DEMON FLOWER

 

            In a cave on the Aegean island of Lykonos, Nyssa Raatko rolled up the sleeve of a twelve year-old boy and wiped his arm with an alcohol swab.  Taking a syringe, she injected a clear liquid, then withdrew the needle.  “Finished.”

            “Didn’t hurt a bit,” the dark-haired boy answered.

            “You’re used to it by now.  Get your bags.  It’s almost time to go.”  She threw away the syringe, cleaned her hands, and walked out of the spacious cave onto the island’s windswept beach.  The bright sunlight made her squint.  “Yuri?”

            Fifty-one year-old Yuri Belenko turned around.  The whine of an approaching helicopter made communicating difficult.  “Is he ready?” he shouted.

            “Yes,” she replied.  “Take him and strap yourselves in.  I’ll be along in a moment.”

            “No, I mean is he ready--really ready--for what you’re planning to do?”

            Frowning, she answered, “I just gave him the last injection.  Ra’s’ writings were quite specific as to the number and strength of the doses.”

            “You still believe that alchemy mumbo jumbo Ra’s used to spout?”

            “Be careful, Yuri.  I, too, practice that ancient art.”

            He shook his head.  “If you want to play God with our men, that’s one thing.  But you’re gambling with a child’s life!”

            “Listen, and listen well.  I would never—never—do this to Ibn if I had even one concern about his safety.”  She lowered her voice as the helicopter engine stopped.  “He’s the future of the League, Yuri.  You know it, I know it.  All our hopes rest on him.  I can’t jeopardize that.  What Ra’s started, what Talia and I carried on, he will one day bring to fruition.  I have no doubt.”

            Yuri stared as she left and walked back into the cave.

            A man in camouflaged fatigues trotted up to him.

            “Commandant Soska, here to see us off?”

            “Is she still going ahead with her project?”

            Looking down at the blowing sand, Yuri said, “Unfortunately.”

            “Keep an eye on her while you’re in Gotham City.  The League’s entire military council is concerned about how the daughters of Ra’s have persisted in this personal vendetta.  We thought Talia’s death would put an end to it, but Nyssa seems determined to follow the same pointless rabbit trail.”

            “I share your concerns, Commandant, and have for some time.”

            “We’re losing global momentum, Yuri.  At a time when our leaders should be pursuing new and adaptive strategies, they continue to pay us lip service while using League resources for their own ends.”

            Yuri knew that, despite their fearsome reputation—especially Nyssa’s—the daughters of Ra’s had never inspired the same fanatic devotion as their father.  Maybe the boy was the answer, later if not sooner.  In the meantime, he sensed it was not wise to oppose the newly-assertive military commanders.

            Nodding to Soska, he said, “You can count on me.  I’ll let you know whatever I learn of her plans.”

            “You have my private number?”

            “Yes.  I’ll put it on speed dial.”

 

            That afternoon, Nyssa’s private jet took off from an airfield in Albania.  While it winged it way to a refueling stop in Portugal, she engaged the boy in an intense game of chess.  He had her checkmated within ten minutes.

            “Very good, Ibn.”

            “Thank you, Madame Nyssa.  Can you please call me Damien?”

            “Ah, yes.  I keep forgetting you prefer that name.”

            “Shall we play another game?”

            She smiled.  “Not right now.  I’m afraid you’d only beat me in short order again.”

            “Probably so.”

            “Are you afraid?”

            “A little.”

            Touching his shoulder, she said, “You were born for this.  Your training has prepared you.  Besides, this is only a preliminary run.”

            “When will we be in Gotham City?”

            “Two days from now.  Plenty of time for you to brush up on your studies.”

            “Excellent.  Quiz me again, Madame.”

            “Very well.  Recite the Three Facts.”

            He cleared his throat.  “My father is responsible for Mother’s death.  He defends a corrupt society.  He must die for these crimes.”

            “What are the Three Principles?”

            “Ra’s al Ghul was a visionary leader.  The League is the only pure organization.  Civilization is infected with evil and must be purged.”

            “Your mother would be so proud, Damien.”

 

            Bruce Wayne sauntered downstairs with a hammer in his hand and a pleased look on his face.  He had just spent an hour hanging framed photos of little Helena in the residential wing hallway, and he was already thinking about which wall to use when that one got full.

