Dance With the Demons
Alfred debated himself about two minutes before going to the grandfather clock, pressing a hidden catch, and swinging it away from the doorway behind it. "Wait here," he told Dr. Dundee.
"Remember, Alfred," said Dundee. "Not even Mrs. Wayne must know."
The butler nodded once, stepped down, and shut the door behind him.
His steps clacked on the stairway winding down to the Batcave. If any had been there to see his face, they would have possibly detected an ashen tone in it. But he kept his features immobile, as much as possible.
A voice. "Alfred. Is that you?"
"It's me, Mistress Selina," said Pennyworth, moving briskly down the last few steps. "Please excuse me for a moment, I must check in with Master Bruce."
He caught sight of her then, in her hospital cot, the feeds for the instruments dangling from her right arm and leg. Karl Kyle and Batwoman were sitting near her, in two folding chairs. An Andrew Greeley novel lay open on the bedside table. She still looked lovely, holding court in her white gown with the artificial leopard trim. She smiled and waved to him. He nodded, brusquely. Selina Wayne looked after him as he went to the radio board at the other end of the Batcave. "What's eating him?"
Batwoman glanced at Alfred. "He's probably just under a lot of strain, dear. Which is understandable. After all, what with you getting attacked twice on the premises, it's enough to give anyone the jitters."
Karl looked at the butler, then back at Selina. "So tell me, Selina. What was our sister like?"
Selina said, "I already told you, Kyle. She didn't like to help around Daddy's pet shop. She got into trouble too often, and when Dad died, she ran off and I didn't see her very often before she died."
The King of the Cats placed his ungloved hand on Selina's wrist. "But there's more than that. There has to be more than that."
Batwoman looked at him thoughtfully. "I think Karl wants to hear about the positives, dear. Was she pretty?"
"Oh, yes," said Selina, warming to the topic. "Very pretty. A better cook than I was, and a darn good skater. I may be a good dancer, but I can't skate worth a darn. She never learned how to fall down, either on blades or rollers. Me, I wanted to have a pillow grafted to my butt whenever I laced a pair up."
Karl chuckled. "That's nice. I don't think Selina...my Selina...ever skated much, but she was a great swimmer. Not bad for a Catwoman, eh?"
"I can swim, too, Karl." Selina paused. "Is it getting hot in here, or is it just me? I'm a trifle warm."
Kathy Kane glanced at the Cat King. Then she said, "You're right, Selina, it is a little warm in here. Wouldn't expect that in a cave, would you? I'll have Alfred bring a fan over."
"Yes, it is rather hot," said Karl, pushing his mask back onto his shoulders and then rolling up his sleeves. He hoped he wouldn't get gooseflesh from the cold and give the ruse away to Selina. "Wonder if you could answer a question for me."
"Sure," said Selina. "Anything. Just about."
"Were you ever married before?"
"No," she said. "Not hardly. Not ever. Why? Was your sister married? I mean, before marrying her Bruce."
Karl nodded, sadly. "Yeah. To a Park Avenue swell named Darrel Richards. He looked like just the ticket to Selina, so she married him. A short time after that, she found out about his drinking...and about getting beaten up."
Selina sat up in bed, astonished. "You mean your Selina was a...that her first husband beat her?"
Batwoman said, "I didn't know about it myself for years, Selina. One day, years after the wedding, she up and told me about it. I couldn't believe it myself. But it was true."
"Oh, God," said Selina, holding her head between her hands. "I thought I'd had it rough, but that...nobody ever beat me. I wouldn't have let ‘em."
Karl replied, "I'm damned glad of that. I didn't know it at the time, or I would've tried to whip his ass, money and all. But Selina covered it up. She wanted to be a good wife, and if being a good wife and having his money meant getting beaten, she thought she'd take it...at least, at first."
"That's horrible, Kyle," she said. "That's so horrible."
"It was. About the time I was noticing so many bruises on her for so often and finally putting it together, Selina finally split. She divorced him. He didn't like that. He used his connections all through Gotham to make sure she couldn't get a job, couldn't get a man, couldn't get much of anything. Our folks were gone by then, I was in an orphanage. She was out on the street. And this was at the tail end of the Depression.
"One of the guys she met along the way was a second story man...what you'd call a cat burglar. She took up with him, just for a couple of months, and learned the trade from him. Then she broke off with him, broke into Richards's place, cracked his safe, and stole the jewels back he'd bought for her, along with a bunch of money. Thousands, just petty cash to Richards. She left a note signed ‘The Cat', just like out of a cheap mystery. That was in 1938. Sel found something she was good at, so she kept on being a thief.
