BLACK WIDOW

 

            Every eye—at least every one that belonged to a man—was on the woman who had just walked into the cocktail party at the Gotham Symphony Center.

            Maxine Black was used to the stares.  The combination of her hourglass figure, jet black hair, and pale complexion never failed to draw attention.  She enhanced her strange beauty by dressing in black and using the darkest eye shadow she could find.  One look, and she was eerily unforgettable.

            Picking up a drink, she felt right at home with the crowd of rich and generous folk at the symphony benefit.  Gliding to the hors d’oeuvres table, she smiled at Jenkins Wade, the sixty-five year-old CEO of Wade Petroleum.  “Good evening, Mr. Wade.”

            He looked her over and smiled back.  “It certainly is, Miss, uh….”

            “Maxine Black.  I’m with the Broken Innocence charity for abused and neglected children.”

            “Hmm.  A very worthwhile cause.”

            “I’m glad you think so, Mr. Wade.”

“The work must be difficult.”

 “It is, but necessary, unfortunately.”

“My late wife came from an abusive background.  I’d like to hear more about your organization, if you have time.”

“My time is yours.”

He eyed her curves again.  “Let me refresh my drink, and I’ll meet you at my table, over there by the window.”

            “Certainly.”

            Several feet away, a pair of blonde twentysomethings watched them walk by.  “Well, will you look at that,” the first one said.

            The second one checked her hair in a compact mirror.  So unfair!  I’ve been here for, like, thirty minutes, and no one’s tried to pick me up.  But Elvira walks in, and bam, she’s getting cozy with Moneybags Wade.”

            “You know what this party needs?  A hunk like Bruce Wayne.  If he was here, for sure we’d get hit on.”

            “Hello!” blonde number two said with mock indignation.  “Bruce Wayne is married.  Duh!”

            “Don’t you, like, watch Access Gotham?  He’s divorced now, or soon will be.  I was listening to Ask Amy the other day, and she said his wife caught him with some sweet young thing at the office.  And he’s given her, like, her own company to run so she doesn’t take him to the cleaners.”

            “Rich and smart.”

 

            Over by the cash bar, Mayor Brandenburg tapped Lucius Fox on the shoulder.

            “Oh, hello, Mr. Mayor.”

            “Evening, Lucius.  I haven’t seen your boss tonight.  He usually never misses these things.”

            Fox’s expression turned serious.  “Mr. Wayne can’t make it tonight, sir.  He’s got some…personal business to take care of.”

            Brandenburg nodded.  “I hear things are aren’t going so well on the home front.  Downright nasty, according to the tabloids.”

            Chuckling, Fox said, “Don’t believe what you read in those rags.  It’s nowhere near that bad.  Not at all.”

 

            At Wayne Manor, Selina was on her cell phone with Helena’s nanny.  “Hi, Charlotte.  I just got out of the board meeting, and I’m having dinner with Mr. Wayne at the estate.  How’s my little angel?  Oh, good.  I was afraid she might be getting cabin fever in the hotel.  Just get room service, whatever she wants.  Yeah, chicken nuggets are fine.  There’s a couple of her favorite videos in my travel bag.  I don’t know what time I’ll be back.  Before I forget—the company charter rescheduled our flight back to Dallas.  It’s now at eleven.  Tell her Mommy loves her very much, and she’ll be asleep when I get in.  Thanks, Charlotte.  You rock.  ‘Bye.”

            Bruce smiled as she put away the phone.  “The life of a working mother.”

            “Yeah, but I love it.  So help me, I do love it.”

            He handed her a folder with several papers and a pen.  “I figured you might want to get this out of the way before dinner.”

            She glanced over them and signed her name in two places.  Handing the folder back, she said, “I can just hear Marcus on Monday.  ‘What’d you do this weekend, Mrs. Wayne?’  ‘Oh, not much.  I attended the division heads’ conference and then got divorced.’”

            “He means well.”

“I know.”

“I appreciate you taking the time to finish this up while you’re in town,” he said.

            “Why not?  It saves you the hassle of having to send them out by courier.”

            He stared at the folder.  “It still seems…unreal.”

            “I guess you could say that about our whole relationship.  I mean, how many couples would sign their divorce papers and then have a nice, quiet dinner together?”

            “That’s us, breaking the mold again.”

            “You know what really amuses me, Bruce?  How the tabloids and gossips completely fell for that bit of disinformation you threw out.  They’ve embellished it to where it’s almost science fiction.  ‘Billionaire caught with bikini bimbo.  Angry wife threatens financial revenge.’”

            “I wonder how easily they’d swallow the truth.”

            “Probably wouldn’t know it if kicked them in the butt,” she commented.

            Alfred walked into the study.  “Dinner is served.”

            Over a meal of roast tenderloin and new potatoes, they continued to chat as if it were just another evening at home.  When dessert arrived, however, the somber finality started sinking in.

            “The condemned marriage ate a hearty meal,” Bruce said, polishing off his chocolate cake.

            She closed her eyes for a moment.  “I keep telling myself it’s the right thing to do.  But either it isn’t, or I’m just really hard to convince.”

“We’ll never convince our emotions.  That’s why we have to rely on logic, and it is the only logical choice.  You and Helena were in constant danger, so it made complete sense for you to move.”

