THE DYING OF THE LIGHT

 

            From a platform atop the twelve-story Madison Building, Batgirl kept a watchful eye on the Gotham streets below.  At almost any given moment, she could spot a situation that needed her intervention.  “Overworked and underpaid as usual, Barb,” she said to herself.

            A reddish-blue streak in the night sky briefly caught her attention.  It vanished quickly, and she dismissed it as a meteorite.

            “Hello, Batgirl.”

            Caught completely off-guard, she turned to see a large man in a blue bodysuit and red cape descending to the roof beside her.  Exhaling deeply, she asked, “Superman?”

            “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to scare you, Miss Gordon.”

            She tensed up.  “Excuse me?”

            He smiled unassumingly.  “I can see who you are.  The x-ray vision thing.”

            “Oh, yeah.  I…don’t think we’ve actually met before.  What brings you to Gotham tonight?”

            “I was on my way back to Metropolis and saw you here, so I thought I’d ask about our mutual friend.”

            “Batman?”  With a sigh, she stepped off the ledge and sat down.  “It’s been a long couple of months.  He’s healing nicely from the accident.  I mean, he’s a healthy guy in great shape to begin with.  But broken bones take time to heal.  Considering how badly that drunk driver mangled the Lamborghini, his doctors are amazed at how far he’s come.”

“Are they predicting a full recovery?”

“Oh, definitely.  But he still has another month or so before he can even think about getting back into action.”

            “I’ll bet it’s making him stir crazy.”

            She rolled her eyes.  “Alfred’s threatening to chain him down if he doesn’t stop removing his leg brace.”

            “And Tim?”

            “His injuries weren’t as bad, but he still got a broken arm, whiplash, and internal bruises.”

            “So that leaves you to fight the bad guys, huh?”

            “Pretty much.”  She stood up and stretched.  “Not only has my workforce gotten smaller, but the crime rate took an immediate jump.”

“I’ve heard.”

            “It’s awful.  It didn’t take long for crooks to notice Batman wasn’t around.  What’s worse, Joker and a few others took advantage of the opportunity to escape.  Criminals aren’t afraid anymore with Batman out of the picture.  It’s the good people who are scared.” 

            “Why haven’t you taken a break?”

            “It’s tempting, believe me, but I can’t.  Maybe it’s because I’m you-know-who’s daughter.  Someone has to help the cops.”

            “Is anyone helping you?”

            “Nightwing and the new Catwoman have pitched in a few times, but that’s it.”

            “Well, tell Bruce I’m thinking about him, and give him my regards,” he said before flying off into the night.

            “Will do.”  Adjusting her gloves, she peered down at the streets again.  “So much work, so little time.”

 

            Just below the financially struggling Fantasy Factory toy warehouse, Joker relaxed in a converted basement apartment.  Taking a deep breath, he asked, “You smell that, Harley?”

            “Smell what, Puddin’?”

            “The sweet aroma of freedom.  No Arkham, no cops, and no Batman!  It’s been so nice, like a dream come true.  The flying pest is gone, and I feel like celebrating.”

            “Are ya sure he’s gone?”

“No one’s seen him in weeks.  Even Mayor Bland-n-boring says he doesn’t know what happened to him.”

“Doesn’t mean he won’t be back.”

“When good fortune comes my way, I’m not one to question it.  Strike while the iron’s hot.”

She sat in his lap and gave him a kiss.  “What big plan are you cooking up this time?”

            “I realized something during my last tour of duty at Arkham.  Bigger isn’t always better.  Sometimes, you can unnerve people just by flat out shooting them.  And it’s much cheaper than demolishing a whole city.”  He picked up his pistol, pointed it at a newspaper photo of the mayor, and fired.

            The bullet made a hole in the middle of Brandenburg’s face.

 

            Bruce Wayne felt like he was being driven insane.  His leg itched beneath the hard plastic brace, he could hardly find a comfortable position to sit in, and there wasn’t anything decent on television.  “I’m going nuts,” he muttered in irritation.

“Is there anything I can do for you at the moment, sir?” Alfred inquired.

“You should know better than to ask that.  Yes, get me downstairs to the Batcave so I can have a real workout.”

“I meant within reason, Master Bruce.”

He gritted his teeth and tried to ignore the itching.  “It is reasonable, Alfred.  That physical therapist is moving so damn slowly, I’ll be fifty before he’s finished.  If I was a star athlete, he would’ve had me back on the field by now.”

“Have you expressed your concerns to him?”

“Of course.  But he’s all ‘Oh, Mr. Wayne, I don’t want to go too fast and maybe reinjure you.’  Personally, I think he’s just dragging it out so he can get a bigger paycheck.”

Alfred folded his arms.  “I can find you another one, if you insist.”

“I’ll give him one more week.  If he doesn’t pick up the pace by then, I may accept that offer.  You know, I can be my own therapist if I could just—ow!  If I could just move around better.”

“To paraphrase the old adage, a man who acts as his own physician has a fool for a patient.”

Bruce scowled.  “Go check on Tim.  Maybe he needs something.”

 

The sudden spike in crime was becoming a big issue in Gotham’s fall city council elections.  Mayor Brandenburg campaigned for fellow entrepreneur and council hopeful Len Owens, a law-and-order man who reminded him a bit of his predecessor in office, Randy Golini.

Owens held a small rally in front of a row of pleasant-looking East End stores that had recently opened as part of a revitalization project.  With crime down and employment up in that neighborhood, it seemed an ideal place to stage a campaign photo op.

He used all the right phrases: “show the criminals who’s boss,” “safeguard the city for the decent people of Gotham,” “by working together, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish,” and the like.  Supporters cheered and applauded in the presence of TV cameras, bolstering the perception that their candidate was a force to be reckoned with.

When Owens finished, Brandenburg made a few brief remarks in support of his friend, then chose to answer some impromptu questions from the reporters.

“Hey!”  He was interrupted by a loud, nasal voice which seemed to be coming from above.  “Mister Mayor, I got a question!”

The crowd turned and saw Harley Quinn on the roof of a dry cleaners, bullhorn in hand.

“I think the crime rate’s just fine where it is,” she shouted.  “So who should I vote for?”

