BATMAN IN THE SOUP

It was autumn in Gotham City, the time of the great rains. Swirling masses of grey cloud hung above the soaring skyscrapers, and from them fell sheets of rain, battering the umbrellas of the huddling citizens, blocking every gutter with gouts of fallen leaves and sweeping trash from the sidewalks with an efficiency that would have shamed the Sanitation Department's army of street sweepers, if they hadn't all been too busy moving bootleg cigarettes for the Mob to notice. The year had called a halt to outdoor pursuits. It was time to be inside.

At the H. Henry Tippett Art Gallery, the director, Grant Duquesne, glanced down over the elaborate balustrade of the first floor landing at the milling crowds of people in the lobby below. He smiled in anticipation, then turned back to the small group of dark-suited dignitaries and their bodyguards accompanying him.

"Looks like we have a good turnout this morning, Mr Mayor."

The Mayor, whose stumpy baldness and pot belly contrasted markedly with Duquesne's lean height and patrician air, shrugged.

"Have you seen the goddamn weather, Duquesne? Most of those poor bastards are probably just taking shelter from the rain. Anyway, let's get this show on the road. We gotta show the taxpayers all these fancy paintings their hard-earned dollars are paying for."

Duquesne winced slightly, but perceptibly. The Mayor, a veteran of decades of precinct committees, aldermanic boards and smoke-filled backrooms in local lodges of the Loyal Order of The Sons of Hibernia, had always taken the view that "there were no votes in culture." Still, he controlled his resentment. Getting His Honour down here in the first place had been quite a coup.

"OK, Mr Mayor, let's go across to the podium." He nodded to the other side of the landing, where the Gotham Police Department brass band were standing, and at a signal from their conductor, they launched blaringly into the city song, "I'd Rather Be In Gotham." The chattering of the people in the lobby died down as Duquesne, the Mayor and the other officials walked to the top of the stairs, where a small stage and podium had been set up. There was a polite round of applause as Duquesne stepped up to the microphone.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced. "Welcome to the H. Henry Tippett Art Gallery. We are honoured this morning by the presence of Alderman O'Reilly from the City Council's Board of Culture, Commissioner Gordon of the Police Department and His Honour the Mayor, who will be opening our 1967 Autumn Exhibition of paintings by Sir Edwin Landseer. Just a brief word of thanks…"

"OK, Duquesne, but the emphasis is on brief, please," muttered the Mayor.

"…to the many colleagues here who have worked so hard to put together this major exhibition of work by a veritable titan of Victorian art, many of them generously loaned by museums in England after complex negotiations, for the education and inspiration of the people of Gotham. And now, without further ado, the Mayor will declare that exhibition open."

There was another round of applause as Duquesne moved away from the microphone and the Mayor stepped up to it. He let it die out, then began:

"Fellow citizens of Gotham…"

There was an ear-splitting crash as the high Gothic windows of the lobby shattered into thousands of tiny pieces, spraying broken glass on to the people below. Pandemonium broke out in the lobby as some scrambled away from the windows, while others stood frozen to the spot in shock and had to be pushed aside by them. There were cries of pain, screams of panic and shouts of "Holy mackerel!". Through the broken windows flew a dozen or so figures wearing white jumpsuits, with silver closed-visored helmets on their heads and red jetpacks strapped to their backs. Several of them were carrying large wooden crates.

They soared effortlessly over the panicking crowd towards the stairway, split into two groups, and, before anyone on the landing could move an inch, two weighted nets had been thrown down. One pinned down the party in and near the podium, the other the police officers in the brass band. The invaders hovered briefly over the landing, line abreast, then descended to the ground. One took off his helmet, revealing a shock of white hair atop a pale and bespectacled face. He pulled a gleaming automatic pistol from a holster at his side and pointed it at the unarmed attendants in front of the great entrance doors to the main gallery. His henchmen produced Walther MPKs and pointed them in the same direction.

"OK, you guys, open up those doors!" announced the leader of the attackers. "Come on, don't try to be heroes – you don't earn enough for that!"

