DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET?

 

            He wasn’t going to win a Nobel Prize.

            He didn’t find the cure for cancer.

            He wouldn’t make the cover of Time or Newsweek.

            But working late into the evening in a small anteroom behind his office, Dr. Hugo Strange, Arkham Asylum’s Director of Psychiatry, had made a most amazing discovery.  After several months of carefully studying the evidence, he believed he had finally discerned the true identity of Batman.

            “Bruce Wayne,” he said slowly as he stroked his goatee.  “Yes….”

            Now he just needed a way to test his theory.

 

Thinking he was alone at Wayne Manor, Alfred Pennyworth went down to the Batcave to do some tidying up.  No sooner had he descended the stone steps than he found himself face to face with a headless, six-foot mannequin clad in what appeared to be black spandex.  Upon hearing a clatter in the weapons closet, he asked, “Master Bruce, is that you?”

            Bruce Wayne closed the closet and began toying with three razor-edged Batarangs.  “Hey, Alfred.  What’s up?”

            The butler frowned as he examined the mannequin.  “Planning a new career in  fashion design, are we?”

            Bruce chuckled.  “Not at all.  That’s the prototype for my next generation Batsuit.”

            “I would’ve thought you’d give it more protection, not less.”

            “Oh, but I did.  Step back from the dummy.”

            “Gladly.”

            “You see these new blades?  They can penetrate two inches of solid rock.  Observe.”

            He flung one into the distant wall of the cave, where it embedded itself firmly, then threw a second at an unused mannequin.

            Alfred winced as the Batarang sliced completely through the dummy.

            “Now watch this.”  Bruce hurled the last blade as hard as he could at the black-clad mannequin.

            The Batarang bounced off the material as though it were a rubber toy.

            Swallowing hard, Alfred said, “Most impressive, sir.”

            “It’s a new fabric Lucius brought to my attention.  It provides a hundred and fifty percent of the armor protection my current suit has while weighing thirty percent less.  I’m going to use it to line my boots and gloves, as well.”

            “The increase in mobility can only make you more threatening to the criminal element.”

            Bruce nodded.  “Plus, it’s not like I’m still twenty-five.  This will help me stay on top of my game.”

            “Very good.  When do you plan to debut this new attire?”

            “I haven’t even started on the actual suit yet.”

            “Speaking of dressing up, you do recall that the mayor’s Casino Night for charity is this Saturday?”

            “Selina and I will be there in full force.  Make sure my special trousers are ready.”

            “Which would those be, sir?” the butler asked, frowning.

            “The ones with deep pockets,” Bruce laughed

 

            Hidden in shadows above the stage of Cutie’s, one of Gotham’s seediest topless nightclubs, Catwoman and Teri crouched on a maintenance gangway.  A trio of pole dancers did their thing below as the PA system boomed out “She’s a Beauty.”

            Catwoman pointed at the round table directly beneath them.  “The fat guy in the gray windbreaker.  That’s Dino Mangini.”

            “He doesn’t look like a perv.”

            “They never do.  Just ordinary guys.”

            “How much longer?”

            “It’s almost nine.  Should be soon.  If there’s one thing Corliss is—besides a kiddie porn-peddling slimeball—it’s punctual.”  Catwoman glanced at the doorway.  “There’s our man, right on time.  Got his two bodyguards walking so close, they can smell his cheap cologne.”

            Clad in a black leather jacket, the balding Gene Corliss looked far tougher than he was.  The self-proclaimed “Spielberg of smut” made his way to Mangini’s table and sat down, a guard at each elbow.

            “When do we move?” Teri asked.

            Catwoman shook her head.  “Not yet.  First, Mangini’s gotta flash the money, and Corliss has to hand over the master print.”

            “What’s the name of the film?”

            With a thoroughly disgusted look, Catwoman answered, “Boys Under the Hood.”

“Yuck!”

“I bet there’s a special place in hell for guys like him.”

 

“Evening, Corliss,” Mangini said.

In no mood for pleasantries, the director tapped his fingers on the table.  “The payment, please.”

“Mr. Hebert wasn’t too keen on you raising the price for this one.  But…since our distribution deal worked so well with Summer Boys, he figured it’s worth it.”

“It is.  Now, the money, Dino.”

