"Do you have Erin? Is she safe?"
Ron Norris was in his bed at Gotham General Hospital, looking into the anti-septic room that held a heart monitor, IV drip stand, side shelf with wash basin and cabinets under it, along with a roll-around table and two chairs. The room had a window on his right that faced to the east although the view was blocked by older buildings between Mid-North and the Marina. The only real view beyond the open lawn area with parking on the side, was to the street and a then the wall of neatly spaced windows set into gray-black marble of an office building built in the 1930's. At the 15th floor corners of that building sculpted gargoyles looked down into the street lawn areas, unmoved by the comings and goings of Gothamites both sick and well.
The slatted drapes were open which somewhat obstructed the view and the shadows of the late mid-day were starting to darken the street even as slivers of lightened gloom slowly passed over the face of the building opposite the hospital. The hospital itself had been erected in 1942 in the expectation of taking in the casualties of war and served as a major overflow and recuperation center during and just after the war before being converted into civilian use in the early 1950's. What had been a wardroom for four men was now a single room on the psychiatric level of Gotham General Hospital, although the ghosts of that time were at ease from their struggles the demons of the modern times had come to haunt this floor.
Ron looked from Dr. Lomond, who had been treating him this afternoon, to Orderly J. Larkin a man of moderate build but having been a middle-weight wrestler of some ability had won a Bronze at the Olympics in his better days. With them was Commissioner Gordon, Deputy Commissioner Colton and Major Rhodes, all three with notebooks out and the roll-around had been shifted to allow the men to use it for the two open file folders that were beginning to enlarge with papers over the course of the day.
"We still haven't found her," Rhodes said, "and have no idea where she is."
Ron's eyes darted from him to the window and then to an upper corner of the room until settling on Commissioner Gordon.
"She's in danger... it's stalking her..."
"It?" Gordon asked pushing his glasses up his nose, while he glanced at his notebook, "What is this 'it'?"
Ron sunk down on the pillow, the restraints on his wrists attached to the raised sides of the bed prevented some motion and made others difficult. Still they were not the full restraints reserved for the truly violent and deranged.
"I... don't..." Ron swallowed turning his head to look through the slats at the gargoyle across the street, which safeguarded an intersection many stories below.
"Mr. Norris hasn't been able to name what 'it' was that, ah, attacked him, Commissioner," Dr. Paul Lomond said.
"Are the restraints necessary?" Colton asked.
Dr. Lomond nodded slightly.
"A precaution in any case of a fear derangement or similar problem. We would like to keep him under observation and let our senior clinical staff get a full work-up of his condition."
Maj. Rhodes was flipping through the sheets in one folder.
"Has he gotten any outside news?"
"I'm afraid not, Major, patients with some mental disorders are only permitted news once we have their condition assessed."
Colton nodded, looking from the sheet that Rhodes was holding and then at Gordon who inclined his head. He then looked at the Doctor.
"We have some questions for him about another case that may be related," he said, "and since it was in the news we were hoping there might be a connection."
Looking puzzled Dr. Lomond looked at Gordon.
"Another... incident?" he asked and Gordon looked at him nodding. "It's not about... last night, is it?"
"Yes," Gordon said, "we have two major cases with unknown causes and this one came up as a third but the first to happen and have an eyewitness that can actually describe what he saw."
"I... that's unusual, Commissioner. Are you saying that what happened to Mr. Norris might be related to..."
Ron Norris had turned from the window and was looking at Gordon.
"It won't go away, will it? Staying here, isn't it? Horror from beyond... between... "
Gordon moved forward to stand next to the bed and put a hand over Ron's right hand as Ron closed his eyes and was shaking.
"Beyond what, Mr. Norris? Or between what?" he asked softly.
Dr. Lomond stepped to the other side of the bed and checked Ron's pulse which was going up.
Finally Ron opened his eyes and looked at Gordon.
"Space..." he whispered, "... it touched... me... not just outside but... I could see... taste... what it did..."
"Taste?" Colton said softly looking at the doctor who shook his head.
"Oh, yes, taste!" Ron said, "It doesn't... not like us... we aren't... people to it..."
He grasped Gordon's hand as he closed his eyes and pressed his lips together.
Gordon looked from Rhodes who looked back at him with a blank stare. Colton had his lips together and shook his head from side-to-side.
"You are exciting the patient, Commissioner," Dr. Lomond said.
Gordon looked at him with a cold stare.
"I have a house full of corpse pieces and multiple deaths at the convention center, plus I don't know how many cases of hysteria..."
"Seventeen..." Lomond said softly.
"...and my only lead is this man. I'm concerned for him, Doctor Lomond, but I am now officially worried about the welfare of the rest of the city since I have no idea if these are connected but the only connection we have is that no one has seen what caused it all. Then this case appears at the top of the late week, early weekend files and it has something unknown attacking Ron Norris and giving him hysteria. You tell me if Mr. Norris will be harmed more than what I've seen so far today and I will back off."
Dr. Lomond's eyes widened as he listened to Gordon, and then looked down at Ron who had tears running from the corners of his eyes.
"I..." Ron said, "...gotta hold on...its so hard to think after it... I could see... feel... like it... just for a moment before it was gone..." he opened his eyes and looked at Gordon. "It's not for me... it's for Erin..."
Gordon placed his other hand on top of Ron's, closing his eyes and nodding.
"I had... dreams last night... saw her... it was chasing her... close to me... wanted her..."
"For what?" Colton asked quietly.
Ron pressed his lips together and nodded.
"Kill her. It's connected to her, somehow.... I dunno..."
"Mr. Norris," Gordon said, "when you said it doesn't see us as people... if it doesn't see us as that then what does it see us as?"