Brandenburg motioned to his police guards.  “Get some men over there right now!”  Turning his attention back to the crowd, he tried to regain his composure and act like Harley hadn’t appeared.  “Joe, could you repeat that?”

A man in a tan overcoat and fedora slowly made his way to the front.  “Forget about Joe.  The lady asked you a question.  Why don’t you answer her?”

“Number one, she’s no lady.  Number two, the question was obviously a…Joker!”

The Clown Prince of Crime tossed away his hat and cackled with glee.  “Live and in person!”  With the crowd stunned, he pulled a pistol from his jacket and fired two shots at Brandenburg.  Slipping on a gas mask, he fired a third shot at the ground.  In seconds the crowd was enveloped by a cloud of green knockout gas.  By the time he made his way across the street to meet Harley, he was the only one still on his feet.

 

            Trying to get his mind focused on anything besides his aches and immobility, Bruce spent time reviewing R&D and other reports from Wayne Enterprises.  He was looking over a slate of senior employees recommended for promotion when Alfred threw open the door.

            “Master Bruce, terrible news!”

            He put down his pen and looked at the butler.  “What is it?”

            Marching over to the television, Alfred grabbed the remote and turned it on.  “Joker just tried to assassinate the mayor.”

            “What?”

            “And here it is again, in slow motion,” the announcer said.  “This is the video our Channel Nine cameraman shot less than half an hour ago.  There you see the Joker coming up in the lower right of your screen.  He pulls out a gun and fires…looks like two times.  Then he fires or throws down a gas bomb.  Everything turns green, then black.”

            Oh, God, Bruce thought.

            “We have some updates to pass along, both from officers at the scene and reporter Karen Ramirez at Gotham General Hospital.  Police confirmed that Mayor Brandenburg was not—not—seriously injured.  They are saying one of the bullets grazed his left hand, and the other apparently embedded itself in the podium.  The Mayor is being treated at Gotham General as we speak and should be released this evening, again according to police.  We are also hearing that two to three dozen people are being treated as a result of exposure to Joker’s cloud of gas.”

            Alfred muted the volume and looked at his employer.  “I thought I should let you know, sir.”

            “Help me get my brace off.  I’m going down to the cave.”

            “Absolutely not.  You aren’t going anywhere, sir.”

            “Alfred, don’t do this.  I’ve got to go after Joker.”

            “If you did that in your present state, I have no doubt you’d come out on the losing end.  No, you must take care of yourself so that you can return to action at a later time.”

            “But—”

            Alfred wagged a finger at him.  “Don’t force me to take drastic measures.”

            “Such as?”

            “I’ll hide the Batsuits if I must, sir.  It’s for your own good.”

            Rrrgghhh!” he growled as he slapped the sofa.  “I’ve been cooped up for eight weeks now.  Do you have any idea what it’s doing to me?”

            “It’s making you rather difficult to live with, for one thing.  Seriously, I know it’s hard on you.  Maybe one of the hardest things you’ve ever done.  But I also know we both have confidence in Commissioner Gordon and his men.  Perhaps Batman’s absence will give them a chance to shine.”

            “Yeah.  I don’t want to discount Jim’s thin blue line.  They do a hard job and do it pretty well, for the most part.  I’d feel a lot worse if Brandenburg had been badly hurt.  He’s a good man.”  Bruce stared at the television for a minute, then returned to his paperwork.  “Please send some flowers and my condolences to his residence.”

            Alfred smiled.  He’d won—this time.  “Gladly, sir.”

           

Amid tightened security, Commissioner Gordon held a press conference at police headquarters that evening.  He tried to reassure Gotham that his officers were making every effort to apprehend Joker and Harley, but other than increasing security for city leaders, he admitted there wasn’t a lot they could do at the moment.

“We’re following up some leads and tips called in by citizens.  It goes without saying that Joker is our most cunning enemy.  While he is quite adept at not being found, he’s also a publicity hound.  We’re hoping his need for attention will once again get the better of him.”

“Commissioner, any speculation as to his motive?”

“Joker doesn’t need a motive.  He’s pure evil.”

“Do you think he’ll try again?”

“We have to proceed on the assumption that he will.  Whether it’s the mayor or some other public official, we can’t afford not to assume he intends further acts of violence.”

“Commissioner, this attack on Mayor Brandenburg doesn’t speak well of your department’s ability to fight the rising crime rate.  If our elected officials aren’t even safe, why should the average resident feel secure?”

“I disagree with your assumption.  Violent crime didn’t go up overnight, and it won’t go down overnight, either.  We’re putting more officers on the street, including five hundred new academy graduates.  I think the citizens of Gotham do and should feel safe.”

“Commissioner, crime did rise practically overnight.  Let’s be honest here.  Why is it that no one wants to mention the B word?  What about Batman?”

A long silence followed, then a sigh from Gordon.  “As I have said before, we don’t know what’s become of Batman, and we can’t sit around waiting for him to reappear.  I know Batgirl’s been seen recently.  I’m not sure about Robin.  In any case, he has voluntarily served the people of Gotham for many years.  His service has been invaluable and without remuneration.  He is under no obligation to us, and we cannot ask him or his allies to do more than they already have.  But if you’re watching this, Batman, Robin, let me say that if you can help us out again, we will welcome your return with open arms.”

 

Batgirl didn’t see the broadcast.  She was out searching for Joker.  Unfortunately, her search got delayed by the crimes in progress she felt obligated to stop.  It was close to eleven when she finally got a breather.  By then, she was too tired—and too angry—to think much about Joker.

Just outside of the East End, she saw a slinky silhouette doing back flips over the rooftops.  It wasn’t long before Teri, newly christened as Catwoman, spied her too, and leaped over to make contact.

“Fancy meeting you here,” the Cat said.

“I hope your evening’s going better than mine.”

Catwoman shook her head.  “It’s kinda ‘night of the living scumbags’ out here.”

“You, too?  It’s like somebody turned over the box and let all the rats escape.”

“I’m telling ya.  You after Joker?”

Batgirl frowned.  “Yes.  Not that I’ve really had time to find him, with all these jerks I’ve been putting the hurt on.”

“Where’s Batman disappeared to?  Do you know?”

