Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Vasilissa the Beauty (Part 10 of 12)

Sasha sat outside Bruce Wayne's office, trying to concentrate on her studies.

It was useless. She was tired, and very intrigued about Bruce Wayne.

Questions raced through her mind. Why did he have that subterranean facility at Wayne Manor? What was all the equipment for? And why were Bruce Wayne and Alfred so interested in Gotham's criminal underworld?

A thousand thoughts raced through her mind, as she looked up, and saw a beautiful Eurasian woman enter Wayne's outer office, and go up to Mrs. Jones and begin to talk quietly.

As Bruce Wayne's bodyguard, Sasha had to consider the possibility that anyone who tried to get near Bruce Wayne could be a threat -- even a beautiful woman who had already been screened by Wayne Enterprises security.

"Please, it is urgent. I must see him. Tell him I'm here, he'll see me," the woman insisted.

Just at that moment, the door opened, and a tall, muscular figure looked out from the inner office.

"Bruce!" the woman cried out.

"Talia?" came the answer, as the woman rushed to Bruce Wayne and embraced him, kissing him passionately.

Devastated, Sasha tried to look back down at her homework, but her eyes would not be torn off the sight she was now seeing.

"Mrs. Jones," Wayne began, somewhat out of breath, "please...."

"Your schedule is clear for the afternoon, Mr. Wayne," Mrs. Jones answered rather routinely. It was not unheard of for Mr. Wayne to have important lady friends visit his office.

Wayne and his visitor stepped inside his office; uncharacteristically, Wayne forgot to thank Mrs. Jones before he closed the door. Sasha looked up. Through the window next to the door, she could see Wayne invite this woman to have a seat, and Sasha could see the woman dragging Bruce over to the sofa in front of the big window.

She slammed her book shut.

"Are you okay?" Mrs. Jones looked up, startled.

"Yes," Sasha smiled, "it's just a frustrating lesson I'm having to learn here. Think I'll take a break, and freshen up in the ladies' room."

Mrs. Jones smiled.

"It's my sister, Bruce. I need help finding her."

"Well, I can have some of my people look into it. I'm sure we'll be able to track her down. But, if she doesn't know you, how do you plan to show her that you are her sister?"

Talia smiled slyly. "I have something that was her's when she was a child." Opening her bag, Talia pulled out a worn doll, and handed it to Bruce.

Touching the doll, Bruce Wayne went through that transformation, as he realized its significance. He looked at its back -- there was a small hole in the back, just big enough....

"A beautiful day outside," he whispered, drawing Talia's attention to the window, as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small device shaped like a bat.

"It is, indeed, Bruce. It reminds me of Moscow," she smiled at him, then stood up to look out the window.

That was the opportunity he needed....

The tall man with the greenish complexion looked at his watch. It was after 10:00 already.

"Welcome to the party, Frankenstein, have a good evening," the doorman smiled, a security guard behind him.

"Actually, I'm Frankenstein's monster," the tall man with the greenish complexion answered, a slight British accent evident. "She's Frankenstein," he added, nodding to his date.

Confused, the doorman looked at the young lady. More than a foot shorter than her escort, it was impossible to tell by her costume that she was not a man.

"I was about to compliment you on your costume," a heavy voice said to the monster, "but if that's a young lady, then that's the best costume I've seen so far. She certainly looks like a man."

The comment came from a tough-looking man not dressed in a costume, but in a nicely-tailored and expensive-looking suit. Apparently, he was supervising activity at the door.

"Thanks," came the feminine voice from under the costume.

"Enjoy your evening," he said, already looking at the next people arriving.

"Thanks. Happy Halloween!" the feminine voice of Dr. Frankenstein replied, an Eastern European accent now detectable.

Meanwhile, a wolfman was now entering.

"Happy Halloween," he gruffly said.

"Happy Halloween, enjoy your evening," smiled the supervisor.

The doorman looked up: the whole crew from The Wizard of Oz was now converging on him. He half expected to see some dwarfs with them, but he instead noticed a tall, dark figure lurking behind them, smiling at him. Trying to be pleasant, he smiled back, but inside he was wondering: What the hell was he dressed up as?

"The party's a big success, Mr. Falcone."

The Boss smiled. "Dr. Frankenstein over there is an actress."

Rick looked back at the Boss. "That's a girl?"

"A good-looking one," the Boss answered. "Does Shakespeare downtown." He smiled again. "The monster works in the Mayor's office."

Rick smiled, too. The Boss was enjoying the evening.

Rick looked off towards the door. It was hard to see what was going on, so he looked at the closed-circuit television, instead. There in the doorway was another Dracula, just behind a bunch of people dressed like characters from some show he had seen as a kid... what was it again? The Wizard of Oz! This Dracula looked different -- not dressed in a white shirt with a red tie, like the other two, but rather dressed in all black, with something on his head. And the cape came to within inches of the floor, but was not straight and even across the bottom, like the others were -- this cape had semi-circles at the bottom, ending in points.

Rick stepped closer to the television, and turned it up some.

"Enjoy your evening," the Tin Man was being waved in.

Rick listened closer. They were talking to Dracula, but he couldn't make out what was being said.

He looked out the window again. There in the middle of the floor was a guy dressed in a green suit, complete with a green mask. He had short, red hair, and his green suit had question marks all over it. What was he, Rick thought, some kind of leprechaun?

He looked around some more. There was a ninja stepping out to the dance floor with a giant insect of some sort -- or maybe an extraterrestrial, it was hard to tell -- and off beyond them was a girl that was really getting some attention. She was dressed all in black, complete with a mask. Rick looked closer. She was dressed up like a cat! Rick noticed all the guys looking at her. She was wearing skin-tight vinyl and was carrying a whip. She had a remarkable figure. She would even rival Cleopatra for beauty! he thought. Speaking of Cleopatra, Rick wondered, where was she?

Rick smiled again, as he glanced back at the Boss, who was busy talking with two very beautiful young ladies. Nice party, Rick thought.

The elegant-looking woman looked at the funny-looking leprechaun in the green suit with question marks on it, and smiled politely; he was looking at her. Deep inside, she really wanted to roll her eyes, but had long ago learned to keep her real feelings buried deep, and to be careful about what she showed publicly. The leprechaun smiled back.

Her eyes continued surveying the room. There was a belly-dancer, who, despite the skin she was showing, just couldn't compete with a woman who showed almost no skin at all. This woman was in a skin-tight black vinyl suit, with high heals and a whip. She looked nice, and had a following of men. Impressive, the elegant-looking woman thought.

Next her eyes landed on a wolfman, then some wimpy guy dressed up as some kind of a mad scientist.

This time she rolled her eyes outwardly, then glanced up toward the ceiling, and quietly muttered, "Oh, please, send me a real man!" She closed her eyes and sipped her champagne, savoring the way the bubbles danced in her mouth.

"Cleopatra, I presume?"

The voice was quiet, but confident, a raspy whisper. It was the kind of voice that got someone's attention.

The elegant-looking woman turned, and looked up. The dark figure was over six-and-a-half feet tall, and was dressed in all black.

"And you are...?"

The figure smiled at her. "I'm Batman."

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Batman," the woman smiled. It did not appear obvious or deliberate, but her demeanor was flirtatious, an odd mix of the confidence and insecurity that come from knowing what men want, and having experience giving it to them.

"Nice party."

"Yes, it is," Cleopatra replied, looking around. "Are you here with anyone?"

"Not with anyone," the figure replied. "Looking for someone."

"Aren't we all?"

"I'm looking for someone who shares my interest in dolls."

Cleopatra looked up. That was an odd thing to say, she thought.

"Why dolls?"

"Dolls can be magical, a link to a loved one, returning what has been stolen from a person who is left behind by an untimely death," the figure explained. "Don't you agree?"

"You're interesting," Cleopatra commented, trying to appear casual and somewhat disinterested. She sipped her champagne as she looked around.

"But when the doll itself gets left behind, then what does a person do?" the figure asked.

Cleopatra squirmed, remembering her doll. It had been her connection to her mother, a gift from her on her deathbed, before Cleopatra herself had been taken from the small town she had lived in all her life, and presented to the outside world.

Summoning her strength, she looked up.

"Do I know you?" She studied the figure's face, which was mostly hidden by his mask, so she looked into his eyes, and there she got lost, then, recovering, began to introduce herself. "My name is...."

"Vasilissa," the figure interrupted, holding out his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

She gingerly shook his large, gloved hand. "And your name is...?"


Cleopatra paused, studying Batman. "Yes, I believe you mentioned that," she smiled as she sipped her champagne. "Where do I know you from?"

"You don't."

"Where do you know me from, then?"

"A little doll told me about you, and about the men you work for, the ones who brought you to Gotham City."

Vasilissa looked uncomfortable. "Are they friends of yours?"

"Not exactly."

"You know," she said, pointing around with her finger, "they have this place under constant electronic surveillance. They have television cameras and microphones. Everything we say and do is being recorded."

"I understand they are having some technical difficulties at the moment."

Vasilissa looked up behind and above the figure, at one camera, the location of which she knew about. You had to know where it was to see it. She looked for the red light indicating it was recording, but the light was out.

"Like I said... technical difficulties."

It was as if he could read her mind. "So what did this doll tell you about me?"

"That you were lost in this place. The doll asked me to rescue you."

"You are interesting," she looked at him again, studying him closely. "What did you say your name is?"


She nodded slowly, sipping her champagne.

"How would you like to disrupt this business of theirs? Keep them from doing this to any more little girls, ever again?"

"I'm listening," she said, sipping her champagne. This was a set-up to test her loyalty, she decided... and she knew how much The Roman appreciated loyalty -- and how he punished betrayal. By reporting this....

"Your doll will be joining you soon. It will be bringing you a gift."

