Selina took her time following her mother, which meant going down the hall to the elevators and then passing them heading towards the restrooms. She went to the windows at the end of the corridor and saw that the fire escape was there, and undid the latches and shifted them enough to break the circuits involved. She turned away from them and did not stare at the camera at the intersection which showed no light on even though it was pointed in her direction. With that done she went to the Women's Room and walked into the foyer of it which held a make-up area with mirrors with short ledges beneath them. Through another door and the thick pile carpeting ended and the inlaid mosaic tile began with a sink area on her right with two sinks with mirrors above them, and paper towel dispensers to either side on the walls. Beyond those were the stalls done with a standard institutional gray powdercoat to them. She didn't need to use them and, apparently, neither did her mother who was at the far sink using one of the paper towels to dab at her face.
"I came to see if you are OK, mom," Selina said walking over towards her mother.
"Oh, I'm fine enough, thank you, Selina," her mother said with a distant tone.
Shaking her head from side to side, Selina stopped to her mother's right.
"No, mom, you aren't. I didn't mean to shock you, but... mom..."
Margaret ran cold water a moment and disposed of the paper towel she had been using and took another from the dispenser and wetted it in one corner, then turned the water off and folded the towel over in quarters. She began to wipe slowly over her eyelids.
"Bruce Wayne? Selina that is the most eligible bachelor in Gotham City and perhaps the entire United States. I never thought that you would have a chance to even get to know him..."
"And I still don't, mother. Now that you've met Frank, do you think that he would even entertain that idea?" Selina continued thinking 'particularly after meeting you' but didn't say those words.
"You could find a way if you wanted to, Selina."
"And lose the respect of Frank and Tom if I did, mother. I haven't known either of them very long at all, and it was a bit of a lark asking them out like this. They aren't part of my normal clientele, and I don't expect much in the way of trade from them. But if I'm honest and deal with them right, particularly Frank, then I might just get referrals from some of his friends for other work."
Margaret turned the paper towel around and then used it to wipe at the corners of her eyes.
"Like Mr. Wayne, perhaps?" she asked.
Selina inhaled slowly and then exhaled at the same rate and looked at her mother in the mirror as she took out a compact from her purse to start repowdering around her eyes.
"No, mother. Mr. Wayne would go through his staff, I expect, and then meeting him would be business, only. And while it is a business you approve of, mother, it is one that I like quite a lot. If I try to get into that kind of position with anyone so wealthy, then my business would turn into a mere hobby, if I had any time to run it at all."
Her mother closed the compact and looked at Selina in the mirror.
"You would have a secure life, Selina."
Selina smirked and shook her head slightly.
"Only for a time, mother. At that level of society my time would have to be spent trying to not only emotionally and physically support my husband, but also to keep other women looking for the easy money away from him. That is defending my own place in a larger set of holdings and becoming a trophy of some value to my husband. Is that what you really see for me, mother?"
Margaret pressed her lips together and put her compact into her purse, then snapped it shut, as she turned to look at Selina, directly.
"That would be better than having a 'business' with that layabout Maurice and that snippy Amy, Selina. And why don't you call me directly, anyway?"
Selina raised her eyebrows and looked towards the ceiling and, finding no easy answer there, looked back down to her mother.
"So that we can still be civil with each other in public, mother. And my employees suit me well and I like them, and as you aren't running my life and I am, I suggest you keep your opinions about them to yourself."
Selina realized that she was running her right hand over her hip where her whip usually hung and stopped that.
"I've done my best for you, Selina..."
"No, mother, you have tried to set me up with men you approve of to run my life and theirs. I will have none of that."
Margaret's eyes widened as she looked at Selina.
"And if you don't like men like Frank Rock and Tom Octurian then, mother, the problem isn't with me, but with you. Because they are good men unless you care to deny that, as well?"
Margaret flushed at her daughter's words and she trembled in outrage over what she had said. After having had a lifetime of inventive ways of running down individuals publicly and privately, Margaret Kyle was trying to find something, anything, to say that would be derogatory about Frank or Tom. Then she pictured Tom lifted up by chain with links larger than her hand, his body wrapped and his right leg twisted as he was pulled up. Of Frank Rock she could find nothing to say, either, as he had killed his way through a World War and had the chiseled look of a man who had seen the worst the world could serve up and had come through it to the end.
"Selina... they're... hard men...." she finally got out, the only thing she could think of that was faintly negative about them.
Selina smiled widely like the cat that finally got the canary.
"Oh, yes, mother. You have got them both dead to rights on that! And unlike everyone else you've tried to steer my way by hook or by crook, neither of them is looking to get me into bed or marry me. You know? Normal men? You have met some of those in your life, haven't you, mother?"
Shaking, Margaret started feelilng her anger fall in upon itself, collapsing the front she had patched together at the mirror. She blinked to fight back tears.
"But I haven't been... Selina..."
"I can tick off a half-dozen men you have steered my way, mother. And another two or three probables, as well. Those I've dated you took your acid tongue to and scared them away, and some I did like but never got to find out how much. If you don't like Sarasota then say so and move to where you would like to be. Father didn't leave much but left enough to make sure that you could do well for the rest of your life, if not in great comfort then at least in security. No one else got that from him, only his love when he was alive and that was enough for me. When you started to lay it on with me after he died, I realized that if I didn't steer my own way then I would never get my own life, and then you would do the same to Susan and Alex after me."
"I never would have... Selina! That's a vicious thing to say."
"Mother, I don't care if you lie to me. Stop lying to yourself. I made myself visible and even 'reformed' when that became a nuisance as it could have left me away from my sister and brother and left them to you."
"But... but... I thought... after showing you a good school..."
Selina shook her head slowly.
"No, mother. That is what you thought. You never asked me what I thought. So I get a good school with a high name to it for you to flash around. Your trophy daughter in your shopping cart. Sorry, if you wondered why I ever started vocational training, it was to get out of the damned cart of yours before you decided to get a two-fer deal by finding a 'good husband' for me. You still think you can shop me around, and while you concentrated on me, Susan and Alex had breathing space. I'm not in your cart to be shopped around any more, mom. Time to put me back on the shelf and forget about it. It's not going to happen."
