SECRET IDENTITY CRISIS

 

            “Here we are, sir.  Twenty-eight thirteen Oakwood.”

            “Thank you, Alfred.”

            “Shall I wait for you?”

            “Yeah.  I shouldn’t be more than thirty minutes.”

            “I brought along the morning paper to occupy myself.  I hope it goes well.”

            “I’m not sure who this is going to be more awkward for, him or me.”  Bruce Wayne got out of the limousine, closed the door, and nervously walked toward the front door of the Drake house.

            Only one day had passed since Jack Drake’s funeral, and he wondered if it might be too soon.  Or was that just an excuse to avoid the unpleasant reality?  Still feeling guilty that Jack and the others were killed at his Man of the Year dinner, he hoped the visit would soothe his conscience as well as help Drake’s son deal with the loss.  Tim was, after all, the only orphan created by Joker’s murderous escapade.

            Half a minute after he rang the bell, a dark-haired woman in her fifties opened the front door.  “Yes?”

            “I’d like to see Tim, if I could.”

            “Are you with Social Services?”

            “Uh, no.  I’m Bruce Wayne.”

            Her eyes got wide.  “Oh, my gosh!  The Bruce Wayne?  Come right in.  I’m Marie McDougal.  I live next door, and my husband and I have been looking after him.  A case worker from Social Services is supposed to come talk to him about his options.”

            “How is he?”

            “Shaken up and a bit lost, as you can imagine.”  She took him down a hallway and knocked on the second bedroom door.  “Tim, a gentleman’s here to see you.”

            “I’m not interested,” came the muffled reply.

            “It’s Bruce Wayne.”

            In two seconds, Tim had the door wide open.  “No way!  Bruce Wayne?”

            Bruce looked him over.  He was seventeen and on the thin side, with a mop of black hair.  He could see the resemblance to Jack.  “May I come in?”

            Tim stared in awe, as if he were meeting a favorite movie star.  He extended his hand.  “Please.  I’m so glad to meet you, Mr. Wayne.  I’m Tim Drake.”

            “Hello, Tim.  Just call me Bruce.”

            The young man ushered him in and closed the door.  “Let me turn up the lights a little.”

            “You like being in the dark?”

            “Sometimes.  I mean, it’s better when I do a lot of computer work.”

            Bruce gazed around at his various computers and electronic gadgets.  It reminded him of nothing so much as a cluttered, scaled-down version of the Batcave.  He also noticed how many clippings, articles, and pictures of Batman were lying around and mounted on the wall.

            Tim knocked a stack of DVDs and CDs off the bed to make room.  “Sorry the place is such a mess.  I usually don’t have visitors, except for a friend or two.”

            While Tim took the computer chair, Bruce sat on the bed.  He searched for the right words to begin.  “I guess you know why I’m here.”

            “Dad.”

            “Yes.  Tim, I am deeply sorry for your father’s death.  He was a good man.”

            Tim nodded.  “Uh-huh.  I can’t believe he’s gone.  A guy shouldn’t lose both parents before he gets out of high school.”

            “I lost mine before I was ten.  I know exactly how you feel.”

            “I was wishing I could’ve gone to the dinner with him.  Now, I’m kinda glad I didn’t, but I sure wish I could see him just one more time to say ‘I love you.’”

            “This is doubly hard for me, because I feel partly responsible.  If I hadn’t said yes to the whole award thing, maybe...maybe you’d still have him with you.”

            “Mr. Wayne--I mean, Bruce, don’t do that to yourself.  No way it’s your fault.  I put the blame right where it belongs, on the Joker.”

            “Well, yes, but if--”

            “No, he’s entirely responsible.  You did everything you could to make sure it wasn’t worse.  You saved so many people.”

            Bruce frowned.  “How do you mean?”

            “Well, you’re Batman!  You rescued everybody that Joker hadn’t already killed.”

            Laughing, Bruce asked, “Me?  Batman?  You must be kidding.  I’m flattered that you’d mention me in the same breath.  What ever gave you that idea?”

            “You did.  I’ve followed the careers of Batman and Robin for years.  It’s been one of my hobbies, and I started trying to figure out who they were.  Not just anyone could be Batman.  It had to be someone with a lot of money, who was still fairly young.  They also needed a strong motive.  Your parents’ murders put you at the top of my list.”

            “I have a corporation and a charitable foundation to run.  There’s no way I’d have time to roam around at night chasing criminals.”

            “Well, I didn’t expect you to admit it.  That’s a good alibi, though.  However, we both know Wayne Enterprises and the Wayne Foundation are primarily run by a man named Lucius Fox.”

“Tim, you’re in school.  Between tests and book reports and hanging out with friends, when do you have time to do all this research on how my businesses are run?”

“I told you, it’s my hobby.  Besides, school’s a breeze.  I have a lot of free time.”

“Obviously.”

“Take a look at this.”  He located a file on his computer and opened it.  “I took photos of you and Batman and created 3-D models of your faces.  I picked up an old version of the Identiscan face recognition software on the Internet and ran an analysis on the face models.  Since it was based on pictures and not actual scans, it was off a little, but it still showed a ninety-seven percent chance that the models are of the same person.  And when I superimpose them, the mouth and chin match up almost perfectly.”

            Bruce didn’t know whether to be impressed or worried that a teenage whiz kid could blow his cover so easily.

            “I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time to show you this, though I sure wish it was under happier circumstances.”

            “You have a very methodical mind, as well as a vivid imagination.”  He wasn’t going to concede anything.

            “Bruce, I want to be the new Robin and help you catch the Joker for killing Dad.”

            “Whoa, whoa, whoa!  You showed me all this because you want a way to go after Joker?”

            “You said it yourself.  Dad was a good man, and he didn’t deserve to die like that.  I want justice for him.  It’s the least I can do.”

            “Tim, revenge is not a good motivation for anything.  Believe me, I know.  It lowers you to the level of the people you’re trying to get back at.  I see it all the time in business.  Someone gets passed over for a promotion, or a big contract falls through.  They stew over it and find a way to retaliate.  Sometimes they fail and lose everything.  Sometimes they succeed, and they’re left empty.  Their whole life has been focused on bringing the other guy down, and once he falls, they don’t know what to do next.”

            “You can’t tell me you didn’t want to take out the guy who killed your parents.”

            “I was eight years old.  I felt scared and confused.  It wasn’t until much later that I dealt with my feelings about him.  By then, I wasn’t angry at him specifically, just the whole culture of violence and hopelessness which had taken root in Gotham.”

            “Is that when you became Batman?”

            “That’s when I started the Wayne Foundation to make charitable grants and offer people some hope.”

            “You aren’t going to admit that you’re Batman, are you?”

            “I already told you, that’s a ludicrous idea.  You could get both of us in a lot of trouble if you start spreading rumors.”

            “It’s not a rumor, Bruce.  Look at the Identiscan pictures.  The program doesn’t lie.”

