It was so cool, the rock surface was, a bit rough to feel against the skin but underneath his body it was smooth though not glass smooth, still very smooth. He was freezing, he knew that, and pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around them to slowly open his eyes to the grayness of the sky above and to his left, and the dark gray of rock to his right and under him. Dust settled down from above and, looking up, he saw a red figure wheeling about high in the sky with wings outstretched so that the creature could soar above all things. Clothing had not translated with him here, this was not a place he should ever be and would never be if not for those toxins that sent him here to follow the lead of affinity. Many saw his people as evil, treacherous, hateful of all others and in league with Beings who would bring ruin to all other things. Some of this was true, yes, but the instinct for self-preservation existed and required that ruin was brought on all things, then his People would be ruined, as well. That instinct existed in all living things and he was living and he was now in a place where no known traveler had returned. Quite simply if he did not find Lisa Choi soon in this dreamless dreaming amidst the deathly desolation, then he would freeze to death and his corpse would shatter when some wind or other blew it over the smooth Precipice to fall along the mountainside to the distant dusty desert below.
Standing, slowly he dared not move from the one place his body had lain because that rock still held a tiny bit of warmth from him.
"Lisa?" he croaked out softly through parched lips and dry mouth. He was being drained of energy from the substance that transformed into this land and when it was gone then so was his life. Closing his mouth he worked his tongue so that he could get some moisture to lick his lips and then swallow.
"Lisa?" he asked with a somewhat more human voice as he turned to look behind him at boulders on the edge of the Precipice and then ahead at other boulders on the edge of the Precipice.
"Please... You are here... Affinity brings me to you... please, Lisa..."
A new boulder faded into view but this one had color to it, skin color and black hair, and the look as if dust had settled on it but that it was now coming to life again.
"Who...?" the figure of Lisa Choi stood, slowly, fading in and out of focus and view.
"We found your... body, Lisa and are draining toxins from it. You must not die there and be here."
As she stood she turned to look out over the ghastly plains of dreams best left dead below and the gray sky above. She was no longer naked but had on simple jeans and cotton plaid shirt, boots and a thin belt around her waist.
"Why have you come for me?"
He looked at her and realized she did not feel the cold, that she was clothed, here, and that her affinity gave her things that should not be with any who stood here.
"I... Lisa you have affinity with a place in the Underworld of Gotham... we found that place and sought out one who had that affinity. We didn't know it... would be you. You are in an impossible place and conjunction, and we fear what that will cause if you die now whle being here."
"You volunteered to die here in my place?"
John gasped and took a step away from her and out towards the Precipice.
"I don't want to die here, Lisa. I thought if I was able to get you to leave, even if just to Dreaming, I would be able to get back."
She tilted her head and looked at him.
"It does not work that way, I'm sorry."
His keen senses when in more open air told him much of the vastness around him, the swirling of the air, the true warmth of Lisa's form and so many other things. Depth perception meant for dense waters could work, if not well, in thin air, and it told him of one, other thing.
A predator coming in at unavoidable speeds from the distance, fast enough so that he could not turn to even see the red, flying form or the talons that pierced his body to kill him and freeze him instantly, breaking his form apart to shards that dropped to the distant desert floor, below.
Lisa Choi was no longer there in that instant, only seeing a glimpse of the horror that had happened.
She took one step and was in the Land of Nod, East of Eden and no Nightmare of that realm would ever match the nightmare she had just left. Friendship, devotion, and self-sacrifice had cleansed her and she had escaped from a land and place far, far worse than the Valley of the Shadow of Death or even any of great confines of all other realms that Death held. And now she faced yet one more obstacle, even with all that.
"Where am I?"
"... its not like you have a packed schedule, Selina. And, besides, you do need to keep a hand on the retail side of things beyond the big ticket items. Those are great when you can get them but..."
Amy was looking up from her desk and tapping on the calendar which had Selina's appointment with Frank Rock on it. She really hadn't noticed if it had been put up yesterday or this morning, and suspected it was the latter, even though Amy protested that it was the former.
"I do know what keeps the bills paid around here, Amy. We can go for months and not have to handle very much, now..."
Amy shook her head from side to side.
"Living on what is in the various accounts only goes so far and some of that should be put into looking for some better stock and maybe another office..."
"I don't have time to keep two offices running, you know that," Selina said.
"Ain't that the truth?" Maurice said from a chair off to the side of the room, putting the phone there back in its cradle. "Besides, you gots clientele willing to travel and being here means not having to pay the high rent of real New Yorker. Plus you gots your choice of venues in the Northeast with all sorts of good tracks, you betchya!"
Selina sighed as this set of arguments had been chasing its own tail for the better part of three years between them, with each of them taking on one of the arguments for expansion, larger client base, or upgrading the jewelry side of the business. So far nothing had been worked out and whenever it seemed that the set of topics just might be laid to rest, one of them brought it up for another go around.
"From what you said this Sergeant Frank Rock isn't that upscale, but he is new business, at least. Its worth a Saturday and it isn't like you run a normal business. You got more out of a day at the gym than you got the entire last trip to Europe," Amy said shifting a folder out and then putting a label into the typewriter to which she put in Rock, Sgt. Frank (ret.), after which it left the platen in her nimble fingers and got affixed to the folder. "Do you want me to take notes, or are you going to go with whatever you scribble down?"
Pressing her lips together Selina closed her eyes. It was more than just the attitude of Amy, that she could forgive, but the ache and bruise in her ankle and the feeling that her dream had left her with, plus the wind storm had left her feeling ill at ease. In general she had a calm temper, because without one a job could go sour and possibly lethal in a split second when emotions clouded sound judgment. Just as she was about to say something, the door to the room opened and Frank Rock came in with his friend Tom behind him carrying a case.