"You needed help..."
"Stop it, mother. I never asked for it. Not once. "
"But you were alone... new to the jewelry business..."
Selina chuckled and then laughed.
"Mom, you're nuts. I know dad's other lines of work, and even helped them once I understood what was going on. And he made sure of that, too. I had a better eye for jewelry than he did, and you knew that and approved of my helping him."
"You aren't... a fence... Selina. You went legit! I'm proud of you for that."
"Mother, have you been blind and deaf for the last, ohhhhh, ten years?"
Margaret looked puzzled.
"What? Selina, I don't know what you're talking about."
"I'll take that as a yes. OK. Mother, I spent a lot of time out with 'friends' from the neighborhood and a few from vocational school. You know, pizza nights and things like that, right?"
Her mother nodded her head.
"And you stopped shoplifting, which neither your dad or I approved of."
"Got your attention, at least. Needed to learn some skills and that was a good way to do that as a juvie. You knew I took the 'odd job' here and there, so what did you think those were? By then dad was out of the picture, and I didn't act like a mule or jobber, so what did you think was going on? I mean my cover stories of helping friends get windows installed or wiring attics was pretty lame, even when they were the truth. But you must have known I was doing more than just that, right?"
"Well you were a growing girl, Selina... I thought... at that age, at least a little experimentation..."
"As if I didn't have enough troubles..." Selina sighed and shook her head, "... but no. Useful misdirection, I'll admit to that and decent cover, apparently. But then you were busy with the shopping cart. So, mother, there is an entire part of my life that you don't know about and which you will want to chisel away at if I don't tell you. So I'll tell you that, no, I am not a fence. I do however need a fence from time to time. OK? Do we have communication here?"
"Oh... my..." Margaret had been doing her best to keep up with her daughter and her shift from topic to topic, but now she was starting to see a pattern emerge. And it wasn't the sort of pattern she had ever thought that her daughter would be involved in. Yet, as her daughter spoke, the pieces started to fit in.
"Selina you didn't! I can't imagine... why... but you're legit!"
"Of course I am, mother, for that part of things. So if you need to be told why I've gotten a bit PO'd about your shopping me around, let me ask you something. How many of those you have shopped my way would actually approve of that sort of life, hmm?"
"But I didn't know, Selina! Really!"
"Yes, mother. You never bothered to ask I how could get some decent clothes, a beat up old car and insurance with just an odd job here and there. Fine. Willful blindness. Now we have an understanding, yes? Not mother to daughter but operator to operator, right?"
Her mother nodded and swallowed.
"I... yes, Selina."
"Good. Don't screw around with my life any more, OK? And don't try to screw around with Susan or Alex's life, either, or there will be hell to pay and I'll deliver it to your doorstep. Try to have a good life, mother, without screwing up someone else's."
For all of the harshness of her tone, Margaret could tell that Selina was treating her with some sort of respect, although it wasn't a standard familial one any more.
"I agree, Selina. Just... what sort of operator are you?"
Selina shifted to walk towards the door, her hips swaying as she walked and then looked back at her mother and said only one word.
"Just another inch, Alfred," Bruce said as Alfred operated the mobile lift and eased up on its brake to let it creep forward. It had the rear quarter panel replacement for the vehicle on chains suspended from it and Bruce was ready with bolts to snug the panel secure from the inside.
"There, park it Alfred, this will be the last of the replacements."
"Yes, Master Bruce," he said putting on the parking brake and shutting the lifter down. As he stepped down from the seat he picked up a set of gloves and socket wrench and walked around to the inside rear of the vehicle to help getting the bolts in place.
"I'm glad that the team decided to make this a break-down and replace prototype," Bruce said with a set of dark blue work clothes on, as he started ratcheting in the top bolts.
"It was the favored method of the team to try different concepts out for the vehicle and they needed to have a general frame that they could adapt to different designs."
"I'm glad they did," Bruce said, "modular enough so that I could use the spares to the finished prototype and put them on this one."
Alfred worked assiduously to get the bolts in place and then put in washers and nuts to snug the down and then used pins going through the nut and bolt to keep the assembly secure.
"Yes, Master Bruce. It is a shame that you had to lose the functional finished design vehicle."
"I was out-thought, Alfred. And Guthrie out-drove me as well. Guthrie is a cunning man and ruthless, at the very least, and that is in addition to whatever else is going on with him. Do we have any word from Barbara?"
Alfred shifted to his knees and onto the kneepads he put on previously for the other side of the vehicle.
"Only her notes and rough outline were delivered to us from the libarary. I called the Commissioner to see if she had gotten home safely."
"No, Master Bruce, but she had phoned in. She said she is with Dr. Gotham in his shop's basement and Erin is there as well. Both are safe and Commissioner Gordon made no indication that he disbelieved his daughter."
Finishing one column of bolts, Bruce shifted to the next and reached into the front bag hanging from his belt.
"Yes, Master Bruce. There is no listed number for him in the directory or on his cards."
"Something is going on, if he is involved. Maybe I should have just taken the Longnose..."
Alfred finished with his column and worked next to Bruce, each taking a separate column.
"You didn't know and so you cannot second guess yourself, and it is unwise to do so."
"It is, yes," Bruce agreed, "Power still out by Lucious?"
"Yes, as of 4 o'clock, and I thought it best to let him deal with familial problems and not burden him with work related ones."
"Heh," Bruce said, "and the right thing to do. I was able to do a lot at the cave holding area, but these panels hadn't been transported there and I did everything else to get it up and running so I could use the subway system. I had to strip the guidance system from the Longnose, but put it above the old inertial system in this vehicle. While not as accurate, that system is a bit better insulated from the exterior than the transponder system."
As Bruce finished his column he stood up to take a look around the rear compartment of the vehicle.
"Still pretty boxy back here, but sleeker than it was coming in. No air brakes, though, or hydraulic righting system."
"There are spares for those, Master Bruce," Alfred said as he pushed the last pin into place.
Bruce shook his head negatively.
"I think I'm running out of time, Alfred, but I don't know about what, exactly."