The terrified attendants unlocked the entrance doors, while the trapped officials struggled in vain to get out of the net and the spectators ran out of every available exit. The invaders went in; by the time they left a few minutes later, by way of the back door, the crates they were now rolling on "borrowed" trolleys had been filled with most of Sir Edwin Landseer's best known paintings, including Monarch of the Glen and A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society.

"Goddamn it all, Gordon!" yelled the Mayor at his Police Commissioner. Having been released from the robbers' nets, they had immediately driven over to Gotham Police Headquarters to meet with Chief O'Hara in Gordon's office. The atmosphere in the mayoral limo had been palpably frosty, but the Mayor had restrained himself until they were behind closed doors.

"Now my own police department can't protect the city from being robbed of millions of dollars of art and me from being publicly humiliated in the process!" he yelled, crossing and re-crossing the impressive view of Gotham's skyline visible through the office window as he paced back and forth in front of the Commissioner's desk. "I want to know who the guy who did this is, I want him found, I want him dead, I want his head removed from his shoulders and served to me on a plate and then I want to be at his funeral so I can piss on his grave!"

"Well, Your Honour," said Gordon, in a placating tone, "we'll try our best, but it won't necessarily be easy. The place was in chaos, you saw that, and we're going to have a hard time getting any clear descriptions of the robbers. And they were wearing helmets most of the time. Our officers are talking to the security guards first, since they got the best look."

The Mayor slammed his fist on the desk. "To hell with taking descriptions! These guys had jetpacks, space helmets and more guns than John Dillinger! They planned this job out, no question. And, above all, they didn't knock off the First National Bank, they robbed a goddamn art gallery. Who the Christ robs art galleries in this city? Most of the population can't even spell "art"! Are you telling me we have no intelligence on who they are? What am I paying the Organised Crime Unit to do all day?"

"Ah, we had to disband the Organised Crime Unit, sir," Chief O'Hara reminded his superior. "An investigation by the Commissioner's Special Unit revealed most of them were in the pay of The Penguin."

"Then why isn't the Commissioner's Special Unit looking into this case?"

"The Special Unit is currently under investigation by Internal Affairs," said Gordon. "There was information that they were taking kick-backs from The Kingpin. And as for Internal Affairs, well, the Inspector General has suggested starting an investigation into them for being juiced by The Joker. Although apparently those bribes turned out to be just bundles of Monopoly money with real notes at the top and bottom."

The Mayor's face went purple with rage. Gordon feared he might have a stroke. "GODDAMNIT! Just what is wrong with the administration of this City? Find me these robbers by the end of the week, or both of you had better find yourselves new jobs!" And with that, he turned on his heel, and stormed out of the office, calling for his driver.

There was a brief, uncomfortable silence as Gordon and Chief O' Hara looked at each other.

"I think we both know there's only one answer to this, Commissioner," said O'Hara.

Gordon nodded. "Call Batman," he ordered. Within minutes, the Bat Signal was shining out above the city once more, and in Stately Wayne Manor, the residents swung into action. Courtesy of the Bat-mobile, Batman and Robin were at Police Headquarters half-an-hour later. Moments after that, they had reached Gordon's office in the Bat-elevator.

"It's the art gallery robbery, isn't it, gentlemen?" announced Batman on entering. "I picked up some of the radio traffic on my police scanner. To tell you the truth, I was expecting your call. What do we know?"

"That's just it, Batman," said Chief O'Hara. "We don't know anything. A city full of villains, and we can't think of any that would put this sort of effort into stealing these paintings. You can't sell them to anyone, because anyone who would want them will know that they've been stolen."

"That's true," said Batman. "Although, of course, not all art collectors are honest. And not all villains are in it for the money alone. Maybe the paintings will be part of some complex scheme to cause mayhem in the city or subvert its government."

"Holy dastardly plots!" said Robin.

"Well," said Gordon. "If it was the Riddler, we'd already have had the first riddle delivered, and whoever else it is, it won't be the Joker."

"Why do you say that?" asked Chief O'Hara.

"Well, I can't see any humour in the situation." Batman nodded in agreement.

"You know," said Robin, "there is one kind of person who might find a work of art more important than anything else. More important than money, or power, or the other things criminals usually want. An artist."

