our first date was at a body farm? That big one down in Texas. Not that I meant for it to be a date, at the time—you know how it goes."
Alfred did not. "Of course, sir."
Thomas had switched back to the saw for the lower half of the pig's spine. "Never did find out why she needed to see a vulture-picked corpse so bad. Kind of a weird emergency to have, in retrospect." He cut the skin away from the parts he'd separated, tossed it into the tub. "I'm rambling, sorry."
"Not at all, sir."
"How are things going with you?" He counted down ribs and started sawing again.
"With me, sir?"
"Sure! How's the house treating you, Bruce and Martha and all that."
"Things seem to be going well," Alfred said cautiously.
"Bruce is getting the hang of those fencing lessons," he said as he switched back to the cleaver to cut the last of the skin holding the shoulder to the back and belly. "He's growing on you, isn't he?"
"Yes, sir." Like a mold.
"I told you he would." Again the saw for the other half of the pig. "Martha seems to be getting more use out of you than she expected."
"I suppose that she is."
"Your new obsession?"
"Oh, I'm not accusing you of anything," Thomas assured him. It would have been more reassuring without the saw. "I'm just wondering if that's your new thing, you know. Helping her out with those side projects."
"I'm not sure that I really have a thing, sir."
"Really?" He looked surprised as he started sawing out the rack of ribs, splitting babyback from spareribs. "Huh."
"Is that a problem, sir?"
"No, no. Just a little weird, is all. I know you used to have that trouble with gambling. Usually at the clinic when we see someone with that sort of addictive personality who's recovered, it's because they subsumed it. You know, replaced it with something harmless. We've got a woman who comes into meetings, she clips coupons now. Never pays more than ten dollars for a cart full of groceries, it's remarkable."
"I suppose I've just been so busy with everything I haven't found the time for a new obsession."
"Oh, absolutely. No two people are alike, besides. You want to start wrapping up everything but the back legs for me? Once I get these spareribs off we'll have the bacon, best for last." He still hadn't used any knife but his cleaver. Alfred grabbed the butcher paper to do as he'd been asked. "Well. I say that, but I really prefer the prosciutto. Did that one first. Not always good at delayed gratification. Have you been going to any meetings? Really easy to relapse without a support network."
This was seeming more and more like an interrogation. Alfred focused on wrapping muscle and bone in neat paper and twine. "Mrs. Wayne has been very helpful with regard to my... idiosyncrasies."
"Aaah, has she now."
"Has she spoken to you about it, sir?" Alfred asked. A straightforward man, not a simple man.
Thomas laughed. "Oh, no. If I need to know about it, she tells me. If I don't, she doesn't. And if I shouldn't, she doesn't. Know what I mean?"
"I think so, sir."
"Good." Thomas surveyed the disassembled pig with satisfaction. Then he considered the blade, his reflection in the heavy steel smeared with fat. "Martha—she's a scalpel of a woman. You're not a surgeon and she's not your wife, so you're going to have to take my word for it that the metaphor's a good one." He tossed the cleaver up, let it twirl before catching the handle again. "But you can get a lot done with a cleaver, if you put your mind to it."
Thomas hung up the prosciutto from the month before, wrapped in cheesecloth. The legs from earlier sat in salt boxes, replacing their older counterparts. The curing room was in the back of the wine cellar, cold and smelling of the right kinds of mold. Meats hung from the ceiling, cheeses stacked along the walls.
"I think this one should be ready," Thomas said, taking another one down. "Don't you think?"
"I'll have to take your word for it, sir." Alfred accepted the enormous hunk of meat as Thomas dropped it into his hands.
"Good man. Now, if we're doing olives I'd say we're going to want this parm, but if we're doing pears I'd say the Saint-Marcellin will be better. Which do you think?"
"I was never good at those kinds of decisions, sir."
"Good idea—we should do both." He grabbed two of the small wooden molds, and dropped them on top of the prosciutto in Alfred's arms. He tried, precariously, to keep them balanced. "Alright, now, to drink—any strong opinions?"
