Author's Note: the "English pound cake incident" is a tip of the hat to Smitty's story "Operation Birthday Cake" (storyid=1040487).


In the modern world, every profession has its annual convention.

Butlers are no exception.

Which is how Alfred Pennyworth came to be standing in the exhibitor's hall of a nondescript hotel somewhere in the American Midwest and staring with mute fascination at a large cardboard box.

The box hadn't factored in Alfred's plans for the convention at all. Professional comraderie, perhaps some new ideas for shepherding his employers, and a reunion with some friends he hadn't seen in years, yes; but never had his imaginings of the convention included a large cardboard box. A box whose lid bore an inviting slot through which slips of paper easily might be -- no.

He hadn't even meant to be at the convention. He hadn't been to one in ages; Alfred's world had changed and his responsibilities altered only a few years into his butlering career. But then that year's Christmas card from Carruthers had made a persuasive case. "Look, Alfie," Carruthers had written in a formal copperplate very different from the cramped scrawl he'd had beaten out of him at Smeldrake's Butlering Academy, "old Smeldrake's getting the Cup this year and it'd do him a treat to see you there. He always liked you for some reason, damned if I know why. So tell your idiot playboy to stuff it for a few days and book the sodding flight, why don't you?"

Alfred had dithered long enough for Dick Grayson to happen across the card, then toss it onto the table at Sunday dinner with a cheerful, "Hey, Bruce, stuff it for a few days. I've just booked Alfred's sodding flight."

And so, the convention. And the box. Which was easily within reach, just behind stacks of provided white paper, and pens made readily available for Alfred to -- *no.*

The convention was well-run, though Alfred had expected no less. And it was a delight to actually see Carruthers again for the first time in... dear God, it was more than thirty years. They'd worked together, studied together, gotten drunk and cursed Smeldrake's name together. And Smeldrake, who'd turned out so many butlers, was getting the Butler's Cup, and not a moment too soon. He was ninety-three, and Alfred was getting old enough that he shivered inside to see the shrunken, wizened form of what he'd remembered as an imposing, steely man, and glimpse his future.

The conference program had been a welcome distraction from his uneasy thoughts. There were lectures; panel discussions. "The Butler and the Auction House." "Managing the Estate in Transition." "The Interior Designer: Care, Feeding, and Firing." And finally --

"Good gracious," said Alfred. "'The Employer Horror Stories Contest?'"

A maniac gleam arose in Carruthers's eyes. Alfred remembered that gleam. It had never led to anything good. "*Alfie,*" Carruthers said. "Oh, *yes.* You *must.*"

Alfred folded the program hurriedly and tucked it in his pocket. "I have no idea what you're suggesting," he said, "but whatever it is, I must do nothing of the sort."

"Oh, come on, Alfie! Have I ever led you wrong?"

"Yes, repeatedly and to my everlasting chagrin."

"Sheer calumny. Name just one instance."

"There was the incident of the strawberry schnapps and the ambassador's wife --"

Carruthers brushed his hand through the air, as if swatting a fly. "That doesn't count. I thought she was a French prostitute."

"Well, she *was,* but that was before her marriage, and you could hardly have known that at the time."

"Sorry," said one of the younger butlers at the table, "but who is it you work for again?"

"Dear God!" said Carruthers. "Smythe, are you entirely uncultured? The man works for Bruce Wayne." He put a hand on Alfred's shoulder. "Alfie," he said, "you *must* enter. Dear God, you'll beat everyone hands down."

"You work for Bruce Wayne?" said Smythe, eyes agog.

"Oh, for heaven's sake," said Alfred.

"You see?" said Carruthers. "Come on, it's all blind. No names. Only the judges know who enters. They only read the best few stories at the awards ceremony, and send all the prizes out afterward. They've got some good judges this year: John Pendleton's in charge."

"Pendleton?" said Smythe. "You mean the fellow who worked for --"

"Exactly. And if he doesn't name names when he has a front-row seat for a Hollywood power couple divorce, you know he can be trusted."

"The entire idea is ridiculous," said Alfred. "In the first place, Mr. Wayne's reputation far exceeds his actual... well, it somewhat exceeds... I should say that *some* of the stories bandied about are... oh, dear."

"You see?" said Carruthers. He was grinning from ear to ear. "You'll win in a walk. God, I bet you'll turn Pendleton's hair white."

"It is white."

"Shut up, Smythe."