Batman struck the palm of one hand with his other gloved fist. "Of course! That explains why the robbers would steal something they probably couldn't sell or use for any other purpose."

"You mean, they stole the paintings because they just wanted to have them?" said Gordon.

"Maybe," said Batman. "At any rate, my young friend's theory seems to be the best we have for the moment, so that's what I'll be going with. They say that to know the artist, you must first know his art. So the best place to start finding this artist must surely be the scene of his crime."

The Dynamic Duo were shown around the H. Henry Tippett gallery by a gloomy Grant Duquesne, fresh from a meeting where his horrified board of trustees had started to think through the financial implications of losing their main annual money-spinner at a stroke. As they stood on the first floor landing, around which investigators continued to crawl on the laborious search for some sort of forensic evidence, he gestured towards the shattered lobby windows. A chilly autumn breeze was blowing through them.

"…and that's when the robbers came in over there. I didn't get much of a look at them myself – before I knew what was going on I had a net thrown over me and I was lying on my back staring at the ceiling."

"Mr Duquesne," said Batman, "we were wondering whether an artist might have committed this crime."

"But that's implausible! Edwin Landseer was an artistic genius, a creative visionary who helped shape the thinking of visual artists down to the present day. Why would any of them want to attack him? It would be like attacking your own father?"

"Humour us," said Robin. "After all, people do murder their fathers pretty regularly."

"What we need to know," went on Batman, "is whether you know of any artists who might have particularly strong feelings against Landseer and his work."

There was an awkward silence. Duquesne abruptly turned away from Batman and Robin and stared out over the polished floor of the landing, then back towards them again.

"I don't like to tell tales out of school," he said, finally, "but there is one man… Come over to my office."

They followed him down a gloomy corridor to a high-ceilinged room lined with bookcases and filled with the clutter of exhibitions long gone – old posters, catalogues and so on. A mahogany desk sat near the centre. Duquesne pulled a book from one of them, and opened it to a glossy double-page spread filled with an endlessly-repeating series of pictures of cans. Cans of soup, to be more precise. Heinz Tomato Soup, to be frankly bordering on pedantry.

"I don't understand," said Batman. "Is this meant to be art? There's no originality in this work, only crude reproduction of a common commercial image."

"Holy bare-faced subversion of the sanctity of the painted image!" exclaimed Robin.

"Well, the fellow who did it thinks it's art," replied Duquesne. "His name's Anton Wyzchowski, and he hails from the depths of Poletown in Chicago. A remarkable man in some ways. He worked his way up from an impoverished background to attend the best art schools. And now his sworn aim in life is to smash all established artistic traditions and make art that reflects the mechanical emptiness of modernity. More to the point, for your purposes, he wrote me an angry letter when the Gallery announced the Landseer exhibition, saying that we were "whoring out a great institution through necrophile acts with a long-dead corpse. And not in a good way, either." He vowed to do anything he could to stop it going ahead."

"And you didn't think to mention this to the police?" said Batman.

"Well, Anton is kind of temperamental…but I never thought of him as the type to pull guns on people." Duquesne shut the book.

"Where does he live?"

"Oh, God…he's rented out this huge, empty warehouse on East 94th Street, decorated it with silver foil and broken mirrors, and he lives in there with the oddest set of people you can imagine…junkies, beat musicians, even homosexuals. You'd better watch your step if you visit him there."

Batman gave the gallery director a long stare. "Don't worry about us, Mr Duquesne. Robin and I know perfectly well how to handle ourselves. We're going to pay Mr Wyzchowski a visit."

"Gosh, Batman," said Robin, as they headed out of the Gallery, "do you really think Anton Wyzchowski is behind this robbery?"

"Robin, old chum, I think he might be. The only way to be sure is to go and investigate him. If…"

He never finished that sentence. As they rounded a corner to the quiet side-street where Batman had left the Batmobile, next to a water hydrant, they saw that the street was no longer quiet. Someone was standing on the hood of the Batmobile. It was a man, young and pale-skinned, with a mop of frizzy, collar length dark hair atop his head. He wore a black one-piece suit, leather boots and sunglasses black as the depths of Hades itself, and he was carrying a baseball bat. Ranged in front of him on the road, facing the Dynamic Duo were four women in white catsuits…or maybe men…or perhaps women…well, anyway, if the gender was ambiguous, their gleaming brass knuckledusters and knives were undisputable.

