DOPPELGANGER

 

            Bruce Wayne could not believe his eyes or ears as he watched the evening news.  He checked to be sure the date was not April 1.  It wasn’t.  Shaking his head, he turned up the sound.

            “A closed landmark gets a new lease on life, thanks to a man who credits time in prison for changing his life.  Channel Nine’s Karen Weiss reports,” anchor Chuck Daniels said.

            “Sitting abandoned for more than a year, the historic Harvest Church in downtown Gotham is being restored by someone a lot of citizens might think would be the last person to do such a thing.  The Penguin, or as he now prefers to be called, the Reverend Oswald Cobblepot, purchased the small colonial-style church two months ago upon his release from prison.  He’s now an ordained minister, and this morning, he gave Channel Nine a tour and talked about his new life.”

            Dressed in a maroon clerical robe, Penguin looked downright humble.  “I found God in prison.  Yeah, I know it’s a cliché, but it really happened to me.  Behind bars, you realize money doesn’t count for much.  So if it doesn’t matter there, why should it matter out here?

            “I got into this long conversation about God with a fellow inmate one day.  He tried to explain stuff to me I wasn’t ready to understand.  A few days later, it all made sense.  I decided to dedicate my life to God.  I got a seminary degree from Chadwick University by correspondence.  All the bad things in my past, all my crimes, that’s history.  Over.  Forgiven and gone.”

            “And what led the new minister to purchase and renovate Harvest Church?  Cobblepot says it’s simple.”

            “I needed a church.  With my background, there isn’t one within a hundred miles of Gotham that would hire me.  When I discovered this lovely edifice was not being used, I thought, what a great idea.  I can get a congregation and give something back to the city at the same time.”  He shrugged.  “It’s a God thing, what can I say?”

            “The church reopened its doors two weeks ago, attracting crowds of worshippers that exceeded the reverend’s modest expectations.  For Cobblepot and Harvest Church, it looks like his God thing is truly a good thing.  Karen Weiss, Channel Nine News.”

            Bruce turned the sound down and sat back in stunned silence.  He finally found his voice and turned to Alfred.  “Did I just see that?”

            “I’m afraid so, sir.  It would appear, in their desperate hunt for ratings, Channel Nine has resorted to broadcasting science fiction.”

            Bruce chuckled.  “I don’t think it’s quite at that level.  Still...I never thought I’d hear the words Reverend and Penguin in the same sentence.  I don’t know whether to be alarmed or laugh myself silly.”

            “Well, sir, I don’t believe for a minute it’s true.  The very idea of him becoming a minister...it’s preposterous.  Insulting!”

            “I don’t believe it, either.  Degree or no degree, he has to be plotting something.  Harvest Church wasn’t exactly going for closeout prices.  The historical commission put in a bid for it, but we lost.  Now I know why.”

            “It was a beautiful sanctuary.  But I shan’t so much as set foot in there as long as he owns it.”

            “From the video, it looked like he’s living in the rectory at the back.  I think Batman ought to pay him a visit.”

 

            The Dark Knight knocked on the church’s oaken front door just after sunset.

            “Be there in a minute,” a muffled voice said.

            The delay gave him a chance to look around.  Serious renovation work was indeed being done.  The weather-beaten paint had been stripped off and a lovely coat of white now covered the exterior woodwork.  Cracked and broken windows had been replaced, and a new sign faced the sidewalk.

            Wearing the same robe as in the news story, Penguin opened the door.  “Batman?” he snarled before catching himself.  “I mean, Batman, how nice to see you.  Please, do come in.  All are welcome in God’s house.”

            As soon as the door closed, Batman folded his arms and frowned.  “Okay, Penguin, you can drop the phony TV preacher show.  I’m not buying it for one second.  What are you really up to?”

            The diminutive man sat on one of the newly installed pews and held up a hand.  “Please, call me Reverend Cobblepot.  The Penguin is a part of my past, gone and never to return.”

            “To paraphrase Shakespeare, a skunk by any other name would smell just as bad.”

            Penguin sighed.  “I know how hard it must be for you to accept the fact that I’ve turned my life around.  Some days I find it hard, too.  But we’re supposed to walk by faith and not sight.  The redemptive power of God isn’t something we can put in a box.”

            “Let’s be honest.  This is all an act.  You know it.  I know it.  I’m going to be watching you very closely.  If you so much as get a ticket for jaywalking, I’ll put your butt back in the prison box so fast you won’t know what happened.”

            “My son, release your anger.  Be open God’s changing work.  He’s been more than willing to give me a break.  Why can’t you?”

            “Because I know you.  No matter how many mail-order diplomas you get, you’re still a leopard who doesn’t change his spots.  I’m just hoping I can find out what you’re planning before you fleece your flock.”

            “Batman, if I were plotting something, and I’m not, but if I were, the last thing I would do is steal from my congregants.  Many of them are already poor.  In prison, I was just like them.  I’m much more concerned with spiritual things.  Material things, they come and go like the breeze.  Please take my word, I’m a committed man of the cloth now.  I’m letting you have your life, let me have mine.”

            “Not as long as your life poses a threat to Gotham.”

            Penguin laughed and raised his arms.  “This is a church!  What kind of threat could it pose?  Unless you don’t want God to work in Gotham.  Maybe you’re afraid he’ll wipe out crime and take away your little gig?”

“Nothing would satisfy me more than to see this city completely safe.”

“Maybe it’s your ego, then.  You’re out there with your gadgets and your car acting like a god.  Feeling threatened by the Almighty just a bit?  Batman, you’re welcome here if you want to find God.  But if you’re just going to harass an innocent minister and persecute him because you can’t accept that he’s no longer a criminal, then I’ll have to file a complaint with the police.”

            You calling the cops?  That’s funny.”

            “I believe our conversation is at an impasse, my dark friend.  Your heart is clearly closed to the working of God, and I can’t do anything for you unless you repent.  I suggest reading some Psalms at bedtime, instead of your detective manuals.”

            “You may fool a lot of people with your pious routine, but you aren’t fooling me.  Remember that.”  Batman marched out and closed the door.

            Penguin just shook his head and waddled back to his study.

            Batman wasn’t sure what he expected to happen, but he certainly did not expect Penguin to stay “in character” so determinedly.  He never took any of the verbal bait, nor did he act like the Penguin of old.

The mere fact he never conceded a thing began to work on Batman’s mind.  Was it possible, no matter how remotely, that the reverend was for real?

As he left, he noticed directly across Grand Avenue and two buildings north sat Gotham Bank and Trust.

“No,” he answered his own question.

 

A well-endowed blonde named Jade reached into her handbag and pulled out a perfume bottle.  Life as a Gotham hooker was hard.  It wasn’t the danger or harassment from the police which concerned her.  It was that she had so much competition.  Very good-looking competition.

She adjusted her short dress to show some more thigh and started walking again.  As she headed across an alleyway, a rustling sound from behind made her turn around.

“Oh, Batman!  You startled me.”  She struck a sultry pose and smiled.

Silently, the Caped Crusader touched her shoulder with his glove.

“Feeling a little lonely tonight, huh?  I can help you out.”

He pushed her into the wall and put his other glove around her throat.  “Slut!”

Panicked, she gasped, “Please don’t kill me.”

With a growl, he ripped her dress at its low-cut neckline and slapped her face hard.  Throwing her to the ground, he grabbed the handbag and pulled out a wad of bills.

By the time she staggered to her feet, he was gone.  She looked left, right, and up.  It was like he had never been there.

 

Two homeless men had a small fire going under the Langley Viaduct.  The night chill set in, and it was the best they could do to keep warm.

One of the men took a bourbon bottle from his tattered coat and had a long swig.  “Hey, Duke, want some?”

The other man scratched the stubble on his chin and pulled a dirty trench coat over his shoulders.  “Earl, you know I don’t drink, man.  You ain’t never gonna get nowhere if you keep chuggin’ that stuff.”

