Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #9

High noon in Gotham city. The streets are a buzzing hive of activity, both legitimate and illicit. The old city’s citizens pay homage to the almighty dollar, each in their own way. You are Bruce Wayne, the Batman, and you are angry. Angry that things have been slipping slowly beyond your grasp, angry that despite your fervent and continuous efforts the body count keeps piling up. You stand in the center of Wayne manor’s indoor gymnasium, having just spent the past two hours working out your frustrations. Now, chest heaving and skin slick with sweat, you allow the endorphins to surge through you, calming and focusing your mind. You give the gym one last look, then hit the showers.

Come sundown, you’ve been in the Cave for an hour already, reviewing the facts, retracing your steps over the past two weeks, looking for patterns. Alfred, alongside Lucius Fox, has been hard at work analyzing the fluids found in the bodies of the victims in the Room. They’ve found some kind of hallucinogenic property in the victims’ blood, but nothing that could be self-activating. The conclusion that Lucius came to was that Scarecrow was using the abductees as a kind of human distillery. For what isn’t exactly clear.

In the back of your mind, a great darkness looms. Dick Grayson, your former ward and protégé, has been out of contact for two weeks. His last known location was in Paris, determined by an authorized access of a Bat-bunker there. He was in pursuit of Wilson Slade, an infamous assassin better known as Deathstroke. As Nightwing, his vigilante alter ego, Grayson failed to stop Deathstroke from murdering a Gotham bigwig interested in investing large in the Wayne Foundation for Viable Futures.

Commissioner James Gordon, one of your oldest allies in the war against Gotham’s criminal and corrupt, continues to be imperiled by whatever shadowy figure seeks to frame him for capital crimes against his own Major Crimes Unit. Today, a statement was released by the mayor’s office publicizing Gordon’s temporary suspension without pay pending investigation of the crimes arrayed against him. It also informed of the decision to instate a temporary commissioner, on loan from the Metropolis police department. The administration clarified that it could not pull any officer from amongst Gotham PD’s own ranks until it determined how far the corruption had spread. The puppet commissioner, a man by the name of Cyril Hobbes, has already arrived in Gotham and is expected to begin his tenure effective tomorrow. It may be worth trying to force a meeting with him before he screws up everything you and Gordon have worked for.

It’s long past time you figured out what’s happening with Dick. You call up the data packet sent to you by your Paris contact, Bilal Asselah, better known to Parisians as Nightrunner. Bilal has been doing steady and good work since you invited him to join Batman Incorporated, making efficient use of the resources and equipment placed at his disposal. You count him amongst some of your most trusted operatives, and have considered bringing him into Gotham for a crash course in criminal psychotics several times now. Perhaps after this he will have earned the displeasure.

Asselah has been tireless in his pursuit of leads on Nightwing’s whereabouts, but has largely been running into walls. Until three days ago, that is. People like Wilson Slade have expensive appetites, developed over years of spending more money than is sensible due to lucrative assassination contracts. Slade is one of the more disciplined, but he’s still a criminal. Several prominent politicians, known enemies of Parisian anti-government cells, have disappeared in the last week. It’s Asselah’s theory that Deathstroke is having to make deals with the French cells in order to maintain his presence there.

As for Nightwing himself, there has been no sign whatsoever. Your eyes narrow with concern. The situation feels wrong all over. It makes your skin crawl. You want to get out there yourself, get your hands in the filth and the muck, sift through it for whatever vital clue Asselah isn’t experienced enough to catch. But things in Gotham are deteriorating rapidly. This is the witching hour. If you’re not extremely careful, you will lose hold of the reins in both places.

You argue about it with yourself internally, trying to talk yourself out of abandoning your city to itself. But Dick needs your help, and he’s saved your skin enough times to have earned the right to it. You call out for Alfred. As always, within a minute he is at your side.

“Yes, sir?”

“I need you to make the Bat-plane ready for action. I’m heading to France.”

“Very well, sir. Is there anything else?”

“Just one thing. I can’t leave Gotham without a protector. Especially not now with Gordon out of action.”

The stately butler nods almost imperceptibly.

“Shall I contact master Drake?”

“No, Tim is busy with the Titans. I’m going to have to give this to someone else. I’m not entirely happy about trusting her, but I have no choice.”

“Her, sir? Please tell me you’re not entrusting the city to Catwoman. She’s a thief and a harl–“

You cut him off before he can say anything more.

“I’m not leaving this to Selina. She wouldn’t be interested anyway… Nothing to gain from it. I need you to get in touch with Katherine Kane.”

Alfred reaches out to Katherine Kane, the vigilante known as Batwoman, through secure channels. She’s unwilling to speak over the comms, upset enough that you are able to monitor her whereabouts without her knowledge or consent. She’ll get over that in time. They all do. Alfred sets up a meet in the city, on the rooftop of the MCU. Twenty minutes later you’ve suited up, made your way into the city and arrived at the MCU. The rooftop is deserted. Or so you believe at first.

