THE THIN BLACK LINE

 

Although much of Gotham City had gone home for the evening, the lights remained on inside T&J Supply at the northern end of the Warehouse District.  One of several fronts for the criminal activities of Black Mask, the company’s building served as his main headquarters.

Two dozen men sat in the main office.  Eight were with Black Mask at the head of the room and appeared calm, with some even cracking jokes.  The rest sat uncomfortably around the conference table, as if the sword of Damocles hung over their heads.

Black Mask stood up.  “Gentlemen, I hope my associates weren’t too rough when they searched you for weapons.  You understand the need for tight security in our line of work.  Good organizations have good security…and good people.  That’s why I called this meeting.”  He briefly unbuttoned his suit coat and opened it up.  “I am unarmed, as you can tell, so relax.  If I had wanted you dead, I certainly wouldn’t have brought you here to do it.  This new Spanish carpet cost me bundle.”

The men with him chuckled quietly.

“I know this—merger, shall we say, may be rather difficult for some of you.  You’ve invested a lot of years in loyal service to Thorne or Moroni.  I get that and even admire it.  Loyalty certainly has its place.  But it’s kind of like pro sports.  One day you’re playing for Miami, the next day they trade you to Chicago.  Loyalty to your former team ends the moment you get traded.

“Unfortunately for him, Johnny Petrocelli didn’t understand that.  Hence the empty chair at your table.  I told him I wanted him to join me.  But he said, ‘Mask, I’ve worked for Mr. Thorne for twenty years, and he’s been very good to me.  He’ll bounce back from this.  And I’ll be there for him as long as I’m alive.’  I said, ‘Okay, Johnny, if that’s how you want it.’  Then I shot him point blank in the nose.  Never seen so much blood go flying.

“Don’t be like Johnny.  If you give my organization all you’ve got, you will be rewarded.”  He studied the looks on their faces.  Message received.

“Speaking of this organization, with you gentlemen and your resources on board, I expect to strengthen my position in this city.  But consolidation takes time, time I don’t have.  The cops are already figuring out that with Thorne and Maroni in prison, I’m taking over their syndicates.  It won’t be long before they start going after me the way they did Rupert and Sal.  If—and that’s a big if—we let them.

“Your old bosses were dumb.  They got careless, thinking they were too powerful to bring down.  They stayed on the defensive for too long.  As a great boxer once said, ‘The best defense is a good offense.’  So, as of this moment a state of war exists between my organization and the Gotham PD.  I am taking the fight to them.  Not in the courts, not in the media or bureaucracy, but out on the mean streets, which are going to get a lot meaner.  We decimate them.  Attack patrol cars, motorcycle cops, foot patrols.  The more savage and brutal, the better.  Anybody with a badge is a target—except for Gordon.  I want our illustrious commissioner so scared that he won’t take a whiz without armed backup.

“Weakening the cops will buy the time I need to consolidate this new organization and increase my power base.  But beyond that, it will give me a golden opportunity to take down our number one obstacle: Batman.  I will personally give a five hundred thousand dollar reward to the man who permanently clips his wings.  And gentlemen, when that wonderful day comes, we will own this city!”

 

At Wayne Manor, Bruce’s mind was on the upcoming Wayne Enterprises Executive Conference.  A combination pep rally, board meeting, and showcase, the annual event brought together the top executives from all the company’s divisions for three days of activities.  Bruce liked it because it allowed everyone to strategize, share ideas, and spotlight their division’s latest products and achievements, as well as meet with him one-on-one.

As he worked on the draft of his opening night remarks, Alfred interrupted him.  “Sir?  Your secretary is on the phone.”

“Thanks.”  Taking the portable handset, he asked, “Gretchen, what’s up?  Really?  And they just now let you know, three weeks before?  Well, yeah, I can be 'understanding.’  Especially since it’s the mayor.  But still….  No, I’ll just make private arrangements.  One less thing for you to have to worry with.  Thanks for letting me know.  ‘Bye.”

“Bad news?” Alfred asked.

“More of an inconvenience.  We’re supposed to have the kickoff mixer at the Continental Hotel.  They just cancelled our reservation.  Seems the mayor’s daughter is getting married that evening, and the Continental has the only ballroom big enough for a city-sized reception.”

“I don’t recall hearing anything about nuptials.”

Bruce smirked awkwardly.  “It was a very sudden engagement.  She’s pregnant.”

Raising his eyebrows, Alfred said, “I see.  So what about the mixer?”

Bruce shrugged.  “We’ll just have it here.”

Sighing, Alfred told him, “I shall begin planning in the morning.”

“You hate it when I dump on you like this.”

“Job security, sir.  How many guests should I anticipate?”

“More than fifty but less than a hundred.”

“That shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange,” the butler replied.  “Will Miss Selina be in attendance?”

“As head of the Wayne Security division, she’s expected to.  Why?”

“Just wondering, sir.  It’s been a while.”

“Yeah,” Bruce said softly.  “I’m looking forward to seeing her.”

 

After the meeting at T&J ended, Black Mask went into his private office and locked the door.  He switched on the light, revealing a man wearing headphones and sitting in front of his desk.

The man removed the headphones and turned around.  “Nice speech.  Are they all in?”

“Hell, yes,” Black Mask snarled.  “I had them as soon as I mentioned Johnny Petrocelli.”

“What about my part?”

“You’re not very subtle.”

“No reason to be.”

“You should know I hate needing anything from anyone,” Mask admitted, “but I cannot pull this off without you.  Your skills are, to put it mildly, one-of-a-kind.”

“And worth every bit I’m asking.”

Scowling, Mask said, “If I had the number of men I need right now, you wouldn’t even be a blip on my radar.  Remember that.”

“What is it they say about being in the right place at the right time?”

“As I told them I don’t have time.  I need to strike now, when the cops don’t expect it.  Can you do what I’m asking?”

“Yeah.  It’s a bit of a reach, but nothing I can’t manage.”  The man leaned closer.  “You aren’t convinced I won’t leave you hanging if the heat gets bad, are you?”

Black Mask sat down across from him.  “No.”

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if I wasn’t all in.  You know there’s no love lost between me and the Bat.  Or the cops, for that matter.  As long as I get what I need from you, you’ll get everything you need from me.  Do you have it?”

Mask nodded.

“How’d you manage?”

“I control almost everything that goes on in this sewer of a city.  You think I can’t pull off a little corporate espionage, even from Wayne Enterprises?”

The man relaxed.  “What’s my first assignment?”

“Go home and wait for my lieutenant to call with instructions.”

 

The first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter.  The first shots of Black Mask’s war against the Gotham Police, coincidentally, were fired on Sumter Avenue the next day.

Patrol Officer Lyman Jackson rolled his squad car to a stop in front of a convenience store on Sumter which had reported an armed robbery.  “Unit Fourteen on scene,” he radioed in before getting out of the car.

A distraught middle-aged woman babbling in Polish appeared at the door and motioned for him to come in.  The older man behind the counter said, “Forgive my wife, Officer.  Twenty-eight years here and this is the first time we’ve been robbed.  Couple of punks in ski masks.  They got about a hundred dollars from the register and a six-pack of beer.”

“Anyone injured?”

“No, we had just opened for the day.”

Jackson saw another police car pull up and frowned.

A young, smiling corporal with close cropped brown hair walked inside.  His name badge read D. Greene.

“Just happen to be in the neighborhood, Corporal?”

“Dispatch thought you might need help if the perp was still inside.”

Jackson asked, “Since when does Dispatch make that decision without talking to the officer on scene?”  He reached up to his shoulder and keyed his radio.  “This is Unit Fourteen. Over.”

“Dispatch.  Go ahead, Fourteen.”

“Why did you send backup to 229 Sumter?”

“Fourteen, you are the only unit assigned to that call.  Over.”

Jackson looked up at D. Greene with an expression of confusion and concern.

Smiling, Greene drew his revolver and shot the officer three times in the chest, then ran from the store and sped away in his car.

           

Two days later, an officer directing traffic around a construction zone was killed by a high-powered rifle shot fired from a rooftop half a block away.  A day after that, the SWAT team responding to a hostage call triggered a booby trap, resulting in three deaths.  Then came the evening massacre in Gotham Square, where a pair of phony motorcycle cops fired shotgun blasts into a squad car, killing one officer and gravely wounding the other.

