Bruce Wayne waved by the entrance circle of the Gotham City Convention Center, giving paparazzi only a fleeting glimpse of him and his car as he took the next right to get to the parking ramp. He could have used the valet service, of course, but that wouldn't put his car anywhere near to where he wanted it. Instead of ceremony and pomp to go along with the catered meal that he had intentionally missed, he would be heading directly to the staging areas in the back halls to do a last minute check-up on his staff before the actual fashion show started. He could partake of the pre-event mixer with the remains of dessert still available and make it look like he had been there for quite some time. The star chasing photographers would know otherwise, to a degree, but they were usually assigned to regular photography crews for these show types and they had a set routine that varied little be it in Paris, Rome, Bonn, Tokyo, Istanbul, New York City or a secondary venue like Gotham. The gossip rags would comment on the more or less clearly visible lipstick on his cheek, but that is what they were for: gossip.
And providing an alibi, of course, if he needed one. To the photographers and gossip columnists a kiss is just a kiss, after all. The innuendo and conjecture they could make up on their own.
Tonight was daytime business that seeped into night, and a fashion show was something he would be expected to be at if it was in Gotham City, which this was. Pulling into the parking garage and getting his ticket from the man at the booth, Bruce Wayne proceeded forward until he got to the down ramp. The main level was full, as was to be expected, and the next two above it were unsuitable to his needs as it was easier to go down from the level of the main convention center floors, than up. At least without his usual night-time accoutrements on. Basement level one was filled as well with staff vehicles and smaller vans and trucks necessary to support the staff that worked behind the scenes. Basement level two was starting to see cars dwindle in number and he felt lucky to get a spot near the stairs in level three. He had a general knowledge of where the security cameras were in the parking facility and chose a spot next to a catering van that would obstruct the direct line of sight from the camera to his car.
His other vehicle was underground in a subway's Henderson Road station that had just barely been completed before the system was shut down. That station had moved into the Underworld on the North Island to remove the confusing jumble of roads that had existed near Gotham General Hospital, and to allow a flatter street system between the hills by the Mid-Gotham River and the lower area to the east of it. Unlike the Underworld areas on the South Island, these areas did not have the great vaulted ceilings but were closer to true storm sewers, albeit broader and having ceilings that were nearly ten feet high.
The construction of the Convention Center had removed the final pieces of the road jumble and, with it, Henderson Station which sat below the parking garage of the Convention Center. By basement level five the actual parking surface was right on top of the Underworld. Here the city routed some essential utilities like power mains along the roof of the Underworld which made for much easier maintenance, and no storm water was ever expected to exceed the opening of the subway stations to the subway tunnels. This meant that the maintenance stairwell from the Convention Center went directly into the Underworld and then a short walk brought anyone who wanted to go into Henderson Station down a short flight of stairs to the subway tunnel. In theory all of that was safe and secure behind locked doors.
Bruce parked his Ferrari Coupe and made sure that he had the various necessities that he could easily pack with him. A silver cigarette case was purely for that purpose, as was the cigarette lighter with the Wayne Corporation's logo on it, done in silver and onyx. One of his two pens had 50' of dragline and its own brake for it, but had no real way to retract the line. Luckily with a simple twist the line disconnected from the pen and could be left behind. The other pen contained a simple filter mask that could be pulled on quickly in case of fumes or powders that would impede proper functioning of the nasal passages or lungs, and could be disposed of readily by being wadded up. To all outward appearances they were just pens, and even functioned as pens, albeit ballpoint ones. Add to that a small but stylish penlight, a simple booklet of blank pages in leather bindings, a few silk handkerchiefs of which only the visible one in his suit coat pocket was monogrammed, and the ready utility of a glossy, thin leather belt that had many uses on its own, and Bruce Wayne was ready for the public. His cuff-links, tie tack and wallet were all normal in their uses and functions and it had never been worth re-engineering a pair of perfectly comfortable shoes to fit in anything else. As it was all that he had could easily be explained as engineering prototypes and simple precautions by a CEO out on the town for a short while.
Under the concealed section of the trunk of his car was much, much more, of course, in case he had to leave the car for the vehicle and other night time pursuits. After securing the car he pocketed the keys and remote for it, straightened his tie and went to the stairs to ascend to the area behind the main hall of the fashion show. When he opened the door to the main level he was greeted by the controlled bedlam that indicated many people at work, and he knew his part was to make an appearance and be told politely by his staff that he was in the way.
* * *
"... did you see who that was?" came one female voice amongst many of people moving up and down the hallway.
"Oh!! You know he was probably..." came another as the well dressed man moved down the hall at a brisk pace, slowly overtaking individuals some in normal business attire and others in clothing appropriate to the fashion show's theme.
"Excuse me," he said softly to the well dressed Geisha girl who was startled as the firm but gentle masculine voice and touch on her shoulder informed her that someone wanted to get past her in the crowded hall.
"Who...?" she began as it turned, "... is it..." she finished softly. "Oh, of course!" she searched her clothing to see if she had brought her small container of business cards to hand to the man, but she didn't have the presence of mind to do that while changing into the outfit.
A Samurai Warrior and a Ninja both moved to opposite sides of the hall to let the man through as the weapons of their costumes appeared to be no match for the smiling man in the black business suit who could make or break people with a simple nod of his head. A short stature woman in white business pantsuit looked up over her clipboard and smiled.