“He’s been sick.  Very sick.”

“Bummer.  I hope he’s well soon.”

“He will be, but it’s gonna take time, unfortunately.  I can’t do this by myself for much longer.”

Catwoman gave her a sisterly hug.  “I’m still on call.”

“Yeah, but it sounds like you’ve got your own crazies to deal with.”

“Right now, the East End doesn’t look much different from Downtown.  Crooks are all over the place, and the cops can’t be everywhere.”

“I know.”  Batgirl stared down at a burglarized liquor store.  “Who would’ve thought the absence of one man—a vigilante, at that—could make such a difference so quickly?”

 

Gordon’s remarks did little to encourage residents, not that there was much which could.  People were worrying about crime for the first time in a long time, and an atmosphere of unease settled over the city.

The police did their level best, but such a sudden, across-the-board jump in crime taxed their resources.  They started to make some headway, but in an age where perception had become more influential than reality, the general feeling was that the Gotham PD were losing the fight, especially after Joker’s attack on the mayor.

District Attorney Keith Baker appeared on one of the morning news shows in an effort to forestall any more media sensationalism.  “We are dealing with this spike in crime.  Nobody needs to hit the panic button, or move to Metropolis, as one pundit suggested.  Based on the number of arrests and the drop in emergency calls in just the last three days, I have full confidence that we’re beginning to turn the tide.  But it’s not going to be finished tomorrow, or next week, or next month.  When we find and arrest Joker, hopefully that will send a loud, clear signal to the criminal element that recess is over.

“The mayor, Commissioner Gordon, and I, we know what’s at stake.  We know the people of Gotham are concerned, and they have every right to expect us to make the city safe for them, whether it’s from Joker or run-of-the-mill street criminals.  And that, I believe, is what our efforts will accomplish.”

After the interview concluded, Baker went downstairs and met the limousine to take him to work.  As he climbed in, the driver locked the doors and said, “Hang on!”

Tires squealing, the car accelerated and peeled out onto Commercial Avenue.   Baker was shoved back in his seat as the driver poured on more speed.  “Watch it!  I’m not in that big a hurry.”

The limousine leaped and lurched its way over dips, around corners, and through intersections before coming to an abrupt halt near the Gotham Cemetery.

“This is the wrong way!” Baker protested.  “And who do you think you are, Mario Andretti?”

Turning around, Joker removed his cap and cocked the trigger on his .44 Magnum.  “Guess again!”

 

As befitted such a shocking development, Baker’s murder saturated the media that night.  Much was made of the chilling note left beside the body in the limo: “Shootings will continue until morale improves.  By order of Joker.”

Barbara emerged from the Batcave as Bruce watched the horrific news.  With tears rolling down her cheeks, she said, “I heard on the police radio.”

Bruce seethed with frustration.  “Damn Joker!  Damn him!  Baker was as solid as they come, really committed to justice.  It’s a huge loss.”

“Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse.  And right after he talked about sending a message….”

“Joker sent an even louder and clearer one.  He’s winning, big time.”

 “It’s madness!”

“Agreed.  And I’ve got to do something about it.”  He stood up slowly.  With stiff movements, he plodded toward the cave entrance.

She scooted in the way and tried to push him back.  “No, no, no.  It’s still much too soon for you to suit up.  One punch from Joker and you’d be flat on your back.”

“I have to do what I have to do, Barb.”

“Let Dad handle it this time.  Please.  I’ll help, and so will Dick.  We’ll bring Joker in for you.  Consider it a get well present.”

“No offense, but none of you scare him.  I do.  And the longer I wait, the bolder he gets.”

“Bruce, if you get hurt you may end up in worse shape and be back in the hospital, this time for months instead of weeks.  Did that ever cross your narrow mind?”

“If I hadn’t been cooped up here like a prisoner, I might’ve prevented a lot of  this,” he protested.

“Read my lips.  It’s too soon!”

“When will it be time?  How many people have to get shot before my so-called friends let me work?  I know my body.  If that stupid therapist would stop treating me like I’m geriatric….”

Argh!  You always do what you want, so why am I wasting my time?”

“I don’t know.”

“What kind of flowers do you want at your funeral?”  Without waiting for a response, she turned and stalked out of the room.

 

Crime in the overnight hours rose again, as felons were energized by Joker’s audacity.  When the sun rose on another gloomy day, no one knew what might happen next.

Brandenburg and Gordon met for two hours to discuss options.  After ruling out a curfew or calling on the national guard, they agreed to cancel all police leave and institute mandatory overtime until Joker was apprehended.  Once again, they marveled at how one man could make the leaders of the fourth largest city in the country feel so impotent.

Towards evening, Barbara went to the commissioner’s office to prod him to take a break and enjoy her company at dinner.  “Dad, you need to get away for a while.  Got anything in your freezer?”

“Some chicken and mixed vegetables, I think.”

“Great.  I’ll come over and fix you a nice home-cooked meal.”

He flashed a weary smile.  “There’s an offer I couldn’t refuse.  Where are you parked?”

“In the garage.”

“Fine.  Just follow me home.”

After they left the police building, she noticed a dark red car which seemed to be tailing her from a distance.  Or was she just being paranoid, given all that had occurred?

The car stayed with her through traffic, disappearing and reappearing on occasion.  Her anxiety rose when the driver turned onto the street where Gordon lived, but as she slowed to pull into his driveway, the car passed her and continued on.

She arrived about a minute behind Gordon and immediately noticed heavily armed officers guarding his house.  She got out of her car and said, “You didn’t tell me you had company.”

“Mayor’s orders.”

The rumble of an engine caught her attention, and she glanced up.  The red car  had turned around and was speeding toward them.  She saw a flash and a gun barrel sticking out the passenger side window.

“Dad!” she screamed, instinctively leaping in front of him.  Too late, she realized she didn’t have her Batsuit on.  One of Joker’s bullets pierced her abdomen.

 

“Did you get him?” Harley asked.

“I’m not sure.  I hit one cop and a girl.  Looked like his daughter.”

“Ooh, that should count for something,” she said as the car zoomed away.

