Caught in the midst of launching a roundhouse kick, Harley Quinn was brought up short. She stumbled, caught herself, and stared at him, mouth agape. “Did you just say ‘oww?’”
Batman glowered back her, desperate to rip off his gauntlet and find out what was had just caused the pain that ripped through his hand. What the hell was going on? There was no way to be covert about it as he rubbed his left palm through the gauntlet. The combination of itch and burn and electric jolts was driving him to distraction, though.
As if that wasn’t enough, Harley had a concerned look on her face as she popped her gum and advanced on him. “You okay, Batsy?”
He grunted, fired off a grappling hook. As he swung off into the night, Harley called after him, “I coulda kissed it and made it better!”
He landed on another roof and stripped off the gauntlet just as one more sizzling rip sliced across his palm. That he was disconcerted to find there were no tears or burn marks in the material was an understatement. Even so, Bruce braced himself for ripped and bloody flesh, singe marks at least, when he turned his hand to catch the glow of a streetlight.
There was nothing. At least, no wounds of any kind. There were words emblazoned across his palm, the message underscored with a thick, black slash:
What the hell?
He scrubbed at the mark, tried to rub it off. If it was ink, it didn’t so much as smear. He tugged off the other gauntlet and gingerly touched his fingertips to the mark, traced each letter. The pain had receded; there was no redness, no tenderness, no swelling, and even the itching had stopped.
If he didn’t know better… Bruce frowned in concentration, ran his fingers over the mark again. If he didn’t know better, he would say someone had hastily scrawled a message on his hand.
But that was impossible. He could literally count on one hand the number of people who knew he was Matches Malone, and none of them possessed the ability to pull off something like this.
Who could? Possibilities tumbled through his mind, none of them substantial enough to take form yet. There wasn’t enough evidence, not yet. And he wasn’t going to find any answers here.
On that thought, he donned his gauntlets once more, fired off another grapple, and swung back to where he’d left the Batmobile. There was an answer; there was always an answer. The trick was to find the right question.
Magic should not have been on the table. There was a time when Alfred would have dismissed any such possibility without a second thought. Times changed, however, and he had long since lost the luxury of disbelief. Believing six impossible things before breakfast was positively routine these days.
This was one for the books, however, he thought as he watched Bruce bend his head to the microscope once more.
They had run every test either of them could think of, to no result. Well, except that Bruce now had a sore hand after having his palm scraped and stuck with needles.
“Some residual effect from Morgaine’s spell?” Bruce wondered as he straightened up and went over to the computer.
“Or,” Alfred checked to see if the coffee pot was still hot, “a warning from an occult associate. Jason Blood, perhaps? Or Mr. Constantine?”
Bruce turned that over, scratching the stubble on his chin. “Constantine--maybe. It’s not really Jason’s style. And a warning about what?” He leaned forward, an intent look on his face as he stared at a photograph of the message on the monitor. “Neither of them knows about Matches, so…” He pinched his bottom lip as he tried to puzzle it out, and shook his head in frustration. “What is Matches supposed to do tomorrow night at eight?”
“Perhaps…” Alfred worked it out a bit further. “Perhaps Matches Malone is in jeopardy? Could there be a hit out on him?” He poured two cups of coffee, added sugar and cream to his.
“I’m sure there are several.” Bruce scratched his chin again, gaze fixed on the mystifying message as if he could pull its answers from it by sheer will alone. Pity one couldn’t dangle a handful of words off the side of a building. Coercion, alas, was not always the solution.
After another long moment, Bruce swiveled to face Alfred and picked up his coffee cup. “So what about Morgaine? You had more of a front row seat than I did.”
“A seat I would have gladly relinquished,” Alfred muttered.
Bruce gave him a look both curious and challenging.
Alfred raised an eyebrow in reply. The incident--and could there be a more inadequate label?--had been thoroughly reviewed already. There was little likelihood of stumbling upon an elusive detail that would provide a eureka moment now. Still, he knew full well Bruce wouldn’t leave it alone until every item, no matter how minute, had been examined down to its atoms.
