"Are you okay?" It was Mrs. Jones. She had brought him a glass of cool water.
He smiled. "Yes, I'm fine. Thanks for asking," he answered reassuringly. "And thanks for the water," he added.
The figure who answered her was dressed like Bruce Wayne, and even looked like Bruce Wayne. He was standing in Bruce Wayne's office, high up in Wayne Enterprises. But, he was not Bruce Wayne.
Had Alfred been there, Alfred would have understood.
"You know, I've seen that look before, Mr. Wayne," she said with a big smile.
The figure looked at her.
"You're in love," she nodded approvingly. "I'll leave you alone for a little while. I just wanted to make sure you were okay." She was already back at the door when she paused and added, "Don't be so busy daydreaming that you forget about those messages from this morning."
"Consider this morning's messages delivered." His response was a strange kind of whisper, full of confidence, inscrutable -- it was the kind of whisper that got someone's attention.
Mrs. Jones closed the door, and the figure turned and walked toward the windows. There he stood, gazing out toward where the Gotham Towers had stood, looking. It was as if he could still see the Gotham Towers standing there, even though they had collapsed years ago. It was as if he could watch them collapse again, but with a kind of perspective that no one else had... a knowing omniscience, an understanding, an insight.... It was as if he could see something that no one else could see.... It was as if, gazing out the window, he could see Eternity.
"'The Ancient' is coming to visit you." It was the master's voice from years ago.
"'The Ancient'?" he asked the master.
A friend of the master looked at him, then walked over toward him. "This is great honor, Mr. Wayne," he explained in his broken English. "Great honor!"
Wayne looked at him.
"What is 'The Ancient'?" Wayne asked.
"No 'what' -- 'who'!" corrected the master's friend.
"'The Ancient' is the master who taught me, many years ago," the master smiled, looking off at something that only he could see. "This is indeed a great honor, for all of us," he continued slowly, "but especially for you, Mr. Wayne."
Wayne looked at them both.
The master's friend stepped a little closer to Wayne, then glanced around. "One time, communist come look for 'The Ancient'," he explained with a smile. "'The Ancient' was old man even then. Communist find old man, say to old man 'You the one. You come with us.' Old man no answer, he just look around communist soldier. Many soldier, many weapon! Old man disappear."
"'Disappear'?" Wayne asked. "He hid from them?"
"No 'hid'. 'Hid' for children." The master's friend leaned closer. "Old man disappear!" His voice lowered some as he explained some more. "Ten communist soldier watch, and old man disappear! Communist soldier very scared," he paused, letting the story sink in. "Communist soldier never come back village!" He laughed. It was as if he understood something that the soldiers in his story didn't.
Wayne looked at him, puzzled.
Linda looked at him, puzzled.
She had received an offer for a contract assignment to work at Wayne Enterprises. Today was her first day on the job. The work was writing some technical manuals for new products that Wayne Enterprises was putting on the market. It was boring work, but she needed the money. Wayne Enterprises always seemed to offer her work just when she needed it most.
With the events that had transpired this morning, however, she was finding it harder than ever to concentrate on writing dry, boring technical manuals.
She was assigned to work with an employee who himself had just started at Wayne Enterprises, a thirty-ish looking man named Edward Nygma. He seemed every bit as boring as this work that she needed.
Linda thought back to the GBI agents that tried to intimidate her outside the gym very early this morning. Then she thought about the mysterious figure that gave her an envelope immediately after the GBI agents left.
Determined not to be intimidated by anyone, she continued through the parking lot into the gymnasium and did a thorough workout. When she left, however, she got to thinking about the envelope. She was very curious, so she stopped in at a coffee shop she knew, and there had a light breakfast and some coffee. The Irish creme coffee tasted delicious; it was warm, soothing, yet reinvigorating after her workout. There, feeling reasonably safe in the familiar surroundings of the coffee shop (not that she had felt intimidated, of course!), she proceeded to open the envelope. Information about the Gotham Towers, some information about some insider trading... but the figure had indicated it related to her investigation of corruption in the Gotham Bureau of Investigation. What could possibly have been the connection? And, was this figure someone to be believed, or was he just some kook? Only a mental case would dress in a dark suit and hide in the bushes at night, she thought... a mental case, or a real professional.... At first glance, this guy was a psycho, but for some reason, he seemed far less scary than the GBI agents!