"What does Mr. Beaumont enjoy?" Alfred asked as he followed Thomas to the tall wine racks.
"Oh, no, this isn't for him," Thomas said, pulling bottles out enough to check the labels. "Kids don't drink, Martha doesn't drink. This is for us." He gestured between himself and Alfred.
"I couldn't possibly, sir," Alfred protested.
"Don't tell me you were an alcoholic."
"No, Mr. Wayne. It would only be... improper. I couldn't possibly."
"Pffft." Thomas checked a label, then pulled the wine off the rack entirely to get a better look at it. "That's old world thinking. Welcome to America, have some wine. How about a Madeira?" He turned it around so that Alfred could see it: Reverza Malvazia, 1875. It had to be worth several hundred dollars, if not an outright thousand.
"I really must protest," Alfred said. "That's a bottle for a special occasion."
"In that case, I really must insist." Thomas kept the bottle in his hand as he lead the way out of the cellar.
"May I ask the occasion, sir?"
"Being alive," he said. "Owning expensive wine, wanting to drink expensive wine. My prosciutto, that's an occasion right there." He held the door open for Alfred so that he could get through with his armful of goods. "Rainy days are bullshit, Mr. Pennyworth."
"I've not lived in Gotham long, Mr. Wayne, but I believe you've been wrong three times in the last week." Thomas laughed. "But I suppose I catch your meaning."
"You know my father had this bottle of Château Lafite, my great-grandfather bought this wine, god knows what he paid for it in today's dollars." Thomas unloaded the food onto the counter, a different one than the one he'd used earlier for butchering. "My father said it was half a million, I don't know if I believe that but he said it." He got a knife, not a cleaver this time, a long thin blade halfway to a sword. "Any time I did anything—valedictorian, honor society, summa cum laude, anything like that—he'd get that bottle of wine out."
Thomas owned a special frame to hold the leg of prosciutto, unsurprising from a man who took cured meats as seriously as he seemed to. "He'd go through the whole speech, I could probably recite it by heart if I wanted, about how old this wine was and how expensive it was, how his father and his father's father had held onto this wine waiting for the perfect moment to drink it. It got older every time, you know that? The Founding Fathers drank this wine, this wine came over on the Mayflower, Columbus drank this wine, they smuggled this wine out of the Vatican after it was left over at the Last Supper." He sliced a strip of skin away in one long, quick stroke, setting it aside as inedible.
"Same thing, every time, but you know I always got my hopes up? Still, ended the same way: someday, the moment would come to open that wine, and we'd know. We'd just know." Another quick stroke and there was a strip of prosciutto so thin it was transparent. "Then he'd wait a minute, and he'd say: not yet. Let's get some Champagne. Which sounds nice enough if you don't know that he thought Champagne was garbage." Another slice of prosciutto, and he set the blade down to offer it to Alfred. He accepted the delicate thing as graciously as he could, tearing just from being held on his fingers.
Thomas ate his own slice, and practically melted as it sat on his tongue. "Mmmph. God, that's good." He leaned on the counter on his elbows. "I've outdone myself."
Alfred was more subdued. "It's very good, sir," he assured Thomas.
"I know I'm excessive," he sighed. "It's only out of self-defense that I'm a hedonist. I'm a very weak man, Mr. Pennyworth. Where was I?" He stood to get his corkscrew.
"Right, right. So after the old man dies, I do the obvious thing and I open the wine." He drove the screw into the cork of the most expensive wine Alfred had ever shared a room with. "I figure, I'm going to drink that whole bottle and take the world's most expensive piss. You know how that wine tasted?"
"I can't imagine, sir."
Thomas pulled the cork out of the bottle with a pop. "Like shit. Complete garbage. Bring me those glasses, will you? That wine was the worst thing I've ever put in my mouth, and that's saying something. I went to Yale. I was in a fraternity. Saying this wine tasted like piss would be an insult to piss, and I'm not going to tell you how I know that."
"I appreciate your discretion, sir," Alfred said as Thomas poured the wine.
