The Big Story

by Chicago

Chapter Six

A man who called himself Alfred Pennyworth sat across a table from me in the sitting room of one of the penthouse suites of the Parkview Hotel. Fifteen feet from where we sat, huge glass doors opened onto a rooftop patio with stunning park and city views. Neither of us were looking in that direction. We both knew the view already.

Instead we watched one another warily. Pennyworth's face was composed, his expression cool save for his eyes. His eyes were sharp and alert and if I looked hard enough, I knew I would see things that would turn the din in my head into a howl. I looked down at the almost-empty glass of scotch instead.

He continued to study me.

"Shouldn't the boy be back by now?" I asked, as much to break the silence as from any real concern.

Pennyworth watched me swallow the last of the scotch, then rose and went back to the bar. "Dick is his own creature. I asked him to attend to certain affairs in the city if I succeeded in having you brought here. He is not happy about it, but he won't return until he knows you are gone." Pennyworth set the bottle of Glenlivet single-malt in the middle of the table and returned to his seat.

I poured myself another drink. "The boy's not old enough to shave."

"You said you knew about the circus," Pennyworth countered, and I didn't have anything I could say to that.

I set my glass down and looked again at the old Brit, seeing how this was going to go. Neither one of us wanted to talk about the one thing we had in common, neither one of us was certain how much the other knew, and we both had questions that wouldn't let us rest.

I decided to lay the first card on the table. "Canberra set the fire." To kill me, I didn't add.

Pennyworth became very still, and I could feel him processing this information, working in to the sketchy picture he had of what happened that night. Finally he nodded. "I suspected as much. He did not expect to die in it, though."

"No," I agreed, and I took another sip of scotch as the flames licked back into memory, evoking other flames from longer ago that seared even deeper. "There was the girl." Hortense Arroyo. The girl Harry Rockwell had a thing for. The girl who thought she had a thing for me. The girl who was the witness Canberra was trying to kill when a skylight shattered and everything changed. She was the only innocent in the whole sordid affair, and I was the one who managed to walk away. The scotch was burning in my throat as I swallowed more.

Now it was Pennyworth's turn. "He had been following your movements," he began, and I knew he meant Wayne, "trying to understand how your mind worked as you pieced things together. He was agitated when he called me that night, saying you would not see what Canberra was intending. He would not tell me where he was going or what he thought he could do about it."

The flames in my head were getting higher, and my fingers tightened on my glass. I forced them to relax, afraid I would break the glass, and the effort restored some focus to my mind. "You could not have stopped him," I pointed out unnecessarily.

"Did he tell you I raised him?"

"Shit," I swore, screwing my eyes shut and draining the scotch left in my glass. I made it flow through me faster, throwing a deadening cool over the echo of the word "Papa" and the wide eyes staring out of the flames. When I opened my eyes again, Pennyworth was still watching me.

"He refused to tell me much about you. I accused him of becoming obsessed." A dry, ironic chuckle escaped Pennyworth's still composed face.

"I asked him to keep my secret. In exchange for keeping his."

Pennyworth nodded. "He did," he said, and a part of me that I had not consciously considered sent relief through my system. It pushed the flames back more than the scotch could. "He even made me promise to leave you alone, whatever happened."

That got my attention - and gave me an emotion to further divert my attention from past failings. "So you have a couple of cheap goons bash my head and drag me back here? Nice way to keep a promise." I poured more scotch.

"I also promised to look out for Dick."

There was a layer of pain in Pennyworth's tone that I chose to ignore. "So you drag the kid to Metropolis on a witch hunt. Nice work." I raised my glass to him in mock toast.

I could feel the flare of Pennyworth's temper, and his voice grew cold. "Do not be fooled, Mr. Jones. He dragged me."

I snorted. "That boy?"

Pennyworth leaned close over the table, his words hissing dangerously. "That boy is on his third guardian in five years. Every adult he has loved and trusted has met a violent end. Don't question my struggle to save his soul."

Because you couldn't save Bruce, I thought to myself, but it wasn't Pennyworth I meant by the you. Still, I met his angry gaze steadily and sipped coolly at my scotch.

There was a rap at the door. Pennyworth glared at me for a moment more before he leaned back and composed his features. "Excuse me," he said politely, once again a vision of English civility. He rose and pulled his suit coat into order before heading to the foyer.

The rap came again, more impatiently, and I heard Gus Riordan's voice, muffled through the door. "Mr. Pennyworth? Everything okay there?"

I heard the door unlock and open, remembering belatedly my mental suggestion to Gus. I could take the opportunity, I realized, to declare our business finished, let Gus escort me back to the lobby. From the foyer, Pennyworth's voice drifted back. "Yes? Mr.... Riordan, was it? What can I do for you?"