“Says the man who can’t hold a job ‘cuz he keeps stealing from his bosses.”

“Stuff it, Earl.  If they paid me more, I wouldn’t hafta steal nothing.”

Batman leaped from the overpass and stood in front of them.

“Evening, Batman.  Care for a drink?”

“You so stupid, Earl.  He’s on duty.  He can’t drink.”

Batman picked up Duke and hurled him into the concrete abutment.  The man slumped to the ground, and Batman kicked his groin, doubling him over.

“What the hell you doing?” Earl asked.

Batman gave no response, but viciously kicked his ribs.  As he fell back, the Dark Knight stomped on his arm.

The pain subsided a little, and Duke stood up to jump their attacker.  But he had vanished.  He climbed up to the top of the overpass and looked everywhere, but no one else could be seen.

He scrambled back down and crawled over to Earl.

“Get me a doctor,” his buddy moaned.

 

Rays of morning sunlight peeked through the bedroom curtains at Wayne Manor. As Bruce and Selina cuddled, he told her about Penguin’s new career.

She rubbed her eyes.  “I must still be asleep and this is a weird dream.  I think you just told me the Penguin is now an ordained minister and he bought a church.  You didn’t say that, did you?”

He kissed her.  “I did.  Batman had a talk with him last night.  Either he’s sincere, which I highly doubt, or his acting has improved considerably.”

“I vote for the acting.  Penguin a minister?  They’ll ordain anybody, won’t they?”

“I checked out his degree.  While Chadwick University is a legitimate school, it’s only two steps above a diploma mill.  They do offer theology degrees by correspondence, but the sample course material I found looked easy enough for a sixth grader.”

“He’s got something up his sleeve, and it isn’t a prayer book,” she said with a yawn.

“His church is just a stone’s throw from the downtown bank.”

“Definitely not a coincidence.”

 

Police Commissioner James Gordon had been in his office for exactly two minutes when his men began dumping paperwork on the desk he worked until seven the night before cleaning off.  “No rest for the weary,” he said under his breath.

Captain Martin entered with a bagel in one hand and a file in the other.

“Morning, Tom.”

“Morning, sir.  Among the usual muggings, shootings, and domestic violence calls last night, we got two very bizarre reports.  Have a look.”

Gordon took the folder.

“I don’t know, maybe it was the full moon or something.  A streetwalker claims Batman beat her up and took her money.”

Gordon laughed.  “Too embarrassed to finger the real john, huh?”

“Sergeant Giamello took the report.  He says she was lucid and perfectly serious.”

“They usually are.  File it next to the ‘alien orgy’ one from last month.”

“The other’s a bit more serious.  A homeless guy says Batman beat him up and broke his friend’s ribs.  We did find a man matching his description at the ER who looked like he had the crap kicked out of him.  The fellow who reported it swears he wasn’t drinking or on drugs.”

“Hmm.  Any other violence in the area recently?”

“Yes, sir.  We get at least one call a week about homeless men fighting.  They tank up on cheap booze and go nuts with each other.”

“Wouldn’t be too hard to ‘see’ Batman--or flying elephants--in that state.”

“How about the news on the Penguin?  Reverend Cobblepot?  Sheesh!”

“Until he does something wrong, he’s in the clear with us.  But off the record, I think we have more to be concerned about with him than with these silly Batman reports.  As far as I’m concerned, he’s proven himself above reproach.”

 

Bruce spent time in the Batcave reviewing Penguin’s past crimes in search of some clue that might predict his next move.  He was certain Penguin planned to rob the nearby bank.  But how?  And what was it which made Harvest Church a vital part of the plan?

It wasn’t Penguin’s style to stage a traditional robbery.  Besides, he wouldn’t need a church for that.  Same thing with an overnight heist.  No, he knew Penguin would do something craftier.

He found the answers by looking through historical city blueprints online.  In the 1880s, the city built an aqueduct through what became the downtown area.  It was closed and dismantled during the building boom of the 1920s.  But because Grand Avenue had already been paved over, developers left the section under the street alone and sealed it off at both ends.

Bruce nodded as he looked at a close-up.  One end of the tunnel was fifteen feet west of Harvest Church.  The other end formed part of the wall of Gotham Bank and Trust’s basement vault.

 

By the end of the week, reports of four more alleged Batman attacks had come in from various parts of town.  Gordon called a meeting of his top officers to discuss the problem, which had made its way into the media.

“Tom, run through a summary of all six incidents.”

Captain Martin looked at the call logs.  “Hooker complains of being assaulted and robbed.  Two homeless men beaten up.  Patrons robbed of jewelry in the Gotham Symphony parking garage.  Cab driver says Batman kicked in his windshield.  Pawn shop vandalized and cash taken.  Dog walker roughed up and thrown in a dumpster.”

“Gentlemen, your thoughts?” the commissioner asked.

“We have to take it seriously,” Lieutenant Joe Antonini said.  “There are too many incidents to chalk it up to mistaken identity or a prank conspiracy.  These folks don’t know each other.  They aren’t making it up.”

“Probably not, but they sure can’t agree on a description of the suspect,” Detective Sam Tolliver added.  “He had a cape.  He didn’t have a cape.  He’s five-seven.  He’s six-six.  He had facial hair.  He was clean shaven.  Maybe we’ve got more than one goofball out there.”

Captain Mark Bain shook his head.  “Don’t forget how eyewitness descriptions can be off, especially at night.  We need to focus on the most credible witnesses.  All of the concertgoers say he’s between five-ten and six feet, with a cape, and clean shaven.  The cab driver pegged him at five-ten, cape, clean shaven.  Whoever it is, it’s the same guy.”

“And that’s the big question,” Gordon said.  “Who is it?  I’m inclined to think it’s some psycho in a trick-or-treat costume who fancies himself the Anti-Batman or is just looking for attention.”

“You don’t believe it’s really Batman?” Antonini asked in all seriousness.

Gordon glared at him as though he’d spoken blasphemy.  “Absolutely not.  That’s one thing I’m sure about.  We know him.  After all he’s done for us, why on earth would he become the very scourge he fights?”

“That’s just it,” Antonini cautioned.  “We don’t know him.  We don’t know who he is, where he lives, or anything else meaningful about him.  Who’s to say he hasn’t gone bad?  Maybe he had a mental breakdown, or something.”

“We know his deeds,” Martin said.  “With all due respect, Lieutenant, your supposition is very unlikely.  Our psychological profiles on him indicate he’s stable, cool under pressure, and very logical.  I think Commissioner Gordon’s on the right track.  It’s probably a nut job who wants publicity, and what better way than pretending to be Batman?  It certainly has our attention.”

“And the press’,” Gordon pointed out.  “There’s a little article on page two of this morning’s Herald.  ‘Police Investigating Batman Copycat.’”

Bain tapped a pencil on the table.  “The problem is, the guy never sticks around long enough for anybody to get a detailed look at him.  All we know is he looks like Batman.  Without more concrete evidence, I can’t disagree with the Commissioner’s assessment.”

Antonini tried one last time.  “In the words of Sherlock Holmes, ‘When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.’”

“We’re nowhere near there yet,” Tolliver chimed in.  “We’ve got plenty more to do before we can conclude Batman and only Batman committed these crimes.  I suspect we’ll have the real culprit in custody before that happens.”

 

Two nights later, Batman broke into a liquor store.  Guided only by the ambient street light, he went through aisle after aisle knocking bottles off shelves and smashing them on the floor.

Awakened by the noise, Farid, the Middle Eastern owner who lived upstairs, came down and flipped on the light.

Batman hurled a large wine bottle at him, but he ducked and dodged it.

Farid took a pistol out of his belt and fired several shots.  In frustration, he watched them bounce harmlessly off Batman’s armored suit.

Stalking up to him, the Dark Knight yanked the gun out of his hand and hit him with it until he collapsed.  He then proceeded to trash the rest of the store.

A Gotham police car screeched to a stop out front.  Alerted by Farid’s intruder alarm, the two officers drew their weapons and rushed inside.