            “With the understanding that I’d fly back every few weekends.  That bombed.”

            He touched her hand.  “The realities of your job made it impossible.  And if you can’t make a long-distance marriage work….”

            “Then why have one in name only?  I agree.  It just really sucks.”

            “We made it five years.  Considering the enormous odds against us from the beginning, that’s a minor miracle.”

            “Yeah,” she said, fighting back tears.  “There’s just this little part of me saying, ‘Why can’t he get it through his head that family is more important than the damn Batman?’  But that’s my faulty expectations and wishful thinking.  I knew exactly what—who—you were when I said ‘I do.’  That’s all on me.”  She sighed.

He was about to ask her to spend the night but held back and let the moment pass.  “Just know that you’ve got a standing invitation to stay here anytime you’re in Gotham.  That includes the bedroom.”

            She smiled awkwardly.  “Bruce, I’d like that more than anything, but…if we’re ending the marriage, it needs to be with a clean break.  Sleeping together here and there would only make it harder for us to adjust.  I hope you understand.”

            “I do.  I don’t like it, but as you said earlier, it’s the right thing.”

            Checking her watch, she said, “Wow, it’s almost nine.  I’ve got to get back to the hotel and finish packing.”

            He helped her with her coat and walked her to the front door.

            Alfred was waiting at the entrance.  “How was the evening?”

            She kissed him on the cheek.  “Wonderful as usual, Alfred.  You are the best, and I already miss your cooking.”

            “Feel free to return anytime you wish.”

            “Don’t worry, I won’t be a stranger.  Whenever we’re in town, Helena and I will come for a visit.  But not to stay.”  She looked at Bruce.

“Will you be needing transportation?” asked Alfred.

            “No, I’ve got my rental car parked outside.”

            Bruce gave her a hug and a passionate kiss.  “I still love you, Selina, and I always will.”

            She nearly blushed.  “Whoa!  That’s one kiss I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

“Me, too.”

“I love you, Bruce.  Now and forever.  Take care.”

            “Goodbye.”  Bruce watched the door as it closed behind her.

            “I must say,” the butler chimed in, “that in all my years on this earth, I have never seen two people divorcing so reluctantly.  Surely there must be something one of you could’ve done to save this marriage….”

            “Sometimes it’s better just to let the movie fade to black, Alfred.”

 

            The morning headline in the Gotham Herald shook Bruce out of any remaining blues over Selina.  “WADE PETROLEUM CEO DEAD FROM APPARENT SUICIDE.”

            “What the--”

            Alfred set down his breakfast tray.  “I found it hard to believe, too, sir.  It seems he just leaped out the window of his penthouse.  Most uncharacteristic.”

            “‘Police interviewed at the scene say there was no sign of foul play or evidence of a struggle in Mr. Wade’s apartment.  Witnesses who observed him earlier in the evening at the Gotham Symphony benefit reported that he seemed in good spirits and was enjoying himself thoroughly.’”

            The butler shrugged.  “Something must’ve been amiss somewhere.”

            “Yeah, but I can’t imagine what.  Jenkins was one of the most positive, upbeat men I’ve ever met.  Understandably, he was depressed when his wife died, but that was five years ago.  You think you know a person….”

            “Apparently, you aren’t the only billionaire in Gotham with secrets to keep.”

           

            Another weekend, another social event for Gotham’s high rollers.  Two weeks after the symphony fundraiser came Casino Night at the Gotham Museum of Art.

            Bruce arrived with Commissioner Gordon and Barbara, who was making great strides in her recovery.  In her first public appearance since being paralyzed, she did her best to ignore the few gawkers.

            As they turned a tight corner to get to their table, Gordon made the mistake of trying to help her maneuver the wheelchair.

            With a cold stare, she told him, “Hands off, Dad.  I can do this myself.”

            “Sorry, Barb.  Just trying to help.”

            “I don’t need help.  See any handles on this chair?  There’s a reason for that.”

            Bruce said, “She’s just as independent at Wayne Manor.  I can’t think of one thing she’ll let me, Alfred, or Tim do for her.”

            “Dad, you know I decided long ago that nobody’s going to push me around—figuratively or literally.”

            The commissioner couldn’t help but smile.  “Glad to see you haven’t lost a bit of  spunk.”

            “I think she’s actually gained some, Jim.”

            “Bruce, it’s so generous of you to give her a place to stay and do some serious rehab.  I absolutely dreaded the idea of sending her to one of those halfway hospitals.  I’ve visited some of our officers in them, and they are no place for my daughter.”

            “She’s been the perfect houseguest.  It’s actually refreshing to have her around.”

            “Someone has to keep the boys’ club in line,” she chuckled.

 

            Standing by the roulette wheel, Maxine Black eyed the trio with interest.  She polished off her glass of wine and turned to the socialite next to her.  “So that’s the famously wealthy Bruce Wayne, huh?  My, he’s a hunk.”

            “Dream on,” the other woman said.  “He’s just been through a bad divorce.  If he’s lucky, he only lost forty percent of his net worth.”  She downed her third martini of the evening.  “Keep looking.  He’s damaged goods.”

            Maxine raised her eyebrows.  “Thanks for the tip.”  Across the crowded room, she recognized another handsome face.  “Time to go to work.”

