The Ghost of Christy Mathewson

Sand and the JSA belong to DC Comics and no material profit has been either sought or achieved. There is no such tavern in Hell's Kitchen, at least not there (although there are a couple of worthy German sausage and beer places), but everything else about the city is as it says it is. DC doesn't own New York.

"What are you doing tomorrow night?"

"Hmm?" Sand looked up from his notebook. There was a computer program that balanced all of his chemical equations, that put everything in pretty and precise numbers that made everything foolproof and perfect. But Sand only rarely used it; chemistry was as much art as science and he hated the distance created by having an unthinking machine process his hunches and guesses.

"I said 'What are you doing tomorrow night'," Courtney repeated, using the slightly patronizing voice she had for Grownups Who Were Acting Oddly.

She leaned against the doorjamb and Sand put his pencil down, realizing that the interruption wasn't going to be momentary. Courtney was settling into her rhetorical trench, prepared for what she assumed was going to be a lengthy discussion. Which usually meant that she was about to try to convince him to do something she didn't think he'd want to do.

"Nothing as of yet, although it's been awfully quiet this week, so..."

Courtney waved her hand dismissively, as if the chance that the JSA would be mobilized into action was not a factor that counted toward any plans. Perhaps she was wise that way. "How about a baseball game?"

Sand quirked an eyebrow and glanced at the calendar on his desk. "The Mets are in St. Louis."

An audible sigh from Courtney this time. "I meant the good team. You know, the Yankees?"

It was Sand's turn to make a face. "I don't like the Yankees."

It felt... insufficient to express his decades-long loathing of the Yankees and everything they represented in such a simple phrase.

"Why not? They win all the time and they've been around forever, so you should like them. They had Babe Ruth, right?" she trailed off, then looked at him speculatively. "You're not older than Babe Ruth, are you?"

He coughed to cover his laugh. "Uhm, no." Ruth had been in his fifties when he had died a week before Sand's own accident with the silicoid gun; the funeral was one of his last memories of that time.

"So what's the problem?"

His bone-deep, soul-deep hatred of that team from the Bronx had been with him for so long, from his earliest memories and carried through into the present. It was sitting in the Polo Grounds, first with his father and grandfather and then later with Dian. It was resenting the more-successful Yanks for their pennants and championships -- including one over his beloved Giants six years before he was born. It was the framed photograph of "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" that hung in his bedroom at his place upstate -- even if he had been 'asleep' when it happened. It was Dian hemming and hawing before she could finally explain the defection of 1957 after he'd been awoken. It was... a lot of memories and history that Courtney could never understand.

"Apart from me not liking the Yankees?"

Courtney rolled her eyes impatiently. "You're always muttering about how bad the Mets are. Why don't you just become a Yankees fan and get some joy out of the sport?"

Sand shook his head and picked up his pencil again. "Because I'm a Giants fan. And there are two teams I cannot even consider handing over money to: the Dodgers and the Yankees. Go see if Kendra wants to go. She'll be better company if all you're going to do is stare at Derek Jeter."

"I am not going to stare at Derek Jeter," she muttered.

"Suuuuure," he drawled, rolling his chair back to the bookcase behind him so that he could grab the CRC Handbook of Chemistry.

There was a signed picture of Derek Jeter in Courtney's quarters, a present from when some of the team had gone to throw out the first pitch before a game. No longer chairman and not desirous of the attention, Sand had happily stayed home.

"What do you have against the Dodgers?" she asked a little too quickly, obviously eager to change the topic. Sand remembered that Ted had given her some grief over her moonfaced reaction to meeting the shortstop. "And why the Giants? You've never lived in California."

Sand nearly dropped the book and did drop his pencil; he looked up at Courtney as he grabbed for the heavy tome as it slid off his lap. "The New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers?"

"Really?" Courtney sounded genuinely surprised and Sand felt very, very old. Older than he'd felt when he'd first gone up to where the Polo Grounds had once stood. The public housing project they'd put up in its place had already started to run down with age. "Who knew?"

"Go find Kendra," he ordered, not unkindly, pointing his retrieved pencil past Courtney's shoulder and toward the hallway behind her.

