“I have called this emergency meeting of you, my deacons, to discuss a matter of grave importance to our church,” Pastor Payne said as he looked out across the table at the four men seated there. “Brother Kowalksi, would you give your report, please?”
“Well, my boys and I tried to pull the job at the convention center last week like you said,” Kowalski said. “You know, the antique coin show? It was all going off without a hitch until Batman showed up. I was lucky to get away clean.”
“Thank you,” Pastor Payne said, his voice a sibilant hiss. “Brother DeLucca?”
“Same story, basically,” DeLucca reported. “My guys went after that charity drive for the homeless, or AIDS, or whatever it was; tunneled up from underneath into that big Plexiglas fishbowl where they were collectin’ the money. Batman showed up and cleaned house. Four of my best guys on their way to Stonegate!”
“We went after that trailer where the pharmacy of Gotham Hospital is being run out of, while the new pharmacy is being built,” Murphy said. “Man, the drugs in there had a street value of I don’t know how many millions! The Bat showed up, and bang, it was all over!”
“Brothers,” Pastor Payne said icily, “it is plain that the Devil hath sent a demon to plague us. Our holy work is bedeviled by a fiend in the shape of a bat. If our work is to continue, we must smite this demon!” Payne slammed his palm down on the tabletop for emphasis.
“Amen to that, Pastor,” said the fourth deacon, a gangster named Morrell. “But how? Ain’t like we’re the first folks to get that idea.”
“Morrell’s right,” DeLucca pointed out. “Everyone from the Joker on down to Crazy-Quilt has had a try at wastin’ the Bat, and he’s still here!”
“They,” Payne said simply in a tone that invited no contradiction, “did not have the power of divine right. No, my brothers, they failed because they walked in darkness. We have seen the light, and it is the light we shall shed over the dark creature that is Batman!”
“Um, Amen, Pastor,” Kowalski began. “But would you mind telling us how?”
“Fire,” Payne breathed, his dark eyes glittering. “The holy fire shall cleanse the city of Gotham, purify it, burn out the black cancer of the demonic bat!”
There was silence for a long moment. “You mean–?” Murphy began.
“I mean we burn the city!” Payne cried, flinging his arms wide. “Set the holy flame to the tallest, the proudest structures in this city of iniquity! The flames will be a beacon that will draw the Bat directly into our trap, and then the holy sword shall smite him down! Can I hear an Amen, brothers?”
“Amen,” the four deacons said at once, awe and trembling in their voices.
Silent as a cat, Batman landed on the roof of Police Headquarters well within the shadows created by the brilliant beam of the Bat-Signal. As he stepped out of the shadows, the Dark Knight was as relaxed as he ever got, which still meant that he was ready to spring into action at any moment. This was friendly ground, but more than once in the past had the Bat-Signal been used to bait him into a trap.
“Jim?” he called softly, not seeing his old friend.
“Um, no,” a feminine voice said nervously. Batman’s eyebrow raised behind his mask as he saw a young blonde woman wearing the uniform of the Gotham City Police Department step out from behind the Bat-Signal. “The Commissioner isn’t here, Batman.”
“I see,” Batman said simply, his tone betraying nothing as his eyes took in the young woman.
“Look, I know I could get kicked off the Force for using the Signal without permission,” the young patrolwoman began, “but I had to talk to you! I’m–”
Batman held up a hand to silence her. “Your name is Sorenson,” he said. “You’re a young patrolwoman on the force, no longer than three years of service. You practice your marksmanship rigorously, several hours a day. You’re currently on night duty. You were engaged to be married, but the engagement has been terminated, most likely due to the vigor with which you pursue your chosen career. You also have a fondness for cheese curls.” Batman paused, letting that sink in. “None of that tells me why you wanted to speak to me so urgently, however.”
Sorenson stood there, gape-mouthed, and took a trembling step backward. “Oh, wow,” she said softly. “A lot of the young rookies talk about you; they say you’re not human, you’re some kind of spook. I never believed it. But the way you just rattled off every intimate detail of my life–! Either they were right all along, or else you keep exhaustive personal files on every cop in Gotham and have committed them all to memory, and either way, I’ve got the creeps!”
Batman allowed himself a wry little smile; it was the closest he ever got to a full-fledged grin. “Neither, Officer Sorenson. It was all deduction and inference.”
“What?” Sorenson asked, confused.
“Observation is the criminologist’s best weapon,” Batman stated. “For example, your ears are not pierced.”
Sorenson looked confused. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Female graduates of the Gotham Police Academy,” Batman said, “used to have their ears pierced and fitted with a pair of handcuff-shaped earrings on graduation day. For one reason or another, a stop was put to this practice three years ago. Ergo, you must have graduated from the Academy more recently than that.”
