DRAGON ATTACK

 

            The festive sounds of music and popping firecrackers filled the streets of Gotham City’s Chinatown.  People celebrated everywhere, welcoming in the Year of the Dragon.  Children waved paper kites, and dancers in long dragon costumes accompanied the evening parades.

            Catwoman made her way through the crowds, not letting the merriment distract her.  She was a cat on a mission.  Up ahead, she spotted her destination: Tong’s Grocery.

            The proprietor was preparing to close his store early for the holiday when she walked in.  Looking her over, he stepped back.

            “Mr. Tong?”

            He nodded.

            “Gung Hay Fat Choy (Happy New Year)!”

            “It is said that the Dragon year is one of wealth and power.”

            “But only for those who seize the opportunity,” she replied.

            Tong turned his head and gestured at a young, very attractive Asian woman behind the counter.

            She handed Catwoman a gold key and pointed to the restaurant across the street.

            Bowing her head, Catwoman said, “Thank you,” and ran outside.  Crossing the damp street, she scurried behind The Lotus Garden and walked down a short stairway to the delivery entrance.  She picked the lock and crept inside.

            Turning right, she made her way down a dark hall.  The passageway ended at a locked black door.  She heard voices on the other side but couldn’t make out what they were saying.  No matter.  She put the gold key in the lock.

            Two large men grabbed her from behind.  Before she could fight back, one of them shoved a chloroform-soaked handkerchief in her face.

            Struggling to breathe, she grew woozy and passed out.

 

            Police Commissioner James Gordon never failed to appreciate the irony that there was seldom anything new about a New Year--Western, Chinese, or otherwise.  Crime never observed the calendar, so life for him and his men went on as usual.

            This day, he managed to escape from the office relatively early--seven p.m.  He took the elevator down to the garage and tried to remember where he had parked his new silver sedan.

            “Ah, Row H.  Right where I left it.”  Pulling out his remote, he deactivated the theft alarm and punched in a code to start the ignition.

            Two seconds after the engine turned over, the car exploded and disappeared behind an orange fireball.

            The blast wave knocked Gordon to the ground as the sound echoed off the concrete pillars and walls.

            A sergeant dashed over and helped him to his feet.

            Several other officers came running.  “Holy crap!  What was that?”

            Dumbfounded, Gordon stared at the burning debris that used to be his car.  “Someone just tried to kill me.”

 

            City councilman Joe Hutto heard the doorbell as he was making breakfast.  His wife already left for work, and he had his hands full trying to get their two teenagers awake, fed, and off to school.

            Despite his busyness, he answered the door.  Instead of a neighbor needing help, he saw two men dressed as ninjas standing on the walkway.

            “Can I help you?

            Both men pulled throwing stars out of their sashes and hurled them before speeding off on a black motor scooter.

            A minute and a half later, Hutto’s son came downstairs.  “Dad, who’s at the--”

            He shivered, seeing his father lying dead in the entryway with three shuriken protruding from his bloody shirt.

 

            WGCY anchor Sam DeVol was hardly the most popular man in town.  He got as much hate mail as fan mail.  But he was a ratings winner.  Love him or hate him, people watched.

            He puzzled over the package that arrived at the studio.  The box indicated it was from an Internet book dealer, yet he didn’t remember placing an order recently.  Moreover, it weighed so little, there couldn’t possibly be a book inside.  Nothing about it seemed suspicious, though.  It bore none of the signs that law enforcement cautioned people about--no wires, stains, smells, or excessive postage.

            His reporter’s curiosity got the better of him and he opened it.  When he pulled back the box flaps, a small arrow tipped with curare shot out and embedded itself in his throat.  The quick-acting poison constricted his airway, suffocating him.

 

            After Gordon’s near miss, Deputy Commissioner Richard Krieg decided he’d better watch out, too.  He checked under his car with a mirror.  No evidence of explosives.  Relieved, he climbed in and started the engine.

            As he drove along the parkway, he felt a sharp stinging pain in his right ankle.  He looked down and saw a cobra snake, its fangs deep into his leg.  In a panic, he tried to kick the snake away.  He lost control of the car and slammed into a guardrail, which killed him instantly.

 

            Peter Nomura, CEO of Sys-Tech, one of Gotham’s fastest-growing corporations, developed a severe stomachache after eating two of the doughnuts someone in the office brought.  He grew very dizzy and couldn’t stand up.  Weak and shaking, he reached for the phone.

            The pain became so intense, he doubled over and dropped to the floor.  Unable to cry for help, he lay under his desk.  A feeling of paralysis overcame him.  His last thought was, “This is what it’s like to die in slow motion.”

 

            “CITY OF ASSASSINS?” wondered the Gotham Herald’s Thursday headline.  Over the course of three days, half a dozen high profile figures in the city died under bizarre circumstances.  Adding in unsuccessful attempts on Gordon and Mayor Pro-Tem Steve Mbeki, the police could only conclude that someone was trying to decapitate Gotham.

            On Friday, Mayor Randy Golini asked Gordon to brief the city’s Crisis Management Team on the police investigation.

            “I wish I had something substantial to tell you,” the commissioner began, “but at this point we have more questions than answers.”

            “We’ll take anything you’ve got, Jim,” City Manager Donna Perez said.

            “I guess the easiest way is to tell you the questions we’ve been asking and what, if any, answers we know.  First, are these strange murders related?  Forensically, there’s nothing to link them, but because of the status of the victims, I have to say yes.  Are there other deaths that need to be linked to these?  Possibly.  My men are reviewing all fatalities in the last week looking for anything out of the ordinary.  Just this morning, we got a report that entrepreneur Karl Stavanger was found strangled in his garage.  We’re going on the assumption his death is related to the rash of murders.

            “Is this the work of one person, or several?  We don’t know.  If you had to pin me down, I’d say it’s a group of individuals, perhaps working for a single leader.  Because the targets and methods are so random, we are not yet able to develop a predictive pattern.  Each killing is unique and, well, exotic.  I could give you guesses as to who or what types of individuals might be targeted next, but it would only be that--guesswork.  I think all prominent Gotham residents should take extra precautions until we solve this case.”

            “Any suspects?  Persons of interest?” Golini wondered.

