THE HOSTAGE KNIGHT

 

The sign on the Vampire Lounge door read, “CLOSED,” but the nightclub was far from deserted.  Nearly a hundred sad-faced Goths and metalheads sat and waited for a somber ceremony to begin.

Friends and acquaintances of Nikki Callison continued to arrive at her memorial wake via the back entrance.  The PA system blared some of the late girl’s favorite music, from Pink Floyd to Metallica to the Cure.

The DJ booth/makeshift pulpit was adorned with a wreath of black roses.  Inside, Benny, the club’s leather jacket-clad bouncer and resident father figure, checked his watch.  “Eight-thirty.  Where are they?”

Nihil, the DJ, patted him on the shoulder.  “They’ll be here.  Remember, it’s only been a couple of weeks.”

“Yeah.  I forget, she nearly died, too.”

Three minutes later, Batman and a visibly weak Catwoman walked in.  While they made their way toward the front of the club to the strains of “Bittersweet Symphony,” the crowd spontaneously gave them a standing ovation.

Batman nodded in acknowledgement, then helped Catwoman to her seat.  “Can I get you anything?”

Pale and still suffering some physical pain, she quietly answered, “Water.”

Batman motioned to Benny, who sent one of the employees to their table.

Nihil stopped the music and gave the microphone to Benny.

“We’re gonna keep this short, ‘cause I know Nikki hated long speeches.  Some of you may have attended her funeral ten days ago.  It was nice, but it wasn’t ‘us,’ if you know what I mean.  Since this club was like a second home to her, I thought that we, her extended family, ought to send her off in a style she’d appreciate.

“Nik was a good friend to a lot of you, and I know Catwoman feels the loss more intensely than anybody except Terri.  She’s still recovering from her serious injuries and isn’t up to speaking.  But she did write something for me to read you.

“‘Nikki was a sister to me in every sense of the word.  She encouraged me, made me smile, and did more to help me than I could ever have asked.  I valued her friendship so much.  She approached her training with grit and determination.  She worked tirelessly to help fight crime, and that dedication cost her her life.  Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Nikki, because I owe my life to her.  If not for her love and loyalty to me, you would be mourning two friends tonight, instead of one.  We owe her a tremendous debt, one we can best repay by living our lives the way she lived, though hers was all-too-short.  I love you, and I will always miss you, Nikki.’

“Great words, Catwoman.  I just want to add that Nikki’s positive attitude amazed me.  She wasn’t afraid to confront her father, the city councilman.  She wasn’t afraid to kick some bad guy’s ass.  She was a can-do person, and I’ll miss her dry sense of humor.  And that hair, that wonderful, tangled mess of hair.  Let’s have a moment of silence in her memory.”

The club fell absolutely quiet for one minute.

“Before we go on to the party portion of the evening, which I know Nik would prefer, let me take a few seconds to ask a favor of you.  Her younger sister, Terri, is here with us.  Some of you may not know that a couple of days after the funeral, Terri’s mom OD’d on wine and pills.  She’s an orphan now, but thankfully she isn’t homeless.  Her aunt is taking her in until she turns eighteen next year.  If you feel it in your heart, there’s a bucket up front for donations to help Terri out.  Please be generous.  Now, let’s spend the rest of the night listening to Nikki’s favorite tunes and sharing our stories with each other.  Thanks for showing your support for our homegirl.  Nihil?”

The DJ cranked the music back up, and it was party time.

Benny made his way down to the table where Batman and Catwoman sat.  “How are you guys?”

She forced a smile.  “Very tired, but there’s no way I would’ve missed this.  Thanks for moving it back a few days.”

“Sure.  Anything for you two.  Did you see how they applauded?  You guys are heroes.”

Somewhat irritated, Batman said, “There’s nothing heroic about stopping pure evil.”

She looked at Benny and pointed at Batman.  “What he said.  I appreciate their feelings, but we went through sheer hell out there.  I’m still trying to get over what happened.  Nobody asked for it, nobody wanted it, but somebody had to do something.”

“Well, you’re heroes in my book.  Take it easy.”

After Benny left, a girl with long, straight black hair slowly approached Catwoman and knelt.  “I’m Terri.”

Beyond the eyes red from crying, she could see the strong resemblance.  “I would’ve known even if you hadn’t said a word.”

Terri smiled slightly.  “People used to tell us apart by our hair.  Hers was...kinda wild, like Benny said.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“It’s your loss, too, Cats.  I hope you don’t mind me calling you that.”

The less-than-feisty feline brushed away a tear.  “Not at all.  It was one of the most endearing things about Nikki.”

Terri glanced nervously at Batman, then stared into Catwoman’s eyes.  “I want to take her place.  Make me your partner and train me.”

The request surprised Catwoman.  “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.  Hell, I’m not even sure when I’ll feel like going back on the streets again.”

“Please, Cats?  I want to honor Nikki by fighting the crime that killed her.  It’s the only thing I can do for her now.”

Batman shook his head.  “Stay in school.  Work for social justice.  Work for legal justice.  Join the police.  You can do much more for her those ways than by tagging along with Catwoman.”

“But...but what about making Joker and Harley Quinn pay?  I mean, they shot her, right?”

The Dark Knight sighed.  He’d heard it so many times before.  “Revenge is a bad fuel for your life.  I know.  Besides, Joker and Harley are locked away deep in Arkham, and they’ll be there for quite a while.”

Catwoman finished her water.  “Terri, let me take some time to consider it.  When I’m better able to get around, I’ll make contact with you.”

The girl stood up.  “Thanks.”

“Batman’s right, though.  There’s more than one way you can honor Nikki.  You just need to discover which way is best for you.”

 

A tense atmosphere permeated the Batmobile as the Bat and Cat headed home.

“Did you put something in the bucket for Terri?” she asked.

“Five hundred dollars.”

“Weren’t you just a tad harsh when she asked me to take her on, darling?”