"I'm sorry, but I'm a bit early," Rock said as he stepped in.
Selina turned, opened her eyes as she did so and smiled as she saw Sgt. Rock and Tom Octurian, and then halted for a moment as she took stock of the case that Tom had. She had seen one just like it, although in somewhat better shape than this one, and it had contained a most unpleasant surprise as she found herself trying get out of a house after an alarm she had missed had been triggered on the way out. That had been a close call in Florida and she had kicked herself for not doing a better job of research to find out just what it was the head of security actually had with him. She had assumed communications gear, perhaps a kevlar vest and additional reloads for his sidearm. What had actually appeared gave her a near fatal surprise and only having one or two tricks to play around with saved her life and allowed a clean escape. That had been a mere head of security, a man who used the weapon normally contained in that case with an eye just to take her down. Sgt. Rock was a trained soldier and, presumably, had used that weapon in some of the worst situations that a World War could throw at him.
"Not to worry, Sgt. Rock," Selina said, "please do come in," turning to Amy, "Amy could you show our guests to my office?"
Amy took the hint and stood up with the folder under her arm and came around the desk to stand beside Selina.
"Sergeant, if you would come this way?"
"Of course," Rock said as he came into the office and Tom shut the door as he came into the room.
"I'll be with you in a moment as I need to get my ledger book," Selina said, "and Maurice, could you find out if our guests would like something to drink?"
"Oh, yeah. No problem, Selina."
Amy looked at Rock and then turned to the door at the other end of the room, and he followed her to the room beyond which was both an office and a room for displaying some of what Selina had for sale. Amy held the door open for them and followed them in and went over to the desk to put the folder down on the blotter.
"I'm Amy, the executive and only secretary here," she said as she came back around the desk, trying to appraise these two men. Frank held out his hand and shook hers.
"Frank Rock," he said letting go of her hand, "and this is my friend, Tom Octurian."
"It's nice to meet you," she said to Frank before turning to Tom and shaking his hand.
"I am pleased to meet you as well, Amy," Frank said.
She could tell that the platitude was a bit more than courtesy as Frank's voice held an earnest quality to it that was comforting once you got below the hoarseness that still went with a man who had spent years yelling as his main mode of communication.
"And to meet you, Mr. Octurian."
"The same, I'm sure," Tom said.
She had problems getting a 'read' on Tom Octurian who's voice, while relatively deep, was flat. He was obviously as solid as Frank Rock, but while Frank's hand was callused and strong from years of hard work, Tom's was a strength that was down below the skin.
"I'm sure Selina will be here in a moment," Amy said as Maurice opened the door to poke his head in.
"Can I get you two anything to drink? Water? Coffee?"
"Coffee for me, black," Rock said, "thanks."
"I need nothing at this time," Tom said as he looked slowly around the room.
"Great, I'll be back in a minute," Maurice said as he opened the door a bit wider to let Amy out and then left with her.
Selina had hurried back to her private quarters, past her private office and quickly went into the apartment area to get the ledger which she had left back there, and then stopped at her bedroom to get her clipboard which had a box under it that contained a few of her pieces meant purely for distraction and concealement. Flash powder, smoke pellets and a few other items were pieces that could mean the difference between life and death, which is what that case contained. Even as she hurried she did her best to keep her emotions under control since the combat veteran had shown up apparently armed for war, and she had no idea if this was his normal way of traveling around town or if it was special for her.
With measured steps she hurried but didn't run as she had to get back to her room, and consciously breathed in and out so she could bring her heart rate down and not break into a cold sweat. As she came down the hall she saw Maurice getting a mug of coffee and she smiled.
"Who's it for?"
"The older guy," Maurice said turning to look at her as he moved to put the coffee pot back into the maker next to the sink.
She tucked the ledger and clipboard under her left arm and came in to take the mug in her right.
"I'll do that, thanks. You saw the case, right?"
Licking his lips, Maurice nodded.
"My revolver ain't much compared to that," he said.
"Keep it out of your pocket, Maurice, and in its holster."
"Yeah, cops and vets kinda notice that stuff. Still, I'll be in the outer room, OK? If you gotta leave alluvasudden, get down and hug ground."
A muscle under her right eye twitched.
"I understand, Maurice. Now just be calm, they are here as customers and I don't think they are planning anything."
"Better safe than dead," he said.
"That's right," she said as she turned and he walked out with her and he opened the door to the main office and then hurried on once she was past to open the door to the display office.
"Thank you, Maurice," she said as she entered the room. She saw the two men looking down and into a display case that held an assortment of necklaces, the majority of them made in France or Switzerland, with two pieces in onyx and platinum from Japan.
"Sgt. Rock, I'll set your coffee on the desk for you," she said.
Frank shifted and then turned to walk towards the desk.
"Thank you, Miss Kyle, much obliged."
Tom turned and came after him and moved to Rock's right to take the chair next to the display case while Frank sat at the one more directly in front of Selina's desk.
"So what brings you to me, today? You don't appear to be a man who invests in jewelery or artwork."
They shook hands over the desk and Tom did the same before all of them sat down. Rock picked up the mug of coffee as he sat down and smirked.
"I'm not," he said, "and wouldn't know what to do with the stuff. I gave my late wife's jewelry to our children, mostly my daughter, but some to daughter-in-laws and nieces. Nothing that high class, but still nice and keepsakes."
Selina opened her ledger and took a few notes and thoughts as she listened to him.
"My condolences, Sergeant," she said as she looked up from her notes to gaze at him.
"Thank you, Miss Kyle. Sally passed on over three years ago and all I want are my memories. Her cat died last year. My children have all given me offers of one sort or another to move in with one of them, but that just isn't right. While a man can care for himself, he should. When he can't, he's dead."