“You’re late.” Kane’s growl still needs some work. She doesn’t always manage to be menacing. At least until she starts breaking bones.

“I’m busy. You would know if you hadn’t gotten in bed with the DEO. How’s that working out, by the way?”

She ignores the barb. Of course, you’ve been monitoring her operations since she declined your offer to join Batman Incorporated. Partly due to her training and motivation making her a potential liability to the mantle’s reputation, partly because you suspect the Department of Extranormal Operations will dispose of her in much the same way they do any other perceived threat once she’s outlived her usefulness. She doesn’t allow the silence between you to stretch on too long.

“You called me here. On my personal line, I might add. I’ll be looking into that. What do you want?”

You smirk. “You won’t find anything. And I need your help. Gotham needs your help.”

“And this is different from any other day how?” She’s belligerent. Still angry at being outplayed. Doesn’t deal with competition well. Another note for the dossier.

“I assume you watch the news. And if you don’t, Detective Sawy–“

“Don’t talk about her. And get to the point.”

“Our only friend of import in the police force has just been taken down. They say it’s corruption, but I know Gordon better than that. There’s something big boiling under the surface and I… I have to leave.”

She cocks an eyebrow. “The Batman doesn’t take vacations. Where are you going?”

You shake your head. “Not something I’m willing to share with someone outside of the organization.”

A scoff.

“In any case, I need someone to keep an eye on things while I’m gone, and my people are all occupied.”

“So you called me here to tell me to keep doing what I’ve already been doing?”

“You’ve been fighting muggers and gangs, street level crimes. Your work with Diana was impressive, but it hardly elevates you to the level you’ll need to reach in order to be Gotham’s guardian. I need you to be hyper vigilant while I’m not here.”

She stands there, arms crossed. You wait for a response, but get none.

“That’s it.”

Wordlessly, she turns and leaps from the MCU’s roof. Approaching the concrete lip of the building, you see her gliding down and away. She’s angry, insulted. Good. That anger will keep her sharp while you’re gone. You head back to the Cave.

Eight hours later, you’ve reached the Bat-bunker Nightwing was last identified as having been present at. The exterior is unassuming by design. An apparently worn down and neglected storage shed leads down through a series of switchback tunnels and false ends until it stops at a reinforced brushed steel bulkhead with a bat etched into its surface. There is no apparent method of entry.

“Batman Incorporated identification, alpha gamma sigma. Batman.”

There is no response, no automated voice confirming your identity. Instead, the apparently solid bulkhead splits into large metal sheathes and hisses backward, stale air wafting out from the other side. Inside, the Bunker is much like any other. Equipment lines the walls, and a bank of computers is booting up, triggered by your entry. No sign of Dick.

You begin a formal search of the room, starting by modifying your cowl’s optics for human leftovers. You’re looking for blood, skin cells, anything that Dick might have left behind. The room immediately lights up, but most of what’s there belongs to Nightrunner. In fact, you can’t find anything that even suggests Dick was here at all. Disturbing. The system is supposed to be flawless. Not that you’ve ever put much faith in anything that’s made that claim before.

Next you examine the equipment racks, hoping that any piece of gear signed out by Dick might give you a clue as to where he was headed. You find a single piece out of place, moved but not logged. There are prints on it. Not Dick’s.

Slade Wilson’s.

You turn the vest over in your hands, looking for some sign of tampering. Deathstroke wouldn’t have left a finger print if he didn’t want it found. He’s playing a game. You have no choice but to play right along with him.

At least for now.

The vest, however, refuses to yield anything. Hitting a wall, you decide to contact Nightrunner. The kid responds quickly to the call. He continues to impress.

“How can I help, Batman?”

“When was the last time you were in the bunker on the southwest side of the city?”

“Uhm… Last week sometime. When you asked me to start looking for Nightwing. I did a thorough sweep, by the book. Why?”

“I’ve found a vest here. It has Deathstroke’s prints on it, but I can’t find anything else of note. I need you to come in. I want to make use of an extra set of eyes.”

There’s a pause before he answers. When he does, he’s slightly out of breath.

“Sorry, that one was better trained than the others. I’m on the other side of the city. It will take me twenty minutes to get there.”

“Be here in ten.”

You cut the channel. Of course it’s impossible to get here from where Nightrunner’s GPS signature is in that time, but the order will be added incentive to get here quickly. You set the vest down on the prep table in the center of the bunker, then rub your eyes. It’s been a long night. Day. Whatever it is now.

Click.

Custom Brown Precision Tactical Elite model, with a widened bore to allow the acceptance of larger, specialized ammunition. The hollow “SPAK” the round makes on the wall behind you as you whirl away tells you it’s a hollow point. Wilson isn’t playing games.