"A visit to Dr. Gotham tonight, perhaps?"
"If I can find him. Alfred trying to find that shop is problematical. I know that I have been past it at least four times just on normal patrol, but for the life of me I can't recall it."
"It does blend in well in the Shambles," Alfred said as he stood next to Bruce.
"I'm starting to believe him when he says that only those that need to find the shop can."
"Then how did the Norris' find it?" Alfred asked.
Bruce shook his head.
"Something else at work, maybe? Any way, the jump seats will have to do as-is, no real time to pull them, and now all I need is the modular field cabinets and chests... or at least the spares of them. I have nothing to replace the motorcycle, and it did me no good at all against Guthrie Lewis."
"A shame to lose all of that. At least your life didn't go with it."
"No, it didn't, Alfred. And Guthrie Lewis was in no hurry to contact anyone about what had gone on. He didn't see me escape the vehicle, but I did see him from the opposite shore, and a colder man I have never seen."
"Ah, Mrs. Li..." Guthrie said shaking his head as he gazed at his companion at the bar, "... truly you have been a gracious hostess for me. I could not help but be taken with the lovely painting at your store and felt it well worth contacting its owner. Now I've found that even without the painting that I have gotten more than the painting could ever offer me."
"Oh, Mr. Lewis," Cathy Li said in her dark green silk dress with red floral embroidery, "you are too kind to me. And, please, since the departure of my husband after our separation, do call me Cathy."
"Thank you, Cathy. And I'm Guthrie," he said reaching into his suit coat pocket for his cigarette case which had the Fair Winds emblem on it.
"Oh, I had thought that would be a display item!" Cathy said.
After taking a cigarette out and tamping it on the case he put the case back into his jacket and took out his old case and handed it to Cathy.
"That is my old case, made by Jorgens in Denmark," he said taking out the Fair Winds lighter and flicking it open and then rolling its wheel to get a flame. With cigarette applied and first breaths drawn through it, the end was glowing and he snapped the lighter shut.
"Truly?" Cathy said taking the case and opening it. She saw that it held Lesser Panda cigarettes and raised her eyebrows.
"The least I could do to show my respect," Guthrie said taking a drag from his cigarette, "and the girl at the counter downstairs said you liked them. While it isn't much of a gift, I thought you would at least appreciate the case."
Cathy looked at him and then the case, and back again.
"I... I'm honored, Guthrie," she said reflexively taking a cigarette from the silver case, then opened the small box inside the case and took out a matchstick, and struck it against the rough area on underside of the top. The match started easily and she started her cigarette and put out the match stick then dropped that into an ashtray on the bar, then closed the inner box and cigarette case.
"Think nothing of it," he said, "and the least I could do for such pleasant company guiding me through the house specialties. I'm sorry that I'm not much of a dessert fan, but your selection of scotch is admirable."
Cathy nodded, having eaten sparingly with Guthrie and enjoying talking to him about his travels.
"So you have been to China?" Cathy asked.
"Formosa and mainland, most recently near the Kunlun range which is why the painting was so familiar to me. I had work there as a monestary needed to find out how to stop wind damage that they had started to get from lowland storms. Even up a few thousand feet, the wind was getting funneled right their way and no one could figure out why."
He lifted up his scotch in a small snifter and swirled it around before taking a sip from it.
"What was the cause?" Cathy asked sipping at her glass of rice wine.
"Ahh, now that's a story! About 20 years ago an earthquake had caused a landslide on an adjacent slope. Though that wasn't enough to cause the change in direction..." he said waving with his left hand that held the cigarette and making circles with it, "no, alone that would only see a rare wind come up from the lowlands. No the real culprit," he said taking a drag from his cigarette, "was a spring that appeared lower down. Great fortune for the farmers nearby, less fortunate for the monestary as the trees and high brush were cut down around the spring which was forming a pool."
"Oh, but that sounds so beautiful," Cathy said looking at Guthrie, "it must have attracted birds to it."
"Very fair ones," Guthrie smiled and nodded, "but with that open area and the paths now going up to the pool which, of course, had to be cleared out, the final stage was set, you see..." he made a swooping gesture from below hip level and then up to a circle at chest height, "...and those naughty winds now had unhindred path up the side of the mountain and through the natural ravine to the monestary. A place once dry and wind free now had moss growing on it and a constant chill breeze. A most unfortuanate situation."
"I can imagine, yes. Was there a way to fix it?" Cathy said as she watched the gestures and then looked back to Guthrie.
He took a drag from his cigarette and puffed out a smoke ring towards her.
"Of course there was, Cathy, just a bit of building up. Some hard work to get bricks from the village... a place without even electricity... and then using natural cement to put a wall up. A lot of digging involved in the slope on the far side of the ravine, to get to the rock and seat it. Then a bit of buiilding for a ramp, some transplanting of bushes and making sure that it all drained well, and the monestary is once again dry and windless. It was only a job for me, do understand. No real support for the powers that be, just doing a job that few others could do."
She nodded and sipped her rice wine, then smoked.
"Of course, of course... and in Formosa?"
"Ah, that was, let me think now, yes! A sixty story building and they had forgotten to properly account for monsoon winds and rain. A shoddy contracting firm had decided that local talent would do... still an easy, though expensive fix..." he swirled his hand down below hip level and then did a slow moving in a circle as his hand went up, "... to adjust windows and add in a gentle curvature... then an opening at the mid level to allow cross-drafts and reduction of wind load..." he smiled as he looked at her, "... such a beautiful form, all told."
Throughout all of this Guthrie gazed at Cathy and she at him, and around her neck was a necklace that held an ornate spider with ruby eyes set into platinum. It was not a living spider, of course, but one made by one of the world's finest craftsmen that ever lived. It could not move around on its own to make a web, but depended on others to take it where it wished to go. For it didn't need to be alive to move around, nor did it need a brain to think with, and yet intent and thought did course through its lovingly crafted form. Like all spiders it was more than ready to welcome a fly to its parlor. But when it came home to find its parlor with someone else there inviting it in, then the instinct was to flee.