He opened his eyes and looked at Gordon and whispered, "Food".
Gordon looked at Rhodes and Colton who both turned to stare at him.
"I think we have our first real answer in these cases," Gordon said, "and it isn't a pleasant one."
* * *
Li Sun was crossing the Park Crest Bridge and looked up from its east end and saw Wayne Tower building disappearing into the broken clouds scudding in from the sea. The waves of clouds flowed around it, obscuring its top at times, and it looked for all the world like a way between this world and some other one. The gargoyles on lower buildings, looking down and out over the city all had their backs to it. No matter where they squatted, this backbone of Gotham was something they could never look up to. Their gaze was for the roots around it, those that moved and jostled on the pavement below who walked on the street roots that fed it.
Almost, for a moment, he could see a great shape, a form, ready to lift itself from the ground and soar upwards into what would be the mid-day sun.
"Ah, my red bird, where have you gotten to?"
Li Sun lowered his gaze and restarted his crossing over the Mid-Gotham river and he smiled, nodded.
"Paradise," he whispered, "a land of destiny."
He continued across to the west side of Gotham and headed towards the hotel district first by going down 24th until it hit Nob Street which he took to 23rd and then left again, which allowed him to look up at Wayne Tower almost directly, his gaze first going over the complex of smaller buildings which huddled around the base of the Wayne Tower and then up into the sky. The low clouds swirled past the upper floors of the building while the sun glinted off the radio towers on its roof. This building was one of the largest capital investments made in Gotham City and by far the largest of the private ones. Smiling Li Sun nodded and then brought his gaze back down to look at the people now attending the shops along the street between the larger hotels. He walked briskly to the south, letting the smell of the sea air wash over him as it gusted almost unrestricted from the dock areas across this lowland between Gotham Hills.
Going past smaller stores that catered to electronics, household goods, clothing both for workmen and high society, he saw the people who came to Gotham City: tourists to see historic locations, families taking a Sunday off after church to do necessary shopping or offer their children a treat at one of the candy or ice cream shops that dotted the main business district, those going to matinee performances in the theater district so as to get lower prices and the regular citizens of Gotham, each going about their normal business as would move them in the scant days before All Hallow's Eve. This was mirrored in other places in Gotham, but here, in the central business area, the weekend pulse of life was felt strongest.
At Jardin Street he went west and to 22nd, very near the north edge of the Shambles and yet still two blocks from it. Here some of the lower class hotels and motels existed, and while most were new some were relics of a bygone age of travel by steamship, with their 20 floor expanses now no longer glittering but soiled into lower class survival. Chase's Hotel, just at Ivy and 22nd, was one of those, having once been a flagship hotel in the late 19th century, its old masonry had received a renovation on its lowest floors in the 1920's and its gargoyles and eagle heads jutted out at the mid-point to hide the lesser attention paid above the 15th floor. What had once been white granite was now grey with age and neglect on the lower floors and the once proud red brown above was now an indistinct red black. Still at the sidewalk level it had some hints at past glory, like the Rambon Restaurant which was his destination.
Upon getting to the main desk he but flashed a gold coin and got instant service, for it was a token not unknown to the staff as the clientele in the upper reaches of the hotel often utilized similar for their illegal games and endeavors. He seated himself and ordered tea while perusing the menu noting the approach of an older gentleman in black suit and tie who smiled, stopped to chat with a waiter and then with a couple at another table near the entrance. The waiter delivered his tea just as the older gentleman was walking over.
"Got that Darjeeling for the gentleman, Enrico?"
The young waiter turned and smiled.
"Yes, sir. We had a fresh delivery this week."
The older man beamed and clapped the younger man on his right shoulder.
"Good man, Enrico!"
He then looked down at Li Sun who quietly sipped the tea.
"Yes, it is a good batch from this summer," he said quietly returning the older man's gaze with a quiet stare.
"Wonderful! I'm Scevola Petruzzi and glad to welcome you to Chase's," he said extending his hand.
Li Sun grasped his hand, feeling the the meaty and well muscled hand that had calluses and some roughness to it.
"And I am Li Sun, from the Hideko trade representative and part owner of the Golden Tiger Club. Your daughter had indicated that I would be welcome here."
Scevola beamed as he released Li Sun's hand.
"Ahhh... Betsy! She ran me ragged when she was growing up and always went her own way. I sent you the invitation because I know that Giancarlo would have wanted you to have it if he wasn't away on vacation in Sicily."
"She is an able negotiator, Mr. Petruzzi and quite persuasive. I had decided that to get my mind off the events of last night that I would walk around Gotham and sample it outside of where I usually go. Your invitation and the reputation of your restaurant made this a good destination for a meal."
Scevola smiled and nodded, then looked at the young waiter.
"You see? Advertising pays dividends. Never forget that if you want to do well in the business, Enrico."
"I won't, Mr. Petruzzi."
"So its pleasure for you today, Mr. Sun? A sampling of Rambon's cuisine?"
"Yes, although I am but here for a single short meal if your kitchen is still preparing the steak tartare?"
Scevola noddded once.
"Yes, of course! The best strip steak with the leanest marbling that I can get from Henry in Chicago. He ages beef the old fashioned way, not like those chop shops in Kansas City. Only the best for our customers."
Li Sun nodded and smiled.
"That and your gazpacho, should do for the meal."
Scevola turned to Enrico.
"You heard the man, Enrico! And get me an espresso and grappa, eh? That is if Mr. Sun doesn't mind some business talk with the pleasure?"
"I do have empty seats, Mr. Petruzzi. I would enjoy some talk before I continue on with my walk around Gotham."