"That wine was only meant to age about fifty years, it was old before a Wayne ever touched it. That wasn't a wine for drinking, that was a wine for owning. I couldn't even finish a glass, I poured the rest of the bottle out on his grave. My mother thought it was a sweet gesture." He picked up his glass to inhale before drinking, and Alfred did the same.
"They say the best revenge is living well, sir."
"They do, don't they?" Thomas took a thoughtful sip, and again Alfred followed suit.
It was a very good wine. Nutty, buttery, fruity.
"I like you, Alfred." Thomas set his glass down, and set about slicing more prosciutto.
"Glad to hear it, Mr. Wayne."
"Did you leave anyone behind, coming out here? Family, friends?"
"No, sir." Alfred took another sip of his wine.
Alfred Pennyworth was meant to be a butler from a long line of butlers. Two younger sisters.
It was a shitty cover, anyway.
"Well, it all worked out, didn't it?" Thomas said, moving on to slicing out wedges of cheese. "You've got us now."
Alfred should have been taking his time savoring his glass. "Yes, sir."
"That probably seems hasty of me."
"It's fine, sir."
"I told you, I like you. My wife likes you, my son likes you. Give it time, you'll see. Pour yourself another glass." He got pears and a container of olives out of the fridge.
"I probably shouldn't, sir."
"Pour another glass anyway, Ms. Singh's going to want one."
Alfred looked over his shoulder, surprised. Myra waved from where she stood in the doorway.
"The maids in this house are like cats," Thomas informed him, as Alfred got another wine glass. "You know the way they swarm when they hear a can opener?"
"I'm not a maid, I'm a housekeeper," Myra corrected, taking the glass Alfred had poured for her.
"My mistake! You're a totally different name for an employee that keeps me from living in my own filth."
"He spoils us," Myra informed Alfred as she lifted the glass to her mouth.
"Ms. Singh is the scout, because she's shameless."
"It's true, I am."
"She comes first, then Ms. Leng, then Ms. Rodriguez, then Mrs. Johnson, then Mr. Reynolds. After that it's a free-for-all."
"Sofia would be in here first," Thomas added, "but the sight of what I do to the butcher block gives her fits."
"Enjoying the wine?" Myra asked Alfred.
"Enormously. I'm very grateful for your generosity, Mr. Wayne."
Thomas scoffed, arranging cheese and meat and fruit and olives into something attractive. "Sharing keeps me civilized, keeps me from drinking the whole thing straight out of the bottle."
"He still makes us leave him an inch at the bottom," Myra said to Alfred, conspiratorial.
"Well. You have to let me drink some of it out of the bottle. Otherwise what's the point?"
Bruce nearly tripped Thomas as soon as he was outside. "Dad, I need a pop quiz!"
"What?" Thomas frowned as he adjusted the tray. Bruce was covered in dirt; behind him and at a distance, so was his friend Andrea. Thomas had put his shirt back on before coming outside, and was no longer a mess to match.
"I need a star to put in the chest so we have a reason to dig it up."
"You look like you already dug it up."
"Only because I knew you'd give me a star."
"You're getting cocky, kid. Bones of the arm and hand."
Bruce rocked on his heels and he searched his mind for the answers he wanted. "Clavicle, scapula, humerus, radius, ulna..."
"The arm's the easy part."
"Scaphoid, lunate... triquetral? Pisiform. Trapezium, trapezoid, capitate, hamate—that's carpals and then metacarpals, and then proximal phalanges, and intermediate phalanges, and distal. Phalanges."
Thomas balanced his tray on one hand and dug in his pocket to find a star, five points of gold-plated metal. "Gold star for you, good work."
Bruce didn't even pretend to be grateful, snatching the token away and running to rejoin Andrea at the pit they'd made.
"You two been having fun without me?" Thomas asked as he set the tray down beside the lemonade pitcher on the little garden table.
"We've been watching the kids, mostly," Carl said. "Originally they were explorers, but they seem to have turned to a life of crime on the high seas."
"Our son, a criminal," Thomas tutted, kissed his wife before taking a seat.
"You've been drinking," she observed. "I'd like to point out that it was Andrea's idea—no offense, Carl."