“Geez.  Whatever happened to the lost art of conversation?”  He reached into his jacket pocket, took out a thick bag, and slid it across the table.  “Twenty grand, as promised.  The other half comes in thirty days, per our agreement.”

Corliss held his hand out to the bodyguard on his left, who gave him a black DVD case.  Carefully placing it on the table, he gestured to Mangini.  “The master disc.  Enjoy.”

At that moment, both men saw a black blur as Catwoman leaped down and landed on the table, whip at the ready.

Mangini eyed her curvaceous figure.  “I tawt I taw a puddy tat!  Mm-mm-mm!”

Giving an angry pout, she purred, “When I’m through with you, Mangini, the only thing you’ll be seeing is an ambulance.”

Corliss jumped up.  “That’s Catwoman, you idiot!”  He moved to grab the DVD, but she stomped one of her spike heels into the back of his hand.

Gotta watch where you put that thing, Corliss.”

He painfully withdrew his hand and bolted for the door, the money sack firmly in his grip.  “Take her out!” he shouted to his bodyguards.

As they drew their guns, Catwoman whirled around and kicked them away.  She jumped off the table, rabbit punching one man and jabbing her boot toe hard in the other one’s stomach.

Mangini tried to run, but a fast whip strike drew blood from his back and stopped him cold.

Teri dove from the rafters and landed in front of Corliss, who did a double take.

“T--two of you?” he stammered.

“The wonders of cloning,” she said before kicking him in the crotch.

By this time, the consternation had drawn attention from the entire club.  Patrons ran for cover, and the dancers scurried offstage, afraid bullets were about to fly.

            Before Corliss’ guards could regroup, Catwoman snatched the DVD, threw her whip around a low-hanging girder, and scrambled back up to the rafters.

            Corliss ran toward the stage, but Teri cast her whip, which wrapped around his ankles.  She jerked it with both hands, and he came down, smashing his head on an overturned chair.

            Two Gotham police officers burst through the club’s door with guns drawn.  “Freeze!  Nobody move.”

            Mangini slowly raised his hands, as did Corliss’ disarmed guards.

            “What’s going on here?” the sergeant in charge asked.  “Catwoman?”

            “Sort of,” Teri answered.  “Up there,” she added, pointing toward the high ceiling.

            “Catch!”  Catwoman called, tossing the DVD to her.

            Fighting off nerves, Teri composed herself and smiled at the sergeant.  “The guy on the floor is child porn director Gene Corliss.  This,” she passed him the DVD, “is his latest disgusting movie.  Inside the bag next to him, there’s a wad of cash from the very unhappy fellow in the gray coat, Dino Mangini.”

            The sergeant moved in as his partner cuffed Corliss’ guards.  “We know Mr. Mangini rather well, don’t we, Dino?”

            “I wanna talk to my lawyer,” Mangini replied.

            “If it can be distributed, whether it’s drugs, stolen merchandise or porn, he and his boss will happily pay to do it.  Downtown, we call him ‘Pipeline.’  This should keep him and Mr. Hollywood there out of circulation for a while.  Thanks for the assist, ladies.”  He turned around.  “Uh, ladies?”

            Catwoman and Teri were nowhere to be seen.

 

            Dr. Strange had come up with and discarded a dozen ideas for proving Bruce Wayne was Batman.  Nothing seemed satisfactory, until he picked up an old newspaper photo of Bruce and Selina at a society function.  “Hmm.”

            He wiped the sweat from his balding head before looking at the picture again.  Taking a red pencil, he circled Selina’s face.  “Perfect.”

 

            Catwoman and Teri were all smiles as they watched from a rooftop across the street while the cops hauled away Mangini and the others.  They exchanged high-fives in celebration.

            “Awesome, girl,” Catwoman said.  “You did great.”

            “Was that, like, my final exam?”

            “As close to one as I could find.  You’re ready to take over.  You really are.  You know the people I know, and you’ve earned their trust.  They’ll help you just like they’ve helped me.  As far as I’m concerned, the East End is now yours.”

            “Yea,” Teri said without enthusiasm.

            Catwoman hugged her.  “I know.  I’ve got mixed emotions, too.  You’ll be fine.  Believe in yourself, don’t try to take on too much at first, and if worst comes to worst, get hold of Batman with this.”  She took off her small utility belt communicator.  “He’s always around.”

