Martha Wayne unclipped her pearls and fed them back into their section of the jewelry box. Her young son frowned in puzzlement at her in the mirror.
"But I thought we were going tonight... dad said so."
"I know he did, sweetheart, but your father has to work. They need him at the hospital – another surgeon called in sick. We can go to another night, I promise."
When the little boy looked troubled, she turned on the stool and gave him a reassuring smile. "There's nothing special about tonight, is there Bruce?"
"I guess not."
Bruce Wayne waved in Coleman Reese with an airy gesture, the employee taking a seat and waiting patiently for the CEO to finish his phone call.
"Yeah, yeah, I saw those pictures from the gala..." a soft laugh. "No, she's just a friend, honestly!" A pause as Bruce listened to what the other person was saying. "Well, when I do I promise you you'll be the first to know." A roll of his eyes in Reese's direction. "Tonight? No, I told you, I have plans. I thought we agreed on Sunday? Ok, I'll come by the manor about six. See you Sunday. You too."
He replaced the phone in its cradle. "Sorry about that. My mother." Bruce leaned back in his leather executive chair. "So, what can I do for you Mr. Reese?"
The employee cleared his throat, looking nervous and uncertain. "It's about... it's about Mr. Kerr."
"Ah," a look of comprehension dawned on Bruce's face.
"I don't mean to criticise you or your choices, Mr. Wayne. I know he's a... a friend of yours."
"What's he done to offend you?"
"Well... he's disruptive. Not just to me, to everyone on the same floor as his office."
Bruce gave a small smile, privately amused. "Really? None of the secretaries have complained."
"Well, they all put up with it because they're either scared of him or they think he's... I don't know, charming."
"I take it you don't share that opinion?"
"Sorry sir, but no. He... he's loud, he's rude, he's threatening. And he... he steals things, breaks things..." Reese was gathering speed and confidence as he remembered the outrages: "he manages to set the fire alarms off at least twice a week! He changed the sign on the door so it says 'murders and executions' instead of 'mergers and acquisitions'! And... yesterday he threw his blackberry at me!" He brought himself back under a semblance of control again, yanking his tie in agitation. "I really am sorry. I hate to be a... 'tattle-tale', but I find his presence... highly disruptive."
"I see." Bruce put on an 'I'm taking all this very seriously' face. He suspected – despite Coleman Reese's front of studied obsequiousness – that this was the kind of person who would not hesitate to kick up a fuss if he felt sufficiently grieved or if he thought he was not being listened to. "Well, we'll see about moving you to an office on another floor. Is that acceptable?"
"Well, I... yes, I suppose."
"And, of course, I'll have another talk with Mr. Kerr about his behaviour." Bruce folded his hands together on the desk to signal that their interview had come to an end.
"Ok. Thanks for your time," Reese said, rising from his chair.
Bruce called to him as he was almost at the door, causing him to pause. "Mr. Reese... I don't want you to think it's about favouritism, or anything like that. It's all just business. Mr. Kerr is unpredictable, unorthodox – maybe even unscrupulous... but he brings a lot of revenue to this company."
"I understand," Reese replied, a hint of an unbecoming scowl about his bland features as he opened the door to let himself out. "Perfectly."
When he had gone Bruce sighed and picked up his phone, buzzing through to his secretary. "Anne, could you please page Mr. Kerr and ask him to drop by?"
As he waited for the troublesome employee to present himself, Bruce sat back in his chair and thought about him, wondering briefly why he kept the maniac around. He turned profits, certainly, but Bruce suspected that it was mainly just for entertainment value. He smirked, imagining the look on that twit Reese's face as he dodged a flying blackberry.
Bruce turned to his computer and brought up the employee records folder. After much research through both official and clandestine channels, it continued to frustrate him that he knew practically nothing about the person in question. Even the few details that he ithought/i he knew about the man had come from the horse's mouth and therefore needed to be followed with the word 'allegedly'.
His name was Joseph Kerr (allegedly – Bruce has never seen a birth certificate and the man himself claimed not to know where he had been born or the last name of either of his parents). He had been orphaned as an adolescent (allegedly). He had then drifted around Chicago, Springfield and various other cities in the mid-West before making his way to Gotham (allegedly - none of the local police departments or social services in any of those cities had any files on him).