"None taken," he assured her. "Andy takes after her mother, that way. She'll make someone very happy someday, if she doesn't kill him first." Carl ventured to try a piece of prosciutto-wrapped pear and cheese.
"I opened a bottle of wine as long as I was in the kitchen," Thomas said. "I didn't think you'd want any, Carl, but let me know if I was wrong and I'll have Alfred bring it out."
"Oh, no, that's fine," Carl said. "I'm driving home, I'd rather not risk it."
Bruce helped Andrea lift his treasure chest out of the hole. The hole itself was as deep as Bruce was tall, because he was nothing if not thorough. Then Andrea stood, and braced The Good Stick against her shoulder to aim it at Bruce.
It was The Good Stick because it was shaped like a musket. Enough like a musket to satisfy a child, anyway. While it had been found in Bruce's yard, Andrea was the one who'd found it, so ownership was unclear. They compromised by trading, though he usually just let her have it. His primary interest was in sticks of a swishier nature.
"You've dug your own grave, Blackbeard!" Andrea announced. Then she made multiple gunshot sounds. Thomas ate an olive as he watched the show.
Bruce's death sounds were suspiciously similar to someone being killed in a Kung Fu movie, with a lot of additional gurgling.
"Such drama," Martha said. She approved.
"I'm surprised he didn't see that coming," Carl said. His daughter did have a certain predictability about her.
"He probably did," Thomas said.
"Oh, Bruce," Martha sighed.
Andrea had bent down to get a better look at where Bruce had collapsed. She sat upright. "Mrs. Wayne?" she called.
"Yes, dear?" Martha called back.
"Bruce isn't breathing."
Carl started to stand, but Martha put a staying hand on his arm. "Brucie, darling," she called, "you breathe right this instant."
After a second or two, Bruce's head peeked up from the pit. "But Mom," he protested, "dead people don't breathe!"
"They don't sass their mothers, either."
With an indignant huff Bruce collapsed back into the pit.
"How long can he hold his breath now?" Thomas asked.
"He's up to four minutes and seventeen seconds," Martha said, picking up her lemonade. "He's going to make someone very happy someday, if he doesn't let them kill him first."
Chapter 10: Crafty
The orderly—or was it a guard?—looked him over with an expression of vague concern.
"Mrs. Strazds, you said?"
"Is that a problem?" Alfred asked. The psychiatric ward of the Gotham Women's Penitentiary was located in the basement, and smelled strongly of old mopwater and bleach.
"What did you say your name was?" the woman asked.
"Mr. Pennyworth," Alfred said. "I work with her daughter."
"Oh." It was a very ominous sort of 'oh'. "Are you just here to check on her, or did you... need something?"
"Does it matter?"
The woman's nametag said Smith. She looked around to see if anyone else was nearby, then leaned closer to Alfred. Alfred leaned down obligingly. "You go in there like that, you're getting nothing but trouble."
"Is that so?"
"The other guards, they'll tell you not to bother. But Betsy—she likes it when I call her Betsy—she's like a lot of the ladies I grew up with. You've just got to know how to work with her."
"And how do you suggest I work with her?"
"You want my advice—" Smith stopped and checked her watch. "I'm here another two hours and that's the end of my shift, after me it's Burt and you don't want to have to deal with Burt. So anyway, what you're going to want to do is, you're going to want to come back here with a twelve-pack of Bud Light and a carton of Newports."
"… for Mrs. Strazds?"
"Yes, that's right. You do that, she might not be nice but she won't give you too much trouble."
Alfred's brow furrowed as he absorbed this information. "Are the prisoners... allowed...?"
"Technically? No." Smith shook her head, then checked again that there were no apparent eavesdroppers to the conversation. "Mr. Pennyworth, this is the psych ward. Half the women here, they don't even know what they did. Barely anyone gets visitors, most of them should have been hospitalized years ago. If someone wants to bring an old lady some cheap beer and menthols, I'm not going to stop them. A lot of the other guards feel the same. Except Burt, obviously, but he's an asshole."