Score: Black Mask 6, Gotham PD 0.  And it was only the first inning.

 

After the third incident, Commissioner Gordon knew the killings weren’t coincidences or random acts of terror but a methodical, targeted attack on the city’s police force.  What he didn’t know was who did it, how many of them there were, or why.  Rogue officers?  Imposters?  With few witnesses and almost zero evidence, he had no answers for anybody: the mayor, the citizens, or the ones who needed them most, his very own rank and file.

After one further incident raised the police death toll to nine, the mayor summoned Gordon to his office for a meeting neither man particularly wanted to have.

“Jim,” the mayor began in a measured tone, “I’ve been hands-off on this thing so far.”

“For which I’m extremely grateful,” the commissioner said.

“While you’re investigating, I’ve been doing the usual concerned-but-reassuring-mayor thing for the public.  You know how that stuff has a pretty short shelf life.  I want to do more, Jim.  People expect me to.  But I don’t know what the hell to do.  We’ve been hounded for information ever since that news story yesterday about a ‘possible suspect.’”

“There is no suspect, possible or otherwise, at the moment.  And if I find the idiot who told that to Summer Gleason, I’ll throw him off Wayne Tower personally.  Nobody—NOBODY—wants to find the bastards behind this war on the badge more than I do.”  Gordon clenched his fists.

“I understand that.  Really.  And I know your people are working around the clock.  But I need some answers.”

“Which we don’t yet have—”

The mayor held up his hand.  “Relax, Jim.  I understand how personal this is to you.  As it should be.  Knowing your character, I’d expect nothing less.  You have an obligation to protect the men and women who protect this city.  So do I.  I grew up here, after all.  But since our first line of defense is also the target of these attacks, I’m thinking it wouldn’t hurt to call in a little help.”

“Batman?”

“A bit bigger than that.  I’m considering asking the FBI to oversee your investigation.  I haven’t made contact, because I felt I should let you know first.”

Gordon took a handkerchief and wiped his forehead.  “Normally, I’d welcome the idea.  But if you think I’ve taken this personally, you should hear my officers.  It’s a matter of honor and brotherhood with them.  I’ve never seen such unity in all my years on the force.  To a man, they are going way above and beyond.  If you bring in the feds, it’d be an awful blow to their morale.  It sends the message that you don’t think they’re capable of doing it themselves just because there’s a target on their backs.  They all took an oath to defend the citizens of Gotham—with their lives, if necessary.  Don’t slap them in the face by making them subordinate to the FBI.”

The mayor leaned back.  “That’s about what I expected you’d say.  I won’t call them—yet.  But if this gets much worse, I may not have a choice.”

“Understood.”

“To me, the most alarming aspect of these killings is the fact that at least some of them were carried out by men in Gotham PD uniforms.  That’s one of the reasons I’d like to bring in the FBI.  If you’ve got a cadre of rogue officers somewhere in the department…well, I don’t think anybody would trust us to investigate ourselves.”

Gordon took a deep breath and exhaled.  “I don’t believe that’s what this is, but with thirty thousand men and women on the force, I can’t guarantee it isn’t.  My gut tells me they’re imposters or infiltrators, not good cops gone bad.”

“Why?”

“Two things stand out.  First is how completely the killers disappear after they attack.  It suggests a lot of planning, coordination, and manpower.  A group big enough to pull that off would have a hard time staying secret.  Second, in the incidents where victims or witnesses have been able to give us a badge ID, none of them match actual names on the force.”

The mayor leaned forward and looked in Gordon’s world-weary eyes.  “Jim, I want to assure you, even if you do have some rotten apples, I’m not holding you responsible.  Hell, when I ran my own business years ago, we had an accounting clerk who embezzled fifty grand before she was caught.”

“I appreciate the support, but right now I don’t give a damn about job security.  My only concern is preventing more deaths.”

Grimly, the mayor said, “Regardless of who they are, they can’t possibly wipe out every cop.  What’s the point?”

“Maybe to send a message, to us or the citizens.  If your guardians aren’t safe, neither are you.”

“How many civilians have been injured so far?”

“None, thank God.  But it’s only a matter of time.”  Gordon’s cell phone vibrated.  He looked at the screen and winced.  “They just struck again.  Three officers in a coffee shop gunned down by a fourth who joined them.  Two dead, one not expected to make it.”

The mayor shuddered and closed his eyes.

 

In the Batcave, Tim flipped through the morning paper while Bruce was at the computer and Alfred tidied up.  “Dick’s favorite local band is playing the Iceberg Lounge this weekend.”

“Who would that be?” Bruce asked.

“The Symptoms.  And the opening band is Two-Way Cheerleader.  Their singer’s so cute it hurts!”

“Maybe you two should go.  Keep one eye on the singer and the other on Penguin.”

“Come with us,” Tim said.  “We can make it a family night out.”

“Not a chance,” Bruce replied firmly.  “Not with police officers dying left and right.”

Tim’s demeanor turned serious.  “Yeah…bad timing.”

“Imagine how dreadful Commissioner Gordon must feel.”  Alfred shook his head sadly.

“This is probably the most devastating experience he’s ever had as Commissioner,” Bruce said.  “It’s one thing to lose men in the line of duty.  But to have them become sitting ducks in a citywide shooting gallery….”

“Not to mention the killers looking like fellow officers.  Anything new in your investigation?” Tim wondered.

Bruce turned around.  “No.  There are corrupt cops on the force, but I don’t see how a rogue conspiracy this large could go unnoticed.  Usually groups like that target criminals, not fellow cops.”

Tim frowned.  “So they’re imposters?”

“Most likely.  Which means they have a boss.  With a plan.  This could be the plan, or only a diversion.  It depends on who that boss is.”

“Time to look at ‘the usual suspects?’” the boy asked.

“I’ve already ruled them out.  They’re either locked up or lack the ability to pull off an attack of such magnitude.”

“Maybe Maroni or Thorne ordered some payback from behind bars.”

Bruce told Tim, “There’s nobody left to carry it out.  The remnants of their operations have been absorbed by Black Mask.” 

“What about him?”

Bruce brought up Black Mask’s data file on the computer.  “On paper, he’s a prime candidate.  He’s certainly got the money, but with his organization in flux, the extra manpower for a bogus police force may not be at his disposal right now.  And besides that, why would he do it?”

Alfred spoke up.  “Does a man like Roman Sionis need a reason to do something so disturbingly violent?”

“Point taken.”  Bruce browsed through the file again.  “Still, since he’s busy fitting all those new pieces into his empire, this would be an unlikely time to try something so daring.”

“Master Bruce, do you recall the story my brother used to tell about the Battle of the Bulge, in 1944?”

“Of course.  What’s that have to do with Black Mask?”

The butler said, “It was winter.  The Germans were running out of supplies.  There was no reason to believe they would start a major offensive.  Germany hadn’t launched an assault in winter weather for two hundred years.”

Bruce nodded.  “General Patton believed that’s exactly what they would do, and he was right.”

Tim looked at Alfred.  “So you’re saying because this is the least likely time for the most likely suspect, Black Mask is behind the killing spree?”

“Given how many other criminals Master Bruce has ruled out, yes.  As the legendary Sherlock Holmes commented, ‘Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains—however improbable—must be the truth.’”

Tim laughed.  “Sounds like something Batman would say.”

“In a strange way, I hope it is Black Mask,” Bruce said.  “Because if it isn’t, we have to start looking at international organizations.”

“That would mark a frightening escalation,” Alfred said.  “More frightening than a sadistic criminal mastermind with grudges against Bruce Wayne and Batman.”

 

Detectives Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya were checking out leads on the most recent police murders when word of the coffee shop attack came over the police radio.

“Better head back downtown,” Bullock grumbled as he started the car.

Montoya fastened her seatbelt.  “Madre de Dios!  When will it end?”

“I don’t know, but it better be damn soon.  It’s tearing this force apart from the inside.  Have you seen how guys are looking over their shoulders?  Double- and triple-checking the duty rosters?  Boy, do I feel sorry for that class of kids who just graduated from the Academy.  Nobody wants to ride with ‘em, ‘cause they don’t know ‘em.”

“Harvey, the city has thousands and thousands of cops.  You can’t know everyone.”