            The doorbell rang as he turned toward the kitchen.  “I’ll get it, Alfred.”

            “Thank you, sir.”

            He opened the door and dropped the hammer in shock.

            “Good afternoon, Bruce.  May I come in?” Nyssa asked politely.

            The blood drained from his face.  “Y—yes,” he stammered.

            “We need to have a little talk.  In private.”

            He noticed the limousine in the drive.  There appeared to be a passenger in the back.  “You’re not alone?”

            “All in good time.  Where can we go?” she asked.

            “The back patio overlooking the grounds,” he replied robotically.  “It’s pretty secluded.”

            Alfred walked up.  “Can I be of assistance, sir?  I—  He froze, seeing Nyssa.

            “We’ll be out on the terrace,” Bruce said.  “No interruptions, please.”

            “Certainly, sir.”  Alfred closed the door and gazed as the pair went on their way.  He didn’t quite know how to react.

            While he pondered what it all might mean, Selina made a beeline for him, her face showing a look of alarm.  “Alfred?”

            “Yes, ma’am?”

            “Is…is my husband having an affair?  He’s walking around with a beautiful brunette in a lovely green dress.  I don’t think he even saw me waving.”

            “I guarantee you Master Bruce sees nothing attractive in that woman.”

            “Who is she?”

            “I believe her name is Nyssa.  She’s the other daughter of Ra’s al Ghul.”

            “What the hell is she doing here?”

            “Her presence can only mean one thing, I’m afraid.  Trouble.  With a capital T.”

            “Where are they going?”

            “To the terrace, Master Bruce said.  He specifically asked not to be disturbed.”

            “Well, he’s not keeping me out of that conversation, Alfred.”  A sly smile crossed her lips.   “Time for a little Cat tech.  See you later.”

            She dashed down to the Batcave and retrieved a small handheld directional microphone and a pair of earphones.  “I’m glad I hung onto these.”  She then ran upstairs to the master bedroom, situated directly above the patio.  Setting the mic up against the window, she turned it on and sat down to listen in.

 

            “Am I making you nervous, Bruce?” Nyssa asked as she sat in a white wrought iron patio chair.

            “Nervous?  No.  Cautious?  Definitely.  It isn’t every day one’s self-proclaimed enemy knocks on the front door.  This is about Talia, isn’t it?”

            “Yes and no.  It’s been a long time.  You look well.”

            He noticed Selina’s microphone at the bedroom window.  “Get to the point, Nyssa.  You didn’t fly all the way here from whatever hole you call home just to have a warm, fuzzy chat.”

            “Very well.  You brought up Talia.  She and I did not always see eye to eye on matters.  Nevertheless, I remain angry about her death, and I hold you responsible.”

            He frowned.  “Did you miss the part about her kidnapping my daughter and trying to frame my wife?  She was hardly Miss Innocent.”

            “That may be true, but her blood still cries out for justice.  I want you to know that I will avenge her death.”

            “Why does that not surprise me?”

            She looked up at the Gotham skyline in the distance.  “I’ve read with great interest about what the man called Joker did to this city recently.  Not bad…for a novice.”

            “It was a hellish nightmare, and Joker is no novice at creating havoc and destruction.”

            Smiling coldly, she said, “Imagine the same thing, but done by professionals.  I’ve studied every report I could find.  I analyzed his tactics—what he did right, and what he did wrong.  I’m quite confident I’ll do much better.”

            “Are you threatening us?”

            “A threat is only as good as what you have to back it up.  Surely you don’t doubt that I command enough resources to literally burn Gotham off the map.”

            A chill went through him as her implications sank in.  “So you’re here to give me a declaration of war, basically.”

            “If you want to look at it that way, yes.  A state of hostility exists between the League of Assassins and Batman, Gotham City, and any allies who would defend this rotten place.  Action will commence at a time and in a method of my choosing.”

            “You know, you could’ve just sent a letter to tell me all this.”

            “Diplomacy is something of a lost art nowadays.  I hoped you might appreciate my attempt to revive it.”

            “A velvet hammer is still a hammer, Nyssa.”

