PERSONAL PROPERTY

 

            Graciela Ramos saw the broken window as her only chance for freedom.  Though beaten and bruised, the former high school gymnast covered her head and leaped through the jagged hole.

            The Mexican girl rolled to her feet and started running in the night.  Luckily, she severed no veins on the sharp glass, but several red streaks covered her hands and arms.

            Dashing to the closest corner, she looked left, then right.  She didn’t know which way to go.  She knew nothing about Gotham’s dark, often unforgiving streets.  All she wanted to do was get away to someplace safe.

            Two men with guns burst out a side door of the partially renovated Dover Building and charged off after her.  If she escaped, bad things would happen.

            Graciela was quick.  One more block and she’d lose the men.  She’d never run so fast in all her life.  It felt like her lungs would pop.

            Another corner up ahead, and beyond that a bridge.  Bridges meant cars, and cars meant people, people who could help.

            She rounded the corner and slammed right into the bulky frame of Johnny Moffat.  Stunned, she bounced off of him and nearly fell.

            Moffat grinned and adjusted the toothpick in his mouth.  The fact that he had the IQ of a ten year-old was offset by his gorilla-like arms and stocky legs.  Even back in school, nobody messed with him.

            “Going somewhere, chica?”

            She froze in fear as he got closer.  The last thing she heard was the click of his switchblade.

            He laughed, then slashed her throat.

 

Eleven p.m. on a Sunday, and still humid.  Catwoman pushed her mane of black hair out of her face again as she patrolled around the lower East End.  It had been a fairly active evening so far.  She stopped a robbery at a tattoo parlor, broke up a fight between two winos, and gave a pimp a nice whiplash on his backside.  In other words, a typical night at the office.

Up ahead, near a pile of garbage bags, she heard several cats mewing in consternation and jumping around.

“Another swinging singles’ party, boys and girls?”

When she approached, the cats drew back.

“What have we found here?  Oh!”

The felines were futilely trying to revive the body of Graciela Ramos.

Moved by the sadness of the scene, Catwoman bent down and looked at the girl.  She wore jeans and a bloody T-shirt which read “Copa Mundial Mexico.”

A faint sound riding on the breeze hit her ears, and she stood up.  Listening intently, she thought it was coming from about half a block away.  But what was she hearing?

She walked in the direction of the sound until she could barely make it out.  Someone was crying.  And wailing.

The farther she walked, the louder it got.  She realized the source was the abandoned four-story Dover Building.  Well, almost abandoned.  Two wooden signs on the side read “FOR SALE BY TRISTAR BANK” and “RENOVATION BY CALLISON CONTRACTING.”

At the rear of the building, she saw shards of glass streaked with blood just below a broken window, and she clearly heard anguished cries.  Nobody else seemed to be around, so she picked the remaining glass out of the window frame with her claws and crawled inside.

Although the only illumination came from dim security lights overhead, she could tell she was in a large, half-empty utility room, probably the one which would house HVAC machinery and electric generators.  She pulled a tiny flashlight from her belt to help navigate.  The wailing sound echoed off the metal walls, so it became impossible to tell which passageway would lead to the source.

She walked around a tall fuse box, and her boots clanked on a grating in the floor.  Suddenly, the crying seemed to come from below her, so she instinctively aimed her light and looked down.

“Omigod!”

Approximately eight feet beneath the grating, twenty dirty and frightened Mexican girls sat with their wrists bound on the basement floor.  Some half-dressed, some naked, they all looked up at the mysterious woman in black.

The surreal sight at first frightened and shocked Catwoman.  Those feelings quickly turned into anger and outrage.  Whoever did this had violated just about everything she stood for.  One way or another, they would pay.  Big time.

Snapping herself back to the need of the moment, she activated the comlink in her choker.  “Batman, get over here fast.”

Hidden safely behind a second story door, Johnny Moffat watched her through a peephole.  He wasn’t laughing.

 

The Batmobile arrived five minutes ahead of the Gotham Police.

Catwoman met him at the back and explained what she’d found.  “I’m fresh out of metal cutters, darling.  Can you free them?”

Smiling slightly, he pulled a small acetylene torch from his utility belt and went inside to break the padlock off the door in the grate.

When the Mexican girls saw him, they began to cry in fear.  “El Diablo!” several shouted.

He opened the door.  “Yo no soy diablo.  Yo soy Batman.”

With lights flashing and sirens blaring, police cars and ambulances converged on the building.  Led by Commissioner Gordon, a parade of officers marched in the rear door.  Someone turned on the room lights, and Gordon headed straight for the Dark Knight.

“What’s going on?”  He looked down at the open grating.  “Lordy!”

Batman nodded.  “Twenty Mexican girls, late teens and early twenties.  Catwoman found another one dead between the pawn shop and shoe store.”

Paramedics were getting the dazed women out of their hole as he spoke.

Gordon shook his head in disgust.  “Smuggling operation?”

“Probably.  But who, and why?”

Catwoman joined them.  “It’s horrible.  Women should not be treated like cattle in this country.”

“Nobody should,” Batman said.

She fingered her cat-o’-nine-tails.  “There’s never a whipping post around when you need one.”

Gordon ignored her invective and turned his attention to Lieutenant Enrique Vega, who had briefly questioned some of the girls.  “Learn anything?”

            “They said a man brought them here in a bus from Guadalajara.  He promised them modeling jobs making good money that they could send to their families in Mexico.  They jumped at the chance to escape the poverty back home and make life better for their families at the same time.”

            “This is no modeling agency,” Gordon said dryly.

            Batman shook his head.  “Another scam on the naïve and vulnerable.  The only money these girls were going to make is from prostitution or being sold as sex slaves.”

            Catwoman cringed at those last two words.  “Pardon me while I puke.” Another officer came up to Gordon.  “We’ve searched the building, sir.  It’s clean.”

            Gordon frowned.  “No more girls?  No records?”

            “Nothing.  The place is empty, except for the contractor’s field office on the second floor.”

            “That doesn’t make sense.”

            “Yes, it does,” Batman countered.  “This is just a temporary holding tank.  The business of ‘processing’ the women is done somewhere else.”

            The commissioner sighed deeply.  “So where do they go from here?  Who has access to the building, besides the contractor?  Who owns the thing?”

            “The sign outside says TriStar Bank,” Catwoman offered.

            “Foreclosure,” Batman added.

            “Then we need to see if there’s any connection between them or the contractor and this awful business,” Gordon responded.  “Looks like a lot of detective work ahead of us.”

            “In the morning, I’ll see what I can dig up,” Batman said.

 

            Returning to the Batcave around midnight, the Caped Crusader and Catwoman mulled over the strange incident.

            Batman removed his suit and logged onto his bank of computers.

            Catwoman growled and threw her gloves and whip to the floor.  “I am so pissed off.”  Her mask came next.  “And I don’t even know who at.”

            “That’s what we’re going to find out.”

            “You rip off poor people, and I get upset.  You abuse women, and you answer to me.  But when you lure poor girls here under false pretenses and treat them like animals....”  She couldn’t even finish her sentence.

            “I share your feelings of outrage.”

            “Bruce, I swear, if I find the scum responsible, I will cut their nuts off with the whip.”

            “I know you’re angry, but you need to calm down.  Anger interferes with clear thinking.”

            “I’m thinking very clearly, darling.   You give me the names, I’ll give them a baaad case of cat scratch fever.”

            He turned to face her.  “Selina, we must do this the right way.  I shouldn’t have to remind you of that.  Respect for the rule of law is what separates us from them.”

            She sat down and sighed.  “Trial by jury is so overrated.”

            “When you agreed to help me, you also agreed to uphold the spirit of the law.  The same law, I might add, that got you a pardon last year.”

            She hit the console with her fist.  “I know you’re right.  I just wish you weren’t!  Out in the East End, I’m a law unto myself.  You are, too.  C’mon, admit it.  We’re a couple of vigilantes in black rubber.”

            “But if we act apart from the law, we are no better than Joker or Penguin, and we deserve the same punishment.”

            “What happens when ‘the law’ lets you down?  What are you supposed to do then?  Just say nobody’s perfect and swallow hard?”  She fought not to show her tears.

            He knelt and looked in her beautiful green eyes.  “Something about this is really pushing your buttons, Selina.”

            She nodded.

            “Your sister?”

            Wiping her tears, she sniffed, “I don’t want what happened to Maggie, or anything like it, to happen to someone else.  It’s why I get so angry about the abuse of women.  That poor girl in the alley...she was somebody’s daughter.  Or sister.  And the other twenty could have easily ended up the same way.”