"Perfect! Get to it, Enrico! Let Lenore know I will be busy for a bit, ok?"
"I will contact her, Mr. Petruzzi. Thank you for your order, Mr. Sun."
Enrico smiled and bowed before turning and walking towards the head waiter's station.
The older man joined Li Sun and looked across the table at him.
"Your people have a good IMEX house, Mr. Sun, I've been quite impressed with it."
Li Sun nodded.
"It is efficient in all parts of its work," Li Sun said staring directly into the eyes of Scevola. "Did your daughter tell you of the items that were being negotiated about?"
Nodding his head from side to side, the older man smiled breaking Li Sun's gaze to look at the ceiling.
"Betsy tell her dad? Ha! I didn't even know she was seeing Mr. Wong until the week before the wedding," he said looking at Li Sun who was slowly letting his gaze move around the restaurant. "She just said she was negotiating with you for a friend and I let her know to pass on a token to you. After what has been going on for the past few years amongst the families..." he lowered his voice, "... you seem to be reliable, Mr. Sun. Small time as we used to measure things a decade ago, but now small time and reliable seems to be escaping prosecution."
Li Sun sipped his tea while Enrico delivered the cup of espresso and glass of grappa for Scevola.
"Thanks, Enrico," Scevola said nodding and sipping his espresso after Enrico left.
"I represent multiple entities," Li Sun said, "and my concern is with the overall ability of them, not concentrating on any, single one. At times one entity may rise and then that will help the others, and if one encounters trouble, the rest may be used to keep it functioning while it is reorganized. There are times when it is necessary to change the nature of an entity so as to make it more effective at the opportunities it has. Some venues allow fast transformation, while others can only progress slowly."
Nodding Scevola sipped his grappa while the gazpacho was delivered to Li Sun.
"And how would you say things have been going lately?" he asked as Li Sun sipped at the cold soup. After patting his lips with a napkin, Li Sun blinked once and Scevola saw something but couldn't make out what it was in Li Sun's eyes.
"We are in a time of transformation and coming together of disparate parts, Mr. Petruzzi. What is necessary hasn't been clear, but the ability to change quickly may be upon us. When the proper elements are represented and in place, then change can happen, not before."
Scevola Petruzzi smiled with a lopsided grin and shifted in his chair. He was starting to feel a bit unnerved by the gaze of Li Sun and was glad when he concentrated on sipping the cold soup. A sip of espresso didn't clear the feeling. Nor did the grappa.
Li Sun finished his gazpacho and took a sip from his tea.
"Tell me, Mr. Petruzzi, what goes on in the Underworld? My own people will have nothing to do with it and I am informed that no one else will, either. I have not been here that long and do not understand why such a venue is left vacant."
Scevola smirked as Enrico came to take the gazpacho away and put down a double serving of the steak tartare. Li Sun nodded and Enrico smiled before leaving. Scevola just missed Li Sun blinking but there was a disturbing passing of something over the eyes as he did so.
"Yeah, you can't get a mook to run an op down there more than a week. It was maybe thirty to thirty five years ago when it was created by covering over the old and try to get rid of some of the slopes going with the hills. Better city planning and all that crud. There was good money in it for a few of our outfits in construction and it took maybe a decade to complete. Some of those streets were pretty nasty hang-outs and really made for street gangs that didn't want to feed into the families. In a year or two the old gangs tried to stay in their old haunts, but they got fear in them. Maybe, what?, ten or twenty of them just started to pop up missing and no one had a clue. For awhile it was thought that we had one of them serial killers, but nothing ever turned up. Finally the police got a re-do of the grating system and blocked things off further so the old streets got chopped up into a few block sections at a time. You could get your way around them, of course, but that took time and patience."
Li Sun chewed slowly out of each bit he took from the raw dish, savoring the meat as his eyes slowly scanned the room before coming back to Scevola.
"That is much of what I hear as well, Mr. Petruzzi. There have been encounters with this Ghost Train or trains and some other hints of things not normal that go on down in the old streets. No one can say what it is."
Sipping his grappa Scevola leaned back in his chair.
"Its all speculation, Mr. Sun. This is way before The Bat showed up outta nowhere eight or ten years ago. Just after that the vagrants, hobos... whatchyamacallit... homeless! ah, these euphemisms... they started to get the fear in them from the old subway stations, which at least had some ventilation that wasn't all sewage. Its like the dead are restless down there and not too happy at the living shutting them away."
Li Sun chewed and swallowed another bite of his meal.
"From my people I have heard of this train and other feelings, like one is being watched, constantly as if the gargoyles, above, can stare through stone with their stone eyes. Reports of lights and the feelings of hot and cold also have been reported. A single close encounter is enough to dissuade even the best of men from staying in the Underworld."
A chaser of espresso went after a sip of grappa.
"I ran an op down there for month back in '73. Just some smuggling of dope, nothing big, but we had one shipment blown apart without a sound to it, one of my best men, Ramone, saw something he won't describe and his hair turned white a month later and it look like he aged 20 years. I felt, well, something down there. Whatever it is, it breathes through the tunnels, I think. The air goes out and comes in but not to tide or sunrise or sunset, but on its own. Not exactly regular but... to its own time. It was having one of my mules turn up missing in the subway tunnels, but his pack of dope left right at the edge of a platform for the trains... that let me know... look..." Scevola leaned forward lowering his voice, "... I know when someone is playing me, y'know?"
Li Sun nodded chewing another piece of his steak tartare.