“Freeze!”

Batman smashed a vodka bottle against the first officer’s head, knocking him out cold.

The other began firing, but Batman slapped the gun out of his hand, grabbed him by the arms, and pitched him through the display window.  He landed on the sidewalk in a heap as Batman calmly walked away.

And every bit of it was captured by the store’s surveillance camera.

 

The Gotham Herald ran a large still-frame of Batman attacking the police on its front page beneath the headline, “BATMAN = BADMAN?”

An ashen-faced Alfred made the highly unusual move of knocking on Bruce and Selina’s bedroom door after the paper arrived at 6:30.

When Bruce heard the knock, he knew it must be something serious.  He quickly put on his robe and opened the door.  “What is it, Alfred?”

“Dreadful news of the worst sort, sir.  Here.”

Bruce read the paper in a state of shock.  “Oh, my God!”  Stumbling backwards, he bumped into the bed and plopped down.

By now, Selina was also awake.  “What’s wrong, darling?”

Like a robot, he handed her the paper and stared into space.

She gasped.  “This is horrible!  What is going on?”

“I--I don’t know,” Bruce said mechanically.  “The last I read, they were looking for some kook who wore a Batman costume.  Now they’re looking for Batman.”

Selina could not stop shaking her head.  “No, no, this isn’t right.  It’s impossible.  The liquor store was hit around 10:15.  You were with me then.  We were, uh, busy.”  She gave Alfred an embarrassed smile.  “But Bruce wouldn’t do such a thing anyway, so why does it matter where he was?  I mean--”

Bruce kissed her lips.  “Yes, Batman is innocent.  The person in this picture is an imposter.”

“Unfortunately, sir, the police do not agree.  Batman is to be considered armed and dangerous and citizens should report any sightings immediately.”

“It says Commissioner Gordon and Mayor Golini are having a press conference this morning.”  Selina tossed the paper aside.  “Maybe they’ll announce it’s all a big mix-up.”

“No,” Bruce said.  “For years, I’ve dreaded this day would come.  I knew in the back of my mind that, sooner or later, someone was going to try to frame and discredit Batman in a very professional way.  Why go to the trouble of eliminating him when you can get the police to do it for you?  It’s a brilliant job.”

“Penguin tried to frame you years ago,” Selina said.  “Much to my shame, I helped him.”

“Totally different.  He used circumstantial evidence.  This goes far beyond that.”

“Sir, with Penguin back in town, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if he’s behind this atrocity.”

“Me, either, Alfred.  But it’s going to be hard to prove with a price on Batman’s head.”

 

Looking tired and unhappy, Golini and Gordon faced an army of reporters and TV cameras at nine a.m.  Golini took folded papers from his coat pocket and stepped up to the podium in the City Hall press room.

“I have some opening remarks, then Commissioner Gordon and I will take questions.  However, I must caution you that because this is an investigation in progress, we are limited as to the information we can give out.  We will make every effort to answer your questions within the constraints we face.  Your forbearance is appreciated.

“For so many years, the man we know only as Batman has been a friend and a lifesaver to Gotham City.  His adventures are legendary, and he has rescued us countless times from the plots of criminals like the Joker, the Riddler, and Mr. Freeze to name but a few.  He has aided the Gotham Police in so many ways.  We are a safer and saner city because of his past efforts.

“Due to his stellar reputation, we were more than willing to dismiss the recent spate of attacks as the work of a deranged, attention-seeking individual in a Halloween costume.  At 10:15 last night, all that changed.  Most of you have seen the surveillance camera video on the news.  I believe the footage speaks for itself.  It shows an individual brutalizing a store owner and seriously injuring two police officers.  Clearly, this is not some malcontent in a cheap costume.  Commissioner Gordon and I believe the individual is, in fact, Batman himself.

“Therefore, it is with great sorrow that I must announce the following.  An arrest warrant has been issued for Batman.  Any citizen who sees him is urged to call the Gotham Police at once.  Batman can no longer be trusted.  A reward has been posted in the amount of twenty thousand dollars for information concerning his identity and/or whereabouts.  I also call upon those who have worked with Batman--Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman--to assist us in this investigation.  We need your help now more than ever.

“Finally, I would like to say a few words directly to Batman, if he’s watching or listening.  If you still care at all for Gotham City, please turn yourself in.  We have no wish to harm you.  If something has gone wrong in your life, and these are the actions of a man in pain or grief, we have help available.  I assure you, we will treat you with the dignity and respect that befits a man who has shown such heroism on our behalf.  But make no mistake, you have crossed the line, and your days of free rein are over.  I am very, very sorry it has come to this.  Again, I urge you to turn yourself in and spare the city any more senseless violence.  I will now take questions.”

“Mr. Mayor, what exactly are the charges facing Batman?”

“Attempted murder, assault, armed robbery, attempted capital murder for attacking the police officers, theft, and destruction of property.”

“Commissioner Gordon, is or was Batman an officer of the Gotham PD?”

“No.  He has never been on the police payroll.”

“How are the officers doing?”

“Fine.  They’re going to be released this afternoon.”

“Mayor Golini, you pleaded with Robin and Catwoman to help apprehend Batman.  Do you suspect they are involved in his attacks?”

Gordon moved to the microphone.  “We have no evidence linking anyone other than Batman to these crimes.  And to answer your next question, no, we’re not planning to stop any other so-called ‘superheroes’ from assisting us in the future.  As long as they continue to obey the law, we can use any help they want to provide.”

“Are you afraid that, with Batman on the lam, Gotham may be more prone to attack by the likes of Joker and Two-Face?”

“That’s a possibility we can’t ignore, which is one reason I said what I did about others who aid law enforcement.”

“Mr. Mayor, what do you say to the children of Gotham, who look up to Batman as their role model and personal hero?”

Golini’s eyes moistened.  “That is one of the saddest aspects of this whole thing.  All I can say to the children is, I’m sorry.  No one is perfect, not even those we admire as role models.  But please don’t give up.  Keep dreaming.  Find new heroes.  Batman may have been the most visible, but there are thousands of heroes at work every day in Gotham: fire fighters, police, doctors, nurses, the list goes on.  Parents, please talk with your children and help them work through this.  It’s traumatic for the entire city and surely one of the darkest days I can remember.”

 

Unable to take anymore, Alfred shut off the TV.

Bruce was slumped over on the sofa, head in hands.  Selina bawled into a pillow.

A single, unspoken thought ran through each of their minds: “It’s over.”

 

For the third time, the telephone disrupted Penguin’s work on his sermon.  “I gotta hire a secretary,” he grumbled.  “Preferably a redhead.  Good morning, Harvest Church.  This is the Reverend Cobblepot.”

“How did you like my film debut?” the caller asked.

“Stupendous!  A five-star performance.  You out-Batmanned Batman!”

“I should.  I’ve studied him long enough.”

“And the way you smashed that cop with the bottle...classic!”

“How’s your operation going?”

“Fine.  I’ve got a crew digging their way to the old aqueduct.  Once they break through, it’ll go much faster.  They’ll be at the bank vault pretty soon.”

“How much longer will you need my help?”

“Make a couple more low risk appearances to keep the pressure on.  I’ll let you know when I know what night we’re going to hit the vault.  Then you can perform the final act in our little play, Death of a Batman.”

 

It took several hours for the aftershocks to subside at Wayne Manor.  In their wake, a feeling of determination emerged.  Bruce, Selina, and Alfred gathered in the Batcave to form a strategy.

“I assume we all agree that surrender is not an option,” Bruce began.

“I never give up without a good catfight.”

Alfred nodded.  “We can’t let it end, not this way.”

“I think the easiest solution is for me to go out as Catwoman while you remain here in seclusion.”

“No.  That’s precisely what the imposter wants me to do.”

“But you can still work in the cave and give me the intelligence backup I need.”

