Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dr. Gotham Steps Out - Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The power pool was nearly gone in the hours after contact with it was made. There were some residual traces of it left, but those were not enough to supply the long-term needs of consumption. Being in contact with the maker's power pool also let it know that the maker had returned after being semi-departed.

As long as it was manifesting due to the maker's power, it could be dismissed by him via the retraction of such power. As it was now working with the power from a different pool, however, it could no longer be detected from the original pool, which meant freedom of action to a degree. The compulsion to complete the original summoning was still in play, however, and it could only resist that in certain ways. For food or power it could divert its attention, but those were survival necessities when the job went beyond the limits that were set for it.

Because of the affinity of the original ward's summoning it could place in direction and distance the object of that ward, which was a fully motile being. It considered the power affinity of the original summons and the affinity of the power pool it had just consumed, and knew that it would be able to continue to exist in this place after the original affinity had been completely lost. The new power pool had no affinity to it, beyond that of the maker's and power the ward, since it was not actively invoked by the structure of the ward it now had no affinity that would bind it beyond the power, itself.

Sliding from around the threshold into the old rare documents room, it went to the ceiling and slid back to the conduit that had let it in. This transition took only a few seconds as it was now functioning fully and it held great control over its density, opacity and slickness. It used tiny cilia to move itself around, grown unconsciously by it as it went to any surface. With thousands upon thousands of tiny, gripping tendrils it moved slickly, easily over nearly any surface. It was generally immune to being dried out save in the most extreme of climates and the humidity of sub-surface Gotham suited it well. Now it could mask its presence far better than it could at lower power, which would let it forage in the regions with semi-motile power beings that it had previously passed through. It understood that the manifestation of power was visible in different bands of vision and could do little about that, save make its body use power in a more efficient way so as to diminish that manifestation. To a human eye its green glow faded to nearly nothing and even with the lights fully out would it be hard to tell it apart from various lichens or luminescent algae that had formed into patches here and there on the tunnels.

Silently it slid to the cavernous central station of the Gotham subway and rail system, both now abandoned for decades. It could feel this was a sub-surface junction between multiple tunnels some which led to the surface and others which continued under Gotham City. This sense of space, mass and density around it was born with it, and it could detect when spaces continued on into a far distance with them. It still felt the large power conjunction that had been formed by a being of similar affinity to it was far down one tunnel. It could gauge the general distance from where it was to that conjunction with a fair degree of accuracy with its power sense. The affinity distance sense was far higher while the affinity remained, and it was further away than the conjunction down another tunnel set leading generally away from the conjunction. While the power from the most recent pool in no way completely recharged it, there had been more than enough to give it days or even weeks of activity in this plane.

The other worry it had was that it could sense the activity of the maker of the pools it had used, and that one was physically present in the city. He was also very close to the direction of the affinity and the tunnel it needed to go down to get to that affinity and complete out the original compulsion of the ward. It would need to mask its presence from that maker, which meant that it would resist preying on the semi-motile power beings that inhabited the tunnels when it was near that maker. Deciding that it could return to the larger conjunction once the compulsion was removed, it slid down the tunnels it had come through.

This time the semi-motile pools only realized it was near when it was close, very close, and they fled from it as it moved. It paid them no mind as it went through the tunnels. It registered the influx of slightly warmer, more humid air from tunnels with routes to the surface near the sea. As it was moving it could feel the power maker was also moving, not closer to it nor trending further away, but heading in the direction it had come. With a start it realized that the maker also held a talisman of some sort that was of the same affinity as the conjunction in the distance. It was deeply masked by its container, yes, but the powerful talisman was there and obvious with any that had the senses for it. That was troubling.

Far more troubling was that the maker might be going to check on the ward pool it had just drained. If it suspected that the pool had been tampered with by it then it would be in extreme jeopardy. It masked that power as best as it could and continued onwards, knowing that it might cease to exist at any moment in the next few hours.

One of the semi-motile power beings was at the edge of its range as the tunnel trended slightly uphill. That being could sense it, feared it. It decided that even a little bit of separate power was worth the slight risk now, compared to what might be a greater need if its draining was discovered. It extended itself as a thin, moving sheen over the walls from the ceiling of the tunnel and then slowly down along the surface, sliding under the rails. It moved as a line across the tunnel forcing the semi-motile being towards the center of the track where it extended tendrils from the ceiling. At the edge of its physical anchor range the being could move no further down the tunnel away from it, and the only choice it had was to try and slip through the tendrils.

The power being attempted to move back quickly, but when one tendril contacted it, the entirety of the glowing mass contracted on it. With a soundless scream it was engulfed, and the power drained from it and the being learned that even ghosts can die. Its scream that wasn't reverberated down the tunnels as it digested the morsel of power and whoever, whatever, was attached to it. Laying on the surface it manifested organs to suck the last bit of power from the phantasmal wisps that no living being of this plane could readily touch. The digestion took minutes, only, and when it was nearly done it started to move.

That is when it felt the wave of air and a shimmer of power.

The ground shook with something coming into being in a way it could not tell.

It felt the rattle on the tracks and pressed itself down tight from them.

It felt light of a sort and manifested organs to look back and saw the ghostly outlines of something big. It detected mass. It detected direction of movement towards it. It detected purpose.

It detected hunger.

It was afraid.

It thinned out and moved out from the rail bed and up a wall as the air was compressed in front of this manifestation of power.