All the more so in this instance, Alfred knew, because while they had been the star attractions, as it were, Bruce and Mr. Kent had been rendered insensible, and neither retained a memory of what occurred. Alfred had no idea if Clark Kent was troubled by this gap in his knowledge and unable to rest until he had worked everything out to his satisfaction. He was in no state of uncertainty where Bruce was concerned, however. Granted, the incident was barely two days past, so that it was bound to be a fixed point in anyone's experience. Bruce, however, would probe and prod at it for the next twenty years if necessary.
Known facts were that Klarion, in want of an ally, had reached across time and space to bring the sorceress Morgaine le Fey to present day Gotham. Once arrived, her first order of business had been to weave a malevolent spell meant to seek out the Batman and eliminate him as an opponent.
All of that was learned afterward, when Jason Blood and John Constantine had intervened. At the time, all Alfred knew was that Bruce and Mr. Kent were under attack and that he was powerless to do anything to help them.
He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose as he summoned up that night. He strove for some sense of detachment, but accepted that would be difficult to achieve.
He began. “It was just striking midnight--”
“The witching hour,” Bruce murmured, both hands curved around his coffee mug.
“Indeed.” Alfred slipped his glasses back on. “It had been raining all day but had turned to a cold drizzle by then. Fog shrouded the grounds.” That brought to mind the smoke, thick and black, with particulates that swirled within it like crushed diamond. Malign and filled with eldritch power, it had oozed through every crack and crevice in the house in search of its prey--in search of Bruce.
Alfred couldn’t quite suppress a shudder at the memory and looked up to surprise a sympathetic look in Bruce’s eyes.
“Alfred…” Bruce sighed, shook his head, impatient with himself and this catechism he insisted on. “I know it must have been unpleasant--”
“That, Master Bruce,” Alfred said with feeling, “is an understatement without compare. No, I’m quite all right.” He waved away Bruce’s concern, gathered his thoughts. “What’s done is best done quickly.”
Bruce gave him a sardonic look. “Macbeth? Really?”
“Yes, well, something wicked did this way come.”
Bruce conceded that point with a tilt of his head. “All right. It was striking midnight, there was fog and cold drizzle,” he prompted. “What then?”
“And then the doorbell rang. It was Mr. Kent, there to consult with you on some matter related to Intergang. I told him you were expecting him.” He saw Bruce pull a face at that, as though scoffing at some secret meaning in the words. Whatever subtlety Bruce imagined, however, Alfred intended only a minimalist account of events.
“I left him to make his way to you, while I returned to the kitchen to make hot chocolate. My first clue that anything was amiss was a sudden sulfurous smell. At that,” he gave a wry grimace, “for a moment I only wondered that you were conducting some chemical experiment and had, for whatever reason, produced brimstone.
“Then I saw the smoke.”
Tendrils that puffed from the drain in the sink, or crept under the door, any means it could find to gain entry. Wisps of it had wreathed him, reeking of that brimstone smell as it choked him. As though it sensed he was not its target, it had left off, slithered away from him with an oily residue left behind as it sank to the floor and surged onward. Still gasping for breath, Alfred had stumbled after it and found renewed strength as he realized the diabolic smoke was headed for the Cave.
“You know the rest,” he said, absently massaging his throat. He could still feel the tendrils of smoke, like vines, squeezing his windpipe, suffocating as it filled his lungs.
Bruce scowled, though Alfred sensed it wasn’t meant for him. “I remember Clark and I were at the computer when he smelled the smoke.” He looked angry now; there was a hint of fear there, as well. “Do you know what he did?” A note of incredulity colored his tone. “The goddamn idiot tried to inhale it all, like he would whoosh out of there and expel the smoke in space or something.” His lips thinned, a muscle worked in his jaw. “He had this look on his face, Alfred, like he didn’t understand what was happening to him, and it… It disturbed him.”
Terrified him, more likely, Alfred suspected. But Bruce would never let anyone know, not even him, that Superman could be frightened--or that the Batman might share that alarm. “Mr. Kent is a remarkable individual, sir.”
“Mr. Kent,” Bruce grumbled, “is a self-sacrificing idiot. He had no idea what the smoke was made of. It could have been infused with kryptonite.”
“Yes.” Alfred nodded sagely. “No doubt his first thought should have been to save himself and leave you to your fate.”
