Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dr. Gotham Steps Out - Chapter 9

Chapter 9

Barbara Gordon pulled her car into the front receiving area of the convention center. The Officer on duty was a Squadman who had gotten used to seeing her car the past two years as she became her father's driving Guardian Angel and the one who made sure that he got from place to place without racking up yet another underbody repair bill for his car. They had stopped for coffee on the way over as that was a prerequisite for police duty, particularly for the chilly, overcast and damp days which Gotham was famous for. She pulled around the front 'U' and took a spot behind the Channel 4 van which was still parked there from the previous night's events. At this point in the morning there wasn't much left to cover that wasn't covered by the early morning news crews and they couldn't stick around all day being short of staff on a Sunday.

"Give them space in back for their equipment. They will be back in an hour to get material for their noon filler programs," James said.

Barbara nodded and backed up a half car length and parked the vehicle. The two picked up their individual cups of coffee, with James having the commercial styrofoam cup from the shop and Barbara a no-spill container she could sip from that slipped easily into a side pocket of her coat. They stepped out of the car together and the slamming of the car doors was nearly simultaneous. She hurried to get around her car and fall in on her father's right, and he was already in stride heading towards the sliding doors of the convention center with his badge swung out of an upper shirt pocket. Of course she had no badge, but her presence had become one that the GCPD adapted to. How do you say 'no' to the daughter of one of the most respected and competent Police Commissioners that Gotham City ever had?

Samantha Hagen had moved indoors after contacting the Mid-North Station and they had sent Major Bill Rhodes, the top man in Homicide investigations for the District to take over for her. She had her back to the main entrance of the Grand Entryway, but Rhodes had given her a simple raised eyebrow when she heard footsteps approaching. She turned and looked up from her notebook and started to smile.

"Damn, Jim, you took forever to get here," she said looking at the Commissioner and giving a nod to his daughter.

"It's good to see you, sir," Rhodes said as the two approached.

"I wanted to get to the other scene first and it was on the way in for us, Sam. And it's good to see you, Major. From everything I've heard this is a pretty big crime scene."

"It is that, Commissioner. Commander... I mean Deputy Commissioner Hagen was just giving me the run-down so I can take over the wrap-up of the evidence gathering. We have another hour, at least, in the main ballroom before we can finally leave."

Barbara had wandered over to a body outline next to a planter and was kneeling down to look at the position that was marked which was just at the marble planter that held a small palm tree that was part of the decor of the convention center. It was obvious by the red stains on the corner of the planter and on the floor that whoever this was had gotten in the way of people moving from the main ballroom out the front entrance. She stood up and looked back and into the main ballroom that had two forensics teams near the stage of the room and another that was now in the mid part of the room.

Walking back to her father and the two other officers Barbara saw that a grid of string had been laid out on the ballroom with little numbered cards in the center of each box. Small red flags were inside boxes in the center of the room and little yellow flags were placed in various positions to mark evidence points in the other boxes.

Major Rhodes was talking when she got back to the three who were exchanging notes.

"...and it will take most of the day to sort it out."

"What's the timing of events?"

Sam Hagen spoke up.

"It started in the back dressing room area where we have the majority of deaths..."

"Deaths," Barbara whispered. That was the second time this morning that the more commonly used 'violent death' or 'foul play' or 'suspected murder' weren't used. She shivered even as she opened up her coat in the warmer interior space as the normal course of events she had grown used to with her father being on the GCPD wasn't taking place this time.

"Then lets start back there," James said.

"Sounds good to me," Samantha said, "and I was going to need to do a physical layout with Major Rhodes anyway so might as well get two for the price now. Follow me, we'll take the back ways used by staff and admin types here."

She led the way followed by the Commissioner and the Major and they were trailed by Barbara which suited her just fine. There was a stillness in the air here that was normal for large open spaces but even down the hallways their footsteps on the utilitarian tile flooring didn't echo much. The lighting had been turned up so as to show the industrial beige that had been used for the wall treatments. Not paint, exactly, but not covered boarding, either. A cool dampness settled in as they walked and the strange feeling of claustrophobia which Barbara didn't have but began to feel... just like at the previous crime scene they had been at this morning.

Hagen went through a door into another hallway and turned left then stopped about ten feet later at a door that had a small sign slid into a holder that said 'Wayne Material Marketing - Fashion Fiend Division'.

"This is where we think it starts. Even here the eyewitness accounts are all over the place."

James Gordon looked at her and nodded, then stepped into the room, itself.

"The crates and portable wardrobes were carted away after we finished detailing the room, Commissioner."

"When was that?" Rhodes asked.

"About 8 AM. They took what was theirs and were out of here in a half-hour. I had Detective Lohman oversee the item removals by the various work crews. We re-routed them down corridors where nothing had happened and the last of the carters, I think it was for Hideko, were done by 11 AM. We were up to the stage area and ballroom which has been a real time eater today."

Barbara Gordon slipped in behind her father and he took in the room and saw the evidence tags were concentrated starting at the mid-left where there was a square outline around a swiveling chair. He looked back at Hagen and Rhodes.

"What happened here?"

"That is where the second victim of the night was found, one Maria Daniels, 33, a model and clothes designer at WMM."

"What did she die of?" Rhodes asked.

Samantha shook her head.

"Fear. A stopped heart at any rate, but the M.E. said it looked like she blew out a major artery as there wasn't much blood accumulation, just some filling of the chest cavity. He will probably a full report by later this afternoon."

Commissioner Gordon walked over and looked at that outline and then stepped over to the one by the wall.

"That is where Margaret Harbaugh, 27 an Assistant Performance Director for WMM died after being thrown to the wall."

He looked back at her, "Thrown? Who did that?"