            “The variety of methods is not characteristic of any of the so-called supercriminals like Two-Face, Joker, or Poison Ivy.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t one of them, or two of them working together.  It’s just not how they typically operate.”

            “Perhaps it’s a new supercriminal,” Emergency Management Coordinator Eugene Little said.

            “That’s very possible.  In any event, someone from the FBI is coming in to advise us.”

            “Did you invite them?” the mayor asked.

            “No, they phoned me an hour ago.  I guess they’ve been watching the news.”

            “Is it time to call in Batman?” Perez asked.

            “I’ve been holding off, because we have so little to go on, but maybe he can do something more with what we’ve got.”

 

            Bruce Wayne had been following the strange deaths almost as long as the police had, but he was no closer to identifying a suspect or predicting future targets than they were.  He wanted to investigate further, but he couldn’t get himself focused on it at the moment.

            Selina had been missing for several days, and distracting anxieties filled his mind.

            Alfred found him in the Batcave, staring blankly at the walls.  “Still no word, sir?”

            Bruce shook his head sadly.  “No.  She’s never been gone this long before.  She told me late last week she was working on cracking a drug ring in the East End.  No indication she would need any help.  ‘Just another bunch of smugglers,’ she called it.  I’m really worried.”

            “Not to be overly unpleasant, but if she had met with foul play, I think we’d have heard about it from the police by now.”

            “I know.  I’m more concerned that she may be somebody’s prisoner.  I don’t want to make her feel like I’m looking over her shoulder, but I think it’s time to go searching tonight.”

            “Good idea, sir.  That way you’ll be doing something positive, instead of sitting here stewing in your fears.”

 

            Batman combed the East End streets where Catwoman operated most frequently and questioned anybody he recognized, including some who would have preferred never to encounter the Dark Knight again.  None of the “regulars” had seen her or knew what she was up to.  With each passing hour, he grew more depressed.

            This, he reminded himself, was precisely why emotional attachments were so detrimental.  If he had to worry about the safety of a loved one, he could not devote all necessary energy and attention to his work.

Even so, he wasn’t about to divorce her for expediency’s sake.  She was the only real source of happiness in his life.  He would just have to train himself better to suppress his emotions while on duty.

            Journeying north, he stopped at the Vampire Lounge to talk to Benny, the club’s bouncer and a never-ending source of information.

            “Haven’t seen her in a week, Batman,” said Benny, who always seemed to know the whereabouts of every significant person in the area.  “Is everything all right?”

            “No.  She’s missing, and I think she’s in trouble.”

            “Last time we spoke, she was trying to get the goods on some drug runners, but she never told me who or where.”

            “There must be somebody around who’s had contact with her.”

            “You know who you oughta talk to?  Nikki Callison.  Catwoman’s spent a lot of time with her the last couple of months.  If anybody can help you, she can.”

            “Where do I find her?”

            “Keep walking around the neighborhood.  She’ll find you.”

 

            Leaving the club, Batman was again consumed by guilt and uncertainty.  He knew he should be back at the Batcave working on the string of assassinations, but he’d be betraying Catwoman if he didn’t try to find her.  He also knew she would do the same for him, so he pressed on.

Two blocks east, he heard clattering on the fire escape of a tenement building as he walked by.  He turned around instinctively and looked up.

            A girl in a black leather bodysuit with tousled hair and raccoon eyes smiled back.  “Hey there, Batman!”  She leaped to the ground.  “How’s it goin’?”

            “Hello, Nikki.”

            “You remember me?  Cool.”

He didn’t know what to make of her fashion switch from Goth to dominatrix.

She saw him eyeing her outfit.  “Like it?  Catwoman said I should ‘dress the part’ more.  She’s kinda been mentoring me, y’know?  Guess you could call me ‘Catgirl,’ if you want. ”

            “I’m looking for her.  Benny said you might know where she is.”

            “Mm-umm.  Wish I did.  I haven’t talked to her in, like, four days.  That’s kinda strange for her.”

            “She’s missing.”

            “Eew!  Not good.  She was trying to bust up this drug ring, y’know?  She said there’s, like, this huge wave of heroin about to come into the city.  She thought she knew who was behind it, but she wasn’t sure.”

            “Did she mention a name?”

            “Nope.  Sorry.”

            “Where are they operating?”

            “Mostly in Chinatown.  Everything was going fine when I last saw her.  She told me she had some good leads and informants.  She said it was going to be ‘an easy takedown.’”

            “Obviously, something went wrong.”

            “You don’t think she’s, like, hurt or dead, do you?”

            “I don’t know.  I just need to find her, and soon.  Thanks for the information.  I’ll head over to Chinatown.”

            “Come back if you need my help.  I’ll be around.”

“Thanks.”

“I hope she’s alright.”

            “You and me both.”

 

            Not that he fit in with any part of Gotham, but he looked especially out of place in Chinatown.  Many of its residents spoke little or no English, and even those who dressed in Western clothing preferred simple, plain styles.  People gawked as he passed by and whispered to one another.

            He began searching in the business district, asking late night proprietors about Catwoman.  None recalled seeing her.  Charlie Huang, the unofficial “mayor” of Chinatown, was sure he spotted her the night of the New Year celebration but did not know where she was going.  The few other men who would talk to him could not offer anything more.  It was as though she dropped off the face of the earth.

            Stopping on a corner after thirty minutes, he reassessed his tactics.  If there was a drug operation afoot, odds were it wasn’t running through the shops of honest, hard-working immigrants.  A more likely source would be one of the less savory bars and pleasure palaces down Cherry Street.

            Navigating through back alleys to draw less attention, he made his way to the rear of Madam Mai’s, a legendary crime spot which the city could never manage to put out of business permanently.  Police measured the number of arrests for gambling, prostitution, and contraband in hundreds, not dozens.

            A dark blue sedan sitting twenty yards away by a dumpster aroused his suspicion.  It had no license plate, but two small antennae protruded from the rear window.  Concealed by shadows, he approached the car and peered inside.  Then he heard a gun click behind him and felt a hand grab his cape.

            “DEA!  Freeze!  This isn’t Halloween, buddy.  Keep your hands where I can see them, and turn around slowly.”