"Geez," she muttered, pushing herself up off the doorway. "Just 'cuz I'm not up on who was playing baseball back when dinosaurs roamed the earth..."

"Go!" Sand growled. "And leave us geezers to our dotage."

Courtney cackled wickedly and went away and Sand was able to return to his work. Chemistry fascinated him: it had all the elements of a good mystery, so much unknown and untested, and yet was still dependably bound by the laws of science in its predictability. He'd worked mostly on his own; Wes had given him years of instruction back in his sidekick days, but the chemistry of the mid 1940's and what had happened in the fifty years he'd been asleep had made it necessary to start again almost from scratch. So he'd taken courses and read books and even spent a summer working in a pharmaceuticals lab in Taiwan.

He was now a better chemist than Wes had ever been, this he knew -- he'd made improvements on Wes's sleep gas that Wes had only dreamed (no pun intended) of making. The gas was more stable, more easily compressed, more effectively administered, and had fewer incidences of adverse reactions when it was used. It was a point of pride for Sand, but it was not an achievement that rested easily on his shoulders.

There was the natural 'master and apprentice' sort of competition between Sand and Wes's legacy over many things -- villains vanquished, mysteries solved, detective skills applied. But chemistry was something else, an unbroachable topic between the two while Wes had been alive and an incomparable subject now that Sand was left only with Wes's notebooks. It had been Wes's drive to discover that had brought him to the silicoid gun. It was the silicoid gun and the chemical reaction within its chamber that had gone horribly awry and taken fifty years and so much more from Sand. They hadn't so much as discussed rust in the ten years since Sand had been freed from his drugged sleep under glass, let alone anything more chemically complicated than oxidation.

It had taken Sand a year after Wes's death to look at the notes he had left behind. He'd found the pages on the silicoid gun, untouched and un-updated since the accident. It had taken him another two months before he had returned to the pages. It had taken two weeks to reconstruct the gun, but only three days to analyze Wes's formula for its contents and see what had gone wrong.

Sand had hoped it would have been cathartic to finally know, to finally have proof of whether or not it was a careless mistake or a simple calculation error or something else that was totally beyond Wes's control or comprehension. But it didn't bring catharsis or closure or anything of the sort. Knowing the truth didn't make him feel angry or sad or relieved. It was just there, this little matter of fact. There wasn't even anyone to tell, no absolution to offer or guilt to assign; the rest of the JSA hadn't known of the accident until decades later; they'd all just assumed he'd gone off to college and moved on with his life. And with Wes dead and the changes in Sand's own body irreversible, there was just no point to wasting the emotional energy on something that had no significance to anyone else but him.

"What'd you say to Courtney?" Kendra asked from the doorway. She was dressed in civilian clothes, a pair of jeans that rested loosely on her hips and a printed blouse with flowing sleeves. She looked relaxed and at ease with both herself and her surroundings. Her time living in St. Roch had mellowed her, given her space and freedom to grow into her new role and new life and come to terms with the memories that plagued her dreams. The end result was a woman Sand was quite sure he could fall for in a much more grown-up way than how he'd crushed on Shiera decades ago. But there was Carter then and there was Carter now and Sand had no desire to get any more tangled up in that particular web than he already was. "She was muttering into her ice cream about you being all crotchety and old-personish."

"I... she didn't know that the Giants and Dodgers used to be in New York," he said, trying to sound pitiful and offended.

Kendra, somewhere between twenty-one and five thousand, quirked an eyebrow at him. "She's sixteen. She doesn't remember the Reagan administration."

Sand drooped his shoulders. "I know," he sighed. He didn't remember the Reagan administration, either, but for different reasons.

"She's not actually hurt," Kendra offered with a crooked grin. "Just interested in milking the episode for all the sympathy and ice cream she can get."

"I figured as much," he admitted, sitting up straight. "You going with her to the Yankees game?"

"What, and watch that team beat up my poor Rangers?" she asked with a snort. "I can get that in the post-season, when it'll hurt more."

They laughed in that self-deprecating way that fans of hopeless teams often do when discussing their aspirations for championships.

"You doing anything interesting or just the usual plotting-to-take-over-the-world stuff?"