"It is good to see you, Mr. Sun," she said as he approached.
"And to see you, Kini. How are the preparations coming? Attendees are finishing their desserts and the photographers are jostling for positions along the catwalk, even as we speak."
Kini nodded and checked the wall clock.
"It is ten minutes until it starts, Mr. Sun. First is Albrecht's Fashions, then Cobblepot Designs, then we come in for our five allotted slots."
Li Sun pursed his lips and nodded.
"Have there been any last minute withdrawals that would allow us two more?" he asked as tall Vampire from further up the hall walked past him to get to the Men's Room just on the other side of the hallway.
"Not so far, Mr. Sun. Albrecht's Fashions might have a slot left over, but we are in competition with Wayne Material Marketing for that."
He nodded at that. While Hideko Manufacturing went through his organization for distribution in North America, it could in no way compete with the presence of WMM. When he was sizing up the competition he had his people get the financials of the competition in various areas and saw that while not in the top tier of the fashion design world, WMM was becoming a dominant force in the upscale consumer and even mass market consumer clothing arenas. It was whispered that within Wayne Corporation the moniker for the group was 'We Make Money' and they did so to an amount that dwarfed not just his trading group but Hideko Manufacturing as an entire company. WMM was not cut-throat, but they were a force to be reckoned with. And as they almost always had the last slot in any fashion show, they were the common recipients of missed opportunities created by open slots in the schedule.
"Yes, they are in a position of good fortune by hard work, not happenstance," he said looking beyond Kini into the small dressing area that had been allocated to his group, "and as we are near mid-show we cannot get help from later in it."
He glanced up the hallway where a woman in a long black dress and feather boa was talking to a man in a silken green outfit with a cape. Pursing his lips together he knew that the fight to get a foothold in this market would be difficult.
"No, we can't, Mr. Sun. We will present what we can and show other displays at our booth in the Trade Hall after the main part of the show."
Mr. Sun nodded, as this would be a late evening for him to help give immediate backing by shipping schedules for any prospective customers from the show tonight.
"Have any other executives been back here? I know that Mr. Cobblepot and Mr. Sorrel have been at the tables near mine, but Mr. Wayne has been absent."
Kini raised an eyebrow.
"Why Mr. Wayne came through here just ten minutes ago, Mr. Sun. He was, ahhh...." she grew quiet and looked down at her clipboard.
"He had lipstick on his cheek. Apparently he had other business before the show."
Li Sun smiled and chuckled and nodded.
"Ah, yes, a woman's touch explains much. Thank you, Kini, I will be getting back to the Main Hall to await the start of the show."
"Yes, sir. We will be ready."
"I expect nothing less."
* * *
Oswald Cobblepot sidled over to the table at the side of the ballroom to check over the after-dinner pastries and coffee that had been laid out there. The selection was far more extensive than the delightful, if somewhat over-chilled, fruit compote with butter cookie fingers that went with the tiramisu at dessert. Now, with the show starting and the tables being cleared, it was time to see what else had been laid in for the attendees. When he arrived there he saw a figure that he could never mistake.
"Waugh!! Wayne!! We missed you at the table for dinner, not that the dinner wasn't missable, if you get my meaning, heh?"
Bruce Wayne turned from the coffee urn with a full cup of coffee on a saucer. He smiled as he looked down at the clothier who was more of a walking fashion statement than any other person on the planet, and nodded after sipping his coffee.
"I'm so sorry to have missed the dinner, Oswald. First I had an, ah, engagement that I couldn't get away from..."
Cobblepot squinted through his monocle at Bruce, then turned to a tall, thin blonde man, in a white suit with blue silk shirt who was standing behind him.
"You, see Andre? That is what happens when a gentleman doesn't bring enough kerchiefs! He can't hide the evidence of his misdeeds from casual onlookers, eh?"
Andre leaned forward and nodded.
"Yes, Mr. Cobblepot," he said after leaning back again, "one's affairs do become quite evident if you don't have your wits about you."
Cobblepot nodded and turned towards Bruce, then used his umbrella tip to point at the handkerchief in question, which was no longer neatly folded nor entirely white.
"Really, Bruce, such a well dressed man as yourself should be better provisioned for your night time interludes."
Bruce set the coffee cup back on its saucer and looked down at the lipstick that was very apparent on his white kerchief. He slowly slid his free hand up, past one of his other pockets and then went over the breast pocket of the suit coat.
"Ah, I had forgotten to, ah, replace it," he said and with one deft move the kerchief from his pocket disappeared and was replaced by one he had palmed.
"And magically the past disappears from view!" he said with a chuckle.
The lights by the catwalk turned up and the loudspeakers had the voice of the Emcee of the show, Winston Broadhurst.
"Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we are here to have the seasonal costuming presentation done by the leading fashion houses of the region..."
Together Bruce, Oswald and Andre went through the the table that had various pastries, cookies, covered dessert cups of more fruit compote, pudding and other items that became fair game to those who had arrived late or just found that dessert hadn't completed their meal.
"Do try the tiramisu, Bruce," Oswald said picking up a plate of that confection to go with the small glass of brandy that had been made available by a passing member of the wait staff.
Bruce nodded as he palmed some cookies in napkin, that went into a coat pocket, then took up one of the quickly vanishing plates of tiramisu.
"Thanks for the tip. Its Jamaican coffee, I think, domestic blend," Bruce said as he shifted a spoon into his hand carrying the dessert plate of tiramisu.
