by Syl Francis
"Okay, Doc, you've welched on one too many bets!"
"No! Please. Tell Thorne I'll pay him back. I swear!"
"Too late, Doc!"
The sound of a single gunshot echoes sharply in the still night.
He breaks his mother's iron grip and rushes to his father, who is lying on the wet pavement, unmoving.
A red stain spreads, intermingling with the murky puddles, leaving dark splotches on his Oxfords.
A second gunshot rings out.
"Mommy!" He turns towards her. The glint of metal in the moonlight stops him.
The sirens in the distance save the boy from joining his dead parents.
The sound of raised voices penetrates the thin walls. She sits huddled in bed, covering her ears futilely.
"Serena! Where do you think you're going?"
"You're not going anywhere!"
"Who's going to stop me? You?" A pause.
"Think of Selina! Don't you even care about your own daughter?"
"That's right! My daughter! Not yours--mine!"
"Serena...? What are you saying? Selina's my little girl, too."
Laughter. Ugly. Hurtful.
"Oh, you are so stupid. Stupid and blind! Just look at her! Do you see yourself in her?"
"That's right. She's his! Not yours! Never yours! The thought of you even touching me, disgusts me! At least Rupert makes me feel like a real woman!"
Silence. Dark, deadly.
Then, "What are you doing?" Nervous laughter. "Honey...please. I didn't mean it--! He's nothing to me. No, please--!"
Sounds of struggle, furniture being overturned, glass breaking. A momentary silence.
Her bedroom door squeaks as it opens slowly.
"Don't cry, baby. Mommy's never going to hurt us ever again."
"Daddy?" she sobs.
"Mommy will never hurt you or me ever again, Selina. Go to sleep, baby. You'll always be Daddy's little Angel. Don't ever forget that."
"Daddy?" A slight sob is quickly shushed with a warm hug and kiss. She lies back, momentarily soothed.
Her daddy leans forward and kisses her tenderly on the forehead. Shoulders slumped, he stands, making his way to the door. She catches a metallic glint in his right hand. The door closes quietly behind him.
The next instant a second loud explosion shatters the silence.
The police move around, taking pictures, asking questions, smoking endlessly.
"Little boy saw it all--"
"Thomas and Martha Wayne," the rumpled police officer reports, reading from a small notebook. "It seems that the good doctor was involved in some not-so-good illegal activities. Numbers running and horse betting among others. Apparently, Wayne became involved with Rupert Thorne and forgot to pay his loans." The officer shook his head.
"Someone shoulda told 'im not to borrow money from loan sharks."
"Shut up for chrissakes! The boy'll hear you!"
"Little girl was in the other room. Heard it all--"
"Wife was a real looker. Rumor has it that she was Rupert Thorne's little chippy. Hung out at Thorne's Rose Club most nights. Guess the husband finally got fed up with it."
"Hey, watch'er mouth. The little girl might hear you!"
Twenty years later...
Glowing neon letters from a storefront window identified 'Katmandu Jewelry, est. 1906.' At half past midnight, the shop had been closed for several hours. Nevertheless, dark shapes moved within.
The distinct sound of a cracking whip echoed in the night.
"Okay, boys! One at a time or all at once--which will it be?"
"It's the Cat lady!"
"That's Catwoman to you!" She punctuated her sentence with another crack of the whip. The cat-o'-nine-tails caught the hapless mook around the neck.
"Urk--!" he choked.
She pulled, lifting him off his feet, throwing him head over heels into a jewelry display case. He landed with a resounding crash, instantly setting off the burglar alarm.
"Oops. Did I do that?" she smirked.
"Let's get outta here!" a nervous lookout yelled. "The cops'll be here any minute!"
"Thorne's not gonna be happy with this!" another said, fearfully. "It took him almost two months to plan this heist!"
"It's all her fault!" still another added. "I say we haul her carcass to the boss!"
"Yeah, Blackie. She's only one dame! Let's get her!"
"So eager. Purr-rrr-fect...I love it when the mice want to play." The woman in the black cat suit waited with seeming nonchalance as the group of hardened jewel thieves surrounded her.
By ones and twos, they pounced. With a snarl and sharpened claws, the Catwoman lashed out. She leaped straight up, spinning and kicking out, her booted heels connecting with two glass chins simultaneously. Somersaulting in midair, she cracked her whip, caught a ceiling light fixture and swung above their heads.
Dropping behind them, she expertly lashed her whip around another two. As she pulled, their heads slammed into each other's, effectively knocking them out. Moments after the melee began, it was over.
The Catwoman laughed in quiet triumph. It was a throaty laugh, almost a purr. She walked up to one of the prostrate men, and grabbing him by the lapels, she shook him awake.
"Listen to me, little mouse, and listen good," she said, her lips so close to his ear that her whiskers tickled him. Her sultry voice carried an edge of steel.
"I want you to let Rupert Thorne know that the 'Catwoman' stopped the heist. Tell that fat slob that I'm keeping an eye on all the rat holes in Gotham, and whenever he tries to make off with the cheese, I'll be there to stop him."
"Y-You're crazy! Thorne owns this town! He'll--!" The mysterious woman waylaid him with a single punch to the chin.
"And I'm here to take it back from him," she hissed. The Catwoman stood to her full height, wrapping her whip around her waist and ramming the handle into her thigh-high boot. She looked around the jewelry showroom, her green eyes cold.
She heard sirens a couple blocks down.
"I guess that's my cue to scat." Smiling suddenly, she waved at the unconscious thieves. "Ta, boys! Meow."
The lone shadow stood grimly outlined by the silvery moonlight, watching the procedures below. The GCPD arrived within minutes of the alarm being set. He glimpsed a lithe, feminine shadow leap between two rooftops and disappear into the night.
Under the dark cowl, the figure's severe lips grimaced in a harsh line. "Next time," he growled. In an eye blink, he was gone...
A week later
He studied her from across the room.
She glided with almost feline grace from one cluster of laughing guests to another, smiling here, adding a comment there, but never lingering with one group for long.
The men smiled appreciatively, while the women greeted her effusively. The grand opening of Gotham City's newest upscale art gallery was a complete success and its beautiful hostess, the newest toast of the town.
He casually wandered over to the gallery's centerpiece, a stunning marble statue of the Egyptian goddess, Bastet. Priceless, he knew.
"They say that cats were sacred to Bastet," a husky voice said at his elbow. "The Egyptians believed that Bastet assumed the shape of a cat when she came down to earth. Today, there are those who still believe that cats are her true representatives, instilled for all time with her grace and untamed spirit."
She smiled up at him, her emerald eyes reflecting the muted lighting from the display case.
"Hi, I'm Selina Kyle," she said, holding out her hand.
"Bruce Wayne," he said, smoothly taking her hand in his own. He held it longer than necessary, studying her from under hooded, brooding eyes.
"Ah. Gotham City's most reclusive resident. I'm honored."
"I assure you, Ms. Kyle, the pleasure is all mine."
He turned at the sound of the shrill voice, annoyed by the interruption. Neutral mask firmly in place, he greeted the woman who was hurrying with open arms towards him.
"Julie." His tone was distant. "You look well."
"Oh, Brucie, you're enough to break a girl's heart!" she pouted, leaning forward for a peck on her cheek. Bruce stiffly complied. "I've been back in Gotham for three whole months--available, lonely, and waiting by the phone that never rings--"
"A beautiful woman like you, waiting for the phone to ring?" he asked, sounding noncommittal. "I find that somewhat difficult to believe, Julie."
She gave a short laugh. Julie hadn't spent a single night home since her return from Europe.