Sorenson relaxed a little, admiration for Batman’s detective skills overcoming her fear. “Go on.”
“Your marksmanship practice I gathered from the callus on the pad of your right thumb,” Batman said, “most likely from hours pressed against the grip of the revolver. Indeed, the red indentations around your ears indicate that your were wearing a set of heavy ear guards very recently; probably came from the firing range less than an hour ago. I would surmise that you were shooting to let off steam and work up the courage to do what you did up here.”
Sorenson smiled. “Right again.”
“For the last several weeks, Gotham has enjoyed very sunny weather,” Batman went on. “However, you have no suntan. Police work, especially for rookie officers, involves being out of doors a great deal. Therefore the night duty. There is a white mark around the ring finger of your right hand, indicating that a ring was worn there for a long time but recently removed. I admit, the reason for the broken engagement is speculation on my part; call it an educated guess based on experience. The fondness for cheese curls is implied by the slight traces of orange dust under your fingernails.”
Sorenson automatically glanced at her fingers, then hid them behind her back. Quickly feeling stupid for her vanity, she brought her hands out again. “And my name? How did you deduce that my name is Sorenson?”
“I heard the sergeant call you that the other night at the warehouse,” Batman said simply.
Sorenson did a double take. “You remembered me?”
“Observation,” Batman reminded her. “Now, if we carry the logical reasoning to its conclusion, I would deduce that you risked your career to signal me because you feel you have a theory regarding the warehouse robbery, a theory that your superiors wouldn’t listen to; or perhaps you didn’t give them the chance to listen to it, based on your prior experience with them.”
Sorenson looked at her shoes. “You do see right through a person, don’t you?”
“I’m told it’s one of my less-endearing habits,” Batman remarked. Suddenly, the rooftop door burst open.
“Who the devil turned on the signal?” Commissioner James W. Gordon roared, his face an apoplectic rage. “Who the–? Oh! Batman! I-I didn’t know you were here!”
“I hope you don’t mind, Jim,” Batman said. “Officer Sorenson has been advising me on the matter of the warehouse robbery and the related crimes.”
“Advising… she has?” Gordon stammered, astonished and too surprised to note that Sorenson’s face bore the same astonished look.
“Yes,” Batman continued, “and she has a theory she wants to discuss with me. Isn’t that right, Officer Sorenson?”
“Carol,” Sorenson said, quickly recovering her wits. “How many times do I have to ask you to call me Carol?”
Batman smiled wryly. “I’m sorry, Carol. Let’s go inside, to the Commissioner’s office. I’m sure he’ll be interested in your theory, too.”
Commissioner Gordon followed them inside, shaking his head.
“It’s funny, really,” Karel said to her companions as they strapped themselves into the upright transport chambers of the chrono-module. “All the years we’ve been hopping across the galaxies, all the adventures we’ve had, and I’m still nervous about this trip!”
“So am I,” Homer admitted. “Who wouldn’t be? Traveling through time is something new, even to the Star Rovers!”
“So, Silverthorn first appeared on the night Batman died, Karel?” Rick asked, interested. While not at Karel’s level of adoration for Silverthorn, Rick had always respected Batman and the level to which the Caped Crusader had trained his own body.
“That’s right,” Karel agreed. “She was with him when he was gunned down. Some theorize that she decided to become a costumed crime-fighter based on the experience of watching Gotham City’s guardian give his life in the defense of the helpless.”
“Gotham really went to seed after that, didn’t it?” Homer asked. “Became a real… what was the term they used back then? Urban jungle?”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Karel said, getting into her subject. “All the criminals in the city, and even in surrounding areas like Metropolis and Bludhaven, became emboldened by Batman’s death and thought Gotham would be easy pickings. A massive crime wave swept the city. But it was put down, quickly… and messily.”
“By Nightwing and Robin,” Rick prompted.
“Yes,” Karel sighed. “It’s easy to understand what drove those two when you read their histories. Each one had lost their parents violently at a very young age and was taken in by Batman. He became a surrogate father to each young man. To lose two fathers to crime and violence in one lifetime, in just a few years, really, would be a lot for anyone to take.”
“So they became a two-man vigilante force, dealing out summary justice to Gotham’s underworld,” Homer said.
“Reaction was mixed, as you could well imagine,” Karel said. “About half the population found it shocking, their heroes turned to bloodthirsty vigilantes. The other half wondered why they hadn’t done it years before.”
“What about their fellow super-heroes?” Rick asked. “How did they take all this?”
