"Ronniiiieeee..." the young woman in the black outfit with knit cap said to the man similarly attired who was standing by an open electrical switch box on the side of a wall in a dark alley, "... its freezing out here!"
Ronny used a flashlight to light up the inside of the switch box, his eyes darting over the connection.
"I know, Erin, it won't be much longer. I just have to cut off the junction to the shop and we will be in like flynn."
Erin glanced left and right as the damp, chilly salt air from the shore just two blocks over swept through the area.
"I shoulda never listened to you!" she said in soft but somewhat irritated tones so as not to have the winds and walls carry her words, "And its just trade junk, too, not real, you know?"
He looked at her for a moment.
"I tellya, I know what I saw there, and that is not some knock-off or shit like that. That is the real deal, diamonds around ruby in gold with inlayed platinum. Hell, I lifted it. So did you. That isn't pot metal with a coating and paste gems."
"I dunno about that Ronny," she said in softer tones as he got back to work finding the junction for the shop in question, "but its still freezing and I don't feel safe in the Shambles."
She stepped around up and down the alley, shivering in her form-fitting outfit all in black.
"Just another moment, honey," he said placing a wire in with a shower of sparks, and then closing the door to the metal box.
"There! Now its just one or two of the physical obstacles, Erin, and we will be in. Come on!"
He walked quickly up the alley with Erin following him. They picked their way between the chain link fence under the Gotham Interconnector and over the rubble of the building that had once been there, but didn't have its remains cleared out too well by the contractors doing the job. Someone forgot to put debris removal in the contract and the city never did find money to get that done. In just a few minutes of scrambling over the debris at night they were two alleys over and worked their way to the back of the building that held the shop.
Ronny turned to Erin.
"Now," he said in soft but excited tones, "its just shimmy up the drainpipe to the roof and go in through the roof door.
She looked at him skeptically and then at the less black back wall that went up into the somewhat murky sky with the next to black showing up next to it if you looked just right into the night.
"We should just use the coal chute, you know? Faster," she said to him.
He shook his head which she could barely see in the clouded over night.
"Grates, nails, bars. The guy who runs this place did a good job with that. Used binocs from the Corbett building to look under the overpass and could see there ain't no lock on the roof door. Maybe a bar on the other side to keep it shut, but thats dead simple to deal with," he said pointing to the thin metal bar strapped to his leg.
He motioned for her to give him the rope she was carrying, which she took off over her head and handed it to him.
"Just give me a minute, ok?" he asked.
"Nuh-huh. Ok, Ronny," she said looking around the debris field and then up the alley as he moved to get his hands around the first holdfasts and shimmy his way up. He was careful, methodical and in just five minutes with a chill bitter wind blowing on the roof, he was up. When he was up he felt around for an iron eyebolt set into the masonry, normally used to serve as a place to secure tarps it did marvelously well for a rope to attach to it, and he sent it over the side with a dull *thump* sound.
"You coulda given me a warning," Erin shouted in hushed tones.
"Sorry," he said, "just climb up it, we are almost there."
He braced the rope around his shoulders to help give Erin some leeway from the building, and she used the rope and a few of the holdfasts to get up in nearly a minute. She was breathing hard as she crawled over the edge of the raised lip of the roof.
"God, its freezing up here, Ronny," she said.
"Just a couple of minutes more..." he detached the rope and quickly recoiled it and handed it to her. Together they went to the door and he tried the handle. It moved but the door didn't. Ronny took out the metal bar and carefully shimmied it through the space between the door and the jamb. He grunted a few times and tried to move it back and forth a bit.
"You said it would be easy!" Erin said as she shivered.
"It... will be... just have... to get... it..." the metal slid easily with a hissing sound, "through! Now I just pull up..." there was a clank and slight sound of metal grinding on metal as he lifted the bar up, "and that should be it."
Putting his hand on the door handle it swung easily inwards.
"Ta-da!" he said.
Erin hugged him and gave him a quick kiss.
"I never doubted you, Ronny!"
After their brief kiss he said, "Come on, lets get out of the cold!"
He went in and she followed him, using her flashlight to show the stairs down, while he closed the door and slid the sliding metal bar into place. Neither had seen the sigils and script on the threshold of the door which were aged and somewhat obscured by the patina the metal had taken on through the years. The hexagrams on the upper part of the door frame could easily be mistaken as worn manufacturers markings. Who pays attention to such things in this day and age?
"Follow me," Ronny said as he slid past Erin down the stairs, with her following with their rope and some folded sacks that could take small items.
Ronny led the way down the wooden staircase, past one level of the building obviously used for storage for the shop plus some outdoor furniture that could be easily moved up to the flat roof. The two were not interested in old boxes, new lawn furniture, and old bedding and dressers that had been moved into the level.
"I hope you're right, Ronny. We really need something, you know?" Erin said in hushed tones.