Hearing this, she forgot her thought from a moment before, and Cleopatra was now hanging on every word of this mysterious figure.

"The gift is a communications device that you can use to summon me. Press the green button for a routine meeting, press the red button if you are in immediate danger. There is no way to cancel the meeting once you have pressed one of the buttons."

"What if I use the device to set a trap for you?"

"Then your doll will be disappointed in you; and so will the doll's creator."

Unnerved now, she struggled to maintain her composure.

Suddenly a popping sound could be heard, and some startled shrieks in the background, as electrical circuits short-circuited and several lights went out. The tall, dark figure did not so much as flinch.

"Like I said, technical difficulties."

Maybe this wasn't a set-up.

"Who are you?"

"I'm Batman."

More popping could be heard, and more lights went out, as Vasilissa looked around at the confusion.

"It's all right, ladies and gentlemen. We just blew a circuit breaker. We'll have it fixed in no time. Meanwhile, please enjoy yourselves," a voice called out loudly from up near the stage.

Vasilissa looked back, but the dark figure was gone.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Vasilissa the Beauty (Part 9 of 12)

Ra's al Ghul turned away from his daughter and looked out the window, as Talia continued.

"For years you have been talking about how terrible a place Gotham City is, and how the world would be better off without it." Beside herself with anger, she walked around in front of him and looked him in the eyes. "Aladdin got his nuclear weapons from you, didn't he?"

"Talia, we don't have time for this. We must move quickly."

"It was you, wasn't it?" Talia angrily challenged her father.

"No, it was not. Aladdin got his nuclear weapons from Gotham City itself! Some of the components and some of the technology came from the corporation of that boyfriend of yours, that detective. Aladdin's nuclear weapons would be impossible without the help of Wayne Enterprises!"

"Bruce Wayne would never permit something like that to fall into the hands of someone like Aladdin!" She stared at her father, an angry moment of comprehension leaving her almost breathless. "You tricked him, didn't you?" she gasped. "You tricked Bruce Wayne's company into helping arm Aladdin with nuclear weapons, knowing Aladdin would use them to destroy Gotham!"

"Talia, it was residents of Gotham that gave Aladdin the instruments that Aladdin will use to destroy their city -- just as it was residents of Gotham that helped Aladdin destroy the Gotham Towers. That is why I have said time and again that Gotham City is rotten to the core, and that is why the world will be better off when Gotham City is a smoldering ruin! Now please, we must move quickly!"

It was early morning on October 30th; Halloween was almost here. Tomorrow would be a busy day for people determined to have some fun, and by tomorrow night, the festivities would be in full swing.

Dr. Sandra Villanova looked at the ad on the website, and thought about its meaning.

As usual, there would be a big Halloween party at the Roma, and everyone who was anyone would be there.

She thought about the girls who would be working the party. Gotham City's escort services would have their very best at a party this important. Cassandra Villanova wondered how many of them had been trafficked to Gotham and forced into a life of prostitution.

It was October 30th, well before dawn, as the plane began its descent for final approach into Gotham International Airport.

"How are you planning to gain Nyssa's confidence, once you find her? If what you say is true, she will be hesitant to trust anyone." Ra's al Ghul looked at his daughter, who was looking out the window at the vast expanse of ocean over which they were flying and the distant shore they were approaching.

"When Nyssa was a girl, she had a favorite doll, given to her by her mother when she died. Nyssa carried it with her always, believing her mother's promise, that the doll would help her mother to watch over her. One day she left the doll at home, and that was the day she went missing." Talia was looking back at her father now. "Her aunt insisted that she go to school without her doll, saying it was time Nyssa outgrew such things. Her aunt has felt guilty ever since. More than guilty, it has ruined her life. She is just heartbroken. It was her promise to Nyssa's mother on her deathbed that she would watch over Nyssa, and then Nyssa went missing. Her aunt suspected immediately that Nyssa had been kidnapped and trafficked as a sex slave, because that has happened to many girls there, and besides that, Nyssa...." Talia paused, out of breath and overcome by emotion.

"Yes, my dear, what about Nyssa?" her father gently prodded.

"Nyssa is beautiful, Father. I saw pictures of her, and of her mother. Nyssa has her mother's blond hair and blue eyes, but she has some of your Asian features. In a land known for beautiful women, Nyssa stands out -- she is absolutely captivating, Father. She's elegant and...."

Ra's al Ghul choked back thoughts of Nyssa's mother.

"Do I detect a note of jealousy in your voice?" he gently asked.

"Father, I love Bruce Wayne, and I know he will never be mine. Since that day so many years ago when you told me Nyssa was interested in him, too, I have known he will never be mine. But, I am not jealous of Nyssa. Rather, we will both cry together, because he will not be hers, either."

"That was years ago, Talia. Haven't there been other men in your life?"

"Father, I am a daughter of yours, not a daughter of the times. If there were other men in my life, you would know about them."

They sat silently, looking out the window at the ocean below.

"You did not finish explaining how you would gain Nyssa's confidence."

"Nyssa's aunt gave me the doll. I have it in my bag in the overhead compartment."

Ra's al Ghul smiled, pleased at his daughter's ingenuity.

"And how did you gain her confidence?"

"By telling her things about herself that only Nyssa's mother knew."

The smile disappeared from his face as Ra's al Ghul pondered the meaning of his daughter's words.

"And where did you learn such things?"

"From letters Nyssa's mother had written to you," Talia casually answered, sipping a glass of wine.

"You have been reading my mail from Irina Raatko?!" exclaimed Ra's al Ghul, making an effort to speak in a low tone of voice.

"To save Nyssa's life!" retorted Talia. "She is every bit as much your daughter as I am, and she needs our help, and I will not let you neglect your fatherly duties to her!" Talia whispered her response firmly, even defiantly. "Nyssa has been sold into slavery, and is working as a high-class prostitute, and I will not live under the same sky with the men who have done this to her -- and neither will you, Father! It is not just your daughter, my half-sister -- it is our family honor!"

With an effort to control himself, an almost invisible effort, so habitual and controlled that it had become, Ra's al Ghul smiled at the stewardess as she walked by. "Another wine for Talia, please, and I'll have the same."

"Certainly," the stewardess smiled back.

"And what is the name of the man who is responsible for this?" Ra's al Ghul pleasantly turned back to Talia, as if discussing a pleasing arrangement of flowers.

"There are many," Talia answered sharply.

"No, but surely there is one who is in charge," Ra's al Ghul said, a deceptive smile on his face for the sake of anyone who might be watching, "and as I live, that man is a dead man, though he does not yet know it. Now tell me, what is his name?"

"Falcone," the dark figure said, staring out into another place at something far beyond the Batcomputer.

He thought about the attack on the Gotham Trade Center, the corruption in the Gotham Bureau of Investigation, the heroin distribution and the brothels in Gotham, the bribery of Gotham's government figures, the businesses that were profiteering off the "War on Crime"....

"No matter how you cut it, it keeps coming back to Carmine Falcone."

They looked at each other.

"Where can I find Carmine Falcone?" he continued.

"He hangs out at the Roma. He will be there for sure tomorrow night. They have a big party there every year for Halloween, and his very best girls work the party. Everybody who is anybody in Gotham shows up there," Sasha explained.

Alfred thought of the irony of what had just been said, considering that Bruce Wayne had surely never been to a Halloween party at the Roma.

"Vasilissa -- Nyssa -- will no doubt be there, probably not too far from Falcone," Sasha added. "She's an elegant woman, and likes to dress as Cleopatra."

Again the irony -- Alfred rolled his eyes at it all. It was late, he was tired, and tomorrow was Halloween -- and Alfred could tell it was going to be a long Halloween.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Vasilissa the Beauty (Part 8 of 12)

"What is Vasilissa?" Bruce Wayne asked, looking at Alfred again.

"Not 'what', 'who'!" corrected Sasha. "Vasilissa is a woman that works for Falcone in one of his escort services," explained Sasha. "She was trafficked into Gotham when she was in her late teens, but she is very intelligent and beautiful, and charmed her way to the top. Now she is in her mid-twenties, but she is essentially autonomous. She is one of the few people who can say something to Falcone and get away with it. She is one of his favorites, so he lets her do what she wants to do -- she chooses which clients she sees, and how often. She also sees Falcone from time to time, and Falcone likes her."

"Vasilissa," Wayne repeated.

"Vasilissa the Beauty," said Sasha, as Wayne and Alfred again exchanged glances.

"She was kidnapped from our country and forced into prostitution. She was trafficked as a sex-slave," Sasha explained. She tried to tell the story matter-of-factly, but her voice betrayed a deeper concern.

As she was speaking, Wayne thought back again to his conversation with Dr. Villanova.

"While physically mature, she was very much an innocent little girl when she was taken. She still had a doll that her mother had given her," Sasha explained, then paused. She took a moment to recover. "I'm sorry." She walked away, her voice breaking.

Alfred glanced at Wayne, then stepped over toward Sasha, holding out a box of facial tissues. "It's alright, my dear. If this is too difficult for you...." he said, his fatherly voice calm and soothing.

Angry at the story, and angry at herself for getting emotional, Sasha took a tissue, wiped her eyes, and turned to Alfred. "It's okay, Alfred. I'm okay," Sasha said, regaining control of herself.

"In my country, there is a story of a little girl named Vasilissa. Her mother died when she was young, but on her deathbed, she gave Vasilissa a magical doll. She explained to her daughter that the doll would come to life and help her when she got into trouble. After her mother died, her father mourned for a time, then married a widow who had two daughters, thinking Vasilissa would have a supportive mother again, and two sisters. But, Vasilissa was beautiful, and her stepsisters were not. Though they were older than she, all the men in town wanted to marry Vasilissa, because, though she was the youngest, she was by far the most beautiful -- she was incomparably beautiful, a deep beauty that goes all the way to the soul, without pretense; she was a classic Russian beauty. Her stepsisters were insanely jealous, and her step family hated her. When her father left town on a long journey, her evil stepmother sold her into slavery to a witch who lived deep in the woods. The witch was an evil cannibal, who ate people the way people eat chickens, and she used to give Vasilissa more work than was humanly possible to do, threatening Vasilissa that she would cook her and eat her if it didn't all get done."