“I’m not running a boarding school for kids who want to play vigilante.”

“Could’ve fooled me.”

“Dick and Tim had no other relatives.  And what was I supposed to do with Barbara?  She knew too much.  Terri’s a different case.  She’s got her aunt.”

“I wasn’t suggesting you adopt her.  Anyway, it’s my choice, when I decide to make it.”  She yawned.  “And I’m too tired to argue.”

“I’m not helping with her training.”

“Did I ask you to train Nikki?  No.  If I take her on--big if there--I’ll train her myself.”

“Fine.”

“You know, you’ve been a real sourball since I got out of the hospital.”

He turned a corner rather sharply.  “After what Joker put us through, I’m not exactly feeling like Little Miss Sunshine.”

“Well, don’t take it out on me.  I’m not Joker, and I don’t need it.  I still feel like crap.”

“Sorry.  I know I haven’t been the same lately.  I don’t understand what’s going on.  I shouldn’t feel this way...but I do.”

“Maybe we can talk in the morning.”

“Yeah,” he mouthed unenthusiastically.

 

When they parked in the Batcave, she gingerly climbed out and began removing her suit.  He stayed at the wheel, staring off into space with the turbine still running.

“Darling, aren’t you coming in?”

He blinked and turned toward her.  “No.  I need to look for some answers.”  Shutting the canopy, he turned the car around and sped off down the tunnel.

She brushed back her flowing hair and gazed wistfully after him.  “I hope you find them.”

 

            He drove aimlessly for several minutes, then headed for Gotham Cathedral, though he really wasn’t sure why.  Something inside said it might be good to talk to Reverend McRae.

            Light rain was falling as the Batmobile pulled to a stop in front of the cathedral.  He got out, activated the shields, and ran up the steps.  The tall oaken door creaked slightly, and he pulled it to behind him.

            The sanctuary was empty, save for McRae, who busied himself putting out the numerous altar candles before retiring for the night.  “Good evening,” he said without turning to look.

            Batman took a seat in the second row and slumped forward on the pew in front of him.  He couldn’t stand the confusion any longer.

            With the last candle extinguished, McRae turned around and put on his glasses.  “Oh, ho!  The Dark Knight himself comes to call,” he said, smiling warmly.

            “My mind is full of scorpions.”

            “Macbeth.  Now there’s a man with a guilty conscience.”  He joined him in the pew.  “What’s bothering yours?”

            “Evil.”

            “Which kind?”

            “The kind that seems to ooze up from the cracks in the sidewalk and envelop this town.”

            “Ah, you’re struggling with the aftermath of ‘Hell Night,’ like the media so charmingly labeled it.  As are we all.”

            “I saw things...I felt things...things I’ve never experienced before.”

            “And you’ve pretty much seen it all, haven’t you?”

            “I used to think the evil of crime was like a weed.  It sprouts, you kill it, and wait until the next one pops up.  But now....”

            “Now it seems like a fog that rolled in, permeated everything, and won’t go away.”

            Batman sighed.  “Exactly.  You understand.”

            “Welcome to the spirit world.”

            “Spirit world?”

            “Surely when you were a child your parents told you there’s more to life than just what we see.”

            “My parents…died.  When I was young.”

            McRae raised an eyebrow.  “I see....”

            “Maybe you do, maybe you don’t,” Batman replied, realizing he’d let his guard slip.

            “Worry not.  Anything said, hinted, or implied--whether intentionally or by accident--is completely confidential.  From your lips to God’s ears, so the expression goes.”

            Batman offered a brief, wry smile.

            “As I was saying, the world we see--what we experience with our senses--is only part of the story.  I’m sure you know this one.  How much of an iceberg is below the water?”

            “Seven-eighths.”

            “So it is with the spirit world.  There are unseen forces around us, forces of good and evil, acting and interacting with our lives and with each other on a daily basis.  What we experienced a fortnight ago was nothing less than a frontal assault by the legions of evil.”

            “You mean Joker?”

            “I mean the evil that possesses him.  The darkness that seems to reside in certain pockets of town.  You can’t tell me you haven’t felt it.  Doesn’t just being around Arkham Asylum give you the creeps?  And certain parts of the East End.  God bless Dr. Thompkins, our own Mother Teresa, for her courage in setting up a clinic there and sticking with it.”

            “I just...I feel surrounded by evil--trapped by it.  It follows me, and I can’t get away.  It’s like dirt I can’t wash off, no matter how many baths I take.  I’ve never felt that before.  I’ve always felt…immune.”

            “You probably know historians believe the city was the site of many occult rituals in its early days.  In the unseen world, that sort of thing leaves quite a stain.  Have you ever asked yourself, why Gotham?  Why does this city seem to attract every lunatic, psychopath, and maladjusted weirdo?  Why not Metropolis, or New York?  Although some say those cities have their own share of strange residents,” he added with a chuckle.

            “So what does it all mean?”

            “It means there’s a war between good and evil going on in the spiritual realms which has its counterpart here on earth.  Hell Night was a significant battle in that war.  Which, I should point out, the forces of good won.”

            “If you’d been down there with us, you wouldn’t say that.  Nobody won.  We just kept something bad from becoming worse.”

“Sometimes, unfortunately, that’s the best we can do.”

“To win would’ve been to stop it beforehand.  But we couldn’t find Joker.  Maybe I should have killed him when I had the chance.  Maybe it would’ve been justified, to stop the evil, or prevent more later on.”

            “You can’t stop the evil--none of us can.  We can only resist, and pray for strength and guidance to stand against it.  Now, should you have killed Joker?  Tell me why you didn’t.”

            “It’s part of my code that sets me apart from the criminals.  I won’t kill unless it’s absolutely necessary to save a life.  I keep thinking, if I had killed Joker sometime before, the city would’ve been spared.”

