On the third floor of the building, smoke filled the corridor, making it nearly impossible to see. Batman reached for the respirator on his utility belt and slipped it into his mouth. For now, it was simply filtering the smoke, but there was a small air tank in his belt if it was needed. He heard a loud crack behind him, then a crash. Looking back at the stairway, he saw more flames coming up through the opening. He looked down and saw that the stairs below had fallen in. “Anyone hurt down there?” he called, taking the respirator from his mouth.
“One man down, twisted ankle,” came the answer from below.
“Get him out. I’ll take care of the people up here.”
“You? But–?” A firefighter in full gear came into view and looked up, spying the distinctive cowl of the Batman. “Yes, sir!” he called out, then disappeared once more.
Batman felt his way along the hall and came to a door. He pulled off one glove and placed his palm on its surface. Not feeling any heat, he tried the knob and opened the door.
“Anyone here?” he yelled. He heard a commotion from down the hall. A bedroom door burst open as he approached.
“Get us out! Please, get us out of–!” The man who opened the door stopped as he recognized the tall man garbed in gray and dark blue. “Batman?!” He turned and shouted into the room. “It’s gonna be all right! Batman’s here to save us!”
The man known to some as the dark knight smiled. Even after all this time, he thought, there is still that total trust from the people of my city. He pulled out a flashlight and shone it around the room. In addition to the man, there was a woman, a boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen, and two girls who looked to be six and eight years old. He led them from the apartment toward the stairway, then stopped. “Wait here,” was all he said, holding up a hand as he stepped toward the stairwell. Flames were visible above the level of the floor, advancing quickly upward. “Let’s check the other apartment,” he said as he turned back.
“That’s Miss Turner’s place,” said the boy. “She’s got two girls there.”
Batman closed his eyes for a second as he got his bearings. “If I have these apartments figured out right, one of her bedrooms will be facing the front. That will be our best chance for getting out of here. Follow me.” He felt the door, then tried the knob. Finding it locked, he turned and kicked out sideways, striking the door just below the knob. It popped open.
“It’s OK — I’m here to get you out,” he said as he led the first family inside. He saw a thin woman shivering with fear as she held onto two toddlers. “Let’s go — we’re going to have to lower you down from the window.”
“We’ve lost the stairs, Batman!” said the Huntress, coming in from the hall. “I had to drop over the railing to get down here.”
“I know. You remember how to tie a shoulder harness?”
“Of course,” said the younger woman, already measuring out a length of cord as they herded the two families down the hallway. “What about the little ones?”
“You’ll take them down. I’ll stay up to lower the rest down.”
It took ten minutes to get the three adults and the first two older children down to the ground. The Huntress found sheets to wrap up the two babies and strapped them around her. “Fire’s through the living room door, Batman. Can you take him?” she said, indicating the boy.
“What’s your name, son?” asked Batman.
“Martin, sir. Martin Evans.”
“Well, Martin, I’m going to need your help. You need to hang on to me as tight as you can, all right? I’ll have a good hold of the rope, and we won’t fall. Do you understand me?”
“Huntress, get your line on that utility pole. I’m going to use the tree there,” said Batman, pointing to a bare maple tree thirty feet from the building as he shortened the harness he had been using, slipped it over the boy’s arms, then secured the harness around his own chest.
“Just be careful, all right?”
“Always.” He tossed a batarang with a line attached. It flew up and over the tree, circling a stout limb to anchor the line. The Huntress’ line circled the crossbars of the utility pole. They looked at each other, made sure the children were secured, and jumped.
The first ten feet or so were always the hardest, thought Batman as he dropped, those brief seconds of worry that the line might not have caught right, or that it might snap when his full weight came down on it. This time was no different than the hundreds of times he’d jumped from buildings over the last forty years. The worry gave way to confidence as he felt the line tighten in his gloved hand, and he felt the fall checked and transformed into an arcing swing.
But there was a difference — a difference in the crowd below calling his name and cheering as the legendary guardian of Gotham City made his presence known.
Down below, Battalion Chief Gilbert’s face broke into a grin. “I thought those boys in the back were breathing too much smoke when they said Batman was here,” he said with a laugh as he slapped Mike Todd on the shoulder. “Look at that, will ya, Mike? Just like he did that night at the Mercer Department Store fire in ’58!”
Batman’s swing took him out and around most of the fire trucks before he touched down. As soon as his feet hit the ground, Martin’s parents were running toward him. “You all right, son?” asked Batman as he released his one-armed embrace of the boy.
“All right? Are you kidding? That was cool!” Martin stepped back with his parents, sensing that Batman’s work was not yet finished. The older hero looked over to see his daughter unwrapping the girls she had carried down, and then he heard a commotion among the firemen.
“We can see them in the window! They’re alive back there!”
Batman ran over to the battalion chief. “What have you got?”
“Father and two kids in the back apartment on the first floor. We can see them, but we can’t get at them. Flames from the basement are coming up around the outside walls.”
The dark knight’s eyes narrowed as he looked over toward the window the firefighters were pointing at. “You can’t get to them, but I can.”