"Get off my car, you creep!" said Batman, advancing towards the vehicle with clenched fists held before him in a boxer's stance.

"Ooh, my mistake, sir, I'll just get down now you've asked me to," replied the stranger.

"I suppose Wyzchowski sent you." Robin came up beside the Dark Knight, adopting the same defensive posture. "It doesn't matter. You people are dead meat, anyway, whether he did or not."

"Oh, I'm a friend of Mr W, alright," said the man on the car. "They call me Louie the Lip. But the only dead meat I can see around here is you and that punk kid, Bat-freak." He raised his bat above his shoulder. "OK, girls, let's end these mothers!"

The four women charged the superheroes, whilst Louie the Lip launched himself into the air from the hood of the Batmobile, spun head-over-heels in mid-air, and then fell towards Batman feet first. Batman dodged forward, avoiding Louie as he landed and at the same time wading into the two women nearest to him with a slamming series of left and right-hooks. They staggered back, their own punches, even with the assistance of the knuckle-dusters, bouncing off Batman's armoured torso. Meanwhile, though, Louie had spun around, come up behind Batman and smashed his bat down across the back of his head.

Whilst the Bat-helmet reduced the impact of the blow, it still left the Caped Crusader seeing coloured stars. He decided he'd better not give Louie a second chance, and launched two mighty hammer blows with his gauntleted fists into the chin of each. POW! KAPOW! The women went down like forest trees before the lumberjack's chainsaw. Then Batman, in his turn, spun around to face Louie the Lip winding up for his second blow, and kicked his ankles out from under him. The bat swung wide as he fell and flew out of his hands across the street, clattering into the gutter on the opposite side. Louie got up and ran, dodging the punches aimed at him by Batman with surprising skill. Recovering from the earlier punches, the two women also scrambled to their feet and ran.

Meanwhile, Robin had been facing the other two women, who both carried knives. He didn't wait for them to reach him, but stepped to one side and kicked one of them in the thigh. She staggered and fell into the other, who managed to stay on her feet, at the price of brutally shoving her colleague to the ground with one arm, and holding her knife away to one side to avoid stabbing the first with it. That was fine by Robin who, in the confusion, popped up in front of the second woman and punched her in the face before she could bring the knife around to stab him. She, too, was knocked to the floor and dropped her knife, and once both the women had got up from it, they too started running immediately.

Batman and Robin started running after their would-be assailants, but as the five of them reached the end of the side-street, they each made off in different directions, jumping over fences and high walls with frightening athleticism, or running up alleyways.

"Wait, Robin!" Batman grabbed his young companion by the shoulder. "We can't follow all of them! Anyway, I can guess where they've gone – right back to Wyzchowski's warehouse."

"Then let's get the car and go there ourselves," said Robin.

"Yes," replied Robin. "But be careful, old chum! If they can warn their leader that we're coming, there'll be a welcoming committee, I have no doubt about it. To the Batmobile – let's go!"

They raced back to the Caped Crusader's iron steed, and soon it was racing through the streets of Gotham at a break-neck speed, exhaust belching gouts of flame. The warehouse proved to be a looming sandstone pile built in an Italianate style, its walls long blackened by the smoke from the chimneys of now dead factories. You could still read the words "J. Morgenstern and Sons: Patent Medicines" painted in fading black letters on a white strip across the façade. The windows on the upper stories were mostly broken and boarded up, but those on the lower levels seemed to have been replaced.

"It looks as if those are the inhabited parts," said Batman. "In which case, we'll go in from above. No point just walking in through the front door and expecting to get away with it!"

They parked the Batmobile about a block away from the warehouse, and moved cautiously towards it on foot, scuttling from doorway to doorway and patch of shadow to patch of shadow. It was a neighbourhood mostly of other large, decaying buildings of a similar kind, and about the only people around were decrepit-looking hobos drinking out of bottles in brown paper bags. Their bleary eyes glanced at the two crime-fighters with no more than vague curiosity.

