Jai Hua looked up from the cash register at the left hand counter to see a man walk in who had on a black leather jacket over a white dress shirt and white pants outfit accented with black patent leather shoes, black socks and a dark navy blue belt with silver buckle. Coming into the store, Jai stood up and went around the counter.
"May I help you sir? We have had few customers today."
The man took off his mirrored sunglasses and slid them into an inner pocket of his jacket and smiled.
"Ah, what a wonderful store you have here! I do love the kite display you have hanging from the rafters and the holiday dragon twisting under them. Well done!"
Jai smiled and gave a quick bow with his head.
"Thank you, sir. It was done some years ago by the co-owners of the shop, although only one of them is still alive today."
Lowering his gaze the man turned to look at Jai and as he did so a breeze passed down the street pressing the doors and windows inwards slightly.
"I am sorry to here that one of them has died. When did that happen?"
Jai shivered but kept a slight smile on his face.
"It was Master Li Sun. He was found... or parts of him were found... in the old subway tunnels near the Wayne Tower building just last month, sir. Cathy Li is now the sole proprietor of thhe Fair Winds store."
"My condolences. Is there a shrine where I may pay my respects?"
As the breeze lessened outside, Jai's eyes raised as this was an unusual question for anyone who did not know Li Sun or Cathy Li. He nodded.
"Yes, sir, it is over to the right next to the candy racks."
The man nodded and closed his eyes and then looke at Jai.
"A moment, please."
"Of course, sir."
Jai went back to the cash register and watched as the man went to the other side of the store, past the displays for chocolates, candies, nuts, dried fruit and powder for drinks, and stopped at the small shrine to Master Sun which had his portrait hung on the wall and a teak shelving unit that held places for incense and votive candles. A small display of same was to the right of the cabinet with a donation box at the top. The man slipped a bill into the box and removed a votive candle and took out his box of match sticks, lit one and used it to light the candle, which he then placed on the top shelf amongst other candles which had died out while bowing his head. He then picked up two long sticks of incense and lit those from the candle and did a single circle with each one above the candle while his head was bowed, then stuck them into a holder made for them where ashes of other incense could be seen. With bowed head the man closed his eyes and breathed in deep breaths, then opened his eyes as he raised his head. He then stepped back and turned back towards the side of the store Jai was on and walked towards him.
"Thank you, sir, that was not necessary."
"You are most welcome and it is indeed necessary to pay respects to the dead so that one can properly assess the nature of their life as they lived it."
"Yes, sir. Is there anything of interest that I can help you find."
The man nodded, taking out his cigarette case.
"This one is obviously showing its age and, while it is a nice case, should hold more cigarettes. I was wondering if you had anything like it for sale here?"
"May I see the case, sir?" Jai asked.
He handed it over and Jai Hua looked at the case and opened it. It was a type that held only four cigarettes per side and had a small inset box for match sticks. It was of an older design and had been well used and cared for as the sterling silver showed almost no trace of tarnish. He was not familiar with maker's marks but could barely discern an imprint on the upper side of the match stick holder.
"It is a maker I'm not familiar with, but looks to be Danish in origin, although the leaf pattern is one I am unfamiliar with," Jai said taking out a small magnifying glass to examine the spring structure. "It is old spring steel, well maintained but showing some embrittlement." He closed the case with a snap and gave the exterior a final inspection before closing the magnifying glass and handing the case back to the man. "Fine sterling silver, sir. We do not carry cases for a full pack, but have ones in various sizes up to twenty in double length. I take it you are looking for solid sterling silver?"
The man slid the case into another inner jacket pocket and nodded.
"That or perhaps twelve or fourteen carat gold. Platinum if you have one."
Jai smiled and nodded as selling anything like that would get him a decent commission.
"Yes sir, if you would follow me to the back of the store to the jewelry display?"
The man agreed and trailed behind Jai who walked behind counters that held displays of imported boxes, dolls, children's toys which then changed to adult hats and gloves, before shifting to women's and then men's jewelry for the last three cases. On the wall behind the counter were more displays for larger items or to serve as back-up for the cases. The man let his gaze travel over the contents of the cases until he stopped for a moment looking at one painting hung between two of the rear display cabinets.
"What is that piece? A landscape of course, but I'm not familiar with its content as it seems to be a naturalistic style painting and not one of the provinces of China or of any of the schools of Japan. It looks like a foreigner's work but the landscape reminds me of the Far East."
Jai turned to look at the painting that had a dark wooden frame around it.
"That is a piece from Ta Wei, Master Sun's father, which was with the family when they still lived in western China. It is Cathy Li's now as no family member of Li Sun wanted it or anything else of his. I think it is showing the view north from the Kunlun over the Taklamakan Desert and was done in the late 1890's."
The man smiled and leaned forward peering at it.
"I quite like it. Is it for sale?"
"Ah, no sir. That is a decorative piece only, not for sale."
Raising his eyebrows the man nodded and continued onto the display case that held various cigarette cases and lighters, along with other smoking paraphenalia. On the top row was a series of matching set cases and lighters with the Fair Winds emblem engraved on them, the last in a rosewood display case for the set.
"There is a good piece in sterling silver from a tradesman in Hong Kong..." Jai said pointing to a set case on the third shelf.
"How much for the platinum Fair Winds set?" the man asked.
Standing up straight, Jai Hua looked as the man peered into the case.
"That is $1,000 and specially commissioned from the Zha Lin smith for this shop," he said referring to a craft shop of jewlers and precious metal smiths that had fled to Taiwan during the early years of the Maoist takeover.
"Yes, it is a beautiful rendition of the Winds with gold inlay, extremely fine work, as well."
"Ah, yes sir. Because of its craftsmanship it is considered a display piece."