            Teri squeezed her whip nervously.  “You’ve been the most awesome teacher, Cats.  Am I ever gonna see you again?”

            “Maybe, but not like this.  It’s time to take my proverbial gold watch and go enjoy ‘retirement.’  My daughter’s almost three now.”

            “You earned it.  You know, I think you’ve told me everything except who you are.”

            Catwoman nodded.  “Security.  If you don’t know, you can’t reveal it to someone else, either by accident or under duress.  I wish I could tell you, but it’s for my own safety.”

            “And your little girl’s.  I understand.”  Teri held her tightly.  “I love you, Cats, and I’m so going to miss you.”

            “Me, too.  But Mama Cat will keep tabs on you from afar.  Now, go make me proud like I know you will.”

            “Thanks.  I guess all that’s left to say is goodbye, huh?”

            “Yeah.  And one other thing.”  Cats stepped back and gently touched both of Teri’s shoulders with the end of her whip.  “I dub thee Catwoman!”

 

            Around midnight, the Batmobile zoomed into the Batcave and parked.  When Batman got out, he saw Selina’s Catsuit and whip neatly mounted inside a glass display case with a note stuck to the door.

            After removing his cape and cowl, he picked up the note.  “Another trophy for you.  Alfred said he’ll move it down to the museum level in the morning.  Love, the newly-retired Selina.”

            He left out a relieved sigh.  One less thing to worry about.

 

            Two afternoons later, Bruce and Selina enjoyed some quiet time reading in the study.  He finished a book on German Impressionism while she got caught up with her mail.  She found a peculiar, three page letter particularly interesting.

            “This is really neat.”

            He looked up from his book.  “You say something, dear?”

            “Nah, just talking to myself.  Man, I hope he gets that going.”

            Putting the book down, he said, “Okay, now you’ve got me curious.  What’s so fascinating in that letter?”

            “There’s a local doctor named Hugo Strange who apparently has the same interest I do in helping abused women and preventing abuse.  He’s outlined a proposed study of long-term post-abuse psychiatric effects on middle-income women.  His theory is that even when the women are freed from abuse situations, it alters the romantic and vocational choices they make throughout life.  I totally agree.  I would love for the Women’s Haven to be able to start a long-term follow-up program.”

            “Sounds very worthy.  What’s he want from you?”

            “Money to help fund the study.”

            He frowned.  “Oh, I see.  ‘Let’s hit up the billionaire’s wife for a grant.’  If he’s legit, seems like he’d have no trouble securing funding.”

            “Well, that’s just it.  In addition to being a researcher, he’s also the chief shrink at Arkham.  Once he tells people that, they kinda run for the hills.”

            “Understandable.  Who is he again?  Hugo Strange?”  The name rang a bell.  “Batman’s met him a couple of times.  Odd sort of man, but I guess it goes with the territory.  Hope he isn’t a nut like Schilling was.”

            “He says it’s a decent living, but he really wants to do more research instead.”

            “Why don’t you two meet?  No harm in talking about it.”

            “He suggests that very thing so he can explain his proposal in more detail, with the hope of getting a grant from the Wayne Foundation.”

            “Take good notes, and I’ll do a little research of my own.  As long as it’s not a cover for some demented experiment, I don’t object to helping him out.”

            “Great.”  She gave him a kiss.  “I’ll go phone him.”

 

            “Ah, Mrs. Wayne, it’s nice of you to call.  I hoped the subject of my proposal would interest you, given your public support for the Women’s Haven and similar organizations.  I’m glad to see it has.  Certainly.  Would tomorrow at six work for you?  I know it’s a bit late, but I’ll have more time to talk after the staff have gone home and the issues of the day are settled.  Fine, I’ll see you then.  I believe our meeting will be quite enlightening for you.  Goodbye, Mrs. Wayne.”

            Strange hung up the phone and stared at the circled newspaper photo of Selina.  A wicked grin crossed his lips.  “Catch the cat to lure the bat.”

 

            Selina had to climb three flights of stairs to get to Strange’s office on the top floor.  An attendant led her through a convoluted route that kept her from being seen by the inmates.  The place itself was creepy enough without having to endure whistles and harassing comments.

