"... and I left correspondence addressed to you on your desk," a woman's voice could be heard as the office door opened and a woman stepped in looking back.
"Thank you, Amy! It was a longer than expected trip and I hope you were able to keep all the records straight."
"Of course I did," the woman's voice in the hall said, "and cleaned the litter boxes for Chelsea and Conrad, beyond fixing them their meals and even getting the vet in to give them both the once-over."
An sleek orange tabby cat slipped through the door and next to the woman's legs leaving scant fur on her pantsuit before heading for the desk to jump up to it. The woman smiled looking down and then up again into the hallway.
"You are a gem, Amy. I'll see what I can do about lunch now that I'm back. And you deserve more than the day or two of vacation you've had since May."
"A week out west with the family is more than enough, although Christmas is coming just around the turkey corner!"
"Either or both, Amy! Now let me get settled in with Chelsea and get caught up on things," she glanced at the desk where Chelsea had decided that a stack of green books was the perfect perch for her, "although the ledger may have to wait until afternoon..."
"Take your time," Amy said from the hall, "its just good to have you back home."
"It's good to be home. See you later."
The woman in the black pantsuit with white blouse and black high heels padded her way from the door and stopped behind her desk to bend over and pat the cat.
"Did you miss me, Chelly?"
The cat pressed her head against the woman's hand and purred in response. A thin black collar with a gold tag on it sparkled as the woman turned on the desk light and sat down in her leather chair. She stroked the cat's head with her left hand and leafed through the letters on her desk with her right. Most was normal correspondence to her fences, dealers and other members of the various trades she used to do her normal business. Holiday greeting cards, birthday greetings, and similar were obvious by the form of the envelope and quickly sorted out. In the process Chelsea had decided she had enough of patting and stepped from the green ledger books, across the mail, and to the other side of the desk where she gauged the distance to the window ledge and took a jump to land there and look out over the city from the top floor of the mid-rise building. The woman shifted the ledgers further to the side and saw one envelope that had gotten stuck under them. She picked it up and saw that it was not of normal heavy bond pure white paper but of off-white onionskin. It was addressed on the front simply as 'Eyes Only'.
She raised an eyebrow and reached back with her left hand to pull her black hair out and let it go over the back of the chair as she leaned the chair back to hold the letter up towards the overhead light. A dark spot shone through and as she turned it over she saw what she thought was a simple wax seal, but knew it was something more than wax as the enveloped bowed slightly from its weight. Leaning forward in the chair she set the envelope down on the blotter paper on her desk and looked at it. A simple letter 'G' in gothic script was embossed onto a golden circle. A sparkle caught her eye and she saw something glinting from the center of the 'G' and leaned closely down to see what it was. At first she though it was simply something caught in the melt, but as she turned it under her desk lamp it started to give flashes of light that told her of what it was.
"Diamond," she whispered, "and that isn't gold leaf on wax. That is gold. Just a bit of glue at the edges of the seal. Now who could have sent this?"
There were no postage stamps on it, no other marks of any kind, and that it was on her desk meant that it had gotten the OK from Amy. Reaching over she pressed the intercom button.
"I'm here," came Amy's voice on the intercom.
"I've got a letter here that says 'Eyes Only' on it. Where did that come from?"
"Oh! That came from Nevis Williams, he hand delivered it as a go-between for someone else. Said it was a business proposition or a job or something, referred to him by one of his clients."
"Huh. Nevvy doesn't usually do that sort of thing..." she had met Nevis Williams some years before when she was first working her trade and he was one of the oldest fences she had and the first that could offer her more than a dime on the dollar of value. He ran an upstanding import/export business in Boston and once you got past the accent he was really a good man. Still he was pushing 60 and it was out of the ordinary for him to come around to drop off a letter as his business trips usually were direct affairs. Still he had a merchandising shop in New York, so it wasn't that far out of his way.
"... but he does run a business. Thanks, Amy."
"Glad to help."
She let the intercom turn off and took out her letter opener, made of sterling silver save for the razor sharp piece of steel embedded along its long edges. As she sliced through the top of the envelope she felt a shiver go through her. Her grip had changed from the delicate letter opening grip to one where the opener became a knife and Chelsea looked at her from the window giving an exhale that held no hint of a purr and yet none of a hiss, either. She glanced at the cat who was looking at the envelope and then back at it.
"Catnip?" she whispered and shook her head as she set the letter opener down next to the desk blotter.
She carefully pulled out the contents of the letter, a mere two sheets of paper, written by hand in a neat, flowing style of an older ink pen that required actual penmanship. It was a simple request to meet her at the Historical Museum's Explorer Room at the new exhibit to talk about retrieving something that had been stolen and was now at a club or with the owner of the club and to bring the letter with her. Missing from the letter was a date it was written, an address of the writer, the name of the writer and the only thing that identified where it came from was the simple block printed lettering at the top.
Dr. Gotham's Curiosity Shop.
"Dr. Gotham?" she whispered to herself, "Who the hell is Dr. Gotham?"
Chelsea blinked and then looked out the window which faced east. She was looking at that area of Gotham City near the Interconnector Bridge on the south side of the Islands. The area known as The Shambles, the place where renovation hadn't taken place when the Interconnector was put in during the mid-70's as no one remembered to place it on the full demolition list or on the eminent domain payment list. What minimal property value there was in that once rough part of town, plummeted to zero and most left. Gangs had try to set up there but they found the domains to be inhospitable and was one of the first places to feel the brunt of one man's will. Chelsea could see things human's couldn't and if any knew how to ask her, she could have pointed out where Dr. Gotham was. Although nothing of this world would ever get her to go there.