            He had never found himself in such a predicament before.  The boy wasn’t going to stop pushing for him to reveal his identity.  He took offense at the implicit blackmail in his request to be the “new Robin.”  He had absolutely no desire to mentor another apprentice and train him as he did with Dick Grayson.  However, he didn’t feel like he had much choice.

            After a tense silence, he stood up.  “Why don’t you come stay at Wayne Manor for a few days?  A change of scenery might do you some good.”

            Tim’s face lit up.  “Wow!  Do you mean it?”

            “Sure.  It’ll give you time to clear your head and work though things about your dad’s death.  You can read in the library, use the swimming pool, work out in the gym, whatever you want.”

“Awesome!  Thanks, Bruce.”

“I’ll tell Mrs. McDougal how to get in touch in case of an emergency.  My driver’s waiting outside.”

           

            Like the proverbial kid in a candy store, Tim was blown away by the size and luxurious appointments of Wayne Manor.  Bruce and Alfred gave him a quick tour, and he could not cease being impressed.

            Afterward, they stopped to rest in the study.  As Tim pored over the selection of books, Selina came strolling in.

            “Darling, I--oh, I didn’t know we had company.”

            Bruce smiled.  “This is Tim Drake.  I invited him to stay with us for a little while.  Tim, I’d like you to meet my wife, Selina.”

            “Hello.”

            “Tim, I’m so sorry about your father.  I was there, and....”  She shook her head.  “It was just awful.”

            “Thank you,” he replied nervously.

            “I told him to take advantage of our hospitality and use the days to unwind a bit.  Maybe think about the future.”

            “I hope you like it here,” she said.  “It’s a big place, but it can be homey in its own way.”

            “What’s not to like?  I mean, who wouldn’t want to hang out with Batman and Catwoman?”

            Her jaw dropped, and her eyes became like saucers.  “Bruce!  What on earth have you been telling him?”

            “Nothing.  He’s...very bright.  Too bright for his own good, perhaps.”

            “Bruce is going to make me the new Robin.  Aren’t you?”

            He rolled his eyes.  “It looks like my only options are to kill him or adopt him.”

            “Bloodstains are so hard to get out of carpet.  Adopt him.”

            Bruce snickered.

            “Seriously, with me pregnant, it might not be a bad idea for you to have a full-time partner again.  He’d be more available to help you than I would, even if I wasn’t expecting.”

            “Excuse me for intruding, sir,” Alfred said as he walked in, “but I couldn’t help overhearing.  I have to agree with Mrs. Wayne and Master Tim.  Crime is on the upswing, and while I am loathe to give him credit for anything, Joker clearly raised the ante with his latest stunt.  Under these circumstances, two heads are most definitely better than one.”

            “Right now, it’s three against one.  Again.  I’m not going to win here, am I?”

“No,” they replied in unison.

“Okay, I concede.  My own preferences aside, it’s probably in Gotham’s best interest to have as many trained crimefighters as possible.”

            “So I get to be Robin?”

            “Yes.  Alfred, contact my lawyers and Social Services.  Since he’s seventeen, it’ll be easier all the way around if I just petition to make him my ward, instead of going for adoption.”

            “I’ll phone them right away, sir.”

            “As for you,” he looked Tim in the eyes, “you’re going to be put through a grueling physical, psychological, and intellectual training regimen for at least six months, probably more.  You’ll quickly lose any romantic notions about fighting crime that you’ve acquired.  This will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.  Think of it as boot camp for one.  You’ll cry.  You’ll want to quit.  You’ll hate me and call me every name in the book.  However, if you stick with it, you’ll come out the other side a better and stronger person in many ways.  You may be a skinny, geeky kid now, but when I finally allow you to wear the suit, you’ll be a disciplined man.  Can you handle it?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “That’s the only way you’ll ever get a shot at bringing down Joker.  But even when you do, you’ll do it my way.  You will learn the rules, you will follow the rules, and you will not question the rules.  Is that clear?”

            Tim nodded.

            “There’s no going back.  You know too much.  So let’s get started.  Rule number one: keep your mouth closed.”

            “Bruce, I’ll earn your trust, I promise.  Remember, I’m doing it for Dad.  I can’t let him down, either.”

            “I’m going to grab something to eat, then I’ll give you a tour of the Batcave.  Are you hungry?”

            “Yeah.”

            “I’ll get you a sandwich, too,” he said as he walked out of the study.

            Tim looked at Selina.  “What did I just get myself into?”

            She chuckled.  “Put it this way.  You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

             

TEN MONTHS LATER...

 

            Becoming an early riser was the biggest adjustment for Selina in having a baby.  Yet as she rocked two month-old Helena to sleep after nursing her at five a.m., she felt such a sense of inner peace.  This is my life now, she thought.  The contented look on her daughter’s cherubic face only confirmed it.

            Sitting by the rocker, Isis purred softly.  The black Persian cat was a congratulatory gift from Nikki Callison and a sentimental nod to her past.

            After gently placing Helena back in the crib, she picked up Isis and walked out of the nursery.  The Catsuit and whip were like a distant memory in her new world of motherhood.

She scratched Isis’ ears.  “You’re the only Cat woman around here now, sweetie.”

 

            Across town, the sound of a cell phone woke a weary traveler in room 216 of the Gotham Suites.  Grabbing the phone, he answered, “Hello?”

“I haven’t heard from you, so I thought I’d call.”

“Do you have any idea what time it is over here?  My flight was delayed in landing, and I didn’t get to the hotel until almost midnight.  I’ll call you back later after I get some sleep.”

“We need to discuss things.  It’s important.”

“I don’t care how important it is.  Remember, you hired me.”

 

            When Bruce finished his customary hour-long workout in the Batcave, he saw Tim at the computer bank.  “Morning.”

            No response.

            “Good morning, Tim.”

            “Oh, hi, Bruce.  Sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

            “What’s so fascinating?”

            “The dossiers in your rogues gallery.  I see you even have a file on Selina.”

            “She was once an adversary.  You know that.”

            “So why not delete it?”

            “Historical record.  Plus, you never know when a piece of information in there might be vital.  I also maintain files on deceased villains.”

            “Who’s the most dangerous?  Joker, right?”

            “It depends on how you define ‘dangerous.’  Two Face is extremely violent and unpredictable.  Everything depends on a flip of that coin.  When you’re up against him, you’re also up against random chance.  Joker’s flaw is his ego, but as he showed at the hotel, he’s insane, impulsive, and sadistic.  He’d just as soon kill you as look at you, if it strikes his fancy.  Then there’s Scarecrow.  When it comes to sick and twisted minds, he has few equals.  You need to get away from thinking this one is worse than that one.  Any of them can do you in if you aren’t careful.  Even that beautiful eco-terrorist, Poison Ivy.”

            “Gee, I thought when you gave me the suit last month my training was over.”

            “Another mistaken assumption.  Your training never ends.  I just exercised for an hour, including thirty minutes of laps in the pool.  You should do all you can, mentally and physically, to stay in shape.”

            “Mentally?”

            “Work crossword puzzles.  Read the classics.  Not everything you need can be found on a computer.”

