THE MAZE

 

            “What do you mean, he escaped in the laundry?” Commissioner Gordon bellowed into his telephone.  “He hid in the truck?  When did it leave?  That was three hours ago!  He could be anywhere by now!”  Growling, he slammed down the receiver.

            Captain Bain looked at his boss.  “What’s the bad news?”

            Gordon gave a deep sigh.  “Riddler broke out of Arkham this afternoon.  He picked the lock on his cell door and hid in the outgoing laundry truck.”

            Bain tried to stifle a laugh.  “I thought they only did that in the movies.”

            “Life imitates art, Captain.  Again.”

            “Time to call Batman?”

            The commissioner drummed his fingers on the desk.  “Since Riddler isn’t up to anything—yet—I hate to call him out just for an FYI.  Still, he ought to know.  Hmm.”  He looked at a small black device behind his desk.  “Maybe it’s a good time to try that out.”

            “What is it?”

            “Something he gave me recently.  A secure channel comlink to the Batmobile.”

 

            Wearing her slinkiest black dress, Selina sauntered into the Wayne Manor living room, took the magazine from Bruce’s hands, and sat on his lap.  With a scintillating kiss, she said, “Only two days until our romantic weekend getaway.”

            He smiled.  “Sounds like you’re ready.”

            “I am,” she purred.  “It’s been so long since we’ve had any time alone.  No baby, no phone, no people.  Just you and me.  In bed.  For two whole days.”  She gave him another juicy kiss.

            “I get the feeling you wouldn’t mind starting a little early.”

            “Mmm, that’s the idea.  The weekend’s the main course.  Tonight can be the appetizer.”

            “Excuse me, sir,” came Alfred’s voice.

            Startled, Bruce jumped, and Selina slipped off the couch, landing upside down on the floor.

            “Crap, Alfred!”  She stood up and straightened her dress.  “Can’t you knock?”

            “My apologies, madam.  The door was open,” he replied.

            “What is it?” Bruce asked.

            “The new comlink on the Batmobile is beeping, sir.”

            “Thank you.  I’ll be right there.”

            “What’s ‘the new comlink?’” Selina asked with dread.

            “If the Bat-signal is 911, this is the non-emergency number,” Bruce explained.

            As he left the room, she brushed her hair back and took deep breaths to calm her raging hormones.  “Non-emergency is good,” she muttered.  “I like non-emergency.  No suiting up, no ‘I’m-sorry-but-I-gotta-run.’”

 

            Bruce climbed into the Batmobile cockpit and switched on the transmitter.  “Giving your new toy a try, Commissioner?”

            “Yes and no.  Riddler escaped from Arkham this afternoon.  He hasn’t done anything else that we’re aware of, and he didn’t make any threats.”

            “We both know it won’t be long before he acts.”

            “Agreed.  I just wanted to inform you.”

            “Thank you.”

            Bruce shut off the link and hopped out of the car.  “Alfred, Riddler is at large again.  Will you tell Tim when he gets in?  I’ve got a hot date waiting for me.”

 

            While Bruce and Selina were away at his newly-renovated cabin in the foothills, Tim and Barbara kept things humming in the Batcave.  While she scrolled through the computer dossier on Riddler, he put the finishing touches on his newest Birdarang.

            “What do you suppose this creep’ll do next?” she asked.

            “I don’t know.  Kinda hard to top taking down the entire power grid.”

            “It’s his mind that worries me.  Did I tell you about the time he threatened to drop me into an electrified water tank if Batman didn’t answer his stupid riddles correctly?”

            “At least twice,” he answered with a smirk.

            “Sorry.  I just take it personally when someone tries to kill me.”  She brought up Riddler’s mug shot on the screen.  “Okay, Eddie.  What’s the name of the game this time?”

 

            Almost like newlyweds, Bruce and Selina came floating home Monday morning.

            “How was your weekend?” Alfred asked as they walked in.

            “Everything I hoped for,” she said, kissing Bruce on the cheek.  “And more.”

            “Good to have you two back,” the butler told them.

            Bruce picked up the morning paper and frowned at the headline.  “‘Judge Gould Missing.  Police Suspect Foul Play?’”

            “It’s been all over the news, sir.  He failed to show up for a dinner engagement Saturday night and hasn’t been seen since.”

            “District judges don’t disappear without a reason.”

            “Oh, and this arrived for you shortly after you left on Friday.”  Alfred passed him a plain green envelope.

            Bruce gave a peeved look.  “A Riddlergram.  How much do you want to bet this is related to Gould’s disappearance?”

            “Looks like you two have some work to do,” Selina said.  “I’ll be upstairs unpacking.”

            “Yeah.  See you later, honey.”  Bruce opened the envelope and read the card inside.  “‘Sitting in a high chair before a sealed wall, I hammer away, with injustice for all.  Can you find me before it’s too late?’  You know, Alfred, sometimes I hate it when I’m right.”

 

            He went immediately to the Batcave, where he showed Tim the card.

            The boy read the riddle and nodded.  “It certainly sounds like he was targeting the judge.  Why would he send it to you now?”

            “It came on Friday after we left.  If Gould disappeared on Saturday, that means Riddler was giving me twenty-four hours to figure it out and protect the judge.  Damn!  Everything stays quiet until I take a vacation.”

            “If you’d gotten the riddle on Friday, could you have solved it in time?”

            “Probably.  The ‘injustice for all’ part sort of gives it away.”