Bullock finished off an hours-old cup of coffee.  “I hear Gordon’s planning to deny all transfers until this is over.  No need to make us worry if the new guys are legit or assassins in disguise.  These killers know the lingo, our tactics and codes.  The uniforms match.  And the cars and bikes.  I’ve never said this as a cop, but I’m scared, Montoya.”

“We all are.  We just have to believe that we’re going to catch them.  I wonder if the Commissioner has talked to Batman about it.”

“Batman?” Bullock sneered.  “Stupid caped kook!  The biggest thing he could do to help is hang up his cowl.  Permanently. ”

           

Logan Taylor happened to be one of the “kids” Bullock felt sorry for.  Only on the job for two months, he was paired with veteran Sergeant Luke McGinley for night patrols in the southern section of Gotham.  It was indeed a dirty job, and they were the ones who had to do it.  Muggers, prostitutes, and winos littered the streets like human garbage.  The full moon’s ambient light made the stark scene appear even more depressing.

The officers saw a scuffle begin outside a known crack house.  McGinley pulled the squad car over, and they stepped out, not sure of what they were getting into.

A derelict high on meth attacked McGinley with the ferocity of a grizzly and tackled him on the sidewalk.  McGinley drew his revolver, but the man wrestled it away and started beating him with it.

Taylor ordered him to drop the weapon.  Oblivious in his drug-induced hallucination, the drunk refused to comply, and the officer fired once, striking him in the head.

As the man collapsed and groaned, Taylor went to aid McGinley, whose face was bloodied and almost unrecognizable.  “Hang on, Sarge.”

“I’ll be okay,” McGinley mumbled after spitting out a broken tooth.

Taylor nervously keyed his radio mic.  “This is Unit Twenty.  Officer down.  Repeat, officer down, suspect also injured, corner of Miller and Industrial.  Request backup and an ambulance.”

“Roger that, Twenty,” the dispatcher replied.

Not two minutes later, another squad car came around the corner and gently rolled to a stop.  A balding, middle-aged man in a GCPD uniform stepped out and approached Taylor.

With a sigh of relief, the young officer muttered, “That was fast.”  But a knot of anxiety quickly grew in his stomach.  “Maybe too fast.”  He worried that the man walking toward him was one of the murderous imposters.

“Sergeant Phil Krebs, Downtown Division.  I was two blocks away when I heard your call.”

Still visibly shaken by seeing his partner attacked so viciously and having to use his weapon for the first time, Taylor said, “Uh, yeah.  Thanks for getting here so quick.”  He looked Krebs over and wasn’t sure what to do.

Krebs bent down to check on McGinley.

“Don’t touch him!”

Krebs heard a click and turned to see the barrel of Taylor’s .44 pointing at his face.  “What the hell?  Kid, are you okay?”

“Move away from my sergeant.”  Taylor was sweating, and his trembling hands gripped the gun tightly.

Krebs backed up and slowly got to his feet.  “Take it easy, officer.  I know what you’re thinking.  Those phony cops have us all wishing we had eyes in the backs of our heads.  It’s alright.  I’m legit.  I’ve been on the force for nineteen years.”

“I say this as respectfully as I can, sir, but I don’t believe you.”  Tears welled up in Taylor’s eyes.  “I don’t believe anybody I don’t know.”

The wail of approaching sirens stirred the wounded vagrant, who made an animal-like gurgling sound and raised his left arm.

Taylor looked down at him while keeping his revolver firmly aimed at the other officer.

“The cavalry’s approaching.  You can relax now.  I’ll help you with this knucklehead.”  Krebs pulled out his handcuffs to restrain the suspect.

Seeing the movement, Taylor panicked and reflexively pulled the trigger.

“Oh, God!”

 

The accidental shooting led all morning newscasts.  Interviewed citizens and law enforcement experts alike summed it up in one word: inevitable.  With the palpable climate of fear and suspicion pervading the city and the police in particular, such a tragedy could almost have been predicted.

After a sleepless night, the mayor held a solemn press conference at nine.  “I want to make a brief statement and then I will take questions.  Understand, though, that for a variety of reasons, I cannot give out certain information about the ongoing investigations or the specifics of last night’s tragic event.

“To the citizens of Gotham City, I say this.  The men and women of our police force are the finest anywhere.  Despite speculation in certain media outlets to the contrary, we have every reason to believe that the brutal killers of our officers in blue are imposters—wolves in sheep’s clothing—and not legitimate members of the Gotham Police Department.  And while this investigation continues, I can reassure you that they are as committed as ever to protect and serve the people of this city.  Let no one doubt this, or try to take advantage of the situation.  Our ‘thin blue line’ remains strong, and its resolve has never been greater.

“To the members of the Gotham Police family, we hurt and mourn with you.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to you.  We stand as one to support you in this time of crisis, and we will make available every resource you need in order to find, arrest, and prosecute the criminals responsible for these heinous acts against you and against our city.

“Finally, I want to announce some additional measures we are taking to further safeguard our police officers and residents.  One, effective immediately, SWAT and counterterrorism units will be patrolling the streets in addition to our regular units.  Two, until further notice, there will be a nighttime curfew in effect throughout the city.  Three, we are setting up a special hotline number to report any suspicious activity which may be related to the cold-blooded murders of our officers.

“I appeal to all the good people of Gotham to remain calm during this difficult time.  So far, thankfully, no civilians have been injured or killed in these vicious attacks.  I believe the curfew and other steps will help us keep it that way.  I will now take questions for about ten minutes, then I need to get back to work.”

Dozens of hands shot up, and the mayor pointed to a man on the first row.

“Can you update the conditions of the officers wounded last night?”

“Yes.  Sergeant McGinley is resting comfortably after surgery to repair the damage to his face.  Sergeant Krebs remains in critical but stable condition.”

“What about the other officer involved in the shooting?  The Gotham Herald is reporting that he’s one of the imposters.  Is he a suspect?”

Holding up his hand, the mayor said, “Whoa—whoa—whoa!  As I said, there’s a lot of questions I can’t answer about what happened last night, but I will address that unfounded rumor.  Let me be clear.  Sergeant Krebs’ shooting was a tragic case of mistaken identity.  This we know for a fact.  The young officer responsible feels absolutely horrible about what happened, as you can imagine.  We have people with him and his family to provide whatever help he requires.”

“Do you have any suspects in the other killings?”

“Do we have suspects?  Yeah, a city full.  There’s plenty of criminals who have a beef with the Gotham Police.  But nobody we can charge with anything right now.”

“Could this be related to the recent convictions of Sal Maroni and Rupert Thorne?”

“I can’t comment on that.”

Summer Gleeson was called on next.  “Mr. Mayor, it seems that you and Commissioner Gordon have seriously underestimated the threat being posed by these killers.  Isn’t it time to call in the FBI for assistance?  If not, why not?”

“You go right for the jugular, don’t you?  No, we have not yet asked the FBI to intervene.  That could always change, of course, but for now we are treating it as a local matter.  No evidence of involvement by national or international parties has been discovered thus far.  So to your first point, no, I don’t believe we’ve underestimated the threat.”

“Seriously?” she continued.  “Sir, we have an unknown number of assailants wearing identical uniforms, driving identical vehicles, and showing a deep familiarity with the Gotham Police.  If that level of sophistication doesn’t say ‘outside influence,’ I don’t know what does.”

With an irritated sigh, the mayor answered, “Ms. Gleeson, you know we have quite a few ‘home grown’ criminals who are more than capable of wreaking havoc on this city—and have done so.  Not to mention any names, so I don’t give them publicity.  Sophistication doesn’t automatically mean external organizations are responsible.  Next question.”

“What about Batman?”

The mayor shrugged.  “We would surely welcome his help.  But that’s Commissioner Gordon’s area.  You’ll have to ask him.”

 

The addition of SWAT units did not dissuade the uniformed murderers in the least.  An imposter was able to infiltrate one SWAT team and kill two officers.  Although wounded, he somehow managed to escape and, as with the others, seemingly vanish into thin air.

As Gordon expected, internal investigations uncovered no evidence of rogue collaborators within the department.  Due to the size of his criminal organization, Black Mask rose to the top of possible suspects and subsequently became the focus of police efforts.

Speaking through lawyers from some of his dummy companies, he denied involvement and cited a complete lack of evidence connecting him in any way to the killings.  He also implied that he was being used as an easy scapegoat for Gordon’s failure to eliminate police corruption and incompetence.