            McRae shook his head.  “If it hadn’t been Hitler, it would’ve been someone else.  Evil has a rather large army.  If you killed him, somebody worse would rise up and take his place.  Evil’s like Medusa.  Cut off one head, several more grow back.”

“I can’t think of anyone who deserves death more, and yet...I couldn’t let myself do it.”

“This isn’t merely a question of justice, is it?  There’s something personal going on.   Why are you really second-guessing your actions?”

            “Because of what Joker did to Catwoman.  He took something away from her.  From us.”

            “She’s your lover?”

            “My...my wife.  Nobody knows that.”

            “For a man so taciturn, you’re positively chatty tonight.  As I recall from what I read, Catwoman almost died, correct?”

            “Yes.  And a close friend of hers wasn’t so lucky.”

            “The girl...Nikki?”

            “She died saving Catwoman.”

            “And it could easily have been the other way around.  Such is the random nature of evil.”

            “You’re beginning to sound like Two-Face.”

            McRae laughed.  “I don’t place any faith in luck or chance.  It’s all, somehow, whether we like it or not, part of a grand design that we can scarcely comprehend with our tiny minds.  ‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.’”

            “Back to Shakespeare again.”

            “So we are.”  McRae stifled a yawn and looked at his watch.  “While your ‘day’ has just begun, mine’s at its conclusion.”

            Batman nodded.  “Thank you for your time.”

            “I hope I was able to take a few of those scorpions out of your mind.”

            “You’ve been most helpful, and you’ve given me some more to think about.”

The reverend grinned.  “Just what you weren’t looking for.”

“I needed to talk with somebody who’s…not involved.”

            “A neutral party.  Quite understandable.  You know, it wouldn’t hurt to see you on Sunday mornings.”

            “How do you know you don’t?”

            “Just a hunch.  I don’t think I’ve seen you here sans costume since a certain wedding turned into an attempted assassination a few years ago.”

            Batman stared into his eyes, saying nothing yet speaking volumes.

            “I’ll be praying for you.”

            “Couldn’t hurt.”

 

            He cruised through the city again after leaving the cathedral.  The sense of relief he had soon vanished, and his mental cloud returned.  Feeling restless and confined, he parked the Batmobile and scaled the old Morris building.  Amid its neo-Gothic styling and falcon-head gargoyles, he grew more relaxed.  The night sky, it seemed, was the only space big enough for his perplexed mind to operate in.

            Crouching on a gargoyle, he surveyed the streets twenty-five stories below.  Everyone looked the same from here--like ants.  “No way to tell the good guys from the bad,” he mused.

            But even the solitude of an urban mountaintop could not calm the storm swirling in his soul.  The sheer magnitude of the evil wrought by Joker and his criminal allies unnerved him.  Was it the last hurrah for the forces of darkness--or the first shots of a new, horrible campaign?  He couldn’t tell.

            He pondered McRae’s words about the spirit world.  Maybe that explained the strange senses he’d been having.  The evil spirits unleashed over Gotham were covering him like a cloud of invisible mosquitoes.

            Had they always been here, as McRae suggested?  Why did he never feel it before?  Or did he?  Did it start when the thug murdered his parents without getting caught?  Had he ever thrown it off as Batman?  Could he?  Would anything free Gotham from the malevolent force oppressing it?

            What’s my role?  Should I have killed Joker?  Did I do the right thing by not killing him?  What about next time?  There’ll surely be one.  Did evil push me to become Batman?  Did good?  What would I do, if I could do it over?

            All very good questions, he reasoned.  All unanswerable at the moment, too.  “At least I know what I don’t know.”  Even his logic, it appeared, couldn’t penetrate the pervasive cloak of evil.

 

In the morning, he got out of bed at nine and threw together a quick breakfast.  Before he finished eating, Selina staggered into the kitchen looking much the worse for wear.

“Hey, hon, are you okay?”

“I think I overdid it last night.  Not that I really did anything.”  She poured some orange juice and flopped down at the table.

“It’s going to take a while to get your strength back, maybe longer than we’d like.”

Groaning, she downed the juice in one gulp.  “What if I never get it back?”

“You will.  I predict you’ll be in fighting trim before you know it.”

“Better polish your crystal ball there, darling.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be the way I was.  Right now, I think Helena could kick my butt.  How was your late-night search for answers?”

“I found a few.  I came up with a lot more questions, though.  Like your physical injuries, this stuff takes time to work through.”

“I’ve got my own questions, like whether or not I should keep up the whole Catwoman thing, and if so, for how long.  As I was trying to muster enough energy to get out of bed, I thought about Terri again.  She’s young, eager to learn, and needs purpose in her life.  If I take her on, perhaps in time she could become the next Catwoman.”

“We’re not adopting her,” he said firmly.

“I know, I know.  You were very clear.  However, we still ought to do something for her.”

“You mean financially?”

“Yeah.  Maybe a college fund, a stipend, or something.”

“It would have to be anonymous.”

“I don’t see a problem with that.  Now when she gets to be eighteen, she’ll need her own place.”

Not here.”

“Okay, okay.”  She held up her hands.  “No harm in asking.  Maybe I can use some of my connections in the East End to get her a halfway decent place.”

“‘Halfway decent’ and ‘East End’ don’t exactly go together, you know.”

“There’s actually a nice renovated high-rise called The Enclave about half a mile south of the club district.”

“Didn’t know that.”

With a pout, she said, “If you spent more time in my neighborhood, you would, darling.”

He gave her a playful frown in return.  “I’m a little too busy to worry about compiling an apartment guide.”

 

Two nights later in midtown, a rusted and fading 1989 Dodge pulled to a stop and parked on the street just up from the Luck-E-Mart convenience store.  The driver turned off its clattering engine and flicked a cigarette butt out the window.

“Hey, man, what are you doin’?” his companion asked.

Curtis downed the last of his beer and flung the can in the back seat.  “I’m out of cigs, Joe.  Wanna come with me?”