            He did as instructed.  The man holding the gun was a Chinese-American in his mid-forties wearing a dark suit and a prominent badge.

            “Oh...my...gawd!  You’re that Batman they told me about.”

            “And you are…?”

            “Dennis Chan, DEA Special Agent.”  He cautiously lowered his gun.  “You’re interfering with government surveillance.”

            “My apologies.  You wouldn’t happen to be investigating a smuggling operation that’s about to flood Gotham with heroin, would you?”

            Chan’s eyes grew wide.  “How do you know about that?”

            “I’m looking for a friend of mine.  I think she was following the same trail before she disappeared.”

            “Get in the car.”

            “What?”

            “Get in the car,” Chan said nervously.

            As soon as both men were safely inside the sedan, Chan locked the doors and let out a big sigh.  “They didn’t tell me this might happen.”

            “We’re on the same side.  Relax.”

            “Who’s this friend you’re looking for?”

            “Catwoman.”

            “Geez Louise!  Batman?  Catwoman?  This town’s as wacky as the folks in Washington said.”

            “Detective, we need to work together.  I think she got too close to the operation, and they sidelined her.”

            Chan rubbed his eyes.  “I’m not supposed to bring anybody else in on this.  It’s supposed to be strictly an FBI/DEA thing.  I thought I was onto some hot tips.  But honestly, I haven’t found squat.  I need all the help I can get, Batman.”

            “What led you here?”

            “Informants kept mentioning the name Chien Lo.  He supposedly runs this den of sin.”

            “Lo may move drugs, but only enough to keep his friends happy.  He’s too clever to get involved in major shipments.  But if he’s in the right mood, he’ll give out information for a price.  That’s why I came.”

            “No, it’s got to be someone with the resources and manpower to transport massive amounts of ultra-pure China White.  This country’s never seen such a big influx of drugs before.  If we can’t stop it from coming in...well, I don’t have to draw a picture of how bad things will get.”

            “Are you sure the importer is already here?”

            “No.  It just makes sense for him to establish a beachhead and then bring in the heroin.”

            “Beachheads can be set up by well-trained operatives.  The type of person you’re describing could have all his assets offshore.  It’s safer.  He may be planning to arrive with the drugs and the muscle to get it distributed.  What’s the point of origin?”

            “Shanghai.  But dozens of cargo ships arrive in Gotham from there every day.  We need more leads.”

            “Be careful.  If his people are already here, they’ve blended in with the locals.  Conceivably, anybody you talk to could be a spy.”

            Chen shook his head.  “I’m in the wrong line of work.”

            “We need a strategy.  I have lots--”

            The Bat-signal flashed across the sky.

            Batman opened the car door.  “Duty calls.  I’ll get in touch again tomorrow.  Give me a number where I can reach you.”

            Chan wrote it down and asked, “What’s your number?”

            “Unlisted.”

 

            Gordon leaned against the Bat-signal atop police headquarters and checked his watch.  He turned to the woman with short brown hair next to him.  “He’ll be here soon.”

            “I really don’t see the need for this waste of time, Commissioner.  I’ve got plenty to--”

            “Ah, here he is.”

            The Caped Crusader approached them.  “Evening, Commissioner.”

            “Batman, I want you to meet Madison Colby from the FBI.  She’s here to help us solve the assassinations.”

            Batman extended his gloved hand.  “Ms. Colby.”

            She moved her hand, then quickly pulled it back without shaking his.  “Yes, well, I’m not sure why, but Commissioner Gordon insisted I brief you on the investigation.  The FBI is very interested in this rash of murders.  I’m here to determine if the situation warrants bringing the cases under our jurisdiction, or if it’s more appropriate to handle at the local level, with backup from us.  Washington is concerned about national security implications.  The targeting of commercial and civic leaders in one of our largest cities is causing them alarm.”

            “What do you say?” Batman asked.

            “My analysis of the murders and related crime data suggests they may be the opening shots in a war among Asian gangs.  Most of the killings, if not all, are a message from one gang to the others.  A power play, to show who has the real muscle in Gotham City.”

            Gordon said, “As I told Agent Colby earlier, gangs usually fight over turf, not who runs the city.”

            “And as I explained to the commissioner, the landscape is changing rapidly.  Gangs are embracing drug trafficking and the money and power that go with it.  To show you have the finances and strength to knock off the city’s movers and shakers at will is a tremendous accomplishment, as well as a huge challenge to law enforcement.”

            “Nice theory,” Batman said.  “Where’s your proof?”

            “We’re working in conjunction with the DEA to obtain proof.  Our foreign intelligence sources tell us a mammoth heroin shipment is headed for Gotham, perhaps within days.”

            “Yes, I met Agent Chan in Chinatown this evening.  We were about to discuss operational strategy when you called.”

            Seemingly unruffled that the Dark Knight was already involved in her investigation, Colby said, “DEA is doing the footwork while I coordinate between here and Washington.  If we determine that national security is threatened, I can have any resources we need brought here in a matter of hours.”

            “Commissioner, what’s your view?”

            “With all respect to Agent Colby, I think it’s premature to rule out the notion that a supercriminal is behind those murders.  I don’t want her to discount the possibility so quickly.”

            “I’ve read the files on your so-called ‘supercriminals.’  Nothing you couldn’t stop with an anti-terror unit and better locks on your asylum.”

            “I should also mention that Catwoman is missing, and I believe she was tracking down the drug importers when she vanished.  I need to continue searching for her.”

            Gordon stuck his hands in his pockets.  “I know she’s your friend, Batman, but we have got to find the assassins and stop those drugs from getting in.  Right now, that supersedes all other concerns.  If she turns up during the investigation, fine.  But I want you to work with Agent Colby to stop the immediate threats to the city.”

            Colby cleared her throat.  “I appreciate your offer, but I don’t need any assistance, certainly not from a man in a rubber suit.”

            “You ignore Batman’s expertise at your peril.”

            “Not to be immodest, Ms. Colby, but my crime database and resources may exceed those of the FBI.”

