THE JOKER LAUGHS AT YOU

 

            Batman breathed heavily as he sprinted through the narrow, rain-slick alley.  He could still see Joker up ahead and knew the Clown Prince of Crime would tire long before he did.

            Joker cut across the main thoroughfare, strangely deserted even for midnight.  He leaped over a hedgerow and vanished into some woods.

            Batman followed, determined not to let his foe escape so easily.

            Joker reappeared in a clearing and ran up a nearby hill.  Stopping before a great wrought-iron gate, he smiled and waited for the Dark Knight.

            Slowing to a walk, Batman looked up at the gate.  GOTHAM CEMETERY,” read the letters on top.

            Joker pushed it open and motioned for Batman to follow him.  He led the Caped Crusader to a large marble monument topped by a carved stone cross.

            Batman moved closer and saw the chiseled inscriptions: “Thomas Wayne, Beloved Father.  Martha Wayne, Beloved Mother.”

            A ring of flames erupted from the ground, surrounding the two men and the gravesite.  Joker stared deep into Batman’s eyes and laughed hysterically.

 

            Bruce Wayne bolted upright in bed, gasping for air.

            “Darling, what’s wrong?” Selina asked.

            Covered in sweat, he flopped back onto his pillow.  “I had the dream again.”

            “The one with Joker?”

            “Yeah, only this time there was a wall of fire around the graves.”

            She brushed back her dark hair and put her arm across his chest.  “I’m so sorry.  What’s that, three times in the last couple of weeks?”

            “Four.  And I still have no idea what it means.”

            “Do you think it’s a premonition of some kind?”

            “I’m not sure.  Years ago, I was haunted by dreams about the past.  Never about the future, though.”

            With a kiss, she said, “Try to relax and get back to sleep.  Joker hasn’t caused trouble in quite a while.”

            “I know.  That’s why I’m afraid it may be more than a nightmare.”

 

            “What?” Joker blurted in astonishment.  “They have got to be kidding.  Are those people nuts?”

            “Puddin’, whatsamatter?”  Harley Quinn reclined on the couch, munching a banana as she read the funnies.

            He tossed the local section of the Gotham Globe on the table, nearly spilling his orange juice.  “This is the most outrageous thing I’ve ever read.  Listen.  ‘The Gotham City Chamber of Commerce will honor Bruce Wayne as Gotham’s Man of the Year this Saturday with an invitation-only dinner at the Regency Hotel’s Olympus Room.  Mayor Randy Golini will host the event.  Billionaire Wayne, CEO of Wayne Enterprises, is being feted for his charity work and efforts at revitalizing economically disadvantaged areas of the city.’  What a crock!”

            “The nerve of those folks!”

            “You feel my pain, Harley dear?  What a splendid girl.”

            “Yeah.  How could they leave us off the invitation list?”

            He threw the paper at her.  “No, you bimbo!  I should be Gotham’s Man of the Year, not that moronic rich boy who’s never worked a day in his privileged life!”

            “You?”

            “Yes, me.  After all I’ve done to try to rid this city of its Bat problem, the least they could do is give me an award!”

            “Oh.  Yeah.  You’re right, Puddin’.”

            He smiled.  “Of course I’m right.  Every time I try to do something nice for this septic tank of a city, that flying boy scout messes it all up.  And do I ever get so much as a thank you?  Hell, no!  Somebody has to show those starched shirts at the Chamber of Commerce they’ve made a terrible mistake in ignoring me.  There’s only one thing to do.”

            “Kill Batman?”

            “Okay, two things.  Come Saturday night, I’m gonna have to crash their party and demand a recount.”

 

            After a good workout and a shower, Bruce was in better spirits.  When he went into the study to peruse the morning papers, he saw Selina at the desk, busily writing on a yellow notepad.

            “Making an early Christmas list?” he asked.

            She looked up.  “I’m just writing down everything we’ll need.”

            “For what?”

            “The baby’s room,” she said as she joined him on the sofa.

            “Baby’s room?  What baby?”

            She grinned and kissed him on the lips.  “Bruce, you are going to be a daddy.  I’m pregnant!”

            “I--uh--how--I mean, uh, that’s awesome.  Wow.”

            His shell-shocked look made her laugh.  “Bruce Wayne speechless.  I love it.”  She kissed him again.

            He hugged her tightly.  “That’s wonderful.  How far are you?”

            “About five weeks.”

            “Motherhood.  Yet another addition to the long list of careers you’ve had.”

            “Yep.  Right there after secretary, corporate spy, jewel thief, account executive, district manager, wife, crime fighter, and charity volunteer.”

            “That should make for interesting PTA meetings.  I wonder, what kind of kid do a Bat and a Cat make?”

            “Knowing us, probably a brat.”

            He chuckled.  “I love you, Selina.”

            “Having a baby is going to change a lot of things.”

            “To say the least.”

            “First and foremost, Catwoman will have to take a very, very long vacation.  I can’t do all that jumping and fighting without risk to the baby.”

            “Absolutely.  So who’s going to be guardian of the East End while you’re on maternity leave?”

            “Nikki.  I’ve been training her in anticipation of something like this.  I’m going out tonight one last time to spread the word that she’ll be the protector-in-residence until further notice.  Also, I’ll tell people I expect cooperation with Batman.  It’s time they show him more respect.”

            “I’m not holding my breath.”  He sat back and watched the glow on her face.  “You’re really excited about it, aren’t you?”

            “Yeah.  I never thought I could put anything ahead of being Catwoman, but as soon as the doctor told me, I couldn’t not think of putting the baby ahead of everything else.  She hasn’t even been born yet, and I already love her so much.”

            “Her?”

            “Oh.”  She giggled.  “Wishful thinking.”

            Alfred appeared in the doorway.  “Excuse me, sir.  Your secretary is on the phone.  Someone from the Gotham Herald wishes to get your thoughts on being named Man of the Year.”

            “I’ll take it in the parlor.  Thanks, Alfred.”

            “You’re welcome, sir.”

            As soon as Bruce was gone, Selina said, “Did you hear the news, Alfred?”

            “I believe I heard the word baby being bandied about.”  He smiled.  “Congratulations.  This house is so much brighter since you and Master Bruce got married.  Now it will get even livelier.”

            “What kind of dad do you think he’ll be?”

            “He still struggles with fear of loss, so that will be your biggest challenge.  But if he’s as unafraid to commit himself to the child as he was to you, I’ve no doubt he’ll make an excellent father.”

 

            After dinner, Joker got together with his ever-loyal assistant Harry to work on plans for Saturday night.

            “How many men have we got, Harry?”

            “Twenty.”

            “Are they reliable?”

            “If I throw enough money at them, they don’t see nothing, they don’t hear nothing, and they don’t say nothing.”

            “Are they qualified?”

“Some of them have the kind of experience you want.  They’ll teach the rest.”

“It doesn’t take much know-how.  Can you hit Apex on Thursday evening?”

            “Shouldn’t be a problem.  But why Apex?  They’re so far out of the way.”

            “Because they’re the largest demolition firm in town.  We’ll get the most bang for our buck.  Or in this case, no bucks!”  Joker let out a giddy laugh.

            “What about the hotel?”

            “Harley, when she isn’t playing Tetris, can be quite useful.  She hacked into their mainframe and got the utility schematics.  I would’ve been happy if she’d gotten the floorplan.”

            “Swell.”

            “Let’s meet with the men Friday to go over everything.  We’ll decide what sort of problem the Regency is going have.  Electrical...water leak...air conditioning… termites....”

           

            The Texas college girl on Munsford Street had a look about her that screamed tourist.  The mugger with an eye patch and brown overcoat couldn’t resist such an easy target.