Joe looked out one window, then the other.  No cute girls in sight.  “Yeah, what the hell.  I can use some fresh air.”

They left the car and walked to the brightly lit store.  The Vietnamese clerk took a look at them and scowled.  He hated it when bums came inside.  They either bothered the other customers or tried to steal something.

Once upon a time, Curtis was about as far from being a bum as he could get.  A rising star on the Gotham police force, he received a commendation from Commissioner Gordon for his help in apprehending Two-Face right after former DA went bad.  His career got cut short when he was arrested for taking bribes from Boss Cardoza and spent two years in prison.  After his release, unemployment, divorce, and alcoholism turned him into a beaten man.

Joe, on the other hand, couldn’t remember a time when he had amounted to something.  Now in his early fifties, he’d been a small-time crook, mob muscleman, and frequent guest at the city jail.  He squandered his life, and he knew it.  At least he didn’t use a gun much anymore.  That was something.

Curtis belched and went up to the counter.  “Carton of Luckys.”  While the clerk turned around to get the cigarettes, he patted the pockets on his torn jeans in search of money.  He didn’t find any.  “Damn!  Joe?”

“What?”

“You got cash?”

“No, man.  I left my wallet at your place.”

Curtis swore and grabbed the cigarettes from the clerk.  “Joe, let’s go!”  He started running and bumped into a woman buying ice cream.

The clerk jumped over the counter and went after him.  “Hey!  Hey!  Get back here!”

Standing by the door, Joe wasn’t sure what to do as he watched the man grab Curtis’ shirt sleeve.

Curtis pulled out a pistol and shoved it in the Asian’s face.  “Back off, Charlie Chan!”

The clerk stood still and stared at him.

Keeping his eye on the Vietnamese, Curtis inched closer to the exit.

The woman threw a pint of ice cream, which hit him on the ear.

“Aah!”  He reflexively lowered the gun, and the clerk lunged to grab the cigarettes.

Curtis fired twice, hitting him in the chest point-blank.

“What’d you do that for?” Joe asked.

Curtis charged out the door with his friend right behind.  “C’mon!”

“Where?”

“Anywhere!” he yelled as they raced down the sidewalk, nudging pedestrians out of their way.

Two officers in a passing patrol car saw them leave the store and take off.  They caught a glimpse of Curtis’ pistol and immediately accelerated in pursuit.

Joe was almost out of breath.  “Slow down, man.  I ain’t used to running this fast.”

Curtis looked ahead to the next intersection.  The patrol car stopped, and the officers got out.  “We got cop company, Joe.”

“Halt!  Gotham Police!”

Curtis dropped the cigarettes, took aim, and fired, hitting one cop in the eye.

“Are you nuts?” Joe yelled.

“Keep going!”  Curtis pushed him forward.

The second officer returned fire, striking Curtis on the left side.

He staggered and cursed from the pain, but kept on his feet.

The sound of multiple sirens filled the air.  They were about to have a lot more “cop company.”

An art-house movie theater lay just up the block.  “Joe, in there!”

With Curtis bleeding and waving his pistol threateningly, the two tore through the lobby and knocked over anyone in their way.  They flung open the doors to the closest auditorium and dashed inside.  The lights were up, and since people just started arriving for the film, he could see they now had a dozen hostages, including several screaming women.

He limped to the front while Joe followed and propped himself against the proscenium.  “Nobody move,” he said, showing off the gun, “and nobody gets hurt.”

“Sorry, but there ain’t gonna be no movie tonight, folks,” Joe added, taking out a switchblade knife for emphasis.

Someone in the projection booth tried to lower the lights.

“Leave them alone!”  Curtis fired a shot through the projector window.

The booth went dark.

In the half-lit auditorium, Curtis sat down on the floor and tried to stop his bleeding.  The cop scored a better hit than he first thought.

Joe watched the anxious faces of the hostages.  He couldn’t believe how he and Curtis had suddenly become Gotham’s most wanted.  All for a lousy carton of cigarettes.

 

Fifteen minutes later, Curtis was surprised to hear his cellphone ring.  “H’llo?”

“Curtis Walters?”

“Yeah.”

“Dan Krakowski, Gotham PD.”

“What do you want?”

In a command van parked across the street from the theater, hostage negotiation specialist Krakowski motioned for another officer to turn up the speaker volume.  “I’d like you to let those people in the theater go free.”

“Why?”

“They really don’t have to be involved in this.”

“Maybe I want them to.  Listen, if you know who I am, then you know I used to be one of you guys.  And I know about your little negotiating tricks.  So save it.”

“I’m not trying to trick anybody, Curtis.  We both want the same thing, right?  That’s for everyone to come out of this alive and well--yourself included.”

“Maybe.”

“How are you feeling, Curtis?”

“Fine.”

“That’s good.  One of our officers told us he wounded you.”

Curtis looked down at his side.  His shirt was so wet with blood it dripped on the floor.  The pain increased, and he began feeling feverish.  “Nah.  Barely scratched me.”

“Is everyone in the theater okay?”

“For now.  No guarantee they’ll stay that way if you guys come busting in here.”

“We’re not going to do that, Curtis.  This isn’t TV.”

“What makes you think I’m gonna believe you?”

Krakowski folded his arms.  “I have no reason to lie.”

“You have every reason to lie.  You’re a cop.  Cops shoot guys like me.  I know from my time on the force.  I don’t trust you, whatever you said your name was.”

“Dan.  You can call me Dan.  I’m glad you mentioned trust, Curtis.  We need to trust each other for this thing to work out.  You stay alive.  The people in the theater stay alive.  Nobody fires any shots.  Wouldn’t you call that a good outcome?”

“I guess.”

“Let’s work on trusting each other, since it looks like neither one of us is going anywhere for a while.  How about letting some of the people out?”

“What do I get for that?”

“What do you want?”

“A date with a porn star,” he laughed.