“Well, there were some who agreed with Nightwing and Robin,” Karel said, “even going so far as to join them. Remember, this happened not too long after that great event some call the Crisis. A lot of heroes watched longtime friends and colleagues die in that conflict. One more, one so close to some of them as Batman, was the last straw.” Karel paused. “But there were others who took an opposing view, that the heroes had to stand for something higher than those whom they fought, that Nightwing and Robin, and those who sided with them, crossed the line. That led to the Great Schism.”
“Where half the heroes in the country were trying to bring the other half in for murder,” Homer prompted.
“Yes,” Karel said, repressing a shudder. “Since most of the lower-power-level heroes were on Nightwing’s side — and understandably so, since it’s easier to maintain high ideals when you’re bulletproof — they fought back with whatever weapons they had.”
“That’s how Superman’s identity got exposed,” Rick said.
Karel nodded. “And when the Daily Planet Building was blown up with everyone inside it; well, even a Superman has his limits.” Karel visibly shuddered now at the thought of what happened next.
“Are you ready, Star Rovers?” the professor’s voice came through the chrono-module communication system. “Commencing temporal displacement. Next stop: 1987!”
“A nice place to visit,” Rick said lightly, “but I wouldn’t want to live there.”
“All right,” Commissioner Gordon said, sitting down behind his desk. Officer Sorenson sat in the chair across the desk from this man who was effectively her ultimate superior officer, although she had never seen him before, except when he gave the commencement speech to her graduating class at the academy. Batman stood some distance away. “Let’s hear this theory of yours.”
“Well,” Sorenson said, commanding herself to fight down the nervousness, “Batman has managed to stop some of these crimes in the act and capture a few of the perps,” Sorenson pointed out. “Nobody has talked, not to Batman, our own detectives, or the D.A. We’ve tried threats, intimidation, deals; nothing has worked.”
“All of which we knew before you decided the Bat-Signal was a two-million-dollar pager,” Gordon grumbled. Batman shot him a glance that silently asked him to give the young officer a chance.
“But why?” Sorenson plunged on, heedless of her own fear. “Why haven’t they talked? Everybody cracks sooner or later. But these hoods haven’t. Is it because they have more courage than the usual Gotham crook?” Sorenson paused for effect, counting five seconds silently in her head. “Or is it because there’s something they’re more scared of than Batman or Stonegate?”
Gordon’s eyebrows raised once and lowered. He glanced at his old friend, who smiled wryly, then turned his gaze back to Sorenson. “And what might that be, Officer?” Gordon asked.
“Hell,” Sorenson said.
“What?” Gordon asked, incredulously. “Hell? Is this some kind of joke, Officer? If it is–”
“No, wait, hear me out,” Sorenson insisted. “Somehow, the mastermind behind these crimes has gotten all these crooks to work together, to obey his orders. And he’s made them all loyal to him, even in the face of long prison stretches… or Batman, who’s famous for scaring the bejeezus out of the bad guys. Er, no offense, Batman.”
“None taken,” the Dark Knight said levelly.
“What could possibly have that kind of influence over these crooks?” Sorenson asked. “What else but religion? He’s quite literally put the fear of God into them.”
Before Gordon could comment, Batman said, “As theories go, it’s not a bad one. Do you have any evidence to corroborate it?”
“Look at the ones you’ve caught,” Sorenson said to Batman. “Their names. For example: Shaughnessy, Giordano, Zawislak — Irish, Italian, Polish. All ethnic groups with a tendency toward xenophobia, remaining within their own circles; and yet they’re working together for a common leader. Also, all nationalities with traditionally strong ties to the church.”
Batman nodded, impressed. “Jim, I think she’s onto something.”
“Are you suggesting,” Gordon asked, “that our mastermind is some sort of — of clergyman of crime? A spiritual leader counseling crooks to bigger and better hauls?”
“How is that any crazier,” Sorenson asked, “than a disfigured former D.A. who commits crimes based on the number two? Or a disgruntled college professor who cooks up fear-potions in his basement lab? Do you want me to go on? I’ve got dozens of these.”
“All right, all right,” Gordon said, holding up his hands. “Assuming you’re right, Officer, how do we find this–?” Gordon was interrupted by the shrill ringing of the telephone on his desk. He snatched it up in one fluid motion. “Gordon,” he growled into the receiver. In a moment, his expression changed from tense alertness to wide-eyed horror.
“What is it, Jim?” Batman demanded, knowing the look on his friend’s face; it would take something drastic indeed to put that look on the hardened old cop.
“The new shopping district, down by the riverfront,” Gordon said slowly. “It’s on fire!”