            Tim scratched his head.  “I get the ‘high chair’ thing—a judge sits higher than everyone else in the courtroom.  But what’s the ‘sealed wall?’”

            “The seal of Gotham hangs on the wall behind him.”

            “Duh!  Of course.”

            “Riddler is the main reason I told you at the beginning of your training to sharpen your mind, to do crossword puzzles and read.  He’s an intellectual genius who’s tried to trick me more times than I care to remember.  However, with experience comes wisdom.  Consider yourself enrolled in a crash course on Riddlerology,” Bruce said.

            Okay…so I didn’t do too hot on my first pop quiz.  One more question.  Why Judge Gould?”

            “He was the trial judge who first sent Riddler to Arkham.”

 

            Gordon lit the Bat-signal that night.  To his surprise, the Dark Knight showed up within three minutes.  “I believe you just set a personal speed record, Batman.”

            “I was already on my way to see you about Judge Gould.  And you want to talk to me about the same thing, right?”

            The commissioner nodded.  “Still no sign of him.  We’re coming up blank.”

            “Allow me to fill in that blank: Riddler.”

            “Oh, boy.”

            “He sent this note, but I didn’t get it until after Gould vanished.”

            Gordon glanced over the card, then handed it back.  “Gould presided at his first trial, right?”

            “Right.  It sounds like Riddler’s interested in dishing out some payback.”

            “But that was how many years ago?  Why now?”
            “I don’t know, but sooner or later, he’ll tell us what hoops we have to jump through to get Gould back.”

 

            Across town, Catwoman conducted another training session for Terri Callison.  On a deserted rooftop, they practiced judo moves and backflips.

            “Mmm, alright.  That was your best flip yet,” Catwoman said.  “Just remember to throw your head all the way back as you start.”

            “I’ve been working on that.”

            Catwoman sat on a ventilator.  “Let’s take five.  I need to catch my breath.”

            “Are you feeling okay?”

            “Yeah.  But being shot and nearly bleeding to death takes something out of you.  It’s kind of sad, in a way.”  She cracked her whip and took out a rat crawling on the ledge.  “I’ve gotten myself back into as good a shape as I can.  Yet I’ll never be a hundred percent again, thanks to Joker.  On the positive side, Batman and I had a wonderful weekend alone.  Lots of, shall I say, one-on-one aerobics.”

            Terri giggled.  “I getcha.  Listen, Cats, please level with me.  How am I doing?”

            “With your training?  Great.  You’re about where I guessed you would be at this point.”

            “I’m taking this very seriously.  I practice at home, I bought some self-defense videos, all that.  I want to do a good job as your assistant.”

            With a sisterly hug, Catwoman told her, “You are, and you will, TC.  Don’t worry about it.”

            “I just don’t want to let you down.  Or Nikki.”

            “Try not to compare yourself with your sister.  I’m glad her memory motivates you.  But remember, you should want to do it for yourself, as well.”

            The girl grew steely-eyed.  “Oh, I do.  Crime and corruption destroyed my family.  I want to do whatever I can to stop it from happening to others.”

            Catwoman smiled.  “Sounds like a guy I know, with pointy ears and a cape.”

 

            No ransom demand for Gould came forth in the next two days, and the police could make no progress in trying to find him or Riddler.  It was as if the earth had swallowed them up.  Batman, Robin, and Batgirl scoured the city in between stopping criminals and rescuing people in danger.

            Finally, another green envelope appeared, left on the Batmobile as the Dynamic Duo tended to business.

            Batman snatched up the envelope and tore it open.

            “Something about Judge Gould?” Robin asked.

            Looking glum, Batman almost threw the card at him.  “No.  Another riddle.”

            “‘She ruled the room, and it felt like a tomb.  I wished she would fly away on her broom.  Can you find her before the time of her doom?’  He’s going to kidnap somebody else?”

            “Yes.”  Batman opened the car’s canopy.  “Get in.  We’ve got one day to prevent it.”

 

            Robin again pored over the Batcave computer dossier on Riddler, looking for details on the man’s life.

            Batman paced and dissected the riddle in his mind.  “A schoolroom is a room with rules.”

            “And a teacher rules the classroom.”

“An unpopular teacher, given the witch reference.”

Robin looked up.  “So he’s planning to kidnap a teacher who made his school days miserable.  First a judge, now a teacher from way back when.  What’s he doing, ‘This Is Your Life, Edward Nygma?’”

Batman rubbed his gloved hands together.  “In a way, I think you’re exactly right.  He’s decided to get revenge on people he feels have wronged him all his life.”

“Uh-oh.”

“Correct.  We have no idea who or how many people may be on his list.”

“I’m sure you’re there, probably at the top.”

“That’s a given, Robin.  But it’s more important to figure out who else is and protect them.”

“My brain hurts just thinking about it.  There could be dozens of people to pick from—hundreds, even.  A boss who fired him.  A girlfriend who broke up with him when he was sixteen.  Every police officer who ever arrested him.  Where do we start?”

“Pull a list of all named persons in that dossier.  Meanwhile,” Batman said as he sat down at another computer, “I’m going to access his school records and try to find the teacher who’s his next target.”

 

The task was anything but easy.  From the high school files alone, Batman found nine different teachers who had either written Riddler up for misbehavior or given him low grades.  The middle school records produced an additional six names.  Four of the teachers were men, so he removed them from the list.  One of the women was deceased.

“That leaves ten current or retired teachers to pick from,” he told Robin as he passed along a printout.