            He held her close.  “I know.  I promise you, the men responsible will face their due consequences.  But we’ll do it with the law.  Okay?”

            She managed a little smile.  “Okay.”

            “Your passion is admirable.  Use it for justice, and not revenge.  You’ll feel better when it’s over if you do.”

            “You’re a wise man, Bruce.  I love you,” she said with a kiss.

 

            He was back in the cave by seven Monday morning.  It didn’t take long to uncover interesting information.

            Selina trotted down the stairs with an apple in her hand and smiled.  “Hmm.  He prefers the company of machines to that of his irresistible wife.”

            He turned around and kissed her.  “Not true.  Your curves are much nicer.”

            “I’m teasing, darling.  What have you found?”

            “Callison Contracting, the firm doing the renovation on the Dover Building, is owned by Eddie Callison, whose brother is none other than City Councilman Nathan Callison.”

            “So?”

            “Nathan happens to be a member of the TriStar Bank Director’s Board.”

            “And TriStar foreclosed on the building.  Hmm.”

            “That may or may not have anything to do with what happened last night, but it sounds fishy.  I’ll let Commissioner Gordon know. ”

           

            Gordon agreed with the Dark Knight’s suspicions and thought the angle should definitely be explored.  That afternoon, he sent Detective Sam Tolliver to TriStar Bank.

            Tolliver went to the top, interviewing the bank’s president, Joseph Weems.

            Weems was a kindly, balding fellow wearing pince-nez glasses.  He asked his secretary for some documents, then closed his door to speak with Tolliver.

            “You’re not the first one to ask about the renovation deal.  Matter of fact, one of the local muckraking rags raised a fuss last month.  The simple fact is, Callison Contracting was the low bidder.  I’ve asked Janet to get you copies of the four bids.  I know it sounds like a sweetheart deal, but it really isn’t.  As I recall, they were low bidders on some of our other contracts.”

            “Isn’t it unusual for a bank to renovate properties before selling them?”

            “Yes.  We hire someone to do a basic shell renovation--replace broken lights, fix holes in the wall, paint, etc.  Some of the buildings are in dreadful shape and don’t meet code in one way or another.  After the renovation, we can sell a more attractive property at a much better price, and the buyer can still customize to their heart’s content.”

            “I see.”

            “Banks are in business to make money, Detective.”  He smiled.  “Any edge we can get over the Big Three conglomerates, we’ll take.”

            “It’s tough being the little guy,” Tolliver agreed.

            “All our transactions of this nature are in accordance with the law and are reviewed by the proper authorities.”

            “So Nathan Callison had no input in the decision, even though he’s on your Board of Directors?”

            “No.  The board handles strategic issues.  They don’t get involved in the day-to-day operational decisions.”

            Tolliver made some notes.

            “I was as shocked and saddened as anybody about the Dover incident.  I know it reflects badly on TriStar, even though we had no knowledge of it.  I suggest you speak with the contractor for more information about activities at the site.”

            “You read my mind, Mr. Weems.  Callison Contracting is my next stop.”

 

            Housed in a small prefab building on the city’s southern edge, Callison Contracting was a modern-day Horatio Alger story.  Started two decades ago by Edward Callison using money he’d saved up from years of journeyman work, the company had grown to nearly a hundred employees and an annual revenue in the millions.  It was said that a person couldn’t travel more than a mile or two in Gotham without seeing their well-known blue and white double-C logo on a sign.

            Callison, known to almost everyone as Eddie, was a beefy fellow in his late forties with salt and pepper hair and a wide grin that could charm even the most reluctant business prospect.

            He gave Tolliver an eager handshake and ushered him into his office.

            “I suppose you know why I’m here.”

            Callison’s expression turned grim.  “Yeah.  I am extremely sorry for what happened to those girls, and I’m outraged that it took place at one of our job sites.  As you may be aware, we have jobs all over the city, and it’s just not possible for me to know every single thing going on at each of them.  One time, we had a couple of guys running a meth lab in a building we were renovating.”

            “Do you have any idea who might be involved in the smuggling operation?”

            “No.  I wish I did.  I had the foreman in my office two hours ago, and I read him the riot act.  Clearly, somebody there had knowledge of that operation, or at least was letting an outsider do it.  After you and I get through, I plan to quiz everyone onsite, and I will personally fire and turn over to the police any employee who was involved in any way.”

            “It sounds like you’re on top of things.”

            “I can’t afford not to be.  The reputation of my company is at stake.  I spent twenty years building this business up.  I’m not about to lose it because some jerk decides to moonlight as a pimp.”

            “Mind if I come along with you, ask a few questions of my own?”

“Not at all.”

“Do you background check your employees?”

            “Always.”

            “Anybody working for you that you’d term suspicious?”

            “No, sir.  If there were, they wouldn’t be working for me.”

 

            Tuesday proved to be another hectic one for James Gordon.  After a twelve hour tour of duty, he finally decided to head home.

Batman emerged from a dark corner of the police parking garage as the commissioner unlocked his sedan.

“Hello, Batman.”  Gordon was used to his sudden appearances, and they seldom startled him anymore.

“How’s your investigation?”

“It seems the Callison contract is on the up-and-up, despite appearances.  The bidding was entirely legal.”

“Legal or not, it’s still a sweetheart deal.  My gut tells me to keep digging into the brothers’ activities.”

“We’re going to subpoena Eddie’s financial records.  His bank accounts are with TriStar, surprise surprise.  According to Tolliver, he’s leaning on his employees to try to force a confession.”

“I wouldn’t rule out his involvement.”

“He is cooperating.  Certainly, he’s not acting like a guilty man.”

“What about the girls?”

“The live ones were only too happy to give us their names and addresses in Mexico.  We’ve asked the Mexican Consulate to contact the families.  They should be on a plane back home in less than a week.  There’s no ID on the dead girl.  Nobody knew her name, and she had no papers on her.”

“Any leads on her killer?”

“One.  The folks who work in that area told us about a strange fellow named Johnny Moffat who always seems to be hanging around but never does anything worthwhile, at least not that they can tell.  He has been seen entering and leaving the Dover Building recently.  We pulled his file.  He’s a ‘nuisance criminal’-- lots of citations and a few arrests for loitering, vandalism, making threats, and so forth.”

Batman memorized the name.

“A couple of the shop owners say he’s got this ‘tough guy’ delusion--thinks he’s Brando or DeNiro.  Wears suits and carries a switchblade.  Oh, and he’s mentally retarded and weighs over 250 pounds.  We’ll bring him in for questioning if we can find him again.  He was invisible today, probably because my men were all over the neighborhood.”

“There were signs that the murdered girl escaped from the building.”

“Yeah, and if Moffat killed her, did he do it because she escaped, or did she just happen to have an unlucky meeting with him as she ran away?  We need to find out if Moffat is connected at all to Callison’s employees.”

 

Early the next week, a man in a rumpled gray suit slowly approached the front desk of Gotham Police headquarters.  With leathery skin, thinning hair, and a graying moustache, he looked much older than his fifty-five years.  He flashed an identification badge to the officer on duty and briefly explained the reason for his visit.

The officer nodded, picked up the phone, and dialed the commissioner’s direct line.

“Gordon.”

“Kowalski downstairs, sir.  There’s a Mexican police detective here who wants to see you.”

“Sergeant, I’m up to my eyeballs in work.  Send him to Captain Martin.”

“Sir, he’s here about those smuggled girls.  I really think you should talk to him.”

Gordon sighed and thought for a moment.  “Yeah.  Maybe we can help each other out.  Send him up.”

“Very well, sir.”

Gordon put down the phone and waited for his visitor to arrive.  He hoped the Mexican police had gotten a break in the investigation.  The sooner such a sad and disturbing case was wrapped up, the better.

“Commissioner Gordon?” a deep, sonorous voice said.

“Come in.”

The man extended his hand and smiled.  “Detective Vicente Ramos, Guadalajara Police.”

“James Gordon.  Welcome to Gotham City.  Please, have a seat.”

“Thank you.  I know how busy you must be, and I appreciate your time.”

“My sergeant tells me you and I might be working on the same case.”

“Yes,” Ramos nodded.  “The federal police have broken up a smuggling ring responsible for the disappearance of hundreds of young girls across the country.  The girls were kidnapped after being promised glamorous jobs in America.  We believe they are probably being forced into prostitution or involuntary servitude.  Either way, they are never heard from again.  The last busload of girls they smuggled out crossed the border at Texas two weeks ago.  We believe it was headed for Gotham City.”

“How many girls were on it?”