Bruce shot him the kind of look that no doubt made the Joker and Riddler and all those chaps quake in terror. Alfred merely quirked an eyebrow in return.
After a moment, Bruce exhaled a grumpy breath and glanced away. “He started vomiting it out, the smoke. He looked ashen, he was collapsing--he was dying.” Bruce sounded very far away now, his gaze fixed on some distant point. “Even then, when the smoke came for me, he lunged after it, tried to push me out of the way…” He trailed off, absolutely silent as several seconds ticked by, no sound in the Cave but the hum of machinery and the soft skreek of the bats. Then, “That’s all I remember, until waking up to Constantine saying something about fairy tales.” He gave Alfred a look of reproach that seemed to hold him responsible for John Constantine’s nonsense.
Alfred ignored that, remembering how he had found the pair of them, Clark Kent sprawled half on top of Bruce, and both of them insensible on the floor as the noxious smoke writhed around them. He had knelt, fingers trembling as he sought a pulse. Bruce’s had been weak; Mr. Kent’s almost non-existent.
“Did you know magic could be lethal to him?”
“He had mentioned that he was susceptible to it. He left out the part where it could kill him.” That Bruce took this oversight as a personal affront struck Alfred as most enlightening. This, however, was not the time to remark upon it.
“Yes, well, I’m sure if he had a user’s manual, he would give you a copy.”
Bruce favored him with another tetchy look, no doubt meant to be withering. All he said, however, was, “You contacted Watchtower then.”
Alfred nodded. “I explained what had happened as best I could, and the next thing I knew, Miss Prince and Mr. Constantine had arrived, and Jason Blood soon joined them. There’s nothing new there, Bruce.”
“There has to be,” Bruce insisted as he stared at his hand. It was wrapped in a bandage now, the gauze hiding the mystery for the time being but by no means muting it. He scratched his palm as though it itched him. “Magic is the most likely explanation, and that’s the only time I’ve encountered it lately. There has to be a clue there.” He leaned forward, clearly determined to fixate on this point. “What did Constantine say about the spell?”
It was late, and Alfred was starting to feel a bit cranky himself. Like a dog with a succulent bone, though, Bruce was not going to let go of this. “I have not withheld information from you.”
“I never said you did, Alfred. Something may not have struck you as significant at the time, though.”
Arms folded over his chest, Alfred fixed him with an exasperated look. “I assure you, Master Bruce, everything struck me as significant.”
Bruce showed no sign of relenting, but wrack his brain as he might, Alfred could locate no further intelligence to share. John Constantine had said Bruce and Mr. Kent were unharmed and that the curse could be lifted--
“Oh, I say.” Alfred sat up straighter as he chased down the memory. Accuracy was everything on this point, he knew.
“What?” Bruce leaned closer. “Alfred, what?”
Alfred played it back to verify, and spoke with precision, “John Constantine said, and I quote,” he shifted his voice to a fair mimicry of Constantine’s, “’I recognize a variant on the Maleficent Curse.’”
“Maleficent?” Skepticism claimed Bruce’s expression. “As in Sleeping Beauty?”
Alfred shrugged. “I only repeat what he said. I would suggest the key word is ‘variant.’”
Bruce nodded, scraped his knuckles back and forth across his chin. “Is a curse different from a spell, or is just semantics?”
“I’m sure I’ve no idea. The gentleman was inclined to be cryptic when I pressed him on that point.”
“He’s like that,” Bruce grumbled. He sat back in his chair, still in pursuit of connections. “All right, it was a curse. Constantine reversed it?”
“He did. He explained that while his counter spell would restore the two of you, no worse for wear, it was not the preferred method of breaking this curse.”
“And what did he mean by that?”
“He did not elaborate. Well, he did remark that, under the circumstances, the traditional means of breaking the curse would be difficult to implement.”
“I don’t suppose he elaborated on that?”
Alfred spread his hands, shook his head. “I could only think it had something to do with how both you and Mr. Kent were incapacitated and unable to take part in some arcane ritual.” Although what action either of them could have taken to free the other from some fairy tale curse was quite beyond him. All that occurred to him was the time worn cliche of a true love’s ki--
Alfred stared at Bruce as the nebulous idea took on form, like a puzzle piece that finally snapped into place. Could that be what John Constantine meant? Try as he might, he could find no other interpretation. And it did shed light on why Mr. Constantine had been almost amused, once the worst of the drama was in hand. What bearing could it possibly have on this current dilemma, though? he wondered as he schooled his features to betray none of what he was thinking.