Round the back of the building directly opposite the warehouse, Batman and Robin fired off their grappling-hook pistols. The ropes shot up and hooked themselves around the low wall that surrounded the flat roof, and the pair clambered cautiously up the wall and on to it. Then they crawled across to the side of the roof that faced the warehouse. From there they had a perfect view of the warehouse's own roof and upper storeys.

Batman pointed across at a particularly large, and unboarded, window.

"That's where we're going in."

He fired off the pistol again, and again the hook caught on the edge of the warehouse roof. Batman tugged it, to check that it was firmly in place, then drove a spike into the roof of the building they were on and tied the other end of the rope to it. From within his cowl, he produced a wheeled mechanism with harnesses, which he attached to the rope and which Robin and he proceeded to strap themselves to. They crouched behind the wall again for a moment.

"3…2…1…Go!"

The Dynamic Duo leapt to their feet, and jumped over the wall. Their harnesses pulled taut at about the same moment that their body weight started the wheels running along the rope, and they glided across the abyss between the two buildings like flying squirrels between forest trees. As they approached the window, Batman raised his compressed air-gun at it and fired a ball-bearing that smashed a hole right through its centre.

"Legs up, Robin!" he called, releasing them both from their harnesses. and an instant later they crashed through the weakened window in a shower of broken glass and smashed wood, landing rather heavily in a large attic room, mostly empty but for dust and a few old wooden boxes. Robin dropped his arm from in front of his eyes, and shook his thick, dark hair to get out the fragments of glass.

"One day some of that will stick in there and the barber's going to get suspicious," he muttered. From a distance, they heard the unmistakable ringing of an alarm start up.

"Well, now they know we're here!" said Robin.

"As I suspected," replied Batman. "Come on, let's go find the welcoming committee before they find us!"

The pair headed out of the room, where they found what looked like the main stairway of the warehouse running down into darkness, and started following it down. The alarm was still ringing away, ever louder as they went further down. They had only got a couple of floors when, something metallic came flashing out of the darkness of a doorway and buried itself in the wall inches from Batman's head. It was a steel throwing star.

"There he is!" cried Batman, plunging into the doorway from which ear-piercing shrieks were now emerging, followed by another throwing star, which he ducked. Inside, the long room running the whole length of the building proved to be lined from ceiling to bare-boarded floor with silver foil, whilst the floor itself and various bits of wooden furniture were painted silver. The silver reflected the bare-bulbed lighting in a way that almost dazzled the eyes. The high walls were hung with paintings, completed and half-completed; repeating soup cans, repeating flowers, repeating faces of celebrities, comic book scenes of exploding jet fighters and well-muscled superheroes.

The noises, and the throwing stars, came from a dark-haired man in a padded karate suit and a white headband with a large red dragon on it. As Batman and Robin came into the room, he emitted another ear-splitting shriek and hurled knives at them with both hands, then leapt after the knives himself with a flying kick that caught Batman full in the face.

BIFF! The Dark Knight fell backwards on to the floor, but managed as he fell to grap the newcomer's feet and flip him forward on to his face. He hit the floor at about the same time Batman did. But this opponent was clearly far from finished – scrambling to his feet, he went towards Robin, who directed several well-aimed punches at his face. But the man's reflexes would have put a cat to shame, and each time he averted the impact of the punches with skilful blocking moves. This distracted him, though, and allowed Batman, now back on his feet, to come up behind the assailant and break a silver-painted stool over his head. The man staggered, then fell and hit the ground for a second and final time.

The warehouse's defenders were not out of tricks yet, though. Like a Jack-in-the-box, up from behind a cupboard rose a figure wearing a peach suit and pill box hat and carrying a Walther MPK. It was another of Wyzchowski's girls, and she opened up with a quick burst of automatic fire. Bullets flew everywhere, smashing through canvas and ricocheting off walls, as Batman and Robin hit the deck to avoid them. Then, the woman paused briefly to re-load, and the Dynamic Duo sprang over the cupboard and on top of her, Batman wrenching the machine gun from her grasp. She struggled briefly, but Batman and Robin dragged her to the ground, and once she was there a string of punches left her knocked out cold as well.