Samantha shook her head.

"That is a problem area in this whole thing, Jim. No one can give an accurate description of who or what did this. I'm tending to the 'what' part, but I'm tired and don't know what to make of any of this so far."

"No one was there who could do that?" Rhodes asked coming around the left side wall to take in the scene from near the sink area.

"Not a soul. A couple of people who do some workouts, but no weight lifters, no one on drugs, nothing like that."

"Did they know each other, outside of work?" Commissioner Gordon asked as he saw his daughter step close to the chair outline and kneel next to it, and then look from there towards the sink.

"Some yes," Samantha said, "you can't help that when you're doing this sort of work. Fashion shows don't budget a lot for lower-end staff so they end up getting to know each other when they travel. Nothing beyond that, though, from what the other staff members said."

James Gordon adjusted his glasses.

"Also we have one person in a coma from this room, Priscilla Anderson, age 47 Deputy Director for WMM in North America and head of special programs. She is basically the number two person for them and was in charge while the head of WMM, Gerald Brighton, was in Perth, Australia attending an industry conference."

Major Rhodes wrote that down and walked towards the chair outline.

"Where was she found?"

"Over in the corner opposite this entry," she said pointing to a place where a set of cupboards made for a place to set down and store items, "which was between one of the larger roll-around clothes racks that WMM uses. We have pictures and took forensics from the area."

"Who is the head of Wayne's group now?" Commissioner Gordon asked stepping past his daughter who ran a finger over the tile next to the outline.

Samantha flipped through her notebook.

"Ah, that is Penny Roper, age 38, Assistant Deputy Director of WMM. She went to Gotham General from here to get an update on her boss and report back to WMM."

"You said it started here, what happened next?" Rhodes asked.

"From here it is down the hall we have one person in shock and semi-cogent from the group across the hall from the caterers. She is unable to give any description of what went on and her last cogent memory was from just after the last part of the show and group walk-on. She had come back here to start getting roll-arounds ready to collect the dishware out in the ballroom."

Barbara got up and stood next to her father. He said, "Go down the trail of events as they happened or at least as you can piece them together."

"Sure, follow me," she said.

As Major Rhodes walked out, Jim whispered, "What was on the floor?"

Barbara pressed her lips together.

"A tacky film of something. Don't know what it is. Could be floor cleaner like they use at the Triumph 3," she said referring to a small theater complex about a mile downtown from where they were.

He nodded and ushered her out of the room.

Walking down the hall Barbara lagged behind her father to look at the floor and the wall in a few places. Samantha told of another two people in shock from hysteria at a major intersection and one person who was trampled down that hallway that led to the ballroom. There was another case of hysteria and shock on the way towards the stage area.

"Here we have another problem, Jim," she said.

"Another one?" Rhodes said.

"Yeah. One of the girls for WMM was a replacement from one of the local firms as their main person called in sick with vomiting from a stomach flu. She was supposed to be replaced by one Tammy Landon, 26 from the Corvis Modeling Agency. She went missing after the show and it turns out that her car broke down on the South Fork Ridge Road, about a half mile from the crest on the north side. She finally got to Boxcar Billies place around 9pm last night," she said referring to a gas station that the elder Boxcar Billie had put up outside the city limits to go with an old station there. "He confirms that her car broke down due to a fuel line problem, and that was about 11pm when he finally did that. Tammy tried to get her Agency but no one was there and her POC was out for the night. She couldn't get through to Priscilla, here, as she didn't have a number and she figured the show would be winding down by then."

"I see," the Commissioner said, "so what is the problem?"

"She was here last night and did two costumes for WMM. Too bad she was at Boxcar Billies. Plus she is a brunette, the girl here was blonde and not a dye job, either."

"What?" Major Rhodes said, "She couldn't be in two places at once, so who was it?"

"We have plenty of pictures, that's for sure," Samantha said, "but in costume, under make-up and with the lighting..." Samantha sighed "... we have a good composite from all the pictures and one of our artists got a decent couple of shots from the hundred and some taken. We have close-ups and the composite, but you got me," she said handing over a couple of the photocopies she had been given to each of the men.

"No idea," Commissioner Gordon said looking at his daughter who was shaking her head negatively.

"It looks familiar," Major Rhodes said, "but I'm blonde blinded, you know?"

"Yeah, Bill, they all look alike to you after awhile," Samantha said smiling.

"Yup! Especially these model types, but she doesn't look like your normal kind of model, not in that black outfit, at least. Its all natural."

Barbara closed her eyes and tried not to giggle. Apparently being 'blonde blinded' had less to do with the hair and more to do just a bit below the neckline.

"Samantha," James started, "you've given us a few descriptions of what was at the center of this and they all contradict each other. Hasn't anyone given a good description?"

She shook her head 'no'.

"That's the hell of it. The most we have for a long term description is about a second and then a feeling of panic, fear or even death causes you to want to be somewhere else as fast as possible. And not a damned picture, either, as the chaos out in the ballroom had cameramen pushed down, their cameras toppled and the one or two who had some presence of mind apparently forgot their lens caps were still on."

Barbara opened her eyes and looked at Samantha.

"You aren't catching a break here, are you?"

"Not so far, Miss Gordon," she said looking from her to her father who's face had become grim.

"Any more?"

"Yes we have the death of Mark Re, age 24 a part-time model for Hideko's local sales outfit at the Fair Winds Store. He was last seen here by his partner, Jai Hua, age 25, who last remembers getting nearly bowled over by the Tammy imposter and then seeing his partner lifted up into the air. He passed out he said from a sudden shock and chill that went through him. Mark Re was tossed from the stage area about thirty feet into the ballroom."

