RECLAWED

 

            Reservations at Scaloni’s, Gotham City’s most expensive restaurant, were nearly impossible to come by--unless your name happened to be Bruce Wayne.  He and Selina sat at a window table admiring the starry, moonless night.

            He raised his wine glass.  “Happy Anniversary.”

            She clinked her glass in a toast.  “Happy Anniversary, darling.”

            “Has it really been two years?”

            “We’ve known each other for so long, it seems like more.”

            “Did I ever bring you here before?”

            “No, but I wish you had.”  She admired the Italian villa décor.  “What a lovely place.  And the food…oh, it’s delicious.”

            “The head chef and I went to prep school together.”

Polishing off her lasagna primavera, she sat back and smiled.  “It’s so nice to have an evening out with just the two of us.”

            “The ol’ mansion getting a bit crowded for you?”

            “I know you’re joking, but yeah, it is.  Now that Barbara Gordon spends time there, along with Tim and the baby, some days I feel like we’re running a boarding house.”

            He laughed.  “Think of them as our ‘extended family.’”

 

            In the Batcave, Barbara was running a data analysis program on the computers, trying to predict the city’s next crime hotspot.

            Alfred walked down the stairs and cleared his throat.  “Pardon me, Miss Gordon, but shouldn’t you be upstairs listening for little Helena?”

            “Not necessary.  I patched the baby monitor through to the speakers here.  And I’ve got my eye on the security cameras.  She’s as safe as if I was sitting outside her room.”

            “Very well.  Is Master Tim in?”

            “No.  Bruce sent him to Blüdhaven for a few days.  Follow-up training with Dick.”

            “I do remember him saying something to that effect.  I shall be in the study for a while if you need me.”

            When her program finished, she turned to more mundane matters: completing college biology homework and studying for an English final.  Helping Batman fight crime was putting a noticeable dent in her grades.

            She had just opened her textbook when intruder alarms sounded from every direction.  The panel showed security breaches at the front door and then in Helena’s room.

Omigod!”  On the monitor, she saw several men running up the main stairs and through the second story hallway.

            “No time to suit up,” she said as she bounded into the elevator.

 

            Bruce paid their check, left the waiter a hundred dollar tip, and looked at his watch.  “The opera starts in thirty minutes.  Are you ready to go?”

            “Yes.  Thank you for the lovely dinner.”  She gave him a kiss.

            “Thanks for being my wife.”

            “What are we going to see?”

            Die Fledermaus (The Bat).”

            She flashed him a sly grin.  “Only you would have the nerve.”

 

            When Barbara charged out of the study, she saw Alfred laying unconscious in the entranceway.  The invaders were scrambling downstairs, and one of them carried the crying four month-old.

            Although outnumbered, she tried to take them on.  Kicking the first one in the crotch, she grabbed his sleeve and pushed him off the stairs.  She punched a stocky fellow who slapped her right back.  Another man came up from behind and threw her over the railing.  With a crash, she landed on an end table, breaking it in half.

            Facing no further opposition, the thugs ran out and slammed the front door.  It had taken them scarcely more than three minutes to kidnap Helena Wayne.

 

            Bruce and Selina walked half a block to the Gotham Opera.  As they entered the lobby, she asked, “Could you please check on Helena while I go to the ladies’ room?  She was a little colicky this afternoon.  And I forgot to feed Isis.  Ask Alfred to put something out for her.”

            “Sure.”  He dialed home on his cell phone and waited for Alfred to answer.  He looked puzzled when he got no response by the tenth ring.  Verifying that he hadn’t misdialed, he tried again.  On the twelfth ring, he heard someone pick up.

 

            The incessant ringing wasn’t in her ears, Barbara decided when she awoke.  Moaning from the pain, she stood up slowly and tried to get reoriented.  She spotted the phone and lurched forward, steadying herself as she picked up the receiver.  “Uh, hello?” she mumbled.

            “Hello?  Barbara?  Is that you?”

            “Bruce?  Oh, thank God!”

            “What’s wrong?”

            “You gotta come home,” she cried.  “A bunch of guys broke in and took Helena.  They knocked me and Alfred out, and he still hasn’t come to.”

            The news stunned him.

            “Bruce?  Are you there?”

            “Yes,” he said, fighting back anxiety.  “We’ll take a cab and be there as soon as possible.”

            “I’m sorry, Bruce.”

            “Barb, It’s not your fault.  Any idea who the men were?”

“No.  They just looked like street thugs.  Hang on.”

Bruce heard a groan in the background.

“Alfred’s finally waking up.”

“Go help him and call the police.  I’ll see you soon.”

            Selina walked up right after he put away his phone.  He looked pale.  “Darling, are you alright?  Is something the matter?”

            He put his arm around her and led her to a bench.  “You need to sit down.”

            “It’s Helena, isn’t it?” she asked in a panic.

            With tears lining his eyes, he softly said, “She’s been kidnapped.”

            She gasped in horror.  “Oh, God!  My baby!”  Bursting into tears, she cried, “What happened?”

            He held her close.  “I don’t know.  Barbara said several goons broke in, knocked everybody out, and took Helena.”

            She wept uncontrollably.

            The concierge turned from greeting patrons and walked over when she heard the commotion.  “Mr. Wayne, is everything okay?”

            “No,” he told her reservedly.  “We just got some very bad news.  Can you summon a cab?”

            “Certainly, sir.”

 

            When they got home, the police were questioning Barbara and Alfred, who was being examined by a couple of paramedics.

Commissioner Gordon immediately went over.  “Bruce, Selina.  I came as soon as Captain Bain told me.  I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.  Is Barbara okay?”

“Yeah.  They’re both shaken up, but no serious injuries.  Alfred has a nasty head bruise.”

Red eyed and still weepy, Selina asked, “Where’s my baby?”

“We don’t know yet.  But I assure you, we’ll move heaven and earth to find her.”

Barbara walked up and hugged her.  “I tried to rescue Helena, but….”  She began to cry.

Selina patted her on the back.  “You did your best, I know.”

“Dad’s men will get her back, don’t worry.  Here.”  She handed her a small stuffed bunny.  “She dropped it on the stairs.”

Holding the toy tightly, Selina sat down and cried again.  Isis leaped onto the sofa and offered her master whatever nuzzling comfort she could.

Bruce asked Gordon, “Have you found anything?”

The lawman shook his head.  “Nothing useful.  They wore gloves, so no prints.  They disabled the perimeter alarm.  That’s why nobody knew they were here until they kicked in the front door.  It looks like a very professional job.  Somebody went to a lot of trouble to snatch your daughter.”

He looked at Selina bawling her eyes out.  He’d never seen her so distraught.

“Forgive me for asking this, but do you have any enemies?  Anybody you know who might want to get back at you for something?”

“No one comes to mind.”

“Business deals gone sour?  Someone with a beef against Wayne Enterprises?  Disgruntled ex-employees?”

“Not that I can think of.  We haven’t received any threatening notes.”

“It looks like the kidnappers didn’t leave one, either.”

“What should we do?”

“The one thing people in these situations hate to do--wait.  Perpetrators usually contact the family in short order with their ransom demands.”

“You know I’ll pay any price to get Helena back.”

“That doesn’t surprise me one bit, Bruce.  Officially, though, I have to tell you the department discourages ransom payments.  In our experience, it only invites further attempts.”

“I understand.”

“Notify us the minute you hear from anyone claiming to be the kidnapper.  With so little to go on at the moment, that may be our best lead.  I’ll post guards to help keep wackos and curiosity seekers away.”

“Thank you.”

