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.

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