Somewhere along the way he had picked up a horrendous set of facial scars (the so called 'Glasgow smile' or 'Chelsea grin' commonly inflicted by street gangs). While the scars themselves were certainly genuine, Bruce had heard him tell at least five different stories about their precise origins.
As an adult he had worked for various mid-level business outfits (allegedly – all the references Bruce tried to chase up turned out to belong to businesses that had either disappeared beyond all tracing – he suspected mob links – or lost all their records in mysterious systems failures).
All that Bruce knew for certain was that an enigmatic figure who claimed to be called Joseph Kerr had somehow bypassed all his security in order to walk into his office and deliver such a deranged and compelling pitch that he felt compelled to hire him on the spot.
And he was enigmatic – you had to give him that – and incredibly charming when he wanted to be. At other times playfully malicious or maliciously playful; frequently just plain mean. Ruthless and endlessly manipulative... and, of course, funny as all hell. Essentially he was selfish, shameless and opportunistic being – spending time with him was like walking around with a personification of your own id.
His call-sign in the hyper-masculine world of elite business was 'the Joker'. A contraction of his name (or maybe his 'real' name was just a cheesy expansion of his nickname?) and also a fitting description of his anarchic, malevolent and yet oddly puckish character. Instead of business cards he handed out jokers from playing decks: they had no contact details on them, the theory being that if for some reason you wanted to speak to him, you would get off your ass and find out his number for yourself. Although his usual modus operandi was to find you, whether you wanted him to or not.
Bruce heard his arrival long before he appeared. Despite being in her late thirties and married, Anne the secretary was laughing like a Japanese schoolgirl as he fed her charming nonsense. His personality was so magnetic that his scars and his bizarre sartorial affectations seemed to be no impediment to his ability to seduce – when whatever business at hand called for it.
His name for himself might be 'the Joker', and his male colleagues accepted it (with a mixture of envy, reverence and fear), but the female employees all called him 'the Blond Bombshell'. Bruce just prayed that J would never find that out, because on the day he did he would officially become so smug as to be insufferable.
Soon the prodigal himself burst through the doorway without knocking or waiting to be announced, all loose burnished-gold curls and a huge smile that seemed artificially lengthened by his scars. Today he had favoured an olive green pinstripe suit with a pale yellow shirt and a burnt sienna tie. It had no right to look good on him, but it did. He had broad shoulders, muscular arms and a narrow waist – the sort of male figure which wasn't fashionable anymore. The suit was of a similarly retro cut: the trousers high-waisted with pleated fronts, held up with suspenders. Only one button of his double-breasted jacket was done up, his hands bunching up the fabric because they were shoved into his trouser pockets. He crossed the room in three strides and threw himself down into the chair and propped his feet up on Bruce's desk.
"Hiiiii," he gave an apologetic grimace, pushing back the hair that had fallen across his forehead. "Were we supposed to have coffee this morning? I forgot. My organiser e-mail thing... got broke, uh, somehow."
"Perhaps because you threw it at Coleman Reese's head?" Bruce ventured, trying not to smile.
"Is he the one that looks like a wimpy ten year old kid? Yeeeeah, maybe. Can't say I exactly re-call."
"Look J, I'm not saying he didn't deserve it, but in future don't. I have to draw the line somewhere, and it's at physically assaulting other employees."
"I wasn't trying to hit him – that's the honest, honest truth – scout's honour! I was aiming for the wall, or maybe it was the window... What can I say, Brucey," a shrug and a twisting of his mouth. "I'm just sooo clumsy."
Bruce gave him an 'enough of your bullshit' look. "Go on, don't you have a merger to force?"
"Oh yeah!" he stood up and fumbled his phone out of the breast pocket of his suit. "let's see what those nice folks at Tel-star have to say to my... ulti-matum."
"Have fun. Oh and J, remember we're having dinner tonight. Eight o'clock, Dorsia."
"Yeah, I wrote it on my hand." J flipped his wrist to show off the illegible biro scrawl. "See ya, Brucey."
"Don't crash the stock market, J. And hey - how about tonight you wear something a little more... understated?"
"Me Brucey," he flipped open his jacket to show the carmine coloured silk lining, "I'm all about subtle."