“Can’t we just ask Commissioner Gordon to guard all ten?”

“If I could find all ten, yes.”

“Oh,” Robin said with a sheepish grin.

“There’s no trace of four of them in the greater Gotham area.”

“Maybe they moved?”

“Or got married.  Three were single at the time Nygma was their student.”

“Want me to check the marriage records?”

Batman climbed into the Batmobile.  “And the divorces.  Send me anything you find on those four.  I’ve got to tell Gordon what we know.”

 

The commissioner was equally troubled by Batman’s hypothesis.  “So what you’re saying is, anybody who ever rubbed Riddler the wrong way should be considered a potential kidnapping target?”

“Yes.  Realistically, though, you and I have more to worry about than the prom date who dumped him.”

“What do you suggest?”

Batman passed him a black folder.  “Here’s a list of everyone whose name appears in Riddler’s criminal record, or newspaper articles about him.  Assign a guard to all civilians and tell the others to watch their backs.”

His communicator beeped.

“Robin?”

“I’ve located two of the four teachers.  I’m coming up empty on Sheila Lee Vickers and Barbara Jean McLaughlin.”

“I’m with the commissioner.  Send all the names and addresses to the Gotham PD right away.  When I get back, I’ll concentrate on finding those last two.  Batman out.”

“Some news?” Gordon asked.

“We’ve found eight of the ten teachers we think could be Riddler’s next victim.”

“I’ll put guards on them, as well.”

“I’m worried about the two we can’t find.  They’re in great danger and may not know until it’s too late.”

 

Robin waved as the Batmobile pulled to a stop inside the Batcave.  “One down, one to go.”

Batman jumped out and joined him at the computer.

“Sheila Vickers retired five years ago and moved to Florida.  Barbara McLaughlin is another story.  Twelve years ago, she married a guy named Michael Jones.  They got divorced three years later.  I’ve searched nationwide, and I can’t find any trace of her after that.”

“What about him?” Batman wondered.

“Do you know how many Michael Joneses there are in Gotham, let alone the country?”

“Search for derivations of her name.”

“Been there, done that.  I searched for Babs, Bobbie, Barb, Barbie, and BJ Jones.  Nada.”

Batman removed his cowl and rubbed his neck.  “If she’s so hard to find, how does Riddler know where she is?”

“What makes you think it’s her?  There’s eight others, all much easier to find.”

“And Riddler knows that.  Which I why I think he’s picking her.  He knows where she is.  We don’t.  It’s part of his game.  Another reason I think it’s her is that the records indicate she sent him to the principal more than any other teacher.  Keep looking.”

“I’m running a search right now for anyone in Gotham with a derivative of the name Barbara Jean.”

Bruce smiled.  “Just what I was going to suggest.”

Robin looked at the screen and frowned.  “One hundred thirty-nine…and counting.  We’re never going to have time to track them all down.”

“We’ll do what we can.  And pray that we get lucky.”

 

Time ran out before they could cross-check every name the search generated.  But the morning after Riddler’s deadline passed, there was no dramatic news about any mysterious disappearances.  For a while, Bruce and Tim thought maybe they had thwarted Riddler this time.

That feeling lasted until the midday news.

“Police are searching this afternoon for B.J. Walters, the principal of Kane Middle School,” anchorwoman Shelli Garza reported.  “She did not show up for work this morning, and her husband reported that she did not return from a late evening training session.  Anyone who thinks they may have seen Ms. Walters since nine pm Wednesday is urged to call the Gotham Police.”

Tim slapped his forehead with a growl, and Bruce kicked a chair.  “She got remarried,” the boy said.

“Was she even on the list?” Bruce asked.

Looking at a printout, Tim said, “Number 212.  We only got through a hundred and ninety-one.”

Bruce clenched his fists.  “Another round to Riddler.”

 

Despite the link between the two kidnappings, police efforts to find the victims were in vain.  It became clear to all that Riddler had carefully and patiently planned his crime.  Neither abduction produced any witnesses.  No suspicious activity or people were observed in out-of-the-way locations.

The big unknown, of course, was how many more names Riddler had on his list.  Batman felt certain he was far from finished.

A third note arrived two days later in the form of an audio CD and confirmed his suspicions.  With Batgirl and Robin present, he played the disc.

“Hello, Batman.  Looks like you didn’t do so well on the first two riddles.  I’ll admit the last one was a bit tough.  But hope springs eternal—for you, anyway.  Maybe you’ll do better with this one.  I’ve made it easier, but there’s a tradeoff.  You only have eight hours, instead of twenty-four.

“Riddle me this: he never stops running, both night and day.  But he always bullied and made me pay.  Who is he?”

Robin groaned, “What happened to easier?”

Batman calmly shut off the player.  “Sounds like we’re still back in his school days.”

Batgirl sighed in exasperation.  “So some kid beat him up and stole his lunch money.  Get over it by now.”

Robin banged his fist on the console.  “If we couldn’t find one teacher from a list of twelve….”

“Then how are we going to find one student out of several hundred?” Batman finished.  “That’s where he made it easier.  He gave us clues to the man’s identity.”

“Someone who runs continuously night and day?  Nobody does that,” the boy commented.

“Get away from the literal meaning of the words,” Batman cautioned.  “Remember, Riddler is frequently metaphorical and symbolic.  Those may even be two different clues.”