            She looked at Gordon, then at Batman.  “Very well.  I will agree, albeit reluctantly, to let you assist the investigation.  But understand this.  You’re on a very short leash.  Anything you discover, you report to me or Agent Chan.  Immediately.  Under no circumstances are you to take action against any suspects.  I’ll call you if I need information I can’t get right away from Washington.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to my hotel room.  I’m very tired, and it’s been a busy day.  I can find my own way down.  Good night, gentlemen.”

            When she was far enough away, Gordon leaned toward Batman.  “You do whatever you have to.”

            “Count on it.”

 

            Alfred found Bruce slumped in a kitchen chair, a half-eaten sandwich on the table next to him.  “Good morning, sir.”

            Bruce gained consciousness and sat up.  “What time is it?”

            Half past seven.  Long night?”

            “Yeah.  I couldn’t sleep, so I came down for a snack.”

            “You do look rather ragged, sir.  Any sign of Mrs. Wayne?”

            “No.  Alfred, I haven’t felt this scared since my parents died.  I’m worried sick about her.”  His eyes welled up with tears.  “What if she’s gone?  Why does everyone I love get taken away?”  He threw the sandwich plate, which shattered on the floor.

            The butler calmly reached for a small broom.

            “I need to be helping Commissioner Gordon solve those strange murders.  But I just can’t get my mind off Selina.  Last night, Gordon and I met with this queen bee from the FBI.  She’s itching to kick him out of the way and take over the case.  She doesn’t want Batman’s help, other than to sit by the phone waiting for a call that’s not going to come.”

            “Given your present state of mind, why not take a break and concentrate on finding Mrs. Wayne?”

            “I can’t.  Agent Colby’s way off the mark.  She thinks it’s just gangs trying to show who’s the top dog.  That explanation is too simplistic.  She doesn’t know the gangs in Gotham.  They’re not powerful enough or organized enough to do something on this scale.  I think we may be dealing with a new supercriminal.  Not even Joker has the wealth or manpower to flood this city with high-grade heroin.  One thing I’m certain of, it’s all connected.  Selina’s disappearance, the smugglers, the assassins.  Find one and we’ll find all three.”

            “Do try to get some rest today, sir.”

            “I have to go to the office for a board meeting at eleven.”

            “Perhaps it will get your mind off your troubles for a while.”

            “I wish.”

 

            Lou Fulton, publisher of the Gotham Globe, got out of bed and strolled to the bathroom for his morning shower.  He shut the door and turned on the hot water.  Realizing he’d left his comb in the bedroom, he tried to open the door.  It wouldn’t budge.

            At the same time, he heard a soft hissing sound.  He glanced in the mirror and saw clouds of red gas pouring from the showerhead.  Violently jiggling the doorknob, he tried again and again to open the door.

            Breathing became difficult, so he tried to open the window.  It, too, was frozen in place.  Meanwhile, gas continued to fill the small room.

            He dropped to the floor, trying desperately to find good air.  There was none.  Gradually, he lost consciousness, then died.

 

            Bruce reviewed Wayne Enterprises’ monthly financial reports as Alfred drove him to work.  Revenue estimates looked especially promising.

            A red motorcycle settled in behind the limousine and continued to shadow it for several miles.

            Bruce didn’t normally pay attention to such things, but after the assassinations and attempts, he assumed he would become a target at some point.  “We’re being followed, Alfred.”

            “The motorcycle?  I wondered as much.”

            The rider changed lanes and moved closer to the Bentley.

            Bruce looked back and noticed him cradling a silver weapon with a very wide barrel.  “He’s got a Takahashi flechette gun.”

            “A bad thing, I presume.”

            “Imagine buckshot with sharp points.”

            “Oh.”

            The limousine eased to a stop at a red light.

            “Alfred, roll down all the windows, and on my signal, duck.”

            Pulling alongside, the motorcyclist pointed the gun at Bruce’s head.

            “Now!”

            The rider fired, and as Bruce and Alfred hit the floor, a cloud of tiny but deadly arrows flew in one side and zoomed out the other.

            The light turned green, and Bruce sat up in time to see the bike speed away.  “You okay, Alfred?”

            “Yes, sir,” the butler replied, putting the car in motion again.  “Perhaps adding shatterproof glass is in order.”

            “Yeah.  These road rage incidents are getting out of hand.”

 

            Real estate mogul Ben Montgomery’s fiftieth birthday was off to a splendid start.  Someone on his devoted staff had decorated his office to the hilt with streamers, confetti, and so many black balloons he could barely get to his chair.

            Several cards, presents and gift bags covered his desktop.  He sat down to open them, delighted at the outpouring of good wishes.  When he was about halfway through, he heard a slight scratching sound which grew louder and louder.

            One of the balloons burst.  Then another.  And another.  In rapid succession, they all popped, releasing a shower of little scorpions down on him.

            His secretary heard hideous screams, but by the time she opened his door it was too late.  He had been stung to death.

 

            Despite being in serious need of restful sleep, Batman met Chan by the entrance to Mandarin Park, an authentic Chinese garden treasured by the residents.

            “Man, I am so glad you called,” Chan said.  “I found information on your Catwoman friend.  I met one of her informants, a fellow named Hun.  He told me the smugglers were setting up in the basement of a restaurant, but he didn’t know which one.  He sent her to a man named Tong, who pretty much knows everything.  That’s the last he heard from her.”

            “Did you find Tong?”

            “He runs a grocery store on Sanger Street.  I haven’t been there yet.  I was sort of waiting for you.”

            “Thank you, Detective.  A good lead at last.”

“Something else is up.  I’ve been walking around discreetly, listening to people and chatting with them.  Everybody’s starting to talk about this guy they call The Doctor.  ‘The Doctor’s coming.’  ‘The Doctor’s going to be here soon.’  They’re consumed with him, whoever he is.  Now this is the strange part.  When you mention him, half the people are overjoyed.  The other half are scared to death.”

            “He could be the kingpin of the operation.”

            “I’m thinking that, too.  So we may still have time to prevent the heroin from getting in.”

            “Let’s pay a visit to Mr. Tong and see how deep his knowledge truly is.”

 

            “Yes, I understand.  I’ll tell him right away.  When will the team arrive?  No, that’s not too late.  Thanks again, sir.  Goodnight.”

