STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

 

            The middle-aged man was looking for love as he strolled along the dark, nearly deserted streets of Gotham’s East End.  Turning a corner by the Greek restaurant, he saw teenage Sandy.  “Yo, babycakes!  What’s the special?”

            Sandy looked over as he approached.  “Go away.  I’m not selling.”

            “Aw, but I’m in the mood to buy.  How much?”

            “Look, mister, not tonight.  I’m tired.”

            He grabbed her and tried to kiss her.  “Mmm, don’t you feel nice?”

            She tried to break free.  “Let me go!”

            “Whatsamatter, sugar?  Playing hard to get?”  Holding her tightly, he fondled her.

            “Please, leave me alone!”

            “I can’t.  Your body’s calling too loud to ignore.”

            Seemingly from out of nowhere, Catwoman leaped to the ground behind Sandy.  “Hey, stud muffin!  Didn’t you hear the girl?  She asked you to get out of here.”

            The man took one look at her tight leather outfit and the whip coiled in her hand and released Sandy.  “Whoa!  Now that’s more like it.  Here, kitty, kitty!”

            “Get lost, creep, before I do some damage.”

            “I love it when you talk dirty.”

            She cracked her whip and sliced through the right arm of his coat, drawing blood.

            Cursing, he shouted, “Are you crazy?”

            “Go away, or I’ll have to do that again.”

            He didn’t move.

            She recoiled the whip for another strike.

            “Okay, okay, I’m moving!”  He glared at her as he walked off.  “What a psycho!”

            Sandy burst into tears, and Catwoman gave her a shoulder to cry on.

            “Who are you?” Sandy asked as she tried to dry her eyes.

            “Catwoman.”  She touched Sandy’s chin and glanced around to make sure no other lurkers were nearby.  “You’re a long way from home, aren’t you?”

            “Yeah,” the girl sniffed.

            “Runaway?”

            Sandy nodded.

            “How old?”

            “Sixteen.”

            “Can’t go home?”

            “My dad would beat the crap out of me, just like he does Momma.”

            “How long have you been in Gotham?”

            “A couple of weeks.”

            “Been turning tricks?”

            Sandy felt embarrassed.  “I didn’t want to, but I had no money and nowhere to stay.  The men are weird and smell awful.”

            “But this place feels better than home?”

            “Yeah.  Sorta.”

            “Listen, I know where there’s help.  Go to the Women’s Haven on Avenue J.  They’ll give you a bed and a warm meal and talk about your options.”

            “I don’t have money for a cab.”

            “If you tell the driver you want to go to the Haven, he’ll take you there, no charge.  It’s what passes for a code of ethics around here.”

            “How do I get to Avenue J?”

            “Just walk north until you hit Grand Avenue.  Snag the first taxi.  You’ll be alright.”

            A glimmer of hope rose in Sandy’s heart.  Maybe there was a way out of her predicament that didn’t mean returning to an abusive, alcoholic father or starting a dead-end life of prostitution.  A smile crossed her lips.  “Thank you, Catwoman.”

            No reply.

            “Catwoman?”  Sandy looked around, but her mysterious benefactor had vanished.

 

            Now in an alley a block away, Catwoman heard cheers and some polite applause.  She turned to see the regular streetwalkers waving.

            “Nice move you put on that jerk,” one said.

            “Pollyanna doesn’t belong here.  She’ll be eaten alive.  Hope you told her to go back home,” another added cynically.

            Feeling uncomfortable, she gestured for them to stop.  “Girls, I’m just doing my job.  It’d be a lot easier if there weren’t so many of you to look after.  Hint, hint.”

            A redhead said, “We’re just doing our jobs, too.”

            “Deep inside, I think you all know this isn’t the best way to spend your lives, but you have your reasons.  I’d like to see every one of you empowered, with decent jobs.  I’ll watch out for you when I can.  But I won’t stop hoping you’ll find a better life.”

            The redhead patted her on the shoulder.  “We can take care of ourselves.  It’s ones like that teenybopper who you really need to help.”

            Catwoman nodded sadly.  “A Cat’s work is never done.”

           

            Later, she foiled a mugging and saved an elderly lady outside an all-night convenience store.  The woman had gone out to buy milk for her cat.

            Leaving just before the police showed up, she cut through a vacant lot and decided to head home.

            The lights of a green sedan parked on the street behind the lot came on.  As she got closer, she noticed a man with a walking stick standing beside the car.  Dressed in a green suit and black eye mask, he tipped his green derby to her.

            She stopped and rested her hands on her hips.  “Well, if it isn’t the overgrown leprechaun himself.”

            The Riddler twirled his stick.  “I’ve been following your activities tonight.  I must say, you are one busy cat.  Great takedown on the thug at the store.  Very professional.”

            “Flattery will get you nowhere.”

            “Here’s a riddle.  What’s black and has nine lives and two personalities?”

            She thought it over for a moment, actually intrigued by the question.  “A cat with schizophrenia?”

            He chuckled.  “That’s good.  However, the answer I had in mind is you.”

            “Me?”

            “Oh, come now.  You know what I mean.  Congratulations on your engagement, by the way.”

            “What are you talking about?”

            “You needn’t play dumb with me, Selina.  I know Bruce Wayne is Batman.  Bruce Wayne is marrying Selina Kyle.  Batman and Catwoman have been working together.  Therefore, Selina Kyle must be Catwoman, no?”

            She felt anxious.  “Is this an attempt at blackmail?”

            “Blackmail?” he laughed.  “No, nothing of the sort.  As Batman himself once said, ‘What fun is a riddle where everyone knows the answer?’  Your secrets are safe with me, dear Cat.”

            “I have things to do, so I’ll be going now.  Nice chatting with you, Riddler.”

            “Don’t rush off just yet.”  He pointed his stick in her face.  “As I said, I’ve been following you.  Now, I’ve found you.”

            “You want a merit badge for tracking?”

            “Please, cut the sarcasm.  I’ve been seeking you because, to be quite frank, I need your help.”

            She laughed out loud.  “You need my help?  What on earth makes you think I’d even help you cross the street?”

            “Your desire to stay alive.”

            She extended her claws and assumed an attack stance.  “Don’t threaten me, Riddler.  I will slice you like a loaf of bread.”

            He wiggled his hand.  “Please, put your talons back in.  I want your help.  Why would I threaten you?”

            She relaxed.  “Bottom line, I don’t trust you.”

            “So don’t trust me.  Just hear me.  I’ve got a rather thorny problem on my hands.  I want to meet with Batman, but he’d probably rebuff me if I came straight to him.  So I’d like you to be my intermediary.”

            “Why should I?  It’s your problem.  Fix it yourself.”

            “It’s not just my problem.  It affects all of Gotham.”

            “And what shall I tell Batman the problem is?”

            He sighed.  “I’ve had what you might call an ‘employee malfunction.’  My associates--make that former associates--Quiz and Query decided to, well, destroy Gotham City.  Smart ladies, they are.  Too smart, and too ambitious.  Since you probably want to live until your wedding, you should tell Batman I need to meet him.”

            She smirked.  “This has all the markings of a trap.  Nice try, but no can do.”

            “I assure you, it’s not a trap.  I’m completely sincere.  Quiz and Query are plotting to destroy the city.  I will meet with Batman at any time and place of his choice.”

            “Riddler, your stunts are getting lame.  Can’t you come up with something more original?”

            “Why would I ask to meet Batman if I weren’t honest?  Why would I chance being returned to Arkham?  Sometimes, as strange as it seems, you have to call a truce for the greater good.”

            “Sheesh, listen to you, spouting off like Abe Lincoln.”

            “You need to believe me.  If Quiz and Query succeed, there won’t be a Gotham for Batman to protect, or for me to make riddles in.  Are you willing to risk that, or would you give me the benefit of the doubt and tell Batman?”

            “He’ll take more convincing than me.”

            “Then ask him this riddle.  What kills if it’s too high, heals if it’s just right, and passes through you every day?”

 

            She got up late the next morning.  Bruce was finishing his breakfast when she walked into the kitchen.

            “Morning,” he said with a kiss.  “Have a good night?”

            “Sort of.  There was this sweet runaway who almost got assaulted.  I felt so bad for her.  Her family life is the pits, and now she’s living on the streets.  I sent her to the Women’s Haven.  I hope she got there okay.”

            He noted her wistful look.  “You’re not just out there being Little Miss Independent, are you?  This really means something to you.”

            “Yeah.  It’s like I’m on a mission.  What was that old song, ‘I’ve looked at life from both sides now?’  I just feel so drawn to the hard luck women in Gotham.  I thought I was making a difference at Minerva, but I wonder if I’m not doing more good as Catwoman.”

            “I hope you can tear yourself away for our honeymoon,” he said facetiously.  “The wedding’s less than two weeks off.”

            “Mmm, darling.  Six days in the Bahamas with you?  I’m already there.”

            “Do leave the Catsuit at home.”

            “Of course,” she smiled.  “Oh, I almost forgot.  I ran into the Riddler, of all people.  Or did he run into me?  He followed me the whole evening, then pulled me aside for a strange conversation.”