“Twenty-one.  Although I am a police officer, Commissioner, I have a personal interest in the case.  My daughter Graciela disappeared recently, and I think she was on that bus.”

“You’ll be happy to know we rescued a bunch of Mexican girls from some kind of holding cell last week, and they flew home this morning.”

“Do you have list of names?”

“Yes.  It’s on my desk.  Ah, here it is.”  Gordon scanned the list.  “There’s no Ramos.”

“Are you sure?”

“See for yourself.”

Ramos frowned.  There’s only twenty names.”

An uneasy feeling crept into the pit of Gordon’s stomach.  “One girl was found dead.  We don’t have an ID on her yet.”

The detective looked crestfallen.  “May I see the body?”

“It’s in the morgue.  Come with me.”

 

At Gordon’s request, the morgue attendant opened the drawer of Jane Doe #7.  “Cause of death was loss of blood due to severed arteries in the neck,” he said dispassionately as he read the coroner’s notes.

Steeling himself for the worst, Ramos said a silent prayer.

The attendant lifted the sheet.  “Is that her?”

Ramos bowed his head and began to weep.

Gordon felt like he was invading a very private moment.  “C’mon, McCaffrey.  Let’s wait outside.”

 

Fifteen minutes afterward, a somber yet composed Ramos was back in Gordon’s office with a glass of water.

“On behalf of the department, I offer my condolences on your loss, Señor Ramos.  I can scarcely imagine how devastated I’d be if it happened to my Barbara.”

“Thank you.  In our line of work, death is no stranger.  But I never expected it to come this close.  I don’t know how I will tell my wife.”

“There seems to be no end to the sorrow this case is producing.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my men so shaken up.”

“You’ve spared twenty families the same grief.  That’s a little light amid the darkness.”

“Yeah, but you always think about the ones who don’t get the happy ending.”

“Commissioner, I’d like to assist your department in the hunt for answers.  It’s perhaps the only way I can help Graciela now.”

Gordon bit his lip.  He absolutely detested outsiders inserting themselves into his investigations.  Too often, they only hindered his efforts and distracted his men.  Yet how could he say no to Ramos after what he’d just experienced?

A lieutenant knocked on his partly open door.

“Yes?”

The officer walked in and handed him several pieces of paper.  Here’s the call sheets on Johnny Moffat.  Four different reports from citizens who spotted him loitering by the Dover Building or its vicinity.  By the time we get a squad car there, he vanishes again.  When we patrol the area, he never shows his face.”

“Did you find his current home address?”

“We’ve had the apartment staked out since Thursday, but there’s been no sign of him.”

Gordon unearthed the file on his desk and added the pages.  “Thank you, Sergeant.”  Turning to Ramos, he explained, “We’re pursuing a lead in your daughter’s murder.”

Ramos studied the mug shot clipped to Moffat’s file.

 “I appreciate your offer to assist us in the investigation.  It’s completely understandable.  However, we’ve got enough men and resources on it.  I’m afraid I’ll have to decline.”

“Please let me assist you.  I’ve been working on the case, and I can connect you with resources in Mexico that may help.  Besides, it’s something I need to do.”

“Señor Ramos, I’m sympathetic to your situation.  But the focus has shifted to Gotham now.  The people your police picked up were probably just the lures.  We’re looking for the men on this end who are the brains behind the smuggling.  And with all due respect, we know Gotham City.  I have no doubt we’ll solve your daughter’s murder.  If you plan on staying in town for a while, I’ll be more than happy to update you on our progress.”

“I’m not leaving until whoever killed Graciela is found.  I owe her that much.”

“I would feel the same way if I were in your shoes.”

“Commissioner, I’m a proud man, but I’m begging you, let me work with you.”

“I’m sorry, but the answer is no.”

Ramos scowled.  “You’re a cruel man to refuse a father’s request to look for his daughter’s killer.”

“You know the importance of objectivity in police work, Detective.  I cannot allow an emotionally distracted man who is out of his jurisdiction to risk his life and those of my officers because he’s too close to the case.”

The Mexican stood up angrily.  “Commissioner, I’ll be blunt.  You Americans criticize the Mexican police for corruption and incompetence.  We are far from perfect, true enough.  But as you reject my offer, I have to wonder about the competence of a police force that cannot do its job without help from a man who dresses like a bat.”

“If that’s all you know about the Gotham Police, you are seriously uninformed,” Gordon shot back.

“You will see me again tomorrow.  And the next day.  And every day after that until you catch Graciela’s killer.  Meanwhile, I’ll be conducting my own investigation.  I still have the leads that brought me here.  I’ll be happy to share any evidence I find.”

“Ramos, if you interfere with this case in the slightest, I will immediately lock you up!”

“Just remember, Commissioner, I’m watching you.  Mexico is watching you.  And we will accept nothing less than total justice for Graciela and the twenty other girls.”

“Don’t play the race card with me, Ramos.  I want this case solved as much as you do.  Everyone in Gotham is entitled to equal justice, no matter who they are or how they got here.”

“I will hold you to your words.  Good day, Commissioner.”  Ramos took one more glance at Johnny Moffat’s picture and headed for the door.  A productive visit after all, he thought.

Gordon watched him leave with a mix of admiration and aggravation.

 

If Moffat couldn’t be found during the day, maybe the night would bring him out, Ramos reasoned.  He got the address of the Dover Building from the phone book in his hotel room and loaded his revolver.  Shoving the gun in his shoulder holster, he lit a cigarette and left to start his own private quest.

 

Batman had a similar plan in mind as he parked the Batmobile two blocks away and activated its shields.  Moffat had evaded police for a week, and the Dark Knight knew the trail of evidence was growing colder day by day.  None of Callison’s employees had admitted wrongdoing.  Moffat needed to be located--or flushed out of hiding--now.

 

Ramos’ trek began as a pilgrimage.  He felt compelled to see the place his daughter died and perhaps retrace the last moments of her life.

In the alley where her body was found, a makeshift memorial had sprung up.  Floral bouquets, votive candles, and Mexican flags sat neatly against the brick wall.  Her murder clearly struck a sympathetic chord in the neighborhood.  Maybe Gotham was not entirely the unfeeling monolith it was portrayed in Mexico.

He prayed and made the sign of the cross before walking to the Dover Building.

The broken window where Graciela escaped had been replaced.  Everything else looked normal, the police having turned the building back over to Callison Contracting days earlier.

Ramos jiggled the knob of the rear entrance and found it curiously unlocked.  Strange that the contractor would leave it unsecured after such an incident.  He opened the door, then froze when a low voice from behind startled him.

“Looking for something?”

He turned around and saw the black form of Batman materialize from the darkness.  “Yes,” he answered without a trace of fear.  “You?”

“I’ll ask the questions.  Your name?”

“Detective Vicente Ramos of the Guadalajara Police.  And you, obviously, are the famous Batman, the real workhorse of the Gotham Police.”

“I only help them.  They solve hundreds of crimes every year without me.  What are you looking for, Detective?”

“Clues.  Answers.”  He paused.  “A man called Johnny Moffat.”

“You’re working on the smuggling case.  I wonder why Commissioner Gordon didn’t inform me.”

“He’s doing his investigation, I’m doing mine.”

“You’re a long way from home.  Why not let Gordon’s men handle it?”

“You’d come, too, if your daughter had been kidnapped and, as I learned today, murdered.”

“The girl in the alley.  I’m very sorry.”

“Her name was Graciela.  Gordon believes this Johnny Moffat had something to do with it.”

“And you’re just here to ask him a few questions.”

Ramos unbuttoned his coat and flashed his holster.  “Maybe more, if I don’t like his answers.”

“How do you know he’s the one?”

“Gordon seems to think so.  Or else his men are spending a lot of effort trying to find him for no reason.”

“Detective, I understand how your daughter’s death must hurt.  But revenge won’t ease that pain.  It never does.”

“Who said anything about easing it?  I want the man who did it to share my pain, to feel what Graciela felt while her life flowed away.  As her father, it is my right and my duty.”

“As a police officer, your duty is to uphold the law.  Are you ready to throw your life and career away for a piece of trash like Moffat, if he is the killer?  Don’t let your emotions push you into vigilante action.”

Ramos laughed.  “You dare to lecture me about vigilantism, my anonymous costumed friend?  You’re a hypocrite, Señor Batman.”

“Believe me, I understand the loss you’re feeling more than you know.  Like you, I was once motivated by revenge.  But it left me empty and tired.”

“What motivates you now?”

“Justice.  Protecting the vulnerable.”

“A pity neither one happens very often in your country.”

“It does around here, Detective.  You still believe in justice, don’t you?  Why else are you in law enforcement?”