Gordon watched as Barbara tried to calm Selina down.  “I know this is hard on you, Bruce, but your poor wife just looks devastated.”

“Helena’s pretty much become her life.  I’ll ask the paramedics to give her a sedative.”

“We’ll find your daughter, Bruce.  If necessary, we’ll call in Batman.”

 

Once Gordon and his officers were gone, Bruce gathered everyone in the study.  “Anybody besides me feel an awful sense of irony here?  Who’s Batman supposed to call for help?”

Nobody had an answer.

“Alfred, tell me what happened.”

“There’s not much to tell, sir.  I was about to go upstairs when those men came bursting through the door  I hardly saw them before they threw me to the ground.  I don’t remember anything else until I heard Miss Gordon talking to you on the phone.”

“Barbara?”

“I was in the cave when the alarms went off, and I saw the men on the monitor.  I didn’t have time to suit up, so I went after them as best I could, which wasn’t very well.”

“What did they look like?”

“Big, bulky guys in ordinary clothes.  No uniforms or insignias.  The recorder was going, so you can see them on the video.”

“Good.  I’ll watch it in a few minutes.”

Somewhat calmer after the sedative, Selina asked, “Who could’ve done it?”

Bruce removed his tie.  “That’s the real question.  Is it someone with a grudge against me, or against Batman?”

“Or somebody from my past,” she added.

“Too many possibilities,” Alfred agreed.

“Barbara, in Tim’s absence, I need your help investigating.”

“Sure.  It’s the least I can do to make amends for what happened.”

“No.  Let’s get something straight here.  This is nobody’s fault.  This was a carefully planned home invasion carried out by somebody who wants to hurt Selina and me.”

“Let us hope and pray,” Alfred said, “that they do not also want to hurt little Helena.”

 

The inevitable media circus sprang to life by morning.  Helena’s kidnapping dominated the newspapers and airwaves.  Everything was reported in melodramatic fashion, and comparisons to the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping case naturally followed.  Understandably, the family refused all requests for interviews or comments.

It got so bad Alfred unplugged the phones.  “If I had a dollar for every call I’ve taken during the last two hours....”

Bruce rubbed his eyes and turned off the TV.  “You’d think they could find something else to talk about--an earthquake, a war, the weather.”  He had a restless night and was in no mood for the media vultures to harp on his daughter’s abduction.

“How is Mrs. Wayne this morning, sir?”

“She cries herself to sleep, and she wakes up crying.  I’m really worried about her.  As if I didn’t have enough already.  I’m going to be working in the cave.  If she comes downstairs, make sure she doesn’t see the papers.  The last thing she needs is a reminder that the Lindbergh baby died.”

 

Gordon made his way through a gauntlet of reporters at police headquarters when he arrived for work.  “No comment,” was his terse response to every shouted question.  He poured a cup of coffee in the break room and ventured up to his office.

Captain Martin was waiting.  “Morning, sir.”

“It’s definitely that.”

            The officer handed him a report.  “We’ve got an eyewitness who saw a silver van heading in the direction of Wayne Manor about fifteen minutes before the abduction.  No license number, though.”

            “It’s probably been painted green and parked at a garage somewhere in Metropolis by now.  Anything else?”

            “Nah.  Nobody saw the van leave.  Nobody heard a crying baby.  You know, Brenda the operator’s threatening to quit if these calls from the media don’t stop.  She’s logged over a hundred since day shift began.  All the way from London and Tokyo even.”

            Gordon looked peeved.  “Let’s put out a press release reminding people that we are investigating other crimes, too.  The bad guys don’t take a day off just because the Wayne baby got kidnapped.”

            “I really feel sorry for them.  It’s bad enough having your kid stolen, but to be thrown into a media fishbowl, too, because you’re famous....”

            “Yeah.  It’s like hell opened up and landed on the porch.”

 

            “Thanks, Tim.  I appreciate it.  Talk to you later.”

“Is he coming back?” Barbara asked.

“No.  He and Dick are going to work the case from Blüdhaven.  He thinks some of the mob guys there might be a little ticked off at my company.”

“I hope they uncover something.  How’s Selina?”

“Not well at all.  If we don’t find Helena quickly, she may go over the edge.  Again.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“Right now, be a second pair of eyes as I go over the security camera video again.  I feel like I’m missing something.”

“Sure.”  She accessed the digital recorder from the control console and sent the playback to the monitor in front of them.

“How many were there?”

“Five.  I think they were counting on heavier opposition.”

“How did they know where Helena was?”

“They didn’t.  Hers was the third door they kicked in.  Here I come, charging like the cavalry.  And there I go, getting up close and personal with your table.  It looks worse than it was.  You taught me how to fall safely, remember?”

“With the assumption you’d be in your suit.  Hey, replay that last part.”

“Where I went flying?”

“No, right after.”

She backed up the video and let it run again.

“Pause.  Now go back a few frames.”

“Did you see something?”

“I’m not sure.  Go frame by frame.”  He studied the image.  “Freeze it there.  Look at the guy behind the one carrying Helena.  See the thing on his belt?”

“It looks like a radio or a phone.”

“Zoom in.  Now run the digital enhancer.”

“It’s a gun.”

“Not just any gun.  A Glock 25.”

She frowned.  “What’s special about them?”

“They aren’t legal here for civilian use.”

“Oh.”

“Which may mean those men aren’t from this country.”

Chills went down her spine.  “Then this could be more than a traditional kidnapping for ransom.”

“Exactly.”

“Who would conspire against you--or Batman--like that?”

“Who wouldn’t?”

 

Chief of Detectives Tolliver visited Gordon after lunch.  “Got a minute?”

“Come in, Sam.”

Tolliver closed the door and sat down.  “Tips are coming in on the Wayne case, and it’s giving my boys a lot of leads to track down.  We’ve started compiling a suspect list.  It’s small so far, but everyone on it appears to have unkind feelings for Mr. Wayne.  Whether that translates into swiping his daughter, it’s too soon to tell.”

“Any mob connections surfacing?”

“Not so far.  I’m trying to think outside the box, and when I do, I have to put Joker on the list.  Batman thwarted his plan to kill Wayne last year, and it’s reasonable to assume he still has a grudge.  There’s motive.  He’s still at large.  There’s opportunity.”

“Good thinking.  Any leads from the mansion’s security video?”

“Nah.  We’ve never seen any of those creeps before.  Definitely out-of-towners.”

“Makes sense.  Locals would be easier to ID.”

“We’re leaving no stone unturned, as the cliché goes.  I’ve even got two guys checking on suspicious baby formula purchases.”

“Well, keep at it.  We’re long past the unofficial deadline.”

“‘Unofficial deadline?’  What do you mean?”

“Sam, you know the statistics.  Most kidnap victims are killed in the first three hours.”

 

Napping on the sofa in the study, Bruce was awakened by Selina’s mid-afternoon entrance.

Preceded by Isis, she wore her nightgown and resembled one of the undead.  Her face was ashen, and blotches of mascara streaked down her cheeks.  Her messy hair hung into her bloodshot eyes.  The saddest part was the vacant, emotionally flat look on her face.

The last time he’d seen that look was when she killed Max Shreck.  Unable to say anything helpful, he got up and hugged her.

She did not return the affection, but sat down and stared at the family portrait on the desk.  “Any news?” she asked hoarsely.

“No.  The police are still checking on leads.  Mayor Golini’s plea for tips has apparently generated a lot of response, so that’s encouraging.”

“What about you?”

“Me?”

“Yes, you.  Billionaire Bruce Wayne.  When he speaks, people listen and tremble.  What are you doing to find Helena?”