"Go where? What? Huh?" Maurice said as his feet came down off of his desk and he placed the daily racing paper aside on his desk as his boss came in the door.
"Oh, tomorrow is soon enough, I guess. It's not like I have a date certain, but I'll only show up the one time," she said, looking at Maurice.
"Could you run that all by me again, Selina? You went through it kinda fast there."
She sighed as she looked at Maurice who, while in normal business attire, did look out of place. He could and did make the best of tuxedos look shabby, even those from Cobblepot's main stable of tailors.
"I'll need you to take me to the Gotham Historical Museum tomorrow... afternoon should be fine. I'm supposed to meet someone...ahhh... a 'Doctor Gotham' there, but he didn't give any real details as to when."
"Huh? Sure I can get you there! Got the Mercedes out of storage and should be checked-over by tomorrow morning. But, well, if you don't know the time you might miss him, you know? Hate to have you lose a job because you were late or something."
"Maurice that is his problem, OK? Now, I will be going out tonight to get caught up on things and I suggest you contact some of your 'friends' and do the same. No business tonight, just catch-up time. I want to find out what this is all about before we get there. And if he isn't there, I want to know where I can find this 'Doctor Gotham', at least."
"Sure thing, Selina! I'll do the rounds before closing time, maybe see what Harry or Luigi know, then Frank down at the financial district. Gotta be home by six, though, dinner out with the wife and kids."
She pressed her lips together and gave a curt nod.
"Thanks, Maurice, it is short notice being back one day and I still have jet lag, so it will be a short night for me. Still anything you can get will help."
"Nothing to it. That's why I'm here. And if it is someone OK by Nevis, well, it should be on the up-and-up."
"That is to be hoped, Maurice. Now I have a late lunch date with Conrad and Chelsea, and then making sure I'm ready for the tonight's prowl."
Maurice was standing up and getting his suit coat from the back of the chair.
"And I'm off to check our contacts along the wharf. Never know, might be some action there."
Selina went through the front door of the Workout Warehouse, a place that catered to just about every sport from wrestling to gymnastics, having a variety of machines, pads, rings, ropes and a ceiling three floors up that allowed for even some aerial acrobatics. Normally the gymnasts and others used the lower arrangement on the second level at the front of the building, and the rear section gained only a few afficianados of more obscure activities like rock climbing, rapelling and served as the center that attracted reserve and off-duty military personnel. With the 10th Artillery deployed overseas, the rear section had been empty for months, with only the rare individual looking to try out some new gymnastic routines or practice the climbing sports showing up. She had changed into a spare workout outfit and walked up to the third level to begin her workout from the top-down and then would work hard to go from the bottom-up. There was enough padding to give some sense of security, but it was possible to get seriously injured or even killed and everyone who wanted to use the back section signed an indemnity waiver. You were either very skilled or a fool to want to work out back there, and the fools never returned.
She had on a skin tight leotard with a blackened leather safety belt that had clips, carabiners and short high test cordage, lightweight high traction shoes and gloves that could be tightened until she could see her pulse under the material at her wrist. With her hair kept up and in place she took a survey of the poorly lit upper section, saw the various ropes and strapping as well as gymnastic ring sets kept up and out of the way, plus the wall along the right that had multiple push holes for pitons in it. In the late fall weather the upper areas were cool and decidedly humid, which described a good part of Gotham City at this time of year. Railing along the upper floor was only partial and there were a variety of springboards, platforms and even a pommel horse set up to get out into the ropes and rings beyond the easy to reach ones right next to the deck. She could hear someone else working out about one floor down and to her left and saw ropes moving as a shadow figure went from rope to rope, highlighted by the first floor side and post lighting that made it very bright while the ceiling only held low powered lights at the top of each rope or ring set. Those were the easy ropes and rings to find. Those with burnt out bulbs were more of a challenge.
Mentally she had decided on the route to go when at mid-level a *thump* could be heard and a punching bag was pulled up by its motor to stop its swinging in mid-air. It was possible to set up a general challenge level for the rear section of the Warehouse by lowering old punching bags that had swing activated switches on them. She had done that a few times after some of the military people had used the place and it was a fun addition, but meant you really had to keep mentally aware of everything around you in mid-air, since a light at the ceiling didn't mean you had uninterrupted access to the rope or rings under it. These old punching bags had been purchased some years ago from other gyms or sports facilities that were excessing their worn stock. She had been here when the military people put the scrounged motor system in and wired it up to a central board next to the main rope and ring board. She hadn't bothered to see what the status of either board was, since she preferred to adapt, and today that meant adapting to what someone else wanted as a workout.
Stepping up to the edge she looked down at two figures just into the room at the main level. One was an older man, she was certain and the other a younger woman who might be his daughter.
"Good hit, Tom!" she yelled out, "Be careful!"
She nodded as spotters were very nice to have since it meant that injuries could be addressed quickly. She had learned to do without since the waiver meant that you were on your own. Stepping back to the wall, she rubbed her hands on a chalk stand, clapped them together and sprinted out to the platform and jumped out to a rope a good ten feet out and grabbed onto it, swinging on to a set of rings, and then swinging up a few feet to the next rope.
Thump and the reeling in and steadying of a bag could be heard going up right next to her.
"I will move to the south side," a man's voice could be heard from a few feet away and down, a rope swinging towards the non-climbing wall of the building.