Joker rolled the window up.  “If you can’t kill ‘em, at least rattle their cages.  You know, Harley, I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in years.  We’ve got everyone in this awful town afraid of their own shadows.  All for the cost of a couple of guns and ammo.  Chaos on a budget!”  He laughed maniacally.

 

Gordon couldn’t read the emergency room doctor’s expression as he walked up.  “How is she?”

The doctor motioned for him to sit down.  “Your daughter’s prognosis is very favorable.  Her life is not in danger.  She’s stable, and her vital signs are strong.  Although the slug did some internal damage, the good news is it was comparatively minor.”

“So what’s the bad news?”

“As it exited, the bullet shattered her third lumbar vertebra.  Her spinal cord was crushed, and there are still fragments of bone pressing on it.”

Gordon lowered his head.  “In other words, she’s paralyzed.”

“I’m afraid so, sir.  Her body could tolerate additional surgery, in theory.  However, any more attempts to remove the bone fragments next to her spinal cord could end up making things worse.  It’s just too risky.”

“I understand,” the commissioner said, fighting back tears.

“I’m very sorry.  I wish it weren’t so.”

“Where is she now?”

“Still in recovery.  The anesthetic will keep her out for another half hour or so, but I’m sure she’d love for you to be there when she wakes up.”

 

            The first thing Barbara noticed as she opened her eyes was the brightness of the room.  Squinting, she yawned and focused on the relieved face of her father.  “Dad?”

            “Right here, Barb.”

            “Oh, good,” she muttered.  “You weren’t hurt.  Was it Joker?”

“Afraid so.  But we’ll get him, don’t worry.  You just rest.”

“How am I?  What are the doctors telling you?”

            “You’re going to be fine.”

            She frowned.  “Really?”

“Really.”

“You aren’t just humoring me?”

            “That’s what the man said.  Your outlook is good.”  He tried to sound upbeat.

            “Then why can’t I feel my legs?”

            Fidgeting, he wondered whether or how to tell her.

            “C’mon, Dad.  Level with me.  I have a right to know.”

            He swallowed hard and struggled to get the words out.

            “What else did the doctor say?”

            “You’re paralyzed from the waist down.”

            It took a moment to fully sink in.  “I was afraid you’d say that.  Damn!  Permanently?”

            He nodded.

            She closed her sleepy eyes, and tears flowed down her cheeks.  Life as you know it just ended, Barb.  Like mirrors breaking, the elements of that life shattered one by one.  Batgirl—gone forever.  Crime fighting—finished.  Her on-and-off relationship with Dick—history.  Riding her beloved motorcycle—impossible.  All because of one madman’s bullet.

            Squeezing her hand, he said, “What you did…it was very heroic.”

            She wiped the tears.  “You’re my hero, Dad.  I couldn’t let Joker kill you.”

            “At what cost, though?”

            “Don’t take this wrong, but right now Gotham needs you a lot more than it needs me.  Things would be so much worse if it was you in this bed.”

            “Don’t think I wouldn’t trade places with you in an instant, Barb.  One of the main reasons I’ve worked as hard and long as I have in this job is to bring you a better life.  I can’t even find words to describe what I’d like to do to Joker right now.  And if you want to know the whole truth, I’m also a little angry at Batman.  He picked one helluva bad time to go on vacation.”

            “Dad, he’s been sick—  She stopped abruptly, realizing her foggy mind was letting too much slip.

            “How do you know?”

            “Know what?”

            “You just told me Batman was sick.  How do you know that?”

            “I…must’ve been thinking about someone else.  Still woozy from the anesthesia.”

            For a variety of reasons, he decided not to push any further.  “You just focus on getting well, Barb.  That’s the most important thing.”

            She began to cry again.  “So what happens then?  What am I going to do with myself?  It feels like my life is over….”

            “Barb, we both know that isn’t true.  Anyway, there’ll be plenty of time later to think about the future.  Right now, you need rest.  Concentrate on that.  And whatever you ultimately decide to do, I have no doubt you’ll succeed.  I believe you can accomplish whatever you put your mind to.”

            “Thanks.”  She yawned again.  “Can you do me one favor, Dad?”

            “Sure, Barb.  Anything.”

            Call Dick.  He deserves to hear it from you before he sees it on TV.”

           

            When Bruce learned of her shooting, he plunged deeper into guilt and depression.  “I can’t be this powerless.”  It just wasn’t right.  People he cared so much about, all in the line of fire because of his inability to protect them.

            He knew he had to visit her.  After two days of pleading, he persuaded Alfred to take him to the hospital, albeit with a cane.  Flashing a special pass from Gordon, the two men made their way by the armed guard stationed outside her room.

            To his surprise, she was sitting up in bed, busily working on a crossword puzzle.

            “Hello, Barbara.”

            She frowned.  “Bruce?  What are you doing here?”

            Gritting his teeth, he gave Alfred the cane and trudged over to her bedside.  “I’m so sorry.  How are you?”

            “Depends on which half.”

            “Your father told me.”  He choked up.  “I can’t help but feel partly responsible.”

            She gave a slight frown.  “Not unless you’re name’s Joker.”

            “I could’ve stopped him.”

            “Alfred, can you please knock some sense into your boss?”

            “I’ve been trying, Miss Gordon, but he’s even more stubborn than usual lately.”

            “Bruce, you need to be at home recuperating, not up here playing martyr.”

            “I’m tired of sitting around doing nothing while the city goes to hell.”

“We already had this conversation.  It’s Dad’s responsibility to keep Gotham safe, not yours.  Sorry to be so blunt.  I know, sometimes he can’t do it without you, but this time he’ll have to.  If you really want to brighten my day—which I assume is why you came—then go back to the mansion, prop your feet up, and wait for your body to heal.  And for Pete’s sake, put your ego on a diet,” she added with a smile.

Bruce looked at the wheelchair beside her bed and touched her hand.  “You don’t seem to have lost your spunk.  Are you sure—I mean, has it—”

            “Am I sure I’m not in denial?  Oh, yeah.  Just ask Dad or Dick.  They’ll tell you I’ve cried enough to fill Gotham Harbor.  And when I’m alone at night, it gets pretty depressing.  I look at the skyline and so want to be outside tracking down Joker.  But I don’t have any illusions.  I know I’ll never suit up and kick butt again.  Hell, I can’t even walk to the bathroom.”