He was caught off-guard by her hostile tone.  “I’ve been doing some sleuthing in the Batcave.  Barbara and I went over the security video.  This may not be a simple kidnapping.  It’s got the marks of a conspiracy.”

“And what are we doing to crack this conspiracy?”

 “I...I’m working on it.”

“No, you’re not!  You’re lounging around here like you couldn’t care less.”

“I was taking a nap.  I didn’t sleep well last night.  Selina, what’s gotten into you?”

“My daughter’s missing, and I expected the rich and powerful Bruce Wayne to do something!”

“I have been.”

“You call watching video, playing on your computers, and taking a nap ‘doing something?’  Good God, she’s your kid, too.  The Bruce I thought I knew would never be so spineless.  He’d work nonstop, day and night, to find this child he says he cares for so much.”

“And just what is it I should be doing that I’m not?”

“Hell, you’re Batman!  Are you really that impotent?  You can save this litter box of a town from Joker and Riddler, but you can’t track down the jerks who kidnapped our baby?”

“I don’t see you doing anything constructive, lying in bed all day crying.”

She threw a pillow at him.  “Ooh!  You’re the one with all the crime fighting gear.  Get off your butt and find her, will you?  If it’s not too much trouble.”

He thought she was being grossly unfair but agreed with one point.  Batman or not, he did feel strangely powerless to rescue Helena.  “This is not like the usual crimes Batman takes on.  Normally, we know who’s involved and what they’re trying to do.  Here we don’t.  I’m going out tonight to see what I can uncover that the police would never get.  Please believe me, Selina, I’m doing what I can.  I want Helena back as much as you do.”

“I would give my life to save her.”

“Me, too.  Look, I know you’re frustrated and worried, and maybe you’re taking it out on me because I’m a convenient target.”  He took a seat next to her.  “It’s just--we should be supporting each other now, not throwing insults back and forth.  That doesn’t make either one of us feel better, and it certainly doesn’t do a thing to get Helena back.”

She leaned over and began sobbing.  “I can’t take any more!”

All he could do was hold her and pray they’d hear from the kidnapper soon.  He knew about the three hour rule, too.

 

Night could not come fast enough for Batman.  Fortunately, a thick overcast hastened its arrival.  As soon as the sky grew dark, he left Selina in Alfred’s care and hit the streets looking for answers.

Over the years, he had established a reliable group of inconspicuous informants, people ranging from former criminals to ordinary citizens who had to be careful about their public associations.  He touched base with every one he could find.  Nobody knew anything about the kidnapping.  There were absolutely no rumors on the streets in any part of Gotham.  It became clear to him that the culprits weren’t working with the mob, nor were they part of the regular criminal rabble.  That narrowed the suspect options to two: corporate conspirators and supercriminals.

When he passed near Robinson Park, he decided to pay a call on an old foe.  Leaping over the fence, he made his way toward the center of the park.

About three minutes into his journey, he heard something rustle in the bushes.  Before he could take another step, two snakelike vines wrapped themselves tightly around his boots, rendering him immobile.

A shapely redhead in green emerged from behind a tree.  “Well, what have we here?” she asked in a sensual drawl.  “Batman.  Long time no see.”

“Hello, Ivy.”

She stomped her foot at the vines.  “Down, girls!  Let him go.”

The plants released their grip and slithered back into the underbrush.

“Your version of guard dogs?”

“Somebody has to keep alert for intruders.  So what brings you all the way out here?”

“I need to ask you some questions.”

“Whatever it is, I didn’t do it.”

“You’ve heard of the Wayne kidnapping?”

“Who hasn’t?”

“I wonder if you know anything about it.”

“Why would I?  I’m not in the baby snatching business.”

“Do you have a gripe against Wayne Enterprises?”

“Ah, now we get to the heart of the matter.”  She smiled and ran her fingers across his chest.  “Sorry to disappoint, but no, I don’t.  Their environmental record is decent.  They haven’t done anything lately to make me want revenge.”

“Mr. Wayne will be glad to know he gets the Poison Ivy seal of approval.”

“You’ll have to look for the guilty party somewhere else, Batman.  Lovely chatting with you, though I have to go feed the Venus flytraps now.  You know the way out.”

“Good night, Ivy.”

“Hope you find Wayne’s kid.”

“Me, too.”

 

Despite investigating for two more hours, he learned nothing else useful.  Although glad to have ruled out some suspects, he was no closer to where he desperately wanted to be: in the presence of Helena’s kidnappers.

 

The next day seemed like a continuation of the first.  Selina remained inconsolable and worried sick.  The kidnappers were still silent, puzzling both Bruce and the police.  Media rehashes and speculation ran unabated.  Even Bruce’s offer of a million-dollar reward generated more heat than light for Gordon’s investigators.

Time moved in agonizing slowness for Bruce.  He literally had nothing to do.  Forcing himself to work in the Batcave, he researched past business documents for any hint of someone who might be angry enough to strike at him personally.

Helena had been gone for nearly forty-eight hours, and he began to consider the sobering possibility that her abductors might never make contact.  He could only imagine what such an outcome would do to Selina.

“Excuse me, sir.”

The butler’s interruption broke him out of his gloomy mindset.  “Yes, Alfred?”

“A small package just arrived for you.”

His heart raced as he took the padded envelope and ripped it open.  A photograph of Helena and a CD fell out onto the worktable.

“Word from the kidnappers at last?”

Bruce studied the picture.  “Thank God she’s alive.”

“Do you wish me to leave you alone, sir?”

“Please stay, Alfred.  I want somebody else to hear this, too, whatever it is.”  Nervously, he put the disc in to play.

“Hello, Bruce.  Talia here.  I hope you’ve been freaking out about your daughter.  Yes, I have her.  I engineered the whole thing, and she’s quite safe--for the moment.  You didn’t hear from me earlier because I wanted to make you and your housecat squirm for a while.  But now it’s time to get down to business.

“I just can’t seem to kill you, Batman.  You’ve thwarted all my plans to rub you out, and I’m sick of it.  You meddle in our affairs and defend an indefensibly corrupt society.  So when I learned you’d become a father, I saw a golden opportunity to strike you where it’ll hurt the most.

“You know I’m a woman of my word, so here’s the deal.  You’ll get your little girl back unharmed if you meet the following three demands.  One, make a deposit of one hundred million dollars in account number 529985633 in the Lucerne Bank of Switzerland.  Two, destroy the Batcave.  Three, publicly admit you are Batman.  You have forty-eight hours.  Now for the fine print.  Don’t try to trace the League through that account.  It’s a dummy, and it’ll be closed as soon as you make the deposit or the forty-eight hours pass, whichever comes first.  Don’t go to the cops.  Not that you could, without giving your identity away.

“If my demands seem humiliating to you, they’re designed to be.  I was thinking of adding a fourth--dump the piece of trash you married--but I know what a fool you are when it comes to love.

“I’m through with half measures.  It’s time to bring you down once and for all.  What’s it going to cost you, baby or Batman?  Choose carefully.”

Both men sat in silence, trying to comprehend the venom spewing from the speakers.

Finally, Bruce removed the disc.  “I wouldn’t have guessed it was Talia.”

“That’s stooping rather low, even for her.”

He put his head in his hands.  “Can you really hate someone you used to love so much that you’d threaten an innocent child?  She’s pathological.”

“As well as unreasonable.”

“Oh, I’m not about to agree to her demands.  I’m picking option three--find her and get Helena back myself.  But first....”

“First you have to tell Mrs. Wayne.”