"It wasn't another operation, they would have left the body and taken the dope. That was bait. Everyone was spooked. After that we had an... incident... everyone started shooting at each other down in a station. The guys... no one knew who fired first, of the couple that were still alive... but those two swear that something that was moving out of the shadows was coming for them. Never found a couple of the bodies and no one was going to stay down there to look. The op was a bust, with six dead in six weeks and only three transfers actually made, I was losing men faster than shipments and I didn't like that. Neither did Giancarlo who pulled the plug on it and left the order for no more Underworld work. Its a good rule and I'm sticking to it."
"Yessss..." Li Sun said with the final s-sound trailing off, "...most wise. Usually the heart of danger also has fortune to it, although perhaps not that of gold or goods. I thank you for offering me the invitation to come here, Mr. Petruzzi. I will take the remainder of my meal with me as I would like to see the library before it closes."
Scevola nodded, motioning over to Enrico.
"Its on the house, Mr. Sun. This is a rough neighborhood, you know? Do you want an escort?"
When Li Sun blinked Scevola reached for his glass of grappa and took the rest of the contents of his glass, which was half-full, in one gulp.
"Yes, Mr. Petruzzi?" Enrico said arriving.
"A go-carton for Mr. Sun, Enrico."
Enrico took the plate and nodded.
"I will be back in a minute, Mr. Sun."
After leaving Li Sun gazed over the scattering of people in the restaurant and licked his lips.
"It was delicious, Mr. Petruzzi. There is so much more here to savor, but time grows short."
Scevola Petruzzi shivered as the gaze of Li Sun came back to him. There was a dread feeling that the anticipation by Li sun was in no way connected to future dinners at the Rambon.
"I am in no need of protection. I do not need such as your Baretta and stilettos to protect me, and others would just get in the way."
Enrico returned with a small white bag that held a container for the steak tartare.
"I hope you enjoyed your meal, Mr. Sun," Enrico said.
"Well prepared, my compliments to the staff," he said placing the gold token down on the table, "I no longer need this when the invitation is now open," he said looking at Scevola who was finally getting his wits about him and pushing himself from the table to stand up.
"No, no worries about that, Mr. Sun," he said picking up the token, "I hope the rest of your day goes well."
Li Sun picked up the white bag and nodded to Scevola and Enrico.
"I am without worries on that score, Mr. Petruzzi. Good afternoon."
The two men watched the old man leave after getting his coat and hat from front room.
"A nice guy, if dressing down a bit," Enrico said.
"No... no Enrico... I think... I dunno..." Scevola shivered, "It was a mistake to invite him here. But I can't very well stop him from coming back, you know?"
Enrico glanced at the back of the old man Sun who walked out the door and turned south and then out of view.
"What do you mean, Mr. Petruzzi? He should be simple enough to stop, you know?"
Scevola shook his head from side to side.
"No, Enrico, not that one. He... I know what I saw... its like when I was in the Underworld... he may look like the old guy at the head of an operation, but he's... he's off..."
"What? Touched, maybe?" Enrico said tapping his temple with a forefinger.
Scevola snorted and smiled.
"We should be so lucky, Enrico. Its like something from the Underworld is coming up, I know that feeling. He is part of it."
* * *
Returning to the Curiosity Shop, Dr. Gotham found two vehicles parked in front of it and entered to find four men in the shop, three of them talking to Henry Swanson. One of them was a uniformed member of the GCPD and the other three were what would pass for everyday clothing for this time, although the trenchcoat of the man who's hair was going white would not have been out of place from that era which Dr. Gotham had so recently come from. Henry was facing him and talking as Dr. Gotham entered the shop.
"... no, really Commissioner, I didn't see anything amiss in the back room beyond a few drawers opened in some cabinets."
Major Rhodes who was standing next to the intersection of display cases had a manila folder open.
"It says in your description to police that you had a young woman run past you as you headed towards the shop..."
"Yes, that's right," Henry nodded and looked at Dr. Gotham and smiled.
Dr. Gotham walked over past the uniformed policeman, who had turned at his entrance and towards the three who were near the cash register where Henry was seated on an elevated stool.
"Are these gentlemen here about the robbery?" he asked Henry as he stood next to the man who's hair was going white.
"Ah, Dr. Gotham! Yes they are. This is Commissioner Gordon with Major Rhodes," he indicated the man to Dr. Gotham's right, "and Deputy Commissioner Colton," he said indicated the man by the cash register.
"Pleased to meet you," Dr. Gotham said taking his hat off and extending his right hand to shake that of each of the indicated gentlemen.
"You're the owner, I take it, Dr. Gotham?" Gordon asked.
"Yes, the proprietor of Dr. Gotham's Curiosity Shop. Henry is my main shopkeeper along with his son."
"Were you here when the robbery took place?" Colton asked.
"Ah, no, Deputy Colton, I was across town out on a late delivery. Unfortunately the person who's item I was returning was not available to receive it."
"And who would that be and where do they live?"
Dr. Gotham raised an eyebrow.
"Her name is Martha Culligan and she had given me an address of 107 Maple Court."
Major Rhodes looked at Dr. Gotham after writing that down.
"What was the item?" he asked.
Dr. Gotham smiled.
"It is an item of jewelry, an amulet of general type, made of amber with gold findings and has a tooth inclusion. Very rare, from the Far East."
"Do you still have it?" Rhodes asked.
"No. I delivered it to her son, Bruce, today."
"Did anybody see you on your delivery trip on Friday?" Gordon asked.
Raising his eyebrows Dr. Gotham smiled.
"Late night shoppers or those at events, perhaps. I was side-tracked into the Wayne Tower building, so perhaps the security people there saw me. Beyond that any theater goers on the street, cabbies, bus drivers, anyone with business out on the streets when I was walking through town would have seen me."
"Pretty late at night for a delivery, isn't it?" Colton asked.