"I'll adjust, don't worry about me," she said with only a light gasp as she moved from rope to rope, heading in a zig-zag to the far end of the room. She saw where some bags were and avoided most, although near the end she used one below her to jump to it and swing to a set of rings as the bag was pulled up. She had just avoided the I-bearm where the motor was mounted but got to the rings and did a sommersault from them to the last rope on the far side of the room and used that to swing to a third floor platform. There she turned to watch the ropes and then made out the figure that was swinging and hitting punching bags as he easily went from rope to rings and even used bags as a means to deflect himself in mid-air. Still he was difficult to make out as were his friends on the ground and anyone who could do these things were of general interest to her in her line of work. With that decided she put herself into motion diving out for a set of rings which she used to change her direction as she headed slowly lower, making her way in the wake of the man below her.
He was difficult to make out and while the motion of ropes was obvious looking down, she knew that his exact location was only something she could generalize. Dodging bags suddenly rising and barely able to grasp a wildly swinging rope she decided that, for a workout, this was getting just a bit too intense. After having worked her way to the north end of the room she used her legs to absorb the impact of her swing and moved back towards the better lit entrance area. She saw one of the support cables for a punching bag and tried to give it clearance as she jumped from one rope to another. Just as she jumped the bag was hit and its rapid ascent put it directly in her path. Fast reflexes saved a head-on collision with it and she instinctively tucked the front of her body so her back could take the impact. Hitting the bag like that stopped her forward motion and sent her tumbling, flailing to grab onto the bag, which moved under her fingertips too quickly to grasp and then thin air. As she fell she heard another *thump* below her and to one side and she glimpsed a black figure moving towards her from below. She twisted to slow her spin, arms and legs flung out and then pulled in to try and counter the backwards spin, but to little avail.
She knew the man was going to intercept her and doubted that he could do very much unless he meant to cushion her fall. Fingers encircled her ankle and she felt herself not tugged but yanked to the side, her spin stopped although she was now upside-down.
"Grab the rope," the man said in a loud, deep voice, and she barely had time to see the rope flashing towards her, which she expertly grasped as he let go as he started to fall downwards. Arching her back her feet came around and she let her legs slide around the rope as she slid down it, looking up to see the man running into another punching bag, and pushing off of it to a nearby rope. He then let himself down, using his clothing, light boots and gloves to absorb much of the heat generated by the friction of the rope.
"Oh my god!" she heard the woman yell and the sound of her feet, "Are you OK?"
Selina watched the redheaded young woman running towards her followed by the man who jogged a bit more slowly. As her feet touched down she released the rope and watched them, the woman looking at the man descending from above and the man looking at her.
"I'm fine, thanks, just startled," Selina said, and watched the woman stop and level her gaze at her.
"Wow! I thought we had the Warehouse to ourselves this time of day," she said, "it's not really safe to do this, but... our friend Tom wants to see just how much more therapy he has to go through."
Selina blinked as she looked at the woman, caught by surprise.
"Therapy?" she asked softly and looked over as she heard the man's feet land on the matting.
The other man had come up next to the woman and nodded.
"Yeah. My friend, Tom, had been caught in an industrial accident at the mill. Cable snapped, wrapped around him, broke his hips, leg and fractured some discs they had to fuse and did a bad job on his shoulderblade. He's been under the knife for reconstructive surgery, grafts, and now PT. My name's Frank, by the way, Frank Rock. And this is Vivian Rose. I'm glad you didn't come to any harm, Miss."
"Selina Kyle," she said extending her hand to Frank and shaking his, and then Vivian's, "And your friend... Tom?"
"Yes," Tom said as he approached them. She saw that he did favor his right side in many ways and that it was apparent he had lost some mobility and muscle mass on that side, as well. He also had an eye patch on his right eye which startled her.
"Tom Octurian," Frank said, "this is Selina Kyle."
"I'm pleased to meet you," Tom said extending his hand after removing his glove. She hadn't removed hers and quickly did so, and felt his firm grip as they shook hands.
"And me to meet you, Tom. I'm sorry that I got in the way... I had mis-timed when you were going to hit the bag."
"I couldn't see you in the direction I was traveling and realized my mistake only after I had hit the bag to change direction. You would be seriously injured unable to right yourself from that height."
The last bag hit had just come back to its starting point after having its swing dampened after being pulled up. With a *click* it locked into place above them.
She nodded and shrugged.
"It's happened before," she said with a smile and only got a slight nod from Tom.
"It has?" Vivian asked.
Vivian turned as Frank stepped by her to give a towel to Tom who used it to mop off his face.
"Oh, yes! I was here a few years ago when some of the military people in the 10th Artillery and some of the retired Marines put it in. If you ever get ten people out there each with their own objectives and you want to just work out, you have to be really careful. I learned that the first time and give them a wide berth after that. Still when they do a couple of people at a time its relatively safe."
"Safe being a relative term," Frank said, looking to Selina.
Vivian handed Tom a bottle of water which he started to drink down in long gulps, the two quart water bottle quickly losing a third of its contents as he drank.
"Very true! Still its a great workout and you burn off nervous energy and the pounds doing it. The danger is just a bit of thrill added in for flavor and short hospital stays."
Vivian laughed at that.
"Do anything, and I mean anything, to stay out of the hospital," she said with a smile, "you never know who you will get to work on you and if they know what to actually do."
"It is unavoidable," Tom said looking at Vivian and then Selina, "and much of what needs to be done is new to those involved."
Selina looked at him and saw his impassive countenance, his stance that was just standing not in readiness to do anything and not fidgeting, either. Stepping slightly to the side she looked at Frank who was a contrast to Tom by being older and shifting his stance minimally as she looked at him. She knew base and primal attraction, of course, hard not to when you had a body like hers, but she had more than enough encounters and fights to let her know when someone was about to attack her. Rock had some of the latter and judged him to be a war veteran who had left enough of himself in war to make that a constant part of him. There was attraction, too, but it was relatively minor and kept to the side, not interfering with how he looked at her or at anyone. She looked back past Vivian and then at Tom again.