"Right." Alfred glanced down the hallway past the locked gate. Identical metal doors with tiny shuttered peepholes. "Mrs. Strazds—does she know?"
"What she did?" Smith asked for confirmation. "Oh, hell yeah. That woman's guilty as sin and crazy as shit. None of that means she was wrong, either, but you didn't hear that from me."
"Oh—and if you can find someplace selling pączki, she might even try to be nice."
"Well wouldja look at that! You're a sweet one, eh?"
Elizabeth Strazds did not look much like her daughter. Her hair was a dark gray, and it had the approximate texture of dried straw, teased out in a way that might have once been very stylish. She wore dark red lipstick and light pink nail polish, chipped at the tips. Thin like her daughter, but with wider hips and shorter legs.
Those same green eyes.
She sounded like she was going to offer him some casserole at a potluck.
"Ya want any?" she asked, but all her Ts kept disappearing or else turning into Ds. She cracked open a can of beer and sat on the edge of her bed, the box of pączki beside her.
"No thank you, Mrs. Strazds," he said, feeling a bit awkward. The door was open, and Smith was standing outside; she'd promised quite effusively that she wouldn't be listening.
"Oh, call me Betsy," she said, sipping her beer. "Sit down, hun, you're makin' me tired."
"If you insist." He pulled up the small chair that went with the small table.
"I don' really get to talk much, yanno, 'cept with Jerri over there," she explained. She hit the pack of cigarettes against the heel of her palm. "I don' really leave this room, either."
"You have my sympathies."
"Aw, an' you witcher cute l'il accent." She put a cigarette to her lips. "You're gonna have to gimme a light, hun, they don' lemme have those in here." Alfred leaned forward with his lighter, and she puffed on the cigarette in the flame. She leaned back with a sigh of smoke. "Now, I know ya ain't here on account of any Waynes, so I assume ya got some kinda your own business ya think I can help ya with, eh?"
"Has no interest in hearin' from me at all, learned his lesson about that years ago. Came an' saw me a couple of times, figured out real quick it'd do him no good."
"I kept tellin' him that son of his was gonna die," Betsy explained. "Didn' care too much for that, s'pose I can't blame him."
"… I see." Alfred cleared his throat. "You're not much like your daughter, are you."
"Oh, no," she said. "I'm trash, sweetheart. Martha decided a long time ago that wasn't for her. She was gonna have perfect diction an' wear perfect clothes an' never get blood under her nails. Martha Kane. Four hundred years an' she just cuts the thread, just like that." She snapped her fingers.
"Don' mind me, hun, just thinkin' out loud. Now I'm sure ya didn' come bringin' me these nice presents just for the pleasure of my company."
"I might have."
She laughed. "Don'cha try lyin' to me, now. Didn' Martha teach ya better than that?"
"Maybe I was just curious."
"Hmm." She took a drag on her cigarette, and leaned forward. "C'mere." She took his chin between her fingers, and once again he was subject to the piercing assessment of bright green eyes. "I betcha think you're a lion, eh?"
He stilled. "Madame?"
"You're wrong, though," she said, letting him go and leaning back. "Ya outta be pleased about that, male lions are worthless."
"Is that so."
"You're a wolf," she said with a wrinkle of her nose that was her first resemblance to her daughter, you're a wolf he'd told Martha the day that they met.
"Do ya know what happens to a lone wolf?" She took another drag, and he said nothing. "It lives a hungry, miserable life. An' then it dies."
"Is that intended as a metaphor for something?" he asked. He was beginning to tire of metaphors.
"I'm bein' real literal," she assured him.
"You're saying I'm a literal wolf."
"Your soul, Alfie." He doubted it would do him much good to ask her not to call him that. "Your soul's a wolf." She pulled a pastry out of the box, and took a bite too big, glaze sticking to the corners of her mouth.
"Martha never mentioned it."
Betsy snorted as she swallowed. "Course she didn'," she said, licking glaze away. "She's a Wayne." She set the pastry back down to lick her fingers. Then she got another cigarette out of the pack, used the butt of the old one to light the new. She sighed smoke. "Whaddaya know about witches, Alfie?"