            Smiling, Strange welcomed her into his office, locked the door, and invited her to sit down.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Wayne.  You and your husband have done so much to help this city.  I’m humbled that you would agree to consider my research proposal.”

            “I’m all for anything that will help the abused women in Gotham.”  She took a notepad and pen out of her purse.

“Can I get you something to drink?  Coffee?  Mineral water?”

“Water would be great.  How did you develop an interest in the plight of abused women?”

He handed her a glass, then sat at his desk.  “For some time, I’ve been fascinated by the stories of the women who end up here at Arkham.  The majority have histories of abuse, both physical and psychological.  Some endure humiliation in the workplace, while others, as you know, are victims of domestic violence.  My belief is that whatever happened as a result of the abuse, it caused them to make poor choices which ultimately led to them being here.”

“So you want to see if you can keep them out of Arkham by identifying what causes them to make those bad choices once they’re no longer abused.”

“Yes, and develop a reliable method to help them make better choices.”

“What sort of other research have…uh….”  She dropped her pen.

“Mrs. Wayne?”

The room seemed to be spinning.  “I’m, uh, feeling kind of dizzy.”

“Do you want me to get one of the medical doctors?”

“It’s probably hunger.  I haven’t eaten anything since this morning.  Oh, man!”  She grabbed her head.

“Why don’t you lie down for a few minutes?  Here, let me help you over to the couch.”

“Thanks.  I feel faint.”

“Just relax.  You’ll be fine,” he said icily.

She could barely keep her eyes open.  “The water!  You…put….”

He caught her just as she passed out and dragged her back to the room behind his office.  Phase one completed.

 

By eight, Bruce had grown concerned.  Selina’s meeting was only supposed to last an hour, and he hadn’t heard a word from her.  Calls to her cellphone went straight to voice mail.

His research on Dr. Strange did nothing to reassure him.  The man’s past was checkered, to say the least, with a history of violent behavior, bizarre ideas on genetic engineering, and questionable academic shortcuts.  Moreover, there were no signs of any interest in battered women.  Something was wrong.

Alfred buzzed him on the Batcave intercom.  “Sir, there’s a call for you from a Dr. Hugo Strange.  Shall I put it through?”

“By all means.”

 

Selina awoke to discover she was handcuffed to a metal chair anchored to the floor of Strange’s experiment room.  He legs were securely bound by heavy rope, and a gag covered her mouth.

About four feet away, Strange stood holding a phone in one hand and a gleaming razor in the other.

“This is Bruce Wayne,” the voice on the line said.

            “Dr. Hugo Strange, Mr. Wayne.  I’m holding your wife, and I’m about to kill her.”

            “What do you want, Strange?  Money?  A job?”

            The psychiatrist laughed.  “This is not a ransom call, Mr. Wayne.  I only want one thing—you.”

            “Me?”

            “I want you to come to my office at Arkham.  You have fifteen minutes, or your lovely wife dies.”  Holding the phone by Selina’s ear, he loosened the gag and pressed the razor to her throat.

            “Bruce?”

            “Selina!”

            “Bruce, he’s nuts!  He drugged me and—”

            Strange took the phone and walked away.  “Remember, Mr. Wayne, fifteen minutes.  Come alone.  Absolutely no police.  If I see so much as a motorcycle cop anywhere near this place, I will slash her throat.  I look forward to your arrival.  Goodbye, Mr. Wayne.”

 

            Bruce slammed down the receiver and looked over at the Batmobile.  “Mr. Wayne sends his regrets, Strange.  You’ll be meeting Batman instead.”

 

            Strange smiled at Selina.  “Such a gallant man, coming to your rescue.”  He removed his lab coat and shirt to reveal a kind of Batsuit underneath.

            “You’re not Batman,” she snorted.

            “How would you know?  Unless…you know who Batman is.”

            She winced, realizing how blindly she had fallen into his trap.  “You don’t give a damn about battered women.”

            “But you do, which made that the perfect bait to lure you here.  And you, in turn, are the perfect bait for Batman.”  He laughed heartily as he replaced and tightened her gag.  “Thank you so much for your help, Mrs. Wayne.  Or should I call you Catwoman?”

            Weeping bitterly, she felt like a fool.

            “The truth comes out at last, and my theory is proven..  You might wonder why I’m obsessed with Batman.  Why have I spent months and months trying to discover his identity?  Because I hate him!  He’s everything I’m not—rich, attractive, athletic.  And yet…I want to be him.”