“I don’t believe in your kind, where the rich get off because of loopholes and fast-talking lawyers.”

“You called me a ‘workhorse.’  I assume that’s a positive thing in your mind.  Do you trust what you know of my ability and integrity?”

“Yes.  But it’s a crazy world where a Batman is the best crime fighter in a city with thousands of police.”

“It’s definitely a crazy world,” the Dark Knight agreed.  “Señor Ramos, I give you my word that the police and I will find Graciela’s murderer and the men responsible for bringing her here.  No matter how rich they may be, I promise you justice will be served.  Please don’t take the law into your hands.  You're smart enough to know you’ll wind up on the losing end eventually, regardless of what happens to the others.”

Ramos breathed deeply.  “My head tells me to listen to you.  My heart only hears Graciela crying.”

“What would she tell you to do?”

The Mexican began to weep.  “She was a very forgiving person.  She hated guns and violence.  She even hated that I’m a policeman.  ‘Too dangerous, Papi,’ she used to tell me.  But in Guadalajara, there aren’t many jobs with decent pay.”

“Then don’t dishonor her memory by going after Moffat and the others yourself.”

Ramos slowly took out his revolver, emptied the bullets into his hand, and placed them in his jacket.

“Thank you.”

He wiped his face with a handkerchief.  “The case is yours and Gordon’s.  For now.”

Batman understood the implication.

“Gordon said he’ll keep me informed on the investigation.  I plan to spend a lot of time at police headquarters.”

“He’s a good man.  I hope you come to understand that.”

All my career, I’ve trusted only my five senses and my fellow officers.  Now, on the worst day of my life, I’m being asked to trust two men I barely know.”

Batman extended his gloved hand.  “We won’t let you down.”

Ramos warily grasped it.  “For Graciela’s sake, I pray you won’t.  Goodnight, Batman.”

When Ramos was out of earshot, Batman gave a huge sigh of relief.

            The Mexican shook his head as he walked back to the hotel.  I just had an intelligent conversation with a man in a bat suit, he said to himself.  Gotham was much too strange.

 

            Batman opened the unlocked door to the Dover Building but stopped when he heard the sound of a switchblade.

            “Looking for something?”

            He turned around slowly.  “Johnny Moffat.  You’re a hard man to find.”

            “And you’re a dead man.”  He lunged at the Caped Crusader and tried to slash his abdomen with the knife.

            Batman kneed him in the belly and punched his nose with a fast right hook.

            Moffat landed on his back with a splat.  Game over.

            Kicking away the switchblade, Batman yanked him to his feet and slammed him into the wall.  “Some tough guy.”

            Moffat slid to the ground.

            Batman knelt down and stared him in the face.  “Let’s talk, Johnny.”

            “Why should I tell you anything?” he whimpered.

            “Because I just saved your life, and I expect a big thank you.”

            “You mean that other guy?”

            “He came here to kill you.  I talked him out of it--for tonight.  He might change his mind tomorrow.  You never know.”

            “I don’t wanna die.”

            “Then you do me a favor, and I’ll do you a favor.  Tell me everything you know about the Mexican girls, and I’ll put you in protective custody with Commissioner Gordon.”

            “I don’t wanna go to jail.”

            “Rather take your chances against Señor Ramos?  He’s pretty unhappy about his daughter being murdered.”

            Moffat didn’t like his choices.  But at least he knew what jail was like.  He’d never faced an angry father with a gun before.  “Okay, Batman.  But you gotta promise me I won’t get killed.”

            “Gordon’s jail is safer than this alley.  Now talk!  Who do you work for?”

            “Anybody who needs some muscle.  Right now, Eddie Callison.”

            “Doing what?”

            “Keeping out ‘nosy people.’”

            “Why were those girls in the basement?”

            “I don’t know.  He never said.  Nobody told me nothing.  I was just a security guard for him.  He said there’s two rules.  In the daytime, nobody gets in--no cops, no reporters, no curiosity seekers.  At night, nobody gets out.  And I never see nothing or hear nothing.”

            “What happened to the dead girl?”

            “Anyone who tried to escape was a ‘security risk’ and needed to be stopped.”

            “So you killed her?”  Batman grabbed his lapels.  “How could a twenty-two year-old Mexican girl be any kind of risk?”

            “I don’t know.  That’s just what Mr. Callison said.”

            “What else?”

            “That’s all.  I don’t know nothing else.  I swear.”

            Batman let him go.  “Thank you.  Stand up.”

            “You gonna hit me again?”

            “No.  I’m going to take you to the car and call the police to pick you up.  You’ll do some jail time for the murder, but if you testify against Callison, the judge may cut your sentence.”

            When they reached the Batmobile, Batman deactivated its shields and opened the canopy.

            “What a cool car!”

            “Get in.”

            As Batman made his way around to the driver’s side, he heard a brief, soft whistling sound.  He turned to look for the source and saw Eddie stiffen.

            Wide eyed, Moffat grabbed frantically at the back of his neck.  He pulled out a small dart and stared at it before collapsing beside the Batmobile.  A moment later, he was dead.

            Batman took off running after a figure fleeing through an adjacent alley, but he was too late.  By the time he got there, whoever it was had disappeared into the night.

“Damn!”

 

            After the police came to collect Moffat’s body and ask him a few questions, Batman returned home frustrated and angry.  More than the inability to keep his end of the bargain with Moffat, he was upset over losing the man’s confession and a chance to incriminate Eddie Callison.

            Selina was doing some computer research for one of Catwoman’s operations, and she watched him fling his suit into the Batmobile’s cockpit.

            “What’s wrong, darling?”

            He sat down, put his head on his hands, and told her about the night’s disastrous turn of events.

“Who do you think killed Moffat?”

“Either Ramos came back and did it himself, or else Callison had someone watching him.  I really doubt it was Ramos.”

“Using a poison dart is...bizarre.  If it’s Callison, he’s a lot more than just a renovation contractor.”

“We need to find out what he knows.  All I have is Moffat’s version.  Gordon warned me about his tough guy fixation.  A man with a low IQ and a vivid imagination can conjure up wild ideas.”

“At least you solved Graciela Ramos’ murder.”

“Except that’s not the end of the story.  Moffat was the just the executioner.  Whoever’s responsible for bringing those girls here is the real killer as far as I’m concerned.  We still don’t know why they were there, where they were going next, or who knew about them.  I think I’ll have an after-hours chat with Callison tomorrow night.  Maybe he won’t be as slippery as he’s been with the police and media.”

 

            Moffat’s murder and its possible connection to the smuggling case lit up the Wednesday morning news shows.  It also made Commissioner Gordon see red.  Spotting Ramos in the building as he arrived for work, he turned to the nearest officer and barked, “Handcuff that man and bring him to my office!”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “What are you doing?” Ramos demanded.

            “Sorry, sir.  Commissioner’s orders.”

            Gordon took a gulp of coffee and slammed his door after the corporal brought Ramos in and removed the cuffs.

            “Commissioner, this is uncalled for!”

            “I told you if you interfered, you were going to jail.  But you couldn’t resist rubbing out Johnny Moffat, huh?”

            “I did not kill anyone.  I promised Batman I would give you time to solve the case, and I returned to my hotel.  I never even saw Moffat.”

            “But you wanted to kill him.”

            “I wanted to talk to him.”

            “Batman said you came armed.”

            “Your city is dangerous at night.  I give you my word, Commissioner, I did not kill him.  And certainly not with a poison dart.  I have my .38 service revolver, and that’s it.  Come, search my luggage if you don’t believe me.  I am not--what is his name--James Bond, with all sorts of special guns and devices.”

            Gordon leaned back in his chair.  “My apologies, Señor Ramos.  I believe you.  I didn’t really think you would do something so stupid.  I had to make sure, though.”

            Ramos smiled.  “If I were in your place, I would have the same suspicions.”

            “Batman told us Moffat confessed to your daughter’s murder.  I hope that gives you some sense of closure.”

            “I am grateful, Commissioner, but not satisfied.  Moffat worked for someone else.  The ‘big fish,’ as you Americans put it.  Her death is not truly solved until he is found.  Then I will say it’s over.”

            “As I told you yesterday, we won’t rest, either, until that happens.”

Privately, Gordon felt less resolute.  A search of Callison’s office turned up no proof of involvement, and criminal background checks on his employees revealed nothing worse than unpaid parking tickets.  He wondered how long Ramos’ patience would last.