“She is going to be so angry.  It wouldn’t surprise me if she’s madder at me than at Talia.”
            “Why do you say that?”

“Because in her mind, I’ve ‘let’ Talia get away twice now.  If I’d just run her over or tossed her off the police building, she wouldn’t be around to do this.  So it’s my fault.”

“Surely she wouldn’t hold you responsible for Talia’s escapes.  The woman is almost as well-trained as you are.”

“Selina believes I still have a weak spot for Talia because we used to be lovers.  She thinks I can’t bring myself to treat her the same way I would Joker or Penguin.  The sad fact is, it’s probably true.  Or used to be.  I don’t beat up women.  But when I saw how ruthless and spiteful she’d become, I knew I had to see her as nothing but another master criminal.”

“Which is easier said than done, given your history.”

“Yeah.  Knowing it is one thing.  Doing it…well, my intentions are better than my follow-through.  I came close last time, but she kept me talking until her helicopter got there.  Selina’s forgiven me for it, but I don’t think she’s forgotten.  Now, I need to break this news to her.  If she wants to hold me responsible and call me every name in the book, I’ll just have to take my lumps.”

“They aren’t warranted, Bruce.”

“Even Batman has to eat humble pie now and then.”

“Speaking of food, let me get you some dinner first.  You’ll handle it better on a full stomach.”

 

As Bruce walked upstairs forty-five minutes later, a sense of sadness filled him.  “Something’s wrong when you’re more afraid of your wife than you are of the criminals,” he mused.

Gathering up his courage, he opened the bedroom door, walked in, and knelt beside the bed.

Selina was clutching Helena’s bunny and weeping.  Isis purred softly at her feet.

“Darling, I have some news.”

She rolled over and sat upright.  “My baby?”

He touched her hand.  “She’s alive.  That’s the good part.”

“What’s the bad?”

He swallowed hard.  “The kidnapper is Talia.”

What?”  Her affect changed from distraught to furious in an instant.  Agghh!”  She pushed him aside and bolted out of the room.

He followed as she raced down the stairs, stormed into the study, and opened the hidden entrance to the Batcave.  This he wasn’t expecting.

She headed straight for the sealed closet containing her Catsuit and whip.

He caught up as she began dressing.  “Selina, what are you doing?”

“What does it look like?  You know, you were absolutely right.  You told me when I hung this suit up that one day something would happen to make me put it on again.  And has it ever!”  She pulled the mask on and uncoiled her whip.  “That arrogant bitch thinks she can just take my daughter and get away with it, huh?  I’m gonna make her pay in blood.”

“What she’s done this time in inexcusable.

This time?”  She snapped the whip, slashing his shirt and lacerating his chest.  “Everything she’s done to me is inexcusable!  You’ve been way too soft on her, and you know it.  If you’d let me kill her when I had the chance--or had enough guts to do it yourself--Helena would be asleep in her crib right now.  If anything happens to her, I will never forgive you!”

He rubbed the stinging, bleeding cut along his ribs.

Recoiling her whip, she stalked out the Batmobile entrance.

“Where are you going?”

“To find my daughter.”

Our daughter.”

“I carried her, gave birth to her, and nursed her.  Sorry, but that’s a bit more of a bond.”

“Just how do you propose to find her?”

“By finding Talia and ripping her eyes out.”

“How will you find Talia?”

“I’ll follow her stench.  It’s time to kill the bitch.  Period.  And don’t give me your crap about revenge not being the way.  I’m getting my daughter back however I can.  If you get in my way, I might just kill you, too.”

He knew nothing he could say would calm her down.  “I’ll work on finding Helena from here.  I love her as much as you do, Selina.”

“Fine.  Do whatever you want.  Just leave me alone!  You’re in no position to tell a mother how to protect her child.”

 

Talia al Ghul finished off her after dinner drink.  Through the windows of a renovated apartment used by the League of Assassins as a safehouse, she watched clouds shroud the rising moon.

A man with a closely shaved head and scar on his left cheek walked up beside her.

“Yes, Carlo?”

“The courier reported in.  Your gift was delivered.”

She smiled.  “Thank you.”

“Those demands you made.  Are they…serious?”

Laughing, she said, “Not in the least.  I’m just twisting the knife deeper in my former beloved.  Don’t misunderstand--nothing would please me more than for him to meet those demands.  But he won’t, and I don’t expect him to.”

“Then why--”

“It’s part of the trap, Carlo.  When have you ever known me to make it easy on my adversaries?”

“Point taken.”

“Good.  Tomorrow evening, I’ll phone him and push the knife in a little further.”

“But won’t he trace the call?”

“I certainly hope so.”

 

Catwoman felt mad enough to spit fire.  That angry energy fueled her journey through the East End and mid-town sections.  Her associates and admirers were delighted to see her back, but she responded curtly and dismissively to just about everyone.  Nobody had any information on Talia, which only compounded the frustration.

Her short fuse finally detonated when she ran across Dieter Schmidt, a police informant, among other things, with previous ties to the League of Assassins.

“Dieter!”

Ducking between two buildings, he lit a cigarette and pretended he didn’t hear.

She followed and cracked her whip inches behind his ear.

Startled, he stopped walking and slowly turned around.  “Catwoman!  Uh, how’ve you been?”

“Terrible,” she sneered before slamming him into a wall.

“Hey, I didn’t do anything!”

With a sardonic smile, she leaned closer.  “Then you don’t need to worry, do you?”

He trembled as she playfully wrapped her whip around his neck.  Wh--why are you doing this?”

“Because I’m feeling super-bitchy tonight.”

“Please, don’t hurt me.  I--I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”

She unwound the whip, and he slid to the ground in relief.  “That’s my boy.  Time for a pop quiz.  Only one question, so as an associate of the League, you should--”

“A former associate.”

She cracked the whip at his feet.  “Don’t interrupt!  As an associate of the League, you should find it easy.  Where’s Talia?”

“Talia?”

“Don’t play dumb with me, Dieter!”  She whipped the cigarette out of his hand.  “Talia al Ghul kidnapped the Wayne baby.  She’s somewhere in the city, probably in a building owned by you scum.  Tell me where she is, or I’ll make hamburger out of your ugly face!”

“I swear, I don’t know.  I haven’t had any contact with the League in four years.  I’m trying to go straight.  You--you know that.  Haven’t I been cooperative with the cops?  I--I’ve tried to distance myself from the League.”

Snarling, she walked up and kicked him in the face.  “Looks like you failed the quiz.  Too bad.”

He held his bleeding, broken nose and moaned.  “Please, Catwoman!  If I knew where she was, don’t you think I’d tell you?”

“I’m not sure.  Devotion to the Wicked Witch seems a hard habit to break.  Tell me where she is.”

“For heaven’s sake, I don’t know!”

She kicked his crotch.  “You’re useless.  Get out of my sight.”

“I don’t understand.  Why are you so cruel to me?”

“I guess you’re just the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  She recoiled her whip and walked away.

 

Too angry to calm down and too stubborn to go home and tell Bruce she wasn’t having any luck either, she continued to wander the East End for another hour.   Finally, she sat down on a rooftop, tired and disheartened, and began to cry.

A shadowy figure crossed her field of vision.  As she turned to look, the figure did a backflip and landed right behind her.

“Cats?”

“Nikki?”

“Oh, Cats, you’re back!”  Nikki hugged her warmly.

Catwoman tried to smile.  “Yeah.  Just like I promised.”

“I’ve missed you so much.  How’s the little one?”

She sat back down and burst into tears again.

