“Pretty smooth job, all right,” the police officer said, tilting back his peaked cap to scratch at his balding head. “Whoever hit this place knew what they were doing.”
“I’d agree with that,” the somber man in midnight blue and gray commented. The Batman walked a brief circuit around the warehouse, his cloak swirling about him as his eyes took in every detail.
“Ventilation shaft,” Batman said, pointing to a square hole high in the wall. “Cover removed from the inside, most likely using a cordless electric screwdriver and a commercial lubricant.” Batman sniffed the air. “WD-40, from the scent.”
“Get that down, Sorenson,” the sergeant said to the young rookie behind him. Sorenson hurried to comply.
“Martinelli alarm system, Mark VI,” Batman noted. “Disabled from the shaft via a plastic paint pellet shot over its key sensor pad.”
“Getting all this?” the sergeant asked over his shoulder. The rookie nodded, scribbling rapidly on a yellow lined pad.
“Door to the loading dock opened from inside,” Batman continued. “Chain lock cut quickly and cleanly, most likely with a pair of industrial bolt-cutters.”
“The perps just backed a van up to it, loaded the furs, and drove off,” the sergeant opined. “Quick and easy like a TV dinner.”
“And on just the right night, too,” Batman commented.
“How’s that?” the sergeant asked.
“This warehouse is used by five different Gotham City furriers,” Batman said, “as temporary storage. These furriers offer cold storage for the summer for their wealthy clientele. The permanent facilities are far out of the city, so it isn’t cost-effective to make the trip more than once a season.”
“I get it,” the sergeant said. “So the fur places keep their customers’ furs here until they all go to their regular summer homes!”
“Tomorrow,” Batman finished. “The furs would have left tomorrow, so every fur that was going to be here, was here. The thieves knew just when to strike.”
“What beats me,” the sergeant said, “is why the place wasn’t more heavily guarded, with all these furs. ‘Specially if they were gonna be shipped out tomorrow.”
“Fire,” Sorenson, the rookie, piped up. The sergeant scowled over his shoulder.
“Anyone talking to you, Sorenson?”
“No, she’s right,” Batman pointed out. “There was a four-alarmer reported just three blocks west of here, about two hours ago. It’s still being put out, I think. All available emergency personnel were called to it.”
“Son of a dog!” the sergeant spat. “Someone torched a building just to steal some furs?”
“In the thieves’ defense,” Batman said grimly, “it was a block of condemned buildings due to be torn down. There was no one inside. Still, it was quite cold-blooded, at that. The thieves couldn’t have known there wouldn’t be homeless persons squatting inside.” The Darknight Detective looked around the empty warehouse again. “An entire warehouse cleaned out in less than an hour. And this is the third such carefully executed crime this month. We’re dealing with a very professional group of thieves, Sergeant.”
Batman strained his ears, and he could just barely catch the sounds of the fire engines and police vehicles at the site of the fire. Someone had declared war in his city. He would be ready.
“Hey, Ravell,” a seedy-looking man in a rumpled suit whispered to an acquaintance as he slid into the pew next to him. Organ music filled the chamber; the service was about to begin, and the pews were rapidly filling.
“Hey, Kowalski,” Ravell whispered back. “Just in time; the sermon’s about to start.”
“Sermon.” Kowalski snorted. “This is weird, Ravell, you know? I mean, I was an altar boy way back when. This just seems, I dunno, creepy somehow.”
Ravell shrugged. “The guy’s a fruitcake. So’re ninety percent of the crooks in Gotham; the big players, anyway. So this guy’s got a bugaboo about church. No creepier’n the others, you ask me.”
“That’s right,” Kowalski remembered. “Weren’t you in… the Scarecrow’s gang for a while?”
“The Riddler,” Ravell corrected.
“Right, right. How was that?”
“Pay was OK,” Ravell said. “When we were at the hideout, though, he made us all drink outta them little paper cups with the riddles printed on ’em. They don’t hold a lotta Jack D.”
“Brothers and sisters,” said a pretty blonde woman playing the organ as the music stopped. “Please rise and show reverence to your spiritual guide. Pastor Payne is about to address you.”
The men and women assembled in the room rose from their pews and stood with heads slightly bowed. A man walked out onto the stage before them, a thin man dressed like a caricature of an old-time preacher. He wore a black frock coat, a wide-brimmed black hat, and a spotlessly clean white shirt with a black string tie. Square glasses were perched on his beak-like nose, and he carried a thick book under his left arm, a book bound in black pebbled leather. Pastor Payne raised his right hand toward his congregation.