            “How strange?”

            “Believe it or not, he wants Batman’s help.  He was afraid to approach you directly, so he asked me to be his messenger and tell you he wants to meet.”

            “I’m his enemy.  Why would he want my help?”

            “All he said was, two of his former employees are plotting to destroy Gotham.”

            He shook his head.  “Such an obvious setup.  He used to be much more clever.  Maybe the time in Arkham made him lose his edge.”

            “I thought it was a trap, too, but he insists he’s on the level.”

            “No details?”

            “He told me to give you a riddle.  ‘What kills if it’s too high, heals if it’s just right, and passes through you every day?’”

            He repeated the riddle and pondered it for a minute.

            “Does that make any sense to you?”

            Looking grim, he answered, “Yes, unfortunately.  I believe he’s referring to radiation.  Now I’m intrigued.”

            “Radiation?  You mean like a nuclear bomb?”

            “The only weapon powerful enough to destroy a city this size.”

            “So he’s telling the truth?”

            “Maybe, maybe not.  But it’s something we can’t ignore.  When and where does he want to have this meeting?”

            “He said any time or place of your choosing.”

            “Are you going out again tonight?”

            “I’m planning to.”

            “If you see him, tell him to come here tomorrow night, eight o’clock, alone.”

            “If I don’t see him, chances are he’ll find me one way or another.”

 

            A thick fog shrouded Gotham that night.  While it cut down on the number of vulnerable women for Catwoman to protect, it also reduced her visibility and her ability to respond to anyone in jeopardy.

            She prowled around near the East End bridge, not far from where Riddler met her the previous night.  As she emerged from a dark side street, the man in green appeared out of the mist.

            “Looking for me?” he asked.

            “I was wondering the same thing.”

            “Did you speak to Batman?”

            “Yes.  The answer to your riddle is radiation.”

            “Very good!  What about the meeting?”

            “Tomorrow night at eight, his place, alone.”

            “Thank you, Catwoman.  You may never know how much you’ve helped Gotham.”

            “I still don’t trust you.”

            “You’ve done what I asked.  Leave the trust issue for Batman to resolve.”

           

            Riddler arrived at the rear entrance to the Batcave precisely at eight Wednesday evening.

Bruce sat at a computer console reading up on atomic weaponry.  “Evening, Mr. Nygma.”

            Riddler smiled and took a chair next to him.  “For my own safety, I won’t be staying long.  Thank you for agreeing to meet.”

            “It’s not every day one’s adversary shows up, hat-in-hand.”

            “It’s not every day one’s employees turn the tables and become terrorists-for-hire.”

            “Your riddle hinted at radiation.”

            “Yes.  My two top assistants, Quiz and Query, left me quite unexpectedly a month ago.  You probably remember them--very intelligent, very pretty.  I’ve learned from a reliable source they joined the League of Assassins.  You’ve heard of it, no doubt.”

            “Too many times.  It’s now run by the daughters of Ra’s al Ghul.”

            “My source tells me Talia al Ghul personally assigned Quiz and Query to plant an atomic bomb somewhere in the city.  The blast will be blamed on Middle Eastern extremists.”

            “When is it supposed to happen?”

            “Within the next two weeks.  No warning is going to be given.  As you can see, I’m out of my depth on this, so I turn to you.”  He twirled his cane.  “I feel partly responsible, having put all these criminal notions into the girls’ minds.  I never expected they would do something like this.”

            “You’ll understand that I want to verify everything you’ve said.”

            “Do it quickly, as we don’t have much time.”

            “Who’s your source?”

            “Someone you know, but who wishes to remain anonymous at this time.”

            “No matter.  I have my own sources.”

            “Use them all, if you wish.  I want you to know I’m telling the truth.”

            “I suppose I should say thank you.”

            “All’s fair in the games between us, but this is out of bounds.  I want Gotham to stay around as much as you do.”

            “But for very different reasons.”

            “True.”  He smiled.  “One last thing.  My source sent me a riddle, courtesy of Quiz and Query.  I suppose they’re either trying to make me proud of them, or really stick it to me.  The riddle is, ‘What’s always coming, but never arrives?’”

            Bruce frowned.  “That’s an old one.  The answer is tomorrow.”

            “Yes.  Even I don’t use anything so corny.  Hopefully, it will help you find them, anyway.”

 

            As soon as Riddler left, Bruce called Dick Grayson down to the cave.

Now completing the final stages of his training to transition from Robin to Nightwing, Dick viewed the information with uneasy alarm.  “I think we have to trust him, Bruce.  He’s risking a lot to come tell you all this.”

            “I agree, reluctantly.  It may well be a trap, but we would be negligent not to investigate the warning.”

            Dick’s mind reeled.  “Wow, an a-bomb hidden somewhere in Gotham.  Should we notify Commissioner Gordon?”

            “It would increase the chances of the public finding out, and that could cause mass hysteria.  We’ll have to do this ourselves.  Assuming there really is a bomb.  It’s just so unlike Riddler--or any master criminal--to seek me out for help.  I’m the last person they’d come to.”

            “Unless it really was serious and they had nowhere else to turn.  Where would you go if you were Riddler and what he said is all true?”

            Bruce thought about it.  “To me.  I guess you’re right.  We’ll proceed as if he’s telling the truth unless we find evidence to the contrary.”

            “What’s your plan?”

            “First, if the League is behind it all, they’ve got to be operating somewhere in the city.  Search the real estate transaction databases.  Look for any suspicious leases of small business space in the last two months.  Second, we have to find that bomb.  Remember the batwing ROVs I was working on last year?”

            “Yeah, they look like high tech boomerangs.”

            “Which, in a sense, they are.  I equipped them with gamma detectors for just such an emergency.  I’ll create a search grid and send the four of them out to fly over the city.  We’ll check their readings for signs of abnormal radiation levels.”

            “How long will that take?”

            “One night, at most.  After you investigate real estate deals, see what you can make of the new riddle.  It’s our only solid clue.”

            “Solid clue?  Bruce, every schoolkid knows that one.  What’s always coming, but never arrives?  Tomorrow.”

            “Yes, but somehow the word tomorrow figures into locating the bomb.  We have to discover how.”

 

            Catwoman went out for the third night in a row.  This time she ventured to the affluent uptown area, filled with high priced hookers and even higher priced apartments and hotels.

            Live like a prince, proclaimed the sign outside the ritzy Waterford Towers.

            “Yeah, for a king’s ransom,” she sneered.

            The streetwalkers seemed to be somewhere else, so the neighborhood was quiet.  Not much going on.

            Leaping from the Waterford fire escape, a man clad entirely in black landed right in front of her and nearly knocked her down.

            She flashed her claws and spun around, ready to fight.

            The stranger lifted his ski mask.  “Selina?”

            She recognized him.  “Omigod,  Jason?”

            “Small world, isn’t it?” Jason McGregor remarked.

            Dazed, she gasped, “How long has it been?”

            Smiling disarmingly, he tied the neck of the velvet bag in his hand.  “A little over three years since the day you broke my heart.”

            “It wasn’t personal.  I just....”

            He boldly kissed her on the lips.  “You just couldn’t get him out of your system.  I’m not bitter.  I understand.

            “I--I wasn’t using you.”

            “Oh, I know.  We were hot together, Selina.  But all fires burn out sooner or later.”

            “I wouldn’t have guessed you’d be so carefree about it.”

            “Don’t take this wrong, but there’s only one thing a guy like me hangs onto tightly.”

            She nodded at the sack.  “Yeah.  The goods.”

            “I’m impressed.  You still remember some of what I taught you.”

            “Those were good times.”

            “Yeah.  Remember the old lady at the casino hotel in London?”

            She snickered.  “The one who threw her walker at you as you climbed out the window?”

            “My butt was sore for days where it hit me.  And she looked like Frankenstein, with that cold cream on her face.”

            They both laughed.

            “I see you’re still at it,” she commented.

            “Stealing is my business, and business is good.  Looks like you’re up to your old cat tricks, too.”

            “Not exactly.  I went legit a few months after we broke up.  No reflection on you.   I felt like it was the right thing for me.”

            “To each his own.  I read where you got engaged to him.”

            “It was time.  We’d been in and out of each other’s lives for nearly four years.”

            “Does he know about you?”

            “Yep.  No secrets.  But now that I’m on the other side, it’s less of a problem.”

“So what is it you do now?”

“My day job aside, I consider myself an activist against crimes on women.”

            “I’m glad you found your niche.  Must be nice, living in that big mansion with so much priceless stuff.”

            “You may not believe this, but his wealth doesn’t impress me.  I’m not that materialistic anymore.”

            “Man, I’d love to knock off the joint.  I could retire for life.”

            “Jason, that’s not funny.  Don’t even think about it.”  Her eyes grew big.  “Forget it!  I would never help you rob Bruce.  Never!”

            He held up his hands.  “Hey, no need for hostility.  It was just an idea.”

            “A very bad one.”

