It was shady in the forest, and the mosquitoes were thick in the shade, so Bruce Wayne had his coat on to keep the mosquitoes away.
He was moving fairly quickly down the trail, which seemed to twist around some, but, glancing at a compass he carried with him, Wayne was confident he was heading in the right general direction. As this piece of forest was completely surrounded by the road he had been on, he was confident he would come out somewhere along the road, even if he got a little lost. The important thing was to be heading in the right general direction, so he would come out on the other side of the forest, and not get so mixed up that he wound up back where he started.
Coming down the trail, Wayne looked ahead, and saw a smallish clearing. As he approached, he saw a strange sight indeed: a European-looking man, with a gentlemanly-looking appearance, as if an explorer from times past. The man was engrossed in a book.
The thought crossed Wayne's mind that this patch of forest was said by some locals to be haunted. More to the point, however, he recalled stories about smugglers in the woods.
As he approached, the man looked up.
"I knew you wouldn't be able to resist taking a shortcut after helping that man with his load of charcoal."
Wayne looked at him. "And you are...."
"My name is Ducard, but that is not important. Important is the person I represent."
"And who might that be?"
"I represent Ra's al Ghul, Mr. Wayne."
Wayne began to wonder who this Ra's al Ghul was, and whether the truck's accident with the spilled bags of charcoal was really an accident.
Ducard studied Wayne, then continued speaking. "It is said you bring to mind a bat, and indeed you do, dressed in dark clothes and a wide-brimmed hat, rising up on both sides... you resemble a bat, even down to your face, blackened by charcoal dust." Ducard looked at Wayne, as Wayne recalled his recent conversations with the fortune-teller and The Ancient. "But to me, you are a detective."
The whole encounter was eerie, and Bruce Wayne was somewhat unnerved, perhaps even a little frightened, by his encounter earlier with Talia, who mentioned this Ra's al Ghul, and now with this Ducard who claimed to represent him. It was as if Wayne had been set up, all day long.
"Well, it's a pleasure, Mr. Ducard. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be on my way." Wayne began walking away, very alert.
"The path you are on is the correct one, Mr. Wayne. But beware of what you find in the next clearing."
"And what is that?" Wayne stopped, turning back to Ducard.
"There are some people and small huts, but, more importantly, in that clearing you will come to a crossroads. Be careful which path you take."
Wayne stood still, looking at Ducard. It occurred to him that he could ask the people in the clearing about the path, but then he remembered that they might be smugglers.
"Thanks for the advice."
"You're welcome," Ducard smiled, picking up his book again. "By the way, Talia says 'Hi!'" he added.
"Ah, tell her I said 'Hi!' back, will ya?"
Apprehensive now, Wayne -- a giant blackish figure due to his clothes and the charcoal dust -- continued down the path he was on, but moving more slowly, cautiously, looking and listening carefully.
The waiter returned with their main course. Bruce Wayne looked at his plate, but wished he had ordered the same thing Dr. Villanova had. Regardless, he was anxious to get the conversation moving again.
"You actually sound a little cynical, Sandra. You seem to think all these people are kind of working together?" Wayne asked, taking a bite of his food.
"I didn't say they were all working together; that would be more than cynical, that would be paranoid." Having finished her appetizers, and beginning her main course, it sounded as if the effect of the wine had disappeared. "What I think is that there are certain interests that overlap and coincide. What else I think is that, as you get high enough up the respective organizational pyramids -- whether in government, business or crime -- you start to see a smaller and smaller group of players, and more and more of them know each other. And, although I have great respect for many of our public officials, and especially for our law enforcement personnel, there are politicians and even some cops who are corrupt, plain and simple, and who would sell us down the road with hardly a second thought. There are also others have made mistakes, and who can be manipulated into doing what they know is not right."
Dr. Villanova took a bite of her food. Washing it down with a sip of wine, she continued, glancing at the mirror, "It is like the people you were talking about earlier, that their life is a mirror image of what it should be. There are people in Gotham who we count on to protect us from the likes of Aladdin, but it is as if they are navigating through life by looking in the mirror; we expect them to turn right, but they go the other way instead."
Picking up on her mention of Aladdin, Wayne followed up. "What do you think of Aladdin?"
"He's very rich, Bruce. Possibly richer than you. He's up to his neck in narcotics and arms trafficking. His other criminal interests include trafficking in slaves for the sex industry. He justifies all of this by appealing to a higher morality; he thinks the ordinary rules of society don't apply to him. In fact, he seeks to replace society's rules with his own; that's what he means when he says Gotham must 'submit' to him. But, he also has business interests that we might otherwise call legitimate, and those interests tie in to Gotham City. Gotham's political and business leaders may not know him personally, but for some of them, Aladdin is a friend of a friend. The people of Gotham view his Mujahideen as ordinary street thugs, and most of them are. But there's more to Aladdin than street crime; for Aladdin, it's just business as usual, and his higher morality is the almighty dollar, same as with so many of Gotham's elite."
The giant blackish figure came to a clearing. The path he was on led into it, and, across the clearing, another path led out of it. As predicted, there were huts in the clearing. He could just hear voices coming from the largest hut, off to his left. He kept back in the brush, looking and listening. The thought crossed his mind to skirt the clearing, keeping in the brush. He also considered going back, but decided against that.
Off to one side, he saw a person -- a teenage girl, it looked like -- standing next to a wooden pole in the sun. She was tied to it!
Approaching with caution, the figure looked her over: she appeared to have been there in the sun for some time. She looked up at him, frightened, and obviously a little dehydrated from the sun. As he approached, he noticed that ants were climbing on her, as well.
Putting a finger to his lips for her to remain silent, and pulling out a knife, the figure hurried up to her and cut her loose. For her part, she seemed more concerned about the voices in the large hut, from where there was loud laughter emanating now as well. The figure brushed some of the ants off her, and motioned for her to go with him into the woods, when a terrible scream emanated from the hut. It was a loud scream, followed by more screams and loud laughter. The girl motioned to the hut, but the figure pointed at her and then the woods, then himself and the hut. She shook her head, but ran to the woods anyway.
For his part, the giant blackish figure hurried silently to the hut, approached the door, and burst through it into the room. A girl about the age of the one outside, undressed, was being held down by two men; she was sobbing. Three other men where standing around, laughing.
Hearing the commotion behind them, the men all turned and looked: there blocking the only door to the hut was an enormous figure, black from top to bottom, and obviously very angry.