"Let me guess, no descriptions of what could throw a man that far, right?" Major Rhodes said.

"That's right, come with me. We can go through the stage area since we've already gone over it."

As they got onto the stage they looked out from nearly five feet above the ballroom floor and saw the grid layout and officers working on grid sets near the center of the room.

"You can see the remains of the table, third one back on the center left. He died of his injuries with a broken neck and back, plus arm."

Barbara got a cold, sinking feeling when looking at that distance and at the damaged table.

"After this we go to the hallway running down next to the far side of the ballroom."

As Barbara followed the others out the door she had to move past them as they were looking down the hall.

"You still here, Martin?" Samantha asked.

Getting past her father on the far side of the hall she could see a group of three men and a woman by an area that had police evidence tags scattered around at various points on the floor, walls and ceiling. Closer to her there was another spot where the floor tiles looked to have been corroded or etched by something. That area had tags on it still.

One of the men stepped forward, middle aged with sandy reddish hair wearing light brown shoes, dark brown trousers, a blue shirt and light zip-up jacket it a dark navy color. He stepped carefully around the various tags as he came towards them.

"Sure is Sam! I'm glad you got all the back places finished with. It must have been a mess earlier."

"Yeah it was. Had to bring in help and the boss 'cause I'm draggin it. A long, long night for on-call."

"I hear you," Martin said, "Its good to see you Commissioner."

Jim smiled as he shook hands.

"The force misses you, Martin," he said.

Martin smiled.

"And we miss you at the Diner in the mornings, Jim. Better place than the old donut hole, that's for sure."

"Its the job," the Commissioner said.

"Uh-huh," Martin looked at Major Rhodes. "And you got stuck with the scut work today, huh Bill?"

"Someone's got to do it, Martin. Besides, I owe Sam a few and she's been on-call since yesterday afternoon and hasn't slept so far this weekend,"

Barbara knew Martin after having seen him once or twice growing up and at the small party held for him the Saturday after he retired out at the Ridge Run Park. After that she remembered talking with him once, a few years ago, about some options for after High School. He was with his younger brother Dan that time. She smiled at him and also noted that the others in his group were looking at some points on the ground with the older man squatting and the younger man with an eyepatch talking softly. The woman had moved around behind the older man and was soon between Barbara's direct line of sight to him.

"And of course Barbara! You've grown up a lot since we last talked!" He said smiling and shaking her hand.

"Mr. Carstairs its good to see you," she said smiling, "and that was only 3 years ago with your brother. It really helped to talk to both of you, thanks!"

"Glad to do it. I could only give you the half of it and my brother had been through college so could tell you about that better than I could. Still, I remember my days at the Air Force Academy and time at the police academy after 'Nam."

"You're with Wayne, now, right?" Major Rhodes asked.

"That's right. Mr. Wayne was shaken by what happened last night. He left early to get some downtime and didn't hear about what happened until he got back early in the morning. Got some of our Defense people in to help out with immediates, but wanted someone with LE who was around town to do the once over and see if there was anything he should know about. So I snagged the nearest and available who weren't out for the weekend."

"Find anything interesting?" Samantha asked.

Martin stepped back a bit to look at them then turned to look down the hall.

"It is one of the strangest sort of crime scenes I have ever seen, Sam," he turned to look back to the Sam and then the Commissioner, "I can see the basics and got a some fill in from a couple of Patrolmen, but piecing things together is hard. The worst part isn't the evidence there is, which isn't much, but what there isn't. When the 5 W's and 1 H aren't getting filled in and yet things have happened, you have a mystery. Like there is no way that someone can actually pick up a good sized person near the sink in the dressing room and throw them hard enough to kill them. And you certainly can't do it and then have no description you can count on. After that it just gets weird. What could cause the panic? Getting trampled to death means a deep panic, yet what could do that? Plus throw a grown man 30 feet into a table. Then you got these two places and it does look like two. I assume you got something from the first one? Looks like an actual non-photo evidence tag there," he said pointing to the center of the large blotch corroded or etched into the floor.

Barbara walked over slightly behind Major Rhodes. As she moved to the side and past the area, she saw the others were now examining the right side wall where there were some small taped-on tags. the woman was still closest and she was partially blocking her view of the two men. Barbara turned and looked at the area on the floor that had tags around it and then knelt down just a couple of feet from Rhodes. Her father, Samantha and Martin walked over.

"... some sort of plastic industrial syringe. It is marked for what we think is sulfuric acid."

Martin nodded.

"Had to be some corrosive agent. It dispersed over that area and then got past the finish on the flooring and into the tiles. You can see the metal between the tiles has been eaten into more than the tiles."

Looking down Barbara could see that the metal had been eaten into and that the grooves they were in showed additional etching down to the concrete sub-flooring. She leaned down and inhaled deeply and got a faint odor like that of rotten eggs and the Gotham docks. It was hard to really identify.

"That wouldn't cause panic though," the Commissioner said, "and with the size of the area it doesn't look like it was being mixed with something."

Bill Rhodes looked around.

"No scratch marks or signs of other equipment here, that's for sure. So what happened here?"

"No idea so far, and the video cameras covering the hall only see some sort of hazy fog. The ones in the rear section went out during that time, too. There might have been one or two figures in that, but its hard to tell. The nearest," she pointed to the ceiling a few feet back, "has its exterior glass etched, so we didn't get much from it at all. The other is like trying to look through a fog."

"Fuming sulfuric acid," Barbara said softly looking up at the overhead suspended ceiling tiles, "a fog of that would spread along the ceiling before the air handlers got to it."

She stood up and saw that the aluminum between the tiles had been etched and that the etching spread forward and back from the point directly overhead. She saw an intake to the air handling system between the two places with tags and she walked towards that and saw the paint had been bubbling off it with a few flecks on the floor. The etching continued down the hall though greatly lessened.