“Selina, I appreciate the offer, but I am not staying cooped up here while someone ruins me.  I don’t want to sound like an egomaniac, but a lot more than Batman’s reputation is at stake.  As Commissioner Gordon indicated, without Batman, the city is much more vulnerable to our criminal foes.  I’ll bet the guys in Arkham are absolutely giddy right now.”

“Bruce, you could be killed!”

“That’s a risk I’ve taken every single time I put on the cowl.”

“Sir, I must agree with your wife.  The best way to unmask this imposter is to let Catwoman and perhaps Nightwing do the footwork while you exercise your detective skills in safety.  If the police were to capture you, your chances of solving the mystery and clearing your name are nil.”

“I know you mean well, but I’ve got to be out there.  As far as the police are concerned, it’s not an imposter.  I have to prove it is and clear Batman’s name.  I can’t do that down here.”

“Darling, there’s nothing wrong with hiding, especially not under these circumstances.”

“Batman doesn’t hide!  Not from adversity, not from the police, and certainly not from a doppelganger who’s trying to frame him.”

Selina could tell nobody was going to change his mind.  Hugging his arm, she said, “I understand how you feel.  I know you have to do this your way.  But please, let me shadow you when you go out.  Sooner or later, you’ll need me.”

He gave her a kiss.  “I always need you.”

 

It had been years since the news media was given such a juicy story, and they milked it for all it was worth.  Pundits, talk show hosts, reporters, and anchors all weighed in with opinions.  Some conservatives accused the mayor and police of setting up Batman just so they could get rid of him.  A liberal tabloid dubbed Golini, Gordon, and Batman “The New 3 Stooges.”  A poll conducted by the Gotham Herald showed half the city’s residents no longer trusted Batman, thirty-five percent still believed in him, and fifteen percent weren’t sure.

Although they knew they had no other choice, Gordon and Golini felt about as popular as a used car salesman with leprosy.  The entire town was abuzz, and nobody had anything nice to say about their mayor or the police.

“They should have gotten that masked clown off the streets years ago,” a caller to a radio talk show said.

The next caller blasted the leadership for opposite reasons.  “They didn’t give Batman a chance to tell his side of the story.  Judge and jury, they made up their minds and got an arrest warrant.  Where’s due process in that?”

A few wiser souls realized the case was polarizing the city and threatening to tear it apart unless a resolution was found.  Gotham itself revealed a duality as deep and dark as the one inside the man who had gone from hunter to hunted.

The restlessness and uncertainty was most palpable to police officers on the street.  Crime went up almost overnight, yet somehow the streets looked emptier after dark.  Nobody felt safe anymore, least of all the cops.  Not after the liquor store incident.

Two officers were working a hit-and-run south of downtown when one of them saw a black object moving on a nearby rooftop out of the corner of his eye.  He turned to look, but whatever it was had disappeared.

“Maybe I’m just seeing things,” Corporal Gonzalez said.

Sergeant O’Meara looked around nervously.  “I feel like we’re being watched all the time.  He’s out there, hiding and waiting.”

“There it is again!”

This time, both men watched as a dark figure leaped from one roof to another.

“I’m calling it in.”  O’Meara fingered his radio.  “Unit Ten to all available units.  We have a Batman sighting, repeat, a Batman sighting in the eight hundred block of Cantor.  Please respond.  Over.”

Minutes later, three other squad cars converged on the area, and their occupants began searching for the elusive Dark Knight.

Crouching on a brownstone, Batman saw the activity and realized he’d made a mistake in going near a police operation.  He shot a grappling hook over the ledge of a taller building one street back and climbed up the side.

The officers explored several rooftops before reluctantly concluding he had gotten away.

Similar scenes were repeated almost nightly for the next week.  The feeling of insecurity which at first gripped the patrol officers gave way to a frustration at having so many missed opportunities.  The very qualities which made Batman a superior crimefighter were preventing the police from apprehending him.

 

Convinced that the key to solving the imposter mystery lay in or near Harvest Church, Batman snuck through the kitchen window during a Sunday night worship service.  The sanctuary was packed, and the music concealed the sound of his movements.  He found his way down to the basement door, picked the padlock, and stepped inside.

The room was filled with excavation equipment, shovels, and several mounds of dirt and rocks.  With a small flashlight, he followed the trail of soil and eventually found himself facing the old concrete plug at the end of the aqueduct.  Penguin’s workers had drilled many holes to weaken the cement.

“I was right.”  Removing a spy camera from his utility belt, he snapped several pictures of the work.

With one big suspicion confirmed, he left the basement, retraced his steps back to the kitchen, and slipped out into the dark.

Using a rather circuitous route which involved back alleys and places even the police avoided, he headed for home.  He hoped the pictures would give him some leverage with Penguin, maybe enough to strike a devil’s bargain.

Near the midpoint of his journey, he discovered one key passageway filled with a mountain of garbage.  He leaped over a chain link fence to get around it--and came down right in front of Police Sergeant Danny Braxton, who was answering a burglar alarm call.

“What the hell--Batman?”

The Caped Crusader recognized him.  “Sergeant Braxton.”

“Why, Batman?  Why?  My kids practically worshipped you.”

“I don’t suppose you’d believe I’m being framed by a well-trained imposter.”

The officer drew his .45 and released the safety.  “No, I wouldn’t.  You’re under arrest, Batman.  Put your hands behind your head and lay down.”

“You’ve got the wrong man!”

“Put your hands behind your head and lay down!”  He pointed the gun at Batman’s nose and radioed, “All units, this is Unit Seventy-One.  I have Batman in custody.  Repeat, Batman is in custody.  Request immediate backup at 416 West Fifth Street.  Over.”

Seconds later, sirens cut through the relative quiet as Braxton held Batman at bay.

“I will ask you one more time, put your hands behind your head and lay down, or so help me, I’ll blow your freakin’ brains out.”

“Sergeant, let me go so I can find the imposter.  You’re playing right into his hands.”

“Gee, I’m sorry, Commissioner Gordon, I had to shoot him because he resisted arrest and failed to comply with my orders.”

The sirens grew louder, and Batman could see flashing red lights move across the shadows.  “Sergeant, I don’t want to hurt you, but I’ve got no choice.”

Braxton began to squeeze the trigger.

Batman kicked him in the stomach and snatched the .45 from his hand.  As he stood up, the Caped Crusader landed a right hook to his jaw, and he dropped to the ground.

A police van appeared at the entrance to the alley, blocking his escape.  A swarm of cops in armored vests, some carrying shotguns, took up positions and converged on him.

He tried to climb the fence, but three SWAT officers seized his cape.  They pulled him down and forced him to lay on his belly.

Lieutenant Delaughter, the officer in command, shoved a shotgun under his chin.  “Don’t even think about thinking about it.”

Surrounded by seven heavily armed cops, two of whom were standing on his arms, he knew resistance was pointless.

Delaughter motioned to his sergeant.  “Time for the great unveiling.  Tierney, would you do the honors?”

“With pleasure.”  The gum-chewing Tierney came forward and bent over to remove Batman’s cowl.  “Who was that masked man?”

A loud rumble startled everyone, and they looked up.

The rumble became a roar, and as they peered around the heap of trash bags on the other side of the fence, they saw two menacing orange lights speeding toward them.  A few took aim with their weapons, but the majority realized they’d better get out of the way.

The Batmobile plowed into the garbage pile and knocked the fence down, burying most of the officers in an avalanche of smelly plastic bags.

Moments after the car halted, Catwoman somersaulted out and took on the police who remained standing.  She kicked one in the chin and flung another into him.  A third tried to grab her, and she knocked him to the wall.

Batman crawled out from under the debris and got to his feet.

Catwoman smiled.  “You called for a taxi?”

“Great timing.  Let’s get out of here.”

More cops poured into the alley to extricate their colleagues from the tangled mess of garbage and chain link as Batman and Catwoman retreated to the safety of the Batmobile.

Batman took the wheel, backed up sharply, and spun around.  He ignited the turbine, and the car shot down the dim industrial boulevard like a comet.