            Alfred’s shoes clicked down the stairs.  “Just the two I’m searching for.  There’s a rather eye-opening story on page one of this morning’s Herald.”  He handed Bruce the newspaper. 

            Tim looked puzzled.  “‘Mayor Asks Council to Consider Zoning Plan?’”

            “The bottom half of the page, Master Tim.”

            Bruce flipped the paper over.  “‘Batgirl Thwarts Armed Robbery.’  What?”

            “It appears that some enterprising young lady has taken it upon herself to join your fight against crime.”

            He passed the paper to Tim.  “I’m not in the franchise business, Alfred.  I thought we settled all the Batman copycat issues years ago.  Whoever she is, she’s an untrained amateur who’s going to get herself killed.”

            “Perhaps not.”  Tim pointed to the article.  “‘Witnesses, including one patrol officer, described the Batgirl as being athletic and skilled in martial arts techniques.  Her midnight blue and gold costume is said to closely resemble that of Batman.’”

            “I have an engagement at Gotham University tonight, or else I would go looking for this ‘Batgirl’ and clip her wings.”

 

            Barbara Gordon picked up the morning paper, took one look at the front page, and quickly shut her apartment door.  “Yes!  Yes!”

            She bounced on the sofa and kicked her feet up.  “The reviews are in, and opening night was a hit.  ‘Batgirl Thwarts Armed Robbery.’  You go, Babs!”  Glancing across the room at a picture of Batman with her father, she grinned.  “Take that, you Bat-chauvinist.  ‘Eat right, exercise, and finish college,’ huh?  I’ll make you eat those words.”

 

            Around noon, the man in room 216 picked up his phone and pressed Redial.  “It’s me.”

            “About time you called.  Are you set?”

            “I’m getting unpacked.”

            “What’s your plan?”

            “Let’s get one thing straight, Carlo.  I set my own rules.  I was clear on that when you hired me.  This isn’t the sort of operation one can just pull off in a couple of days.  I’ll study the situation and wait and watch.  Then I’ll pick the best time and the best way to kill him.  That may take weeks.  In fact, I can almost guarantee it will.”

            “We want results.”

            “Yes, but you picked me because of my reputation.  My method has worked every single time, and I plan to continue using it.  How many other assassins can boast a one hundred percent career kill rate?  Police across the globe have named me ‘Black Death’ with good reason.”

            “Then we need progress reports.”

            “You’ll get one report when the job is done.  After you receive it, I expect payment to be deposited in my account by the time I return home.”

            “I could terminate the agreement right now.”

            “That’s your choice, Carlo.  But if you truly want this Batman dead, then I suggest you don’t.  It’s not like your people are brimming with success against him.”

            “Very well.  Do it your way.”

            “I shall.  As far as you’re concerned, Batman’s as good as dead.”

 

            As one of its major donors, Bruce felt obligated to attend Gotham University’s Distinguished Alumni gala.  No matter that he would much rather have been hunting for Batgirl, he smiled and mingled with the crowd at the mixer before dinner.

            University president George Bethard walked up and greeted him.  “Evening, Bruce.  Flying solo tonight?”

            “Unfortunately.  Selina’s still settling into a routine with the baby, and I couldn’t pry her away.  She’s really poured herself into being a mother.  One of these days, though, I need to hire a sitter and get her out of the house.”

            “Thelma was the same way when our son was born.  Listen, there’s two guys over here I want you to meet.”  Bethard led him to the hors d’oeuvre table.  “Gentlemen, this is Bruce Wayne.  Bruce, Professor Nigel Cheshire from Cambridge and Professor Tomas Horovic from Prague.”

            Cheshire extended his hand.  “I’ve heard so much about you, Mr. Wayne.  It’s a pleasure to finally meet.”

            “Likewise,” Horovic said.

            “They just joined us as part of the Visiting Scholars Program, which you so graciously gave us the seed money for.”

            “What drew you two to Gotham?”

            Cheshire, in his late forties with thinning brown hair and a slender moustache, said, “I’m quite interested in the unique structures and styles of architecture here.  It seems there’s no place quite like Gotham City.”

            “I know exactly what you mean.”

            Bald and clean shaven, Horovic was fifty-one.  “Your transportation system is fascinating.  I’d like to see firsthand how it evolved into what it is now.”

            “If you can find a way to make getting from point A to point B faster, I’ll double your stipend.”

            They laughed heartily.

            Bethard said, “There’s Colin Harper, another one of our generous donors.  I’d better introduce you to him, as well.  Nice seeing you again, Bruce.  Enjoy the dinner.”

“I’ll try.”  He turned around and bumped into a young woman, nearly spilling her glass of mineral water.  “Oops!  I’m sorry, that was rather clumsy of me.”

“No, it’s my fault, Mr. Wayne,” Barbara Gordon replied.  “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

“This doesn’t seem like your kind of shindig.”

She frowned.  “It’s not.”

“Did the commissioner drag you along?”

“He’s not even here.  I’m the president of the Library Association student chapter, and they kinda wanted all the organizations to have a representative.”

“I’ll bet this Batgirl business is keeping him hopping.”

“Oh, yeah.  We talked at lunch.  He’s not sure what she is: a new crimefighter, a villain in disguise, or just some do-gooder.  I think she’s Batman’s daughter, and that’s why he didn’t get a new partner when Robin left.  He was waiting for her to finish training and come of age.”

“Interesting theory.  I think she’s a novice who’s likely to wind up dead before long.  Batman’s proven he has the training and skills to combat crime.”

“How do you know she doesn’t?”

“Just a feeling.”

“If you ask me, it’s high time we had a female crimefighter in this city.”

“Ever heard of Catwoman?”

“A reformed criminal.  Not the same thing.  She seems to have her East End gig, while Batman covers the whole city.  Either way, I’m glad he figured out he needs another partner.  If he’d had one at the hotel last year, Joker might not have gotten away.”

He was getting peeved.  “It’s so easy to judge with hindsight, isn’t it?  He’s probably just glad more people didn’t die that night.  Selina and I barely survived, don’t forget.”

“Oh.  Sorry.  Sensitive subject.”  She finished her water.  “So, is your wife here?”

“No, home with the baby.  I was just telling President Bethard I need to get her out in public again.  Say, that gives me an idea.  Would you like to pick up some extra money two or three evenings a month?  We need a sitter.  College girls always need money.”

“I don’t know.  My schedule’s pretty tight in the evenings nowadays.”

“How does twelve dollars an hour sound?”

“Wow!  That’s double the rate my friends used to get.”

“I wouldn’t normally offer so much, but we absolutely must have somebody we can trust.”

“For that kind of money, I’ll make room in my schedule.”

 

Black Death wasted no time in stalking his prey.  For the next week, whenever the Bat-signal lit up, he came out and shadowed Batman.  He watched him work, studying his moves, behavior patterns, and travel routes.  All the while, he remained inscrutably hidden, rivaling his target for stealthiness.