Frank Rock was the sort of man that Selina rarely found, and his bluntness, his attitude both told her about the sort of man he was. She hadn't had time to get a copy of his book and just had to go by memory about what she could remember about him and Easy Company.
"So if you aren't here for yourself..."
"That's right Miss, not for me. I've been trying to find a christmas present for Miss Rose as she has played a large part in Tom's recovery. We met on a road trip earlier this year and when Tom came in so injured, he had to leave his car behind and Vivian made sure to get it and have the right people look it over so it would be in good order for him. We got to know each other a bit on the road trip and since then in helping me with the boat that Mr. Wayne gave me and Tom's car."
Selina scribbled some notes and then glanced between the two.
"A boat?" she asked quizzically.
Frank nodded and sat back in his chair.
"It was a boat that Thomas had back before he and Martha were killed. It's engines are types that Vivian has worked on before."
"Rolls-Royce Merlin engines," Tom said.
"Her father and mother salvaged an old P-51 to turn into their racer," Frank said, "so she has more experience than anyone else I could find for the engines. Between the car, the boat and Tom she has been a good friend and a hard woman to buy for. She doesn't wear much jewelry and as a chauffer for Bruce she has also been to more high class establishments in a year than I've been in a lifetime. War damaged buildings excepted."
"She's... a mechanic?" Selina asked trying to place maintaining engines with the young woman she had met.
Frank looked at Tom who turned to look back at him. Frank raised his eyebrows, turning to look at Selina.
"That's the problem, Miss Kyle," he started.
"Selina, please," she said softly.
Frank smirked and then smiled.
"I'm Frank, Selina. Or Rock if you have to get my attention."
She smiled and they shook hands and she gave a sidelong glance to Tom who sat watching them. As they were shaking hands he reached forward and said, "And you may call me Tom."
"Selina, Tom and thank you," she settled back and picked up her ledger.
"Vivian isn't like anyone I've met in my life. About some things she is very serious, like her piloting and driving skills, and in others she likes to... dress sharply... but not what she calls 'over the top'. She's as happy helping Tom and me maintain the Sea Sprite's engines as she is getting dinner at a bar of a fancy restaurant while Bruce is entertaining guests. I have problems making those sorts of transitions and lead a basic life, Selina, no frills attached."
Nodding while taking notes, Selina started to realize that her normal line of wares and goods were not going to do her much good with this. It was not going to be a high end transaction but, because of Frank Rock's contact with Bruce Wayne, it might lead to something else. In her night-time forays she had gathered that while Bruce Wayne had good suits, fast cars and the usual accoutrements of a gentleman, plus family heirlooms purchased by his mother and father, that he had no real place in his life for priceless, small artifacts. Or cats. While the old Manor House was being reconstructed its valuables were under special care of a security firm she had no wish to tangle with, and his apartements at the top of Wayne Tower were generally unapproachable and not just from the outside, either. As a rich, eligible and young bachelor he had his pick of women and even in her line of business Selina Kyle had little chance to deal with him and the few functions she had been at where he attended it, his attitude was both courteous and distant and usually distracted by some other woman or women seeking to get his attention from his social class.
"Frank, if it were someone else I would suggest something like dinner out together or a trip someplace but... I gather that isn't suitable to you?"
Rock grunted and nodded.
"Plenty of meals out at one of the local grub shacks, which suits her just as well as five star dining. I'm looking for something durable, lasting. Something that she will want to have for herself the rest of her life."
Selina put the word 'keepsake' down and underlined it. She was not in the antiques business, by and large, although some of her trade did deal in such items, and as a businesswoman this was now coming to be a challenge for her. She had known many girls and women growing up in Gotham City who were similar to Vivian in some ways, but most of those had become tattoo canvases and biker chicks or had reformed themselves and gotten gainful employment elsewhere in other lines of work. A woman like Vivian Rose was rare coming from Gotham, if not unique as she had apparently made good and kept her earlier interests, and yet avoided the pitfalls of both. Having little interaction with the aviation community she had no idea if Vivian were truly unique or part of a group of women and girls who had found their own way in what was indisputably a man's world.
"Tom?" Selina asked looking at him, "You've talked with Frank about this, right?"
Tom looked at Frank who nodded and then at Selina.
"Yes we have talked about it, Selina."
"Did you have any suggestions for him?"
He looked at Frank who looked at him.
"Go ahead, you know my reasons."
Tom simply nodded once and looked at Selina.
"Selina, I suggested that Frank give her one of his weapons from World War II. My first suggestion was what he calls 'Old Reliable'."
Blinking she had to wrack her brains to think if anyone had called any weapon of that war 'Old Reliable'.
"Which is?" she asked very softly.
Frank reached down next to Tom to pick up the old FBI case. The FBI case made specifically for the M1928 Thompson Submachinegun. Frank put it on the desk and opened the case revealing his well cared for and maintained war-issued M1928 Thompson with Cutts Compensator.
"That is Old Reliable," Frank said, "it landed with me in Africa in 1942 and got me out of the war alive by helping to finish off the last of the Kraut holdouts making a last stand against Easy Company. Thomas Wayne saved my life, but Old Reliable kept me alive so it could be saved. It isn't going to the grave with me, but it sure as hell is staying by my side right up to that point, that's for sure."
"Sure, it's unloaded, bolt secured and safe to handle. Still just keep it pointed at a wall or something."
Carefully putting her hands in under the forearm handle and rear handle, she realized that this was no toy and required some real lifting to take it out of the case. She couldn't remain seated and do it and stood up, lifting the heavy steel weapon up and nestling its stock against her shoulder for leverage.
"Wow that's... how did you ever carry this for so long?" she asked holding it by its handle with her right hand and moving her left to take up the forward handle.