This was like nothing it had ever encountered, ever knew about, yet hunger, purpose, drive and power could all be felt. Power it could not use, could not touch and would be a bane to it. Shadowy figures moved within the manifestation as it rattled down the tracks. Those might be food, but they were not in any place that it could clearly understand or define. It tried to ooze between bricks to escape this thing, and hardened itself against any onslaught.

With a roar of sound and the smell of smoke, soot and sulfur, a Ghost Train of Gotham sped past it, car after car after car, six in all.

A train with eternal hunger and no destination for it, ever.

It relaxed only once it felt the shiver of power pass in its wake and the entire thing suddenly disappear into realms unknown.

It had always know of powers greater than it, but none like that manifestation. It now knew it was not at the top of the food or power chain and had just escaped a predator that would take it and barely notice and never, ever stop.

* * *

She saw how it slid, moved, rippled across the floor glowing faintly green in the night her flashlight dimly shining through it and some of its light reflected.

Ronnie was engulfed by tendrils, appendages, tentacles, with eyes looking at him from inside the mass of shifting stuff. She gasped and then it stopped lifting Ronnie and eyes formed, grew, to look at her. It slid easily moving towards her and she ran... and ran... feeling it behind her... it could find her... follow her... anywhere...

"Erin," Lisa Choi said softly with the dim light over the sink on. She sat on a chair next to the cot and watched Erin toss and turn under the blanket, her eyes rolling around under her lids.

"No, please..." Erin whispered.

"Erin, its me, Lisa. You need to wake up. Its 10 in the morning and the police have started searching for you."

Erin's eyes fluttered then opened, they still darted around even as she woke up. She looked up at Lisa, steadied as she looked at her.

"What?" she asked softly.

"Its 10 o'clock, Erin. The police have Ronnie and are looking for you, now."

Erin leveraged her arm under her and shifted her feet out from under the blankets and off the cot.

"Ronnie is ok? He's alive?"

Lisa nodded, handing Erin a blouse to put on over her underwear, then pants and socks. Lisa couldn't find any spare shoes for Erin last night, and didn't want to risk getting her new ones or even used from a thrift store. Her low boots from last night would have to do.

"He is alive, Erin. We've had reports from customers and police on that. Its been pieced together but Ronnie isn't doing well he is... disturbed... from last night."

Erin slid into the pants and then put the socks on before slipping her feet into her boots. Lisa had put new insoles into them after trying to dry them out, and Erin sighed as the boots were not as wet as she remembered. She slowly started to lace her boots up as she felt the fear from the dream linger with her.

"Would you like something to eat?" Lisa asked.

Erin nodded, her stomach was gurgling at not having had any food for nearly 18 hours.

"Please, yes," Erin whispered digging out the few small items that were in a box under the cot. A small comb, her change purse, black eyeshadow, her compact, and her tool roll.

Lisa smiled and stood up, stepping to the door, preparing to open it and turned on the bright overhead lights.

"Wait right here and I will be right back, Erin. Sam and Harrison want to talk with you, but they can wait until you get fed and I tell you about what has gone on."

"Ok," Erin said, "I'm ok with just about anything, Lisa, but could use some coffee. Anything hot to drink. I'm cold."

"Understandable, Erin. Give me a couple of minutes, and I will be back."

"Thanks, Lisa," Erin said trying to brush her clothes down and figure out what she could put where in the pockets of her outfit. "Thanks for everything. You didn't have to do this."

"Of course I did. That is what friends are for. Be back in a few, now," Lisa said slipping out the door and down the hallway. She gave a light knock to the manager's room door.

"Come," she heard Harrison say.

She looked in and saw Sam and Harrison had cups of coffee on the desk between them.

"She's awake and I'm getting her breakfast. Give her another ten to fifteen minutes and I think she will be able to talk then."

"Good, good," said Harrison who had fielded questions from two police officers this morning, "I hope she is doing well."

Sam nodded.

"As do I. It is not all bad news, I think. What she was able to keep from the job... there are some very interesting pieces... but that can wait. Get her fed, and then we can talk."

Lisa smiled and nodded, softly shutting the door and going over to the kitchen. She wrote out a short order and handed it to Randy who was working next to Victoria at the griddle area in front. The back grill had just started into its heating mode and roast beef with drip pans was slowly turning over it.

She watched them efficiently split up the order, with Randy putting sausage patties on the griddle then ladle out mixed liquid onto it to make up silver dollar pancakes. Next eggs were broken open and hit the griddle with pops and sizzles. Victoria had moved to the front of the counter area by the coffee machines and was pouring out two go-cups of coffee and putting sugar and creamers into a small carry along container. Next she stepped to the juice machine and took out a go-cup and filled that with orange juice, capped it and put that into the container.

By the time she was done adding a hospitality pack of utensils and napkin, Randy had flipped the pancakes, sausages and then the eggs and had picked up a divided plastic tray from a stack next to the griddle area. Lisa had opened up a carry box, placed the drinks and assorted other items into it, and then pushed that down the counter next to Randy. With deft flips the pancakes arrived in one section of the plate, the sausage another and then the eggs a third, followed by paper wrapped pats of butter and a small sealed condiment cup of maple syrup. With clear plastic wrap put over the plate, it was lowered into the divided box, which was than brought together to form handles out of the thin cardboard and Randy carried that back to Lisa.

"There you go, a recovery special, soonest," he said smiling.

"You are the best Randy," she said taking the container and then waving and smiling at Vicky who smiled back as she was already heading to make sure that customers had their coffee cups refilled. Elizabeth Wong had taken over from her husband, Sam, and was making sure that customers were having good meals and trying to find out anything new about what was being heard on the streets. Efficiency, politeness and having a normal day was the mask of the day, today.