            He grabbed her arm and pulled out a Bowie knife.  She screamed but couldn’t break his grip.

            Nikki Callison emerged from behind the corner of an appliance store.  “Hold it, buster!  Leave the chick alone.”

            He looked over her shaggy black hair, dark eye makeup, and skin-tight black body suit.  “Who the hell are you?”

            She kicked him in the groin, spun around, and booted his face.  “Nikki at Night.”  Before he could stand up, she kicked his buttocks.  Grabbing him with her leather gloves, she shoved him into the brick wall.  “But you can call me Nikki Nightmare.”

            As fast as he could, the mugger stood up and ran stumbling into the darkness.

            Nikki looked at the girl, who stared like a deer in headlights.  “You’re in the wrong part of town, y’know.  Take Third Street west and you’ll be much safer.”

            She nodded and fled the scene almost as quickly as the mugger.

            While Nikki was retying one of her boots, she heard clapping from above.

            “Couldn’t have done it better myself,” Catwoman called from the roof of an empty storefront across the street.

            “Hey, Cats!  Thanks.  I’m just, like, doing what you taught me.”

            “Come here.  I want to talk to you.”

            “Sure.”  Using the downspout and burglar bars over the windows for assistance, Nikki scaled the wall of the two-story building and hopped over the edge.

            “Very nice.”

            “Working with you sure got me into shape.  So what’s on your mind?  You look…sad.”

            Catwoman fought off tears.  “I am.  It’s a happy kind of sad, though.  This is an important night for both of us.”

“It is?”

She took a deep breath.  “Do you know how a mother bird gets her little ones to use their wings?”

“No.”

“She drops them out of the nest, and they’re forced to fly.  I’m afraid I have to do that with you now.”

Nikki touched her arm.  “I don’t understand, Cats.”

“I need to go away for a while.  A very long while.  You’ll take my place as defender for the women around here.  I’ve told Benny and some others to get the news out that I expect you and Batman to get the same level of respect and cooperation I’ve gotten.  You won’t be alone.  Trust me.”

Choking up, Nikki said, “What in the world happened?  It must be something awful.”

A tear rolled down Catwoman’s cheek, yet she smiled.  “No, something wonderful.  This Cat’s having a kitten.  I can’t do what I do while I’m pregnant.  It might hurt the baby.”

“A baby?  Wow!  I am, like, so happy for you!”  Nikki embraced her and laughed.

“I’m overjoyed.”

“Should I ask, who’s the father?”

“Who do you think?”

Nikki frowned.  “Batman?”

Catwoman nodded.

“Duh!  I should’ve known that you were, like, more than friends.”

“Much more.”

“Awesome!  You go, girl!”

“So, do you think you can handle the job while I’m away?”

“No one could do it as good as you, but I’ll try my best.”

“That’s all I ask.  Batman will let you know how I’m doing.  And please don’t forget, I will be back.  It may be a year or so, but I won’t be gone forever.  Count on it.”

“Take your time, Cats.  I think the baby’s gonna need you a lot more than I will.”

 

Selina took a long, sentimental look at her Catsuit, now hanging neatly in one of the Batcave’s wardrobe closets.  Her trusty whip hung coiled beside it.  As Bruce shut and sealed the chamber, she cried.  The closing door sounded to her like the chimes of doom.

Taking a tissue, she wiped away the mascara streaking down her face.  “It’s over, isn’t it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m never going to be Catwoman again, am I?”

“Why do you say that?”

“Just a feeling, one I don’t even want to admit to myself.  I mean, a baby gives you new priorities.  Things change.  Even though I swore to Nikki I’ll be back, I’m scared it’s only wishful thinking.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

“Bruce, you’ve seen how my life has turned around.  I don’t even recognize the mixed-up girl who chose killing Max Shreck over being with you.  I’m having a child that will become the center of my world.  Maybe I’ll get so enamored with the baby, Catwoman has to retire for good.  I don’t want that.  I don’t want to choose between my child and my identity.”

“Your life may have changed, but your values haven’t.  Some day, after you’re into a routine with the baby, it’ll happen.  Something in this city is going to fire you up so much, the only logical response will be to come down here, put that suit on, and hit the streets.”

“Really?  You don’t believe I’ll have to quit?”

“I don’t think you can.  Sooner or later, Mama Cat will feel the need to look after her friends.  I’m sure of it.”

“How?”

“Because you have a hardwired sense of compassionate justice.  You’ve shown it by the way you care for the people in the East End, how you’ve helped Batman, and when you took Nikki to mentor.  It’s part of who you are.  Something will trigger it again.”

“You sound so confident.  I wish I could believe you.”

“When it happens, you will.”  He tapped on the chamber window and smiled.  “This is a closet, not a museum case.  Remember that.”

 

With all the precision of a military operation, two large panel trucks full of men wearing ski masks and fatigues crashed through the chain-link gate at Apex Demolition’s equipment storage facility on Thursday night.  One of the two overmatched security guards fired a few rounds at the lead truck, which ran over him.  The other guard managed to trip the police alarm before Harry’s men burst in and shot him.

Working in teams, they smashed the locks on the explosive storage rooms and removed crate after crate of TNT, blasting gelatine, and detonators.  In less than fifteen minutes, Apex’s entire supply was secured inside the two trucks for transport to Joker’s hideout.

By the time police arrived, the trucks were gone.  The wounded guard struggled to give a description of the attackers and muttered, “Terrorists...terrorists,” to one of the officers.  Moments later, he died from his wounds.

 

Putting down his pen, Bruce stretched and gave a yawn.

“How’s the speech coming?” Selina asked.

“It isn’t.  I’m a terrible speechmaker.  Everything I come up with sounds phony or arrogant.  Why do they put me in such awkward positions?  ‘Man of the Year?’  Who are they kidding?”

She looked over her book at him.  “You do a lot of wonderful things for Gotham City, darling, and not just as Batman.  They’re only trying to say thanks.”

“Frankly, I’d rather have them send me a letter and forget all the fanfare.”

“Well, you know that’s not how those things work.”

“The perils of being a socially responsible billionaire.”

“Yeah, funny how people notice when someone comes by his money honestly and does good with it.”

He crumpled up the paper he’d been writing on and tossed it.  “I think I’ll just improvise.  If I don’t say much, it’ll be a shorter evening.”

“Maybe we can go home early and do something really fun.”  She batted her eyelashes flirtatiously.

The living room door opened.  “Excuse me, sir,” Alfred said.  “It’s the Bat-signal.”

“Thank you, Alfred.”  He looked at Selina.  “Hold that thought.”

“Okay.  But I’d rather hold you.”

 

Captain Mark Bain was waiting when Batman arrived on the roof of police headquarters.  “We’ve got a situation.  Commissioner Gordon wanted me to brief you right away.  A little over an hour ago, a small army broke into Apex Demolition’s warehouse and made off with every bit of explosives they had.  We aren’t sure yet how much they got, but they came with two delivery trucks.  Both guards were killed, but one of them lived long enough to say the men looked like terrorists.”

“Do you believe him?”

“It’s hard to say.  I’m sure he thought they were, but you never know with rent-a-cops.  To some people, any guy in a ski mask is a terrorist.”

“Have there been any threats?”

“No, none at all.”

“Gangs?”

“We’re checking that angle, too.”

“Other witnesses?”

“Nah.  Apex is out in the sticks.  Considering how much kaboom they had, that’s probably a good thing.  I don’t really want to think about what someone might do with that many explosives.”

“What if it wasn’t terrorists?”