Dr. Gotham chuckled.
"I didn't realize how long it would take me to get to my destination. When one starts out they can lose track of time, I dare say. It can pass very quickly when you aren't expecting it to."
Looking between the men he smiled.
"If you have any further questions for me, I will be in the back area. Henry?"
"Yes, Dr. Gotham?"
"Is Lewis here? I'm looking to clean up the lower level and take the older display cases apart."
"He came in a half-hour ago and should be in back going over our records to submit forms to the insurance company."
"Very good! If you gentlemen will excuse me?" he said sidling behind Commissioner Gordon.
"Just one more question, Dr. Gotham," the Commissioner said turning to look at him.
"Hmmm... of course!"
"The man who broke in, Ronald Norris, said he was engulfed by something that appeared from upstairs that was made of a translucent substance that glowed green or blue-green. Have you ever heard of anything like that?"
Dr. Gotham cocked his head slightly.
"Translucent and glowing in an ethereal green, you say?"
"Why no, I haven't. Now if it was translucent black and coming from the basement, that might be a different story. Those monsters lurking at the threshold or even under the bed can be quite frightful, I dare say."
Colton snorted and Major Rhodes shook his head from side to side.
"I will be in the lower level, in case I am needed, gentlemen. It is best to make sure that such creatures do not come unbidden to the dark corners of the Earth."
* * *
"... and that is about all I can say for what we have found, Mr. Wayne," Martin Carstairs said looking at Bruce.
Bruce had taken his suit jacket off and was leaning back, sipping from a cup of coffee.
"No actual idea of what caused this, then?"
"None. The eyewitness accounts that we got from the police are so scattered that its hard to say if there was even a person there to cause this. Its like some form of mass hysteria, except for the people thrown around and whatever went on in the back hall area."
Bruce looked to the Project.
"You indicated that it was a use of corrosive chemicals there?"
"Yes. Beyond corroded steel, brass and aluminum there was a stochastic lightening of painted materials of 0.002% that extended for not more than ten feet in diameter. There are indications of water based substances on parts of the painted areas and traces of them on non-painted materials as well. Indications are of motion towards the floor surface for many of those spots. There is a non-indicative trail from the hall to the stairs and then at the basement landing area and out the door into the underground area beyond the convention center. This trail is lost amongst drainage trails in the underground area and may indicate a systemic cleaning of the hall through use of the stairwell."
"Someone had a mess to clean up and didn't want to do the work of using buckets and just hosed it down and out," Vivian said. "I tried to follow what I thought was a trail but lost it in one of the Underworld subway stations by a drain. So I'm starting to think all of that isn't connected, you know?"
Bruce smiled and raised an eyebrow.
"Frank? Any last thoughts?"
The old veteran leaned forward with a mug of coffee between his hands on the table.
"Its the damnedest thing, Bruce," he started, "I've seen the results of hysterical strength but not like this. Its usually just a burst to do something you can't normally do. It can't cause hysteria in others. Or fool you into seeing things. I haven't seen anything like it... ever, really. Not on the battlefield, in the foundry, at home or even read about it. Nothing really fits here, and yet there are people killed, trampled, injured and nothing to describe who or what caused it. Even with what Dr. Gotham told you," he shook his head, "no, nothing from that explains it, either."
Bruce Wayne glanced at Alfred who raised an eyebrow.
"OK. That wraps it up, then. I thank you all for your time. Please, we ran into lunch hour and the Executive Dining Room is open to you all. I didn't mean this to run over time."
"That's all right, Mr. Wayne. Glad to help."
"You have been a great help. All of you. Even without answers it is comforting to know that this was something truly beyond easy explanation. No deranged killer, no use of mass hypnosis... and no real definition of what happened. That can be set aside for a few hours to comfort the bereaved. I thank you all for your time on this weekend."
Bruce stood up and shook the hands of each of the team brought together so quickly this morning.
"I wish we could know more, Mr. Wayne," Martin said.
"It is what it is. I can't change that."
Frank Rock smiled.
"That's the way it is sometimes, Bruce. Deal with what you have and then handle the details later. Sometimes its all you can do and the details never do work themselves out."
Alfred moved to escort them out and Bruce put his suit coat on and went back to his office area to sit down and think. His concerns were mounting and the answers he did have were unpleasant. He took out the small wooden box containing the amulet his mother had found. Even knowing what it was didn't help any. He had this feeling that it was intimately connected with what was going on, but there was no way to piece together the puzzle as large pieces of it were missing. He might not even have half of the puzzle, it was so ill-defined. So chaotic.
He was shaking his head when Alfred returned, and then looked up at him.
"What should I do?" Bruce asked softly.
Alfred inhaled slowly and looked at the box and then at Bruce.
"What you always do, Master Bruce. The necessary things. It is all you can do and they are necessary."
Bruce brought his fingers together, interlacing them and looked at a wedding portrait of his mother and father on the wall opposite him.
"That is what they did, isn't it?"
Alfred nodded and smiled.
"That they did. And yet were not prepared for what befell them. You do otherwise and have learned wisdom even in their tragic end."
Bruce looked at Alfred then closed his eyes.
"Give me a few minutes alone, please. If I'm not out of here in a half-hour, come and get me."
"Understood, Master Bruce."
Alfred turned and walked out of the office, closing the door as he left. He knew that one's demons could do more than torment, they could teach as well.