            “So it is.”  She stood up to leave.  “By the way, your son is waiting in the car.”

            “What?”

            “Your son, the child Talia bore you twelve years ago, is waiting out front to meet you.”

            He jumped to his feet.  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

            She sighed.  “Please, Bruce, there’s no need to pretend.”

            “If this is your idea of a joke, Nyssa, it’s not funny.”

            “Bruce, I can’t believe you don’t know.  Surely Talia told you.  How could she not have mentioned him?”

            “I’m being totally honest.  She never even hinted that we had a child together.”

            “Then I’m sure she would have, in due time, had she lived.”

 

            Stunned, Selina felt like she’d been shot by a cannon.  She dropped the microphone and collapsed on the bed in sobs.

 

            Nyssa led Bruce to her rented limousine parked on the approach.  “I thought he would want to see the face of his father…and enemy.”

            As they came near, Yuri pushed a button to lower the back windows.

            “Ibn, this is Bruce Wayne.  Bruce, your son, Ibn al Xu'ffasch.  Son of the Bat, in Arabic.  He favors the name Damien, however.”

            The boy looked at Bruce blankly.  “You killed my mother, and for that you shall die!”

            “Hello, Damien.”  Bruce smiled and tried to make the best of a very awkward situation.  The resemblance to himself as a child was striking, save for the fact that the boy had Talia’s eye shape and amber-brown color.

            “You were foolish to ignore the offer of the great Ra’s al Ghul to be his heir.  One day I will lead the League to the global victory that eluded my grandfather.  I know the truth about Ra’s and this terrible world, thanks to my tutor, Madame Nyssa.”

            Bruce tried to suppress a chuckle as he looked at her.  “You’ve got him programmed like a robot and wound tighter than a violin string.  Damien, did ‘Madame Nyssa’ bother to tell you that she was the one who killed Ra’s by stabbing him in the heart?”

            “Lies!”  Damien spat at him.  “You’re a traitor to the truth, and I will kill you.  Madame, get me away from this man!”

            Yuri rolled up the window, and Nyssa opened the front door.  “You’ve been warned, Bruce.”

            “Anything programmed can be reprogrammed.”

            “Maybe.  But you won’t get the chance to try.  Goodbye.”

            Yuri revved the engine, and the limousine cruised away.

            Alfred joined Bruce on the driveway.  “Mrs. Wayne is upstairs waiting to see you.  She seems very distraught.”

            He continued staring into the distance.

            “Excuse me, sir--”

            “I heard you, Alfred.”

            “Whatever that woman said does not appear to have set well with you.”

            Bruce looked at his butler.  “Some days you’re the foot, some days you’re the ball.”

            “Today you’re the ball, sir?”

            “Today I am definitely the ball.”

 

            He went inside and up to the bedroom, where Selina sat red-eyed clutching a wad of tissues.  He knew he was about to be hauled off to the woodshed.  “You heard?”

            “I heard.  Dammit, Bruce, why didn’t you tell me?”

            “Selina, I swear, I knew nothing about the child.”

            “Any other little bombs in your past that may blow up in my face?”

            He sat on the bed and tried to put his arm around her shoulders, but she pulled away.  “I’ve never kept a secret from you.  I was very open that Talia and I were romantically involved years before I met you.”

            “It never occurred to you she might’ve, you know, gotten pregnant?”

            “No.  Until I declined to marry her, we had a trusting relationship.”

            She threw her tissues on the floor.  “We all know how much that’s worth, don’t we?  I’ve got the scars--mental and physical--to show for your ‘trust.’”

            “If I had known getting untangled from Talia and Ra’s was like trying to leave the Mafia, I never would’ve involved myself with her.”

            “They were using you.  How did The World’s Greatest Detective manage to miss it?  Or was she just so hot, your judgment went out the window?”

“I understand you feelings, Selina, but flaying me for a mistake more than a dozen years ago doesn’t help.”

“I’ve got to take it out on somebody.  She’s six feet under, so it might as well be you.”

“Are you really angry at me, or at her?”

            Pulling on her hair, she whined, “I don’t know, both maybe.  Oh, hell, Bruce!  The wicked witch is dead and she’s still coming between us.  Won’t this torment ever stop?”  She fell into his arms crying.