Kendra was still in the doorway and, while she gestured with a slim, callused hand in the direction of his desk, she didn't cross the threshold into the room; Sand's office was his -- Michael had not even broached the topic of moving in when he'd taken over as Chairman -- and the others didn't so much as enter to borrow the stapler or steal a piece of scotch tape without asking first.

"I thought we had a line in the charter about not entertaining any plans for world domination," he replied, trying to make it sound like he wasn't quite sure. Kendra made a put-upon face and he smiled. "Just fiddling with a side project. Time-delayed delivery of the sleep gas."

The gas was the easy part; he'd been working with it daily for years. But the vehicle of delivery was tricky -- remote detonation was not usually viable. Especially if the charges were to have any more subtlety than the average tear gas grenade. He'd already sampled plastics and polymers and made a spectacular mess in the armory toying with metals (and nearly splattered Carter with molten tin when the other man had surprised him). He was still at the hypothesis stage for glass, though, working out in equations what he thought he could create through his powers. It was a process that made him equal parts excited and uncomfortable -- the lingering disgust with the various times he'd been analyzed like a lab specimen (STAR, TylerCo, the Shatterer) mixed with a sense of wonder at what he still never quite believed he was capable of doing.

Kendra nodded vaguely. She was the first person to admit that she had no scientific inclination whatsoever. The mastery of Thanagarian technology was imprinted on her memories but after that, she claimed hopelessness and only millennia of practice at breaking things. "Just so long as you don't knock us all out and get us to tell you all our dirty secrets."

"Then you'd all be both unsurprising and probably more than a little scary and I'd have no reason to stick around."

He realized how bitter it sounded only after he'd said it and frowned. Kendra looked at him sharply, so he shrugged. He tended to keep his opinions about the team to himself, but he'd have been surprised if nobody -- especially Kendra, who did her best to pay attention -- was aware of his growing restlessness.

At first, when the JSA had been new, it had been thrilling. The Justice Society had been so very much a part of his worldview when he'd been Sandy the Golden Boy and while it felt odd to be in a position of (at least nominal) authority over Alan and Jay and Ted, it had felt right, too, despite his personal affirmations to never do the hero thing again. But then had come the hours of paperwork and glad-handing and public relations and general bureaucracy that everyone was all too happy to let him do with only a halfhearted offer to help. And that was between crises, with new members to invite and old ones to bid farewell and then Carter had returned and that had not gone well and then, suddenly, Sand was no longer Chairman. And just as suddenly, he had a lot of free time on his hands and nothing to fill it with.

The person he thought he was at the start of the new era of the JSA was not the person he was now. Neither literally nor figuratively. The Sandy Hawkins who'd given the eulogy at Wes's gravesite had thought he was human, had thought he was through with ever putting on a costume again. He'd only worn the holster because of Wes -- mostly tribute, but partly from his warning that anywhere costumes gather in public, villains usually followed. And poor Louis Sendak had shown up and there was the race for Dr. Fate and then, still on an adrenaline kick, Sand was taking Wes's place in the JSA.

"I'm just tired and cranky, I think," he said, smiling wryly. Kendra looked utterly unconvinced, but didn't press. "I skipped lunch."

"Again," Kendra said, not making it a question.

"I'm still not sure I actually need to eat," he replied with another shrug. It was a long-running discussion with both Pieter and Alan, albeit on different planes. Alan, too, wondered whether what he considered necessary actions -- eating, sleeping, respirating -- were really nothing more than habit. "It could be totally psychosomatic -- I think I need food, so I get hungry. When it's really just... vestigial behavior."

"You still have a digestive tract," Kendra told him flatly, only a twinkle in her eye keeping her from being awesomely intimidating even without her wings and weaponry. "You are just absent-minded and in need of a babysitter."

"The position's open," he offered, trying not to make it sound as lascivious as it did.

"Yeah, right," she scoffed at the offer. Their earlier romantic entanglements were forgotten as such, remembered instead for Kendra's battle for distance from the ghost of Shiera rather than as a love triangle gone awry. "As if I don't have enough to do with keeping Carter on a leash."