            “News from Washington?” Gordon asked.

            Colby closed her cell phone and clipped it to her belt.  “That was Deputy Director Reynolds.  As of this moment, Gotham PD is off the assassinations case.  It’s now our jurisdiction.  You and Mayor Golini will be getting an official fax in about ten minutes.  The Montgomery and Fulton killings, along with the attempt on Bruce Wayne, tipped the scales.  Those Asian drug gangs are considered a clear and present danger to the stability of Gotham City and, by default, our internal security.  A counterterrorism unit is flying in at dawn to take operational control.  It goes without saying that I’m pulling the plug on Batman’s involvement.  Switch on your little beacon and reel him in.”

            “No.”

            “Commissioner, you have zero say-so in this.  It’s an FBI matter.  End of discussion.”

            “Agent Colby--”

            “Unless you want to spend the night in your own jail for obstruction, I suggest you turn on that signal and go back to arresting liquor store bandits and hookers.  Or do I have to turn it on myself?”

            Gordon scowled at her.  “I’ll do it.  Doesn’t mean he’ll answer, mind you.”

            “He’d better, or he’ll answer to me.”

 

            Batman and Chan walked into Tong’s Grocery just before 8:30.

            The owner greeted them with a bow, but said nothing.

            Chan flashed his DEA badge.  “Mr. Tong, we’re searching for a missing lady who goes by the name Catwoman.  She was last seen in this vicinity about a week ago.  Do you know where she is?”

            Tong shook his head.  “No Catwoman around here.  Sorry.”

            Batman grabbed his shirt and shoved him against the door.  “She came in here looking for information on a group of drug smugglers.  What happened to her?”

            “She not come here.  Sorry.”

            “You know what happened to her,” the Dark Knight growled, slamming Tong into the wall.  “Talk!”

            “I not know--”

            “Talk!”  He tightened his grip.

            “Easy, Batman,” Chan cautioned.  “Maybe he really doesn’t know.”

            Tong was persuaded by the barely contained fury in Batman’s eyes.  “Okay, okay.  I tell you.”

            The Caped Crusader released him.

            “She was here.  The Doctor say she snooping too much, getting too close.  He tell me to get her out of the way.  Mr. Hun and I, we set her up.”

            “What did you do?”

            Tong looked down.  “I say too much already.

            Batman grabbed him again.  “Tell me what you did!”

            “I...we...,” he stammered.

            The same Asian beauty who gave Catwoman the gold key came out from an adjacent room and smiled.  “Your friend went to The Lotus Garden.  Follow me.”

            Batman pushed Tong aside.

            While she led them across the street, Chan gazed up and saw the Bat-signal.  “Looks like they’re paging you again.”

            “It’ll have to wait.”

            She took them inside the restaurant’s service entrance, down the dark hallway, and to the black door that marked the end of Catwoman’s investigation.

            Too helpful, Batman thought.  After Tong’s reluctance, her cooperation had all the hallmarks of a setup.

            Chan tried to turn the doorknob.  It was locked.  He looked down at Batman’s heavy boots.  “Would you do the honors?”

            “You know it’s probably a trap.”

            “Sometimes, the only way to get where you need to go is through the looking glass.”

            “Just remember, don’t trust anybody.”  Batman kicked the door open, and they charged in.

            The room was an unremarkable paneled-wall office.  A bank of computer terminals and telephones sat on a table at the far end.  In the middle, Catwoman stood holding her whip with a dozen black-clad armed thugs behind her.

            A look of relief covered Batman’s face, and his anxieties melted.  She had been working undercover.  Smiling, he approached her.  “I’ve never been so glad to see you in--”

            She lacerated his face with a fast strike from the whip.

            With his bloody cheek stinging, he recoiled in shock.

            Before he could respond, she landed a strong kick to his chin and knocked him down.  Then she pounced on him and tried to slash his eyes with her claws.

            He grabbed her wrists, and they wrestled on the floor.  Rolling on top of her, he whispered, “Selina, you can drop the act now.  I know you want to look convincing, but take it easy.  The whip hurt.”

            “Good.  I meant for it to.  And this isn’t an act, Batman.”  She pushed him away, took a small bottle from her belt, and sprayed knockout mist in his face.

            He was unconscious in five seconds.

            Chan tried to come to his aid, but the Asian woman chopped him on the neck.  She hit a pressure point, and he crumpled to the ground.

 

            When Batman and Chan came to, they found themselves lying in an ornate room which could have passed for the Emperor’s palace in Beijing.  Slowly getting to their feet, they marveled at the red, jade, and gold décor.

            Two enormous gold dragon heads rose from either side of the floor not far from where they stood.  At the front, a black and gold throne stood atop a red platform.  On each side of the platform, the floor dropped away.  The ceiling was surprisingly low for such a room, only ten feet above their heads.

            Seated on the throne, a tall, gaunt Chinese man in a flowing tan robe stared at them.  His head was closely shaved, with piercing green eyes and a long moustache which framed his taut lips and narrow chin.  His sculpted eyebrows made a natural frown below his square black hat.

            The thugs from the restaurant were lined in front of the throne, arms folded.  Accompanied by Catwoman, the Asian femme fatale stood between Batman and the guards.

            “Doctor Fu Manchu.”

            “You are correct, Batman.”

            “You know this guy?” Chan asked in astonishment.

            “I know of him.”

            “Very little do you know about me.  That will change.  I believe you’re well-acquainted with one of my beautiful assistants.  The other is my devoted servant of many deadly talents, Karamaneh.”

            “What did you do to Catwoman?”

            “Answer your own question, Great Detective.  What did I do to her?”

            “You’ve got her under some kind of hypnosis or mind control.”

            Smiling fiendishly, Manchu said, “Indeed.  Techniques for mind manipulation are far more advanced in the East than here.  Westerners lack discipline.  Free will is a stumbling block to be overcome.  You see, the key to gaining control of another’s mind is not inducing a hypnotic state or ‘brainwashing’ them into believing something they wouldn’t otherwise.  Rather, you have to devolve the mind, take it back to a more primitive and susceptible state.  For example, resurrecting feelings of anger and resentment which have been put aside.  Catwoman is a perfect illustration.  She hated you at one time, did she not?  You were her sworn enemy.  Now she hates you again.  Her mind has come full circle back to where it was.”

