Alfred Pennyworth's sleep had not been easy nor quiet and his scattered dreams were ones of unidentifiable things moving in the darkness and a white shadow stalking in it. Pieces of that clung to his mind when he awoke, particularly the roar of that white shadow animal in the west that sounded like a hungry tiger. There was no solace nor feeling of accomplishment amongst the creatures, animal and darkness and he woke up able to face the day that had already started in the small hours of the morning and collected himself for the work ahead. Master Bruce would get two more hours of rest if he could take it because he needed to be in better form than Alfred did.
Chef Girard had been called in before he went to bed and was assigned to get a catering crew together for the late afternoon memorial which would not be a sit-down affair but must be able to offer a variety of foodstuffs to people who might expect anything from late lunch to full dinner fare at that hour. Of all the people in Wayne Corporation it was, perhaps, the Executive Chef that took the best to the ways of Bruce Wayne and the sudden needs of the company which could happen at any moment. No matter what the agenda be it a meal for one or for one thousand, Chef Girard was more than ready, willing and able to perform his magic and given pure hours to prepare he could and did work miracles.
His simple meal plan for Master Bruce was that of some slight time reheating saffron roast beef cutlets held over from the Executive Diningroom from the night before, along with choices of baguette, cheese, or even plain toast from a variety of breads in the refrigerator in Bruce Wayne's penthouse apartment. The only thing that told him that a later breaking of fast for Master Bruce was not necessary were the dishes neatly stacked in the drainer and then the missing places where food would be. With the noon hour he was already up and functioning and had let Alfred catch additional sleep and not bothered to awaken him.
A simple note told him all he needed to know:
At ATC East Works,
test area, back by 2.
They had discussed this morning, just before Bruce could be convinced to get to bed, that what he had encountered could be hurt. The reactions he described of it to the two acids and then thermite indicated that this was the case. Acids could eat into its structure and it could be harmed by thermite, although the dimensions of what could be done were vague, a steam explosion had not killed it but may have disoriented it long enough for Bruce and Erin to make good their escape. They had talked of perhaps adapting a standard chemical sprayer produced by their equipment division for the mundane tasks of fumigation and application of materials to either strip or put on various chemicals, to be adapted to this via replacement of chemistry and fittings if the system were one of simple pressurization. Another possibility was utilizing the pressurized gas and liquid fuel containers for the old portable smelter system that had been discarded as not cost effective, to this task. He already had boxes full of thermite sytems at various sizes which he used to melt out small locks or fuse chain links all the way up to enough to burn through large engine blocks of industrial machinery.
As the chemical sprayers and chemicals were only available in prepackaged wholesale quantities from the downtown distribution complex for Wayne Corporation, any utilization of materials from that would need a sign-off. Getting parts from the supply house at the ATC East foundry complex, however, was simply a matter of walking in and getting consumables and marking them out for T&E as 'expended'. Not that he would arrive there as Bruce Wayne, of course, but as one Arthur Gilliam who was only seen now and again as the T&E gopher in a white lab coat, thick black plastic rimmed spectacles and wearing clothing that was stained from experiments past. Although he always appeared highly competent with his coat, spectacles and small spiral notebook with clipboard, everyone tended to give him a wide berth as his clothes always had that smell of some minor lab accident that he had just barely escaped alive. Alfred had even overlooked Master Bruce a few times while he was in that role.
With name, ID and project numbers this simplest of disguises was one that others had problems cutting through as he did look like what one would expect of a part-time T&E weekend employee given minor hazardous duties to perform. Not that he could ever be placed in administrative tree of Wayne Corporation. To the T&E people he was simply a person from delivery, from the delivery group he was an intermediary hanger-on from the equipment divisions, the equipment people saw him as the gopher for T&E, and on and on. Bruce had told him that being a ghost in a large corporation was easy so long as you had decent IDs and didn't get paid, no one can really track you down. That added to the air of near disaster that he somehow inculcated meant that no one ever wanted to track him down lest he bring disaster with him.
Alfred sighed as he prepared some tea, toast and opened a can of pork and beans to put on the toast. All of that fit on a tray that he took with him to his quarters, so that he could eat after his spare shower, shaving and then getting ready to see if he could get out to the test area before Master Bruce had finished there.
Just as he got to the kitchen area the doorbell to the apartment sounded and Alfred put the tray down next to the sink and went down the hall to answer the door. As he opened it he saw that it was Martin Carstairs, Sgt. Rock, the Project and Vivian Rose. He nodded to them and also heard the soft opening and closing of doors from further down the hall in the apartment which indicated that Master Bruce had arrived back from his travels.
"Hello and good afternoon," Alfred said, "I believe that Master Bruce is available but may take a moment to be presentable."
"Good to see you, Mr. Pennyworth," Martin said, looking at the others, "we can wait in a conference room if that helps? I'm pretty sure we can get one on the 10th floor."
"No need of that," Alfred said opening the door, "Mister Wayne's private office area will do just as well. Please come in and follow me."
He opened the door and led the four to a hall intersection and down the left branch of it away from the personal quarters of Bruce Wayne. They passed a small room with a copier and fax machine, plus a small desk, then a small break room with a single round table and four chairs to go with the small refrigerator and efficiency kitchen and cabinets along the left and far wall. After that was a conference room, which Alfred opened up for them and turned on the lights over the wooden oval table that could seat at least eight with rosewood chairs appointed in black leather at positions around the table and six additional ones along the far side wall. There was space to set up projector and screen on the far side of the room.