The man raised his eyebrows and looked up at Jai.
"So was mine, back in the day. I'll take it, box and all."
That startled Jai who looked at the man and slowly nodded, and then took his keys out to open the display cabinet. He removed the box with the cigarette case and matching lighter and placed it on top of the case for the man to inspect. He did so, gently opening the case and closing it, then setting it into its place in the box.
"Perfect! Just what I need," the man said.
"Yes, sir. Let me take this to the register so I can ring you up."
"Of course," the man said smiling as he walked slowly back towards the front of the shop and stopped to look at the painting again. After a moment he continued his slow walk towards the front as Jai removed a slip from the holding box so that he could enter it into the cash register. Once the numbers were entered, the total rang up.
"That will be one thousand seventy dollars, sir."
The man took a black billfold out of his jacket and slipped out hundred dollar bills and counted eleven of them out on the pad that the box was on next to the register. As Jai picked up the bills the man looked at an advertising piece at the register and the business cards in a holder beneath it.
"Thank you, sir," Jai said working on getting tens out of the register.
"Most welcome. Is this Golden Tiger Club the other establishment that Cathy Li runs?"
Jai gave a nod as he had the bills in his hand and held them out to the man.
"Yes, sir. She normally spends Sundays there and comes here for mornings and early afternoon trade. I have your change for you."
The man nodded negatively.
"Keep it," he said taking a card from the holder and then sliding that into his billfold. "And no need for a bag, I'll take the box as-is."
Jai bowed his head, smiling deeply.
"You are most gracious, sir, thank you!"
"Of course," the man said, "for this is the place for a fair wind. Good day."
It was a journey of just under ten miles and should not have taken the rest of the morning and the entire afternoon, but with ice on the paths and roads, trying to keep steady footing was hard for her. It had been even harder for Shlasuar and the girl. Going up the hill to get to the ridge trail had been most of the morning with slipping, sliding being something that all had to contend with. Once off the path and sliding on the slick forest floor that sloped downhill, stopping was usually easy, but ascending to the trail again was another matter. Walking was much easier along the ridge trail, but there they had to stop to address the needs of nature and make a small fire in one of the fire pits used by campers or those hiking the trail in better weather. They all would have been in town by noon, at least, but that hour passed them on the ridge trail as it neared the road that led to the ridge park and then went over into the next valley. This road was a graded dirt road for the upper portion of it, and it had few vehicles passing on its slick surface today. Being a Sunday, cold and with some ice on the road meant very few were out driving. That was both good and bad since it meant that they didn't have to avoid being seen. It also meant that the slick ice on the road was little broken and that there were treacherous stretches where the side of the road or even the ditch were safer to walk in as the traction offered by simply using one's feet to move leaves out of the way was easier than cracking through ice crusted dirt.
Shlasuar had noted that the blue glow was gone as evening approached, and that was a good sign that there was no active presence throughout the City. The looming mid and high rises of downtown Gotham City did cast a long shadow and they were in that region of gloom to their north. There was no way to address physical needs until they had crossed into the city and then Shlasuar had to be the one to move down the ladder set by the roadside to the platform next to the subway tunnels as he was more agile. He had to chip ice from the rungs as he held on to the ladder while dangling with one arm looped around a higher rung and his booted feet slipping time and again on lower ones. The South Gotham river divided from the Mid Gotham River just to the east, and beneath the bridges there were swirling vortices that were easy to contend with if one was unencumbered by clothing, but could be deadly to even their People while in surface dweller clothes as the rocks beneath the vortices were unforgiving.
Only a few vehicles drove past and none stopped for the two women, where they were on a bench obviously sharing each other's company no matter how cold the gathering dusk was. As night came Shlasuar re-appeared to gesture to them that it was safe, and with that Maria helped the girl with the earliest rungs while Shlasuar guided her feet. Once they started Maria followed and together they were able to navigate to the walkway of the tunnel and the door that John had utilized, and slid into the service tunnels that were much warmer. They also held a set of restrooms and allowed them to eat some dry food bars and drink the last of their warm tea from a thermos bottle. During all that time not one train came or went, as Wayne Corporation had shut down all but necessary personnel operations at the ATC East and other areas serviced by the WIST. Only one WIST car remained on the eastern track ready to start the outbound journey and the rest were out at a yard on the mainland awaiting inspection early in the morning before being put back into service.
At the door into the open tunnel Maria stopped and listened then, hearing nothing, opened it slowly.
"This is the tunnel the nexus is in," Maria said as she stepped through and into the interchange tunnel beyond with a battery powered flashlight with a wide beam to show the layout of it as the few overhead lights gave only a dim yellow cast to the entire space.
"Yes," Lisa said as she stepped forward and hesitated, "it was painful... there..." she pointed out to the left of Maria who turned north to look.
"Do you remember where you were when you were attacked, girl?" Maria asked.
"Yes, that was..." Lisa shivered.
"Shlasuar, lead her to the side on the walkway and then close the door."
"Yes, Maria," he said as he went by Lisa and held her hand to lead her south, and then went back and closed the door, standing in its alcove.
"Now point to where you were and tell me when I get there, girl."
Maria watched as Lisa pointed and walked north, picking her way over tracks until she reached an area between them.
Maria stopped and looked back at her and Shlasuar.
"Do you remember where the attack came from, girl?"
"It was.... behind... turning... pain..."
Shlasuar looked up to Lisa's face for an instant and then back to Maria.
"Where did the pain come from, girl?"
Lisa shifted her hand to Maria's left again, but this time towards the eastern tunnel side, but not completely do the north.
"The walkway there?" Shlasuar asked.
"Yes. The attack... something... glistening... green... brown.... black..."
Shlasuar looked at Maria.
"That's near where I was to affinity point."
