Gotham is dozing in the dying light of the evening, stretching and yawning as it prepares to surrender to the night. Its citizens make last minute grocery runs while there’s still light and it’s relatively safe to. The lawyers and judges that pass down verdicts from the courthouse are all clambering into armored limousines driven by exhaustively vetted chauffeurs, worn out form another day of scraping the cream off the top. Only the best for Gotham’s fabulously rich, corrupt and paranoid.
But as one Gotham drifts off to sleep, another awakens. A dangerous, unpredictable Gotham rife with crime and violence that doesn’t bother to hide behind closed doors. At night, the city becomes a maddening jungle of car horns, angry shouts and cries for help. Way out here in the palisades, though, it settles into the background as a kind of industrial hum. Down here in the Cave you’d be lucky to catch an echo of the bustling city… It’s one thing you’ve always liked about this place. No matter how impossible things get out there, this dark theatre remains serene. You are Bruce Wayne, the Batman, and it has been one hell of a month.
It all started when the serial killer known as Killer Croc went on a mad spree in the Narrows, fueled by a newly mutated strain of Scarecrow’s fear toxin. The toxin warped Croc’s mind, making him prey upon the weak and downtrodden (not usually his targets of choice) and brutally murder them in the misguided belief that he was “saving” them. Saving them from what you can’t guess, but you have a pretty good hunch. You took Croc down, but only after he killed five people.
Then there’s the issue of Dr. Jonathan Crane, the madman now more widely known as Scarecrow, and whatever it is he has planned for Gotham. You’ve spent the past two nights following up on that lead with frustratingly little progress.
Your long-time friend and ally, commissioner James Gordon, is being framed. You’re not sure by who or why, but you’ve seen it enough times to know when it’s happening. Last week, a series of illicit withdrawals were made from Gotham PD’s riot lock-up under Gordon’s ID. You trust him enough to believe him when he says it wasn’t him, but that doesn’t exactly narrow the field. The number of people who would want to seriously harm or otherwise disgrace the commissioner is long and strong.
Finally, there’s your friend and former protégé, Dick Grayson. You haven’t heard from him in over a week. Not since he went off to Paris in pursuit of Slade Wilson, the assassin known as Deathstroke, who Nightwing had recently failed to stop from killing a Gotham big-wig interested in investing in the Wayne Foundation for Viable Futures. Nightrunner, your contact in Paris, has sent you a data package on the matter that you haven’t had time to review.
All of these things swirl around your consciousness as you sit before the Cave’s computer terminal, brooding. The sun is dipping down behind the hills now. Time to come alive.
Coming in from the palisades, you head once more toward Gotham’s southside, a favorite hunting ground of Crane’s. You’re passing the Vauxhall opera hall, its classic gothic architecture illuminated by floodlights set into the grounds, when you get your first hit. A show is just letting out of the opera, and you see a pusher trying to catch some bored socialites. He’s doing his best to blend in with the crowd in a tux and tie, but you can tell he doesn’t belong. The suit is obviously rented, the hair slicked back for the first time in months and unruly, the man’s frame underfed. Observing from the rooftop across the street, you wait for him to make a few more sales to confirm your suspicion. Then you grapple to the building across the street and slink down the fire escape, landing noiselessly behind the pusher. You get up close before hissing.
“Nice venue for garbage like you.”
The man’s reaction is immediate. One leg shoots out in front of him in an attempted dash to escape. You catch him by the collar of his rented tux and haul him back into the darkness. You hold him pinned to the wall by his neck a few feet off the ground. He’s sweating, struggling, pleading. He thinks you’re going to kill him. Were it so easy.
With your free hands, you rifle through the thug’s pockets, finding a few full, capped syringes for your trouble. None of them look particularly sterile. Inside the syringes is a green, transparent and subtly luminescent substance. Right up Scarecrow’s alley.
“Who gave you this?” You growl.
“Just my usual guy, I swear! Said some new shit had come down the pipe, wanted me to sell it cheap, get the word out.”
You crush one syringe in your armored glove, then acquire the second and tuck it into the utility belt. A chemical analysis will have to be performed in the Cave to get a fix on just what’s in there, but you already have your suspicions.
“Nothin’, Batman! I swear! That’s all I know!”
You increase the pressure on his larynx. God, how easy it would be to crush any hope he had of survival right now… How easy to rid the streets of another low-life forever. Too easy. Keep control. After a minute or so under pressure, the scum cracks and gives up his last secret.
“O–okay! Boss said when we was runnin’ out ta stop by this place in the Narrows, ask for Sammy.”
“You know the way?”
He nods, then tells you. You knock him out for his trouble, leave him to wake up in a pile of stinking garbage and reflect on his life. Then you’re back above the streets, cloaked in shadow. The street rat gave you an address in the Narrows, so you make your way there.
