Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #12

Gotham is at its most beautiful on a rainy night. Despite the discomfort it causes you while on patrol, you know this. The way it makes the city lights streak and blend with one another, the way it forces the ungrateful criminals back into their holes and leaves the streets abandoned, empty and eerie and breathtaking. It’s on these nights, in your thermally insulated suits, that you spend more time overlooking the streets from your favored vantage points than you should. It feels almost like a night off.

You spent the day by Dick Grayson’s bedside, nursing your old friend back to health. He took a vicious beating at the hands of Deathstroke’s thugs, and it will be a while before he’s ready for action again. Still, Alfred Pennyworth’s experience and steady hands served the young acrobat well. He’s on the mend.

At least, his physical wounds are.

Last night you apprehended the psychotic former psychiatrist, Jonathan Crane. Acting as his alter ego, the Scarecrow, Crane had abducted citizens from across Gotham city and brought them to Gotham University’s sub-basement, where he performed sickening procedures on them, the end goal of which you are still unsure. The method used was similar to that employed in the Room in the Narrows (see issue #X), with the Scarecrow injecting the people with a uniquely formulated strain of fear toxin, then extracting a sample of this same toxin (mixed with human fluids) from the base of the victim’s spine. Gruesome, to be sure, but Crane’s work is seldom anything else. Worse still, Thomas Elliot, better known as Hush, is still at large and assumedly acting according to a plan laid out between the former surgeon and Crane. The thought kept you up all day.

Commissioner Jim Gordon was present for his first preliminary hearing today, in which the charges laid against him were detailed publicly. You watched the proceedings from Dick’s bedside… They sickened you. A more ignorant witch hunt Gotham has rarely seen. Cyril Hobbes, the temporary replacement commissioner brought in from Metropolis, made his first public address today, in which he swore to do what Gordon could not: bring in the Batman. Of course, that was nothing more than a publicity stunt. Grandstanding for the masses. At least you know where you stand with the Metropolitan now.

The newspapers all carried the same headline this morning: across the city, victims seemingly chosen at random have shown up with their faces carved away. Hush’s work, you have no doubt. Two women in the Narrows, likely prostitutes, a businessman downtown and an unidentified male in the harbor. He’ll have to be stopped soon.

You decide to stay here, in the rain and the quiet. It might be a selfish decision, but you don’t care. You deserve some peace and quiet after what you’ve been through for the past few weeks.

Even with the rain keeping most of them in hiding, the night is not without its scum. It takes you only twenty minutes to get your first hit. A young man in a drenched hoodie standing conspicuously on a corner, glancing furtively around every few minutes. Your presence here has bred an even greater sense of superstition than normal in the street thugs of Gotham.

You wait for evidence that he’s not some poor kid waiting for a ride home, and after a few minutes of observation, you get it. Another ragged denizen of the night approaches, and an exchange is made. Advanced cowl optics show you that a large sum of cash is traded for a ragged plastic bag with an indistinct item inside… If you had to guess, a syringe.

You grapple across the rooftops, coming down on the fire escape that leads to the alley the kid is hoping he’ll be able to use as an escape if the cops show up. Dropping soundlessly to the wet cement, you stoop and pick up a loose brick. It’s far too large and misshapen for a professional to be fooled, but then, the kid’s not a professional. Yet. Hopefully tonight will set him on a different path.

Once you’re up behind him, you jab the brick into the small of his back, whispering in a gruff dialect you picked up from the dock workers on the bay.

“Don’t move. Don’t even think about moving, or Betsy puts a hole in your back so messy they’ll have to call in the coast guard to clean you up.”

The kid stiffens, terrified.

“Oh god… Oh fuck, please don’t kill me. Tell him I’m working hard, man! I can’t move this any faster than I am. Look at the weather, man! Look, tell ‘Crow I’ll have it gone by–“

“‘Crow ain’t care about excuses. Cares about results. You ain’t gettin’ ’em. Makes him think you’re not loyal to the cause.”

“Come on, man! He’s got my sister! I’m not gonna try and screw him, I swear!”

“Really? ‘Crow thinks you might be holdin’ out on him. You wouldn’t be doin’ that now, wouldya?”

“N-no. Never.”

You twist the brick. “You turn around slowly. Gonna gimme what you got. You’re out of the game. Slowly, now.”

The kid raises his hands and starts turning. When he sees you, really sees you, he jumps so high he almost lands flat on his back.