            The shattering of window glass could be clearly heard in the main office.

            “There he is now.”

            A small explosion blew away the lock, and Batman kicked the door in.

            “How nice of you to join us, Batman.  I mean, Mr. Wayne.”

            “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Strange.”

            The psychiatrist chuckled.  “Please, Mr. Wayne, skip the pretense.  It’s quite obvious you are Batman.  Just look at the evidence.  I spoke to you not twelve minutes ago.  I warned you against contacting the police.  There’s been no Bat-signal.  How could the Dark Knight get here so quickly, unless he and Bruce Wayne are one and the same?”

            “Maybe we’re just really good friends.  Now, let her go!”  Batman drew out a batarang.

            “No need for violence.  Your wife is free to leave.  I never had any intention of harming her.  She was just the means to get you here and prove my theory.  If Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman, he’d have come sans costume, or called the police anyway.”

Batman cursed himself for not anticipating Strange’s trap, and it only served to make him angrier.

“Aren’t you curious how I figured it out?  More to the point, don’t you want to know what I’m going to do with the information?”

            “Assuming anybody would believe you.”

            Strange picked up a thick stack of folders.  “It’s all documented here in painstaking detail.  Enough proof to convince even the most skeptical.”  He chuckled.  “Honestly, I’m not sure yet what I’ll do with it.  Such unique information could be priceless to some.  How much do you think certain residents of this gated community would pay to know the truth?  Joker?  Two-Face?  Or perhaps one of the mob bosses like Rupert Thorne?  This has the potential to make me quite wealthy.”

“Or quite dead.”

“Is that a threat?  No, of course not.  Batman doesn’t kill.”

“Studies have shown that dealing with men like Joker and Thorne can cause premature death.”

“Are you really that concerned for my welfare, Mr. Wayne?  If I were you, I’d think seriously about packing my bags and getting out of town alive while I could.  Once you’re unmasked, it’s all over.”

            Batman stared impassively, even though he knew Strange had boxed him in.      

            “It’s quite a dilemma, isn’t it?  You can’t let me go, but you can’t kill me, either.”

            The Dark Knight decided it was time to stop being on the defensive.  “Maybe I’ll make an exception.”  He hurled the batarang at the lone overhead light.  It shattered, plunging the room into darkness.

Strange moved to escape, but Batman connected with a fierce right hook to his head before he got very far.  He bounced roughly off the wall and took a swing at Batman, which missed badly.

Batman kicked him in the gut and punched him again, knocking him to the floor.

As Strange tried to crawl toward the open door, he panted, “I…I could always…sell the information to you, Mr. Wayne.”

His fury evident, the Dark Knight picked Strange up and hurled him through the doorway.

The doctor landed with a thud on his own desk and slid groaning to the carpet.

Batman grabbed him again and pitched him over the desk.  He fell onto a chair and overturned it on his way down.

            Bleeding, hurting, and frightened, Strange looked up as Batman towered over him.  “You are going to kill me,” he muttered.

            “Too simple,” Batman hissed as he handcuffed the doctor’s right ankle and left wrist.  “I’m going to give you a night you’ll never remember.”

            “What?” Strange asked fearfully.

            Batman took out a small flashlight and returned to the experiment room.  He held his hand up, signaling Selina to be patient.  Scanning the doctor’s medicine cabinet, he found just what he wanted.

            A minute later, he emerged with two full syringes as Strange eyed him nervously.

            Wha—what are those?”

            Batman tore the shoulder off Strange’s phony Batsuit and exposed his arm.  As he jabbed in the first syringe, he said, “This is Rozalopam.”

            Strange’s eyes widened.  “The mindwipe drug?”

            “Enough to make you forget the last week or so.  And this,” he pushed the second needle in as Strange yelped, “is the maximum dose of Chlorprominol.  Together they make a nice cocktail you might’ve heard about.”

            “A ‘chemical lobotomy?’  You—you can’t do this to me!”

            “You do it to the poor, drooling zombies around here.  Hell, you probably made half of them that way.  When you wake up from your nap, you’ll be just like them.”

            “No!  No…no…no….”  Strange stopped struggling and faded off to sleep.