"Yes it was, Shlasuar," she said smiling, "Girl, can you feel something there or just above it?"
Lisa dropped her hand and turned to the direction she had been pointing.
Barely her lips moved.
"Good! I will walk there directly and Shlasuar will lead you there. The Formless were in contact with that and that is part of how they did what they did. If there is any chance for you... for us... it will be there..."
Maria walked, picking her way amongst the tracks with the flashlight and Shlasuar letting his body begin to transform enough to put shift between his eyes for better sight. He led Lisa by the hand down the walkway slowly, making sure she kept to it. Maria arrived there after climbing up two steps set at the center of the walkway, and then Shlasuar arrived with Lisa after carefully going over the eastern set of tracks.
"Now, all we need to do is put you in contact with that and hope that your self is on the other side having searched for that point that will allow transfer. We can..."
Shlasuar heard something, in the far distance to the north.
"Get down! Something is coming!"
He pulled Lisa down and next to the wall as he slid next to her. Maria dropped to the ground, her pack knocking the breath out of her, and she dropped her flashlight which broke into pieces, its lens falling to the track level and rolling slowly over the concrete.
She hadn't heard the sound but she knew that Shlasuar's hearing would be keener even partially transformed.
With a press of air and a growl of fury, it came, an angular black shape that absorbed all light and promised much to fear for those in front of it. Red eyes glowed from it showing the tunnel and that light grew and grew as it came and roared past them, slowing and then turning down the side tunnel. There its growl was met with another and then, as fast as it had come, it was gone.
"Sh'n'gftoth" Shlasuar whispered.
"S'uhn shgebn'ghftoth", Maria said looking back at him, "and I do not want to know where it has gone, just so long that it is no longer here."
"But Selina, wasn't Howard a nice man?"
Margaret Kyle sat on one of the plush seats in the limo looking at her daughter who had a side seat. Margaret had heard of the Golden Tiger Club once or twice and assumed it was the sort of restaurant her daughter would normally take her to, which is to say one that didn't need formal dress. Selina had dressed in a white and black maxidress with long sleeves, a white and red skirt with the red folded into the darts, a form fitting black bodice with white upper and red stitching and a high collar, with dark red high heels. This was in stark contrast to Margaret's own dark green wrap dress which was over white leggings and thin silk three-quarter length sleeve shirt and hunter green pumps. She would not be out of place at a place with formal dining, of course, she had the necessary black pearl necklace with matching earrings that would gain her entrance to nearly any high-end establishment on the East Coast.
"Mother, Howard Metz was convicted of grand larceny two years ago and is serving 5 to 10 in Pennsylvania."
"Hmph. Well at least you know where he would be every night, not stopping off at a bar or trying to see someone on the side."
Selina rolled her eyes and looked to the front of the limo where Maurice was driving. The ride on the North Island from the Shelton Hotel to the Golden Tiger Club had been uneventful. He had dressed in his driver's uniform, which wasn't exactly a chauffer's outfit and varied in the fact that he had it done in dark blue to navy, and wore a white cap. He called it his 'nice man outfit' which varied from his everyday suits in that this one was well cared for and didn't look as if he lived in it constantly.
"Besides your 'friend', that 'Mr. Danbury' decided to leave you for someplace in the South Seas. Wasn't that it?"
Selina turned her head back around to look at her mother.
"He had a job in Guam, mother, and told me he wanted to put his business far away from South Florida. Or North Florida. Or North America."
"Well he would have been fine with his work in the fashion industry!"
"He's an importer of knock-offs from the Far East, mother, and decided that his inspection shop needed to be closer to the point of manufacture."
"I'm sure he did so for the best of reasons," Margaret said looking at Selina, "and whatever happened to what's-his-name, the boy with the jewelry stores? He had said he would love to move to Florida."
"That's Ken Delbarton, and he opened up a set of shops in Arizona. He said the atmosphere in Florida was too stifling for him. He sold off his last shop in the northeast two years ago."
Margaret pressed her lips together and shook her head.
"So who are you bringing this time, Selina?" she asked.
Selina raised her eyebrows and smiled sweetly.
"A new customer and his friend, mother. I'm not telling you more than that so you can see them for yourself."
Margaret sniffed and pulled her fur coat tighter around her, and shifted her white purse with her white gloved hands in her lap.
"Don't give me the snubbed look, mother."
"I see," Margaret said, "you just don't trust me."
Selina rolled her eyes as the limo pulled in front of the Golden Tiger Club and to its curb. Maurice got out of the limo and went around the front to open up the center and rear side doors. Margaret shifted to the door and stepped out with the help of Maurice.
"Thank you, Maurice," she said with a thin smile.
"My pleasure, Mrs. Kyle," he said betraying no hint of any emotion just like he did when dealing with his mother-in-law.
Selina shifted in her seat waiting for Maurice to close the rear door and then stood up when he offered his hand to her to help her out.
"Thanks Maurice. Do pick up Amy so she can get home before you come back here."
"Just like we talked about, sure Selina," he said waiting for her to exit to close the side door. He then hurried to the driver's side door to get the car out of the way of anyone else looking to drop off patrons.
Selina looked to her mother who was waiting for her on the sidewalk.
"What's that about Amy?"
"Oh, her car was damaged during the winds that came through here and she had to use the Bobcat today, and is now at the office and needs a ride home. Maurice will swing back and take her home in Mid-South and then come back here."
"The poor girl, stuck with your cats."
Selina smiled and looked at the ground, shaking her head.
At the outer door a doorman stood at the entrance to the building and tipped his hat.
"Good evening, ladies. Late dinner tonight?" he asked.
"Yes," said Margaret, "my daughter couldn't get out any earlier than this tonight."
"Of course," the doorman said, "left desk is for the upper level dining area."