Offer no information, listen, be polite, be courteous, just do your jobs, don't worry and the day will take care of itself. That had been Harrison's instructions and they were the order of the day, now.

Lisa walked down the halls to the room where Erin was and gently tapped on the door.

"Who is it?" came Erin's voice in low tones.

"It's me, Lisa, I have breakfast for you."

"Great! Come in, I'm decent."

Lisa opened the door and took the meal box in and saw that Erin now combing out her hair using the mirror over the sink. While she did that Lisa took a tray table out from behind the door, which allowed her to close the door and arrange the chair and table so that Erin could sit and eat, while she sat on the cot. Erin put the comb down and put her hair into a ponytail, using a small band that she had used last night for the same thing. She stepped over to the chair while Lisa took the plate, go-cups and hospitality pack out from it. Erin opened the pack to get the plastic fork and knife, and then proceeded to open the go-cups and swallow most of the orange juice in a few gulps.

"This is great, Lisa! I'm starved. I haven't eaten since yesterday afternoon..." Erin said taking the plastic wrap from the food and inhaling the smell of it. Soon she was cutting into the eggs, sausage and crunching down the toast after putting some apple jelly on it.

"The morning after reviver," Lisa said smiling.

Erin nodded, taking a break to sip some coffee and finish the juice.

"Just what I need, Lisa, like back when I was a working girl."

"I thought it would help, Erin. I know you have had a rough night of it."

Erin put some of the egg and sausage onto a slice of toast and folded it over, sitting back in the chair to savor the taste of it.

"Yeah," she said between bites, "it was just horrible. I'm still..." she shook her head as she sipped some coffee.

"Its understandable you are shaken. Even if what you saw was an optical illusion, it would have frightened me just normally."

Erin started in on the pancakes, using the sealed container of maple syrup to drizzle over it and then put the rest of the contents of the packet into her coffee and then stirred it.

"Wasn't no illusion... it had Ronnie by the arms... the throat.... no that wasn't an illusion, Lisa," Erin said shaking her head and then shivering at the memory of it.

"I believe you, Erin, its just... I wasn't there and it sounds... well, strange. I have never heard of anything like that, anywhere."

Erin stuck a fork in the pancake stack and cut out a sizable chunk, which she popped into her mouth and chewed slowly, moaning.

"Buttermilk silver dollar pancakes..." she said while chewing slowly, "... these are sinful..." then she swallowed and followed that with a gulp of coffee.

Lisa nodded.

"Elizabeth's recipe, handed down from her grandmother not learned at the school. I never liked the thicker pancakes but those," Lisa inhaled, "I've eaten ten at a sitting and never even realized it. It is hard to leave here in the morning when those are getting their first customers."

"I bet!" Erin said, dismayed that this second bite would leave her with one bite of the pancakes left and she was determined to enjoy them.

"So what are you doing still up, Lisa?"

"I slept upstairs in the staff garment room for a few hours. I wanted to be here so you didn't wake up to Elizabeth or Sam or Harrison. While they would treat you well, you are my friend and I have to make sure you are all right."

Erin swallowed the bite of pacakes with coffee and looked at Lisa.

"My... friend? I... Lisa... you didn't have to... I know your not..."

"Erin, I won't ever be a 'jobber'. I can't live like that. Better a small, but good job legally than riches through misfortune. But I like you, Erin, even with what you do you are a good woman."

Those words cut through some of the haze that Erin still had from last night. She had very few positive affirmations of herself from others, which was why she had been at Minerva's and then married Ronnie. Minerva was an old school Madame, not just a businesswoman running a sex operation, and she cared about her girls. Ronnie he just... loved her and showed it by asking for her when she worked at Minerva's and then wanting to be with her outside of the job. That had lifted her up, emotionally, and she came to love him in return. Lisa had known her on both sides of that from Minerva to Ronnie and while she had always thought of her as a friend, she had never thought of her as a good friend. One that would help her out in a pinch... or worse.

"I... Lisa I'm not..."

"Yes you are, Erin. Minerva could see that. Ronnie could see that. I see it. Others do to, even if they don't tell you. It isn't about what you do, but who you are."

Erin moved the table off to the side, leaving the rest of the pancakes and coffee on it. Slowly she turned back to Lisa.

"I didn't mean to bring anything bad to you, Lisa..."

Lisa leaned forward, a soft smile on her lips and her eyes twinkling, round face bordered by black hair.

"And you haven't, Erin. There is more to tell you. Sam and Harrison are waiting to talk with you. Harrison about word on the street and Sam about what you brought in."

Erin pressed her lips together and nodded, picking up the small duffel bag that Lisa had found someplace upstairs that was stuffed with last night's clothing, rope, belt, and the few cosmetics that were left in the room that she was told she could have. She stood up from the chair and as she did so, Lisa stood with her.

"Gotta find out... Ronnie.... alive..." she said in a sigh.

"Yes, Erin. In custody. The Bat saved him, or so he says."

Erin was about to take a step to the door and froze in place.

"The...Batman? Saved Ronnie?" she whispered.

"That is the word from Kai Ran who was let out this morning. He had been picked up for shoplifting earlier in the night. I only know this third-hand, but he said Ronnie said that and that he was going to save you."

Erin blinked and looked at Lisa who was now by the door.

"I.... do I need saving?" Erin whispered.

Lisa looked puzzled.

"Only you can answer that, Erin. Are you ready?"