"Frank said you had been in an accident, and it sounds like it was a pretty bad one."
"Yes," Tom said, "it was an unexpected encounter with metals moving at high velocity with a number of pieces piercing me and incapacitating me. My skeleton will never regain its full integrity. I am able to support my weight with my leg and hips and now work on mobility."
Selina pursed her lips and looked up into the rigging that went to the ceiling and thought for a moment.
"If what I saw is what you can do recovering from an injury," she said softly as she looked down to Tom and pursed her lips, "then you must have been something of an athelete before it."
"He was," Vivian answered looking at Frank, "quite something to see."
Frank smirked as he looked at Vivian, nodding, and then at Selina.
"Well... Miss is it?"
"Miss Kyle, our extended break is over and I have to see about the weather conditions so I'll know if Tom and I will be sleeping in town or getting back to the homestead on the Isle."
"What?" Selina asked looking puzzled, "Drive over, you mean? It's a bit of a drive during rush hour, of course... hasn't the ferry stopped for the season?"
"Yes it has, Miss Kyle," Frank said, "but we didn't drive. We came by boat. I'll have to shelter it this weekend, but should be able to get back and forth at least once more before Thanksgiving."
Long Island Sound, for all the fact that it was relatively shelted by the Island and only felt the worst of the east-west winds, was by no means a place for the casual boater in late fall and only large ships would be able to navigate it in winter. Even speed didn't help with heavy chop for a pleasure boat and that Frank Rock would even think about a trip at this time of the year spoke volumes about him.
"You should really get it sheltered before the weekend, Frank," Vivian said, "I can fly you back home tomorrow and if you need a ride I can usually get one since I've been stationed back here."
Selina's stare now shifted from Frank Rock to Vivian Rose as she looked at the woman in the white shirt and black leather jacket, with black pants and what looked like leather driving shoes. There was a slight bulge under her jacket that told Selina that Vivian was armed and then remembered that Frank Rock had a strap going across his shirt and under his khaki jacket that also told Selina that he was armed. This wasn't alarming to Selina, but was something else that was odd about these people and she was coming up with no real solution as to who they really were.
"Fly? You're a pilot?" Selina finally got out trying to make sense of what should be the least assuming of the people here, this Vivian Rose.
Vivian looked at her and nodded.
"Been a pilot since I could first get my real license for solo flight. Just soaring, but at 12 I took what I could get."
"And you own a plane?"
"No, but I can get my hands on a nice selection if something needs to be taken out on the spur of the moment. Probably just haul out the old '3 if it's just me, Frank, Tom and whatever they don't have as luggage. Don't need a jet for just over the Sound. Or just use the Old Beast if Frank doesn't mind leg cramps in the back seat. No-how will any cop be able to get us for a ticket, that's for sure. I could always get a Town Car from the livery pool, but those things are boats on wheels and drive like them, too."
Tom walked up to Vivian and as she saw his wet towel, she handed him a dry one.
"I will shower off, now. It was good to meet you Miss Kyle. You are extremely skilled and it was interesting to watch you at work."
There was a smell on Tom, a salty smell and somewhat acrid, but not musky. Almost metallic if she had to place a finger on it.
"Thanks! I'm not much of a... performer, really."
Tom nodded once.
"Understood. I am sorry to have interrupted your workout. Good day."
He held out his hand and she instinctively reached out to shake it.
"You have a good day, too," she said with a smile trying to read his face and body language as he looked at her then released her hand and started out towards the Men's dressing area. She saw his limp and that his back was stiff in many areas under the shirt that he wore. She couldn't imagine just how bad an accident had to be to do that to a man.
"I'll go help," Frank said, "a pleasure Miss Kyle."
"All mine, Mr. Rock, thank you."
The older man used a somewhat longer stride, and ate up distance to catch up with the younger man. Frank handed a water bottle over to Tom as they got to the main part of the building and went through the Men's dressing area entrance. Selina watched them and Frank waved as they turned the corner and Vivian waved back, standing next to Selina.
"Those are two interesting men," Selina said in a low voice before she turned to look at Vivian.
"Yes... they are," Vivian said.
"Know them long?"
"Only since May. Met up with Frank at work, he's a friend of the boss, and had to take him on a road trip to get a car."
"Your Old Beast, I take it?"
"Naw, a Trans-Am, Anniversary Edition. In KC. Drove straight back, didn't even sleep along the way."
Selina raised an eyebrow.
"Hey, it was all business. My job was to drive and I did that, straight. Had a sore butt for a few days because of it. Frank catnapped in the passenger seat."
Selina chuckled as she looked at Vivian who was obviously remembering that drive.
"He looks like a veteran, Frank does."
"Uh-huh, he was. Landed in Algeria and went all the way to Berlin."
"Oh! Quite a career, then!"
Vivian nodded, "He wrote a book about it, his late wife edited it and he donates money to the VFW, wounded veterans funds and memorial funds. Won't keep a dime for himself."
"That's... I've met men like that, very admirable. What's the name of the book?"
"Easy In, Easy Out and the Hard Parts In-Between," Vivian said.
That brought Selina up hard as she had actually read that book.
"Sergeant Rock?" she asked softly as she turned to look back in the direction of the Men's dressing area.
"That's the one! Glad you didn't make the connection, since I've gotten tired of hearing him say 'Yes, that's me,' somewhere along the line. He would thank you for buying the book, too, and point out that it is the list of men in the back who matter, not him."