With the death toll mounting, the eyes of Gotham turned to the World’s Greatest Detective.

 

Alone on the dark, windswept rooftop of Police Headquarters, Gordon heard the familiar rustle of a cape behind the beaming Bat-signal.  “That didn’t take long.”

Batman shut off the light.  “I’ve been expecting your call.”

“This war…it needs to end.  Now.”

“What have you turned up?”

In weary frustration, Gordon replied, “Plenty of people who aren’t suspects: Joker, Two-Face, Penguin, Maroni, Thorne….”

“You can add Riddler, Bane, and Scarface to the list.”

“Well, then that whittles it down to Black Mask and…nobody.”

Batman nodded.  “I was skeptical at first, because his organization’s in transition, but the further I dig, the more I’m convinced it’s him.”

“The only thing worrying me more than it being Black Mask is it not being him.  That would open a Pandora’s Box of possibilities I don’t even want to consider.”

“Like foreign mobsters or the League of Assassins.”

Gordon softly chuckled.  “You and I are having the same nightmares, huh?”

“Mine are usually a lot worse.”

“And the mayor is ready to call in the FBI.”

Batman shook his head.  “Don’t bother.  Their intelligence doesn’t show any kind of activity pointing to the involvement of international actors.”

The commissioner gave him an incredulous look.

“I have sources.”

“Of course.  Say no more.  Sometimes I really envy you.”

“Don’t,” Batman said coldly.

“Okay…back to Black Mask.  He’s smart and meticulous.  We know he covers his tracks extremely well, which makes it hard to pin something on him.”

“But this is not a one-man operation.  He’s obviously got special help.”

Gordon adjusted his glasses.  “If only we could arrest a few of those imposters, get them off the street.”

“Replacements will just pour in,” Batman countered.

“But we might be able to make one of them talk….”

“Black Mask has a code of silence second to none.  Everybody who works for him knows if they open their mouths, the rest of their lives can be measured in hours, not years.”

“Then how do we nail him?” Gordon wondered.

“You won’t get anywhere trying to connect him to the murders.  Let him do it for you.  Find his imposters’ base of operation, and the proof will be there.”

“Meanwhile, I lose more officers to this maniac.  Search warrants, subpoenas, interrogations…they take time.”

“Do what you have to.  I’ll help you get him and stop the killing.  We both know I have certain…advantages in how I work.”

“If you bring him down and make the streets safe again for my officers, I think even Harvey Bullock would shake your hand.”  Gordon gazed out at the lights of the Gotham skyline.  “Did you hear the mayor’s speech, where he called us a ‘thin blue line?’  Over the years I think you’ve become our ‘thin black line.’  Batman?”

He looked back and saw he was alone.

 

To protect himself in case the police got too close, Black Mask had set up his hidden “war room” miles away from any of his businesses.  That evening, he was onsite to meet with the man whose help he had deemed essential from the outset.  He patted the man on the shoulder, then sat with him at a folding table.

“You’re pleased?” the man asked.

“Yes!  So far you’ve given me everything I wanted, and then some.”

Uneasily, the man said, “You’re welcome.”

“Something wrong?” Black Mask asked.

“It’s just…it’s been taking a little more out of me than I imagined it would, that’s all.  I could use some extra.”

Black Mask stared at him for a moment, then reached into his coat pocket.  Slowly withdrawing a small syringe, he flicked it across the table.

The man snatched it up, jabbed the needle into his arm, and injected the substance inside.  Within seconds, he began to relax, then smiled.  “Better.”

“Good.  I have a special assignment.  Something different.  I want you to deliver a personal message.”

“To whom?”

Mask grinned.  “Batman.”

 

The Dark Knight and Robin spent their time identifying and investigating possible headquarters for Black Mask’s small army.  Robin checked out the waterfront and warehouse districts while Batman searched midtown.

“Batman?” Robin called over the comlink.

“Go ahead.”

“Sector Ten is clean.  On to Eleven.”

“That’s five of twelve we’ve ruled out.”

Robin said, “I feel like we’re in a real-life game of Battleship.”

“Don’t get sunk.  I’m still in Sector Six.  Out.”

Robin switched the comlink off.  “‘Don’t get sunk.’  And they say he has no sense of humor.”

 

Batman was crouched on a gargoyle atop the Baker Building.  While he scanned the abandoned gymnasium across the street, his instincts perked up.  He quickly looked behind him, but no one was there.

The feeling persisted as he moved along the area’s rooftops.  He didn’t see or hear anything, but he knew someone was following him.  Finally, he stopped on the roof of an apartment building and crouched behind a ventilator.  Moments later, he heard soft footsteps.

In one smooth movement, he leaped from his hiding place and flung a Batarang at the dark figure standing near the access door.  The weapon scored a direct hit and knocked the stranger over.

Batman pounced on the masked man, grabbed his black hood, and slammed him up against the exhaust duct.  “What do you want?” he growled.

The man said nothing and showed no sign of fear.

Batman decked him again with a solid right to the jaw.  “Who are you?” he demanded as he picked the stranger up and got in his face.

Once more, the man offered no response.

Batman gripped his chin like a vise, forcing his head back against the bricks.  “Who do you work for?  Back Mask?”  He squeezed a little tighter.  “Maybe you didn’t hear me.  Who are you?

The man began laughing softly.

“I don’t see anything funny.”

“So angry, and I haven’t done a thing to you,” the man said in an odd, soft voice.

“I don’t like being followed.”  Batman stepped back.

“Obviously.”  The man massaged his neck.

“I want some answers.  Good ones.”

“Or what, you’ll beat them out of me?”

Batman took hold of the man’s collar.  “Maybe.  Now who are you?”

“Only a messenger.  The one I work for wants you to know this is just the beginning.  You’ve seen the new police officers in the city and what they have done.  We can quietly flood Gotham with more such officers and the resources to support them.”

“Do you work for Black Mask?” Batman demanded.

“I’m not authorized to tell you.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“That will become clear in time,” the stranger said, freeing himself from Batman’s grip.  “I also have a warning for you.  Be smart and stay off the streets, or you’ll be targeted, too.  If Gotham’s Finest are powerless against us, what hope could you have?”

“First you’ve got to find me.”

“We already did.”  The man tossed a grenade at Batman’s feet and ran.

The Dark Knight dove for cover as a cloud of smoke hissed from the device.

“Next time, it won’t be a dummy.”

 

In the morning, Bruce was still pondering the mysterious encounter even as he prepared for the beginning of the Wayne Enterprises Executive Conference.  What concerned him most were the implications of Black Mask’s “message.”  Clearly, the mobster saw Gotham’s police department as powerless, and he was not intimidated at all by Batman.

Against that backdrop, he left Tim to continue searching for Black Mask’s base while he hosted the kickoff mixer in the evening.  Attended by forty-eight top executives, their spouses, and a few select members of the press, the event was designed to give everyone a chance to relax and socialize before getting down to business the next day.

Lucius Fox worked the Wayne Manor ballroom, greeting attendees and setting a friendly tone.  Moving toward the hors d’oeuvre table, he saw a small group gathered around Selina, who was regaling them with wisecracks and one-liners in between sips of wine.  “Good evening, Selina.”

“Pardon me for just a sec,” she told her audience.  “Lucius!  It’s been forever.  How are you?” she asked as she hugged his neck.

“Fantastic.  Looking forward to your presentation in the morning.”  Eyeing her empty glass as he walked away, he added, “Don’t have too much fun.”

She gazed around the room.  “In this museum?  Not possible.”

The people near her chuckled.  The lady was in rare form.

“Like I was saying,” she told them while she picked up another glass from a roving server, “the guy from this bank actually said, ‘We can’t go with your security system because it’s too good.’  The look on Bruce’s face…if he had Superman’s laser vision, the guy would be walking around with no head.”

A reporter from the Gotham Herald asked, “Ms. Wayne, what is it like working for your former husband?”

“Not bad, especially when the boss is two thousand miles away.”

More laughs.

She saw Bruce walking in her direction.  “And here he comes now.”

Attention immediately turned to the party’s host.  “Mr. Wayne, did the recent violence ever make you think about rescheduling the conference?” the Gotham Tribune’s representative wondered.

“Not at all.  The city’s faced criminal threats large and small for decades.  Tragic as these events are, we can’t put our lives on hold every time something like this happens.  I absolutely trust Commissioner Gordon and his men will find and arrest whoever’s responsible for this wave of attacks, be it the Joker, the Riddler, or someone we’ve never heard of before.”