"The caterers cut corners with the coffee, but it was Smithwick's for dessert. You can't miss their potions with fruit, Bruce."
"And tonight's first line-up is from Albrecht's Stellar Line Collection..."
A man had a spotlight on him for a moment as he stood up to some scattered applause.
"... we thank the President of Albrecht's, Charles Hankson, for attending tonight and now I will pass the microphone over to Director of their costuming division, Deborah Midland..."
The two men headed towards their table as the first of the models walked out in something that looked like a cross between a monk's outfit and futuristic space suit.
As the two men got to the table the second of the line-up was already walking out as the first reached the end of the catwalk.
"You're right, Bruce, definitely domestic blend. Pity, a good varietal would have been perfect for the meal."
Andre was standing beside Oswald and checking his watch.
"Don't fidget, Andre! Your announcing duties are still a good ten minutes off. You need to be calm and cool, like Mr. Wayne is."
Oswald shifted his head somewhat side-ways and turned to look at Bruce.
"You don't see him fidgeting! Of course he has reason to be relaxed, waugh-waugh! Still just look at him. So well dressed as befits the executive of a large company."
"Yes, Mr. Cobblepot," Andre said.
"Here he is sitting with one of his main market competitors and do you see him even slightly nervous? His pants are creased, his simple belt buckle tells of wise frugality, the cufflinks are passed down from at least one generation if not two in his family, and his tie tack shows the company he tends. In one look you know that this is a man of distinction, in a suit that shows off each piece and blends them together."
Bruce sipped some coffee and leaned back in his seat to get a better look at one of the costumes that was being presented.
"Now that is an interesting design," Bruce said, "I haven't seen a white robe like that since you did your Winter Queen costume, two years ago, was it?"
Cobblepot turned to look at the woman in the robe now slowly presenting the costume at the end of the catwalk.
"Hmph! That's all cotton blend synthetics," Oswald said, "but the silver stitching is a nice touch. Purely for public trade."
Bruce leaned forward and nodded.
"I had missed the stitching. The black boots are a nice counter to the robe. Very rogue-ish."
"Not even real leather," Andre said sniffing.
"Synthetics, all of it. Cheap to mass produce," Oswald said turning to look at Bruce, "Unlike that suit you are wearing, Bruce."
Bruce raised an eyebrow to look at the suit then looked at Oswald.
"You do buy synthetic weave from our group, Oswald. And some specialty cottons with high thread count."
"Augh!!" Oswald grunted, "That we do, Bruce. Damn your group and its 'Silkene' material, anyway. Wears like silk, washes like cotton, and doesn't shrink. I had to get someone to analyze that stuff."
Bruce raised his eyebrows.
"Really? You could have just asked us how we make it," he said with an earnest expression.
Oswald looked at Andre, who shrugged. He then got out his cigarette holder, which was a good ten inches long, put one of his custom blend cigarettes in it and started to puff. Oswald gritted the end between his teeth as he talked.
"My staff may have overlooked that idea," he said squinting at Andre then looking at Bruce who had turned back to watching the show. "It was the damnedest stuff, Bruce. I never would have guessed it was a synthetic blend."
"Kevlar sub-threads," Andre whispered.
"The report didn't know how you made it."
Bruce nodded and smiled, applauding at one of the outfits that had been made famous in a movie that year.
"Neither could I," Bruce said as the clapping subsided.
"So, Bruce, who made your suit? A Money-Maker specialty? Wauh, wauh?"
Still smiling Bruce held up one arm of the suit coat and used the other to turn out the small design label there.
Oswald Cobblepot's face looked crestfallen, his cigarette holder pointed downwards and the smirking smile on his face disappeared.
"I will be damned," he said.
Andre shivered as he looked at the label.
A top hat and tiny monogrammed 'C-D' was visible.
"Our Executive line from five years ago," Andre whispered.
"We made, what? Fifty of those? Had to scrap the line, as it wasn't a seller."
"I know a good value when I see one, Oswald..."
"And that is the last of our designs for the season..." came the voice of Deborah Midland over the speakers.
Oswald nudged Andre.
"You're on, kid."
Andre hurried off towards the Emcee podium, passing by a well dressed, short statured man in a black suit who was, apparently heading to the table that Bruce and Oswald were at. Oswald stood up when he saw the man as, did Bruce Wayne.
"Waugh! Mr. Sun, its good to see you again!" Oswald said as he approached.
"Thank you, Mr. Cobblepot, you are one of our valued customers for silk and emeralds."
"And fine quality material it is, Mr. Sun," Cobblepot smiled, clenching his cigarette holder between his teeth in a grimace, and then turning to Bruce.
"Have you met Mr. Wayne? He is a fine competitor and supplier to my business, drat him, if still not taking my advice to have an white tipped ebony walking stick for his outfits."
Bruce smiled as he came around the table to shake Mr. Sun's hand.
"I haven't the pleasure, although I've heard about you, Li Sun."
"And no one who lives in Gotham hasn't heard about you, Mr. Wayne."
Oswald glanced at the Emcee's podium and then looked at the two men.
"My company will be showing in a minute and the spotlight needs an unobstructed view, if you two gentlemen don't mind?"
Bruce and Li Sun looked up and then each smiled.