Selina had heard, just during high school, about how some company wanted to make a movie of his book and asked for film rights. Even flew Sgt. Rock out to Hollywood. He had, reportedly, pulled a gun on the company President and asked if he would like to find out what 'Over my dead body' actually meant. Sgt. Rock had a very low opinion of Hollywood, movies, and screen writers, apparently, and it was only at the urging of his late wife that he went to meet them and say 'No' in person. No one bothered him about the material after that.
She turned back to look at Vivian, "I really hadn't made the connection..."
Vivian chuckled as she looked at Selina.
"So, if you don't mind, I gotta ask. What's a nice girl like you doing down here at the Warehouse? You sure don't look like a boxer or mountain climber."
Selina raised her eyebrows and nodded.
"I'm in the fine art and jewelry procurement, consignment and sales business, doing mostly overseas work. I do a bit of mountain climbing in Switzerland and West Germany, Austria, and Italy, but that is mostly when I can't find a better place to get a workout. I meet all types in my line of work and its best to be prepared to get out of... ahhh... tight situations."
"Yeah, I bet," Vivian answered raising an eyebrow.
"I could ask you the same, you know?"
"Who, me?" Vivian asked with a show of surprise.
"Yes. You really don't fit being a... pilot, is it?"
"Uh-huh. Pilot, chaufer, driving friends around to odd places... but then no one has ever called me a nice girl, either. At least, not to my face."
"Not to you...." Selina had to press her lips together to stop laughing, "... but you're so..."
"Ever rumbled through front streets and back alleys around here doing over 100?" Vivian asked.
That caught Selina up short because to look at her, Vivian Rose didn't seem like a woman who could do such a thing. Then she remembered the quip about avoiding speed traps and had to revise her own estimation of Vivian to account for the straight face of the two men as she said it. Plus whatever the pistol was she had under that jacket. Selina had not joked when she said she had met up with all sorts, but this pretty redhead with the driving shoes, pistol and friend of Sgt. Rock started to finally get it through to Selina that Vivian was far more than a pretty face and good looking body, but a woman that was relatively rare in her life. This was not some European high-society woman who would cower in fear at the slightest threat, nor an American businesswoman who would at least put up a protest and a struggle. No, she suspected that anyone who threatened Vivian Rose just might find that they had threatened the wrong person and would pay a price for it.
"No, I can't say that I have, Miss Rose."
"Vivian or Viv, and I even answer to 'hey you, get off my lawn'," Vivian said.
Selina chuckled as they started walking towards the entrance area together.
"Well, if you ever need to get a job as a chauffer, give me a ring, OK? I might even be able to swing a jet of my own if my business is steady."
Vivian shook her head with a smile.
"Thanks, but I couldn't ask for a better job over at Wayne Aerospace. Small outfit in a big company and do duty in the livery service, too. We're expanding, just doing it in fits and starts."
"Ahhhh..." Selina said knowingly, "...I see. I suppose the job does have certain perks to it."
"You got that right! I might not be able to fly the latest and greatest the USAF or Corps. uses, but Mr. Wayne has a collection of aircraft that can't be beat. Some museum pieces, a lot of prototypes and some we actually do produce in small numbers for the military and police. Plus the space part of aerospace. Wouldn't trade that for the world, believe me, I had dreams of being a jet jockey growing up but this is way better without the 'yes, sir' overhead."
As they reached the doors for the front, normal workout area of the Warehouse, Selina hit the opener for them.
"I'm going to finish my workout here," she said, "It's been nice meeting you, Vivian. Give my regards to Sgt. Rock and Mr. Octurian," she reached to her belt to take out a slim case and popped it open, taking out three business cards and handing them to Vivian. Vivian took the cards and shook Selina's hand.
"Will do, Selina! It was nice meeting you and sorry for interrupting your workout."
"Think nothing of it, as I got to meet you and the others. A pleasant break in the day."
Vivian stowed the cards in an internal pocket of her jacket and walked out the doors, waving.
"See ya, Selina."
"Take care, Vivian."
As the doors closed and Selina returned the case to her belt she started thinking about those people, a truly odd group that seemed to work well together. None of them were like anyone else she had met in her line of business and she had to go back some years to less pleasant memories of growing up the lower South Island of Gotham to even come close. That had once been a middle-class neighborhood and only the southern hills still kept some of that supposed charm. Even after leaving Gotham to get a real education, she found she couldn't stay away from it. No matter where she traveled, this was home.
She took a running start to a springboard to jump on a punching bag that rose quickly towards the rafters. Just before it got there she jumped over to some ropes and worked her way back towards the lower level and the women's dressing area corridor. She hadn't even broken a real sweat and all she needed was to do a quick change and keep her hair back, then get out to her car via the side entrance. Her choice of cars was limited by preference more than budget, and she never used a decent car when she was out incognito in Gotham during the daytime. The Wildcat with its sleek black hood and chrome grill was her first car she was able to afford in her new career and she made sure it was well maintained. In the gloomy and overcast day she got in her car and turned it on, not with a roar, but a purring whisper and waited for the engine to warm up a bit as the weather was turning colder. She needed a drive more than a workout and if rain was coming tonight, which seemed to be the case, then a bit of a distance prowl on the streets would help calm her nerves.
"If I can't hit the rooftops, I'll prowl the streets," she said to herself as she checked her slim duffel bag out for her dark glasses.
As she waited, warming her hands by the vents, she saw that the three she had met were coming out of the Warehouse and heading over to a Camaro that may have only the second ugliest green paint job that she had ever seen. It wasn't a rust bucket, but that shade of green belonged more in the backroads and boondocks than on any city street.