Bruce had arrived in the general vicinity himself, it appeared. “That doesn’t explain this.” He held up his hand, studied Alfred. “It wouldn’t have slipped your mind if Constantine did say something about residual side effects in the form of magic writing?”
Alfred replied with an offended huff. “Indeed it would not, sir.”
Impasse, then, and Alfred found he couldn’t mind that. The hour was late and they could do little beyond spin their wheels at the moment. “I would suggest sleeping on the matter, Master Bruce. Rest usually brings clarity.”
Bruce grunted another reply, fixated on his hand, as though he too possessed x-ray vision and could look beneath the gauze wrapping and tape. “Do I have anything on my schedule tomorrow night, Alfred?”
“I don’t believe so. What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking Matches Malone,” Bruce’s polished tones slid easily into Matches’ cruder, Gangsters 101, voice, “should keep his appointment at The Stacked Deck. Someone’s gonna be waiting for him.”
“Shall it be friend or foe, though?”
Bruce cocked his head, eyes narrowed as he pondered that. “Only one way to find out.”
As Alfred could not offer up a more viable solution, he only nodded, and said, “Don’t forget to wear your Kevlar.”
A hint of a smile tugged at Bruce’s mouth then. “Never do, Alfred.
“Not that a Kevlar vest will do much good if an assassin goes for a head shot.”
Bruce glowered at him. Alfred glared back.
“You could try for a positive spin, Alfred.”
“Give me cause to, and I shall.”
“As the young people say, back at you.”
There was some satisfaction in having the last word, however piffling. So long as there was no true finality. So long as that.
Bruce didn’t jump as Scarface barked the question but he slid a sideways look at the puppet and Arnold Wesker that discouraged further conversation. He also sent himself a mental memo to stop scowling at his left hand.
“Did I ask for your input?” he said, Matches Malone’s voice rolling off his tongue with zero effort by now.
“No skin off my nose,” Scarface said, amicable enough. Too amicable? Bruce wondered as he remembered Alfred’s question about hits out on Matches. He hadn’t crossed paths with Scarface in a long time but that didn’t mean he could let his guard down.
He watched Wesker go into one of the men’s room stalls, still with Scarface, decided there were some things he did not need to know, and swung his gaze back to the mirror. Satisfied every slicked back hair was in place, he slipped on his dark glasses and exited the men’s room.
He lingered at the top of the stairs while he scanned the room below. There wasn’t an unfamiliar face in the joint, and any interest directed at him as he sauntered down the stairs was indifferent and short-lived. He took up a position where he’d have the advantage of anyone who walked into the place, and settled down at the table to wait. It was just coming up on eight; he’d give it awhile.
A drink appeared at his elbow, Matches’ usual--scotch on the rocks. A cheap paper napkin was folded underneath because, sure, wouldn’t want to risk rings on the beat up old table. He tugged the napkin out, beaded moisture dripping down the glass, and rubbed the palm of his hand, checking one more time that the mark was really gone.
He had dozed off in front of the computer, awakened by a sensation he could only describe as feeling like a piece of sandpaper was being scraped across his skin. He had thought to record the process but didn’t expect that to yield anything useful. It had lasted just shy of two minutes, and when it was over the mark, the message, was gone, not so much as a smudge left behind. The skin had been completely healed as well, nothing left to show how he and Alfred had scraped away at it last night.
Restless and frustrated, Bruce had just balled up the napkin and tossed it on the table, when the explanation to everything walked into the bar.
That was his first thought anyway, as all heads--even Scarface--swiveled to watch the newcomer who had ducked inside. He was tall, broad shouldered, wearing khakis and a blue pullover that, along with the dorky glasses--or were they hipster these days?--practically screamed I am a goober, please mug me. After that quick once over, everyone else went back to minding their own business, and Bruce reconsidered that first thought. Because, really, this didn’t explain a damn thing.