Batgirl paced.  Okay, let’s back up a few steps.  Riddler was a skinny, geeky kid.  Who would have been most likely to pick on him?”

“Big, tough guys,” Batman said.

“Jocks!” Robin blurted.  “I mean, athletes.”

“Yes,” Batman replied.  “And athletes run.”

“I’m on it,” Robin said as he pounced on the computer keyboard.  “Querying the school records for all varsity baseball, basketball, football, and track athletes the years Riddler was in high school.”

“When you get done,” Batman said, “see how many of them are playing professionally and reside in the greater Gotham area.”

“What can I do?” Batgirl asked.

“Get me a roster of all the local pro teams.  I want to attack this from both ends.”

 

The trio’s tasks were not terribly difficult, but the pressure of time made them seem harder.  Daylight gave way to twilight, and as night descended on the city, they found themselves only two hours away from Riddler’s deadline.

Robin snatched a sheet from the printer.  “Here we go.  Three guys who went to school with Riddler are playing pro ball and living in the area.”

Names,” Batman said.

“Marcus Day, Tony Jackson, and DeWayne Washington.”

Batgirl turned her head.  “Marcus Day is a running back for the Gotham Knights.”

Batman’s eyes widened.  “‘Both night and day.’  He’s the one.  Robin, call his home.  If he’s not there, get his cell number and try it.  Batgirl, tell the police Day’s life is in danger.  Ask them to take him into protective custody if they can find him.”  He ran to the Batmobile.  “I’m going into the city.  Hopefully, once we find out where Day is, I can keep Riddler from grabbing him.”

 

Ten minutes later, the communicator in the Batmobile beeped.  “Yes?”

“Day is not at home,” Batgirl said, “and his cell phone rolls over to voice mail.  I’ve notified the cops.  Robin’s been calling his teammates.  One of them just said he’s probably out clubbing tonight, and when he is, he shuts off his phone.”

“Clubbing where?”

“Probably Mistral, that—ahem—gentlemen’s club on Tenth.”

He made a sharp left turn.  “On my way.”

 

Marcus Day puffed on a Cuban cigar and relaxed at his customary table inside Mistral.  After obliging the usual crowd of autograph seekers, he sat back to enjoy the club’s erotic dancers perform under smoky blue lights.

An attractive girl in a shimmering green wig walked past his table, turned, and blew him a kiss.

He motioned for her to sit down.

Smiling, she slid into the booth with him.

“Say, honey, what’s your name?”

“Allison.”

“Where you been all evening?”

“Looking for you, Marcus.”

 

Batman placed a call to the club manager’s private phone.

“This is Amber.”

“It’s Batman.  I need your help.”

“Oh, really?  Looking for some fun with the ladies tonight?”

“This is urgent, Ms. Collins.  Marcus Day, the football star, is at Mistral.  His life is in immediate danger.  Do not let him leave before I get there.”

“Whoa, you are serious.”

“Time is of the essence.”

“I’ll put one of my security men on him right away.”

 

The Batmobile tore down Tenth Avenue and pulled to a screeching stop behind a line of SUVs and limos at Mistral’s entrance.  Batman leaped out and dashed through the club’s entrance, surprising the crowds inside and out.

The only woman wearing business attire, Amber Collins threaded her way through the clubgoers to meet him.

“Where’s Day?” he shouted over the noise.

“I told Mick to go straight to his table.”  She keyed her two-way radio.  “Mick, are you with Marcus Day?”

“He wasn’t at his table when I got out on the floor.  I’m about to check the men’s room.”  He paused.  “Nope, not in here.”

“Damn!  Let’s check with the doorman.”  She and Batman hurried back to the entrance.

A large African-American man named Brutus turned around.  Wassup, Amber?”

“Have you seen Marcus Day?  He was here, but we can’t find him anywhere.”

“The football guy?  He left about two minutes ago with some fine-looking lady with green hair.”

“Which way did they go?” Batman asked.

“They went up Tenth in a dark sedan, that’s all I saw.  Sorry, man, I gotta keep my eye on the people here.  I only noticed his girl ‘cause of her hair.”

Amber patted him on the arm.  “Thanks, Brutus.  We’ll let you get back to work.  I feel bad about this, Batman.  I sure hope—  She stopped, realizing that the Dark Knight, too, had vanished.

 

As he headed back to the Batcave, Batman reported in.  “Day’s gone.  Two minutes sooner, and he’d have been safe.”

Robin asked, “How did Riddler get him with all those people there?”

“He has an accomplice.  A beautiful one, apparently, with green hair.”

“At least that gives us a lead.”

“We need more than leads at this point.  It doesn’t matter if we miss by two minutes or two hours, Riddler is still getting ahead of us.  I want you and Batgirl out on the streets.  Riddler’s always careful, but he’s not perfect.  I’m counting on a slip up somewhere—an unintentional witness, a clue accidentally left behind, something to indicate his whereabouts.”

Okay.  We’ll do the detective thing.  Where will you be?”

Batman glanced up in the sky.  “At police headquarters.  The Bat-signal just came on.”

 

Gordon powered off the beacon when he saw Batman approaching.  “I hear you almost put a kink in Riddler’s plans.”

“Almost isn’t good enough.  Riddler’s going to keep this up until we catch him or he finishes going through his hit list.”

“If it’s any consolation, we’ve found no evidence of foul play against either of his previous victims.”

Batman nodded.  “Out-and-out murder isn’t his style.  He’s keeping them somewhere until he has all the ‘players’ he needs for his twisted little game.”

