The Big Story

by Chicago

Chapter Five

The ground was far away and moving side to side like it was riding waves. Except boat decks didn't look like alleys, and even if they did, I didn't see how I could be moving forward when I couldn't see my feet. That, and the muttering I was beginning to hear was not the ocean.

"Sumbitch is heavier than he looks."

"Looks like a boxer type. All that compact muscle. Think he's comin' around, too."

"Hit him again?"

In the pause for decision, the men who propped me up by the arms tried to shift my weight across their shoulders. I groaned and my head lolled to one side, free for the moment from the incessant swaying. I could feel someone's breath on my face for a second, an unfocused blur, and another shift under my arm.

"Nah, he'll be good. Won't you, boyo?"

I didn't reply, but Voice 2 didn't seem to need an answer. He started to move forward again, but Voice 1 stayed still. The jerk of my arms stretched across their shoulders jolted more awareness into me. "I dunno about this, Paulie."

Paulie gave a heavy sigh. "Look, asshole, order says not to rough him up too much. And he don't need to be hit again. Hotel security get one whiff of him, we pass him off as our buddy who just been on a bender. Doesn't matter what he says then."

"Heh. Yeah, he sure stinks. All right, then-" Voice 1 shifted, dropping his weight and straightening back up more securely under my arm.

"Good boy, Seamus." Now Paulie shifted, and I could feel both their arms across my back, supporting me. I didn't bother to try to get my feet under me. No sense making it easier for them, even if I was scuffing the hell out of my shoes as they dragged me from the dimness of the alley into the full day of the street.

I kept my head bowed but swung it to one side so I could place where I was. I wasn't in the heart of Midtown anymore, but rather on the east edge, where Park Front Avenue got its name. We were emerging onto a familiar sidewalk outside the Parkview Hotel. My "helpers" must have loaded me into a car, probably parked behind the Tap. Probably with permission. Meaning probably the look Angie gave me when she saw me heading for the men's room was not about how drunk she thought I was, but how beat up she thought I'd get.

I should have realized from the crazy clamor of the voices in my head. But it had been too long since I'd been anywhere where people's attention was so focused on me. All I'd heard was the overwhelming cacophony, too strong to deaden even with the aid of Jack Daniels.

We were under the awning of the hotel, and the bell captain stopped us. "Where you think you're taking him?"

I could feel the apologetic smile on Paulie's face. He was a little shorter than Seamus, causing me to list even more crazily between them, and he was also obviously sharper than his companion. "1502 sent us to round him up. Said he was an old buddy needed help crawling out of the bottle."

Something in the bell captain's demeanor changed, became more upright and nervous. I couldn't see his face past the brim of my hat, but I could hear it in his voice. "1502, you say? Take him on up then, but be quick about it."

"Much obliged," Paulie replied. "If you could just get the door for us..."

"Of course, of course. Just go."

I heard the scrape of the door, and the concrete beneath my feet gave way to the thick patterned carpet of the Parkview lobby. I groaned.

"Shut up, you," Seamus hissed, and I could feel him sweating where my weight rested against his body. It smelled of fear more than exertion.

I wanted to see who was up in the penthouse on fifteen who had so cordially arranged for my visit, but it was in my interest for my trip across the lobby to be remembered. I settled my weight lower, dragging my feet more heavily in the carpet, and swung my head like a bull in a ring.

"I mean it," Seamus threatened, hissing a word at me that got a disapproving glance from a woman sitting just close enough to hear. She wasn't the one I wanted to see me, however. My wild scan of the room had found exactly who I was looking for.

Gus Riordan, house detective of the Parkview, was standing by the concierge desk exchanging witticisms with someone seated on the other side of the counter. His eyes were scanning the lobby with casual alertness. I rolled my head against Seamus's shoulder, making my face visible from Gus's angle.

"Shut it, Seamus," Paulie growled, and from my new position, I could see his eyes darting around the lobby.

I felt Gus's shock of recognition when he saw me, although his expression didn't change. He laughed at something the other person said, moving casually away from the counter as if he was heading out to take care of some routine business. His stroll was moving him in our direction, and Paulie was stiffening.

I closed my eyes and groaned again, flopping as if I had passed out and managing to make myself easier to carry at the same time. With my eyes on the floor, I concentrated hard in Gus's direction. I didn't want him to stop us. I just wanted him to monitor, see where I went, think about checking in up in 1502 if I hadn't reappeared within a half-hour.

I couldn't see what happened, but I felt Paulie relax a little as we drew up to the elevators. "I don't like the way that house dick was lookin' at us," Seamus complained.

"He didn't stop us. And we're not doin' nothing wrong. Just helping this old guy's buddy."

I heard the ping of the elevator door, then the slide of it opening. The Parkview installed new elevators - state of the art - about three years back. They were the kind that didn't need attendants. Gus complained that guests got up to all sorts of nonsense since they installed them. I was thinking that me getting dragged across the city counted as some kind of nonsense, but from the hired goons doing the dragging, I was going to learn nothing. They pulled me into the elevator, and I felt Paulie shift to hit the button on the wall.

"He passed out again, Paulie. Think I hit him too hard?"

"Now you care about hittin' him too hard," Paulie snorted. "I think you should be happy he didn't piss himself when you put him down. Next time you wait 'til after a guy shakes himself off before you sap 'im at a urinal."