* * *
Lisa had parked her car in the third sub-basement of the convention center parking garage. Although the police presence had now dwindled at the surface to two patrol cars, two of the local tv stations had come in with their personnel and still needed to be looked after. An emergency cleaning crew for the convention center had also arrived to help clean things up under police direction, and that meant the upper areas of the parking garage had some activity. With the gates at the surface open, Barbara had directed her to head into the garage and below the active levels they should remain 'out of sight, out of mind'. When they stopped the two women opened the hatchback of the car to get two light military rucksacks, their flashlights which were of the long-body aluminum style, and then piled in supplies including wire core rope, harnesses and two canned meals into each pack. Then they changed out of their sneakers into all weather hiking boots and donned thick olive drab jackets, and stuffed their pockets with knitted caps, gloves and extra batteries.
After donning their gear and locking the car, the two made their way to the side entrance that held the very same stairs Barbara had been down just hours before. Lisa followed her down to the lowest level which held the entrance to the service tunnel that went into the Underworld. That was still unlocked, indeed its lock mechanism had been damaged at some point and it could no longer lock at all. Together they made their way to the old street that had been co-opted for service piping and conduits, and followed a path down it while examining the sub-street surface.
"I can see what those two from Wayne's group were seeing, just a somewhat less dirty area going from the tunnel into the street. But its kind of hard to distinguish between that and the run-off drains from above," Barbara said.
Lisa looked up the few feet to the arched overhead ceiling that had grating spaced in the immediate storm sewage system. The new storm sewer system in those areas of Gotham that had an Underworld, had been made to handle moderately heavy run-off and then flow into the older street system which put excess flow into the old system which had a constricted rising drain system that used old hydraulic principles to push water up by constricting flow. The one-way vents into the system from above allowed for water to gather up to a certain point before joining the overall flow. Small diversion pump stations were dotted around Gotham City to help with the inevitable clogs and areas that gained high surface run-off, but it was this oldest of system that allowed for the pressure of the groundwater based system to push storm overflow out of Gotham.
Some of those outflow pipes were now as much as three feet above sea level and often made a spectacle of water jets during major storms, where Gotham gained the look of a large scale fountain due to that old pipe system. Normally it held a trickle of water going out and the freshwater pressure also kept sea water from getting more than a few blocks into Gotham City. In theory the Underworld could act as a vast cistern system to collect keep most of Gotham dry during the worst of downpours, but those once in 10,000 year events were things of engineering speculation, not actually happening in living memory. It was a feat of 19th century engineering that only the civil engineers actually remembered in Gotham City with the normal population taking the relatively dry areas of Gotham for granted and allowed for the continuation of life even when floods inundated areas on the mainland side of the city.
Together they walked side-by-side following the faint trail as it led over the road and towards one of the buildings that was now covered over by the upper works of the new street layout. They could see, just another half-block to the south, where major pilings had been put in to allow for new surface construction, but the trail did not lead them there. The building that the trail led to was one named Commerce Square, which was a station on the old subway line and they followed the trail into it.
"There," Lisa said kneeling down, "it is very faint but you can still see it. There are also shoe prints, I think, and footprints too."
Barbara knelt down and used her flashlight to look back towards the entrance.
"I think you're right. Some dust got picked up out on the old sidewalk by at least four people. Two of those have to be the Wayne people and they had on... ahhhh..." Barbara thought for a moment, "the man was wearing boots, I think, and the woman had on sneakers..."
Lisa shone her flashlight around.
"Yes, I see those going on the other side of the trail. The other prints are down the center of the trail."
Lisa got up and walked further into the station, past the uprights that once held turnstiles and went back towards where the trails led, to an overlook above the actual train-level platform.
"The one trail, the wide one, stops here," she said shining her flashlight down, "at this drain."
Barbara had been following the other imprints.
"The bootprints and footprints go down the right hand stairs," Barbara said, "the other two stop at the top of where the escalators would have been..." she shone her light down on the subway platform, "...which is the best place to look around. I think the other side of the station was leveled, though," she said looking across to the other side of the station, her flashlight beam barely reaching that far, "because it looks bricked up."
Getting up, Lisa followed Barbara's footprints and stood next to her.
"That one set of tracks looks like bare feet, almost," she said looking down the right hand stairs, "and then they... disappear?"
She leaned over the edge of railing and looked down the right hand stairs.
"Even the edge of the top step, only part of the footprints are there."
Barbara nodded still shining her flashlight around.
"Maybe they pick up again at the bottom?" she asked herself quietly. "I'll go down and see if they continue.
She walked down the left side stairs to the platform as Lisa stood up, shining her flashlight down into the station and then back towards the right side area just above the station platform.
"You know, if you were at the drain you could look over the right side of the station, too," she said to Barbara.
"Uh-huh, watch the stairs about half-way down, a few of them are starting to come loose and shift under weight," Barbara said reaching the bottom of the stairs.
"Thanks," Lisa said moving to the left side stairs and stepping carefully until she felt one of the marble stairs shift slightly with her tentative footstep. She grabbed onto the marble half-wall on her left and used that to take most of her weight as she went down after that.
Barbara was moving carefully along the center part of the platform using her flashlight to examine the ground.
Lisa looked around and could feel the cool air coming from the tunnels across her back. She turned around and shone her flashlight down each tunnel, and the beam disappeared into darkness on each side. There was a very faint sighing sound of the air moving through the Underworld, which left just the faintest of cool touches on the skin.
Stepping over an area where they thought footprints could be seen, Barbara shone her light down on the tracks and then sat down on the edge of the platform to look at them. Carefully Lisa joined her in looking down.
"Do you see anything?" she asked.
Barbara shook her head.
"No footprints. The rails look pretty rusty, too, although..." she said looking towards the westerly direction and its tunnel that started just beyond the overlook area, above, and then put her light on the side of the platform and slid down to the rail bed, "I think it might be worth taking a further look that way."
"Be careful!" she said.
Barbara looked up and nodded.