Ronny opened the door to the stairs that led down to the shop, with his flashlight showing the way on the well worn treads. He spoke softly as he padded down the stairs.
"It wasn't my fault that the drug transfer went bad... who expected The Bat to show up on the ferry a mile from land? It was a guaranteed job from the Bay Boys in the Apple, but Old Li Sun wanted his drugs. Or the money. I was lucky to get under cover when big and bad came swooping out of the sky. Bad timing is all it was, honey, you know that."
Erin nodded in the dark as they got to the door at the end of the stairwell.
"I warned you, hun. Doin the sightseeing bit with the binocs and I thought it was a bird, ya know? But it kept getting bigger and bigger..." she shivered, "... I thought I was seeing double for awhile, you know? Scared to tears... got to you just in time... pulled you back before..."
Ronny shivered as he looked back holding the door handle.
"Those three shot at it, Erin. It didn't even notice. Hit two of them and they went over the railing... powder and c-notes flying in the air from the briefcases... heard their bodies hit the next deck... I was so glad I had stayed under the overhang to fade into the shadows..."
She smiled from two steps up.
"I don't ever wanna see it again, Ronny. That was the safe way to do it... but... and when it left and just jumped into its car or whatever that thing was in the water... we gotta get outta this racket."
"Just this score, get to the fence, pay off Li Sun and we are outta here."
Ronny opened the door and stepped into the old workshop area, little changed for decades with the astrolabe still on the table and the telescope on its tripod with the lenses capped. He shook his head as he walked into the workshop.
"Wow! All this junk looks to be antiques..."
Erin followed and let her flashlight dart around, trying to take in the maps, charts, tables, scales, storage desk, cabinets, the old chairs and work stool, an old wooden rolltop desk, and all the books and papers on the shelves and tables.
"Ooooo... those maps look really old and that telescope... Ronny that would probably bring a grand, maybe..."
He shook his head.
"Too much to lug around and would be spotted in a heartbeat. We need something our fence can take as hot and still get something decent for it."
He walked into the main shop room, and went behind the cases to examine them. He looked at the corner of one of the pieces of glass and grunted.
"Savvy guy. Musta swapped out the old glass recently, as this stuff is new laminate. Can't just smash and grab..." he said with a sigh.
She crouched down and looked at the lock behind the counter.
"Well this ain't new, thats for sure. Just an old Dunlap & Crowe, hun. Have it open in a minute," she took out a small black cloth roll that held picks and shims, and small springs. She took out two of the picks and began feeling inside the lock. After a minute she nodded and twisted the barrel lock and slid it off the retaining toothed bar. She opened the back and Ronny crouched next to her.
"I'll start on this case, hun, you get the next one. Gold, rings, small stuff we can just grab and go."
She smiled, handed him a sack and sidled past him.
"We're a good team," she said.
"Yeah. No one looks for gems in the Shambles. We'll be out of here in 10 minutes..."
* * *
Following Ron and Erin Norris hadn't been that hard for him. He only caught a glimpse of them at the takedown, but that was enough for him to wait for the ferry to come back and utilize the perch in the hillside to spot the couple as they came out from the police interrogation van at the ferry landing. He utilized one of the small cameras he had fitted out for surveillance to capture some images, which allowed him to run some basic checks through security at Wayne Corporation.
Ron Norris had some priors mostly in the petty crime area, with only one heroin bust that was barely enough for possession and was then let off due to improper evidence gathering.
His girlfriend, now wife, Erin McCormack had only a petty theft prior, and she was put into a year of probation. Together, as a couple, they seemed relatively minor and it could even be inferred that they had both gone to the straight and narrow by their lack of crimes for the past 2 years. That is until the Bay Boys takedown on the ferry.
Someone had been supplying the Golden Tiger 'social club' with heroin and the Bay Boys were known traffickers with Chinese mob connections. No one had been able to track down how they got the stuff, got it in or even a hint on the route it had taken. If it had come in from the West Coast that would lead to one set of contacts, a Gulf Coast lede would be another, and a direct New York City transfer had not been uncovered by the NYPD. It was purely by chance that Bruce had stumbled across a small cargo tender at anchor off Long Island while visiting Frank Rock and the 'Project' at Frank's home on the north shore.
After the meal there Bruce had mentioned the tender to the other two, while sitting on the patio looking out into the Sound, which offered haze on the water with the slowly fading sunlight.
"That was a pretty big cargo vessel I went by this morning," he said looking at Rock and then the other man, the 'Project'. Frank Rock was an older man, veteran from World War II that had been a friend of the family since after the war due to Bruce's father, Thomas Wayne, having saved his life a few times. Now with his wife deceased, he had moved to the family summer home, which hadn't seen regular use for years before he moved there.
The other man had healing scars across his face and a bandage over one eye. He was large and appeared muscular, but not heavyset. With a t-shirt on you could see numerous scars on his arms and a lack of some muscle, too, though that did not impede his movement.