Sasha paused for a breath, caught up in the story, and in the memories of her homeland. "But Vasilissa's doll came to life every day while the witch was away and did the work, and when the witch came back in the evening, the work was all done; all Vasilissa had to do was cook, and Vasilissa was an excellent cook, and soon the witch had compassion on her. In the end, the witch let Vasilissa go, and Vasilissa married the crown prince of the land and lived happily ever after."

"What happened to the stepmother and the stepsisters?" Wayne asked, captivated by the story.

Sasha looked at Wayne, then smiled. "The witch ate them, of course."

Once again, Wayne and Alfred exchanged glances.

"Anyway, that was the fairy tale. Our Vasilissa's mother died, and on her deathbed, she gave Vasilissa a doll that she had crafted during her last days of life. She promised Vasilissa that her spirit would be with the doll, and that the doll would help protect her. Whenever Vasilissa got lonely, she only had to hold her doll and remember her mother."

"Where was Vasilissa's father?" interjected Wayne.

"She never knew her father, and she never talked about him much. So, when Vasilissa's mother died, Vasilissa went to live with her aunt, and was very happy...." Sasha's voice trailed off.

"And then...." Wayne prompted, knowing the story did not end there.

"While she matured physically, she still enjoyed being a young girl. Vasilissa carried her doll with her to school, even as a teenager -- she hid her doll in her book bag. Her aunt wanted her to grow up, so one day, she sent Vasilissa to school without her doll, promising that everything would be fine, and that she and the doll would be at home when Vasilissa returned." Sasha paused, making an effort to keep her emotions under control. "That was the day Vasilissa was kidnapped by a gang of men, and trafficked outside our country, where she was raped, beaten and mistreated, then sold as a sex slave."

Alfred looked as Bruce Wayne, a large, brooding figure, sat down on a stool next to the computer, a very serious look on his face. The brooding figure had learned long ago to control his emotions. There were times when they got the best of Bruce Wayne, but emotions never got the best of Batman, and Alfred had been watching that transformation take place, from Bruce Wayne to Batman, as Sasha told the story about Vasilissa.

Feeling he had to do something, Alfred spoke up. "I say, my dear, Vasilissa -- that's not her real name, is it?"

"Oh no," Sasha answered. "That's just the name she has chosen as her professional name."

There was a momentary silence, broken by a voice coming from the direction of the Batcomputer. It was a low, raspy whisper -- the kind of voice that got someone's attention.

"What is her real name?"

"Nyssa, Father. I want to go see Nyssa, and I think I have found her."

Nyssa -- that was a name that he had not heard in a while.

"Where is Nyssa, my dear?"

Talia smiled with the thought of seeing Nyssa. "I have a reliable report that she is in Gotham City."

Ra's al Ghul turned around and looked at his daughter. "Gotham City is a dangerous place. It is an evil place."

"But Nyssa is my half-sister. She is your daughter. Don't you care about her?" Talia pleaded. "If she is in such a dangerous place as Gotham City, then we must help her."

Talia looked at her father. Ra's al Ghul was unable to resist the pleading eyes of his beloved daughter. It was as if Talia's eyes mirrored a plea from Nyssa for help, a plea that stretched across time and space, a plea that touched his very soul.

"Gotham City is a very dangerous place right now, Talia," he began to explain.

"I know, there is Aladdin and that 'War on Crime'," Talia said dismissively, almost contemptuously.

"No, my dear, it is worse than you know. Aladdin is in league with the man who runs Gotham City...."

"The mayor?"

"No, The Roman."

Talia looked at her father innocently. She had no idea who The Roman was; she only knew of him by a different name.

"The Roman is an organized crime boss, an evil man, a man without conscience. He has complete control over Gotham City. Gotham is rotten to the core. A disaster there would be a blessing."

"Then we must get Nyssa out as quickly as we can. And the fact that there are two crime bosses doesn't really change anything."

"You don't understand, my dear. Aladdin has nuclear weapons, and plans to use them to destroy Gotham City."

There was a long silence, as Talia thought not only of Nyssa, but of her love from a past time, who also lived in Gotham City, and whom she had hoped to see while there looking for Nyssa.

"Then Bruce Wayne is in danger, as well," Talia said, a deep fear in her voice.

Talia paused, her head cocked at an odd angle.

"Father, how do you know Aladdin has nuclear weapons?"

The silence that answered that question was deafening, as Talia suddenly looked at her father angrily.

"Father," she insisted, "where did Aladdin get his nuclear weapons from?"

As Bad As It Gets

Here's one for my visitors from the UK -- Visiting Saudi king accuses Britain of terror failures:

LONDON (AFP) - Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah accused Britain of not taking terrorism seriously enough Monday, hours before arriving in London for a controversial state visit.


In a BBC interview prior to his arrival, the king said his country had given Britain information which could have prevented the 2005 London suicide bombings, in which 52 innocent people died, but the authorities had failed to act on it.

I wonder if that could be true?

The king, the first Saudi monarch in 20 years to visit Britain, will be met by heir to the throne Prince Charles and will stay at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II's home in the capital.

His visit has already stirred up criticism from politicians and protestors who allege human rights abuses and corruption in Saudi Arabia.

Asked about the terrorist threat, the king told the BBC through an interpreter: "I believe most countries are not taking this issue too seriously including, unfortunately, Great Britain.

"We have sent information to Great Britain before the terrorist attacks in Britain but unfortunately no action was taken. And it may have been able to maybe avert the tragedy."

He said that Al Qaeda had not been defeated in Saudi Arabia, adding: "I believe strongly...that it will take 20 to 30 years to defeat the scourge of terrorism with vigilant effort.

A good way to start is to tell your mullahs to stop teaching everybody to hate the brothers (and sisters) of apes and pigs.

(That comment is for both the UK and the KSA.)

"I strongly urge all countries in the world including Great Britain to take the matter of fighting terrorism very, very seriously and to combat terrorism day and night with robustness and vigilance."

I strongly urge the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to either 1) allow religious freedom for people in the Kingdom, or 2) curtail the freedom of those who preach hatred.

As it is, if you bow to Mecca and call for the deaths of kuffar, your speech is acceptable, but if you carry a cross and ask for peace and love, you're taking your life into your hands there.

Come to think of it, if you bow to Mecca and call for the deaths of kuffar, that's okay in the UK, too, but if you carry a cross and ask for peace and love, you will be shunned and ridiculed, at least.

The acting leader of the centre-left Liberal Democrats, Vincent Cable, has taken the rare step of boycotting the visit in protest over human rights and an allegedly fraudulent arms deal.

The Serious Fraud Office last year investigated BAE Systems' 43 billion pound Al-Yamamah deal in 1985, which provided Hawk and Tornado jets plus other military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

Don't open that one up. It's too big of a rat's nest, and you people in the UK don't really want to know the truth, do you?

But the investigation was shelved by the British government last December in a move supported by the then prime minister Tony Blair amid concerns over Britain's national interest.

There you go, that's the way you do it. The Bush Administration can give you guys some pointers. Corruption and influence peddling can't be investigated due to national interest. Over here, we call it State Secrets Privilege, but a scandal by any other name....

BAE Systems is alleged to have set up a 60 million pound "slush fund" for members of the Saudi royal family to secure business, and made illegal payments to those involved in its deals. BAE strenuously denies the charges.

Because of his boycott, Cable will not be attending the state banquet at Buckingham Palace and other major events to which opposition leaders are usually invited.

"In my opinion, it is quite wrong for the British government to have proposed a state visit at this time," Cable wrote in a letter to the Saudi ambassador.

On Wednesday, protestors are due to stage a mass human rights demonstration outside the Saudi embassy in London supported by figures including senior ruling Labour party MP John McDonnell.

"The British people will be aghast at the government entertaining on a state visit one of the most prominent anti-democratic and human rights abusing leaders in the world," he said.

So? As long as the money & oil are flowing, who cares?

Don't be so Saudiphobic -- one culture is just as valid as another, and who are you to judge the Saudi approach to governing? The UK isn't perfect, you know. Should we list all the abuses propagated by the British Empire throughout history? Finger-pointing at its best....

The centre-left Independent newspaper, meanwhile, ran a front page headline: "A royal guest to be proud of?" above a picture of the king.

"It is difficult to know where to begin when it comes to expressing the inappropriateness of this visit," it added in an editorial.

The king is also set to visit Italy, Germany and Turkey after a three-day stay in London.

The King of Saudi Arabia is telling you to take terrorism more seriously.

Folks, that's just about....

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Vasilissa the Beauty (Part 7 of 12)

The figure sat silently in the Batcave, staring off into the depths of the darkness. His mind was thousands of miles and years away from where his body was.

He had been so happy for those few days in Moscow, but it had been temporary, fleeting. Both of them had lost their fathers to crime when they were young. His father had been murdered, gunned down in front of him; her father had lost his wife to crime, and decided to do something to battle crime, but in the process, had become a criminal himself. For both of them, the fathers that they loved were dead, their lives taken by the crime around them, the innocence they had known as children with their fathers living only in their memories. Those memories called to him from the grave, compelling him to live the life he now lived; but in her case, those memories lived with her, beckoning her every day into a world which was every bit as terrible as the world that had taken their fathers.

He and she both had been dragged off by crime and now were from different worlds, but for a few brief days, they were together in their own world, and they were both happy. They had listened to that song, and it had become their song. He never understood the words, but the melody he recognized.