"Not much." Aside from the obvious. Which was that women who claimed to kill people with magic powers got put into psychiatric wards.
"There's that story, yanno—ya probably know that story. Takin' fire from gods. Now that right there is a metaphor." She took another drag of her cigarette, and he waited. She seemed to be relishing the chance to talk to someone. To anyone. "Power an' all. It was witches stole fire from gods. Might not've been the only ones, but witches stole fire from devils, too. Kept it inside 'em to smuggle it away. That's what makes a witch, a witch's got fire in her blood. That's why we burn." Another drag, another tap of the ash. "One of the reasons. Blood burns us all up from the inside out. You've been playin' with my daughter, haven't you?"
"I'm one of her employees."
"Uh-huh. You're gonna catch, yanno, if ya haven't already."
"I'll be careful."
"It won' matter," Betsy said. "It never matters." She picked her beer back up to take a sip, and they sat in silence as Alfred tried to think of something to say.
"Why didn't you take your husband's name?" he asked finally.
"'Cause I'm a Strazds," she said, and it was almost imperious the way that she said it. "I'm a Strazds and my mother was a Strazds and her mother was a Strazds. There's power in names, Alfie, and Strazds girls keep ours."
She didn't scowl; her displeasure looked like her daughter's. "There's a lotta poems an' all about caged birds, but do ya know what happens to birds that escape?" She stubbed out her cigarette. "Cats eat 'em."
"Why do you think Bruce is going to die?"
"Oh, not just him," Betsy said. "I already said, they're all gonna burn. He'll be the first, though. Still in his black eyes, ain' he?"
Impossibly dark blue, nothing like either of his parents.
"Here—you're gonna wanna leave soon, hun, Jerri's shift'll be over. You've already caught, yanno. That's why you're here, dunno why I didn' see it before. I'll give ya a l'il somethin' to help ya out, eh? Might explain a few things, if explanations are whatcha want." She stood and went to her bookshelf, covered in tattered paperbacks with missing covers. She grabbed a thick volume bound in leather, old enough that it might well fall apart. Holy Bible stamped on the front. She offered it to him.
"I believe I've read that one."
She snorted. "It's got family records in the front."
"Of course." He accepted the book as he stood, heavy in his hands.
"Stop by any time, Alfie, my door's always open to cute boys with presents. An' ask Martha about his eyes."
Maria and Martha were trying and failing to outrun the weather, though Martha's longer legs made her the more successful of the two. Maria was losing hope where her long-promised growth spurt was concerned. "It will be fine," Martha assured her, the front porch finally providing some shelter from the sudden downpour. "We can just hang out in my room."
Maria was hesitant, but nonetheless followed close behind as Martha unlocked the door and went inside. She stopped soon after entering, faltering at the sight of Mrs. Strazds at the dining room table.
"Ya hidin', kid?"
If there was one thing that would get Maria to stop lurking in the doorway, it was that. Immediately she stood taller, though she was still dwarfed by Martha. "I'm not," she said, though she sounded more petulant than she would have liked.
"Aaaah." The exhalation was accompanied by smoke. "That Mooney kid. Scaredy-cat, eh?"
"Mooom." Martha gave Maria a look that was as apologetic as exasperated.
"I'm not," Maria said, more firmly, chin jutting upward in defiance. She stepped further into the room, but closer to Martha.
"Ya don' think I'm a witch?" Betsy teased. She flicked ashes into the little crystal tray.
"Of course not," Maria said, though she had inched a little behind Martha like a shield.
Quietly, Maria's hand found Martha's. Martha squeezed in reassurance, and smiled. "There's no such thing as witches," Maria said, emboldened.
Betsy made a disapproving sound, taking a drag of her cigarette. "Martha, didja tell her there's no witches?"
"No, mom," Martha sighed, rolling her eyes.
Betsy tutted again, crossing one leg over the other. She had a run in one of her stockings, but she didn't seem to care. Beneath them, her toenails were painted red. "Witches built Gotham," she informed Maria with a certain relish. "Witches an' monsters. Strazds girls've been here right from the start. Ain' that right, Martha?"