"Okay, guilty as charged," she admitted. "But the voice on the other end of the phone is never yours, darling," she complained sulkily. "Oh, Brucie, Mother is having a fab gala next week. One of her charity do's. She'll be devastated if you're a no-show again this year."
Catching Selina's eyes, Julie's bright smile slipped momentarily, but she quickly recovered.
"Selina, darling, I'm sure Mother would be pleased to have you, too. This gallery is simply fab, dear! I especially love the display above the door--it's so...so simple, so clean, so modernistic!"
Selina and Bruce gave her blank looks, and as one, they both turned to look where Julie was pointing. It was the red 'Exit' sign.
Smiling, Selina nodded her acknowledgement without speaking.
"Julie, you certainly have a eye for art," Bruce said ironically. Julie rewarded him with a luminous smile.
"Bruce, Selina, I won't take 'no' for an answer. Mother will be so pleased to know you're coming! Friday next--we'll be expecting you! Ciao, darling!"
They watched as she disappeared into the crowd. After a moment, the silence between them grew awkward. Bruce abruptly checked his watch.
"I'd best be going, too," he said. "Ms. Kyle, congratulations on your successful opening. Gotham City needed an art gallery such as this--one that showcases such rare and exquisite pieces." He tilted his head to the side and again studied her. "Of course, they are but a mirror reflection of your own rare and exquisite beauty."
Selina's eyes dropped immediately, her cheeks flushing pink. Taking her hand, he kissed it gallantly.
"Good night, Ms. Kyle. It has indeed been a pleasure."
Later that night
"Sir, are you certain this is a good idea? The locals call this neighborhood 'Crime Alley' for a reason--it's rampant with evildoers." He paused a beat and then added dryly, "Oh, pardon me, I momentarily forgot with whom I am speaking."
Bruce chose to ignore the last jab. Since his parents' deaths twenty years ago, Alfred had been the one constant in his life. He'd protected Bruce and what was left of his inheritance from outsiders who'd intended on finishing the job that Thorne's machine had started. When the local Child Welfare Services office tried to place Bruce in foster care, Alfred came up with a document proving the Waynes' intention to name him legal guardian.
Bruce grinned in the shadows. He remembered watching, fascinated as Alfred drew up the documents himself, meticulously forging Thomas and Martha Wayne's signatures.
'Ironclad,' Bruce remembered the Family Court judge calling them.
'Sheer genius,' Alfred stated quite immodestly.
Within a few months, Alfred also proved to possess a sound business acumen, which he conscientiously passed on to his young charge. With Alfred's help, Bruce soon developed a labyrinthine network of secret investments, which were coupled with some questionable financial practices. Through the ensuing years, young Bruce successfully rebuilt what Thomas Wayne had not squandered of the family fortune.
When Bruce was twelve, he and Alfred left the States to travel the world. In his adventures abroad, Bruce trained for tonight. Intensely, obsessively, single-mindedly. Through the long years overseas, his one goal was to return one day and destroy Rupert Thorne for all time.
Tonight it started.
"We've been over this, Alfred. It starts tonight. I'm hitting Thorne's organization where it hurts--in the pocket book! Word on the street is that the Gotham Savings and Loan is nothing but a money laundering front for Thorne's loan sharking operations, as well as money collected from gambling and prostitution."
Bruce scowled in the shadows, his voice becoming deeper, more threatening.
"The legal side of the S and L is even worse. In the past twelve months, Gotham Savings and Loan has foreclosed on dozens of homeowners who fell behind on their mortgage payments, repo'd hundreds of cars, and took over several small businesses."
Bruce's angry mood abruptly shifted. He flashed his boyhood guardian and loyal friend a rare smile.
"I'm doing Gotham a favor, Alfred. I'm fumigating the city from the vermin that have long infested it."
"I see. You fancy yourself a bit of a Robin Hood, is that it?" Alfred asked drolly. Not waiting for an answer, he continued, "And what of this mysterious other costumed figure, this 'Catwoman'?"
"What about her? From what I've seen, she doesn't have any love for Thorne, either. Just last week she stopped a robbery in progress at Katmandu Jewelry. I'd heard something was going down, so I was there to check it out. I'd intended to rob the thieves of their take, but the Catwoman beat me to the punch. She even called Gordon and his boys." He paused, absentmindedly tugging at his boots.
"I haven't quite figured her out yet." This last sounded somewhat pensive.
"It appears, Master Bruce, that she's actually trying to work with the authorities. She's not stealing the 'loot' after she stops the robberies. She calls the police. And as I understand it, the district attorney--an old boyhood friend of yours, Harvey Dent--has been able to successfully prosecute many of these cases in court."
"So what's your point, Alfred?" The deep growl from the back seat sent a chill down Alfred's back. He looked into the rearview mirror and saw that his employer and surrogate son had been replaced. In Bruce Wayne's place was a much darker, much more terrifying figure. A monster out of an H. P. Lovecraft novel.
"My point is this, sir. She's been stopping robberies, muggings, and even attempted murders across the city for the past six months. No one knows who she is or her motivation. All they do know is that she seems to be on the side of law and order. My question to you, sir, is quite simple. Do you believe she'll just allow you to commit felonies in her town?"
"Allow, Alfred?" Bruce asked in a quiet, icy voice. "Before Thorne and his machine came here and destroyed my family, the Waynes owned this town. I swore on my parents' graves that I'd make Thorne pay. And I intend to carry out my pledge."
No more was said for several minutes. Finally, Bruce spoke up.
"Stop here." He paused before opening the rear passenger door. "The fumigation starts tonight, Alfred." With that, he opened the door and slid out. Alfred watched him momentarily as he went into action.
Although the loyal valet had witnessed his young charge practice this move countless times in his secret headquarters underneath the family estate, this was the first night he'd seen him do it for real.
A soft ~bang!~ rang out. Instantly, a giant, bat-like figure swooped up towards the rooftops. As Alfred watched, the same bat-man 'flew' across the rooftops and disappeared into the night.
"I only hope that it doesn't turn into an 'extermination,'" Alfred prayed fervently.
He watched from the shadows, a grim half-smile playing on his lips. Just as he expected. Thorne's henchman, Tony Zucco, was busy counting the night's take from their underground gambling joint. Money that would be laundered through the Gotham Savings and Loan before finding its way to one of Thorne's many 'legitimate' business interests.
"That's five hundred big ones, boys!" Zucco announced. "The biggest single-night house win since we first set up this cozy little joint. My uncle is gonna be very happy when he gets a load of this."
"Oh, yeah? Well, you just make sure he gets it, Zucco," another man spoke up. "Not like last time!"
"Hey, Vinny! That wasn't my fault! I told you!" Zucco protested. "That Cat-lady high-jacked the truck right from under our noses. Before we could catch up with her, the cops got in the way. It ain't our fault they recovered the dough."
"Maybe, maybe not," Vinny said. "But just remember. The boss might've forgiven you that one time on account of you're his nephew, but he won't forgive a second mistake so easy. Got it?"
"Forget about it!" Zucco insisted with a reassurance he didn't feel. "Everything's gonna work out fine. Uncle Rupert's even put out a price on her tail! Get it? Her tail?"
Vinny rolled his eyes at the poor joke.
"Vinny, quit'cher worryin'! I tell ya, everything's gonna be okay. You'll see!"
At this moment, a brick followed by three small pellets smashed through the basement window. Before either Vinny or Zucco could react, the pellets began hissing.
"Gas!" Vinny yelled, coughing.
"Vinny, we gotta get the money outta here--!" Zucco yelled, collapsing to his knees. Within seconds of its release into the small, enclosed basement room, the gas took effect, knocking out both occupants.
Hours later, Bruce sat back in the rear of the Bentley and removed his cowl. Besides Thorne's illegal casino, he'd also struck the Rose Club. After a night of rope climbing, swinging across rooftops, and skulking in the shadows, Gotham City's newest vigilante was bone-tired.