"You don't notice the weight in a firefight. Got that issued to me last day of training before we shipped out. The original C drum is in Algeria someplace. Or Morocco. Somewhere out where borders are pretty meaningless. That's one Bruce gave me earlier this year and the stick mags along the side are all my war issue ones."
Selina put the gun down on her desk and reached in for the large drum magazine and realized that it, too, weighed a lot more than she suspected. Putting that back down in the case she looked at the two styles of upright stick magazines and took out a longer one which wasn't that heavy and relatively easy to handle.
"I can see why you lost the drum, Frank," she said putting the stick magazine back into its holder and then taking up the Thompson and putting it back in the case before closing it. Frank reached out and easily lifted it from her desk and put it back down on the floor next to Tom.
"Yeah, stuck in some rocks some place where the sun don't shine but the sand does. I could get all the stick mags I wanted, even some of the old Police 20 round mags, back then. Great for clearing out a house with."
Sitting back down Selina realized that she was perspiring as she was not used to handling this sort of weapon in any of her line of work and she had thought from the way movies showed it, that the Thompson wouldn't be that heavy. What she had thought was the easy attitude of strength that Frank Rock had was just from his wartime ventures, but was coming to suspect that he had a very physical strength to him that he carried so easily that no one was intimidated by it.
"I would think so and I understand why you wouldn't want to part with that. It isn't just a weapon, is it?"
"No, it isn't Selina. My wife loved using it but knew that after 30 rounds she was pretty much spent, even on semi-auto. Vivian had her first experience with it a little earlier today and it wasn't what she was expecting, either. That isn't a toy or a side-arm, Selina, and I've seen too much that was apparantly normal turn into blood-baths that I never let Old Reliable wander far from me."
She nodded and looked at Tom, again.
"Right, what else did you suggest?"
Tom blinked once and said, "His M1911 sidearm, war re-issue."
"Vivian likes firearms, too?" Selina asked, "I mean not as a fan but an active user outside of work?"
"Yes," Tom said, "she is familiar with a variety of side-arms including Smith & Wesson revolers chamberd in 357 Magnum, Colt revolvers and semi-auto pistols, as well as pistols by Automag, Israeli Weapons Group, Mauser, Walther, and FN Herstel across multiple calibers. She is skilled in semi-auto and pump shotguns by Browning, Remington and Winchester. She has rifle background in Remington sport model bolt action rifles, M-1 Garand in 30-06, Marlin lever action in 30-30 and semi-auto M60 in 22 long rifle."
"She speaks fluent gun, in other words," Frank said, remembering their few range dates and using Long Island Sound as a backstop when Tom had given an 'all-clear' of shipping and other observation.
"So I gather," Selina said.
Selina inhaled looking at Tom and Frank, and realizing that out of all the men she had met in all her lines of work, that these two may be the two most dangerous individuals she had met and when she put Vivian into the mix she began to understand that what they had going between them was mutual but not in a way that Selina was comfortable with. Personal relationships as she understood them usually tended towards the physical and intimate, with hard sweat coming from mutual exertion with each other and not with something else outside of a workout gym. Their shared experiences had drawn them together from engines to firearms and an easy understanding of each other and appreciation of each other that did not, of necessity, mean mutual horizontal expression.
"Same problem with your pistol?" Selina asked.
Giving a lopsided grin Frank shrugged.
"That's more in memory of the men I served with, Selina. It had gone through a couple of hands due to the war before it got to me, was supposed to be bad luck and yet I survived with it and the help of Old Reliable. Meant I didn't have to find more than one kind of ammo, too, so that was a help. Used just about everything the US, Brits and Krauts fielded if I could get my hands on it and the situation warranted it, but those two got me through the war. I wasn't a trophy hound, so I don't have much else beyond those and my memories. I figured if those two could get me through the damned war, they should be able to get me through the damned peace after it."
"I ran out of suggestions after that," Tom said, "Miss Rose wears little jewelry or has wishes for other items of normal female interest."
"If you got her a present, what would it be?" Selina asked.
Tom blinked his eyes as he stared at Selina.
"A pair of fuzzy dice for her Camaro that I would give her from the Z28 as a keepsake."
Selina chuckled and had to press her lips together and shake her head to stop from laughing.
"It's his car," Frank said, "I just end up driving it for various reasons we both agree to. And I'm not fond of the dice, either."
Selina couldn't help laughing as she looked at Frank and then Tom.
Frank grimaced and gulped down the rest of the coffee in the mug.
"Sorry to take up your time, Selina. It was worth a shot, at least, to get a woman's perspective on this."
That brought Selina up short as she had not meant to be dismissive of Frank or Tom.
"No, Frank, I do have an idea... it's just... I mean its out of my normal range of business and I will have to make some contacts but I think I know just what would fit. Not hard to obtain, not something flashy, not jewelry, not fur coats, and more suited to a woman who has a wide range of interests that most women don't have... hard to buy for but has her own perspective on what is appreciated. Is that pretty descriptive of what I have to deal with?"
Putting the mug of coffee down, Frank nodded.
"Pretty much so, yes. You actually have an idea?"
She nodded and then thought about her other problems, which all threatened to cascade on her very quickly.
"Look, it might even be something I can do for you in exchange for a favor."
"Nothing illegal, Selina," he said.
"Oh, no. Nothing like that... you see I have a headache coming into town that should be illegal... my mom... and I'm looking to distract her with a dinner date and you two..." she smiled sweetly leaning forward, "... just might be able to do the impossible and keep her on good behavior for a few hours. Nothing illicit. Nothing illegal. But I really don't want any repeat of the last visit and I think I just might take my secretary's idea and use it. Normally I couldn't find anyone to do this because they know my mother..."