Unfortunately this spider could not do so as it could not move on its own.
Its web of place it was attached to had given warning to it, of course, but there was no indication that what was crossing those places actually knew about it.
Unable to move, unable to call out, unable to do anything but swing on a chain, it could not escape from its found parlor. And the paths to escape were slowly, inexorably being shut around it as the one that it was with was having something done to her that it could not counter.
Frank watched as Tom held the rear door of the limo open for Margaret Kyle, and gave her his hand to help her in.
"Thank you, Tom," she said looking at him as she held his hand stepping into the limo.
"My pleasure, Margaret," he said as he let go of her hand and then handed her the bouquet of flowers that had been placed on the roof of the limo. She smiled up at him and he nodded then gently closed the door and stood away from the vehicle.
Frank was at the mid-door to the vehicle and felt Selina's arm around his waist, holding on to him as he stood next to the door. She sllid her arm from around his waist and, as he raised his arm to lend her his hand, she turned sinuously and stood on her toes to kiss his cheek.
"Thank you, Frank," she whispered into his ear as he smiled and moved his hand to her elbow. Behind him Old Reliable was in its case and he gave a half-hug to Selina as he kissed her cheek.
"Welcome, Selina. Not a bad night, at all."
She lowered her body from his and looked up at him with a twinkle in her eye.
"A very good one," she purred, "and I will get you something suitable, never worry."
"I'm not," he said as she took his hand and stepped into the limo. Tom reached to the second bouquet and handed those to Frank who then handed them into Selina once she was seated on the side seat.
"Goodnight, Frank, Tom," she said.
"Goodnight, Selina," Frank said and ducked his head in, "and it was nice meeting you, Mrs. Kyle. Have a good night."
Margaret pressed her lips together and gave a thin smile.
"I will, thank you Sgt. Rock."
"Goodnight, Frank. See you two later," Selina said.
Stepping back, Frank closed the door and then stooped down to pick up Old Reliable. They waved at the limo as it pulled from the curb and once it had taken a turn and was out of sight, Frank turned to the Project.
"Back to the Park'n'Ride lot. Can't miss the Bora from there," he said gesturing to the small valet lot down the street.
"Yes. Will you be coming back to change clothes?"
Frank shook his head.
"Just keep watch at the lot. I'll change there and there shouldn't be anyone out on a cold night like this."
Frank dug the keys out of his pocket and flipped them in the air over to the Project.
"You're the one with advanced optics. Just in case."
"Yes," the Project said after easily catching the keys in mid-air, "just in case."
Together the two men walked down the street to the Park'n'Ride lot which used a simple box on a pole with slots for parking space, and bills could easily be folded over and slid into the slot. It required no one to oversee it, and the two overhead light stands provided enough light to navigate down the three rows available for parking. And from one of the back corner spaces, the Project kept watch on the surroundings and, in particular, on the Maserati in the lot with the chain link fencing across the street. It had a booth at its entrance with one man inside it reading a magazine. And all the Project needed to do was watch.
Outside The Shelton hotel's main doors, Selina stood by her mother and looked at her.
"Mom, I'm sorry I didn't tell you more but things just made that impossible."
Margaret looked at her eldest daughter and shook her head.
"Selina I... what you said hurt but not because its wrong. It's just hard to take that what I thought was trying to do you some good..."
"Mom, just stop that, OK?" Selina said cutting her mother short, "I know your intentions and you know your intentions, and that has to be over now. I'm a big girl and can make my own decisions and live with them. You told me, oh, years ago that your mother didn't approve of dad and you married him anyway. All I want is what you got, which was choosing on your own."
Margaret smiled, holding the bouquet of flowers with her left arm and then looked at them.
"He really is attractive in the rugged sort of way," she whispered.
"Both are, mother. I'm grown up enough to see that and appreciate it."
"Yes, you are," Margaret said looking at Selina with a smile, "and that is important."
Selina smiled in return and stepped to her mother to hug her, and they exchanged kisses on the cheek.
Selina whispered, "And keep my other line of work to yourself, OK?"
Margaret hugged her daughter and softly said, "Of course, just like with your father."
Slowly Selina stepped back from the embrace and looked at her mother.
"Good-bye, mom. I've got a hectic schedule, but if I can shake some time free I'll have Amy call you."
Margaret pressed her lips together and said softly.
"If you could, just this once Selina? Please."
Selina slowly nodded her head.
"Of course. Now we have to be off to get the limo back before the rental shop closes. Goodnight."
"Take care, Selina."
Margaret watched as Selina got into the rear of the limo and Maurice closed the door, then turned to tip his hat to her.
"Goodnight, Mrs. Kyle."
Maurice went around the back of the vehicle to the driver's side door and Margaret watched them drive out of The Shelton's half circle drive.
Inside the vehicle, Selina turned the rear lights off as Maurice got into the car.
"Clothes under the seat?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said as the limo turned out of the drive and onto the street, "everything's there. The Bobcat is up at that alley off 32nd, easy to get to."
"Good. No peeking, now. You're a family man." Selina said as she started stripping and putting on skin tight clothes and then a layer of warmer clothes over that.
"God's truth, Selina, I'm just watching the streets."
He didn't add that he couldn't see much with the lights out in back, but best not to tempt fate.
"Amy got the blankets on the engine block, so you'll need to pop the hood to move those before you go anywhere."
"Great!" Selina said getting an outer sock on over her silk socks and then started to struggle with the thin soled boots. "And one hundred fifty feet of line, too?"
"Yeah, in the satchel," Maurice said, "whip is in there too, the eight footer like you asked. Glass cutters, too."
She was struggling into a tight sweater that, even with the silk body stocking under it, left nothing to the imagination.
"Probably won't need those since their security system is out for the night."
"Sweet!" Maurice said, "Oh, and the two draw bags are in it, too. Fifty foot of cord on a spool. Also one of those bonker flashlights, you know? In case you need a blunt instrument."
The three D-cell flashlight in its aluminum housing could serve as a handy light source and as the self-same blunt instrument and Selina had to decide if she would actually take it with her or leave it in the Bobcat.
"Thanks! Strip of mints in there, too?"