            “When you’re released, I’d be honored if you would stay at Wayne Manor for your recuperation.  You can have the run of the place.  Use the gym, the swimming pool, the weight room.  Whatever your therapist recommends.  It’s the least I can do.”

            Knowing she couldn’t go back to living by herself for a while, she accepted.  “I’d be delighted.  While I’m there, I can help Alfred keep you in line.”

            “Barbara, I don’t need any more nursemaids!”

With an intense look, she stared into his eyes.  “Listen to me!  You were in a serious wreck.  The drunk hit you so hard, he was impaled on his own steering column.  You need more time to recover.  Let Dick and the cops handle Joker.  You need to be at full strength for the future.”

            “Assuming there is a future.  How high will the body count go in the meantime?  You know he’ll try again to get your father and Brandenburg.”

            She picked up the puzzle and sighed.  “I think you’re the one in denial, Bruce.  You won’t listen to friends who care about you?  Fine.  Then I beg you, at least listen to your own body.  Don’t risk more injuries by rushing things just to be a hero.”

           

Dick Grayson was sitting in the study when Bruce and Alfred returned home.

“I thought we changed the locks after you moved out,” Bruce said with a smirk.

Dick flashed a lock pick.  “I had a great teacher.”  He stood up and shook Bruce’s hand.  “How’s your recovery going?”

Bruce sat down stiffly.  “Not fast enough, that’s for sure.  I was just at the hospital to see Barb.”

Dick lost his jovial expression and plopped on the sofa.  “That’s kinda why I’m here.  You know how much I like to handle stuff on my own.”

“Do I ever.”

“But this…it’s….”

“About the only thing that would make you come to me for help, right?”

“Yeah.  I mean, it’s got me all mixed up inside.  I’ve never dealt with a situation like it before.  I thought I’d better talk to someone before I run out and put an axe through Joker’s skull.”

“It’s good for a man to understand his limits,” Bruce said.

Alfred very deliberately cleared his throat as he left the study.

Bruce ignored the jab.  “I know exactly how you feel.  After Joker almost killed Selina, it took every ounce of control not to beat him to death when I had the chance.”

“I’m furious about what he’s done to Barb, but I feel like he also stole something from me.  Our relationship…our future, assuming we had one.”

“She’s still the same Barbara—pretty, intelligent, feisty.”

“Yeah…but things are different now.  It’s…man, I feel so shallow for even thinking this, but I don’t want a girlfriend who’s paralyzed.”

“With that attitude, you won’t have to worry.”

“I didn’t mean it the way it sounded,” Dick said.  “I’m only telling you my honest feelings.”

“One, feelings can change.  Two, this definitely isn’t the time to make any heavy decisions.  Three, not that it’s my business, but haven’t you two been on-again, off-again since you left Gotham?”

“Yeah.  I date other girls.  That’s between me and her.  What I resent like hell is having the Joker invade my personal life.”

            Bruce pointed to the headline in the paper.  “Even though I sympathize, right now you need to be clear-headed and focused.  Joker’s at war with the city, and the city is losing.  He’s probably planning another shot at Gordon and Brandenburg even as we speak.”

            “I’ve been looking for him.  What else can we do?”

“Work together.”

Dick nodded.  “Oh, like I go out on patrol and you feed me information from the Batcave?”

“No, I mean we go out there as a team.”

“Bruce, you’re still recovering.  Are you sure you want to risk it?”

“Evil wins when good men do nothing.  We’re the only ones with a chance of stopping Joker.  I’ve played hurt before.  A few cortisone and pain shots should keep me going.”  Standing up, he walked unassisted to the grandfather clock.  He set the time to 10:47 and waited as the entrance to the Batcave opened. 

“What about your reflexes?”

“I haven’t told you about the new suit I’ve been working on.  It’s made of a wonderful fabric I got from Lucius.  One and a half times more protection and thirty percent less weight.” 

“Wow!  How does it do?”

“I haven’t worn it yet.  Now would be a good time, don’t you think?”

 

Alfred was there when they reached the bottom of the stairs.

“Still trying to stop me?” Bruce asked.

“No, sir.  Quite the contrary.  I’ve brought all the systems online, and they’re ready.”

“I don’t understand.  Four hours ago I could barely get you to take me to visit Barbara.”

The butler folded his arms.  “On the way home, I could see the pent-up anger in your eyes.  I realized I could no longer dissuade you from going back into action, despite my well-founded objections.  As I learned in the army, one can disagree with one’s commanding officer, but when the order’s given, one obeys without question.”

“Thank you,” Bruce replied.

“When I think of all that has happened this week,” Alfred continued, “it’s obvious the light is dying in Gotham, and rather quickly.  Injured or not, you are our only hope.  Go, and use your anger.  As the poet said, ‘rage against the dying of the light.’  Godspeed, sir.”

 

In some ways, the news of Barbara Gordon’s shooting unnerved the city most of all.  It seemed that now, civilians were fair game for Joker, especially those with some connection to Gotham’s leaders.  And the citizens’ confidence in those leaders was fading daily.

For many, the murders and attempted murders created a psychological panic more powerful than the physical destruction Joker wrought on Hell Night.  Media pundits labeled it the worst crisis of confidence to hit the city in decades.  Only the criminals were unfazed by it all.  It was business as usual for them by day or night.

Meanwhile, Joker and Harley were in hog heaven over the chaos they’d caused.  They celebrated by killing Mayor Pro-Tem Rascoe and his caddy on the golf course and leaving a note for Gordon at the scene.

As they sped away from the assassination, Joker laughed with glee.  “Life is grand, Harley.  I haven’t had such fun since…come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever had this much fun.”

“I’m glad, Puddin’,” she answered as she drove.  “You deserve it.  Who’s next?”

“Let’s see….”  He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket.  “There’s still the city manager, the rest of the council, and of course Gordon and our illustrious mayor.  I get a mulligan on those two.”

“So what’d you say in the note?”

“Just wishing the old fellow ill.  Too bad about his daughter.  Waste of a good bullet.”