I imagined the reassuring smile Gus was offering, the one that won him the ladies his sardonic grin couldn't catch. The hotel gig suited Gus. "Sorry to trouble you," he apologized before launching into a sincere-sounding lie. "I noticed the window washers left a line on the side of the building and I just wanted to check to make sure no one rigged your garden doors. Can't be too careful." As he spoke, I picked up the melting ice in the napkin and deposited both napkin and ice back in the ice bucket. I took the napkin that had covered Pennyworth's gun earlier and settled it over the puddle on the table.

"Rigged the doors?" Pennyworth asked.

"I'm sure no one did, but if I can just check-"

I could sense Pennyworth's reluctance and a hint of alarm about the line. A chill struck me as I considered how closely Gus's ruse might have inadvertently touched on a truth about the younger of 1502's present occupants that Pennyworth would want to remain hidden.

I gave the old man credit, though; Pennyworth's hesitation was so slight as to be unnoteworthy. "Of course," he said, and he led Gus into the sitting room.

Gus met my eyes as he cleared the foyer, but he gave no sign of recognition. "I'll be done in two shakes of a lamb's tale," he promised in my direction, heading for the doors leading to the rooftop garden. I watched him as he opened both doors, inspected the locks, closed them and then relocked them. "Well, better safe than sorry," he stated. "The doors are fine. Sorry to disturb you and your guest, Mr. Pennyworth."

"As you say, better err on the side of caution. I appreciate your alertness. Good day, Mr. Riordan."

"Have a good afternoon," Gus replied, and I gave him a half-wave of farewell that seemed to go as far as seeing me had to relieve his concern. He followed Pennyworth to the foyer, and I could hear him knocking on the door of 1501 before the sound was shut out.

Pennyworth emerged from the foyer and stood there, watching me narrowly. His expression was less suspicious than it was disconcerted.

I gestured him to the table. "The house dick's gone. Let's continue this and get it over with."

Pennyworth didn't move. "Your head," he said.

I reached my hand to my forehead, running my fingers over the now smooth, unmarked skin. I knew what he was looking at. "Yeah. Figured Riordan would ask about it if he saw. This was easier."

Pennyworth still remained where he was, his face greying a little. "You are - Bruce said inhuman - I thought -"

"Yeah," I said again, looking at the glass of scotch and turning it in my hands for a moment before drinking the last swallow. It tasted wrong somehow, and I pushed the glass away, suddenly not wanting more.

Pennyworth approached me warily, eyes still darting to the no-longer-there bruise. He sat slowly, reaching blindly for the bottle of scotch and sloshing some into his teacup. He took a restorative sip, and faint color returned to his cheeks. "You didn't kill Bruce, did you?" he asked bluntly, a measure of reserve suddenly falling away.

I shook my head. "No."

He digested that for a moment. "Dick thinks you had something to do with it."

"I gathered."

Pennyworth looked at me sharply. "Don't underestimate the boy. Bruce trained him."

"He's still a boy."

"We're here right now because his network in Metropolis tracked Lois Lane to your office."

That caught me short. "His network?"

Pennyworth's lips tightened for a moment under his trim mustache. "I caught him packing, ready to come here on his own and find you." He paused. "He's researched every scrap of data he could get about that night."

I thought back to the wild reporting that had followed in the days and weeks after the Daily Planet ran the banner headline, "Arson Fire Kills Billionaire!" "He thinks I was the shadowy figure."

"You were." There was no doubt in Pennyworth's tone.

I considered my empty glass, just in reach. But the voices were quieted, calmed by my necessary demonstration of what I was. I felt a cold focus of sobriety that I had not experienced since the last time I had spent time in Suite 1502 of the Parkview Hotel. "I was," I confirmed.

"The bundle you were supposedly carrying. The armor?"

I nodded, and Pennyworth sagged a little in relief. I tried fishing for more information, hoping the new spirit of openness between us might get an answer to one of my questions "Bruce wouldn't tell me why he was here, why he was so eager to keep Luthor from buying the Planet."

"Good investment," Pennyworth replied absently, a rote answer.

"Three bodies worth?" I hated myself for saying it, but I was not in the mood to accept the same answer Bruce had given me with a smile that promised he was telling only half a truth.

Pennyworth straightened forcefully, his eyes snapping and his lips pressing into a thin line. He glared at me, and I glared back. We kept ending up back in this standoff.

But Pennyworth gave this time, his mental processes telling him that I had a point, however crudely expressed, and I had given him more than he had given me. "Dick doesn't know," he offered as explanation. "Bruce didn't want him to know. That's why he left him home."

"Are you asking me to keep this from Dick?" I could not imagine it would be an issue, but I could promise if it would get me my answer.

Pennyworth didn't pay me any attention. "I don't know why he felt he had to protect him, or even really why it was so important to him, but..." He pursed his lips, thinking. Finally, he said something that was the last thing I expected to hear. "It had something to do with Clark Kent."