            “If you not busy right now, why don’t you come watch me work?  I want to hit the tourist hotel on the west side.  I can always use your help.  And the money is fantastic.”

            “I gave that all up, Jason.  I’m not interested.  Like you said, to each his own.”

            “We made a good team.  I’ve long since forgiven you for walking out on me.”

            “Well, I haven’t forgiven you for leading me astray.  I had the worst luck with men back then.  But my luck’s changed.  It’s only a matter of time before yours does, too.”

            “I’m not getting older, I’m getting better.  C’est la vie.  It’s your loss.”

            “I’d rather lose that than Bruce.  Or my life.”

            He looked at his watch.  “Can’t stay in one spot too long.  It was good to see you, Selina.  Maybe we’ll cross paths again.”

            “You know what they say about crossing paths with a black cat, dontcha?”

 

            Despite her rejections, Jason stayed very much on her mind for the rest of the evening.  She was uncomfortable with her past coming back to haunt her, yet she couldn’t dismiss his part in her life.  Even if she did get involved with him on the rebound from Bruce, he was partly responsible for her desire to lead a clean life.  She just hoped he would be gone soon so she wouldn’t have to think about him again.

            Waking up next to Bruce in the morning, she rubbed his chest.  “Hey, handsome.”

            With a kiss, he said, “Morning, beautiful.”

            “How was your meeting with Riddler?  You were still in the cave when I got home.”

            “I hate to say it, but I think he’s being truthful.  Something in me still is and always will be suspicious about him, but so far everything Dick and I have come up with validates his information.”

            “So what’s up with the radiation thing?”

            “The League of Assassins has most likely planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in Gotham.  It will be detonated in less than two weeks.”

            “Good heavens!  Where?”

            “That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?  Dick located a possible hideout for whatever League members are here.  We’ll watch them night and day.  When they leave town, they’re ready to set off the bomb.  But it could be anywhere--at their location, or under City Hall.  The only clue we have is a riddle whose answer is tomorrow.”

            “Tomorrow?”

            “Something about that word is the key to the puzzle.”

            “Who do you think is doing this?”

            “Within the organization, it could be any of a hundred operatives.  The Snowbirds were even adjuncts of the League.  But ultimately, responsibility goes to the top: Talia al Ghul and her sister Nyssa.”

            “You mentioned Talia once before.  Who is she?”

            He let out a big sigh.  “To answer that, I have to tell you about her father, Ra’s al Ghul.  Ra’s was nearly immortal.  He lived for centuries, and as he got older he got crazier.  He wanted to restore balance to the world’s ecosystems by wiping out most human life.  He deduced that I was Batman and chose me to be his successor as head of the League, but of course I said no.  I fell in love with his daughter Talia, a very beautiful and exotic woman, which complicated things.

            “She loved her father but absolutely detested his plans for the world.  So for several years, we had this love/hate thing going.  Sometimes she would help me, sometimes she would side with her father.  He was eventually killed by his other daughter, Nyssa.

            “There’s where it gets truly weird.  Ra’s’ death was actually a plot of his own design.  He wanted Talia and Nyssa to embrace his philosophy about the world and be his heirs.  Paradoxically, his death did exactly that.  So now the League is run by the sisters.  Talia repudiated her feelings for me and made Batman an enemy.”

            “So, I’m not the only one who’s had bad luck with wackos of the opposite sex.”

            “I never knew which Talia was going to show up.”

            “‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’”  She kissed him.  “At least I wore a costume so you could tell the difference.”

            “Speaking of that costume, you’ve been going out a lot lately.”

            “Yes, I have.  So?”

            “So I’d like you home a little more, that’s all.  You put in a full day at Minerva, then go out as Catwoman.  Doesn’t leave a lot of time for us to be together, or for you to help Batman.”

            She slammed her head back on the pillow.  “We’ve been over this before, Bruce.  Catwoman has a career that means just as much to me as Batman’s means to you.  You even admitted it yourself a few days ago.  I am not going to stop working on my own.  It’s who I am.  You knew that, and you said you were okay with it.”

            “But every night?”

            “Sometimes, yes.  I have women who look to me as a protector.  I won’t sit around here like some beautiful decoration while girls are out there in danger.”

            “What about when I need you?”

            “I don’t recall you doing without lately.”

            “I don’t mean just sex, I mean when I need you to help me on a case.  Like now.”

            “I told you I would work with you from time to time, and I already have.  But I’m not going to be your new Robin.  If you need help that much when Dick leaves, take in a new kid and train him.  You’ve done it once.”

            “I was thinking you’d assist me if I asked.”

            “I can’t be at your beckon call.  I have my life and my interests.  I’m not giving up who I am just because I’m marrying you.  You managed to fight crime alone all those years before you met me, so why can’t you do it now?  Maybe you’re just getting lazy.  Besides, there’ve been evenings I wanted to be with you, but no, I had to watch TV because Batman needed to bail out the stupid Gotham PD again!”

            “You’re going to be my wife!  We’re a team.”

            “Listen,  I am not becoming ‘Mrs. Batman.’  If that’s what you assumed, then you were wrong.  Selina Kyle is marrying Bruce Wayne.  Catwoman is not marrying Batman.  Is that clear?”

            “We’re the same people!  It’s a package.”

            “Then think of it this way.  Selina will always be there for Bruce.  Catwoman will not always be there for Batman.  That’s the bottom line.”

            “You can’t make such arbitrary distinctions.  We take each other’s whole lives, that was our agreement.  You’re being stubborn and unreasonable.”

            “And you’re being a jerk!  Maybe I don’t want to marry a man who thinks of me as his lady-in-waiting.”  She jumped out of bed and donned her robe.  “Remember the story of the boy and the scorpion?  You knew what I was when you picked me up.”

            “There’s more Catwoman in you than I figured.”

            “That’s your problem.  You didn’t ‘figure’ enough.  I will not be your trophy, your ‘little lady,’ or Batman’s sidekick.  And you know what?  Right now, I don’t even want to be your wife!  Take your Batsuit and shove it!”  She stalked out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

            Alfred met her at the bottom of the stairs.  “I heard shouting.  Is everything all right?”

            “Your boss is a chauvinistic ass!  Wears that damn cowl so tight, it chokes off air to his brain!”  Storming into the guest bedroom, she locked the door.

            He looked at the empty staircase.  “‘The course of true love never did run smooth.’”

 

            As soon as she was alone, she melted down and cried.  For a long time, she had been afraid this day would come.  She and Bruce were so much alike and had such chemistry, but they never really explored how their differences would impact a marriage.

            She was Catwoman.  She felt comfortable with her alter ego and derived much worth and satisfaction as a woman’s advocate and defender.  She also didn’t take kindly to those who abused animals, for they often abused women, too.  In many ways, she had the best of both worlds.  By day she worked at a company committed to making women feel better about themselves.  By night she evened the odds facing Gotham’s defenseless.

            Such a full life didn’t really leave room for a deep relationship.  Maybe that’s why most of hers had been superficial at best and total misfires at worst.

But Bruce was different.  They shared a dark side and an irresistible passion.  They understood each other and what it was like to live on the razor’s edge between sanity and insanity.  It was mostly because of her desire to rekindle their romance that she turned her life around.  He gave her a true love and acceptance she’d never had.

However, there was the big Batman problem.  She was not really a naughty girl at heart, but the Dark Knight’s law-and-order, goody twoshoes act got on her nerves some days.  Not that she favored turning the world over to the likes of Joker and Scarecrow, but come on, weren’t there bigger problems in Gotham than museum jewel heists?

She began to regret being so harsh with Jason McGregor.  He was rich like Bruce, but he was more fun.  She had forgotten that.  He didn’t act like a boring millionaire.  He lived a jetsetter’s life, with lots of parties, travels, and all that cash.  He loved the danger and got a rush from it.  Bruce was dour old Batman, ridding the streets of purse snatchers and all the nut jobs who couldn’t stay locked up in Arkham Asylum.

            Maybe she wasn’t cut out for marriage after all, or at least marriage to “Batman.”  And why did he keep wanting her to be his assistant?  She wasn’t a housecat.  If they couldn’t agree on something as simple as how often she should freelance, what hope did they have for agreeing on weightier issues, or on raising children?

            She realized why Bruce had never married.  His Batman identity complicated any relationship, even a strong one, too much.  It just wouldn’t be fair to the woman.

            In the same vein, she saw that it would be hard for her to have a husband and be all the things she wanted to be, too.  Still in tears, she wondered how to tell him she was breaking the engagement.

 

            Half an hour later, Alfred knocked.  “Miss Selina, would you like some tea?”

            She dried her eyes and opened the door.  “Yes, that would be nice.  Thank you, Alfred.”

            He carried in a tray and set it on the dresser.  “It sounded like you could use a little Chamomile.”

            Sniffling, she forced a smile.  “You’re so thoughtful.”

            “Is there anything else I can do for you?  Both you and Master Bruce seem quite upset this morning.”

            “Is he still upstairs?”