 

Feeling both angry and nauseous, Gordon opened the letter which had just been handed to him.  The missive was brief and clear.  “Still working my way down the list.  But don’t think I’ve given up on you or Mayor Bland-n-boring.  I’ll finish the job soon and reunite the two of you with Baker.  You know I hate to break up the set.  Best wishes for a quick and painful death, Joker.”

Gordon picked up the phone and dialed Brandenburg.  “We need to talk.”

 

Within ten minutes, the commissioner was sitting in Brandenburg’s office.

The mayor read Joker’s note and handed it back.  “Jim, the heat on us is so intense, my neck’s getting sunburned.  You’d never know we narrowly escaped assassination if you listen to the media.  We almost get killed, and they act like we’re passive idiots for not nabbing Joker right away like some pickpocket.  Have they forgotten what this nut can do?”

“They just want to feel secure.  Can’t say I blame them.”

“We’re losing their support by the hour.  It’s a no-win situation.  If I declare a curfew and cancel public events, they’ll yell about how ‘the terrorist has won.’  If we keep things as they are, they’ll accuse us of indifference.”

“Speaking of public events…what about the Mayor’s Extravaganza on Saturday?  If you go, you’ll be a sitting duck.  You have to skip it.”

Brandenburg shook his head.  “Out of the question.  If I didn’t attend, we might as well scrap the whole thing.”

“Now there’s a thought.”

“Jim, I have to go.  How would I explain to all those disappointed kids at St. Thomas’ Hospital that their mayor was too scared to attend?  This is their major fundraiser.  I can’t let them down, even with the added risk.”

“Put me on record as strongly opposing the idea.  I’ve got every available officer on the Joker case and a fifty thousand dollar reward for information leading to his arrest, but I’m no miracle worker.”

Brandenburg nodded.  “You’re doing your best.  But tell me something.  When was the last time you lit the Bat-signal?”

“It’s been over a month.  We quit using it when he stopped responding.”

“I want you to light it tonight.  Leave it on for about fifteen minutes.  Maybe it’ll give the people a glimmer of hope.”

“He won’t show up.”

“But maybe they’ll think he did.  It might even rattle Joker a bit.  I’m desperate, Jim.  If we can’t call on Batman, we’ll have to call on his legend.”

 

Alone on the windswept roof of police headquarters, Gordon powered up the Bat-signal at 8:10.  “Here goes nothing.”

A thermos of coffee kept him warm as the minutes dragged by.  He wished he had the time to spend with Barbara and lift her spirits.  When she called to tell him Bruce Wayne had invited her to recuperate at his mansion, he was relieved.  At least she’d have someone looking after her.

Long term, he didn’t see any reason she couldn’t resume her job as a librarian or, at worst, use her computer and database skills to work for the Gotham PD.  He hoped that between them, he and Bruce could keep her from slipping into despair.

His watch beeped at 8:25.  Downing the last of his coffee, he switched off the light and waited for his eyes to readjust in the dark.

“Leaving so soon?” asked a voice from the shadows.

Jolted, he dropped the thermos, turned, and saw a someone moving toward him.  Fearing a trick, he fingered his service revolver.

A figure in black and blue stepped forward.  “It’s Nightwing, Commissioner.”

Gordon let out a sigh.  “You gave me quite a scare.  I didn’t expect anyone to respond, so I thought you could be Joker.  On the other hand, I was hoping….”

“I brought a friend with me.”

Batman moved out of the darkness, and the moonlight caught his black and yellow chest emblem.  “It’s good to see you, Jim.”  His deep, husky voice was steady and strong.

Gordon’s eyes were like saucers.  “My heavens!”

“I’m sorry to have been away so long.”

“Well, thank God you’re back.  You know we have a big mess on our hands.”

“Joker,” Batman said.

“He’s got a hit list, apparently, and he’s vowing to come after me and Brandenburg again.  The mayor insists on attending the St. Thomas Hospital benefit at Gotham Arena this weekend.  I told him I’m adamantly opposed to it, because he’s basically giving Joker a free shot.”

“Conversely, it may be your best opportunity to apprehend the Clown Prince.  If you can’t nab him trying to sneak in, you can put the arena in lockdown and keep him from getting out.”

“I just hate using the mayor as bait.”

“It sounds like he’s already made that call.  The entertainment—it’s a group of Chinese acrobats, right?”

“They had to cancel,” Gordon replied.  “Visa problems, or something.  It’s now going to be a magic show with Zatanna.”

The thinnest smile crossed Batman’s lips.  “Perfect.”

“You’ve got a plan.”

“Yes,” the Dark Knight said tersely.  “Tell the mayor to make an announcement about the benefit.  I want everyone to know he’ll be there.  Especially Joker.”

“I’ll make him wear a bulletproof suit and put my best officers around him like a blanket.”

“Good.  It’ll be a show to remember.”

Gordon gave him a serious look.  “For all the right reasons, I hope.”

 

As soon as the Batmobile pulled out into traffic, Batman was on the phone.  “Zee, it’s Bruce.”

“Hey, long time no see,” Zatanna answered.  “How’s the banged-up billionaire?”

“I’m healing, slowly but surely.  Listen, I need to meet with you about your weekend gig.”

“The Mayor’s Extravaganza?”

“Uh-huh.  Can you come over around three tomorrow?  I should be done with my physical therapy session by then.”

“Yeah, I suppose.  I’m still getting my program together, but I can spare a little time.  What’s up?”

“I’d rather go into it in person.”

“Okay.  I’ll see you then.  ’Bye.”  She smiled as she put down the phone.  “So…Batman’s back.  This should be interesting.”

 

Brandenburg was greatly heartened by the news of Batman’s reappearance.  On Gordon’s advice, he issued a brief recorded statement in the morning to coincide with the early news shows.

“Citizens of Gotham,” he said, “as your mayor, I understand how Joker’s horrendous shooting spree has left us all badly shaken.  My deepest sympathies and prayers go out to the families of Keith Baker, Dennis Rascoe, and Barbara Gordon.  However, I want to make it very clear that we are not, as some have claimed, asleep at the switch.  The Gotham PD has every single officer it can spare looking for this lunatic.  All elected and appointed city officials now have around-the-clock protection. 