“Oh god, oh no, oh god please no.”

You say nothing, but extend your hand palm upward. After a second, he gets the message and pulls the baggie from his pocket.

“Here, man! Please don’t kill me!”

You take the bag, step back into the shadows, whisper.

“Don’t let me find you here again…”

Then you’re gone, the grappel gun propelling you up and away to the rooftops. The kid stands in the rain for a solid five minutes, then starts running. Might be worth following him.

You decide to tail the kid, vaulting rooftops to stay one step ahead of him. He’s heading toward the southwest side. Not surprising. Lots of low income housing there… Kid was probably looking for a way out. Someone should have told him the only thing getting in with Gotham’s super criminals gets you is a cold bed six feet under the city’s poisoned soil.

But the kid’s not going home. He stops in an industrial park, pries open the door to a trailer there. Steps inside.

Stupid, stupid kid.

You make a couple circuits around the trailer and the industrial park, looking for anything unusual. Security in casual clothes, no identification. Probably mob, maybe some of Crane’s thugs. You know all too well how Gotham’s villains exert just as much control from inside Arkham as they do on the streets. It’s a thought that often disheartens you. Can’t afford to let that happen tonight. Other than the hired guns, there doesn’t appear to be any security measures whatsoever, which means that whoever is holed up inside doesn’t expect to be found. That means things will go bad for the kid, since he showed up in the middle of the night, unannounced. Heading outside the park, you strain your eyes to read the sign through the rain. Of course. Falcone Exports, LTD. Seems Sofia wasn’t as innocent in all of this as she led you to believe.

Stupid, stupid kid.

Your boots crunch over sodden gravel as you approach the trailer. The pressboard door is soaked and swollen from the rain, which explains the kid’s difficulty in opening it. Seeing no other visible entry point, you decide for the second time in as many nights to take the front door. You force the door open, step inside. It’s dark… And that’s about the only notable thing. Inside, the trailer looks as barren and downtrodden as outside. There’s also no one here. No kid, no pushers, nothing.

Interesting.

People don’t just disappear like this. There’s something more going on here. You’re going to find out what. You activate cowl optics, and the room’s every nook and cranny lights up in stark contrast, every shadow dispelled. It’s dirty in here, that much is for sure. Looks like this might have been a foreman’s trailer at one point, judging from the layout. There’s a couple overturned plastic chairs strewn about, likely where workers would sit when they would get called in.

There’s a large wooden desk, paint flaking off, legs swollen from moisture. The carpet in here reeks. It’s that pervasive stench that tips you off. Or rather, the sudden absence of it. As you stand in the middle of the room, turning, looking for something, you catch a breath of fresh air. It’s coming from the desk. Of course it is. You haul the desk to the side, and are unsurprised to find a tunnel dug into the sodden soil. It must come out somewhere above ground, maybe somewhere near the bay, judging from the earthy notes in the air. No way of telling how far the proverbial rabbit hole goes, though. Not without going in.

Then, suddenly, you’re roused from contemplation. Someone’s trying to get into the trailer, struggling with the swollen door.

Hnnh. No time to do anything that might make whoever is one the other side of that door think no one’s been here. Might as well be ready for them when they come in. You move over to the desk and heave, dragging it across the floor and bracing it against the swollen door, just as it gives way. From outside, the guard’s voice filters in, muted by the downpour.

“The f–Jimmy! Jim, you copy? We got someone in the trailer, blockin’ the door. Get over here. Bring Marco and Ignacio.”

Then he’s slamming his weight against the door, trying to break it in. You wager you’ve got about three minutes before he does. More than enough prep time.

You swing your legs over the edge of the tunnel and lower yourself down slowly. Seconds after, the door splinters and caves in. You hear the sound of the desk scraping across the floor, then heavy footsteps above. One set, two… Three. That you can tell, anyway. The tunnel is sending strange echoes at you, so it’s hard to be sure. You prime the flashbang and begin your count.

One…

The flash goes up and over the side of the tunnel, landing with a muted thud on the floor above. You put your hands on the edge of the drop and look down, closing your eyes, ready to vault.

Two…

“Grenade!” Someone screams. Not the first voice. Thinner, reedy. The flash detonates and fills the room with painful white light and deafening sound. Wild gunfire ensues, as you suspected it might. Idiots aren’t even thinking they might hit one of their own.