“You may be seated, brothers and sisters,” the gaunt man intoned, and the assembled men and women sat down on the hard wooden pews. “Last night, once again it was shown that our endeavors are blessed with heavenly guidance. Brother Ritchie, please rise and share with the congregation your testimony.”
A square-jawed man with a pencil-thin mustache rose from his pew. He fidgeted a bit, apparently unused to public speaking. “Um, my boys and I, we hit the fur warehouse on Keaton Place,” he said. “We followed Pastor Payne’s plan down to the letter. It worked like a dream, just like he said it would.” Ritchie looked expectantly to the Pastor, seeking approval to sit down and become one of the faceless congregation again.
“Thank you, Brother Ritchie,” Pastor Payne intoned. “You may be seated.” Breathing a quick sigh of relief, the gangster sat down again. “Many of you were reluctant to accept divine guidance when I came to you offering to become your spiritual advisor,” Pastor Payne went on. “And I understand that. In this worldly day and age, man is slow to accept the presence of a higher power, of an intelligence beyond their ken. But some of you said to yourselves, what have we got to lose? And so you accepted the word as given to you by its servant, your humble Pastor Payne. And you reaped bountiful rewards from that word. Can I hear an Amen?”
“Amen,” the congregation chanted.
“Thank you,” Pastor Payne said with a nod and a smile. “And the guidance of that higher power will continue to shine on us all, and our rewards shall continue to be ever bountiful! Can I hear an Amen?”
“For it is written, cast thy bread upon the water, and it shall come back a hundredfold! Am I right, brothers and sisters?”
“Amen, brothers and sisters! And now, Sister Cyn will pass around the collection plate. It is required that each of you tithe ten percent of your earnings, but I beg of you, reach down deep into your hearts, and find a little bit more to give to do the holy work that we have set out to do! For we all benefit from such selfless acts of charity.”
The pretty woman with long blonde hair rose from the organ stool, her long white robe rustling about her as she walked. She passed down the aisles of the pews, holding out a large silver dish. Bills of large denomination were dropped into it; Sister Cyn had a smile and a “Bless you, brother,” for every giver. The tithers tried to hold in their expressions of reluctance.
“Thank you, brothers and sisters,” Pastor Payne said when the collection was done. “And now, Sister Cyn will lead us in a hymn. If you’ll all turn to number twenty-seven in your hymnals…”
“We’re entering Earth’s atmosphere,” Rick Purvis said as the control panel light indicated the automatic activation of the heat shields. “Should be at EarthGov headquarters in New Quebec in twenty minutes.”
“That’s fine,” Karel Sorenson said anxiously. “I can’t wait to see what this is all about!” Ordinarily, the three adventurers whom the media had collectively dubbed the Star Rovers traveled in their own individual ships. When the message had arrived from EarthGov, however, the three had been together on Ganymede, Karel to compete in a target-shooting contest, Rick and Homer to be her cheering section. They had found it quicker to take just one ship, and had chosen Rick’s new job, the latest model from BSW.
“I’m sure they just want to pin another medal on us,” Homer Glint said in a jaded way. “After that Aldebaran business.”
“And why shouldn’t they?” Rick asked. “After all, an interstellar incident was averted by our efforts!” This was not mere bravado. While on a diplomatic visit to New Quebec, Earth, the ambassador from Proxima Centauri had been attacked, the jeweled scepter that was his staff of office stolen. The Star Rovers had gotten it back.
“You were the real hero of that day, Homer,” Karel opined. “If you hadn’t identified the stuff on the coat-sleeve of the one attacker they captured as pollen spores from a flower that only grows on Aldebaran, we’d never have found the thieves before the Proximites retaliated!”
“I used to have a hunting lodge out there,” Homer said in a dismissive manner. “It was no big deal.”
“What about you, Karel?” Rick asked. “Seems to me, we’d never have gotten through the thieves’ defense guns if you hadn’t recognized their pulse pattern as Mercurian particle beam generators and known that their particular wavelength was useless against tungsten!”
“I know my guns,” Karel said sheepishly. “I didn’t win all my awards for my good looks, you know!”