"If you will make yourselves comfortable, I will be back with coffee or anything else you need. Lavatories are across the hall," he said as the others filed in.
"Thanks, AP," Frank Rock said coming in last, "just coffee for me."
Vivian pulled up a chair near the far end of the conference table and smiled as she sat down.
"I could almost stand meetings if they had rooms nice as this," she said under her breath looking at the pictures of Martha and Thomas Wayne on the wall across from her.
"Coffee for me, too, thank you Mr. Pennyworth. We'll go to the cafeteria after this and catch lunch," Martin Carstairs said sitting across from Vivian.
"I'll just get ice water from the break room, thanks, Alfred," Vivian said looking a the portraits of the couple and the one larger painting of them in their wedding attire. "They made a good couple," she said softly.
Sgt. Rock stepped past the Project that was standing to look at the nearer painting of Thomas Wayne, and sat next to Martin.
"I require nothing, thank you Mr. Pennyworth," the Project said staring at the painting.
Alfred looked at the four, with Martin having been up the longest.
"Of course. I can order a meal from the Executive Dining Room if you would like? The weekend menu is limited but available at all hours."
Martin smiled, "I hope this doesn't take that long, but if it does we may take you up on it, thank you."
"Very well. I will see to Mister Wayne's whereabouts and be back with coffee and ice water."
As he stepped out he heard Vivian say, "So tragic, and they weren't that old..."
Walking down the hallway he saw the shadow of Bruce Wayne pass the intersecting hall, moving from his quarters to elsewhere in the apartment. He smelled the aroma of coffee starting as he turned into that hall, and it was one with the smell of almonds to it. Not sweet almonds, either, and very strong. When he arrived at the kitchen area he saw that Bruce was standing next to a pot that was slowly filling up with the coffee, and while the smell was somewhat stronger it was not overpowering. Bruce looked up and nodded taking a quick mug of coffee from the filling pot.
"I started the coffee when I got here, Alfred. I did the best I could with a safety shower in the Archive Section, but that only got rid of the worst of the smell."
"Ah, smell, Master Bruce?"
He nodded and grimaced.
"I have something that just might be more effective against what I've encountered, and it's major side-effect is the almond smell. Just a few splatters on my alter's attire left that smell. The clothes are going in for a sanitation run and should be back by tomorrow. When I came in I heard who was there and decided a bit of a masking scent would help."
"It is not an offensive smell in anyway, Master Bruce. I will bring an urn of it with a pitcher of ice water, along with cups, saucers, glasses and the usual condiments."
Bruce nodded and stepped back to allow Alfred to get to the necessary parts of the kitchen and then went past the small table to go down the hallway. As he set the items from his tray into the sink, he then brought out a silver service tray and urn for the meeting. The cream, sugar and other items were all those that Chef Girard had available in immediately ready containers, with the cream changed daily for freshness. He carefully took out almond extract and added a drop to the cream and then another two into the pot in the coffeemaker and then returned the extract to its place in the seasoning rack. He rinsed the coffee urn out to take away the most of the almond smell but also let it diffuse and then set it on the tray prior to pouring coffee in it and heard the phone ring. Raising his eyebrows he stepped over to the phone and answered it.
"Bruce Wayne's quarters, Alfred speaking."
His face took on a puzzled expression as he listened.
"Yes... waiting for two hours?.... a, ah, personal item of Martha Culligan's? Are you sure?.... yes..." he glanced up at the clock and pressed his lips together, "... an escort? No, that shouldn't be necessary beyond getting to this level... send the gentleman up... thank you Sargent Markson."
He poured the coffee, closed the urn and went down the hall and then to the conference room. The door was open and he heard voices as he approached.
"... it's like something had an invisibility field, something strong..." he heard Vivian say.
"No footprints beyond those of normal personnel for the area," the Project said.
Alfred set down the tray and handed the glass of ice water to Vivian.
"Thank you, Alfred."
"My pleasure, Miss Rose. Master Bruce?"
Alfred poured out a first cup of coffee and handed it to Frank Rock.
"Thanks, AP, much obliged."
Alfred nodded and smiled
"Yes, Alfred?" Bruce said looking at him.
"Ah, Master Bruce it appears a man arrived some time ago to deliver an item to you. It was a possession of Martha Culligan."
Alfred poured a cup of coffee for Martin Carstairs and handed it to him.
"That smells delicious, thank you Mr. Pennyworth."
"Of course, Mr. Carstairs. Master Bruce started the pot unsupervised with typical results."
"Martha... Culligan?" Bruce said softly. "My mother?"
Alfred nodded as he moved the tray off the table and to a side cabinet.
"Yes, Master Bruce. The man says the item was only brought to light recently and he is duty bound to return it to its rightful owner or heir."
"Culligan was her maiden's name, right?" Vivian asked.
"That's right, Miss Rose," Alfred said covering for the confusion of Bruce which was apparent on his face.
"That is some bit of misplacing," Martin said, "considering they were married after the war."
"Maybe it was sent by the post office," Frank said with smile as he sipped the coffee.
Vivian laughed and Martin chuckled.
"Yeah, didn't that one lady get a post card from her boyfriend that he sent during the war a couple of years back. The First World War?" Martin said smiling as he chuckled.
"I took the liberty of inviting him up as he has been waiting and I doubt that any item that can be carried will take up much time to deliver."
Bruce nodded and looked at Alfred.