"Of course it actually fits in rather well in Gotham," she mused as she watched the others get into the car, with Vivian in the driver's seat and Sgt. Rock in the front passenger's seat. The idling from her car was overwhelmed from the start-up of the Camaro that left no doubt about it having something a bit more than stock under the hood. Selina ducked down to check her glove compartment, took out a roll of mints and popped two into her mouth. She had drank her water bottle empty while changing and now just needed a clean feeling in her mouth that the advertisers promised you could only get with their mints.
As she got up from that minor task she put her car in gear and slid out of her parking spot and headed to Baron Street which was one-way, at least for this portion of it. She went left and had the street mostly to herself and saw just a block ahead of her was the green Camaro, now settled down to a dull rumble as it stopped and goed past the numbered cross-streets.
"Now that's odd... private docks are usually up the Gotham River... the Interconnector is the fastest way to go up and around. Better than going to 23rd and the Hotel District and then up the ridge road... and the next on-ramp for the Interconnector is up at 17th... so why not take the 5th?"
She said smiling as that had become a slang in Gotham about the best way to get out of town if someone was following you. Take the 5th and head west on the last part of the Interconnector and then along its curve over 4th and 3rd and the final smoothed curve onto 2nd and then gun it to the 2nd Street Bridge and out of Gotham. They weren't taking the 5th and neither was she as her apartment was in mid-town, off of 10th where she would change into something a bit more useful for the night. At 10th Street she turned left and gave a last glance to that odd trio as the gently rolling low hills of Southwest Gotham took them from view under the empty tree branches by the old warehouse district. She drove up over the rise, past Carmichael then through the old neighborhoods near where she grew up. At Independence Drive she took a right and then another right and into the garage parking for her apartment complex, having to reach out and slip her service card into the box on a stalk just before the garage door. With that done the garage door rumbled up and she went in to find one of the four spots for her apartment. As she passed the door it rumbled down and the sparse overhead lighting gave her a sense of security as she turned off the engine and left the car, locking it. Next to it was the Jaguar she had restored at the beginning of her career, and Maurice made sure it was kept in running form.
Perhaps it would be time to visit a few clubs tonight, where that car would be more appropriate for a night prowl. So was the beat up old Bobcat next to it, although that had been modified with a bigger engine and some extra compartments for equipment, it kept the look of patches, mismatched door and hood colors and the general air of having seen better days. A target for theft it wasn't and that was all she really asked of the car, beyond its minimal performance package under the hood and reinforcements of the frame body. When she was on the job that was her preferred vehicle, but she had a feeling that tonight she had to catch up on all things Gotham. The necessary working vacation overseas was necessary for tax purposes, income and finding a few nice things she could bring back to sell in the U.S. Really, how much could change in just six months, after all?
"... and the long-range forecast for the Northeastern United States is changing because of these low pressure systems up in northern Canada. As you know the jet stream dropped down the last few days which has brought cooler air with it, dropping to freezing as far south as Ohio. One storm system has already delivered sleet and hail to Western Pennsylvania and New York and that is now headed east. Along the East Coast rain and freezing rain can be expected from Jersey City to Boston and all of Long Island..."
The sound on the television was muted by the man in the chair who had a folder open on the sofa next to him and sheet from it in his other hand. Placing the remote control down he picked up a cup of hot coffee from the table next to the sofa. He got up with the coffee and continued reading the paper and nodded as he walked into the kitchen area. At the sink was the butler who was placing dried dishes away into the cupboards with a soft clatter of fine china.
"May I get you something, Master Bruce?" the butler asked.
Bruce Wayne was in his daily business attire and had no immediate appointments or schedule for the late Thursday a week before Thanksgiving. He looked at Alfred and shook his head, going to the kitchen table and pulling out a chair to sit down.
"Not really, Alfred... this report from Kyle, Tom and the rest of the Group is interesting and disturbing. You've read it?"
Alfred nodded as he closed the door for the cupboard with china and started examining the glassware and took out a small towel to clean off water marks before putting each piece away.
"Yes I have, Master Bruce, and because it isn't that technical in nature, it even makes some sense."
Bruce smiled as he put down the last page of the report on the kitchen table.
"No worries about alternate realities, quantum physics or even about the nature of hostile computer code. I can't figure some of that out, myself, even with Don or Anne or Richard stepping me through it a bit at a time. At least this report isn't that sort of thick technical analysis. When even the Executive Summary is a headache, you know you have something convoluted to deal with. I think we will have to let the nature of space-time soft itself out as Wayne Corp. isn't set up to deal with that."
Alfred adjusted his glasses as he brought another wine goblet up to the light and then started polishing it.
"It isn't at that, sir, nor could it be at any reasonable time in the future."
"True and we do need to make money here, and pure R&D of that sort requires billions that we just don't have. Months of those sorts of reports got us nowhere and I'm glad Lucius realized that and refocused activity to something tangible even if it is a bit speculative. There is only limited information to go on, and most of that from Tom."
A glass put away, another picked up and inspected.
"Of course, Master Bruce. Still two sources affirmed on known facts is better than one or none."
"Yes, it is. When those two started listing out the companies they knew about from their time... those pages are a lot of data, but only a few companies overlapping... and then compared them to ours... Alfred, I never expected for a narrowing down of what changed to invalidate their future to show up. I thought we would be in one that only had some vague resemblence to their known past, with much in the way of changes happening on a larger scale. But that isn't the case here."
Alfred nodded and put away the glass and took the last one up from the drying rack.
"It is, perhaps, not something to be that concerned about, Master Bruce, for we are in this time and place, not the other that led to theirs."
Bruce looked at the back of his butler as he put the glass away and then turned to look at the younger man.