            Allan Erikson, the fifty year-old president of Apex Bancshares, smelled an intoxicating perfume as Maxine brushed past him.  Leaving the blackjack table, he followed her to the cheese and veggie buffet.

            She sensed his presence and looked over her shoulder.  “Can I help you?”

            “I don’t know.  Your perfume….”

            “Oh, I hope you aren’t allergic.”

            He smiled.  “Quite the opposite.  It’s a lovely fragrance, Miss….”

            “Maxine Black.  It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Erikson.”

            He felt flattered that she recognized him.  “I’ve not seen you around before.  Are you new in Gotham?”

            “Sort of.”

            “But you know who I am?”

            “When one enters a new social scene, it pays to do one’s homework first,” she said coyly.

            “I see that I’m a bit behind in my studies.  Why don’t we go over there where it’s less crowded?  You can educate me about Maxine.”

            With a dispassionate smile, she told him, “I’d love to.”

 

            Bruce had a terrible sense of déjà vu when he turned on the morning news.

            “Our top story: the bizarre death of Apex Bancshares president Allan Erikson last night.  Police say that in an apparent suicide, Mr. Erikson climbed onto the subway tracks at the Morgan Avenue station where he was struck and killed moments later by an oncoming train.  Three independent witnesses confirmed to police and Action News that Erikson was not pushed and did not fall onto the tracks.  Rather, they said, he carefully climbed down to the track area, folded his arms, and calmly waited for the train.

“Mr. Erikson had just left the Casino Night at the Gotham Museum of Art where, friends say, he seemed to be fine and gave no hint of any trouble.  His is the second high-profile death in Gotham in as many weeks.  Wade Petroleum CEO Jenkins Wade committed suicide on April 9th.”

            “What is going on around here?” Bruce asked.  “Yeah, the economy’s been a challenge lately, but it shouldn’t be driving such level-headed men to kill themselves.  I knew these guys.  It’s not like them at all.”

            “It would appear that affluence is becoming hazardous to one’s health in this city,” Alfred commented.

            “Anytime something seems to be a coincidence, I’m usually positive it isn’t.  But I need more information to confirm my suspicions.  I’ll ask Barbara to do some digging.”

            “In the meantime, sir, I shall earnestly hope that if another of Gotham’s elite meets his demise, it won’t be you.”

 

            It wasn’t.

Eight days later, the maid of Amos Glieber, philanthropist and shipping magnate, found him hanging from the coat rack in his spacious closet.  As with the other deaths, after days of investigating, the Gotham PD turned up no evidence of homicide.

Gordon admitted to the media that the string of deaths looked suspicious, but was adamant his detectives could find no proof of foul play.  In each case, the coroner’s report backed up the initial findings of suicide.

To Bruce, it only proved the men were murdered.  With Barbara’s computer hacking skills at his disposal, he set out to find concrete evidence.

“Why are you so sure Dad and his men are wrong?” she asked pointedly.

“Coincidences don’t happen,” he insisted.  “It’s not that the police are wrong, it’s that they don’t have the full picture.  Which is exactly what the killer intended.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Access the records of all three investigations.  See which witnesses were interviewed and what they said.  That’s a good start.”

 

After two hours, she called upstairs from the intercom in the Batcave.  “Bruce, I found some stuff your conspiratorial mind will love.”

Working on a speech in the study, he put his notes aside and joined her.  “What do you have?”

“We know each of the men died the same evening as they attended a charity event.  Witnesses at every event said the victims spent extended time talking to a woman with long dark hair and very pale skin.”

“Who is she?”

“Name’s Maxine Black.  None of the witnesses had ever seen her before, and some of them have been to dozens of these functions.”

“So she’s new in town.  Interesting.”

Barbara brought up another document on the screen.  “The doorman at Jenkins Wade’s high-rise said he saw a woman matching the same description leave the building about an hour before Wade took his swan dive out the window.  The security camera in the lobby captured this picture.”

Bruce stared at the slightly grainy image of a tall, slender woman whose skin was almost the color of milk.  “Creepy.”

“No kidding.  The police interviewed her, but mainly for information on the victims’ states of mind.”

“Odd that she spent time with all three.”

“They weren’t the only men she got chummy with, but the rest are still very much alive.  She could just be a gold-digger, Bruce.”

“A deadly one, perhaps.”

She gave a sigh.  “This still doesn’t constitute proof the men were murdered, and there isn’t a shred of evidence she was anywhere near them when they died.”

“You don’t have to be with someone to kill them,” he said.  “What have you found on Ms. Black?”

“Didn’t get that far.”

“Time for a little digging of my own.”  He turned to another computer bank and typed furiously.

With admiration, she watched him work.  She may have been the better hacker, but he knew how to find…anything.

In five minutes, he turned around.  “I should’ve guessed.  She’s the founder and president of a non-profit outfit called Broken Innocence.”

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s on the periphery of charities helping abused children, and that’s putting it nicely.  Fifty per cent of what she raises goes toward administrative overheard and more fundraising.  Only two employees—Black and a secretary.”

She frowned.  “Strange for an outfit that small to have so much ‘overhead.’”

“Yes.  They’ve been investigated twice in the last five years, by the IRS and the BBB.  No action taken in either case.”

