In a stark bedroom hewn from the living stone of a Himalayan mountain, a lean and grizzled man arose from his sleep and silently embarked on an hour of exercises and martial arts katas. At the end of the allotted hour, he stripped and entered a shower that had run just long enough for the water to reach the scalding temperature he preferred. When he exited the shower, he wrapped himself in a heavy plush robe just in time to greet an exquisitely beautiful young woman who entered with a tray of exotic fruits, grains and dark, rich coffee.
“Good morning, my dear,” he said in a thickly accented voice as he took a long sip of hot coffee.
“Good morning, Father,” she demurely replied with a smile. “Or should I say good evening?”
“Yes, I realize that you and the others in our operation are, shall we say, amused by the schedule I keep. However, it suits me to match my body’s rythyms to those of the people with whom I do most of my business.”
She placed the tray on a carved oaken table as they both sat. “Do you wish to view the news summary now, or wait until you have finished breaking fast?”
“All feels right with the world this morning; let us see what it has to offer.” Long, graceful fingers reached for a remote control on the table. The press of a button, and a portion of the wall slid aside to reveal a large screen that was already coming to life. The image of a man sitting at something very much like a typical American anchor desk came into focus. The swarthy man, however, was speaking Arabic instead of English. This mattered little to the pair watching.
“–financial markets are in a state of confusion as the fate of the various Wayne holdings is thrown into doubt.” The name of the man whom he considered equally his friend, ally, peer, son-in-law, and nemesis caught the older man’s full attention. As the reporter shifted to another topic, he grabbed for the remote and started moving through the channels, scanning them as quickly as they appeared. When he stopped, the screen showed a news reader from the British Corporation of Broadcasting.
“The explosion of the Wayne Industries jet is being treated as a criminal investigation by the American authorities, though a spokesman for the FBI stated that they have not ruled out the possibility that it was a tragic accident.” An image of a map of Alaska appeared behind the news reader, with a red line indicating the path of the doomed jet’s final flight.
“Those thrice-damned to hell imbeciles!” Ra’s al Ghul stood, slamming the delicate china coffee cup down with enough force to not only shatter the cup, but to snap off a section of the two-inch-thick tabletop as well. Talia’s face went pale, and tears flowed from her almond-shaped eyes as her father cursed the souls of those he believed responsible for her beloved’s death, cursing them in seven languages that she recognized and at least three distinct languages that she did not recall ever hearing before.
“How did I not see this coming?” he asked when his temper finally subsided. “I knew the detective was travelling to the Alaskan plains this week. When my agent reported that those eco-warriors were planning to strike a blow for their cause, I should have made the connection.”
“Father, even you cannot discern connections where none should exist,” stated Talia as she wiped her cheeks with a linen napkin.
“Perhaps not, my dear, but I assure you that the detective’s murderers shall come to pay for this act with their own blood.” The tone of his voice scared even the one who knew him best.
On the roof of the fortress-like building that served as Gotham City’s Police Headquarters, a weary man looked out over the city he had served for decades. Wisps of smoke curled from the pipe that he held in one hand, from which he occasionally took a draught. Thoughts of the past twenty years ran through his mind, memories of a young man whom he had at first viewed as an idle playboy with an unusual interest in police affairs. It had not taken long for him to realize that young Bruce was far sharper than he wanted people to believe, but it had taken almost fifteen years for the police commissioner to fully realize the depths of Bruce Wayne’s character. When he realized the secret life that his friend led, a life in which he felt that he himself played an important part, James W. Gordon had felt a curious mixture of pride and disappointment. Pride in the enormously heroic role that the younger man had forged in the world, and disappointment that Bruce had never chosen to confide in him.
The disappointment evaporated when James Gordon was kidnapped by criminals who were certain that the city’s police commissioner must surely be privy to the secret identity of the Batman. Thanks to a ruse put into action by the Caped Crusader years before, Gordon was rescued, and the biggest secret in Gotham City remained just that: a secret. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Best-Kept Secret in Gotham City,” Detective Comics #465 (November, 1976).]
“Penny for your thoughts?”
Commissioner Gordon turned to see his daughter standing by the massive searchlight that sat near the stairwell entrance. “Barbara, honey, how are you?” He strode over and enveloped the attractive redhead in his arms. How are Dick and Jason taking it?”
“Hard, Daddy. Dick is overwhelmed with the whole prospect of inheriting all of Bruce’s business dealings, and Jason is scared to death that he’s going to be shuffled off to a foster home or something.”
“Not going to happen. I’ve already made a few calls, and if there’s any question of Jason being placed anywhere outside of Bruce’s ersatz family, he will be placed in my care.” Gordon smiled. “For all practical purposes, he will be with you and Dick.”