Selina waved her hand.  “Speaking of riddles, I’ve got one for you.  How is Bruce Wayne like a dirty suit?”  She gave him an impish grin. 

No one said a word.

“They both get taken to the cleaners,” she answered with a hearty laugh.

Smiling, he said, “I thought we agreed not to air our differences in public.  Perhaps you’ve had too much to drink.”

“Or not enough,” she shot back.  “Hired any hot new ‘personal assistants’ lately?”

He gave her an icy stare and grabbed her wrist.  “Please excuse us,” he told the others before leading her away to a side room near the kitchen.

The reporters watched them engaging in an animated argument on the way.  “And we thought the conference itself was going to be the big story.”

 

Once they were inside the small room, Bruce locked the door.  They stared at one another for a moment, then burst out laughing.  He embraced her with a passionate kiss.  “It’s great to have you here, even for a few days.”

“Mmmm.  I second that emotion,” she murmured.  “So how was my acting?”

“Oscar-worthy for sure.  You’ve given the tabloids a couple weeks’ worth of material.  They’ll be wondering how long until I decide to fire you.”

“What, and have to give me more money to go away?”

He kissed her again.  “Not a chance.  Where are you staying?”

“The Gotham Plaza.  Billed to the company, of course.”

“I could put you up here,” he said with a wink.

“Maybe later.  Wouldn’t want to send the gossip rags mixed signals.”

He checked his watch.  “Speaking of which…we’d better get back to the party before they suspect we’re not actually fighting.”

“My apologies in advance.”  She slapped his face hard.

“Ow!  What the—”

“Gotta look real,” she said, smiling.  She then opened the door, slammed it, and marched off to the ballroom.  “Grrr!  Men!”

Bruce touched his cheek and realized she’d drawn blood.  Can’t get more real than that.

 

Shortly after eight the following night, another attack claimed the lives of two more officers.  An imposter on a motorcycle pulled up next to a patrol car in midtown and signaled for the driver to roll down his window.  As soon as he did, the phony cop tossed a grenade into the car and sped off.  Five seconds later the black and white erupted in a fireball.

Watching helplessly from ten stories above, Catwoman jumped for cover as debris from the explosion rained down.  She knew instantly it was the imposters, and when she looked up the motorcycle was still visible a block away.  Leaping, flipping and running from rooftop to rooftop, she tried desperately to keep the bike in view.  “This could be the break the cops need.”

She followed the cycle as it turned and snaked through the streets for several blocks.  It finally slowed and went down a dead end alleyway.  “Gotcha now, boy!”

But when she ran up to the ledge and peered down, the alley was empty.  No motorcycle, no rider, and no sign either had been there at all.  “What?  Where did you go, another dimension?”  She sat down in dejection and disbelief.

A few minutes later, she climbed down the boarded-up building’s fire escape and dropped into the alley, intent on confirming what she knew she saw.  Walking determinedly, she checked every door and wall on the way.  Solid metal.  Solid brick and stone.

At the end, a huge graffiti-covered dumpster sat against the crudely finished cement wall.  She noticed thin metal rails leading from the bottom of the dumpster to the wall on her left.  This wasn’t what it appeared to be, she realized.

The rumble of an approaching motorcycle startled her, and she jumped back into the shadows just before it entered the alleyway.  The rider slowed as he approached the dumpster, which smoothly rolled aside to reveal a pitch black passageway.  The bike drove on and disappeared.

Seizing the opportunity, she ran for the entrance just as the dumpster moved back into place and squeezed through with barely two inches’ clearance.  Taking a minute to get oriented, she noticed the ramp she was on led down to a platform.

Seeing the glow of lights up ahead, she stayed low and let the shadows conceal her movements.  She came to another ramp, which curved past a drop-off to a long, paved tunnel stretching into the distance.

The tunnel led her to a wide, well-lighted expanse with multiple levels.  She saw a Gotham police car.  Then another.  And another.  Plus two GCPD motorcycles.  Off to the right, she heard an angry voice yelling and carefully raised her head to look.

“Omigod!”

 

“Sector twelve is clear,” Robin said over the comlink.

“So we’re finished, but not done,” Batman replied.  “We’ve completed the search without finding his base.”

“What now?” Robin wondered.

“Regroup.  Start again, since we obviously missed something.”

“But we’ve searched every suitable building.”

“Maybe he’s not in a building,” Batman said.

“Then where--”

“Beneath a building.  On a ship.  Outside of town.  This isn’t like Joker hiding in a warehouse with a handful of thugs.  The logistics for what’s essentially a guerilla war are substantial.  Meet me at the Batcave.  We need another plan.”

 

Catwoman knew it was the imposters’ base, and as much as she wanted to stay to gather more information, she also knew she had to tell someone.  Retreating silently in the darkness, she made her way back to the concealed entrance.  Okay, she thought, I got in…so how do I get out?

Above the entrance was a small red and green light, with the red side lit.  She closed her eyes and tried to remember where she’d seen one before.  Yes!  Motion sensor.

Moving cautiously, she positioned herself in the path of the invisible beam.  The dumpster rolled away, and she scampered outside.  Exhaling deeply, she said, “That was close!”  She ran up the alley and activated the transmitter in her cowl.  “Batman, this is Catwoman.  Come in, please.”

 

Batman was driving home when the Batmobile’s communicator beeped.  “Catwoman, go ahead.”

“You won’t believe this, Bats, but I found the headquarters of those phony cops.”

He slammed on the brakes, and the car squealed to a stop.  “Where are you?”

She looked around.  “I was following one of their motorcycles all over for several blocks.  I think we passed Third Street and Adams.  Or was it Fifth?  Anyway, the guy drove down this dead end, but it’s really not, because there’s a false wall and a tunnel that goes down behind it.  Inside I saw a bunch of fake cop cars, motorcycles, and several thugs.  And Black Mask was there!  He was giving an injection to this guy who looked really sick, and shouting at him.”

The tunnel entrance opened again.

“Bats, I gotta get away from here.  I’ll call you back in a few with the exact address.”

 

Batman hit the turbo boost, and the Batmobile lurched forward, gaining speed every second.  “Robin, we just got a major break.  Catwoman found Black Mask’s hideout--underground.  If you get back to the cave first, bring up the city records for areas in the vicinity of Third and Fifth Streets.”

Robin’s motorcycle was practically flying.  “I should be there in three or four minutes.”

 

            Catwoman jumped, grabbed the bottom rung of the fire escape, and began climbing.  A gunshot struck the railing just six inches from her head and froze her in mid-step.

“Come down the ladder…slowly.”

She complied.

“Good.  Now turn around and keep your hands up.”

She found herself face to face with two of the police imposters, guns drawn.  “Ohh, crap!”

 

            Batman and Robin pored over historical maps and digitized blueprints, feverishly looking for what Catwoman might’ve discovered.  Was it a new structure, like a parking garage?  An underground armory, or perhaps an old fallout shelter?  And as the minutes passed, they grew more and more concerned that she hadn’t made contact again.

 

            One of Black Mask’s henchman walked up to him.  “Boss, look who the guys found snooping around outside.”  He pushed the tied and bound Catwoman to her knees.

            Annoyed, Black Mask turned and gazed down at her.  “Stupid girl.  When that door opens, it sends a signal to the guard.  We knew you were here when you tried to leave.”

            “What should I do with her?” the thug asked.

“I’ll handle it.  Evidently, my first message to Batman didn’t make an impression.”  Black Mask took a silver pistol out of his coat and chambered a bullet.  “I should send him a stronger one.”

As he put the gun against her forehead, she closed her eyes and trembled.

“What is it they say about curiosity?”

Tears made her mascara run in black streaks.

He pressed the barrel into her cowl.  “I asked you a question, Catwoman!  What is it they say about curiosity?”

“It killed the cat,” she wept.

Blam!

“It sure did.”

 

At 10:15, the Bat-signal’s beam lit up the sky.

When Batman reached the rooftop of police headquarters, he saw Bullock and Montoya standing beside the signal with Gordon.

Montoya nudged Bullock, as if to say, “Keep quiet.”

Sensing that their presence was not a good omen, the Caped Crusader stepped into view.