"Thank you, Edison," Selina said.
"Of course, Miss Kyle."
Together the two of them went to the left of the narrow entrance area to a desk that had one man behind it and another looking over his shoulder pointing to something set into the desk. They were both obviously concentrating on something other than greeters duties.
"Tan Wu?" Selina asked as they got to the desk.
The man sitting at the desk looked up, startled.
"Oh! Miss Kyle, I'm sorry I didn't see you!"
"It looks like you have a problem," Selina said, "Whats up?"
He shook his head making a scowl.
"About two or three hours ago the security system started to malfunction. It is like with what happened yesterday but worse here today. We think there are shorts in the system and we can't find out where they are."
Selina raised her eyebrows.
"Nothing serious, I hope?" she said, "Since we had scheduled dinner for this evening here."
Tan Wu smiled wanly.
"No, nothing dangerous. I've called in some of our employees for overtime so we can keep a better watch on the halls. The system itself is unreliable and a technician will have to go through it tomorrow."
"Not good," Selina said looking to her mother who was wating impatiently. "The elevators still work?"
He smiled and nodded.
"Yes, they are unaffected," he stood up and stepped away from the desk, "here let me take you to them."
"Thank you," Selina said looking to her mother who sighed.
He led them to the rank of elevators on the left of the building and there was one waiting at their level. Once they were in he reached in and pressed the button for the tenth floor and ducked out as the doors closed. Margaret stayed silent as the elevator went up to the main dining area for the club, and when they got out a sign pointed to the dining area on their right and restrooms to their left. At the maitre'd station they saw a man in a black suit outfit looking at something on the dais, who looked up as they approached.
"Ah! Mrs. Kyle and Miss Kyle!" he said stepping around the dais to greet them at the beaded entrance to the restaurant.
"Yes, and I'm glad you are still open tonight!" Selina said.
"Of course, Miss Kyle! Your dates are already here and waiting for you. Please to follow me."
As they went through the curtain they could see a bar area on their left and a two tier open restaurant area on their right. There were a few other customers here tonight, scattered at the tables.
Selina looked at the bar and asked, "Who is that with Cathy Li, Wen Ku?"
"Ah, that is a customer who purchased the platinum Fair Winds set today and is discussing with Mrs. Li the purchase of another item."
Margaret looked at the two at the bar and blinked.
"It looks like a bit more than that at this point. Still a good looking gentleman."
"Yes, yes," Wen Ku said, "a Mr. Lewis from out of town. Mrs. Li is apparently quite taken with his charms," he said with a faint smile. "This way, ladies," he said indicating to the steps that took them up to the higher level of booths and tables. As they stepped up Margaret could see two men standing up at a table. One was a handsome older man in a blue uniform and the other was a younger man who looked to be well built and wearing a severly cut black suit. The first man had the look of a man who had been through war, rugged and handsome features and an older but well kept appearance. The younger man had rugged good looks, somewhat drawn cheeks and sported an eyepatch on his right eye. Each man was holding a bouquet of flowers and had a crepe red poppy on as their bouttonnière.
"Oh, my," Margaret whispered obviously a bit taken aback by how formally they were dressed and how informally she was. As they approached she turned to Selina and whispered, "Where did you ever find these two?"
Selina smiled looking at Frank and Tom.
"They are customers, mother. And I would like to keep them, OK?"
Wen Ku stopped in front of the man in the black suit and turned to Margaret.
"Mrs. Kyle, this is Mr. Tom Octurian," he then turned to Tom, "Mr. Octurian, Mrs. Margaret Kyle."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Mrs. Kyle" the younger man said stepping forward and holding out a bouquet of flowers, "Please accept my gift in appreciation for your company tonight."
"Of course," she said whispering faintly. There were so many different thoughts going through her head at the moment that she didn't know which one was actually going to get through first. But she understood formal introductions and how to respond, but she was sure that she was going to get the older man. She wasn't. And that was setting off all kinds of other things in her body that she just wasn't expecting. She cleared her head long enough to catch the name of the older, military man. Sargent Rock. Sargent Frank Rock. And she saw Selina take the bouquet and then hug him which she wasn't expecting and that Rock, after a moment's hesitation, returned.
Margaret Kyle didn't know what to think or what to expect, save that this dinner out was sure to end up differently than their last meal out together. Now if only she could get her wits about her to actually participate in it.
He looked down the narrow canyon some distance from the intersection that held the cloaked and hooded figure that always turned to look at him. The misty wall just beyond reach on his right held all sorts of forms in the mist but he knew, from experience, that they were just that and not the real thing beyond the wall. A touch to it and he would be there. On his left was the blurry mirror that blended from the blackness behind him to the lightness in front and far higher than he could see or even go. He had tried, and failed, many times. Just as he had tried to find the exact ending point of the dark lands where the misty wall faded into a jumble that stretched all the way to pure black where no light could go. He could no more approach that jumble of form, color and geometry that held no reason to it than he could fly above it to see what was beyond. Attempting to find that dividing line he walked from fading darkness until he realized it was increasing again and that even keeping to a straight path was no guarantee when one approached such things that were awful even to him.
He was on that path from dark to light and at the place that was its exact balance point was that figure. It hadn't always been there, and at one time the place where something should be and wasn't was just like the parts of the trail next to it. Gray sand of dead dreams was thick around the center, of course, but that was the nature of those dreams that tried to find substance and, instead, found annihilation. Even when facing him, the hood covered the face and trying to sneak a peak closer led to a place where he felt himself slipping to someplace where he should not be, could not be, and that forced him to retreat as the promise of destruction, dissolution and disappearing forever was too high a price to pay. With the wide arm cuffs together in front of it and the wooden staff going through that space where hands would be if there were hands there, that figure was far more ominous than any of the creatures of the dark lands or even those of light. This place where no one was and yet something would be could not be swayed by light, dark, waking, dreaming or anything, it appeared, and that was actually worse than the things that lived or existed in the lands of unreason beyond the jumble. This was a place not created to house a being, and yet the place was now making that space on its own, with no help nor impetus from anything, save the dust of dreams now dead.