And it is Wilson, standing in the entrance of the bunker, already lining up his second shot. A sound like a redwood cracking in half deafens you, but you evade the second. Then you’re in close, slapping the rifle barrel away, driving an elbow into Deathstroke’s jaw. He rides the impact, pirouetting in order to maintain balance. By the time he’s finished the maneuver, the assassin has already drawn one of his signature blades. He rushes you, feinting and jabbing, probing your guard for weaknesses. It’s not easy to keep away, but it isn’t as hard as it should be, either. Deathstroke is holding back. He doesn’t want to kill you.

That gives you an advantage.

You feint away from another slash, rolling backward over the prep table in the center of the room, grabbing the vest there as you do. Deathstroke thrusts across the table, hoping to catch you off-guard by using an amateur’s move. Might have worked on someone else. Instead there is a shrieking sound of metal shearing metal as his sword punctures the vest and catches in its fibers.

“Forget something, Slade?” You growl from behind the vest.

“You found my calling card. You’re not as slow as I thought. But you ARE slowing, Bats.” He’s confident, but not cocky. A professional through-and-through.

“Still quick enough to take trash like you down.” You wrench the vest to the side, taking Wilson’s blade with it. They clatter to the floor several feet away.

Wilson doesn’t respond, instead vaulting the table, attempting to stick a flying kick. You catch the ankle between your forearms and spin him, throwing off his balance. He lands on the floor, but uses his momentum to recover, rolling backward and adopting a defensive stance. You move in, raining blows and making use of your gear to give you an edge. Wilson isn’t exactly human anymore, and he’s received as much training as you have, if not more. Beating him hand-to-hand isn’t really an option. Slowing him down is.

You manage to elicit a frustrated, reckless response from your opponent. You catch his wrist as his fist cuts through the air your head occupied a moment ago and slam your forearm into his elbow joint. The snap is wet and satisfying. Anyone else would be howling in pain, but Deathstroke just grunts and keeps on fighting one-handed. Incredible.

You keep at it for what seems like an eternity, and the assassin manages to crack at least three ribs and dislocate your shoulder in the process. You don’t want to admit it, but he’s beating you. If what happens next didn’t, he might have laid you out.

Deathstroke is about to land his fourth hit on your jaw when he makes a strange whooshing sound, and drops to his knees. A second later, four rigid fingers are driven into a nerve center at his shoulder and he goes down, spasming. Bilal Asselah, Nightrunner, stands over him.

“You weren’t kidding. Y’know, if you needed help taking this goon down, you could have just said so.”

You ignore his boasting, grunting as you pop your shoulder back into place. The ribs will have to wait. You know the kid got lucky, but let him have his victory anyway. If Deathstroke had been expecting him, he wouldn’t have landed a hit. Batman Incorporated has its advantages.

With Nightrunner’s help you lift Deathstroke onto the prep table and secure him with restraints from the bunker’s armory. Your shoulder still aches and your ribs crackle every time you breathe, but you ignore both. No one can afford to see you weakened. Especially not your allies. Once he’s secured, you administer a tranquilizer normally used on elephants. It would kill most men, but then Slade Wilson isn’t most men. You estimate you’ve got three hours before he wakes up. When that happens, the restraints won’t hold him long.

Then you and Nightrunner get to searching the room. Whatever might have been found on the vest has been demolished by Deathstroke’s blade, but there might be something else here worth finding. After an hour of thorough search, you inject yourself with adrenaline to keep shock from overcoming you. Nightrunner keeps glancing your way. You suspect he knows your injuries to be more severe than you let on. He’s probably waiting for you to collapse. The kid doesn’t know you very well yet.

Deathstroke is awake thirty minutes later. His metabolism defies logic. You’re alerted to his newfound consciousness by a low chuckling. You approach the side of the table.

“Most people in your position wouldn’t find much cause for humor, Slade.” You growl.

He’s still smiling. “My position? Hah. Speak for yourself, Bat. Also, these restraints? Seriously?” He starts straining at the cords holding him in place.

You sneer. “They’re not supposed to hold you down. This is.” You show him a hypodermic needle, which you’ve filled with a concentrated dose of the elephant tranquilizer. He stops fighting.

“You’re not going to need that.”

“I disagree. So does my associate. In fact, I think I’m going to need a lot more than this to find out where Nightwing is.”

Wilson starts cackling. “Oh god, he was right. You’re so PREDICTABLE, Batman. All we had to do to get your attention is hurt your favorite little bird.”

“You’d better get to the point, Deathstroke.” You spit the name out like an epithet. “You’ve already used up your allotted patience for this encounter. Who was right? Where is Nightwing?” You start bringing the needle closer to his exposed skin.

“Stop. I said you wouldn’t need that. And you won’t. I’m going to tell you EVERYTHING.”

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