"Did the guard say who it was?" Bruce asked.
"Yes, Master Bruce. It is one Doctor Gotham."
Bruce Wayne nodded and suppressed a tremble, while slowly inhaling.
"You did the right thing, Alfred, as always. Thank you and send him right in when he arrives."
* * *
Alice Newbury was what everyone pictured a librarian to be: tall, thin, wearing a bland leaf print dress, proper black pumps, and her hair done up in a bun. Her spectacles were perched at the end of her nose as she walked down the marble lined hallway with the bright fluorescent lights overhead gleaming on the polished stone work on the floor and walls, and reflecting off the portraits and murals that depicted Gotham officials, residents and scenes from Gotham's past. Following her was Lisa Choi who had spent over an hour in the main section of the library before finding a text that was referred to Mrs. Newbury, who was the head librarian for the Sunday shift. When they approached a set of glass doors on the right that showed an unlit room beyond, Alice stopped, turned to her right and took out the key to the doors.
"We don't get many who wish to see volumes in our rare book collection, Miss Choi. Even though it is one of the better ones on the east coast, the types of researchers we get normally go to the larger collections at New York City, Boston or even Arkham."
Lisa nodded as Alice opened the doors and stepped to the right to turn on the lights.
"I don't have time to travel today, Mrs. Newbury, and never thought that my readings would lead me here."
Smiling Alice beckoned her to come into the room which held a great table made of walnut that, while simple in style, still held the feeling of age to it. The overhead lights shone through the finish and hinted at figures in the wood that changed as you walked towards them and disappeared when the lighting was direct. Three sets of bookcases formed two rows in the center of the room, while a larger set of cases for oversized or precious books were behind locked glass doors. To the right of the room beyond the massive table was a display case with an old map overlooking the Middle East and Orient. To the left of the room was an open display of maritime artifacts found in and around Gotham as well as ship's logs from a number of vessels constructed at Gotham. As Lisa turned she saw that the walls next to the doors held murals from the Depression Era and more fanciful shelving in an art deco style with many lovely curves and books from the turn of the century era. Finally, overhead, was a dome in miniature of the dome over the main part of the library, holding both recessed lighting and a suspended chandelier that allowed all corners of the room to be lit.
"Oh, this is lovely!" Lisa exclaimed.
"Isn't it though? We brought over as much as we could from the old library building in the way of furniture, but the interiors needed something a bit better. Some of the pieces here are on loan from the Gotham Historical Society as they don't have enough space to display even a fraction of what they have, and we are glad to help them out for items of historical interest here."
The door opened behind them and they turned to see a young woman smiling as she stepped in.
"Mrs. Newbury, is the rare books room open for use today? I know you don't normally open it on Sunday..."
Alice smiled and waved to the woman to come in.
"Yes it is, Barbara, and please stop calling me Mrs. Newbury! We've known each other since you started visiting here when your father got that big promotion 8 years ago."
Barbara Gordon smiled and walked into the room and then looked up.
"Oh! Its finished now! I hadn't been here in... how long was it now?" Barbara said admiring the overhead work.
"It has been finished for two years, Barbara. You have just been too busy to visit the rare book collection."
Lisa looked at the two, the older librarian and the younger woman and noticed the familiarity they had with each other. She inhaled and stepped up to Alice.
Alice turned to look at her and nodded.
"If you don't mind I will look for the volumes I need to research now."
"Go right ahead, Lisa," Alice said smiling, "they should be in the first row on the left at the rear. Or possibly the back case, I don't know if we had to shift things around with the donation from the Anderson Estate. They should be back there, as they are still listed for there."
"Thank you, Mrs. Newbury. I will find them."
Lisa turned and headed off around the large table and to the left of the room.
"What brings you here today, Barbara?"
"I had started investigating some marine life forms...."
The voices trailed off as Lisa stepped between the bookcases, stacked with books and manuscripts that absorbed sound easily. Only her soft footsteps could be heard on the wooden floor. The cool lights illuminated the aged oak bookcases that appeared solidly built and from another era. Recessed spotlights highlighted paintings and ceremonial items donated by the local tribes to the city over the years. The cases along the walls were far above her head and held ancient leather bound books, none of which were cataloged by the Dewey System. Simple plates on the shelves told of the era of books that resided there, most of the 16th and 17th century, although some dated far older than that.
She came to the section marked 'ASIA' and realized it took up both sides of the shelving from the half-way point to the back of the room, and possibly more. She saw a small ladder between the shelves and moved it over to the ones on the wall to get an idea of what was there. She took her time looking at titles and realized that these were some of the first reprinted accounts of Greek and Roman explorers to the East. Some books were of later scholarly research adding information to what was known in the area of general geography and sociology.
Gazing down she saw that these were general texts and then turned around to see that the books there were general texts on Central and Northern Asia. Looking towards the back of the room she realized that the books she wanted must be further back, still. She picked up the small ladder and carried it with her, in case it was needed. Her steps allowed the centuries to progress from the 9th and 10th through the 14th and 15th and by the end of the row she was up to the early 18th century texts about the history of China. As she stood next to the freestanding bookcase she saw that the 19th century books started near the bottom of the first shelf against the back wall and continued on the one next to it. Near the bottom was a set of shelves labeled 'Chester L. Rhinold Collection' which contained some printed books at the start and then continued with bound manuscripts that represented what the author had sent to the publisher. That was followed by compiled diaries and notes, and along with partially completed manuscripts, and then the field notes and diaries which had been bound as to year and expedition. She knelt on one knee and looked across the aisle at the last row of the shelf which contained a set labeled 'Expedition to Central Asia and Western China, which contained five volumes.