And tonight, hearing the meaning of the words, it was as if that song had existed just for them.

He knew that something had been prodding him, nagging at him, slowly tearing him away from that temporary happiness, driving him back to Gotham City, to the mansion now empty of those who should be enjoying it; and the mansion, the whole city, was now full of that emptiness -- and that emptiness beckoned him, refusing to release him: that emptiness was his destiny.

The feelings he now had for Sasha only reminded him of the feelings he had had for her, in Moscow. Could he get close to Sasha, after what he had had with someone else before? And, if he could, would it only be temporary, like that had been? Would his heaven-on-earth come to a sudden end, like it had one summer night in Gotham City, shattered by gunshots and the realization that his parents were gone -- like it had one summer night along a river near Moscow, shattered by the realization that his destiny was not there in her arms.

He recalled the night of June 26th, what seemed like so many years ago. He was in heaven, on the bank of a river, in a foreign land, with a foreign girl, listening to a foreign song, and feeling like he was at home more so than he had ever been since his parents had died. He thought about the irony, as his parents had been killed on the night of June 26th so many years before, and how he had now found happiness, and felt that things had come full circle. Tearing his gaze away from her eyes, he looked at his watch: it was 10:47 PM, Moscow time, the same hour at which, on that night in Gotham City, his parents had been killed. Suddenly, he saw his parents death all over again, but instead of his parents falling in front him, it was the Gotham Towers, and thousands of people were dying.

He gasped as his happiness was taken from him, and he sensed the drive to return to Gotham City, even though he did not know why. She thought she had done something wrong, and she did not understand why he suddenly had to leave. He managed to convince her that it was nothing to do with her, although deep inside, he wondered if perhaps it was. She promised she would follow him to Gotham City....

He turned and looked at the photo of the Gotham Towers on the wall of the Batcave. For about ten weeks after he had returned to Gotham, he was lost and miserable; then, they fell, just as he had imagined that night on the outskirts of Moscow. Ever since then, there was only one thing that could fill the emptiness in his life, and that was his obsession -- until tonight, listening to Sasha, he wondered if his life might somehow become his own again....

Sasha was sobbing as Alfred held her. He had never had a daughter and, in fact, she was young enough to be his granddaughter. Somehow, though, he knew his role.

He remembered the night he was thrust into being a father for a lost little boy, pleasant, intelligent, friendly, innocent, and a little spoiled.

He thought, too, of the night years later, when that lost little boy called up from a foreign land and announced that he was coming home. Alfred told him that he would call Mr. Fox and have someone from the Wayne Enterprises' small corporate office in Moscow pick him up, and that he would have one of Wayne Enterprises' corporate jets fly to Russia and bring him back. But, he insisted, he would make his own way home; he had to say good-bye to someone.

In the end, Mr. Fox agreed to send Alfred on a corporate jet, and Alfred picked him up in Germany; it reminded Alfred of his days in service of Her Majesty, when Alfred himself had come in from the cold through Berlin, right before he left Her Majesty's service, and entered into the service of Dr. Thomas Wayne. It seemed like quite a change, and he had at first been very apprehensive about it, until he realized that Wayne Manor was where he belonged.

"Sasha," he said quietly, "come with me. It is time you saw that special place under Wayne Manor, about which Mr. Fox spoke to you."

Alfred led Sasha to the antique grandfather clock, and moved the hands to indicate the time of 10:47....

She had to hurry, now. She had a great deal to do.

First, she had to return to her father, and explain to him the situation. She wanted to try to convince him to go with her; but, if she couldn't do that, she was going anyway, alone.

There was one man in Gotham City that she knew would help her, even if her father wouldn't. Years ago, during that short time they had together in Moscow, she had looked into his heart, and knew he would help anyone. And, she thought -- she knew -- he still had feelings for her, just as she did for him. Perhaps....

She looked down at the edge of European Russia, just as she had that day several years back, when they left Moscow, each going a separate way. Then, too, the plane had been gaining altitude, turning for Western Siberia, then Asia beyond. Then, too, she had planned to go to Gotham City, only that time she hadn't made it. This time she would make it to Gotham City; this time, their paths would bring them together.

Ironically, her main concern was what might happen if her father did decide to go to Gotham City....

Talia al Ghul looked down at the Russian countryside, and wondered how her father, Ra's al Ghul, might get along with him if they met.

The figure -- Bruce Wayne -- turned and looked; Alfred and Sasha were entering the Batcave.

"I need your help," he said to Sasha, his voice a low, raspy whisper. "Read this, please, and tell me what you think."

Only for a moment was she caught off-guard by the request; then, Sasha studied the riddle for a moment, and read it aloud:

"Blue is the water by which comes the green.
Tall is the lady; she's Gotham's queen.
Under her eyes, the Roman commands,
Fueling the vices of his empire's lands.
For wont of their vices they give freedom away;
High is the price for their habits they pay.
See the green lady, she is a slave,
See her blue knights, they are but knaves.
Powerful is the Roman, this land he does rule;
King takes queen on a knight for a fool."

She looked around.

"Falcone," she said simply. "Carmine Falcone -- he's The Roman."

Alfred looked at Bruce Wayne, and Wayne looked at Sasha.

"How do you know?" the figure asked.

"In the right circles, everybody knows. The Roman -- that's Falcone's nickname."

"And why is that?" Alfred interjected his question.

"Because Gotham City is his empire. He runs it the way the emperors used to run Rome. He decides who the kings are -- the mayor, the city council members, the judges -- and he makes sure they get the resources they need to get elected."

"So all these people work for him?" asked Wayne.

"Oh no, not at all. Some of these people are trying to put Falcone in jail. The point is that Falcone manipulates them in many ways, often in ways they don't even know. He also has key people on their staffs and elsewhere in the system who work for him, so their efforts come to nothing if Falcone disapproves of what they are trying to do. They do his bidding at the instigation of advice from their staffmembers, so they pass laws and regulations that benefit Falcone, and think they are hurting him, or think it has nothing to do with him -- but of course it has everything to do with him, Falcone is The Roman, and Gotham City is his empire."

"But Falcone is just a businessman," began Wayne.

"A competitor?" interrupted Alfred.

"No, not exactly. He has some business interests that compete with some divisions of Wayne Enterprises, but Falcone's businesses are more often suppliers or customers of ours," Wayne answered.

"But you're exactly right that he's just a businessman," began Sasha. "You are concerned about right and wrong, but Falcone isn't interested in that, he's just interested in business. I mean, he does have a code of ethics, sort of, but it is not the same code of ethics that we live by."

Bruce Wayne and Alfred looked at each other.

"Falcone operates on both sides of the law," began Sasha, a little frustrated at their lack of comprehension. "If dealing in cars makes him money, he deals in cars. If dealing in drugs makes him money, he deals in drugs. Falcone is into drugs, gambling, racketeering, prostitution -- he controls the heroin trade, and trafficks women in from around the world to work... his people force them into prostitution in brothels throughout Gotham City."

Wayne thought back to his conversation the other night with Dr. Villanova about the prostitution ring that had been broken by Gotham police, and about persistent reports that Aladdin was involved in the heroin trade.

"But I thought Aladdin ran the heroin in Gotham," Wayne looked back at Sasha.

"Aladdin runs the heroin to Gotham. He is one of the suppliers. Within Gotham, Falcone controls distribution."

"If prostitution is Falcone's business, and if Falcone has so much control over Gotham, how is it that there was that big bust a couple of weeks back? The one where that prostitution ring was broken?" Wayne continued with his questions.

Sasha smiled at Wayne. "Are you so naive? First of all, there are always competitors, and racketeering runs both ways."

Wayne glanced at Alfred again. "What do you mean?" Wayne asked.

"If you want to run a legitimate business in Gotham, you need to pay Falcone to keep the criminals away. If you want to run an underworld business in Gotham, you need to pay Falcone to keep the cops away. Falcone controls men on both sides of the law," Sasha explained. "Gotham City is his empire, and Falcone is The Roman." Sasha paused to let that sink in. "When people think of racketeering, they think of paying the bad guys to stay away, but you also have to pay corrupt law enforcement to stay away from illegal businesses -- bribery. Falcone is on both sides of it."

Alfred looked at Wayne this time.

"Every once in a while," Sasha continued, "someone in Gotham City government needs a big bust to show that Gotham is serious about crime. Falcone gives them a competitor, or sometimes he gives them a business of his that isn't performing up to par, as punishment and as an example." She paused again, thinking of how to explain it. "If your prostitutes aren't bringing in enough money, Falcone sends you to jail. Learn your lesson, Falcone springs you and takes you back. Falcone doesn't hold a grudge for things like that, to him it's just business. But," she paused again, looking around, "and here's where his code of ethics comes in, if you betray him, you will be out of business for good."

"I say, how do you know so much about this, young lady?" Alfred asked, unable to contain his curiosity.

"Vasilissa," Sasha replied simply.

Vasilissa the Beauty (Part 6 of 12)

"There was a need for an all-weather training and test facility that was not too far away from downtown Gotham City, so Wayne Enterprises built this," began Lucius Fox, as Sasha Bordeaux looked around. "The lighting up above can simulate nearly any kind of lighting conditions. Harnesses attached to the ceiling keep trainees from getting hurt if they fall." Sasha looked up as some of the lights came on.

It was an immense indoor facility, perhaps seven stories tall. It resembled a street of Gotham City, and along either side were facades that simulated different kinds of buildings. One facade looked like an apartment or condominium, another across from it looked like a business. The facades had balconies and other features. Farther down the room, on one side, there was a facade that looked like the side of a mountain, where climbers would scale a roughly vertical rock face. Judging from the distance between the facades and the wall of the room they were in, it was likely there were rooms inside the windows in the facades on either side of the facility, possibly even two deep in some places.