            Batman felt his heart sink.

            Manchu waved his hand dismissively.  “But that is all a tangent to the plot, as the British put it.  You know the reason I’m here, don’t you?”

             “The drugs,” Chan answered.

            “The drugs.  As I said, Westerners lack discipline, and that will be your downfall.  My plan is to use your appetite for heroin, cocaine, and hashish to help weaken the very foundation of your society.  Selling them raises money to pay for my assassinations which, by the way, are only beginning.  Together, these wonderful tools will topple your civilization.”

            “A boatload of heroin, or even two, can’t possibly wreak that much havoc.”

            “You are correct, Mr. Chan.  However, you fail to see the scope of my plans.  I’m talking about hundreds of boatloads, millions and millions of kilos flowing into the country every year, just like you import oil.  This is only the leading edge.  Soon, the drugs will be plentiful and cheap--cheaper than candy.  A nice, economical way to create new generations of addicts who will be a drain on the organs of society.  If Gotham City collapses, what city could survive?  The whole country will weaken and eventually fall.  I’ve already done as much as I can in Europe to accelerate the process.  Now it’s your country’s turn.”

            “You reputation for mayhem is exceeded only by that of Ra’s al Ghul,” Batman commented.

            “I remember Ra’s.  Fortunately, I was smart enough to stay far away from him.  Maybe that’s why I’m still around.”  Manchu looked at Karamaneh.  “If you please, dearest.”

            Nodding, she pulled a wicked-looking dagger from the back of her dress and sliced through Chan’s throat.

            “I have no place for ordinary men like him.  You, on the other hand, are a man I can use.”

            “Like you’re using Catwoman?”

            “Even moreso.  Better starting material.”

            “I’m not interested in a career change.”

            “As I might’ve guessed.  Boys, see if you can change his mind.”

            The black-clad guards converged on Batman.  Two thugs grabbed his arms while a third came at him with a sword.  He jumped up and kicked the blade away.  Backflipping, he freed his arms, then grabbed the two guards’ heads and smashed them together.

            A heavyset man barreled into him and knocked him to the floor.  The swordsman picked up his weapon and struck him on the leg, ripping his armor.  Batman got his head in a scissor lock and flipped him backwards into two others who were attacking.  As the swordsman came back for another try, Batman stood up, threw the heavyset thug, and impaled him on the blade.  He knocked out the disarmed swordsman with two fast punches.

            Three others tried to engage him in a martial arts battle, and he defeated them one by one.

            Then another wave moved in.  He broke a guard’s neck with a strong flying kick and hurled a second over one of the large dragon heads.  Two tried to get him with throwing stars, but he caught the blades and hurled them back, killing both.

            The last muscleman jumped him from behind, pulled him to the floor, and kicked him in the head and ribs.  Batman took a capsule from his utility belt and flung it at the thug’s feet.  He rolled away as a gray cloud of gas enveloped the man and rendered him unconscious.

            Scrambling to his feet, he dodged Karamaneh, who came at him with her dagger.  She was astounded at how he made such quick work of Manchu’s well-trained assassins.

            He spun around and kicked the knife from her hand.  She was forced back by his series of moves and jabs.

            Manchu watched impassively as she climbed on to the platform and leaped at Batman.

            The Dark Knight caught her, turned, and flung her into the drop-off at the right side of the platform, not realizing it contained a snake pit.

            The hungry cobras inside swarmed over her, silencing her screams.

            Outraged, Manchu sprang from his throne.  “Batman, you have done me a great deal of harm!  She was my favorite assassin, as well as someone very dear to me.  As the saying goes, turnabout is fair play.  Someone very dear to you will now end your life.”  He looked at Catwoman.  “Kill him!”

            Fingering her whip, she smiled seductively.  “I’m going to enjoy this.  Payback can be such a bitch, just like me.”

            She cracked the whip, but he grabbed it, wrapped it around his wrist, and yanked her to him.  “Selina, snap out of this.”

            Grabbing the ears of his cowl, she smashed his face into her knee and kicked him away.  “I’m Catwoman.  Hear my roar, Batman!”

            Although it was the last thing he wanted to do, he steeled himself to fight her like the enemy she had become.

            Reclaiming her whip, she ripped his cape with a quick strike.  He put his head down, ran full speed, and knocked her over like a football lineman.

            She grunted as he jumped on top of her and squeezed her claws.  “Ooh, he likes to play rough.”

            He slapped her face hard.  “I’m not playing, Selina.  Please, listen to me.  You’ve got to break out of the spell he has you in.  I can’t stop him unless we work together.”

            “Isn’t that cute?  The big rubber stud can’t win without my help.  Eat fur, Batboy!”  She clawed him in the mouth and kicked his groin before leaping to her feet.

            He got up, grabbed her arm, and flipped her over his shoulder.

            She landed hard on her rear.  “Ow!  How dare you!”  She jumped on him and pummeled his lower back.

            Shaking her off, he kicked her belly and punched her jaw when she doubled over.

“What a man,” she panted.  “He gets his jollies by being cruel to animals.”

“I don’t want to do this, Selina.  I’m begging you, please stop.”

“I like it when men beg.  It’s so...empowering.”  She became a whirling dervish, kicking, clawing, and punching at the weary and heartbroken Caped Crusader.

Nearing exhaustion, he stumbled, and she pinned him against the wall.

Deftly wrapping her whip around his throat, she pulled it tight.  “Sorry to end things like this, darling.  No need to talk.  I can tell you’re all choked up.”

Releasing an energy reserve he didn’t even know he had, he broke her hold by smacking her under the chin, then lashed out with a volley of hard punches and kicks.

His fury was overpowering.  She could do nothing but absorb the blows and retreat, hoping he would run out of steam before inflicting a fatal injury.

One last kick sent her crashing into the gold dragon head near the door.  Her neck and upper back bore the brunt of the impact, and she slid to the floor.

Impulsively, he reached for his grappling gun and aimed it at her heart.

Out of breath and in pain, she stared into his eyes and waited for the coup de grâce.