"You okay?" a panting Batman asked his sidekick.

"Yeah," said Robin. "Gosh, these guys don't give up easily."

"No. Come on, let's find Wyzchowski and bring this to an end."

They checked the rest of the room quickly, and found no-one else, so they went back to the stairway and descended to the next floor. The door off it this time was closed and locked, but a heavy boot quickly ended that. Batman and Robin burst into a particularly large and high-ceilinged room, so high that there were galleries running along either side. As in the other, the walls and the many exposed pipes were covered in silver foil, the furniture and floorboards were painted silver too and this time, tall mirrors lined both walls. They created the effect of an endlessly repeating figure receding ever into the distance as the two walked between them.

"Do you like it?" said a voice. "I call it my Hall of Mirrors."

It came from a tall, bespectacled man, pale and white haired, who was standing in the middle of the room next to a large easel draped with a cloth. He wore a long, loose red coat of the sort that might almost have been a cape and spoke in precise and measured tones. He appeared unarmed.

"Anton Wyzchowski, I presume?" said Batman. "I'm not interested in your interior design choices, although I guess the best place for a freak like you is a circus attraction like this. Where are the paintings?"

"All in good time, Batman. But first, I have something else to show you. And, since it looks like you got past my friends Llew Fung and Miss Ing Link…" He whipped out a white handkerchief and dropped it to the floor, whereupon a dozen or more figures rose up within the galleries. They were mostly female and all carried machine guns trained on Batman and Robin, covering every possible angle of movement. They recognised the women from the fight near the Gallery, and the ever-sneering Louie the Lip.

"Well, now look who the cat's dragged in! I'd like to see you try using your big manly fists against these, Bat-boy. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha." He waved his gun at them.

Batman and Robin raised their hands.

"OK, Wyzchowski, you've got us where you want us," said Batman. "If you wanted us dead, we'd already be dead. So what is it you want to show us? You sure didn't go to all this effort to attract our attention for nothing."

The artist turned around to face the easel, his great coat sweeping behind him as he did so. "It was for this, Caped Crusader!" He pulled the cloth from the easel, to reveal another canvas, this one a collage of newspaper photographs of the Dynamic Duo and cuttings from headlines screaming "MURDER", "OUTRAGE" and "DEATH". A swathe of red acyllic paint had been sprayed across the artwork like blood splatter.

"That's cheap, empty sensationalism, Wyzchowski!" shouted Batman. "There's no meaning in it but the desire to shock, like all your art! I guess you must have brought us here to bore us, if that's all there is."

Wyzchowski turned back towards them. "It is not all and I have not brought you here for that. You say it's just shocking, cheap sensationalism, empty of meaning? I say that's what modern life is. And you know what? That's what I love about modern life. Nothing has to mean anything anymore. With the Victorians, everything had to mean something. Their art was overflowing with meaning, symbolism, allegory – and it was terrible art. Stags and fucking rescue dogs! Sentimental garbage! That's why I'm going to destroy those Landseer paintings. For the good of art, to wipe the slate clean. I can smell the burning canvas and the melting paint already. It smells like freedom."

"You're insane!" cried Robin.

"I'm an artist," said Wyzchowski. "Fraulein Groovy!"

He produced a remote control from his coat and clicked a button on it. A thick steel panel slid open on the floor, revealing an asbestos-lined pit into which all the paintings had been crammed. With a clatter of heels, a tall, blonde minion with dramatic cheekbones made her way down from the gallery by a stairway towards the back of the room, and strode towards the pit. She had strapped on a flamethrower, its pilot flame flickering ominously. "And the fire will be the perfect place to dispose of your bodies, too. When all Gotham sees me kill both art and heroism in one day, then they'll know I'm a great artist!"

"But a dead one," said Batman. He grabbed his compressed air gun and fired a ball bearing into one of the flamethrower tanks. It ruptured with a loud metallic crack, and petrol sprayed out everywhere, over the woman, over Wyzchowski and over the pilot flame, which promptly set it alight.