Frank's face set in an indecipherable look as he looked at Selina.
"... but you went all through the war and survived."
"My in-laws were another matter," he said softly, "never saw my wife treated so badly. They never did again, either."
Selina's smile disappeared from her face and she sucked her lips in to wet them.
"I... Frank... I understand if... I mean I don't think I will even crack a thousand for what I'm looking for..." she said sitting back.
Frank looked at Tom.
"Are you up for a double date?"
"I have never been on one. It will be a unique experience."
They both looked at Selina.
"Selina, I'm your date. Your mother gets Tom. He is pretty much impervious to anything in the way of abuse."
"Yes," Tom said, "I am."
"And if a friend is being abused and comes to me for help, I don't refuse."
Selina got the sinking feeling that her control of the entire 'mother coming for a visit' situation had just passed out of her hands and she had only herself to blame for that.
"Just not Thanksgiving Day. We have other plans."
"No... no it will be Monday.... ahhh... wait, let me find out from Amy when she is flying in..." she keyed the intercom.
"Yes, Miss Kyle?" came Amy's voice.
"My mother is coming in on Monday, right?"
"Well that is when she coming to see you, yes. She is actually flying in tomorrow and will probably be seeing old friends until then."
"Could you get me on her schedule for a dinner date for tomorrow night instead of Monday? It'll be a double date."
There was silence on the intercom.
"You're taking my advice for once?" Amy asked.
"Yes, I am, Amy. Don't be shocked. I'll be going with Frank and Tom as my bodyguards, and she gets the younger man!"
"Mmmmmm... right? Any place special?"
She looked at the two men.
"Chinese OK with you two?"
They both nodded.
"Great. The Golden Tiger Club, Amy."
"Got it, Selina. I'm sure your mom will be glad to see you early."
"Sure she will," Selina sighed, "now get on it and let me know when its arranged."
"All right," Amy said.
"She has a contact number for you two, right?"
"Vivian has a machine. We're flexible."
"Great! Got that Amy? Try for something like eight o'clock, OK?"
"Yes I got it! I hope this works out for you."
"You and me both, Amy."
She let go of the the intercom and then at the two men who were standing up.
"Thank you! Both of you!" she said shaking their hands, "And I'll get you something, don't worry about it. I'll start working my contacts tonight so I can clear out tomorrow night for you two. I'm glad to be doing business with you."
"Strange sort of business, but thank you, Selina. And if worse comes to worse, I'll always have Old Reliable with me. A sure fix for just about anything."
He briskly strode across the parking lot of the Convention Center which had been set up for the Winter Expo, but now had police directing vehicles through a maze of barriers and downed light standards that came in the wake of the sudden wind. If the Maritime Museum bore the brunt of most of the winds, the Convention Center took its own direct hit which took out power and put a sudden stop to the commercial activities going on there. The weekend before Thanksgiving was the perfect time for out of town operations in warmer climates to show off what they had and to offer package deals to possible tourists. Companies that made boats, recreational vehicles, hunting and sporting equipment, and the higher end luxury winter goods all found time to get in this venue close to NYC and yet much cheaper than anything the show centers in that larger metropolis could offer. The cost of a full booth in Gotham wouldn't get you a small table in NYC, not to speak of help with the set-up. All of that came to a sudden stop when the wind blew down light standards in the parking lot, pushed fencing down, blasted over the finish and glass of vehicles, and cracked then broke through the reinforced glass of the front of the main building. Short circuits took down power and the city's main supply lines became overstressed and large sections of the city were suddenly without power. The back-up generators at the Convention Center were turned on and only one of the three came on. Emergency lights came on but the heating went out and the front glass started to come crashing down.
It was hours of chaos to get people to not rush out and jam the parking lot and when that failed the police who were present found that the barriers of the light standards, fencing and one overturned tractor trailer meant that no one could find an exit. Convention Center security started to cope and the companies offering outdoor equipment started to set up tents, getting food cooked and making sure that those people now coming in from the jam up of cars could get a cup of coffee and something to eat. It was an impossible time and yet there was order coming into place.
People from the Convention Center were still coming and going from their cars and he mingled in with them as he came through a portion of downed and torn chain link fence. From the L row of cars he wended his way forward through the mess of cars where they had been left jammed up to the point that clearing a path would take some hours yet. He tipped his hat to one of the security men who was looking up from a schematic of the parking lot and had police officer next to him. He gave a curt nod in response and then went back to talking with the officer about which row they should try to clear out in the forward section of the lot. Once past the jam up of cars along one of the main fronting lanes, he saw that tents had been set up by various companies including one polar tent that was easily closed off from the exterior and offered a true standing space along its interior. Impromptu signs of cardboard and magic marker pointed in on the left side denoting HOT FOOD with an arrow pointing in. The central one also pointed in with a split and HOT COFFEE on the left and HOT ROOM on the right, with the far right sign indicating EXIT ONLY. A small generator had been set up, as well as a grill on the outside of the tent that had two men in winter coats tending to as they roasted reconstituted chicken and beef from one of the resellers attending the whole affair. Stepping up to one of the men he tipped his hat.
"Need some faux que?" the man at the grill asked.
"Ah, not at this time, thank you. I'm looking for Erin Norris who would be with the Wayne Corporation."
The man nodded.
"Well that's their tent and some of their stuff on the inside of it. They still have a lot of people inside at their pavilion, getting things organized. You might try there unless she's, like, handy at camping and stuff."
"Ah, I will try inside, my thanks."
"Think nothing of it and if you need some hots, we got 'em here."