"Then, two years later, she met up with Batman, who nabbed her trying to pull another heist on a sea liner. She was disguised as an old lady. Seeing the Batman and Robin, it gave her ideas. Before long, she was in costume, called herself the Catwoman. Was that the way it was for you, Selina?"
She nodded. "That incident was just about the same. This parallel worlds stuff is scary."
"It is," said Batwoman. "You don't know how much you're going to be like somebody on the other world, and how much you're going to differ. Plus it can do strange things to your sense of individuality. I don't really like it."
"Neither do I," said Selina. "Go ahead, Karl."
He shrugged. "Well, after she put on the mask and dress, she had the requisite Gotham criminal career, except she never killed. But she had a thing for Batman, and he had one for her, too, even though both of them tried to deny it. It went on for a long, long time. Mostly she escaped Batman, or faked her death, but she got caught a few times and spent some time in the joint. And there I was on the outside, the Catwoman's brother, trying to go to school and make something of myself, but she was getting a bunch of headlines by being a beautiful crook.
"Then she decided to go straight. She saved Batman from getting killed by a bunch of falling bricks, took a pretty good clout herself, and faked amnesia when she woke up. She didn't want to tell him about her first husband, or being a battered wife, so she pretended she'd been a stewardess for an airline. She made out like she didn't remember any of her career as the Catwoman, even acted scared when Batman showed her a newsreel of one of her old robberies. It was the only way she knew of turning over a new leaf without maybe having to go to the joint again.
"The weird bit is, Batman bought into it. He didn't even check out her story. She didn't specify which airline she worked for, but he could have checked into reports of plane crashes from the time, gotten the on-duty lists for them, found out she was never on board a plane that crashed and gave her amnesia. It was like she told me, later: he wanted to believe she was a good woman, underneath it all. And so did she."
Selina nodded, silently.
Karl continued. "So she went straight, started working with Batman and Commissioner Gordon. That was when I got out of school, couldn't find a job. I started thinking about how easy she had it now...her own business, publicity, and all the rest. She didn't get to keep the loot from her old heists anymore, though. Sel offered me a job helping out in the store. I told her I had a better idea. I was going to take her old job. That's when I had this costume made. I called myself the King of the Cats, started pulling jobs just like she used to, cat-motifs and all. Before long, I ran into Sel, her boyfriend, and Robin. Just like I figured, she helped me get away. Bats thought I was her lover, and she didn't know he didn't know I was her brother.
"Anyway, after awhile, Batman and I got into a big knock-down at the Gotham Zoo, and we fell into separate tiger cages. The cats didn't like being disturbed, and I don't blame ‘em, but both of us were about to get turned into steak tartare. Selina was outside with a gun that had one trank pellet in it. It was a real lady-and-the-tiger bit, only neither one of us was a lady and there was more than one tiger.
"So Sel did the bravest thing I'd ever seen. She shot the trank pellet at the tiger in my cage and knocked it out. Then she went into Batman's cage and pulled a real Clyde Beatty. She took that cat-o'-nine-tails out of her waistband and snapped it and backed that damn tiger away. I mean, she was really in charge! She and Batman managed to get out of there, and got me out of my cage, too.
"Right about then, there wasn't anything else I could do. I mean, she'd showed me how much she cared for me, like I didn't know already, and she showed me that she had a hell of a lot more guts than I did, facing down that big striped cat. Plus she really showed me how much she cared for Batman. So I told her that, as far as I was concerned, she could tell me what to do. She told me to give myself up, throw myself on the mercy of the court, and go straight. So I did.
"As it turned out, both she and Batman spoke up for me at the trial, and I only did a few months in stir. She promised that if I kept my nose clean, she'd get me enough money to get me through college. And she did. She borrowed it from Bruce Wayne, but she didn't tell me at the time. I studied accounting, got my degree, got to be a CPA, turned into a stand-up guy. I even got a few news stories afterwards--'Catwoman's brother goes straight,' and all. Got married, had kids. You know the drill.
"The bit was, Selina wasn't satisfied. Batman still wasn't committing to her, ‘cause he was afraid of settling down. I think that was the real reason she went back to being a crook for awhile, to get his attention again, and maybe so's she wouldn't have to put up with all those customers in her pet shop that wanted to see her just because she'd been the Catwoman. Plus she got mad at a newspaper story that showed how many times she'd gotten bollixed in the past by Batman.