All of this was running through her mind as she worked on her boring technical manuals with her boring partner, Nygma.
Finally, boredom overcame them both, and they began to talk a little.
It turns out that Nygma had, until recently, been an investigative reporter, just like her!
But, what had Nygma been on to that had gotten him fired?
Nygma pulled out some photos.
"Look," he began, "these are photos of the collapse of the Gotham Towers. Look at this dust cloud," he indicated a picture of one of the towers. "Here one of the towers is just beginning to collapse. Notice this giant plume of dust and debris. Although the tower is only beginning to collapse, the concrete has already been pulverized, and the resulting cloud of dust has already expanded far away from the tower."
"So?" questioned Linda. The picture of the disaster was certainly fascinating, but she failed to see any point in it, although it was ironic that the envelope from the mysterious figure also had information about the collapse of Gotham's Towers.
"People trying to convince us of the official theory tell us that the force of the collapsing building is what pulverizes the concrete. But, if that is the case, then the building would be falling first, then its force would be pulverizing the concrete. Here you can see the reverse is actually true: The concrete is pulverized first, and blown far out away from the tower, then the building begins to fall," Nygma explained.
Linda looked more closely at the photos.
"See how big the cloud of pulverized concrete is? Not only is the concrete pulverized, but the cloud is already much larger than the building," Nygma added.
"What are these little puffs down here?" Linda asked, pointing at what appeared to be a cloud of debris ejected from a place several floors below the bottom of the big cloud of debris and pulverized concrete.
"You tell me."
"There's your concrete getting pulverized first by the weight of the collapsing floors above." Linda sounded a little unsure.
"Why don't we see it all around the building? After all, the whole tower is collapsing," Nygma answered. "Besides, with such a big cloud of debris above, from so much of the concrete already pulverized and in this dust cloud, I'm wondering how much weight is really pressing down." He looked at Linda. "The whole collapse took something like eleven seconds. That's about how long it would take for something to free fall from the top of the tower."
Nygma looked at Linda, then continued. "If the weight from above is causing the floors below to collapse, there should be a momentary delay as the debris and weight impact each floor. That delay, times several dozen floors, should result in a collapse that takes noticeably longer than free fall speed."
"That would make sense. But, you seem to believe that didn't happen," Linda began. "If that didn't happen, what did?"
"Gotham firefighters, and others, reported multiple explosions in each tower right before its collapse," Nygma answered. "These little puffs of smoke -- and there were more of them than just those shown in this picture -- might be cutting some of the verticle supports." Nygma paused. "Other explosions would certainly be pulverizing the concrete, allowing the building to fall faster by destroying the supports that might slow it down. The floors weren't 'pancaking' into each other, as has been suggested -- the time it would take for that to happen is longer than the time it actually took for each tower to collapse. The floors below were being explosively demolished, the concrete turned to dust and explosively blown out to form this cloud. This is what allowed the building to come down at free-fall speed."
"An interesting suggestion," Linda paused and studied Nygma. "But then the building would have to have been completely rigged with explosives," Linda thought aloud. "Both towers would have to have been rigged."
"Actually, all three towers were rigged. Remember, it wasn't just the Gotham Towers that collapsed." Nygma showed Linda some more photos. "Building 7 came down later that afternoon, only it collapsed from the bottom." Linda studied the photos. "Here you can see pools of molten steel. What caused the steel to melt?"
"The fire weakened the structure," Linda answered.
"An office fire intense enough to weaken steel is hard enough to imagine." Nygma showed her some more photos. "But an office fire intense enough to melt steel, and leave it molten weeks after the event? Because that's exactly what the emergency workers observed, and that really goes well beyond the limits of believability."
Linda studied Nygma's materials, as Nygma pulled out photos of molten steel and a sheet of information about different grades of steel, and another sheet describing what color molten steel looked like at different temperatures.
"So you think the buildings were explosively demolished." Linda looked at Nygma. "That's much more than a random criminal act. That takes access to the building over an extended period of time. That takes planning. That takes connections, expertise, special equipment...." Linda looked down at the photos, studying them as she casually asked, "Why? Insurance?"