“That could be more frightening.  We’d probably be looking at supercriminals.”

“Try Joker.”

“Why?”

“Let’s just say he’s been on my mind lately.  Either way, I’ll see what I can find.  Any prominent events scheduled in the coming weeks?”

“There is that international conference on the environment starting Wednesday.  Vice President Michaels is the keynote speaker.”

“Everything Joker loves: high profile, big names, opportunity for mass casualties.”

“You’re right.  I’ll tell the commissioner.  Thanks, Batman.”

 

As he drove home, the Dark Knight was concerned that he may have gone too far out on a limb with Bain.  In case it wasn’t Joker, or the target wasn’t the environmental conference, he didn’t want to be responsible for police missing the real plot.

Still, it all made sense in his tired mind.  The recurring dream.  Joker never says a word; he’s been quiet recently.  Explosives make fire.  The cemetery symbolizes death.  The woods means the environment.

“If I were Joker, where would I hide?”

He didn’t have any idea.

 

Batman would’ve appreciated the irony, Joker thought, that his base was in the recently-vacated Crusader Metalworks.

Harry and his gang arrived mid-morning to finalize the details of Operation Recount, as the Clown Prince dubbed it.  They discussed how to make a bomb out of TNT sticks and a radio frequency detonator.  Inventorying the take from Apex, they found enough material for almost two hundred devices.

“Okay, so we put together all these bombs.  How do we get 'em in the hotel?” one hoodlum asked.

Joker replied, “You gentlemen are going to show up tomorrow morning as repairmen.  Or exterminators.  I haven’t decided.”

“Wouldn’t it be less suspicious for exterminators to be all over the building?” Harry wondered.

“Excellent point.  Paint up the trucks to read ‘Harry’s Pest Control.’  Now, what should I write on the work order?  What kind of problem would a nice, fancy hotel like the Regency have?  Roaches?  Rats?”

Harley closed her paperback romance and looked at Joker.  “How about bats?”

He grinned broadly.  “Harley, my dear, you’re inspired!  That’s perfect.  You men are going to exterminate bats in the stairwells.  And then tomorrow night, when he comes flying to the rescue, I’ll exterminate the biggest bat pest of all!”

 

            Bruce had the dream again.

This time, the names on the grave marker were his and Selina’s.

As before, a wall of fire encircled the site.  But then, flames shot out of the marble monument, engulfing him.  He thrashed and fought, but the fire penetrated his Batsuit while Joker’s insane laugh filled his ears.  He felt the heat burning through him and screamed.

His flailing and yelling jolted Selina.  “Bruce!  Bruce!  Wake up!”

“Aaagghh!”  He sat up and looked around, dazed and breathless.  Realizing he was safe in his own bedroom, he covered his eyes and fell back.

“The dream again?”

“Yeah, with a lot more fire.  And our names were on the graves.”

“Oh, no.”  She hugged him.

“I wish I could figure it out so it’ll stop.”

“The counselor I saw several years ago told me dreams are usually symbolic.  What do the things mean to you?”

“I’m too tired to think about it.  Maybe tomorrow.”

 

Saturday morning at eight, Harry strolled into the posh lobby of the Regency Hotel and walked up to the front desk clerk.  Flashing a phony ID card, he held out a slightly wrinkled work order.  “I’m here about your bat problem.”

The young clerk yawned and looked up from his sports section.  “What bat problem?”

“Someone called us yesterday afternoon and said you got bats in the stairwells.  They’re pooping everywhere and bothering the guests.”

“I only work weekends.  They never tell me anything.”  He read over the work order.  “Okay.  Do whatever you need to.  Just don’t make a lot of noise.”

“We’ll be so quiet, you won’t even know we’re here.”

Harry returned to the trucks and summoned his men.  They grabbed their bags and layout diagrams before dispersing inside the building.  Guided by the detailed schematics, they placed concealed bombs on every floor--behind utility panels, in ventilation ducts and stairways, above ceiling tiles--anywhere they found room.  Each bomb was wired to a radio frequency detonator, allowing them to be set off singly, in clusters, or by entire floors.

Within an hour, the hotel was filled with so much explosive power, it would collapse if all the devices blew at once.

 

Jack Drake knocked on his son’s bedroom door.  He didn’t quite understand what the boy did inside the dimly lit room with three computers, two DVD players, two TVs, stacks of CD-ROMs, and some fancy looking electronic gadgets.  At least, he thought, he never saw anything alarming--no weapons, heavy metal posters, drug paraphernalia, or occult objects.

Getting no response, he knocked again.  “Tim, are you in there?”

Half a minute later, the door opened slowly, and a black-haired teenager peered out.  “Sorry, Dad.  I was busy archiving some data.”

“I’m going out tonight, in case I didn’t tell you.”

“You did.  Some award thing, right?”

“Yes.  The Chamber’s Man of the Year dinner for Bruce Wayne.”

“Neat.  Sure wish I could go.  Bet it’ll be a good time.”

“You have any plans, Tim?”

“I just got the Complete Sherlock Holmes Mysteries on interactive DVDs.  I think I’ll spend the evening reading.”

“Since you’re staying in, I’ll set the alarm system when I leave.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“Love you, Son.”

Tim closed the door and returned to his computer project.  “Bruce Wayne.  Man, I wish I could meet him someday.”

 

Banquet attendees began arriving at seven.  The event took place in the spacious Olympus Room on the Regency’s thirtieth floor.  As befitted its name, the room sported a Greek mythology theme, with sculptures, paintings, and frescoes depicting gods and  heroes from the Trojan War.  The columns and window borders were fashioned after the pillars in the Parthenon, giving guests the feeling of being in an ancient temple.

Bruce and Selina, resplendent in her blue evening gown, came in and chatted with Chamber members and other well-wishers on their way to the head table.

Mayor Golini greeted them warmly as they took their seats at the dais.  “Good evening, Bruce.  Selina, you look gorgeous, as always.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Bruce looked at the growing crowd.  “In the words of the great philosopher W.C. Fields, ‘All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.’”

Golini laughed.  “I know you don’t like this much attention, but it’s a well-deserved honor.”

Selina nodded.  “That’s what I keep telling him.  Everybody here just wants to show their appreciation for a couple of hours, darling.  You can go back to being a hermit tomorrow.”

“Last time I was in front of this many people, it was at our wedding.  I mean, our attempted wedding.”

The mayor said, “Nobody’s likely to forget that day.”

“Especially me,” Selina said dryly.

“Well, I doubt you’ll have to face any wacky ex-girlfriends tonight.”

Bruce smiled.  “Just wacky business colleagues.”

“Like me?” a tall, slightly graying African-American asked.

“Especially you,” Bruce said with a wink.

Lucius Fox gave him a bear hug.  “This is long overdue, Boss.”

“I think it could’ve waited a bit longer.”

“Not in my book.”

“You’ll have to forgive my husband, Lucius.  He’s just such a shy violet.”

Fox chuckled.  “Enjoy it, man.  See you later.”

“He’s great, isn’t he?” Bruce asked.  “He’s the reason I can do what I do, and he doesn’t even know it.  Imagine if I had to run Wayne Enterprises and the Wayne Foundation myself.”

“You tried that, didn’t you?”

“And failed miserably.  Lucius was a godsend.”

A woman at the center table caught her eye.  “There’s Amy Brandenburg.  She puts in twice as much time at the Women’s Haven as I do.  Sweet, sweet lady.  Is that her husband?”

“Uh-huh.  More and more, I’m hearing the words ‘Mitchell Brandenburg’ and ‘mayoral candidate’ together.”

“He’s got a electronics store chain to run.  When would he have time to be mayor?”