“If she’s a fundraiser, that explains why she’s hitting every charity event in town.  Go where the money is.”

His eyes grew wide.  “Barbara, can you access the banking records of the victims?”

“Consider it done,” she answered as she returned to her keyboard.

While he waited, Bruce restocked the supplies in his utility belt.  He couldn’t help notice, though, how Barbara had really gotten into the computer stuff he’d been asking her to do.  It started out as a project to occupy her time when she wasn’t swimming, doing strength training, or otherwise exercising as part of her physical rehab.  He already knew she had great aptitude for online detective work, but he also wanted to minimize the chances she would slip back into depression.

“Looks like I owe you an apology,” she spoke up.  “A big one.”

He ran to the console.  “Why?”

“Wade, Erikson, and Glieber each wrote large checks before they died.  Guess who they’re made out to?”

“Broken Innocence.”

“Bingo!”

“How much?”

She did some quick addition.  “A total of $250,000.”

He folded his arms and leaned back.  “What do you think of my suspicions now?”

“Well, the evidence is circumstantial, but it’s looking more and more like Ms. Black could be one lethal lady.”

“If she’s new to Gotham, she’s probably done the same thing before.  I want you to search police records across the country.  Look for unexplained clusters of suicides among the wealthy,” he said as he walked away.

“Where are you going?”

“To convince your father that those ‘suicides’ are the work of a serial killer.”

 

Commissioner Gordon had forgotten to lock his office window once again, giving Batman the opportunity to slip inside and conceal himself in the shadows.  Just like old times, he thought.

Gordon was writing up a report when he heard the telltale rustle of a cape behind him.  Without looking up, he said, “Evening, Batman.”

“I need to talk to you.”

“What’s on your mind?”

“The murders of Jenkins Wade, Allan Erikson, and Amos Glieber.”

            Dropping his pen on the desk, Gordon said, “Don’t tell me you’ve joined the conspiracy theorists.”

            Batman stepped into the light.  “Trust me on this.  They were murdered.”

            “How?  By whom?”

            “I’m still working on the how, but the who is Maxine Black.”

            “Maxine Black?  The name sounds familiar….  Oh, yeah.  ‘Morticia Addams,’ the boys called her.  We interviewed her.  Absolutely no evidence that she—or anyone else--was involved in the deaths of those men.”

            “Not that you found.”

            Standing up, Gordon asked, “What do you know that we don’t?”

            “She runs a shady charity operation that supposedly benefits abused children.  Wade, Erikson, and Glieber wrote sizeable checks to her the nights they died.”

            “How did you find that out?  Wait, I don’t want to know.”

“I’m betting her charity is little more than a means for increasing her bank account.  She blows into town, hits the social scene, and cozies up to wealthy bachelors and widowers who giver her money and then end up dead.”

Gordon nodded.  “Your theory’s plausible, at least.  Proving it is another matter altogether, because the coroner’s absolutely certain those men killed themselves.”

“They probably did—with a little help from Ms. Black.  If I’m right, she’s done this before in other cities.  I’ve got…someone researching it right now.”  He made a mental note that Barbara needed a new identity.

“Without solid proof, the coroner won’t reverse himself, and I can’t justify devoting more manpower to cases that are officially closed.”

“I’ll get you the proof.  Meanwhile, have someone keep tabs on Ms. Black.  I don’t want her slipping out of town before—”

“Batman?” Barbara’s voice called in his ear.

“Right here,” he answered, pressing the side of his cowl.

“Jackpot.  In the last six years, there have been four clusters of suicides involving wealthy men in Star City, San Diego, Houston, and Miami.”

“I knew it.  Check the IRS donor records for Broken Innocence.  See if--”

“Already done,” she said. “There were corresponding increases in donations during each of the suicide outbreaks.”

“You’re good.  Thanks.”

Gordon turned to him.  “What is it?”

Batman relayed the news.

“It looks like you’re right about Ms. Black.  That’s too much coincidence.  Still…without a murder weapon or something solidly tying her to the deaths, the DA won’t bring charges.”

“Leave that to me.”

“Somehow I knew you’d say that.  While I wait, we can at least question her as a material….” Gordon stopped, sensing he was alone again.

He turned toward the window, and sure enough, the Dark Knight was nowhere to be seen.

“Man, he could teach Houdini a few tricks.”

 

Gordon went to Maxine’s rented high-rise apartment in the morning for a soft interrogation.  She welcomed him in with a smile, though he noticed she seemed to be distracted and uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry to trouble you like this, Ms. Black, but there’s a few more questions I’d like to ask you about the deaths of Jenkins Wade, Allan Erikson, and Amos Glieber.”

She calmly sat down on the sofa.  “Call me Maxine, Commissioner.  I told your detectives everything I know, which isn’t much.  I work for a charity that’s close to my heart.  I came to Gotham City about a month ago to try to raise some money and develop contacts.  Maybe find a little romance, too, if I was lucky.  I met three really nice guys, and then pow!  They kill themselves.  I can’t explain it.”

“We’ve learned that each of those men made a significant donation to your charity before they died.  I hope you understand how…suspicious that looks.”