"Good hunting, sir?" Alfred asked drolly. Exhausted from his night's adventures, all Bruce could do was nod. "I take it you wish to return home, sir?"
Again, all Alfred got in return was a wordless nod. By the time Alfred parked the Bentley in the Wayne Manor's cavernous parking garage, his employer and surrogate son was fast asleep. Sighing, Alfred climbed out of the car and opening the rear passenger door, proceeded to help a very sleepy Bruce stumble up to his room.
"A butler's job is never done," Alfred muttered, carefully drawing the covers over his life-long charge. His gaze softening as he watched Bruce sleep, Alfred quietly turned off the lights and closed the master bedroom door.
The next morning
"The gambling joint first. Then a coupla hours later, the Rose Club was hit. Someone got into the main office and broke into the safe. A real pro, too. Didn't take nothing except the cash, which is untraceable. Left a small fortune in jewels."
"So what do we have? Is it that Cat-chick?"
All eyes turned to the hulking brute who sat at the head of the conference table. Even in an Italian designer three-piece suit, there was no mistaking the man's pedigree--street hood.
Rupert Thorne had risen from the gutters of Crime Alley to become the leading gang lord in Gotham City. In the entire East Coast, in fact. And now, this costumed female feline was moving in on his territory, destroying everything that he'd taken years to build.
"I want to know who she is! You got me? I want her head on a platter! I want her dead! And whoever brings me her stiff body gets fifty grand! You hear that? Fifty grand for one dead female cat!"
"But Uncle Rupert," Zucco started. "How do we know it was her? She's been interfering, I know, but she's never taken any of the loot for herself. She's always called the cops before."
Thorne pinned his useless nephew with a hard glare.
"When I want your opinion, Antonio, I'll ask it. Until then, go home. Your mother's called me five times this morning already. Get her outta my hair, nephew. Go and be a good son to my sainted sister. Because if I hear of you giving her any grief, you'll answer to me! Got it?"
"Yeah, yeah, Uncle Rupert--! I-I'd never hurt Ma. You-you know that--!"
"Get outta here! And don't let me see you again today!" Zucco hurried out with Thorne shaking his head in disgust. "Useless piece of--!" he stopped and shook his head. "But he's family," he added. He turned to Vinny. Immediately, four men grabbed Vinny from behind.
"But you, on the other hand, aren't!" Thorne declared.
"No--! Boss--!" Vinny protested. "It wasn't my fault!"
"Maybe, maybe not," Thorne replied, unknowingly echoing Vinny's earlier words. "The money was in your care. That makes you responsible. And I need an example." He glared at Vinny. "And since you ain't family, Vincenzo, you've just been volunteered to be that example!"
"Boss! No!" Vinny screamed. "I had nothing to do with it! It was Tony! It's all his fault!"
"Shut 'im up!" Thorne yelled. A hard-faced henchman gave him a curt nod as they dragged the hapless Vinny out the door. The next instant, Thorne heard a single shot. Vinny's screams were forever silenced.
The next day
"What do you got for me, Bullock?"
"DOA. White male. Approximately thirty-eight years old. Vincenzo Calendri--a soldier in Thorne's machine. Looks like a gangland hit, Commish."
"Rival gang?" Gordon asked.
"Can't tell. Could be a message," Bullock said with a shrug. Gordon looked at him, his face saying 'Go on.' Bullock shrugged again, and then led Gordon to where they found the body. He pointed to a row of commercial dumpsters lined along an alley that ran between several businesses.
"The body was dumped in the first one," Bullock said. "There was no real effort to hide him. He wasn't robbed--we found over five hundred dollars on him and some expensive jewelry--not to mention his driver's license. Someone wanted the body to be found. And identified."
Gordon nodded. "A message," he agreed. "So Thorne might've ordered the hit himself."
"Word on the street is that Thorne's less than legal business endeavors are getting hit. Bad!"
"Catwoman?" Gordon's question was more of a flat statement.
"Some of the hits--the ones we're called into and find the skells basically tied up and the loot sitting pretty on top of 'em," Bullock agreed. "But last night--word is that last night something else happened. A couple of Thorne's places got hit--his illegal gambling operation that we haven't been able to bust up yet--"
"Because it changes locations like my wife changes her hair color," Gordon said sarcastically.
"Right. And also the safe at Thorne's Rose Club was cracked," Bullock added.
"I don't suppose they filed a police report?" Gordon asked, his tone ironic.
"Not likely. The Rose is considered 'legit,' but a lot of what they're selling there probably ain't."
"Time to get another undercover cop in there," Gordon said. Bullock gave him a hard look.
"The last undercover cop we set up in one of Thorne's businesses ended up dead--and we got nothing for it. Or any proof that Thorne had anything to do with it."
Gordon nodded reluctantly. "Okay, when you're finished here, meet me back in my office." Gordon turned to go, but then stopped. "Harvey?" Bullock looked up at him. Gordon gave him a hard glare. "This 'Catwoman'--it's time we find out exactly who she is!"
Three nights later
The sound of the whip cracking was his only warning. Batman instantly dived, rolled several times, and came up in a defensive stance, ready for her.
"So we finally meet, Catwoman," he said, his voice a low growl. As he spoke, he surreptitiously readied one of his specialized offensive weapons. Alfred euphemistically called it a 'Batarang.'
"You have me at a disadvantage," Catwoman hissed. "We haven't been properly introduced."
"Then let me correct this serious faux pas on my part. I'm Batman," he said, carefully circling her. "I like to take things that belong to Rupert Thorne. But unlike you--" He threw the Batarang, catching her unawares. "--I don't work with the cops."
He stood safely out of reach of her deadly whip as his bat-shaped weapon twirled quickly around her, ensnaring her in a weighted nylon/Nomex rope.
Batman walked up to her and gingerly removed the cat-o-nine-tails from her fingers. She attempted to scratch him with her sharp claws as he pried the whip from her. She only succeeded in breaking a sharp claw on his heavy gauntlet.
"Now see what you've me do!" she hissed in real anger. "I broke a nail!"
Batman studied her from behind the one-way optics built into his cowl. Even masked, he could tell that she was beautiful. And those flashing emerald eyes. He had a sudden feeling of deja vu. Where had he seen eyes such as those, he wondered?
"Don't worry," he said solicitously. "Before I leave, I'll make sure to set the silent alarm. A gentleman would never leave a lady in such a compromising position on their first meeting."
The sound of approaching sirens startled him. She grinned her Cheshire Cat smirk up at him.
"Sorry. I guess I beat you to the punch," she purred.
He gave her a half-grin, his expression showing his admiration. "Beautiful and deadly. What more could a man ask for?"
With that, Batman suddenly took her in his arms and kissed her fully and passionately. She momentarily struggled against her bonds, but soon gave in to him, fully returning the kiss with equal fervor. Hearing the police cars squealing to a stop immediately outside the Savings and Loan--their red, white, and blue strobe lights illuminating the S&L's lobby in a weird kaleidoscope--Batman finally broke the kiss reluctantly.
"See you 'round the rooftops," he said, gently releasing her.
"You can bet on that," she said softly. "And next time, I'll be ready for you." Without another word, he seemed to fade into the shadows.
As soon as the mysterious Batman was gone, Catwoman got to work. Using her razor sharp claws, she quickly cut through her bonds and stood up.
When the GCPD entered the lobby, guns drawn, they found it empty. They also found the bank vault opened and several stacks of unmarked bills taken. A small calling card was left behind--almost a mocking reminder to Rupert Thorne that he was being specifically targeted: a yellow oval with the symbol of a black bat in the center.