“Nice entrance,” he said.  “They were about to pull my cowl off.”

“Good thing this hot rod doesn’t wait for red lights.”

“Maybe we should look into getting you a Catmobile.”

“Meow, darling.  Black and purr-ple.”

 

News of the we-had-him-but-he-got-away misadventure did not sit well with Gordon, the mayor, or the media.  Under the headline, “CAGED BAT FLIES THE COOP,” the Herald all but accused Gordon of issuing secret orders to let Batman escape.

Golini summoned him to a meeting first thing in the morning.

The commissioner knew he was about to be taken to the woodshed, and he looked embarrassed when he arrived at the mayor’s office.

“Jim, I’ve got a school of sharks out there asking me what’s going on.  Reporters, city councilmen, even the governor.  And I don’t know what to tell them.”

“I accept full responsibility for the failure last night.”

“How noble.  Let me see if I’ve got this straight.  Batman is cornered in an alley.  A whole damn SWAT team has him pinned to the ground, and he still gets loose.  What the hell happened?”

“Catwoman crashed the party in the Batmobile.  We weren’t expecting that.”

“You weren’t expecting?  You’re the police commissioner, for Pete’s sake!  You’re supposed to plan for the unexpected.  Isn’t that why we’re paying those criminal intelligence analysts you begged me to put into the budget a couple years ago?”

“We’ve never had such a situation before.  How do you plan for Batman turning into a criminal?  It was unthinkable.”

Golini rubbed his neck.  “I don’t mean to be so hard on you, Jim.  You’re right.  No reasonable person could have foreseen this.  But unfortunately, that answer isn’t going to satisfy anybody outside these four walls.  Do you know how this makes us look across the country?  Like a bunch of fools.  Here we spent all these years depending on this guy to save our butts, but when he goes bad even our best cops can’t keep him from slipping away.  What’s more, instead of just Batman, now we have Catwoman to contend with, too.  Our own Bonnie and Clyde in black rubber.”

“We can handle it.  Her appearance doesn’t change our approach to the case.”

“Maybe it should.  Especially if she’s going to be tooling around in the Batmobile.”

“She was helping him escape.  That’s not the same as assisting with his crimes.”

“Do you honestly expect the public and the press to understand that distinction?  Really, Jim, sometimes I think you’ve lost your objectivity.  Your job is to protect the ten million people who live and work in this city, not rationalize the behavior of two folks who hide behind weird costumes.”

“We’re doing the best we can,” Gordon said slowly.  “If you want my resignation, you can have it.”

“Right now, that would do more harm than good.  I believe in you, Jim, and in your people.  Whatever you have to do to accomplish it, just capture Batman.  We’ll discuss everything else later.”

 

Gordon was still working at eight that night, still trying to think of a way to catch a man whose stock-in-trade was evasion and concealment.  He had long ago ruled out time-honored police tactics like building-to-building searches and setting traps.  In fact, there wasn’t much in the police manual to help with a case like this.

“Maybe I should retire,” he said in the emptiness of his office.

In so many ways, it was the hardest case he’d ever worked on.  As much as anyone, he considered Batman his friend.  Now that friend had apparently betrayed him, yet he felt like he was betraying both the Dark Knight and himself by doing what he knew to be right.

He stood up and stared out his office window at the lights of the skyline.  “What kind of world is it where the Penguin becomes a minister and Batman becomes a criminal?”

“A world of illusion,” said a low, sultry voice from the shadows.

Gordon turned around to see Catwoman standing in front of his desk with a finger to her lips.  He reached for the phone, but she slapped her clawed hand down on his and smiled.  “No need to order a pizza.  I won’t be here long.”

He withdrew his hand and slowly sat down.  “I can arrest you for your little stunt last night.”

She brushed back her long black hair and leaned over his desk.  “I know.  Do you think I’d take this kind of risk for anything less than an extreme emergency?”

“You’ve got five minutes.  If I’m not impressed with what you say, you’re going to jail.”

“Make it four.  I like a challenge.”

“The clock’s ticking, Catwoman.”

“Batman is innocent.  Of course, you expected me to say that at some point, so I’ll get it over with now.  I did what I did last night because I know he’s not responsible for those crimes.  I would never share this with you if the situation weren’t so dire, but Batman and I aren’t just associates, or even friends.  We’re lovers.  He was with me the night of the liquor store incident.  I worked long and hard to turn my life around.  He helped me get the pardon from Mayor Golini.  I wouldn’t jeopardize my freedom and my reputation as a women’s advocate to help a guilty man.  Check your own statistics.  Haven’t crimes against women in the East End dropped over the last year?”

“Yes, by sixteen percent, I think.”

“Eighteen, actually.  I have women who depend on me as much as this city depends on Batman.  Neither one of us has done anything wrong.  Unless you count covering your SWAT team in garbage.”

“What did you mean when you called this case ‘a world of illusion?’”

“Just that.  Batman’s guilt is an illusion, and so is Penguin’s Saint Peter act.  Batman has photographic proof that Penguin is digging a tunnel from his church to the vault of Gotham Bank and Trust.  He asked me to propose a deal.  You call off your manhunt, and he’ll give you the goods on the real criminal in town.”

“I’ve been suspicious of Penguin, but that’s a deal I can’t make.  I’d be out of a job in three seconds if I did.”

“Think about it, Commissioner.  You haven’t heard his side of the story until now.  And search your soul.  Somewhere down in your crusty, seen-it-all policeman’s heart is a tiny voice telling you Batman’s not the one who caused all that mayhem.”

“Then who did?”

“A very professional imposter who either has a serious grudge against Batman, or is working for someone who does.”

“Penguin?”

“That’s what we suspect.  My time’s up, but I beg you, please trust me about Batman.  You’ll be making an irreparable mistake if you don’t.”  She picked up the telephone receiver and gave it to him.  “Call your men.  I won’t resist.”

            “Your idea of getting a pizza sounds good, Catwoman.  I’m starving.”

            “Thank you.  Thank you very much.”

            He cracked a smile.  “Scat!”

 

            Armed with his photos, Batman knocked on the door of Harvest Church.

            “We’re closed.”

            He knocked again.

            “Come back tomorrow.  Or use our Dial-a-Prayer number.  It’s on the sign.”

            He continued knocking.

            “The church is closed.  Even God gets a day to rest.”  Penguin opened the door a crack.  “And so do--well, what have we here?  The prodigal son returns.”

            Batman pushed his way in.

            Penguin quickly shut and locked the door.  “The wanted man seeking refuge in a church.  How quaint.  Or have you come to confess your sins and throw yourself on the mercy of the Almighty?”

            “I took some interesting pictures last night.  Have a look.”  He shoved the photos under Penguin’s long nose.

            “Still life, right?  Pretty boring stuff.  Don’t quit your day job.”

            “You know what these pictures say to me?  They say you’re a phony who’s trying to dig his way into the bank vault across the street.”

            “Nonsense.  We’re digging to connect to the city water lines.  We’re putting a new baptistery in the basement.  Got permits and everything.”

            “You’ve covered your tracks well, even using a Batman imposter to keep the police from finding your secret.”

            “Oh, my poor lost lamb.  I pity you.  I had hoped your heart might soften.  Since you persist in harassing me, I’m going to call the police and tell them there’s a desperate fugitive hiding in my church.”

            “Don’t bother.  I’ll show myself out.  Goodnight, Penguin.”  Batman slammed the door.

            “It’s Reverend Cobblepot, you caped creep!”

 

            Mindful of his nearly catastrophic run-in with police, this time Batman made his way around mostly via rooftops.  He tried to strike a balance between remaining hidden and being in public areas, where the imposter was more likely to wreak havoc.  It felt so odd, having to avoid the cops that were once his allies.  Even the darkness itself no longer seemed safe to the Dark Knight.

 

            Mimi Huntsberry checked her watch as she left the public library.  Nine-thirty.  Should be home by ten.