            He rubbed her back and held her close.  “I’m sorry, honey.  Please, try to cut me some slack.  I just learned that I’ve got a son, and he’s declared war on me and everything I believe in.”

            “I know.  I just need a little time to get it together.  I don’t want to make you feel like I’ve thrown you to the dogs.”

            “Nyssa’s already done that.  She’s thrown Gotham City to the dogs of war.”

            “How will you stop her?”

            He glanced down at the directional mic on the floor.  “Maybe if we arrest the planner…we can arrest the plan.  Excuse me, I’ve got a job for Tim.”

 

            At their temporary safe house, Nyssa and Yuri shared some tea while Damien reread his copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince in another room.

            “‘State of hostility.’  A rather strong choice of words,” Yuri commented, trying to draw Nyssa out.

            “But it’s accurate,” she insisted.  “The condition has existed, more or less, for years, though it’s been primarily with Batman and his assorted allies.  A cold war, you could say.  We have other priorities now, so it’s time to bring down Gotham City in its entirety and close this chapter of our history.”

            He refilled his teacup.  “Why not simply move on?  Declare Gotham irrelevant.”

            “Closure.  The League cannot allow our enemies to think we won’t finish what we start.  This operation has dragged on much too long, don’t you agree, Yuri?”

            “Yes, indeed.”

            “We need to wrap it up with a quick, massive strike.  I’m envisioning a force of three hundred seeping into the city from various points.  Some by land, most by sea.  A specially-outfitted cargo ship with a false hold to conceal the troops.”

            “So you’re planning an armed invasion.”

            Leaning back in her chair, she said, “Not in the classical sense.  Armed, yes, but with chemical or biological weapons, instead of guns.  And incendiary bombs.”

            Yuri could not believe what he was hearing.

            “A matter of a few hours to plant the devices and withdraw before detonating them.  The city can be gone in less than half a day.”

            “You are…thorough,” was all he managed to say.

           

            “Three hundred men?  Biological weapons?  My God, Yuri!  She can’t be serious,” Commandant Soska exclaimed.

            “You know her.  She does not make jokes.”  While Nyssa continued to tutor Damien in the ways of hatred and revenge, Yuri stood outside with his cell phone and a cigarette.

            “I knew she was planning an attack, but I had no idea it was this big.  That’s a sizeable diversion of manpower which can be much better utilized in Europe and Asia.  I’m sure the council will deem it unacceptable, to say nothing about employing weapons of mass destruction.  Does she already have this private army assembled?”

            “She didn’t say, but it wouldn’t shock me if they are ready.”

            “What is she thinking?  Stall her as much as you can if it looks like she’s going to take any precipitous action.  I’ll relay your information and call you back.”

 

            Bruce went down to the Batcave after dinner to check in with Tim.  “How’s the ‘homework’ going?”

            Tim looked up from the computer bank.  “It’s long and boring.  Do you know how many planes arrive in Gotham City on a given day?”

            “Hundreds.  But I’m only interested in one.”

            “Yeah.  I’m cross-checking the satellite tracking data and aerial photographs for Z4-AKL.  I’ll be dreaming about those numbers by the time I’m finished.”

            Bruce looked over a new batch of Batarangs.  “If we find the airstrip where she snuck in, there’s a good chance of finding a League safe house nearby.”

            “How long do you think she’ll stay here?”

            “Prudence dictates that it won’t be long.  Part of me thinks she might be ready to fly out now.  But the other part says….”  His voice trailed off without finishing the thought.

            “Says what?”

            “There’s more on her agenda while she’s here.”  He picked up his utility belt and two of the Batarangs.  “I’m going out.”

 

            Nyssa and Damien stood on a hill overlooking the Gotham River and the southern part of the city.  “Look at it closely,” she said.  “So much like a corpse at a funeral: pretty on the outside, yet decaying inside.  This will be your battleground.  Memorize its details.  Then imagine the blazing inferno we will make of it.”

            “When, Madame Nyssa?”

            “Soon.  But before we can take down the city, we must take down its guardian.”

            “Batman.”

            She stared deep into his eyes.  “You will one day lead the League to even greater heights than your grandfather.  I so wish he could be here to see you now.”