"So she went back to the life for a little while. She pulled three big jobs, ran into Batman every time, and he had to nab her, because that's what he did. All the time, I think he was cursing himself for not marrying her when he had the chance. Maybe she was, too.
"In the third case, she gave Bats and Robin a way to get out of a trap, but she got away from them. A few weeks after that, I got a call from her at work. She hadn't called me since she went back to being a crook, but she did then. It was collect, from another country, and that cost a lot back then. But I didn't mind."
"What did she say?," asked Selina, who thought that she could guess the answer.
"She said that she wanted to come home, that she was tired of being a thief, that she wanted to see me again. And that maybe if she got her stuff together and went on the straight and narrow again, she might be able to make Batman care about her again. I told her I didn't know about that, but I did care about her, and I wanted her back home.
"So we worked out a deal with Commissioner Gordon. She came back to the States in disguise, but she'd told me what plane she'd be on, and to be there with the commish and the cops, and she'd surrender. Batman turned up, too, with Robin. We met the plane, and there she was, in a red wig and sunglasses. She came over to us, hugged me, kissed me on the cheek, then took off her wig and cheaters and went over to Batman, Robin, and Gordon. There were a few newsies there, and they were popping off flashbulbs. They just stood there, looking at each other. She told him hello. And he said, ‘It's good to see you back, Selina.'
"The way he said it, we both knew he still cared about her. So she gave him a big smile. For a second, he gave her one back. Then she held out her hands, and the Commish put some cuffs on her, and the cops herded her away. Some of the newsies asked her what she was going to do after she got out, but she didn't answer them.
"I went to see her in the joint. It darn near cut my heart out to see her in those prison greys, but she was bearing up. She was glad to see me, you can bet, and she talked about starting up life in another city, changing her name and all, trying to forget about Batman. But I could tell that wasn't going to happen, at least not the last part. And I knew she was never going back to being a crook.
"Then Batman ran into a problem with one of his old enemies. The Scarecrow. You have one of him over here, too?"
Selina nodded. "Sure do. Dick and his friends just took him and some others down."
"Anyway, he fed Batman some gas that made him unable to see, hear, smell, or even know his best friends were around him. He couldn't see Robin, Kathy here, or anybody he'd known that well...even Superman. Am I right, Kathy?"
Batwoman nodded. "It was eerie. I touched him, called out to him, tried to stop him with my batrope, but it was as if I wasn't there to him. He couldn't see Dick, or Gordon, or Linda Page, or anyone else he'd been close to. The Scarecrow's gas really messed with his mind."
Selina stirred in her bed. "So what happened next?"
Karl said, "He called up the warden of Gotham State and got in to see Selina. He was gambling that he could still perceive her, and he was right. He offered her a chance to get out of the joint for awhile and help him bring down the Scarecrow. She didn't want to put her old outfit on again, but she'd never turn him down. That night, Batman and Catwoman were a team again.
"She finally owned up that she'd been lying about the amnesia thing, and she broke down and told him about her first marriage, about having been abused, and about how she really became the Cat. He told her about how his parents had been murdered when he was a kid, and that's why he became the Batman. They ended up in each other's arms, after that."
Selina said nothing, but he could tell she was holding back tears.
"Well, Selina took a shot of fear-gas too, and both of them helped each other through it. What finally worked for them was taking off their masks in front of each other. That was when she first learned that Batman was Bruce Wayne. After that, they...I guess they made love. And after that, they didn't have anything much to fear.
"They nabbed the Scarecrow not long after that, and Sel had to go back to the joint. But the governor gave her a pardon about a month afterward, and Bruce and I were there to meet her when she got out. I didn't know why Bruce was there, but when she took him in her arms, I figured it out. Not long after that, they got married, and they had Helena, and he took me into confidence and told me he was Batman. I knew that already, but I didn't let on."
Batwoman added, "The wedding was where I first met Tony Gordon. He was Jim Gordon's son, but he didn't live in Gotham. We started hitting it off, and we promised to see each other again. And we did. I may have been on the rebound, after seeing Bruce get married, but I think I made the right choice."
"You did, Kathy," said Selina. "That may be why you're here today, and our Kathy...well...she isn't."
"Anyway, there were a lot of good years after that," said Karl. "Over twenty, to be exact. Our kids grew up, Jim Gordon died, and Bruce slacked off on being Batman. Then...you really want to hear the rest of it, Selina?"
She swallowed. "I think I know it. I was told, by Helena. Is it...getting warm in here again?"
"It may be," said Karl. "It may be." He and Batwoman shot a glance towards Alfred. He nodded.