“As you said a few days ago, ‘things change.’”

“Just make sure they don’t change so much that I hear the words ‘Bruce Wayne’ and ‘mayor’ together.”

He kissed her cheek.  “Not a chance.  I wouldn’t have the job for anything.”

 

Joker’s gang showed up shortly after eight.  Wearing his best purple tuxedo, he marched through the lobby and led his machine-gun toting thugs toward the elevators.

“Hey, what are you doing?” the night desk clerk shouted.

The hotel’s security guard drew his pistol and moved in front of Joker.  “I don’t know who you are, but you’re not going anywhere.”

Joker gestured at Harry, who raked the guard with gunfire.

Bending over the bloody corpse, the Clown Prince said, “My name’s Joker, and I’m going wherever the hell I want!”

Panicked, the clerk phoned police.

“Look,” one hoodlum blurted, “he’s calling the cops!”

Joker calmly pulled the detonator remote from his pocket.  “Ignore him.”

Two thunderous blasts shattered the entrance and demolished most of the lobby.

An elevator door opened.

“Get upstairs.  We’ve got work to do.”

 

Bruce needed to use the restroom just before the award presentation began.  He excused himself and discreetly walked out.

One minute later, the elevator carrying Joker, Harley, Harry, and four gunmen arrived on the thirtieth floor.  Harry smashed open the emergency elevator override panel, and Harley quickly tapped into the system with her laptop computer.

“When all the men are here, shut down two of the elevators,” Joker told her.  “Lock the third one.  We may need it to get away.”

The rest of his gang soon arrived and assembled for the assault on the Olympus Room.

“Elevators disabled and locked,” Harley reported.

“Great.  Can you kill the power?”

She made some keystrokes.  “Like this?”

The entire hotel plunged into darkness.  Within seconds, the emergency lights flashed on, casting a yellowish glow.

“Ah...ambience.  Now that we have the proper mood, lead the way, Harry.”

 

The loss of lighting in the Olympus Room provided a pleasant if unintended distraction: everyone got a clear view of the beautiful night and the Gotham skyline.

The interlude ended abruptly as Harry’s men swarmed through the doors and fired into the ceiling.

A shocked silence filled the dimly lit room as the goons took up their assigned positions.

Followed by Harley, Joker made his grand entrance to the accompaniment of gasps and whispers.

“Oh, my God,” Selina muttered.  “Where’s Bruce?”

Joker stepped up on the dais and stood at the podium.  Adjusting the microphone, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to disrupt your cozy little evening, but I’m here to correct a dreadful mistake.  Anybody not know who I am?”

There was no response.

“Then that makes your mistake all the more puzzling.”  He chuckled.  “How could you people not choose me as Man of the Year?”

A bald man at the front table yelled, “You’re crazy!”

Joker reached inside his coat, pulled out a pistol, and shot him dead.  “Flattery will get you nowhere.  And you still didn’t answer my question.  How could you pass over me and vote for a boring moneybag like Bruce Wayne?”  He looked around.  “Where is Mr. Wayne, anyway?”

No one answered.

Joker pointed his gun at Golini.  “Mr. Mayor, where is he?”

“I don’t know.”

He aimed at Lucius Fox, sitting at a middle table.  “Mr. Fox, you work for him.  Where is he?”

Fox shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

Joker stared down at Selina.  “Maybe his pretty little wife knows.”  He grabbed her arm and put the gun barrel to her forehead.  “Where’s your husband?”

Fearfully, she answered, “He--he went to the men’s room.”

Joker shoved her back into her chair and pointed at two of his men by the door.  “He’s in the can.  Go get him!”

She began to cry and prayed she hadn’t just signed his death warrant.

Frowning at the crowd, Joker said, “I’m not getting the level of cooperation I expect from this bunch of movers and shakers.  Now, I want a recount on the Man of the Year vote.  Which of you folks are on the voting committee?  Stand up.”

Nobody stood.

Joker put the gun to Golini’s ear.  “Unless you want to look for a new mayor, you’d better start cooperating.  Who’s on the committee?”

Twelve individuals around the room stood up.

“That’s much better.  Okay, how many votes for me?  Remain standing.”

All twelve sat down.

“Do I have to start killing the women to make my point?  What does it take for you to see I’m serious?  Stand up if you want to change your vote from Bruce Wayne to Joker.”

Eleven people reluctantly got to their feet.

Harry did a quick count.  “You’re missing one.”

“Who’s the wise guy?  Who’s not standing?”

Jack Drake said, “I’m not.  You aren’t even one percent the man Bruce is.  I wouldn’t vote for you for street sweeper.”

“How dare you take that tone with me!  Harry?”

Joker’s right hand man killed him where he sat with a burst from his machinegun.

“That’s one vote for Bruce Wayne, eleven for me.  Oh, who are we kidding?  You’re just voting for me because I told you to, aren’t you?  Sycophants!  Let ‘em have it.”

The armed men mowed down all eleven members.

 

Bruce heard gunfire and was about to leave the men’s room when Joker’s two thugs kicked the door in and knocked him down.  Reaching up, he grabbed the first one’s weapon and flung him head over heels into the row of urinals.

The goon’s face smashed against the porcelain, breaking his nose and knocking several teeth loose.  He fell to the floor and moaned.

Bruce rolled over and picked up the AK-47.  He jabbed the barrel into the second thug’s crotch, then slammed the stock into his jaw.  As the assailant fell, he fled into the hall.

Hearing more shots in the Olympus Room, he felt torn between his desire to rescue Selina and his need to summon help.  Knowing he could do more as Batman, he dashed toward the working elevator.

The restroom door opened, and the second gunman charged out.

Bruce threw a large vase which hit him in the head and shattered, dropping him to the floor.

He caught a glimpse of the first gunman staggering from the restroom just before the elevator door safely closed in front of him.

“Whew!”  He pressed the first floor button.

Nothing happened.

He realized the elevator was disabled.  With his pocket knife, he picked the lock on the control panel door and manually overrode Harley’s lockout.  Feeling the elevator move at last, he phoned Alfred.

 

The bruised and bleeding men limped back to the Olympus Room.

Joker frowned.  “What happened?”

Wayne escaped to the elevator.”

“The two of you couldn’t stop one puny little billionaire?”

“He ain’t puny.  He fights hard.”

“Cream puffs!”  Joker shot them between the eyes.  “There’ll be no slackers on my team.”

Selina sighed with relief upon hearing that Bruce managed to escape.

“Mr. J, the elevator’s moving,” called Harley, who had her laptop connected to the hotel’s network and was monitoring all systems.

“Well, stop it!”

“He did an override on my lockout.”

“I don’t care.  Do something!”

“I can deactivate the brakes.  That’ll send it crashing down to the lobby.”

“What a way to go.”

 

Bruce immediately noticed the elevator accelerating.  As it plunged past floor twenty, he stood up on the handrails and forced open the top access panel.  Climbing onto the roof of the car, he saw the floor numbers speed by.

Eight.  Seven.  Six.

He leaped off and grabbed a greasy piece of the shaft frame.  Clinging as tightly as he could, he watch the car crumple as it slammed into the ground.

His hands began to slip from the grease, and he knew he had to find something better to hold.  He gazed upward and saw he was only a few feet below the fourth floor doors.  Wiping one hand on his tuxedo jacket at a time, he got a better grip on the framework and began inching his way higher.

 

“Boom!” Harley announced when the elevator crashed.  “A real hard landing for Mr. Wayne.”

“Like I always say, eliminating the competition makes for a happier life.”  Joker laughed wildly.  “Crap!”