“They’re OK. I don’t think this one even woke up through it all,” said the Huntress, handing nine-month-old Samantha Turner over to her mother.
“I don’t know how to thank you. And Batman — I thought he was retired!” said Julie Turner. “Oh, what’s he doing now?”
The Huntress turned in time to see her father swinging back toward the burning building. Firefighters were waving their arms at someone in a first-floor window, trying to tell them to get away from the opening. “Oh. My. God,” said the Huntress slowly, as she realized what her father was doing. “Don’t go in there — don’t–”
It was too late. Batman soared through the air once more on a silken line, this time into the window of the burning building.
Inside the first-floor apartment, flames were already licking around the doorway, and the carpets were starting to smolder. Batman looked around quickly, appraising the occupants of the room. There was a man in his late thirties or early forties, a boy of about the same age as Martin, and a girl of perhaps five years. They were in a bedroom, the door to the hallway closed, but with flames appearing from under the door and around the edges. There was another door, most likely a closet. He looked up, but the ceiling was solid.
“Can’t hand you out through the window till they get the flames from the basement under control,” he told the father. “But I might be able to rig a line to–”
Batman paused, listening. Over the muted roar of the flames and the sounds of water hitting the building, he heard a crack, then a groan. “Not good. Structure is starting to break up. He looked again at the closet. “Over here!” he yelled, motioning for the family to join him as he opened the closet door, then reached for the hinge pins.
Outside, Chief Gilbert brought more hose squads around to try to quench the flames around the area where Batman had entered the building. He watched with the Huntress at his side.
“Sir, part of the wall has started to buckle,” reported one of the firefighters over the radio.
“Got the people off the roof?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. Aerial two is running all hoses now.”
“Good; keep at it. We’re in a race for time now,” said Gilbert, turning toward the Huntress. “We’ll get it knocked do–”
There was a rumble, then a crash as the back end of the building collapsed. Fountains of sparks flew into the air as four stories of wood and brick broke apart and came down in a heap.
The Huntress started toward the burning apartment building even as several of the hose teams backed away from the back of the building where the wall had collapsed. The side window Batman had disappeared through was gone, lost under tons of brick and burning timbers.
“He’s your father?” asked Chief Gilbert. She nodded, unable to speak. “Look, I’ve worked with him in the past, and if anyone can survive that, he’s the one.” The Huntress just nodded again as she reached for the JSA communicator on her utility belt. Before she could activate it, her radio earpiece crackled to life.
“Huntress? Can you hear me?” The voice in her ear was strained, and the radio transmission was full of static. But the voice was unmistakable.
“Batman?! Are you all right?”
“I’ve been better. I’ve managed to get the family into a small closet, though the father got knocked out. I’ve got the door across my back — don’t know now much weight I’ve got on top of that.” There was a pause, then she heard him talking, apparently to one of the people there with him. “What’s your name? Kevin Swanson? All right, Kevin, you see those compartments on my belt? Push up on the third one on that side. No, the one next to it. Now, see that capsule? Grab it and throw it at those flames. Good job — that will slow them down.”
“How many foam pellets do you have?”
“Should be seven more. Do you have somebody that knows the layout of the apartments there? Tell them we are in a bedroom closet; the bedroom must have been Kevin’s.” The sound of his voice was fading, becoming overcome by static. “Maybe they can help direct the firefighters in here.”
“I’ll find someone, don’t worry. We’ll get you out of there.” There was no response but the hiss of dead air as the young heroine tried to raise another response from inside the building.
Already every hose on the scene was directed at the area where the caped crusader had last been seen. A small front-loader arrived moments after the collapse and started clearing away still-burning debris. Greg Robertson, the sole resident of the other first-floor apartment, sketched out the floor plan for the firefighters, and in less than fifteen minutes they were near the area where Batman and the Swanson family were believed to be trapped.
Suddenly, the rubble shifted, then a section rose upward. Like a hatchway opening up, Batman heaved the closet door up and back, rising up to the cheers of the assembled firefighters, residents, and neighbors, as well as several reporters who had arrived on the scene. “Get a medical team over here!” he called, indicating where Ed Swanson lay unconscious on the floor. “He got hit by a section of wall in the collapse.”
Rescue personnel swarmed in to take the children out and make a quick assessment of their father. Batman got down on one knee in front of the daughter. “These men are going to check you over and make sure you’re all right, OK?” She simply nodded, one small fist rubbing at an eye. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Trista, I see your daddy is already waking up, so everything should be all right now, right?”
“Except for Lucky.”
“Lucky is my cat. He ran out of Kevin’s room when we went in there.”
“I see,” said Batman, putting a finger under her chin and lifting her face to look in her eyes. “You know, animals are pretty smart. They know when they’re in danger, and where to find safety. And I think Lucky found a safe spot to hide.”
“Yep.” Batman reached under his cape and pulled out a thin, tortoise-shell cat that was holding on to the back of his utility belt. “Unless I’m mistaken, I think this must be Lucky,” he said, handing the cat over to her.
Out away from the fire, a woman with graying red hair knelt with a camera. As she saw the dark knight hand over the cat, her finger pressed down on the shutter release.