"We have contracted this out to the Gotham Police Department, especially for their SWAT team, as well as to the Gotham Fire Department and the Gotham Bureau of Investigation Hostage Rescue Team. It has also been used as a set to film movies, as well as for various types of television shows. Contestants on one show had to climb that vertical rock face over there," Fox said, pointing down the "street" as they slowly walked through the facility.

"In the early days, Mr. Wayne used to come in here two, three and even four times a week, usually at night, when the facility was available, to try out various kinds of equipment. He used to get in quite a workout climbing, rappelling.... We developed a special gun that fired a projectile across the street, imbedding in the facade opposite. The projectile carried a cable, which then stretched from where the operator was," Fox pointed up to a balcony on the right, "to where the operator wanted to go," Fox pointed up to another balcony on the left. "The operator then connected a harness he was wearing to the cable, and slid across the street on the cable. It was kind of a makeshift, portable commando wire. Another similar application of the same technology allowed the operator to rise vertically several stories very fast. There was a great deal of interest in this kind of technology among various government agencies, as well as among adventurers who were always on the lookout for a new way to have fun."

Fox looked around, smiling, then turned to Sasha. "One customer was interested in climbing a glacier in Iceland, and bought some of our experimental equipment. There were liability issues, and our legal department wrote up a long contract that basically stated he was getting his equipment 'as is', with no warranty expressed or implied, and the customer had to pay extra to cover the cost of having the contract written up!"

Sasha smiled as they looked around some more. "Bruce has a great deal of upper body strength and endurance. Just on a piece of rope, he can climb several stories very rapidly." Fox looked at Sasha again. "He was so good at it, that the staff made monkey jokes about him, and someone even went so far as to leave a bunch of exotic bananas on a rock ledge near the top there," Fox explained, pointing at the rock facade. "Bruce was so proud of himself when he went up, got the bananas, and was back down on the ground in under ten seconds, using our equipment," Fox added, nodding.

"Does he still come down here to work out?" Sasha asked, her interest in trying it herself quite evident.

"Not anymore," Fox said. He turned toward Sasha, lowering his voice, and continued, "That lower level under Wayne Manor that we were talking about...?"

Sasha nodded, as they stopped walking.

"It is an immense facility, similar to this one. There is a gymnasium down there, a computer room, a garage, and a training room similar to this one, though smaller. Bruce trains there mostly, now, coming in here a couple of times a month, usually to test something new."

Sasha looked at Fox, puzzled. "It was designed and maintained by Wayne Enterprises employees, although much of the labor was provided by contract workers from abroad who came in on special visas just for that project. Secrecy was a consideration."

"Why? What does Mr. Wayne do that requires such secrecy?"

"Nothing, really, he's just a little eccentric. Still, we do respect his right to privacy."

"Should you be telling me all this?"

"Mr. Wayne specifically asked me to, as he thought you might be interested in working in that facility and having access to it."

"That's what the additional confidentiality agreements were about, the ones that I signed yesterday?"

"Exactly." Fox looked back down the room, and the two of them continued walking. "Out in California, there was one eccentric lady, incredibly wealthy, who was convinced that if ever she stopped building her house, she would die, so for many years, work went on, around the clock, adding on entire wings to her house. It has hundreds of rooms, many of which she had never even been in when she died. It has hallways that lead to dead ends, secret passages, false doors.... Bruce Wayne is certainly not like that, but he does have some peculiarities about him, and his underground facility is among the peculiarities of the Wayne family. That facility had originally been a place where slaves escaping from the South could find temporary refuge, back in the days of the Underground Railroad. It was just a cave back then, of course. In the 1950's, with the Cold War in full swing, Bruce's grandfather had a bomb shelter put in down there. That is now the panic room. The bomb shelter had a secret trap door leading down to a sub-level. The sub-level was nicknamed 'The Batcave' because of all the bats that lived down there and bothered the workers when they were working."

Fox paused. "Again, all of this information about Wayne Manor is specifically what is covered in the confidentiality agreement, so don't talk about this with anyone. The general rule we have is not to talk about it at all outside of the underground facility at Wayne Manor. The only exceptions are when we need to plan here the work we do there, and when we are bringing a new person onto the team, as I am with you."

Sasha nodded, and they continued walking slowly.

They stopped again. "You know that once, when Bruce was young, he fell down a well and was trapped in a cave underneath Wayne Manor. Now in his adult life, it is like he has to go down there again and again, perhaps trying to overcome the trauma he suffered as a child," Fox explained, then paused. "I don't know, maybe he's trying to prove something to himself."

Sasha thought about Bruce Wayne. "He seems like he has things so together, except that he comes off as rather shallow sometimes. I guess there is more to him than meets the eye," she sighed.

"There's more to all of us than meets the eye, Sasha."

The woman, Marina Raatko, was crying, and it was hard for her and Talia al Ghul to understand each other's speech, but they were connecting on a more important level, woman-to-woman. Somehow, between broken English and broken Russian, with gestures, and building on the basis of this woman-to-woman connection, they were communicating.

"This is all I have left of her," Marina said in Russian.

"I will bring this back to you, with her," Talia promised.

It was late at night again, and he was wide awake again.

Silently, he drifted the corridors of Wayne Manor, wandering around, thinking. Something was there, drifting somewhere in the dark, lonely depths of the back of his mind, just as he was drifting the dark, lonely corridors of Wayne Manor.

From high up on the third floor balcony, a figure watched him down below, as he criss-crossed the darkness in the main gallery. A sad feeling came over the figure, as he watched the obsession and loneliness of the son he never had, a son whose time with his own father had been cut tragically short.

Down below, drifting, he paused outside a small room. The room had a light on, and he stopped in the glow through the open door. Up above, Alfred smiled, as he knew that Bruce Wayne had stopped outside the room where Wayne's bodyguard, Sasha Bordeaux, was studying.

Wayne listened, as a song faintly drifted from the room. It was a foreign song, yet one that was hauntingly familiar to him.

He stepped up to the door and knocked gently.

"Sasha?" he asked.

She looked up and smiled. He often wanted to go out late at night, and as his bodyguard, she would get ready and take him. Sometimes, though, he disappeared, and she didn't know where he was. It was important to encourage him to have her accompany him. Besides, it was usually an interesting break from her studies to do what was supposed to be her job and take Bruce Wayne downtown.

"Good evening. Are you going out?" she asked. Wayne found her accent interesting; actually, he really found it exotic and charming, but he did not want to acknowledge or admit that.

"I hadn't planned on it... I... can't sleep...." he hesitated, listening to the last few notes of a melancholy song that brought back memories for him. "That song... it sounds so sad. What is it about? What is its name?"

"In my country, it has been very popular for many years now. In English, it is usually called 'Moscow Nights', although the title translates more accurately as 'Evenings on the Outskirts of Moscow'. Do you like it?" Sasha's smile warmed. Her feelings for Bruce had warmed, too, as she had gotten to know him. He was a strong, smart, successful man, but in so many ways, he was like a little boy. She knew his parents had been murdered in front of him many years ago, and it was like part of him froze in that moment. Alfred was in some ways like a father to him, but she could tell that he never really coped with the loss of his real father, and that he especially never coped with the loss of his mother.

"Yes, I... it's just that... the song brings back memories."

Intrigued, Sasha studied him. "How is that? You have heard it before?"

"Yes, I... I heard it in Moscow some years back. I was just passing through, and spent a few days there on my way back to Gotham City from a trip to Asia. I heard that song several times during those few days."

Another song was already beginning to play, but Sasha reached over to the CD player and paused it. "Let me play it for you again," she offered.

Bruce sat down and listened, as the music filled the room with a warmth that matched the warm glow from the lamp and the warmth of Sasha's smile. The warmth from the music was a sincere but somewhat melancholy warmth, longing, distant, yet very present.

As the final notes died down, Bruce Wayne felt calmed, yet apprehensive, too, as if his temporary happiness would fade with the last of the notes.

"What is it about?"

Sasha smiled a patient smile. For the first time, she was connecting with Bruce Wayne on a personal level, instead of on a professional level. She had been hoping for this to happen for weeks now.

"Let me try to translate it for you. It will not be as poetic in English as it is in Russian," she smiled. Looking down at the lyrics, she thought for a moment, remembering the land she was from, took a deep breath, and began to translate.

"Even whispers are not heard in the garden,
Everything has died down until dawn.
If you only knew how dear to me
Are these evenings on the outskirts of Moscow.

The river moves but remains unmoving,
All bathed in a silver moonlight.
A song is heard but remains unheard,
In the silence of these nights.

Why do you, my dear, look askance,
With your head lowered so?
It is hard to express, yet hard to hold back,
Everything that is in my heart.

But the dawn is becoming brighter now,
So please, just be good,
And you, too, don't ever forget,
These summer nights on the outskirts of Moscow."

Her eyes closed, she was carried away to her country. As she slowly opened her eyes, smiling, she looked at Bruce, and noticed a sad look on his face. A tear formed in his eye, as if something had pierced his soul.

"Thank you," he whispered, then got up and hurried out of the room and disappeared down the hallway.

"Bruce," she called after him, and got up, hurrying out. Looking down the hallway, she paused, not knowing exactly where he had disappeared to. The happiness that she had felt disappeared, as the one person with whom she had hoped to share that happiness looked so lost, so forsaken, so lonely. She wanted to share her happiness with him, and for him to share his loneliness with her; she wanted to let him know that he was not alone, but now, looking at the labyrinth of Wayne Manor, she didn't even know where exactly he was, or how he had disappeared so quickly.

Devastated, she turned as she heard Alfred walk up behind her. She stepped toward him, as he reached out to hug her, in his reassuring, fatherly way.