"That would explain the smell of rotten eggs," Samantha said approaching with the other men and looking up, "thanks, Barbara."

"Just speculating," Barbara said smiling.

"It takes a lot to do something like that to coated aluminum. Probably has other stuff in the mix," Martin said.

"So something happened with a release of sulfuric acid from a syringe," Commissioner Gordon said, "but that wasn't enough to harm anyone in the ballroom, right?"

"That's right, Jim, no one reported anything like rotten egg smell or eye irritation from anything in the air", Samantha said, "and the air handlers might not even have been opened for this hall to help concentrate circulation in the ballroom. Have to find out."

"I'll catch that, don't worry, Sam," Major Rhodes said, "and get someone to get some snaps of it."

Samantha shook her head.

"It's been a damned hard night and morning."

"You are doing a good job, Samantha," Commissioner Gordon said, "you aren't expected to be able to do it all and I am not surprised that someone overlooked this. That is why you get help."

Samantha sighed.

Barbara stood up and turned to look at the group that was at the next spot and they were moving as well, slowly walking down the hallway towards the door at the end.

"What happened there?" she asked.

Her father turned to look at the next area with small markers and walked over to it with Martin Carstairs on his left, Barbara on his right, Samantha coming up just between him and Martin and Major Rhodes slowly getting up and making notes in his notebook.

"We don't really know, Miss Gordon," Samantha said, "it looks like another acid or surface etching affair, but with this its only a few marks on the floor. The etching isn't as bad on the metal spacers on the floor and it looks like drops rolled off the wax polish to some degree. As you can see by the few markers we have the drops form a ragged line from one side of the hallway to the other."

Martin stepped over a couple of markers as did Jim Gordon and Barbara, while Major Rhodes went to the wall at the right side of the corridor to start looking at the markers and the areas they were next to which had light chalked circles to identify the area of interest.

"Who are the people you have with you, Martin?" Commissioner Gordon asked.

Martin looked down the hall to see the Project standing about ten feet from the door and looking at the floor and the ceiling, while Vivian was looking at the floor and shaking her head. Sgt. Rock was just beyond them by a few feet and looking back towards the police group that Martin was with and then looking at the ceiling and walls above the area where the Project and Vivian were at.

"It was light duty day when I got the call this morning from Mr. Wayne and a few of Wayne Defense people were already busy and I needed anyone I could scrounge up. He told me that a friend of his had a good Jack of All Trades friend that was with him and that his driver, Vivian Rose, was with the two of them helping to strip down P-51 Mustang Merlin engines in the boat that Wayne had given to his friend.

Barbara looked at the group from the twenty feet that separated them and saw the man in the hallway looking back and up to the ceiling. He was an older man with black hair and solidly built for his age. He barely squinted looking at the ceiling and at one of the lights there and the light cast shadows over his cheeks.

Commissioner Gordon nodded.

"I knew that Sgt. Frank Rock was a friend of the Wayne's after what happened to them in '59. I was a detective working Mid-South and was involved on the manhunt for the man who killed his parents. I was at the mass done by Father Williams and saw him there with his wife and eldest son and daughter. Sgt. Rock was there to help Alfred out with the estate and carrying out the last instructions of Bruce Wayne's parents. Thomas Wayne was well liked and respected, and even after he put together Wayne Manufacturing he still did free clinics for the poor in the Mid-South and dock areas. Martha helped him doing that. I knew that Thomas Wayne had saved Sgt. Rock's life during the war..."

"Yeah, I read about that in his book," Samantha said.

"He's a good man, Jim. He trained the man who trained me back in 'Nam," Martin Carstairs said, "and he is just as he was described to me. Tough, matter of fact, and doesn't put up with nonsense."

Major Rhodes was shaking his head as he crouched down just on the other side of markers.

"No real rhyme or reason to this. No pattern. You might get a small drop here and there, a spatter next, nothing for a foot... and its not even a clean line of them."

"What's his friend's story?" Commissioner Gordon said looking at the somewhat bulky figure that was standing up, then walked past Vivian in slow, measured steps.

"A friend of a friend of Rock's," Martin said, "Tom Octurian. He took some damage in an industrial accident and is staying with Frank to recover. No family, but a mutual military friend vouches for him. He does a little of everything, but doesn't have degrees or diplomas. Even with one eye injured he is good at spotting stuff and figuring them out. They were over at Vivian's after doing engine work last night. And she is a much better driver for Gotham than I am."

"She won the Baja 500 six or seven years ago, I think," Major Rhodes said as he stood up after sidling past the others, making notes as he went. "Flies, too, all sorts of stuff. Wayne got a real gem, there, and they did the 24 Hours of Le Mans two years back and that three week North Africa Trek before that. Hear she's a hotshot with just about anything that drives or flies. Her parents are into that stuff, too."

Sgt. Rock talked for a few moments with Vivian, then the Project and then walked towards Martin and the group while the other two went further down the hall to the door marked EXIT and the stairs beyond.

"Don't know what happened there, El Tee. Some sort of heat that moved the floor polish and discolored some of it. A few bits and pieces of dusty stuff here and there, one or two other heat marks maybe. Could just be a floor polisher coughing with a bad motor."

Martin nodded and introduced him to Bill Rhodes, Commissioner Gordon and Barbara.

Barbara could feel the strength in his hand and the callouses. He had been more than just a combat soldier but a steel worker as well, handling heavy equipment and putting up with the heat of the blast furnaces. His simple 'Pleased to meet you, Ma'am' left her flustered as his smile held genuine warmth. The crows feet at the corners of his eyes showed harder years in his life than most others would ever know even if they lived twice as long.

