For years, Gotham City’s riverfront district had been a decidedly low-class area of the city, poorly lit, lined by warehouses (mostly abandoned), and frequented by drug dealers and sin peddlers. In recent years, Gotham’s Chamber of Commerce had spent millions trying to revitalize the riverfront to lure suburbanites with their discretionary income into this once-desolate area. The warehouses had come down, replaced by a sixteen-screen cineplex, a gigantic arts center, three trendy restaurants specializing in different types of food, and a huge shopping complex featuring upscale boutiques at outlet prices and acres of brightly lit, free parking. It was a gamble that had paid off, because business was literally booming. The restaurants and theater were crowded to capacity every night of the week, and the stores did millions in sales.
Now, the entire place was burning.
“There it is,” Karel Sorenson said, pointing through the glass wall of the chrono-module. “Gotham Riverfront Complex.”
“Looks like someone set a nest of sulphur-worms loose in there,” Homer Glint said with a frown.
Rick Purvis turned to him. “What’s a sulphur-worm?”
“Rare xenoform,” Homer explained. “I saw one on a dead world near the Antares system once. Nasty little buggers. Their bodies create so much heat, to survive they have to expel it from their systems in the form of a thick, sticky mucous that burns in the presence of any known gas; oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, even the inert gases. Takes forever to burn itself out, and all the time the worms are producing more.”
“Sounds dangerous,” Rick agreed.
“What did you think killed the dead world where I found it?” Homer asked.
“This is where it all came to a head,” Karel said, ignoring her companions, her excitement mounting. “Batman and Officer Carol Sorenson came here, engaged Pastor Payne’s confederates, and learned where the crime master was hiding. Then they attacked him in his own headquarters!”
“And he shot Batman?” Rick asked.
Karel nodded once. “Odd, isn’t it? All those years, so many master criminals who tried; and someone Batman had never heard of before that night got off a lucky shot.”
“It’s always that way,” Rick observed. Homer nodded sagely.
“My God,” Commissioner Gordon said, looking up into the conflagration all around him. “I-I haven’t seen anything like this since… since Dresden!”
Officer Sorenson stared wide-eyed into the blaze at the burning buildings. Batman was grim, his face showing no emotion at all.
“Shouldn’t we be patrolling the city?” Sorenson asked.
“Why?” Batman asked.
“Well, isn’t this a diversion?” the young officer asked. “The mastermind, he’s used fires before to draw police away from his real target–”
“No,” Batman said simply. “Small fires. Not like this. Not carnage on a wide scale like this. No, this is no diversion.”
“Then what?” Gordon demanded.
“It’s a trap,” Batman said simply, as casually as if he had been discussing the weather. “An attempt to lure me here, where I’ll be an easy target for his men.”
“Then why are you here?” Sorenson demanded. Batman turned his gaze on her, his face still emotionless.
“Because when the trap snaps shut,” Batman said, “I don’t intend to be the one caught in it.”
Before Sorenson could reply to that, there was a sharp sound of metal striking concrete. Stone chips flew up from the street, stinging Sorenson’s face and arms. No one had heard a shot; they could not over the fire engines and commotion.
“Sniper!” Gordon cried, instinctively drawing his gun and whipping around in the direction from which the shot had come.
“Move!” Batman snapped, whirling around toward his two companions. His billowing cape swirled with his body, creating a blinding cover that hid himself and his friends from any view from above. That bought him maybe five seconds, during which time his finely trained mind calculated the angle of the shot and drew on his extensive knowledge of Gotham City.
“The GNB building,” Batman whispered. Gordon nodded once, then pulled a small walkie-talkie from his overcoat pocket and barked orders into it. Sorenson merely ran in the direction of the Gotham National Bank building across Water Street from the riverfront complex.
“There she goes,” Karel cried, pointing. “Look at her, charging headlong into danger! And in an age where there were still some who actually thought of women as the weaker sex! What a woman!”
“I can’t believe anyone ever thought that,” Rick said, shaking his head. “I mean, I’ve read about it in history vids, of course, but come on! What they have to endure to give birth! How can anyone think of that as weak?”
“Karel,” Homer said, “look! That hood’s going to shoot her!”
“Keep watching,” Karel said.
As she sprinted across the deserted street, Carol Sorenson peered up, looking for a sign of the gunman or gunmen. The building was dark, deserted at this hour. The gunman would need no light; the brilliant glare from the blaze illuminated his targets. As she ran, Carol scanned the building, searching for some telltale glimpse.
There — that momentary flicker of light; the light from the fire, reflecting off a gun sight.