“That’s true, it’s about fifty-fifty, isn’t it?” Homer teased, to which Karel responded by sticking out her tongue. “And anyway, I think if anyone is the real hero of the day, it’s Rick!”
“That’s true,” Karel agreed. “When we had the thieves cornered, they tried to throw the scepter into a bottomless ravine in desperation. If Rick hadn’t grabbed one of their atomo-pikes and used it as a pole vault, and caught the scepter before it went down the ravine, it would have been lost forever, and the Proximites would have declared war for certain!”
“OK, OK, so we’re all heroes,” Rick conceded. “I hope EarthGov has three medals prepared, then.”
The Star Rovers would soon learn that it was not medals that awaited them in New Quebec.
“A time machine?” Rick asked, raising his eyebrow.
“There’s a more complicated name for it than that,” Vice-Chancellor Allon said, “but for practical purposes, that’s what it is — a time machine.”
“But time travel’s impossible!” Homer said. “I mean, if it’s not, how come we’ve never seen travelers from the future?”
“It’s a paradox that has yet to be explored,” Allon admitted. “Like the old chestnut about killing your grandfather. Nevertheless, Dr. Vidar of the Metaphysics Institute in Calmex has created a practical time travel device. It’s been tested and re-tested, and it’s been successful every time.”
“You mean, we can actually go into the past?” Karel said. “Change history, undo all the great–”
“No,” Allon said sharply. “It’s been agreed by EarthGov that there will be no tampering with history. The possible ripple effect could be disastrous. What would you do to change history? Assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1923? But without the Nazi rocket program, the American and Russian space race never would have happened, and thus the miniaturization of computers would have been delayed decades, and who knows what other effects that would have?”
“But we can go back into the past and merely observe?” Homer said. “Watch the 2005 Super Bowl from the stands, witness the 1961 World Series, see the–”
“Leave it to the sportsman to come up with those angles,” Rick chuckled.
“Well, we haven’t actually had a human test yet,” Allon said. “That’s why I’ve asked the greatest adventurers of the twenty-second century here today.”
“You want us to test the device,” Karel said simply, a hint of eagerness in her voice.
“Exactly,” Allon said. “If you’re willing, you can head straight to Calmex; Dr. Vidal is expecting you. Take the time machine out for a test drive, if you will. If it’s successful, it will open up entirely new possibilities for the studies of history and archaeology, not to mention sociology, medicine, architecture; the options are endless!”
“No need for the hard sell, Vice-Chancellor,” Rick said. “Like you said, we’re the greatest adventurers of the century. We’d never balk at a chance like this.”
“Excellent,” Allon said, smiling. “I’ll vid the Institute and let Dr. Vidal know you’ll be there within the hour.”
The Star Rovers left the government building in New Quebec and prepared to take off for Calmex. This huge parcel of land was thousands of miles south of New Quebec; it had formerly comprised the country of Mexico and the American state of California, renamed when Earth was united under a single government.
“Wonder where Dr. Vidal will send us?” Rick asked as he prepared the ship for takeoff. “Or, rather, when?”
“I hope he lets us choose the destination,” Karel said eagerly.
Homer chuckled. “I know where you’d pick. Or, rather, when.”
“That’s right,” Karel agreed. “August 28, 1987. I want to meet Silverthorn!”
“No pattern,” Batman muttered to himself as he stared at the readout on the computer screen deep in the shadowy depths of the Batcave.
“Beg your pardon, sir?” Alfred Pennyworth asked as he came up behind his employer with a tray of sandwiches and milk.
“These recent thefts,” Batman said, not taking his eyes from the screen as he reached behind himself for a sandwich; he knew Alfred would have placed the tray in the exact same spot, as always. “I haven’t been able to devote the time I needed to examine them, owing to the alien invasion and… other things.” (*) Alfred’s eyebrows momentarily raised, then lowered again. “There’s no pattern to them, no theme, if you will. Nothing to link the three crimes together except an excellence of precision, planning, and execution.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Batman Family: A Terror Too Close, Book 2: Taken.]
“I dare say, sir,” Alfred opined, “that we are not dealing with one of our usual adversaries in that case. Those desperadoes seem to take delight in taunting you with clues, with patterns to their crimes, as if daring you to figure out their next move.”
“Which I unfailingly do,” Batman agreed, “and yet they keep trying to outwit me. Hmm. I wonder if one of Gotham’s known master criminals has finally got the hint and stopped playing games with me? Carefully planned operations like this could be the work of the Penguin, or perhaps the Riddler. Both are certainly brilliant enough.”