After the introductions he turned to Martin again.

"There isn't much more to see. Viv and Tom are checking the stairs. No police tags there or tape so unlikely to find anything.

Samantha nodded.

"Nothing at all and no one noticed that area of the floor, either. Thank you, Sargeant."

"Welcome, Ma'am," he turned to Martin, "I think that will be it for here. Not much else to investigate."

Barbara looked down the hall and watched as the man and woman got past the door and walked to the metal platform for the stairs. The man crouched down apparently looking at the base of the open frame railing and the woman looked over the top and then over the edge and shook her head. After exchanging some words in low tones they walked further in and the door shut behind them. When she realized that they weren't just going down a few stairs and coming back, Barbara walked forward, barely glancing at where they had been in the hallway previously, and went to the door, opened it and then to the platform beyond.

She heard their footsteps on the metal stairs heading downwards and she looked at the railing and saw that the paint was pretty well worn and chipped, as was the rest of the metal work on the platform. As she looked down, she could see a sheer drop between the stairs that circled around the outside of the stairwell that went at least sixty feet if not more. In no way did Barbara have vertigo or a fear of heights, but she knew that similar stairwells in other buildings always garnered some individual committing suicide by dropping down that open space between the stairs. She could barely see the man as he crossed the very bottom floor where the stairs ended in the dimly lit area below.

Letting go of the door it's hydraulics slowly closed it and she took the stairs two at a time as she was used to doing at college and high school previous to that. She heard a door shutting sound from the bottom and some light flooded in above as figures moved up there.

"Barbara?" came the voice of her father.

"Just a minute, dad. I'm going to the basement where Tom and Vivian are," she said keeping her pace and spacing her words to belie how quickly she was going down the stairs.

"Be careful down there!"

"I will!"

When she got to the bottom landing she made sure to walk out into the open area and looked up to wave. Her father waved back and she could see the figures of the two officers with him looking down from the platform. After waving she saw that there were three doors, one clearly a maintenance closet, another going to the mechanical area under the convention center and the last marked 'AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY'. She walked to that one and pushed on the bar on the door and it opened to a tight hallway into the North Gotham Underworld. Going down it the sparse overhead lights allowed her to barely see the floor and walls, which had piping going along them from the Underworld. When she got out of the tunnel the scene was unearthly as she was on a sidewalk to a road with buildings that had been chopped off after one floor. Along the ceiling and walls ran pipes, conduit and cables to move energy, steam, water, sewage and natural gas into the heart of North Gotham Island. She shivered in the damp air and looked out into the street which had no lighting save a maintenance light every ten feet along the south wall.

Peering out she saw what might be the light from a small flashlight two blocks down and that disappeared as it approached the north wall.

Barbara checked her pockets and realized that she had left the one flashlight she had in her purse in the car, under the driver's side seat. She inhaled and stepped away from the light at the entrance to the convention center and walked about half-way across the street, turned right and took careful steps. The street surface was relatively even and all the old manhole covers should still be in place. She tried to remember her father's warnings about the Underworld beyond 'just stay away from it on both Islands', and only came up with the streets having gotten a minor re-surfacing back in the '50s when they were covered over. As she walked further on she knew that there was a problem, in that she hadn't counted just how many lights down, approximately, the two were. Looking back she thought that the convention center was only three lights back. Or was it four? It was only then that she realized that she was doing something incredibly stupid.

She turned to her right and started taking very slow steps towards the wall with the piping and infrequent lights.

Then she heard the footsteps behind her. Heavy. Measured. Coming right behind her from out of the darkness. She turned, hoping to see a small penlight that Vivian and Tom had held by one of them. There was no light. The darkness moved on its own towards her step by step. She felt a mass of air moving slowly as the steps approached.

"May I help you?" came the masculine voice.

It had a deep and yet flat tone to it and she shifted as best as she could to try and center on the voice.

"I... yes... please... I forgot that I didn't have a flashlight..."

In the gloom the figure stepped closer and she still couldn't see it but she could feel it.

"Hold out your hand," Tom said.

She nodded and reached out with her right hand and then felt the thick hand of his touch hers. He was warm, she was chilly and yet there was something about the hand that frightened her. She slid her fingers over the skin and felt that it was relatively smooth, thick here and there with what might be scars, and the firmness underneath spoke of strength. After having a few boyfriends her next reaction was one that was almost ingrained, as she slowly splayed her fingers across his palm and felt him shift his fingers so she could intertwine hers with his. She grasped his hand firmly, and felt him only gently squeeze hers.

"Walk with me, I will warn you of anything to step around."

She nodded to herself and walked slowly next to him.

"You must be Tom Octurian," she said.


"I... how can you move around? Its nearly pitch black down here," she asked hoping to break the ice.

"I see well in low level lighting conditions."

She stepped with him gingerly at first, and then with more confidence. He warned her to step towards him as there was a loose grate in the roadway.

"I'm Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon's daughter."

"Miss Gordon?"

"Yes. I'm not married."

There was silence in return as he was angling them closer to the sidewalk close to the maintenance pipes.

"Where is Vivian?"

"Miss Rose wished to inspect the vacant subway station. We had followed what we thought was a trail and is most likely water outwash from the storm sewer system above us."

"Aren't you afraid that something will happen to her?"


Tom Octurian was spooky to Barbara. At one level she was suspicious and deeply afraid of anyone who could so easily navigate in the dark with just one eye. While his body language was something she couldn't see, she could feel that he was holding her hand just enough to make sure she went in the right direction, which was reassuring. The fact that his hand had no real give to it, was less reassuring. He hadn't looked like more than a weightlifter who had suffered either from an illness or very bad injuries. Yet he walked steadily, easily with just a very slight change in his steps that seemed to favor his right side, which was the one that looked to be injured. That was strangely re-assuring. And the lack of any real response to her being single was something that just didn't feel... well... right.