“In these trying days, we can choose one of two responses: to flee or to fight.  I, for one, will not flee.  Neither will I let the most fragile members of our community be neglected in the midst of this crisis.  Tomorrow night, the annual Mayor’s Extravaganza benefitting the children of St. Thomas’ Hospital is scheduled to be held at Gotham Arena.  Contrary to rumors circulating, this event is not being postponed, and I am not canceling my appearance.  To do so would signal the Joker that we are too afraid to live our lives.

“For those who may question the wisdom of continuing with a lighthearted event during such a dark time, I ask you to think of the children.  What message do we want to send them about Gotham City and its character?  That we shrink back in the face of terror, or that we persevere and take care of our own?

“I’m looking forward to the Extravaganza and what is sure to be an amazing performance by the Mistress of Magic, Zatanna.  I hope to see as many of you there as possible.  Thank you, and God bless.”

 

Joker turned down the sound on the TV.  “I guarantee you’ll see us there, Mr. Mayor.  Right, Harley dear?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Think of all the powerful and pompously annoying people who’ll be there.  We can probably whack everyone on my list and then some.  It’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel.  Call the boys and tell ‘em I have a job for tomorrow night.”

“Which boys, Puddin’?”

“The ones with the best aim!  Hahahahahahahaha!”

 

Zatanna arrived at Wayne Manor on schedule, and Alfred promptly escorted her down to the Batcave.

She was taken aback by the appearance of her friends.  Bruce wore a leg brace and moved with the finesse of Frankenstein’s monster.  Tim had a cervical collar, a brace on his right leg, and crutches beside his chair.  Only Dick looked able to fight.

With a note of sadness, she said, “This is a far cry from the team you had on Hell Night.”

“Indeed,” Bruce agreed.  “But it’ll have to do.”

“Based on our conversation, I sort of assumed you were in better shape.”

“I keep the brace on to humor Alfred and my therapist.  I’ve started getting around without it.”

“But you’re back on the street anyway because of Joker?”

“No matter how I feel physically, staying on the sidelines is no longer an option, if it ever was.  I owe it to Barbara.  I believe Joker’s going to make another attempt on Mayor Brandenburg tomorrow night at the show.”

“Great.  Nobody told me I’d be performing in a shooting gallery.”

“Now you know.”

Dick said, “Bruce and I are going to be there to stop him.  Except for Gordon and the mayor, nobody else knows, and we want to keep that element of surprise.  We’re bringing you in because it’s only fair and so you can help us.”

“How?  You want me to turn Joker into a rabbit?”

Bruce chuckled.  “Don’t tempt me.  I want you to do two simple things—wear a communicator and be flexible with the format of your show.”

“Define ‘flexible.’”

“Depending on what happens with Joker, you may have to distract the audience.”

“Isn’t that kinda why I’m there to begin with?”

“Yes,” Bruce replied, “but if there’s a commotion, I want you to keep on with your act like nothing’s happening.  If you wear a communicator, I can clue you in so you don’t panic.”

“Gee, being caught in the crossfire between Batman, Joker, and the police.  What’s to panic about?”

“I’ll give you a Kevlar vest to wear under your tux,” Bruce said half-seriously.

“I’m thinking right about now that I wish I didn’t know any of this.”

“You’re free to back out,” Dick told her.

“I can always get on stage and juggle,” Tim spoke up.

She laughed and said, “Nah, I’ll do it.  For Barbara.  And because I really, really hate what Joker’s done to this city.”

 

Spurred on by Brandenburg’s call to stand firm in the face of Joker’s terror, a large but slightly nervous crowd filed into Gotham Arena Saturday evening before the seven pm show time.  The city’s glitterati mingled with ordinary citizens in a unified effort to support the sick children of St. Thomas’.  A small group of kids who were well enough to attend sat in a special section just to the left of the stage.  They were treated to a pre-show visit with Zatanna, who signed autographs and posed for pictures.

Scattered among the crowd, twenty plainclothes police officers blended in while keeping a lookout.  Sharpshooters dressed as stagehands took positions in the upper corners.  Armed officers in uniform guarded every entrance and exit.  Gordon was leaving nothing to chance.

Backstage near the dressing rooms, Nightwing kept an eye on the logistical comings and goings, a kind of organized chaos involving roadies, caterers, and support personnel.

One of the catering workers who had just come inside quickly headed in the opposite direction from everyone else.  He wore a hat pulled down low and appeared to be concealing something under an oversized coat.  As he disappeared around the corner, Nightwing got a glimpse of bleached white skin under his hat.

“Joker!”  Before he could run in pursuit, he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to look.

A smiling Harley Quinn sprayed knockout gas in his face.  “Sweet dreams, Wingnut!”

 

Joker shed his disguise, slipped down a short ladder, and ran beneath the stage as the show began.  Amid the steel tubing and scaffolding, there was a slender, low-lit maintenance walkway which led to the front of the platform.  A metal latticework covered the end.  Behind it hung a curtain of black crepe, ideal for concealing him and his long pistol.  He took out a knife and sliced a small hole in the material.  Peering out, he saw he had a straight-line view of the VIP section.  In fact, he was less than fifteen feet from the mayor’s seat.

“Fish in a barrel, indeed!”  He loaded his gun and waited for the right moment to get a clear shot at Brandenburg.

 

As Zatanna’s act proceeded without incident, two things bothered Batman: no word from Nightwing and no sightings of Joker.  Watching from a catwalk high above the stage, he constantly scanned the arena with his infrared binoculars.

“Nightwing, report.”

Nothing.

“Come in, Nightwing.”

Silence.

As the magician basked in applause, Batman radioed her, “Zatanna, can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear,” she answered while taking a bow.

“Something’s up.  Be ready.”

“For what?”

“Anything.”

 

Nightwing awoke and found himself bound, gagged, and stuffed inside an equipment trunk.  Carefully bending his knees, he reached inside his boot and palmed a small blade.  Within seconds, he cut the ropes binding his wrists, then freed his ankles and removed the gag.

When he tried to push on the lid of the trunk, it wouldn’t budge.  “Locked from the outside.”  He felt around for his communicator.  Not surprisingly, it was gone.  Harley and Joker’s thugs had done a first class job in taking him out of action.