"They come and go, Bruce," said Rock, "more than I can count, per day. Just have to make sure none are in range when I'm doing some target practice. I get almost as many visitors in a week, these days, as there are cargo ships going through the Sound."
Bruce smiled and nodded, sipping a cup of coffee.
"That was a Taiwanese registered freighter, that you passed at 10:51AM. It is a moderate sized container vessel with two decks for containers and a general hold for bulk cargo. It is registered to Candeco Trading. This is the second such vessel from this company I've seen," said the other man in a relatively flat tone of voice. His one blue eye looked at Mr. Wayne.
Bruce raised his eyebrows and smiled.
"I know of Candeco, they mostly ship from the far east through the Suez, I think. Head offices in Taiwan, but their IMEX group is in Indonesia, which is easier to trade from," Bruce said leaning back in his chair, looking at the man.
"Thank you. I'm sorry that there isn't a better place for you to recuperate. As it is we still have some major operations ahead to get some things functioning properly."
"He would make a great adjutant, let me tell you, Bruce. Even with the pins and supports in his leg, back and arm, he can still move more furniture around with the one good side than I can with two. He's helped me get the place straightened up so that its half-way presentable. I get more visitors a week, now, than I did in the 6 months prior to that mission. And not all of its for him," he said nodding to the man with the severe haircut and obvious scars, "which I appreciate. Even had Viv fly over and it wasn't for quick repairs, either. Just a social call. Not really used to those."
Bruce chuckled looking between the two men. One an older veteran and another who looks like he is recovering from a war. The younger man didn't fidget, though, was spare in his motions and when he stood up and walked around it was obvious that there were still some injuries inside him.
"That will taper off, I'm sure, Frank..."
Bruce let that memory fade.
And he let the days of tracking down shipping schedules, drug busts, and other events slide by as the chill night air became quiet. He had become suspicious of the new heroin supply that had gotten to the streets and pieced together the drop-off operation that must be going on the south side of the Sound. It was no accident that day when he passed by the freighter, but what the 'Project' knew was of interest, as it obviously did store and catalog a number of items that most people wouldn't think about. There were limits on details, however, so that only basics remained over weeks, unless it was particularly important most of the detritus of memories were lost.
He had, finally, pieced together known transit days with first bust days in Gotham City, and that narrowed a range of time and actors that could be involved. The busts pointed to the relatively small Asian community in Gotham, but the links dried up as you went up. With their traditional societal roles and mores being different than that of America, the Chinese community, in particular, was difficult to get information from. General leads pointed to one group, but they appeared to have no contact with the Bay Boys who got the goods. That meant another month of waiting and watching and then arranging for a day-long surveillance of the Sound to the suspected area where freighters usually stopped waiting for local Pilots or just waiting in line to get a Pilot.
That yielded a motorized skiff going from the vessel to check its exterior and meeting up with a pleasure speedboat in open water. The speedboat went south and went to an inlet where it stopped for half an hour and then left. Investigating that required a night-time reconnaissance to find the goods, which had been left there, but there was no obvious identifier for this particular inlet amongst the many along that coast. He added some black IR reflective tape to the bags and decided that a small IR motion detector with video recorder to cover the material would be enough to let him know when it was moved. The combined unit of detector and transmitter would let him know when the area was disturbed.
That was two days later, and he went out to check the surroundings and found tire tracks and boot prints, which along with the somewhat blurry IR images allowed him to get a basic idea of who was involved. While nondescript as images, the images with the truck and the imprint tires and boots led to a number of conclusions, and a simple drive through the back roads in the vehicle helped to find the truck by the side of a pool hall. With the license plate, make and model of the truck he had all that he needed, plus a transponder that would respond to RADAR signals was added to the truck. The actors were becoming known.
It was a simple matter to set up a RADAR gun set with IFF to cover the main ways into Gotham, and even out into the Sound, itself. He was surprised after a late afternoon meeting when the one for the Sound registered the truck. Quickly he got to the highest point in Gotham City, the Wayne Tower Building, and used binoculars to see the ferry the truck was on and that it was by the front ramp area. It was pure suspicion, but he donned the costume and then used the RADAR gun to get distance. He tried to get a 'read' on the wind by looking at clothing on lines between buildings and on rooftops, and the one or two amateur weather stations on roofs that clocked wind direction and speed. His problem would be out on the water, not over land, and while he had gotten used to the semi-soar of the outfit, he didn't know how it would behave over water. With the vehicle on automatics, he signaled it to leave into the Sound and waited. At 5 miles from land he knew that it was impossible. At 3 it was improbable. At 1 mile it just might be doable...