"I think I'd pay money to hear you tell him that to his face."

"I take cash, checks, and most major credit cards," Kendra said as she looked at her watch. "I tell him a lot worse all the time."

Sand smiled in acknowledgement; it was very true. The Hawks' initial awkwardness had had nothing to do with Kendra's unwillingness to speak her mind. Now, as the partnership had solidified and strengthened, she had no qualms with ordering Carter around like the petulant child he sometimes seemed to be. It was probably good for Carter and definitely good for the rest of them; Alan may have the tallest stature among the hero set, but Carter was right up there with Batman in the intimidation game.

Kendra frowned and tapped the watch's face. "Speaking of, I have to go. I promised Isabella we'd be on patrol in St. Roch tonight and he'd probably not like to spend the evening with Carter alone... You finish playing with your Flubber and make sure you eat. Or else I'll call in and sicc Courtney on you."

"Yes'm," he promised, only half-feigning fear as he matched her smile and wave as she departed. She'd do it, too.

Despite her rough start, Kendra was turning into the poster child for adjusting to sudden and drastic change. On the other hand, he himself had been no more prepared for the hero life than he was for finding out that he wasn't human after all.

By the time he'd joined the new JSA, it had been almost ten years since he'd been awoken by an earthquake and transformed back into (what they all thought was) human form and almost as long since he'd been involved even peripherally with the hero set. It hadn't been very long after his 'cure' that Sandy -- no longer either golden or boy -- was needed again. Ragnarok may have come from the Norse gods, but it had certainly seemed at the time that it was a hell devised by Sartre.

When they'd returned, he'd immediately quit heroing and his life as Sandy Hawkins, choosing to go off to explore the world he'd nearly lost his sanity to save. Postcards back to Wes and Dian when he could, but no real contact -- he'd only found out about Wes's stroke after Jay Garrick tracked him down by the Huangguoshu Waterfalls in Guizhuo months after the fact. No real home -- there was a house a few hours north of the city that was more storage than domicile -- and no real friends, he'd kept moving, searching for something illusive that he'd never found.

But that had been years ago. From the time the JSA re-formed to the time Michael Holt became its chairman, Sand hadn't so much as taken a day trip, let alone a break longer than that. He had missed New Year's in Zhe Jiang. He had not been able to take up Trinle Rinpoche's offer to spend time in the hidden monastery eight hours' drive from Lhasa. He had so totally abandoned the life he'd led before he'd become Sand of the JSA that he hadn't had the vaguest idea of where to find it. Meanwhile Kendra had an apartment and a course schedule at the local college in St. Roch and she had a place for herself in that city, one that was hers and not just inherited from Shiera. She had a place with Carter, too. Sand had no one and nothing away from the JSA and sometimes he hated it that nobody seemed to notice it.

"Mope, mope, mope," he muttered to himself, looking down at the series of equations he didn't even remember starting to work out. Putting the idle pencil down, he got up and stretched, his back popping. Another trick of a body pretending to be something it's not? He'd looked over the tests from Tylerco, both on his own and with Pieter. He was human in every way but chemically, which really wasn't a minor difference when it came down to it. He was inorganic, mineral instead of animal, and the reason he didn't think too long or too hard about it was that it tended to depress the hell out of him. It affected everything, but not in ways that others tended to notice. He was no longer subject to common colds or hay fever, but his inorganic taste buds made Mary Janes, his favorite candy in his youth, taste oddly.

In the distance, he could hear voices. Al's booming baritone, but he couldn't tell who Al was talking to, just that he wasn't talking to himself.

Deciding that solitude was making him too dour, Sand decided to see who else was around. Al would not be much of a conversation -- the coolness between them (rooted in jealousy, Ted had explained) had mostly thawed, but they simply didn't have any points of commonality. Ted was around, he knew, and Karen. Probably together, pretending that they wished they weren't. Carter was in St. Roch, Kendra was on her way there, and Rick was visiting his mother. Alan might be around, Jay probably wasn't, and Pieter was back in Portsmouth. Michael would be in the atrium and Courtney would be watching MTV in the conference room.