            Batman released the cuffs and clipped them to his belt.  Kicking aside the debris, he reentered the back room.       He took a lock pick from his belt and removed Selina’s cuffs, then cut the ropes around her legs.

            She pulled off her gag and jumped up.  “Let’s get out of this house of horrors.”

            “First things first.”  He grabbed a trash can, emptied it, and tossed in all of Strange’s files and notes on Bruce Wayne.  Taking a small torch out of his belt, he set the papers alight and watched with satisfaction as they burned.

            “What’d you do to Dr. Frankenstein?”

            “I fried his brain with a big dose of the same drugs he gives his patients.”

            “Are you sure he won’t remember your secret?”

            “He’ll be lucky if he remembers his name.”

 

            The drive home was silent and uncomfortable.  Instead of relief, they felt the icy sting of a stark new reality.  In a sobering instant, things were irrevocably changed.  Thoughts and feelings which had been denied and forced to the backs of their minds now surged forward, demanding attention.

As soon as the Batmobile parked and they got out, she turned to him with a great sadness on her face.  “Bruce, I had a lot of time to think back there….”

He removed his cowl and set it aside.  “Me, too.”

“We need to talk.”

“Yeah.”

“This is incredibly hard for me to say, and I’m sorry if it comes out wrong.  You know how much I love you and how happy I am.  But….”  Her voice trailed off.  “I’m worried about my safety, and Helena’s, given how the bad guys have been using us to get at you.  Twice with Talia, now this.”

“It’s a huge wakeup call,” he acknowledged.

“And there’s no more denying that having a family has been a distraction for Batman, maybe even a hindrance.”

“You’re correct.”

“I’d like nothing better than for the three of us to leave Gotham City forever.  But I know I can’t ask that of you, because you belong here and your purpose is in being Batman.  That was set way before you met me.”

He nodded.

“What I’m trying to say is, for safety’s sake Helena and I need to move away.  It breaks my heart to even mention the word, but I want a divorce.”

Unable to ignore the truth, he sighed in resignation.  “I’ve had the same thoughts and concerns.  It’s been a long time coming, I suppose, but neither of us wanted to see it.”

Rushing to embrace him, she cried, “Bruce, I love you!”

He held her tightly and fought his own tears.  Batman doesn’t cry.

She wiped her eyes and sat down.  “I had no idea you felt it, too.  Now I really don’t want to leave.  What are we going to do?”

Kneeling, he gripped her hand.  “I have a plan.”

She smiled through her tears.  “When don’t you?”

“We need to do this in a way that’s right and fair to us all.  First, I think we can manage with a quiet legal separation, instead of a divorce.  You know how much attention divorces draw, even amicable ones.”

“And I don’t really want one, darling.”

He kissed her.  “Neither do I.  With a separation, we’re apart, but still together, sort of.”

“How do we make it not look phony or suspicious?”

“I’m going to hire you.”

“For what?”

“WayneTech recently purchased a company in Dallas that makes security systems and devices.  You had a good business head when you worked for Minerva several years ago, so it won’t look like the boss is giving his estranged wife her own company to keep from losing his shirt.”

Her eyes lit up.  “And if there’s anyone who knows a thing or two about security, it’s the former Catwoman.”

“Precisely.  Your combined experiences would make you a good candidate for the position even if you weren’t my wife.”  He offered a smile.  “Now, as head of a subsidiary company, you’ll need to come back several times a year for meetings and other business.”

“Mmm, I like the sound of that.”

“What do you think, overall?”

“It’s not ideal, but I think I could do it for Helena’s sake.  She and I would be away from danger, and you don’t have to worry about the Arkham nuts targeting us.  And Dallas isn’t exactly the other side of the world.  Just one question.  I am going to miss you like crazy.  Can I still sleep with the boss whenever I’m in town?”

“Absolutely.”

She held him tightly.  “This has to be the worst ‘good’ decision of my life.”

“It’s okay.  Marrying you was the best mistake I ever made.”

 

They met with Alfred, Tim, and Barbara Gordon the next afternoon to announce their plans.  Although the news stunned the Bat family, the logic behind it was apparent.

“In hindsight,” Bruce commented, “we should’ve faced the issue sooner.  That one’s on me.”

“It’s such a bummer, but I understand.  Thank goodness the three of you are still alive,” Barbara said.