Bruce entered the bar area of Dorsia at precisely eight to find his friend slouching on a stool, one elbow on the bar, the other holding a gimlet.
"Hi Brucey! I got you an oooold fashioned."
"Is that a cocktail or an insult?" Bruce sat down on the neighbouring stool and clapped the other man on the shoulder. "Have a good day? Make anyone cry or jump from a window in despair?"
"Not that I know of. Saaay, no classy floozies tonight?"
"No," Bruce smirked. "Just us."
"Bruce-o," J fixed him with an apparently serious look, leaning in confidentially, "is this... a daaate?"
"Ha," said the billionaire humourlessly, almost choking on the first sip of his drink.
"So, you like my suit? It's new." J gestured to a purple velvet affair that he had inexplicably chosen to match with a blue silk shirt and tie, and a green waistcoat.
"You look like the ghost of mardi gras. How much did that nightmare cost you?"
"Five grand." J rubbed the fabric of his lapel between a finger and thumb. "Hand-tailored."
"In a recession? You truly are shameless, aren't you?"
"Hey, this recession is like... uh, natural selection..." J began to pontificate. "Too many useless idiots in business, floundering in excess cash. A little thinning out is what is needed... survival of the fittest." He licked his lips. "Besides, money is like water... it doesn't disappear off the face of the planet, it just... moooves around."
"From other people to you, mainly."
J gave him a wounded look. "Aw, you know I don't give a shit about money."
Bruce laughed because, strangely, it was true. "You just like having the power to cause mayhem."
"We're all playing God, Bruce-o. You and your family, with all their phil-anthropy and their programmes and their foundations, building up the poor. Me... I'm pulling down the rich. It's all about..." he made an emphatic gesture, tapping the bar top with two fingers, "cosmic balance."
"Like Vishnu and Shiva," Bruce commented, almost to himself.
"Sure, I'll drink to that."
After dinner, paid for by Bruce, they went to one of the dive bars in the narrows favoured by J. Although Bruce liked to complain about J's bad taste in drinking dens, secretly he loved the seedy anonymity of the places they went. The smell of beer soaked into floorboards, of sawdust and cigarette smoke made him feel strangely free and relaxed after a lifetime of fine dining.
Despite the fact that they were two well-heeled men in the notoriously dangerous narrows, they rarely seemed to run into trouble. Something about J's scars and the look of glittering intelligence in his eyes tended to put off anyone who might have otherwise entertained a fleeting thought of harassing him. They probably assumed that he was some kind of well-to-do thug (true in its own way); a son of the mafia perhaps.
Bruce had no fears for his own personal safely: he was in good shape, of course, thanks to all the gym work and boxing. A dark, atavistic part of him welcomed the occasional drunken fight. It wanted the world to know that Bruce Wayne wasn't just some effete little rich boy, riding through life on his daddy's coat-tails: he was powerful, dangerous – and he could take care of himself.
He supposed that luring him into sleazy, dangerous situations was J's way of educating him, playing Virgil to his Dante.
He had once seen J with blood on his teeth, laughing as Bruce flexed his grazed knuckles after flooring an assailant. That was the first time he had realised that he wanted to kiss J.
Tonight they were in a bar called 'One-Eyed Jacks', sitting in a dark corner and drinking cheap whisky, the kind that tasted like a cross between burnt wood and antiseptic mouthwash.
"Jaaaaaaaay. Mister Jaaaaaay. You're my best friend, you know?" he slung his arm around his companion's broad shoulders.
J's laugh was like a machine-gun stutter in his ear. This close J smelled like sweat and cologne. Bruce wanted to bite him on the underside of his jaw, wanted to undo the buttons on his shirt and slide his hand inside, feel the hardness of his chest.
"Ye-ah, I know Brucey-babes, I know."
"But you don't understand." Bruce frowned, then waved a hand at nothing in particular. "Should I fire Coleman Reese, do you think?"
"Yeah," J agreed emphatically, tapping a forefinger on the table, "He's a little sneeeeak! Fire his ass! Do it right now!" He pick-pocketed Bruce's phone out of the inside of his jacket and held it in front of his face.
Bruce laughed and took it, flipping it open. Bruce scowled in drunken outrage as he squinted at his contacts list. "I don't have his number!"
"Uh-oooooh!" J covered Bruce's face with one hand.