“What, Puddin’?”

“I forgot, that elevator was going be our escape.  I guess we’ll just have to use my backup.”

 

The hostages were allowed to move about, but always under their captors’ careful watch.

Fox, Golini, and Amy Brandenburg tried to comfort the emotional wreck that was Selina.  She knew how resourceful Bruce could be, even without his Batsuit, but news of the elevator crash rattled her badly.

Fox put a fatherly hand on her shoulder.  “He can take care of himself, Selina.  We don’t even know that thing about the elevator is true.  It might just be another part of Joker’s plan, whatever it is.”

She took slow, deep breaths.  “I need to stay calm.  Bruce will be okay.  I need to stay calm.  This is not good for the baby.”

“Baby?” Amy asked.

She nodded.

Amy hugged her.  “That’s wonderful, dear.”

“Congratulations,” Fox added.

Golini leaned over and whispered, “Don’t let them hear you.  They’ll use it as leverage.”

She wiped her eyes and prayed she wouldn’t lose her husband and her baby.

 

Harry looked out one of the windows.  “We got company, Joker.  I count about thirty cop cars down there.”

Joker opened his cell phone.  “Harley, didn’t you hack Commissioner Gordon’s private number?”

“Yeah.  Just a sec.  It’s 555-8943.”

“Thanks.  Time to give the old man indigestion.”

 

Bruce gingerly crawled up the side of the shaft and gripped the ledge above the fourth floor doors.  “What I wouldn’t give for my utility belt right now.”  Unable to open the doors by wedging the toe of his shoe between them, he started kicking in hopes that someone would hear.

 

Police and fire rescue personnel worked their way through the hotel evacuating guests via the stairs.  Many had already left after the explosions in the lobby, making the emergency workers’ task less daunting.

Several firefighters noticed bombs in the stairwells, and they redoubled their efforts, not knowing when or if the devices would go off.

 

In a police command van a block away, Captain Bain relayed the latest information to Gordon.  “Commissioner, our men have reached the twenty-eighth floor.  No resistance so far, and no problems with the evacuation.”

An officer handed Bain a slip of paper.

“Sir, there are several sightings of what appear to be explosives.  That’s consistent with the blasts in the lobby.”

“What’s the casualty count?”

“Eight confirmed dead on the first floor.  One guest died of a heart attack on two.  We have no idea what’s happening on thirty, but that seems to be where the invaders headed.”

“What’s up there that’s so important?”

“Mayor Golini, the Chamber of Commerce, and Bruce Wayne.”

“Oh, lordy!  Has anybody ID’d the gunmen?”

“The desk clerk’s 911 call mentioned Joker, but it hasn’t been confirmed.”

The commissioner's cell phone rang.  “Gordon.”

 “Commish, it’s Joker.”

“Joker, we were just talking about you.”  He covered the phone and turned to Bain.  “Get the Bat-signal on!”

Bain nodded and picked up his walkie-talkie.

“I’m a busy man, Commissioner, so I’ll make this short and sweet.  Get your cops out of the hotel and away from here, or you’ll need a magnifying glass to find what’s left of them.  I’ve loaded the building with enough TNT to send it into orbit.  As you can tell from the redecorating I did downstairs, I’m not kidding.  You have fifteen minutes.”

“Joker, we’re trying to get all the guests out.  We need more time.”

“Guests, shmests.  Fifteen minutes.  Oh, and if there’s any sign of Batman, you can kiss all these rich busybodies goodbye.”  He closed his phone.

Gordon looked at Bain.  “He’s given us fifteen minutes to empty the hotel.”

“No way!  It’ll take at least twenty.”

“You know it, and I know it.  Maybe he doesn’t.  Pull all the squad cars back, get as many people out as you can, and don’t let anyone go to the top floor.”

“Aren’t you going to try to mount a rescue?”

“Not in a high-rise that’s wired to blow.”  Gordon looked up as the Bat-signal flashed in the sky.  He will have to save those people.”

 

In the Olympus Room, a wave of cheers and applause greeted the Bat-signal’s appearance.

“Help’s on the way,” Golini said.

The celebration annoyed Joker to no end.  “Shut up!  Stop cheering for that caped creep!  I said, stop cheering!”  He fired a warning shot in the air.

The room became deathly quiet.

“Shut up!  Batman’s not going to help you.  This hotel is packed with explosives from top to bottom.  One sight of him and they start going off.  My lovely and talented Harley can monitor the security cameras, so there’s no way for him to sneak in.”

Harry called, “Joker, the cop cars are pulling back.  They listened to you.”

“It may be a trick.  Harley, what do you see?”

“The top half of the floors are deserted, and there’s lots of cops and guests heading down the emergency stairs.”

Joker smiled.  “Commissioner Gordon can be such a reasonable man when he wants to.”

 

Bruce’s arms ached from hanging on the elevator shaft ledge.  He heard voices not too far off, so he kicked the doors again several times.

The sound of clanking metal got his attention.  There was a gap between the doors.  It grew wider and wider until he could see a pair of black boots below him.

“Hold still and let me grab you.”

He felt two large arms encircle his waist.

“On three, I want you to let go.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

“One--two--three!”

Bruce gratefully released his grip as a burly, red-haired firefighter yanked him into the foyer.  Dropping to the floor, he looked up at his rescuer.  “Thanks.”

“How’d you end up in there?”

“I wasn’t ready for a crash landing.”

“You’re mighty lucky, mister.  You’d be dead if you’d stayed in that elevator.  C’mon, we’re evacuating the building.  There’s bombs everywhere.  Head right through the exit door.”

 

Joker drummed his fingers on a table.  “Harry, I’d feel better if we had the men spread out as a buffer against any sneaky Bat tricks.  Send four guys to watch the stairs, and post two men outside this room.”

“When are we leaving?”

“When the cops are gone and Batman’s dead.  Don’t worry.  I’ve got them right where I want them.”

 

Selina stared at the Bat-signal and prayed the Dark Knight was alive to answer its call.

Several feet away, Fox felt his cell phone vibrate.  In a hushed tone, he answered, “Lucius Fox.”

“It’s Bruce.”

“Thank God you’re alright!  We feared the worst.  Where are--yes, Mr. Jenkins.  I’ll check on your order first thing in the morning.”

“Bad guys around?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m away from the building.  The police are already here, and they’ve summoned Batman.  How’s Selina?”

“Shaky, but okay.”

“A fireman told me the hotel’s full of bombs.”

“You got that right.”

“Anyone killed?”

“Afraid so.”

“Who’s doing this?”

“I don’t think he’s playing with a full deck, Mr. Jenkins.”

“Joker?”

“Yes.”

“Hang in there.  We’ll get you guys out.  Give Selina my love.”

“Will do.  Talk to you later, Mr. Jenkins.”

Bruce pocketed his phone and began jogging to his meeting with Alfred three blocks east.

 

Fox sat down next to Selina.  “I need to tell you something good, but you mustn’t show any reaction.  Bruce is alive, and he made it out of the building.  He said he loves you, and the police will get us out of here.”

She closed her eyes for a few seconds.  “Thanks, Lucius.”  Looking again at the Bat-signal, she rubbed her still-slender belly.  “Daddy’s coming back,” she whispered.

 

As Bruce ran, he thought of the dream.  It was a premonition, and it was all coming horribly true.  Mulling over its fiery ending, he determined, like Scrooge, to keep the shadows of things that might be from becoming reality.

 

Joker phoned Gordon again.  “I want to applaud you, Commissioner, for taking me seriously.  It looks like your men have left the hotel as I asked.  Certain people up here haven’t been so cooperative, and I had to teach them a life-altering lesson.  You know, some days you’re the windshield, some days you’re the bug.”