“Begging your pardon again, sir,” Alfred said, “but does the Riddler not have a mental block which prevents him from committing a crime without sending you a clue?”
“Last I checked, he did,” Batman said. “He tried to beat it once with amateur psychology, and very nearly succeeded. Perhaps he sought outside help this time.”
“I believe there was another case, sir, wherein the scoundrel in question attempted to send you clues in such a way that would be impossible for you to read, thus satisfying his monomania while stymieing you at the same time.”
“That’s true,” Batman said. “He failed then, of course, but could he have gotten better at it? Perhaps there have been clues to this case that I’ve overlooked. Excuse me, Alfred.” Batman reached out with his left hand and pressed a button next to a telephone console, activating a speakerphone. “Dr. Burton,” Batman said, activating the voice-activated dialing system. Moments later, he was connected to the director of Arkham Asylum. Five minutes after that, he was assured that the Riddler was still in his cell, and all his outgoing communications had been closely monitored. In fact, the only outgoing correspondence the Riddler had sent since being returned to Arkham, following his abortive assassination attempt on the convalescing Superman, was a change of address for his subscriptions to eleven monthly crossword puzzle magazines. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Superman: Sick Leave.]
“It was a good idea,” Batman said. “No, perhaps we’re dealing with a new criminal mastermind in Gotham. One who’s more concerned with getting away with the loot than with outwitting me.”
“I’m sure you’ll rise to the challenge, sir,” Alfred said confidently.
“I intend to,” Batman said simply.
“Silverthorn?” the scientist asked, puzzled. He was a fairly accurate example of the stereotypical scientist — short and plump, with thick glasses (which Rick Purvis suspected were an affectation, or else he was allergic to Retinax-5). His laboratory was lined wall to wall with banks of machinery that looked sophisticated even to the Star Rovers, who had seen more than their share of alien technology.
“Yes, she was a crime-fighter in the late twentieth century,” Karel explained. “What used to be called a super-hero, even though she had no special powers. She was the world’s greatest markswoman with any kind of firearm then extant.”
“Our Karel is a bit of a heroine worshipper,” Homer Glint explained. “Even named herself after Silverthorn.”
“That’s right,” Karel admitted. “My birth name was Mary Smith, but I grew up idolizing Silverthorn. I studied markswomanship to emulate her. I was blessed with good looks, too, and when I went into beauty competitions, I adopted the stage name of Karel Sorenson. That was Silverthorn’s real name, although they spelled the given name differently in those days.”
“I can’t say I’ve ever heard of this Silverthorn,” the scientist said, “although I admit I’m not much of a student of twentieth-century crime-fighters. I mean, I’ve heard of all the really famous ones, of course, like Superman, Batman, Woman Wonder, the Justice Alliance of America…”
“All the really famous ones,” Rick chuckled, choosing not to correct the professor.
“So you’d like to travel back and observe Silverthorn in action, eh?” the scientist said. “You realize that’s all you’ll be able to do. You won’t be able to actually speak to her, or anything like that.”
“Yes, how does that work, professor?” Homer asked. “What, do we become phantoms or something?”
“Something like that,” the scientist said. “The stabilizing equalizer in the chrono-module will maintain the vehicle and everyone and everything inside it in a fixed location just outside the time-sphere that it visits. It’s difficult to explain to someone without an intense physics background, but you’ll be outside the timestream itself, but able to observe, visually and audibly, events transpiring in the programmed time-sphere.”
“Like looking through a window from outside a building,” Rick offered.
“An apt analogy,” the scientist said. “Whatever you do, you must not leave the chrono-module.”
“What will happen if we do?” Homer asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” the scientist said, shrugging. “Perhaps the timestream itself will unravel. Perhaps you’ll be stranded in the past. Perhaps you’ll bounce back to your own time, like a vacuum ball held underwater. It’s impossible to say, but until there’s a safe way to test it, we’d rather not find out.”
“Understood,” Karel said. “So let’s set the coordinates for Silverthorn’s first public appearance and get under way!”
“Just give me the date and the broad geographic location,” the scientist said.
“August 28, 1987, Gotham City,” Karel said.
“Oh, my,” the scientist said. “August 28, 1987? Gotham City? Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t that–?”
“Yes,” Karel confirmed. “The night Batman was killed.”