"Different people probably had different reasons, and not everybody involved knew what the final result would be," Nygma answered, putting more papers in front of Linda. "But somebody pushed a great deal of stock trades through the computers in the Gotham Trade Center the day of the disaster. And some investments made big money as a result of the events of that day."
Linda looked at the papers. They indicated less than $5 million of documented trades. "A few million dollars is small potatoes. It would cost more than that just to set this whole thing up."
Nygma couldn't help but notice one thing, though: Linda was taking him seriously! With an unnoticed effort, Nygma maintained his calm.
"I think these profits were made by just low-level players who knew when this was going to occur. The real money was probably made with longer-term investments, by the higher-ups who knew many months in advance what was going to happen. To make the big money, these guys didn't even have to know when it was going to happen, they just needed to know that something was going to happen several months or maybe a year down the road. They likely made big, long-term investments accordingly, based on what businesses in the Gotham Trade Center and in Gotham City in general would be impacted, and how, by the collapse of the Gotham Towers at some point in what was then the not-too-distant future." Nygma looked at Linda. "And, the profits were a motivation only for some of the players."
Linda looked at him. "What else would be a motivation?"
"Stock trades, even losing a little money, still serve a purpose, if you're interested in the transaction itself."
Linda frowned. "I don't get it."
"An incredible number of stock trades were run through the computers of the Gotham Trade Center during the emergency, then the buildings were imploded, collapsing the structures and burying the computers that were in them. They were laundering money, then covering their trail. And," Nygma added, "the attack on Building 7 resulted in, among other things, the destruction of the offices of those agencies that investigate white collar crime and questionable stock trades."
Nygma's explanation made sense. And, that made the connection to the insider trading information in the file from the dark figure outside the gym... that and more! But, what was the connection to the corrupt GBI agents that were trying to keep her quiet?
"What I don't understand," Nygma thought aloud, "is why Gotham's law enforcement agencies let it happen."
"What do you mean?" Linda looked at him, puzzled.
"I have information that certain elements in Gotham's law enforcement agencies had indications that something was going to happen. The GBI, for example, had many leads, but it's as if some highly-placed someone wouldn't allow anyone to make the connection...."
"Belladonna!" Linda interrupted excitedly.
They were in the village. Off to one side was a clearing, and on the other side of the clearing was a large boulder. To the right of the boulder was a tree that grew to a height of maybe thirty feet. Next to the tree passed a road, wide enough for one wagon to pass. In recent years, it had seen cars with increasing frequency. On the other side of the road were a few bushes, and immediately behind the bushes were plots of land cultivated by the villagers. To the left of the boulder was another small plot of land cultivated by the villagers. Wayne was wondering why the master had brought him here to the periphery of this small village.
"The skilled warrior," began the master, "is able to conceal himself as if beneath the nine levels of earth, yet he moves as if above the nine levels of heaven." Wayne looked at the master as the master continued. "This is how the skilled warrior is able to both protect himself and gain a complete victory." The master paused, admiring the vegetables growing in the field. "Against the skilled warrior, the enemy knows neither where to attack nor where to defend. This is because the skilled warrior is without ascertainable shape."
Wayne studied the vegetables, but inwardly was pondering the meaning of the master's words. It was as if the master were speaking to him in riddles, yet he had come to know that the mystery of the master's words was hidden in plain sight.
"Now it is according to the shapes that the skilled warrior makes his plans for victory, but the multitudes of people" -- he made a gentle sweeping gesture towards the villagers, who were pleasantly going about the same business that had been occurring here for centuries -- "do not understand this. Although most can see the victory, yet none understands how the victory has been created."
"What?" asked Nygma.
"Belladonna!" Linda repeated excitedly. "It was a GBI operation, or project, or something. It was all very secret," Linda was talking fast. "The GBI got special warrants to collect intelligence on various criminal groups. They set up a series of wiretaps, and they were turning up information on Gotham's underworld. But, the information was never passed to investigators for follow-up. It seems the warrants for the wiretaps were being abused, and had actually been obtained using fraudulent information."
"Ah," commented Nygma. "It's not nice to play the judge for a fool!"