 

            The prospect of Ramos going it alone also concerned Batman.  Like Gordon, he felt the pressure to build a case before Ramos unraveled everything.  Weak as it was, his only leverage came from Moffat’s accusations.  Determined to use what he had, he greeted Callison as the contractor left his office at 6:30.

“I want a word with you.”

            Callison continued walking.  “I’ve told the police everything I know.  If you’ll excuse me, my wife has dinner waiting.”

            Batman thrust his hand into the man’s chest.  “It’ll keep.  Tell me about Johnny Moffat.”

            “The guy’s a creep.  Was a creep.  He spooked my men, hanging around all the time.  Frankly, I’m not unhappy he’s gone.”

            “He said he was working for you.”

            “I’m sure he said a lot of stuff that isn’t true.  The guy thought he was the local Godfather, or something.  Hell, my golf score is higher than his IQ.”

            “Was he working for you?”

            No answer.

            “Was he?”  Batman squeezed his arm.

            Callison saw he couldn’t pull a snow job on the Caped Crusader.  Yanking his arm free, he said, “Yeah, I hired him.  But to keep him out of my hair, not as an enforcer.  I figured if I gave him something to do, he’d leave us alone.”

            “Did you tell him to keep other people out and not to let anyone leave at night?”

            “Absolutely not.  And I didn’t tell him to kill, either.  I did tell him to watch for thieves at the jobsite.  I guess he turned that into a big conspiracy story.”

            “What were those girls doing in the basement?”

            “I don’t know!  I checked out all my employees.  I found nothing to indicate they were involved.”

“Then someone’s lying.”

“The police have searched my office.  They’ve run background checks.  Why are you guys so intent on pinning this thing on us?”

            “Because you had free access to the building.”

            “If we’d heard a bunch of screaming girls, we would have noticed.         I had men all over that back room.”

            “Maybe they were brought in at night, after you left.”

            “I have a night watchman.  He would’ve seen it.”

            “Maybe he’s involved.”

            “I’ve known Earl for fifteen years.  He’d be the first to call the cops if he saw something like that.”

“Then how did it happen?”

            “I said, I don’t know!  I’m just renovating the building.  I’m not the owner.”

            “Interesting that your brother’s on the board of the bank that is the owner.”

            “Foreclosing on a property is not the same as buying it.”

            “Maybe Nathan’s influence helped you get the contract.”

            “We won the bid fair and square.  We’ve won other contracts with TriStar, and we’ve lost some.  Hey, I see what you’re doing.  This is all to try to keep Nathan from being reelected, isn’t it?  Let’s make his brother look bad, then we can have guilt by association.”

            “This is about people’s lives, Callison, not politics.”

            “I’m not going to let you or the police intimidate us.  This discussion is over!”  Callison pushed Batman aside and stalked to his car.

            Batman turned his back and smiled.  Callison had slipped and given him a valuable clue.

            As he started the Batmobile’s engine, a bright light in the sky caught his attention.  It was the Bat-signal.

 

            Twenty minutes later, he appeared on the rooftop of police headquarters, his cape flapping in the breeze.  Gordon and District Attorney Keith Baker stood next to the Bat-signal.

            “Good evening, gentlemen.”

            Gordon spoke first.  “We’ve gotten an important break in the Dover Building case.  By connecting the financial dots, we have enough to arrest Eddie Callison on money laundering and conspiracy charges.”

            “I knew he was up to his neck in this.  I’m not so sure he’s the top man, though,” Batman said.

            “We’re not, either,” Baker told him.  “I’ll get back to that in a minute.  Gordon’s detectives cross-checked his banking and tax records.  There’s a lot more money flowing through his accounts than he’s reporting as business income.  Contracts awarded last year, eleven million dollars.  Net profit, five million.  Total bank deposits, fifteen million.”

            “So he’s got a four million dollar source of income he doesn’t want any record of, like smuggling Mexican girls.”

            “That’s what we suspect, but we’ve got no hard evidence.”  Gordon shut off the signal.

            Baker continued.  “His routine business transactions are irregular amounts, processed by a variety of TriStar employees.  But every month there’s at least one large deposit in even dollar amounts, processed by a ‘B. Carr.’  Bernie Carr is TriStar Bank’s Special Accounts Officer.  We traced that money through two other banks and a dummy company called TJR Enterprises.  We know it’s a dummy because their address puts them in the middle of the Gotham River.  The money trail ends at a bank in the Cayman Islands.

“Additionally, TriStar’s own transaction records show that in the last three years, eighty percent of their foreclosed properties were renovated by Callison Contracting.  He submitted artificially low bids on most of the TriStar jobs.  I saw the bid for the Dover Building.  No one could do the work for that price and stay in business.”

            “He’s getting kickbacks,” Batman concluded.  “Those deposits made up the difference.”

The DA nodded.  “Our theory is Callison and his men hide smuggled girls in every building they’re renovating.  With so many sites, they don’t have to keep them in one place for very long, which reduces the risk of getting caught.  Nobody else goes in these properties, so they provide great cover for whoever’s procuring the girls.  That person probably owns the Caymans account.  However, we cannot get access to that bank.  The island government won’t help, either.  I got off the phone with a guy at the State Department about an hour ago.  He said, and I quote, ‘Their response can be summarized in two words--screw you.’”

            “Who do you think owns the account?” Batman asked.

            “Who would you guess?”

            “Nathan Callison.”

            “Bingo.  It has to be somebody connected to TriStar in a serious way.  Nathan fits the bill.  He brings in girls.  Eddie hides them and builds a ‘see-no-evil, hear-no-evil’ wall of silence to keep his councilman brother above suspicion.”

            “Tonight he accused me of working to get Nathan defeated in the next election.  Why bring it up and be so defensive, since Nathan is facing token opposition?  He must be worried things are about to cave in on both of them.”

            “We also think Eddie had Johnny Moffat killed to avoid loose ends.”

            “And Graciela Ramos.  If she’d gotten away, the whole operation would’ve been exposed,” Batman said.

            “Ironic, isn’t it?  Her death has accomplished the same thing her escape would have.”

            “Almost, but not quite.”  Gordon looked at Batman.  “That’s why we need your help.  We can’t tie Eddie directly to the smuggling, and we can’t prove Nathan is involved.  Even though it fits, it’s all circumstantial.”

            Buttoning his coat, Baker said, “We’ve only got one piece of evidence that could implicate Nathan.  The ‘president’ of TJR Enterprises is Gavin Smith.  He’s the head of sales for Nathan’s company.  We’re really hoping the World’s Greatest Detective can find a way to get the other evidence we need.”

            Batman flashed a grim smile.  “I will.”

 

            Bruce Wayne was busy at the Batcave computers when Catwoman strolled through the Batmobile entrance just before eleven.  He noticed a spring in her step.  “You look happy.”

            She began changing out of her Catsuit.  “I stopped a potential gang rape, got a teenage mother to the Women’s Haven, and helped put a drug ring out of business.”

            “Sounds like you earned your pay.”

            “Yeah.  I’m putting myself in for a raise.  How’d your meeting with Callison go?”

            “Surprisingly well.  The one afterward was even better.”

            She took a seat at the computer console.  “I’m all ears.”

            He relayed the information Gordon and Baker had given him.

            “Whoa!  Money laundering, offshore banks...this is some kind of conspiracy they’ve got going.”

            “Naturally, Nathan Callison is smart enough not to leave any incriminating trails.  He’s probably paying the bank or the Cayman government to cover him.”

            “What does the guy do?”

            “Beside sit on the council and eye the mayor’s seat?  His day job is running ToyJoy, a distributor of inexpensive toys from overseas.”

“So he’s the smuggler.”

“Yeah.”

“Different ‘toy,’ different kind of joy.  The bastard!”

            “They need our help in getting evidence on him.”

            “Gladly.  I’m going to enjoy every minute of this.”

 

            With one eye on serving justice and the other on creating heat for Nathan Callison, the grand jury handed down indictments against Eddie Callison and Bernie Carr Friday morning.  Warrants and arrests followed within hours.

District Attorney Baker hinted at his press conference that other charges directly related to the smuggling operation may follow, along with indictments against other individuals.  “This investigation is not over.”

News reporters and commentators went into predictable overdrive, using phrases like “shocking developments,” “growing scandal,” and “threatening to rock city government.”

            Attorneys had Callison and Carr out of jail almost immediately.  Perhaps unwisely, in the following days, Callison placed himself in front of any camera or microphone within reach.

            “I want to reiterate that I’m completely innocent,” he announced in a typical evening news story.  “This is all politically motivated to prevent my brother from being reelected to serve the citizens of Gotham.  I had nothing whatsoever to do with those poor girls in the Dover Building, and all the bank transactions the DA is trumpeting were completely legitimate.  I hope the people see through this sham that their public officials are trying to concoct.”