“We’ll keep looking and trying to guard the people you think might be on the list.”

“Watch your own back, too,” Batman cautioned.

“Sooner or later, I figure he’s coming for you.”

“I’m counting on it.  That may be our best hope for stopping him.”

 

Atop an East End brownstone, Catwoman waited for Terri to arrive.  She grew curious when she saw the uncertain look on the girl’s face.  “Something wrong, TC?”

Terri smiled shyly.  “No.  I, uh, I have a huge favor to ask.”

The Cat perched on a utility box and crossed her arms.  “I’m all ears.”

Glancing down nervously, Terri said, “I’ve got these two friends, see, and they also want to train with you.  Now before you say no, hear me out.  You told me overall crime in the East End has risen this year.  Since you took me on, you must feel one woman can’t do the job alone, right?  Especially after, y’know, your recent health scare.  Michelle is a martial arts ace, with black belts in Tae Kwan Do and Karate.  She has a good shot at making the Olympic Team next summer.  And Ami is a two time kickboxing champion at Gotham University.  I told them I would ask you.  Please?”

“TC, there’s something I need to tell you.  I was hoping to wait for a more appropriate time, but….”  Clicking her claws together, Catwoman gave a sad sigh.  “You know how I’ve been training you to be my assistant, like Nikki was?  Well, that’s not exactly true.”

“Huh?”

“I’m not training you to assist me.  I’m training you to replace me.”

Terri gasped.

“As I told you, my injuries have cut into my abilities.  I’ve gotten back as much as I can, but it’s not enough.  Inside, I can feel the difference.  If I keep on as Catwoman, sooner or later, I will slip up, and that mistake’s going to be fatal.  I know it.  The smart thing to do is find a new Catwoman.  The East End needs her help and protection, but it doesn’t necessarily have to come from me.  When your training time is finished, you will become Catwoman.  Your friends’ abilities are fine, but they’ll need training in East End life and facing supercriminals.  I want you to impart to them the things I’m teaching you.”

Terri nodded, and began crying.

“I think the idea of the three of you working together is wonderful.  The people here can only benefit.”

Terri hugged her.  “I love you, Cats.  I’ll miss you, but I understand.”

Fighting back her own tears, Catwoman said, “Now, you didn’t come here just to chat, you came to train.  Let’s go over the whip as a climbing aid.”

 

Eighteen hours later, another green audio CD was delivered.  Edgy and frustrated, Batman put it on.

“I’m somewhat disappointed.  I was really expecting more from you.  After doing such a heroic job stopping all of us on Hell Night, I figured you’d be on my trail in no time.  At least you’re getting closer.  Still, what fun is a game if the other guy can’t play?

“Let’s give it another shot, shall we?  But remember the tradeoff—easier clue, less time.  You have one hour.  Here’s the clue: one-six-three-eight-nine.  See you later.  Or not.  Ha!”

Robin wadded up a piece of paper and flung it at the loudspeaker.  “Why do I suddenly want to take his stupid cane and crack his skull with it?”

Batman said, “It’s the smug, intellectually superior attitude.  Do those numbers mean anything to you?”

“No.”  Robin wrote them down.  “If you add them, you get twenty-seven.”

Batman was already querying the computer database.  “I don’t think it’s a math puzzle.  It’s some kind of identifying number—an address, maybe.”

Robin began his own searches, and minutes later they compared results.  “Not looking good.  I found a pilot’s license with that number, but he doesn’t even live in Gotham.  Also, there’s a Metalworker’s Union card from 1940, the stock number of a computer monitor, and a shade of mascara.”

“As far as addresses go, there’s three industrial companies with a 16389 in their location.  No individual addresses.”

“What about an office suite or apartment?”

Batman shook his head.  “I checked.  None of them go that high.”

Batgirl’s motorcycle roared up the drive at the far end of the cave.  She parked, took off her cowl, and picked up a bottle of water.  “Hey, guys.  Anything new?”

Batman said, “We just got another CD from Riddler.  We only have one hour this time.”

She wrinkled her nose.  “That’s not fair.  What’s the clue?”

“Does the number 16389 ring a bell?”

Her eyes got big.  “Uh, yeah.  It’s Dad’s police badge number.”

“Then he’s next.”

“Oh, crap!”  Picking up the phone, she frantically dialed Gordon’s office.  It rang six times, then rolled over to the duty desk.

“Gotham Police.  Sergeant Dietz.”

“Hello, Sergeant, it’s Barbara Gordon.  Is my father still around?”

“The Commissioner left about twenty minutes ago, Miss Gordon.”

Glumly, she put down the receiver and looked at Batman.  “He’s already gone.”

“Do you know what his evening plans are?”

“We were tentatively meeting for dinner.  Let me check messages.”  She dialed her apartment phone and played back the recording.

Babs, it’s Dick.  I got tickets to that show you’ve been wanting to see.  Row Five, Friday night.  ’Bye.”

“Barbara, it’s Dad.  I’m meeting a reporter at Toolie’s.  She needs to get some background on the proposed street crime ordinance.  Can we push dinner back an hour?  Let me know.  Love you.”

“Anything?” Batman asked.

“He’s going to Toolie’s to meet a reporter.”

“Correction—he thinks he’s meeting a reporter.”

She frantically dialed Gordon’s cell number.