She nodded.  “Absolutely.  But be assured, I can’t think of anything I might’ve done or said that would make them take their own lives.  They seemed happy.  They thanked me for telling them about Broken Innocence and were glad they could help us out.  I mean, how could someone like me make a rich and powerful man jump out a window or walk in front of a train?”

“For the record, can you tell me what you did after the charity fundraisers on the nights in question?”

“Mr. Wade invited me to his place for drinks and to discuss the charity.  We visited for a while, he wrote me a check, and I left.  I came back here and was on the phone to my assistant in Ohio.  We talked for about forty-five minutes.  The night I met Mr. Erikson, we discussed business at the party, he gave me a donation, and left.  I hung around for a few minutes, then headed home.  I stopped at the bookstore two blocks over and bought a magazine.  Mr. Glieber and I actually met at the Casino Night, and we reconnected at the children’s hospital dinner.  He gave me a check, and we planned to have lunch the next day.  He went home early complaining of a headache.  I stayed until the end and made a few more contacts afterwards.”

Gordon took notes as she spoke.  Something about her response bothered him.  She remembered everything so readily, as if her answer was rehearsed.  Time to turn up the heat a notch.  “Maxine, our investigation has uncovered similar groups of suicides in four other cities where you were fundraising at the time.”

“Did you look at the suicide rates of cities where I wasn’t working?  Really, Commissioner, I don’t like what you’re implying, and unless you have something to back it up, our conversation is over.”  She stood up and turned toward the wall.  “You know where the door is.”

Gordon closed his notebook and prepared to leave.  “Thank you for your time, Ms. Black.  Have a nice day.”

When the door locked, she smiled.  The perfect combination of cooperation and outrage.  Works every time.

 

The commissioner assigned two detectives to investigate Maxine.  Hours of legwork and interviews only confirmed her alibis for all three nights.  She was verifiably somewhere else when the men died.

As if to mock Gordon’s efforts, it happened yet again.  Yoshi Tomonaka, the king of Gotham’s electronics retailers, deliberately drove his car off the New Trigate Bridge after spending the evening at a fashion show benefitting the Gotham Animal Shelter.

By this point, Gordon was convinced that Maxine was somehow responsible for the deaths, but the nagging lack of evidence prevented him from taking it further.  In a mixture of frustration and desperation, he turned on the Bat-signal the next night.

As the Dark Knight emerged from the shadows atop police headquarters, he said, “Let me guess.  Your ‘Black Widow’ problem.”

Gordon switched off the beacon.  “That’s a really apt description.  She befriends rich men, takes their money, and kills them.  You know it.  I know it.  But dammit, I can’t prove a thing!”

“And we may be running out of time.  In the other cases, there were always five victims, no more.”

“Well, she’s up to number four.  How the hell is she doing it?  Hypnosis, maybe?”

Batman shook his head.  “Real hypnosis is nothing like the stuff in movies or carnival sideshows.”

“None of the toxicology reports mentioned any trace of poison or hypnotic drugs.  However she’s doing it, she’s a genius at not leaving loose ends.  If we don’t get a break soon, she’ll skip town and disappear like before.”

“I’ll keep looking.  All criminals eventually slip up somewhere.”

“If there was a way to set a trap and catch her in the act,” Gordon thought out loud.  “But it would mean using a citizen as bait.  I can’t do that.”

“What if it was someone who knew the risk and did it anyway for the good of the community?”

The commissioner laughed.  “Among the wealthy in this town?  Not a chance.”

 

After breakfast, Bruce paid a visit to Dick Grayson’s loft apartment in Blüdhaven.

The moment Dick opened the door and saw his visitor, his face fell.  “Come in,” he said warily.

“I’m sorry, were you expecting Miss August?”

“Why is it that whenever you call or stop by, you need something?  It’s never ‘Hey, Dick, how’s life?’  It’s always ‘I need your help.’  So what is it this time?”

Bruce ignored the young man’s irritation and calmly explained the situation.

“So…basically, you want me to catch her doing whatever it is that she’s doing without becoming her next victim?”

“Yes.  Tim’s too young.  I’d do it myself, but there’s this perception that recently divorced billionaires have no money.”

“Gotcha.  For what it’s worth, I’m really sorry about you and Selina.  I know she brought you a lot of happiness, and it super sucks that things went the way they did.”

“Thanks, Dick.”

“As for the Black Widow…yeah, I’ll help.  I knew a couple of those guys she whacked.  What’s your plan?”

“I thought I’d put out the word that since you recently turned twenty-five, you’re inheriting a multi-million dollar trust fund.  That, coupled with your reentry into the Gotham social scene, should be more than enough to attract Maxine’s attention.”

“And then some.  I’ll have to beat the girls off with a stick.”

“The heavy burden of being Dick Grayson, millionaire playboy.”

Dick laughed.  “I learned from the master.”

 

Bruce threw a lavish belated birthday party for Dick at the Ambassador Hotel and stacked the guest list with his wealthy acquaintances.  It was, of course, too tempting for Maxine to resist.

Dick played the part of spoiled nouveau riche to the hilt.  He arrived with a busty blonde on each arm, both of whom looked tipsy already.  As the evening went on, he made a point to get friendly with several other attractive women.

Watching as a spectator from Bruce’s table, Barbara silently fumed.

Bruce noticed the pained look on her face.  “Just keep reminding yourself it’s an act.”