"Your name... Octurian... it sounds foreign..." she said as they got to the sidewalk near a light.

"It is the name of those in my lineage," he said.

She turned to look at him letting go of his hand. With an eyepatch over his right eye and indications of scars and wounds along his right side that had healed over she could see that something pretty bad had happened to him. His right arm and leg were not as well formed under the shirt and jeans he wore as if they had been crushed or torn and were now healing to regain muscle mass. She looked at him with wide eyes.

"What happened to you?"

"An industrial accident involving dense masses at high velocities. We are two lights from the convention center. Would you like me to lead, Miss Gordon?"

"Yes, if you would, please."

"Yes, Miss Gordon," he said stepping onto the sidewalk and taking shorter steps. When it was black between lights she held out her hand to a pipe with protection over it, a steam pipe and she knew not to touch any bare metal on that pipe. Finally she was able to gain a similar short stride to Tom and followed him to the tunnel entrance to the convention center.

"I will wait here for Miss Rose."

She nodded, smiling.

"Thank you for helping me, Tom," she said.

"You are welcome, Miss Gordon."

* * *

Lisa Choi drove over from the Golden Tiger Club across the North Bridge to 22nd Street and then drove slowly down the main thoroughfare as the speed limit, not traffic, was the major inhibitor to movement. The stores were opening, and a few of the all night diners had their patrons, but it would take time for the customers to arrive on a Sunday that was overcast and only promised broken cloud cover late in the day. From the vents came air that was slightly warmed by the heater in her car and that enhanced the somewhat dusty and dank smell that permeated this section of the city. As the cross street names climbed up the alphabet, broken only by Arsenal which was an old thoroughfare who's imprint continued at least through to the Revolutionary War, she saw the rising of the Interconnector and watched for Cloister Lane which she knew would give her easy street parking near the Gotham Central Library that had its imposing main dome and two smaller domes now showing above the nearby low-rises. She turned left on the one-way 21st and parked on the left side.

This is a place that Lisa had only been to once before after moving to Gotham City, and that was for a small play put on in the auditorium inside by the Gotham Lights, and that was more for Mark Re than for the play, itself. She had come in the back way by the parking garage and never saw the actual environs of the library itself, content to see the play and not seek to go beyond the auditorium area. Today she was close to the main entrance and would take that. After closing the vents in her car she left it and locked it, stepping out into the brackish salt air that was only slowly being pushed aside by a fresher breeze from the sea. She stepped into the anteway, looked at the vending machines and realized she had no notebook, no pen, just a pencil and some scrap paper. Yet these vending machines held those with notebooks of various sizes available as well as pens and pencils, plus packs of note cards. For the spare change in her change purse she was able to get a pen and spiral notebook which she then held as she walked into the arching entryway proper and then into rotunda.

She gasped, looking up, as even without sunlight, the entire upper dome was bright enough to show the murals and gargoyles that attended it. Over five stories until it even began and it lifted another five into the air with graceful curves arching to the small windows ringing the center of the dome. There was no dankness to the air, thanks to the air handlers and caring staff of the library, no mildew nor rot was allowed to take hold in this residence of knowledge. Finally she began to look down and saw the few people in the library this morning, ranging from young to old, checking out periodicles and ranging amongst the shelves which were held in floor upon floor. For the first time since early Saturday morning, she felt at ease. She inhaled deeply and stepped towards the reference desk.

The young man at the desk looked up from what he was reading, and pushed his dark rimmed glasses up a bit. His black hair and plain white shirt with dark red tie made him look innocuous for his young age.

"Hello, Ma'am, may I help you?"

She looked at his name tag which read 'Mark Karkulis' and then nodded to him.

"Yes, I think so. I am was told a story of folklore from Western China or Central Asia and want to look it up so I can know the story involved."

He looked puzzled for a moment and then looked at her.

"Yes, I should be able to lead you in the right direction, although folklore is not my specialty, I can at least get you in the right section for what you want, which will be on the 3rd floor on the right or north side. Row 2, I think. If you want I can lead you there? I really don't know the texts there all that well, and would have to phone up one of the weekday librarians if you need more help."

She had turned to look up and then as her gaze went down she saw that the central floor of the rotunda had a giant compass that was inlaid into the marble floor. It's black points and lettering allowed it to stand out from the salmon colored floor, and the gold surrounding the inlay allowed it to stand out, visually.

"You can also check out the reference section for a more general work to point you in the right direction. It is a bit unordered as a researcher was in earlier and has many of the books on a cart near the reading area tables."

Her gaze allowed her to see the reference area and tables beyond it partially obstructed by shelves. She nodded slowly turning back to face the young man.

"I will do that, thank you Mr. Karkulis. Once I get a few points that were told me I may even find the rest of the story as reference material. Thank you."

"You're welcome, Ma'am," he said smiling and gazing after her as she headed between the row of periodical shelves to the reference area. He watched a moment more to see her thin form slide between the periodicals and then move into the reference section. He smiled and turned back to his reading of a paradise never lost because it could never be found.

When she passed into the main reference section she did see the cart that held the works taken out the previous day with tiny pieces of paper in them as bookmarks, taken from the card catalog boxes that held such squares of paper. With passing interest she glanced at the volumes and saw one that looked to be an older general work on mythology and folklore, Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, Ed. Maria Leach, New York, 1949. A bookmark was in the A-I volume and she opened that to pages on Chinese Folklore and saw one piece of paper with writing on it that had strange glyphs of a sort that were unknown to her.