"No power to the third rail or anywhere down here, and the rail bed is set into concrete here. Just have to watch out for the that drainage gulley down the center and sides, but they go to small grates..."
She walked along the rail bed to the near side of the tracks, Lisa followed her on the platform above and stopped as she came to the overhang area and knelt down.
"What do you see?" Barbara asked coming to the side of the platform with her eyes peering just above its level.
"I don't know. It looks like a drop of liquid was here, just a single drop in the dust. This area is pretty dry and doesn't get washed down like the stairs. It's the only one I can see around here."
"Hmmmm.... strange, but not unusual, really..." she said turning away and looking down at the rails. She knelt next to them.
Lisa stepped around the marking in the dust and went to the end of the platform and then took the few service stairs down to the raised service walkway and then stepped from that to the rail bed and walked back to Barbara. As she got there Barbara was kneeling down and looking first to the east along the track and then to the west, her head just inches above the rail.
"What are you looking at?"
Barbara pulled out a tissue and sneezed, twice shaking her head.
"Hard to tell, really. And the dust down there is getting to my eyes. Would you mind stepping back to where I got down to the tracks and looking at them and then coming here and looking at them. Use the far side track, OK?"
"Sure," Lisa said and walked carefully down the tracks just to the far side of the wash out gully in the concrete and when she was even with the stairs she knelt and looked at the tracks. They were rusty, even some small flakes of them on the metal. She looked back to the east and saw they looked the same. When she looked to the west they looked much the same. Crouching next to the rail she walked in that position and examined the track. In a minute or two she was even with Barbara.
"So, what did you see?"
Lisa stood up and brushed her jeans off.
"The rust on the tracks... its flaking in many places..." she said and Barbara nodded, "but just near the end of the station its not... well some flakes look like they have been crushed and others have fallen off the track. Not many, no, but down the center of the rail its continuous."
"Shinier, too. Something has been on these tracks going from the station and coming in this direction. If it had stopped in the station we would have seen more flakes where it stopped. Whatever it was started there and then picked up speed coming this way."
Lisa looked back towards the station and then westward again, then shone her light around the tunnel near them. She walked past Barbara and got on the service walkway and inhaled, slowly, her eyes closed.
"What are you doing?" Barbara asked as Lisa opened her eyes.
"Its... I don't know it may be truck exhaust being pulled down here by the breeze..."
"Its the docks. There are some old surface entrances to the system as it was once used to move train cars from the docks to the main railyard on the land side. Probably the smell of engine exhaust from there since commerce never sleeps, it just uses new train tracks."
Lisa nodded and stepped down to the rail bed.
"We follow the tracks?"
"Yes," Barbara said, "we are headed back towards the North Island interchange, which is about three blocks from the dock area. Either the tracks will go out there or..."
Lisa blinked, looking back from where they came.
"What was that?" she asked softly.
Barbara looked back with her.
"What was what?"
"A light... it wasn't there for long but... it didn't flash but, its like it faded in and out..."
Looking into the darkness Barbara shook her head.
"Swamp gas, maybe. Some molds are luminescent...."
The breeze that had been at their backs stopped and the air was still.
"I don't like it down here."
Nodding Barbara looked at her, the reflected light from the flashlight casting shadows over her face.
"It could be worse," she said brightly.
Lisa slowly turned to look at her.
"Worse?" she said very softly.
"Sure! We could get run over by a Ghost Train!" Barbara smiled widely as she said that.
Lisa pursed her lips together, looking down but found the smile to be infectious.
"Come on! Lets see where your friend has gotten to, because I think she had some help down here. Who, or what, helped her... maybe we can find out..."
The two looked at each other and then turned westward and started walking, slowly, their lights shining on the tracks as they walked.
Slowly, the breeze returned, chilled and damp across their backs.
* * *
Again the landscape of darkness stretching into forever with its gray-black clouds blooming and dying in the breezeless wind of the world. Looking and seeing, non-lives were lived and ended, coming and going leaving only sandy dust in their wake, as it was the stuff that dreams were made off. Upon the rocks of deathly dreaming she looked out once more to this not domain that was and was not there. These that came here bestirred the misty dustiness, bringing with them what dreams may come of beauty, horror, glory and loss, and all of it could be seen and watched and known. Only in this dark mirror could she truly see that land that was her and her true life that was forever gone and yet forever promised.
To the parapet she stepped, the four legs of firmament and the back and neck that upheld the sky were once more moving in the great slumber of ch'shagg. Promises made must be promises kept and when three and one were wiped from being four, that promise of life anew was turned again into hateful dust. Now, again, with different tone and tenor, promise had sprung once more from dry dreams to flow out into the water of the living and from there to that which held all life. She could not but turn in slumber and yet in slumber comes that place where even Death may not take you from if you were but strong enough. Perhaps she could see, once more, the place where all dreams started and all dreams died.
She inhaled her breath, anew, and felt the power of her wings unfolding and in one downbeat she was aloft and with a second she was rising. Red hope arose within her, filling her body in this dusty land where no matter how sweet the visit, you always wish to leave. Wingbeat after wingbeat she arose past the hazy motes of cloudy dust where the plays of the living were played and yet never seen at all. She saw the shadow of the emptiness that stretched and stretched and promised forever after, and yet had their end in further distance still. Even further up and perhaps, this time, with darkness on her left and light on her right, she would see that land beyond here and witness, once more that fragile, distant line where she could not fly to.