Karl turned back to Helena. "Yes. Selina was blackmailed into becoming Catwoman again by one of her old gang. He claimed she'd accidentally killed a man, that he'd reveal it if she didn't help him on a job. So--"
"So he did, and she had a fall during it," said Selina. "And she died, with her Batman there to watch it. Yes. I know."
"It cut my heart out," said Karl, slowly. "It cut my heart out."
"That was why," said Kathy, "that was why Helena became the Huntress. She captured the man who caused Selina's death. That was why Bruce quit being the Batman. Why he ran for police commissioner, since Jim had been dead some years, and got the job. We tried to talk to him then, tried to comfort him, but he put us off. Even Dick. He only put on the Batman costume once more--and that was the day he died."
After a silence, Karl said, "We're the only ones left now. Kathy and I, Dick and Helena. There isn't another Catwoman. There isn't another Batman. Except here, on this Earth."
Selina Kyle didn't say anything.
She was hoping that history wouldn't repeat itself on her Earth that well. Or that, if it had to, her Bruce would be spared.
And she was wondering why she felt so warm.
Aboard the Batplane flown by Batman, this had happened:
A radio communication had come in from Alfred. Batman opened the channel on the plane's control panel. "Go ahead, home fire."
"Ah, Master...that is to say, Outbound...the mistress is undergoing a spell. The doctor says--"
"Spell," said Batman. "What kind?"
"Not traumatic," Alfred answered. "Vital signs are still good. But...indications are manifest."
"Go ahead, home fire," said Batman, calmly.
"The doctor reccommends you procure an antidote from the one who administered the dose," said Alfred.
"And our time frame?"
"About...ten days for effectiveness, Master Outbound. Two weeks will be simply too late."
"Acknoweldged." Batman paused. "Who else knows of this?"
"The doctor and myself, sir. But it may be difficult to keep it secret from others."
"Do your best, old friend," said Batman. "And...give the mistress my love, and tell her..." He sighed, showing emotion for the first time. "Tell her I will be back, and I will not fail."
"Very good, sir."
"Good job, home fire," Batman added, feeling the weight of every word. "Out."
"Out, sir," said Alfred, and the channel closed.
The great control of the man in the cowl almost cracked. His hands tightened on the control yoke.
There had been so damned much of it in his life.
His mother. His father. So many innocents along the way. The pain was overwhelming at times. The only times he had ever allowed himself to cry was before the great painting of Thomas and Martha Wayne. His shrine.
His shrine to the people who had damned him to be the Batman.
They had done it by dying.
How many women had he dared love? Really, really love? He had bedded more than a few females, most of them one-night-stands, a few short-lived affairs. But love? That was a crack in his armor. He hardly ever let a woman that close.
Julie Madison? Linda Page? Probably not. Now Julie was queen of a small nation and Linda...he had lost track of her.
Batwoman? She had tried to love him. He had kissed her once, when they were both near death. But...he didn't let her in that far.
Marcia Mason? Yes. Yes, he had loved her, enough to want to marry her after a whirlwind courtship. Possibly because she, too, had been a bad woman, the Queen Bee, in league with an organization called CYCLOPS. And when he learned that, the romance dissolved, of necessity. But not the hurt. The last he saw of her was in that incident. He never heard of her again, or wanted to.
Batgirl? No. She was a friend, an ally, a competent fighter on his side, and she was certainly attractive. But she had never seen him as a lover, nor did he attempt to make her such. For a while he thought Dick might have some luck with her, but that hadn't worked out, for one reason or the other. Still, he did care for Barbara Gordon. A lot.
Talia. If she had not been who she was, the daughter of Ra's Al Ghul, he would gladly have swept her off her feet and into marriage, or at least a long-term relationship. But...if she had not been who she was, he would possibly never have met her. He had wanted her, perhaps loved her. But...she was who she was.
Silver St. Cloud. There was a woman with whom Bruce Wayne had pursued a serious thing. She was one of the few women who had the character to match him. And the beauty to attract him. Plus, beside all that, she was a good woman. Unlike the bad women who had interested him before. She had even been intelligent enough to learn Batman's secret identity. But at the end, she had broken off with him, having seen first-hand the danger of the Batman's life, and knowing she could not bear it.
Her loss was one Batman would remember forever.