There was a roar and the room was lit by a lurid orange flash of flame, followed swiftly by agonised screams from Fraulein Groovy and from Wyzchowski, who had both caught fire. The Dynamic Duo leapt forward into the pit, pulling the panel as near shut as they could and crouching down whilst a storm of machine gun fire erupted from the galleries to either side, followed by more shouts, cries and screams as the bullets ricocheting around the room had the deadly effect you might expect when a lot of people start shooting in a confined space.

Mercifully the screaming of Wyzchowski and his burning accomplice was drowned out, and soon cut short as they were hit by shots from their friends, but there was a repeated banging for some seconds as rounds hit the metal panel. The sound of firing diminished, and eventually stopped. When it did so, Batman glanced over at Robin and nodded. They heaved open the panel, tossed out the two smoke grenades from Batman's utility belt and jumped out of the pit. Several of Wyzchowski's gang were already sprawled prone around the room, dead or injured. The others were struggling to reload when the grenades went off with bangs like giant firecrackers and belched thick, acrid smoke everywhere. Choking and gasping for air, their leader dead, they turned and fled, out of exits at the far end of the galleries and then down the stairway at the other side of the building.

"Let them go!" said Batman, through the gas mask he had now put on. He gestured at the paintings lying in the pit. "We've got what we came for."

The air was still thick with the stench of smoke and the horrible smell of burnt flesh. Robin found a bucket, and a tap, and poured water over the still smouldering corpses to extinguish the flames, whilst Batman went over and opened the window to let out the smoke. For a moment, they stood still, surveying the scene.

"I guess we should get ambulances for the injured survivors," said Robin. "But how…" His words were cut short by an enraged yell, a cross between a Confederate war-cry and a primal, animal scream. Louie the Lip had been hiding in one of the galleries. He seemed to be out of ammo for his machine gun, but he had found a fire-axe somewhere, and as he ran down into the room and across towards Batman and Robin, he brandished it at them with a maniacal fervour the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run would have envied.

"You killed him! You killed him! You goddamn freak!" Louie shouted. He swung the axe at Batman, who snatched up a wooden chair as an improvised shield. It caught the axe, although Louie in his rage almost smashed the axe-head clean through it. Batman dodged away, but Louie followed and chopped at him again, and again. The chair held off those blows too, but it was splintering to pieces in the Caped Crusader's hands.

Before it could be completely hacked apart, Batman threw the remains of the chair at Louie, who staggered back a few steps, before continuing to advance. Those few seconds were just enough, however, for Batman to step to one side and grab Robin's arms. Robin, as they had trained so often to do, threw himself back and lifted his knees to his chest, then kicked out at Louie with all his might. He caught Louie full in the chest, and the mouth-running goon staggered back towards the half-open window. Such was the force of the kick that Louie couldn't regain his balance in time, hit the window sill, and went out of the window with a scream that ended only when he hit the sidewalk several storeys below.

There was a brief, stunned silence.

"Vicious to the end," said Batman, eventually.

A few minutes later, the nearest police patrol car turned up, following complaints from neighbours of "a fugging ruckus in dat old warehouse." They found nothing but the dead and the injured, delirious and talking about a man dressed as a bat.

Some days later, billionaire Bruce Wayne and his young ward Dick Grayson attended the gala re-opening of the Landseer exhibition at the H. Henry Tippett Art Gallery. This time, the public had been carefully excluded, and the gallery was filled with the cream of Gotham society. Wayne walked around the gallery with Grayson, pointing out some of the more notable works of the great master to him.

"There's Man Proposes, God Disposes. Polar bears feast on the remains of Sir John Franklin's Polar expedition – a tragic reminder of Man's limitations when pitted against the forces of Nature."

The Mayor approached, fresh from a particularly awkward meeting with B'nai B'rith.

"Good evening, Mr Wayne. Well, I'm sure we're all relieved to see these fine paintings back where they should be. Always good to know we can rely on the good work of our fine Police Department when we need it!"

Wayne nodded and smiled. "Yes, Mr Mayor, it sure is."