“Leave it to you, Daddy.” Barbara leaned in to give her father a kiss on the cheek. “Dick wants you to come out to the Manor tonight, if you can. He wants a war council for handling the crime situation for the next few weeks.”
“The crime situation?” Gordon did his best to look puzzled. “What are you talking about?”
“Daddy!” Despite her thirty-plus years, Barbara could still pout like a twelve-year-old when it suited her. “I really don’t think we need to play this game, anymore. With Batman gone, he wants to make sure any outbursts are kept under control, and he wants you in on it.”
“So I take it that you knew that I knew?” A long pull on the pipe followed the question. As he savored the aromatic smoke that filled his lungs, he continued. “Did Bruce know?”
“He fully expected that you would know. After all, you’ve been the top police officer in this city since before he put on the mask. He told me once that, if you didn’t know, it was only because you didn’t want to know.”
“Hmmph. Sounds like something he’d say.”
When she pulled into her customary space behind her flower shop, Selina Kyle sensed something was not right. “Stay in the car, Anna,” she said to the young Cuban teenager in the passenger seat.
“What’s wrong?” The girl’s grasp of English was still incomplete, but she had developed a keen sense for her friend’s emotions.
“I don’t know. Something just doesn’t feel right.” Selina cautiously reached for the knob on the back door to her shop, brushing it with the softest touch of her left ring finger. The most expendable, she thought as she checked the door. Feeling nothing, she reached up over the frame of a boarded-up window and took down a two-foot-long strip of spring steel she had placed there months before. She slid it into the narrow space between door and frame and ran it all the way around the door. Only then did she insert the specially made key, slide the slat through a slot in it, then stand far off to the side of the door as she turned the key from a presumably safe distance.
The door opened without any suprises.
Looking inside, she saw one of her two cats sitting in his customary pose on her work-table. Stock still, head erect, tail laid out straight behind him, the unusual black and white Siamese appeared totally unfazed by the opening of the door.
OK, thought Selina, Ozzie isn’t riled by anything, so nothing’s in the shop. Selina motioned for Anna to get out of the car as she replaced the metal strip up over the window frame. Locking the door behind them as they entered, Selina went out into the shop itself. Out on the sidewalk, a man stood looking in the window, making faces at a thin cat who was currently twisted around one of the pedestal tables in the window. “All right, Eddie, if you insist, I’ll let him in.”
The smile with which Selina greeted Chief of Police Scott Patterson faded quickly when she saw his face. Something was definitely wrong.
“What’s the matter, Chief? Is it your wife?” she asked, motioning him to sit at one of the small tables in the shop.
“No, Connie is fine. I just had a call from Gotham City, from the Commissioner. I don’t know if you’ve seen the news this morning.” Scott tipped his head quizzically.
“No, I don’t usually watch the television news, and I haven’t seen the paper yet today.”
“Well, Commissioner Gordon knows that you’re a friend of mine, and, as he put it, he thought it would be better if you heard this from a friend.” Scott reached over the table and took one of Selina’s slender hands in his own larger one. “Selina, Bruce Wayne died in a plane accident last night.”
“Bruce?” Had he been asked, Scott Patterson would have sworn that nothing could catch Selina off-guard. This piece of news, however, hit the attractive woman like a physical blow. She sat back in the chair, her body going slack, her head looking down at her lap. “No, I’m sure there’s some mistake,” she murmured.
“The authorities don’t seem to think so. Gordon said that there was no chance of anyone escaping the plane, according to both the FAA and the Justice League.”
The shop was silent for a few moments. When Selina spoke, her voice was hushed and hollow-sounding. “You know, when a relationship ends, you think that’s it. Done. Over. You move on with your life, and you don’t think about it. Or you try not to think about it. Then something like this, and you wonder if it ever really ended at all.”
“Look, Selina, I spoke to my wife before I came down here, and she suggested that if you want to fly up to Gotham, to, uh, pay your respects, perhaps get some closure, as our staff psychologist at the department likes to say, we would consider it a privilege to pay your way — for you and Anna, that is.”
“That’s very sweet of you, Chief, and I’ll be sure to thank Connie, but it really isn’t necessary. My bank account won’t even notice the cost of a trip to Gotham. But you are right, I do need to go back there, at least as a way of saying a final farewell to Bruce.”
Fifty miles off the coast of Washington state, a well-furnished motor yacht plied the waters in an erratic pattern.
“Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main! The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh, and get us through the rain, oh!” The singing stopped. “Wait, no, I know that’s not right, is it, chum? Ha-ha-ha-ha!” The laughter echoed over the sound of the twin diesel motors. When it died away, a radio could be heard.
“In local reaction to the news, Robert Fence expressed his deep regret that Wayne died while enroute to meet with him.”