"We meet again."
Bruce turned at the familiar, sultry voice. His normally humorless eyes lit for a moment. Selina looked stunning. She was wearing a simple black frock that set off her athletic figure to perfection. An emerald necklace in a fine gold setting with matching earrings reflected the green of her eyes. She wore her long, black hair loose, falling in shimmering cascades.
"Indeed," he replied. They were standing off in a quiet corner, away from the laughter and loud glad-handing.
"I hate these things," Selina admitted.
"Really?" Bruce asked. "Then why--?" He didn't finish the question. Selina shrugged.
"Why did you?" At his look, she elaborated, "And don't tell me you always come to these things. I've done some checking up on you. You rarely make any public appearances, Mr. Wayne. And yet your Wayne Foundation leads Gotham in charitable contributions."
He looked away pretending to be watching the partygoers. "And might I ask why you thought it necessary to check up on me, Ms. Kyle?" His light tone did not match the coldness in his eyes.
Unperturbed Selina laughed lightly. "I'm a new businesswoman in town, Mr. Wayne. I make it a point to learn as much as possible about all of Gotham's leading citizens. Besides, I was hoping to discover exactly where your tastes lie and perhaps interest you in something I have."
At these words, Bruce turned to her and steadily held her emerald gaze.
"From where I stand, Ms. Kyle, you already have something that interests me," he murmured.
Selina felt her cheeks go suddenly warm at the openly appraising look he gave her. She dropped her eyes, blushing.
"Forgive me," she demurred. "Perhaps checking your background was quite forward of me."
Bruce gently placed his forefinger on her chin and raised it until he again was gazing into her eyes. He then dropped his hand and awkwardly held it at his side.
"On the contrary, I'm flattered." He gave her an enigmatic half-smile. "And you're right. I hate these things, too. I only came in the hopes that you might be here."
"Perhaps we should start again," she offered. At his curious look, she smiled and held her hand out to him. "Hi, my name's Selina Kyle and I'm new in town."
He gave her an answering smile. "My pleasure, Selina. I'm Bruce Wayne, and I'd love to show you around my city."
"I'd like that, Bruce. What would you care to show me first?"
"How about if I try to impress you by sweeping you off your feet?"
"I beg your pardon?" she asked, unsure.
"May I have this dance?"
Two months later
He watched from the relative safety of the rooftop across the street, the shadows more and more a part of him, anticipating the moment when the would-be burglars below finally cracked the safe. He grinned in the dark, more of a snarl than a show of amusement.
Thorne must be getting desperate if he was sending his men to burglarize one of Falcone's safehouses, he realized. Usually, the two rival gang lords left each other alone. There was certainly enough loot to go around in Gotham City for the two organizations to operate without interfering with each other. However, since Batman and Catwoman had started their mutual campaigns against Thorne's machine, the crime boss' organization had been steadily losing money.
Batman adjusted his night optics and zoomed in on the men. There was one on the balcony. Another stationed at the bedroom window. And still another on the roof opposite him. They were each armed with semi-automatic weapons--M-16A1's.
Thorne wasn't taking any chances, obviously. Batman heard that Thorne had placed a price on both his and Catwoman's heads. Rumor had it that the current bounty was somewhere in the vicinity of 200 grand apiece, with the ante being upped every week or so, depending on the hits the Thorne syndicate suffered.
Every mook on the street was probably itching to get a clean shot at them. Batman scowled. He'd anticipated making Thorne's ten most wanted list. But, The Most Wanted?
How did the Chinese put it? he wondered. May you live in interesting times.
He thought about Catwoman. If Batman's mission was to break Thorne's back through his bank, then Catwoman's was to do everything in her power to hurt Thorne and stop Batman from helping himself to the loot.
"And she has a nose for trouble," he grumbled. He looked around the perimeter again. Still no sign of her. He glared at the safecracker. How long could it take that idiot to break into a Mosby safe that was rated at 30 minutes? So far, he had taken 45 minutes--15 minutes longer than the Mosby Company claimed its wall safe should withstand a break-in.
At least if Thorne's bounty hunters finally caught Catwoman, he thought darkly, she wouldn't interfere with his nightly takes anymore. Good riddance. But then he recalled the one quick, stolen kiss. He'd meant to toy with her, humiliate her. Instead, it had turned into something much deeper, searing itself into his psyche.
And suddenly he couldn't shake her from his thoughts.
Get a grip, Wayne. Cats and bats don't mix.
Besides, there was always Selina waiting in the wings. He'd been seeing her off and on for the past few weeks--casual dinners, a long Sunday drive, and even a walk and a picnic in Robinson Park.
The entire time, he'd never even attempted to make a pass. Selina was a captivating woman, but there was something about her that held him back. As glad as she seemed to be to see him, she had a definite wall built around her, a wall that did not appear ready to let him in.
Bruce found her fascinating. Yet, he wasn't ready for a commitment, either. He, too, had spent a lifetime building walls around himself.
And as long as there remained any unresolved issues between him and a certain female night predator, he and Selina wouldn't go past being just good friends.
The sudden staccato of automatic weapons fire brought him back to the present. Catwoman! She was trying to break up the party. He clenched his fist in frustration.
The woman's impossible, he groused. It'd serve her right if Thorne's goons blew her away.
He watched as she quickly and methodically took out each of the gunmen, the distinctive crack of her whip snapping in the windless night. He allowed himself a small half-grin, which instantly turned into a snarl.
It looked like he'd go home empty-handed tonight. Again. It looked like the 500 thousand dollar pledge the Wayne Foundation promised the Gotham City Children's Hospital would have to come out of his own pocket.
About to turn away, he stopped at the sound of a single shot followed by a woman's scream.
"More of a yowl," he muttered. He hurried back to the roof's edge and zoomed in with his optics at the scene across the way. What he saw made his blood run cold. Catwoman was down and clutching her side. Several of the men were closing in on her, weapons drawn.
"Shoot her!" one of the men screamed. "Just shoot her!"
"Blow her away, man! She's worth two hundred G's dead!"
That's all Batman needed to hear. He immediately shot out a jumpline and swooped into the night, closing the distance between the two buildings. He slammed feet-first into one of the gunmen, knocking him out. Turning to the others, Batman moved with a speed borne of desperation--punching, jabbing, and kicking.
Within moments, he stood alone, gasping for breath over the unconscious forms of Thorne's henchmen. Movement to his left accompanied by a slight groan caught his attention. He rushed to Catwoman's side and gently lifted her in his arms. She was unconscious and bleeding badly.
Holding her carefully, Batman stood, momentarily outlined in the full moon, and then seemed to step off the roof.
The next morning
The tantalizing aroma of freshly brewed coffee brought her back. Opening her eyes slowly, she lay quietly, momentarily confused. Bright sunlight streamed in from the wide bay windows, which overlooked an immaculate lawn. She could see the morning sun just peeking over the horizon.
To her left, a tray laden with covered dishes and a fine silver coffee serving set waited patiently, enticing her.
Selina sat up, reaching for the cup and coffeepot. Or, at least, she tried to sit up, but a sudden sharp pain on her side, instantly brought back the previous night's battle with Rupert Thorne's goons.
She lay back slowly, biting her lower lip to keep from crying out. Resignedly, she touched her face, unsurprised to discover that her mask was missing.
"Just like my costume," she muttered ruefully. Checking herself over carefully, she noted the neat bandages underneath the man-sized pajama top she was wearing. She sighed.
"Wherever I am, they know what I look like." And probably who I am, she added silently.
She turned back to the coffeepot. Might as well, she thought.
Sitting up in careful, deliberate movements, Selina finally managed to prop up her pillows. Soon, she was inhaling the deep aroma of the French roasted coffee and sipping gratefully.