Pre-History and Early History. The Chinese Nation as it is known today seems to have had its beginnings in the provinces west of the Shantung peninsula, the regions drained by the Yellow river. Here a belt of early culture stretched from a point several hundred miles inland from the sea through the modern provinces of Shantung, Hopei, Honan, Shansi, Shensi, and Kansu toward the indefinite western border of modern China. In this territory, the Shang Dynasty (c. 1500 to 1100 B.C.) reached a high degree of sophistication. Their bronzes are of a "late" type - no early bronzes have as yet been found in China; their divination was by means of ideographs scratched on bone or tortoise shell; their religious system did not differ greatly from systems today still current among the peasant class. Their arts and crafts and manners were highly developed to a point which compares favorably with the more degenerate moments in our classical renaissance or our contemporary civilization. Though early references to "aboriginals" or non-Chinese tribes which still exist in isolated cultural pockets must be treated carefully, scholars are generally agreed that the peoples of the Shang as well as those of some later dynasties were immigrants into the rich and fruitful valley of the Yellow River.

She nodded and knew that this text was out of date as the Yellow Emperor dated some centuries before that earliest time indicated. The Yellow Emperor had moved from folklore to fact since its publication, which was presented as part of the Social Studies course she had in High School. The teacher had been very animated during the month spent on China and Chinese culture as so much was coming out after the death of Mao. After closing the book and putting it on the cart she saw that Ssuma Ch'ien: Including History of the Hsia Dynasty and Yin Dynasty By Sima Qian, translated 1890, which made her start and realize that someone, just a day prior to her, had been seeking out a similar topic.

Stepping back to look at the cart she saw that a few volumes had string tied around them with a neatly written note under the string. She eased the stack out and read the note:

Dear Master Librarian Dr. Guttard - Please reclassify these works on 'Hyperborea' in the fiction category as the actual placement of Hyperborea has been known since the time of Herodotus, Strabo, Ptolemy and as recently as Sven Anders Hedin, Albert von Le Coq, Douglas Carruthers, Sir Aurel Stein, and, with some reservations on analysis but not original work, Marija Gimbutas.

The titles of the books that were bound with the string read, Investigations on the Legends of Hyperborea, Pnom's Modern Lineage, Lost Commoriom, Elder Things and their Script and Ends of the Voormi. She shook her head as she had never even heard of Hyperborea, except as something referenced as if it was only a fictional place. Evidently it was a real place as the list of those who knew of it, included names she definitely knew although the later ones were hard to place. That middle row with the books in string also held a two volume set of Geology and mineral resources of the Far East, Tokyo, followed by Pottery and metalwork in Ta'ng China, by William Watson, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, 1976 and then The book of agates and other quartz gems, Lelande Quick, Chilton Book, 1963. She saw the simple slips of paper book marks in those three, although without any writing on them.

Involuntarily she shivered.


Master Sun had mentioned the Agate Hand in the stories he had heard, which sounded not so much as a cult as a criminal operation's name, save that it would have to be very, very old to have come and, presumably, gone by now. The third set of shelves started off with three slim volumes, each a translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh by different authors. After that were two books, Seven Tablets of Creation, Luzac's Semitic Text and Translation Series, No 12 & 13, 1973, about the Babylonian creation myth that predated Gilgamesh. Next to them was The Legendary Creatures of the Shan hai ching by Schiffeler, John Wm., 1978, that Lisa picked up from the cart and took over to the table to sit down and look at as it had a couple of the bookmarks with some of that strange writing on them.

One place with a bookmark referred to a mountain range or set of peaks in the Northwest and West of China and the Bai people who lived in that land. This was interesting, in a way, yes, but didn't tell her much about what she was looking for and she closed up the short book and went back to the cart and put it down on the third shelf again. Then she picked up the books on mineralogy both for the Far East and the distribution of quartz and agate, globally and went to the placemarks put in by that other researcher. In the former there were placemarks that led her to the jade trade and its ancient roots in China. It was a bare mention of the western trade predating the Yellow Emperor but that was now beginning to fit with what other sources said.

The book on agates also pointed to this same trade and the value of water agates, that had inclusions or were carved by water as being of high value in ancient China. Then it was back to the cart and to quickly flip to the bookmarked pages of the Ssuma Chi'en which took her directly to the trade of jade and agate under the Yellow Emperor, as well as copper and bronze work. She took a moment to go back to the Far East mineralogy book and traced the trade routes mentioned, which went along the southern boundaries of the Tian Shan mountains and then to the Pamir Mountains in the west near where the southern Kunlun Mountains intersected them. In the center between those mountain ranges was the Taklamakan Desert.

The map in the book on mineralogy was sparse so she got up and went over to a bookcase of atlases and took out a moderate sized one of recent vintage that was easy to tote back to the table. She was flipping through the pages of Asia when she got to a decent map of western China that had both English and native Chinese under it, plus one other language which might be Arabic. That area of China was hard to miss and the page prior to that showed the Silk Road going north along the bottom part of the Tian Shan and south along the northern border of the Kunlun. That map also had a mountain marked just south of the pass called Goddess Peak, which was near enough to overlook the region of the pass. She decided that the older map showing the historical routes was actually more of what she wanted than the modern one and stuck to that map.