"Uh-huh. Plus the chloroform soaked gauze, all sealed tightly and double bagged. Hope you don't need those."
"Me too," she said unrolling the high collar of her body suit and then slipping the mask top of it over her head. Over that went the leather mask which was fur lined on the inside.
"We're coming up to the light. Want me to stop at it or go around the block?"
"Just slow to walking, Maurice," Selina said putting the satchel's strap across her chest from upper right to lower left.
"Gotchya... slowing up... see ya later, Selina."
Selina opened the door as Maurice indicated for a right hand turn and slowed as the limo approached the corner.
"Good night, Maurice. Catch up with you tomorrow."
Selina slid out the door and used the frame of the vehicle to support herself as she started to jog, and then closed the limo door and ran across the street to the alleyway. There, just past the dumpster for one of the mid-rise buildings that had a deli on the ground floor, Selina found the beat up old Bobcat. The prior name of the vehicle model was one that was associated with explosive gas tanks and the change in name did nothing to address the looks of the vehicle. Selina had a fuel cell put in to address that concern, and some additional angle iron welded into the frame, then got the largest motor for that line of cars and had that installed. It was not much of a Bobcat and looked much better in an alleyway. Not a lot better, but enough so that it became part of the urban landscape. In minutes the blankets were off the engine and Selina had her equipment adjusted just as she liked it, and then ran through the alleyways to find a line she had tied off next to a downspout from her previous foray. She slid the ascent slider from her harness on it and worked her way up to the roof.
Catwoman was now officially on the prowl.
Firm yet gentle arms held her close to the body that was under the robe. Her feet lifted from the ground and she felt... something... and then her feet touched the ground again. Gently the figure let her go and an arm draped with cloth pointed away from them. She turned and could see some sort of wavering, twisting in space that looked almost like a mirror save that it was shifting what it reflected continuously.
She looked back and up at the figure and could not see its face and if it had arms and hand, then that, too, was covered.
"This isn't Dreaming... not the Precipice we are still in the desert..."
"Reach..." she heard softly from the swirling near mirror and turned towards it. Close to the ground she could see something like a whirlpool that was slowly moving just above the ground level. "Reach so she can find...." a woman's voice came and went.
Lisa knelt down, exhausted from her travels and now at a place she didn't know once more. Putting her hands on the ground, the dust of dreams long dead, she came closer to the surface and could start to see gray go to black and then, in the blackness, she could see someone reaching their hand up. An older woman was next to the younger one who was reaching her hand up.
"But what...?" Lisa started.
"Give her a beacon, girl... where she can come to you..."
Lisa started to turn her head away and then she felt a foot hit her backside and she was pushed forward and in, then down into the swirling nexus.
"Time to wake up, now," came a whisper from behind her. With her hands outstretched she fell...
... backwards into the arms of the older woman. Lisa crumpled to her legs and a younger man or maybe boy stood by her to hold her so that she didn't fall completely to the ground.
A ground which was concrete. Cold and damp concrete. She felt as if the clothes she wore were a size or three too big for her as she held onto the iron railing and looked out to the side and into the tunnels where the rails crossed.
"Ah, girl... Lisa! She is back, do you feel that Shlasuar?"
"Yes," he said holding the woman so that she could hold onto the railing, "she is suffused with the nexus!"
Maria nodded holding Lisa's shoulders and then indicating that Shlasuar should help her lay down.
"Get the blanket out of my pack, so she will be off the concrete," she said.
Lisa was tired, disoriented and felt as if she had come through a long journey. She could barely move and the old wool blanket was a relief to be on and it was partially rolled so she could rest her head at one end. She looked up and saw a grayness amidst the black of the stonework of the tunnel, and then the grayness imploded from all sides and disappeared from view, the last glimpse was a gray robed figure with hooded face looking down to her and nodding once.
"How do you feel, Lisa?" Maria asked.
"Who... who are you?" she croaked out of her dry throat.
Maria took a canteen and took the cup off its bottom and poured some water into it. It was spring water, cold and with a metallic tang to it, that helped Lisa no end as she lifted her head up to sip it.
"Drink slowly, Lisa. I am Maria and this is my traveling companion, Shlasuar."
Lisa handed the cup back to Maria and turned her head to look out in the tunnel beyond.
"Oh! I was... Erin! Barbara!" Lisa said trying to sit up and grabbing the railing to look out into the tunnels lit with only dim maintenance lights above that cast a yellow light on everything. "Where are they?" she asked quietly.
Maria stowed the cup and looked at Lisa for a moment.
"They left some time ago, Lisa. They had thought you dead and buried you. That was very dangerous to do as you were near ftagn. That cannot be and put us all in peril."
"But... what?" Lisa asked letting go of the railing. Shlasuar helped her lay back as she pressed her lips together and shivered. "They thought I was... dead?"
"And buried you, too. But you had living affinity here. I felt that from the nexus," he said looking at the empty space in the tunnel above them.
"We came to find you, Lisa. And had to get you out of the grave, as well. Nurse you until I was sure of what had happened to you. With that known we came here to give you a place to return to because the Formless Ones had shorn that which is you from your body."
"Formless...." she looked around her, "you mean that green and black and brown stuff that was here?"
Shlasuar nodded and looked at Maria.
"Yes," he said and she nodded, "and they had wanted you. We don't know what... happened to leave you like that...the Formless Ones of all kinds are to be feared."
"Do you remember coming back to here, Lisa. Just now?"
Lisa closed her eyes togther.
"I... swirling... there was a figure... gray robe... a scarecrow! Or I thought it was... its... maybe real... I... talked with someone... at a place where two paths met..."
"Really?" Maria whispred, "Do you know who it was?"
Lisa opened her eyes.
"Like a used car salesman or politician. He was... it got darker and darker gray behind him..."
"He was there... a dream... ugly dream... then Green... then..." her eyes grew wider, "a ledge above a desert... dreams floating and on the ground... I... its a horrible, horrible place..."
"The Precipice," Shlasuar said, "John went there to try and get you out."
"A man," Lisa said nodding, "he was... a creature... soaring... just... I don't think he..."