“How many have you killed?”

“Personally?  Only three--so far.  But two of them were my guys who just weren’t performing up to expectations.  My other men, experts that they are, bagged another twelve.  Fourteen, if you add the guard in the lobby and the rich guy in the elevator.  Does seventeen put us over the limit?”

“Joker, this is not funny!  What do you want?”

“At first, I wanted to be named Man of the Year by this poor excuse for a Chamber of Commerce.  Now, I just want to kill people, starting with Batman.  We’ll see how long he survives in my bomb boot camp.  And don’t you try any tricks, either.  I’m monitoring the TV cameras, so every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be watching you!”  He let go with a fit of laughter.

 

The only nearby building taller than the Regency was, oddly enough, Wayne Tower.  Bruce took his secure private elevator to the roof, opened the bag he got from Alfred, and put on the Batsuit.  His glide to the hotel would be short, only a couple of blocks, but to be prudent, he noted the wind speed and direction.

Activating his wireless communicator, he contacted Gordon.

The commissioner answered his phone, thinking it was Joker again.  “Gordon.”

“It’s Batman.”

“Am I ever glad to hear from you.  Joker has taken--”

“I know.  I’m on my way to the Regency.  There’s a way to neutralize Joker’s bombs, but I have to get inside first.  If I can discover the frequency range he’s using to control them, I can send out a jamming signal.”

“Be extra careful.  There’s still about two hundred hostages on the thirtieth floor.”

“I understand.  Have some helicopters on standby to evacuate them.”  He looked behind him.  Wayne Tower has a large helipad.  I don’t imagine Mr. Wayne would mind if you used it.”

“Especially since he’s one of the hostages.  I’ll contact the National Guard.  We’ll need troop carriers for that many people.”

 

Batman leaped off Wayne Tower and swooped effortlessly onto the Regency’s roof.  He assumed Joker was smart enough to monitor the security cameras, and that left him with almost no way to enter undetected.  He needed a diversion.

From his utility belt he got a self-propelled Batarang, programmed in the flight path coordinates, and tossed it over the side.  Counting off thirty seconds, he opened the emergency exit door and went in.

 

Joker checked his watch.  “It’s only nine-thirty?  Seems later than that.”

“Why isn’t Batman here yet?”

“I don’t know, Harry, but I’m getting tired of waiting for the winged pest.  I may just start shooting to liven things up.”

A black object with a glowing blue light sped past the windows.

“What was that?”

“What?”

“Something just zoomed by out there,” Harry said.

“I didn’t see anything.”

“It moved so fast I couldn’t tell what it was.”

“I saw it, too,” another thug said.

The Batarang sailed into view, this time going the opposite direction.

“There it is again.”

All eyes in the room stared out the windows.

Even Harley looked away from her monitor, missing sight of Batman as he walked down to the thirtieth floor stairwell.

 

Crouching on the railing just beyond the security camera’s view, the Caped Crusader took out an explosives detector.  The moment he switched it on, the meter went wild, indicating a bomb close by.

He looked up and saw one attached to the emergency light fixture two feet above and four feet beyond his head.

 

“There’s your answer, Harry.  Our Bat problem is upon us.  That’s one of his toys.  Harley, do you see anything on the cameras?”

She studied the monitor.  “Everything’s clear.”

Joker grew restless and agitated.  “He’s here somewhere.  I can feel it.  C’mon, Batboy.  Show yourself.”

Glasses on the tables began vibrating, and the droning thump of helicopters sounded overhead.

“What’s Gordon doing?”

Harry pointed at the north windows.  “Joker, it’s three Army choppers.  They’re flying towards Wayne Tower.”

“Full of Green Berets, no doubt.  Gordon, you double-crossing sonofabitch!”  Joker put his gun to the head of the nearest VIP and pulled the trigger.  “Nothing personal,” he told the dead man, “I’m just really pissed off!”

His eyes scanned the room until he found Golini.  “Mr. Mayor, call Commissioner Gordon and tell him if he doesn’t stop whatever he’s up to, I’ll kill you.”

Golini crossed his arms and stared back.

“Oh, the hell with it!  I’m tired of dealing with this bunch of nincompoops.  I’ll kill you now.”  He aimed and fired.

 

Batman was agile, but contortion just wasn’t one of his skills.  Even a gymnast would’ve had difficulty pulling it off.  Reaching to the very limits of his balance on the handrail, he was still inches short of being able to firmly grasp the bomb.

He stretched for one final try and managed to get his hand around the bottom of the TNT sticks.  Tugging gently, he pulled it toward himself.  It was almost free when one of the wires snagged on the light fixture.  He tried to get a better grip but misjudged its stability.  The weight of the TNT pulled the wire loose, and the bomb fell.  It bounced off the bottom step and came to rest on the stairwell landing, in full view of the security camera.

 

Hit in the left shoulder, Golini dropped to the carpet.  Several people came to his aid, propping him up and stuffing napkins in his coat to stem the bleeding.

Joker made his way over, ready to deliver the final blow.  “Damn!  Five inches off.  My aim in reduced visibility just isn’t what it used to be.  Maybe I need glasses.”

“Joker, be reasonable,” one of the Good Samaritans said.

“Oh, I am.  An unreasonable man would’ve killed you all by now.”  He pointed the gun at Golini’s heart.

“Joker!” Harley shouted.  “Somebody’s on the stairs!”

He put the gun away and sneered at the mayor.  “I’ll finish you off later.”  Joining Harley, he asked, “What’s going on?”

“I saw some shadows, and the bomb in the stairway came loose.”

“What floor?”

“This one.”

He fingered his remote.  “Bye-bye, Batman!”

 

Knowing what was about to happen, Batman leaped down the stairs after the bomb fell and burst through the emergency exit into the thirtieth floor hallway.  He ran right into one of Joker’s guards as the bomb exploded.

The blast blew off the exit door and knocked both men down.

Batman picked up the guard’s AK-47 by the barrel and swung it like a baseball bat into his face.

Careening into a decorative table, the thug went out cold.

 

The hostages screamed as the explosion shook the Olympus Room.

“Think that got him?” Harry wondered.

Joker frowned.  “I don’t know.  Harley, do you see anything on the other side or on twenty-nine?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Better safe than sorry.”

Another blast erupted on thirty, inadvertently killing one of his own men who stood too close to the other exit.  Seconds later, two more explosions destroyed the escapes on the floor below.

 

Hearing the commotion, two more of Joker’s men rushed over to take on Batman.  The first sprayed him with bullets, which his suit and cape harmlessly deflected.

“It’s naptime, boys.”  Batman removed a small gold sphere from one of his belt pouches and tossed it at their feet.

Before they could run, a white cloud of gas enveloped them.  Coughing and wheezing, they were already asleep when they hit the floor.

 

Dr. Ned Samuels was among the hostages, and he busied himself tending to the wounded Golini.

“How am I doing, Doc?”

Samuels placed a dry cloth napkin inside the mayor’s coat.  “Not bad.  The bleeding’s almost stopped.  Are you in much pain?”

“It comes and goes, depending on how I move.”

“Unfortunately, the only thing I can offer you is the wine in here.  A bit of Old West medicine for what ails you.”

 

Joker stopped pacing when he heard the gunfire from the far end of the floor.  “Maybe we didn’t rid ourselves of the troublesome Bat after all, Harry.  Go down there and see what all the shooting’s about.”