"Taklamakan Desert," she said very quietly to herself. That wasn't Chinese although it had direct analogs in the language and she looked at the translation on the map to examine what it contained. She tried to puzzled out the words and finally got up to get a Chinese-English dictionary to look up the parts of the word as each character had distinct meanings. That, of course, meant variations on what the character could mean, and it was either denoted as a transliteration, which was right there in the Chinese, but which symbol was used could mean much more than simple 'this is how it sounds'. She started simply to parse the word for Taklamakan Desert out and flipped open her notebook to write it down.

ta or taap - tower, spire, tall building

ke or hak - gram/overcome/transliteration

la or laai - pull,drag/seize,hold/lengthen

ma - agate/cornelian

gan or gon - oppose, offend/invade/dried

sha or sa - sand,gravel,pebbles/granulated

mo or mok - desert/aloof,indifferent,cool

Again with agate, which was standing in for the western name of 'quartz' but which had the additional meaning of a red mineral, cornelian. Yes it was the same pronunciation but... the symbols were telling more than just a high place called the long, dry, dusty, cold desert. Which, from the description of it next to an inset on the atlas fit it very well. Another that was at least semi-reasonable was the agate spire that had been overcome and seized by its enemy to form the sandy cold desert.

With the maps from the Far East mineralogy book open, the atlas of western China and central Asia open and the book about agates open she felt as if she was some antiquarian stuck in a dark room going over ancient tomes. The brightness inside the library belied that, as did the soft sounds of the other people at the library moving and talking softly with each other and staff. She was just another person interested in the knowledge contained in this place. After looking up and nodding she looked down at the open sources and pressed her lips together. She moved the mineralogy map and atlas close to each other and then opened up her left hand and placed it between them, palm up.

Known agate and jade deposits were her fingertips in the Tian Shan and into Mongolia, her thumb ran along from the Kunlun into the Pamir mountains and the base of her hand was along the Kunlun mountains. The Taklamakan Desert would be the depression that was the palm of her hand. A hand of agate and jade, with trade routes along the lines in her palm and her thumb tip at Goddess Peak.

She shivered as this was, at once, too obvious and yet too obscure. How could this be known centuries ago? Milennia ago? Yes it was not an exact match and that worried her even more as it was close enough to hint at something, and yet just different enough to feel strange. Who were these people who knew of this Agate Hand?

Quickly she drew outlines from the maps in a new page on her notebook with her tracing over it to get the outlines she wanted. Then she did her best to overlay the known and ancient mines, trade routes and then peoples, one per page so she could flip them over the traced page. These people known as Bai or in the Ssuma Chi'en as Yuezhi, they were in this other land just into and beyond China. She sketched in the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers and realized that lines on her hand from the edge of palm would represent rivers going to the coastline of China. She noted the sources, pages, and then her quick interpretations of them. Geography, she felt, was speaking to her across time and it was open to any who would examine it and few ever did. Only with the last of the hasty notes done did she start to close the books and realized that she still did not have the story.

Going back to the cart she put the books neatly on it and looked again at the last shelf of books, not understanding what the Babylonian books were doing there and looking at the last books she saw The Holy Bible in a black cover and in a glossy dust jacket was on a thin book Queen Mother's Quest, Walker, Tina, Golden Guild Press, 1983. That last was not a reference book but in the area of speculative mysticism which made it a very odd book to round out the histories, reference books, mythology and religious books that were on the rest of the cart. And yet it had a number of the simple bookmarks in it, mostly at the back of the book with just two in the main part of it. She thumbed through it and saw that it was about the Queen of Sheba after ensuring that her son was safely on the throne of Axum and that her youngest children were well enough on in years for the care of the royal household.

Letting pages flip by she saw a number of maps in the book with cities noted and a speculative journey of the Queen of Sheba to the East plotted along the Arabian and Persian coast all the way to what would be modern Pakistan and then north to the Silk Road. The author had a narrative she was telling, but after seeing how the atlas and the mineralogy maps had played so important a role she went more by the map places and the simple notes on the maps. It was the first bookmark with the crossing of the territory to the west of the Pamirs called Bactria. She paused and read from that:

Her journey had led her to lands not even spoken of as legend in her time. The few stories transcribed from Afghan tribal bards and poets talk of a dark skinned woman from the West who was wise and regal and was yet fierce and cutting who could have walked without her bodyguard anywhere and never be molested. Unfortunately with the occupation of Afghanistan the more direct records are not available to go through. What is known is that ancient Axum had contact with the people known as the Kushans who lived in Bactria or identified in Chinese records as the Yuezhi who lived in Daxia, also known as the Scythians in later Greek eras. The only record of her passage through the Pamir or Kunlun pass near the site of Goddess Mountain, is that of the little known traveler and antiquarian Chester Rhinold working with the older historian Lawrence Graeber which tell of her meeting with the three creatures living at the base of the Red Agate or cornelian stone spire in the Pamir uplands. Unfortunately their findings remain unpublished and are only available as historical research documents. The stories are uncorroborated from later sources as the last Yuezhi families of direct lineage vanished just before or during the time Mao. The stories may serve as an indication that the Queen of the West had passed that way once before returning to reside near there later.

Lisa was jotting notes down as this was absolutely stunning information, even if semi-apocryphal it was starting to fit a pattern. What that pattern was, however, she couldn't even guess at. The actual identification that there was a source for these stories that was documented, no matter how poorly, lent hope to her search. Master Sun was talking of something that was deeply rooted in Chinese culture, going back far into its history, and while not at the dawn of it this was yet another indication that there was vital contact from the western part of China or central Asia proper and it served as a conduit for culture, for stories and for trade. She went back to the end notes for that section and looked for the Rhinold and Graeber works.

Lawrence Graeber's works and collections were indicated to be in New York City which was just a few hours from Gotham which might be close enough to work with, if she hurried and grabbed a lunch from a vendor or shop in New York, itself. The other collection, of Chester Rhinold was cited as being in the Rare Books and Manuscripts section of the GCPL. Gotham Central Public Library.

She had just caught a break!

And she never once thought as to how it was that Gotham City would become a place for such events due to history and circumstance.

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