Two hours after leaving a Moroccan airfield, the radio aboard the Wayne Industries jet came to life. To Selina Kyle the voice was familiar, even though most of the words were unintelligible.
Bruce Wayne listened intently for a few minutes, then responded, “I already thought as much, Alfred. But thank you for passing this along.”
“What did he say?” asked Selina. “I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”
“You don’t speak Sumatran?” asked Bruce with a smile. “A radio message came in on a frequency Ra’s has used in the past to contact me. It wasn’t him, it was his manservant. Apparently, Ra’s has been killed, and his killer is the one that launched the attack on the OneVoice satellites.”
“Did he say who the killer is?”
“Yes. Incredible as it seems, it’s the Joker.” Selina’s gasp was not unexpected. “I agree. The thought of those two ever meeting is frightening enough. The thought of the Joker with Ra’s’ resources at his disposal is much, much worse.”
“And you believe this?”
“I think it’s a serious possibility. We have a couple hours more before we get there. Last I heard from the League, they have the worst situations under control. Apparently, the U.S. got the worst of it — a disadvantage of being on the leading edge of communications, I suppose.”
“So, why is it that one of your most dangerous enemies has a direct line to you? One that apparently doesn’t even go through public communications systems?”
“Ra’s and I have an unusual relationship. Most of the time, we’re on opposite sides. But on more than one occasion, we have found it necessary to work together. And before I even knew he existed, he knew pretty much everything there was to know about me. And even had a direct radio link to my home, my offices at Wayne Industries, and the Wayne Foundation, and even to the Batcave.” Bruce glanced at Selina. “And then there’s Talia.”
“That bitch of a daughter?”
“One and the same. She believes she is in love with me, that I am in love with her, and that we are somehow destined to be together.” He snorted. “She’s a beautiful woman, to be sure, but then, a coral snake is beautiful, too. But it’s still a snake.”
“Do you think she’s been killed, too?”
“It’s a possibility. Unlike her father, I don’t know if she has ever been resurrected in the Lazarus Pit before.”
“So, does this information change our approach?”
“Not really. We’ll drop as close to the coordinates as we can, try to get a fix on a transmitter or any other signs of life, and go in as quietly as possible.”
“Can you rig up your radio gadget there in case we need to call in the cavalry?”
Bruce shook his head. “Might not need it. The JLA communicators are working thanks to the Green Lanterns’ help. So we should be all right on that score.”
“Good, because I’ve got a feeling we might need some help.”
“What do you mean you can’t finalize the deal?” The voice was loud, high-pitched, and shrill, echoing through a penthouse office suite in downtown Gotham City.
“I’ve been trying to reach the lawyers on the phone, Ruby. Something’s wrong with the telephone system. I keep reaching someone who doesn’t speak English.” Rupert Thorne sat at a large mahogany desk in an office with a view of Gotham’s waterfront. “I think I’m going to have to go to their office in person.”
“Do it!” shrieked Ruby Ryder, one of Gotham’s wealthiest citizens. The empty cigarette holder in her hands tapped on the doorway in which she stood. “I need the purchase of those two buildings to close now, before Wayne or that twit Grayson realize I’m after the two properties right in the middle of their glorious redevelopment project in Park Row.”
“I’m on my way now, m’dear.” Rupert got to his feet with a groan and snatched an overcoat off the coat tree in the corner of his office. “Spencer’s office is about ten minutes away. I should have this deal closed within an hour.”
“Call me as soon as it’s done. I want to call Grayson this afternoon.”
As he shuffled down the plush carpeted hallway, Rupert muttered to himself, “I should be the mayor of this city, calling the shots, not running errands for Miss plastic surgery. If it wasn’t for–“
Rupert’s private little diatribe was interrupted by the chiming of the elevator. The door opened, and as he started to enter, a squat figure started coming out.
“Hawwk, pardon me, coming through,” said the short, heavyset man clad in gray-striped trousers, black suit coat, and bow-tie.
“Cobblepot?!” exclaimed Thorne. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Err, who?” asked Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, looking up and squinting through the pince-nez over his right eye. “Ahh, I remember you — Boss Thorne. You were at that curious little auction that Hugo Strange had a few years ago, weren’t you? (*) Nice to know that Miss Ryder is accustomed to working with, shall we say, gentlemen of an unsavory persuasion.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “I Am the Batman,” Detective Comics #472 (September, 1977).]
“Phaugh, speak for yourself, Penguin. I had an interest in finding out Batman’s true identity so I could get him out of the way of my political aspirations. Don’t you dare try to equate me with the likes of the Joker and yourself!”
“Of course, of course, Boss. However, unlike a politician, a criminal has a hope of reform — a hope I have seen fulfilled for myself, and I am here to speak with Miss Ryder about furthering me along the path of reform. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“Hah!” shouted Rupert. “You obviously don’t know Ruby as well as I do, you sawed-off little runt.”
“Ready?” asked Batman.
“To jump out of a plane onto a snow-covered mountain?” Catwoman looked up, a wide smile on her beautiful face. “Let’s do it.”
Batman slapped a panel next to the cargo hatch, which dropped down. As one, they ran for the edge of the ramp formed by the hatch and leaped off. The both angled their bodies downward, the air rushing past them as they hurtled earthward. Batman scanned the ground below, spotting the two mountain peaks he had noted on a map of the region. He flexed his body to the left, Catwoman mirroring his motions to follow. Twenty seconds into their descent, a high-pitched tone sounded in their helmets. They each started counting down from ten as they moved away from each other. As their mental countdowns hit zero, they each pulled the handle on their harness downward.