"Enough," said Alfred. He tossed his napkin beside his plate. "I'll hear no more of this. Besides, the very idea is entirely unprofessional. Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Smeldrake?"

All eyes turned to the wizened man at the head of the table.

"I've been in this business seventy-five years," said Smeldrake. He spoke slowly and faintly. His voice was a quiet rasp. "I've trained butlers since 1947. I've worked in houses of the very rich. I've bailed more out of crises of staff, indiscretion, and moral turpitude than I could name, and I've been a helpless party to God knows how many more. Carruthers is a pompous twit, Pennyworth. I don't have to tell you that. But I know just how much stress keeping their sordid little secrets and suffering their petty tyrannies can be. Maybe it's that I know I'll die soon, so I don't give a damn any more. But if it might give long-suffering servants the slightest release to gripe in a discreet, and anonymous, whisper... then I say those rich little shits deserve what's coming to them."

A long moment's silence fell before Carruthers raised a glass. "Well said, Mr. Smeldrake. May I --"

"Put a sock in it, Carruthers."

"Putting a sock in it, sir."

The dessert cart came then, and the subject was tabled. But halfway through an excellent chocolate mousse, Alfred's thoughts kept coming back to what Smeldrake had said. They're taking entries in the exhibition hall, a sly voice in the back of his head whispered. It sounded far too much like Carruthers for Alfred's comfort. You don't have to do anything. You can just go and *see...*

As the lunch group separated, Carruthers caught Alfred's eye and grinned.

Alfred Pennyworth stared coldly back with an utterly implacable expression that was spoiled when his eye involuntarily twitched.

And there he stood, facing the cardboard box.

With its slot. And its paper. And the pens, just waiting for -- *NO.*

Because, of course, while Alfred had stammered through his attempted defense of Bruce Wayne's reputation, his thoughts had been repeatedly derailed by a series of memories that unrolled, unbidden, from the depths of his subconscious.

Every excuse he'd had to make when Bruce abandoned a gorgeous debutante to answer the Bat-signal.

Every time Bruce had come back home at four in the morning with a knife wound, or a bullet wound, or an acid burn, for Alfred to tend.

Every time Bruce had gone out again immediately *after* being tended, despite Alfred's strict orders of bed rest.

Every priceless antique destroyed in the quest for a new reactant for blood proteins, or a test of some new solvent, or just because Bruce was bored and felt like batarang practice.

Every time he'd had to hire and train an all-new staff for one event, then turn around and fire them again just as they were up to snuff because his employer was paranoid about inquisitive servants and unwanted gossip.

Every night he'd lain awake in a cold sweat.

Every poor innocent dragged into Bruce's crusade and turned into a bitter soldier.

Every single gray hair on Alfred's head, and at least fifteen of the extra pounds he carried, and that wasn't fair but he didn't give a damn.

Alfred's hand stretched out for a pen.

Well, he thought, perhaps just *one.*


"Federal Express, for Alfred Pennyworth."

Bruce Wayne frowned in puzzlement and took the package. He signed as directed. "Thank you," he said. Odd; Alfred usually took deliveries by the kitchen. He closed the door and drew his silk robe tighter around him. He regarded the package. Held it to his ear and shook. It rattled faintly. He weighed his options. The idea of running it down to the cave and putting it through the fluoroscope was extraordinarily tempting. Then again, the direct route might be faster.

He pushed open the kitchen door with his hip. "Alfred," said Bruce, "is there something you're not telling me? Because --" he stopped. His jaw hung open.

The kitchen was full of boxes. Box upon box upon box, stacked and piled on the floor and every available surface. His butler stood by the kitchen door, squaring off one such stack.

Bruce, usually not one to be caught unawares, stared.

"Master Bruce?" said Alfred. "Ah!" He was across the kitchen in two quick steps and plucked the package from Bruce's grip. "Most fortunate," he said. "The driver worried he'd misplaced this. I'm glad he found it before leaving the grounds."

"Er, Alfred," said Bruce, "I have to ask -- "

The kitchen door opened again and Dick Grayson and Tim Drake staggered in. Both were loaded down with yet more boxes. "That's almost the last of them, Alfred!" puffed Tim.

"There's still a couple more in the carriage house," Dick added helpfully. "Oh, hey. Morning, Bruce."

Bruce closed his eyes tightly, then opened them again. Nothing had changed in the interval. "What's going on?" he said. "Alfred, what are all these boxes?"

"My winnings, sir."