"It's always darkest before the dawn, Sasha," Alfred soothingly explained. "And the dawn is already getting brighter." He smiled.

"Alfred, why won't he let anyone get close to him?"

"You're much closer than you think, my dear."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Vasilissa the Beauty (Part 5 of 12)

Wayne Manor was dark, and it was late.

Outside it was cold. A cold wind was blowing. It swept in from the northwest; it was a lonely wind, and it seemed to bring loneliness from some place that was empty except for its loneliness.

The figure walked slowly through the hallway, pausing from time to time to look out a window.

"Mr. Wayne, this was found at the front gate. We've already checked it over." It was one of the security people.

"Thanks. Where's Alfred?"

"He turned in some time ago. He was tired. Shall I get him?"

"No, no, let him sleep," Bruce Wayne quickly directed. "He works hard, and I seldom see him rest. Let's not disturb him. Thanks."

The security officer went back outside, returning to his post at the gatehouse.

Wayne opened the envelope and looked at the card. It was an ordinary card, not the trademark of Catwoman. He opened the card and read the verse.

People look at me and think me a whore,
Little do they realize I am so much more.
The empire lives on, far from Rome,
Built by slaves trafficked from home.
Few are the free in this world of green;
A Russian girl masquerades as an Egyptian queen.

Wayne thought about the verse, and wondered whether the last two lines might refer to his Russian bodyguard, Sasha, who spent a great deal of time at Wayne Manor now.

Wayne studied the verse. It looked like it was written with a computer. Catwoman's riddles were always in neat, feminine handwriting.

He looked it over again. This had to mean the Riddler was resuming his activity.

Mrs. Jones looked at the door. It was the second time in three days that Linda Callahan and Edward Nygma were in Mr. Wayne's office for a meeting. She wondered what was suddenly so important about a project writing technical manuals in the basement of Wayne Enterprises.

"But you don't have any proof," commented Bruce Wayne.

"No, no proof. Only a theory," agreed Edward Nygma.

"But, a theory that happens to fit the facts," added Linda Callahan.

Wayne turned and looked out the window at where the Gotham Towers had stood. He looked in that direction silently for what seemed like a long time, though in fact it was only about a minute.

Finally he turned back around.

"The technical manuals are not really that important. I'm going to give you access to some of our resources to see what else you can turn up. Be careful what you say about this, and to whom. We don't want to ruin anyone's reputation, least of all that of Wayne Enterprises, but if laws have been broken, this will need to be investigated officially."

"Mr. Wayne, where have you been during this conversation? As I just pointed out, people inside the Gotham Bureau of Investigation are in on this. If we cry 'foul' and start an investigation, we will get nowhere. We have no proof, and the crooks will shut us down to make sure we never do."

"I understand that, Linda, and that's why I want you and Edward to work on this for now. And, I want this to be quiet for now, as well. At some point in the future, though, the criminal activity needs to be exposed. Agreed?"

They both nodded.

"When the time comes to get this matter the attention it deserves, we need to have our facts together. Besides, at this point, is it not still possible that this is all just a coincidence?"

Nygma and Callahan just looked at each other.

"We need to collect information and rule out possibilities, while we consider our options."

"Okay. But for now, we keep this among ourselves," Linda said, looking at Edward, then at Bruce Wayne.

"Okay. Let's get back at it. That's the priority?" Nygma asked Wayne.

"I think so, don't you?"


They all stood up and walked slowly toward the door.

"Thanks for stopping by, and we'll talk again soon," Wayne said, opening the door to let them out.

"Thanks," said Nygma, as Linda smiled.

As soon as they got outside the outer office, and started down the hallway toward the elevator, Linda turned a little to Edward and whispered, "He's so clueless. He thinks it's all just a coincidence."

Watching them walk down the hallway, Wayne turned to his secretary.

"Mrs. Jones, do you remember the Gotham police officer who interviewed me and helped me the day my parents were killed?"

"Yes, Officer Gordon. He's a lieutenant now."

"Right. Do you know how I can get in touch with him?"

"I can find out. Is everything okay?"

"Yes, everything is fine. Just that periodically, over the years, we have bumped into each other. We still remember each other. And, it's been a while since I last talked to him. For some reason, the conversation with Edward and Linda got me thinking about Lt. Gordon, and I was just wondering how he was doing." Wayne turned to go back inside his office, then paused, and looked back at Mrs. Jones. "By the way,..." he began.


"If Edward and Linda need to see me urgently for something, please make sure they get in as quickly as possible."

"Right, Mr. Wayne."

Wayne walked back inside his office, closing the door behind himself, then went back to the armchair and sat down, looking out the window toward where the Gotham Towers had stood.

He had thought that Nygma was the Riddler. If so, why the riddles? Did Nygma use them to prompt meetings with Wayne?

Staring out the window, he began to think some more. The riddles had so far arrived in two different kinds of styles. The theory was that the Riddler and Catwoman were both sending him riddles. Might they be working together -- might Linda Callahan be Catwoman? Or, perhaps there was no Riddler; perhaps Catwoman was the only one sending him riddles?

Might Catwoman and the Riddler be working for the same person? What was their true motivation? Did they have an ulterior motive in helping provide the clues to solve the crime of the Gotham Towers, a crime that everyone considered already solved?

To the point, he wondered, were Batman and Bruce Wayne being manipulated into taking sides in a war between factions of Gotham's underworld? If so, did the manipulator know that Batman and Bruce Wayne were the same person?

It was definitely autumn, and the smell of autumn leaves hung in the air, mixing with the carbon monoxide and other fumes from the poorly-maintained cars that passed by on the street. It was cool and overcast, and the blowing wind made it colder and promised rain.

"Excuse me," she said nervously. "Do you speak English?"

The woman nodded, answering with some words in Russian.

"Are you Marina Raatko?" she asked with a friendly smile.

The woman looked at her, then nodded slowly.

Not sure that the woman understood her, she decided to try her own broken Russian. "Are you Marina Raatko?"

"Yes," the woman smiled back. "And who are you?"

"My name is Talia. How do you do?"

The woman shook Talia's hand, then asked "What can I do for you?"

"May I speak with you? There is a coffee shop across the street. We can talk in there."

"Better..." the woman answered with a long phrase that Talia didn't understand, but she seemed to be indicating a place down the street. Noticing her incomprehension, the woman motioned for Talia to accompany her. The wind was getting quite cold, and a light rain was beginning to fall. A short distance down the street, Talia saw a small tea shop.

The woman led Talia into the shop. Inside there were only three tables, all vacant, but at least it was warm. A light smell of fairly recent cigarette smoke was noticeable, but not overwhelming. It was warm and dry inside, and Talia was happy to be out of the wind and light rain. The woman motioned for Talia to sit at a table near the window, then went into the back through a doorway behind a curtain. Talia could hear a great deal of talking in Russian, as the woman emerged with a young girl, in her early teens. The young girl carried a tray with some tea cups and some snacks on it. Talia looked around for the teapot, but the girl smiled and pointed at a large container on the small bar near the doorway from which she had emerged with the tray. "The tea is in the samovar," the girl explained with her heavy accent.

Softly coming from the backroom, Talia could hear a song playing on a small stereo. The song was one that Talia remembered. It was a very popular one, and she had heard it many times when she was in Moscow some years ago. The song brought back memories of the short time she had spent there with the one man in the world she had ever felt in love with.

The woman took off her coat, hung it up on the wall, then took a cup and walked over to the samovar and served herself some tea. Noticing that Talia was sitting nervously at the table, she said something in Russian, and motioned at the wall with her coat and the samovar with the tea. Talia stood up, took off her coat, stepped over to the wall and hung it on a peg, then took her cup over to the samovar and looked at it. The woman set her own cup down, then took Talia's cup and served Talia some tea.

Seeing that Talia did not understand very well, the woman spoke to Talia in very broken English. "Shop is from neighbor. Girl is daughter of neighbor, Tatiana." The girl smiled, and Talia realized she was being introduced.

"Hi! My name is Talia," she said in her broken Russian. The girl said something back, but the only thing Talia understood was the girl repeating her own name, Tatiana.

They all smiled. "Cold outside," Talia said, making conversation.

"Now is October. Cold arrives in December, stays until March," the woman replied in broken English, as the girl smiled. Talia smiled again, nodding. In the back, she could see a small computer. It looked like the girl had been playing games to pass her time in the tea shop.

Taking a deep breath, Talia pulled out an old photograph, looked at it, then showed it to the woman.

"Do you know these people?"

The woman looked at the photograph, then at Talia. She looked again at the photograph, as Tatiana stepped over and looked at it, too.

"Where did you get this?" the woman asked, a very serious look on her face.

Interview with No Sharia, Part 2

We continue from Part 1 our interview with No Sharia. Questions are numbered, and No Sharia's answers are in italics.

14) In your answer to Question 5, you indicate that anti-Semitism is due to "left leaning journalists". Why do you associate anti-Semitism with left-leaning journalists? In other words, what causes you to have that impression? Why, in your opinion, are "left leaning journalists" anti-Semitic?

The journalists in e g Sweden belong to the left to a large extent. They are not only social democratic but many vote for the former communist party. They are against the market economy, the US and therefore also against Israel. In reality many detest the West because the West defeated socialism, and now they think they can defeat the West by the help of muslim immigration. They hate the fact that the West has a superior system. Their beloved system –socialism - was revealed to have been a sham, and they hate that. So they sympathize with the Palestineans and with arabs who critizize the west. They have taken over the arguments of the Palestineans. Their so-called anti-sionism seems in reality often be anti-Semitism even if they never will admit that.

They don't understand that the Palestinean problem has been held unsolved intentionally by Arab governments for 60 years in order for those to have a scapegoat and be able to blame others for their own shortcomings. Antisemitism fulfills the same function, and during the last decades it has been based more and more on islam which in itself is antisemitic.