An enticed dream could do him good help to its own benefit if it could but make that transition from the right hand side to the left, and he could even help it across once out of the space that held that which was not there. This dream, while not the most potent of its kind, had just enough of what he looked for to make it worth enticing it. As he looked to the right he saw a shimmer, a change and smiled, right up to the point that the figure emerged and it was no dream. Even more startling was that it was attached to no land, no place, no domain. Certain beings of unreason were their own things, of course, but this one had more definite and regular form, which he understood having seen its type often amongst many and individuals.
The white robed figure shifted its hood as it looked up above the surface of the trail.
"Crossroads..." the girl said in a raspy voice, "... its been such a long journey..."
He raised an eyebrow.
"Long? To go from Dreamlands to Waking realm? For most it is but an instant. Indeed it took me long ages to find that there was anything between the two and that it offered a strange place unlike any other, although dreary and dull it is."
She shifted the hood on her robe slightly and then used a hand to press her body up on her left side.
"Who... are you?" she whispered.
"Me? Come, girl, which side of the Crossing am I on? You should know better."
She peered behind him and then back to him.
"Why of course I do, although I can't see it nor find it. I've seen it on others and can watch the infinite streaks of them going from one side of the Crossing to the other, far above. I can't ever reach them, of course, but you look up and you see dull sky but it is just that the those crossing are so numerous that they leave no space beyond them to see if there is a real sky."
The girl shifted to get her foot on the ground and pressed her hands to her knee and then got her other foot under her to look up a bit further.
"Its gray," she said softly, "getting lighter to the right and darker to the left."
"How observant!" he said with a chuckle, "And that shading is due to the nature of the individuals going to one side of the canyon to the other."
She blinked and looked at him.
"Canyon?" she whispered, "But its a flat desert, stretching as far as the eye can see."
"Ah, now that is not what it is at all," he said with a great smile, "I can see the extent of Dreaming just out of arms reach to the right and Waking to the left just the same. If I reach out too far and touch either I will either be in Dreaming or wake up, with a most unsatisfactory non-rest as my only reward."
"But its a desert," she said, looking around and then pointing behind her, "Dreaming is so far off down the road that I can barely see it as a misty gray cloud with mountains long in the distance beyond it."
"Now that is absurd! Your finger is nearly touching the Dreaming and with one move you could be in it," he snapped his fingers of his left hand, "like that!"
"No, really, its far away."
"Oh, yes, yes with mountains beyond it! Why there was some deranged poor thing here, oh, ages ago, who said that about Dreaming and Waking both! He said that he had gotten beyond the walls of Waking! Ha! The man was insane beyond any hope or reason of any sort, and not just the insanity of the lands of unreason, either."
Lisa looked beyond the figure at the center of the Crossroads and towards Waking.
"Its a thin line in the distance, like Dreaming is," she said pointing forward now, "and there are mountains beyond it."
He slitted his eyes and looked at her.
"You don't seem deranged, girl. Are you from around here?" it was a line he used often in some realms he favored and chuckled, "But of course you can't be, because no one is from around here. Even the figure," he said pointing to the figure that was facing his direction, "isn't there, but a place where someone or some thing should be. So where are you from?"
She looked at the figure at the center of the vast Crossroads in the desert after lowering her hand and then over to the man who was in a good looking black business suit and had a very angular face and slicked back black hair. She was reminded of a used car salesman. Or a politican. Always something to hide with a smile.
"Dreaming, recently... at... well its called the Precipice, I guess, before that..."
"Precipice? What Precipice?"
She looked back at Dreaming and to where it left off in the desert and pointed a bit lighward, if it was actually any lighter there than here, towards the far mountains.
"That way. Above the strange place between the mountains with floating dream islands and strange creatures."
He pressed his lips together seeing her point at a canyon wall.
"Deranged, at least. Delusional, perhaps. There are mountains around the dark land and they go on forever. Or at least as far as I could get and could only see more of them. In absolute darkness you can't see them, and where they end is where canyon wall and Waking begins on this side and beyond pure darkness is the land of unreason and I can't see into that. And I know that far off to the light there are other mountains as well, but they, too, fade at Waking and unreason, then the Dreaming wall fades in from unreason. That I've seen is the mirror of the dark lands. With unreason how can there be mountains? Or anything but churning chaos? Yes, you are mad."
"So? It's a pleasant madness, then," Lisa said as she stepped towards the figure at the center of the Crossroads.
"Now wait a moment, what you are doing is dangerous! That place where that power is and its incarnation is not is dangerous, stop before it kills you with the place that it is and yet isn't."
Lisa looked at the figure which was a robe that was hung up on a stake with a cross to it, the robe in tatters, with large holes in it, and another pole leaning from the other side with the arms of it pinned to the pole by dowels. From a distance, and even from relatively close up, it would look like a robed figure either gray or black as it did not look to be wholly of any single cloth, and the grayness of the background could fool the eye at a distance. Here, right up to it, within arms reach, what it was could be seen for those who dared.
"There's no figure here, its obvious what it is," she said looking to her left at the man.
"Oh, I see it! A figure of foreboding, power and yet unmoving save to always turn towards me. There is something there that is awaiting that which will incarnate it, and that is a power beyond any I've experienced. You face utter annihilation if you step much closer to it."
She stepped behind the robe on poles and came to the other side and looked back at the man from there.
"You are... a step towards light, there..." he said looking at her.