Gordon found it hard to make eye contact.  “Batman, something tragic has happened.  Catwoman was murdered tonight.  Her body was found dumped near a nightclub on Tenth.  Cause of death appears to be a single gunshot to the forehead.”

Batman wondered how he would break the news to Selina.

“I’m very sorry,” Gordon continued.  “I know you two used to be…close.  I’ve imposed a twenty-four hour media blackout on the case so you can get the word out to whoever needs to know.”

Montoya patted Batman’s arm.  “My condolences.”

“Thank you.”

Gordon took out a notebook.  “No suspects.  No witnesses.  We’re still interviewing people in that area.  I assure you, we will not stop until—”

Batman cut him off.  “I know who did it.  Black Mask.  She discovered the base for his fake police and had just notified me when she broke contact.  That was two hours ago.”

“Where was she?”

“She never got to tell me.  But Robin and I are narrowing it down based on the information she did give us.”

“What information?” Bullock demanded.

Montoya gave him a withering look.

“I’ll let you know as soon as I have something concrete,” Batman said.  “We’re closing in on Black Mask, and I want him behind bars as much as you do.”

 

The incessant beeping of her cell phone woke Selina from a deep sleep.  She was going to mute the ringer until she saw the number.  “Bruce?”

“It’s Alfred, Miss Selina.  I do apologize for the disturbance, but Master Bruce asks that you come over here right away.”

She rubbed her eyes.  “It’s eleven, Alfred.  What does he want?”

“He didn’t say, only that it was a matter of great urgency.”

“Are you sure it can’t wait?”  She tried to get her mind in gear.

“He sounded extremely distressed,” the butler replied.

“Okay.  I’ll catch a cab and be there as soon as I can.”

 

When she arrived, Alfred took her coat and ushered her into the study.  Closing the door, he said, “I’ll be in the kitchen if you’d like some coffee.”

She sat next to Bruce, who looked visibly distraught and on the verge of crying.  “Darling, what’s going on?”

Fighting a mixture of rage and grief, he bit his lip and turned to face her.  “Terri’s dead.”

“Oh, God, no!”  Tears welled up in her eyes.  “What happened?”

“She was murdered by Black Mask.  He’s behind the imposters who have been killing real police officers since last month.  Gordon and his men are working nonstop to find their base.  Terri stumbled onto it somewhere in Midtown and was caught.”

“How did she die?”

He hesitated.  “Does it really matter?”

“Yes.”  Her anger rose along with the tears.

“Trust me, it’ll only make you feel worse.”

“Dammit, Bruce, tell me!  What did he do to her?”

“It was an execution.  Bullet between the eyes.”

She wailed in anguish.

He put his arms around her as she grieved the stunning loss of a girl who had been like a younger sister.

 

In time the tears subsided, and she took some deep breaths to try to calm herself.  “Remember after Nikki died how Terri came to me, wanting to take her place as my assistant?”

“Yeah.  You weren’t sure she could handle that.”

“And what a transformation…from plain schoolgirl to sassy crimefighter.  She worked so hard on her training.  Anything I asked, she’d do it and more.  If I pushed her, she pushed herself even further.  I felt so good about leaving the East End in her care.  She was such a special person, just like Nikki.  That’s two little Cat sisters I’ve lost to the criminal scum of this town.  Rarrgh!” she growled.  “If Black Mask were standing here I swear I’d scratch his eyes out!  They say ‘know your enemy,’ so what can you tell me about the jerkhole?”

Bruce said, “How much time do you have?  His name’s Roman Sionis, and in many ways you could call him my ‘evil twin.’  His parents were rich, self-absorbed hypocrites.  He grew to despise them—so much so, he burned down their mansion and killed them.  He inherited their family business but had no aptitude for it.  The company went down the tubes until I bailed it out, and of course that put me on his crap list.  He succeeded in crime where he failed in business and has built the most powerful criminal organization in Gotham.  You don’t tell him no.  He’s sadistic and ultraviolent, with a fondness for guns.”

His words just increased her fury and filled her with resolve.  “I’ll see to it personally that sicko pays for what he did to Terri.  And it’s going to be a very high price!”  She sprang to her feet.  “Crack open that museum case downstairs, darling.  I’m suiting up!”

            “What?” he gasped.  “Are you out of your mind?  You can’t seriously be considering--”

            “Hell, yes, I’m serious!  When I hung up the Catsuit, there wasn’t a thing on Earth that could make me put it on again.  Well, right now there isn’t anything that could stop me from putting it on.  I owe it to Terri.  And this Cat will not go down without a vicious fight!”

            “No.  I forbid it.”

            “You don’t have a say, Bruce.  It’s my choice.”

            “You’re not ready to take on Black Mask.”

            “I’ve been doing Tae Kwon Do for the past two years.”  Smiling, she unbuttoned her blouse and tossed it at him flirtatiously.  “See for yourself.  Doesn’t this body look ready for action?”

            Lean and still curvaceous, she was in as good a shape as he’d ever seen.  “It does, but I may need a closer look to be sure.”

“Hmm…I’ll think about it,” she said as she put her blouse back on.  “But first things first.”

“Yes, your vendetta against Black Mask.  I’d like to think I can stop you, but I know I can’t.  However, I still have to say it’s a bad idea.  Your mind is on revenge more than honoring Terri.  It’s very easy to let that anger cloud your judgment or make you reckless, both of which can be fatal against a cold killer like him.”

“He needs to be taken down hard!  If I get alone with that skull-headed freak, I am not responsible for whatever happens.” 

“Taking him down is only part of it.  We have to find out where he’s getting all his manpower and stop whoever’s helping him.  But before any of that, I need to know exactly what Terri discovered.”  He yawned.  “Which I will return to in the morning.”

She looked at her watch.  “Past midnight?  I am not in the mood for another cab ride.”

“So stay here.”

“Okay.  But don’t get any ideas.”

He looked sheepish.  “Who, me?”

 

Bruce and Tim were up and in the Batcave before seven, when Alfred brought down breakfast.

“Miss Selina is going to dine upstairs before she leaves,” the butler said.  “She asked if you would like to join her.”

“Would I like to?  Absolutely.  Do I have time?  No.”

“She also wanted me to remind you that the end-of-conference meetings start at 8:30 and that hers is at ten.”

“Thanks.”  Bruce rolled his eyes.  “This conference is happening at the worst possible time.”

“Couldn’t Mr. Fox handle the meetings?” Alfred suggested.

“Afraid not.  The whole idea behind them is face time with the boss.  Kind of defeats the purpose if I don’t show up.”

“What should I do while you’re gone?” Tim asked.

“Start going over the old subway maps.  That’s about the only place we haven’t searched.”

“What time will you be back, in case I find something?”

Bruce said, “Unfortunately, not soon enough.  After the meetings, we’re having a wrap-up luncheon.”

 

“Well, this is awkward,” Selina said as she sat down in Bruce’s office for their meeting.  “I know I’m supposed to talk about goals and objectives, my relationship with the company, blah, blah, blah.  However….”

“You’d rather discuss your relationship with me?”

 “Kind of.  Really it’s more about me.  I don’t want to sound at all ungrateful, because I’ve had a blast as head of Wayne Security Systems.  I think my real-world experience helped you out a lot.  But…the ‘new’ has worn off.  I want to do something different.  Believe it or not, I’m actually missing Gotham City.  And you.  I think Helena needs her Daddy, too.”

“Even though he’s--”

“Yes, even with that.  Anything is better than the almost nothing she has now, thousands of miles away.”

“You left because of the danger,” he reminded her.

“I’ve realized there’s danger of some kind everywhere.  I know how stupid that sounds.  It’s…sometimes I just have to learn things the hard way.  Story of my life.”

“I don’t have any executive openings here.”

“I’m not looking for one.”  She handed him a folded paper with a bright red lip print on the inside.  “Consider that my letter of resignation from Wayne Enterprises.”

He toyed with the page for a moment.  “This looks like a copy.  I need to see the original to make it official.”

Smiling, she leaned over the desk and kissed him.

“Consider your letter accepted.  From a business standpoint, I hate losing a good executive who knows her stuff.  Personally, though, it’ll be nice to have you here again.  So what do you plan to do once you move back?”

“Probably something philanthropic.  I’m not sure on the specifics yet.”

“Sounds like a good idea.  Naturally, the media will get wind of this,” he pointed out.  “What’s your ‘official’ reason for quitting?”