            His solid black costume only enhanced his ability to come and go like a phantom.  He had no cape, cowl, or emblem to stand out.  His armored mask featured dark, infrared eye shields.  He could literally move through the night unnoticed.  Compared to him, Batman stood out like a spotlight.

            Perched on a storefront rooftop, Nikki watched admiringly as Batman stopped a gang of teens from beating a mentally ill homeless man.  She sensed that something had changed in her field of view, and she glanced right just in time to catch Black Death looking at her looking at Batman.

            Once spotted, he faded back into the darkness.

            “What was that?” she whispered to herself.

 

            Three nights later, a street kid named Kevin lit a cigarette while strolling through a west side neighborhood.  As he walked past a pitch black alleyway, a man leaped out and struck him in the back with a tire iron.  He stumbled forward and fell into an oily puddle.

            Shaking from alcohol withdrawal, the assailant stood over him and stared with wild, bloodshot eyes.  Throwing the metal rod away, he pulled a gun from his army surplus jacket and tried to steady it with both hands.  “I need a drink, man.  Gimme your wallet.”

            “I--I don’t have any money on me.  Honest.  I left it at home.”

            Cocking the hammer, the grizzled wino growled, “Gimme your money!  Don’t be cute.”

            Kevin saw movement behind his attacker and smiled as a black figure approached.  “Batman.”

            “What?”  The man with the gun turned around and fired.  His bullet bounced off the Dark Knight’s gauntlet.

            Batman kicked the weapon away and punched his nose.

            The mugger dropped to the sidewalk and rolled into the gutter.  He was through for the night.

            Batman helped Kevin up.  “Are you alright?”

            “Yeah.  Thanks.  See ya ‘round.”

            As he left and turned up the alley, Batman saw Black Death for the first time.  He had no idea who the masked being was, so he assumed a defensive stance.

            Black Death raised his arm and launched a strange-looking silver projectile at his target.

            Batman quickly flung down a smoke pellet to conceal himself and dove for cover, but he was too late.

            The grenade exploded with such force that it lifted him off his feet and slammed him into the wall.  It made a crater in the sidewalk and killed Kevin twenty feet away.

            Fragments of brick and concrete rained down on the unconscious Batman, while Black Death melted into the darkness.

 

            “Don’t move.  You’ll be okay.”

            Batman slowly opened his soot-covered eyes to see someone in a dark blue cowl kneeling over him.  He could feel his injuries but had no idea of their extent.  “What…”

            “Shhh!  Drink this.”  Batgirl helped him sit up, handed him a flask of water, and began cleaning his face with an antiseptic wipe.

            “Oww!”

            “Sorry.  You’re really banged up.  Your cape’s shredded, you’ve got shrapnel holes in the armor on your right leg and arm, your cowl is ripped, and you have abrasions on your face.  But you’ll live.  I rushed over as soon as I saw the blast.  You could almost park a car in the hole it left.  Whatever it was.”

“Antipersonnel grenade,” he answered hoarsely.

“Where’d it come from?”

            “Somebody in the alley.  Wore all black.  Couldn’t identify.”

            “Do you have a way to get out of here?”

            “The Batmobile.  If my communicator works.”  He fished it out of a pouch on his utility belt.  “Yep.  Still on.”

            A minute and a half later, the sleek car pulled up to the curb.

            “Give me a hand.”

            She steadied him as he stood up.  “Want me to come with you?”

            “No!”  He limped to the car and climbed inside the cockpit with difficulty.

            “Are you sure you can drive?”

            “If I can’t, it’ll drive for me.  Thanks for the first aid.  I think you’ve done your good deed for the day, so go back home where it’s safe.”

            “Excuse me?”

            “No offense, but amateurs only complicate things.  There’s enough to do without looking over my shoulder to make sure you don’t get killed.  Leave the crimefighting to me and Robin.  Whoever you are, you’re out of your league.”

            Indignant, she put her hands on her hips.  “I am not an amateur.  I’m a trained gymnast with a brown belt in judo.  And I know what I’m doing.”

            “Fine.  Just don’t do it around me.”  He closed the cockpit, turned on the turbine, and sped off.

            She curled up her lips and scowled.  “One of these days….”

 

            Bruce considered Batgirl a nuisance who would have to be dealt with, but of more immediate concern was the mysterious figure who nearly killed him.  After breakfast, he worked down in the cave with Tim and tried to shed some light on the previous night’s events.

            He showed Tim a sketch he drew from memory.  “This is the best I can do, given how short a time I had to look at him.  Or her.”

            “Lots of black, no identifying markings, two small eye slits.  From the build, it has to be a man.  A ninja?”

            “No.  His costume was too bulky.  He had body armor, gloves, boots--the whole works.”

            “One of the supercriminals in disguise?”

            “Maybe, but as far as I know, this is his first sighting.  He hasn’t been reported at any crime scene.  No recent incidents involving explosives.  My feeling is, he’s a new menace.”

            Tim tapped his fingers on the computer console.  “A new criminal whose first act is to try to kill Batman with a type of explosive that’s uncommon to the felons in Gotham.”

            “Which raises a big question.  Was I in the wrong place at the wrong time, or was he aiming for me?”

            “It’s hard to draw conclusions from a single incident, but absent any evidence to the contrary, it would seem that Batman was the target.”

            “The man who died certainly wasn’t.  His background check contained nothing but a few petty burglaries and thefts.  Nothing that would warrant assassination.”

            Raising his eyebrows, Tim asked, “Assassination?  Do you know what you’re suggesting?”

            Bruce nodded.  “Somebody’s hired a professional killer to take me out.”

            “A mighty powerful somebody, if that’s the kind of man they recruit.”

“Or employ regularly.”

“Are you thinking the League of Assassins?”

“They fit the profile.”

“Then you’re in serious danger.”

“If it’s true.  But that also gives us certain advantages.  If this man is a professional assassin, he’s left a trail.  He has an M.O.  Time to give your detective skills a workout.  Search the global crime databases for unsolved killings involving exotic firearms or explosives.”

“Suppose I find a match?”

“If there were witnesses, compare their descriptions to my sketch.  Meanwhile,” he picked up his mauled Batsuit and cowl, “I need to get some stronger armor for these things and a few new defensive gadgets.  Next time I may not be so lucky.”

“Good thing this Batgirl showed up, huh?”

He sighed.  “In one way.  Ultimately, though, I’m afraid she’s only going to get herself--and us--into trouble.”

 

Determined to prove her mettle, Batgirl continued her nightly excursions in search of wrongdoers.  She knew from her father’s anecdotes that the East End neighborhood near the Vampire Lounge nightclub was infamous for its volume of police calls and arrests, so she decided to spend a couple of evenings there.  It didn’t take long for her to find what she was looking for.

While she studied the area from a rooftop, she saw two young women leave the club and cross the street.  Her eyes followed them as they took a shortcut between two buildings.  She could also see they weren’t alone.

A man in a sleeveless shirt looked both ways to ensure no one was watching, then ran after the girls.  They made the mistake of stopping, and he caught up.  When he pulled a gun, she stood up to intervene.