"Well, wherever I am, they sure serve a great-tasting cup of coffee."
"I'm gratified you approve, Miss Kyle."
At the familiar voice, Selina looked up into the kind eyes of Bruce Wayne's valet. They'd met the few times that Bruce had had his limo pick her up for a luncheon date.
"Alfred? Wh-what are you doing here?"
"I live here," he said blandly. "Welcome to Wayne Manor."
She blinked in shock.
"Mr. Wayne sends his apologies for not being able to greet you this morning. He had a meeting with the Wayne Foundation Board of Directors. However, he extends his welcome and hopes you are faring much better this morning."
"How did I--?" She looked around the sumptuous room. As often as she'd met Bruce for casual dates, she'd never been invited to his home. But then, she hadn't invited Bruce to her place, either.
"All in good time," Alfred interrupted, cutting across to the breakfast tray. Working smoothly, he uncovered a plate containing fresh fruit, orange juice, and toast. "I felt a light repast might be in order," he explained.
"Thank you," she answered gratefully. She was hungry, but didn't think that she'd be able to hold anything heavier. Alfred added a couple more pillows behind her to help her sit up more comfortably, placed the breakfast tray across her lap, and ensured that the television remote control was within hand's reach.
Prior to leaving, he brought her attention to a bell rope over her headboard.
"Should you need anything further, please don't hesitate to ring," he said. Smiling slightly, he added, "It is indeed my pleasure to be of service."
Selina considered the implications of the morning. Last night, she'd been shot by Thorne's men. This morning she woke up to find herself in Wayne Manor. Bringing a piece of toast to her mouth, she chewed thoughtfully.
Conclusion? Bruce Wayne was Batman....
Selina took a sip of her coffee, mulling over this unexpected turn of events.
Bruce Wayne, Batman?
Why, she wondered? She'd researched the Wayne fortune, just as she'd told Bruce. But she hadn't looked beyond his current assets. Everything about the Wayne Foundation appeared to be legal--almost squeaky clean, in fact.
However, if Bruce was the burglar known as Batman, then it was possible that the Wayne Foundation was little more than a well-camouflaged, money laundering criminal organization.
Abruptly, Selina's appetite disappeared.
"You're Batman," Selina said, her voice flat.
"And you're Catwoman," Bruce replied, his eyes cold. He stood near the shadowed recesses of the understated family room.
Selina glared at him from where she sat, curled up on a comfortable leather armchair. Alfred had assisted her downstairs a few minutes before Bruce returned home.
"You know that I'm going to have to bring you down somehow," she said. "You're no better than Thorne or Falcone--using the money from your burglaries to finance your 'charitable' contributions!"
"Don't you dare compare me to Thorne." His dark eyes smoldered in barely suppressed fury. "He and his organization are a pestilence on the city. It's time somebody exterminated him!"
"And what about you?" Her voice was tinged with disgust. "You think you're some kind of a Robin Hood, stealing from the bad to give to the good? Let me tell you something, Mr. Dark Knight--what you're doing is leading Gotham into the biggest gangland war you've ever laid eyes on! Thorne was stealing from Falcone! Do you know what that means--?"
Bruce opened his mouth to respond, but she continued before he could.
"--I'll tell you what it means! Falcone is going to retaliate! And then Thorne is going to hit him back! Before long Gotham City will become a battlefield--all because you're out for what--? Thrills?" She stared at him, her disgust apparent.
"Is that it, Bruce? Are you nothing more than a bored millionaire playboy out for some kicks?"
Bruce returned her stare for a few seconds. And then, without another word, he strode out of the room.
After a few moments, Selina wearily brought her hand up and rubbed her eyes.
"You're wrong, you know."
She looked up into Alfred's kind eyes. His expression was neither condemning nor angry, yet bespoke of gentle chastisement.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "Gotham's sitting on a dangerous precipice. You can almost feel the barometer dropping, warning of dangerous storms ahead."
"I don't mean about that," Alfred said. "I've tried to warn Master Bruce about his unfortunate nocturnal activities."
"Then what?" she asked.
"You're wrong about Master Bruce." Alfred walked across the room, stopping in front of the fireplace. "He doesn't do it for cheap thrills," he continued, pointing at a large portrait over the mantle. "They are the reason he does it."
At Selina's questioning look, Alfred's voice took on a regretful timbre.
"Thomas and Martha Wayne, deceased these past twenty years, taken from us in a single act of petty vindictiveness because Dr. Wayne had the unfortunate habit of betting on horses that just couldn't seem to win." He sighed heavily. "Of course, the fact that his bookie worked for Thorne and intentionally fed the poor doctor bad information didn't help matters much."
He shook his head. "In desperation, Dr. Wayne began to embezzle from his own clinic's funds to pay off his bets. Eventually, he couldn't keep up with the payments."
"Thorne had the Waynes killed?" Selina's question sounded more like a statement.
Alfred mutely nodded.
"Yes. They were murdered in front of the young Master. He was only six at the time." Alfred raised his eyes and met hers, his anguish at the memory still evident. "I'm afraid that Master Bruce has never gotten over the pain of their loss, nor over his desire for revenge against the man whom he blames for their deaths."
Alfred moved towards the door leading out of the family room and stopped just short of stepping through it. Without turning around he added, "I don't condone the choice that he's made. But I understand it."
Long afterwards Selina stared at the closed door.
"I do too, Alfred," she whispered. "All too well..."
As she sat, unshed tears began to well behind closed eyes. Angry shouts echoed in her mind. Angry, hurtful ghosts from her past that brought back unwanted, painful memories. Memories best left buried.
"~She's his! Not yours! Never yours!~"
"~You'll always be Daddy's little Angel. Don't ever forget that.~"
She was Rupert Thorne's daughter.
Selina shook her head in hot denial. She clapped her hands to her ears, shutting the ghosts away, something she'd been doing since that terrible day so long ago. Soon, they returned to the dark recesses where memories best left buried lay hidden, but never quite forgotten.
Selina opened red-rimmed eyes, blinking back the tears.
Two nights later
I need to have my head examined, Selina groused. Her wounds weren't completely healed, but she'd opted to answer Commissioner Gordon's summons nonetheless. Admittedly, she was curious about what the Police Commissioner might want with a known vigilante.
"Maybe he wants to officially deputize me," she muttered sarcastically. "Instead of Deputy Dawg, I'll be Kitty Kop, scourge of the underworld." She trained her night vision goggles on the rooftop of Police Headquarters.
In the dim shadows, Selina could make out Jim Gordon's tired, slumped shoulders. Further away, trying to appear inconspicuous and failing badly was his lieutenant, Harvey Bullock. He looked about as inconspicuous as a bull in a crowded elevator, Selina thought with a slight grin.
Again, she wondered what Gordon could want with her. Shrugging, she reached a decision. "There's no time like the present," she muttered, cracking her whip.
Alighting gracefully in the protection of the building's shadows, Selina spoke softly.
"You wanted to see me."
Gordon jumped, startled. He spun around, his hand over his heart. Glaring at her, he finally spoke.
"Don't do that!" he growled. "You nearly gave me a heart attack!"
Selina merely leaned against the rooftop building access, her arms crossed casually. She waited, outwardly patient.
Gordon took several gulps of air before he attempting to speak again. Finally, seemingly feeling better, he began.
"I thought it was time we spoke," he said. "I've received a lot of flak from the media and mayor's office for not having done more to stop you."
Selina's ears pricked, but she didn't say anything. Here it comes, she thought silently. The 'get out of Dodge' speech.
"We don't have a lot of use for vigilantes," Gordon continued. "If you want to do some good in the world, if you want to catch crooks, then why don't you join the police force, earn a badge, and do it legally?"