            Once again, she wished the Gotham University library had enough books on her research topic.  It had become a running gag between Mimi and her friend Barbara Gordon, who worked at the campus library.

            If only she could do all her research there, she wouldn’t have to be downtown after dark.  She was from a small town, and big cities never seemed safe at night.

 As she walked briskly to the bus stop, she heard another set of footsteps not far behind.  When she sped up, they sped up.  When she slowed down, they slowed down.

I’m being stalked, she thought.  Her anxiety level shot up, and she started to run.  The bus stop was now only two blocks away.  Then she tripped and fell, spilling her books on the sidewalk.

A bald, bearded man in a leather jacket came up and stood over her.  “Hey, sugar, why you running from me?”

“Uh, I was running to catch the bus.  Yeah.  I need to get home, and I thought I should run.  I wasn’t running from you.”

He picked her arm up and dragged her behind the nearest building.

“Oh, my God!  Please don’t rape me!  Please!”

He just laughed and unbuckled his pants.

Mimi heard a thump, and a long shadow covered both of them.

“Huh?”  The man turned around, noticing the sudden darkness.

Batman decked him with a combination left hook and right jab to the head.  As soon as the would-be assailant was unconscious, he looked at Mimi.  “Excuse me while I clean up.”

She watched as he heaved the attacker into an old garbage can.  Her anxiety rose when he walked back toward her.  Surely he didn’t save her from that weirdo only to assault her himself.

He held out a gloved hand to help her up.  “It’s okay.  I won’t hurt you.”

She took his hand and warily stood.  “But it’s all over the news.  You’re a bad guy now.  You--you beat people.”

“Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.”

 

One minute later, across town in the East End, Batman spotted an empty police car.  The officers were responding to a domestic disturbance call on the third floor of a tenement building.

He opened his utility belt and took out a phosphorus grenade the size of a gumball.  Pressing a button on the side, he pitched it through the car’s open window, then took off.

In ten seconds, a small, intense ball of fire flared up from the driver’s seat.  The whole interior rapidly engulfed in flames.

As the officers rushed out to their burning vehicle, an elderly man pointed in the distance.  “It was Batman.  He ran over there, behind the old grocery store.”

A woman came up and pointed in a different direction.  “I seen him run through that vacant lot.  I think he was heading west.”

The officers looked at each other, then at the remains of their car, which several residents were dousing with buckets of water.  One shook his head and called on the radio, “This is Unit Forty-seven.  Our squad car’s been toasted by Batman.  We’re all right, but we aren’t going anywhere until we can get a ride.  Over.”

Another missed opportunity.

 

Catwoman’s unexpected appearance still weighed on Gordon’s mind in the morning.  He hadn’t decided what to do with her information, and Captain Martin’s first words only added to his perplexity.

“You’re not going to believe this, sir.”

“What do you have, Tom?

“A student at Gotham University says Batman saved her from being raped.  We’re looking for the perpetrator she ID’d from a mug shot.  Real psych case with a history of assault.”

“So who really rescued her?”

“Batman, apparently.”

“College girl, huh?  What’s her credibility like?”

“She looks extremely credible.  Good grades, wholesome upbringing, doesn’t drink or do drugs.  Says she’s friends with your daughter.”

Gordon gave a sigh.  “I know who I’ll be hearing from before long.”

“Now here’s the strange part.  That was at nine-thirty.  Less than five minutes later, Batman torched a squad car in the Exeter precinct.  He was ID’d by four residents independently.  There’s no way even Batman could travel that distance in under five minutes.  So, either the college girl’s lying, or--”

“Or there’s another Batman running around, just like Catwoman said.”

“Catwoman?”

“She paid me a visit last night and swore Batman is the victim of a top notch frame-up.”

“Do you believe her?”

“I’m starting to.”

The phone rang.

“Gordon.”

“Dad, I need to talk to you about Batman.”

Gordon covered the mouthpiece and looked at Martin.  “Here we go.”

Martin chuckled and left the office.

“What is it, Barbara?”

“Have you seen the report on my friend Mimi?  She would have been raped last night if it weren’t for Batman.”

“I’ve got it right here.  I’m glad she’s safe, but the part about Batman….  He was turning a police car into a bonfire about the time your friend says he saved her.”

“Dad, Mimi doesn’t lie.  I don’t think she knows how.  She is one of the most honest people I’ve ever met.”

“Are you sure she’s not just saying it as a favor to you, knowing how you feel?”

“Dad, the fact that I’ve thought Batman is innocent all along doesn’t have anything to do with it.  Mimi tells it like it is.  If she says Batman saved her, you should believe it.  Well, I gotta head to class now.  I love you, Dad.  See you later.”

“Love you, Barbara.  Goodbye.”  Gordon took off his glasses.  What was it Lieutenant Antonini said?  “‘When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.’”

It was impossible for Batman to be in both places at once.  There had to be two: the real one and an imposter intent on bringing him down.

He picked up the phone again.  “Sheila, get me the mayor.  It’s urgent.”

 

Golini’s stone face gave nothing away to the reporters and cameramen assembled for his hastily announced noon address.  He watched the crowd dispassionately, waiting for last-minute stragglers to arrive.

The near-unanimous speculation among the media was that Batman had been captured.  Why else would everyone at City Hall and the Police Department be so tight-lipped?

Golini decided to spare Gordon any more bad publicity and tackle this one alone.  He took a sip of water and began.

“Thank you for coming.  I apologize for the short notice, but as you will see, the urgency of the situation necessitates quick action on our part.  Here in Gotham, we do things in a big way.  Unfortunately, that also includes our mistakes.

“A little over a week ago, I stood before you and laid out the very compelling criminal case against Batman.  Based on the evidence we had at that time, there seemed to be no doubt of his guilt.  The liquor store surveillance video was especially damning.  Last night, once again, the situation changed.  Evidence obtained by the police in the last twenty-four hours has led us to a quite different conclusion.  It is now our belief that Batman is innocent of any wrongdoing.  We think he is the victim of a well-trained, professional-grade imposter.  The identity of this imposter is unknown to us, as is the person or persons for whom he is working.  As of eleven o’clock this morning, the arrest warrant for Batman has been rescinded.

“I want to offer a profound and sincere apology to Batman on behalf of Gotham City, its residents, and police.  I deeply regret the pain caused by this imposter and the ugly reality that we fell into his trap with both feet.  I hope you are able to forgive us.  We will do whatever we can to help restore your reputation.

“The downside of all this is the fact that a dangerous criminal is still loose in Gotham, and may strike again in the guise of Batman.  Accordingly, the Gotham Police have been given orders to shoot on sight.

“To Batman, I must make a vital request.  I am asking you to remain off the streets for your own safety until the imposter has been dealt with, even though we now know you are innocent.  I understand the difficulty of what I’m asking, but I have no choice since the police are unable to tell you and the imposter apart.  The greatest gift you can give us right now is peace of mind from knowing without a doubt that the man in the line of fire is the imposter, not you.

Finally, to the citizenry I apologize for what we have inadvertently put you through.  You and Batman deserve better from your government officials, and we know it.  Rest assured, we will redouble our efforts to catch the imposter, and as before, please report any sightings immediately.  Thank you.”

 

Applause erupted at the Gotham University Student Center, where a jubilant Barbara Gordon watched Golini’s speech with her friend and fellow student Dick Grayson.

“I knew it,” she said with satisfaction.  “I knew he didn’t do it.”

“Yeah.  The Batman I know is incapable of turning into a criminal.”

She looked at him saucer-eyed.  “You know Batman?  Since when?”

Uh-oh, he said to himself.  Almost let that one slip.  “I mean, the Batman I know by reputation.  I’ve read everything about him.  I just cannot see him going bad.  I think he’d quit before he’d let that happen.”

“We sure need his help, but I hope he takes the mayor’s advice and stays out of sight until they get that awful imposter.”