Before she could jump down, a slender, mop-haired figure in black somersaulted off a balcony far below her and confronted the man.  With agile moves, she knocked the gun from his hand, kicked him in the face, and flipped him backwards into a trashcan.

Ushering the frightened girls toward safer streets, she stood guard to make sure no other creeps would follow them.

Batgirl leaped off the ledge, glided to the ground, and prepared to introduce herself to Catwoman.

Hearing the telltale rush of wings, Nikki turned around to greet the Dark Knight.

“What the…you aren’t Catwoman.”

“And you’re obviously not Batman.”

“Who are you?” they asked simultaneously.

“I’m Batgirl.  And you’re…Catgirl?”

“Nikki.  Just Nikki”

“Nice hurt you put on that guy.”

“Your standard butt-kicking, nothing fancy.  I just had an awesome teacher.”

“Catwoman?”

“The one and only.”  Nikki walked around and fingered Batgirl’s cape.  “Interesting duds.”

“Thanks.  So where is your teacher?”

“Batgirl Scout, you ask too many questions.  It, like, screams out, ‘I’m new here.  Kill me.’  I thought Batman would’ve trained you better.”

“Actually, I’m not working with him.  Right now I’m freelancing, you might say.”

“Thought so.  Bats isn’t gonna be very happy with you.”

“I know.  We had a run-in yesterday.  But he’ll adjust, in time.  So what’s your story?”

“Let’s just say I’m minding the store while Cats is away for a while.”

“Where’d she go?”

Nikki gave her an irritated look.

“Oh, right.  No more questions.  Well, at least it’s good to know we’re on the same team.”

“We are?  Pardon me if I wait for the official memo from Bats.”

“Hey, no need to be cold.”

“Sorry, nothing personal.”  Nikki booted a rat, which went sailing down the alley like a soccer ball.  “I usually work alone.”

“I wasn’t trying to move in on your turf.  I just heard this was a bad crime spot.”

“Getting a little OJT, huh?”

“Exactly.  I didn’t even know you existed.”

She smiled.  “Now you do.”

“Nikki--may I call you that?”

“Yeah.  Call me ‘Catgirl’ again and I’ll kick your butt into next week.”

“Nikki, are you always this rude with people?”

“Until I figure out what their game is.”

“I don’t have a game.  I just want to stop the bad guys, same as you.”

“Uh-huh.”  She looked her costume over again as they walked.  “Did you, like, really think everything through before you made that outfit?  You wanna be a crime fighter--at night--so you decided you’d look cool in gold boots and gloves with a big gold bat on your bust?  The jerks around here will use you for target practice.”

 “I wish you and Batman would give me a chance.  We’re after the same things.  We’re both interested in protecting the innocent from crime.  We know women can do it as well as men.  We’re kinda free-thinkers, bucking the male-dominated system, right?”

“Y’know, that’s the most sensible thing you’ve said so far.  I was beginning to think you were some clueless, do-good sorority girl.  Maybe I’ve been too rough.”  She extended her hand.  “Truce.  No hard feelings?”

“No hard feelings.  The last thing I want to do is tick off one of Batman’s allies, especially after getting crossways with him.”

“I so don’t have time for that, either.  Say, I heard he got knocked around pretty bad last night.”

“That’s how I met him.  It looked like a bomb went off over there.”

“What happened?”

“He said some guy all dressed in black shot a grenade at him.”

Nikki stopped.  “I wonder….”

“What?”

“A few days ago I had this, like, weird experience.  I was watching from above as Batman took care of business, and I felt real creepy all of a sudden, like somebody was watching me.  I looked around and for a nanosecond I saw this big dude in solid black just disappear into the shadows.  He must’ve been watching Batman, too.  I’ll bet it’s the same guy.”

“Probably.  What do you think he’s after?”

Glancing one way, then the other, Nikki said, “There’s been chatter in the grapevine that someone’s out to kill Batman.”

“That’s not news.  Da--I mean, the police say there’s always drunk jerks who brag about how they’re gonna eliminate him.”

“I hear that, too.  But this is different.  The rumor says somebody from out of town’s coming in to do the job.”

“Your black phantom?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me.”

“Uh-oh.”

“You can say that again.  It might be gossip, but Cats taught me where to listen for the straight stuff.”

“After what happened to Batman, I’d say it’s no longer a rumor.”

“He and Cats may really need your help.  At least you know what I know.”

“Thanks.  Now, would you indulge me one last question?”

“Go ahead.”

“Where is Catwoman?”

“Changing diapers.  She had a baby.”

 

Tim’s research yielded sketchy but useful information.  He stayed up most of the night collating it, and Bruce found him asleep in the Batcave the next morning.

“Burning the midnight oil, Tim?”

“Bruce?”  He yawned.  “What time is it?”

“Nine.”

“Unhhh….”

“What kept you up?”

“Searching for stuff on your mysterious assailant.  I finally found some things in the foreign press archive that may be about him.”

“Go on.”

“The articles only go back fifteen years, but in that time, there have been thirty-two unsolved murders worldwide that fit your requirements, and probably more.  In an Austrian case, a witness briefly saw ‘a muscular figure clad only in black.’  Police in France nicknamed their bogeyman ‘Black Death’ because he killed from the darkness and could not be seen.  The name seems to have stuck, because I pulled up more articles, mainly wire reports, when I searched for black death and unsolved.”

“Good work.  At least we have a name for him.”

“There wasn’t much more on his MO.  Bombs, explosive projectiles, dum-dum bullets.  About what you’d expect.”

“Yeah.  I think we can also expect him to try again.  Has he ever failed?”

“Not that I could find.”

“What were his targets?”

“Politicians, businessmen, royalty.  But nobody like Batman.”

“That may be our only advantage.  We know he’s out there.”

 

The following Saturday, Bruce made good on his offer to Barbara.  He finally persuaded Selina to make her social reentry and accompany him to a retirement dinner for one of Wayne Enterprises’ longest-serving employees.  Since Tim had tickets to a ballgame, Barbara was delighted to baby-sit Helena while they were out.

The dinner began at eight, right about the time Helena went to sleep.  That was perfect, since Barbara had homework to catch up on.  She got comfortable on the couch in the study with her political science textbook.  The boredom of the book overtook her, and she dozed off.

A sound like the scrape of a sliding door awoke her.  Slowly opening one eye, she swore part of the wall moved.  Alfred was setting the time on the grandfather clock back from 10:47.  She glanced at her own watch.  It showed 9:58.  Strange, she thought.  She remained quiet and still to avoid drawing his attention.

He left the room and immediately went down to the garage.  It was time to pick up the Waynes.

When she heard the limousine drive away, she got up and looked at the clock.  Intrigued, she set the hands to 10:47.

She was surprised when the adjacent section of the bookcase suddenly receded into the wall.  Beyond it lay a dark passageway.  Her curiosity mushroomed, and she decided to go exploring.

The passage led to a long flight of stone steps.  “Just what do you have stashed back here, Mr. Wayne?” she asked softly.  “Pirate treasure?  Your evil twin brother?”