Selina rolled her eyes. She felt a little disappointed at Gordon. She'd started to believe that he understood what she was about, but apparently he didn't. Opening her mouth, she was about to speak, but he beat her to it.
"I think that you and I both know that it wouldn't work, though. What you do is something that a lot of honest cops wish they could do, if their hands weren't tied with regulations and red tape."
Selina settled back, a single eyebrow raised. Maybe Gordon did understand, after all.
"I want to work a deal with you," Gordon said. Selina's eyes narrowed.
"What kind of deal?"
"I'd like to work with you, rather than be at odds with you," he said. "You understand, though, that my job is on the line. Cooperating with known vigilantes won't exactly go over well with city hall or the media. Officially, I'd have to deny any knowledge of you or your activities, but unofficially..."
"Unofficially, you'd be willing to let me help you?" she asked ruefully.
"Something like that," Gordon admitted. "I'd be willing to share information. Let you in on official police investigations--"
"And for this unprecedented level of cooperation," Selina interrupted, "what would you expect from me?"
"That you would give us any information you have on this new costumed character who calls himself 'Batman.' Furthermore, that you'd give us your full assistance in bringing him to justice."
"Sorry. No deal," Selina said. Without further word, she turned to go.
"Wait!" Gordon called. "I don't understand. This 'Batman' is nothing but a common thief! What's worse, he's inciting Thorne and Falcone's gangs to be at each others' throats. He's not a friend, Catwoman. He's a liability to the Gotham." Gordon paused, and then continued in a low, threatening tone. "Catwoman, this is your only chance to ally yourself with the GCPD."
"He saved my life, Commissioner," she said softly. "I owe him something."
"Catwoman, I repeat that this is your only chance. You won't be given a second offer. Think about it."
Selina cracked her whip and took off into the night.
"I already have," she whispered.
"We need to talk!" Selina barged into Bruce's office unannounced, interrupting an international phone call to Japan.
"Mr. Wayne!" Maggie cried, flustered. "Sir, she just walked right by me! I-I've already called security--!"
Bruce spoke quietly into the phone, and then hung up. He glared at Selina, his dark eyes burning into hers. She merely lifted her chin and stared him down. They were interrupted by the arrival of several Wayne Enterprises' security officers.
"Mr. Wayne, we came as soon as--" Murphy, the head of the security detail began.
"That's her!" Maggie interrupted, pointing at Selina. "She barged right in here, without so much as a--!"
"--Okay, lady!" Murphy broke in, making a move towards Selina. "Make nice and come quietly. My guys and me--we don't like to hurt women--"
Before he could say anything further or take Selina into custody, Murphy and the rest of the security guards found themselves littering the floor of Bruce's private executive suite, groaning and dazed. Maggie stood over them, her hands covering her mouth.
Bruce grimaced. Leaning back in his desk chair, he placed his chin in hand. He pinned Selina with his patented dark scowl. Selina smirked, dusting her hands with great exaggeration.
"Are you quite done?" Bruce demanded.
"Are you going to call them off?" Selina returned. Bruce rolled his eyes and nodded.
"Maggie, gentlemen...please, this has all been some kind of mistake. Ms. Kyle is a--friend." Bruce emphasized the last word. Selina gave him an amused glance, and without waiting to be invited, crossed the room to the wet bar and poured herself a drink.
"A little early, don't you think?" Bruce asked in disapproval as soon as the others were gone.
"On the contrary, Mr. Wayne," Selina said, taking a sip, "I'm beginning to think that I just might be too late." At his blank look, she added, "To be of any help to you." Not waiting for a response, she took a seat.
"Mr. Wayne?" Bruce asked pointedly.
"Yes. Understand that as far as I'm concerned, our relationship is strictly business. You did me a favor. Now it's my turn to reciprocate. As soon as we're even, I'm going to do everything in my power to see that Batman's activities are brought to a stop."
"And what about Batman?" Bruce asked.
"What about him?"
"What happens to him?"
"It depends, Mr. Wayne."
"I guess you'll just have to wait to find out," Selina replied enigmatically.
"I see." Bruce walked over to the wet bar and poured a straight whiskey. Downing it in a single gulp, he glared intensely at the beautiful woman who'd so easily become a thorn on his side. Annoyed with himself, he admitted privately that conversely it only made her all the more desirable.
"Very well," he said. "In that case, let me bring our truce to a quick and civilized end."
Selina raised her eyebrows over her drink. Saluting her silently with his empty glass, Bruce made his way over and around his massive executive desk. He pulled out a colorful flyer from inside a manila folder and dramatically turned the advertisement around. It proudly announced, "The Haly Circus! One night only! Featuring, the Flying Graysons!"
"Tell me, Ms. Kyle. Do you like the circus?" he asked, eyes twinkling in amusement. "The Wayne Foundation sponsors an annual charity event for the local Children's Hospital. This year we're raising money for the Neo-Natal Unit."
"The Haly Circus!" Selina snorted inelegantly. "They're tied in somehow with Falcone, aren't they?"
Bruce's expression turned grim. "Let's just say that that's all in the past. Falcone used to pull the strings, and Pop Haly was forced to toe the line." He shrugged.
"I bought them out. Paid off Haly's outstanding loans. Infused enough money into the organization so that they could hire some real class acts--the Flying Graysons are just one example--and more importantly, it gave Haly the backbone to hire some muscle to keep out the riffraff."
"So, why do I get the feeling that there's more to the situation?" Selina asked.
"I need a date," he said flatly. "I don't usually attend, but Batman's sources have told me that it would be a very good idea to make an appearance tonight. Something about Thorne trying to make a public statement against Falcone."
"But you just said that you bought out Falcone--" Selina protested.
"That's not something one usually announces in the trade journals, Ms. Kyle. Paying off loan sharks isn't considered good business." Bruce walked over to his expansive viewing window. "I remembered what you said about a gang war..." He sighed, looking over his city.
"I couldn't live with myself if Thorne hurt those people. All because of me." He turned and faced her. "So, how about it? We attend the event and keep our eyes and ears open. If I'm wrong and nothing happens, all you've lost is one evening. And who knows--you might even have a good time."
"But if you're right--" Selina began.
"If I'm right, and Thorne and his henchmen do attempt a hit on the circus, Batman and Catwoman will both be there to stop them."
Selina stood and walked over to his desk, picking up the circus flyer. In the lower right hand corner, she saw the picture of a small boy with a delighted smile reaching out to a pair of waiting hands. The legend beneath read, "Dicky Grayson, the Boy Wonder!"
She felt a sudden shiver.
That same day, at the Rose Club
"You got nuthin' to worry about, boss," Zucco insisted. "I tell ya, it's in the bag. I leaned on Haly, just like you said. Told 'im that unless he starts performing for us, then his little flea-bag circus is gonna start encountering some accidents!"
Thorne gave his nephew a look of open skepticism.
"I'm not worried, Antonio," he said quietly. "I'm paying you to do the worrying. Of course, if tonight you happen to give me cause to worry--well, that's why I pay them!" Thorne nodded at the hulking forms of his two personal bodyguards. They each took a single step forward. Zucco's confident sneer instantly vanished.
"I pay Armanno and Stefano to get rid of anything that causes me undue worry. Got it?"
"Y-Yeah--yeah, boss," Zucco stuttered. "I-I got it. Loud 'n clear. J-Just like the message Haly's gonna get tonight. Loud 'n clear.
That night, the Gotham City Fairgrounds
"Dicky! We're almost on, sweetheart!"
Bruce turned at the exasperated sound. Below, near the entranceway, a stunningly beautiful woman, dressed in a bright red, green and yellow costume was leaning over, listening to a young boy who was insistently waving his arms.