"He didn't survive that, Lisa," Maria said, "that was our traveling companion and erstwhile guide, John. He tried to give you a connection to Waking so you could come back. That is always a treacherous path, no matter where you start."
"But none of that is real. It feels like a dream."
Shlasuar nodded his head from side to side.
"John was lifted up and torn to pieces while asleep. No dream can do that. No remnant spirit can, either."
"All of that is... no..."
"Try to keep those memories, Lisa. You are now back amongst the living and we are all safe from what had happened."
"And my friends from here?" she said looking out into the tunnel.
Maria looked at Shlasuar.
"What do you feel?"
Shlasuar closed his eyes and inhaled slowly.
"The weak affinity," he said pointing to his left, "is... moving... there is..." he said raising his right hand to point down the tunnel to the cross-tunnel, "one... no... two affinities... moving... close together... they are living while... the other... is power."
"Those living ones are likely ones you know. You will need a bit of time to recover from having your spirit reintegrated with your body. Once you become accustomed to it, it will feel like you never left."
Lisa had questions... lots of questions... but this woman, Maria, was right. She felt out of sorts, as if she had just gotten through some sickness but that it had passed quickly and she was recovering. She hadn't been left for dead, at least. That no one could see that she had still been alive, that was extremely frightening.
Over and across to the building where the Golden Tiger Club was went much faster without that thin layer of ice to contend with. In a moment the rope was pulled across and she trotted across the roof to the rear side of the building and secured the rope to dangle next to the fire escape on the hall side, not the room window side. Her plan going in was simple, and if she was able to just execute it, she would be golden. With that done she hurried over to the western edge of the building as quickly and as quietly as possible went down the fire escape to the 10th floor window. Each window was in a set with one going to the fire escape and the other opening next to it that allowed a fire ladder to be placed so that if the fire escape was blocked firemen could still get into the building. There she saw that the one leading to the escape had not been adjusted from when she had left it less than a half-hour ago. When she got to it she lifted it up smoothly after she applied penetrating lubricant to its inset frame tracks.
With the window open she listened and, hearing only a distant clatter of plates from the upper club area, she slid into the hallway and softly closed the window. The padded carpet let her quietly dash to the intersection and stop just before it and listen, then give a quick glance at the cross hallway and, that being empty, she smoothly glided over to the other side and into the central stairs of the building. Using the handrail she skipped steps two and three at a time, keeping her breathing measured as she found a good pace downwards to the 5th floor. She listened at the door and heard someone moving outside, possibly two someones given the shadows she could see under the door and she moved to the other side of the door so anyone coming in would push the door towards her. The door opened and she heard two men talking but couldn't understand their language, and she gently held the handle of the door as it pressed closer to her and as she heard them start to move on the stairs she waited a moment and then released the door as she slid around in front of it and into the hallway. Checking the intersection she moved to her left and got to the door that she knew led to Li Sun's suite of rooms.
From a form fitting thigh pocket she took out her cloth encased picks and worked on the upper lock, a deadbolt, and opened that, and then the lower knob lock, which took a moment longer but which also opened easily. On the inside only a few items were left that she remembered from her last visit, but the one to Li Sun's father was still there and it held a soft light over it so that it was in light day or night. She could see by that and, in the corner near the shrine was the Golden Tiger Statue which was on a pedestal of marble. The statue a little over a foot tall and half as wide, and was of a tiger done in white marble from Greece with jet and gold stripes for the tiger as it walked going around the base of tree on a hillside.
"Meow," she said softly, "time to come home with me."
She took one bag from her satchel and put it over the top of the tiger statue and lifted it slowly. It had been a commissioned piece long decades ago, but most visitors thought that it was of minor value, only. A decorative piece. The person who commissioned it wanted a place to put his gold and yet have it safe in plain sight. There was much marble in the statue, of course, but the gold amount was not to be passed up and Selina had a difficult time lifting it and setting it on the floor. With that done a second, sturdier, black burlap bag was opened and the tiger put into that. A leather strap closed the opening and a bunching up of burlap under the statue allowed a second strap to secure the bag from the bottom. Each strap had two stitched D-rings in them, and between those went yet another strap so that it could support the weight of the tiger and, with simple snap hooks, become a handle for carrying it out.
With that in hand she went to the door and listened. Cracking the door open she saw no one in the hall and turned the interior lock so the handle lock would engage as the door closed behind her. Swiftly, quietly, checking at each intersection she sped down the hall, a moving shadow between the pools of light cast down by the ceiling canister bulbs. A cross hallway, the last, she took right and then passing rooms used for business and private entertaining, she went to a cross hall that went to the fire escape. There she undid the latches, lifted the window to the escape and listened. No alarms, still.
Smilling she stepped out to the platform and put the bag down on it next to the line dangling from above. She left a metal wedge on each window ledge so that she could push them into the small space between the track and the window to keep it in place. From the 5th floor she just needed a few seconds and she hoped that those would buy her those seconds.
Quickly she went back in and lowered the window, but didn't lock it and she undid the locks to the other window so she could have her choice of which one to use because she might not have the time to use the wedges which would mean a quick descent from the left window, grabbing the statue or taking a moment to be concealed in the space between the two windows and descend properly and securely. Without the rope moving there would be nothing to attract immediate attention and once she was on it the descent would be much safer without having to let her hands do the work of slowing her on the way down.
"Part one, done," she whispered to herself, her smile fading as she let her legs eat the distance back to the intersection and turned left at it and stopped at a door with three locks. She listened and, hearing nothing, she opened the locks and then, once inside, locked them once more. With a penlight she memorized the lock positions and type, and which way they worked. Then a slow walk down the back hallway to Cathy Li's apartment to assure herself it was as she remembered it to be, with the open living space and its double size entrance, then the dining room next down the hall on her right, then the kitchen. It was all open on the far window side as one large space, but that had only been done in the last decade. The original floor plan next had a small bedroom, which Cathy used as a sitting room, then the bathroom just before her bedroom. There Selina memorized the layout, where the dressing table was, the small sofa along the back wall, the bed alcove, night stand, light switch for the overhead light and then where the small table lamps were next to the bedside and on the dressing table. She examined the safe which was open and it was of an older design, but would still take her hours to break into.