What was Clark Kent doing in The Stacked Deck, looking for Matches Malone? More important: why, and how, had Bruce Wayne received advanced warning of that?
While Bruce assessed the situation and ran through a selection of scenarios as to how best to proceed, Clark caught the bartender’s attention and leaned in for a word. Bruce narrowed his eyes to make out what was being said, but lip reading was impossible at this angle. He needn’t have bothered. Two seconds later, Clark had turned to zero in on Bruce’s table, and with a nod of thanks to the bartender, he was on his way over.
“Matches Malone?” Clark stuck his hand out like this was an ice cream social.
“Oh for crying out loud,” Bruce muttered.
Clark looked at him more closely. “Excuse me?”
Scenario one: he could reveal himself to Clark and risk blowing his cover as Matches. Or scenario two: he could move things somewhere more private. It didn’t take him even a second to decide.
“Look, pal,” he growled as he got to his feet, “I don’t know you from Adam. Outta the way.” He pushed past him, headed for the back. Of course Clark came after him, catching him up to just as Bruce pushed through a door and stepped out into the alley just as lightning cracked across the sky.
“Mr. Malone,” Clark caught him by the shoulder and Bruce took a split second to analyze that grip, how it was just firm enough to keep him there but not so much it could make anyone leap to the conclusion this was Superman in disguise. “I was told to contact you, that you could answer some questions for me.”
Bruce pushed him off, also noting the way Clark fell back naturally. “Who told you that? Who’s going around Gotham saying Matches Malone’s a squealer?” Aware he was standing right under a light that illuminated the door, Bruce moved off, seeking the shadows near a Dumpster.
“Look,” Clark came after him, nose wrinkling at the smells from the Dumpster, the trash blown into piles, and even less savory things, “it’s not like that, Mr. Malone. I was told if I wanted to know how the criminal element worked in Gotham, you’re the man I should talk to.”
“Yeah? Who told you that?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t reveal my sources.”
Which was all well and good and Bruce would ordinarily applaud this staunch adherence to the journalistic creed. These weren’t the usual circumstances, however, and the more he thought about it… “Is this about Intergang?”
“Wha--” Clark’s eyes had grown wide behind the lenses, now they narrowed as illumination dawned.
“One more word outta you, pal,” Bruce moved in closer, grabbed a fistful of blue sweater, “and you’re gonna be wearing cement galoshes in the Delaware Bay.”
Instead of appearing fearful for his life, Clark only quirked an eyebrow at him. “Seriously?”
Bruce tipped down the dark glasses to glower at him. “Meet me at the Manor,” he muttered under his breath.
“Got it.” Clark’s head was cocked, as though listening. “Company’s coming. Hit me.”
Bruce raised his eyebrows. “Not really eager to break my hand.”
Clark rolled his eyes. “Just swing at me, like make believe.”
How the he got into situations like this, Bruce truly did not know. He could hear the voices himself now, however, so-- “Why I oughta knock your block off!”
“Yeah? Just try it, you loudmouthed sonofa--”
A broken hand might have been worth it, to get the Boy Scout to finish that line. No time, though. Bruce swung out, as much force as possible in the blow, skimming it right past Clark’s jaw. Obliging, Clark staggered back, a hand clamped to his face as he slid down the wall.
“Need some help there, Malone?” Mugsy called over.
“I got it covered. Keep moving.”
He struck a triumphant pose over Clark, keeping an eye on Mugsy and his cohorts as they moseyed on down the alley, heads ducked down against the wind-driven drops of rain that had started to fall. Once out of sight, he repeated, “The Manor, as soon as you can get there,” just before he ducked back into the bar.
At least now Bruce knew what must have happened, and it had nothing to do with residual magic. Clark must have been exposed to some kind of Apokoliptin technology while he was investigating Intergang. Once they worked out what it was, they could reverse the effects. He wouldn't admit to relief at this development but he did allow a sense of satisfaction that this it was something practical, something he could address without a side trip to the Twilight Zone.
He stopped short of thinking it would be a piece of cake, however. Nothing was ever that simple, and the only sure thing was there were always complications.
“There’s just one flaw in that theory, Bruce,” Clark said. “I haven’t been exposed to anything from Apokolips. Not even a little bit. Oh, thank you,” this to Alfred as a plate of fish and chips was placed before him.