            “Why did my father say that you killed Ra’s?”

            “To turn you against me and try to make you forget that he did the awful deed.”

            Damien clenched his fists and glared at the Gotham skyline.  “This night will not end before he is dead.  Let me go track him and fight him.  It’s what I’ve trained half my life for.  I can’t leave until I make him pay for what he did to my mother and Ra’s.”

            She feigned a look of reluctance.  “I don’t know.  We really need to fly home as soon as possible.”

            “Please, Madame.  Don’t deny me this chance.  I brought the prototype suit along.  What better time to test it out?”

            Smiling, she touched his shoulder.  “I’m not going to dissuade you, am I?  As you wish.  The night is yours.”  Just like I planned it, she thought.

            “He’s there now.  I feel it.  A painful death awaits you…father.”

 

            Much of the boy’s upbringing consisted of classical military training.  He was schooled in leadership, theories of warfare, and self-defense.  Now, in the trenches of Gotham, he pursued his personal enemy.  Dressed in a black, radar-absorbent Kevlar combat suit, he relied on his chemically-enhanced physical and psychological senses to find Batman as fast as possible.

            Likewise, Batman’s intuition told him to be on the lookout for Damien.  He saw through Nyssa’s strategy for turning the boy against him: indoctrination, confrontation, elimination.  So he was not surprised when a black-clad stranger emerged from the darkness on a midtown rooftop.

            “Zero hour is upon you, Batman,” the figure said in a deep, electronically distorted voice.

            “Amateur night was last week.”

            Damien attacked with a lightning kick that threw him off balance for a moment.  “Beginners luck?”

            Batman responded with a volley of jabs and kicks, knocking the stranger down.  “Overconfidence.”

            Damien rolled to his feet and threw two sharp chrome blades, but Batman deflected them with his gauntlets.  Charging head-on, the boy unleashed a furious sequence of punches and blows, but they had little impact on the armored Dark Knight, who backhanded him with an extended forearm.

            “She said you’d be tough,” the boy panted.

            “For once, your aunt told you the truth.”

“Madame Nyssa always tells the truth.  Unlike you.”  Damien leapt into the air and tried to get Batman’s head in a scissor-lock.

Batman elbowed him in the lower back and flung him away.  The boy’s strength impressed him, but he knew it couldn’t be natural.  A twelve year-old doesn’t have that kind of muscular development, even with a specially equipped suit.

            “One of us is going to die here.”

            “Not necessarily.”

            “That’s your weakness, my father.  You won’t kill your enemies, so they come back again and again.”

            Batman became a blur as he lunged at Damien, punching and kicking him the way he would Joker or Bane.  One of his gauntlet fins cut through the boy’s mask, drawing blood from his cheek.

            Before he knew it, Damien found himself on his back, dazed, bleeding, and pinned down by Batman’s boot on his chest.  “It appears you have won this time,” he acknowledged in surprise.  “This was not supposed to happen.”

            Batman picked him up by the shoulders and sat him down roughly on a ventilator.  “Close your mouth and open your ears.  You’re going to listen to what I have to say.  It might just save your life.  Understand?”

            The boy nodded reluctantly.

            “I could have killed you if I’d wanted to.  Do you believe that?”

            “Yes,” he whispered.

            “What you see as weakness, I call justice.  We don’t simply wipe out our enemies, like the League does.  You have a lot to learn about civilization.”

            “Madame Nyssa--”

            “Is a cold-blooded assassin bent on implementing your grandfather’s crazed vision of a ‘just’ world.  Your mother couldn’t stand the rejection when I refused to partner with Ra’s, so she tried many times to knock me off or at least make my life miserable.  Nyssa brainwashed her to kill Ra’s, and when that didn’t work, she did it herself.  You need to get away from her and everything that awaits you in her plans.”

            “No…that can’t be true.  It’s all lies!”

            Batman lifted Damien’s mask off.  “Come with me, just for a few days.  Hear my side of things.  Look at the evidence.  You don’t have to agree.  But you must hear the truth.  As your father, I owe you that much.  This may be your only chance to prevent Nyssa from trapping you into a life you will not want.”