"Alfred I... accept... that what they experienced is what happened. What I can't understand is that the changes or at least possible changes, to our time may have begun as early as the 1930's. For this universe... no that isn't accurate... this series of causational time frames... to be the arrival point for them, means that there is uncertainty in the past as well as the future. Just not uncertainty that we can see as our own causational frame set is just that: set. It is just disturbing to think that there are other frame sets where decisions at all levels have changed them so that they could cause such a future to come about."
Alfred raised an eyebrow.
"Indeed, Master Bruce, it is. Our concerns, however, are with the outcomes to our own decisions and coping with them, not in worrying about where other decisions lead to."
Bruce nodded, pressing his lips together and looked at the last page of the report.
"Still, its better to get an idea of just what such a momentus decision is when it happens, even if it is minor in nature. I know we can't track down just who made that decision and how it came out, of course. I had thought that I might be able to get a feel for that decision and the larger events around it, but that is proving fruitless so far."
"Perspective on one's own position is always a healthy endeavor so that one learns from the mistakes and successes of others and does not repeat the former and tries to recreate the latter."
Bruce smiled and took the last page up from the table and folded it, sliding it into his shirt pocket.
"You're right, of course, Alfred. That is why you are dear to me as family."
Alfred raised his eyebrows and gave a hint of a nod.
"And I think that it would be good to have other people around you who are that close to you over the upcoming holiday, Master Bruce. You can deal with the mad rush the day after Thanksgiving on that day and set aside a day to give thanks to those closest to you."
Bruce inhaled deeply, his nostrils flaring.
"Those people deserve a break, Alfred, and recognition for what they did. With their families and extended families. Have we gotten the responses set, yet?"
"Within reason, of course, Master Bruce. There will be those who show up unnanounced and those who were expected who will suffer delays as is true with any holiday. I've set aside the Grand Ballroom at Gotham Place as our venue, and a block of rooms for all the families. Chef Girard will have the final menu drawn up tomorrow and take into consideration the dietary needs of each person as best as he is able. At 6 PM it will be late enough for Father Jordan to attend and he will do that with Father Casull, who will want to spend some time with you after the holiday finalizing their youth training plans utilizing the old Cyberdyne complex and our older metals shop in the eastern hills area."
"You are amazing, Alfred! I know its an imposition on Fr. Casull..."
"He had one, sole, stipulation, Master Bruce."
Bruce raised his eyebrows.
"Really? What was that?"
Alfred tucked the bar wipe towel over his belt and pushed his glasses up on his nose.
"That he fly commercial this time, no special jets and no special pilot."
Bruce chuckled and then laughed.
"And here I thought he appreciated the trip with Vivian..."
"It was a good landing by Vivian's standards," Alfred said as he stepped to a chair on the other side of the table from Bruce and pressed his hands to the back of it and leaned forward.
"And no property damage, either," Bruce said.
"Of course," Alfred inhaled, "I must ask if you have had any more thoughts on the recent events."
Bruce looked at Alfred and then closed his eyes for a moment in thought and tilted his head forward.
"I don't know what to make of it, Alfred," he started opening his eyes and looking at Alfred again, "I cannot dismiss what actually happened, what I saw. To accept it... all of it... I..."
Standing silently Alfred watched the younger man who was gazing at him if not through him at some distant horizon.
"I may not like it... no, in fact I don't like what happened. They hint at a wider framework of understanding that is horrifying. I cannot walk away from what I know is right, and if that means fighting for some order to help it to emerge out of chaos, then I will. I didn't start on this path without cause and that cause continues and will continue, even long after my life is over. That larger context is real. And I do know that it can be fought, can be pushed back, no matter how horrific it is."
They did have a leader who's title would roughly translate to 'that one which is eaten last'. This did not mean that they were cannibalistic, by and large, just that they had a fair grasp of their standing in things and that there was a survival order in place to assure the chance of survival. Not guarantee it, by any means, but just stack the odds a bit in their favor. That was required because they lived in a position that was nowhere near close to the top but a few good rungs up from the bottom.
Their leader had a keen sense of that position and that position was always one that could be improved as the conditions where their people could live was limited. One of the main obstacles to claiming more power was that being which lived nearby that was of different order from what their people preferred. Placing a colony had been an important item for their people with the retreat of the Great Ice and the opening up of places for them. A wonderful place where a reef could grow was something they appreciated and that place was nestled in just the sort of environment where Old Powers were just at their periphery and where they could worship as they were directed to worship. It could have been a much larger place for their people if and only if the being that was closest to them wasn't there. Many generations ago one of their kind had asked the Great Old One if anything could be done about it. The answer was that the Great Old One had such power but that the cost would be all of their people, everywhere, committed to sacrificing themselves in dedication. This was actually a heartening answer, although not for the one doing the asking who found himself at the end of his life with the end of the answer. No it was for everyone else who understood this meant not to bother this Other Being, which is what they were doing already, because it meant that the Great Old One could actually do this but that it wasn't worth the time or effort without the extinguishing of their species.
A circumspect attitude also meant keeping a close eye on that being who it was understood couldn't change its nature or scope of power. For generations this continued, unchanged, and it was expected this is the way it would always be. Until recently.
Items of power, two of them with some affinity to their people, had been near that Other Being which meant that no one could get them save those land dwellers who lived there. Other power was recently unlocked, unleashed and brought forth manifestations that the people had never encountered before due to those items. Rumors of what the items were had been for at least three generations of their people, when they had arrived out of a deep desert from the other side of the world. Now they were there, above the lair of that being that had expended so much energy to end a threat to itself that it had to retreat and rest. He who is last to be eaten was informed by the head priest that the power had subsided and was spending time recovering from its recent expenditures, perhaps even asleep or in hibernation. If there was any time for the people to see if this could be made permanent, then those items that had brought forth an Avatar of something extremely powerful were items to be checked out and, perhaps, removed from the land and taken to the sea. Any such items that could create one Avatar could, surely, do so again. There was also the side light of any Power that could exhaust such a being with even a minor fraction of itself might, just might, be something that would keep even a Great Old One at bay or even in its shadow.