            “No.  He went to the Batcave to, as he put it, get his mind on something else.”

            She closed the door and sat on the bed.  As her eyes teared up again, she said, “We had the worst fight ever.”

            “Pre-wedding jitters can cause a lot of strange behavior in a relationship.”

            “This is more than that.  Alfred, I don’t think I can go through with it.  I’m calling off the wedding.  We’ve got too many differences over the whole Batman-Catwoman issue.  The thing we have in common is the thing that divides us the most.”

            “I’d wondered if it was going to become a stumbling block.”

            “We had it worked out.  Or so I thought.  I told him I’m going to continue working as Catwoman.  It means I’ll be out at night some.  And he was fine with it, so he said.  Now he keeps nagging me to be Batman’s helper more.  Several times I’ve told him I’m willing to help out, but I’m not replacing Dick as his constant crimefighting companion.  He doesn’t seem to get that.”

            “Would you like some insight from an old man?”

            “Of course.  You’re very wise, Alfred, and the only one I can talk to about this.”

            “Master Bruce is not trying to control your life, though it may seem so.  When he asks you to be Batman’s assistant, he’s only saying he wants to be with you.  He wants to share that side of himself to the fullest extent possible.  Seldom has he ever been able to with a woman.  It’s very difficult not having anyone but me and Master Dick to talk things over with.  In you he has someone who needs no explanation about Batman or dual identities.  He’s opened himself up to you in a way I’ve never seen him do before.”

            “That’s it?  That’s all he’s after?”

            “Sometimes he’s not the most eloquent, especially with women.  But I assure you, he’s no control freak.  He trusts me to run the estate.  Mr. Fox runs Wayne Enterprises and the Wayne Foundation with very little interference.  The people he trusts, he frees.  He’ll do the same with you, if you show him you’re committed to sharing all of his life.”

            “I’ve told him several times.”

            “But have you demonstrated it?”

            “I helped him catch Penguin and the Scarecrow.”

            “I think he’s looking for a stronger commitment than once every three or four months.  When you spend time with him, even as Catwoman, you’re showing you love him, and he feels loved.  You may not want to hear this, but every relationship requires give and take.  Sometimes a lot.  When two people get married, they join their individual worlds together into one.  They do become a team.  Separate hobbies are okay; separate lives are not.  Marriage means that Catwoman and Batman are partners.  They may not always work together, but they are each other’s number one helper.  You must give a little on that score.”

            “I should’ve known you’d take his side.”

            “Now, hear me out.  To be fair to you, Master Bruce has difficulty with career-minded women.  He’s not adept at dealing with his partner going to work every day when he has the luxury of staying home if he chooses.  He needs to work on accepting your career, or careers, as an integral part of you.  Together, you must clarify expectations about your work.  I’d also suggest you bring him into Catwoman’s world more.  Even though you see it as your domain, he has resources and insights which can make you more effective.  Don’t forget, he has a street PhD in criminology.  Let his strengths complement yours.  He has helped more women of your ilk than you know.  Plus, as I said, he wants to spend time with you and share all of your life, too.”

            “So he doesn’t see involvement as an opportunity to take charge?”

            “No.  The way he runs his company is the way he runs his life.  Unlike some other rich men whose employment office is a revolving door, he inspires great loyalty in his people.  And if I may be permitted to add a personal note, I don’t want to see you two break up.  You have so much going for you and are very good for one another.”

            “You have great advice, Alfred.  Trouble is, I’m stubborn.  I hear what you’re saying, but it still feels like he wants control.  I just don’t know if I can give in where you say I need to.  It sounds wonderful, but honestly, I’m not sure I’m ready to do it.”

            “It’s a decision for you and you alone to make.  For Master Bruce’s sake, however, please think it over before making any drastic changes.”

            “I will.”  She hugged him.  “Thank you again.”

            “You are most welcome, Miss Selina.”

            “Please don’t say anything to Bruce about our conversation.”

            “As you wish.”

 

            Jason McGregor called her cell phone at four.

            “This is Selina.”

“Guess who?”  He always began his calls to her that way.

            “Jason!” she exclaimed, then muttered, “This is my company phone.  How did you get the number?”

            “Stealing information, stealing jewels, one’s just as easy as the other.”

            “You’re still an operator through and through.  What do you want?” she whispered.

            “To talk.  Can we meet tonight?”

            “Why?”

            “I need to clear the air about some things I said last night.”

            She wanted to do some clarifying, too.  However, she felt reluctant to see him again.  Her Cat sense said he was big trouble.  Nevertheless, she asked, “Where and what time?”

            “Now that’s more like it.  Nineish, north side of the East End bridge?”

            “I’ll see you then.”

 

            She went out early.  More than anything, she wanted to clear her head about her relationship with Bruce.  But the longer she pondered it, the more her hurt feelings festered and the darker her thoughts became.

“I’m tired of toeing Batman’s line.  Why do I need him dragging me down?  Marriage is overrated, anyway.  This Cat has no owner!”

By the time she reached the bridge, she had made a decision.  She was going to return home in the morning, give back the ring, and move out.  It would save both of them a lot of heartache over time.  “Short term pain, long term gain.”

She was only at the bridge a few minutes when Jason appeared, again clad in black.  “Good evening, Gatito.”

“Turning on the old charm again, huh?”

“You used to like it when I called you that.”  He gazed at her cleavage.

“Big job tonight?” she asked, gesturing at his outfit.

“Gemstone sellers at the Gotham Suites.”

“You’re dedicated to your work, I’ll say that much for you.”

“Not unlike yourself.”

“I’m glad somebody realizes it,” she said with clenched teeth.  “You wanted to talk.”

“Actually, I want to apologize.  It was way off base for me to suggest robbing Wayne Manor and very unfair to you.”

“Apology accepted.  I’m sorry for being mean.  You were always kind to me, and you deserved a better reception.”

“Thanks, but there’s nothing to forgive.  I know it was a shock to see me after so long.  I shouldn’t have expected you to be like you were four years ago.  My bad.”

“Well…that was a nice chat.  What else is on your mind?  You could’ve apologized on the phone.”  She leaned against the bridge pillar and folded her arms.

“I forgot how you see right through me.  You’re dangerous.”

“Ah, but you love danger, don’t you?”

He pulled his mask up.  “Are you trying to flirt?”

She smiled.  “Whatever gave you that idea?”

He grabbed her, and they shared a sensual kiss.

“Wow!”

She fanned her face.  “My, my!  That was unexpected.”

“You asked what’s on my mind.  You are, Selina.  I haven’t stopped thinking about you since last night.  I don’t care about your engagement, him, or anything else.  I want you back.  Come help me with the Gotham Suites job.  Maybe we can pick up where we left off.”

Her eyes twinkled.  “That’s an intriguing proposition.  Lead the way.”

 

In the Batcave, Bruce and Dick worked incessantly, trying to track down the nuclear device and decipher the cryptic clue in the word tomorrow.

“Bruce, I’m picking up the telemetry from the airborne scanners.”

“Run the data through the analysis program.”

“Already done.  Nothing so far.”

“This is the strangest riddle I’ve ever seen, Dick.  The answer itself is a riddle.”

“West side and east side scans negative for abnormal radiation.”

“I’ve gone over it and over it, dividing the word, rearranging the letters, translating it into fifteen other languages.”

“Do you suppose it’s a red herring?”

“I’m beginning to wonder if we’re wasting our time.  It would be like Riddler to try to throw us off.”

“Uptown scan, negative.”

“I wish Selina were here.  We need a fresh brain for this problem.”

“I haven’t seen her around much.  What’s going on?”

“I’m afraid she’s getting cold feet about the wedding.  She thinks I’m trying to tell her how to run her life, and I’m not.  Our relationship really sizzles when she’s Catwoman.  I feel intellectually stimulated, and instead of battling wits with her, I want us to put them together and work as a team.  I suppose she doesn’t get the same charge out of it anymore.  She still has an air of mystery for me, but I must not have one for her.”

“I got something.”

Bruce ran to the computer.  “What?”

“The downtown scan registered a small blip.”

“Where?”

“Over the central business district.  It wasn’t much, but it’s more than anything else has turned up.”

“Bring the drone around for another pass.  What altitude?”

“Two thousand feet.”

“Try fifteen hundred.”

Half a minute later, Dick exclaimed, “Got a strong signal!”

“Feed the coordinates to the city overlay map.”

“Done.”

Bruce stared at the CAD schematic of downtown.

“It’s this four block area.”

“What’s in it?”

Wayne Enterprises, Goaltech, the Morro Plaza Towers, and the Gotham Herald.”

“Zoom in closer.”

As Dick did, individual addresses showed on the screen.

Taking a deep breath, Bruce said, “That’s it.   Look at the addresses of the towers.  One Morro Plaza and....”

“Two Morro Plaza.  Tomorrow!  Brilliant!”

“The bomb is in the number two tower.  Bring the drones home and let’s suit up and go!”

 

Twenty minutes later, Jason and Selina were scaling the west side of the hotel.  Dwarfed by a taller building next door, their end was concealed in the shadows.