Nikki knelt beside her.  “Cats, what’s wrong?  I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“It’s not you.  It’s--it’s--my baby’s been kidnapped, and I can’t find her, and Batman doesn’t give a damn, and I hate him!”

Nikki hugged her again.  “I’m sorry.  You wanna talk?”

“Yeah,” she sniffed.  “You’re the only one I can talk to, Nik.”  She dried her eyes and took some deep breaths.  “You’re the only one who cares.”

Nikki wasn’t sure about that, so she just said, “I’m here for you.  Trouble me.”

“My baby girl was kidnapped by this evil bitch named Talia.  She and Batman used to be lovers years ago, and he can’t seem to grow a spine and do away with her.  She once kidnapped me and tried to blow me up.  Him, too.  She nearly ruined his reputation last year.  Remember the imposter?  And with all of that, what does the dork do?  He lets her outsmart him, and he stops me from killing her--twice!  He’s done more to enable her than he has to put her out of business.  He might as well be on her payroll!”

“What a terrible thing to have happen.  The misery you must be going through.  Strange.  The only missing baby I’ve heard about is Bruce Wayne’s.”

Catwoman realized she’d slipped up, and she covered her mouth.  “Oh, crap!”

It took Nikki all of three seconds to connect the dots, and she smiled reassuringly.  “I didn’t hear a thing you just said, Cats.”

“You’re the best friend, Nikki.  I wish I had more people like you in my life.”

“You’ve got Batman.”

She gave a feral hiss.  “With friends like him....”

“Cats, there’s something that’s been clear to me from the start.  He’s a hundred percent true blue.  You have a man who loves you to no end.  You should’ve seen how distraught he was that time you disappeared.  His words have been so caring and tender when he’s talked about you and the baby.  I don’t know who this Talia chick is or what she used to mean to him, but you are absolutely his one and only.”

“Then why is he such a moron about her?  Doesn’t he see that she’s every bit as toxic as the Joker?”

“Unless they’re sickos, guys don’t naturally get rough with women.  And if my understanding is correct, Batman doesn’t like to kill.  So when you put those two together....  There’s a reason he’s called the Dark Knight, not the Dark Ogre.  Except for this deal with Talia, hasn’t he been a sweetheart to you?”

“He’s treated me better than any guy I’ve known.”

“Cats, I’m not a big advice giver, but please, cut him some slack.  I’m sure he’s just as worried about the baby.”

“You know, I can’t stand it when other people are right.”  She gave Nikki a sisterly smile.  “He does love Helena, and I shouldn’t have made threats.”

“You threatened him?”

“I said I might kill him if he got in the way of me getting her back.”

“Ooh, Cats, that’s uncool.  Apology time.”

“When I’m calm enough to talk to him.  I’m too mad tonight.”

“Be mad if you want, but be nice.  The two of you should work together, not fight.”

“He told me the same thing.”  She sighed.  “I hate to say this, but I don’t trust him when it comes to dealing with Talia.  I think I should take care of her by myself.”

“Just be careful.  When your baby’s finally back home, you guys will have to live with whatever you do to your relationship now.”

 

Catwoman returned to the Batcave exhausted after eleven.  She felt somewhat better having talked with Nikki, but her fruitless search for Talia and Helena left her no less frustrated.

Bruce was checking real estate records on the computers when she walked in.  “Did you--”

“I don’t want to talk.  I’m going to bed.”

Well, he thought, at least she didn’t bite my head off again.

 

Working in the cave was the only thing that kept him sane.  But by the start of the third day, even it wasn’t helping.  His research reached a dead end.  He found no properties whose ownership could be directly tied to the League.  He failed to turn up any leads in the city, and he figured Selina had fared no better.

He replayed Talia’s CD a couple of times, hoping to hear some inadvertent clue in what she said or how she said it.  Two words kept sticking in his mind, so he copied those parts and electronically spliced them together.

“I engineered the whole thing...they’re designed to be.  I engineered the whole thing...they’re designed to be.”

“What an annoying voice!”

He turned around and saw Selina sitting with Isis on her lap at the top of the stairs.  “How long have you been there?”

“Long enough to hear that bitch drone on and on.  What an ego.”

“Running a large international terrorist organization will do that for you, I suppose.”

She came down and hugged him.  “I said some things last night I shouldn’t have.  I’m still very upset about the way you’ve dealt with her, but that doesn’t give me the right to treat you like an enemy.  I’m sorry.”

He gave her a quick kiss.  “Apology accepted.”

“Care to tell me why you’re torturing yourself listening to that jezebel?”

“I was looking for some hint that might point to her location.  However, I think I found something more valuable--the key to her mindset.”

“That’s one key I’d never want.”

“I’m serious.  Listen to these phrases one more time.”

“I engineered the whole thing...they’re designed to be.”

“It’s those two words, engineered and designed.  They’re awfully technical terms for discussing a kidnapping.  I think we’ve been tricked.  She’s not after money or my humiliation, she’s playing a carefully constructed game of psychological warfare.”

“You mean, manipulating us?”

“Exactly.”  He played more sections of the disc.

“I hope you’ve been freaking out about your daughter....I wanted to make you and your housecat squirm for a while....What’s it going to cost you, baby or Batman?”

“You’re right.  She sounds like Riddler, almost.”

“Muhammad Ali used to trap his opponents with a technique called ‘rope-a-dope.’  He’d let them exhaust themselves punching on him, then knock them out with a few quick jabs of his own.  I think Talia’s doing the same thing.  Look at what’s happened to us since Helena disappeared.  We’ve lost sleep, we’re emotional wrecks, we’ve spent our energy trying to find her, and we’ve turned against one another.”

“So she’s got us right where she wants us?”

“I’m afraid so.  Helena was the bait, and we bit.”

“You know, I really didn’t need any more reason to hate her guts.”  She struggled to remain calm.  “What do we do now?”

“Nothing.  We’ve done what she counted on.  We wait for her to spring the trap, then do something she isn’t counting on: turn the trap inside out.”

 

Talia checked the time.  “Almost six.  Now to make the call.”

Carlo put his hand over the cell phone before she could pick it up.  “A moment, Madame.  Are you sure it’s wise to do this?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Don’t forget who you’re dealing with.”

“You make it sound like he’s invincible.  He’s a man, Carlo, just like you.  He’s flawed.  He has weaknesses, ones we are exploiting.  I know him.  I know how he thinks, how he acts.  I’ve studied him and fought him.  The only thing I don’t understand is what he sees in that alley cat he married.”

“It wasn’t like he dumped you for her.  His profile mentions numerous romantic relationships.”
            “Carlo, look at my watch.  It’s a Patek Philippe, the epitome of Swiss craftsmanship.  Do you think, if I lost it, I would ever be satisfied with a cheap American digital watch?  I am the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul, a visionary man who understood what a sewer this world has become.  Bruce had me, and I had him.  We could have been the new Adam and Eve, ruling over a cleansed Earth.  Instead, he rejected me and thumbed his nose at Ra’s.  So I rejected him.  While Nyssa and I are changing history, he marries a woman who runs around with a whip and defends prostitutes.  Do you know how insulting that is?”

“But you said you rejected him.”

“I did.  Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t at least reconsider if he came begging on his hands and knees, repented, and swore allegiance to the League.”

“Not a likely scenario.”

“No.”  She picked up the phone.  Which is why we’re doing it this way.

 

Bruce was alone in the Batcave when the phone rang from upstairs.  “Yes, Alfred?”

“Miss Talia for you, sir.”

“Patch it through.”  He hurriedly activated his call tracing equipment.