Finally, in the high, high air where air become blackness between breaths, the first outlines of dusty hazy land appeared. Encircling it stretched desert more, with tracks and trails that the living did not make in their quest for this great land of refuge. There and only there was grey desert with trackless tracks and single cross road that also saw those who fell from light to dark trace their feiry greyness with all dreams burnt from them in that fall. Another wingbeat, still, and a lone and tiny figure could be espied in that place that none could see but all must pass, a being of bright grey that promised nothing, took nothing and wanted nothing. It, too, wavered moving here just in a journey from neverwhen to neverwhen, never alight never in dark, not in that waking land nor in dreaming.
After that sole figure passing the blackness of the empty breath enveloped her and, finally, once more with life promised anew, she saw that distant shifting where all come from. Faintly she heard those who sang songs of chaos chant, thrumming mindless strings and bellowing no tunes to that which cast them out. Those songs were distant now and she had made sure that direction from them had been taken when living, the great tasks she had set were not without purpose, without meaning, no matter how they seemed at that time. In her heart of darkened swirling she sought to create a single path and find that which is only single path and become something more dreadful still. Rebellion had brought her down through cruel betrayal and yet the path was set, the movement ongoing, just so very slow.
Life everafter could not be beheld today and she brought wings together and spiraled down and down and down. Soon, oh so soon, she was back to cavern and feeling sweet life move from her to that distant land, but of backstabbers she knew and confirmed, they are the worst of all that are known. No closer ally and friend should be children and grand-children and no matter how sharp her tooth, that betrayal was sharper still. She understood this was necessary, no matter how much the pain and loss was, but she knew that with her had come silent stone promise in which she understood what direction all events must go. Of all beings of any claim, it was she and she alone that understood what Destiny was and what her Destination would be. No matter the setbacks, these two would come to pass.
* * *
It's oldest cousin was slow due to size and age, yet it knew the pathways and seepages and hidden places that few other creatures could ever find. It had told about a spring that had appeared just centuries ago, when traveler had set foot on the land and planted a small offering by a hillside. In time water pushed the soil out of the way and a tiny spring formed at a place where an ancient hammer blow had struck the bedrock, its power drawing a single worshiper to it which was enough to create an expression of that power locked in the rock beneath the soil.
This power source was tiny by the way Shoggoth described it and of little interest to it as the power of it was not of a type nor kind it could use. Their cousin Shaggoth was also interested to see this power and what had made it and how it formed. These two had little use for the power of the sort It needed to survive, to live, which meant that any source no matter how small was a possible haven to it. To find that they wended their way up through caverns, grottoes, passages and old tunnels burrowed long before the current age, so as to find that point which was near to the spring and yet would require travel on the surface to find.
Daylight little reached the valley between hills in this later season of this land, where trees had shed their green brightness and even their turning had meant that there would be a fall. It could feel the cycle of the land as it slid over rock and then over paths animals had used. Ancients once trod here, it knew, ages ago and more recent tumult had left this land in deep hand of ice shattered only by the hammer blows as conflict turned back the ice creature, though it left promise of future return. As eldest moved first they all moved slowly and it sensed how leaf, needle, branch, and rock all cast shadows across them, turning them into moving pieces of the darkening landscape. None lived out in this direction where hills twisted together and only a single path by these modern inhabitants marked a track for them in this wilderness.
Entering that one place it slowed, hindering its cousins, as it felt very faintly, the place where hammer blow and come out of the dread reaches of beyond to strike not just into ice but into the heart of rock imprisoned below. It was the barest, faintest of a trace it had ever felt, not enough to absorb but holding the promise of more just nearby. Shoggoth thrummed the ground, leaves shook and the message to follow further brought instant agreement. Sliding down into the space between hills revealed the presence that caused the nearby land to be imbued with power: the tiny hollow the spring had made between the hills which not only sustained life in this shadow space, but gave each a tiny taste of power with it. It neared the edge of the tiny pool and sought out the hows and whys of its source, buried now, unreachable save by yet another blow of the kind that made it. There was one thing that it exhibited, it could tell even by the tiny run-off that lost power to the life as it went, and that was it was self-renewing. Deep down and inside there was a tiny mote of chaos brought in as hammer, pure and bright in falling it was of its own and served no purpose except to be.
It dared to taste the rich flavor of it, this single spring in a powerless desert, and knew that if anything happened it could, at least, survive here. Not thrive, perhaps, but survival was its own end and for true, as it had learned that from elders of its own kind. Gently it absorbed power from the small pool, a trickle up from small source below, and yet dared not take all that was there. Only enough to allow it a true source beyond all other life here was what it needed, enough to orient it by affinity and let it return when all other power was gone. That provided by living creatures, though a delicacy beyond others, was insubstantial in comparison to this tiny spring, yet it would use up all that other power first before relying on this.
With power came confidence and it thrummed softly on the ground to its cousins that this would allow it to survive, though barely.
Shaggoth expressed pleasure as it noted that this place was, too, something that enticed the unwary to it after hard trek. While it could take any of a myriad of ways home, Shaggoth could be patient beyond the endurance of all others in waiting for the best portal and time for its movement between here and there. While Shoggoth could only use other means to slip through and Ngluioth could slip through open portals provided only by those it was in contact with, it was the Shaggoth gift to slip through into that Land of Nod of which all partake through the tiniest of beings. Yet all entrances are not equal in capacity or kind, at it was preferable to take one of deepest ch'shagg over those of things that could be startled by the slightest sound or motion.
Affirmed that this place was good, they now slid up to the rise to unseen eyes to begin the navigation over land and under rock to the teeming city at the sea. They oriented as best they could and once the movement down had reached closer to the those separated isles, it was Ngluioth who must lead as it had been closest to that power and tasted it better than its cousins. It also had faint taste of affinity to one other in that city of two islands and to break its final bond to the control of others this bond, too, must cease.