Stepping up and then off the roof the micro-controllers he triggered stiffened the rods in the cape and it caught the immediate updrafts funneled from the streets and up the sides of the building. This wasn't flying nor soaring, but controlling one's rate of drop and figuring out how upwelling wind over surface area would provide temporary lift. The hills of South Gotham provided a unique air current that forced sea breezes up the hills and that was supplemented by denser land on the lee of the hills keeping those breezes going skyward. As he went out over the streets of South Gotham City he could feel the ups and downs of the buildings by the air currents and he angled as best he could over the mid-rises on the the South Hills to not only keep his altitude until he got to water but actually push him above the height that he had started. Feeling those currents funneled up by this unique arrangements allowed the contours of the land below to put pressure aloft until the differences would top out nearly a mile above Gotham City.
On the water he felt the slow, steady breeze coming in from the east and changed his angle of attack to swoop a bit north and then head slightly into the breeze to let it drive him west. He was falling but it was with forward and sideways momentum added on a flat trajectory. He thought he had miscalculated until he passed the vehicle, then he felt safe enough to grab some Batarangs and prep a drag line. He thought it was only three perps from the Bay Boys on the ferry, but as he banked in he thought two more had gotten out of the way...
All of that put him overlooking a cold alley, late at night just three days later. The Norris' hadn't done much, and he couldn't keep an eye on them at all times, just try to see if they were up to anything at night. He was nearly ready to give it up for the night and check the Norris' off his list when they left by the back of their apartment building via the fire escape. Black outfits, rope, bags... that wasn't a normal shopping trip, that was certain. By placing one of the remote camera's into the overhang of the roof ledge of the building he was on, he was assured that he would know when they came back if he was unable to track them.
He trailed them as they first went south on the island, then went to an alleyway steam grate near what he knew was the old Hillcrest Station in the old Gotham Subway. It would be a long walk to anywhere north at that point, but the area to the south was one of the poorest in Gotham. It made sense they would head to Mid-South and slightly more upscale venues and those areas could be seen best by one of the major bridge supports for the Interconnector. Normally he would duck in the underworld via one of the abandoned subway tunnels he had cleared for passage, but tonight that wasn't possible as that would mean using the same tunnels the Norris' were in.
He still called on the vehicle as the other method was to go through the parts of the underworld that were still connected, duck out on to surface streets near the waterfront, then duck back in a few blocks later. There were five major portions of the underworld on the South Island, and he knew them all by heart. A drag line drop and half an hour later he was at his perch at the top of the tower on the Gotham Interconnector looking down to the South Island along the streets that had subway exits that connected to the surface. In just an hour he sighted them first with IR and then light intensified mini-binoculars and tracked them out of the old Norwalk Station area and then lost them as they went into the Shambles, which was in the area just below him at the foot of one of the pilings for the Interconnector. He had problems getting a direct line of sight on just about anything there and had to rely on IR to get him glimpses of the couple as they scrambled in what used to be back alleyways. They finally showed up crossing a street and venturing into an alleyway where he just couldn't get a good sighting of them.
A brief shower of sparks and perhaps whispered words on the wind, along with the lights going out on a shop two places further away told him all he needed to know. As they scrambled over the debris and up into the building, he jumped down, catching just a glimpse of their glowing flashlights as they closed the door, which had a greenish tinge around it. It was a slow descent by the dragline, but he was in no hurry and let it serve mostly as a brake via its clutch mechanism, with some of that going to power the batteries scattered around his suit. The vehicle he had move into the Norwalk Station, for his convenience, and when he finally got to ground he scrambled over the debris field and to the electrical junction box. He was about to pull the wiring out that Ronny Norris had put in, but stopped as he heard a woman's high pitched scream.
In the direction the Norris' went.
Without hesitation he pulled out the wiring and ran off down the alleyway and then to the street, turning he headed towards the woman sprinting out of the shop that was now well lit with lights on and an alarm sounding.
Erin Norris wasn't running to anywhere, just fast and far from the shop.
He knew he could find Erin, again, but what had happened to Ronny?
He continued running.
* * *
What Ronny and Erin didn't see as they closed the door and padded down the stairs was the soft greenish glow of the door frame. Hexes and wards are old time ideas and they had been put to good use by the old man. There were a few security alarms back in the day, and the best systems way back then were usually either a simple trip by opening a closed circuit or, for places like banks, having a manual button to warn of robbery during open hours. Those sorts of systems were either unreliable or easy to thwart. The shop proprietor who took over after the old man disappeared on Train 125 with 30 other people, had kept up with the times and had more modern devices installed after the war, save for the upper floor's door. That one had an especial warning in the old man's documents that it should not be changed out without him there or until the frame had corroded through. He warned against ever trying to enter the building when the shop was closed by that door as it was lethal to do so.