“My boss is a jerk.”

“Yeah, he’s always hitting on you.”  His cell phone rang.  “Tim?”

“Jackpot!” the boy said.  “I found what we’re looking for.  It’s so obvious when you see it.  Makes everything fit together.”

“That’s great news.  I should be home by three.”  Bruce noticed Selina pointing at herself.  “We should be home by three.”

 

As soon as Bruce parked his sports car in the garage, he and Selina made a beeline for the Batcave.

Tim motioned them over to the map table.  “You were right, it’s all in here.  Look at this map of the Gotham subway from 1907.  Add an overlay of the system circa 1970.  Notice these three sections are no longer part of the line.  They were eliminated and closed off during the Great Depression, when the system changed owners.  Now, here’s the clincher.  Put this planimetric view of the city from two years ago on top, and you see the closed section in Midtown is below the area bounded by Third and Miller to the north and Fifth and Lee to the south.  And the entrance to the station is directly under these two empty tenement buildings.”

Bruce was thoroughly impressed.  “Excellent detective work.  So Terri really did know where she was, after all.”  He examined the map more closely.  “See these other entrances to the abandoned station here and here?  That’s how the imposters have been able to disappear so quickly.”

“Like I said, once you know that station is there, everything fits.”

“So what are we waiting for?”  Selina asked.  “Let’s go kick their sorry asses and beat Skullface to a pulp.”

Bruce looked at her disapprovingly.  “We have to do it right.  We need a plan of attack.  Most importantly, we need to notify Commissioner Gordon.  His officers deserve the lead on this one.”

Tim set the maps aside.  “What if Black Mask isn’t there?”

“Once he learns Batman is sneaking around, he’ll come running.  I’m the cheese in the trap.”

 

Thick, low overcast darkened the late afternoon sky.  It helped conceal Batman’ movements as he scaled police headquarters and flipped on the Bat signal.

The surprised commissioner joined him about five minutes later.  “You’re up early,” he teased.  “Never thought about using this thing in reverse.”

“The killing ends tonight.  We found Black Mask’s hideout.”

Gordon’s eyes got wide.  “Oh, thank God!”

“It’s in a deserted subway station, so you could be storming an underground fort.  I’ve got a plan that should minimize casualties on both sides.”  Batman handed him a small manila envelope.  “The location and other details are in there.  Get two dozen of your best tactical officers.  Have them in the positions indicated by 8:30 and wait for my signal.  I want to make sure Black Mask and as many of his men as possible are there before you go in.”

Gordon glanced over the sheets in the envelope, then frowned.  “‘Put a strip of yellow tape on the front of your tactical helmets?’  What for?”

“If the imposters are wearing identical uniforms, it may save their lives.”

 

At eight o’clock, Batman, Robin, and Catwoman positioned themselves across from the Third Street alley which dead-ended into the dilapidated Morton housing project.  A light rain began soon after.

Batman put on a pair of special goggles, focused them, and began scanning the area.

“Night vision?” Catwoman asked.

“Similar.  These use sonar instead of infrared, so I can basically see through buildings.”

“Like Superman,” Robin said.

“Not exactly.”  Batman zoomed in on the tenement buildings.  “Got it.  The entrance is a false wall at the back of that alley, behind a dumpster.”

            When the glare of oncoming headlights shone in front of them, the trio slipped back into hiding.  As the car slowed and turned into the alley, Batman saw it was a GCPD squad car, doubtless belonging to the imposters.  He took a small launcher from his utility belt and quickly fired a penny-sized magnetic disc, which attached itself to the rear bumper before the car vanished.

            Catwoman looked at him.  “What’s that?”

            “A listening device so sensitive, it can hear a cat purr at two hundred yards.”

“Meow!”

He tuned his cowl’s receiver to the bug’s frequency.  “This ought to be good.”

 

            Following Batman’s instructions, Gordon stationed his tactical officers around the similarly hidden north and south entrances.  The north group would apprehend anyone who tried to escape when the south group moved in to secure the tunnel.

            Gordon waited with Montoya and Bullock outside the south entrance.  “Pretty clever, using a subway station that almost everyone forgot about.”

Bullock finished loading his revolver.  “It coulda taken us another month to find this place.”

“Good thing we have Batman, right, Harvey?”

“Give it up, Montoya.  The day I show appreciation for that nutcase is the day I quit eating donuts.”

 

            Inside the base, Black Mask ranted and raved.  The target of his wrath was the man who had been giving him invaluable help since he declared war on the police.  Looking pale and weak, the man slumped in a chair while Black Mask piled on verbal abuse.

            Mask reluctantly gave him a syringe, which he injected into his arm.  “You happy now?  How much of this crap are you gonna need?”

            The man groaned.

            “What was I thinking?  I should’ve known you wouldn’t be able to last more than a few weeks.”

            “I—I can do it...just need some rest.”

            “Rest?  I don’t have time for you to rest, Hagen!  I can’t fight this battle with only twenty men.  I need you out there being the other part of my army until I can bring in all those new guys from Blüdhaven.”

            “Later…rest first.”

            Black Mask pistol-whipped him.  “Maybe you’re not understanding me!  We’ve got them on their heels.  I need to keep the momentum going.  When my reinforcements hit the streets, the terror they bring may just break the cops’ morale for good.  Then I’ll hunt down Batman like a vulture and destroy him!”

            “Need…more…mutagen.”

            “Not until I get more cooperation.  I want you back on the streets tonight killing more cops.”

            “No mutagen…no cooperation.”

            Mask slapped him with the gun again.

            Hagen retaliated by spitting in his face.

            Mask kicked over the chair in a fury, knocking him to the floor in a heap.  “You know something?  You’re a useless junkie!  You can’t do anything without that damn chemical goo!”  He motioned to one of his thugs.  “Get this freak outta my sight.  Lousy two-bit actor.  Your movies sucked, Hagen!  Every one of them!”

 

            Batman had heard enough.  He clicked his transmitter.  “Commissioner?”

            “Go ahead, Batman.”

            “This case just took a very weird turn.  Black Mask’s ‘army’ of phony cops numbers about twenty.  He’s been using Clayface to make it look like there’s a lot more.”

            “Clayface?  No wonder the imposters were able to vanish into thin air.”

            “Right now, it sounds like he’s sick, exhausted, and fed up with Black Mask.  He needs an ambulance.”

            “We have one on standby.”

            “We’re going in.  Two minutes after you hear the blast, send the south team in with tear gas.”

            “Roger.  Good luck, Batman.”

 

            “The fake officers were really Clayface?” Robin asked in disbelief.

            “A lot of them.  Black Mask somehow obtained a quantity of the mutagen and has been parsing it out in exchange for Hagen’s cooperation.”

            “So the imposters weren’t even real imposters….” the boy observed.

            “Clever,” Batman said wryly.  “Now, let’s move!”

            The trio slipped into the alley.  Robin and Catwoman stayed at the entrance as lookouts while Batman ran up to the false wall and planted several explosive charges.  He set a timer, darted for cover in a doorway, then signaled Catwoman and Robin to hit the deck.

            With a concussion that vibrated the ground, the charges detonated in a burst of smoke.  The blast sent pieces of concrete and rebar hurtling into the no-longer-hidden passageway.

“What the hell?” Black Mask blurted out.  Then it hit him.  “Damn bitch!  She told Batman before we caught her!”

            That momentary distraction was all Batman needed to get his team inside and down to the station level, where several police imposters attacked them.

            Robin and Catwoman took out a pair of guards, while Batman disarmed two others with a well-thrown Batarang.

            A second blast rocked the tunnel farther south, followed by the thump of SWAT boots and the hiss of tear gas canisters.

            Batman told Robin, “Go find Clayface and get him out.  In his condition, the gas could kill him.”

            Black Mask knew he was being squeezed on two sides.  As several imposters fired at Batman, he waved them back, yelling, “Go after the cops!  I can handle the Bat.”

 

            Gunshots mixed with coughing echoed off the subway walls as Mask’s thugs battled the irritating fumes and Gordon’s tactical team.  The few who had gas masks put up more resistance, but a police victory was never in doubt.

 

            At the north entrance, a half-dozen men—some wounded, some choking on the gas—swarmed out, only to be captured without further resistance by the officers there.