            Damien pushed him back and stood up.  “No.  I--I can’t.  No….”  Retreating into the shadows, he ran away and vanished.

            Batman watched him leave, then looked at the blood on his gauntlet.

 

            Yuri’s phone rang.  “Yes?”

            “Soska.  Can you talk?”

            He glanced at the bathroom door.  “She’s in the shower.”

            “Yuri, the military council has rejected her plan outright.  The League cannot afford to devote any more resources to an act of personal revenge.  All this focus on Gotham City has diluted our strength and momentum.  We can no longer fight like we once did.  The League must change to survive and remain relevant.”

            “What do you want me to do?”

            “Bring her home immediately.  We will conduct a hearing into all this and give her the opportunity to explain herself.  If the answers are not satisfactory, we will demand her resignation.  That information is for you only.”

            “I understand.”

            “Also bring the boy with you.  I’m afraid he’s become a pawn of hers.  We want to do something about that, as well.”

            Yuri gave a big sigh.  “She won’t be easy to convince.”

            “Tell her we want to hear from her at length, but it is very hard with her halfway across the world.”

            “I’ll do what I can.  Somehow I’ll get her on a flight home tonight.”

            “Thank you, Yuri.  You are a loyal and good man.”

 

            When Batman returned to the Batcave, he busied himself at the lab table.  Tim came down several minutes later.

            “Taking a break?” Batman asked.

            “Yeah.  My eyes are so tired of staring at that screen.”

“Find anything?”

“Not yet, and I’m almost through searching the flight records.  Just two airstrips left.”

            “It’s always in the last place you look.”

“Uh, yeah.  Who finds something and keeps looking for it?”  A flashing icon on the screen drew Tim’s attention.  “Whoa—heads up.  I’ve got a match.  Nyssa’s plane is at Southpoint Field.”

            Batman looked up from an electron microscope.  “Notify the police so they can seize the plane.  I’ll meet them at the airport after I find the safe house.  This is the best shot we have at ending the League’s threat to the city.”

 

            Yuri broke the news to Nyssa not long after.  “I got a call from Commandant Soska while you were in the bath.  The military council is unhappy with your plans for Gotham City.  They request that you and Ibn return home immediately to explain things in more detail before they will send any men.”

            She gave him an icy stare.  “Since when is the League a democracy?  I should have them all shot for treason.  In fact, I think I’ll do just that.  Their lack of faith in my leadership is disturbing.  How dare they summon me like a dog and ask me to defend my decisions!”

            “May I offer an opinion?”

            “You’re going to, anyway.”      

“Perhaps if you return, you can deal with the problem faster than you can from over here.”

            She thought for a moment.  “You’re right, Yuri.  Such dissent is best handled with personal intervention and swift action.  So be it.  Phone the airfield and tell them to make the plane ready.”

 

            A depressed Damien returned to the safe house a quarter hour later.

            Nyssa took one look and knew what had happened.  “It didn’t go the way you wanted, did it, dear?”

            He wiped his face with a towel.  “Batman kicked my rear.”

            “The enemies of the League are not always easy to defeat.  Victory must be taken, not handed to you.  At least you got the measure of him.  You now know what you’ll face when we return.”

            “Return?” he asked with a frown.

            “The invasion must be postponed, a week or two at most.  We have a more serious situation at home.  The military commanders are in rebellion over my plan, and we need to go back and confront them.”

            “Why would they object?  This will be one of the League’s greatest triumphs.  Don’t they see that?”

            She smiled and hugged him.  “We’ll make them see it, Damien.  You’ll make them.”

            “You want me to deal with those traitors?”

            “Yes.  It’s much earlier than I had wanted, but it may be time for you to assume your rightful place as head of the Demon and heir to Ra’s’ legacy.  We’ll see.  Get cleaned up and change quickly.  We’ve got to get to the airport.”

 

            As the Batmobile sped southward, the onboard computer ran a property search off the mainframe in the Batcave, identifying possible sites for the League’s hideout.  Batman hoped for a lucky break, because there were lots of houses and apartments just west of the small airport.