“Well, I don’t think we have any porn stars on the force.  At least, not that I know of.  What else could I get you?”

“How about some smokes?  Unopened.”

“That’ll work.  What brand?”

“Luckys.”

“I’ll call you back when we have them.”

 

It took only twelve minutes for Krakowski to make good on his promise.  An unarmed officer left a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes outside the auditorium door.  Curtis sent one of the hostages to retrieve it, and was pleased that at least for the moment, the PD was keeping its word.  Five minutes later, the door opened, and seven nervous captives--all male--left the theater.

 

Curtis’ phone rang again.  “Yeah?”

“It’s Dan.  Thanks for letting those guys go.”

“Thanks for the smokes.”  The cigarettes helped to dull Curtis’ pain.  Barely.

“How many people are still with you?”

“Five women.  To anticipate your next question, I let the men go so no one gets a chance to play macho hero and ‘cause I don’t think you guys will try a big rescue with a bunch of women in here.”

“Curtis, you know it’s not cool to hurt the ladies.”

“Nobody’s gotten hurt, Dan.”

“Good.  I’m glad you’re as concerned about those women as we are.  Since you share our concern, I think you should let them go, too.  What do you say?”

“I say no.”  Curtis ended the call.

 

Krakowski reestablished contact a little later and tried unsuccessfully to gain the women’s release.  For half an hour, Curtis refused to budge.  He would not deal the hostages for anything.

Although he continued to bleed and his fever climbed higher, he remained unusually lucid.  Krakowski had no idea how ill he was.  Finally, in an inspired bit of delirium, he called the negotiator back.  “Dan?”

“Yes?”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Curtis said with a grin.  “I’ll trade you the women.”

Everyone in the command van breathed a sigh of relief.  “That’s very good news,” Krakowski said.  “What do you want in return?”

“Another hostage.”

Krakowski frowned.  “I’m not following you, Curtis.”

“Here’s my deal.  Give me one person of my choice to take their place, and you can have all the women.”

“I’m not sure I can do that.  You know our policy.”

“Yeah, yeah.  ‘Citizens are not to be deliberately exposed to unnecessary risk.’”

“Even if we were to make an exception, this other person has to agree.  No offense, Curtis, but I don’t know of any individual who’d walk into that theater willingly.”

“I do.”

“Who would that be, Curtis?”  Krakowski looked uneasily at the others in the van.

“Batman.”

 

The Bat-signal had been lit for seven minutes when Batman and Robin appeared on the rooftop of police headquarters.

“Near-record time, gentlemen,” Commissioner Gordon said.

“We were already out and about,” Batman explained.  “What’s the situation?”

“Two men are holed up in the Promenade Theater with five female hostages.  They fled in there after a botched convenience store robbery.”

“Anyone injured?” Robin asked.

“The clerk was shot twice and died at the scene.  One officer shot in the eye.  He’s in critical condition undergoing surgery.  There were twelve people in the theater, but they released seven.”

“Sounds like a standard hostage negotiation.  Why involve us?” Batman wondered.

Gordon took a deep breath.  “Because they’re willing to release the women only if you agree to be a substitute hostage.”

Robin chuckled.  “Are they crazy?  Batman’ll kick their butts in ten seconds.”

“They are armed,” Gordon explained.  “We don’t know with what, exactly.  Needless to say, they insist on you coming without your utility belt or any weaponry whatsoever.”

“Just who are they?” Batman asked.

“The man we’re negotiating with is Curtis Walters, the former cop who went to prison for bribery.  One of the pursuit officers recognized him.”

Batman nodded.  “I helped prove he was on the take from Cardoza.”

Gordon said, “We ID’d the other guy from security video at the store.  Name’s Joe Chill.  Journeyman crook with a long rap sheet.  Working as a low-level enforcer for Moroni is as close to the big time as he ever got.”

“Two washed up men with nothing to lose,” Robin commented.

“Will you do it?” Gordon asked.

“Certainly.  For the safety of those five innocent women.”

“You’ll need backup,” stated Robin.

Gordon shook his head.  “They only want Batman.”

The Dark Knight looked at his partner.  “Stay with the car in case the commissioner needs backup.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?” the boy asked.

“It can’t be any worse than what we just went through.”

 

They all met again at the police command van across from the Promenade.  Batman dutifully gave Robin his belt along with every concealed tool, radio, and gadget.  Shunning attention from officers and the media covering the standoff, he calmly made his way into the theater.

 

When Curtis heard a knock, he told one of the women to open the door slowly, all the while keeping his gun squarely aimed at her head.

Batman stepped inside and stood still.

Curtis nudged Joe with his elbow.  “Check him for weapons.”

“You want me to frisk Batman?”

“Do it,” Curtis growled.

Joe approached the Caped Crusader, and their eyes locked.  “Sorry to do this.”

“I understand.”  Batman lifted his arms.

Joe quickly patted him down, then looked back at Curtis.  “He’s clean.  Nothing but a lot of armor.”

“Bring him here.”

Joe shoved Batman, who walked slowly down the ramp until he was mere feet from Curtis.

“Well, well.  My old friend, Batman.”

“Walters.”

The presence of such an elite hostage reenergized the wounded man, and he managed to stand.  “You probably think I wanted you here so I could get some kind of revenge for exposing me.”

“It crossed my mind.”

Curtis smiled through the pain.  “Nah.  I just did it to see if the cops would really go along and if you’d come.”  He laughed, but his merriment was cut short when he began coughing up blood.

Batman studied him.  “You were hurt, and badly.”

“Fooled ya.”  Curtis coughed again and sat back down.

“You have me now.  Let the ladies go.”

Curtis waved the pistol at the five women seated on the front row.  “Get outta here!”  As they scurried toward the exit, he called to the last one.  “Hey, Goldilocks!”

The blonde stopped and turned.  “Me?”

“Get back to your seat.  You’re not leaving.”

“What?”