 

            Robin searched for Clayface and finally found him on a cot behind what was once a ticket counter.  Hagen’s breathing was labored, and his skin felt very warm to the touch.

“C’mon, Hagen.  We have to get you away from here.”  The Boy Wonder gently hefted him over his shoulders and carried him back out the east ramp.  “Commissioner, I have Clayface at the Fifth Street entrance.  He’s in bad shape.”

“I’ll send the ambulance over right away.”

 

Black Mask retreated to a lower level as Batman and Catwoman approached him.  Sporadically firing at them, he climbed inside one of the phony squad cars and started the engine.  He stomped on the accelerator and steered for the exit, trying to run over his pursuers in the process.

Batman threw a Batarang which lodged in the windshield.

Mask laughed.  “Is that the best you can do?”

He stopped laughing when the gadget exploded like a firecracker, completely shattering the glass.  With shards in his eyes, he couldn’t see and smashed into the edge of the subway platform.

Batman leaped onto the hood and pulled him by the collar through the twisted windshield frame.  A hard punch to the mouth sent him falling.

Unfazed, the mobster stood up and reached for one of his pistols.  With a crack of her whip, Catwoman knocked it away from him.

Batman moved closer.  “You made two serious mistakes in your ambitious little operation.  “First, you angered the one person in this town you shouldn’t have when you killed her Cat sister.”

Catwoman struck a dominatrix pose and flexed her whip.

“She holds a grudge like you wouldn’t believe.”

Mask slipped his hand into his pocket and fingered his other pistol.

“Second, and most important, you absolutely unified the Gotham Police.  Yeah, they have their internal squabbles, and some people think they’re corrupt.  But when you put them in your crosshairs they closed ranks, and now you’ve made thirty thousand new enemies for life.”

“Minus one.”  Black Mask fired.

Batman saw the gun and kicked his arm up just as it went off.  He attacked hard, punching him in the face and belly.

Mask absorbed the blows and staggered but did not fall.  He struck back at the Dark Knight, landing a few solid hits of his own.

Catwoman wrapped her whip around his neck and pulled him back, slamming him into the platform.

Batman continued his pounding.

Catwoman yanked hard on the whip, nearly cutting off the criminal’s airflow.  “That’s for Terri, you worthless crapwad!”

            He grasped at the whip, trying to get out of what felt like a noose.

            Batman gave her a “let him go” look, but she didn’t respond.  He wondered if she actually intended to kill Sionis, so he sliced away the end of the whip with a Batarang.

            “Hey!” she protested.

            Batman turned Black Mask around and threw him against the wrecked car, slamming his back into the rear bumper.  Before the mobster had time to react to the pain, Batman punched him below the belt and connected with a vicious left hook to the jaw.  He completed the takedown with a fierce kick to the ribs, which doubled him over. 

Groaning and bloodied, Mask slumped to the concrete.

Walking away, Batman told Catwoman, “Keep an eye on him.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Make a copy of his computer files.  I have a suspicion about where he got the Clayface mutagen.”

Black Mask opened his eyes and saw one of his pistols was only inches away.  He took a painful deep breath and reached for it.

Catwoman noticed movement out of the corner of her eye and promptly jammed the spike heel of her left boot into his hand.  As he yelped like a trapped animal, she knelt down and picked up the gun.  Checking the clip, she shoved it back in and pointed the barrel right at his head.

“You…don’t kill,” he gasped.

She gave him a fiendish smile.  “But you know what my problem is?  I’ve been way too nice when it comes to criminals.  Especially bottom-feeders like you, Sionis.”

He heard the hammer cock.

“Batman’s right.  I do hold grudges.  And as long as I live, I’ll never forget what you did to my little sis.”  She pressed the barrel to his forehead.  “This is how you shot her, right?”

“Catwoman!” Batman yelled, seeing what was happening.

“Back off!”  She kept her eyes steadily on Black Mask.  “How does it feel to be in her boots, Mr. Big Shot mobster?”

Batman reached for a Batarang.

Still smiling, she squeezed the trigger.

Click!

Black Mask gasped anxiously.

“Aww,” she purred.  “Empty.”

Batman figured out her strategy.  Although he couldn’t believe she was actually doing it, a deep, instinctual feeling said she wouldn’t cross the line.

She made a pouty face.  “Whatcha say we go double or nothing?”

Click!

Black Mask wasn’t prepared for the torture, and it unnerved him.

“Maybe, as they say, third time’s the charm?”

Click!

“Agghhhhh!” he wailed from the psychological agony.

“Hmm.  If at first you don’t succeed…,” she teased as she raised the gun slightly, “try, try again.”

Blam!

Black Mask screamed as the bullet zoomed over his head and embedded itself in the cement.

The mobster’s shock turned into tears while Batman hurried to finish on the computer before officers secured the station.

Satisfied that she’d inflicted as much anguish as she could, Catwoman casually dropped the pistol and walked away. 

The commissioner and three SWAT troopers entered the concourse a minute later.  “Is anybody hurt?” Gordon asked.  “We thought there might be a last pocket of resistance.”

Glancing back at the emotionally exhausted Black Mask, she shook her head.  “No resistance here, Commissioner.”

Gordon did a double take.  “Catwoman?  But you--”

She smiled as she walked by.  “Nine lives, Commissioner.  Nine lives.”

The SWAT officers put restraints on Black Mask and got him to his feet.

When Batman stepped down from the computer platform, Gordon was looking around at the wrecked car, the bullet holes, and the battered crime boss in handcuffs.  “Do I even want to know what just happened here?”

“An exorcism,” the Dark Knight said.

 

Batman, Robin and Catwoman returned to the Batcave a few minutes after midnight.  They unsuited and tried to process the strange events of the past few hours.

Tim found his voice first.  “Anybody else feel like their brain’s a ping pong ball?”

“Yeah,” Selina answered.  “Black Mask’s ‘police force’ was mostly Clayface?  Totally bizarre.”

Bruce gave her a mildly disapproving look.  “That was a ballsy thing you did, playing Russian roulette with Sionis.”

“You wondered if I would kill him, didn’t you?”

“For a moment there….”

“I admit, I got a bit carried away with the whip,” she said.  “But when I checked the clip in his gun, I pulled out all but the last bullet.  I knew exactly what I was doing.”

“Which is why I didn’t intervene.”

Tim asked, “Do you think Hagen will fully recover?”

Bruce nodded.  “Gordon said he looked much better after the paramedics worked on him.  He’ll be well enough to face the laundry list of charges the DA is going to throw at him...and Black Mask.”

“Skullface won’t be seeing daylight for what, a couple centuries?” Selina sneered.  “At least Terri can rest in peace--she’s been avenged.  I only wish I could do more for her….”

“I’ll make arrangements to have a private burial in the cemetery, next to Nikki,” Bruce said.

“Oh, thank you, darling.”  She gave him a kiss…that went on and on.

Tim looked away.  “Get a room!”

Selina winked at Bruce, a lascivious sparkle in her eyes.  “Shall we?”

“Race ya!”

 

Morning found them still in each other’s arms, and he softly brushed back her hair.  “You haven’t lost your touch.”

With a sleepy smile, she said, “Likewise.”

“When you move back to Gotham, why don’t you live here?”

She kissed him.  “Now, now.  I don’t want to spoil you.  I may sleep over now and then, but I kind of enjoy our little ‘feud.’  It helps keep our private lives…private.”

“I enjoyed working with your feline alter ego last night.  Any chance of her returning?”

She chuckled.  “Absolutely not!  Put that suit back in your museum.  Or burn it.”

“Aww.  It looks so good on you.”

“Catwoman’s retired, darling.  But you know what?  I decided her mission is going public.  I want to start a campaign to improve the lives of the East End residents I used to protect covertly.  Selina Wayne can do a lot of good when it comes to philanthropy and raising awareness.  I think it’s the best way to honor Terri’s memory, too.”

“Great idea.  But do we have to keep up our passive-aggressive act?  Your efforts would be more effective if I was seen as openly supporting them.”

“You mean the Wayne Foundation?”

He smiled.  “Exactly.”

“So if I quit trashing you to the media, you’ll contribute?”

“Uh-huh.”

She mulled it over.  “I guess we could ‘call a truce,’ at least.”

“Or maybe even be ‘friends’ again….”

“What sort of friends?”

He gave her a deep kiss.  “With benefits.”

“Mmm…purrfect!”