It was a large headquarters, much too large for the small number of members who were actually in residence. They could probably house the Titans without ever running into them except in the kitchen. The junior team had been formal visitors a few times and Arsenal -- Roy -- and his daughter had been over often enough on their own when Dinah had been a full-time member. Jesse never visited unless expressly asked.

Al was talking to Jen Hayden, Alan's daughter. She waved as he passed by, a quick smile before returning her attention to Al's recapping of their recent adventure with one of Ra's al-Ghul's eco-terrorist cells. As he climbed down the stairs, he could hear Al's voice fading before he got to the part where Sand had gotten tired of watching Hector (or, really, Nabu using Hector as mouthpiece) threaten and intone at the minions and simply dropped into the ground, traveled up and into the wall behind them, and grabbed the canister of ricin before it could be opened. Infinitors tended to stick together, so Sand wasn't sure he wanted to hear how Al reported the tale.

His mask and uniform appeared with only a thought as he crossed one of the public hallways; he'd learned to manipulate almost any part of his silicon-based wardrobe into his uniform and revert it back. He could change the colors of his shirts and shorten cuffs and sleeves with relative ease, but he was still not able to do much with shoes -- TylerCo had given him dress shoes and sneakers, but all he had ever practiced was turning them into his uniform boots, not into each other. He'd never been terribly interested in fashion, but realized the difficulties once he'd lost the ability to buy regular clothes. There was nothing stopping him from purchasing clothes, but wearing garments that couldn't be transported when he reverted to his sand form was impractical and occasionally embarrassing as it meant he was naked once he changed back. The outfits from TylerCo were useful and adaptable and he'd taken to wandering the fashionable menswear stores, looking for ideas of what to copy since he couldn't actually purchase the wares.

The giggles from the museum assured him that there was still at least one tour group of school children going through, so he headed straight for the stairwell that led to the private underground area. The uniform faded back into jeans and a dress shirt and Sand reflexively felt for his wallet -- it resided in one of his utility belt pouches while in costume, but he was still convinced that one day he'd drop the thing while transforming. It was there, as it always was, and he pushed through the door that led to the private JSA shuttle to the 96th street subway station.

From 96th, it was down to Times Square and then pushing through the crowds, over to Eighth and then past Port Authority until he could finally breathe again on Ninth Avenue. He walked north to Forty Fifth and over toward Tenth and turned west again.

Halfway up the block was Die Forelle, an establishment with an unassuming front and a differently unassuming inside. It had been around since the 1920's, a speakeasy turned tavern that had been one of Dian's favorites. It had gone through a rough patch during the wars -- nobody wanted to patronize a German establishment while 'the boys' were fighting 'the Krauts' -- but Dian and Wes, ever the free thinkers, had been staunch regulars. Dian had even based one of her early novels there, The End of Echoes, and she'd never had to pay for a meal since. Sand remembered it from his boyhood, sitting at the bar with a giant glass of flavored seltzer water and a plate heaped up with various kinds of wursts folded in among cabbage and apple.

Dian had brought him back here only a few years before she'd died. They'd sat at one of the heavy wood booths and, over sauerbraten and spaetlze and beer brought by the grandson of Elke and Werner, talked of many things that had needed saying. The guilt and anger over the silicoid gun accident and what had happened in the decades afterward, never spoken of and never addressed, had grown heavy and, realizing that time was running out, Dian had finally taken steps to shedding the weight.

That had been five years ago. He'd come back on his own enough times since that the current owners, that grandson (Pete) and his wife, knew him and his tastes and they still fought over whether he'd get a check (and if he did, it was for a pittance of what he'd consumed).

Pete's son Warren was behind the bar when he came in and he smiled in greeting. Warren was a junior at John Jay College over on 59th. With its School of Criminal Justice, it was the de facto training ground for most of New York City's policemen and Warren was already plotting for when he could take the exam. Sand had already promised to teach him to shoot -- but not before he graduated college. The family knew who he was, but had always been low-key with the knowledge. No requests to bring super-buddies down (although he had, in their civilian garb; Alan was particularly fond of the place) and no pointing him out to other patrons, not even a quiet word that it was memorabilia from the screenplay of his aunt's book that hung tastefully along one stretch of wall.