Selina nodded.  “This incident with Strange was too close.  He actually figured it out.  We can’t allow another ‘next time.’”

“Sir,” Alfred said, “how do you plan to stay involved in little Helena’s life, when she’ll only be in town a handful of times each year?”

“I’m going to set up a video conferencing system in my study.  I’ll be as close as her computer.”

Tim shook his head.  “Man, what a sucky deal.  So how’s this going to affect Batman?”

 “Hopefully, fewer distractions, better focus,” Bruce answered.  “But the main impact should be on the criminals.  This is an emotionally wrenching and frustrating time.  It doesn’t make me feel particularly nice.”

“And an unhappy Batman is a thug’s worst nightmare,” Tim concluded.

Bruce gently hit his fists together.  “That anger has to go somewhere.  ‘Beatings will continue until the crime rate improves.’”

“If there’s anything we can do….” Barbara said.

Selina said,  We love you guys and appreciate you so much, but Bruce and I need to work through this by ourselves.  It hurts, it’s unfair, and nobody wins…yet it’s the right thing to do under the circumstances, especially for Helena.  I have no clue how we’re going to break the news to her.”

 

Around midnight, after an exhausting lovemaking session, Selina cuddled close to Bruce and softly cried.

He kissed her cheek.

“I should’ve realized it was too good to last.”

“Sometimes the best things are.”

“Happiness has always been a temporary thing for me, anyway,” she said.

“I don’t regret one minute of the time we’ve had together.”

She wiped her tears.  “I regret the stupid fights and how long it took us to get our heads on straight.”

“Maybe it just had to happen that way.”

“If this is right, why does it feel so wrong?”

“Don’t try to make sense of life.  You’ll never succeed.”

“It’s going to be so hard to say goodbye to everyone.”

“How do you think Teri will take it?” he asked.

“Actually, I wrapped up with her a few nights ago.  She’s ready to be on her own.”  With a sigh, she added, “Criminal scum, beware.  There’s a new Cat in town.”

 

In between zapping roof rats with her whip, Catwoman gently tapped her claws on an air conditioning duct.  Not much action in the East End this night.  She surveyed her domain and spied a delivery truck pulling up to the waterfront dock where a small speedboat had just arrived.

“Another night, another drug shipment.  When will they learn?”  She coiled the whip around her and looked down.  “’kay, rats.  You win for now.  Duty calls.”  With a backflip over to the adjacent building, she was off to work.

 

Fifteen days later…

 

The Wayne Enterprises jet sat waiting on the runway for takeoff.  Bruce and Selina stood outside the Bentley limo, engaged in a long farewell embrace.

            She dabbed a handkerchief at the corners of her eyes.  “I keep telling myself this isn’t goodbye, but it sure feels like it.”

            “Think of it as hello to a new opportunity for you and Helena.”

            “Yeah,” she sniffed.  “When I think of all I’ve been through, I realize that in a crazy way, this is giving me one thing I always wanted—the chance to live a normal life.  Even though it won’t be with you, you’re the reason I have it.  Thank you, darling.”

            They kissed one more time.

            “You better get on the plane.  My pilot’s ready.  Remember, I’m as close as your phone or computer.”

            “Ooh, cyber sex,” she whispered in his ear.

            Bruce saw the pilot gesturing.  “I love you, Selina.  Now off you go.”

            Walking away reluctantly, she glanced back and threw him a kiss.  “I love you, Bruce!”

            He waved at Helena inside the plane, who pressed her face against the window.

            An attendant helped Selina into the aircraft, then shut and secured the door.

Almost immediately, the pilot opened the throttles, and the jet began scooting down the runway.  A minute later it was airborne and heading west.

As Bruce watched it fade from view, he felt a hand on his right shoulder.

“Rather like the ending of Casablanca, isn’t it?” Alfred commented as he opened the limo door.

“Not really.  You and I already have a beautiful friendship.”

“I know what must be must be, but seeing how happy Selina and Helena made you has been my greatest joy in recent years.  I deeply mourn its passing.”

“Honestly, ‘happy’ didn’t work for me.  It seemed…unnatural.”

“Master Grayson once said about you, ‘He’s only happy when he’s unhappy.’”

Bruce chuckled softly.  “Always was a smart kid.”