“I agree, it’s the best thing to do, but I think it’ll be pretty hard for him.”  That was a candidate for understatement of the year, he thought.  It would be easier to stop a train with a pillow than to convince Batman to stay home at a time like this.

He knew Alfred and Selina were saying the same thing to Bruce but felt it was something he needed to reinforce...in person.

 

Penguin’s phone rang shortly after Golini’s address.  He had no doubt who it was.  “Whatcha need?”

“You saw it?”

“Yeah.  So?”

“I’ve been exposed.”

“No big deal.  I’m actually surprised it took them this long.”

“You’re not worried?”

“Of course not.  In fact, it may work to our advantage.  My men will be ready to tunnel into the vault tomorrow night.”

“So you want to stick to our original plan?”

“Why not?  You made the police think you were Batman.  It shouldn’t be too hard to make them think he’s you.”

“Death by cop.  What an ironic end for our mutual foe.”

Penguin laughed.  “Life’s just full of little ironies, isn’t it?”

 

All dressed up and nowhere to go.  Batman paced around the Batcave as darkness fell, eager to take on his adversaries if only he could get the chance.

The flashing intruder alarm light by the Batmobile entrance drew his attention.  Before he could grab a weapon, he heard the telltale sound of Nightwing’s motorcycle and relaxed.

“Long time no see,” he said to his former apprentice.

Nightwing dismounted and gave him a firm handshake.  “It has been a while.  I thought you might need a little assistance right about now.”

“Following the news, huh?”

“Yeah.  Congrats on your exoneration.”

“You’ll understand if I don’t celebrate.”

“Sure.  About what the mayor said.  I--”

“‘Et tu, Brute?’  Save it.  I’ve already gotten an earful from Alfred and Catwoman.”

“If your three best friends say the same thing, maybe they know what they’re talking about.”

“I’m sure they do, but I’m the only one who can eliminate the imposter.”

“Unless the police kill you by mistake.”

“No disrespect to Commissioner Gordon’s men, but this case hasn’t been their shining moment.”

Nightwing sighed.  “I’m not going to win an argument with you, am I?”

“No, so let’s talk about what you can do.  Get these pictures to Gordon.  Tell him Penguin is about to tunnel into the Gotham Bank and Trust vault.”

“Penguin?  So his minister bit is phony.”

“Surprised?”

“No, but sometimes you can’t help wondering.”

“Never, ever give your opponent the benefit of the doubt.  It can be fatal.”

“Is Penguin connected to the double?”

“I think he’s using him to keep the police occupied while he prepares for the heist.  Discrediting me in the process is a bonus.”

“Now that the imposter’s been discovered, won’t he just disappear?  There’s no need for him anymore.”

“He kept the police off Penguin’s tail until now.  I imagine he’ll do the same during the actual robbery.”

“If he shows up anywhere, the police will assume it’s him and not you.”

“Don’t be so sure.  I think he’d find it very tempting to lure me into a trap and get the cops to mistake me for him.  He has me on the ropes.  My reputation is in pieces.  Why not finish me off?”

“So who is he?”

“No idea.  But I’ll find out and make him pay dearly.”

Nightwing took another look at the pictures.  What else do I say to Gordon when I show him these?”

“Tell him I expect Penguin to act very soon.  Ask him to have some men ready on a moment’s notice to go to the bank with you and head Penguin off.”

“How will I know when he’s going to strike?”

“I’ll tell you.”

“How will you know?”

“Someway, somehow, the imposter’s going to call me out.  We just have to wait for his message.  He knows I won’t pass up a chance to go after him.”

 

The call came Thursday at ten p.m. and was unmistakable.

As Batman, Catwoman, and Nightwing waited through a second night of anticipation, Alfred calmly walked downstairs to the Batcave.  “Sir, the Bat-signal is on.”

Batman looked at his puzzled friends.  “The operation commences.  Dick, get over to the bank with the police.  Selina, you’re my backup.  Let’s go!”

 

Standing next to the beaming beacon atop police headquarters, the pretender phoned Gordon at home.  “This is Batman.”

“You’re supposed to be in hiding.  Who in blazes authorized that signal?”

“I did.  It’s a trap for the imposter.  He thinks he’s coming to finish the job.  Get your men stationed, but keep them off the roof and out of sight, or he won’t show.  Once he’s here, I’ll vanish, and you can do whatever you want with him.”

Before Gordon could reply, the line went dead.  Although Batman’s request seemed a bit odd, he decided not to question him after all that had happened and switched on his radio.  “Mother Hen to all stations.  Code Three at the nest.  Execute plan Red and wait for my signal.  I’m coming in.”

Minutes later, sharpshooters and observers fanned out to take up positions on roofs and in windows adjacent to the police building.  Captain Roy Dietz set up a mobile command post outside and instructed officers to cordon off the surrounding streets.

 

Batman parked the Batmobile three blocks away.  Before he activated the shields, he pressed a small blue button on the dashboard.

“What’s that?” Catwoman asked.

“Just a little greeting to the cops.”

 

When Gordon arrived at the command post, Dietz immediately said,  “Commissioner, we’ve been getting a high-frequency microwave signal coming in for the past five minutes.  It’s not a message, just numbers repeated over and over: 2-2-8-6-2-6.”

Gordon chuckled.  “Gentlemen, we’ve been fooled again.  That’s not the genuine Batman on the roof.”

“What, sir?”

“It’s an ID signal from the Batmobile.  Only he and I knew about it.”

Another officer blurted out, “Commissioner, the sharpshooters are in position, but there’s two Batmen up top.  They can’t get a clear shot at the imposter.”

“Tell them to stand by.  We’ll have to let the real one help us out.”

 

Catwoman made it to the roof first.  She saw the imposter by the Bat-signal and pointed.

Batman appeared right behind her.  Reaching to his utility belt, he took out a projectile gun and fired at the signal.  Its light shattered, sparked, and faded out.  Now everyone was on the same dark, level playing field.

Unfazed by the blast, the imposter calmly turned around, aimed a menacing taser at Catwoman, and pulled the trigger.

Two small darts stuck to her Catsuit and delivered a 900-kilovolt wallop.  Jerking spasmodically, she lost consciousness and collapsed.  Her heart sputtered to a near-stop.

Batman desperately wanted to help her but couldn’t, because the imposter jumped forward and kicked him in the chest.  He retaliated with a chop to the neck.

Neither hit made an impact against their armored suits.  Batman was impressed with the quality and durability of his opponent’s outfit.  A lot of effort went into it.

They exchanged kicks, punches, and jabs but never landed a significant blow to each other.  As the fight progressed, Batman noted how the imposter’s combat style seemed familiar.

He briefly glanced at the motionless Catwoman but had to return his attention to the imposter.  They drew closer, and for the first time their eyes connected.  Batman realized he’d seen those eyes--and their hatred--before.

“I know you,” he said.

“Of course you do,” the imposter replied in a voice strikingly like his own before jabbing a three-point, razor-edged spike into his side.  “But you’ll die without the answer.”

 

Penguin’s four burly henchmen knocked out the last of the old aqueduct concrete with sledgehammers.  Kicking their way through a sheetrock wall, they entered the Gotham Bank and Trust basement.

Penguin proudly strutted up to the enormous titanium vault door.  “Time to make a withdrawal, boys.”

Two of his goons attached plastic explosives to the hinges and lock.  They set timers for thirty seconds, then retreated back into the tunnel with the others.

Half a minute later, they were rewarded with the sound of two huge blasts and a thunderous crash as the vault door dropped to the floor.

 

            The viper stick sliced through Batman’s armor with ease.  Only a reflexive jerk saved him from severe internal injuries.  As it was, the weapon left him with a painful, jagged gash above the hip.

            He steeled himself and attacked in a fury, scoring with some fast punches and two strong kicks, which sent his adversary reeling back.

            The imposter tripped over a guy wire from the helipad and fell, landing hard with a wrenched ankle and torn cowl.

Batman took full advantage of the moment and applied a headlock.  Pulling the cowl off, he stared into a tangled mass of brown hair.