He sat at the bar and watched Warren expertly draw the beer. His preferred brand was not a popular one and Sand suspected it was because his taste buds were different from most people's, although Pete had assured him that the beer was quite popular in Munich and was just not as pleasing to American tastes. The tall, tapered stein was presented with a small flourish and the announcement that there was fresh weisswurst.

The tavern -- known as much for its food as its place in literary and film history -- was quiet, but not empty. It was late in the day, but New York City dining hours being what they were, Sand was not the only one in for a late lunch at what the rest of the country might consider an acceptable time for dinner. Warren brought over two of the day's papers and Sand read until he was presented with a hot plate of sausages with spaetzle, greens, and a pot of mustard. He put away the papers and began delicately peeling the weisswurst. The door opened again and it was someone Sand knew, one of the other regulars. He was followed shortly by others and there was soon a lively conversation at the bar and it was several hours later when Sand finally left, the smallish room already emptying as the rushed theater crowd scarfed down their pre-show meals.

The evening had not yet settled into night, so he walked west and over to Hudson River Park, which really was a misnomer, at least in midtown; north of Chelsea it was little more than a paved path for exercisers of various ilk highlighted by the occasional bit of green, pressed thin between the ferry docks in the Hudson and the broad and busy Twelfth Avenue.

The Intrepid, the retired aircraft carrier turned museum and prison, loomed large before him as he turned north, occasionally being passed by joggers and roller bladers. The end of the evening rush hour meant that Twelfth was a congested sea of cars and trucks edging toward the Lincoln Tunnel. Not for the first time, Sand wondered why anyone would drive into Manhattan if they didn't have to.

Hudson River Park became Riverside Park north of 59th Street and once cleared the stretch that passed underneath the West Side Highway far overhead, the green began in earnest. Small patches of wild grasses abutted larger patches of carefully manicured lawns and freshly painted posts for the fence that kept the city from the Hudson River bank. Couples strolled on the warm night, as did parents with their carriages and a dozen or so Canadian geese. And many tourists, taking photos of the carefully parked sailboats and the fantastically multicolored sunset on the other side of the river. Around 72nd, there was a man standing on a jetty practicing his bagpipes, the wind carrying most of his efforts toward New Jersey. Dusk had fallen in earnest by the time the incomplete stretch of the park began in the mid-80's, so Sand exited the park, climbing up the steep stone staircases to the street.

Riverside Drive was still tree-lined and beautiful in its own right, the townhouses and elegant apartment buildings facing the park were unchanged since his youth -- since his parents' youth. The 90's were the start of an incline that changed grade but did not flatten out totally until Grant's Tomb at 135th. It was close to full dark and there were no pedestrians up this far, at least not in the usual sense. There were packs of teenagers and couples in various stages of sexual intercourse and the homeless who knew that they'd be unbothered so far away from prime real estate.

The JSA brownstone had been in a swanky neighborhood when it had been purchased and lived in, but the area had taken a tumble in the decades since and was only now starting to recover. The Columbia environs had used to be a war zone, but now it was trendy, popular enough to start a domino effect of renewal in a greater radius than its immediate reach, and there was real commercial growth on 125th Street, coupled with a small Harlem renaissance north of Central Park. The JSA's arrival had created its own area of upward mobility -- only "outside the bull's-eye" as more than one person had put it. Hero headquarters weren't like prisons, creating a safe zone immediate around them. Nobody wanted to live near the JSA headquarters any more than the residents of southern Roosevelt Island liked their view of Titans Tower -- when the super-villains came, they often brought property damage with them.

The people who lived on the blocks surrounding the brownstone were all treated well by the JSA members -- and treated them well in return. The team had tried to become a part of the community without changing it, patronizing local businesses and helping out with local concerns. Yet the fact remained that the only ones who lived across the street were the ones who couldn't afford to move away.

Many people were sitting out on their stoops on this warm night, brownstone stoops being particularly amenable to small social gatherings. Some kids were running around in a particularly spirited game of tag, a quartet of girls trading off on double-dutch ropes just off the curb across the street from the JSA's headquarters, the beat of their chanted rhymes and the scratch-smack of the ropes hitting the asphalt in perfect synchronization and Sand found his footfalls matching their rhythm for as long as they could keep it up.