"Please sit with us for awhile, Mr. Sun, it would be an honor to have you at our table," Bruce said gesturing to the table that had emptied out as people crowded towards the catwalk for better viewing.
"Of course, Mr. Wayne, it would be a pleasure," Li Sun said taking a seat to the back of the table just to the left and behind Bruce.
As they got seated the Emcee announced for the Cobblepot line-up and Oswald Cobblepot got his moment in the spotlight.
Bruce couldn't help thinking about the somewhat diminutive figure of Li Sun and the somewhat oversized ring on his right hand that glowed just faintly in green where no light shone. The ring had been just slightly warmer to the touch than Li Sun's hand, but he apparently didn't notice that. And Bruce couldn't officially notice it, either, of course. Perhaps, just perhaps, this outing would bode well to finding Erin Norris and breaking up the drug ring that was still getting Far East heroin into Gotham.
* * *
Erin Norris was standing in front of a three way mirror as two attendants were adjusting her costume.
Penny was working with her assistant, Margaret, to make sure that there were no 'loose ends' with the costume.
"Lift you left foot up, hon," Margaret said.
Erin lifted it up so that the boot could be adjusted a bit and then the metal rings of the over-costume tucked into the top of the boot and secured by tightening a thin cord of material. Meanwhile Penny had pinned up Erin's hair and was fitting a bright blonde wig over that with temporary tape adhesives.
"Its a shame to use the wig, Tammy, because your hair is just naturally so blonde that it doesn't need it. But product is product."
"Thanks, I don't really have the time to take care of it like I should have," she said.
"You can put your foot down, now," Margaret said turning to the last of the pieces to go with the costume which was a long sword in scabbard with its belt.
The wig was finally situated to Penny's satisfaction.
"Well, your hair has to be done up for the wig with the closing costume, anyway, so better to do that now. And you'll get used to having your hair up like this if you do well. Of course glamor shots will want that conspicuous and you've got the hair for that."
Penny glanced at the clock.
"Gah! Less than five minutes! Now we get to cover the hair with the helmet..."
"Shift your hips for me, would you Tammy? I want to make sure the belt stays above your hips," Margaret asked.
Erin shifted her hips in a way that only a woman who worked in a brothel could, and she felt the belt get tightened by two notches as she did so.
"Excellent abdominal control there, hun," Margaret said.
A nose piece went over her nose with the helmet and her vision was slightly obstructed by it, and it was heavy. The entire suit of armor she was in was heavy. The boots were stylish but she felt she could step through just about anything in them and the boots would be fine.
Priscilla walked into the room as Margaret and Penny worked on attaching a rolled up cape across her shoulders.
"There you are! The show is just about ready to go on, and you are the lead, Tammy."
"We're just about finished, Scilla," Penny said as she and Margaret snapped the authentic period style buckles closed.
"Good! Now Tammy, the closing costume is a pretty easy catwalk, but we want you to do a bit more with this costume as its the lead. Its a bit of a routine but is easy to remember. Do you have the shadow thread in ready to go, Margaret?"
"Yes, Priscilla, I do. Right to the sword when you give the word."
"Excellent! Now, Tammy, its a bit of a flourish, but it does have to be done. We want you to pull..."
No one noticed the slight gurgling sound from the sink at the side of the room. It had, after all, been ill-used with various liquids flushed down it throughout the day, and the piping was prone to problems being somewhat below spec by the contractor that had supplied it.
* * *
"And that is the last of the Vandruzen Collection! Please give them a round of applause..."
Bruce clapped with some enthusiasm not only because the collection of costumes styled from the New Orleans Mardi Gras had been interesting, but because the Wayne group was coming up and the show would be over. Soon he would be able to turn his attention to other night time activities.
"Well, that was a stunning display!" Li Sun said with the dimming of the lights after the people from Vandruzen had left the stage.
"Pure consumer level stuff, never to be seen at a high end affair," Oswald said while polishing his monocle.
Bruce nodded and shifted his coffee cup a bit towards the center of the table.
"That group will be a hard competitor to the Fashion Fiend line, I think," Bruce said.
"And for us, also, Mr. Wayne. They are a hard competitor in specialized markets for companies I represent," Li Sun said.
"Bwah! You two sound like old men worrying over pennies!"
Bruce laughed as the Emcee spoke.
"And now we have the last presenter tonight, Wayne Corporation's Material Marketing Division..."
Bruce stood up as the spotlight shone down from above and waved to the audience that applauded.
"... and the Vice President of Wayne Material Marketing, Priscilla Anderson, will be hosting the collections."
Bruce sat down as the light went up at the podium and the crowd's applause subsided.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen! Tonight Wayne Materials Marketing will be presenting the last of its specialty line that we started two years ago..."
Oswald turned to look at Bruce and spoke softly.
"That's your costumer's collection, right?"
Bruce leaned forward and nodded, likewise speaking in low tones.
"Our Nordic collection..."
"... from the Halls of Valhalla comes those that come for the dead fallen in battle..."
The dim lights only rose fractionally to show a dark figure walking in slow, long strides on the catwalk.
"...so we now present the last costumes in our Nordic line starting with..."
A spotlight shone down upon the woman at the end of the catwalk who was in armor. She pulled the sword from her scabbard and took her helmet off as her dark red cape dropped down to flow behind her. There were ooooo's and ahhhh's from the audience as the spotlight glowed.