A well-built man dressed in identical colors soon joined them.
"But Mo-ommm!" the boy, presumably Dicky, cried. His parents were obviously ignoring his protests. The woman said something to the man, who promptly reached for his son and affectionately ruffled his hair. He then placed his hand on the boy's shoulder.
Dicky crossed his arms, his body language a display of childish pique. The mother leaned down, and taking his face in both hands, gave the boy a light peck. She said something else to him, and he nodded reluctantly.
Not sure why he was watching them so intently, Bruce felt a sudden sense of foreboding. These were the Flying Graysons, of course--John, Mary, and Dicky. Their trapeze act had almost single-handedly brought the Haly Circus out of financial ruin and into the black. Should anything happen to them...?
Bruce immediately tapped Selina on the shoulders and without a word stood to leave.
"Bruce--!" Selina hissed in exasperation. "What the--?"
But she was talking to an empty seat. Grumbling to herself, she got up and quickly followed him.
They'd arrived at the circus almost two hours prior and had at first walked around the fairgrounds, taking in the sights, assessing any possible danger...
Two hours earlier
"Hurry, hurry, hurry!" a sideshow carny called. "See the incredible missing link--!" An eager crowd of locals quickly gathered, paying the ticket vendor to enter.
"...Only two quarters--that's fifty cents!" Another carny called out from several meters away. "--A measly half-a-buck! Try your hand and instantly double your money! Everyone's a winner!" A middle-aged couple stood nearby, hesitant about stepping forward to try their luck.
Shaking her head at what she considered little better than cheesy entertainment, Selina wondered at people's gullibility and willingness to part with their hard-earned cash.
"The only danger I see here, Mr. Wayne, is getting robbed of your quarters. Basically, harmless stuff."
"And I suppose, Ms. Kyle, that you're much too sophisticated to believe in the 'Missing Link'?" Bruce asked archly.
"What? Get real, Wayne! I deal in antiquities, remember? There's no such thing as a 'Missing Link'!"
"You're chicken, aren't you?" Bruce asked, a boyish grin lighting his face. "The infamous Selina Kyle--" His voice dropped to a whisper. "--AKA, Catwoman--" His voice returned to normal. "--is afraid that she might just not know everything!"
"Chicken?" Selina spluttered. "This is absurd, Wayne! There's no such thing as a--"
"--See the incredible missing link--! Step right up, folks!" The fast-talking sideshow carny called. Somehow Bruce steered Selina to the 'Missing Link' entranceway, and before she could protest, he was escorting her inside.
Five minutes later they emerged, laughing at the preposterous 'Missing Link' exhibit, which was little more than a jar of something gooey floating in a sea of formaldehyde. It was displayed with dramatic lighting on a reflecting surface.
"I'm convinced!" Bruce declared, unperturbed. Not having any kind of witty comeback, Selina only laughed. She had to admit that she was having fun. This was the first time she'd ever been to the circus and was finding the experience every bit as gaudy as she'd anticipated.
What she hadn't counted on was enjoying herself. They'd sat in special box seats with a terrific view of center ring. The Haly Circus had turned out to be populated by some visually stunning acts, punctuated by several highly amusing moments with the clowns. Before she knew it, she found herself concentrating less on keeping her eyes open for trouble, and more on eagerly awaiting the next act.
"Bruce! We're going to miss the best act!" she protested. Bruce ignored her, hurrying to where they'd stashed their costumes. Grabbing their packs, Bruce handed Selina hers.
"This is it," he said.
Selina's elevated position gave her an excellent view of the center ring. The ringmaster was announcing the Flying Graysons. The lights in the Big Top went low, and the next instant the family of aerialists was standing in the middle of a silver spotlight, saluting the crowd.
As one, they each removed their capes and tossed them onto waiting hands. Then as their theme music began, they spun in unison and each grabbed a safety line. In time to the music, the Flying Graysons climbed up the thick ropes to their waiting, elevated platforms. They stepped onto the platforms just as the music swelled to a dramatic end.
The crowd held its collective breath.
Soon, a very light, airy interlude filled the Big Top and John Grayson leaped out into space.
Selina's heart almost stopped as the trapeze artist went through his routine. Although nothing untoward happened, she kept a tense vigil. Bruce warned her to stay alert. Meanwhile, he'd taken off in another direction on a "hunch!"
"He'd better hurry," she muttered. Or she might just take matters into her own hands.
"Why didn't you call the police?"
Haly looked like he was going to have a heart attack. He'd heard of 'Batman,' but had laughed it off as some kind of a silly urban legend.
"Uh, I..." Haly spluttered, swallowing. "T-Tony Zucco's a-a p-punk--"
"Zucco--!" Batman asked.
"--Yeah! And I had his butt hauled off the grounds and told him if I ever saw him here again, I'd throw him in the lions' cage," Haly said, pacing agitatedly. Gaining confidence, he added, "Look, if I listened to all the punks who threatened us, we'd never go on. And the show must go on!"
Haly turned to gauge the effect of his words, but he was talking to the empty night. A sudden chill clutched his insides. He stood in the dark a moment longer, the only sound that of the muffled roar of the crowd coming from the Big Top.
Abruptly, Haly doubled back to the main tent, stumbling as he hurried through the performers' entranceway. Needing the comfort of familiar surroundings, Haly did not breathe easier until he was once again enveloped within the relative warmth of the sights and sounds of his world.
Batman's sure hands grabbed another rung as he climbed. Zucco was a coward. He usually got others to do his killing for him, because he didn't have the guts to shoot his victims face to face. But worse, he was a sneaky killer--the kind who preferred to cause 'accidents' while skulking in the shadows to safely observe the results of his handiwork.
The Graysons were the target. Bruce knew it. They were popular and had effectively saved the Haly Circus from bankruptcy. Without them, Haly would be vulnerable again, and Thorne would have the opening he needed to make his move and take over--all the while believing that he was rubbing Falcone's nose in it.
"If anything happens to that family..." Bruce didn't need to finish the thought.
Selina watched as Dicky Grayson went through his death-defying routine. Amazed along with the crowd below, Selina's jaw dropped when the boy successfully completed not two, not three--but four somersaults! She smiled, thoroughly charmed by the wide grin he gave the crowd afterwards.
She heard the ringmaster announce, "...And now, Ladies and Gentlemennnn...John and Mary--the Flying Graysons!--will demonstrate why their son still has a few tricks to learn!"
With that, Mary gave Dicky a quick hug and a kiss, and waving cheerily, she grabbed a bar and swung out into the middle of space...
As their theme music swelled, John and Mary danced in midair, swaying to a sensuous, aerial ballet that had become their signature act.
As she passed over John, Mary blew him a kiss. He flashed her a dashing smile, his chest swelling as it always did when she was near. As their routine neared its climax, John readied himself to catch Mary.
The veteran aerialists flew on parallel bars that were vertically separated by only a few feet. First, they passed one another over and under, exchanging apparatuses--Mary releasing her higher bar at the same time that John caught hers. Then, while picking up the tempo, they wowed the crowds with an intricate criss-crossing pattern, in which they passed each other in mid-flight--so close as to almost touch.
Finally, at the close of their act, Mary always flew into John's waiting hands.
However, unlike more conventional trapeze acts, John didn't catch Mary by the wrists, he caught her by the ankles. Therefore, their swings had to be in synch to the split second.
As the music went into the final movement, John swung out and back. Out and back. Slapping his hands together, he counted, looked up, saw Mary's smile as she flew towards him, and gave her an answering smile.
He was the luckiest man alive.
The second he grabbed Mary's ankles, John knew that something was wrong. The ropes!
"Mommy! Daddy!" Dicky's screams were lost in the horrified roar of the crowds below.