Finally, at the closet she examined the clothing and seeing the long dresses on the right decided that behind those would keep her safe from observation.
A glance at the glowing bedside clock showed it to be nearly 11PM.
"Sunday closing hour... if Cathy doesn't keep it open later, that is."
Carefully she checked under the dressing table, and the small upright dresser to see if Cathy kept the lock combination pasted to an upper surface out of view. Finding that she hadn't, Selina spent a few minutes checking the other jewelry that was out and decided not to waste her time. There were a few valuable pieces, yes, but size and placement would betray their absence, and they were not worth disturbing to get to the piece she wanted. That piece had its own padded box that was open with 'FABERGE' in small gold letters on the upper surface on the box's interior.
All it needed was its resident, the Spider Necklace.
Hearing voices she went to the closet and then slid between a black silk and a green silk dress, and shifted them enough apart so that she could step through quietly without disturbing them. As she did so she could hear the voices clearer as the door to the apartment opened.
"Oh, Guthrie! Mmmmmmm..."
Selina heard a gasp and then Cathy giggle.
"Please do come in so we can get better acquainted."
Selina rolled her eyes and tried to concentrate on the job.
"Of course, dear Cathy..."
The doors closed and a snap bolt slid into place and then there was the soft sounds of kissing in the distance.
'This is the part of the job I hate,' Selina thought to herself and did her best to remain focused as the floor show entertainment was going to do its best to distract her.
The vehicle ran smoothly and quietly. In this early prototype form it had a central engine compartment that had been used to swap out power plants as the team tested different ones in it. They had thought a gas turbine would be the objective, something like the M-1 Abrams tank used, but the sound from that was far too much and even a scaled down version made at the foundry under ATC East could not give the power without the noise. Plenty of power, yes, but if everyone is deafened by it then the purpose of the vehicle would be defeated. Thus the first powerplant they had used went back into it and that had been a modern copy of the engine in the vehicle that Thomas Wayne had purchased for family drives and that Bruce had restored with modifications. Back just when he was coming into the majority of Wayne Enterprises stock, he had the old Vehicle Group take out the V16 engine of the Cadillac so they could get its dimensions down. First was a cast iron replacement block, just in case it was needed, and that had been put together and tested, then pulled apart and lubricated for long-term storage. It was a worthy replacement to the old block if anything ever happened to it.
Next was a modern steel block engine and with that the compression ratio increased per cylinder and the modern camshaft had much higher tolerances for torque and rotation, which meant much, much more power in the drivetrain. V16 engines are inherently stable and thus smooth and quiet running and the torque output was enough to impress the modern engineers who now had their first contender for a power plant. Of course it would get replaced by the final diesel engine that had been modified in Japan to be one of the quietest running of its kind. It tested well in the first prototype and then in the final prototype, which had torque, pick-up and quiet running that well exceeded the old V16 design. And weighed more, of course, and that was a power to mass ratio problem that was decided in favor of the diesel engine as it was one of the best of breed available. The modern duplicate V16 went back into the first modular prototype and, when that had a test drive accident, Bruce Wayne had a few people work on it here and there to get its frame back into alignment and then put into the 'archives' and then quickly forgotten.
With a puncture resistant, self-sealing fuel cell gasoline was relatively safe to use for the vehicle and it actually had more storage space above the engine compartment in the center of the vehicle than the final prototype did. And more side space, as well, although that would only be available if duplicates of the original panels could be found for it as those originals had been damaged beyond repair in the accident. Bruce had used the restored original prototype to get used to the handling characteristics of the vehicle so he could make a smooth transition to the final prototype when it, too, went into the 'archives'. Both vehicles had been outfitted with the subway and train rail guide systems and the lower center of gravity of the older prototype meant that it hugged the rails much better than the final one did.
After installing the modular drawers and cabinets, it was a simple matter of refueling the vehicle and taking it out to the major trackways to ensure that the full transponder system worked as well as the old inertial guidance system. This was a 'nothing fancy' test drive, just checking to make sure that the vehicle worked well enough to be used on the North Island's major tracks that paralleled the pier and Mid-Gotham River waterfronts and northwest cross system, and then to the South Island's loop out parallel to the piers and on to the Marina and then back on its northeast cross track, then along the central track paralleling the Mid-Gotham River. That got the major interchange at Gotham Central and the North Side interchange, although not testing for the underground yard holding area at this point as it was a rarely used side system.
Normally he would have gone on to a patrol on the North Island, but that was not in the cards for tonight as Bruce was fatigued and the vehicle needed a thorough Lucious-level inspection.
At the intersection under Wayne Tower he saw no one there, which was not unusual, of course, although he expected that the WIST crew would be getting an early start, they wouldn't come in during the hours just after midnight on a Monday morning. He looked forward to the very rare time of actually getting to bed at a decent hour so that he could sleep past noon. For such an idle playboy he really did find ways to occupy his spare tiime.
It had been moved down in the building and back to the rooms that held its case. Once the one who took it along changed clothes and it knew, now, that she was caught up in a web it could not define or counter in any way. The closeness to that one who had been pulling up its affinity points was chilling to it, although warming to its carrier, and that duality was not lost upon it.
Having been born of Chaos it had a certain order to it, but not a Great Order and only minor power with which to utilize affinity. By itself, amongst those things constantly coming out from the center it knew that if it stayed there too long it would be devoured and dissolved forever and while certain power might be akin to it, that any new thing would not be it. What it could do was cast lines, snag onto things that moved and, sometimes, if the conditions were right, even entice such movement in a certain direction away from that awful cacophany that was near all that Chaos. Even out beyond the easy mindless reach it was in constant danger from other things that were far more potent, powerful and hungry than it was. Also, further from the center, there were fewer things for it to ingest and those few that made it this far may have reached their limits or just been spewed out with such force that they could only drift, and all of them were few and far between. It had needed to find a home, a place that had some safety where it could reside and work what little power it had to its own advantage so as to stay alive. Mostly all it saw were the Great Ones who moved so easily and were so large that the thought of even being near one was something it could not live with, as all that power just might consume it by accident. At once they were both too big and too small, and it needed something so large that even an accident of power would only have a miniscule chance of actually consuming it.