He pointed the pistol at her face.  “Sit down, Blondie.”

“My name’s Maggie.”

“Sit down, Maggie!”

Batman scowled.  “We had a deal!”

“How stupid do you think I am?  The minute I let her out, the cops’ll charge in, guns blazing.  It won’t do a thing to you, with your freakin’ armor, but me and Joe would be Swiss cheese.”

Batman saw that the other four hostages were already gone.  Curtis was more clever than he’d calculated.

Curtis took his finger off the trigger as Maggie returned to her seat.  “Let’s just relax and get acquainted,” he said, lighting another cigarette, “since we’re going to be together for the night.”

 

Krakowski was back on the phone not long after the four women were released.  “We kept our end of the bargain, Curtis.  I’m disappointed you didn’t keep yours.”

“I let four of ‘em go.”

“The agreement was all five.”

“Sorry to trick you, but I’m nobody’s fool.  She’s my life insurance policy, you might say.”

“Curtis, what’s it going to take to get you to release her and Batman?”

“I have no idea.  G’bye, Dan.”

 

Batman realized Curtis was behaving strangely because he knew he was going to die either way.  “It doesn’t have to end like this.  Let the woman go, and we’ll get you to a doctor.  There may still be time.”

“Time?”  He coughed up more blood.  “Time ran out for me the moment you took those pictures of my meeting with Cardoza.  I’ve been a walking dead man ever since.  No family, no future, no hope.  Just a long, slow death, one miserable day at a time.”

 

When he could no longer even sit up, Curtis gave his gun to Joe.  “If anything happens, shoot the chick, not Batman.”  He laughed weakly.  “And to think, this whole thing started ‘cause I didn’t have any smokes.  The doctors always said cigarettes’ll kill you.  Guess they were right.”

Joe took the gun, though it was the last thing he wanted to do.  In his mind, having “kicked the habit” of shooting people meant that somehow his life had improved and he was no longer a loser.  But the moment he touched the warm metal and instinctively checked the number of bullets left, it was like he had become the old Joe again.  You can never escape, no matter how you try.  You are what you are, and what you’ve always been.  It’s come full circle.  You’re at a theater with a gun in your hand.  Again.

He took a deep breath and resigned himself to the role he was born to play.  Joe Chill, perennial loser.

 

Quietly, Curtis lost consciousness and died about twenty minutes afterward.

When he knew his partner was gone, Joe emulated Curtis’ tough attitude and carried himself like the boss he always dreamed of becoming.

Batman approached him after confirming Curtis’ death.

Joe flashed the gun.  “That’s close enough.”

“They told me Curtis was the one who shot the clerk, not you.  He can’t order you around anymore.  It’s time to end this little standoff.  Let Maggie go.”

He pulled back the hammer.  “I’m warning you.”

“I’ve looked at your record, Joe.  Tell me something.  Why did you persist in a life of crime, when it so clearly didn’t suit you?”

“You mean, ‘cause I never was successful?  I dunno.  I kept hoping if I got in with somebody on the rise, they’d take me to the top with them.  Guess I’m a lousy judge of character.”

Batman stared at Joe’s face.  Something about him seemed so familiar when they made eye contact, but he couldn’t place it.  Maybe the man was nothing more than one of the hundreds of crooks he’d sent to jail.  Or maybe not….

“Once I got started, there wasn’t no turning back, I guess.”  Joe frowned and raised the gun.  “Hey, are you trying to soften me up?  Forget it.  No more talking.”

Batman closed his eyes and tried to picture Joe younger, clean-shaven, and with more hair.  A horrifying, undeniable reality hit him.  He was the thug who murdered my parents!  He had to move away to contain his anger.

Already in a dark frame of mind over Hell Night, he screamed inside from the pain of knowing that ten feet away stood the evil which put him on the road to becoming Batman.

Maybe it can all stop here.  I can take him out, free Maggie, and end two hostage situations.  Nobody would question the justification.  I took action to end a standoff.  Thirty years is long enough, dammit!

Like his kindred bats swarming out of their cave at sunset, the demons from his past burst forth and overwhelmed him.  All the issues, all the thoughts and feelings he believed had been settled and resolved for years swept over his psyche in a torrent.

His parents had never been avenged, never received justice.  For all their wealth, they fared no better than a homeless pauper murdered for a bottle of cheap booze.  This is the moment you’ve waited for!  Do it!

No, another voice in his head cautioned.  What was it you told Terri?  “Revenge is a poor fuel for your life.  I know.”  You’re better than that.  You’re Batman.  Don’t lower yourself to the level of a nobody like Joe Chill.  What would avenging your parents accomplish, other than giving you a moment of sadistic pleasure?  What kind of person would it make you?  Would it really stop there, or would taking out others become too easy?  Besides, hasn’t his dead-end life been a prison sentence of its own?

At that moment, he began to feel sorry for the man, an emotion he couldn’t reconcile with everything else running through his head.  It psychologically paralyzed him, and he had to sit down and summon every ounce of will power not to cry.

Though no one else could see it, inside the Dark Knight’s armor was a scared, confused, and angry eight year-old boy.

 

Once Batman entered the theater, Commissioner Gordon assumed operational control from SWAT captain Emilio Santos, whose unit had taken up positions around the building.  Santos downed a cup of coffee and looked at Gordon, who chatted with Robin.

The SWAT commander tolerated Batman because of his respect for the commissioner, but to him the Caped Crusader was a nuisance.  A helpful one, to be sure, but a nuisance, nonetheless.  “How long are you going to give him?” he asked.

“As long as it takes to end this thing peacefully,” Gordon answered.  “I want that woman out alive.”

“Then what?” Robin asked.

“We’ll see.”  The commissioner turned to Krakowski.  “Still can’t reach him?”

“No, sir.  We’ll keep trying.”

 

The constant ringing of Curtis’ cell phone finally got to Joe.  He gently lifted it from the dead man’s pocket and answered.  “Yeah?”

