Exhaustion buzzes in your ears as you stare at nothing on the computer terminal. Though compiled reports from the last two weeks glow softly on the screen, they have long since lost their meaning to you. This might have something to do with your complete refusal to rest or take in nourishment since you arrived at the Cave this morning. You spent all night and a good portion of the early hours today working with Oracle and the men from Gordon’s unit to get the victims of that hellish room in the Narrows out. They’ve all been moved to Gotham General now, and while the skilled surgeons there were able to safely remove the crude implants, you know the psychological scars will never heal. Most of the people in that room will live out the rest of their lives in mental institutes, attempting to recover from the ordeal. Others will take their lives in despair. Still others may someday become the newest residents of Arkham. You try not to think about that. Monsters making more monsters of the innocent.
Though last night’s case is certainly foremost in your thoughts, it’s not the only thing on your mind. Jim Gordon is still being hounded by some shadowy figure intent on running his reputation through the mud, framing him for capital crimes against his own unit. Dick Grayson, a trusted friend and your former protégé, has been missing for the entirety of these two weeks. You pinch the bridge of your nose between thumb and forefinger, trying to will a migraine into submission. You glance at the data packet sent to you by Nightrunner. Maybe tonight there will be time. Alfred clears his throat from somewhere behind you.
“Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to be rather firm. It is time you put this down and got some sleep. You cannot solve all of Gotham’s problems in a single night. To attempt the feat is foolish and naïve.”
You growl, low and menacing, your hands steepled in front of your face.
Alfred clicks his tongue impatiently. “That doesn’t work on me, Bruce Wayne. Get some sleep.”
Perhaps he’s right. But you need to decide what you’ll do tonight before you can allow yourself to rest.
You waste another twenty minutes studying the computer monitor before deciding that Scarecrow will command your attention tonight. That done, you stand, the lactic acid coursing like hot fire through your legs. You stagger up out of the Cave and to the master bedroom, discarding elements of your suit as you do. By the time you reach the lush bed, you’re ready to collapse. That is exactly what you do.
Hours later, you awake with a start. The drapes are drawn, but you know it’s already dark. You feel it in your bones, so accustomed you have become to the shadows bringing you to life. Your legs still ache as you push yourself off the bed and make your way back down to the Cave. Alfred is seated at the computer terminal.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” You demand.
“You needed your rest, master Bruce. And before you start in on how that decision is not my right to make, please keep in mind that I raised you and will not have you run yourself to death. Now, here are the compiled reports from the day.”
The butler hands you a manila folder over his shoulder. You take it wordlessly, not willing to press the argument. You’re still too tired. Instead, you head to the armory for a fresh suit, reading the report as you go.
As you expected, news of the Room in the Narrows has already reached the masses. Such terrors rarely go unnoticed for long. Tabloids and respected publications alike all carry similar headlines. One in particular catches your eye.
“NIGHTMARES IN THE NARROWS.”
Closer to the mark than the writer imagined. Whatever Scarecrow is doing, he’s picked up the pace. Several disappearances across the city have been mentioned in police chatter, but they centralize on the Southwest end of the city, Crane’s favored hunting ground.
An hour later, you’ve suited up, come into the city and bypassed Gordon’s men cordoning off the Room. It still reeks in here. You doubt it will ever wear off completely. Time to begin.
You begin a circuit of the room, scanning every inch of the filthy walls, floor and ceiling as you do so. Nothing has changed since early this morning; good. You activate cowl optics, panning around your surroundings. A thin, viscous film in a pooled pattern not far from you catches your eye. You stoop and drag two fingers along the ground, inhaling deeply. Smells like… Sulfur? You extract an evidence vial from your belt and scrape some of the fluid into it, making a mental note to have it examined later. Now that you know what you’re looking for, you see similar pools located approximately where each victim was placed. That means that whatever this liquid is, it was being drained from the victims’ body. Nothing produced naturally smells like that, so it must be some kind of chemical mixture.
The door opens behind you, and Jim Gordon ducks under the caution tape, cocking an eyebrow at you.
“Boys told me you were back here. Can I get anything else for you? Coffee? Cigar?”
“Crane was extracting something from these people. Something the human body doesn’t naturally produce.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. The doctor was always fond of his experiments.”
“Yes, but it’s never been quite like this. Scarecrow has always been about putting something into his patients. ‘Improving’ them. ‘Curing’ them.”
“You sound like you almost believe it’s true.”
“I’m not a monster, Jim. Whatever was done here was monstrous, but it doesn’t fit Crane’s modus operandi. Have the toxicology reports from the victims’ blood come back yet?”
“Not yet, but the coroner assures me he–“
The commissioner’s phone goes. He holds up a finger and flips it open.
You stand there, watching the colour drain from Jim’s face as the voice on the other end imparts whatever information it had. When it’s done, he has only one thing to say.
“I’m on my way.”
He hangs up and sighs, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes wearily.
“That was Gotham General. Those people we got out of here last night? They’re dead. All of them.”
A moment of silence stretches on too long.
“I’ll meet you there.”
It takes you a half hour longer than Gordon to get to Gotham General, but it’s worth it to preserve the air of mystery. He’s already gone inside when you get there, having posted officers in pairs at every entrance and on each floor. They’re good at their jobs, but they pose no threat to you. You slip by them and find Jim on the seventh floor, in a room one of the victims occupied. Specifically, the young woman you rescued first. He stands at the foot of the empty bed, its bedding already replaced, in possession of one of the meanest cases of hundred yard stare you’ve seen.
“What happened here, Jim?” You stay in the shadows, out of sight. You trust Jim, but you still don’t want to give away your position too soon, in case he thinks he can pull something stupid with a hospital full of his men to back him up. It’s probably unnecessary… Gordon hasn’t tried to bring you in for years. But you didn’t get this far by being careless.
“Won’t know for sure until the morning, but the cause of death seems fairly straightforward. Their veins collapsed. Disintegrated.”
“Hm. We’ve seen similar things happen in advanced drug abuse cases, heroin and the like. The human body wasn’t meant to withstand things like that. But whatever happened to these people happened much faster. One second the night shift was rolling this one over, the next she was in convulsions, bleeding from just about everywhere she could.”
“She wouldn’t have suffered long.”
Jim turns, and the glint you catch in his eye tells you how deep this case runs.
“No, not long. But terribly.”
He sighs, flips up the collar of his coat and heads for the door. You don’t move.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going home, Batman. I’m tired. I’ve had enough for one day. Some of us stay out when the sun comes up, y’know.”
The dig is weightless, insincere. Jim is worn out. You let him go, taking his place at the foot of the patient’s bed for a few moments more before taking your own leave.