The oversized packs on their backs erupted in a blossom of silk, nylon, and spring-loaded polymer rods. Released from the tension of the pack, the spring-cords in the rods pulled them into shape, with the attached silken cloth following to form black wings tethered by nylon cords to their harnesses.
Batman seized the tethers and pulled what looked like a partial glove from each side of the harness. Slipping them over his hands, he flexed his fingers and felt the rods of the glider flex in response. He glanced over to see Catwoman doing the same. As the plane roared off overhead, they steered themselves toward the east. Batman took the lead, dipping and swerving to catch the elusive wind currents in the mountain range. Spying a windswept valley, he dipped the glider to spill air and lose altitude. As he dropped, he picked up speed. Seeing a half-buried shack in the snow, he twisted the control harness and brought the nose of his glider up. Like a great bird of prey stooping its wings to land on a branch, his forward motion stopped abruptly, and he dropped the remaining few feet to the ground.
He glanced back to see Catwoman coming in much higher. As she passed over him, he saw her slap the harness release at her waist, and she dropped away from the glider. Her lithe form twisted and rolled as she landed, coming back up on her feet in a flurry of snow. Beyond her, the glider came down to the ground, anchored by a single line clutched in her hand.
“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?” he asked.
“Not with a rig like that, but, yeah,” she said, pulling the helmet off her head and shaking her hair out. “A big improvement over the chutes we used the last time here. I assume that’s our entrance.”
“Unless they’ve changed things, that’s a bolt-hole for evacuating the base. Ra’s is nothing if not careful about such things.”
“Nice to know that the man bent on killing hundreds of thousands is concerned about the safety of his minions,” said Catwoman. As Batman broke the gliders down and wrapped them in their own cords, Catwoman examined the shed. “You do know this thing isn’t the rotted wood that it appears to be.”
“Of course it isn’t. I’m expecting steel or fiberglass.”
“Fiberglass. And the door has more alarms than the Gotham History Museum. Want me to start on them?”
“If you can disable them quietly, yes. But we won’t go through the door.” He walked over to her, pulling a device from his utility belt. He walked to the back side of the shed, brushing away snow with a sweep of his cape. He held the device near the wall and pressed a button on it. A narrow, six-inch jet of blue flame shot out from the top of the cylinder, cutting through the fiberglass wall.
Catwoman bypassed three alarm couplings, keeping their circuits from being interrupted. As she spied another coupling at the bottom of the door, she felt the small building shudder.
“We’re in,” said Batman. She disabled the last alarm coupling and came around to join him. A two-foot-wide by five-foot-high opening in the wall showed a narrow ledge with a ladder leading downward.
“Why the break in when we had a — oh.” Selina stared at the interior of the shed. “He really is thorough. Putting alarms on a fake door. How did you know?”
Batman tapped one of the ears on his cowl. “Nightwing added radar to the costume.” He pulled a silken cord from his belt and tied one end off on a railing. “Normally, I’d say ladies first, but I’ll take point, if you don’t mind.”
“Going to protect me from the big bad guys, my Dark Knight?” Selina said grinning as she fitted a pair of greenish lenses in her cowl. “Just leave a few of them for me, will you?”
In the private chamber of Ra’s al Ghul, the Joker sat in darkness. He could hear the shallow breathing of Talia behind the closet door. A fire burned in a fireplace carved from the stone wall of the cavern. Idle curiosity had led him to discover that the exhaust of this and similar fireplaces in the complex all led to the Lazarus Pit chamber below. His analysis of the chemical compounds of the Pit, which he had distilled into an injectable serum, showed traces of charcoal and ash, so it was possible that the fire burning before him contributed to the efficacy of the Pit.
Such were the thoughts that occupied his mind since rationality returned. In these quiet hours of darkness and introspection, he had come to realize that he had merely traded one form of insanity for another, one steeped in obsession and logic instead of chaos, delusion, and paranoia.
The fact that sleep eluded him was a minor concern. For the last fifteen years he had rarely slept more than two consecutive hours in a night, unless it was the sleep induced by a severe blow to the head. He paid little heed. But he did find a greater need to unwind, to take time away from plotting death and destruction, in order to keep his thoughts from whirling away in chaos — that, and the Lazarus Pit serum.
“Better get that out of the way,” he said to himself, reaching for a black case in his vest pocket. He pulled out a syringe and a glass ampule. The liquid in the ampule glowed yellow and orange, the compounds never quite mixing completely. He shook it, stabbed the needle into the ampule, and drew the liquid into the syringe. Then he plunged the needle into his left arm.
“ARRRGGH!” Like the Pit itself, the injected compound burned. With every injection, he expected to find parts of his arm burned away. Yet the only visible sign of the injection was the nearly invisible needle track.
“There, that should keep me lucid for another twenty-four hours.” The Joker leaned back in his chair, his head rolling back to rest on the high back of the chair. His eyes closed, and his breathing slowed.
The piercing tone jolted him awake and to his feet, and the case with the serum was knocked to the floor. As he rose, motion sensors in the room activated the lights. He walked over to a desk and slapped a button on a console. “What the hell is going on?”
“Intruder on the base, Jo — um, Master!”
“Hunt them down! Kill them!” screamed the Joker.
“Of course, Master!” came the reply.
The Joker ran from the room, heading for the control center. A moment after he left, the closet door opened. Talia smiled as she slid the narrow file and screwdriver back into her belt. She looked around and spied a bundle lying near the fireplace. She grabbed it and slipped out into the corridor.