“Clark, you can’t be certain of that.”
Clark blinked, head tilted just a bit. “I can’t?”
“Not if the device subsequently wiped your memory of the event.”
Clark, Damian, and Alfred all raised dubious eyebrows in response to that statement.
Bruce scowled back. It was a perfectly sound theory that covered everything. More or less. “What’s your alternative?” he said as his own plate appeared.
Clark shrugged, seemingly sanguine about the whole thing. “Alfred’s right: it’s magic.”
Alfred wore a satisfied look as he joined them at the table. “It’s just mushy peas,” he told Damian as the latter pushed his fish and chips as far as possible away from the blob of green on his plate.
Satisfied there would be no cross contamination, Damian demanded, “Ketchup?”
Alfred shuddered; Bruce handed the condiment over. He pointed a chip as Clark. “So you’re fine with its being magic?”
Clark eyed the ketchup longingly. Instead of answering the question, he gave Bruce a long and considering look. “I know why you’re not. You can’t put magic under a microscope; it’s too ephemeral for you to work out what it makes it tick. Magic plays by a different set of rules and you don’t like that.”
“Magic doesn’t play by any rules,” Bruce grumbled. He stared back at Clark, questions tumbling through his mind. He couldn’t ask them. Either Clark knew him entirely too well, or he was utterly transparent. Neither answer was satisfactory.
“That isn’t actually true,” Alfred interjected, sprinkling salt and vinegar over his fish and chips. “The spells do follow a formula. Mr. Constantine indicated precise adherence to these formulas was of the utmost importance. Any deviation and one might pull a basilisk from one’s hat instead of a rabbit.”
“What’s a basilisk?” Damian asked as he splattered more ketchup on his plate. “Can I have one?”
“We’ll discuss it later, Master Damian.”
Bruce shook his head, looked back at Clark. “You’re positive you haven’t been zapped with anything, had your memories tampered with?”
“Bruce, how could I possibly know if something like that happened?”
Conceding that point with a grunt, Bruce passed him the salt and vinegar. Resigned to the inevitable, he said, “We’re going to have to find Constantine.”
“Surely not right this moment,” Alfred said.
Contrariness prodded him to say yes, right now, weather be damned. Crime didn’t take a night off and one night could make all the difference. The storm that had threatened earlier had followed through big time, however, and the wind lashed icy spatters of rain against the windows. The kitchen, on the other hand, was warm and disturbingly cozy. That had struck him immediately as, with all traces of Matches Malone removed, he had joined the others there. He hadn’t intended to linger. Even if Gotham was quiet tonight, there was still work to do, and the Cave had beckoned. So had the sight of Alfred, evidently in a nostalgic mood and whipping up fish and chips, while Damian attended to homework and shot looks at Clark that warned him not to offer to help. Like the proverbial moth to a flame, he had been drawn in, and now felt disinclined to get away.
He must be getting old.
“We’ll track him down in the morning,” he said. If Damian was puzzled by this decision, Alfred didn’t even try to conceal his satisfaction at this news.
He couldn’t quite decipher Clark’s reaction. Not that it mattered, of course; not that he cared in the least what Clark thought.
“You’ll stay the night then, Mr. Kent?”
Uncertainty flickered in Clark’s eyes for a moment as he looked from Alfred to Bruce and back. “I…suppose I can. If it wouldn’t be any trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” Alfred assured him. He gave Bruce a look that dared him to take issue with that.
Bruce replied with a shrug of insouciant indifference and allowed, “It could save some time in the morning.”
“Yes,” Alfred said, his tone dry as the desert of Atacama, “because his commute from Metropolis is a long and arduous one.” Briskly then, “I shall prepare your usual room then.”
“You don’t have to do that, Alfred. I can make a bed.”
“Nonsense, Mr. Kent. I live to serve,” Alfred said, in a manner so blithe it almost made Bruce choke on a bite of fish. “Are you all right, sir?”
“Just peachy.” Bruce dabbed his napkin at his mouth. He took the glass of water Clark handed him, all the while wondering how Clark came to have a usual room.
It was a welcome distraction when Damian piped up to ask, “Does Constantine have a basilisk?”
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised…”