The first volume was Volume 1 'Gotham, London, Suez, Karachi, September 1891 - March 1892', followed by Volume 2 'Karachi, Peshawar, Gilgit, Lower to Upper Bactria Passage, March 1892 - May 1892', Volume 3 'Gilgit, Kashgar, Anxi & travels May 1892 - August 1892'. Her glance paused there as it was the thickest of the five volumes and the other two trace the journey from Anxi to the cost of China and the last from China to San Francisco to Gotham City. She smiled as it was also the only volume that also had one of the familiar pieces of scrap paper she had seen so often before.
As she stepped forward with her right hand extended towards the volume she also saw another hand right next to hers reaching out for it. The fingertips of both were on the same volume as she looked next to her at the young woman named Barbara.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Lisa said.
"I didn't see you there," Barbara said almost simultaneously.
The two looked at each other and smiled.
"I've been looking for this volume for at least 2 hours," Barbara said.
"I have come looking for some stories related to me by an elder today, and spent most of the morning going through another researcher's work to arrive here."
Barbara looked puzzled.
"Another researcher? Who was it?"
"I don't know his name but was described as a tall, grey haired gentleman with old fashioned clothes."
Barbara blinked and looked puzzled.
"That is... well... odd, I guess."
"Yes, it is. He has left a number of bookmarks in other works he had on a cart and now another of those is in this book, too."
Barbara looked at the book and saw at least one slim, modern piece of notepaper used at the library sticking from between the pages of the volume. She looked back at Lisa and withdrew her left hand and extended her right.
"I'm Barbara. Barbara Gordon."
Lisa nodded and shifted her right hand from the volume to shake Barbara's.
"I'm Lisa Choi. Pleased to meet you."
"I'm usually pretty much alone when I'm doing research here, rarely crossing paths with anyone. This is the first time anything like this has happened to me."
Lisa smiled shaking her head.
"I only come here rarely. Usually I use the Tisdale South Branch, but I needed to see an elder today and that brought me here."
Barbara shook her head from side to side.
"Never anything like this. I'm looking at marine life forms that may have migrated on to land and one set of books and references leads me here on what might be either an imaginary or mythological creature. This volume seems to be indicated as having a description of it from at least a semi-reliable witness."
"He was committed to Arkham two years after he returned from this expedition, and his partner died two months after that from a combination of seasickness, dysentery and malaria which he got from the trip, also."
"I had wondered why they hadn't published anything after this trip," Lisa said.
"Well, now you know. They have some semi-complete pre-publication material on the shelf above this," Barbara said gesturing at one rather slim volume that indicated China Trip Manuscript, "but they didn't get far on it."
"That is very sad. They were both respected researchers from what I have read today."
"It is, really. Tell you what, why don't you get the book and we can research it together. Maybe your researcher found what I'm looking for. If he didn't we can switch off in a half-hour and I'll see if I can find what I want as you seem to have been here a bit longer than me, today. I don't want you to take any longer than you have to."
"That sounds good, Barbara, thank you," she reached out with her left hand to take out the thick volume and stood up with Barbara.
"My pleasures, Lisa. Now lets see what we can find."
* * *
The soft lights.
The gentle whirr of the fan.
The darkness all around.
Trapped she looked around knowing she was hunted. Clouds of darkness on the horizon roiled and mirages across the vast, dead wasteland came and went with quickness not just on the ground but above it. She felt that she was not alone here and that a presence she had felt before, seen before was here, as well. In the sky, nearby, she saw the mists and darkness flutter in the wind that wasn't there making a gummy droplet that was, at once, solid and liquid both.
Dark droplets rained down in deathly silence, and the whisper of the clouds reached around and down to the barren desert and she saw each droplet coalesce and move on its own. She looked down and saw her blonde hair over her shoulders and that her body was naked. She had been clothed, once, ages ago, but now that clothing was gone.
Buildings came and went as phantoms and ghosts, there at the corner of your eye until you looked and then they vanished without a trace. One cloud above, amongst the many that were like the buildings, moved on its own and she could see gentle roiling of it that was reaching down to the land, near enough for her to be frightened. The one that hunted her was close, near, and it sent whispy blackness searching for... something... someone perhaps?
Turning she ran from it, the dustless dust nor rising as her feet sped across the desert, dry and dead, a burial place for dreams and life, both, beyond the margin of what is living and what is dead. Running she felt that nothing changed, nothing moved, even as she did there were no changes in the landscape.
A speck of color to her left!
Just a speck of red.
She turned towards it as the black blobs of rain moved on their own, now, sliding into and out of the sky, the land, and existence. Mountains formed around the blackness and she soon found that the speck of bright red had ascended just a bit up a mountainside. It became harder to run and yet that roiling cloudless cloud with black tendrils searching came closer.
Her life was in danger.
Her legs worked hard up the slope of weathered rock and sand, until she was down on hands and knees, pressing harder to get upwards as one black dot grew and floated closer from above. She suppressed a scream as its black, glossy surface formed a sensing stalk that only briefly moved in her direction before it locked on the tendril of blackness from the cloud above. It slid easily down disturbing no dust nor rock, and reflecting only brown and black, but no hint of red from above.