Two shots rang out, both muffled by the fire engines. One shot struck pavement exactly where Officer Carol Sorenson had been standing a moment ago, before she dived headlong and fired her service revolver simultaneously. The other shot did not miss at all. The gunman sent by Pastor Payne pitched forward involuntarily as the bullet slammed into his stomach, hurling himself out the sixth-floor window. Carol ran toward him and reached him seconds after he struck the bushes surrounding the front wall of the bank building.
Sorenson leaned over the prone form of the gunman, searching for some sign of life. The swarthy-skinned killer’s eyelids flickered open; he gazed upward, saw the face of a beautiful woman, backlit by the fire. Sorenson’s uniform cap had flown off when she dived out of the way of his shot; her blonde hair billowed out around her head by the wind.
“Il mio Dio,” the gunman muttered. “Una angela!”
Carol smiled; she spoke Italian, having grown up in one of Gotham’s rougher neighborhoods. “Yes, my son,” she whispered to the killer in his own language. “I am the angel of death, come to claim your soul. But your soul is heavy with sin. I cannot let you enter the kingdom of Heaven. You must be consigned to the flames.” Carol stepped back and motioned with her hand, drawing the killer’s attention to the burning buildings. In his pain-induced stupor, they must have appeared as the fires of Hell itself. He gaped in horror.
“No! No!” he cried in terror.
“You would escape the flames, my son?” Carol whispered. “Then shrieve thy soul of sin! You have been led astray by a false prophet! Confess, my son! Who is this dark creature who dares call himself Heaven’s messenger? Where is he?”
The killer looked up at Sorenson in abject terror.
“Sorenson!” Commissioner Gordon barked as he and Batman ran across the street to the bank building. “Sorenson! Are you all right?”
“Fine,” Sorenson said, walking away from the bushes. “Better than the gunman back there. Going to need the coroner’s wagon, Commissioner.” The young officer continued to walk past Gordon and Batman.
“The cor — wait!” Gordon snapped. “Where are you going?”
“To the mastermind’s headquarters,” Sorenson said, casually. “You can come along, if you like.”
Batman allowed himself a wry smile. Yes, this one was very good, indeed.
“Pretty impressive,” Rick said with a smile as he watched Officer Sorenson in action. “I can see why you took her name, Karel.”
“If only she had been quick enough to prevent Batman’s death,” Karel said ruefully.
“What happens now?” Homer asked, peering through the viewing window.
“Watch,” Karel said.
“You’re sure this is the place?” Batman said as the sleek Batmobile pulled up behind the dilapidated building that had once housed a youth recreation center in one of Gotham’s more violent neighborhoods. Lack of funding and difficulty finding counselors to work with the tough kids of this neighborhood had forced its closing.
“Trust me, he was too scared to lie,” Officer Sorenson said, leaping out of the Batmobile. “The brain behind all this is in here, all right!”
“I’m still not sure I should have brought you,” Batman said. “Perhaps you should have stayed behind with Jim, coordinating rescue and firefighting efforts, watching out for more snipers.”
“Come on, Batman!” Sorenson snapped, all her previous awe of the masked manhunter gone. “You’d never have found this place if it hadn’t been for my resourcefulness!”
“Yes, that’s true, but–”
“And didn’t I prove myself back there when we were getting shot at?”
“So why are you pulling this too dangerous for a woman crap on me all of a sudden?”
“Officer,” Batman said frostily, “your gender never entered the equation. You’re the one who brought that up, not me. I just don’t want to be responsible for anyone else’s safety when the fighting starts — man or woman.”
“Oh. Well, I can take care of myself, Batman. Just because I don’t wear navy blue fishnets and use karate doesn’t mean I can’t handle myself in a fight.”
“Point taken. Shall we go in?”
Carol Sorenson smiled. “Lead the way.”
“Brother DeLucca,” Pastor Payne said icily, “you had led me to believe that the brother whom you selected for the holy mission was efficient at what he does.”
“He is, Pastor!” DeLucca protested. “Jimmy Z is the best trigger man in the business! Anyone says different is a dirty liar! Um, may Heaven forgive them, Pastor.”
“Indeed,” Pastor Payne said. “If that is the case, Brother DeLucca, why has he not returned with the head of the bat? What can be detaining him?”
Before DeLucca could answer, a black metal dart in the shape of a bat plunged into the wooden table between the two men. DeLucca cried out in fear. Pastor Payne merely started with rage.
“The demon is here!” he cried out, leaping to his feet. “Find him, brothers! Do not let him–”
“You’re all under arrest!” a sharp, authoritative voice snapped from the doorway — a feminine voice. All heads turned to see Carol Sorenson pointing her service revolver at them.
“Is she kidding?” the murmurs began, gradually rising in volume.
“Arrestin’ all of us!”
“Bro-ther, what chutzpah!”