The main doors had been blown down and in, with safety glass scattered around and swept clear of the main walkways. Wayne Material Marketing's pavilion was at a central location where, seemingly, one could get to it in a relatively easy fashion from any of the cardinal directions. There were emergency lights on at the posts on the interior and dimly shining down from above, and the WMM pavilion had its own battery system that had been pressed into service for two mini-flood lights that allowed those at the Convention Center to either move materials from other vendors and to organize materials that might be needed if this became an affair that went into the night. The Convention Center itself was cooling down rapidly and as late afternoon was waning, the chill north air was getting colder. He espied Erin Norris at the pavilion, working to remove sleeping bags from boxes that were piled high on a cart. She had her light winter coat on and had an insulated cup with hot coffee in it on a nearby display case.
"Erin?" he said as he approached.
She set down a sleeping bag and turned to look at him.
"Yes... Doctor Gotham? What are you doing here?"
He took his hat off and put it under his left arm and transferred his walking stick to his left hand to shake her hand.
"Erin, there is a problem, I believe and you are in danger."
Erin blinked at him and looked around the Convention Center.
"Everyone has a problem here," she said softly, "my car is out where I thought I could get to it easily but..." she shook her head.
"It is not that, Mrs. Norris. This is just a side-effect of what is coming after you and you are not in a good place to be as what happened here before still has left traces to follow. I cannot expunge nor even lessen affinity, and this place has it. You have it. And what caused this damage may be coming to you because of that affinity."
"My affinity? But you said that would be... well... neutralized once the stuff was in the display case, right? Not that I really understand it..."
"That is when the full set is in place, Erin. There is a piece still missing, the Faberge Spider, that needs to go with the ring and the necklace. Together their affinity will diffuse and neutralize and be rid of the Rhinold entanglement. I cannot have the Faberge piece returned save either by normal and uninterfered with law enforcement or by counter-theft. I am down to counter-theft and that has taken time to arrange. Now something is coming across my affinity, which is also bound up with those pieces you stole. Yours is bound up with them as is Li Sun's. This storm removed one of my oldest and most major pieces from play at the Maritime Museum, and since then minor pools I have set out have been drained. All of that is starting on the eastern part of the North Island and is moving along the northern side of it. It will run across the house on the Riverside and find another affinity entangled with the ring and through that you."
Erin's question was cut off by the overhead announcement system.
"ATTENTION, ATTENTION, ATTENTION WE HAVE BEEN ABLE TO CLEAR A WAY OUT FOR REAR PARKING ROWS AA THROUGH FF. ANYONE WITH VEHICLES IN THOSE AREAS CAN BEGIN MOVEMENT STARTING WITH AA ROWS 1 THROUGH 30. AGAIN I REPEAT..."
Erin shook her head at the announcement which would do her no good at all. As it repeated the second time the announcement started to break up with static and the interior emergency lights started to flicker. People with flashlights turned those on as the main power in the building failed.
"We must leave now, Erin. I know the White Tiger helped you escape and we dare not leave an obvious trail as we can be easily tracked by affinity."
A chill wind started to blow through the broken in glass of the Convention Center and Erin took out a small pocket flashlight and turned it on.
"More flashlights, batteries..." she said looking at Dr. Gotham, "I'll see if we still got rope here..." she started to shiver as Dr. Gotham took out one of the modern lanterns, opened it to find it empty of batteries and then took up a few packages until he found the right size and put them in. He added more of those to his coat pockets and he navigated with Erin towards the back of the Convention Center. She had found two pre-packaged rapelling kits, a backpack, and filled that with two wrapped first aid kits while Dr. Gotham took up a box of flares and then a small camping stove with liquid fuel pouches. As they got to the back they raided a cooler for water, soda and other bottles and then Dr. Gotham lifted the pack from Erin and shrugged it on.
"We must hurry, Erin. Look up to the metal beams."
As Erin looked up she saw a bluish cast start to move amongst wires, over metal beams and dance across light fixtures.
"Oh, god..." she whispered.
"No, much worse. Come show me the way out while we still have time."
She turned to her right and they trotted into the vacant area behind the show and to a door leading to a main hall between the main center and one of its side rooms. She turned left down a hallway she only vaguely recalled and yet was in her dreams constantly. Apparently she was being chased, again, and the EXIT sign held no warm glow this time around. She turned and started down the stairs with Dr. Gotham behind her and an eerie blue glow starting up on the door frame they had just came through.
"Carefully, quickly," Dr. Gotham said, "we dare not falter now."
Erin pulled her gloves on as their steps echoed and the blue glow started to jump to the upper railings and then flowed along it. She took her hand from the rail and jumped the last few steps onto the tile floor at the base of the Convention Center and then saw the warm red glow of the EXIT sign. As Dr. Gotham followed her and stepped from the metal stairs, the blue glow had reached down into the stairwell racing along those stairs.
Erin hesitated and looked back as the doorway opened, and more intensity came to the glow. She had been here before, saw that same sight and now had the only way out ahead of her once more. Into the Underworld.
Dr. Gotham came up to her and put his hands on her shoulders.
"Yes, the Underworld. We will be grounded," he whispered, "now we must run or we will be dead."
She nodded and pushed through the exit door and Dr. Gotham followed making sure the door shut, and then ran after her.
"Oh, no... its... I don't remember..."
He came up next to her and looked at the old remains of a street and low ceiling just above with modern conduits and pipes in garish orange streaking through that upper and mid portion of the Underworld.
"South, first, Erin. You are South, still. Then we watch for the telltale sign of an old subway station and take that and head to the South Island."
Looking dazed something clicked into place in her mind and she smiled.
"Yes! That's what he did... but you don't have transportation down here..."
"True, Erin, we must walk. Luckily the wind can't get down here and that will deter it from following us."
Holding her hand they walked along the old sidewalk heading South.
"The wind? But what...?"