He gripped the trigger for an instant, then lowered the gun.  Unable to kill the woman he loved, even if it meant his own death, he tossed the weapon aside.

“I’m disappointed in you, Batman,” Manchu said.  “You are not worthy of serving me, after all.”

“That’s a test I’m glad I failed.”

“Really?  There are consequences to failure.  You and Catwoman will die a slow and agonizing death.”  He pressed a black button under the right arm of his throne, and a dozen cobras dropped from the ceiling above them.

Batman’s cape and suit protected him, but the snakes bit Catwoman twice before he could shield her.

She scooted away in a panic, brushing the cobras off her body while he stomped their heads.  Seeing that his grappling gun was within reach, she grabbed it, rolled over, and fired at Manchu.

The spiked hook gouged through his abdomen and the back of his throne before lodging in the wall.  Incredulous, he looked down at the bloody hole in his robe.  As he slumped over and died, he pressed a white button under the throne arm.

An enormous explosion erupted from the wall behind the him, followed seconds later by one down the hall.

Batman picked up Catwoman and carried her out of the crumbling throne room.  When he reached the corridor, he did a double take.  The narrow halls and steel doors he saw meant they were on a ship, a now-burning ship.

Flames and debris blocked the aft exit, but except for some rising smoke, forward passageways were clear.

Stopping for a moment, he set her down and removed a vial from his belt.  “Drink this.  It’s not cobra antivenin, but it’s the best I can do.”

Although drowsy and confused, she gulped down the liquid.

Another detonation rocked the ship, and he knew they needed to get out while they could.  He put her across his shoulders and raced through the corridors until he saw a stairway.  Scrambling up the steps, he emerged on deck and felt both surprised and relieved to see the ship was docked at an East End port.

He could already hear sirens as he packed her onto the pier.  Taking out his remote, he summoned the Batmobile and waited anxiously.

When the car arrived four minutes later, he put her inside and sped off.  The journey home would be too long, and she needed medical help right away.  There was only one place he could go.

 

Agent Colby looked out the window at the Bat-signal in the sky.  “It’s been three hours.  I don’t think he’s coming.”

“Too bad.”

“Too bad for you, Commissioner.  And for him.”

“Maybe he found a really good lead.”

“He’s defying a direct federal order.”  Her cell phone rang.  “Colby.  What?  Well, keep trying.  Call me if you get him.”

“Problem?” Gordon wondered.

“Nobody can reach Agent Chan.  Something’s going on, and I don’t like not knowing what it is.”

The commissioner’s phone buzzed.  “Yes.  Where?  Are there any casualties?  Let me know when you have something definite.”

“You, too, huh?” Colby asked.

“Explosion and fire on a cargo ship at Pier Twenty.”

“That’s the area we’ve had under surveillance as the most likely spot for the drug shipments to come in.”  She glanced at the Bat-signal again, sensing that its namesake was in the middle of events at the pier.  “Turn that thing off!”

 

Dr. Leslie Thompkins awoke to the sound of a low rumble.  Putting her robe on, she walked to the window and saw Batman jumping out of the Batmobile.  She glanced at the time.  Eleven-thirty.  “This can’t be good.”

Switching on the light, she opened the door.

Batman hurried in, the unconscious Catwoman limp in his arms.

“Take her to the bedroom,” she said while relocking the door.

He placed Selina on the bed gently, then worked to get her Catsuit off.

Leslie washed her hands.  “What happened?”

“Cobra bites on the arm and thigh.”

“She looks like she’s been through hell.  You, too.”

“Long story.”

“It usually is, Bruce.  How’s her respiration?”

“Shallow.  Her heart rate’s slowing.”

“I have a lot of medicines at my disposal, but cobra antivenin isn’t one of them.  My normal patients don’t run into things that wild.”

“I gave her a dose of general antivenin within ten minutes of the bites.”

“Good, that may help.  What else happened to her, besides the obvious beating she’s taken?”

“Mind control treatments, courtesy of the late Doctor Fu Manchu.”

She raised her eyebrows.  “Mind control?”

“Yes.”

Shaking her head, she said, “Bruce, you have got to get her to the hospital.  Cobra venom and mind control...that’s way beyond me.”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“What’s more important, your wife’s life, or Batman?”

“Don’t do this to me, Leslie.  Now is not the time.”

She read the ragged look of pain and fear in his eyes and decided not to push.  “I’ll do what I can, but if she bottoms out, I’m calling an ambulance--Batman be damned.”

“Thank you, Leslie.  I owe you one.  Again.”

“Another donation to the clinic will be just fine.”

“You’ve got it.”

Opening her medical bag, she pulled out a syringe and a bottle of epinephrine.  “This is a stimulant.  It’ll help her body fight the depressive effects of the venom.  We’ll have to hope and pray that the antidote you administered, combined with her excellent general health, will be enough to pull her through.  I’ll monitor her heart rate and respiration every fifteen minutes.  While I’m at it, I’ll treat all these cuts and bruises.”

He put on a smile.  “You’re an angel.”

“The curtains are closed.  Why don’t you take off that outfit and get cleaned up yourself?  It’s going to be a long night.”

“Good idea.”

 

Gotham firefighters extinguished the blaze on the cargo ship in forty-five minutes.  When informed that several bodies were onboard, Gordon and Colby went straight to the pier.

Battalion Chief O’Hanlon briefed Gordon while his men began recovering the dead.  “Commissioner, this is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen.  It’s enough to give me nightmares.  First of all, that boat is loaded to the gills with dope.  I think they got bags of white powder stuffed in every nook and cranny.  A lot of it burned, but there’s more than enough left to start your own cartel.  Second, in the middle of the boat, there’s this big room that looks like a Chinese restaurant on steroids.  It got torched, but you can still tell what it was.”

“How about the victims?”

“That’s the weirdest part.  In the big room we found a man with a DEA badge and a cut throat, twelve goons all wearing black, a woman lying in a snake pit, and an old Chinese guy who had a grappling hook blasted through his stomach.  Oh, and snakes.  Lots of dead snakes.”

Gordon turned to Colby.  “You may not need that counterterrorism unit, after all.”

She looked at the charred ship with a sneer.  “Batman….”