"Hey quit it you asshole!" Bruce gave him a shove which had more force behind it than he meant.
"You're not the boss 'a me!"
"Yes I am. That's exactly what I am."
"I only let you think that."
"Pff," said Bruce laughing, but his rejoinder was forgotten when J's fist grasped hold of the front of his shirt and a forearm pinned him against the wall of the booth. J's face was suddenly very close, but Bruce was distracted from it by a quick glint of steel. The double-edged blade of a flick knife slipped between his faintly parted lips, lying flat against his tongue and pressing painfully against the left corner of his mouth.
"Shush-shush-shh," J said when he made a startled sound. "Don't struggle now, wouldn't want a... aha, a slip up.."
Bruce's dark, anxious eyes searched the face of his friend. J's eyes held no insanity or drunken glaze – they were shrewd and bright, as if all the alcohol he had consumed had only sharpened his sobriety.
"You're the boss, huh?" J repeated, his voice low, almost intimate. "Look, look, you're afraaaid – how can you be the boss of anyone? Hm?" His tongue did a slippery circuit around his red-bitten lips. "If you don't know what you want... how can you tell someone else what to do for you?"
Bruce made a brief effort to move, to shove J back so he could free his hands, but the other man held him fast.
"No, no no, don't struggle. I'm just trying to prove a point, Brucey. Look at me! Look what I can do to you in – in a moment. Hmm? I could give you scars, like mine, if I wanted to. You wanna know how I got them? Want to really know?"
Bruce swallowed, tasting metal, the blade just nicking the seam of his lips. He could feel a trickle of blood slide ticklishly down his chin.
"So I was this wimpy little kid, right? Nothing went right for me. Alcoholic dad, handy with his fists, pill-popping mommy, always zombie-fied or passed out. Bullied at school for being the poor boy with dime store clothing, right?" his eyes were wide and vulnerable now, as if pleading with Bruce to understand, but the arm against his chest was still forcing out his breath, the knife hand still steady. "And I was always crying. 'Boo hoo! Don't beat me up! I can't take the pain!'. Then one day – I was maybe... thirteen – I suddenly realised that nobody was ever going to stop hitting me just because I asked them nicely. No, no. The pain was always going to be there, I just had to be... indifferent to it. I had to turn that frown upside down!" his gaze burned into Bruce's. "Literally."
Bruce felt faint – he could see the punchline coming.
"It wasn't easy, not at first. I thought about taking some of mommy's pills to dull the pain but that would have been cheating, wouldn't it? So, shallow cuts at first... then more confidence." The knife in Bruce's mouth twitched. "In the end I made myself a new face. It changes you, an experience like that..." he raised his eyebrows. "The pain, the fear, the un-certainty, it's all gone. And you can never go back... because nothing anyone else can do to you will ever be as bad as what you know you can do to yourself."
The click of a button and the knife blade retracted, then a thumb swiped at the smear of blood on Bruce's chin and the young billionaire watched as J raised it to his mouth and sucked it clean.
"So now you know what you have to do if you really want to be... your own boss."
Bruce remained where he was for a moment, his chest heaving. He knew he must look stupid and wide-eyed. Then – just as suddenly as J had seized him – he seized J, pinning him back against the cracked leather of the seat, his fists buried in the silk of waistcoat and shirt. Without even thinking it or debating it with himself, he was kissing J, attacking his mouth hungrily and stealing his breath. Shamelessly, like some mad, brute animal, he pressed his hip up against the other man's thigh and let him feel how hard he was.
A moment later he pulled away, a fine string of bloody saliva connecting their mouths like a guideline for the briefest second before it broke and separated them. Bruce bunched his sweat-dampened hands in the fabric of his own trousers and stared at J, wondering what he would do. Maybe he would laugh. Maybe he would smack him one...
"Hey you goddamn faggots!" came a voice from across the bar. "Get a fucking room!"
J's head snapped around to stare at the speaker (a soused-looking burly biker-type with a beard and an oil and God-knows-what stained t-shirt) then back to Bruce.
"What did that rube fucking call us?" he hissed.
"I think he called us faggots," Bruce replied, almost absently. Everything was lost in a haze of alcohol and shock.
"He did?" J cracked his neck, slowly and deliberately. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
There was a crash as J pushed over the table and sprang up and over it.