"Mary--!" John instinctively attempted to right himself, reaching for the safety line. But he still held Mary by one of her ankles, and he couldn't stretch far enough to grab the line.
Dicky watched in helpless terror as his parents plummeted to their certain deaths.
"No-oooo...!" He wanted to close his eyes, to turn away. But he couldn't.
What occurred next was never quite clear in his mind--sort of a distorted image from a broken mirror.
Just moments away from death, his mother and father were suddenly swept up by two dark shadows and safely deposited on the platform next to him. Too happy to see his mommy and daddy still alive, Dicky didn't care how it happened or why. He only knew that it had.
"Mommy--! Daddy--!" he sobbed, overwhelmed by his near loss. He was instantly swept into the loving arms of his mother and father and inundated in a shower of hugs and kisses.
The crowd below "Ooohhed" and "Aaahhed" its collective approval at what was probably the most exciting act they'd ever witnessed. Soon, the ringmaster had the crowd's attention again, and while the Graysons descended to the safety of the sawdust-covered center ring, the show went on...
He couldn't believe it! They should be dead! He'd planned it so perfectly. Acid on the trapeze ropes, enough to break when the guy and dame were both on it. He'd hoped to take out the little brat, too, but knew that he'd reveal his hand too early.
No, better to off the parents. Without them, the kid would probably never perform again. Besides, it was too easy to waste a kid who didn't have any family. After all, who cared about you if you didn't have family?
Tony Zucco had family. His mother was the sister of the biggest crime boss in Gotham City. He was the nephew of Rupert Thorne, and you can bet that he'd used that relationship to his advantage for as long as he could remember. But his uncle didn't like Tony to call him 'Uncle Rupert,' and he'd already warned him that nephew or no, Tony Zucco was on the payroll just like any other employee.
But unlike other organizations, once in, there was no way out, except by being fired. Zucco shivered as he ran. He remembered a few ex-employees that had been 'fired.' Unfortunately for them, being 'fired' meant being 'erased'--permanently.
When you signed up with Thorne's machine you were either employed for life, or your life was cut short. This made for some real company loyalty. Nobody quit and nobody retired.
Zucco knew that Thorne didn't like to leave any loose ends hanging, so once 'fired' from the job, ex-employees simply disappeared. However, if the boss wanted to make a statement, you could just as easily end up in a dumpster, or facedown in the Gotham River.
"I gotta leave town!" Zucco whimpered, stumbling across the uneven grounds towards his parked car. Without warning, something grabbed him by the ankles and pulled his legs out from under him.
"Hey! What the--?"
"Leaving town so soon, Zucco?" a deep, male voice growled.
"And we were just beginning to get to know you," a sultry female voice added.
"The Bat!" Zucco cried, this time in real terror as the dark, menacing shadow fell over him. A second, smaller shadow joined the first. "Catwoman--!?"
"It's a purr-fect night to catch rats. Isn't it, Batman?" Keeping her eyes on Zucco, she added, "Where do you suggest we dump it? Police headquarters? Or the Rose Club?"
"No! Please! Not the Rose Club! The boss'll have me killed! Please--you can't! It would be the same as murder!" Zucco begged.
"And what do you call what you tried to do tonight?" Batman snarled, grabbing Zucco by the neck and squeezing. "If it weren't for the fact that you're too much of a coward to try to kill your victims directly, Catwoman and I might not have saved the Graysons. But luckily for us, you're as yellow as they come!"
"Please..." Zucco blubbered, tears streaming down his cheeks. "I'll do anything...just please don't turn me over to my uncle..."
Gordon stood in wonderment at the little gift that had been left swinging from the roof of Police Headquarters. Zucco was beside himself with terror, screaming at the rescue workers to cut him down.
"Let me down, you morons! Cut me loose!" Realizing what he'd just said, he hastily reversed his demands.
"No! Don't cut me down! Be careful with that thing--!" he added as the rescue workers took out a cutting torch.
Gordon looked over at Bullock who was not even trying to hide his amusement.
"Looks like the Bat and the Cat have netted us a rat, Commish!" he said, handing Gordon a note that had been attached to Zucco's coat.
"I got rights!" Zucco yelled.
"You've got nothing!" Bullock retorted. "Now shaddup, before I 'accidentally' let you fall--fourteen stories!" That quieted Zucco momentarily, but once safely on the roof, he rallied once more, trying to be openly defiant.
"I'll sue! You hear me?" he called. "Unlawful arrest! That's what it was!"
"I said--SHADDUP!!" Bullock roared. "Before I have you charged with trespassing on city property!" Zucco ignored him, facing Gordon instead.
"You're the guy in charge here, right? Well, if you don't call off your goon, I'm gonna--"
"You're free to go," Gordon said quietly.
"What?" Bullock asked.
"What?" Zucco asked, uncertainly.
"What?" Batman muttered.
They watched from the shadows, several rooftops away. He was aiming a small directional antenna/sound amplifier in the direction of Police Headquarters. The wireless device allowed the user to monitor conversations up to a half-mile away.
Catwoman placed a gentle hand on Batman's forearm.
"Take it easy," she admonished quietly.
Batman gave her a hard look. "No! I can't take it easy! Your friend Gordon's going to release Zucco." He turned away in disgust. "So much for playing by your rules--!"
"Wait!" Selina interrupted.
"I just received word that your uncle's lawyer is here to arrange for your release." Gordon paused, allowing his words to sink in. "Like I said, you're free to go."
"M-My uncle?" Zucco whimpered. At Gordon's nod, Zucco fell on his knees and made a grab for the police commissioner's legs.
"No! Please! I'll talk! I'll talk! Just don't let my uncle get his hands on me. He'll kill me!"
Watching as Bullock half-led, half-carried the blubbering Zucco into the building, Batman shook his head.
"I used to think that family was the most important thing a man could have in his life," he said, his voice tinged with sadness. "When Thorne took my family from me, he took my life. At the time, I couldn't understand how someone could commit such a vicious act. Now, I see how he could--neither Thorne nor Zucco understand the real importance of family. To them, it's just something to exploit in others."
"I disagree with you, Bruce. They do understand," Selina murmured. "Which makes it all hurt so much more."
Before Batman could ask her what she meant, she nudged him, pointing towards police headquarters.
A lone figure remained on the roof, little more than a dark silhouette--Gordon. As they watched, Gordon walked slowly towards the edge of the roof and lit a pipe. He puffed for a few moments, looking out.
After a few more minutes, he removed his pipe and turned to go. Pausing as if he'd forgotten something, he turned and faced in their direction. He lightly touched his forefinger to his forehead in salute.
With that, Gordon turned and strode into the building.
They sat together in companionable silence in front of a roaring fire. Alfred had long since bid them both goodnight. Selina smiled as she remembered his wink of approval.
"What's so funny?" Bruce asked.
"Nothing," Selina said. "I'm just so--so--" She looked like she was struggling for words. "I don't know...'Content' is the word that comes to mind."
Bruce nodded, his customarily dark eyes, openly frank.
"And yet, there's a mixture of...I'm not sure...'uncertainty,' I suppose," he said. He didn't add that he still knew relatively little about her.
"Yes," she agreed. Selina looked up at his parents' portrait. Perhaps it was time. She turned and caught him watching her. Her throat constricted, and she felt herself falling. Making up her mind, Selina lightly placed her hand on his cheek and pulled him towards her for a deep, lingering kiss.
Breaking away reluctantly, she looked longingly into his blue eyes, seeing her own wishes mirrored in them. She smiled, feeling as if a great weight were suddenly lifted.
"Bruce?" she began. "I'd like to talk to you about my parents..."
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This piece is © 2001 by Syl Francis.
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