Red lost nearly from sight as she found mother rock jutting out to the slope and only a large crack in the rock allowed her to finally wedge herself upright to climb. The cloud had stopped as the black thing that had passed her ascended towards it via a tendril, then disappearing into the mass that was there, yes it was!
Aching hands found the flat rock surface of the jutting rock dias and she wedged her knees up to give her feet purchase and pushed herself up to that surface. She had to turn her back to that black, hovering, cloud so she could see the bright red rectangle near the base of the mountain cliff it was under. She took a tentative step forward. It was warm, was that rectangle and she saw it was on a post that held a glittering set of armor on it, with helmet atop the post.
A fetid breath escaped the cloud behind her and slowly the entire post turned in that awful breath of wind to show the black rectangle that was the other side of the red. All of the armor had shimmered and disappeared as blackness engulfed the front of the post and only the reflection of red on the sheer, polished rock behind hinted at what was there. Gingerly she stepped forward and looked back out to the edge of the rock where the black cloud hung, roiling in motionless breeze, tendrils still reaching to the land below.
Caught between black with promise of red and black with promise of death she stepped towards the rectangle of black and began to feel as if she knew it. There was familiarity, here, with that armor and red and black rectangle. Had the post moved to be so close to the sheer rock face? Or had the mountain? Redness now glowed directly behind the black as if the rock were alive. Approaching the black rectangle she shivered as another fetid breath escaped the cloud.
Shivering in coldness she saw that this was a cloak with lovely green fastenings to it. The cloud was offering cold blackness and the cloak on the post offered warm blackness. She turned to look at the cloud which now slowly engulfed the edge of the rock dais and her hands slid to the green fastening and white gold chain and slid the cloak on, so warm against her skin. She brought the cloak together with her hands in front of her and the red side of it glowed deep, cherry red. All of it shifted to her, now, and she felt the boots unseen below the armor now stitch themselves against her feet, the armor now slide around and over her skin, warming her, engulfing her. Finally the helmet smoothly shifted to her and came around, and redness now surrounded her.
The black cloud flitted into the sky, roiling still.
She could see it so very well, now, and hear its rasping sound as it floated into the ether over the desert. Shrugging she could feel her wings open and her arms move freely in front of her. Now her legs, so powerful, launched her into the sky and her wings beat once to thrust her up past ephemeral clouds that came and went, so that she could look down and spot the one that had been so near her. Looking down she could see into a room with a green and black mass that was human form and yet she saw that it was not human at all. From the desert dust there was a figure she saw and knew, but he wasn't there just the form of him was.
Her wings beat again and again.
What could she do?
What couldn't she do?
He was beyond the Mountains of Madness, she knew, in another land she could not get to.
Here, though, she could see that which hunted her. She soared and slowly circled above and her taloned hand with scaled arm acted to click her claws together. So high she soared until she saw that this land was held by a hand as well.
A dead hand.
Yet still living in some way.
She would have smiled if she could, but couldn't and, instead, satisfied herself to turn on that which was her hunter. Pulling her wings in she sheared from her circling and jetted down swiftly, very swiftly, towards the cloud.
It roiled and evaporated into mists.
Her talons clutched nothing.
And the ground approached, too fast.
Erin Norris awoke with a start from the land of dreaming.
How long had she been asleep?
She looked up at the small screens and none had a motion indicator going.
The protective clothing from the Batman were warm, yes, and she had slept. That was a dream of being chased and.... what? What was it that had happened? She had remembered seeing the red, the black and then, when she saw it directly...
The Valkyrie costume!
"Of course," she said smiling and chuckling to herself, "it was the costume! That had felt so good to have on, and the spotlights.... and..." she inhaled "the red showing suddenly from the darkness. What a dream!"
She shook her head, smiling, until she remembered a fragment of it.
"Not a Valkyrie...a... what? What was I?"
Her brow furrowed in worry and thought.
She felt the rumbling.
And then, one of the screens showing the tunnel outside the entrance, a light shone from down the tracks. The clicking sound of wheels on rails. She shivered and could not tear her gaze away from it.
The light grew. And grew. The sound, the rumble got closer and closer and closer.
The squeel of brakes and the subway train flashed past the entrance slowing... slowing... bright and liquid and dark and alive yet so very dead... flashes of... people inside? Trapped?
Was there a station nearby? Yes! Just a block away...
The last car shimmered to a halt.
The engineer's window opened.
"No..." she whispered, "... please, not me..."
Backlit darkness moved and the doors on the train shuddered open just as it vanished with the engineer's whistle sounding even through the rock between her and the tracks.
Glancing at the light for the motion detector, it sat, unblinking, the sensor registered nothing.
Yet something had been there.
A Ghost Train of Gotham City.
Death had stopped outside her door to whistle for her.
And then left.
She looked around and felt how solid this world was and cried.
"What is going on?" she asked as she sobbed.
The soft whirr of a circulating fan was her only answer.
* * *
Their passage back was done easily as the man gave in exultation the power to open that portal from ch'shagg state to his normal one for the cousin Shaggoth.
With how his primitive brain worked now known the rest of his life was easy to find, and did not require conscious stimulation of what the man was any longer. They shared in the deciphering of this primitive life and now understood more about these food.