            The two-way video link came on, and he saw Tim’s tired but smiling face.  “I believe I can make this one easier for you.  I thought I’d try the same strategy that found us the airplane, so I ran an analysis of wireless and terrestrial phone traffic in the area.  The house at 825 Lincoln Court has been very chatty with somebody in Albania.  Either they’re really homesick, or--”

            “Or they’re talking to the League’s base there.  I’m on it.  Thanks.”

           

            When Batman arrived, the house was dark and empty.  He had missed them by mere minutes.  Turning on his comlink, he said, “No sign of Nyssa and the boy.  They’re probably headed for the airstrip.”

            “Three squad cars are on the way to Southpoint Field,” Tim radioed back.

            “They may not make it in time,” Batman said as he sprinted back to the Batmobile.

 

            Yuri pulled the limousine to a stop outside Hangar One, where the Dassault jet numbered Z4-AKL was preparing for departure.  An attendant ushered the three passengers inside the plane, then quickly closed and locked the door.  It was just after eleven pm when the aircraft taxied toward the runway.

“Madame, there’s a strong crosswind,” the pilot said through the loudspeaker.  “Takeoff’s going to be a bit dicey.”

            Nyssa clicked the intercom switch.  “That’s why you’re my pilot, Tomas.  I know you can do it.”

            Yuri’s cellphone rang again.  Belenko.”

            “A slight change in plans, Yuri,” Soska said.  “I want you to remain in Gotham for a couple more days.”

            “All of us?”

            “No, just yourself.  As a personal favor, I’d like you to oversee certain business matters in Gotham.”

            “What?  Why?”

            “I’ll explain more in the morning, Yuri.  Just return to the house and wait for further instructions.”

            “Okay,” he answered reluctantly before closing the phone.  “Soska wants me to stay here for a few days.  Some business things he needs me to attended to.”

            “Yuri, you work for me, not him.”

            “I know.  But with all that’s going on, I think it’s wise for me not to appear uncooperative at the moment.  It gives you a little more time to put him in his place once you’re back home.”

            “That I will certainly do.  Fine.  You can stay if you want.  But don’t be surprised if I call tomorrow and tell you to get on the next flight out.”

            “Certainly.”

            She buzzed the cockpit again.  “Tomas, Mr. Belenko needs to get off the plane.  He’s not coming with us.”

            “No problem.  I’ll hold our departure for five minutes.”  The exit door opened.

            Yuri picked up his bags.  “See you on Lykonos.”

 

            No sooner had Yuri reached the hangar than a trio of Gotham police cars with lights and sirens on streaked through the airfield entrance and headed down the taxiway.

            The jet began to roll for takeoff.           

“Madame,” Tomas called, “the police are coming after us.”

            “Get this thing in the air.  Now!”

            He pushed the engine throttles wide open.  “As you wish.”

 

            The Batmobile crashed through the perimeter security fence and with wheels squealing, zoomed onto the runway, where it parked about three hundred feet from the end.  Batman jumped out and stood beside the car, ready to blow out the jet’s front tires with his grappling gun.

            He watched the plane’s lights grow brighter and closer with every second.  “If you’re going to fly, Nyssa, you’ll have to go through me first.”

 

            “Madame, there’s a car blocking the runway!”

            Nyssa unbuckled her seatbelt and bounded into the cockpit.  “What the hell?”  She peered out the windshield and immediately recognized the vehicle.  “Damn you, Batman!”

            Damien followed on her heels.  “What is it?”

            “Batman is parked out there.  We don’t have enough room to get airborne without hitting him and doing serious damage to the aircraft.”

            “Maybe we do.”  Tomas yanked hard on the wheel, and the plane’s nose began rising.  “Come on, bambino, come on!”  Nudging the throttle to full, he pulled the wheel back until it almost touched his chest.

            The plane’s sharp angle sent Nyssa and Damien tumbling back into the passenger compartment.

            “Grab something sturdy,” Tomas warned.  The Batmobile gradually sank from his view, and he knew they would make it.

 

            Batman fired his grappling hook, but it missed the tire and wrapped itself around the forward landing gear.  He quickly released the cable to avoid being dragged up by the plane.

 

            The jet lifted into the air, its rear wheels clearing the Batmobile by a scant ten feet.  As it leveled off, Nyssa and Damien strapped themselves in their seats again and let out huge sighs of relief.