Erin inhaled, nodded and stepped forward in the outfit made up of a restaurant day blouse, black waiter's pants and belt, a small brown handbag, a green duffel bag, and her sturdy black boots from the night before. At 5'8" she didn't exactly tower over anyone, but to anyone who knew her there was a different air around Erin Norris.

"Let's go, Lisa. I have no idea what I am going to do next."

* * *

Dr. Gotham had gone through his cabinets and left a complete list for Henry's son, Lewis, to get to replace those things that nature had taken from him. The various spirits, alcohols, esters, all things that could evaporate over time did so even past the tightest of seals. His small pot of honey, likewise sealed, was just as he had left it, a good omen, all told. His wood stock of rare woods was useful as kindling, perhaps, not as project wood. His tools, wrapped in oil cloth, needed just a bit of work to get into shape again as the oil and cloth had done much of their job of protecting them. And while some metal stock was useful, all the wrought iron work had been rusted and the brass was tarnishing into decay. He was told all of that could be found at hardware stores, but fresh rock from the living earth might be a bit harder to find.

With the list left with Henry who was trying to arrange a meeting with the insurer, Dr. Gotham went towards what he was told was the Gotham Central Library. He picked his way through the Shambles, glancing up now and again to see the Gotham Interconnector rising up above the streets to funnel traffic from the mainland through the North Island and to the South Island. He would be more impressed by that if they hadn't left such a mess at the major footing and interchange in the neighborhood where his shop was. He didn't have to be told this was a dangerous area, just as he didn't have to be told the safe paths through it. That latter would surprise most residents who remained, and various vagrants and others who lurked in the Shambles, that there were actual paths that would take one across the Shambles. Everyone knew that the place was a maze, a warren, and a lethal death trap for gangs as they would succumb to those that did not want to be intruded upon there.

Yet the city knew what the paths were and, thusly, Dr. Gotham listened to the wind, felt vibrations from the waves to the south and went at an unhurried pace through tumbled down apartment buildings, stores, abandoned cars that had been stripped of everything that could be carried, and a surprising house or two that were left untouched in the midst of the chaos.

No one approached the strange figure of Dr. Gotham as he wended his way north towards the first clear area at 17th Street. Any that saw him discounted him as someone strange enough to be dangerous. And those who lived by their wits, their senses and didn't care much for humanity, they recognized him for what he was and knew not to interfere with him. As for the stupid, he did know how to use his cane.

From what would be Berry Court and 18th the change from Shambles to normal streets was as night and day: the west side a ruin, the east side untouched and kept up. This was also near the old Gotham Central Parking area, now made into a major Hotel District parking ramp with a police station and shops filling in the new multifunction structure. The above ground rail yard had gone decades ago, and the Interconnector now loomed over that right-of-way. With a steady, measured pace Dr. Gotham walked through the streets as the morning fog and clouds evaporated, and the wind coming in from the south smelled of the sea and was really a nice change from the soiled air of Gotham proper.

The old library building still stood, but it was administrative offices for the city, now, not a library at all. The old Gotham Central Station had been reconverted after substantial sub-surface re-bracing, into one of the largest libraries on the east coast, right after the Library of Congress and New York City Public Library. Even with the decline that had gone on, Gothamites had invested heavily in this part of their history, both to keep the Station in its form even if it no longer serviced trains and subways it now serviced the passage of ideas.

As he walked by the old library building he felt the remains of a power pool he had established there over the rare books collection. That pool was now vastly diminished, almost gone, and he could feel that much affinity it had was gone with the collection having been moved. He shook his head, but knew that those who made Gotham a living city would change it over time, with or without his stewardship. He was there as steward and servant, only, not one to move and change the course of things. Some few things he did try to safeguard, but most he left untouched as he knew it was impossible to safeguard even a shop all that well, a city must fend for itself.

There was a slow influx of people going to the library, mostly children with parents, older men and women and some teenagers and college students there for research. He would have to count himself as one of the researchers, private, and going through the old revolving doors he walked into the station become library and heard the quiet murmur within it. He stopped in the main rotunda to look up and see the gargoyles atop arches, the stately masonry of the dome, and the suspended chandeliers that now shone with modern fixtures put into old iron work. The smell of a library packed with books, visited by people and loaded with knowledge was nearly the same the world over: dust, preservatives, an attempt of the air handlers to get good air in the central portions and side rooms, and the faint smell of humanity that had made the house of knowledge a home.

Matters of urgency pressed upon him and he still held the box with its contents, and his time must be well spent lest it notice that he is free of its power. Quickly he moved to the massive card catalog, knowing that by the expansion of it to multiple sections mankind had written much over the nearly 50 years since he last graced the forerunner of this library. He would start with the reference works he knew, which were not dictionaries nor encyclopedias, but simple works written by men of his age and prior to it. He took a slip of paper from the box of same at the top of the catalog and a small pencil from the box next to it and started in the P section and flipped through to the work he had known. It had a later, annotated reprinting two decades later and he thought that would be a good place to start.

As he examined the card for it, he saw that it had numbers on it and a glance at a sheet posted under some sort of glass-like material on top of each catalog indicated that the knowledge of man, broken out by large sections, was available in different parts of the library. He needed the history section on the third floor and saw the stairs by the edges of the library that would lead up to them as well as signs he had noted earlier for elevators. He decided to eschew the elevators and walk through the central reference part of the library, that also held periodicals, magazines and other more recent works, with a large number of tables neatly arranged under the main dome.