"They've been tryin' to take our name since we got here, but we don' let 'em, do we?"
"If you're a witch," Maria asked, "why don't you live somewhere nicer?" Martha's eyes widened. Betsy snorted. "If I had magic," she continued, "I'd use it to live in a castle."
"Ya don' think we've had castles?" Betsy scoffed, though it gave way to a wistful sigh. "We ain' the havin' magic kinda witches, anyway," she corrected. "We're the bein' magic kind. Big difference." Red-painted lips curled faintly upward. "Wan' me to tell ya whatcher soul looks like, kid?"
"Mom," Martha protested, but Maria let go of her hand to move closer to Mrs. Strazds.
"You can see my soul?" she asked, curious rather than disbelieving.
Betsy looked pleased, despite her daughter's discontented expression. "Kinda," she said, shuttered lashes of false modesty clumped together with thick mascara. "Ya got an animal in ya, just like everybody else. Kinda thing't explains your whole life." She smiled wider, leaned closer. "Like a destiny."
Maria had been inching nearer all the while. "Tell me," she ordered, her eyes great circles of wonder.
Immediately Betsy sat back upright, clicking her tongue as she drew on her cigarette again. "No respect, this kid," she chided.
"I'm sorry," Maria said without a moment's hesitation, bowing her head and immediately adopting a humbled demeanor. She was very good at that, Martha was realizing. Her mother ate it up, regardless of whether she believed it. "Please tell me, Mrs. Strazds?" Her tongue did not hesitate over foreign consonants, and if she had not already won her way into Betsy's heart with flattery, that did the trick.
"Ya sure ya want Martha here?" she asked, as the girl in question crossed her arms in irritation, leaning against a wall. "It's a real personal thing, a destiny. She can wait in her room."
Maria looked back to Martha, who averted her gaze in a deliberate show of nonchalance. "No," she said, turning back to Betsy. "It's okay. She can stay."
Martha was pleased despite herself, a warmth along her ribcage.
"If ya say so," Betsy shrugged. She balanced her cigarette on the edge of her ashtray, and reached out to take small dark hands in large pale ones. Knuckles jutted out of long fingers, and Maria believed that they were a witch's hands. Betsy looked at Maria's palms, traced a thick red thumbnail over the lines in a way that made the girl shiver. Then she released them to take her chin instead, looking deep into her eyes. When she finally let her go, Maria blinked furiously. "Koi," she declared, picking her cigarette back up.
Maria hesitated. "I don't know what that is," she admitted finally, looking again to Martha for assistance.
"It's like a… fish," Betsy explained, waving a hand and smearing smoke through the air.
Maria's brow furrowed, nose wrinkling. "I'm a fish?" she asked, dubious.
"Not just a fish," Betsy assured her. "A koi. Like a goldfish, but like a fancy goldfish. Golden. Sparkly, shiny. Like money an' dreams. Beauty, grace, love, success."
Maria's eyes gleamed. "That's my destiny?" she asked breathlessly.
"Could be," Betsy said, a touch dismissive. "Only if ya do it right." She leaned close again. "A fancy fish is still a fish. Ya know what happens to a fish outta water, a fish that takes the bait, eh?" She tapped her thumb thoughtfully against the butt of her cigarette. "Koi's gotta find the right pond."
Maria mulled this over as they lapsed into silence, nothing but the sound of Betsy's exhalations. "What's Martha's animal?" she asked finally.
"I toldja," Mrs. Strazds said, "it's personal. Ask nice an' maybe she'll tell ya." She waved the both of them away, looking suddenly tired as she stubbed out her cigarette. "Go to your room," she said. "Listen to the radio, talk aboutcher souls, commune with the devil. I'll call your mama an' tell her where ya are."
"Thank you, Mrs. Strazds," Maria said with a curtsy, which made her smile. She turned and flounced past Martha toward the stairs. "I'm going to be rich," she informed her loftily, as if she had not been present for the discussion. Martha snorted.
"Whatever you say, Fish."