Recovery would not be simple as the people would need to rely on their half-sibs, the Changelings, those individuals with affinity and breeding with the land dwellers who could transform to move from land to sea and back again. These were not true and pure bred people, but ones bred over ages to allow the people to understand these land dwellers and utilize their skills to find a wider understanding of the realms and beings at play. The eldest of them in the colony was one once known as Maria Fulton and she was also the head of the Priests not by power, but by understanding and knowledge. She had bred many times though only getting viable offspring via self-breeding, and it was those blood sisters that were now growing old enough to be within the Priestly groups. The next oldest, and more powerful, was a male of the people who had great understanding but no transformational capability. That meant that Maria Fulton was expendable for a land based journey and to seek out those items on the land that were the conduits for such power as had been manifest.
She could not go alone as she would require protection, and that meant a Changeling with some more modern understanding of the surface world was necessary. John Ward was from an old half-people clan and fifth generation Changeling, and he had fought in a recent conflict of the surface worlders in the recent past, bringing home a treasured idol from the far-off land of 'Nam. This had served the people very well and showed that while he was not as well versed as a Priest in these things, he had an understanding of items of power and Other Being affinity. Being mid-level of his clan, that meant that he could be utilized since he was still young enough to Change easily and still fluent enough in the ways of the surface to navigate their part of the world.
Finally the leader's own son, a three-quarter people Changeling, who he had named Shlasuar, was now of an age to understand who he was and take up duties in the colony. He was an underling to one of the Makers of the people, those people who worked with physical materials and who had worked to save the colony a generation ago when the surface dwellers had launched a sub-surface attack on the people as well as learning some of what the Priests could teach him. It was the Makers that had the knowing of what such craft were, how they could work and also carried the ability to spot affinity of maker when it was present. Even though still mostly a child, Shalsuar was skilled enough to have that same ability plus his youth meant that he still had greater flexibility of Change, which would not be the case if he were but few years older.
Thus the major classes of the people would be present to search for these items, and with approval of the Sect, the Defenders and the Makers, those three were given the task of finding and recovering such items of power and return with them to the colony.
Or die in the attempt.
Of course if any of them should return with such items, then that would be a boon to the status of the Changelings.
It was worth doing, of course, but no one who would be missed was to go.
They were still just Changelings, after all.
She lay dead but dreaming.
In that lifeless life and deathless death she was, far above that land of Sleeping and Waking, and from the heights of this land she could see that of Dreaming as the glowing ember to the south and west. Here she was not awake nor alive and yet she dreamt of the sandstorms beneath her pinnacle and rise, the tokens of other Things Forgotten if not Dead. Without power she was dead beyond all forms of knowing and yet still dreaming beyond all known Earthly dreams. Overlooking beyond the desert bowl and over the far walls to that other wasteland between Sleeping and Waking she saw all of those who passed back and forth in flashes, save one who strode slowly out to the Crossroads of Everwhen. That One she could not espy save that it was not male nor female, dark nor light, Chaos nor Order but representing a different order all its own.
In dim glimpses of shielded eyes she saw that the North of that dustless land between was not the true North nor Ever North and but its mere reflection of those things. What caused that light and reflections she could not know, high above the deathless desert below and the clouds of stormless storm they created. That other direction, towards the black engulfing South there was dimness where all color died to disappear forever. Not the dim gray sands of that Crossing and Crossroads, although that, too, flushed the sand of dreams long dead into it. For there to be such stark twilight beneath her and blackness beyond, she knew that she was close to the Northern source since all that was South was a thin, colorless realm of which All and Nothing looked out.
Her time here had been brief and ages, both, not called here but coming of her own free will she was now in the that state of being required by this place without Name and time without Number. She could see thouse Mountains where Madness stood to the South, but they were low and dark peaks, shrouded forever by the magestic precipice upon which she resided. And this peak was but a head of a great Chain slowly lost in the distance of the East until they trailed off and met up from the West. In that gloom they cast were creatures both Unnamed and Unspeakable, hinted at through many texts and those who had become lost in their quest for Dreaming. They floated and drifted, here and there, below in the dusty bowl where the Great Encircling started and ended, and this was their home to do that which could not be described even if one so desired as to start.
She rarely bestirred herself as this land where dead dreaming took place was not a resting spot nor destination but was both, just the same. In drowsing she felt, just the once, the slow shift of wind through the bowl below that caused chaos and havoc with those on ground and air both. For, like her, this mountain chain was dead, yet dreaming. In shards she could see its dream and would have recoilled in fear if she could recoil at all. Disgust she knew, but neither that nor fear could Awaken her to Transformation. Next to rock she looked like it now, a small boulder in the vague form of a woman slouched down. And there, from the corner of her eye a spider dropped down from the air and began to pick its way over her face. When it found that place where arm over leg was resting place for head it then started to weave as only its kind could do. White silk glistened as it slowly spun its way and its web was caught by the air time and again, becoming tangled. Yet, in Purpose, the spider did not stop, even using dust and sand from dreamless dreams to hide itself, most well. Once finished the breeze picked up from below as the mountain breathed out, slowly, roiling the community in the bowl once more. It did not know what it would catch there, in that land of Dead Yet Dreaming, but it knew that something would soon come its way, for that was the order of spiders and the tangled webs they weave.