"I do not know exactly, Mrs. Norris, but this I can say. The Winds want what is here in Gotham and you are entangled in that game now turned into a Loom. I am afraid that the old Cardinals and Crosses is about to be tied up by a spider, most evil. My spear and sole direction must break this deadly affair into pieces, and she will take your place at South. Until then you are in deadly danger from the brutal North Wind."
Erin could only begin to piece that together when Dr. Gotham stepped over a pipe and then turned across the old roadway. As they turned a faint blue glow could be seen from the direction they came. Dr. Gotham squeezed her hand and they increased their pace to go into the Underworld of Gotham City and the old subway system, a relic and maze now of an era long gone but near enough to reach. It had its own problems but they were not the ones of the game nor the Winds, not Looms nor weavers. The comforting presence of what was Gotham was, however, faint if not absent entirely, and so those things of the Underworld that had laid low for so long could now be on their own and free to do as they pleased. The blue glow faded as they rushed into the station and went down the stairs and turned West to head into the tunnels. Soon it was only darkness with flashlights and Erin remembered being with Barbara and Lisa.
"Barbara..." she whispered.
"I can do nothing for her," Dr. Gotham said, "I hope she is not in the City."
Barbara Gordon sat at the table in the Gotham Central Library's third floor with books that were open for a research project that one of the units in Wayne Corporation had offered her after the mid-October series of events that had killed two under Wayne Tower and the subway tunnels that ran under it. A bleary-eyed Bruce Wayne, still in his dressing robe and slippers had arrived to give a statement that he didn't know anything about what was going on, and then wanted to find out more about what had transpired. He had met with Dr. Gotham, briefly, who sketched things in and who told him of the necessity of neutralizing the framework that set up such events. Eventually, over the next few hours, Barbara's exhaustion had led her father to decide that there wasn't anything he could hold anyone on and that they were all free to go. The next day she had gotten a call from Mr. Wayne's butler, Alfred, who asked if she would like to explain her research methods and if she was open to doing free-lance research for parts of Wayne Corporation. The events were still fresh in her mind and she thought that this would be worth scheduling after her classes were done on Monday.
That interview was a strange one with a number of people attending it, beyond Mr. Wayne, which is something she should have expected. With him were a group of higher level individuals from corporate units who obviously had an interest in having someone they could task with items that, while not unusual for a corporation as diverse as Wayne Corp., were out of the ordinary for a college student. The people there were a different sort of individual than she expected, although people like Lucious Fox, head of the Experimental Products Division was the sort of people she expected. So, too, were Ken Chapmen the head of the Cybernetics Control Division and Don Carstairs the head of the Programming and Materials Department. In the group were members from the XP Division, a Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, as well as Miles Dyson from the Cybernetics Branch under Don Carstairs' direction. Beyond those were Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's butler, and a family friend of Mr. Wayne's, Frank Rock and his friend Tom Octurian. Together they asked what sort of work she was doing, what courses she had taken and what here interests were, and if she was interested in taking on some advanced projects in topics she was unfamiliar with in the way of programming, materials work in metals and semi-conductors, as well as possible short-delay topics which they couldn't specify as they didn't know what they would be.
She had brought some of her term papers and research materials, of course, and was open to doing a variety of topics crossing from modern day concerns to pure historical research. She wasn't afraid of science and technology, as such, although they were pretty alien to her outside of the standard Freshman level course work required of nearly all students at Gotham University. Of programming and materials science she knew so little that it could fit in a an hour long documentary or two from the Public Broadcasting channel and had been totally confused just a few years prior to her graduating high school by a series that went through a very different approach to scientific and technical advancement. She had mentioned that and was asked if she would like to re-watch the series to see if it made more sense to her, now and do a write-up on it.
That first paper was two weeks ago and she finished it in three days, and what was a mystery to her just a few years ago made much sense to her now. With that she also got her first training in a word processor to compile and edit her notes into a report and, for that, had enough cash in her pocket to pay for her meals for the rest of the semester, plus gas money for her car. Last week she had gotten another overview and summary sort of article on the state of the art of programming structures and known malicious code types, both of which had her hitting up the Gotham University library and the Computer Engineering Department at the University just to find the sorts of materials they had on the basics of computer programming. Barbara Gordon had the ability to read quickly, take good notes and do a single-pass paper with the help of the word processor which cut out her long-hand pre-typed paper work completely. Now she had paid her parents enough to get rid of her backlog of minor bills at home and even get a newer, used television for the family.
Then just this monday had come a challenging piece on advanced metallurgy and casting, with a concentration on formulation of metallic glasses. That one needed some background to it which meant talking to a group from XP Division and the department with Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese under Lucious Fox. This one she knew would take longer and was given up to the week after Thanksgiving as a deadline because she had to work from the ground-up on the topic. For that she actually got to listen to a couple of people from the Wayne Special Metallic casting department and see the smelter in operation as well as the casting unit, plus learn about welding and some of the practical aspects of it. With those in hand she now had to learn the theory behind these things which meant lots of research that required the materials at the Gotham Public Library building, the place she was coming to think of as home away from home.