Bruce leaned one grazed hand against the wall as he vomited copiously into the gutter. It turned out that lobster, cheap whisky and a punch to the gut were not a good combination.
J's voice came from somewhere behind him and to his left. "You know what I like about you Brucey? You're hard, you know? Tough. Even though you never had to be. Most guys with your upbringing, they'd be all doughy and, uh... genteel. But you, you're a scrapper. Probably wouldn't have mattered to you if you'd grown up on the streets... We're two of a kind, you and me."
Bruce coughed and spat out bile, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before cautiously straightening up. When he took a step and stumbled, J grasped his arm and steadied him. His body seemed like the only reassuringly solid thing in the world, so Bruce leaned against it.
A hand ruffled his hair. "Alright kiddo, let's get you home." J's laugh rang out, echoing in the alley. "Little man you've had a busy day..."
Bruce woke up to a world of misery and sickness. Daylight hurt. Breathing hurt.Thinking hurt. Pain circumscribed his entire existence.
His mouth tasted like something had died in it and been entombed there for days.
He brought his hands up to his head in an attempt to stop his skull from exploding and gave a long, low groan of self-pity.
"Morning princess," came a familiar voice. "Gosh, no offense, but you really look like hell before you've put your face on in the mornings, hon."
Bruce thought of some choice things to say but he didn't know if his voice was working yet, and didn't want to give J an excuse to come over and shake him or tickle him or... agitate his fragile frame in any way, really, so he merely groaned again. "Uuungh."
"Yeah," said J thoughtfully. "Good point."
Bruce coughed and blinked his eyes open a fraction. He couldn't see J, so he assumed the voice must be coming from the kitchen, behind him from where he lay sprawled out on his own sofa. "Why aren't you hung-over, you bastard?"
"Hey, don't be mad at meeee just 'cause some of us can hold our drink." The voice was coming closer. A hand holding a mug appeared and deposited it on the coffee table, eye-level to supine Bruce. He could smell coffee and see inviting wafts of steam, but he wasn't ready to actually attempt to sit up in order to drink it.
J threw himself down into an armchair opposite, sticking his long legs out in front of him and crossing them at the ankles.
"So you stayed the night?" Bruce asked.
"Hmm. Didn't seem fair to leave you. Besides," he gave a luxurious stretch, "your bed is com-feee."
Bruce grinned. "You let me sleep on the sofa while you took the bed?"
"Hey, you were passed out. Wouldn't have made a difference to you whether it was a fluffy cloud or a bag of rocks."
Bruce glanced beneath the blanket to see he was in his boxers. "Did I at least undress myself?"
J laughed. "Uh, no."
"'Goddamn faggot'," said Bruce with a smirk.
"I hear it takes one to know one."
Bruce reddened. "Listen I'm sorry about that. I was really drunk..."
J laughed, uproariously. "Ha ha! Bruce! You're amaaaazing! I pull a knife on you and you apologise to meee... for a little kiss? Ha-hee-hee!"
Bruce scowled. "Ok, let it go."
J got up and came over to peer at him, hunkering down and tilting his head to one side. "You're cute when you're embarrassed," he said, poking Bruce's forehead with one finger.
Bruce batted the hand away irritably. "Yeah, go on, get out of here. Aren't there other people in the world for you to torment?"
"Ok, I'm gooooing," J bounced up and almost took a step before a thoughtful look came over his features, like he had just remembered something. He crouched back down, smirking face looming once more in Bruce's line of sight. "And by the waaay... I will fuck you. And it's going to be glorious." He straightened up again and added brightly: "but you know... when you're sober. So long, beautiful. See you Monday."
Bruce stared wildly after him as J sauntered through the door and slammed it, wondering if he had hallucinated the whole episode.
Eventually he managed to sit up and drink most of the black coffee. Then he stumbled through to his room and climbed into the bed. He smelled J's cologne on his pillows and it immediately conjured up the image of that loose-limbed body naked and luxuriating in the comfort of his – Bruce's own – bed.
He groaned again, but this time it wasn't pain... his hand pressed against the front of his shorts as he remembered how J's chest had felt pressed up against his, the brief, hot, wet clash of their mouths.
One fine day Bruce was really going to fire him.
Monday was a long way away.