Vicki Vale. Yes, he had loved her. Enough for her to have been a rival to Selina. (And, in times earlier, to Batwoman as well.) He had regarded her as a friend when they first met, though she wanted to snare Batman as a husband. Then she went to Europe, got married, got divorced, came back, and caught the eye of Bruce Wayne. She was editor of Picture News, a competent, intelligent, beautiful redhead. When Selina had left him, Bruce and Vicki kept company. But Selina had won out, in the end.
As he knew she always would.
Now she was being taken from him.
This would not happen. It could not happen.
Fate or God or whoever was cruel enough to kill two sets of Wayne parents, a Batman and a Catwoman on another Earth, a Batwoman on this one.
But he had trained himself to be stronger than Fate.
Since that November evening in his eighth year of life, Bruce Wayne had remolded himself, in body, brain, and spirit. Whatever could be done to naturally strengthen his physical self, he had done. Whatever disciplines could be learned to strengthen and sharpen his mind, he had learned. Whatever tests of emotion and spirit could be taken to make himself as hard as he needed to be, yet retain sensitivity for the ones who fell victim to crime and misfortune, he had subjected himself to. The fighting arts, science, criminology, psychology, technology, anything else his grasping mentality could wrap itself around, he incorporated into his being.
The end result was a product called the Batman.
The Batman had come to be the man Gotham relied on. Even more than the cops, even more than Jim Gordon. Heroes, men with power far beyond his own, looked up to him as a pinnacle of development they could not reach.
Now Selina Kyle depended upon him.
Whatever came before him, he would have to be enough.
He would be enough.
Even if this was the last battle the Batman ever fought, even if he ended this episode in a grave reserved beside Thomas and Martha Wayne, he would save Selina's life.
And he did his best to choke off the tormenting "But if--" in the back of his mind. But he didn't choke it off completely.
The thought of failure was, often, the best goad. At least for him.
He straightened in his seat. His hands became more relaxed upon the controls. Breath came more easily.
Peeling off a glove momentarily, he poked a questing finger against the exposed skin of his face, under his eyes. No moisture. Good. That was good. Control was necessary.
Geo-Force poked his head into the cockpit. "Friend Batman. Are you all right? We have not heard from you since the Faraday thing, and we are only a few minutes from landing, by my estimation."
"I'm fine, Geo," he said. "You may as well go back to your seat. I'm about to address the troops."
The monarch of Moravia sat in the co-pilot's seat. "No. I will stay here with you. At such a time, a man needs friends beside him. I am your friend."
Batman looked at Geo. "Thank you," he said. Then he touched a switch on the control panel, and his words were broadcast to the Outsiders in both Batplanes.
"Everyone, listen closely," he said, in a tone that stopped conversation among all of the heroes. "We're getting near landing point. A few things must be gone over.
"First: I've been informed that only an antidote to the poison in Selina's body can save her life. We must assume Kobra has it. Current evidence points strongly to him as the guilty party. If he has the antidote, we must force him to relinquish it. If he can make the antidote, we must bring him back alive and force him to do so. This is the person some have called ‘the deadliest man alive.' It will be no easy task. But you know that. Irregardless, this is our highest objective. Should I be lost on the mission, the antidote must be gotten to Selina.
"Second: we must bring Kobra down, once and for all. Every day of his existence, more blood drips from his hands. Every day of his freedom, his plots to deprive the world of its own varying freedoms ripen. I have faced him four times. You have faced him twice. This will be our final encounter. Either the Outsiders will fall in this battle, or Kobra. I'm betting on the Outsiders.
"Third: to you all, I owe my deepest gratitude. This was not truly your fight, but you allowed me to make it your own. You have already placed your lives in jeopardy to learn the secret of my wife's assailant. Now we must place them in greater danger, to save her life. This action of yours incurs a debt I cannot repay. But if...and when...we emerge from this, you can be assured that I will be there for each and every one of you in the future, as you have been here for me, and Selina, today. I give you, on that, the word of the Batman."
Geo-Force fought a lump in his throat. He had heard such words before, but never with the impact that he heard them today.
And in the compartment beyond, a mute Creeper and Plastic Man felt for the first time like true Outsiders.
"Finally: we know of our enemies, or at least as much as King Faraday knew of them. Within ten minutes, we hit that natural landing strip. Here is what I want you to do."
In two minutes' time, he outlined a plan of battle.
The Batplanes dipped lower, and made for a level field not far from the mountains ahead of them.
Other eyes were watching, through a pair of binoculars.
"Is it them?" said a woman, next to the watcher.
"It's them," said Shakedown, and took the instruments from his eyes.
The group about him made ready for action.
After all, that was what Kobra was paying the Masters of Disaster for.