 

At Toolie’s Bar and Grill, Gordon checked his watch.  The reporter he was supposed to meet still hadn’t shown up by seven.  He took out a scrap of paper and dialed the number she’d given him.  No answer.

 

Batgirl’s call rolled over to voice mail.  “Dad, it’s urgent.  Call me.”

“No answer?” Robin asked.

She shook her head and began to worry.

Batman said, “Go on over there.  We’ll follow in the car.”

 

Gordon waited five more minutes, then walked out to the parking lot.  As he unlocked his car, a gray van honked and pulled up beside him.  The driver waved wildly, shut off the engine, and scampered out.

“Commissioner Gordon?  I’m Allison.  Sorry I’m late.  I got stuck in an editorial meeting.”

He stared at her electric blue hair and frowned.  “You could have called.”

Smiling, she said, “I tried your office number, but you’d already left.  I didn’t know your cell number.  Do you still have time?”

“I guess so,” he grumbled.

Quickly covering her nose with a tissue, she took a small perfume bottle from her bag and sprayed it in his face.

The knockout gas took effect immediately, and he dropped to the ground.  A man emerged from the rear of the van and dragged him inside.

Allison glanced around to make sure she hadn’t been seen, then climbed back in and sped off.

 

When Batman and Robin arrived, they saw Batgirl sitting beside her motorcycle with a dejected look on her face.

“Too late?” Batman asked.

She nodded.  “He left the restaurant alone, but no one saw him after that.”

“His car?”

She pointed at a white sedan.

“He’ll be okay.  He knows how to take care of himself,” Robin told her.

Gazing up with her reddened eyes, she said, “When you find Riddler, give him a nasty kick in the ass for me.”

“I think you’ll be right there with us to do it yourself,” Batman said firmly in a reassuring tone.  “Why don’t you go home for the night?”

She wiped her eyes and stood up.  “Yeah.  I think I will.”

Robin gave her a brotherly hug.  “Chin up.”

Mustering a smile, she said, “Thanks.”

 

On the ride home Batman asked, “Do you think she made the right choice?”

“Taking the night off?  Well, yeah.  I mean, her father’s been kidnapped.  Kinda hard to work when your mind’s preoccupied like that,” Robin answered.

“Exactly the point.  It was a test.  She should have declined and stayed with us.  You must be able to push feelings aside, or you’re no good to anyone.  In fact, you become more of a hazard to yourself.  She’s still fairly new at this, so I’ll let it go.  Once.  In time, she’ll have to learn how.”

“Come on, she’s only human.”

Batman guided the car into the Batcave tunnel entrance.  “Sometimes that’s the biggest obstacle to overcome.”

“Well, last I checked, there’s still flesh and blood under that cowl, too.”

“I am very relieved Catwoman’s retiring.  Too many moments where my concern for her clouded my judgement.”

 

In the morning, it was all over the media.  Commissioner Gordon kidnapped.  Riddler responsible.  Police and Batman unable to protect potential victims.

With a sneer, Alfred handed Bruce his newspapers.  “I wonder, sir, why they don’t go ahead and print these things on yellow paper.”

Bruce smiled.  “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, Alfred.  Even if they don’t understand what they’re talking about.”

“How will you stop the Riddler?”

“He’s orchestrated this so carefully, the only way to get inside his lair is for him to take me there.  I’ll just go out tonight and make myself a very visible target.”

“Judging by those news stories, I’d say you already are.”

 

It was against Batman’s nature to seek a high profile.  Rather than become the Not-So-Dark Knight, he hoped that parking the Batmobile in plain view would produce the desired result.  It took until the second night, but his gambit worked.

After dispatching two hoodlums who were about to set a homeless man on fire, he returned to the car just as a beautiful woman in a bright yellow wig placed a small but thick green envelope on the hood.  Approaching silently, he grabbed her wrist.

Startled, she gasped, “Oh, it’s you.”

“Who are you?”

She pulled her arm free and gave him a seductive look.  “Who do you want me to be?”

He snatched up the envelope and opened it.  “Another clue from Riddler.”

She smiled.

“A mirror?”

“No, sweetie, what’s in the mirror.  Namely, you.”

Pinholes around the edge spewed a cloud of gas.  He dropped the mirror, but too late.  Dizziness overcame him, and he blacked out on the spot.

 

He had no idea how long he’d been unconscious when he awoke.  Was it half an hour, or half a day?  Opening his eyes, he stood up and took in the surroundings.

Behind him was a sealed door with no handle or knob.  To either side were two high gray walls which seemed to form one corner of a long, narrow hallway.  Curiously, the walls did not reach up to the cavernous ceiling, where a single warehouse light shone down.  Instinctively reaching for his utility belt, he noticed it was gone.  He also noted a surveillance camera observing him from the top of one wall.

In the distance, almost at ceiling level, a light came on inside a small glass booth, revealing the outline of a man.

“Riddler?” the Dark Knight shouted.

“Welcome, Batman,” the master criminal’s voice echoed from an unseen bank of speakers.

“It’s finally my turn to play your warped game, huh?”

“A rather cynical way to look at it.  I prefer to think of it as your opportunity to get what you’ve been wanting for a week now--the chance to rescue the people whose kidnappings you couldn’t prevent.”

“So if I win your game, you’ll let them go?”

“Sort of.  I’ll explain in a moment.  But first things first.”

A video screen flashed on, showing several pictures of a beautiful woman in green, yellow, red, and blue wigs.

 “None of this would be possible without the help of my lovely and dedicated assistant, Miss Allison Chains.  Thank you so much, dear.”