“Bruce, you have twenty-four hours left to meet my demands if you want to see your daughter again.”

“How thoughtful of you to remind me, Talia.”

“Been having fun the past three days?”

“No, they’ve actually been a living hell for us.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“You always were the kind one, weren’t you?  Listen, Talia, why do you keep harassing us?  Don’t you and your sister have something more important to do, like staging a coup in some oil-rich country?”

“Oh, you peeked.  I’m serious, Bruce.  If you want your daughter back alive, you know what to do.”

He heard a click, and the line went dead.  Looking over at the tracer’s computer screen, he saw a flashing red dot in the uptown area and smiled.  “Got it!”

 

“What’s next, Madame?”

She poured herself a glass of brandy.  “We count the minutes until his arrival.  Have your men placed the explosives?”

“They’re primed and ready to detonate.  We even put one under the crib.”

“Good.  The last thing we need is another Batman protégé running around.”

 

Bruce used GPS to identify the exact coordinates of Talia’s phone signal.  By overlaying a property map, he pinpointed her hiding place: the Windermere apartment building.  A simple search of leasing records gave him the names of the renters--all two hundred of them.  “That was the easy part.”

On an enlarged CAD map, he plotted the coordinates of the building’s corners and compared them to the ones for Talia’s phone.  Immediately he ruled out two thirds of the units based on their location.

He cross-referenced the remaining names with other public records, searching for matches that would prove the people actually existed.  Every name checked out except for two: Argus Hall, apartment 322, and Percy Conrad, apartment 421.  He studied them on the screen, then nodded.  Taking a piece of paper, he scribbled down the address.

            Selina joined him.  “Who was on the phone?”

            “Talia.”

            She called?  What for?”

            “To set off the trap.  Oh, she acted like she was merely turning up the heat, but she wanted me to trace the call.  So I did.”

She picked up his note.  “Is this it, Windermere Apts. # 322, 1989 Kensington Avenue?”

He nodded.

“Wow, how did you find it so fast?”

“Basic detective work.  The giveaway was the renter’s name, Argus Hall.”

“Who’s Argus Hall?  I’ve never heard of him.”

“It’s an anagram for Ra’s al Ghul.”

“She sure is making this easy for you.”

“If you want to trap something, you have to get it inside.”

She picked up her Catsuit to put it on.  “Okay, let’s go.”

“Whoa, not so fast.  We aren’t doing this alone.  We’re going to need police help, since a child’s involved.  It’s too risky for Helena if we just charge in.  Plus, Talia’s probably got heavily armed goons ready to kill me.  It is a trap, after all.”

“Bruce!”

“No.  Gordon’s men need to take the lead.  He has trained hostage rescue officers.”

Still fuming, she thought for a moment and said, “If you insist,” before zipping up her outfit and putting on her mask.

“Thank you.”

She saw his utility belt laying on the worktable and casually stepped over to it.  Making sure he wasn’t watching, she took a sphere of knockout gas and concealed it under her belt.  She walked to a nearby equipment cabinet and palmed a small emergency breathing unit.

“I’m glad you understand.  I know how much we both want Helena back.”

“Yoo-hoo.”

He turned around.  “My, what have we here?”

She licked her lips and walked seductively toward him.  “Meow,” she purred.

“I’d almost forgotten how incredibly sexy you are in black.”

Putting her arms around him, she gave him a long, sensual kiss.  “Forgive me, darling.”

“For what?”

“For this.”  She threw the silver ball down, then put the breathing unit in her mouth as a yellow gas cloud swirled around them.

Coughing and gasping, he dropped to the floor and lost consciousness.

“I’m sorry, Bruce, but you know how it is.  A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do.”

She picked up her whip and a few more small devices, then hopped on Robin’s motorcycle.  Its engine rumbled to life, and she streaked down the drive path out into the night.

 

Fifteen minutes later, she arrived at the Windermere building and parked on the street.  After climbing the stairs, she located apartment 322 and kicked the door open.

Two thugs confronted her.  She sent one retreating with a lash from her whip, then spun around and high kicked the other’s face.  The first man came up behind her with a small club and smacked the back of her head, sending her down to the carpet.

When she opened her eyes and tried to move, she heard a click and felt something pressing into her back.

“Get up,” Carlo ordered.  “Slowly.”

She got to her feet, and the musclemen restrained her.

Talia emerged from the bedroom.  “Well, if it isn’t Puss-n-Boots.  I was expecting Batman.”

Catwoman gave her a contemptuous look.  “Never send a father to do a mother’s job.”

“I expect he’ll arrive soon.  Tie her up and wait.  We can kill the whole family at once.”

As the thugs gagged Catwoman and bound her wrists, anxiety gnawed at her.  She wondered if she had just made things worse.

Talia pulled Carlo aside and whispered, “Tell the men to let her escape after ten minutes.  Make it look good.  When she’s gone, turn out the lights and wait for Batman.  Let him come in, then go down the fire escape and detonate the explosives.”

“What about her?”

“Oh, I’ve got something special in mind for the little kitty.”  She walked back into the living room and picked up her car keys.  “Meet me at the airstrip when you’re finished here.  I’ll have the plane ready.”

With great consternation, Catwoman realized her nemesis was going to get away.  Again.

 

Bruce awoke with a bad headache.  Shaking off the aftereffects of the gas, he looked around the Batcave.  Neither Selina nor Tim’s bike were there, and he knew she’d gone after Talia.  He quickly donned his Batsuit and made a phone call.

“Gordon.”

“It’s Batman.  I know where the Wayne baby is.  Send some men to meet me at the Windermere Apartments on Kensington, unit 322.  Expect armed resistance.”

 

Catwoman had extended her claws and was gradually cutting through the ropes that held her.  Finally feeling them release, she reached up and removed the gag.

The men guarding her were busy watching a basketball game, so she figured she could slip out fairly easily.  The only question was what to do next.  She longed to hold Helena, but she would have to defeat three armed men first.  And unlike Batman, her Catsuit was not armored.  Plus, if she did stay, Talia would certainly escape.  If she went after Talia, Helena would still be at risk.

But, she told herself, Batman knows where Helena is.  I’m the only one who can catch Talia.  Praying for her daughter to remain safe a little longer, she decided to go after her tormenter.  Taking a deep breath, she ran for the door.

“Stop her!” Carlo yelled.

The two thugs lunged after her.  She smashed the door into the first one’s face and gave the second a hard crotch kick. As they fell moaning, she raced across the hall and sprinted down the stairs.

After helping his men up, Carlo pulled back the drapes and watched her red motorcycle zoom away and turn onto Montgomery Avenue.  He opened his cell phone.  “She’s on the way.”

Talia smiled behind the wheel of her roadster.  “Good.  Very good.”

 

The sun set as she headed for the airfield just southwest of Gotham, and it wasn’t long before she caught sight of Catwoman in her rear mirror.  After streaking up from out of nowhere, the motorcycle settled in behind her black BMW.

She activated her phone and called 911.

“Gotham City Police, Sergeant Lassiter speaking.  What is your emergency?”

In a deep New England accent, she said, “I live in the Windermere apartments on Kensington, and I swear I saw Catwoman with the missing Wayne baby.”

“Are you positive it’s Helena Wayne?”

“If it wasn’t her, it’s her twin.  She was in a pink sleeper with ducks on it, just like I heard on the news.”

“What’s your name?”

“Sheila Barnes.  I live in apartment 324.”

“Where did you see the baby?”

“She was carrying it into apartment 322.”

“Is Catwoman still there?”

“No.  I followed her down to the street.  She got on a red motorcycle and headed south on Montgomery.”