            Alfred switched off the television in the Wayne Manor study.  “Methinks he doth protest too much.”

            “I think you’re right, Alfred,” Bruce said.  “The hard part, as we’re finding out, is proving it.”

 

            His efforts to link Nathan Callison to the Caymans bank account hit wall after wall.  Although it would have been the easiest, it was not the only way to implicate him in the operation.

            On a relatively quiet Sunday night, he drummed his fingers on the Batcave computer console and looked over at Selina, who was patching one of her Catsuits.  “I finished the program.”

            “Oh, good.”  She came over to watch.  “Now, how are you going to get it on his computer?”

            “A little bit of social engineering.  I convince him it’s something he wants to open--an invoice from a ToyJoy client.  Attach it to this email message, and voila!  You might call it a virus with one intended target.”

            “How can you email him without revealing yourself?”

            “I’ve tapped into one of the public computers at the library.  I send it from there.  When he opens it, it will collect the name and address of his computer, plus his password, and send that information back to the one at the library.  Once I have it, I can do a little digital catburgling.”

            “Mmmm.  Sounds naughty...but nice.”  She gave him a seductive smile.

 

            Having woken up alone, Selina went to the Batcave at 9:30.  Bruce was glued to the computer screen and surrounded by stacks of printouts.

“Let me guess, he opened your file.”

            “Uh-huh.  And look what it got me.”

            A catalog entitled Brown Beauties caught her eye.  “What’s this?”

            “A list of mail order brides.  Apparently, he sends it out four times a year.”

            She leafed through the pages with disgust.  “‘Good in bed’?  ‘Fantastic cook’?  ‘Likes short men’?  Ugh!  This is revolting!”

            “I’ve got enough stuff here to lock him away for a long while.  A list of every foreclosed TriStar property used to house the girls.  Catalogs of Russian and Vietnamese women.  A spreadsheet showing payments to Eddie.  Customer lists.”

            Still looking at the catalog, she gasped, “Oh, my God!”

“What?”

Choked up, she handed him page twenty and began to cry.

            Among the pictures was the smiling image of Graciela Ramos.

            He leaned back in his chair.  “Probably snapped it not long before they put her in the bus.”

            They both stared at the last photo ever taken of a lovely girl contemplating her future as a model.

            “I hope they fry the sonsabitches,” she hissed.

 

            Although the evidence was there, Bruce knew none of it could be used legally, unless Gordon’s men were able to convince a judge to let them search Nathan’s computer.  Gordon and Baker, too, were short on admissible evidence against the councilman, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.  Despite strong pressure and various plea offers, neither Eddie nor Bernie Carr would implicate Nathan.  Several of Eddie’s men were also indicted, but none were willing to point the finger at their boss.

            The story would not go away, thanks to the local media scrutiny, and questions began mounting.  Why won’t the councilman talk?  What’s he hiding?  Is an indictment coming?  The revelation of Nathan’s sales officer as head of the phony TJR only added to speculation.

            Even his political advisors begged him to say something.  He finally relented and called a press conference the following Friday morning.

He appeared tired, and his dark hair was mussed.  He looked nothing like the smiling, athletic man who had easily won two terms on the council.  “I want to make a brief statement, but I will not answer any questions afterward on the advice of my attorneys.

“I had hoped to keep myself above the fray regarding my brother’s indictment and the rumors surrounding it.  Now that the storm of accusations has engulfed me, I can no longer remain on the sidelines.  First and foremost, let me say I love my brother Eddie, and our entire family believes in our hearts that he is innocent of the charges against him.  The same goes for Bernie Carr, a longtime family friend.

“To my constituents and the citizens of Gotham, I say this.  Please do not be taken in by the media frenzy, which is being fed on gossip, half-truths, and outright lies.  When I was elected to the Gotham City Council, I made a pledge to uphold the public trust.  I can assure you, I have not broken that trust, either on the council or in my business.

“To that end, I categorically deny any knowledge of or participation in the smuggling of young women from Mexico, or any other part of the world.  I also deny participating in any money laundering scheme.  Neither I nor any of my executives are connected in any way to TJR Enterprises.  The appearance of Gavin Smith’s name as the supposed president of TJR is a ludicrous fabrication.  In short, this is nothing more than a smear campaign.

            “Because there is not a shred of truth to the allegations blowing around, I can only conclude that they are politically motivated, designed to remove me from office.  Rest assured, I will mount a vigorous defense to these allegations and any manufactured indictments that may come along, as will my brother.  I ask for your prayers and your patience as we work though this difficult time.  I have no doubt, though, that I will come out of this stronger and more determined to give the people of Gotham the kind of representation they deserve--fair, responsive, and fiscally sound.  Thank you.”

 

            Vicente Ramos spat at Callison’s image on his hotel TV.  It was the last straw.  Gordon and Batman were no match for men with deep pockets and a battery of lawyers.  “American justice!”  He spat again.  “The poor go to jail, the rich go home.  Our way is better.

            He opened his suitcase and pulled out the revolver.  “The justice of the gun.”

 

            Gordon held a strategy session with his top deputies in the afternoon.  “Anybody watch that gasbag’s speech?  I had to break out the antacids.”

            The other men laughed heartily.  The things their chief would say in private....

            “We’ve got something of a Catch-22 here.  We can’t get the evidence needed for a search warrant until we have enough evidence for a warrant.  Batman told me we should search Callison’s computer.  I don’t know how he knows that, and I’d rather not find out.  Anyway, District Attorney Baker took the TJR records to a judge, who said it’s worth pursuing, but it’s not enough to issue a warrant on Callison himself.  He said he would issue a search warrant for Smith’s home and office if we want.”

            “Don’t you know he wiped everything clean the minute his name hit the news,” Detective Tolliver said.

            “Yep,” Gordon agreed.  “Waste of time going down that road.  We need a fresh angle.  Is there anything we haven’t followed up on because it just didn’t seem worthwhile?”

            Captain Martin looked over his notes.  “We found the Mexican bus, but the driver was long gone.”

            “Probably back in Mexico by now,” Lieutenant Antonini said.

            Tolliver smiled.  “We learned that two donors to his first campaign had ties to Boss Moroni.  They’re both dead.”

            The commissioner chuckled grimly.  “Won’t get much out of them.”

            Martin thumbed through the Callison file.  “He’s got an eighteen year-old daughter named Nikki who’s had a few scrapes with the law.”

            Gordon grew interested.  “Anything serious?”

            “Nah.  Underage drinking, public intoxication, causing a disturbance.  She has been at the scene of a number of calls in the Upper East End.”

            “I remember her,” Antonini said.  “She’s a Goth, right?”

            “A what?” Gordon asked.

            “A Goth.  You know--black clothes, eye makeup like a raccoon, depressing music, lots of leather and spandex.”

            Antonini looked at Martin.  “Yeah.  We always saw her at that club where we kept getting calls.  What was the name?  The Vampire Lounge.”

            “What’s she like?”

            “Very free spirited.  Disaffected and down on authority.  Definitely not ‘daddy’s little girl.’”

            “What if the DA offered to clear her record?”

            “She’d say, ‘Thanks, now get lost.’  We’re the last people she’d help out.”

            Gordon frowned.  “There must be somebody she would talk to.  Kids like that are hurting for attention.”

            “It would have to be a person who’s not a cop and didn’t look anything like a cop.  Someone like her, in other words,” Martin added.

            A light went on for Gordon.  “Catwoman!”

            “Yeah!”

            “Of course.”

            Tolliver asked, “Do you know how to reach her?”

            “No, but I know someone who does.”

 

            When Batman told her what Gordon wanted, Catwoman was only too happy to oblige.  She agreed that she stood the best chance of getting Nikki Callison to talk and find out if she knew anything that would help the investigation.

            “This might get a little rough,” she told Batman before leaving.  “Keep your comlink on in case I need some fast backup.  No telling what the guys in that club will do when they see me.”

            He looked over her shapely figure, all nicely packed into skintight vinyl, and winked.  “I can tell you what I want to do when I see you.”

            She gave him a pouty smile.  “Business before pleasure.  Meow.”

 

            The Vampire Lounge was crowded when she arrived just after eight.  Nihil, the club DJ, cranked out a steady dose of alternative, industrial, and death metal music amid the gloomy and dispassionate black décor.

            It took about thirty seconds for every young man in the place to notice her.  She tried to tune out the whistles, catcalls, and other exclamations.  Time to look tough, she told herself.