The Valkyrie turned slowly, her armor glistening in the spotlight, then to the left and to the right, each to spotlights that awoke to show her. To much applause she walked to the center, put her helmet on and sheathed her sword. With a slow turn she bowed to each side and then stood upright to slowly walk back to the main stage with applause following.
"I had thought the Samurai we presented earlier was going to be the star of the show..." Li Sun barely whispered.
"Now that is a woman who needs no other accoutrements," Oswald said nodding, "excellent, Bruce. You won't sell many but your customers... ahhh..."
Bruce was smiling deeply and shook his head.
"I don't get any say on the costume section and what they want to do. They make too much money to tamper with."
Andre, who had returned after presenting for the Cobblepot collection, was just watching with his mouth open.
"Beautiful," was all he could say.
* * *
"Quickly, now, Tammy, this way..."
Margaret was saying as the next costumes, a couple in matching outfits, stepped out onto the stage.
Erin followed Margaret who was already undoing buckles, hasps and other catches on the costume. Penny came running from down the hall with the start of the next costume, which featured a black wig.
"We are on a schedule, Tammy, have to step it up a bit," Penny said.
Erin was still stunned by the audience reaction, by her simple actions that all went on with a bit of stage trickery. And yet it was a costume to put on such a performance.
By the time they got back to the dressing room most of the chainmail was slipping off, the sword and belt were gone, the horn that went with the costume likewise was already gone, and Penny was getting the wig off and trying to put a new one on as Erin sat down.
"Quickly, quickly," Penny said, who had the timing of costumes assigned to her so that everyone would hit their marks, "this is the longest costume to change out of," she whispered more to herself than anyone in particular.
With the removal of the boots and leggings, the layer of padding under the armor, and then the final silk one-piece undergarment, Erin was nude. A make-up artist had been scrubbing at her face and she had a pair of hose to put on that were black. Margaret had gone to the locker and returned with high heel shoes with black straps and a multilayered long dress with a single layer of dark red that would flash past the layer over it. With the old make-up off, new make-up was being applied, done in blacks and whites, with just a touch of red around the eyelids.
"There," Penny said finally getting the blonde Valkyrie wig off and starting to attach the jet black wig that went with this costume.
"Just sit for a minute more, hon, I need to get the wig on securely," she said more to Margaret than Erin.
Margaret glanced at the clipboard and then knelt down to help get the shoes on for the costume and then strap the black straps around Erin's calf, until they were finally buckled with a small, golden catch.
"Penny we need to get the bodice on...."
Penny nodded and started to shift the wig down.
"OK. Stand up, now."
As she stood Erin didn't feel any self-consciousness at her nudity which was disappearing quickly. She was mesmerized by the figure appearing in black with a flowing dress trail in black and red and a bodice done in a midnight blue that supported the dress. The long, flowing sleeves with black fringe was gaudy, yes, but also luxurious. As she watched Margaret put a black belt around her that had gold stitched into it in a flowing design.
"Damn," whispered the make-up artist, "I need a damp cloth to pick up the powder. It will come off with just a slight breeze and I know those air handlers will smear it all over."
Penny looked at the sink at the end of the room and shook her head.
"Its clogged. Use the glass of water someone left on the floor by the locker. It will have to do."
He nodded and rushed over with a rag to get the glass and was damping the rag as he walked back. With a quick squeeze he made sure it wouldn't leave a trail and then proceeded to blot at Erin's face.
The sink made a single gurgle, which no one heard amidst the shouts for the faster costume changes.
Minutes ticked by.
* * *
Bruce had engaged in the niceties of the show, smiling and nodding at the comments made about the WMM line-up. It was a good line-up of clothes for what it was, but he had a feeling when seeing the Valkyrie that something just wasn't right. He had gotten a good look at her as she presented the costume and there was something very surreal about her.
The rest of the Nordic line, Frey and Freya, Tyr and then ending with Hel, led into the standard costuming fare of a Ghost Rider, Doctor and Nurse outfits, and a few others of lesser note meant for consumer trade via the Fashion Fiend line. As the presentation drew to a close the version of Dracula that was presented was a modernized late-19th century rendition.
"Augh! Very good, Bruce, but I think my people have yours on the traditional line for Dracula," Cobblepot said.
Bruce looked over and nodded.
"Your late 18th century version is a much better costume, Oswald," Bruce said turning to Li Sun, "and the Hannya Demon you presented tonight has a good chance of taking the traditional award, I think."
Li Sun nodded.
"Thank you, Mr. Wayne. We presented for Hideko Manufacturing which is trying to find markets for their clothes in North America. My people arranged for the presentation, only."
"Bwah! And did a good job, too, Mr. Sun," Cobblepot said shifting to look back at him, "even for consumer goods, a very good design."
"... and now, to wind up the presentation of Wayne Material Marketing is Edwina, Mistress of the Dark..."
Two spotlights shone down on the tall woman dressed in a long flowing black dress that flashed hints of dark red and blue as she walked.
Bruce squinted and leaned forward just as the full lights at the end of the catwalk went up and Edwina turned to her left and Bruce sat back, thinking.
"Not bad at all, Bruce," Cobblepot said, "and a good costume to wind up the entire presentation. Dark and sexy. I like it."
Andre shook his head from side to side.
"Thank you, Oswald. And Andre it is meant to set a mood in smaller settings," Andre looked at Bruce and nodded.
"True," he said.