When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she gasped.  “Oh--my--gawd!”  She was in the Batcave.

The realization hit her immediately but didn’t sink in until she saw the Batmobile, sitting in all its black glory.  Totally dumbfounded, she wandered around staring at the computers, the weaponry, and all the high-tech gadgets.  “Bruce Wayne…Batman.”  She laughed.  “It’s perfect.  No one would guess in a million years.”

Awestruck, she gazed at the chamber which held at least a dozen Batsuits.  Just when she thought she’d seen it all, she bumped into the closet containing Selina’s Catsuit and whip.  “What the--?  His wife is Catwoman?  Duh, Barbara!  Nikki said Catwoman had a baby.”  She sat down and put her head between her hands.  “Brain overload.  I’m babysitting the daughter of Batman and Catwoman.  Somebody tell me I’m still asleep in the study and this is all a bizarre dream.  Well, if Bruce is Batman, then that means…Dick was Robin, who’s now Nightwing.  And that kid Tim is the new Robin.  Ooh, Barbara, what have you gotten into?”

She checked the time again.  Ten-forty.  “I’d better get back upstairs.  They’ll be home soon.  Calm down, calm down,” she repeated as she left the cave behind.  “Act normal.  Don’t say anything.  Let it all soak in before you say or do anything.”

Once back in the study, she couldn’t figure out how to make the bookcase close again.  She ran her hand along the doorframe and felt a small button.  She pressed it, and much to her relief, the false wall moved back into position.  Then she heard the sound of voices.

Tossing Isis off the couch, she sat down and quickly opened her textbook.

A second later, Bruce and Selina walked into the study.  “Look at her there, studiously doing homework,” he said.

She closed the book.  “Hi, guys.  How was your evening?”

“Quite nice.  Everything go okay here?”

“Helena’s been asleep for more than three hours.  Otherwise, it’s uneventful.  Delightfully boring, as Dad says.”

“Good.  She’s a really deep sleeper.  We’re taking Tim to the symphony on Friday.  Could you sit for us again?”

Her eyes darted over to the hidden Batcave entrance.  “Sure.  I’d love to.”

 

Failure wasn’t in Black Death’s vocabulary, so he considered the near-miss on Batman to be a minor setback.  He devoted several more days to studying his prey in action, making mental notes of any vulnerabilities he observed.  There were not many.

The one weakness he thought he could exploit was the Batmobile itself.  Batman left it unattended while conducting operations, though he never failed to deploy its armored shields.

He trailed Batman and Robin to a vacant lot in the west end of town, where they parked before responding to a gang shootout and hostage situation a block away.

When the car was alone, he approached and pointed a scanning device at it.  In five seconds, he identified the infrared frequency Batman used for the shields and deactivated them.  Taking a large metal tube from his belt, he slipped under the car and magnetically attached it to the frame.  With a slender cable, he connected it to the starter and then crawled out.

He punched in some numbers on a digital remote to prime the bomb before reactivating the shields and slipping off into the night.  But he stayed close enough to see when the Batmobile blew itself up.

 

It didn’t take long for Batman and Robin to put down the gang fight and free the elderly woman held at knifepoint.  Police quickly gained control of the area, freeing the duo to be on their way.

Batman ignited the turbine just before Robin climbed in.  He heard a loud whoomp, and a sheet of flame erupted from underneath the car.  Armored even on the bottom, the Batmobile deflected the blast force and remained unscathed.

The brunt of the explosion was borne by the underlying pavement, fragments of which went flying.  A sharp chunk gashed Robin’s right shin, and he tumbled clumsily into the cockpit.

Batman helped him get upright.  “You’re injured?”

Robin winced as the canopy shut.  “My armor caught some of it, but yeah, it hurts pretty bad.”

“We’ll be home before long.  Hang in there.”

Robin gave himself a pain-relieving injection from his belt.  “Black Death?”

“Undoubtedly.  Did he really think I’d leave the bottom of the car unprotected?”

“He must be frustrated now.  Two tries, two misses.”

“Which means I need to watch out for number three.”

 

At the Batcave, Bruce and Alfred examined Tim’s leg.  It wasn’t broken, but his minor burns coupled with the bad cut on his calf meant he’d be out of service for several days.

“I’m sorry, Bruce.”

“Don’t be.  You did nothing wrong.  How could we have guessed he would booby trap the car while we were away?”

“Any idea how he did it, sir?”

“He probably used a frequency descrambler to deactivate the shields.  I’ll convert it to a random frequency which changes each time.  I think I’ll also redo the electronics to include more tamper sensors.  You can never have too much security.”

 

The next night, Batman was out alone.  After foiling a liquor store robbery, he crouched atop an apartment building, hoping to draw out his opponent.  It wasn’t long before he heard the click of a weapon.

Looking right, he saw Black Death on the adjacent roof and immediately leaped off.  As he glided to the ground, an explosive-tipped bullet ripped a chunk out of the ledge where he had been standing.

When he landed, he looked back for Black Death.

As usual, the phantom was long gone.

 

Alfred complained of a slight headache Friday evening, so Bruce drove Selina and Tim to the symphony.

Barbara arrived at 7:30, just in time to get Helena changed and ready for bed.  After the infant was asleep, she went down to the study and began catching up on several days’ worth of math problems until it was time to make her move.  By hook or by crook, Batgirl was going to join Batman’s team before the night ended.

She knew the symphony program had a fifteen minute intermission at nine.  At ten minutes till, she walked into the kitchen, where Alfred was putting away the clean dishes.  “Alfred?”

“Yes, Miss Gordon?”

“How are you feeling?”

“Much better, thank you.”

“Could you make me a cup of hot cocoa?”

“Certainly.  I’ll bring it to you shortly.”

She smiled.  “Thank you.”

Returning to the study, she grabbed her gym bag, set the grandfather clock to 10:47, and went down to the Batcave.  She unzipped the bag and waited to be caught.

Five minutes later, Alfred opened the study doors.  “Here you are, Miss Gordon.  Miss Gordon?”  He glanced around the room and saw the Batcave entrance wide open.  “Oh, no!”

He put the cup down and went straightaway to the no-longer-secret passage.  “Miss Gordon?  Miss Gordon?” he called as he descended the stairs.

Seated at the computer console, Batgirl turned to face him.  “Right here, Alfred.”

He looked her over.  “Oh, my.”

 

Bruce had just left the restroom when his cell phone buzzed.  “Alfred?”

“Yes, sir.  I’m afraid we have a bit of a problem.”

“Helena?”

“No, sir.”  The butler struggled to find words that would convey the urgency of the situation without compromising security.  “We have an intruder, you might say.”

“Call the police.”

“It’s not that sort of intruder, sir.”

Puzzled at his odd manner, Bruce asked, “Alfred, what’s going on?”

“Perhaps you’d best come home, sir.  You’ll understand when you get here.”