“Damn you!” a feminine voice growled.

“Talia.  I should’ve guessed.”

 

            It didn’t take long for the smoke to dissipate, and Penguin’s gang prepared to enter the vault with handfuls of moneybags.

            The sound of six clicking revolvers from inside stopped them cold.

            “Your account’s overdrawn, Penguin,” Nightwing said.

            With surprise on their side, the half dozen Gotham officers emerged and subdued Penguin’s gang in less than a minute.

Their boss, however, scurried into the tunnel and trotted back to his church.

Nightwing followed and caught up to him in the basement workroom.

Penguin grabbed a shovel and tried to club him, but the nimble crimefighter dodged it and punched him in the nose.  The bird man tumbled over a dirt pile and hit the wall.

One of the cops appeared at the tunnel entrance.  “Need some help?”

Nightwing gestured at Penguin.  “You can cuff him.  I think our ‘man of the cloth’ is ready for some new pinstripes.”

 

Unable to move because of her twisted ankle, Talia al Ghul stared at Batman with a look of pure contempt.  “You have a nasty habit of staying alive.”

“And you have a nasty habit of trying to kill me.”

“I got sooo close this time,” she hissed.

“Close doesn’t count, and there won’t be a next time.”

“Never say never.”

“Nice exosuit you’re wearing.  I may have to make one.”

“Did you like the way it hid my size and enhanced my strength?”

“You fooled everyone, but as usual, you overplayed your hand.”  Batman anxiously looked at Catwoman again.  He needed to see about her, yet he dared not leave Talia alone for even a second.

Talia reached down to her utility belt and pressed a yellow button.  Nothing happened.

“Better see if it’s still under warranty.”

 

I’m not dead, Catwoman concluded when she opened her eyes.

Sitting up, she breathed deeply.  No lasting effects from the taser jolt.  Good ole nine lives.  Instinctively, she looked for Batman and spotted him ten yards away.

The moment she saw Talia, a volcanic rage exploded inside.  She charged at her like a panther about to pounce.  “The bitch is back!”

Talia saw what was coming.  She stood up despite the pain in her ankle and braced for the attack.

Leaping into the air, Catwoman delivered a brutal flying kick to her torso.

The impact slammed her into the helipad base and knocked her breath out.

Catwoman pinned her to the wall and savagely raked both sets of claws back and forth across her face.

Talia howled in agony, and Batman intervened to keep Catwoman from murdering her.

As she reluctantly let him pull her away, Catwoman shouted, “That’s just a fraction of the pain you deserve for all the misery you’ve caused us!”

Blinded by the blood streaming into her eyes, Talia covered her face and ran away.  She hadn’t gone far when her ankle gave out, and she tumbled over the edge of the roof.  Somehow, she managed to grab the ledge with one gloved hand and hold on.

Catwoman looked down and smiled.  Then she put her boot heel on Talia’s hand.

“Help me!” Talia yelled.

Batman folded his arms.  “Why should I?”

“Because it’s who you are.  You play by the rules.”

“With you, it seems there are no rules.”

Catwoman pressed down with her heel.

“Are you going to let her do this to me?”

Batman turned his back.

The sound of rotor blades began to drown out the ambient city noise.  A fast-approaching black helicopter shone its spotlight on the trio.  Talia’s yellow button worked after all.

 

“What the--is that one of ours?” Gordon barked.

“No, sir.  We have no choppers up.”

“Is it Batman’s?”

Dietz studied the craft through binoculars.  “No markings or identification at all.  I’d say not.”

“It may be an accomplice to the imposter.  Tell the shooters to have a go at it.  Aim for the engine.”

“They can’t, sir.  Too much risk to Batman and the others.”

“Then get some men on the roof, fast!”

 

Maneuvering in a rather small space, the pilot had no margin for error.  He hovered the helicopter just above and beyond the police headquarters roof and threw out a hundred-foot nylon rope ladder.

 

“No matter what happens, it’s not over,” Talia called to Batman.

“Yes, it is!”  Catwoman picked up her heel and stomped hard.  She would not let her nemesis escape.

Talia winced, and her hand slipped from the ledge.

 

Ten police officers burst through the roof access exit and spread out to assist Batman and arrest the imposter.

They were too late to do either.

 

  At the instant she let go, Talia pushed off the side of the building with her good foot and turned around in midair.  Reaching out with both hands, she grabbed the next-to-last rung of the ladder and clung to it while the helicopter quickly winched her up.

Batman and Catwoman watched in disbelief.  The whole thing flowed so smoothly, it was as if she had rehearsed it for months.

Seeing the police take aim with rifles as she strapped herself in, Talia pulled the pin on an orange smoke grenade and threw it down to the roof.

The smoke did its job, obscuring everyone’s view and allowing the chopper to speed away in the darkness.

 

Chagrined and aggravated at Talia’s amazing escape, Batman met with Gordon at the mobile command post.

“If it’s any consolation, we nabbed Penguin in the act, thanks to you and Nightwing,” the Commissioner said.

“I’d like to see him.”

“Go on in.  Holding cell fifteen, they told me.”

 

Catwoman ran up and touched his shoulder as he walked into the police building.  “She deserved that mauling, and more.”

“You did what you had to.”

“I should’ve smashed her stupid hand while she was playing on you.”

“I hesitated,” he admitted.  “It’s hard to deal unemotionally with a person you once cared for.”

“I know.  But next time, would you please just kill the bitch?  Or let me?”

“Sometimes, being Batman really sucks.”

 

“Hey Reverend, you have a visitor,” the guard said.

Penguin calmly turned around and looked out his cell.  “Oh, it’s only Batman.”

“You were expecting Talia al Ghul, maybe?” the Dark Knight asked.

Penguin averted his eyes.  “Don’t tell me you caught her, too.”

“She escaped.  But not before I unmasked her.”

“Ah, the fortunes of war.”

“Tell me something.  You’ve joined forces with Talia twice, first to get the Snowbirds and now for this.  Both times you ended up in jail.  Learned anything?”

“Yeah.  Women with vendettas make lousy partners.”

 

Talia grimaced as she looked in the compact’s mirror.  Although she’d cleaned up her face and doctored the wounds, some of Catwoman’s claw marks were still oozing.  They were probably going to leave scars.

“Two minutes until takeoff,” came a voice from her private jet’s cockpit.

“Thank you, Grigor.”  She poured herself a drink and fastened her seatbelt.  The brandy would help dull the pain, in more ways than one.

A light rain began falling as the Gulfstream rolled down the runway and lifted into the air.

She opened the shutter on her window and stared at the city lights below.  Gotham, you cesspool of evil.  Your time will surely come.”

 

Rain continued while Bruce sipped a glass of orange juice and read the Friday morning papers.  As they were wont to do, most of the news media fell over themselves to apologize for editorially lynching Batman.  Only the most cynical rags continued to question the ethics of and need for a “Caped Crusader.”

Alfred brought his employer a bagel with cream cheese and smiled.  “Getting positive press again, I see.”

“All glory is fleeting, like the Romans said.  One day they’ll be screaming for Batman’s head again.  It goes with the territory.”

“I was quite surprised to read you shot out the Bat-signal.”

“Tactical necessity.  I’ll buy them a new one.”

“What do you suppose will happen to Harvest Church?”

“Hopefully, the lienholder will sell it to some real people of faith.  There’s a group downtown called Hope Fellowship who I hear need a bigger building.  They help the homeless, run soup kitchens, all kinds of wonderful things.”

“Well, they’d certainly be better tenants than the Penguin.  Anything planned for the day I should be aware of, sir?”

“No, not that I can--wait, there is something.  Reserve me a secluded table at the Green Room this evening, say seven-ish, with a dozen roses and a bottle of French wine.  I need to do a little fence-mending.”

 

Selina overheard him from outside the study and beamed.  A woman’s lucky to find one good man, she thought, glancing at the Gotham Globe’s picture of Batman.  “And I found two.”