"Your what?"


Bruce turned in the direction of the sound. Tim had pried one package open and peeked inside. Gingerly, he reached in and pulled out the most hideous silver loving cup Bruce had ever seen.

Until he looked over at Dick Grayson, who was just pulling an even more grotesque piece out of *his* parcel.

"Alfred," said Bruce slowly, "please tell me there was some kind of horrible accident involving E-Bay and my credit cards."

Dick made a face. "Why would you want him to tell you that?"

"Because it's the most appealing explanation I can think of right now."

"Oh, come on," said Dick. "They're not *that* --" Tim held up a silver inkwell decorated by a buxom nymph who was draping daisy chains around the neck of a leering satyr. "Whew. Okay, so maybe they are that bad."

"I shouldn't worry, Master Bruce," said Alfred. "These are my winnings from the contest at the butlering convention."

"Contest? You didn't mention any contest."

"The 'Employer Horror Stories' contest, sir."

Thirty seconds of absolute dead silence followed.

It was broken by the strangled sounds of Tim and Dick striving mightily to stifle howls of laughter.

"You... won... this?"

"Yes, sir."

"*All* of this?"

"First place through twenty-seventh, inclusive."

Dick doubled over, hugging himself. Tears streamed down Tim's cheeks. He wiped them with a silk handkerchief painted to resemble a section of the Bayeaux Tapestry. "Where did they get this -- this -- " he stammered.

" -- this crap?" finished Dick.

"My understanding," said Alfred, "is that most of it was donated from butlers' unwanted Christmas presents."

"Oh, come on," said Tim. "You mean nobody would actually *want* --" he rummaged "-- scenes from the life of Princess Diana embossed on a gold plate?!" His face twisted. "Oh, *man!* Bruce, can you get Mad Hatter to wipe my brain or something?"

"Incidentally," said Alfred, "I'd like to take this opportunity to say that I am grateful to each of you for your fine choices in books and neckties."

"Alfred," said Bruce in a voice usually reserved for Gotham's back alleys in the small hours of the morning, "what exactly did you tell them?"

Alfred smiled. "It will no doubt please you to know, Master Bruce, that every single one of these monstrosities was won by an account of one of your attempts to venture into the kitchen. The plate to which Master Tim refers, for example, was won by, I believe, the English pound cake incident."

Dick and Tim, who had played no small part in that affair, looked to the ceiling with expressions of pious innocence.

"And we owe the grotesque hand mirror Master Dick has just uncovered to your well-meaning, yet utterly disastrous attempt to make chicken soup."

"What got first place?" said Tim eagerly.

"It is the affair of the wet socks and the grilled-cheese sandwich, for which the world is not yet prepared," said Alfred. "And its reward..."

Alfred held up the package Bruce had collected at the front door. He opened it and withdrew a small, velvet-lined case. He opened the case and peered inside. "Ah," he said. "How nice."

"It's not tacky?" said Dick with disappointment.

"It's not a cast-off?" said Tim.

"No," said Alfred. "It is one of a kind."

He turned the case around and held it out.

Inside lay a beautiful silver spoon. It was inscribed, in the most delicate engraving, "To be inserted rectally."

As Tim and Dick curled up and laughed themselves sick, Alfred closed the case and started to slip it into his jacket pocket. Bruce's hand closed over his wrist.

"Oh, no, Alfred," said Bruce grimly. "We'll give this a *special* place of honor."

As he left the kitchen for the Batcave and the trophy case, he pretended not to overhear Dick's whispered, "Hope you never want to see that again, Alfred -- you'll need a crowbar to get it out."


The JLA transporter buzzed quietly as two figures materialized on the platform. The tall, dark one stepped forward confidently as the other craned his neck to look around.

"We'll be getting on our way shortly. I just need to restock my utility belt. *Don't touch anything.*"

"Hey! It's me!"

With a grunt, Batman disappeared into the costume vault.

As soon as he disappeared, a red blur crossed the cave. The wind sent the computer chair spinning before a gloved hand stopped it. Then the blur was off again, inspecting everything: the giant penny, the dinosaur, the old Robin costume, the trophy case...

The blur paused. Just below Mr. Freeze's gun and to the left of one of Two-Face's coins, a silver spoon lay on a shelf. The visitor leaned forward and read the engraving. Did a double-take and read it a second time, just in case he was mistaken.

"Man," said the Flash. "I guess he really does have a tool for everything."