15) In your answer to Question 4, you state that Christianity is treated by the media "with indifference or concealed contempt". In Question 6, you indicate that non-Christian religions, other than Judaism and Islam, are treated "with indifference or some respect owing to their not being Christian". These answers indicate a distinct anti-Christian public bias. Is this accurate? Why would this be so? Please explain, for an audience that is not familiar with Sweden, the cultural dynamics that have resulted in this.

Yes I think it is accurate. The journalists are seldom religious and they often seem to despise religion. Christianity was earlier connected with what they interpret as a class society which they as socialists naturally abhor. They are Marxists and the church historically belongs to the oppressors.

16) In Question 9, you state: "I suspect that some members of the government may be willing to sacrifice freedom of expression etc in order to appease muslims". The implication of the word "appease" is that there is a problem, presumably with violence associated with the Muslim community. Is that accurate? What information or evidence can you offer to support that? Is this first-hand (i.e., something that you have witnessed or experienced), is it second-hand (i.e., something a friend or relative of yours witnessed or experienced, and then told you about), or how far removed is this information?

You mentioned violence; I didn't so I don't need to present any evidence for just that.

Political violence has not started yet in Sweden besides that many rapes performed by muslims sometimes seem to have a religious undertone. The behaviour of those muslims is probably accepted by many other muslims because they are in Dar al-Harb – Europe - and the women dress in the wrong way anyway.

However, the demonstrations around the world regarding the cartoons and "rondell" dogs seem to have made the politicians apprehensive and very cautious. Their knowledge about islam is so shallow that they may believe that by suppressing some human rights they will satisfy the muslims. They don't understand that muslim organizations use the salami tactics. I judge the states of mind of politicians from what they say in the media and from their decisions.

17) In Question 6, you indicate that Islam is treated "both critically and with multicultural lies". This seems related to your answer from Question 9, quoted in Question 16 above. Please elaborate. What is stated about Islam publicly that is accurate, and what is stated publicly that is inaccurate? By whom? Why?

The lie that islam is a religion of peace and tolerance is repeated by politicians and journalists too often. Nobody dares to talk about the real islam which now takes over the muslim world everywhere. The moderate Islamic variants in some countries are now revealed to just be just local cultural phenomena which have no basis in the religious doctrine. So the moderate variants retreat when the real islam appears and takes over the mosques and muslim organizations (helped by oil money, of course).

They don't dare to talk about how muslims look at non-muslims and their view of the superiority of muslims. They don't dare to talk about human rights generally in the muslim countries and what it may mean for us. They don't dare to talk about the long-term plans of muslims for introducing sharia in Europe. What they can critizise is e g the treatment of women by muslim men but they don't do much about it.

What we need is a proactive nontolerance of all crimes against women by muslims. And we need to define new crimes: (1) religious hate crimes i e crimes based on and caused by religon and (2) crimes against integration.

18) Following the thread of Questions 16 & 17, and in light of your answer to Question 9, do you perceive an effort on the part of the government to cover up violence and criminal acts perpetrated by people associated with Islam? If so, is it merely ambiguously labeled, but with its existence acknowledged? Or is it buried as if it never occurred? Why would this be happening?

It is in many cases buried deep. Media generally don't talk about the religion of criminals even when the crime evidently is based on religion. The reason they conceal these facts is basically that they want the immigration to continue so that the social democrats will get a permanent majority on its side. So they don´t want to give any arguments to those who want to stop the immigration of muslim fundamentalists.

Why the non-socialistic government keeps quiet is surprising. Probably the reason is that the non-socialistic parties increased their shares of the immigrant vote in the last election and that the government wants Turkey getting into the EU. They think that a stand against muslim immigrants regarding any issue will weaken them in these two respects.

Another weaker reason is that they don't know how to handle the issue. They behave like children; by not talking about it they think it will go away.

However, when a terrorist act will be committed by a muslim the media will label it as such but they will draw no conclusions. The media and the intelligentia have betrayed their functions in the society. They shall upheld [should uphold -- YD] the standards in society regarding rationality and logic, and also intellectually protect the society and human rights. They fail miserably in both respects.

19) Following up to Question 18, are there other criminal acts that are covered up? For example, acts associated by other religious or political groups? If so, how do you know that and why do you perceive that? What do you feel might be the reason for this, and why do you think it is a reason?

No, I don't think so. The acts by nazi and extreme leftist groups are published by the media, and the government sees no advantages in not talking about such atrocities. Regarding these groups, the media find no difficulty in talking about the underlying ideology. It is only regarding islam that they can never discover a connection between the ideology - a religion – and the crime.

20) In Question 8, you indicate that there is a political elite. In Question 12, you indicate that political leaders adopt some policies, specifically regarding immigration, that do not reflect the will of the people. Why do you feel that the people do not support such policies? Why does the political elite ignore the will of the people they govern? How can they get away with it?

The opinion polls indicate a hardening attitude towards muslim immigration and illegal behaviour of immigrants. Government policies don't reflect that.

If you have a smaller group which reacts against a government policy, and a large group – the Swedish population – which really doesn't care, the smaller group can influence the politicians. That's one of the reasons for the opportunism of the government. But now a growing part of the population starts to care and that will hopefully cause a change in the behaviour. The government can't get away with ignoring the issues, if the people care about them and it affects the opinion polls.

The social democrats cannot be expected to do the right thing. The people didn't want them so they try to create another people. They will protect immigration with teeth and nails in order to arrange a new permanent majority in the future. They risk the future of the nation of Sweden in order to win political goals.

21) Also in Question 12, you indicate that "the press and other media are in effect controlled by left leaning journalists". Why do you state that?

Journalists cannot be fired if those dismissals are not a part of a program to save the economy of the newspaper. So the journalists and the editors are to a great extent the newspaper. They tend to recruit people who have the same opinions as they have. The exception regards the economy pages of a newspaper.

So the number of promotions and recruitments of non-socialistic journalists will certainly be held down. However, regarding higher positions where the management of the newspaper has a larger influence, this power of the journalists diminishes distinctly. But the power to influence what is written in all the articles is real power. Journalists push the multicultural agenda meaning that all cultures have the same value but that the western civilization is worse than most.

22) Related to Questions 20 and 21, how did the situation develop wherein there is a political and media elite in Sweden that is not responsive to the people? What are your thoughts on that?

The media have always been to the left. After the Berlin wall, the socialists among them (the large majority) seem not to have accepted that they were wrong all their lives and that their chosen ideology was pure shit. Now they – like communist and social democratic politicians - try to put new life into socialism and take back the political initiative by protecting a huge immigration. Muslim immigrant voters will overwhelmingly vote for socialistic parties. The former communists and the socialdemocratic party will protect the immigration. The reason for the passivity of the non-socialistic parties were commented upon in q. 20. They have yet not understood the real issues and the great danger of the muslim immigration.

23) In Question 13, you indicate that the native Swedes who live in areas with concentrations of Muslim immigrants are anti-Muslim as well as anti-Islamist. Please define what you mean by the terms "anti-Muslim" and "anti-Islamist". You also indicate that native Swedes outside those areas share those feelings as well. Why is that? What makes you believe there are such feelings? And, did they have such feelings before Muslim immigrants arrived, or have these feelings developed since Muslim immigrants arrived? Please explain.

To be Anti–islamist is to be against Islamism i e radical, political islam. To be Anti-muslim is to understand that there really is no moderate islam and that moderates sooner or later can easily and rapidly develop into radicals and islamists. They just have to be better muslims (according to the doctrine). It may also mean that one doesn't like the attitudes of people from the Middle East who don't have the same view as we regarding any human rights.

I said that people outside these muslim-dominated areas
start to have a similar view but just start. The reason is an increased understanding of the muslim culture and of islam: honour killings, the attempts of muslims to suppress all critique of islam, their contempt for Western human rights, what the muslims say about political issues etc.

It is said – and it is a basis of multiculturalism — that if we know more about each other we like each other more and will become more tolerant. That is totally false. The more people know about islam, the worse opinion they will have of that religion. And if they know the truth they will want to prevent all muslim immigration and resist all attempts to introduce sharia in Sweden. In a decade the peoples of Europe will – owing to the anti-jihadist movement – know much more about the important theological issues. The conflicts between muslims and non-muslims will then increase rapidly (also see my prognosis of the political development of Europe). The path of Europe is set. It points towards civil war if we don't implement the strong anti-islamist policies (or similar) which I have defined.

No Sharia is an author at Islam Watch. The prognosis No Sharia refers to, and No Sharia's other writings, can be found there on No Sharia's page.

I hope you will read those writings, because when we next catch up with No Sharia, we will be asking questions about them. If you have a question you would like to submit to No Sharia, please leave it in the comments, or submit it to me via email, with the words "Question for No Sharia" in the subject line, and I will pass the question along.

Please note that since the content of emails is generally considered confidential, I will pass your question along, but not your email address. Similarly, you will only get back the answer to your question and any related comments, and no one's email address but my own. However, unless you specifically state otherwise, the question will be assumed to be publishable on the blog; similarly, unless No Sharia specifically states otherwise, the answer will be assumed to be publishable on the blog as well.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Vasilissa the Beauty (Part 4 of 12)

"I know that he works out, almost every day. He usually works out in the early morning, though sometimes he works out in the late afternoon," Sasha began. "He seems to focus on speed and endurance, but he does not neglect strength training." Sasha paused and thought. "A typical day would be an early morning run of anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes, much of the time spent nearly sprinting. The shorter his run, the more intense he makes it, and the faster he goes. Then he does some stretching, and then he goes to the weight room and spends some time in there. He seems to spend a minimum of one hour working out, but sometimes he will be at it nearly two, or even more on days when he does a longer, slower run to start things off."