With the books open on the table she continued jotting notes as she read from a work on metallic structures and how they change due to heating and cooling. As she worked she heard a crackling sound and turned to look at the windows. Looking out to the south of the library towards Long Island Sound she saw the Interconnector slowly crossing the field of view as it rose up to cross the Mid-Gotham River. In the sunlight of the late afternoon she saw that the horizon was obscured and that a cloud was rolling in from the Sound and over the south side of Gotham. That cloud crossed over the shoreline and wharf structures, and obscured them with flashes and glinting of blue and sunlight inside the cloud which was turning a darker gray is at approached the library. Across the Interconnector's suspension cable a soft blue light started to snake over them and across the main suspension cable itself, casting a soft, flickering blue glow across the span. A soft wind pressed in front of the cloud and as it crossed the Interconnector she saw light standards, guardrails, concrete supports and the roadway frost over in seconds with the blue glow now dancing across it all, until the cloud obscured. Barbara sat unable to tear her eyes from the cloud as it came over the open fields that used to be the old rail yards and before it light standards, parked cars and chain link fence all danced with the snaking, sinuous form of blue. As it advanced a sidewalk turned to a fresh white color until it, too, was obscured. The dead grass in the fields and trimmed lawn frosted over and was obscured it. Cars in the parking lot gained the dancing blueness as did the very casings of the windows, and as she watched the cars turned white as did the blacktop. Then the windows started frosting over first to the south then to east and west and the cloud engulfed the library and her hair stood on end as the blue glow flowed over lights, along vent covers, and anywhere exposed metal had a connection to the outside.
Turning she saw the figure of Alfred Pennyworth who stood next to the table she was at and just stood and looked at the scene unfolding around the Gotham Public Library and, indeed, all of southern Gotham City.
"Alfred? What are you doing here?"
He shivered and looked at Barbara, putting on a pale smile as the blue light now added to the artificial light, creating a strange place in what had once been a safe, cozy library.
"I had thought I would find you here, Miss Gordon, given the research task you were handed. I have been given another one that has a higher priority, if you wish to take it. Mr. Wayne has talked with Lucious and you would have an extension on the other work."
Barbara looked at him, feeling uneasy, as if some strange and alien landscape had come to slowly remove the one she knew. Fluourescent lights started to race with the blue glow until they faltered, leaving the wan and more yellow incandescant lights that were spaced at shelving intersections as the remaining form of lighting.
"I... Alfred... does it have to do with what's going on?"
Alfred looked around, peering at the windows still dancing with the snaking blue light and then back at Barbara.
"I do not know, Miss Gordon. The topic Mr. Wayne needs as a summary overview is plasma physics concentrating on cold plasma."
She looked at him and then to the windows and wrapped her arms around herself as she shivered.
"Alfred," she said with a wide-eyed stare and blank expression, "something is happening and I don't think... that I have time for that... because of what I've already read, it seems that we are about to learn from it, directly."
Alfred nodded, shrugging the collar up on his coat.
"Indeed, Miss Gordon. And we are unprepared for it."
Barbara looked at the windows and at the vents inside the library that had the snaking blue glow racing on them.
"I will do it, Alfred. You're right that we are unprepared for whatever this is. It's just that... I think I'll have to stay here at least until the library closes. Hopefully I'll be able to get my car started after that."
Smiling, Alfred nodded.
"Thank you, Miss Gordon. And if the telephones are still working and your car isn't, then call me and I'll arrange for the Wayne motorpool to come and pick you up to take you home."
Barbara nodded as she turned back to the materials on her table, "Now where did I put the materials on plasma cutting and welding? I'll start there and look at their references..."
Shlasuar had the task of taking the remains of John to the river so as to float them to the sea.
He had remembered John laying on the sleeping bag, lightly covered, after he had drunk the mixture that Maria had made for him. John had fallen asleep and it was a troubled sleep. John had broken into a sweat and then his changeling form shifted to one more suited to water and a gel formed over his skin. Then his body changed back, then back again, and again and again as John writhed under the cover. Maria had tended to him, put a cool cloth on his head, and kept a pot made to remind John of where he was going on the stove that they had dragged out to the rear of the cavern.
Shlasuar watched John and held his hand right to the moment that something had lifted his body up and rended him apart. There was no ghost figure there, no sudden part of an exploding Ghost Train flying through the air, but something from Shag that could reach out and take his body and his life easily, quickly and with great mess. John did not even have time to scream or awaken and as his body dropped in pieces to the floor, the smell of death was with him. Maria had helped to collect the remains, split open the sleeping bag so that John's blood would not soak through so quickly and then helped Shlasuar load the travois with those remains.
"Light is fading, Shlasuar, and none will be out. I must stay with the girl, to ease her body into answering us. I would send John to the sea if it were not for that, Shlasuar. I have given my words and sanction to his body to its destination and that is all that I can do. You must do the rest for me."
"Yes, Maria... I understand."
The People had few ceremonies for such things, but the few they had involved safeguarding the person who had died from being re-animated or from having their soulstuff captured by some passing Other.
"Good! Even with none out, stay from easy sight. A culvert at the main road will lead a feeder stream to the river, follow the stream and at the main river, let the remains out slowly, then slice the carrying bag into ribbons and let them float minutes after him, one by one."
It was what he was now doing, sitting amongst the weeds and forlorn cattails drooping over, as he had long since slid the last parts of John's body into the main river. With an obsidian knife he made ribbons of the material and let them float on the water. Insulation he likewise broke up and let float. The zipper he broke apart and would scatter the pieces on this and the far shore of the river. In the distance he could hear vehicles come and go on the road, but not many as the weather had grown most cold.
As he reached the last, bloody strips of cloth a blue glow on the horizon caught his eye.
As he turned he could see the buildings of Gotham glowing with dancing blue and a grey cloud obscuring the distant sunset so that no light went into Gotham City. Above the city white was drifting down, flakes of snow from no cloud now lazily filtered down on the glowing city. It was as if something was alive within Gotham City and engulfing it. He had seen such on passing ships, this thing called St. Elmo's Fire, but never had he heard of it doing this to a city.
Nor had anyone else, although he did not know that.
He resisted the urge to run to Maria and finished his task. The glow would take hours to die down.
The crackle and boom of yellow lightning inside Gotham's North Island, however, did give him pause. Then he hurried his task as he had the feeling that this was, somehow, very important.