            A slightly inebriated college boy shuffled up to her, egged on by his friends.  “Wow!  My dream girl.  Where have you been all my life?”

            “Hanging around real men.  I don’t do babysitting.”

            “Ooohhh!” his friends laughed.

He shrugged them off.  “Come on, Catwoman.  How ‘bout a date?”

            She grabbed his cheeks and pulled his face close.  “You really want a date?”

            “Yeah!”

            July 4, 1776.”  With a sneer, she pushed him away.

            His friends guffawed and teased him mercilessly as they walked back to the bar.

            A very large man in a studded motorcycle jacket with a long beard and even longer hair stepped beside her.  “This is not your usual hangout.”

            She made a nauseated face.  “I’m sorry it’s yours, Benny.”

            “The extra money helps.  Looking for someone?”

            “Nikki Callison.”

            He pointed to a table by the wall where three girls were sharing beer and boy stories.  “She’s in the middle.”

            “Thanks.”

            “I’ll keep the guys off of you.”

            “Tell ‘em to go home to Mama.”  She left Benny, walked past the DJ booth, and made eye contact with Nikki.

            The girl smiled.  With her wild black hair, dark eye makeup, and solid black bodysuit, she could have been the poster girl for the Cure or Siouxsie and the Banshees.

            “Can I talk to you?”

            Nikki nodded, then politely asked her two friends to leave.  “Please, join me.”

            “You’re Nikki?”

            “Uh-hmm.  And you’re Catwoman.  Wow!  You’re, like, my role model and everything.  Batman’s okay, for a guy.  But you are the totally coolest.  I so admire what you do.”

            “Right now, I’m working to get a little justice for someone who didn’t get it in life.  Maybe I can get it for her in death.”

            “You mean that poor girl from Mexico?  That is so sad.”

            “Her name was Graciela.  You’ve heard of the case, then.”

            Nikki rolled her eyes.  “Like, it’s all Mom and Dad ever talk about.  Or fight about.  That’s why I can’t stay home for very long.  It’s way too tense, y’know?”

            “Yeah.  You don’t like the cops, do you?”

            “Puh-leez!  All they ever do is hassle me.”

            “They want justice for Graciela, too.  Would you like to help us make sure no other girls have to go through the same terrible ordeal?”

            “A chance to work with my idol?  Sure!  No way I’m gonna turn that down.  But, like, how can I possibly help you?”

            Catwoman moved her chair closer.  “Tell me about your father.”

            Nikki shrugged her shoulders.  “Where do I begin?  It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he was, like, involved in smuggling girls.  He probably just wants them for sex.  Girls are, y’know, toys to him.  He cheats on Mom.  Has for years.  He only hires pretty women with great bodies to work in his office.  I think he’s screwed them all by now.  He’s into computer porn.  He treats me and my sister like we’re employees and orders us around.  ‘Terri, call your uncle and tell him I’ll be late for golf.  Nikki, pick up my dry cleaning.’  Mom knows about all of it.  She pops pills to help her cope.  Gotta, y’know, stand by her man as he runs for office.  Gotta look like one big happy family.  Nathan Callison, Mr. Family Values for City Council.  Idiot!”

            “Why would it not surprise you for him to be involved in smuggling?”

            “I’ve seen pictures of Latino girls on his computer.  And he’s got this, y’know, mail order bride catalog thing.  Whatever it is, it’s gotta be making more money than his regular business.  He always talks about how ToyJoy is losing money, but he’s got more than enough to burn on gambling trips and gifts for his bimbos.”

            “Did he ever help you when you had run-ins with the cops?”

            “Yeah.  He, like, paid my fines, made sure I attended alcohol awareness classes, and burned my fake IDs.  It took me a while to realize he wasn’t doing it for me, he was doing it for himself.  Can’t have any scandal taint his reputation during an election.  I hate what a phony and self-serving hypocrite he is.”  She giggled.  “One time I told him I was pregnant just to see his reaction, y’know?  He offered to pay for an abortion and buy me a new stereo if I didn’t say a word about it to anyone.”

            Catwoman grew even more disdainful of Callison, something she didn’t think was possible.  “You wouldn’t mind, then, if we brought him down a few notches?”

            “I so want somebody to teach him a lesson.  It’s totally disgusting how he thinks of women as his personal property.  And if he had anything to do with that Mexican girl’s death, I’d love for you to, like, put your boot heel up his sorry ass.”

            The flash of a camera caught Catwoman’s eye.  A spike-haired boy was taking pictures of two friends.

            A wild idea occurred to her.  “Come with me.”

            Nikki followed as she made a beeline for the club’s door.  “Where are we going?”

            “Do you know how to get into your father’s office?”

            “Yeah.  He used to pay me to help with record keeping during the summer.  I still have a key.”

            When they were outside and away from the loud music, Catwoman activated her comlink.  “Batman, I need your help.”

“At the club?”

 “No.  Meet me at the ToyJoy office.  I just found a way to make Nathan Callison confess.”

 

Ramos had been at police headquarters since noon.  He wanted to give Gordon the courtesy of saying goodbye.  After he found and killed Callison, he was taking the first bus out of town.

It was time to head home, he would say, to see his family and help them deal with Graciela’s death.  He would tell Gordon how grateful he was for the work the Gotham PD had done and that he’d like to stay but knew the case would take more time.  He had it all rehearsed and was sure to sound convincing.

However, he faced one small problem.  Gordon had several meetings that afternoon and a deskful of paperwork to be completed.  He didn’t have a spare moment for Ramos.

The Mexican was about to leave and try again the next day until he overheard Captain Martin on the phone with Gordon.

“Yes, sir.  One hour.  Right.”  Martin put down the receiver for a moment, then picked it up and dialed another extension.  Adams, Commissioner Gordon just got a call from Batman.  He wants officers to accompany him to the Jefferson Plaza Tower, Suite 4109 in one hour.  You’ll take care of it?  Great.”

Ramos slipped out of the office, then bolted down the stairs.  The time had come.

 

Nathan Callison’s cell phone rang.  Callison.”

“This is Batman.  I have your daughter.”

“What is this, some sick joke?”

“We’re at your office.  Come alone if you want to see Nikki again.”

“Listen, if you so much as--”

“Dad,” a panicked voice called amid the sounds of struggle, “he’s not bluffing.  He’s going to kill me if you don’t show up.  He’s crazy!”

“Nikki!”

“You heard me, Callison.  Get over here.”  He hung up.

 

Callison was at the ToyJoy offices in twenty minutes.  The reception area looked dark and deserted, so he cautiously moved back toward his executive office.  The door sat ajar, and a dim glow could be seen around it.  He opened it and walked in.

His was a spacious, glass-walled corner office with a bird’s eye view of the Gotham skyline.  The only light in the room came from his desk lamp, and it illuminated a surreal scene.

Nikki sat bound and gagged in his leather chair behind his rosewood desk.  The chair had been rolled back so that it sat mere inches from the window.  Batman stood next to it with his arms folded and his foot on the wheels.

A look of fear in her eyes, Nikki struggled against the ropes around her wrists.

“What the hell are you trying to do, Batman?”

“Get your attention.”

“Well, you’ve certainly done that.  Let Nikki go.  Whatever gripe you have is  with me, not her.”

“This isn’t a negotiation.  You are going to confess to your involvement in smuggling the Mexican girls found in the Dover Building, as well as the murder of Graciela Ramos, or I will kick this chair out the window with your daughter in it.”

“Whoever you are, you sure aren’t Batman.  He would never have such disregard for innocent life.”

“Unlike yourself.”

“I don’t know what you mean.  I don’t smuggle women, sell them, or whatever else you think I do.”

Batman shook his head.  “We’re all adults here, so let’s dispense with the evasions.  I know about the Brown Beauties catalog with Graciela’s picture in it.  I know about all the buildings you and Eddie use to hide women.  I know about the payments to Eddie.”

Callison wasn’t expecting that.  “Let Nikki go, and we’ll talk.”

“Interesting that you care so much for your daughter but cared nothing for Vicente Ramos’ daughter.  How would you feel if someone kidnapped Nikki, took her to Mexico, and forced her to marry a guy who enjoyed slapping women around?”

Callison made no reply.

Click.  “That is interesting.  I’d very much like an answer to Batman’s question.”

All eyes turned to look at Vicente Ramos, who appeared in the doorway, revolver at the ready.

This wasn’t part of the plan.  “Ramos,” Batman called, “don’t!”

“Sorry, Batman.  This worm has too many lawyers and too much money to end up in jail.  It’s time to settle things my way, mano a mano.”