 

“Bruce, take a look at this.”  Leslie held out a flesh-colored medicinal patch about the size of a postage stamp.  A broken microchip lay in the middle of the sticky side.

“Interesting.”

 “I found it on her back, just below the neck.”

He sniffed the patch.  “There’s some sort of drug in the adhesive.  I have a testing solution in my belt.”

“Any idea how it got there?”

“Doctor Manchu.”

He opened one of his belt pouches, took out a small bottle, and placed two drops on the patch.  The liquid instantly turned green.

“One of the strong opiates.  That explains how he was able to manipulate her mind.  He used the microchip and the drug to modify her thought patterns.  The chip must’ve been smashed when her back hit the dragon sculpture, and that released her from his control.”

“Without the opiate, her mind should return to normal by the time she wakes up.”

“How’s her vital signs?”

“Steady.  No better, no worse.”

“She has to make it.  She’s the only joy I’ve got.”

“I’m sorry your life’s that grim, Bruce.”

“Imagine how I’d be without her.”

“No, thanks.  If there’s one place I’ve learned I don’t want to be, it’s inside your head.”

 

Throughout the night, Selina’s heart rate and respiration climbed slowly but consistently.  A few minutes before five, she opened her eyes and saw Bruce’s tired face.

“Welcome back,” he said.

Still groggy, she asked, “Where am I?”

“Doctor Thompkins’ place.  Relax, you’re safe.”

“The last thing I remember is putting a gold key in a lock.”

He smiled and held her hand.

She could tell his cheerfulness was forced.  “A lot’s happened since then, hasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Bad stuff?”

He nodded.

“Did I hurt anybody?”

“Me.”

She frowned.  “Ooh.  Do I want to know the details?”

“We’ll talk when you’re more awake.  Just rest.”

 

Two hours later, Leslie checked her vitals one last time.

“How am I?”

“Remarkable, considering what you’ve been through.  Go home and take it easy for a few days.  Let your body recover.  Have Bruce call me if you need anything. Otherwise, I’ll stop by tomorrow morning and look in on you.”

“Thanks so much.”

“You’re quite welcome.  It’s not every day that one of my volunteers also gets to be a patient.  Now if I could only convince your husband to quit his vigilante life, you’d both be a lot healthier.”

Selina watched him as he suited up for the ride back home.  “But then he wouldn’t be the real Bruce Wayne.”

 

No rest for the weary.  Bruce barely got Selina back to Wayne Manor and comfortable in bed before the Bat-signal blazed in the dawn sky.  He put on a fresh Batsuit and drove to police headquarters.

Gordon and Colby were waiting on the rooftop.

“Where the hell were you last night?” Colby demanded.

“Closing Doctor Fu Manchu’s drug pipeline before it opened.”

Her eyes grew wide.  “Fu Manchu?”

“Your FBI people would’ve been in way over their heads with him.  If you want confirmation, you’ll find his body in that burned ship at Pier Twenty.”

Gordon coughed.  “We already did.”

“One of his people killed Agent Chan.  I’d like to see him get a posthumous commendation.  It was his detective work that enabled us to solve the mystery.”

“Did you find Catwoman?”

“Manchu had her captive.  She’s recovering.”

“And the assassinations?” Colby asked.

“All part of his plot to destabilize the city and, eventually, the country.”

“My gang theory missed the mark, it seems.”

“Next time, try studying the city, as well as the statistics.  I’ll send the commissioner a list of Manchu’s other agents in Chinatown.”

“That should about wrap it up,” Gordon said.

“One more thing, Ms. Colby.  Manchu was working on a system of mind control using opium and microchip transmitters.  Here’s a broken one.”  He handed her a small plastic bag.  “Have your research people look into it.  Chances are we’ll see the technique again.”

“Thank you.  I think.  This was supposed to be an FBI operation.  I’m not sure how to explain to Washington that someone in a bat suit aced us on it.”

Batman folded his arms.  “A wise man once said, ‘There is no limit to the good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit.’”

“This won’t be in my career highlight reel, that’s for certain.”  She sighed.  “I’ve got a flight to catch.  Good day, gentlemen.”

When she was gone, Gordon grinned.  “Nice work, Batman.  You sure showed her.”

“She’ll be a better agent for the experience, Commissioner.”

 

Tired as he was, Bruce could not sleep that night.  His fitful tossing and turning finally woke Selina.

“Darling, what’s wrong?”

“I can’t get my mind off of how close I came to killing you.  It was like being on autopilot.  I pulled out the grappling gun, pointed it straight at you, and...and....”

She kissed him.  “It’s okay.  It’s over.  Nothing happened.”

“You don’t understand.  For that moment--for those few seconds--I wanted to pull the trigger.  I had my finger on it.  I started to apply pressure.  I wanted to kill you.”

“But you didn’t.”

“Doesn’t matter.  I should not have gotten to that point.  I should have had better self-control.”

“You had it.  Something stopped you from firing.  Don’t be so hard on yourself.  Sometimes, you forget Batman is human under all that armor.”

Tears rolled down his cheeks.  “Three times in the last week I thought I’d lost you.  When you disappeared and didn’t return.  When I saw how thoroughly Manchu had brainwashed you.  Then when I raised the gun.”

“Bruce, I wasn’t the only one whose mind Manchu played with.  Don’t you see?  He used what he did to me to rip you up emotionally.  He was a smart SOB.  I think he knew he couldn’t defeat you from the outside, so he tried to do it from the inside.”

“It nearly worked.  I was afraid your reprogramming couldn’t be undone.”

Wiping his tears, she held him close.  “I’m so sorry it’s haunting you, darling.  I guess I’m the lucky one, ironically, since I can’t remember any of it.  Please don’t let false guilt eat you up.  Manchu’s dead.  Let all the ‘what-ifs’ die with him.  It’s unfair to both of us to keep second-guessing yourself.”

He sighed.  “You’re right.  I don’t know why I’m hanging on to it.  The important thing is that we’re still alive and still together.”

“Yes.  You know it just isn’t that easy to get rid of me.”  With an impish smile, she began to sing.  “The cat came back the very next day.  The cat came back.  She couldn’t stay away.”