A second voice, obviously recorded in the midst of a group of reporters, could be heard. “Bruce Wayne and I only met a handful of times, but I was looking forward to forging a partnership with him and the Wayne Technology companies to further expand the use of Macroware products in their office technology solutions. It pains me that one of the most successful businessmen in the world should meet an untimely end on the cusp of such a meeting as we had planned.”
“Bruce Wayne? Mister I-can-buy-and-sell-Gotham Bruce Wayne? Dead? Oh, and to think I missed it!” A chalk-white hand reached out from the helm to adjust the radio. “Come on, tell me what happened to the little rich boy.”
On another station, such details as were known about the crash were described.
“An accident? Oh, I think not. Brucie-boy took too much care with his toys for an accident like this, chum. Somebody had to have doped the plane, methinks! I was going to go and spread a little mayhem in Seattle, but I think that I’ll just head on up to Alaska, instead. Ol’ Batsy is sure to come snooping around, trying to figure out who knocked off his old buddy, Bruce. Maybe I can beat him to the punch.”
The boat listed to one side as the driver hauled on the wheel, turning the boat toward the north. Locking the wheel in position, he climbed down from the flying bridge to the deck. He moved to the stern and opened a cooler that was there. “Oh, my, old chum, what are we going to do now?” Reaching into the cooler, the Joker pulled out a rotting head. “Down to the last, aren’t we, chum? Guess I’ll have to find a replacement if I’m going to keep travelling in your boat, aren’t I?”
Tossing the grisly remains into the water, the Joker watched as several sharks rose from below to feast on what was left of the boat’s original owner. “Yessireee, looks like we need a new chum! HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”
In an ordinary-looking home in an ordinary Metropolis suburb, a very extraordinary man sat and stared off into space — not into nothingness, as most people did when their minds were distracted: he was literally staring into space.
“Clark, please don’t let yourself slip into this kind of depression. I know that you and Bruce were close, but you can’t blame yourself for his death.”
Clark Kent allowed his focus to return to the confines of his own living room. “I know, Kristin. But it’s times like this when it hits me, just how little even I can do in the grand scheme of things.”
Kristin Wells came over and sat on the arm of Clark’s recliner. “Darling, everyone meets their end, sooner or later. It’s a part of life, and as much as we try to stop it, in the end, we have to let them go.”
“I just never thought he would go so soon. It makes me regret the period we went through, just after the Crisis, when we hardly spoke to each other.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Afraid of the Dark,” World’s Finest Comics #323 (January, 1986).]
“Well, you took care of that. For the past two years, you two have been as close as ever, I daresay.” She got up and pulled a book from one of the shelves that covered one wall of the room. “And for all my knowledge of history, even I had no idea it was coming. Batman’s death was one of the pieces of information that was lost sometime between the twentieth century and my own time.”
Clark’s head suddenly jerked up. “Time! Of course!” Faster than a mortal eye could see, he was out of the chair and out of the house. Kristin was barely able to keep up with him as her ordinary clothes burned away from the effects of friction, and she flew after the man she loved.
Realizing that he was being followed, Superman slowed down just enough for Superwoman to catch up. “I should have thought of it before. Traveling into the future has become nearly impossible, but I should still be able to go back and save him!”
“What has happened shall happen, Kal-El, and none may change that.” Superman and Superwoman looked up to see a dark-clad figure standing before them, seemingly standing on air even as he remained forever five feet in front of them as they traveled just below the speed of sound. “Do not presume that you might interfere in true matters of life and death.”
“What are you talking about, Phantom Stranger? I save the lives of people all the time!” questioned Superman.
“Of those whose time has not yet come. You do not save them despite the fate for which they are destined, you save them because that salvation is already a part of their destiny.”
“Look, Stranger, I’m in no mood for your riddles and double-speak.”
“What you seek, Man of Steel, is the impossible. You seek to save Bruce Wayne from the tragedy that has befallen by changing that which has taken place. Such a change cannot be allowed to come to pass. There are events within events, Kal-El, of which you may remain forever unaware, but know this: any attempt to save Bruce Wayne shall halt the redemption of one, the punishment of another, and the absolution of a third.”
With that, the Phantom Stranger disappeared, and Clark and Kristin were once more seated in their living room.
“Whoa! Who or what was that?” asked Kristin.
“He is called the Phantom Stranger by the few who know him at all,” replied Clark. “Nobody knows the full story on him, but I do know that when he says something cannot be done, it’s not going to make a difference trying otherwise.”
Elsewhere, the Phantom Stranger stood and looked down over the world. “There are times when I regret the role forged for me in the world. To be the enforcer of such edicts as this brings pain to those few whom I might consider as friends in the mortal world, but there is naught to be done for it. For such is the fate of this stranger in the world.”