Knowing it was not like his butler to be so cagey, Bruce said, “Okay.  We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

 

All the way home, Bruce, Selina, and Tim speculated on what the emergency might be.  Their best guess was that some kind of animal had gotten into the Batcave and wreaked havoc.  In a way, they were right.

Alfred met them at the front door and led them to the study.  “There’s been a security breach in the Batcave.”

“Riddler?  Bane?” Bruce asked anxiously.

“No, sir, nothing that dire.”

Noticing the textbooks and purse on the sofa, Selina asked, “Where’s Barbara?”

“She’s the breach.”

“Huh?” Tim asked as they followed Alfred down into the cave.

“See for yourself, Master Tim.”

Batgirl came forward and smiled.  “Hello, Batman, Robin, Catwoman.”

Selina’s eyes grew wide.  “Barbara?”

Bruce gasped, “You’re Batgirl?”

“Surprised?  Amazing what eating right, exercising, and finishing college will do for a girl.”

Her attempt at humor fell flat on him.  “You must’ve known before tonight.  How and when did you find out, and who have you told?”

“Take it easy, Bruce.  Do you think I’d rat out a fellow crimefighter?  I haven’t told anyone, and I don’t plan to.  I found out by accident.”  She explained how she stumbled onto the secret passageway, then added, “I couldn’t resist having a peek.  Sorry.  I thought maybe you had some gold or rare antiques back here.”

Bruce sat down and threw up his hands.  “First Tim, and now you.  Do I have ‘Batman’ tattooed on my forehead?  Alfred, you’d better oil that door.”

“I’ll do it tonight, sir.”

“Did you plan all this out?” Selina asked.

Batgirl nodded.  “Even down to the time I asked Alfred for some cocoa.”

Tim looked at Bruce.  “She’s smart and resourceful.  How about letting her join us?”

“No.  She’s an untrained wannabe who’s liable to get killed in a situation she doesn’t know how to handle.”

“Ahem,” Batgirl said.  “I’ve taken gymnastics since I was eight.  I’m a brown belt in judo.  I’ve taught a couple of women’s self-defense classes.  I’m going to be a librarian, so I have top-notch research skills.  And most importantly--”

“--your father is the police commissioner,” Bruce finished.

“Bruce, she’s better trained than I was, and you still took me on,” Tim pointed out.

Selina slipped into her Catwoman persona.  “So you think you’ve got what it takes to hang with Batman, huh?”

Smiling, Batgirl said, “I sure do.”

“Prove it.”

“Wow!” Tim exclaimed.  “Catwoman versus Batgirl.  Cool!”

“Actually, I had something slightly different in mind,” Selina said.  “Batman versus Batgirl.”

Bruce shook his head.  “Nice idea, but that wouldn’t be a fair fight.”

Batgirl frowned.  “Oooh, the male ego rears its ugly head.”

“Barbara, this has gone far enough.  Take that costume off and go home.”

“To do what?  Drink milk?  Get my beauty rest?  Watch soap operas?  I am so tired of your chauvinistic attitude.  You let Catwoman work with you, why not me?”

“We’ve been over this.  You aren’t qualified.”

“Yes, I am!  Let me show you.  Suit up and fight with me in your workout area over there.  If you beat me, I’ll leave my outfit here for you to destroy, and Batgirl will cease to exist.  But if I win, Batgirl gets to join your team with all the rights and privileges everyone else has.”

“C’mon, Bruce, what would it hurt?” Selina asked.  “If she’s really that good, heaven knows Gotham can use the help.”

“Do it,” Tim urged.  “And don’t go easy on her just because she’s a girl.”

Bruce turned to Alfred.  “What do you think?”

“There’s nothing wrong with giving her the chance to prove herself.  If you don’t, you’ll have to deal with the issue at some point.  Better to settle it now, when there’s no crisis.”

“It’s nice to know you don’t consider the assassin on my trail a crisis.”  Taking a deep breath, he said, “Okay.  Here are the rules.  No utility belts or weapons, just hand-to-hand.  Ten minute round.  If you’re still on your feet, you win.  If I knock you down three times, you’re out.”

“What if I knock you down three times?”

“You won’t.”

 

Alfred served as official timekeeper.  “Ready?  Begin.”

Batman started off with a solid kick to Batgirl’s chest.  She went sailing backward and fell hard on the gym mat.

She got up and reengaged.  “At least I know you’re not holding back.”

“Never hold back on an opponent,” he said as he spun around to kick her again.  “It’ll kill you.”

Dodging the kick, she landed a punch to his jaw.  He tried to grab her, but she jumped away and did a backflip.  She caught him from behind and kicked him hard in the buttocks.

Stumbling, he went down but rose to his feet and hit her hard in the abdomen.

“Oww!”  She moved back and tried to ignore the pain.

“Better put some more armor in that suit.”  He came at her again, but she deflected his punches and scored with a couple of her own.  When he tried to knock her legs out from under her, she leaped and kicked him hard in the side.  He grabbed her arm, flipped her over, and sent her to the mat.

“That’s two falls.”

Getting up slowly, she said, “Two isn’t three.”

“Might as well be.”

“Says who?”  She smashed his hip with a flying kick, dropping him to the floor again.  “Touché!”

“You are good.”

“And you just now figured that out?”

“I’m better.”  He let go with a series of fast, coordinated kicks and punches.

She deflected most of them with her gauntlets, wincing only when he scored a hit to her chest.  She responded by executing an equally impressive set of moves and connected with a high kick to the chin.

He recoiled and turned around.  “Stop the match.”

“But it’s only been five minutes,” Tim protested.

Selina rushed over.  “Are you hurt, darling?”

Panting, Batman looked at Batgirl, who was also trying to catch her breath.  “No, but we’re getting to that point,” he said as he removed his cowl.

Batgirl took off her own cowl, relieved that he called a halt.

“I found out what I wanted to know.”

“And that is…?” she asked.

“With more training, she’ll be an excellent team member.”  He offered her a handshake.  “Welcome to the ‘family,’ Barbara.”

She smiled.  “Thank you, Bruce.  I mean, Batman.”

“And Robin.”  Tim shook her hand.

“And Batgirl makes three,” Alfred said.

 

After shedding their suits, Bruce and Barbara joined Tim at the computer console.  “Your training starts now,” he said.  “As you know, there’s a man called Black Death who seems intent on killing Batman.  Wherever I go, he follows.  I’m tired of being hunted.  I want to turn the tables and become the hunter.  I think that’s the only way we’ll ever stop him.”

“How does he find you?” she asked.

“When the Bat-signal is on, he waits for me to leave police headquarters.  Other nights, he just looks for the car.”

“What about using the Batmobile as a decoy?”

“Good idea,” Tim spoke up.  “You could go out alone, and one of us will drive the car.  We can lead him straight to you.”

Bruce said, “I like it.  Barbara, how’s your driving?”

“Okay, I guess.  I mean, I’ve gotten only one speeding ticket.”

“Since Tim’s leg is still healing, you’ll have to be the one in the car.  Tim, you work in the Batcave.  I’ll put a homing device in my belt so you can track me and relay my position to Barbara.  Once Black Death finds me, she’ll need to join up as fast as possible.”