“How long ago?”

“About fifteen minutes.”

“Did you see the license number?”

“No, I’m afraid I didn’t.”

“Thank you, ma’am.  We’ll get on it.”

 

Trying to keep an element of surprise, Batman scaled the fire escape and crashed through the darkened apartment’s window.

He landed on Carlo’s henchmen, who scored a few good punches before he kicked them away and stood up.  Carlo fired at the Bat emblem on his chest, but the shots ricocheted with no effect.

Batman slugged one goon in the ribs and flung him out the window onto the fire escape.  The second one charged at him with a knife.  He stopped him with a solid belly kick and gave him a backhanded fist to the nose.  The thug knocked over a loveseat and hit the floor.

Carlo pointed his gun at Batman’s eyes.

Three cops kicked in the apartment door.  “Freeze!  Gotham PD!”

Carlo turned toward them, and they opened fire.  He took four bullets and collapsed across the couch.

The goon on the fire escape drew his Glock and aimed at the officers.

Batman threw a Batarang, which hit him in the mouth.  The impact knocked him off the landing, and he hit the sidewalk three floors below with a thud.

One of the cops turned on the lights.

“Batman, I’m Sergeant Tejeda.  Is the baby here?”

“I don’t know.  I hadn’t gotten past the welcoming committee before you arrived.”

Holding their weapons up, Tejeda and Officer Kowalski slowly opened both bedroom doors.  The master was empty.  The second contained a small crib.

Batman eased past them and looked at his daughter for the first time in three days.  He couldn’t resist picking her up and cradling her as she slept.  He found it almost impossible to keep back the joyous tears.

“Be careful, Batman.  There’s something under the crib,” Tejeda cautioned.

“Guys,” Corporal Harris said, “I think I see two bombs under the living room furniture.  And one more in the kitchen.”

“Looks like another under the crib,” Tejeda announced.  “Okay, let’s get out.  Harris, call for a bomb disposal unit.  Also, we need to evacuate the building.”

“I’ll take her, Batman,” Kowalski said.

Most reluctantly, the Dark Knight handed Helena to him for safekeeping.

An officer named Greene appeared in the apartment doorway as everyone was coming out.  “Sergeant, we just got word that one of the neighbors positively ID’d the kidnapper.  It’s Catwoman, and her motorcycle just turned onto Reservoir Parkway.”

Batman looked at him.  “It’s a setup.  The real kidnapper is Talia al Ghul.  If you go after Catwoman, you’ll be making an awful mistake.”

“I’m only reporting what the captain told us on the radio.  Maybe they were working together.”

You have no idea how absurd that idea is, Batman thought.  “Please tell Commissioner Gordon I’m sure it’s Talia.”

“Okay.  It may not make any difference.”

Batman leaped out the window and flew half a block to the Batmobile.  With tires squealing, he roared down the street and headed west.  He prayed he would be in time to keep the daughter of Ra’s from achieving a diabolical victory.

 

He knew Catwoman was probably following Talia and Talia was heading out of town.  His best chance to catch them was at the western end of the city’s reservoir, where Reservoir Parkway merged into the Gotham Freeway.

Unfortunately for him, the police had the same idea.  The Batmobile screeched to a halt several yards behind their intersection barricade.  He jumped out of the car and ran to Gordon, who was looking east through binoculars.

“Hello, Batman.  Sky One just spotted Catwoman coming this way chasing a BMW.”

“Commissioner, that’s Talia al Ghul’s car.  I have proof she’s the real kidnapper.”

“I know Catwoman’s your good friend, but we got an eyewitness report from a woman in the apartment building.  I’m sorry.”

“She’s lying.  It’s a frame-up.  What phone number did the call come from?”

“I don’t know.  We verified that the woman lives in the apartment two doors away from where you found the baby.”

“Did anybody actually talk to her?”

“No, they were too busy evacuating everyone because of the bombs.”

“Please, check the number.  An innocent woman’s life is at stake.”

Gordon took note of the desperation in Batman’s voice and picked up his radio.  Torrelli, do you have the phone number that called in the Wayne baby sighting?”

“It’ll take just a second to find, sir.”

Batman said, “See if it’s 555-9093.”

“Looks like a cell number: 555-9093.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.”  Gordon looked at Batman.  “What’s going on?”

“It’s Talia’s phone.  She’s trying to frame Catwoman for the kidnapping.”

“Why?”

“It would take too long to explain.”

“I’m going to need more than just your word this time, Batman.”

 

The road narrowed to two lanes where it traversed the top of the dam.  With other traffic gone, Catwoman caught up to Talia’s car and pulled in front.  She took the tire spikes she snatched from the Batcave and sprinkled them on the road behind her.

Talia didn’t have time to swerve, and the spikes shredded her tires.  Her car skidded to a jarring stop two-thirds of the way across the dam.  When she got out, she spotted a pumping station tower about a hundred feet farther on and ran toward it.

Catwoman dismounted from the bike and charged after her.  “Oh, no you don’t!  You’re not getting away this time.”  She made a leaping tackle and brought her down.

Talia threw her off and kept her on the ground with a pair of savage kicks.

The blows only fueled Catwoman’s anger.  She jumped up and sliced through Talia’s sleeve with her claws.

Aagh!”  Talia clutched her bleeding arm.  Enraged, she lashed out with a strong mix of punches and jabs, knocking her opponent to the pavement.  As soon as Catwoman was down, she dashed for the tower.  She could see the police roadblock a hundred yards ahead.

She scrambled up the ladder to the small second level pump control room and locked the door.  There she hoped to hide until help arrived.  She tried phoning Carlo, but got no answer.  Gazing out the windows, she took a better look at the police presence.  Five squad cars, plus a SWAT carrier.

“Getting out won’t be easy, but you’ve been in tight spots before.”  She rang Carlo’s number again.  “Where the hell is he?”

The sound of breaking glass startled her.  Catwoman punched through the window at the top of the door, reached in, and opened the lock.

 

“She’s inside the pumping station,” Gordon radioed.  “She followed another woman, identity unknown, possibly Talia al Ghul.  Get ready to move in and surround it.”

A loud roar drowned out his next words.  He turned to see the Batmobile make splinters of the barricades and speed off.

 

Catwoman and Talia eyed each other like two scorpions in a bottle.

Talia smiled.  “Only one of us is getting out of here.”

“At most.”  Catwoman relocked the door.  “I’m willing to die for my daughter, Talia.  What would you die for?  Or would you?”

Talia began to panic.  She wasn’t sure if the woman was bluffing, or if she had seriously underestimated her.

“Looks like the scars have healed since our last encounter.”

“Time and cosmetic surgery can do wonders.”

“Too bad I have to mess up your face again.”  Catwoman uncoiled her whip and struck Talia’s cheek, drawing blood.

Talia yelped, then flung a knife.

Catwoman dodged the blade and leaped up on the control console.  She kicked Talia under the chin, knocking her into a desk.

Talia lost her balance and fell.  Catwoman took advantage and lashed her with the whip repeatedly, tattering her clothes and staining them red.

“Catwoman, this is the Gotham Police,” a SWAT officer called through his bullhorn.  “We have you surrounded.  Surrender, and you will not be harmed.”

“What are they talking about?”

Talia managed to stand up and give her an evil grin despite the pain.  “I called them and said you were the kidnapper.”

Instead of panicking her, it only made Catwoman angrier, if that were possible.  “You stinking, conniving bitch!”  She threw herself at Talia and yanked her down by the hair.