Henry Swanson took him at his word, as he had when the old man was still around, and left that door untouched save for some maintenance. He did observe the markings on the frame, but could never puzzle them out and didn't know what they meant. He marked up the warning to being something special about the frame that would react dangerously if messed with, and left it as it was. In the decades since he had to remodel the interior when the first floor went under into the Underworld sewer system renovation done by the city, and then again during the construction work for the Interconnector. What had been a quiet, lower class neighborhood moved further downwards economically and socially with each of these events. Just this one shop near the first exit for the Interconnector on the South Island remained to remind people of the commercial sector that used to serve the old waterfront.
With bricking up the first floor came having to make the upper floors secure, and he had the new first floor remodeled and renovated, along with moving a couple of the older cabinets and display cases to it so that it didn't lose its appeal. With that came the old window moved up to the new ground floor with the 'Dr. Gotham's Oddities & Curios Shop' painting on it intact. He also had the old front door shifted up to the new level, as it also had markings on it, though no warnings about it in any of the materials left by Dr. Gotham. It was an essential part of the old security system put in by the old man, and it saved much heartache, that simple doorway did. In five years the construction by the city and on the properties was done as the new sewer and surface roadway went in, and the last bricks finally sealed the building off from its old domain were set in mortar.
That old security system remained intact, but it had no wires, no pulleys, no buttons, no grates and nothing apparent beyond two doors. The windows were another matter and physical enhancements served back in the day and in the modernized shop, but they were simple obstacles, not wardings. The shop had a simple logic in the wardings it had, in that two shop states were part of how it functioned. At some level the shop doors recognized its 'open' condition, that is open for business by a proprietor or other designated one who is to open the shop or otherwise be present at the shop to operate it. That warding state only gives a sense of urgency to those running the shop if the upper door is opened without first going out it: if you do not leave by it, then it recognizes that and utilizes its power appropriate to the state of the shop.
The front door is a mere legitimizer so that when people come through it during the open times, those people are recognized as within the shop and can exit by either door, upper or lower. With that the upper shop door can know if the shop is still in use by having the front door confirm its state and legitimize the people and contents coming into and leaving the shop. That is enough to not trigger the upper door for those around during shop hours, which are when a proprietor is there. When closed the front door no longer legitimizes people and crossing either threshold without being legitimized by one who runs the shop has its consequences.
To the old man the order of what happened was key to securing the shop. Should it send out a warning to him, first, and then deal with the intruder after some few minutes? Or should it just deal with them outright and then warn him as that was ongoing? Like any responsible shopkeeper, he made the first the way it worked so that he could stop it if there was a normal sort of emergency. Thus the power that was bound via the works on the door frame came into play.
First these were people who had not come through the front door.
Second the shop was not in its open state.
The call went out to Doctor Gotham and to the current proprietor, Henry Swanson who lived nearby the Shambles.
Finally the door brought out the power bound in it to manifest a warder. That had once been a very deep and capable part of the defenses but the slow erosion of time had left what had once been deep imprints shallow. With the warnings sent with power to deliver them and the warder brought forth the job of the security system was ended save for a dismissal of the warder. It had function and form, no decision making power, just a knowing of state, position and placement. Neither love nor malice nor any true emotion was present at all as these things crafted did as they were made to do.
* * *
Erin had finished filling her bag with jewelry and assorted other pieces from the display cases as Ronny checked the back area just to make sure there was nothing of value there. Their flashlights had weak batteries in them, which dimmed their output to make them less noticeable and it took some examination of the various displays to make sure that nothing of value missed.
Standing up Erin shone her flashlight across the room to go over the bookshelves and slowly worked her way around the front of the displays to see if there was anything worth looking at there. As she scanned the titles she heard a shuffling and then a gurgling sound from the workshop area where Ronny was.
"Ronny? Are you ok?" she whispered and shone the flashlight to the back area. Through the entryway something reflected in the light, a glistening that was both translucent and moving. She stepped towards it to get a better look as it continued into the workshop, trailing translucent glowing green tendrils around it.
"Ahhhhh.... no... get...." and then a gasp is what she heard and she stepped faster towards the entryway and her light shone dimly through the undulating translucent mass, that glowed faintly green. It had exuded... extended... tendrils towards Ronny and they were around his neck, his arms and slowly lifting him from the floor as more and more extended over him. She gasped and then an eye coalesced from the mass close to her which then started to extend a tendril towards her.
This was unlike anything Erin had ever experienced in her life, and that included the Batman when he manifested in daytime. She dropped her flashlight, turned and ran through the shop, over the well worn carpeting and encountered the locked door. In horror she glanced back as the glowing mass extended towards her and she could see it flow over the flashlight which went out. More eyes had appeared inside and on stalks from the translucent, lightly glowing thing, and the limp body of Ronny was seen just beyond the entrance to the workshop.
She undid the latches, and finally won to freedom outside the shop as a tendril darted forth towards her, hitting the door casement as she pushed her way out screaming into the night. The lights and alarm bells rang and she ran hard, fast away from anyone... any thing... moving in the night. She almost saw the Batman just barely by an alleyway, but her sprint didn't allow her much in the way of peripheral vision. The older man in a nightshirt and slippers, holding a flashlight she avoided by the expedient of turning to her left and up the street past him and then darting across the street as she ran down it.