"So many works!" he said softly to himself as he walked amongst the racks of magazines and then into the reference book section, proper. He let his eyes scan the titles on the low shelves, left and right and was out of the first section and into the second when he was brought up short by a two volume set. He knelt down and took out the second book and turned to the section under the letter 'Y' and chuckled softly to himself.

"Incomplete and erroneous," he half-whispered until he skipped over a few entries and saw one that had information that he considered vital.

"Ahhh... yes!" he said in very quiet tones as a smile graced his face, "That is much better."

He glanced at an end note, went to the back of the book, found the entry and wrote down the title. He walked back to the card catalog starting in the C area, and went through the names until he found what he wanted. He noted the general area that the works were falling under were distributed between floors of the library and decided on the most recent work by that author. That took him, finally, to the second floor where he picked up one book and saw another, which he also picked up and then he realized he had forgotten a book that was required in the reference section.

With the two books in hand he went down the stairs to the reference section and walked until he found what he wanted, and picked up the black bound book with gold imprint.

"One can never do without the Bible, and most especially in this instance. Now it is time to see what man has found out about chaos and order and those that make it the way it is."

* * *

Bruce Wayne took out the key to the old lock, turned it and pulled on the door to slowly slide it back. It rattled, squeaked and attempted to stick to the hidden rails it rode on, but it did give way at each minor obstacle. Once it had been slid to one side, Bruce looked at the others and then stepped inside the far end of the opening to flip on the overhead lights.

"Well, there she is the Angler, I don't get to use her as much as my father did, but I do make sure it gets a regular inspection and try-out on the Brendan and Gotham rivers so it can be in the north marina for the summer. Then it gets motored back to its winter quarters, here."

With the lighting on the 30' twin screw motor launch was revealed, hanging on ropes above the water that flowed under the small dock building. Frank Rock moved inside the building and along the dock platform inside the structure. The old vessel had been well maintained and had been refinished on the exterior portions twice if not three times over the decades.

"That is just as I remember it, Bruce," Rock said, crouching down to look under the launch.

The Project looked at the boat, then proceeded to walk along the edge of the dock in perfect, slow strides, the bandaging on its back barely visible as a lump under the jacket and shirt it had on.

"No nails. Fitted and joined, with pine tar resin, coated with polyurethane sealant and top coat. Hand buffed. Chromed steel rails with silicone coated screws. Single cabin, sleeps two, efficiency utilities probable." It said stepping in front of Frank.

"Yeah, you can get three if you use the floor, more if it is good weather and you don't mind the open air in front of the pilot's stand."

Bruce smiled, nodding.

"I remember being on this with my parents just once. I slept on the observation area, forward, and the blankets didn't keep out the dampness too well. It was dead calm on the Sound that night and we were tied up just between Gotham and Hartford. A simple sea anchor had us slowly drift along the coast at night. I remember the smell of eggs, sausage and toast done in a cast iron pan waking me up as mother started breakfast and father hand pumped out the under deck area in back."

Frank nodded.

"I had a few trips on her with Lucy and the kids back before you were born and Thomas was just getting Wayne Industries pulled together," he said walking to the end of the dock near the Project, which was stooping to look at the underside of the boat.

"Twin screws, stainless steel, sealed ball mounts out of period for construction," it said.

Bruce looked at Alfred who just raised an eyebrow, and then stepped in to turn on the side-lights to highlight the under part of the boat.

"I put those on once I came back from overseas schooling. They really should be replaced with something a bit better, but I didn't have the heart or skill to ease the wood out of the way. Directed thrust is sometimes better than a rudder."

"The fishing chairs are new, too," Frank said, turning to look at Bruce, "and better than the old stuffed, cracked leather ones your father put in."

"Master Bruce approved that as a maintenance upgrade while he was at school," Alfred said walking over to the door on the maintenance shed that was integrated into the dock before going in and hitting the switch to allow the roof to slowly slide up and apart to let daylight into the dock housing.

The Project went to a ladder at the end of the dock, which went up the side wall, and climbed it, to look down and into the vessel.

"This vessel has been modified after construction to move the fuel system to the rear. Decking indicates sub-deck bulk storage areas."

Alfred came around and into the dock area again.

"Yes, it was originally a motor launch made in Maine, then sold to criminal sorts in the 1920's who converted it into a bootlegger boat by adding twin Liberty engines. At some point it went through auction and Bruce's maternal grandfather purchased it. It was handed down to his daughter which allowed it to come into the Wayne family. Mr. Wayne then converted it back to a motor fishing launch with refrigerated storage."

The Project peered over the top of the vessel and took off its sunglasses to use its eye to loiter over sections of the craft to get finer resolution on infrared information.

"That has been removed," it said.

Bruce inhaled, nodding.

"I had that done when I was doing the screw housing work. Replaced the Liberty engines with Rolls-Royce Merlins from P-51 Mustangs, put in a modern fuel system with triple redundant seals and fire extinguishing system. The expanded tanks were moved somewhat forward with a trim pump to help balance out fuel loads running off of a separate battery system. That made space available between the chairs for an under-deck chilled area for catches under 4'. I couldn't really expand the forward area much, but new efficiency water closet and kitchen replaced the older arrangement, as well as stanchions for a slung hammock. You can sleep four in front that way."

"And that is much better carpeting and mattresses in front as well," Alfred said as Frank Rock walked back to the entrance of the maintenance dock.

"LORAN navigation, shortwave system, running lights, dual deployable life rafts at side bail-out positions," the Project said looking forward to the raised pilot's area.

Bruce smiled to himself, at the ability of the Project to pick out such details.

"She looks good, Bruce. You've kept her up well. I approve."