Bruce glanced at his watch and raised his eyebrows.
"Well, I'm late for a meeting..." he said giving Oswald a wink as he stood up.
"I know just the sort of meeting, dear boy! Have a good night!"
Bruce shook a proferred hand from Oswald, then Andre and then Li Sun.
"Good travels, Mr. Wayne," he said.
"And to you, Mr. Sun. Now I do have to run," Bruce said as he slipped between the tables before Edwina had even left the stage. In a moment he was in a hallway and he looked left and right and then went out into a flat run heading towards the garage stairwell. He slammed open the door and had already reached into his pocket to take out the pen that had a dragline in it. With a flick of his wrist the mini-grapnel flew out and along the railing and holding on to the pen he jumped over letting the mechanism slow his fall. He slid the slide on its side to increase the drag and slow himself just before he reached his level, then pushed from a side girder for the stairs and over the railing at his platform. He let the line reel fall out of the pen and the line with grapnel would fall down to the basement level.
In moments he was unobserved at his car opening the trunk and hurrying to change into his night-time wardrobe.
There was no way that Bruce Wayne would know who Erin Norris was or that she was in any way important.
Batman, however, was a different matter, entirely.
* * *
Erin Norris felt good to be taking to the stage with the rest of the group that had worked to present their portion of it. She had never, in her life, thought that she would be in a real fashion show where the clothes stayed on during the public portion of the show. She waited for the final bows from all the groups, and while the earliest were down to only a person or two in costume they tended to be the ones the organization was going to showcase after the show at their booths. With that, and handshakes and well-wishing amongst the various organizations, she went back to the dressing room with the rest of the group from WMM.
Priscilla came back and was smiling.
"All of you did a fantastic job tonight!"
Penny stood up and was beaming, as was Margaret who was there with a tray full of desserts and a full cart of coffee, tea, iced water, iced tea and other beverages were arrayed on a side table just inside the dressing room.
"Of particular, Mark Ellington and Cindy Eastgarten did splendidly with the Frey and Freya outfits. They got the most murmurs and approval from the audience and may take the top spot for the coordinated couples award!"
The two looked at each other with their costumes still on as they were designated for post-show work.
"Thanks," Mark said.
"They are great costumes," Cindy said.
Everyone clapped as Margaret was taking the tray around and Penny was getting some coffee into cups as she knew the people having to stay for the late night portion by the booths were going to need it.
"Maria Daniels has a wonderful chance for best costume with make-up as Hel, everyone was impressed by the amount of work that went into it."
"Just get the damned stuff off me, wouldya?" Maria said with chuckles from the crew.
Margaret had set the tray down by the sink at the other end of the room to get some paper towels to clean up some of the powdered sugar that had started to fly off the tray.
"But my deepest thanks is to Tammy Landon! As you all know Karen had come down with the stomach flu and was doing the two-step tonight, so we had to contact a local agency to see if we could find anyone that could step in for tonight. Tammy stepped up tonight from the amateurs in and around Gotham City and performed perfectly! Without her I don't think our lead-in would have been as good as it was."
Many in the room clapped.
"Uh, thanks... you know I'm not..."
Margaret had heard a gurgle from the sink and was seeing some liquid pushing up into it. The liquid had a greenish tinge that was almost glowing, and it continued to push up into the sink as she watched. She looked down a bit to see what the material was that was flowing up into the sink.
It formed an eye to look back at her.
Margaret screamed as the oozing material now flowed quickly up out of the sink and into the room. A tendril shot out from it but Margaret had been stumbling backwards and it hit her, not its intended victim just three feet further on.
By then everyone had turned and seen this flowing, oozing, greenish nightmare that had come from the sink. And unlike normal muck from a sink long clogged, this muck had substance, purpose, drive and affinity. There was a mass exit for the door where the fleet, the strong and those closest to it got out first. As the last few trying to exit looked back, one of them included Erin Norris who gained a deep seated fear from seeing this thing again, in much better lighting conditions, and could see it flow around Margaret as it lifted her up.
Erin didn't scream but with added impetus pushed her way through.
Maria Daniels screamed as she watched Margaret's body get tossed to the side of the room as the mass flowed into the room and then quickly towards her. Her fear had left her unable to move. The greenish mass flowed up to her chair, around it, and then eyes, ears and tendrils moved towards her to touch her with a deep, dark coldness far worse than Hel's domain ever had. She collapsed then, feeling the oozing coldness sliding over her, around her, probing her.
It continued quickly out of the room and followed its affinity sense as its subject was very close.
First the main course.
Then it could idle around for desserts.
* * *
Oswald Cobblepot had been sitting as the best show pieces were being announced. The Emcee was at the podium and just beginning the announcements.
"For best period piece..."
Just then a scream was heard coming from backstage and far backstage, but its piercing tone and quality carried. As did the following screams. Then the sound of people running, screaming, shouting.
"Eh? What's going on?" Oswald asked.
"I have no idea Mr. Cobblepot. Should I find out?"
Oswald shifted the cigarette holder back and forth in his mouth.
"Yes! Gertrude and some of our best people are still back there."
Li Sun had stood up as well.
"I will go with you. Kini is very good at handling crises, but that is when I am not around."
The two men sidled between tables, then ran across the room towards a side door with an EXIT above it.
Just as they got there the door burst open, with people flowing out it.
"Let me out of here!!!" the first woman screamed who was dressed up as a Flapper.