Shaggoth slid out from the interstices of its cousin Ngluioth after as full a sharing of knowledge as these two cousins could do. It was the cousin that brought understanding that these primitives had a few amongst them that could wield power of kinds they both knew, but very few could do it well and with skill. It was clear that such a power had brought Ngluioth to this realm, but it was of a limited sort that had been thwarted by its own directives. Now that the last of that maker's power had been exhausted the cousin imparted that they must seek the third type of their kind, Shoggoth. Only a native to this realm could find the power that Ngluioth needed which was of a type different than Shaggoth required. Truly was this young cousin weak, even though it had taken on physical bulk its power needs were not being met.
Both could feel that one power point nearby, but it was at once a beacon and a warning. This was power similar to what both needed, but unlike any that they had felt in their own realms. That told of danger and warning to Shaggoth which only Shoggoth could fathom if any could. Ngluioth agreed in their wordless speech, given by no sound, no light, nothing that could be seen or heard or felt. Ngluioth knew that knowledge without practice was not wisdom, just information and that the elder cousin was far better versed at its own knowledge than Ngluioth could ever be.
They shared in the last tendrils of power clinging to the physical substance of Tarker Darden who, though dead, had his memories live on. Both of the cousins would need time to assimilate this strange wealth of information, of this society and its creations that they slid through. To that end they sought to leave this land called Gotham, these two islands, but knew that they would return once they had the wisdom of a cousin native to this realm. Sliding through the sewers and underworld of Gotham they soon slipped out into the Gotham River's branch along the North Island.
Here they could feel the thrumming of life from the sea, a place they both felt they knew though neither knew it directly at all. At some distance they could feel power of a sort they knew and feared, out amongst the waves, a place where a certain kind made their home amongst the soft gurgling beyond any breakwater. Those ones they did not seek to disturb and, instead, used their skill to mask their presence even as those others did nothing to mask theirs, haughty in their display so far and far away.
To find a Shuggoth one must go deep into darkness and risk discovery by the Elder Wyrms of rock whilst evading the spawn of the that with the thousand nameless young. They knew that the Great though Lesser Serpent girdling the world would pay them no heed nor would its young. Also they would seek to miss the steaming lakes but adhere to sliding swamps, as those with mere tooth and claw had no power to them. The fresh water they followed to the river where it intersected the island then bespoke to them of its hidden routes amongst the hills and under them in a million nameless places that could be known for all their lack of names.
This river named Gotham had that flavor to it, coming from the deep, dark unknown, bearing it to the light which did not pierce its flavor. In their sight this taste was not one that they would like but their cousin would want in the vast formless blackness below, it would flow with the water but ensure its traces were never found. Their kind respected the power of other beings and Elder Ones who could wield it with great confidence, not caring what they did to others so long as their own goals were met. When one is unfound they are not coerced, when left alone they are not impelled, when forced to work they do it quickly as it must end as that is the nature of such power. They were not without curiosity, these ones, but respected power very much.
Their elder cousins were the strongest of the three but also, at once, the least skilled in power use. Neither doubted the power their cousins could wield, not once nor ever, as even they had more skill they had the lesser measure and understood all too clearly what that meant. To disturb a cousin who wished not to be disturbed is something not done out of easy and with frivolity, for the first awakening of such could be the last sleep of the awakener. What drew them, moved them, forced them starts with a simple use of power, thwarted, a chase for a food, uneaten, and the discovery of unknown power, present. To the two searching this meant opportunity and ability to undo that which caused it, that which escaped and know just what that power was.
Such opportunity was rarely visited upon their kinds.
Yet it tasted of a color that they felt would help unlock so very much.
If they could survive getting the help they needed to do the unlocking.
* * *
"If you will follow me, sir?" the security guard said to him.
"Of course," and the man in a somewhat worn and nondescript dark suit and pants outfit, with off-white shirt, white and blue striped tie and black wingtip shoes that had seen better decades said as he got up from the plush chair in the waiting area next to the main security desk at Wayne Tower.
The guard opened a door to a back set of hallways and led him down those and out to a main hallway that was done with gray and brown marble floors and dull beige painted walls that only had adornment via wainscoting that was white. The high ceilings echoed their footsteps as the guard led him to an elevator and pushed a button to summon it. Numbers flashed above the elevator starting in the mid-teens and descending to '1', and the door opened with a muted ding sound. The guard stepped in and motioned for him to follow. When he had entered the elevator the guard put a key into the recess normally taken by a button at '92' and turned the key. The doors closed and the dimly lit, well appointed elevator done in mahogany and thick pile red carpets ascended into the Tower. When they had reached the designated floor the door opened and the guard turned to him.
"Go right following the corridor and then take a right at the main corridor. Mister Wayne's apartment door is on the right and the elevators will be on your left when you need to leave."
"Thank you," Dr. Gotham said as he stepped out of the elevator and heard the door close behind him. He followed the simple directions, which were augmented by signs along the similarly well appointed hallways of this top suite of rooms. When he arrived at the door he pressed the simple button and waited for a moment and then the door was opened by an older gentleman, wearing a black suit with white shirt.
"Hello," he said, "you must be Doctor Gotham?"
"Yes, that's right. I am here to deliver a piece of jewelry that belonged to Mr. Wayne's mother," Dr. Gotham said holding the small wooden box in his left hand. Doctor Gotham had been unwilling to open it for the guard, previously, but allowed it to be x-rayed which satisfied the guard that the contents of the box was not a device of some sort.
"Of course. Mister Wayne is meeting with some of his employees and I am to bring you to that room."
Alfred gestured with his arm and Dr. Gotham entered, nodding.
"I thank you, sir."