You were hoping you wouldn’t have to come back here so soon after your latest run-in with Killer Croc (see issue 4), but as Gotham usually does, so it has funneled the worst of its underbelly’s waste here, to the Narrows. Walls press in on you from every side, and the polluted micro-climate that hangs over this truly destitute section of Gotham glares oppressively down at you, letting in no light, no hope from the stars above. The Narrows is one of the few places in the city that can still dishearten you. No matter how many times you’re dragged back here, it never gets any easier.
Soon after entering the warren of tenements and flophouses, you’re forced to abandon stealth almost entirely by the close quarters nature of the place. Narrow hallway only leads to narrower, and detritus has piled up so high on either side that there’s simply nowhere to hide. The residents of this scummy elsewhere flee at your approach. You can hardly blame them. Any other night they might have been right to do so.
The human waste occupying the apartment you were tipped off on by the pusher know you’re coming. Of course they do… It was likely that half the people you saw on the way in were eyes and ears for the drug trade here. It’s easy and relatively risk-free work for a vagrant. So when you see a heavy steel door at the end of a completely abandoned hallway lit by a single flickering bulb, you’re not surprised. Nor are you vexed by said door being locked. And the thugs filing into the narrow hallway might think they have you in their trap, but they’re wrong.
These dregs should have thought things through more thoroughly. Though, you suppose if they had done that, they would have likely broken the operation down and been halfway to Metropolis by the time you arrived, so perhaps in the end it’s best they didn’t. Regardless, the narrow hallway they’ve tried to box you into is going to work to your advantage. With so little space to maneuver, fighting four men will hardly be much different than fighting one.
As they approach, you allow your cape to fall over your shoulders so that it enshrouds your entire body. Beneath the cape, you’re pulling a smoke pellet from your utility belt and activating its timed detonation stud. Five seconds.
The thugs are overconfident, practically strutting down the hallway toward you, lazily flicking butterfly knives back and forth. Fools.
Now the closest is trying to keep his courage up, saying unflattering and untrue things about your mother. He’ll learn the mistake of that the hard way.
They’re close now, all sneers and jeers, laughter and boasts, trying not to be scared. You stay silent, like a gargoyle. Like a demon.
Here comes the shiv, darting toward your lower intestines. You still haven’t moved.
Exploding into motion, you throw your cape backward and deflect the shiv with a sideways palm. The man stands there stupidly, unable to believe you’d moved so fast. You seize the lower half of his jaw as it hangs there and hold it open, forcing your smoke pellet into his mouth and kicking him back into the arms of his allies. The pellet takes a few teeth and otherwise mangles his mouth when it goes off, but you’re not concerned. He’s down, and that’s what matters right now.
The remaining scum go down without too much trouble. The first you suckerpunch as he leans forward, trying in vain to pierce the smoke with his gaze. He falls hard and isn’t moving. The second gets his legs swept out from under him and his ankle stomped on by an armored boot with more force than was probably necessary. The final goon is the only one who might pass for intelligent, backing out of the obscuring gray and holding his knife in front of him. Something rolls out of the smoke and bumps into his foot before coming to a halt. The flashbang goes off with a “FASH!” and leaves the man’s ears ringing and white spots dancing in his eyes. Then your fist makes everything go dark.
After that, it’s just you, a few tendrils of smoke, four unconscious bodies and a locked door in a hallway.
You settle on your haunches and begin working the door, starting with a simple set of tools and working your way up to more complex implements. Eventually, the door gives way under your ministrations, and swings back slowly, heavily. The first thing that hits you is the smell: like rotten eggs and burnt hair, invading your nostrils. You already know you won’t be able to get the smell out of this suit. You step inside.
It’s a house of horrors. Not that you expected anything else, but this… It’s wrong. There are bodies strung up on the walls or lying catatonic on filthy cots. Insects of every stripe skitter across the floor. Upon closer inspection, you see that the people are alive and aware. Terrified, pleading eyes track you as you cross the floor. They’re all wearing masks hooked up to silver canisters in the middle of the room. It’s pumping fear gas. You don’t even need to look closely to know: their expressions tell you everything.
There’s a young woman who appears to be entering into a convulsion three feet away. Your choice is made. You kneel beside her and cradle her under one arm, removing the mask with the other. It’s then that you notice a second cord, trailing from the back of her skull. Tracing it carefully to its source, you see that it is attached at the base of the spine, and appears to be… Draining fluid. The implant has been crudely attached. Removing it could kill her.
Looking around the nightmare room, you see similar devices trailing from each and every victim.
You look around the room, eyes narrowed. If this is Crane, he will pay. You contact Oracle on the secured frequencies.
“Barbara. I’ve… Found something. I need your help. And your silence. The rest of the Family doesn’t need to know what’s going on with this case. I have it under control.”
You know you’re connected… These networks are ironclad. But still, the staticy quiet streches on so long you wonder if you’re somehow out of reach. Then Oracle answers.
“You have my word, Bruce. What do you need?”
You tell her everything, and with her help you set to work on what’s being done to these people. It’s going to be a long night.