The cramped room allowed little maneuverability, and Catwoman’s fury was overwhelming, even for one as well-trained in personal combat as Ra’s’ daughter.  Two years of pent-up rage and frustration poured out in a storm of punching, kicking, and clawing.

Talia could barely strike back and realized too late how badly she had misjudged Catwoman’s character and abilities.

A small explosion blew the door open, and Batman entered.  He looked over the bloody mess that was Talia, then turned to Catwoman, with blood on her face, claws, and suit.  “I rescued Helena, and she’s with the police.  You don’t have to do this now.”

“If I let her live, she’ll only come back again to torment us.  You know she will.”

Out of breath and weak with cracked ribs, one stabbed eye, numerous bleeding gashes, and a broken nose, Talia summoned what little strength she had left and stood up.  She hoped that, like before, he wouldn’t allow Catwoman to finish her off.  “Thank you, Bruce.  She was--she was about to kill me.  You don’t believe in that kind of justice, do you?”

Catwoman glared at him.  “She’s toying with your head again!”

“You crossed the line a long time ago, Talia, but I was too hesitant.  Not anymore.  Any merciful feelings I had vanished when you stole Helena.”

Frantic, she begged, “Please, Bruce.  You can’t let her do this to me.  It’s wrong.”

“You have the audacity to tell me what’s wrong?” he growled.  “Let’s look at some of the charges you’re facing.  Attempted capital murder.  Felony assault.  Kidnapping.  Destruction of property.  Unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.  Conspiracy to commit murder.  The list goes on.  Am I being clear?”

“Very.”  She pulled a throwing star from her pocket and hurled it at him, but he deflected it with his cape.

Catwoman kicked her in the chest.

Stumbling back, she bumped into a small stairway and staggered up to the observation platform outside.

Batman moved to follow.

Catwoman put her claws to his chest.  “No.  Stay back.”

 

The police searchlight’s glare caught both women on the platform.

Gordon peered with his binoculars.  “It is Talia.  And she looks like she’s had the crap beaten out of her.”

“Sir, Batman was right.  The phone number that made the 911 call is registered to a Talia Head.”

Gordon picked up the radio.  “SWAT team, do not fire except on my signal.  I repeat, do not open fire until I give the word.”

 

Her body wracked with incredible pain, Talia propped herself against the railing and took a small dart gun from her boot leg.

“You just don’t give up, do you?” Catwoman asked.

“It’s not in my nature,” Talia panted.

“Tell me something.  Why do you hate me so much?  Why did you want to steal my daughter?  I didn’t even know you before you tried to kill me at the wedding.  What could I possibly have done to you?”

“You fell in love with Bruce.  The friend of my enemy is my enemy.  Rather than presiding over the League with me, he thought it more fun to play cops and robbers dressed like a Bat.  What a waste.  He counted himself among the League’s enemies, so now we treat him like one.  And unfortunately for you, kitty, you’re on that list, too.”

Batman appeared, ready to throw a Batarang and knock Talia’s gun away.

Talia saw him and aimed at Catwoman’s face.

 

“Commissioner, this is SWAT Three.  I have a clear shot at Catwoman.  Over.”

“Negative, SWAT Three.  Take out Talia if she doesn’t drop the gun.”  Gordon picked up the bullhorn.  “Talia, this is Commissioner Gordon.  Lower your weapon and surrender peacefully.”

 

“Time is short.”  Ra’s daughter squeezed the trigger.

Catwoman flung her whip, which wrapped itself around Talia’s wrist.

The dart gun discharged, ripping a hole in Batman’s cape and cutting his left arm.

SWAT Three fired a single round from his sniper rifle.

Hit in the lower back, Talia jerked and tumbled over the railing.  Catwoman was still holding the whip and nearly fell, too.  Batman rushed up to steady her.

Talia now hung high above the water, suspended only by the cat-o’-nine-tails entangling her wrist.

Batman shot a grappling hook into the concrete platform and tied its high-strength line to the handle just behind Catwoman’s hands.

 “Hang on!  We’ll pull you up.”  Catwoman gripped the whip like a vise.

“Don’t bother.  I’d rather take my chances in the afterworld with Ra’s than be imprisoned by your corrupt, decaying society.  Let go.  I know you want to.  It’s alright, really.  Better that it ends this way.  Your hands are clean.”

Catwoman froze and could not do it.

Talia noticed.  She reached into her belt, withdrew a small blade, and sliced through the leather strands.  Closing her eyes, she plummeted a hundred feet into the reservoir.

Batman and the exhausted Catwoman stared at each other, not knowing what to say.

 

It did not take long for the police to recover Talia’s body.  Batman watched as they pulled her from the water.  Her eyes were shut, and a peaceful look covered her now-clean face.  Even scarred and in death, she retained a certain beauty.

The paramedics put her on a gurney and covered it with a sheet.  Shaking his head, Batman walked away toward the Batmobile.

Catwoman sat on the fender, emotionally reeling and pondering the turn of events.

“Why didn’t you let go of the whip?”

“I don’t know.  Everything happened so fast.  All I remember is thinking I couldn’t kill someone who can’t fight back.  Isn’t that a strange thing to think about her?”

“Not really.  It’s your built-in sense of compassionate justice and sanctity of life.  After all your anger had vented, in the critical moment, you knew you shouldn’t kill her.”

“I guess so.”

“Since we’ve been together, the only times you have killed--the Snowbirds and Fu Manchu--were in response to immediate threats against your life.”

“I’m still in shock.  Can we go get Helena?”

 

To no one’s surprise, the Waynes were “in seclusion” during the days after the kidnapping, according to Alfred’s official press statement.  More than just an understandable alibi for avoiding the public eye, it gave them freedom to solve the case in their own way.

When they returned home, they got cleaned up just in time for the police to arrive with Helena and end their seclusion.  She had been checked out by a doctor and was pronounced none the worse for wear.

Selina held her tightly and cried a flood of joyous tears.  “Thank you so much,” she told the officers.

Commissioner Gordon, who insisted on being part of the happy family reunion, said, “A lot of the thanks should go to Batman and Catwoman.  They tracked down Talia and your little girl.”

“Why did she do it?” Bruce asked.

“I’m not entirely sure.  Batman said she was still quite the jealous ex-girlfriend.  I guess having a baby just rubbed salt into the wound.  I’m sorry she died before we could get to her.”

“At least she won’t bother us anymore.”

“Yes.  Well, we should be going.  I know you and Selina want to make up for lost time with Helena.”

Bruce looked at his daughter and smiled.  “The good part about this is, she won’t remember a thing.”

 

As she returned to bed early the next morning after nursing Helena, Selina accidentally woke Bruce.   They decided to make love, then cuddled and listened to the rain outside.

He kissed her forehead.  “Two days ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do this.”

“Two days ago, I could barely stand to be around you.”

“I owe you a big apology.  I wasn’t as diligent as I should’ve been about Talia, and I didn’t see it until it was almost too late.  I’m very sorry for the physical and emotional harm she did to us because of that.”

“I learned something, too.  For all my angry words about killing her, I realized I’m just not a killer.  You were right…only in self-defense.  But I can still kick the stuffing out of somebody if I need to.”

“Although Talia’s gone, the threats are not.  There may even be others against our family.”

“Which means Helena could still be in danger.”

“Unfortunately.  But I think the best way to keep her safe is to continue working on making Gotham safe.”

“Yeah.  It’s sort of ironic.  She’s the reason I put my Catsuit in the closet to begin with.  Now, she’s the reason I took it out.  And it looks like it’s staying out.”

“So Catwoman is back?”

“Mm-hmm.  Back in black,” she said slowly.