Alfred smiled and nodded, shutting the door and stepping past the gentleman.
"Follow me, if you will."
Alfred led him to a crossing hall and to the left, and then to a conference room on the right.
"Master Bruce, this is Dr. Gotham."
Bruce Wayne stood up from the end of the table and walked over.
"A pleasure to meet you, Dr. Gotham, although the circumstances are strange."
Dr. Gotham shook hands with Bruce Wayne.
"Yes, they are at that, Mr. Wayne. I hope that this does not bring undue concern to you, today, but my duties are to ensure that anything entrusted to the shop are returned to their rightful owners as soon as possible. As your mother had left the item some time ago, and it has not resurfaced until recently, I am afraid that the standards of the shop have not been held up."
Bruce Wayne nodded and looked at the others.
"Of course. Dr. Gotham these are employees and friends who have been looking into the events of last night for me. First is Vivian Rose, Chief Pilot for Wayne ATC," he said and Vivian stood up extending her hand across the table.
Dr. Gotham stepped forward and shook the young woman's hand.
"Pleased to meet you, Pilot Rose," he said.
She smiled as she shook his hand.
"And me, you, Dr. Gotham."
Vivian sat down as Bruce gestured to Martin.
"Next is Lieutenant Martin Carstairs, who works in our Law Enforcement and Physical Training sections."
"A pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant," Dr. Gotham said as Martin was standing up and they shook hands.
"And me to meet you, Dr. Gotham. What sort of shop do you run?"
"A curiosity shop, Lieutenant. I do some work on research and restoration of items, as well."
Martin sat down and the man across from him was already standing.
"Next is a family friend who knew my parents and has helped me as well, Sargent Frank Rock."
Frank extended his hand and Dr. Gotham shook it, and smiled at the firm and callused grip of this older gentleman.
"Pleased to meet you, Dr. Gotham."
"And a pleasure to meet you, Sgt. Rock."
Frank raised an eyebrow and sat down, while the Project got up.
"This is Tom Octurian, a friend of Sgt. Rock's who is recovering from an industrial accident."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Octurian," Dr. Gotham said shaking the thick hand of the Project.
"Thank you, Dr. Gotham."
Bruce walked around the table and gestured for Alfred to pull out a chair for Dr. Gotham.
"Coffee, sir?" Alfred asked.
Dr. Gotham shook his head.
"No, thank you."
He sat down and looked at the table and put the small box on it and took out the paperwork for it from a pocket in his suit coat. These he then slid over the table to Bruce Wayne, who picked up the box and put the receipt in front of him.
"That is the boxed item and the original receipt. The prior box had been damaged beyond repair and I worked up a replacement for it."
"Fifteenth of March Nineteen Thirty Four?" Bruce said quietly.
"Yes, that's right. That is when the item was recorded coming into the shop and the work order with it."
Bruce examined the sheet and continued reading.
"Jewelry cleaning and polishing, $15... Restoration if necessary, $5... Research and background, $5... Total $25... PIA..." Bruce looked at Dr. Gotham, "Paid in Advance?"
"Yes, that's right."
Alfred looked at Bruce.
"If I may, Master Bruce? I would assume that a stub or duplicate was given to Martha Culligan?"
Dr. Gotham turned to look at the butler.
"Yes, that's right. One copy goes to the owner, one with the work order and another on file. This is the work order copy."
"If I may be excused for a moment, Master Bruce?"
"Of course, Alfred."
"Very good," he said nodding as he left the room and turned to the left.
Vivian Rose looked at Dr. Gotham.
"Didn't Martha come back and want to know what happened to the piece?"
Dr. Gotham raised his eyebrows.
"Yes she did, Pilot Rose. My shop records indicate that she did and she was given her original payment back in addition to the gem and precious metal worth of the item in compensation for the lost piece. That was on the Twelfth of April, 1935 done by shop proprietor Henry Swanson. In truth no real value or any value can be attached to the item."
Bruce looked at the box and noticed that the front hasp had a tiny steel padlock on it.
"Where is the key?"
Dr. Gotham raised an eyebrow and smiled.
"It is a disguise. The bottom part of the hasp needs to be pressed in for it to be released. It is advisable that only the owner of the item open it."
"Really?" Martin asked, "Why is that?"
Smiling Dr. Gotham nodded.
"It is a question of propriety and ownership, Lieutenant Carstairs. I do assume that Mr. Wayne is the heir to Martha Culligan's estate and effects?"
"That he is," said Alfred returning with a small steel box, "these are the papers for that and other documents kept by his parents to verify the estate."
He walked over to Bruce Wayne and put the fireproof box on the table so that he could open it. Bruce reached into his sport coat's pocket and took out a key wallet and removed the key to open the box. He lifted the lid and took out the Last Will and Testament of his parents and handed it across the table to Dr. Gotham who examined the opening pages and nodded.
"All of the account ledgers are in here also, aren't they Alfred?"
"Yes, Master Bruce."
Bruce slid out slim, green covered ledger books that his parents had made during their time together. He slid out one ledger that they kept for jewelry and opened it examining the dates.
"This only starts in 1948," Bruce said looking up at Alfred.
"That is when they got married," Frank said, "done at the Gotham Chapel. I remember being there with Sally."
"That is quite correct, Master Bruce."
Bruce returned that ledger to the box and continued flipping past the books and folders until he found a folder with papers and a slim, leather bound booklet with it. He opened the booklet and examined it.