"Can't you see me through the holes in its robe, though?"
"What holes? There are no holes save for the one it covers and that is worse than anything I know of. And if you can, step back from it, because you are far too close to that place that will take apart even the most powerful of things."
She did take another step back, and back-tracked just a step so she was behind the tattered robe.
"You can see me, can't you? Because I can see you through the holes in the robe."
The figure still faced the thing, a thing that didn't glower, didn't hate and that he knew was dangerous to actually get very close to.
"No, I can't. I can feel your presence, there, yes. And you are a good distance from the figure, even though farther than I can go to that side of the path."
She shook her head and smiled.
She stepped up to the robe and stuck one hand through a hole on her left.
"You are near death there! Step back!" he said.
"Can't you see my hand? It's under the robe's left arm, to you."
The figure remained complete to him.
"No. You are courting a death worse than any other. I cannot intercede on your behalf," he said.
Playfully she stuck her right hand through another hole, this on the other side of the robe.
"There my other hand is through on the other side, can you see that."
He shivered and stepped back.
"No," he said, "You are mad, demented, insane! Mountains, you say! A flat desert where none exists! You are beyond madness."
She stepped forward to try and get her hands on the poles under the arms of the robe.
"But can't you see? Nothing is here but a scarecrow..."
The robe shifted and moved on its own.
"You're gone..." he whispered and stepped slightly to his left looking beyond the figure. "I had no part in that! I warned her! I had nothing against her whoever she was and wherever she was from! I could do nothing to stop her and neither could you, could you? I wished no harm here..." he looked at the figure that had turned to look at him, "...she played with a power beyond us and paid a price in madness. In death as if she never was."
Hearing no answer he stepped over to the right side of the road and looked at the intersection there, and saw that a pile of sand was slowly flowing out from Dreaming.
"No dream is coming, it appears," he turned to the figure that was still turned towards him, "When you arrive you will not like where you are at. Fit for no one. A curse, not a boon. Better that it never be filled by any."
He turned and walked into the twilight that gathered on the dark end of the road ahead of him. Soon he was gone from sight, perhaps deciding to dream or awaken, or just wander in the desolate lands of dead dreams.
Only the scarecrow was left and it did not speak.
Date: 17 NOV 1984, quantum time line alternate, adjusted. Historical database skipped, used as reference materials, low reliability.
Time: 2015 hours, Eastern Time.
Location: 407 33rd Street, Golden Tiger Club, restaurant, 10th floor.
Visual Sensor Input: 72%
Depth Perception: 65%
Audio Reception: 83% filtered, noise
Frame structural integrity, amended: 47%
Room Temperature: 70 F.
Analysis routines: Online, supplemental factory original variant by amended matrix. Covert operations package, functioning, online, supplemental factory original variant amended by matrix. Derived source routines, online, conformal to data security routines, adaptive.
Secondary Analysis routine: Semantic analysis, conformal, social events, family, variant, online, conformal to data security routines, adaptive.
Presently speaking: Kyle, Margaret.
All analysis routines indicate: 100% human, age approximation 57 years old. In-depth analysis of clothing style annotated, skipped.
Specification: Widow. Retired. Currently living in Sarasota, Florida. Visiting daughter, Kyle, Selina.
Additional capabilities: UNKNOWN.
Threat Status: 0.001
Amended to prior activities, Golden Tiger Club, 17 NOV 1984, meeting, social, restaurant.
Supplemental files opened for individuals: Kyle, Selina; Sgt. Rock, Frank (r); Lewis, Guthrie; Ku, Wen.
UNKNOWN INDIVIDUALS: 17.
Referenced individuals: Li, Cathy. Overheard from low level Fourier Transform Analysis conversation between Kyle, Selina and Sgt. Rock, Frank (r).
Noted items: restaurant place settings, utilized per soup and appetizer courses, delivered dinner courses and rice bowls, drinks per individual per file.
Ingest status, Package Main Storage: 37%
Ingest status, Particulars: Bowl, 1, 6.2 fl. oz., Wonton Soup; Eggroll, 2.1 oz.; Rice, White, Steamed, 3 oz.; Tea, Jasmine, 3 fl. oz.
Conversation status: Kyle, Margaret speaking.
Reference file in use: Cover Story, Los Angeles, metal foundry, specialized casting, accident.
Cover story conformance analysis: 98% without background check; 72% cursory background check; 22% in-depth investigation.
Routines, Conversation, in-use: Diversion routine, common. Deflection routine, common. Topic change, common. In-depth semantic analysis with emotional overlay checks. UNKNOWNS routed to adaptive package systems for further analysis and break-down for content.
"...and you were at a forge did you say?" Margaret asked.
"Yes, a specialty casting facility working on exotic materials casting," Tom said, "One of the chains used to shift the melt broke free and wrapped around my left leg and upper torso, and impacted across my right side."
Margaret gasped as she looked at the young man with an eye patch who looked back at her and sipped his tea.
"What... I mean, Mr. Octurian that's horrific."
"It was unpleasant, yes."
"He's been through reconstructive surgery," Frank said looking at Margaret, "and had a friend here who knew me and asked a favor of me to help him out. When Bruce learned about his skills, he offered to hire Tom and take on his medical bills. It was an offer that you just can't refuse, when you come down to it."
"Yes," Tom said, "it is a benefit."
Selina blinked as she remembered how Tom had navigated the ropes at the Warehouse.
"When was you last surgery?" she asked.
"My last major surgery was at the end of May. I have undergone minor operations since then, but nothing that has hindred my recovery."
"He had other work done before that," Frank said looking at Tom, "mostly to set bones and take care of the worst damage. His eye needed a specialist and in a few weeks he should be able to do without the patch. Physical therapy beyond what can be done at my house is in order, twice a week. And the Workout Warehouse is good for a generalized high stress workout."