What she saw was... horrifying... was it really.... eating.... Ronny?
And it had come for her!
She would be on the river side of Gotham before she realized that she was on an island and that if she wanted to run farther, she had to get to the mainland. Exhausted she fell to her knees by the riverwalk area and clutched the wrought iron railing for comfort. Cold metal under her hands was a comforting feeling after seeing that... thing... slide towards her.
* * *
Batman ran towards the building, with its front door swinging open and then partly closed, then open again, as he heard alarms sounding. The lights had come on inside the shop and he was aware of at least one other person on the street beyond the fleeing Erin Norris. He was burdened with his equipment and while it served as many things, all those things meant mass, weight and increased resistance to being moved. He was in great physical shape for this sort of effort, but that in no way meant that he was the fastest runner in this part of town at this point.
He was faster than anyone who would face some disorientation in the night, however, and he put some effort into his pace to increase it, while taking out Batarangs. The suit allowed him to hear well in front of him and the sound that he heard was that of something sliding but not on a slick surface. He also heard a grunt or two and prepared himself to take down Ronny Norris. When he got to the shop he threw the door open and the bright emergency lights inside nearly blinded him. As he wasn't prepared for this he squinted trying to make out just what was happening.
By squinting his eyes teared up, obscuring some of what he saw, and that film of tears made some of the interior shift with his tear drops. Still he could see that the store had been broken into, and its display cases were looted. He stepped past the front threshold when the store was not open. Some of the shifting translucence of what he saw moved on its own by the rear of the shop to an entrance to a well lit back room. That translucent shifting caused him to stop to try and assess it as it was not a gas, nor a liquid, nor a film of material, but more like a gel. The appearance of eyes on it was disconcerting, like something out of a horror film, save this was no special effect done in the film studios of Hollywood. It made the noise of something sliding easily, yet with some hint of scraping as it shifted its mass towards him. By instinct he jumped back through the front door as a part of the gel moved at him.
Henry Swanson, now in his early 70's, had just got there and together the two stumbled back onto the sidewalk at the front of the shop. As they dropped there was a nearly unheard thud from far back in the shop. With training the Batman reacted swiftly to stand and make sure the old man was shielded from what was inside.
"What... what's going on?" Henry asked.
Batman nodded his head from side to side and then looked back into the shop. From the darkness his eyes adjusted, some, and he blinked the tears from his eyes. There was nothing moving in the shop, the bright lights shone down on the looted display cases. Of what he saw, or thought he had seen, there was no evidence at all. He put his Batarangs back into a container on his belt and turned back to the old man.
"A robbery. A man and wife team," he extended his hand to help the old man to stand up, "I had been following them for awhile and hoped to stop them here..."
"Ahhh... thank you," Henry said looking into the shop.
"You are the proprietor?" Batman asked.
"Yes, shop keeper. I have a son, Lewis, who helps me run it, but he doesn't get here until late afternoon. I keep irregular hours..." he said stepping into the shop with the help of the Batman. The threshold had registered his presence just moments before and it now saw those who entered as safe to do so.
"Let me go first, sir. I haven't seen the husband of the team that broke in and he may still be in here," he said stepping by the old man to go into the shop proper.
"I... yes... of course..." Henry stammered as he looked from the entrance of the shop.
Batman stepped carefully, eyeing the carpeting, the wainscotting, and looking for any evidence that might be present. Getting to the entrance to the workshop he saw Ronny Norris slumped over a table, gasping for breath. He hurried over to check out Ronny and slide him slowly down from the table to the floor. Ronny's eyes darted around, he was shaking and face white as a sheet.
"Is..." Ronny rasped in a quiet tone, "... it gone?"
Batman had caused fear and terror in many people since he started his career, but this was not the normal sort of terror he knew.
"Is what gone, Ronny?"
"I... I... it... that... thing... came down... could see through it... didn't... cold...slimy... it had my neck..." Ronny felt his neck and the Batman rolled down his collar to see some redness and perhaps some circles of red, "... lifted me... I... couldn't... around my arms...moving over my skin... under my clothes..."
Ronny was shaking and looked to the open stairwell going upstairs.
"Whatever it was, its gone, Ronny," the Batman said.
"I..." Ronny gasped trying to struggle upright, "... ERIN!" he croaked out.
Batman stood up fluidly, easily and went around Ronny to use a zip fastener to handcuff him.
"I saw her run out of the shop, Ronny, she was very afraid of something."
Ronny shook and nodded.
The old man came to the workshop entrance and looked in.
"Ah, you have him, I see. The police will be here in a minute or two as they were alerted by the security company."
Looking around the Batman led Ronny to a wooden chair and sat him down, then used a second zip tie to fasten the first one to the slats on the chair.