“Curtis, it’s Dan.  I was getting a bit concerned.”

“Uh, this is Joe.  Curtis is... um, he’s resting.”

“He’s dead!” Maggie’s voice shouted in the background.

Joe cocked the pistol’s hammer and pointed the barrel at her.  “You shut up!”

“Joe?  Joe, what’s going on?” Krakowski asked.

“Nothin’, man, nothin’.”

“Joe, is Curtis really dead?”

Fidgeting nervously, Joe answered, “No, she’s lying.  He’s right here.  He’s just....”

“Joe, Curtis and I had a pretty good rapport going.  We were being honest with each other.  I’d like to have the same thing with you.  But you have to tell me the truth so no one gets hurt.  You don’t want to hurt anybody, do you, Joe?  I’ve looked at your record.  It’s been five years since your last firearm arrest.  You’re doing good, Joe.  Let’s not mess it up now, okay?”

“Yeah, whatever.”

“Is Curtis dead?”

Joe looked down at the body.  “Yeah.  One of your guys hit him in the shootout.  He bled to death.”

Krakowski turned and saw the expressions of surprise on Gordon’s and Santos’ faces.  “Is Batman alright?”

“He’s sitting on the floor, minding his own business.”

“That’s good, Joe.  Just keep things as they are, and call me if you need anything.”

“’kay.”

 

“Walters is dead?” Gordon asked with a frown.

Krakowski took off his headset.  “Apparently.”

“That changes things,” Robin said.

“How so?” Krakowski wondered.  “We’ve still got an armed man holding a hostage.”

“Yes, but it’s who that armed man is now.  Walters was a bitter ex-cop.  Chill is a mobster wannabe who never made it past petty crook,” explained Gordon.

“So he may be easier to negotiate with?”

“Or to overpower,” Santos added.

Gordon waved his hand.  “I’m not ready to go that route yet, Captain.  We need to give Batman some more time.”

 

Not that Batman had done much with the time already given him.  While the clock ticked, he sat brooding, distracted by the presence of his parents’ killer.  Far from being in control of the situation, he needed all his strength just to stay self-controlled.

Finally opening his eyes, he studied his fellow hostage.  Maggie appeared to be in her mid-30s and wore a wedding band.  Probably has kids, he reasoned.  Maybe that angle could work.  Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to get up and focus on the task at hand.

Joe pointed the gun as Batman walked toward him.  “Don’t come any closer.”

“Or what?”

Joe aimed at Maggie.  “She gets it, like Curtis said.”

“Do you have any idea what that would do to her family?  The death of a parent forever changes a child.”

“Lady, you got any kids?” Joe asked.

“I—I do,” she replied fearfully.  “Two girls.”

Joe crushed out a cigarette.  “I messed up a kid’s life once.  Didn’t mean to.  The gun went off while I robbed his parents.  Musta been nerves or something.  He was right there with them.  Saw the whole thing.  I thought about wasting him, too, but I heard sirens and people coming.  So I split.  Found out the next day they were rich and famous.  The papers ran this sad looking picture of the kid.  At least he had all that money to help.”

If only you knew.  Batman clenched his fists so tightly, they began to ache.  “Joe, you didn’t want to rob that store tonight.  Or shoot the officer.  Or spend hours holed up here as a hostage taker.”

“Hey, it was Curtis, not me.”

“Exactly.  You didn’t want to do those things, so why would you want to leave two girls without a mother?”

Joe knew he wouldn’t.

“So release her.”

“They’ll shoot me after I let her go, like Curtis said.”

Batman stepped closer.  “What do you think they’ll do if you hurt her?  You let her go, it’s over.  There’s no reason for you or the police to shoot.  Walk out of here with me, and everybody wins.”

Joe wavered.  He wanted to believe Batman, but experience had given him a cynical view of Gotham law enforcement.  He loathed the idea of another stint in jail but supposed it was better than being dead--like Curtis.

The phone rang.

“It’s Dan.  I just want to see how things are.”

“Okay.  I’m letting the woman out.”

“Wonderful.  Thank you, Joe.”

“I’m keeping Batman for now.”

“That’s fine.  No pressure.”

Batman held out his glove.  “Give me the phone.”

Joe hesitated, but complied.

“This is Batman.  Keep waiting.  It’s paying off.”  His eyes were fixed on Joe like the crosshairs of a rifle.  “But we still have a few things to settle.”

Krakowski answered, “Like I told him, no pressure.”

“Thanks.”  Batman handed the phone back.

Joe pointed at Maggie.  “You’re free.  Get outta here.”

She nodded nervously and dashed for the exit without glancing back.

“She’s coming out now, Dan.”

“We see her, Joe.”

Joe closed the phone and stared at Batman.  “There’s no reason to keep you, but I’m afraid to let you go.”

“Perhaps you should be more afraid not to let me go.  I could beat the hell out of you and claim self-defense.”

“Nah.”  Joe toyed with the pistol.  “You’d have me on the floor by now if that was your plan.”

“Don’t be so sure.”

“You left all your gadgets outside.”

The Dark Knight raised his fists.  “I’ve still got these.”

Joe pulled back the hammer and aimed at Batman’s mouth.  “And I’ve still got this.”

He just threatened you.  What a golden opportunity.  Batman felt a surging impulse to lash out.

Do it.  You know you want to, he heard Joker say.

No, son, that’s not the way, Thomas Wayne told him.

Do it!  Why wait? Penguin growled.

Revenge isn’t right.  You taught me so, said Dick Grayson.

What would I do, if I could do it over?

Batman covered his ears and stalked off.  Unable to stand the stress or stop the noise, he let out a primal scream which frightened Joe.

 

“Commissioner,” Santos said,  all the hostages are out.  Let’s wrap it up.”

“Batman asked for more time,” the commissioner reminded him, “and we agreed.”