 

Having lost the element of surprise, Batman abandoned his plan to neutralize Joker’s bombs with a frequency blocker.  Time was working against him--and the hostages--now that Joker knew he was there.  Like it or not, he would have to use the cavalry-to-the-rescue approach.

He stopped before he reached the cross-hallway in front of the Olympus Room.  Holding out a small mirror, he saw the two guards stationed outside, so he rolled a sphere of knockout gas in their direction.

The gunmen looked down as the shiny ball came to a stop in front of them and got a face full of anesthesia when it popped.

As soon as they were unconscious, he dragged them feet first to a linen closet, jimmied the door open, and locked them inside.  He picked up their guns and put them in the nearest trashcan.

 

Harry was startled when he opened the doors and noticed the guards were gone.  He stuck his head out and looked around, but saw no one and heard nothing.  “Guys, where are you?  Stan?  Mel?  Are you there?”

Nervously locking the doors, he turned around and ran to Joker.

“Back so soon?”

“None of our guys are out there.  They’ve disappeared.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.  Something’s wrong, Joker.”

“It must be that damn flying rat!”

Harry did a quick headcount.  “We’re down to thirteen men, including you.”

“Don’t get all panicky.  There’s still only one of him, thank goodness.”

“Thirteen’s an unlucky number, man.”

“Shut up, Harry!”

“He’s gonna kill us!”

“If you don’t shut up, I’ll kill you first!  I can handle Batman.”  He waved the remote.  “I’ve got the power.”

 

A bomb exploded behind Batman in a utility closet, demolishing the adjacent rooms.  As he took cover around the corner, a blast from the ceiling sent a fireball coursing down the hall and scorching everything in its path.  He had barely recovered when a third explosion erupted from an air duct right above him.  Covering up with his cape, he waited for debris to stop falling.

When it appeared nothing else was going to blow up at the moment, he went to examine the vandalized elevator control panel.  Seeing how Harley had shut down two cars, he reactivated them and changed the security settings so that only commands entered from the panel would be accepted.  She couldn’t turn them off again.

 

“You see?”  Joker shouted from the podium.  “You see what I can do?  If Batman doesn’t back off, I’ll turn every last one of you into crispy critters!”  He dialed Gordon’s phone.  “Commissioner, I told you what would happen if you sent Batman over here.  But did you listen?  Noooo.  That’s just a taste of what I’m capable of.  Pull him back, or else.”

“Or else what?” Gordon challenged.

“Or else this building becomes the world’s largest torch!”

“Aren’t you planning to do that, anyway?”

“Maybe, maybe not.  But the more Batman interferes, the more likely I am to start barbecuing!”

Gordon hung up.  He’d had enough of Joker’s rants.

A moment later, his phone rang again.  “Gordon.”

“It’s Batman.  I’m in position outside the Olympus Room.  Send the first helicopter over in five minutes.”

“Joker’s threatening to set everything off unless you leave.”

“He doesn’t have a reason not to, whether I stay or go.”

“I could order you out to buy us more time.”

“For what?  To send a SWAT team?  He’d kill everyone before they touch down.  It sounds like he’s getting more unstable by the minute.  Those people have two chances to die.  I’m their only chance to live.”

“Go ahead.  God forgive us if you fail.”

“I won’t.  Now send the chopper.”

Gordon closed his phone and stared blankly at Captain Bain.  “That was either the best or the worst decision I’ve ever made.”

 

Batman hurled a Batarang with a small explosive charge at the locked doors.  Designed to have more psychological than physical effect, it nevertheless blew a huge hole through them.  When the smoke dissipated, he raced in.

Selina smiled, and a joyful tear rolled down her cheek.  “Go get ‘em!”

A few of Joker’s thugs charged him.  They quickly abandoned their machine guns and resorted to hand-to-hand combat when they saw the weapons had no effect.

Batman backhanded a thug to his left and punched out one in front of him.  He grabbed the arm of a third and hurled him over two tables.  He knocked the next attacker’s legs out from under him and brutally kicked his chin when he fell.

Several of the captives rose up and joined him in attacking Joker’s men with whatever they could get their hands on--wine bottles, steak knives, plates, and chairs.

Surrounded and outnumbered, the goons couldn’t use their guns.  The furious guests snatched them away instead, and in a few cases turned them against their captors.

Joker watched the melee in disbelief as his men were eliminated one by one.

Batman turned to find Harry threatening him with a long, serrated-edge knife.  Blocking the blade with his gauntlet, he shook his head.  “Harry, we’ve got to stop meeting like this.”  He spun around, kicked him in the kidneys, and smashed his nose with a right hook.

Harry lost his footing on a gob of mashed potatoes and clipped the edge of a table with his forehead on the way down.

Batman surveyed the situation while the room grew still.  No one was left to fight him, except for Joker and Harley by the dais.  Advancing toward them, he saw Selina at the front and the injured Golini to his right.

“Game’s over, Joker.  You lose.”

With an evil grin, Joker held up the remote.  “Nice try, but I’ve got an ace in the hole.  And it’s a killer!”  He laughed sinisterly.

Batman looked at the hostages.  “Leave, quickly!  The southeast stairwell to the roof is still intact.  Helicopters will be here any minute to evacuate you.”

Slowly at first, the nervous, exhausted guests headed toward the door.  Once they heard the sound of approaching rotor blades, they moved faster.

Joker pressed his remote, and two explosions ripped through the hallways, freezing them where they stood.  “You’re not going anywhere.  And unless Batman leaves, I’ll kill you one at a time until he does.”

“You’re bluffing, Joker.”

“Am I?”  He tapped on the remote and smiled.  “Are you sure?  Really, really sure?”

Unfazed, Batman turned his head.  “He’s already blown the bombs in your escape route.  Go!  Now!”

Trusting him more than they feared Joker, the hostages began streaming from the room.  Fox and Mitchell Brandenburg helped steady Golini.  Selina lingered to make sure everyone alive got out.

“So how did you know?” Joker asked.

“Educated guess.  You needed a clear exit for yourself.”

“Those weren’t the last bombs up here.  I can still blow this place to hell.”

“Give me the remote.  Whatever your twisted reason was for doing this, you’re finished.”

Joker grabbed Selina and put his pistol to her head.  “Wrong!  I’ve just been dealt a new hand.”

Batman saw her terrified look.  “Let Mrs. Wayne go.  This is between us.”

He cocked the hammer.  “Nah.  Her husband’s already dead.  Why not have a little family reunion?”

Batman took a step back.  “He’s not dead.  I saw him in a group of evacuees about an hour ago.  There wasn’t anybody in the elevator when it crashed.”

“Damn!”  Joker pushed Selina into him and took aim at his cowl.

The hammer clicked on an empty chamber.  Out of bullets.

He threw the gun and grabbed Harley’s hand.  As they ran for the staff door beyond the dais, he pressed the black button on his remote.

The remaining bombs on thirty and in the Olympus Room exploded like a string of thunderous firecrackers, culminating in a glowing orange fireball which blasted through windows from one end of the floor to the other.

Batman put his arm around Selina and pulled her under his cape just before the force of the explosions hurled them out a window.

 

At the first detonation, the National Guard helicopter pilot lifted off to avoid being caught in the flaming updraft.  Those who remained lay down on the roof and covered their heads.

 

Horrified, Gordon and Bain watch the thirtieth floor disappear behind a curtain of flames.

“Where’s the ‘copter?” Gordon asked, grabbing a pair of binoculars.

“The pilot just radioed he’s doing an emergency liftoff,” an officer said.

Gordon saw the Chinook rising above the veil of smoke.  “There it is!”

The operator looked his way again.  “He says he got twenty-seven people off but estimates there’s another hundred and fifty or so waiting.”