“Are you sure?  There’s playing a part, and then there’s immersing yourself in the role.  He’s being a jerk.”

“He’s really good at it,” Tim commented.  “Pretending, I mean.”

“Pretending, my foot.  He’s like a kid at Christmas,” she muttered through clenched teeth.

In time, Maxine managed to wade through the crowd of pretty young things and make contact.  “Everybody wants a piece of the birthday boy.”

He looked her over and smiled.  She was definitely the most striking serial killer he’d ever met.  “Does that include you, Miss…?”

“Maxine Black, Mr. Grayson.  I’d like a piece of your time, nothing more.”

“Business or pleasure?”

“It could be a bit of both.  My business is giving a voice to abused and neglected children in this country.  Many people such as yourself take great pleasure in knowing that they can make a real difference in the lives of these children.  Your mentor, Bruce Wayne, is well-known for his charitable donations.  I’d like to think the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as the saying goes.”

An inebriated brunette with a deep tan staggered into him and tried to run her fingers through his hair.

He turned back to Maxine.  “Sorry.  I’d love to talk more, but I don’t think they’re going to let me.”

“When’s a good time?”

“How about dinner tomorrow?”

“Perfect,” she answered.

“Meet me at the Verandah Lounge at eight.”

“I’m already looking forward to it, Mr. Grayson.”

“You can call me Dick,” he said as the brunette dragged him away for another turn on the dance floor.

 

The following afternoon, Dick stopped by Wayne Manor to discuss strategy.  It felt strange to be working on a case out of costume.  Descending the stairs to the Batcave, he called out, “Bruce?”

“He’s doing some laps in the pool,” Barbara answered as she busily worked at the computer console.

“Hi, Barb.  Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“Probably another thirty minutes.”

He took a seat to wait.  “It was good to see you at the party last night.”

“I’m surprised you even noticed I was there,” she said coldly.

“It wouldn’t have been the same without all my friends around.”

“Yeah, especially the ones with implants.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She turned her chair around to face him.  “I’ve never seen you make such a fool of yourself.  You had waaayy too much fun.”

Frowning, he told her, “It was an act, Barb!  You know me better than that.”

“I thought I did.  You enjoyed every minute of those bimbos coming onto you, and don’t tell me you didn’t.  I saw how you couldn’t keep your eyes off their cleavage.”

“Whoa, what’s with the attitude?  Are you jealous I showed up with a couple of centerfolds instead of you?”

She looked away.  “Not jealous, but yeah, it hurt my feelings that you didn’t even ask.”

“It’s not like we’re ‘going steady’ anymore.  Besides, it would’ve been…you know….”

“What?  Awkward?  Unglamorous?  Go ahead and say it.  You didn’t want to make your grand entrance with a girl in a wheelchair.”

He squirmed.  “Barb, that’s not it.  I just….”

“That’s exactly it!  Ever since I got paralyzed, you’ve treated me differently.  You keep me at an emotional distance, like you don’t know what to do with me.”

“Maybe I don’t.  You know, it’s been hard on me too, Barb.”

“Did it ever occur to you to talk with me about how you felt?  No, of course not.  You’d rather push me aside so you don’t have to deal with your insecurities.”

“You’re one to talk, Miss Holier-than-Thou.  I still can’t believe how eager you were to move in here with Bruce.  Selina leaves, and zoom, in you come.  Was it really just for rehab, or something more?”

She glared at him.  “Take cheap shots at me all you want, but do NOT question Bruce’s integrity.  Think for a minute.  We’re talking about the man who adopted you and trained you and instilled his values in you.  He extended his hospitality to me as a friend, because he felt indirectly responsible for what happened.  And in case you haven’t noticed, he still carries a bonfire-size torch for Selina, and probably always will.  You’re being a jerk, Dick.”

Stunned, he could barely find words.  “I…I don’t know what to say, Barb.  I’m sorry.”

“So am I.  You obviously have issues with dating a paraplegic.  At least now we have it out in the open.”  She took a deep breath.  “I think it’s fairly obvious we’re finished as a couple.  There’s too much baggage, too many issues.  If we don’t stop this now, pretty soon we won’t even be friends anymore.  I’d hate for it to come to that.” 

“Yeah.  Think I’ll wait for Bruce upstairs.”

“Dick?”

He stopped in mid-stride.  “Yes?”

“Be extra careful tonight.  She’s as deadly as they come, and I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“Thanks.”

She turned around and headed back to the computers.

 

As eight o’clock approached, Bruce and Barbara did not let up in their efforts to find Maxine’s murder weapon.

“Where are they meeting?” she asked.

“The Verandah Grill.  It’s an open air restaurant on the observation deck of the Regency Hotel.  Very public, so there’ll be lots of witnesses if she tries anything.”

“You have him wired?”

“Of course,” he answered.  “He’s got a transceiver in his ear stud, so we can hear everything.”

“What about backup?”

“I managed to convince your father to have one unit on standby in front of the hotel.”

“Better than nothing,” she commented as she picked up several pages of printouts.  “Here are the toxicology reports from the Star City cases.  You wouldn’t believe how many firewalls and passwords I had to crack to get these.”

He quickly scanned them.  “Damn!  Just like the ones here: no trace of any recognizable hypnotic drugs.  But then again, I doubt she’d use something so obvious.”

