The Big Story

by Chicago

Chapter Eleven

"Count it." It was Bruce Wayne's voice, but I wasn't looking at him. My gaze was focused on a thick envelope on the table in front of me.

"I already told you," I heard myself answering, "I cannot take on another case right now. I appreciate-"

"Count it, and then we'll talk."

My hands turned the envelope over and untucked the flap. I expected twenties or fifties. Instead there were three fives, six twos, and several ones. The whole stack totaled $53. I remember looking up at him sharply, but in my dream-memory, his face swam casually into view, a knowing quirk shaping his lips into an almost-smile.

"I didn't think your strategy included losing that much," he commented lightly. It wasn't just the money I had lost to him. It was all the money I had lost the previous night, in exactly the denominations that I lost it. Not the same bills, I could see, but still a prodigious display of observation.

I saw no choice but to play my trump card. "You're Matches Malone."

"And you're Barney Smith," he rebutted, reporting the name I had used to join Douglas Canberra's poker game. "You're pyrophobic." His words were accompanied by a flood of mental images, of my observed flinches at Malone's perpetual string of matches and ...

My eyes narrowed at him. "You're Batman."

I had caught him flatfooted, but only fleetingly. "Telepath?"

I nodded, and Bruce's face unfocused, blurred into the mask of the Bat, and then we were in the flames, his cape over me, my arm under his shoulders, both of us staggering, and Bruce urging me mentally to read his thoughts. The tumult of images, information and instructions flooded over me, and in the maelstrom, my dream-self asked what I didn't know to ask at the time:

What about Kent?

"What about Kent?" I mumbled aloud, waking myself. One arm was thrown over my eyes against the early morning sun. The other arm hung over the edge of the couch, its fingers wrapped around the neck of a bottle. I felt a sort of all over nausea, a clammy unpleasantness that wasn't limited to my stomach. It was an act of will to let my legs down from the couch and sit up.

I sat dumbly for a long moment, vaguely confused at the stained walls and battered furniture of my office. My throat felt smoke burned, and my eyes were gummy and raw. Slowly, the memory of the last 24 hours filtered back to me, reminded me it had been two years since I had staggered from a burning warehouse, my arms laden with body armor and instructions for hiding it.

My eyes traveled down to the bottle still in my hand. It was still 2/3 full, its cap still in place.

I opened my fingers and let it fall the two inches to the floor. It hit with a clunk and tipped onto its side, a burbling noise sounding from the liquid it contained. My hands trembled as I brought them up to cover my face.

I had descended into the sewers, guided by memories not my own to an underground station for a subway line that was never built. Batman's armor would still be there now, I knew. I should tell Dick Grayson.

Bruce Wayne had known what he was doing. In giving me the mission of keeping his secret safe, he had bought my body time to heal itself enough to resist my desire to die. I was badly burned, barely sane, and knew only I needed to get far away from both the scene of the crime and from Batman's hidey hole. I suspected I would never have any memory of how I ended up back at my Midtown apartment, but I remember Lois Lane finding me.

I could still see the horror in her expression as she regarded my crisped flesh and realized no human body could come in that shade of green. I could still feel my own horror at being so completely unable to disappear before she could see me.

In the span of those two weeks, two humans had learned my secret. One had died, and the other was now using it against me.

I should have fled into the wilderness. It was folly to think that burying myself in Uptown and drowning myself in whiskey was enough.

I made myself stand, grimacing with the effort. I had remembered to take off my jacket, tie and shoes, but the rest of me was rumpled. I could feel the creases in my skin from my clothes, as well as a layer of city grime.

I swayed as I peeled off my shirt and balled it, throwing it back into a corner of the couch. I undid my belt and stripped my trousers as well, draping them over the back of my client chair after smoothing them with the flat of my hand. A few staggering steps brought me to the sink, and I opened the medicine cabinet to extract a washcloth.

The face that regarded me from the medicine cabinet mirror actually looked better than I felt. The eyes were red-rimmed and bleary, and the jaw had a grim set to it, but the evidence of a soul dragged through nightmare was only in the hollowness of my pupils where it could easily be missed.

I opened the tap and ran the water as hot as it would get, filling the basin and soaking my washcloth. I bathed my neck and armpits and arms - any skin uncovered by my undershirt. Then I bent over to splash water onto my face and scrub it into a new configuration.

Two years of enforcing my life in John Jones's body with a steady diet of Jack Daniels made the art of changing feel awkward at first. The square jaw and flattened nose resisted my initial attempts to imagine them otherwise. The knack returned quickly, though, nature taking over where nurture resisted. When I finally straightened in front of the mirror, the bland, unremarkable features of Alonzo Gray gazed back at me.

With the face established, the rest of my body responded easily to demands to be slimmer, shorter, more average. I had learned years ago that most people would have to spend a significant amount of time with Lonnie Gray before they would even remember having met him. In my early efforts to craft an inoffensive alias, I had succeeded in making an unmemorable one. There were many more years of trial and error that finally led me to be John Jones.

John Jones had had friends. He was mysterious but trustworthy. Likeable in his way. He had been making his way like any other Joe. I embraced his fortunes as my own. Now his fortunes had driven me to resurrect Lonnie Gray.

In that moment, I hated Lois Lane.

Jones's clothes would not fit Gray, so I stepped back from the mirror and concentrated. I felt my cultivated human sensibilities recoil a bit as my undershirt and boxers began to stretch and squirm, assuming the dimensions of a grey off-the-rack suit, a clean shirt, and an unobtrusive tie. A little more focus yielded a hat that was subtly last season and a pair of black shoes.

I forced my face into a smile I didn't feel. Lonnie's face in the mirror showed a blandly pleasant expression. It would do.

I took another step back and the heel of my shoe hit the bottle of whiskey on the floor. I picked it up and gave it a hard look. Lonnie was a teetotaler. It took an effort to resist the urge to sully him.

I did resist, though, and put the bottle back in its drawer. There was only one way I was going to resolve the mystery of Clark Kent's relationship to Superman, and that was going to be by sticking to Kent like glue. Becoming Lonnie was just the first step.

I glanced at the clock on the file cabinet. I had forgotten to wind it; its hands had died at 4:36. I sighed and turned my sights outward. By the shadows from the sun, it wasn't later than 8. I needed to get to Midtown, but Gray shouldn't be seen anywhere near Jones's office, no matter how forgettable he was. I reached out with my mind to feel the light reflecting from my body and altered my surface until the rays bent around me. The mirror confirmed my success; I had become invisible.

One more step, then. One more power deliberately forgotten and suppressed. I ducked my head to step out of my window and onto the ledge. The sun felt warm despite my deflection of its light. I found myself suddenly wishing I could be out on the beach, having a beer with Gus and watching Lorna and Betsy play in the waves. I could find a new line of work, maybe set up a business in Vernon...

I shook myself from my fantasy. Down the track, the inbound el was braking into the Cotton Street platform. I needed to get moving. I rose up on my toes and leapt into the morning sky.