She was followed by one of Cobblepot's show staff, then by a Geisha, who were followed by one of the people with space outfits on. Then came more staff members from numerous crews all screaming and pushing through the main hall towards the other side and the doors that would lead to the lobby. People were standing up, shouting, running, looking around with a dazed and frightened expression.
Oswald watched in amazement seeing Andre and Li Sun lost in that first wave of people. The lights had been brought up, but the spotlights on the stage had been left on. First appeared Edwina, Mistress of the Dark. She was sprinting across the stage with her dress flowing behind her.
She was followed by a greenish, glowing mass that had a Ninja in a tendril and tossed him out towards the audience. It flowed silently, manifesting eyes, appendages, ears and other organs and antennae of no known purpose.
Edwina had dashed to the other side of the stage.
Oswald's mouth was open, his cigarette holder dropped out of his mouth and he murmured very softly, "What a costume..."
* * *
When he picked out equipment for this night, he let his mind tell him what was needed as he could not disbelieve what he had seen the prior night, but had no way to really understand it, either. The standards of small tools, drag lines, and standard flash powder were all there on his belt. His suit had the integrated overlapping ballistic scales and rheofluid cell system to guard against impacts. The helmet's passive hearing system was integrated, the goggles he had chosen were of IR variety, and there were fresh filters for the air purification system under the nose piece. The cape was the rheoplastic strut reinforced drop and glide cape, where the glide was more a trading off of downwards direction for lateral movement.
That left some empty places on his belt, thigh and boot equipment areas, as well as those along the upper arms. Batarangs went onto the thigh panels as strips barely noticeable as different from the scales of the suit. The upper cuff of his boot was fitted to the armor, unlike his older style of costume, so that it formed an integrated whole system, which meant that stowage was on the outside of the boot and he had to take care about what went there so that the rear control system of the cape wasn't impeded. He had decided on the slim packages of IR reflective mylar sheeting as it was lightweight and could form fit with the curves necessary for the boot attachment spot. After that he had the few spaces on his belt to deal with as well as his upper arms.
For the latter he had decided on emergency drop lines with their own collapsed mini-grapnels. These were one-use drag braked drop lines meant to slow his descent and he had learned they were one very good way to transition from a cape managed drop to a ground speed that would allow him to merely roll and not break anything if he could get a decent deployment on a building or other structure. The fifty feet of high strength line could play out completely with no final stop on it, and by opening the case the entire reel would fall out. He didn't like losing the grapnels, but better to lose something like that than break a leg or his back by an abrupt impact into a building or the ground. He couldn't decide what to put on the last two spots on the belt and let his mind wander to see if anything came to it. As he trailed his hand over the shelves containing the packaged equipment he stopped and turned at one column to see that it held the syringe packaged high molarity acids that Lucius had suggested for use against the Project.
He remembered the warnings with them as they were at such high concentrations that they could only be used with some risk, and required some sort of protective gloves and other protection to guard against splashes. Slowly he had pulled open the drawer and then took the one container that had one each of three of the most corrosive acids available to various parts of Wayne Corporation. The other unitized package had a series of prepackaged gloves to fit over his gauntlets and back-up eye and nasal protection in case his suit-based ones were compromised. Trusting his instincts he completed his night time array and stowed them in the car so that when he put the equipment on he would have no chance at second thoughts if he was in a hurry.
Relatively, he was in a hurry as he didn't want to give Erin Norris a chance to get out of the Convention Center. He had minutes to don the equipment, get up three floors and then act as if he was a late arrival on the costume part of the show. With a smirk he thought he should fit right in. With the cape and cowl in place he finished the last few pieces of adjustment and went to the door and took the stairs three at a time. Mid-way between the first sub-basement and the main floor he heard the muffled sound of a scream in the distance. That caused him to race up the stairs, half-pulling himself up with the railings as well as pushing off hard on platforms to take half flights at single bounds.
More screams and yells greeted him as he got to the entrance to the main level hallway and he ran down the hall hearing a commotion and more screams coming from the main ballroom, as well as the sound of people running. Yet there was no fire alarm sounding, no sprinklers going off, which indicated something other than a fire. A door to his right burst open and the figure of Erin Norris dressed as Edwina appeared, although the wig had been lost somewhere and her hair was breaking free of the temporary restraints. He saw her wide eyed, looking to her right then left and she saw him and ran towards him.
"ITS AFTER ME! HELP!!" she screamed as she ran towards him.
He had pulled up short and grabbed her as she tried to run past, and was surprised at how much strength she put into her flight.
"What is it, Erin? What is after you?"
She looked back, wide-eyed and yelled, "THAT!!"
She broke free of his grip as he turned his head and saw the glowing green translucent mass gliding out the back stage door and then shift towards him. It manifested eyes, tendrils, antennae, and other organs and appendages he couldn't easily identify. It glided quickly on the floor and slid directly at him as he stood between it and the fleeing Erin Norris.
This was no optical illusion, no special effect, no hallucination as he could see the glow of it reflected off of the polished floor. He could hear people running out the front of the hall and their yells and screams confirmed that many had seen it too. It made to move around him, sliding to either side of him and between his legs, even as eyes and other organs shifted to examine him and tendrils started to reach out towards him.
It didn't want him.
It wanted Erin.
And he had promised Ron Norris that he would protect her.