It all made her feel alive again.  She’d missed the adrenaline thrill.  The real Cat was back.

Climbing up on the roof, they looked around.  “Our entrance is the exit door over there,” he said.

Without warning, the door opened.  A night watchman named Stanley stepped out from the brightly lit portal.

Selina and Jason dove behind a large ventilation fan and flattened themselves against the concrete.

Stanley’s flashlight swept across the rooftop and zeroed in on Jason’s bag.

 

The Batmobile screeched to a halt in front of No. 2 Morro Plaza.  Batman and Robin jumped out and ran to the building.

Robin switched on a handheld radiation detector.  “Hmm.  That’s strange.”

“What?”

“The radiation level is lower here than the readings from the drone.”

“Point it up.”

The device beeped loudly.  “Jackpot!  But why would they put the bomb on top instead of in the basement?”

            “Because of the building’s layout.  The fiftieth floor is nothing but one big mechanical room, perfect for hiding such a device.”

            Robin craned his neck to look at the peak of the building.  “It’s a long climb.”

            “Then we should get started.”

 

            Stanley was not the typical rent-a-cop.  Retired from a long career as one of Gotham’s finest, he held a Marksman’s badge.  Eyeing Jason’s pack, he said quietly, “That wasn’t here an hour ago.”

            As the guard approached, Jason cursed himself for not grabbing the bag when he hid.  He palmed a throwing knife from his pocket and slipped it up his sleeve.

            Catwoman saw, and her feelings of thrill turned to chill.  Nobody’s supposed to get hurt!

            Stanley knew about the gemstone sellers’ convention, and the hotel manager asked him to increase his patrols because of it.  This black bag was cause for concern.

            It surprised her how quickly excitement became fear.  That never happened when she was helping the girls or foiling a crime.  You’re not doing the right thing, her inner Cat said.  She regretted giving in to the impulse to reconnect with Jason.  What a stupid idea, trying to get back at Bruce.  Praying the guard wouldn’t see her, she scooted further into the darkness and away from Jason.

            Stanley pulled out his .45 and cocked the hammer.  “Who’s there?  I know you’re up here.  I see your bag.”

            Jason tried to circle around and come up from behind to take him out.  As he crossed the gap between two air conditioning units, Stanley saw him and fired.

            The shot ricocheted off the cement, freezing him in his tracks.

            “Come out with your hands behind your head!”

            Jason resumed crawling but soon ran out of cover.  Nothing but open space lay between him and Stanley.  If only he had his pistol.

            From her new hiding place, Catwoman got a clear view of both men.  She dearly wished she could be home with the man she loved instead.

            Stanley radioed the guard in the lobby.  “Niner, this is Viking.  Better call the police.  I have a rooftop intruder.”

            “Viking, are you sure it’s not an animal?” the other guard asked.

            “Animals don’t carry backpacks.”

            “Roger that, Viking.”

“Can you send Raider up, if he’s free?”

“Affirmative.  Police have been summoned.  ETA, five minutes.  I’ll call Raider right away.  Niner out.”

Stanley put the walkie-talkie back on his belt, then cocked his pistol again as he searched with the flashlight.

The beam caught Jason’s shoulder.

“Okay, you.  Stand up slowly, hands behind your head.”

Jason did as instructed while discreetly extracting the knife.

“Who are you?”

“Just another bloody tourist!” he shouted and flung the knife.

The blade took off Stanley’s cap as he ducked.

Jason ran for the bag to get his gun.

“Halt!  Halt!”  Stanley fired twice, hitting him in the back both times.

Horrified, Catwoman watched as Jason jerked from the shots and fell spread-eagle on top of an access panel.  Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.

The sound of approaching sirens grew louder each second.  “Is anybody else up here?” Stanley called.  Hearing no suspicious sounds, he marched over to Jason’s body and nudged it with the pistol.  “Dead soldier.”

Through a drainage hole Catwoman saw a Gotham police car pull up to the hotel.  Now in full panic, she had to find a quick way out.

Stanley walked toward the exit door to await the cops.  With his back turned, he did not see her make a break for the roof ledge and scramble over.

Not caring how many cuts and bruises she got, she slid down the side of the hotel, using her claws to slow her descent and maintain contact with the brick exterior.  She saw a pile of discarded pillows in a trash dumpster below.  “Lucky you,” she said as she let go and free fell the last thirty feet.

“Oww!”  Under the pillows were a number of cardboard boxes, which made her landing harder than she anticipated.  Ignoring the pain in her hips and back, she climbed out of the dumpster and sprinted away while more police cars and an ambulance arrived at the hotel.

Three blocks later, she stopped running.  Sitting in an alley to catch her breath, she thought about what just happened.  Jason’s abrupt death, coupled with her own foolishness, made her tremble uncontrollably.  She vomited and began crying.

A wandering cat nudged her leg and mewed.

Like a child holding her comfort toy, she hugged the cat as she sobbed.

What’s wrong with you?  You could be dead, she told herself.  What were you thinking?  You almost trashed your life for a fling with a guy you had the good sense to dump three years ago.  You would’ve traded the best man you ever met for a thief who was bound to get killed sooner or later?  Can you possibly be that stupid?

“Alfred was right, kitty.  Life is a give-and-take, and I’ve got some giving to catch up on.”

 

Once inside the top floor of the tower, Batman and Robin let the radiation detector guide them.  The readout pegged next to a cylinder between two water conduits.

Assessing the object in the soft light, Batman said, “Hand me the socket wrench.”

Robin opened their tool pack.

Batman gingerly removed the bolts holding the casing together, then lifted off the upper half.

Inside sat a two-foot high dark brown cone with several bunched wires protruding from the bottom.  The wires led to a green box with Cyrillic lettering on it.

“Have a good look.  This is something you’ll probably never get to see again.”

“It’s Russian!”

“A stolen missile warhead, to be precise.  Riddler was telling the truth.  The League of Assassins has gotten their hands on a nuclear weapon.  That changes everything.”

“Is it live?”

“No, fortunately.  They’ve not yet primed it or hooked up a timing device.  All I need to do is cut these wires away and remove this trigger.”  He held up an oddly shaped black gadget.  “It’s safe enough to sit in the Gotham Museum.”

“What now?”

“I have to tell Commissioner Gordon, and the repercussions will be immense.  Imagine the public outcry when this hits the press.  Who did it?  Why?  Where are they?”

Two guns clicked in unison.

“You’re making a big assumption there, Batman,” a redhead in a green jumpsuit said.

“You’re assuming you’ll live long enough to call the commissioner,” an identically attired blonde finished.

“Quiz and Query.  What are you ladies doing up at this hour?”

“Protecting our bomb,” Query responded.

“I have to commend you,” Quiz said as she aimed her gun at Batman.  “You’re every bit as brilliant as Talia said you were.  We made our riddle hard, but not impossible.  I didn’t know if you’d figure it out.”

Robin scowled at her.  “Fortunately for Gotham, he did.”

“It seems like you wanted me to find you,” Batman observed.

“Of course we did,” Query said.  “We want to kill you so we can go ahead with the bombing undisturbed.”

“Speaking of which.”  Quiz shoved the gun barrel into Batman’s throat and held out her left hand.  “The wires and the trigger, please.”

He opened his glove and allowed her to retrieve them.

“It won’t take us long to reconnect everything after we dispose of you two.”

“And when would that be?”  He flicked a tiny smoke grenade behind them.

The momentary distraction of the bang and billowing white cloud was all the time he and Robin needed to go on the offensive.  Chopping the girls’ arms, they knocked the guns away.  Before Quiz and Query could retaliate, the Dynamic Duo punched them out.

 

Catwoman staggered home to the Batcave in a daze.  Her costume skinned up and torn, she looked like the loser of a vicious fight.

She noticed the Batmobile gone and knew she was alone.  She wanted to find Bruce there so she could confess everything and patch up their relationship.  The empty silence echoed the void she felt in her heart.

Exhausted, she pulled off her mask, lay down in the workout room, and fell asleep.

 

Batman and Robin securely handcuffed Quiz and Query to an access ladder, gagged them, and returned to the Batmobile.

Picking up the car phone, Batman dialed Commissioner Gordon’s home number.

After three rings, a sleepy voice answered, “Gordon.”

“It’s Batman.  You need to come to Two Morro Plaza.  Bring some men.  It’s going to be a long night.”

 

Gordon arrived with two squad cars at 12:45.  He sent officers to the building’s fiftieth floor at Batman’s request while the Dark Knight explained everything.

The commissioner was astounded.  “You cannot be serious!”

“I am.”

“Do you know what this means?  Somebody smuggled an atomic bomb into the city, set it up, and was days from detonating it, all without anyone in the government or law enforcement even being suspicious?  Good God, heads are going to roll all over the place!”  He rubbed his chin.  “How did you know about it?”

“The Riddler told me last night.”

“The Riddler?  You should have informed me right away!”

“I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth.  You know how he likes puzzles and games.”