“You’re positive it’s chemical mind control?”

“That’s the only option left, unless you want to start considering demonic possession.  We’ve ruled out hypnosis and holding a gun to their heads.  How else could she make so many men kill themselves without fail?  Go over the blood chemistries line by line.”

She ran the reports through an analyzer program.  “Nope.  Nothing.  I’m down to the trace elements.”

“Check those, too.”

“Why?  There isn’t enough of any of them to do harm.”

“Humor me, Barb.”

She sighed.  “Magnesium…ibuprofen…lycopine…methyl benzonitrate?  What’s that?”

He did a fast computer search.  “It occurs naturally in the human body in minute amounts.  What’s the concentration level?”

“It varies from .3 to .5.”

“That’s more than a minute amount.  Hmm.  It’s also found in the rare Mexican cactus known as El Poder, The Power.  Aztec priests administered it to young maidens they were about to sacrifice on the altar to make them more compliant.  Colorless, odorless, with a slightly salty taste.  It metabolizes in the body very rapidly, leaving almost no residue.  I’m finding folkloric references which suggest it can be an effective hypnotic in concentrated form, though that’s never been scientifically proven.”

“It has now.  It’s in three of the five Star City victims as well as Glieber and Erikson.  Toxicology on Wade was incomplete, due to his manner of death.”

He banged his fists together.  “That’s her method.  She slips it into their drinks and programs them to kill themselves later when she can be miles from the scene.”

“Dick, come in please,” Barbara called over the comlink.

“I’m in the elevator on the way up to meet Vampira.”

“We figured out how she does it.  She puts a chemical into their drinks, and it gives her hypnotic control.  Whatever you do, don’t let her near your glass.  Or your food, for that matter.”

“If she tries anything, I’ll make a citizen’s arrest and call up the cops in the lobby.  Thanks for the alert.  Gotta go now.  She’s waving at me.”

Barbara noticed that Bruce had put on his Batsuit.  “Cavalry to the rescue?”

“Something like that.  Even with your warning, I think he’s still in grave danger.”

“Yeah.  I’d feel better with you over there, too.”

He slipped on his gloves.  “Thanks for all your hard work, Barb.  You’ve been a real oracle of information.”

As the Batmobile revved up and sped away, her face brightened.  “‘A real oracle.’  I like that.”

 

Maxine stood and smiled when Dick arrived at her table.  “Good to see you again.”

“Likewise.”  When they shook hands, he commented, “That’s quite a ring you have there.”

“My good luck spider?  I picked it up in Mexico several years ago.  The body is onyx, and the legs and band are hammered silver.  It’s almost as big as my finger, but I really love it.”

 

Batman was listening on the comlink as he drove.  “Dick, watch out for the ring.  She probably has the chemical in there.  Dick, do you hear me?  Dick!”

He was oblivious to Batman’s pleas.  All he could think about were Maxine’s beautiful dark eyes.

“Barb, I think she’s already gotten to him,” Batman said.  “I’m almost there.”

 

Dick asked, “So what is this charity you work for?”

“Broken Innocence.  We help children who are victims of domestic abuse.”

He felt strangely relaxed and irresistibly attracted to Maxine.  “I’d be happy to give you a donation.  How much do you need?”

“A hundred thousand would go a long way in helping us.”

He pulled out his checkbook and wrote a draft for $100,000.  “Here you go.”

She tucked it away in her evening bag.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

“My pleasure.”

“Do you…like me, Dick?”

“You’re very beautiful.  Much more so than those sorority girls at my party.”

“Would you do anything I asked you to?”

“Sure, Maxine.  Anything.  You name it.”

“Okay.  You see the balcony railing over there?”

“Uh-huh,” he answered.

“In three minutes, I want you to jump over it.  Could you do that for me?”

“Gladly.”

With a smile, she said, “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to the ladies’ room.”

“Don’t be long.”

Leaving the balcony, she walked back into the dimly lit restaurant and went around a corner.  Out of nowhere, a black-gloved hand grabbed her wrist and pulled her into the shadows.

“Your deadly scheme is over, Ms. Black,” Batman growled.  “I know how you murdered those twenty-four men.”  He yanked the spider ring from her hand. “As I thought...a hollow compartment.”

He cuffed her and began leading her away when she started to laugh.

“What could possibly be funny?”

“Looks like you’ve got a choice to make, Batman: take me to the police, or save number twenty-five.  See?”  She pointed at the balcony.

Dick was climbing the rail and preparing to jump.

Batman unfastened one end of her cuffs and clamped it over a handrail, then made a mad dash to save Dick.  He hurled a bolo Batarang, which wrapped a restraining rope several times around Dick’s chest.  Firmly gripping the rope’s tail, he tugged hard.

Dick tumbled backwards and fell on an empty table before rolling to the floor.

Batman freed him and asked, “Are you okay?”

“What just happened?”

Two police officers came up from behind, and Batman said, “See about him.  Did you get Maxine Black?”

One of the cops held up an empty pair of handcuffs.  “I’m afraid she slipped away.”

Batman shoved her spider ring into the officer’s hand.  “This is evidence.  Her murder weapon, to be exact.”  A second later, he was gone.