“Keep sending them over.  We don’t know if the roof might collapse from all those explosions.  Tell the Fire Department to move in.”

“Chopper number two will be there in a minute.”

Bain looked grim.  “Obviously, most of the hostages got out, but where’s Batman?”

 

Now in freefall, the Dark Knight reached for his grappling gun and fired.  The hook smashed into a window on twenty-seven and snagged the frame.  He clipped the gun to his utility belt and waited for the rope to spool out.

“Hold on tightly,” he shouted to Selina.  “Our landing’s going to be a doozy.”

The rope ended at seventeen.  They came to a brief, jolting halt before swinging back towards the hotel.

He put his heels together, covered her face, and lowered his head.

They crashed through a window and made a bouncy landing on the room’s king-size bed.

“Whoa!” she exclaimed, trying to catch her breath.  “I am so glad to see you!”

He cut loose the rope and smiled.  “How do you feel?”

She gave him a hug and a juicy kiss.  “Not bad for someone who got blown out of a hotel and lived.”

“Got to love those nine lives.  Did Joker hurt you at all?”

“Only emotionally.  He said you were dead.”

“I almost was.”

“I got so scared I’d never see you again.  And our baby wouldn’t have a dad.”

He kissed her.  “It’s over.  Well, almost.  We still need to get out of here.”

She laughed.  “In an ironic way, the evening’s ending exactly the way I planned.  I’m in bed with Batman.  And if it wasn’t for all this broken glass, I’d ask you to make love to me.”

“If it wasn’t for the fact that this building is dangerous, I’d say yes.  Come on, I reactivated the elevators.  Let’s get you down to the first floor.”

 

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Gordon greeted Batman half an hour later.  “I had no idea if you were even alive.”

“My communicator got a little toasted.”

“Want to tell me what happened?”

“I wasn’t able to get a frequency lock on Joker’s bombs before he discovered I was there.  I sent the hostages out, but he decided to play sore loser and roast everyone.”

“It’s a miracle so many lived.  We have at least fifteen unaccounted for, including Bruce Wayne.”

“He escaped earlier.  His wife just came out, and she can confirm it.  You’ll find what’s left of the missing in the Olympus Room.  Joker’s men shot a lot of people.”

“Terrible shame.  There is a silver lining, though.  We’ll never have to deal with him again.”

“When it comes to the psycho in purple, never say never, but I don’t see how he could survive that inferno.”

“How many bombs did he have?”

“Who knows?  There’s probably dozens of them on the other floors.  When the fires are extinguished, send the bomb squad to comb through every nook and cranny.”

“Thank you again, Batman.  A lot of people owe you their lives tonight.”

“I’d trade their gratitude in a second for the lives that were lost.”

 

Once the fires had been put out, electricity was restored to most floors of the hotel, and police began recovering bodies.  Gordon stayed on the scene late into the night to oversee the operations.

Around one a.m., Forensic Detective Riley walked up to him holding two green nylon sacks with handles.

“What are those?”

“Gym bags.  We found them by a broken window in an undamaged part of the thirtieth floor.”

“So?”

“The window wasn’t broken by any explosion.  Someone put a chair through it.”  Dropping the bags, Riley reached into his pocket.  “And this was carefully stuck in the window frame.”

It was a Joker playing card.

 

With a cheerful smile, Selina strolled into the living room midmorning on Sunday.  “Great news, darling.  Dr. Zalinski’s on call this weekend.  She checked me out and said the baby’s just fine.  No lingering effects from last night.”

Still wearing his pajamas, a disheveled Bruce slouched in front of the TV watching news coverage of the hotel takeover.  “That’s great,” he said flatly.

“You don’t look happy.  What’s wrong?”

“I feel awful.  So many people died at an event I didn’t want to have in the first place.  I should’ve put my foot down and said ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’  Yet I didn’t, because there’s a stupid little part of me that likes ego strokes.  My pride cost them their lives.”

“Bruce, you’ve developed a bad habit of second-guessing yourself lately.  If the Chamber hadn’t picked you, they’d have chosen somebody else.  And Joker still would’ve done what he did.  He’s the one to blame.”

“But it happened at a dinner in my honor.  I can never forget that.”

“Then also never forget how Batman saved ten times more lives than were lost.”

“I need to do something for those families.  Maybe send flowers, pay for the funerals, I don’t know.”

“Fine, but please stop the pity party.  I expected you to be more concerned about whether I suffered a miscarriage than whether you should mope about a thing that wasn’t your responsibility.  Honestly, sometimes I think you’re more fun with the cowl on.  At least Batman doesn’t do guilt.”

 

Having just four hours of sleep, Gordon was at his office by eight to review preliminary reports on the incident and check for new developments.  The mayor’s office had scheduled a press conference for one p.m., and he needed to gather information to give out.

Around lunchtime, Captain Miguel Contreras knocked on his door.

“Come in.”

Contreras gave him a folder.  “Complete list of the victims, sir.  The coroner identified everyone.  Joker and Harley Quinn were not among the dead.”

“So where the hell are they?”

“I wish I knew, but I can tell you where they were.  We found two parachutes in a trash can about three blocks south of the hotel.”

“What?  You mean they jumped out and nobody saw them?”

“My guess is they intentionally kept the southwest corner free of explosives, and when we were watching everything blow up, they bailed on the opposite side.”

“Dammit!  Even Batman didn’t think they made it.”

“We are talking about the Joker, sir.  He’s nothing if not clever.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“How’s Mayor Golini?”

“Doing fine.  Doctors got the bullet out, and he told his secretary to expect him back on Monday.  Send a copy of the victims list to his office.  And include that news about Joker.  You might as well wreck his day, too.”

 

Barbara Gordon almost had to drag her father from police headquarters to get him to leave.  She bribed him with dinner at Puccini’s Italian Bistro.  It wasn’t long until their conversation turned to the hostage incident.

“Another clutch save for Batman, huh, Dad?”

“Indeed.  So many more people could have died if not for him.  But it wasn’t a total victory.  I’m still astounded that Joker and Harley Quinn escaped.”

“Well, if Batman had a partner to cover the other end of the hotel, they might’ve been captured.  Why is he working alone?”

“You’re asking the wrong man, Babs.  Robin went out on his own as Nightwing.  That was more than a year ago.  I know he worked with Catwoman for a while, but she seems to be keeping a low profile.”

“Tell him I said he needs a new partner.”

Gordon chuckled.  “If you’re so concerned, why don’t you tell him?”

“I may just do that.”

“Good luck trying to convince him.”

She smiled.  “I know a way to get his attention.”

 

Bruce was working alone in the study after dinner.  Selina walked in quietly and put her hands on his shoulders.

He looked up.  “Hey.”

“I came on a little too strong this morning.  I’m sorry.  I forget how these experiences are different for you.”

“I’m sorry, too.  You were absolutely right.  My first concern should’ve been you and the baby.  Believe me, I’m very thankful the two of you are okay.”

“Whatcha writing?”

“The police released the list of victims.  Alfred got names and addresses of their next-of-kin.  I’m sending letters of condolence and regret.”

“It must be really hard.  How many do you have left?”

“Only one.  But I don’t think a letter’s going to cut it in this case.”

“Why?”

A lump came to his throat.  “It’s a seventeen year-old boy who’s now an orphan.  His mother died years back, and now Joker’s killed his father.”

“Oh, my gosh!  That’s terrible.”

“Yeah.  Since I know what he’s going through, I think I should visit him.  A letter would be too impersonal.”

“Good idea.  What’s his name?”

“Tim.  Tim Drake.”

 

TO BE CONTINUED