“Still....  I--I can’t believe it!  Even a rumor needs to be reported.  What if you’d been killed?  What if you hadn’t found it?  Gotham could’ve been incinerated with no chance to evacuate.  I can’t cover your butt with the mayor on this one.  Hell, I’m not even going to be able to cover mine.”

“Commissioner, with all due respect, it might be best if word doesn’t get out.  Only you and this handful of men need to know.”

“Are you nuts?  Golini would throw me in the East River for that.”

“Revealing this could actually make things worse.  Think about it.  Other individuals might be emboldened by news of a big gap in our security intelligence.  People would try to politicize the situation for their own gain.  And it would damage a mayor who has been very good for this city.”

“You’re right on all three counts.  But how can we possibly keep it under wraps?”

“Do your men have any idea what a missile warhead looks like?”

“Well, no.”

“Then for all they know, they’re just arresting two associates of Riddler who tried to plant a small bomb in that office tower.”

“If it were only a local thing, that might work.  But you’ve got an international organization who managed to get their mitts on a stolen a-bomb.  That can impact the entire world, Batman.”

“Only if they intended to set it off.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve never been one hundred percent convinced the threat was genuine, or Riddler was being totally honest.”

“But you found a real bomb.”

“Which could be designed to lead us in the wrong direction.  I very much want to talk with Riddler again.  Too many unanswered questions.

“Okay….  Once more, I put my trust in you.  Let me know when you have additional information.  This group of officers can be discreet.”

“Thank you, Commissioner.  Gotham may ironically be a safer city if no one hears about that thing up there.”

“What should we do with it?”

“Get a reliable bomb disposal man to haul it off and incinerate it.”

 

On the ride home, Batman shared his concerns with Robin.  “There’s something about the whole incident that seems...staged, for lack of a better word.  I have a sense more is going on here, like this is one clue in a much bigger puzzle.”

“Do you have any proof?”

“No, which makes me wonder if I’m just too suspicious and can’t bring myself to believe Riddler is on the level.  Has the surveillance camera caught anything at the League’s hideout?”

“Nada.  They’re either staying inside, or else they have a secret entrance.”

“They have to come out sooner or later.”

“What if Riddler is aboveboard?”

“Then the case has to be considered closed, despite my misgivings.”

“Which would be just as well, since you’ve got a wedding coming up.”

“After the fight we had, I wonder if there’s going to be one.”

 

Selina woke around seven.  Seeing the Batmobile, she realized she slept right through Bruce’s return.  Still in her scraggly costume, she went upstairs to get something to eat.  She picked a banana and some milk out of the fridge and turned on the radio news.

After a few commercials, the announcer read what she was waiting for.  “This morning’s top story: death of an international jewel thief.  Last night, a security guard at the Gotham Suites shot and killed a man police identified as Jason McGregor.  McGregor was wanted by both the FBI and Interpol for numerous thefts of jewels and other valuables dating back nearly eight years.  Police theorize McGregor was at the hotel because of a gemstone collector’s convention this week.  Also overnight, police arrested two women in connection with an alleged bomb threat against one of the Morro Plaza Towers.  The women--”

Breathing a sigh of relief, she shut off the radio.  No mention of Jason having an accomplice.  “Somebody up there likes me.”

She polished off her breakfast, then headed for the master bedroom.  Time to swallow an extra large serving of pride.

 

Under the watchful eye of Batman’s spy camera, an abandoned storefront sat two blocks east of City Hall.  Appearing vacant to passers by, it was anything but.

Inside, Talia al Ghul hit the power button on her TV remote and poured herself a glass of Chablis.  “So Batman found the bomb.”

“Just as you predicted,” the Riddler said.

“Will the girls talk?”

“It depends on how well you trained them.”

She brushed back her dark hair and finished the drink.  “I never let anyone go into the field who gives me doubts.  They’re trained not to crack under CIA interrogation, so I’m not worried about the puny Gotham Police.  They knew their roles.  They’re happy to be footsoldiers for the cause, and they will get out of jail.  Eventually.”

“Sometimes you worry me with your dogmatic devotion.”

“Then don’t ever meet Nyssa.  She makes me look like a halfhearted cheerleader.  She killed Ra’s, remember?”

“I think I’m in too deep.”

“Nonsense.  I needed your help, you gave it, I paid you.  No strings, and you’re free to go about your own business after this is all over.”

“When is this ‘all over’?”

“When Batman’s dead.”

“So I’m on retainer until then?”

“You can look at it that way.  It’s the extra I included in your fee.”

“I need to have my next meeting with Batman this evening to ‘thank’ him.”

“Borrow one of my wigs and extra dresses.  After dark, you can slip away through the loading dock.  If his camera sees you, he’ll think you’re an ugly hooker.”

“You enjoy making me squirm, don’t you?”

“Not as much as I’ll enjoy killing Batman.”

“You’ve got some serious beef with the guy.”

“More than I want you to know.”

 

Selina quietly locked the bedroom door.  Bruce was still sound asleep, so she shed the remains of her catsuit, slipped on a nightgown, and cuddled up next to him.

The feel of her warm body woke him up.  Seeing her disheveled hair, smudged face, and scratched arms, he mumbled, “I didn’t know we fought that hard.”

She laughed softly.  “I had a wild night.”

“Me, too.”

“I’ve got some things I need to say.  About me, and about us.”

“Uh-oh.”

Gently kissing his lips, she said, “Just listen.  You may like what you hear.”

“You’ve got my undivided attention.”

“First, I’m sorry.  I was nasty and unfair to you.”  She sighed.  “I feel a little like Scrooge this morning.  Last night, I got to relive part of my life, and it changed me.  I saw a friend from my past killed right in front of me.  He was a guy I had a fling with not long after I disappeared on you the first time.”

“When you killed Shreck?”

“Yeah.  I was trying so hard to get over you, and he appealed to my more adventurous side.  We did some jewel heists together and jetsetted around Europe.  After about nine months, I knew that wasn’t how I wanted to live, so I left him.  I ran into him two nights ago.  Last night I was so angry after our fight, I was ready to end the engagement.  I made the same mistake I did four years ago and got involved again.  I went with him to rob a hotel.”  She began crying.  “The guard shot him dead on the roof before we could do anything, and I barely got out of there without being seen.  I can’t believe I was so stupid.  I risked my life and our relationship just because I was mad.  I’m sorry I’m such an idiot.”

He held her and rubbed her back.  “I still love you, and I forgive you.”

Drying her eyes on the sheet, she said, “I can’t go back to living like that.  It’s not who I am anymore.  I felt so scared, Bruce.  I was childish, and it almost cost me everything.  I decided I would rather make the effort to straighten out our differences than to impetuously run away again.  That’s been my strategy--run off when things get uncomfortable and come back to make nice later.  I see why I drove you so crazy.  I’m back to stay, if you’ll have me.”

Smiling, he told her, “You’re still the gem of my life, Selina.  We have a bond that can’t be broken.”

“Thank you.  I love you so much.”  She exhaled deeply.  “That was the easy part.  The hard part’s working out the problem.  Let me extend a little peace offering.  While both mean a lot to me, being Catwoman means more than my job at Minerva.  And you mean more than either one, I realized.  I’m prepared to quit my day job so we can have more time together.  I think I’ll do some part-time volunteer work at the Women’s Haven or Dr. Tompkins’ clinic instead.”

“I’m glad you mentioned Minerva.  I’ve been intending to talk to you about it.  As you know, the company’s gotten a bit off track since Sherry Miller died.  Sales are down.  It seems Minerva is one of those companies that are extensions of their founders.  Without the visionary, no matter how capable the executives, the company isn’t the same.”

“I’ve noticed it, too.”

“So has my board of directors.  A Canadian corporation is preparing to tend a very large offer for Minerva, one that your CEO may not be able to resist.  My board wants to buy Minerva before they do and make it a subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises, partly as a tribute to Sherry and partly because they believe in her vision for the company.  If that happens, it’ll look a bit funny for the CEO’s wife to be an officer in the new acquisition.”

“Hmm.  Looks like I’m leaving Minerva one way or another.”

“I appreciate your willingness to give that career up for us.”

“You know there’s no way I’m giving up Catwoman.”

“I wouldn’t want you to.  I find our relationship gets even more electric when you’re in that outfit.  You are sexy beyond belief.”

“I talked to Alfred.  He said when you ask me to help Batman, it’s just because you want me involved in that part of your life.  True?”

“Absolutely.”

“Okay, then I can be your assistant whenever you really need me.  And if I ever need your help on a Catwoman case, you’ll do the same?”

“Of course.”

“Since I’ll be able to spend more time with you during the day, will you let me work nights as Catwoman when I need to?  Except where we’re working together.”

“Sure.  I work a lot of nights myself, as you know.”

“Great.  Gee, why couldn’t we have talked it out like this yesterday?”

“Better late than never.”

“Tell me about your wild night.”

He caressed her shoulder.  “After we kiss and make up.”

 

Batman was alone in the Batcave when Riddler strolled up through the Batmobile entrance.