 

Maxine scurried down the stairwell for several flights, then calmly exited onto the twentieth floor, where she got on an elevator heading to the lobby.  The only other passenger was a young porter moving a rack of furs and luggage.

She gave him a smile, then pinched a pressure point on his neck, causing him to pass out immediately.  Donning a full-length mink and a pair of sunglasses she found in the pocket, she left the elevator and strolled out of the hotel unnoticed, even as police were rushing into the building.

 

“Dick’s going to be fine,” Batman called to Barbara over the secure comlink in the Batmobile.

“Thank God!  The Gotham PD has an arrest warrant for Maxine, based on all the information I sent them.  Also, the FBI is about to seize the assets of Broken Innocence.”

“Let’s hope Gordon’s men find her soon, because she’s about to leave town.”

 

Maxine took a taxi and got out two blocks from her apartment.  Still in her makeshift disguise, she walked the rest of the distance and entered her building without being recognized.  After slipping into the apartment, she ditched the fur and grabbed her suitcase.  It was time—maybe past time—to quit Gotham and hide out for a while before moving on.  Dick’s check would provide a comfortable living while she waited for the legal heat to die down.

She unlocked the suitcase and opened her closet.

“We’ve really got to stop meeting like this, Maxine.”  Batman snapped another pair of cuffs on her and squeezed them tightly.

Ow!  You’re breaking my wrists.”

He shoved her onto the bed.  “You got away once tonight.  I’m not letting it happen again.”

She struggled against the restraints but could not slip them off.

“You’re finished.  The police are on their way here right now, and the FBI is closing down your phony charity.”

Realizing that denials and pretense were pointless, she began to cry.

“Twenty-four deaths.  Why?”

“I hate rich men!” she shouted bitterly through her tears.  “My father died when I was ten, and Mother whored herself out to any rich bastard who’d support us.  God, there were so many.  They beat her on occasion, and some of them even molested me.  What a bunch of sickos.  Mother knew, and she always told me to be quiet, because if the cops found out, we’d end up ‘on the street.’  That was her favorite phrase.  Anytime I complained about what they did, she’d threaten me with being put ‘on the street.’  You have no idea how much I came to hate those men and their money and their power, how they used it against me.  I wanted to kill every one of them!”  She broke into sobs.

Batman felt a touch of sadness for her.

“When Mother was dying seven years ago, she said to me, ‘I wish I could make them suffer.’  So since she couldn’t, I did.  The scum who raped me were already dead, but I knew more were out there.  I formed Broken Innocence and deliberately targeted wealthy men for fundraising.  Their money would go to help the victims their kind created.”

“How did taking money turn into taking lives?”

“I traveled extensively in Mexico after she died.  I learned about El Poder and what it could do.  I saw it as the perfect revenge.  I could manipulate rich devils the way they did me.  The ultimate manipulation was making them kill themselves.  When the police got too close, I disappeared for a while.”

“But you always resurfaced,” he commented.

“So many targets, so little time.”

“How’d you do it?  I know you used the ring, but no one ever saw you put anything in their drinks.”

“That’s because I didn’t.  I mixed it with an alcohol base and let it coat my hand.”

“So they absorbed it through their skin when you shook hands.”

She nodded, drying her tears.  “Fast absorbing, fast drying, and almost untraceable.”

“Almost.”

“Yeah.  I didn’t count on running into the World’s Greatest Detective.”

“Maxine, what happened to you and your mother was horrible.  But it isn’t money that makes a man bad, it’s the person he already is.  Money only reveals his true character.”

They heard sirens approaching.

“I’m not going to jail,” she said firmly.

“There’s no way I’ll release you.”  He bent over to pull her off the bed.

Using all the strength she could muster, she kicked him in the stomach with her spike heels.

Caught off guard, he stumbled backwards and tripped over a footstool.

Despite her cuffed wrists, she grabbed her suitcase by the handle and flung it into the window beside the bed.  Shards of glass rained down on the sidewalk thirty stories below.

As Batman got up, she stepped to the window.  “I’ve had the chemical in me for years.  It’s harmless unless you’re hypnotized.”

“Maxine, no!”

Two police officers rushed into the bedroom.

Closing her eyes, she triggered a posthypnotic suggestion and leaped out the window.

 

 When he returned to the Batcave, Barbara could see the shock on his face.  “I heard on the police scanner,” she said.  “I’m sorry.”

“I went from hating her as evil incarnate to pitying her as a sad, disturbed victim.  The look on her face when she jumped was so…serene.”

“Maybe she knew her pain was finally over.”

“Some of us aren’t so lucky,” he replied while trudging upstairs.

 

A new day, a new beginning.

Barbara slept late but arose with a smile on her face.  She ate a quick breakfast then went down to the Batcave, where Alfred was tidying up.

“You seem in good spirits this morning,” he commented.

“I am.”  She wheeled over to the weapons cabinet.  “I had an interesting dream.  You know, Alfred, my nighttime career in crime fighting may not be so dead after all.”

He raised an eyebrow.  “Really?”

“Really.”

He waited for her to continue, then asked, “Care to share more information?”

“Exactly.”

“Exactly what?” he asked in confusion.

“More information.”  She looked nostalgically at one of her old Batarangs on display.  “Exit Batgirl, enter…Oracle.”