Three…

Two heavy thuds as goons drop to the floor, clamping hands over bleeding ears. You launch yourself upward and deliver a haymaker to the one that’s still up, but staggered. He drops like a bag of sand. No fight left in him after the flash went off. Another thug is standing now, still holding his head, eyes screwed shut. You calmly walk up and kick his knee in. He goes down screaming, and you toe his rifle away. The third thug is bleeding out from multiple gunshot wounds.

Karma is cruel.

You search the downed thugs for their radios, find basic wideband sets on all of them. Frequency 436.3. Someone’s talking on the other end. The voice is calm and paced, no trace of worry or accent.

“Sam. Report in. What’s going on? Do I need to send someone up the tunnel?”

You don your best Sicilian and hit the transmit button.

“Ain’t nothin’. Rat in here got wedged up under the door. We good, boss.”

There’s a long pause, and for a moment you’re sure you’ve said the wrong thing.

“… Alright then. Keep your eyes open for pigs. Fuckin’ kid could have brought the whole op down. Stupid enough to come back here empty handed after heading out with ‘Crow’s shit, stupid enough to get iced, I say.”

“Heh. Yeah.”

“We’re dealin’ with it now. Stop by when you get done your rotation. Got somethin’ new for ya to taste.”

“Sounds good.”

You put down the radio, punch a thug that’s coming to, then look back at the tunnel. Kid’s in trouble down there, probably won’t come back out without your help. That being said, he made his bed, and there might be actual innocents out there that need your help. Not to mention the death trap that a long, narrow tunnel could put you in. Time to make the call.

You proceed down the tunnel. Carefully. No reason to expose yourself unnecessarily. It’s shoddily constructed, dangerous even. Rotting wood serves as the braces, and they’re unevenly distributed, some creaking under the strain of staying upright, others barely supporting anything at all. Amateur work done hastily. Mud sluices down the walls and pools on the floor. If the rain keeps up, this thing will be flooded inside a week. The only lighting is a string of bulbs extending off into the gloom. There’s an opening on the right hand side approaching. You creep up carefully, noiselessly. Peering around the corner, you see another of what you’ve come to refer to as Incubation Rooms. Innocents lying on the filthy ground or strung up on walls, fear toxin going in, something else coming out. All mixing into a rusted barrel in the center of the room. No guards, no observation. No need. The victims are so enraptured by their own terror that they couldn’t lift a finger in their own defense, much less stage an escape. You have a feeling that if some of them could do anything, the first thing they’d do is take their own lives. You force yourself to look away, to move past the people. Nothing you can do for them right now.

Further down the tunnel, you start hearing cries. They sound human, but barely. Screaming, hissing… Like feral animals. There’s light flooding into the tunnel, genuine electric light, not the dingy half-light that these weak bulbs produce, and the ground is sloping upward. You stick to the wall, move ever more slowly, ensuring you don’t draw attention with movement or sound.

The sight that greets you at the end of the tunnel is… Sickening. Wrong. The tunnel opens into a large room, a warehouse by the looks of it. There’s better lighting in here, but only just. Cages line the room in neat rows, cages with… People, in them. No tubes leading to or from these. Each of them is crazed, throwing themselves against their restraints again and again. Some are bleeding, bones broken and exposed, but they don’t seem to notice. There are armed guards walking the rows, kicking at the overactive ones. They don’t seem to feel the kicks, either. Standing exposed as you are, you have scant seconds before someone looks your way.

You start moving down the aisles, trying to keep a low profile, trying not to make a sound. Of course, it would help if the captives would cooperate. Instead they start screaming like banshees, railing against their cages, beating themselves bloody. This, naturally, draws the attention of every guard in the facility. You’re completely exposed, nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. And then you feel the impact. Detached, clinical, you examine it. Feels like a nine millimeter, but it’s probably not. Too much kick and you’re hit more than once. Immediately, it seems that some great blaze has consumed all of the oxygen on the planet. You feel like you’re drowning from the inside. You barely register hitting the floor, cracking your head against the cement. Darkness is gathering at the edges of your vision, bright white spots dotting the ceiling of the warehouse.

Then, perfect calm. A warm light. Hands reaching down and taking you in their arms. An even, comforting voice.

“It’s alright, Bruce. Don’t be scared. We’re here now.”

And you can’t help yourself. Even though you know it’s not real, know it can’t be. You call out to them.

“M… Mother? F-father?”


Blackness.

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