            Callison squirmed.  “Look, gentlemen, you’re forgetting one little thing here.  I’m innocent!”

            Ramos cocked the hammer.

            Leaping from the shadows, Catwoman kicked the gun out of his hand.  It landed on the carpet near Batman, and she glared at Callison.  “Talk!”

            He seemed touched by her effort to protect him.  “At least there’s one reasonable person in here besides me.”

            She moved over to the chair and loosened Nikki’s gag.

            Nikki gave her father a withering look.  “Dad, for once will you stop being such a jerk and, like, think about somebody besides yourself?  It’s always about you you you, and to hell with everyone else.”

            “Don’t take that tone with me, you ungrateful little bitch.  I work hard to make a nice life for you and Terri.  I pay the bills and keep a roof over your head.  How do you thank me?  You dress up like a zombie, get drunk, and hang out with your do-nothing friends.”

            “At least they care about me!  All you care about is money and your moron girlfriends.  Mom’s in therapy and on drugs because of you!”

            “Your mother can’t stand what you’ve become.”

            “The same goes for you, Daddy dearest.  Just once in your pathetic little life, will you accept responsibility for something?  Tell them what they want to know!”

            Batman picked up Ramos’ gun and hurled it at the window behind Nikki.  The thick glass shattered in a hundred pieces.

            Nikki felt the breeze blow in and saw the gossamer curtains dance like ghosts.  She took a deep breath.

            Batman raised his foot.

            “Stop!”  Callison started to cry.  “I’ll tell you the truth.”

            “At last,” Nikki murmured with a sigh.

“Yes, I’m responsible for smuggling the girls.  I--I had some gambling debts a few years ago that I needed to pay off, and ToyJoy wasn’t making enough to do it.  I met a colleague who suggested getting into the lucrative overseas mail order bride business.  I was amazed how well it paid, and I couldn’t quit.  I tried to be discriminating, but I guess Eddie and I were blinded by the money.  We got to where we didn’t even think about the girls.  It was just another business.  Some of them really did become brides.  I went to a couple of the weddings.  The others...I don’t know what happened to them.”

            “Yes, you do,” Catwoman snapped.  “Ever heard the words prostitution and sex slave?”

            “I didn’t want to hurt anybody.”

            “You lost there the minute you began,” Batman scolded.

            “Really, I didn’t.  They just became a commodity, goods bought and sold.”

            “Not surprising, considering what you think of women.”

            “Shut up, Nikki!”

            “What about my daughter?”  Ramos barely hid his rage.

“Eddie hired Johnny Moffat.  I had nothing to do with that.  It’s his fault she got killed.”

            “No, Dad, it’s yours.  If she hadn’t been here, she wouldn’t be dead.  You’re just as responsible as Uncle Eddie.”

            Batman stared at him.  “Moreso.  You’re the head of the operation.”

            With all his inner demons swirling and attacking at once, Callison looked to Ramos.  “I don’t know what I can say.  I’m sorry....”

            Nikki couldn’t resist a final jab.  “You’re right.  You are a sorry excuse for a husband and a father.  Anything else you’d like to confess?  Got kiddy porn on your computer along with your blonde bimbos?”

            “Child pornography?  No!  What kind of sicko do you think I am?”

            “We’ve already established that.”  Catwoman calmly walked back into the darkness and turned on the room lights, which revealed a camcorder pointed right at Callison.  She shut it off, pulled out the disc, and pitched it to Batman, who promptly locked it inside his utility belt.

            Laughing, Nikki stood up, and the ropes fell off her arms.  She untied the gag and turned to Batman and Catwoman.  “Thank you guys so much for teaching him a lesson he’ll never forget.”

            Callison looked bewildered.  It took a minute for everything to sink in.  When it did, he charged around the desk, grabbed Nikki by the arms, and shook her.  “You were playacting?  I can’t believe this.  Do you know what you’ve just done to me?  I ought to wring your neck!  My career is over because of your stupid little game!”

            “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU!”  She wrestled free and shoved him away.

            He stumbled and landed in the chair, which rolled back until its wheels hit the bottom of the window frame.

“Dad!”

His momentum tipped the chair over, sending him on a forty story freefall into the night.

 

Lieutenant Adams and three other Gotham police arrived fifteen minutes later with Gordon right behind.  In Callison’s office they found Batman, Catwoman, and Ramos comforting Nikki.

Batman reviewed the situation for Gordon, who instructed his men to get statements from everyone.

“We found Callison’s body on the parking garage.  What the hell went wrong?”

“When he realized he’d been tricked, he attacked Nikki.  They struggled, and....”

Gordon nodded.  “The DA’s not going to like how this went down.  Too messy, in more ways than one.”

“Maybe this will help.”  Batman handed him the disc.  “Callison’s confession.  He admits to everything and implicates his brother.  Case closed.”

 

Catwoman went for a walk with Nikki after the police left.  “How are you feeling?”

Nikki mustered a slight smile.  “A little numb, but I’ll be okay in a day or two.  I just never imagined…I didn’t want it to end like this.”

“None of us did.  Before you start blaming yourself, don’t forget he attacked you.  It isn’t your fault.  If he had sat down and waited for the cops like we thought, it wouldn’t have happened.”

“If Batman hadn’t broken the window.  If Ramos didn’t show up with a gun.  If his daughter never died.  If Dad hadn’t brought her here.  It’s everybody’s and nobody’s fault.  Really, it’s alright.  God, or Fate, or, like, whoever’s in charge made that call.  Either way, he was going to be out of my life for a long time.  I’ll miss him because he was my dad.  But I won’t miss the selfish, exploitive creep who got what was coming to him.”  She scratched her nose.  “Y’know, it’s weird having opposite feelings about the same person.”

“I know exactly what you mean.  Welcome to the wonderful world of duality.  I’ve lived there for years.”

“Not me.  What you see is what you get with Nikki, and I plan to keep it like that.  Well, I guess I should be on my way now.  Thanks for your time and help.”

“Where are you going?”

“Back to the Vampire Lounge, spend some time with my friends.  They’ll help me through this more than anything.”

“I want to keep in touch with you, see how you’re doing.  I’ll check back in a few weeks or so, okay?”

“I’d like that.  Not many people get to hang out with their heroes.  Most likely, you’ll find me at the club.  If not, ask Benny.  He usually knows where I am.”

“And if you need me, he’ll probably know where I am, too.  Good ol’ Benny.”

 

Gordon was right about the DA.  While glad and relieved to wrap up the investigation the next morning, he was not pleased with the case’s ragged ending.  “However,” he said, “it’s nothing we can’t tidy up a bit for the public.  I’ve seen worse.”

“This might make you feel better.”  Gordon handed him a slim file folder.  “We’ve had several Jane Doe murders in the last three or four years, all of them foreigners.  I think Callison’s records are going to help solve a lot of those.”

“And Eddie Callison?”

“As soon as he heard about his brother’s death, he turned himself in against his lawyer’s advice, and I don’t think he’s stopped talking yet.”

Baker closed the file.  “You know what they say.  Confession is good for the soul.”

 

That night, Batman found Ramos standing alone on the East River bridge.  He puffed a cigarette and pensively stared into the water sparkling with the city lights.

“Penny for you thoughts.”

“I wish Graciela could’ve seen this side of Gotham.  It’s very pretty at night.”

“From a distance.  When are you returning home?”

“Not for a while.  Commissioner Gordon asked me to stay and help locate the other women from Mexico who were brought here by Callison.  He tells me there’s quite a list.”

“Your idea, or his?”

“A bit of both.  Maybe working to reunite some of the girls and their families will help with the loss.  I can bring happiness to others, in memory of Graciela.”

“I think she would like that.”

“Yes.”  Ramos took the last drag on his smoke.  “When I first met you, I was skeptical about ‘Batman.’  Now, however, I must say thanks.  You have my respect, and you’re a man of your word.”

He threw the cigarette into the river and turned to shake hands, but the Dark Knight was gone.  A few moments later, he walked away and headed for his hotel.

 

Batman and Catwoman watched him from a nearby rooftop.

She said, “He’s certainly been through the emotional wringer.  Nobody should have to bury their own child.”

“Or their parents when they’re still a child.”

She put her arm around him.  “I know you understand his grief.”

“I wish I could have been more open about my own experience.  He’s never been through anything like this.”

“Neither has Nikki.  It’s one thing to lose your father, but to find out what a monster he was first….”  She shook her head.  “What does all this say about a society that tolerates the degradation of women?  What does it say about a city with leaders who treat human beings like a commodity?”

The Bat-signal beamed into the sky.

“It says there’s still a need for people like us.”