That was a fearful time and it had nearly despaired of ever finding anything to allow it to just have its own existence and take its chances with the random things that would always be a threat to it. In that time without seeming end it finally came upon a place so large, so encompassing, that it knew that this could only be a fabled place called a 'universe'. These were not things made just by Chaos, although it had a role to play, of course, and it took some actual ability to deal with a being so powerful that it could actually contain a 'universe'. This one was huge and offered so much space and time that, surely, it would have some minor place for it to safely stay and exist within it. Only so much could be gained by working from the outside, near its lines and boundary, and while information was scanty it did learn that this had been a being on that vast scale and it had been killed by its own kin. So mighty, and so vast to have an actual 'universe' around it, those kin had not appreciated it and killed that which was their parent. This was bad, of course, as it was a place that had much that was problematical to it, and had so many lesser powers within it that they just might be everywhere. On the good side was that those numerous ones tended to kill each other off and when they grew in power they paid less attention to smaller things. This being the only such place it had found had made it worth the risk and it entered this 'universe' and committed itself to it as being outside it for any period of time more would mean certain death.
It was, at once, both empty and dazzling inside this 'universe' which, because of the amount of power granted to it, actually had a profusion of 'universe' within it. What little mind it had could not comprehend just what sort of power this could be, just that it was a far better place to be than on the outside. It took eons to orient itself, find a niche, cast webs and slowly bring about a tiny number of shapes and forms that it could attune to. It could not offer any of the things that Great Old Ones or Ancient Ones or Unspeakable Ones could, of course, but in its own way it used its minor fraction of power to its own survival. Once oriented in a 'universe' within the 'universe' it began to understand just what this entire place was, at least to its own limited extent that it could. And the old story, ancient story, story that went back to when this 'universe' space and place was actually the abode of a single being echoed, still, across all it contained.
Other intelligences arose, fell, and new ones took their place, and fell, over and over again. With a bit here to pull with, a tiny nudge there, a bit of enticing for another it learned about this idea of cycle and motion that went around which was not that weird as it was like the mindless Singers orbiting around Chaos, just that it was without the Singers or Chaos involved. Death it knew all too keenly could come to it. The idea of rebirth was so outside what it had ever experienced that it could not grasp the concept at first nor for a very, very long stretch of time. And yet inside a 'universe' within the 'universe', a direction of its own within Chaos, this actually happened here and there though very, very rarely. Once the circle was applied to that it then had to spend an endless space of time coming up with the question: 'could this very container undergo that same thing?'
And if the answer was 'yes' then it knew that its end would happen upon that rebirth as all would be consumed within the largest thing that was the container for this 'universe' to remake it into what it had been plus something more. Its experiences might not be lost in that, but it, as a being, would be.
This was not good, at all.
It then spent time, measured in lifetimes and more, trying to find out if there were signs or signals or things that would spur such a rebirth on, as there had been with the minor ones it had heard about so it must be with the larger one, or so its limited reasoning went. And there were, of course, objects of power made for heralding such a thing, not just pieces of this or that icon or artifact, but something made with the actual rebirth in mind. If it could but find those objects, put a web over them of misdirection, and keep them from going on their courses towards their end, then it would be safe.
The form it was in was perfect to it, even though it could not move it could still think its mindless thoughts and direct its own affinity to begin bringing these things together. With the most potent and direct of those items in one man's hands, it was able to get transferred to him and for a short, ever so short few weeks, it was together with them. It tried to misdirect, to put its web in place but the power of the one was not to be denied as it was a piece of the actual being to be reborn. Even in getting moved it had been able to put misdirection in place to keep that piece out of circulation. Perhaps forever.
Then the other, the harbinger piece, it was its own thing, as well, but somewhat easier to deal with. But power was already in play on the owner who fell to madness and with that a caretaker with no affinity for the things he took care of was appointed. For mere common value the other piece was taken and rightfully transferred, thus leaving only the barest trace of proximal affinity with it. With a tug here, a pull there, it saw that a Servant of another Being was nearby and did all it could to arrange for the second piece to arrive in his hands. Then came the hard work of moving between people, tugging at a heartstring here or there, trying to find the way to get back together with the second piece to at least mask it.
An unlucky day saw the first piece found and it, that thing of which it was the merest chip off a hind tooth, that used means to get close to the second piece, renew their mutual affinity and then, oh such vast power was used as to frighten it, put itself out of the way where only the barest of affinity still leaked out in a pocket that nothing it could do could get to. Even with the marriage and need to fund it getting it to where it was by the second piece, it could only do a partial shielding of it and that bare affinity did not lack in force as it was trapped in stasis. There was no safety in this as the first piece could move whenver it chose and that meant great problems for its wonderfully worked form that it resided in. If it could entice with its metal skin and stone eyes, then that first piece could entice with mere avarice and set into motion the cycle in full. Unbelievably that which was its common value caused its webs to come undone and bring back the first piece which meant that the second was now available for use.
Things got out of its grasp and reach and only the Servant put the first attempt to rebirth away.
The Being it served was exhausted to do that, and now rested deeply beneath the land, leaving it at the mercy of mere vice and avarice. And at this being that was now slowly pulling in its carrier. No good was going to come of this and once he had it in hand then its demise was all but assured. Now it cast about for anything, any affinity, it could find to get itself out of the box that it had now been placed in, viewing the room and bed of that one that carried it and knowing that for all it could do it could not thwart mere emotions and feelings of flesh and blood. If it could find anything of the Servant it would grasp onto it. Or even just get out of this situation to survive beyond the ultimate transfer of it to that being which was now present and wending its way with its carrier.
It had never seen cats as anything but a curse to those who were like it.
That was what it was down to.
A being of cat who now just happened to have her eyes on it.
If it could whisper 'save me, please' it would.
Yet its web could only speak of utility.
Utility was no match for lust.
Or so it thought its mindless thoughts.