"Thanks, Sarge," Bruce said looking at Frank, then Alfred and the the Project as it climbed down from the ladder.

"So why did you bring us out here, Bruce?"

Alfred pressed his lips together in a tight smile.

"Well, Frank, I don't think you should be stuck taking the ferry over from your home. And I have a perfectly useful motor launch..."

"Converted rum-runner," Alfred said under his breath.

"... that I rarely get to use. So I'm giving you the launch and free docking rights here, plus one of the company's livery vehicles will be in the garage you saw when we were coming in."

Frank looked at Bruce, then at Alfred, then turned to look at the Project who had come up on his left. The Project looked at him, its face impassive. Then he turned to look back at Bruce, again.

"I can't keep a boat like that up, Bruce. I can swing the finances for operations, yeah, but the maintenance?"

Bruce nodded and smiled.

"A boat is a hole in the water you throw money into," he said.

"Break out another thousand," Frank said smiling.

"Your account can't handle this," Alfred said softly.

The Project was looking at the three men as they smiled and nodded, knowingly to each other.

"Inspections and maintenance on a regular schedule, including stripping down of all equipment with water contact and intakes, as well as gasket and washer replacement based on inspections, and thorough circuit checking of all equipment weekly, before and after trips is a requirement for proper ship use. That is a weekly one hour session. With wooden hull vessels a thorough inspection of the hull for soundness on a monthly basis is required."

It looked from the men into the boat hoist area and then back again.

"Is there inspection scaffolding that can be placed between the walls to do this?"

Bruce raised an eyebrow and looked at Alfred as this was not something that he knew about.

"Ah, yes, I believe there is pipe scaffolding with planks in the garage area. Normally they lower the boat to a trailer to do such inspections as that is easier."

The Project looked at Alfred as he spoke.

"I will sectionalize the scaffolding for expedient set-up and break down. Wood planking, saws, planes and a steaming device are necessary to replace warped or damaged hull pieces. Grinding wheels, drill press, mill or lathe can be used to make replacement pieces that cannot be procured normally. Varieties of copper wire with plastic sheathing that include both strand and solid core of varying gauges plus soldering tools will be necessary to work on electronics. Specification and repair manuals for equipment will expedite repairs. Cost of maintenance can be minimized, limiting cost to that of consumables."

This was not what Bruce had been expecting as he had thought that his normal maintenance crew would do that sort of work with billing spread out over a year to Frank.

"Most of those things are available at the Manor service outbuilding about a half mile from here," Alfred said, "That is currently being used by the engineering firm shoring up the foundations of Wayne Manor. I am sure Mr. Albright, who leads our Manor maintenance staff, can make these things available to you on an as-needed basis."

"That is acceptable. I will arrange a schedule with Sgt. Rock so that I can use night-time hours to bring the vessel here for maintenance and repair work. Those hours are currently utilized for such work at the house and performing any other functions that can be done at night time hours."

Frank Rock looked from the Project to Bruce with a lopsided smile.

"The best damn adjutant you could ask for, Bruce. The Army knew what it needed when it specified for something like this. It just didn't know what it was getting into."

Bruce nodded.

"So you'll take Angler off my hands?"

"If you can arrange for him to get the necessary shop tools to take care of it, then I really can't refuse, Bruce. She's a lovely boat as it is and will be much better than that skiff I've got with an outboard on it. Might even do some pleasure fishing with it, you never know."

"I do believe that can be arranged, Frank," Alfred said, looking between the two men, and then at the Project. "I will put you in contact with Mr. Albright and make sure you get the keys to the service building."

Bruce took out the keys to the dock, garage, and Angler, then handed them over to Frank.

"Keys for the car will be in the service box inside the garage. Don't worry about logging the car in and out, just use it as you need it."

Frank Rock to the keys and tossed them to the Project who grabbed them in mid-air.

"Bruce this means a lot to me. That boat was something special to your mother and father, and it reminds me of better days."

"It means a lot to me, too, Frank, but I think mom and dad would have wanted you to have it in circumstances like this."

Alfred reached out and put his hand on Bruce's left shoulder.

"That they would, Master Bruce," he said, then looked at Frank, "and not just for the convenience, either. Their time with your family gave them the final push to start their own, Frank."

Frank smiled, deeply.

"Yah, thought as much. So what will you do for transport to visit? Fly with Vivian, maybe?"

Bruce chuckled and shook his head.

"No, she would be bothering me on a daily basis if I did that."

The three men chuckled at that, as that would be the case.

"Instead I'm having the construction group blast out a pool further upriver where a small stream coming out of the caverns go into the Brendan. A new set of docks are being built and a brand new jet driven hydroplane will be docked there."

Frank whistled at that.

"That is more your style, Bruce, a good fit. Remember not to let Vivian get a copy of the keys."

A rumbling echoed across the river with the sound of an engine slowing.

"Too late," Alfred said looking at Bruce who snorted.

"I needed her to help me pick it out...."

The sleek hulled speedboat pulled into view.

"This thing is a BEAST!!!" said the redheaded figure of Vivian Rose who was deftly piloting the hydroplane up the Brendan river.

* * *

Li Sun was not an imposing figure by stature. At only 5'4" and looking decidedly frail for his 70 years on Earth, no one would really easily peg him as a powerful man. Sitting in the bar area of the Golden Tiger club, in one of the well appointed booths, he was wearing an ordinary western style suit, although with Club tie done in red and gold. The dimmed lighting and deep pile red carpet absorbed what little sound there was from the few patrons at the bar, and the oriental pieces on the wall and costume figures of a dragon and tiger suspended from the ceiling also tended to absorb any excess noise and leave an air of calm and quiet even on busy nights.