“Working hard tonight?”

“Always, Riddler.”

The imp smiled and twirled his cane.  “I came by to say thank you.  I understand you found Quiz and Query’s bomb and defused it.”

“You heard correctly.  The bomb is gone, and the girls are in jail.  All neat and tidy.  Too neat, perhaps.”

“I appreciate your trusting me this once.”

“So we’re even now.”

“Yes.  We’ll no doubt meet again.”

“I won’t be so charitable next time.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to.  All’s fair in the games between us, as I said before.  Goodnight, Batman.  I’ll send you a nice wedding gift.  Something blooming.”  He tipped his hat and started walking.

“Riddler?”

“Yes?”

“This whole episode still doesn’t sit right with me.  It’s too pat, scripted almost.  I know you’re up to something else.  I won’t stop until I find out what it is.”

Riddler shrugged.  “It’s your time.  Waste it if you want.”

 

The next day, as Bruce and Selina finalized details about the ceremony, he told her of his suspicions.

“I agree the man isn’t normally trustworthy,” she said, “but if you can’t find anything to support your hunch, you should probably let it go until we’re back from our honeymoon.”

“The more I think about it, the more I’m concerned that whatever he’s up to may involve the wedding.”

“Don’t say that.  I have enough to worry about already.”

“A large wedding makes a nice target for someone like Riddler, who knows our secrets.”

“Well, if he has another scheme, he’s not going to come out and tell you.”

“Not directly, anyway.  He did say he’ll be sending us a gift.”

“How sweet,” she deadpanned.

“His ‘gift’ may be the plot he’s hatching.  I’ll get extra security as a precaution.  And just in case, maybe Dick should be there as Robin, instead of as a groomsman.”

“Whatever you think.”

“I think your special day should be the loveliest, safest one of your life.”

 

The night before the wedding, Bruce and Dick went over the floor plan of the newly-refurbished Gotham Cathedral.

“And where do you want me to be?” Dick asked.

“Hidden in the choir loft.  It’ll give you a view of the entire sanctuary.”

“You know you are making a lot of assumptions about what’s going to happen.  That decreases your margin for error.”

Bruce threw down his pen.  “Yes.  I’ve been wrestling with this day and night for more than a week.  Normally, I wouldn’t implement such elaborate measures, especially for my own wedding.  Even Gordon thinks I’m paranoid.  But I never take these kinds of risks unless I’m convinced.  I can’t explain it, I can’t justify it, I just know in my soul he’s going to pull something tomorrow.”

“Have you told Selina what you’re planning?”

“Not everything.  It would make her more nervous than she already is.”

“This is the most important day of your lives.  I won’t let you down.”

“Consider it your final exam, your ultimate test: stopping a criminal plan you don’t know before it happens.”

“With that in mind,” Dick walked to the workout room and returned with a garment bag, “I thought you might want to see what I’m wearing.”  He unzipped the bag to reveal a black bodysuit with a blue V reaching from shoulder to shoulder.

“Your Nightwing outfit?”

“Yeah.  Designed it myself.  What do you think?”

“Looks great, and it won’t be as noticeable when you’re hiding.”

“Let’s hope I don’t have to come out of hiding.  I’d like nothing better than for you to be wrong about Riddler.”

“This time, I’m more worried about being right.”

 

Mother Nature offered a sunny, perfect spring Saturday for the wedding.  New life coursed through the old cathedral, closed for so many years as the city deteriorated.

Selina arrived at ten, two hours before the ceremony, and went straight to the bridal chambers to be dressed and made up.

Bruce, however, was there by nine.  He did a final check of all the security plans with Dick and Commissioner Gordon.  One sight of Riddler or his henchmen, and a dozen plainclothes officers would move into action.

Guests began filing in at 11:15.  Almost all of Gotham’s business and political elite attended, along with friends, employees, and media representatives.  Nearly a thousand people packed the cathedral for its official reopening.

 

At 11:30, Selina heard a knock as she tried to relax in her private room.  “Yes?”

“Florist, ma’am.”

Opening the door, she saw a smiling young man in a delivery uniform.

“Your bridal bouquet.”

“Oh, thank you.”

“Have a nice day.”

She was admiring the pretty roses when she noticed a card attached.  “‘Sweet dreams.  The Riddler.’ What?”

A burst of sleeping gas from the flowers hit her in the face, and she passed out.

Thirty seconds later, the delivery man, a burly fellow in a suit, and Talia al Ghul walked in.

Talia looked at Selina lying on the floor.  “Take her out the back way.  I’ve got a wedding to prepare for.”

 

            At the stroke of noon, Talia appeared at the entrance to the sanctuary.  Wearing the bridal veil, she could pass for Selina with the crowd.

            The organist played the familiar strains of Here Comes the Bride, and she began her walk down the long aisle.  Keeping her eyes on the altar, she saw Bruce and the minister standing alone.  Perfect.

            Smiling, Bruce looked back over his shoulder as she approached.

            Nightwing peered out from behind a seat in the choir loft.  So far, so good.

            Another set of watchful eyes observed everything from the darkened third balcony, far above the audience.

 

            Talia paced herself so she reached the altar just when the organ processional ended.

            “Dearly beloved,” the minister began, “we are gathered here today to celebrate the union in marriage of Selina and Bruce.  Marriage is not to be entered into lightly or halfheartedly.  If you are making this covenant freely and without reservation, please signify it by facing each other and joining hands.”

            Talia pulled off the veil and produced a nasty-looking pistol from her bouquet as a wave of consternation spread through the attendees.

            “Goodnight sweet Bruce, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”  Jamming the gun into his ribs, she fired three times.

            To her astonishment, he did not even flinch.  Reaching into his shirt collar, he began pulling off his face.

            “You’re not Bruce!” she gasped as his mask fell to the floor.

            “Lieutenant Owens, Gotham Police.  You’re under arrest, Miss al Ghul.”

            Before he could finish speaking, she made a mad dash for the rear exit.

            As Nightwing leaped onto the altar to pursue her, he glanced up at the third balcony.

            Batman shot a grappling spike into the cathedral’s cavernous ceiling and swung down to join him.

“You were right,” Nightwing said.

“That gives me no joy whatsoever.  They have Selina.  Help the police look for Riddler.  I’m going after Talia.”

“I’ll come as soon as we’re through here.”

Batman ran out of the cathedral, and the remotely-controlled Batmobile pulled to a stop in front of him.  He climbed in and sped away, following the Jaguar zooming down Grand Avenue.

He knew she was heading for the League’s hideout, so he decided forego a chase.  They’d meet up soon enough.

Just minutes behind her, the Batmobile stopped at the rear loading dock.  He activated the car’s shields and walked inside, sure they were preparing a less-than-warm welcome for him.

 

In a small room at the center of the building, Selina, wearing only her slip and underwear, lay gagged and tied to a long, narrow countertop.  Her ankles were strapped with piano wire looped through a hole in the Formica.  Bound with more wire, her wrists were anchored to grommets in the floor.  The more she struggled, the tighter the wire got.

Riddler patted her head.  “Your paramour is here.  It won’t be long before you get your wish to be together...till death do you part.”

 

Talia had no interest in prolonging things.  As soon as Batman entered, six thugs overpowered him.  One sprayed him with sleeping gas, and he lost consciousness immediately.

When he came to, Talia’s men had just finished tying him down on the opposite end of the countertop from Selina.

“Take off his utility belt,” she ordered.  “He’s too crafty.”

Clearing the fog from his mind, he said, “Hello, Talia.  It’s been a while.”

“Not long enough.”

“What happened to the sweet girl who used to be in love with me?”

“She died with Ra’s.  He finally opened my eyes about this awful world.  It needs a great cleansing, along with fools like you who believe there’s anything left worth defending.”

“Daddy would be so proud.”

“Shut up, and look to your left!  That trash can is packed with C4.  When we leave, I’m setting this timer.  Three minutes later, bye bye Batman.  You and your alley cat bride will be blasted into eternity.  And my life will be so much easier.  Before I go, I must give you kudos for the countermeasures at the wedding.  A decoy, I wouldn’t have thought of that.”

“The minister was a police officer, too.”

“Another nice touch.  But the difference is, I got out of your trap.  You’re stuck in mine.  I’m curious, though.  How did you know I was going to try to kill you?”

“I didn’t.  I thought Riddler would try something.  But when one of the attendants told me Selina had disappeared, I guessed it was an assassination setup.”

“And who better to kill you but me?”

“Quiz and Query were working for you, so it made sense.  We already had the decoy ready, so I used him.”

“You’re wrong about one thing.  Riddler was very involved.  Weren’t you?”

Riddler came closer and tipped his hat at Batman.  “Talia approached me when she first heard of your impending wedding.  She wanted to eliminate you, but she didn’t have enough local resources to pull it off.  For a very handsome fee, I gave her Quiz and Query to train.”

“So the atomic bomb was a diversion.”

“Which worked quite nicely.  It kept you and little Robin occupied while we set up the wedding operation.”

“You gave quite a sincere performance.  But I’ll never believe another thing you say.”