He maneuvered around in the cramped space and kicked the lid several times.  No luck.  He turned again to try kicking the end panel, which he knew would be the weakest point.

Outside, he heard clattering, and the lid popped open.  A burly roadie looked at him with a scowl.  “What are you doing in there?”

Nightwing leaped out.  “I was wondering that myself.  Thanks.”

The man watched him run away, then looked inside the trunk again.  “Amateur Houdini.”

 

Batman’s eye caught a glint of light below the stage front.  Zooming in with his binocs, he spotted the silver barrel of Joker’s pistol.  At once he dashed to the rear of the catwalk, shot a grappling hook into the metal scaffolding behind the curtains, and swooped down to the backstage area.

 

A few people in the audience got a glimpse of his gliding figure in the shadows.  “Did you see that?  It looked like Batman.”

“Batman?  Where?”

Zatanna smiled and literally pulled a rabbit from her hat.  Relax, everybody.  It’s all part of the show.”

 

Batman dropped through the access door and landed on the walkway beneath the stage.  Batarang in hand, he lunged forward and flung it at Joker, who was poised to fire.

Because of the crowd’s applause, the Clown Prince didn’t know anything was amiss until the Batarang struck his shoulder.  Its impact knocked him off his shooting stance, and he dropped the gun.  “Ow!  Sonofa—  He noticed the distinctive weapon embedded in a stage support.  “Batgirl, I presume?”

“Wrong!”

Joker spun around and saw the towering rage that was Batman.  “No!  Not you!  You’re supposed to be gone.”

“Says who?” Batman growled before grabbing him and slamming the back of his head into a metal pole.

Dazed, Joker fell to his knees, but the Dark Knight yanked him to his feet by the lapels.

“You’ve been a curse on this town for too long!  You’ve killed and hurt people I care about.  So you know what I’m going to do to you, dirtbag?”

Joker grinned.  “I suppose a stern lecture is out of the question?”

With a savage snarl, Batman answered, “I’m going to make you feel pain in ways you never imagined!”

He proceeded to brutally pummel Joker with punch after punch after punch.  A hail of body blows, right and left hooks, and uppercuts rained down in volcanic fury.  Blood spurted in the air as the clown’s nose cracked.

“That’s for Barbara Gordon!”  He threw him to the ground and kicked him in the stomach.  “That’s for Baker!  And this,” he stomped Joker’s crotch with his boot heel, “is because you just piss me off!”

Nightwing came running up.  “Batman!”

His voice jolted the Caped Crusader, who stopped and took a few steps away to regain some composure.  The break also made him realize he was in a good deal of pain.

“Where’ve you been?” he asked through clenched teeth as he reached into his belt for a painkiller injection.

“Harley Quinn gassed me.”

“She probably has a getaway car.  Better go find her.”

Nightwing hesitated.  “Are you sure?”

Batman looked back at the beaten, bloody heap of Joker.  “Yeah.  He’s not worth any more of my energy.”

 

To her credit as an entertainer, Zatanna kept the crowd’s attention throughout. Except for the brief Batman sighting, they were oblivious to the drama going on behind the scenes.

“Zee, have you done your empty cabinet trick?” Batman asked with labored breath.

“Not yet.”

“Do it now.”

When the applause for her needle-through-a-balloon illusion subsided, she signaled her offstage assistant to wheel in the cabinet.  Moving around to the side, she opened the door.

“As you can see, this closet is empty.  Plenty of room to hang your coats or put your toys away, right?”  Closing the door, she waved her wand and said, “Tenibac, emoceb lluf!”

Because the cabinet’s false bottom sat over a well-hidden trap door in the stage, she could feel someone or something climbing inside.

When the movement stopped, she steeled herself and peeked.  “Oh my—” she blurted before recovering.  Forcing a smile, she said, “Mr. Mayor, Commissioner Gordon, and citizens of Gotham, it’s my pleasure to present you with a special gift from Batman.”

She pulled open the door, and the handcuffed, barely conscious form of Joker flopped onto the stage like a dead fish.

The audience reacted with shock, but they quickly realized who it was and knew his current reign of violence was over.  In response, they cheered loudly and gave a standing ovation.

As Gordon’s men swarmed onstage to haul Joker away, Zatanna took a bow.  “Thank you.  Thank you so much.”  Not a bad way to end the evening, she thought.

Gordon turned to the mayor.  “He was right.”

“Who?”

“Batman.  He said it would be a show to remember.”

 

In the street behind the arena, a seething Nightwing fought and subdued Joker’s two henchmen as they ran to join Harley in the van.

She floored the gas pedal and tried to run him down.  He dove out of the way and flung a throwing bird, which smashed through the windshield and struck her in the face.  Unable to see, she crashed into a dumpster and slammed her head into the steering wheel.

Two officers who witnessed the action rolled up in a squad car and took into custody all of Joker’s associates.

Nightwing smiled in satisfaction.

 

When the lights came up and the audience began dispersing, Zatanna hurried back to her dressing room and locked the door with relief.  “Any more shows like that and I may consider early retirement.”  Before she took off her transmitter, she fingered it one last time.  “Batman?  You still here?”

“I’m in the car waiting on Nightwing.  Glad you liked my surprise.”

“That was a bit much for the kids.  And you’re lucky I didn’t totally freak when I saw him.”

“I told you to be ready for anything,” he reminded her.

“That you did.  So how does the other guy look?”

“Not a scratch.”

“What about inside?” she probed.

“My left leg’s killing me, and it would probably be easier to say which muscles aren’t sore.”

“I bet so.  It’s been a good while since you could work out.”

“True.  But I sort of made up for it tonight.”

“Uh, yeah….”  The cruelty underlying his answer bothered her.  “Punching bags are a lot neater, you know.”

“But not nearly as satisfying.”

 

When Nightwing finished with the police, he joined his former mentor in the Batmobile, and they headed home.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look quite that bad when you got through with them.”

“He deserved it,” Batman said coldly.  “Besides, I had a lot of frustration to get out.”

Say hello to the new Batman, Nightwing thought.  Darker, leaner, and meaner….  A lot meaner.