A pair of older men sat on a stoop, the radio playing. Sand couldn't make out the words, but knew it was the Yankees by the exaggerated melodrama of the announcer's tone. Before the All-Star break and with the team coasting on a double-digit lead in the American League East, yet John Stirling could be guaranteed to call each game as if it were the 1947 World Series and the Yanks were fighting a battle of attrition against the arch-rival Giants.

This had once been the heart of Giants country -- a ten minute bus ride to the Polo Grounds, walking distance if you wanted to save your dimes for hot dogs and soda -- and there was something profoundly disappointing about the Yankees having taken over so thoroughly so close to where the old magic had been. Knowing that the San Francisco Giants were probably playing in the World Series when the boys with the Posada and Williams jerseys were being born didn't help, instead only emphasizing how out of place his own feelings were. The days of players nicknamed Rube or Slim or Nap were gone for good. The boys who had pretended to be Mel Ott or Van Mungo were grandfathers now.

As he passed by the various groupings, Sand was greeted with smiles and nods, although he suspected that few, if any, knew who he actually was -- he didn't look like a local to the neighborhood and was obviously not a tourist, so he must be 'one of them JSA types'. The rest of the JSA types who were staying overnight were nowhere to be found when Sand entered the building, although he thought he could dimly hear movie noises as he walked up the stairs toward the non-public parts of the brownstone. Al was on monitor duty this evening and Dinah, Karen and Courtney were on call, and none of that was really his concern anymore, he reminded himself, so he went off to his private quarters.

Someone had left a torn-out page from a magazine taped to his door, an article on a new dance studio opening up on 125th next to the building where Bill Clinton nominally had his office (none of the JSA had ever seen him except for the heavily publicized and even more heavily stage-managed moving-in). Sand had been saying for years that he wanted to brush up on his dancing and finally someone was giving him the opportunity to put his money where his mouth was. Once upon a time, he'd known how to swing dance and lindy, but he hadn't jitterbugged since he was fifteen and there had been little cause to or interest in learning anything more trendy. Now, maybe, perhaps he would.

His private quarters were... spartan. Simple pragmatism kept him from investing too much time and energy in decorating -- he was rarely in his apartment for long, hardly ever entertained anyone there, and there was the distinct chance that whatever he did would get undone the next time the Injustice Gang (or any other invader) breached the brownstone's security. Dinah, who had had an elaborately done apartment while she'd been full-time, even though she'd usually returned to Gotham for the night, had given him endless grief for his lack of personalization. "You have to show a little bit of yourself to get people interested in you," she'd chided. So he'd put up a framed poster from a Bogart movie that he'd gotten from Jack Knight and she'd thrown up her hands in surrender. Kendra had taken the baton from the now-reservist Dinah, although she was more proactive about it -- presenting him with artifacts or artwork and telling him where they should be displayed.

He found himself staring at one of Kendra's contributions now, a priceless cloisonné incense burner from China that she refused to let him store someplace safer. The vessel probably dated to the sixteenth century, each face decorated to represent each of the four season -- chrysanthemum (autumn), plum tree (winter), peony (spring), and lotus (summer) -- and Sand had no idea how she'd come upon it or how she'd been able to give it to him. It was not undamaged, but the chips and cracks in the enamel were relatively minor and there would be hundreds of museums that would have given greatly to possess it. He hated having it in a place where it could be neither protected nor properly displayed, but Carter had seen it and not commented on it, so he had taken it to mean that there had been no disagreement between the Hawks in his having it.

The vessel was the centerpiece of what was nominally his dining table, a piece of furniture that rarely saw so much as a plate. The overhead light he had turned on reflected off of the glazed finish, turning the plum tree into something more sinister looking and it was that which made him feel ill at ease. He'd had dreams the past few nights, maddeningly incomplete and progressively more terrifying. Something about the plum tree...