“The lady said,” came a dark, booming voice from above, “that you’re under arrest.” The startled criminals looked up to see a dark, cloaked figure hanging by its ankles from the metal pipe work crisscrossing the ceiling. The figure let itself drop, did a flip in midair, and Batman landed on his feet, facing the startled crowd.
Then the fighting began.
“Wow! Look at them go! That Batman can sure throw a punch!” Homer cried.
“I’ll say!” Rick said. “I’ve read all the histories; I’ve seen the surviving holovids. But to actually see him in action!”
“Carol’s no slouch, either,” Karel observed. “Did you see her nail that crook in his shoulder, at just the right spot to take him out of the fight with no permanent damage? Boys, I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to see with my own eyes the fight that gave birth to Silverthorn!”
“And death to Batman,” Rick reminded them ominously.
“Any more of them, Officer?” Batman asked as his blue-gloved fist crashed into the jaw of a burly gunman, sending him sprawling across the meeting table.
“Last one,” Carol advised, using the judo techniques she had learned at the Gotham Police Academy to flip another hood over her shoulder, and following through with the butt of her pistol to the back of his head. Batman and the young police officer looked around the room at the criminals sprawled across the crudely constructed pews, the makeshift altar. Pastor Payne himself, his wide-brimmed hat somehow still jammed on his head, lay on his back on the steps leading up to his pulpit. Batman looked down at him with barely disguised disgust.
“I’ve met some despicable criminals in my time,” Batman said, “but to use religion as a smokescreen for criminal ends is a new low.”
“Not so new,” Sorenson said, shrugging. “Historically, more atrocities have been committed in the name of the Christian God than any other source.”
“That’s true,” Batman remarked. “The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials…”
“More recently, gay-bashings and abortion clinic bombings,” Sorenson added. “I like to think there’s a special level of Hell reserved for people who try to use God to excuse their own intolerance.”
“Sometimes I wonder if there is a Hell,” Batman said. “People like this Pastor Payne do a good enough job of making one on Earth.” Batman turned his back on the unmoving criminal mastermind and smiled at Officer Sorenson. “Commissioner Gordon will hear of your performance tonight, Officer Sorenson.”
“Carol,” the young rookie smiled back.
“Carol,” Batman agreed.
Neither noticed that Pastor Payne was slowly rising on his elbows. Slowly, silently, the defeated genius removed his wide-brimmed hat and drew a small revolver from the band inside.
“Here it comes,” Rick said tensely.
“I can barely watch,” Karel said, and yet she did not avert her eyes.
In the converted church of Pastor Payne, a single shot rang out, followed by a cry of pain.
“Carol!” Batman cried as Officer Sorenson was hurled backward by the shot. Quick as a panther, Batman followed her, catching her body before it hit the floor. “Carol!” he cried again, staring into her glassy, unseeing eyes, watching the thin red line trickle down from the neat hole in her forehead. Slowly, Batman turned his face to the steps of the pulpit. The expression on Batman’s face was sufficient to make Payne drop his gun in terror.
“No!” Karel cried out. “Th-that’s not how it happened! That’s not how it happened at all!”
“Maybe it did,” Homer advised, a hand on Karel’s shoulder. “You know records from this time are spotty at best, what with the atomic war and everything. Maybe Carol Sorenson did die this night; maybe our records got it wrong.”
“B-but Silverthorn!” Karel insisted. “If she — then who–?”
“Look!” Rick cried, pointing.
Batman stood on the pulpit steps, holding the terrified Payne up by fistfuls of his frock coat. The criminal genius was stuttering with terror. Batman’s face was inches from his own, a grisly mask of rage.
“You murdering scum!” Batman snarled. “You sick, demented worm! By everything I hold dear, Payne, I’ll see you pay for what you just did! I promise you–”
So focused on the murderer of Carol Sorenson was the Dark Knight, he did not notice the hood behind him slowly raise his head from the floor and aim a revolver at his back.
“No!” Karel screamed. “No! It can’t be!”
“It is,” Rick said. “We knew this was going to happen; that Batman was going to die tonight.”
“No!” Karel screamed again. Drawing her own energy-pistol, she leaped for the hatch of the chrono-module.
“Karel, don’t!” Homer cried, lunging for his longtime friend. But he was not quite swift enough. Karel Sorenson vanished through the portal, appearing suddenly in the dingy building in 1987. She squeezed the trigger of her weapon; a pencil-thin energy beam lanced out and disintegrated the gunman’s weapon before he could fire. He cried out in pain as the energy stung his hand.
Batman dropped Payne and whirled around on his heel. He saw Karel standing there in her red satiny jumpsuit, holding the bizarre-looking pistol. He saw the gunman rubbing his injured hand; smelled the sharp tang of burned metal in the air.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“I’m Ka — Mary,” Karel said. Then, as an afterthought, she added, “Silverthorn.”