"Don't try to run away, Ronny. You won't get far."
Ronny started shaking again.
"It could... come back..." he whispered out looking at the stair entrance.
"What could come back?" Henry asked.
"A phantasm, apparently, from what Ronny has said," he eyed the old man for a moment who looked dumbfounded.
"It was made of something... slimy... firm... cold..." Ronny said shaking, "... slid over things... quietly... I didn't know... until my neck..."
Batman looked from Ronny to the shop keeper.
"Have you ever heard of anything like that?"
The shop keeper shook his head in the negative.
"Sounds like something out of the ordinary, even for a curiousity shop."
Nodding the Batman looked around and took out a hand flashlight.
"Do you mind if I leave by the upper door? Ronny is secured and I doubt if whatever it was he saw is around any more."
Henry looked at the man in the dark, scaled suit with the black mask, cape and helmet with the pointed ears.
"You are about the only thing I would call a phantasm, and seem pretty real enough to me, " Henry said.
"I'll take that for a 'yes'."
"Of course. Be careful of the lawn furniture up there, and other junk in boxes. I haven't been up there in years since the last remodeling."
"I will, thanks. Ronny," he said looking to the burgler who was slowly regaining his composure, "I doubt you will even get 3-5 for this. I'll find Erin if the police don't get her first. She will be safe."
Ronny looked into the face of the dark figure and nodded.
"Yeah. First major. I hear ya, Bat. Just... make sure she's ok, y'know?"
Batman gave a lopsided smile and nodded. He quickly turned and went to the upstairs entrance and slowly padded up it. He examined the floor and lower sides of the wall and could see disturbed dust and some signs that might be dampness. At the next floor he followed that faint trail across the room to the other stairs going to the roof and found that the trail started right at the door. He opened the door, looked around at the outside and could see no hint of any dampness other than the gathering dew from the sea mist. The sound of police sirens warned him, and he used a Batarang to begin drawing down the door bar as he closed it, letting the counter-weight do the work for him as it shut.
He knew the buildings in the area and the distance to the near part of the guardrails for the Interconnector. He decided on a lamp post just away from the Interconnector on the ground surface, put on a grapnel to the roof lip and shot for the base of the lamp post. From there he slid down to the lamp, retrieved his line and went at a slow trot to a manhole cover. Within a moment he was in the Underworld and heading for Norwalk Station.
This had been a night of puzzlement and while he didn't get the information he wanted immediately, there was still one part of the team to get. She was last seen heading north and somewhat west.
There were many places to hide in Gotham City, but it was best not to run.
* * *
The warding had done its job and sent its summons, not just to Henry Swanson but to the one that created the original security wards, as well. That piece of the warding was the one that would begin to drain it of its remaining power as contacting the maker of it was no easy task. He was still present, in a way, in Gotham City, but the exact place of Gotham was not one that was defined just by rivers, islands, shoreline and tunnels. Gotham existed in many ways known and unknown and being displaced within Gotham City was in some ways worse than being displaced from it.
The warding had been made with that aspect known as affinity, that is it had a set of associations that were direct and indirect. To the temporary shop keepers that would appear over time, they had affinity to the shop and they were considered to have such affinity until their employment ended. The one who made the warding had the maker's affinity, that is the direct contact and link affinity over the power of the warding system and that was something only the death of that maker of the ward would break.
A warding would function for years if not decades past the death of its maker, depending on how well and crafty the hands and mind were that made it. Part of the power of a warding lay with the creator of it, and part of that was within the warding, entire. The living presence of the creator in the mortal realm sustained the warding over time, the absence would let that pool of power drain slowly, but inevitably as Nature reclaimed the works of artifice. That the warding had only lost some power but was still in contact with its maker by affinity which meant many things, if any knew to check for them and had the skill to do so. As none were there with that skill the power worked unbeknownst to all, save one.
That one was its maker, its crafter and he was displaced within Gotham City, so as to not be available to Gotham City by any normal means. The warding system was not normal means by any stretch of the imagination.
In an instant the warding found the place where its maker was last in this part of the realm of Gotham City and then reached into the other places that connected to it. This power of affinity let it slip into the pocket of power that held its maker and then restore his connection to the normal world. As affinity was necessary it had to put a connection from one place to a similar place so that all would be in accord and the message transition performed. When it found the affinity connection and congruence of places with time and space, it could then deliver its message.
The redness instantly disappeared from the old man's vision and time renewed, once more.
"...nyth nnn'uh'eeee... uhhhh!" which was followed by the sound of the old man hitting the floor.
The bright and empty interior of the Wayne Industries Service Transport automated personnel car contained a reddish miasma that soon dissipated and revealed the figure of the old man who fell a few inches and tumbled to the back of the car as it was going in the opposite direction he had been traveling in the old subway train. As he tumbled his top hat went flying and he extended his cane so as to have it wedge under a set of seats and bring his sliding roll to a halt.