"You've come a long way, Mr. Octurian," Margaret said trying to picture the damage done to the young man in front of her who was obviously stoic about his injuries and not one to blame anyone for them. She ate some more of her Hunan Duck entree, while her dinner partner had a small amount of his Egg Foo Young. It was obvious that he was on a strict diet of some sort, but that he could put an effort on being sociable even with his problems.
"Say, Frank, have you met Cathy Li?" Selina asked while indicating the woman at the bar.
"No, I haven't, Selina," he said and then leaned forward and whispered, "and I don't think this is the time, either."
"Why?" Selina asked softly looking confused.
"The man she is with, Selina. They've been chatty since we got here and I wouldn't want to distract her. And he is problematical."
Selina gave a glance back to the bar area and then back to Frank.
"But... what do you mean?"
He raised an eyebrow and picked up his cup of tea and took a sip from it.
"Lets just say that he may be dangerous, Selina. I can't tell you more than that."
Selina was highly conflicted as she had a willful streak that was contrarian, as her mother could attest to, and that was a main part of her temperment. The man across from her was a combat veteran of WWII who had been in theater for nearly three years, and who had led more patrols through more dangerous situations than she could ever know. Then she remembered something and shifted in her seat and caught a glimpse of the case next to Frank's chair.
The snap clasps were open.
He sat back and had a mouthful of his Family Dinner Special and gave a lopsided grin as he chewed.
"The damned peace, I think you called it?" she finally asked.
He swallowed and used his napkin to pat his mouth.
"That's it exactly, Selina."
"What's it exactly, Mr. Rock?"
He looked at Margaret and nodded.
"It's what I told Bruce's father after the war. Always go prepared for the worst to happen. He forgot that and it cost him and his wife their lives. I couldn't find their killer, and knew that you have to be prepared to take on the damn peace as much as any war. Just with less equipment and backing."
"Who is this 'Bruce'? He's come up a couple of times. You knew his father during the war?"
"Yes, Ma'am. Thomas Wayne was a doctor pressed into surgery and he was responsible for saving my life a couple of times. I got to see him and Martha a few times before they were killed here in Gotham."
"That's... you know Bruce Wayne?" Margaret's eyes grew wider, as if she had just seen her first Christmas Tree or had been shown the Promised Land for the first time.
Selina shivered and whispered, 'Oh, god. No.'
"Yes, Ma'am. Personal only, unless its a war buddy, a friend or someone like Tom who knows a friend. I was proud to have his father as a friend after the war, and that honor continues with his only son."
Frank's voice was dead flat, like he was pronouncing a sentance at a trial. It wasn't a cold voice, nor a warm one, but one that held much strength behind it.
Margaret turned to look at Selina who was looking at Frank and then Tom, smiling.
"Selina, you never said anything..."
Selina turned to look at her mother, the woman who's goal in life just might be within reach.
"What is there to tell, mother? You know that Mr. Wayne lives in a different world than I do. I am not huring for money, mother, and I don't want social status or the problems that come with it."
For the first time in years Selina realized that she had just spoken the flat-out truth to her mother, but this time she was no longer a teenager and not lacing her tone with bitterness and rage. She had seen a lot of the underbelly of high society and wanted little to do with it. Any attraction she had for someone like Bruce Wayne was the distant sort, an admiring sort and not just of his body, either, although she did admit to that attraction. The qualities she admired didn't belong to a social class but to a kind of man who could be warm and smart and brave, and yet humble in his accomplishments. From what she had seen and heard of Bruce Wayne she saw him not as a playboy jet-setter, although that was there, but as a man who blew off steam enjoying himself while also dedicating himself to the hard work of running a good sized company. That was beyond the scope of what Selina thought she could do and running her small enterprise on both sides of the law kept her busy enough without actively seeking out more. If he ever came to see her... well, that would be a different story, of course, although she suspected that she would be in a courtroom behind the defendants table.
"But... but... Selina..." Margaret started to say as she saw the Christmas Tree go up in flames or had glimpsed the Promised Land and then been told she wasn't going there.
Margaret turned to Tom.
"Yes, Mr. Octurian?"
"Your dinner is growing cold and is best eaten while it retains moderate warmth."
Margaret Kyle was used to putting on scenes, sudden flares of temper and was quite willing to vent it at anyone, including her eldest daughter. The placid face of Tom Octurian, with his eye patch, caught her up short. Her temper wanted to bubble up and out of control, but one blue eye staring at her was bringing him back to her attention did something inside her. It was as if he had seen through her and knew what she was about to do. She could blow up at anyone, any time, but not in front of this man or his friend, Sgt. Rock. Selina had dated some physically imposing men, but that didn't put her off nor stall her temper.
For the first time Margaret realized that Selina had dated someone who treated Selina as a woman, and his friend treated Margaret as one, as well. With gentlemanly grace, kindness and dignity shown for a woman that neither of them had met but had done so as a favor to her daughter. Selina was not seeing boys, any more, or up and coming men still feeling their way up, people that could be intimidated by a motherly outburst or at least swayed by it. Sgt. Rock couldn't be manipulated like that, and neither could Tom Octurian who had obviously been through a special kind of hell and came out the other side of it if not whole then with a determination that only such events can grant. If she wanted a path to climb socially, it was not going through Sgt. Frank Rock of Easy Company and her daughter had just told her that what Margaret wanted for her was not what she wanted for herself.
"If you'll excuse me, Mr. Octurian, Sgt. Rock, I need to use the women's room."
Frank nodded and both he and Tom stood up as she shifted her chair back. Tom moved around the table to move the chair as she stood up.
"Thank you, Tom... Mr. Octurian, I mean."