“My pleasure,” she replied out of view.

Riddler said, “Now for the rules.”

More lights came on, casting angular shadows throughout the room.

“As you will soon see for yourself, my little lab bat, you are in a maze.  The object is simple: navigate your way through to the other end.  However, doing it is not so simple.  Along the way you will have to overcome certain obstacles and challenges.  And if you fail….”

“I die.”

“Oh, no, no, no.  They die.”

The screen showed four people imprisoned in tiny compartments, each with a glowing green sphere suspended above them.

“Allow me to introduce the audience who are cheering for you as if their very lives depend on it.  Which they do.  In the first cell is Judge Theodore Gould.  This learned jurist presided over my first trial and committed the unpardonable sin of sending me to that hellhole called Arkham Asylum.  I hope that in some small way, I’m returning the favor.  Secondly, a not-very-warm greeting to Barbara Jean Walters, veteran educator.  When she was ‘Miss McLaughlin,’ she took special delight in sending me to the principal’s office for things she let other boys get away with.  And if she wasn’t busy making me stay after school, she was squelching every creative idea I had.  In short, this little shrew hated me.”

“It’s not hard to see why,” Batman quipped.

“Moving along to cell three, we have the big-and-mighty football star, Marcus Day.  A fan favorite, and the idol of young boys everywhere.  Unfortunately for them, they don’t know the real Marcus Day, the arrogant bully who threatened to beat me up more times than I can remember, unless I paid him ‘protection money.’  And in cell number four, a man who needs no introduction: Commissioner Gordon.  His police take all the fun out of being a mastermind in this dim-witted city.”

“You could be putting your intellect to much better use,” said the Dark Knight.

Which brings us to you, Public Do-Gooder Number One.  Without whom I would never have been brought to trial and sent to Arkham.”

“Too bad.  That’s exactly where you belong.”

“Enough chit-chat.  As I was saying, if you fail any of the challenges, one of these people will die.  But for each difficulty you successfully navigate, one goes free.  Now, off with the lights, on with the game!”

The room suddenly plunged into darkness.

“You probably noticed that you no longer have your utility belt.  It’s waiting for you, undisturbed, at the end of the maze.  Hope you have a flashlight somewhere.”

Batman reached into a small pocket in the back of his right boot and extracted a light no wider than a pencil.  “As a matter of fact, I do.”

“Get moving.  No help from the audience.”

Taking a deep breath, Batman aimed the penlight in front of him and began walking.  He kept his left hand in almost constant contact with the wall of the maze.  When he turned one corner and came to a straight passageway, he stopped.  A good place for a trap, he thought.

Shining the light down at the floor, he moved with baby steps.  Three-fourths of the way through the corridor he saw a thin shadow in the beam and knelt down.  He moved the light back and forth until the shadow reappeared.

A nearly invisible tripwire stretched from wall to wall.  He stepped over it carefully, then flagged it with a piece of tape from inside his glove.

“Found your tripwire.”

Awww,” Riddler groaned.  “I just knew it would get you.”  He flipped a couple of switches, killing power to the green sphere in Gordon’s cell and opening its door.  As one of his thugs escorted the commissioner out, he told Batman, “A deal’s a deal.  Commissioner Gordon is now free.  The game, however, is far from over.”

 

“Catwoman, are you on the prowl tonight?”

The feisty feline pressed the communicator in her belt.  Whatcha need, Robin?”

“We think the Riddler has Batman.  The homing device in his belt shows him to be in the vicinity of Maple and Eighteenth, and the grid map overlay says…that’s the address of the old Gotham Lanes bowling alley.”

“TC and I can be over there in five minutes, ten at most.”

“Batgirl will rendezvous with you in the back.  Looks like we can finally put an end to Riddler’s kidnapping game.”

 

Riddler was impressed, then worried, with the speed at which Batman navigated the maze.  Still, he had confidence in the traps he’d laid.

Batman spotted a small circle, low on the wall and hidden in shadow.  A similar one was positioned on the opposite wall.  Lying on his back, he scooted across the floor under the circle.  After crawling a few feet more, he stood up.  “Your infrared beam didn’t get me, either.”

“You’re starting to annoy me with your cleverness.”

“Now you know how it feels dealing with you.”

Most reluctantly, Riddler deactivated the orb in Day’s cell.  “The dumb jock can go.”

Batman’s next test came almost immediately as he turned a corner and two of Riddler’s large henchmen pounced on him.  Throwing them off, he leapt up and managed to grab the top of the wall behind him.  He worked his way over to the adjacent wall and turned himself around.

The thugs came after him again, and he kicked the first one in the face hard enough to break his nose and send him reeling back.  He got the second one in a scissor lock and slammed his head into the wall again and again until he was unconscious.  Jumping down from the wall, he reengaged with the first thug and dispatched him using a crotch kick and a rabbit punch.

 By this point, he had figured out the maze.  It was now just a matter of dodging the rest of Riddler’s traps.

Trying to maintain composure, Riddler announced in a clipped tone, “Ms. Walters may go now.”

“What was the point of all this?” Batman asked.  “You knew the odds of me making it through your maze were quite high.”

“You’re not finished yet.”

“Once I am, so will you.”

“Pride goes before a fall, Batman.  Only the judge is left.  Out of the four, it shouldn’t surprise you that he’s the one I’d most like to see dead.  Even more than you.”

“Just because he sent you to Arkham?”