            When she caught her breath, she clicked on the intercom.  “Good work, Tomas.”

            “Thank you, Madame.  I’ve never had to do that before.”

            “Let’s hope you never have to again.”

            Damien looked out the window with amusement at Batman and the police impotently watching their escape.  “See them, Madame?  How silly they are standing there.”

            She patted his hand.  “‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men….’”

 

            Batman gazed bitterly at the receding lights of the jet.  “So close….”

            On of the policemen ran up to him.  “I’m sorry, Batman.  We got here as quickly as we could.  Do you want us to contact the FAA?  Maybe--”

            A bright flash and thunderclap caught everyone’s attention.  Horrified, they watched Nyssa’s plane disintegrate in a ball of flame.

            “Oh, my God!” the officer gasped.

           

            Yuri stopped the limousine and stared dumbfounded as burning fragments of the jet spiraled to the ground.  In shock, he couldn’t understand what his eyes were telling him.  Had there been a fuel explosion?  Then he looked at his cell phone in the passenger seat.  “Soska.”

            After a couple of minutes, he restarted the car and drove back to the safe house, trembling with the realization that the League of Assassins had just suffered its first coup d’etat.

            Once inside, he poured himself a large glass of vodka and downed it to settle his nerves.  He then tried phoning Soska.  Not surprisingly, the calls went unanswered.

            Relaxation was nearly impossible.  How could he rest, knowing the only reason he still lived was his friendly relationship with Soska?  What if he had been more steadfastly behind Nyssa?

It all proved too much for him.  He downed the rest of the vodka and drifted off to a fitful sleep.

 

Just before dawn, the phone woke him up.  He knew it was Soska.  “What in hell do you want?”

            “A simple thank you would suffice, Yuri.”

            “For what?  Saving my life?”    

            “The council did not ask me to pull you off the plane.  I did it in recognition of your loyal service to the League.”

“Do you have any idea what’s been going on in my head?”

            “I’m sorry to do that to you, Yuri.  I truly am.  But there was no other way.”

            “Such drastic measures just to avoid a power struggle?”

            “In the long run, it was best for the League.  I hope you will come to understand that.  We needed to cut our losses.”

            “But to do that to the daughter of Ra’s?  And Ibn….”

            “Symbols can have great power, Yuri.  What they could not be in life they will become in death.  It’s better to die a martyr than a traitor.  Now, I want you to come home and leave this Gotham misadventure behind.  I’ll send a plane for you.”

            Yuri burst into laughter.  “I wasn’t born yesterday, Commandant.  I’ll make my own flight arrangements.”

           

            Bruce was watching the morning news about the plane crash when Selina found him in the living room.  With great sadness in her eyes, she sat beside him and held his arm.  “Alfred told me.  I’m so sorry, darling.  And that goes double for ripping you a new one yesterday.  Who on earth could’ve done it?”

            “Somebody within the League obviously didn’t want Nyssa and the boy to get back home.”  He switched off the television.

“Reprehensible bastards.”  She wiped a tear.  “I can’t even imagine how you must feel.  What a terrible thing to find out you have a son then lose him all in the same day.”

            “Damien wasn’t really my son,” he said unemotionally.  “I analyzed the blood that got on my suit last night.  His DNA matched mine perfectly.  No trace of Talia’s DNA at all.”

            “Which means…what?”

            “He was a clone, made from a DNA sample Talia must’ve taken years ago.  A lock of hair, a bit of blood or skin…she could’ve easily gotten it from me.  They did a damn good job on the boy.  Contact lenses to give him her eye color, plastic surgery to create her eye shape.”

            “But why?” she gasped.

            “Ra’s.  He probably decided to create the clone after I chose not to marry Talia and be his heir.  They set in motion a plan for revenge that came close to succeeding.”

            “The poor boy.  How awful to be...bred for such a purpose.”

“It gets worse.  The blood analysis also showed that Nyssa had been stoking him with steroids and growth hormones to make him mature faster, almost like Bane.  The long term effect would’ve been premature death.”  He rubbed his eyes.  “Maybe it’s better that he died early rather than live such an artificial, manipulated life.”

            She thought she heard a trace of envy in his voice.