"Tom is fine, Mrs. Kyle."
She smiled wanly.
"Margaret, please, Tom."
"Of course, Margaret," Tom said.
As she left Selina looked at Frank and raised an eyebrow.
"Best go now, Selina. And I doubt we will make it to the dessert course."
Selina nodded, then put on a wry smile as Frank moved around the table to help her with her chair.
"Can I bring Old Reliable with me?" she whispered as she stood up.
"It won't solve every problem, Selina. If you aren't back in ten, I'll send Tom to check up on you two. I'll keep an eye out here. Just in case."
Dr. Gotham sat on one of the folding chairs and looked at the paper on the table top which was now festooned with adhesive notes, writing and a drafting set for curves that had been sitting in a box in the back room. He had a small table next to the chair and on it was a cup of tea and a partially eaten oatmeal cookie. Across the table from him Barbara was looking at the nearly completed circle. Erin was coming in with two mugs of coffee and sat one down on a stack of boxes next to Barbara and then went to a chair to Dr. Gotham's right to sit down and put her mug on a low platform table that had been folded up under the sofa.
"We are nearly complete, I think," he said looking at each of the two young women, "Your instincts were right about the ring as it is the associative figure of the Winds and is the signal of resurrection for Tiamat. When put into that context the theft of it and transfer to Li Sun was a part of that cycle attempting to complete itself. The Cardinals and Crosses are the orientations of the people involved, however, so the cycle could not complete, at least from East. I had suspected that the Formless Ones and Li Sun in transformation needed South, the Phoenix, to adapt the cycle to the framework involved. However South had a forced symmetry to it due to North and must balance, so each of you would also have had your lives in danger to complete the cycle. I hadn't thought that the nexus place itself was critical, but now I see that it is more than just an association."
"You mean Wayne Tower?" Erin asked, looking at the diagram and then at Dr. Gotham.
"Yes, the heritage of Martha Wayne."
Barbara looked at the circle and at the point of Martha Wayne's death, and Thomas Wayne, in 1959. They were to her left as she looked at the circle and then she looked to the right.
"Oh... she was killed 60 years after the ring came to the shop!"
Erin leaned forward her eyes wide.
"Coincidence?" she asked softly.
"Is anything coincidence in such a Gyre, Mrs. Norris? It is a dreadful symmetry, I'm afraid. Miss Gordon was quite correct that there is a time linkage at 50 years for the amulet and our present day, and Lisa paid with her life. That is 1/3 of the South. Now the North Wind arrives to sweep through and blow the Frame and the Spider's Loom to pieces. An Avatar so close to physical instantiation draws the attention of those who know what to watch for, and many that look for lesser or more portentious events will miss a mere happenstance of relatively isolated and questionable crime in a place like Gotham City, known for such."
"What do you mean?" Barbara asked.
He smiled and sipped his tea.
"Miss Gordon, if you were looking for signs and portents of the end of the world, would you ever think to look at mere crime in Gotham City? Would you not cast your eye to world events? Perhaps look for a Seal to be broken or a Horseman to appear?"
Barbara bit her lower lip and nodded.
"Just like the preachers on TV," Erin said sipping her coffee, "pointing out all the other terrible stuff in the world, but not really seeing whats just down the street from them."
"Exactly! The death of the Waynes gained notice from what you two have said, but only locally. Yet the heritage of Martha and her connection to the amulet brought her untimely demise but also created the monument to her in Wayne Tower. The nexus is under Wayne Tower, as such, or as close as to not matter. It is the modern form of World Tree, the skyscraper, and while it is not amongst the highest in the world, even from my time, it represents an enduring passage of life. For a brief moment the pull of the amulet brought in the ring and necklace, and nearly completed a form of the cycle inscribed on the ring. But the Spider... ahhh... the Spider..."
"What or who is it?" Erin asked.
Dr. Gotham raised his eyebrows.
"For such a small creature that does such good, it is not beloved of many. The serpent became the symbol of healing, while the spider merely of the delicate web and used to associate with nefarious deeds. Yet it is orderly in a way that a serpent isn't, and patient, willing to die waiting for a next meal that its web may not ever catch. It is its own being and has its own nomenclature, Mrs. Norris, with Ariadne being the best known example of known myths. This spider is doing something that Ariadne may have been able to guess at but we, unattached and unattracted to spiders, cannot know. If we cannot say it is of evil, we must also say it is not of good, for it doesn't recognize either and is blinded to them. While part of an order it is not truly of Order, that is an absolute Order beyond all other thiings. What it can see, can know, is a threat to its survival and fire..." he inhaled and looked at Erin, "... the Phoenix returning Tiamat, would kill the Spider. It is in a fight for its life and yet only has the ephemeral web, connections, anchors and crossings of it."
Barbara blinked thinking back to trips with her mother to the church retreat camp and of seeing a spider's web in the early morning sun with dew on it.
"But... it can be in a circle, too."
"Yeah, that's right! I remember seeing one in a club with... ummm... well anyways, it was in a circle. The web at least. Never saw the spider, though."
Dr. Gotham was speechless as he looked at the nearly completed circle.
"What is the next ring of the web in from the outer one?" he asked softly as he gazed at the diagram.
"If the nexus is the center, does it matter?"
Dr. Gotham looked at her and set his cup down on the table next to him.
"Miss Gordon, do you want to trip over the next piece of the web going in? As it is if Catwoman is as good as her reputation and her word, then events will push her towards the necklace. Once recovered it can then be put with the other items at the Historical Museum, ensnaring them and safeguarding them so that their power wanes thus letting the nexus dwindle under Wayne Tower."
"This is really a confusing way to look at things, you know?" Erin asked shaking her head. She had the sneaking suspicion that they would be spending yet another night below the shop and in the Underworld.