"To: Martha Culligan, From: Edward Culligan, Sr. - To my dearest Martha, a record book for all of your precious items. Februrary Sixth, Nineteen Twenty Eight on the occasion of her Twelfth Birthday," he read slowly, aloud.
"That was her grandfather, who passed on in 1933."
After the blank page there were ruled pages with neat writing on them. Bruce flipped past the first page and found one with a neatly written note. He read aloud entries about the item.
'August 17th, 1934 - Found in North Shore Caves during outing one rosewood box with amber amulet inside, gold fittings and chain. Not identified as to owner.'
'August 20th, 1934 - After talking with Father he is making inquiries to find if anyone has lost the amulet and box. It is stored in his sitting room safe.'
'February 9th, 1935 - Father and Mother unable to find anyone who has lost the amulet. It is Mother suggested I take it to a Curiosity Shop that does research and restoration on jewelry, since this one has some stone encrusting parts of it.'
He flipped the page glancing up at Dr. Gotham who was handing the will back to Alfred.
"All is in order, Mister Wayne."
Bruce raised an eyebrow at the first entry on the next page.
'March 15th, 1935 - After lessons today I took the amulet and box to Dr. Gotham's Curiosity Shop and consulted with him on finding the proper owner of the box. I agreed after seeing other items in the shop to entrust him to cleaning the amulet and doing any restoration work, as well as finding its proper owner.'
'April 12th, 1935 - Went to the Curiosity Shop to find that Dr. Gotham had disappeared on March 29th with the disappearance of the subway train 125 which he would have taken on his way to my home. As he was out to deliver the item it is lost along with him and everyone else on that train. Mr. Swanson, who is running the shop in Dr. Gotham's absence, not only refunded my payment but brought out Dr. Gotham's ledger and notes on the item to find the value of it. I could not decipher the notes as they are written in a strange script. The estimated value of $1,265 was put in on a tally sheet for the piece and Mr. Swanson offered to pay me that or equivalent value in trade from his shop for the lost item. I declined the trade and received 13 $100 bills and the promise that if the item ever turns up it will be returned to me.'
"On the next page there was something taped to it, but isn't there," Bruce said looking at the book.
"Perhaps inside the back cover, Master Bruce? It is a sturdier place to attach items."
"That is a lot of money for back then," Frank Rock said softly whistling.
"It was what an average workman could make in 3 to 4 months, quite a sum for an amulet," Alfred said.
Bruce raised his eyebrow and went to the back of the book which had a small manila envelope with brown, brittle tape holding it to the inside of the cover. As he went to lift it to get to the back of the envelope the tape broke. Pursing his lips together he turned the envelope over and opened it. Inside there were to slips of paper: one a work order receipt for the amulet and the other the cash refund and payment of item valuation to Martha Culligan. Bruce took out the former and laid it next to the receipt Dr. Gotham had handed him. He place the original over the work order copy.
"They fit," Bruce whispered.
Dr. Gotham nodded.
Bruce looked somewhat puzzled while examining the papers. He then looked over at Martin.
"Martin, what do you think? You are the only one here with law enforcement experience," Bruce said handing the receipts over to him.
"Sure, Mr. Wayne," he said taking the papers and examining them. He then held them up to the light. "Same watermark... I've seen similar sheets where the top is the good copy like this one and the middle is a cheaper quality paper and the final piece is high quality... don't really know the maker of the pad but the printing looks pre-War..." he continued to turn them over and then nodded and looked at Frank.
"Frank, you probably have a better feel for that sort of thing than I do and I do see something, but want another opinion. From you and Tom, both."
"That's fine, El-Tee," Frank said reaching across the table to take the receipts and then looking at them.
"Shop receipts, saw a million of them in the war for requisitions. Everything had to have copies and that was a pain. Don't know the maker of the pad this went to, but it looks similar to others I've seen."
Frank turned over the original receipt and work order receipt and raised an eyebrow.
"Tom?" he said handing them over to the Project.
The Project examined the sheets holding them between two fingers at arms length.
"Original sheet is moderate to low archive quality paper, work order sheet is low quality base wood pulp without desulfuring. They have identical watermarks and imposition of written text indicates intermediate transfer paper was used. Original print date is given as 1933. Condition of the original sheet is aged with residual chemicals oxidizing at folds of sheet. Work order copy is in new condition for its paper type."
Bruce Wayne's lips twitched towards a smile and then he looked serious.
"I thought that would be the case, but couldn't be sure."
Martin nodded, "It stands out once you think about it. That yellowing on your mother's copy can only come with that sort of paper folded and then not having much air contact."
"New?" Vivian asked, "Are you sure?"
The Project handed the sheets back to Bruce Wayne.
"Yes, Miss Rose. There is minimal yellowing or browning of the work order copy which would have significant amounts of that due to chemical reactions in the paper, which is not of the quality as the original piece."
"That's pretty much standard even today, Vivian. You want something done and they pull out the pad and slip in the carbon paper and you get the top and the shop either has one or two copies from that."
"Yeah, Frank, I've seen that sort of pad but... how could the better paper be aged and the cheaper paper not show it?"
Bruce was watching Dr. Gotham who was returning the favor and gently nodding.
"Can you explain this, Dr. Gotham?"
Dr. Gotham sat back in his chair and looked at the people around the table.
"I can tell you, but only after I tell you of the item, lest you think me a madman. It revolves around that piece and the antiquarian explorer Chester Rhinold and his travels to western China and Central Asia."