She asked, “When do you want to do it?”

“Tomorrow night.  I hate stalkers.”

 

In Old Gotham stood three adjacent buildings affectionately known as “The Stairsteps.”  They were all that remained of a development constructed just after the turn of the Twentieth Century.  The tallest of the three was the then-impressive ten story Excelsior Hotel.  Batman chose them as his battleground because they were set apart from other buildings, making it harder for Black Death to slip in or out unseen.

He waited atop the shortest building while Batgirl drove the Batmobile slowly around the old city and parked a block away.

“I’m in position,” she radioed him.

“Don’t forget to deploy the shields.  It has to look convincing.”

“Uh, am I going to be able to breathe?”

“For a while.  I don’t think you’ll have to wait long.  If you do, there’s emergency air cylinders below Robin’s seat.”

“Somebody call me?”

“Just giving Batgirl last-minute instructions.  Do you have a fix?”

“You’re on the west side of the Adamson Building.”

“Very good.  Now we sit tight.”

Batman paced and peered down to the streets, acting like he was watching for criminals.  Fifteen minutes later, Black Death materialized behind him, revealing his presence only by the sound of his boots on the pebbled roof.

The Dark Knight turned to face him.  “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.  I’m Batman.”

“Black Death,” he growled through a voice distorter in his mask.  “Your death.”  He pointed his grenade gun and fired.

Batman dropped, rolled, and threw a Batarang, which knocked the gun away.  The grenade still blew a big chunk out of the roof, and he used the momentary distraction of the blast to leap over to the Watson building and scale the fire escape to the roof.

Black Death followed with ease, trailing him by only a few seconds.

“Your determination is very annoying,” Batman said.

“I’ve never gone after an armored target before.  You’re a challenge, one I don’t plan on losing.”

Batman flung a sleeping gas sphere at his feet, and Black Death was soon surrounded by a yellow cloud.

What Batman thought to be coughing was actually his opponent laughing.  “Built-in gas mask.  Sorry.”  Half a dozen gleaming, knife-edged throwing stars appeared between the fingers of his gloves, and he hurled them all.

While Batman deflected them with his cape and gauntlets, Black Death shot a grappling line to the top of the Excelsior Hotel and winched himself up.  He then took out a pistol and fired several explosive-tipped bullets at his adversary.

Batman felt like he was dodging artillery shells as he frantically reached for his own grappling gun.  Landing a hook on the opposite corner of the hotel, he swung around to get out of Black Death’s line of fire.  He bumped into one of the large arched window frames and found it difficult to get a handhold in the surrounding ornate sculptures.

When he climbed over the ledge, he saw Black Death holding a nasty-looking flechette gun.  “Glad you made it.  Beaux-Arts facades present quite a challenge, don’t they?”

Batman frowned.  “That’s an odd thing for an international assassin to say.  Unless….”  His mind flashed back to the Distinguished Alumni gala.  “You’re Dr. Cheshire, the visiting architecture professor.  You show up wherever you’ve got a hit and claim you’re in town to study the local buildings.  An almost perfect cover.”

Cheshire removed his mask and smiled.  “They don’t call you the World’s Greatest Detective for nothing, do they?”  Unfortunately, you’re about to be the world’s deadest detective.”  He aimed at Batman’s face and fired.

Batman tried to shield himself, but there was no hiding from the deadly silver cloud.  Tiny, saw-edged darts ripped into his neck and shoulder, narrowly missing his jugular.  Bleeding profusely, he collapsed from the intense pain.  He tried to stem the flow of blood with a special astringent tape from his utility belt and pressed the button on his homing device.

 

Robin saw the signal flash.  “Batgirl, Batman needs help.  He’s on the south end of the Excelsior roof.”

“I’ll be there in two minutes.”

 

Much to Cheshire’s surprise, Batman stood up and charged at him.  He tried to reload the flechette gun with another cartridge but ran out of time.

Without his guns and gadgets, the professor was no match for Batman, even an injured one.  The Dark Knight tackled him, forcing him to drop the gun.  Relying on his armored suit for defense, Cheshire kicked his way free and stood up to run.

Batman hurled a bolo, which entangled the man’s feet and brought him down again.  He grabbed Cheshire by the collar and dislocated his nose with a solid punch before handcuffing him to his own left arm.  “Get up!”

Dazed and bleeding, Cheshire obeyed.  “I--I must complement you on discerning my identity.  I’m afraid I still have no idea who you are.”

“And it’s going to stay that way.”

“You got him?  Great!”  Batgirl dashed over to assist.  “Omigod, Batman, you’re hurt!”

“I’ll survive.”

“The police are on their way.  Let me help you with, uh, whoever this guy really is.”

“Nigel Cheshire,” he introduced himself, “Professor of Architecture.”

“And highly paid global assassin,” Batman added.

Cheshire noticed the Dark Knight was wobbly.  Weak from loss of blood, he concluded.  If he timed it just right, he could push Batman over the short ledge, brace himself against the parapet, and cut the handcuffs with the microsaw in his belt pack.

When Batman stumbled, he gave him a shove.

But instead of falling, Batman dropped to his knees, yanked on the cuffs, and smacked Cheshire hard with the back of his fist.

The killer lost his balance, tumbled off the roof, and dangled there.

Batman’s arm ached from the dead weight, and he began slipping.  Batgirl tried to help him hold on.

Cheshire looked up and gave a fiendish grin.  “Well, now, it seems you’ve got a bit of a dilemma.  To save yourself, you also have to save me.  But let me die, and you die, too.  What will the principled man behind the mask do?”

“None of the above.”  Batman reached into his utility belt and pulled out a small acetylene torch.

“Wait,” Batgirl said.  “Letting him drop would be too easy.  Make him hang around and wait for the cops.”  She took out her own pair of handcuffs and clasped one end around a pipe stanchion and the other around Cheshire’s wrist.  “Cut away.”

Batman ignited the torch and freed his wrist within seconds.  “Great idea.  Thanks.”

“That’s what partners are for.”

“Hold on--what are you doing?” Cheshire asked in a panic.

 Batman stood up.  “Leaving you to suffer with your own dilemma.  If you cut yourself free, you fall and die.  If you choose to live, the police get you.  Your fate is in your own hands.  Or hand, to be precise.”  He and Batgirl walked away.

“What?  You can’t just leave me here!”

“Oh, but we can,” Batgirl replied.

“I don’t think your victims would have any objection,” Batman added.

“Get back here!  You can’t do this to me!  I have rights!”  He glanced down and saw three police cars with flashing lights coming toward the hotel.  “My wrist is numb!  It’s going to break.  Get me down!”

 

“Black Death...a college professor?” Batgirl exclaimed.  “I was expecting, you know, a former solder or something.”

Batman stared at her.  “And who did you expect me to be?”

“Oh.  Good point.”

“Never assume anything with your opponent.”

“I know, I know.  It’ll get me killed.”

Batman smiled inside.  She’s starting to learn.