“How much time do you plan to give him?  With all due respect, there’s no reason my men can’t go in now, subdue the gunman, and end this thing.  Batman’s certainly not going to get hurt.  If we act fast enough, the guy won’t, either.”

“I want both of them out alive--unconditionally.  No ifs.  So far, we’ve gotten what we wanted by being patient.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t have anything to do tonight that’s more important than saving a citizen’s life.  Even if he does have a three-foot arrest record.”

A gunshot sounded from inside the theater.

 

Batman yelled, “You!” before smashing Joe in the nose.

The blow sent him to the floor.  His pistol flew from his hand and hit the wall, discharging a round into the screen.

Batman turned and headed for the exit.

Stunned by the Dark Knight’s actions, Joe got to his feet, wiped his bleeding nose, and searched for the gun.  He picked it up and checked the clip.  “Empty.”

Santos’ SWAT team burst into the auditorium and nearly knocked Batman over.  They saw Joe holding the pistol and took aim.  “Drop it!”

Batman shouted, “Nooo!  Wait!” and made a flying leap, hoping to shield Joe with his cape.

Two officers opened fire, killing Joe instantly.

The lieutenant in charge keyed his radio.  “Titan, this is Alpha One.  Auditorium is secure.  Suspect has been neutralized.”

 

Batman stormed from the theater and made a beeline to the command van.  He shoved Santos against the vehicle and pinned him.  “Why did you give the order?  I was about to let your men in to take him away!” he growled.

“We heard a shot and had no way to know what was happening.  Besides, it was past time to end this mess,” Santos said smugly.

“You wanted to do that since the moment you got here!”

Gordon tried to intervene.  “Batman, he was following standard procedure.  We were concerned for your safety, too.”

Batman let Santos go and gave Gordon the iciest glare he’d ever seen.

Robin came up and handed Batman his belt.

He put it on and walked to the Batmobile.

“Wanna talk?”

“No,” came the firm answer.

 

Robin knew that when his mentor was in this kind of mood, the best thing to say was nothing, so the car stayed silent on their way home.

As angry as he was with Gordon and Santos, Batman felt even more upset at himself.  Why didn’t you walk away sooner?  If you had kept your cool for another minute, the pistol wouldn’t have gone off, and he’d still be alive.

He almost wished Joe had killed him that awful night in Crime Alley.

 

            Alfred was calibrating some instruments in the Batcave when they returned.  Robin leaped from the car, came up to him, and said, “I’m going upstairs.  I don’t know what went on in that theater, but he’s pretty messed up over it.”

            The butler nodded.

            Batman remained motionless in the Batmobile.  After some time, Alfred went over to him.  “Is something the matter, sir?”

            “Yes.”

            “Would you care to discuss it?”

            Batman removed his cowl to reveal tears rolling from his eyes.  “Yes,” he said hoarsely.

            For almost an hour, Bruce talked about what had happened and the tortuous thoughts and feelings inside him.  Alfred listened calmly and held him as he cried.

            When Bruce settled himself, Alfred said, “You may call me crazy, but I think the experience was actually quite beneficial for you.”

“You’re crazy.”

The butler chuckled.  “Hear me out, sir.  What you went through...needed to happen.  You’ve been carrying a lot of unresolved emotional baggage for three decades.”

“But I worked through all that.  I let go of the false guilt that I was somehow to blame.  I gave up the idea of revenge and channeled my anger into something, or someone, more productive.”  He looked down and noticed he was still in the Batsuit.

“Yes, but there’s one thing you’ve never done—until now.  You never grieved for Bruce.  You never allowed yourself to mourn your losses.  Not just your parents, but what their murders did to your life—what it took away from you, and how you were never the same again.  You had hopes and dreams which vanished that night.”

“But I sucked it up and moved on like everyone expected me to.”

“Yes.  And when you asked Joe Chill to think about what killing that woman would do to her family, you finally looked at your own tragedy from the outside.”

“And a few minutes later, I took selfish action which ultimately got him killed.”  Bruce stood up and began changing clothes.

“However, you tried to save him.  Would you have done that twenty or thirty years ago?”

“I’d have shot him myself, given the chance.”

Alfred nodded.  “In the end, you did the right thing, despite who he was.”

“I still shouldn’t have decked him.”

“Please give yourself a break, sir.  Who knows what any of us would do if we unexpectedly came face to face with our loved ones’ killer?  I think you showed commendable restraint.”

“For all the good it did him.”

“Who’s to say he wouldn’t have provoked the police anyway if you’d let him be?  Sometimes in their anxiety, people inadvertently bring about the very things they dread.”

Bruce knew his friend was right.  It was just so hard to cut himself some slack.  As Selina had once admonished him, he tended to forget he was human under all the Bat armor.

“So what about this cloud of evil I feel surrounding me lately?”

Alfred thought for a moment and said, “I’m far from an expert on such matters, but it seems to me that if the shadow of evil on your life began with what Joe Chill did to you, then perhaps it ended with what you did for him, or tried to do.”

Bruce frowned.  “Nothing ended tonight, Alfred, least of all the pervasive evil in this town.”

“I didn’t suggest the evil in Gotham is gone, but that its shadow on your life may be gone.”

“How do you figure that?”

“As your nemesis Riddler might ask, what object casts no shadow in the light?”

            “A brighter light.”

            “Precisely.  I submit that you were a light on both your own tragic past and the man who caused it, just as you are always a bright light for this city.”

            Rubbing his eyes, Bruce yawned.  “I think I get what you’re saying, but it’s a little too deep to ponder right now.”

            “I understand.  You’re exhausted.”

            As Bruce headed up the stairs, he turned around.  “One more question.  How can things be bright and yet remain so dark?”

            “Take a look outside.  I think you’ll find the answer there.”

            When he got to the bedroom, Selina was sleeping.  He quietly brushed back the curtains and stared out the window.

            The stars were shining brightly in the pitch black sky.