He sighed in frustration. The harder he pushed, the more elusive the answer would be. The answer would either come to him in his dreams or when he was faced with the waking-world counterparts of whatever was so opaque in his nightmares; it was an exasperating sort of semiotics that kept him from making much headway with these mysteries when he was awake. They were allegorical more often than not, open to misinterpretation and misremembering in the light of day, and, worst of all, they were persistent. The harder they were to parse out, the longer it took him to relate signified to signifier and realize the sign, the more aggressive the dreams became and the more pressure there was to make the damned connection so he could finally sleep. After enough time, the inability to draw the proper conclusion and the lack of rest made him testy and irritable during the day and that, perhaps more than any other reason, was why his office was sacrosanct.

Forcing himself to look away from the vase, resigned to another night of acute terrors and vague clues, Sand turned on the radio. It was the second inning in St. Louis and the Cardinals were at bat.

The Mets were losing, he quickly found out, victims of their own inability to play small ball and the deleterious effects of astroturf on wonky-kneed outfielders. This, too, prompted a resigned sigh and Sand went over to his computer to get the sordid details.

While he was online, he browsed through the news -- the papers as well as the "super hero feed" provided, for a fee, by the Oracle. The feed was not open to the public and did not give the sort of details that would be of use to the average criminal were one to get their hands upon it, but did keep each of the teams up to date on what the others were doing. All of the JSA had access to it, but Sand strongly suspected that he -- and now Michael -- were the only ones who ever looked at it.

He'd mailed himself a reminder about movie times; there were a few things playing that he'd like to see. There was still plenty of time to get back down to the Walter Reade theater for the last of the day's offerings at the Chinese film festival. The Walter Reade, the theater attached to Lincoln Center, often did special focuses on national cinemas. Next week was Icelandic movies and the week after was Spain's turn, so the next few days would probably be his last chance to visit for a while.

The Mets were down by six in the fifth and their cleanup hitter was on the DL, and Sand felt reasonably safe in not assuming a comeback. There was food in his own kitchen, but mostly breakfast fare -- even without the dreams preventing him from resting adequately, he was not a morning person and preferred to have at least one cup of coffee in his system before facing his teammates. So he turned of the game and headed off to the communal kitchen, prepared to defend his choice of omelet seasoning from critical comments. But there was nobody there -- Karen and Courtney were in the formal dining room playing Monopoly with Michael, who was apparently taking the game entirely too seriously for their tastes, if the indignant squeals were any indication. And so Sand was able to prepare his omelet to his taste and hide it between two slices of wheat bread before anyone realized he was there.

"You're going to see a movie about a girl sent off to a farm?" Courtney asked with disdain when he'd explained where he was off to. "I can't get you to take me to a real movie and you're going to see a movie about a girl milking cows?"

"I'll take two hotels, please," Michael asked Karen, who was serving as banker, as he counted out the multicolored currency. "Haven't you studied the Cultural Revolution in school?"

"Don't pay with small bills," Karen groused as she double-checked the pile of fives, tens, and twenties.

"Oh, yeah," Courtney answered as she rolled the dice. "Cultural Revolution, Industrial Revolution, American Revolution, French Revolution... Doesn't mean I want to see any movies about them, though. I like my movies to be a little more upbeat."

"You wanted me to take you to some R-rated Matrix knockoff that was trying to be Brave New World," Sand reminded her.

"You owe me $380," Michael informed Courtney. She made a face and he pointed at where she'd landed right on his new hotel.

"It had action and the good guys versus the bad government," Courtney protested as she counted out money to see if she had enough. She didn't.

"And Christian Bale," Karen added, paying out the cash on the mortgage. "But it was still a pretty lame movie."

"Well, hopefully this one won't be," Sand said, picking up his empty plate. "I've got to get going. Have a quiet night."

"If I land on another hotel, I'm gonna have to start wishing for Kobra to break loose or something," Courtney muttered as he returned to the kitchen.

Later on, after the movie and the quiet subway ride back uptown, Sand found a printout of some boxscores, the scoring lines in 72-point font, on his door. Mets lose by eight, Yankees win by six, and the San Francisco Giants walked all over the Chicago Cubs. In Courtney's rounded, perfect teenage-girl script, there was a note: "Tomorrow, I expect details about Christy Mathewson. He was a hottie."