"Exactly," Linda continued. "It seems there may not have ever been an intent to use the information for lawful purposes. Some information I have indicates that the real reason behind the wiretapping was to collect information that could be used to blackmail Gotham's wealthy, powerful elite. But, when you start moving in the right circles, the line between legal elites and criminal elites becomes blurred, and the taps actually turned up real, useful information about Gotham's organized crime syndicates and about Gotham's underworld, in addition to the indiscretions of Gotham's politicians and businessmen."
Nygma was having more trouble maintaining a calm demeanor as he listened.
"Some GBI agents and employees came forward with information about the taps, the operation, and the criminal activities they discovered, but GBI leadership kept it quiet instead, firing them, and even going so far as to get court orders to keep them quiet, and sending people out to intimidate them." Linda paused and took a needed breath as she thought about the visit they had paid to her just that morning. "People in the mayor's office are on board with all this, helping to obstruct justice," she added.
Nygma and Linda both stared at their files. Actually, they stared beyond their files, and, for the first time, each of them felt like someone else could see what they were seeing.
Nearby, a child was playing with a handheld video game. In the distance, foreign music could be heard from someone's house. One villager had a T-shirt from a recent Superbowl game, except that the team declared on the shirt to be the winner had in fact lost the game -- Wayne knew; he had been at the game. The village was so full of contradictions, yet in such harmony.
"His enemy may be great in number, and very strong and well-equipped. But of what benefit is this to the outcome?" The master looked at Wayne. "The skilled warrior creates his victories. He flows through his enemies like water, changing his form in accordance with the situation, managing and shaping his victories as they come."
Wayne looked hard at the master, trying to understand his words.
The master walked into the cultivated plot to the left of the boulder, then behind the boulder. Wayne waited for a moment for the master to step out, but he didn't, so Wayne took a couple steps toward the boulder.
"Subtle and insubstantial," continued the master, "the skilled warrior leaves no trace." The voice came from the left. "Divinely mysterious, he is inaudible. And so, he is master of his enemy's fate." Wayne looked, and there was the master walking toward him from the left! How could that be?! The only way from behind the boulder to the direction from where the master was now coming was right in front of Wayne; he had been watching intently the whole time, and the master had not gone over there, yet there he was!
The master smiled, and walked to the right, around the bushes on the other side of the road from the boulder and the tree, and into a cultivated plot behind them. Wayne watched intently as the master bent down to inspect some vegetables. Wayne glanced up at the master's old friend, who was watching and smiling. He looked back at the master. Apparently, the master had found something quite interesting in the cultivated plot. Wayne took a step closer, then realized that it wasn't the master that he was watching -- it was merely the plants that the master had been inspecting!
Wayne looked around, frustrated. "Where are you?" he asked impatiently.
"I'm right here." It came from behind him; it was the master's voice, but it was a strange kind of whisper. It was the kind of whisper that got someone's attention.
Wayne spun around and looked, and the master held out for him a selection of oriental vegetables.
Wayne looked again at the master's old friend, who was laughing. "Ten communist soldier watch, 'The Ancient' disappear. Communist soldier never come back village," the old man laughed. "Communist soldier very scared!"
Belladonna, Linda thought. A plant from the nightshade family. Some of the plants from the nightshade family were useful, even edible. The tomato, for example, was not just edible, but widely enjoyed and important economically. But, belladonna itself was poisonous.
How ironic, she thought. Just like those two dirty GBI agents who visited her outside the gym this morning... the GBI was useful and important, many of its operations were beneficial to Gotham, but those two agents themselves were corrupt. They worked their shady deals in the dark, and were poisonous to Gotham City.
Then she thought about that ghostlike figure who delivered the file to her in plain sight of the corrupt GBI agents who had just tried to intimidate her. She wouldn't have believed the events of the morning had ever happened to her -- she would have thought it had been a dream -- if she hadn't had the envelope with its files and CD ROM to prove it. The figure spoke to her, tossed the envelope with the file down at her feet, then just disappeared, right before her eyes!
That figure worked in the night and the shadows, too. And, she thought, he was going to be poisonous to whatever was happening in the dark shadows of Gotham's underworld.