This late afternoon he was meeting with Sam Wong who had come to talk to him about the problems of the Norris'. He had been most displeased at the intervention of the Batman in the drug operation going on, as it had hindered the expansion of contacts into areas held by the older criminal families in Gotham City. His New York City transfer agents in the form of the Bay Boys were being broken up by local, State and federal law enforcement groups. There was little worry of records, however, as the honor code had placed those with Trey Gunderson in the Grand Cayman Islands, so that only a few local receipts would show any contact between the Bay Boys and the Club.

Ron Norris had proven to be a reliable intermediary from the Caucasian community, and his contacts with the remains of the Brancuzzi Family operations on the north shore of the South Island had promised much in the way of future income. Those hopes had been tossed to the four winds, as had the heroin and cash to buy it. The wind and the sea had reclaimed those, so that the great circle of economic windfall had been broken. The only virtue that had arrived was the lack of ability of local law enforcement to connect the Norris' with the Golden Tiger Club. Word on the street had placed the Norris' at a B&E robbery that had run afoul of security alarms and that strange figure of the Batman. Ron Norris had not divulged the reason for the break-in and seemed, as best as could be learned, to be mentally disturbed by the events there. Li Sun gave little credence to the strangeness of the reports and waved off the supernatural manifestation as due to nerves or lack thereof on the part of Ron Norris.

That left the other half of the Norris team, and they did work as a team, as the inroads of Erin Norris into the area of prostitution meant an unexpected trafficking venue had been delivered neatly to Li Sun's lap. So to speak. Unfortunately it remained promise, only, due to the lack of anything to push beyond the small amounts of high grade material reserved for special clients. He was surprised to hear from Sam Wong, who ran an IMEX house that helped to transfer goods to the Club, that Erin Norris had shown up at his brother's diner. She had likewise been disturbed in the way her husband had been, but she still had goods on her that might be of some value. Sam Wong was a known fence in the Asian community and capable assessor of the value of commodities, so a meeting with him was arranged to help discuss the possibility of repayment of the money lost in the drug transfer.

Li Sun looked up from the table and slid from the booth to stand and greet Sam Wong and the woman who was with him, Elizabeth Wong.

"Greetings and welcome to the Club, to both of you," he said to the two while waving off their escorts, men who he had hired for their imposing stature and martial capability, neither of which would be needed for the meeting.

"Thank you for agreeing to see us on such short notice, Master Sun," Sam Wong said.

Elizabeth who was likewise of short stature looked Li Sun in the eyes as she shook his hand.

"A pleasure to meet you, Li Sun. I bring you greetings from Erin Norris who said that I would probably know if she was getting a good deal better than anyone else she knew."

Smiling, Li Sun nodded and gestured to the booth.

"Of course, of course, Mrs. Wong. Please, both of you, sit and be welcome. I am sure we can find out if an arrangement can be had for the best of all."

Before sitting Elizabeth put a small token on the table.

"That is from my father, Mr. Sun. If you ever visit his hotel, you may present that so that you will be known and welcomed especially there."

He nodded at her and picked up the token, which was slightly larger than quarter and gleamed dully in a way that only gold can do.

"I hope I may do that one day soon, Mrs. Wong, as I rarely find time to enjoy the other forms of entertainment that Gotham has to offer."

"Very welcome, I'm sure, Mr. Sun," the woman who had been Betsy Petruzzi before she married Harrison Wong said sitting down, "father said for business or pleasure, or both, you are welcome."

Sliding into the booth Li Sun said, "Most grateful. I hope your older brother wins his case in the upcoming month."

"What, Johnny? He's a big boy, and will figure it out one way or another."

"Of course, of course," Li said, "would either of you like something to drink?"

Sam Wong nodded once.

"Yes, hot tea, please, Master Sun."

Elizabeth smiled, "Just coffee for me. It's been a long day."

Li Sun gestured for the barkeep to come over, and when he arrived he gave the orders for his guests.

"So it has, Mrs. Wong. Is there any more news from your part of Gotham? We have had little new since this morning on the case of the Norris'."

"Not from me," Elizabeth said, "too many customers after the beginning of breakfast. Harrison had a couple of talks with GCPD, but they were just on the general look out for Erin."

Sam shook his head as the drinks were delivered.

"No news on the docks, either. Ron is known better along the south docks, and the only word from there are worries he could lose his job."

"Yes, that is so," Li Sun said, "now onto business," he said sipping from his water glass as the other two got comfortable in the booth.

Sam Wong reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small case, somewhat larger than a cigarette case and put that on the table after he had poured himself some tea.

"Master Sun, the Norris' did not run into purely bad luck. From their robbery I have tentatively identified some items that are of value, although they will not bring much locally they will have greater value on the international market. There are two of those in that case."

Reaching out, Li Sun picked up the case and saw the fine silver inlay on wood veneer. Before opening it he looked at Elizabeth Wong.

"Have you seen the items in question, Mrs. Wong?"

She stirred some cream into her coffee and nodded.

"Yes, Mr. Sun, I have. I disagree with Sam on the value, although it might be more on location as I think regional might be a better market than international."

Raising an eyebrow he cracked open the case and saw one necklace and one ring inside of it. Carefully he reached in and took out the necklace and saw that it had a small spider in a web with a fine golden ring around it. He held it up to look at it through the diffuse overhead lighting and was fascinated by the intricacy of the design work.