He chuckled.  “Since you’re going to live for only five more minutes, that won’t  be a problem, now will it?”

“Don’t be too sure.”

“Overconfident to the very last.  Comforting, the way some things never change.  However, I have to say you missed my last clue.  If you’d followed up on it, you would have figured out what Talia was doing long before today.”

“What clue?”

“I told you I was sending a wedding gift--something blooming.”

Batman said nothing.

“Well, I’m shocked.  The great Caped Crusader doesn’t know the name Talia is Hebrew for ‘blooming?’”

“I’ve tried to forget as much about her as I can.”

She smiled devilishly.  “I hope you’ll think about nothing but me for the next three minutes.”

“Maybe you’ll even die with her name on your lips,” Riddler sneered.

She activated the timer on the explosives.  “Let’s go!  Once we’re clear of the area, you’re free to resume your normal mayhem, or whatever it is you like to do.  I’ve got a jet waiting to take me back home.”

 

Batman managed to break the wire around his boots and free his legs.  Meanwhile, the timer ticked down to two minutes.

Nightwing’s motorcycle crashed through the painted-over plate glass window at the front of the building.  Dismounting, he sprinted from room to room searching for his friends.

Batman shouted, “We’re in here!”

Fifty-eight seconds.

Nightwing kicked open the locked door and saw them.

“Dick, get to the timer!”

Twenty-five seconds.

He quickly studied the bomb.  “Simple timing mechanism.  Battery sends electric charge to these.”  He yanked the detonators out of the plastic explosives.

Ten seconds.

Untaping the battery, he hurled it, the timer, and the detonators out of the room.

Zero.

The detonators went off with a loud pop, like a firecracker.

Batman relaxed, and Nightwing pulled wire cutters from his belt and freed his mentor.

“Congratulations.  You passed your final exam,” Batman said as he cut the wires binding Selina.  “Now, go after Riddler.  He and his goons left in the delivery van.  Get the police on it, too.  License number GKE 24.  Talia’s headed for the airfield.  I’ll catch up to her in the car.”

Nightwing nodded.  “See you back at the cave.”

Selina sat up and ripped the gag from her mouth.  “Ahh!”  She kissed Batman.  “I love you.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.  Just don’t let that bitch get away!”

 

As he sped through Gotham, Batman called the police and gave them Selina’s location.  He caught up to Talia’s gray Jaguar several blocks east of downtown.

She couldn’t believe the sight in her rear view mirror.  “Dammit!  How could he possibly have escaped?  Arrrgh!”

 

Nightwing zipped in and out of traffic.  The Batmobile was a great car, but his cycle was the ultimate in maneuverability.  He picked up the van going north on Riverside and called the location to the police.

Both vehicles ran into a bottleneck near an uptown construction site.  Unaware he was being followed, the van driver pulled over to let Riddler out.

Nightwing almost missed it, but when he spotted the Riddler’s green derby moving among the sidewalk crowd, he cut him off at the next crosswalk.

“Will you move your--”

“Riddler, where you heading?”

“--motorcycle.”  He lowered his head.

“No more fun and games.  Time to go back to Arkham.”

“At least I won’t have to deal with Batman next time I get out.”

“I got some bad news for you, Riddler.”

 

Talia knew Batman would follow wherever she went, so why not lead him somewhere advantageous?  She picked up her phone.  “I’m changing plans.  Get the boat and meet me at the Vinton Bridge in twenty minutes.”

 

Batman stayed on her tail until she veered off the freeway.  After she made a squealing turn onto Vinton Avenue, he pulled alongside and nudged her car.

The bump sent her into the retaining wall, and both right tires blew out.  However, she was an expert driver and guided the wounded vehicle to a stop on the old stone bridge--ironically, just where she wanted to be.

Batman ran up to check on her.

“I don’t need your help!”  She slammed the door and surveyed the damage.  “Look what you’ve done to my Jag!”

“You’re lucky I wasn’t trying to kill you.”

“Well, I sure want to kill you!”  She struck a defensive pose and kicked at him.  “How in the world did you survive?”

He countered her blow.  “It pays to have friends.”

“You’ve been a pain to my family long enough!”  She sent him down with a leaping chest kick.

Like a ball, he bounced right back up.  “So why now?”

“The Snowbirds.  That was the last straw.  I personally taught those girls to fight, especially to fight you!  And you killed them all.”  She spun around and jabbed him in the ribs.

“Maybe I’m just better than you.”

“Never!”  She landed a strong blow to his chin, knocking him against her car.  “Boy, have you gotten soft.  Can’t fight any better than that?”

“I don’t like to hit former lovers,” he said while deflecting her steel-toed shoe.  “But I see I’ll have to make an exception.”

“Bring it on, Flatman!”

He hammered her hard in the stomach and punched her face with a right hook.

She slammed into the retaining wall and landed on her fanny.  “Perhaps I miscalculated,” she panted, rising to her feet.

Grabbing her arm, he flipped her into the back of the Jaguar.

Her face hit the bumper, breaking her nose.

“That was for Selina.”

She wiped away the blood, and their eyes locked in anger.

“You’re so cruel, Talia.  You aren’t the same woman I knew.”

“I told you, she’s dead.  Like you’re going to be.”

“Do you know how hard it is to deliberately hurt someone you used to love?”

“No idea.  That’s not a problem for me.”  She charged at him and pulled him to the ground.

He rolled over and boxed her ears.  “Had enough?”

She kicked him off and stood up.  Reaching under her belt, she grabbed two pieces of a small gun and snapped them together.  “Arsenic-tipped bullets.  Don’t move.  You know I won’t miss.”

“You’re a brilliant woman, Talia.  Why not do something positive with your life?”

            “I am.”  She glanced beyond him for a moment, then walked backwards to the retaining wall.  “I’m ridding the earth of its human garbage.”  Her gaze never left him as she climbed up on the guardrail and aimed at his face.

            He shielded himself with his cape a millisecond before she fired.  The two bullets ricocheted off and shattered the Jaguar’s rear window.

Out of tricks, she dropped the empty gun.  All her efforts to kill him had failed.   “You’ve won the day, Batman,” she sighed with frustration.  “I’m going home.  However, I will return when the time is right.”

“That’s what they all say.”

“But I mean it!”  She somersaulted backwards from the bridge.

He ran to the wall and saw her make a perfect landing in the back of a speeding Cigarette boat.

The woman is still amazing, he thought.

The blue boat bounced across the waves and zipped out of sight.

 

Selina was resting comfortably under Alfred’s care by the time Bruce returned to Wayne Manor.  As soon as she saw him, she leaped into his arms.  “Oh, darling!”

He held her tightly and kissed her.

“Is it over?”

“For now.  Riddler’s been captured, but Talia’s winging her way back to Europe by now.  I’m sorry she escaped.”

“Alfred told me she took my place at the wedding and tried to shoot you.”

“Actually, a well-armored police decoy.”

She squeezed him.  “You knew it was going to happen?”

“I suspected something like that, especially after they kidnapped you.”

“It was terrible.  They were so mean.  Talia was the worst.  Just wait until I get my claws in her next time.”

“On balance,” Alfred spoke up, “all’s well that end’s well, as the Bard wrote.  They’re gone, and you are very much alive.”

“There’s one big problem,” she said.  “We’re still not married, and our honeymoon plane leaves in an hour.”

“Our ‘honeymoon plane’ is my private jet, and it can leave whenever we want.  As far as being married goes, Alfred, phone Mayor Golini.  See if he can come over this afternoon.  If he’s reluctant, tell him a ten thousand dollar donation to his Excellence in Education Fund will be the honoraria.”

“Actually, sir, I think he’ll be glad to hear from you.  The wedding caper’s been all over the television.  Everyone’s wondering where you are and if you’re all right.”

“After he does the ceremony, he can tell people I’m fine and in seclusion for my safety.  Until the honeymoon’s over.”

 

An hour and a half later, Alfred and Dick witnessed Mayor Golini officiate over a very low-key ceremony.  Bruce wore a suit and tie, and Selina donned a blue evening gown in lieu of the wedding dress stolen by Talia.

“This will probably be the shortest one I’ve ever done,” the mayor chuckled.  “After what happened earlier, I’m sure you two just want to make it legal and be on your way to the Bahamas.”

“That’s right,” Bruce said.

Golini cleared his throat.  “It is my pleasure as mayor to preside over the joining in matrimony of these two wonderful people, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle.  Bruce, do you take Selina to be your lawfully wedded wife as long as you both shall live?”

He smiled.  “I do.”

“Please place your ring on her left hand.  Now, Selina, do you take Bruce to be your lawfully wedded husband as long as you both shall live?”

“I do.”

“Please place your ring on his left hand.”

Arm in arm, they turned to face Golini.

“By the power given me as Mayor of Gotham City, I pronounce you husband and wife.  Congratulations!  You may kiss the bride.”

Embracing each other, the happy Mr. Bat and Mrs. Cat locked lips for a long, romantic buss and tuned out the rest of the world.