"And what do you do during this time?"

"Well, this is almost always at Wayne Manor, and when it is not, it is indoors at Wayne Enterprises. In both cases, there is a security system and there are other people around, groundskeepers and such at Wayne Manor, security people at Wayne Enterprises, and I've been told that I don't have to worry about any of them, although sometimes I still do -- not that there has ever been any reason to!" Sasha paused. "At Wayne Manor, I follow along on a bicycle and try to stay close while he is outside. Inside Wayne Enterprises, I merely stay in the indoor gymnasium with him. And so, outside at Wayne Manor, I get some exercise as well, riding the bicycle, although when he goes back inside or when we are here at Wayne Enterprises, I am able to get in a good workout, since then I don't feel I have to watch him very closely at all. My main duties as I understand are to be alert when we are in transit from Wayne Manor to Wayne Enterprises and back, and when Mr. Wayne goes out to dinner or something in the evening, basically those occasions when he is outside Wayne Manor and Wayne Enterprises."

Lucius Fox looked at Sasha Bordeaux and nodded. "You were studying. When do you get your studies done?"

"I study via distance learning, and there is plenty of time, both here and at Wayne Manor, for me to find a quiet place outside Mr. Wayne's office or in a corner in that big house of his and do my work. And then I go online and complete my assignments. It's actually quite advantageous," she smiled. "Back in my apartment, my roommate distracts me a lot, and my internet connection there is dial-up, so I find I'm progressing more on this assignment with Mr. Wayne." She paused, then added "I'm seldom in my apartment anymore." She paused again, then continued, "The one thing I do miss is having a workout partner for judo and kick-boxing. I used to go to a gymnasium not far from Wayne Enterprises maybe three times a week, but I haven't been able to get in there very often lately, maybe only once a week. That's the main drawback."

Fox nodded again.

"Speaking of which, when does Mr. Wayne usually practice his martial arts? He's actually quite good, but I've never seen him practice -- and I've been his bodyguard for several weeks now!"

"He has a special room downstairs at Wayne Manor where he practices. He also has a similar room in the basement here at Wayne Enterprises," Fox explained. "In fact, the room under Wayne Manor is more than a special room -- it is more like a facility. And, there are a few people, employees of Wayne Enterprises, who have access to it and who help maintain it. That includes some martial arts specialists who are assigned to Wayne Enterprises corporate security. They give classes to the security guards here at Wayne Enterprises, and after hours, they offer subsidized lessons in self defense to employees who are interested."

"I heard some of the security people talking about the martial arts classes for the security personnel, but I didn't know there were self defense classes for employees." Sasha looked interested.

"You mean you've never been to the classes?" Fox asked, surprised.

Sasha shook her head.

Fox looked displeased. "I'll have to look into that. You should have been invited to participate, and one of the reasons we hired you was your background in judo. As we do not have a judo specialist, we thought you would be a nice addition to the staff." Fox paused to write down a note. "Anyway, two of those instructors work out with Mr. Wayne -- Bruce -- in these special facilities. We try to keep Bruce's workout sessions a secret. The idea is that if anybody ever gets through to him to try to do him harm, we want the fact that he knows how to defend himself to be a surprise." Fox paused again, then looked at Sasha. "Would you be interested in being one of his trainers?"

"When does he train?"

"That depends on his schedule, but it is often early evening at Wayne Manor, or late afternoon here, two to four times a week, again, depending on his schedule," Fox explained. "He also likes to personally test out some of our new experimental equipment," Fox continued. "You know that Wayne Enterprises has a division that develops equipment for the military, for law enforcement, and for emergency and rescue services, right?"

Sasha nodded, wondering where all this was leading.

"We have a facility where that equipment is tested. It's a mock-up of an urban landscape. Sometimes Bruce goes there for his workout, to test some of the equipment." Fox paused, then looked at Sasha. "That same division also makes equipment for camping, rafting, mountain climbing -- you know, tents, survival gear, stuff like that. Bruce likes to test out some of that, as well. We have a facility in the mountains, and some of that equipment Bruce tests on his estate."

"That's interesting. There are times when Mr. Wayne disappears, and I have no idea where he is. Sometimes it's just for a couple of hours, and sometimes it's for an entire day or even more."

"I know, it's difficult, and he doesn't cooperate," Fox sighed. "He likes you, but he really doesn't think he needs a bodyguard. Anyway, for the most part, he has agreed with me and Alfred to take you with him when he goes out, but sometimes he forgets." Fox looked at Sasha, then continued. "Sometimes when you can't find him, he's just downstairs at Wayne Manor, but occasionally he will be at our facility here or even in the mountains. He's safe, but I wish he would take you with him when he's traveling to and from."

"That would help me do my job!" Sasha agreed.

"I'll have a word with him, but I don't know how much good it will do. Anyway, if you wish to become one of his trainers, and work out with him like you did today, that will help you keep an eye on him more, and maybe he'll even learn to cooperate with his bodyguard."

"Well, I need someone to work out with. Let's give it a try."

Looking at Edward Nygma, Linda Callahan took a deep breath, then turned to Bruce Wayne and began.

"I hope we don't lose our jobs for this, but it was important."

Wayne looked at her, a faint smile on his face. Rare was the occasion since he started receiving riddles dealing with the attack on the Gotham Towers that he felt like he was ahead of the power curve, but he savored this moment. He had assigned Edward Nygma and Linda Callahan to work together at a boring job in the basement near the room where those disk drives were stored exactly in the hope that they would break new ground in the investigation.

"The files are pretty broken up, and the information is sketchy. There is no 'smoking gun' that we can find yet...." Edward paused.

"But...." Wayne prompted.

"There is no discernable pattern in short-term financial gains due to trading during the attack, other than the fact that an incredible number of trades were made, and so was a great deal of money. It looks like the main thing that stands out was the sheer volume of trades, followed by the fact that a lot of money was made, but the profits that were earned were not earned by any one person or entity in particular." Edward sounded like he was trying to say something, but didn't know how to phrase it.

"I should point out that this is based on what data we could access, which is very fragmentary," Callahan added as Nygma nodded in agreement.

"However...." Wayne prompted again.

"There is a correlation between the people who ordered the trades and a certain businessman." Nygma paused for a breath.

"On a hunch, we looked at the longer-term performance of Gotham's stock market, with an eye toward connections to this certain businessman, and we found a much stronger correlation between companies associated with this man and superior performance despite the market downturn due to the attack on the Gotham Trade Center," Callahan explained, then looked at Nygma.

"Oh, please, don't let that businessman be me," smiled Wayne.

"It's not you, Mr. Wayne," chuckled Nygma. The humor lightened the atmosphere considerably.

"The more longer-term you look, the stronger the correlation. One man had the midas touch. He didn't actually make a great deal of money himself, but rather, people who knew him did," Callahan explained.

"Is he a stockbroker? Who is it?"

"No, not a stockbroker," answered Nygma.

"I then correlated the information we came up with to my investigation of Belladonna," Linda Callahan began again.

"Who's Belladonna?" interrupted Wayne.

"Not 'Who', 'What'," answered Callahan. "It was a secret GBI wiretapping operation, aimed at organized crime in Gotham City. But the operation was alleged by GBI agents familiar with it to be corrupt, spying on Gotham's politicians and using the information to blackmail them."

"It appears the information was also used for industrial espionage," Nygma added. "It seems there is again a strong correlation between one's association with this businessman and Belladonna. This guy's friends have generally done quite well during the time frame we looked at. Those involved in legal businesses have made good business decisions, good investments; those involved in criminal activities have not been busted."

"We then expanded our investigation to look at political connections, people who were the alleged secret target of Belladonna," Linda continued. "Politicians associated with this businessman have done a little better at fund-raising, while their opponents have had a disproportionate number of scandals in the news about them." Linda looked at Edward. "Information turned up by the Belladonna wire-tapping operation got put to use, consistently to benefit the associates, whether business or political, whether criminal or not, of one man."

"So who is this one man?" Wayne asked.

She was on the train riding through the Russian countryside. The train was slow, and Russia was big. The day had already been long, and it would still be another hour or so before she arrived at the town where she was going.

Once there, she had a name and an address, but the address was old, and she didn't speak Russian very well. The woman she was looking for may have long ago left not only that address, but the town itself. Even if she was still there, people might be suspicious of someone they did not know, so they might not help her, and without help, she might not be able to find this woman.

One thing she had going in her favor was that she was a woman. People might help a woman more quickly than a man.

She thought about her half-sister. She knew her half-sister was no longer in Russia, but she did not know where she was. She hoped to find some lead, some clue, that might help her locate her. Then, she thought, she would need something to convince her of who she was, and that she meant no harm. To get that, she would have to convince this woman of all of this. To do that, she would have to find this woman. To do that, she has to get there, she thought; first things first.

She tried to calm herself down by looking at the countryside. It was autumn already, and there was a chill to the wind. Russia could be a dangerous place for a woman alone, too. Fortunately, she was no ordinary woman; she was Talia al Ghul, and was very much the daughter of her father, Ra's al Ghul. She smiled at the thought that she felt ready to face whatever might be awaiting her, whether a cold Russian wind, or petty Russian criminals. She also smiled remembering her previous trip to Russia. The people she had met then were all wonderful, and she had stayed in touch with some of them. Perhaps, if she needed help, one of them might be able to help out. Her smile warmed even more at the thought of the special someone she had shared several days with in Moscow.

Smiling, she looked inside the train. A little girl was sitting with her mother, gazing at her. The little girl smiled, so Talia smiled even more warmly, and waved at her. The little girl waved back, then looked back down at a book she was holding.

Talia looked at the book. It was a child's fairy tale, a story about a beautiful young girl named Vasilissa.