“Some things that people do to one another are just unforgivable, don’t you agree?”

Batman declined to take the bait.

“In any case, you’ve reached the toughest part of the maze.  Three riddles.  Solve all three, the judge goes free.  Miss just one, the man is done.”

Poetry isn’t your strong suit.”

“Riddle me this.  What crime is punishable if attempted but not punishable if committed?”

“Suicide.”

“Damn!  I must’ve used that one before.  Let’s try again.  A man sitting in a car was shot in the head.  He had no gun with him, no one else was in the car, and all the doors and windows were closed and locked.  The bullet did not break a single window.  How did he get shot?”

Batman pondered the question for a few moments.  “The car was a convertible.”

Aagh!  You’re too good.”

“Maybe you’re losing your touch.”

“How many letters are in the alphabet?”

Twe--” Batman said before catching himself and frowning.

Riddler began to gloat.

“It’s a trick question.  There are eleven letters in ‘the alphabet.’

Riddler pounded the glass in front of him.  “You’re impossible!”

 

Batgirl burst through a door at the end of the maze.  Picking up the Dark Knight’s utility belt, she shouted, “Batman!  Are you here?”

“Behind the wall ahead of you.”

She hurled the belt over.  “Catch!”

“Got it.”

 

Riddler looked up and noticed Judge Gould was not in his cell.  “What the—what’s going on here?”

Batman put a hook in his grappling gun and aimed at the top of Riddler’s glass booth.  “Riddle me this.  Who’s going back to Arkham tonight?”

Noo!”

 

Catwoman kicked her way through the three guards watching over the hostages and left them in a world of pain.  With that done, she began leading the former captives out of the building.

“Didn’t I see you in my courtroom once?” Gould mused.

“Not this Cat.”

“She was pardoned by the mayor,” Gordon reminded him.  “For whatever it is that she did or didn’t do.”

She smiled.  “Nice way to put it, Commissioner.”

Once they got outside, officers quickly escorted them to the waiting paramedics.

Waiving off any medical attention, Gordon immediately took charge.  “Get men on the roof!  Do not let Riddler find a way to escape.”

 

When Teri made her way upstairs to help Batman, she met a wigless Alison heading in the opposite direction.  “Sorry, exit’s closed.”

“Get out of my way!”

“No can do.”  Teri struck a defensive pose.

Unwisely, Allison leaped down to take her on and flailed around with clumsy moves.  It was clear that she’d always relied on charm, instead of force, to get out of difficult situations.  She soon found herself in a daze at the bottom of the stairs with a broken jaw, cracked rib, and bleeding lips.

 “You know what they say about letting a black cat cross your path,” Teri remarked coldly.  Baaad luck.”

 

Batman crashed through the booth as Riddler was about to slip out.  Riddler threw a chair at him and flung open the door, only to find Batgirl standing there.

“You ordered a knuckle sandwich?”  She punched him hard in the mouth.

He staggered back only to be grabbed by Batman, who kneed him in the belly and sent him tumbling into the control console with a blow to the chin.

Before he could reach his cane to fight back, Batman snapped it in two.  Batgirl yanked him to his feet and slipped handcuffs on his wrists.

As she led him away, he groaned, “Wait…wait a minute.  I have to know one thing.”

“What?” Batman growled.

“How did you figure out my maze so easily?  You’ve never seen it before.”

“Yes, I have.  You copied the one at Maison Rocher, outside of Paris.”

Eyes shut, Riddler hung his head in defeat.

 

Batgirl personally delivered the puzzle master to Gordon.  “Here you go, sir.”

“Thank you, Batgirl.”

“Are you alright?  I was—we were worried about your safety.”

“I’m fine.  Don’t think I’ll be watching any game shows in the foreseeable future, though.”  His eyes narrowed, and he studied her face in the half-light.  “I have this feeling I know you from somewhere else.”

“It’s probably because of all the cases I’ve worked with Batman.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”  He looked back at the depressed figure of Riddler.  “Sergeant, get this nut out of here and back to Arkham.”

 

Catwoman was beaming over Teri’s performance when Batman linked up with them in an adjacent alleyway.  “That’s my girl,” she said, patting Teri on the shoulder.

“I put the hurt on Riddler’s bimbo,” Teri told him proudly.

“I saw your handiwork,” he acknowledged.  “A bit rough, but effective.”

Catwoman said, “I told her about being my replacement.”

“It’s scary, but I think I can do it,” Teri said.

“This was a good first test,” Batman intoned.

Teri was in the middle of forming a reply when he vanished.  “Cats, I’m not good at Bat-speak yet.  Can you translate?”

“He thinks you did okay, but need more real world practice.  I agree.”

“He’s awesome, isn’t he?  And so hot.”

“Ahem,” Catwoman cleared her throat.  “What’s the cardinal rule?”

Slightly embarrassed, Teri answered, “No flirting with Batman.  Sorry.”

“No harm done.  But that reminds me, I need to say a word about relationships.  They…complicate things when you live this kind of life.  Batman and I made it work in spite of ourselves and against a lot of odds.  See, love is sort of like…it’s like Riddler’s maze.  Three things can happen.  You succeed and make it through, you find it too tough and back out, or you get trapped.  If you get seriously involved with someone, just be sure you can either succeed or walk away.”

The girl looked sad.  “I’m so not ready for all this, huh?”

Catwoman gave her a hug.  “I’ll be with you until you are.  Don’t worry.”