"Sorry, Paulie. I just - Eddie said he was slippery and-"

"Eddie's full of shit. Now shut up and let me do the talkin'," Paulie ordered, and I felt the elevator coming to a halt.

I should've figured Gornicki set me up.

The elevator doors opened onto a short hall with two doors. Paulie and Seamus re-settled me and hauled me to the one on the right. 1502. I'd been there before.

Paulie reached for the knocker, rapping out a combination of short and long taps. After a moment's pause, the door opened wide. "Bring him in."

The voice giving the order belonged to a boy, not older than his early teens. He was short enough I could see him from my slouch, and he could see my face. He was dark-haired and serious, and I saw him cataloging me, observing my face and my feigned unconsciousness. It was unnerving, the clinical study he made of me. His eyes were an icy blue, harder than a boy's that age should be.

He stood to one side as Paulie and Seamus took me through a short foyer to the main sitting room of the suite. A precise British voice said, "Set him there, if you please."

"Sure thing," Paulie agreed amiably, and a moment later I was slumped in a chair at a table. "John Jones, just like we promised."

"You'll remove his hat, please. And Mr. Jones, if you would lift your chin and cease your charade, I would appreciate it."

I felt my hat removed, and I obeyed the order to raise my face to stare sullenly at the owner of the British accent. He was a tidy man, not overly tall, but slim enough to appear taller than he was. He was wearing a black three piece suit and a freshly starched shirt. A thin grey mustache graced his upper lip, neatly trimmed. On the table in front of him, under a crisp linen napkin, I could see a circle of cold steel. "Yes, this is Mr. Jones," he stated, a note of satisfaction in his tone. "Dick, if you would be good enough to accompany these men to the lobby and see to their payment."

The boy who had opened the door for us - Dick, apparently - nodded, his jaw tightening in a hint of stubbornness before he said, "This way, please."

"Pleasure doing business with you, sir," Paulie said from behind me, and then he and Seamus were following the boy out.

"I'd think twice about sending a young boy off alone with those goons," I stated as soon as the door closed.

The British man smiled thinly and sipped from a tea cup that had been sitting beside the napkin. "Dick can look after himself," he stated. "I also would prefer he not be here for this."

"Is this where you tell me you had me dragged here so you could plug me yourself?"

"Please, Mr. Jones. If I had wanted you dead, you would have been buried two years ago along with the other poor souls in that warehouse." He watched me carefully for a moment, then unfurled a second napkin sitting on the table. He settled one hand on the still concealed gun. "I apologize for the incivility of this meeting." His free hand was opening the ice bucket and scooping ice cubes onto the just unfurled napkin. "I have conflicting intelligence about the kind of man you are." He folded the napkin over the ice and slid the bundle toward me.

I looked at it without picking it up. "You believe I was at the warehouse."

"Belief has nothing to do with it, Mr. Jones. And I note you don't ask which warehouse. Now do mind that knot on your forehead."

"Not many people in this town know my name and don't know which warehouse," I pointed out, still refusing the ice and letting my eyes drift around the room. "You haven't been here long."

The man inclined his head. "You are observant, Mr. Jones. And stubborn."

"You got any whiskey?"

"Ice for your drink, but not for your head. When Bruce said you were inhuman, I took him to mean something different."

I sat up straight in my chair, unable to contain my reaction. "What did you just say?"

The Brit smiled, but it was a sad kind of smile. "I have your attention. Good. Now if you can just tell me if I will need this-" he lifted the napkin from the gun, a .22 - "we can have a conversation."

I stared at him. "I'm an unarmed man hated by half the city of Metropolis, in the hotel room of a man able to afford a penthouse suite at the Parkview. How far do you think I'll get if I do anything to harm you?"

He frowned. "Quite far, actually. You'll have to do better than that, Mr. Jones."

I blinked numbly and picked up the ice on the table. I pressed it to the goose egg on my forehead, anchoring my mind against the cold and reaching out mentally. The Brit was a dangerous man, that I could tell. But he was also sad, disinclined to harm me unless I forced him to it.

"Why did you have those mooks take me down?"

He shrugged, his hand still on the little .22. "It seemed unlikely you would come willingly."

"You could have asked."

"And risked your disappearance back to Uptown."

I closed my eyes and concentrated. Hazy memories, deliberately buried two years ago, pushed against the rising swell of the voices in my head. I wanted a drink, but I suddenly knew what the old man wanted to hear. "That boy, Dick. He's his."

I heard the gun lifted from the table, but I could not look up to see if the Brit was pocketing it or aiming it. A part of me wanted it to be the latter. I really needed a drink. "He told you this?"

I pressed the ice harder to my forehead. It hurt, but it hurt less than the inside of my brain. "He told me about the circus."

I heard an odd intake of air from the Brit, but I still kept my eyes screwed shut. I could hear him moving now, across the room, some indistinct noises from the wet bar, and then he was at my side, setting a glass of Scotch in front of me. "As close as I have," he half-apologized.

I removed the makeshift icepack from my forehead and picked up the glass, looking at it gratefully before I took a big swallow. The liquor felt warm in my throat and my belly, and the voices began to settle back to the background. The Brit moved back to his side of the table and sat. When I looked at him, his eyes were hollows of regret and concern, and the gun was no longer in his hand.

He waited until I had taken a couple more swallows of the Scotch before he spoke. "Let me try to start this conversation in a more civilized manner." He met my eyes, and I know he saw an ache he knew. "My name," he introduced, "is Alfred Pennyworth."