* * *
It had glided smoothly through the water, utilizing the current to give it lift and the eddies to give it some added speed as it flowed to one side of them. Going upstream still expended energy, mostly physical, and that increased its hunger as it went. The current shift after the divide at the mid-Gotham river meant for a swifter flow and it had to expend more energy to swim. For that energy it got speed, going faster than it could on ground with the same expenditure, and that was a trade-off it could afford to enjoy. There was plenty of food to find and even if it had very little power it would satisfy its physical needs. Living bodies was all the sustenance it needed, and as what little power to be found in this realm outside of given locus points was in the living matter, the more organized the matter the more power it had. A corpse could give it some physical energy, but living matter could give it power, too. All of this food still had nothing in comparison to the power reserves easily available in its home domain, and it would need to forage for power more than food here, which was the reverse of its normal lifestyle.
The sewage run-off from the North Island went mainly to the processing plant just slightly downstream via underground pipelines, but the storm sewers and older subway system still had its own system that flowed out above river level although it no longer needed pumps to do so. As its affinity sense indicated that the one it was attuned to had stopped it decided to take an entrance and shift to the land side of the sewer drains. As it moved inland it felt the underground sewer line that pumped out the North Island wastes, which centered on a plant just inland of the western-most tip of the Island. Going there, as it was centralized for drains, it picked out the likely sewage lines going in the direction it wanted to and followed them. For this end of the sewer gravity served to get the wastes moving downhill to the station, and as it went along the pipe, past many branches, it approached a larger main that turned into a true tunnel with effluent flowing down its central channel. Sliding up to an air duct it followed that tunnel until it found the central drain for the large structure over it.
Taking that entrance it let the affinity and distance senses guide it through the underground pipes that got narrower as it went. From six inch pipe it went to four inch pipe for one section of the building, then to two inch pipe for a set of rooms in the building, then down to one and one-half inch pipe that felt as if it flowed up into a single set of rooms. From there it crept sending tendrils up each branch until one had a sense of near affinity. It still felt into other pipes and rooms but concentrated more on the one pipe, and the one room. The one it had affinity with came and went from that room numerous times, and it seemed that there was a habit of this food to do that. Deciding that the one room was the closest it started to pull back from the others and flowed more of its mass up the drain pipe for the sink in the changing room. This caused a slight back-flow on the sink, but it gave that less mind than those in the room did, which is to say none.
It could feel a tempo and sequence of events that this food had in the building through its vibration and distance senses, and it awaited a time for when the one it had affinity to would stop in the room indicating a tempo change that had gone on elsewhere. It bided its time, gathering its mass into the pipe and slowly oozing into the sink, with minor air pockets forced out as it did so from the mess trapped in the S-curved trap under the sink. It could feel people gathering in the room and pushed more of its mass into the sink as they arrived. The feeling of affinity so close urged it to move, to act.
Being observed, at this point, was a minor inconvenience, or so it thought. Identifying that the food that saw it was no threat it surged up so as to locate its affinity and, finally, be rid of it in a single, killing lash. That was not to be as the food that saw it panicked and stumbled backwards into the path of its tendril. It could only savor the taste of its essence for a moment and could not properly feast. With its tendril attached so as to remove life from the food source, it needed a moment to let go. The mass of it was still not in the room proper and the now dying food was lifted and tossed aside which helped to pull more of its mass into the room. The chaos of the food moving to run from it was a savory treat as their tiny power became tinged with delicious fear. Unable to get a clear view of its affinity, it slid further into the room and around the chair that held one food that was terrified of it to inaction. Such a tasty treat should not be left behind, and it flowed up to it, onto it and then found the entrances into its body that caused stark terror to be added to blind fear.
Still it could not dally for a proper meal as its affinity source was still close and not able to move fast amidst the other food. Its appearance as it slid out of the room caused more of the food to start, to run and in that mass of delicious but tiny power sources was the one it wanted, now pushing bodily against others of its kind. Free of the sink and the room it now moved quickly, and no longer had time for savoring the lovely little delicacies that ran around it. The affinity source broke free of the mob heading towards the front exit to the ballroom and that allowed it to push past them amidst screams of pure horror that it didn't bother to hear but could feel so very well.
One food got in its path and it had on some strange garb with something out that might be a weapon. A slashing cut made no impression on it, but it was best to let food know that their killing devices were fine against their kind, but useless against it. That one it swept up and throttled as it chased its affinity source, which was becoming a tender, savory morsel of dread, fear and terror all rolled into one package. The opening of the stage to the ballroom it did not notice, although the sudden thrill of fear and then terror it did notice and enjoyed. The would be attacker it tossed casually aside into the ball room as its weight had slowed it just slightly and it didn't want that beautiful affinity food to lose its piquant taste that was brewing inside it.
She was moving fast, was that food, in a run for her life which it knew she would lose. Even as she slammed through the door it had gained enough to use a tendril to prop it open. It could feel that other food, the one that didn't see itself as food, nearby in the direction she had run. As it flowed out into the corridor it utilized organs to sense this food that didn't think of itself as food, and then rushed towards it as it was in the way of a real meal. It slammed a tendril against this food to move it aside and was surprised that its impact had no real effect upon this deranged food. It spread that tendril as it raced towards him, trying to get a simple touch in to drain it of power, of life.
It was quite surprised to find this food grabbed its tendril.
The next feeling it got was beyond any that it had ever experienced, anywhere.