"Ah, such beauty! What is it?"

"That is a Faberge, one of his insect motifs. That one was last seen before the First World War around the neck of a young woman of the von Richtofen family. It was given to her by a cousin, a woman by the name of Victoria."

Taking very shallow breaths, Li Sun carefully put the necklace back into the case.

"Did this aunt happen to live in England?"

"Uh-huh," Elizabeth said, "a very fancy gift from the Tsar's family to that Victoria. Beyond the gold, platinum, onyx, diamonds and rubies, it has an interesting history and some very interesting names attached to it, no?"

Already Li Sun was beginning to realize that one item, alone, was nearly worth what was lost in the transfer. He looked up at Sam Wong.

"Yes, the international market with fewer questions would yield much for this item," he said then looked at Elizabeth, "and the collectors in the United States who would forego questions just to have that piece would also yield a large sum. You are both correct in your assessments."

The ring was somewhat bulky although without a doubt it was mostly gold, the number of inset gems in the jewel put together a fascinating design, full of curves in what could only be shards of emerald. Squinting he looked closer at the design, and then set the ring into the box so he could retrieve his glasses. With those on he again picked it up, and his eyes were again drawn to the design.

"What is this?" he asked softly.

"I believe that is a late period Incan design, unknown craftsman. You may notice that the scales are veined in what I believe to be platinum but could also be silver."

Looking up over his glasses at Sam Wong, he asked, "About 16th century, then?"

"Yes, likely a native brought over before the Conquest. There is an inscription on the inside of the band, but it is hard to make out."

Shifting the ring Li Sun could see the tracings of what could be a script of some sort.

"I can see that there is something there, yes. Do you have any idea what it is?"

"That is hard to say, Master Sun. The best I could find was a phonetic transliteration, it is the best I could make out with the help of my reference works on antiquities," he said taking out a piece of paper and sliding that on the table over to Master Sun.

Taking up the paper Li Sun read it in a whisper.

"ch'n'gha Quetzel'falmha?"

"Yes. Quetzel is recognizeable from other transcriptions and artifacts as a shortened form of Quetzlquoatl, but the rest of it is not easily understood."

Putting the ring down in the box, he looked at Elizabeth.

"What do you think of that piece, Mrs. Wong?"

She pursed her lips together and shrugged.

"A few venues for that, beyond collectors. The occult community would be interested although they are relatively low price individuals. Probably get you its value in gold and gem weight, if you are lucky. The harder of the two to sell."

"But what does it mean?" he said turning to Sam Wong.

"Ah, the words?"

"Yes, the words. What do they say?"

"Hard to say. It can be read 'travel death Quetzel's mother'."

"The mother of Quetzlquoatl brings death?"

Sam nodded.

"The other reading is 'coming from death is Quetzel's mother'."

Li Sun shivered as the air conditioning turned on overhead.

"Ah, inscrutable, then. Still, for that period and time, craftsmanship and quality, plus motif and raw value, it is a limited market but potentially high value item."

He closed the case and looked at each of them.

"Are you here to settle accounts, then?"

Sam looked at Elizabeth, who smiled.

"If the price is right, Mr. Sun."

"The two pieces?", he asked in a low tone.

"To show you that she understands the value here and that you understand she is being fair and will not be taken for a ride. You will have to make the decision."

Li Sun smiled and nodded.

"Yes. She is a very rich woman, indeed, is Mrs. Norris."

Elizabeth shook her head from side to side.

"She values the life of her husband more than these, Mr. Sun. She knows she will not remain free and at large for much longer. One piece and she keeps quiet about the transaction. Two requires your promise to free them both, no matter the cost to you."

The smile vanished from Li Sun's face.

"I was wrong, more than rich."

"I suggested that to her," Elizabeth said.

Li Sun chuckled, then laughed.

"You are a wicked woman, Mrs. Wong!"

"Daddy taught me how to handle these things, Mr. Sun. Erin is a nice girl, but out of her depth."

He looked at Sam Wong who was keeping a steady, blank countenance as the other two talked.

"What say you on this, Mr. Wong?"

"That is not my business, Master Sun. I am merely the evaluator."

"And what is your evaluation? What would you recommend to me?"

Sam inhaled and held his breath for a moment and shivered, the blank look slowly disappearing from his face.


"Yes, honestly," the change in demeanor with Sam Wong was disquieting to Li Sun.

"I do not like the one piece. It feels wrong. It is evil. I paired it up with something that was good. They cancel each other out. Take both or neither, tragedy is only with one."

That was a very unexpected answer to Li Sun and he blinked as he sat back in the booth.

"Really?" he whispered.

"They are rare pieces, unique, both of them, Master Sun. You can get great value from both, but the cost is high. You cannot diminsh cost to get greater value, you can deny all value and let others take the cost, but then you lose the value. I have given you all the information I have on the pieces, Master Sun. Only you can decide."

"Erin is being more than fair, Mr. Sun," Elizabeth said, "if you turn her down she will consider the debt to you to be canceled by you. They will owe you nothing."

"Most wicked," Li Sun said under his breath as he took his glasses off and put them into his coat pocket.

"I do not like this deal in any way," he finally said after sipping some water, "but it is what it is. I accept both pieces on advice of Mr. Wong. Debt canceled and now incurred upon me."

He reached out to pick up the small container and put that into his jacket.

The weight of it was no longer that of riches to him, but of lead, as he was coming to feel that things once under his control were now slipping away from him. That was a strange feeling to him and he didn't like it at all.

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