"That did not go well..." he mumbled to himself.
Doctor Gotham blinked at the brightness of the lights within the interior of the WIST car, its chromed hand railings reflecting the sharp lighting that was used for the interior of the vehicle. The padded plastic seats, table, the wall with a television set into it were all far, far different than any subway train that Doctor Gotham had ever heard about or even seen in fanciful publications that he had perused now and again. No wooden seats, benches or flooring for this subway car, it was of a different type and style and construction and yet its purpose was obvious.
As he got to his hands and knees he said, "The warding did its job yet and it is in contact with its shop keeper. It is luck that brought me back from this imposition against me."
Grabbing his top hat, and getting is cane from between seat uprights, he brushed his clothes with one gloved hand and stood up, observing that this one car train had no other passengers. He checked to make sure he still had the box, which he did, and then looked at the lack of dust, trash, and any other indications that man had used this vehicle as it seemed to lack the detritus of man's usual leavings. It also lacked a conductor or engineer. It also lacked much of anything that would tell him about it, save slanted lettering that spelled out: WIST.
As he walked forward in the car he looked at the television which had been set to a very low tone so that one had to be near it to hear.
"... and now Marty will tell us about the latest work of the Marine Corps going against the 'Party of God' or 'Hizbullah' fanatics in the hills of eastern Lebanon..."
Raising an eyebrow, he turned from the device which, while fascinating, was a simple means to get high quality recordings to those in the train.
"Some things never change..." he murmured to himself glancing from the tv set.
Moving forward he got to the very forward most part of the car and looked in what must be the conductor's or engineer's cabin, to see that it was empty and the darkened glass only let out a dim outline of chair and a console with what were obviously dials on it. Looking out the front door's window he saw the twin lights from the front of the train illuminate the walls, which were of the kind he had known, chiseled from the bedrock beneath Gotham and then lined over by the construction crews to form solid archways. That work had been refinished, but the nature of it was clear.
With a sigh of relief he said, "Still Gotham, then, no matter what has happened."
He was home, as such, and could feel the underworld seep through him, even in the brightly lit interior of this very strange but recognizable conveyance.
A station approached ahead and it, too, was gleaming with light.
A woman's voice spoke.
"Last station, Wayne Tower. Exit to the left. Last station, Wayne Tower. Exit to the left."
That startled him, an uncanny and somewhat cold voice echoing within the empty car. He moved to the left of the vehicle as it slowed and entered the station, with the lettering of WAYNE TOWER passing by three times until the car came to a stop and the doors opened. He stepped out and looked at the fully refinished station, with brightly lit signs and then saw a sign with a directional arrow pointing to his left that said 'Cooper Road'.
"Ah, so this is Cooper Station. Very good!"
As he walked he followed the direction of the EXIT signs and then turned right to the turnstiles that had an empty station manager's booth to one side of them.
"This place is very well kept," he said to himself as he stepped up to the turnstiles and went through them. While updated those, at least, were fully recognizable. He walked forward past an intersection that indicated elevators to offices on the left and right, and went to the stairs and escalator that would take him up to ground surface. As he stepped on the escalator he looked up and got the impression that it was longer than the old accessway was at Cooper Station.
Kevin Masterson and Ellen Johnston were on guard duty that night and the figure that appeared at the top of the WIST station entrance seemed to be one ready to head to a costume ball attired in clothes more fit for the late 19th century or turn of the century 20th than 1984 in Gotham City. Ellen stood by the small table at the opposite side of the Wayne Tower entrance hall, with Kevin sitting behind the table and flipping through a sports magazine.
"Say, Kev, there any costume balls on tonight?" she said watching the man stare up the columns to the chrome gargoyles inset on them at the arched roof overhead. The man nodded to himself and started walking to the main bank of doors, his boot steps softly echoing as he walked.
"Huh?" Kevin said looking up and then followed her line of sight, "Oh. Dunno... October 12th is getting kinda close to it, ya'know?"
Ellen nodded, watching the old man walking, his cane now part of the walking cadence.
"I mean you gotta figure thats what it is, right?" he asked softly.
"Its a bit late to be getting to one, but the Theater District isn't that far away," she said.
The old man, about 50 feet away and tipped his hat as he recognized them, and then pushed his way to open the door in front of him and stepped outside into the entrance courtyard and then walked to the street. They could barely see him turn left and he slowly disappeared from sight.
"Uh-huh. Going the right way for it, too. Gotta figure its one of those special ones, 'cause he was decked to the Nines in that outfit. Prolly took him forever to get it together," Kevin said shaking his head and going back to his magazine.
"Yeah. Just wondering, you know?" she said, looking at the clock on the wall.
"Three hours to quitting time," she said softly, taking out a compact and small brush to touch up a few areas that she had obviously missed in the mid-afternoon scramble.
"Friday nights are always dead..."