Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #15

Gotham is twisting restlessly in its bed, unable to get comfortable in its own skin. It’s never been good at that, but this past month has been particularly trying. Though it was just the first of many ripples that helped form the wave, you’ve traced it all back to two months ago, when your former sidekick and long-time ally Dick Grayson, in his Nightwing guise, failed to prevent the superhuman assassin Deathstroke from murdering a Gotham socialite in cold blood. Nightwing then set off in pursuit of Deathstroke, eager to bring him down and restore his reputation, even if he was the only one who saw it hurting. Then he disappeared. For weeks. And you, Bruce Wayne, the Batman? You did nothing. At least that’s what you tell yourself. You’re afraid that you haven’t seem the full extent of the consequences there yet.

Nightwing may have been the beginning, but he was hardly the end. Shortly after his disappearance, a string of brutal killings in the Narrows kept you from leaving for Paris immediately. You hoped Dick would understand. Gotham is your city, your child, and one does not abandon its child while wolves scratch at the door. You have since resolved the Narrows killings. It was Waylon Jones, Killer Croc, under the influence of a powerful and freakish mutation of Scarecrow’s fear toxin. Croc is cooling his heels in Arkham, for now.

Hot on the heels of the Narrows killings, Jonathan Crane, better known to the world as the madman Scarecrow, began abducting innocent citizens and using them as human incubators for this new and terrifying fear toxin. Those who were lucky, at least. Those who were not got a taste of the toxin firsthand, and the results were devastating. While the drug initially propels its victim into a state of delirious euphoria in which they feel no pain, no sadness, no inhibition whatsoever, like most drugs, it’s the withdrawal that kills. Literally, in this case. A user that is denied access to the drug for an extended period of time becomes erratic, violent, volatile and finally, feral. Raving beasts unable to reason or feel. Attack dogs. And that’s not even the worst of it. After the toxin has been charging through the victims veins for long enough, it erodes them until their walls become paper thin. Once it’s removed from the system, these weakened veins collapse, spilling forth precious lifeblood, drowning the victim from the inside out. You’ve seen it happen. You should have stopped it.

Commissioner James Gordon is still under federal investigation on charges of corruption. False charges, you’re sure, but no less serious for it. Things on that front have been worsening. If something doesn’t break soon, Jim could be facing serious time. Not that he’ll survive long enough on the inside to serve it. He’s put too many of those freaks behind bars over the years.

Finally, an old nemesis has resurfaced: Thomas Elliot, once a world-renowned surgeon and old friend, now the psychotic super villain that calls himself Hush. Exactly how he is involved isn’t clear, but Elliot rarely takes a secondary role in anything, so you can expect his part to be big.

All of these things and more swirl around your consciousness as you stand before the falls in the Cave, watching the puppet commissioner from Metropolis make another public address. The man’s a media whore, more concerned with headlines and what the press thinks of him than doing the right thing. There’s something else, too, something you can’t quite put your finger on. Alfred places a hand on your shoulder, approaching silently as only he can.

“Master Bruce? I have refueled the Batmobile and your cycle. Which is your preferred mode of transportation tonight?”

That’s your call to action. Time to make a decision.

You make your way in from the palisades, past the glaring lights of the city, the insistent horns that sound at all hours of the day and night, the lifeblood of that dark metropolis. Soon you’re perched on the fire escape across from Jim Gordon’s modest apartment on the east side. You send him a simple message via Batman Incorporated encrypted channels:

“Outside.”

In five minutes he’s out, tapping a cigarette case against his palm, waving off the admonitions from his wife inside. Then he closes the door quietly, securely, and lights up.

“She’s right, you know. You can’t help me in this war if those things kill you first.”

Shielding his lighter against the wind, Jim makes a noise halfway between a grunt and a laugh.

“Listen, the day I start taking life advice from you is the day I turn myself in to Arkham. No offense.”

“None taken. And that wouldn’t be a particularly good idea. Those who go into Jeremiah’s care often come out worse than they went in.”

Jim takes a long, quiet drag and exhales, the wind tunnel this little alley creates whisking the smoke away almost immediately.

“I’m guessing you didn’t come here to trade quips. What do you want to know?”

“I had a run-in the other night while busting up one of Scarecrow’s cultivation ops.”

“Like the one in the Narrows?”

“Exactly.”

“Then a run-in doesn’t surprise me.”

“It was with the Department of Extranormal Operations.”

Jim takes the cigarette out of his mouth, arches a brow. When you don’t flinch, he whistles long and low.

“Now that’s a problem. Beyond my pay grade, Batman.”

You both go silent as one of the building’s residents shuffles by, bundled in ragged clothing. They don’t notice you, up above their eye level and cloaked in shadow. Jim pretends to enjoy his smoke. You know it’s been a long time since he actually has.

“Any idea what their interest is?” You ask.

“None, other than getting to know you a little better. You’ve become something of a white whale for them, I understand.”

“You mean for Bones.”

He nods, flicking the butt of his cigarette into a puddle. He lights up again.

You shift a bit on the fire escape, stirring your cape ever so slightly.

“This corruption business… I’m sorry I haven’t made more headway. How is the family coping?”

By which of course you mean, ‘how are you holding up?’ Jim gets the message. Always has. He shakes his head, exhaustion evident in the action.

“I don’t know, Batman… You know, when they suspended me, at first I thought it would be a good thing. Give me some time at home, spend time with the kids, with Barbara… Truth is, I’ve been on a knife’s edge since I turned in my badge. It’s only getting worse the longer this goes on. I don’t know, Batman. I’ve been fighting this war so long, I don’t think I know how to be a human being anymore. Makes me wonder if I shouldn’t throw in the towel for good.”

Your eyes widen. You’ve never heard Jim talk like this. At least, not with such sincerity. Without a word, you leap from the fire escape, unfurling your cape to land softly beside him. You place a hand on his shoulder.

“Not yet, old friend. I still need you here. Gotham still needs you.”

He smiles weakly, without conviction.

“Heh… Yeah.”

You squeeze his shoulder, trying to reassure him, then let it drop.

“Someday Jim, this will all be over. Then maybe, if we’re both still around, we can meet without the mask.”

You say, tapping your cowl. Jim shudders in response.

“I don’t know. I’ve become so familiar with it… It’s your face, as far as I’m concerned. It would be unsettling to see you without your face.”

You shrug and turn away, looking up at the buildings’ rooftops, seeking a viable grapple point. You ask him one more question.

“What do you make of this Metropolitan they’ve brought in?”

“Hobbes? I’ve done some homework on him. Had a few colleagues look into it, too. Bullock was more than happy to oblige. He’s a good man, as far as I’ve been able to make out. Tough on crime and criminals in Metropolis, no history of corruption or scandal… A real boy scout. Of course, given his recent performance here, that might have all been an act. There’s just something about his actions in Gotham that don’t sync up with the golden boy of Metropolis. I haven’t been able to figure it out. What about–”

Jim looks up, breaks from his reverie. You’re gone, as far as he knows.

“–You.”

He heaves a sigh, stamps out the cigarette, heads back inside. You’re going to finish this, so that Jim can love his family fully, so that he can rest. You head back into the swampy night.

You head toward Gotham’s southwest end, to the unassuming diner that serves as a front for some of the Falcone family’s most volatile business deals. Or at least, to what’s left of the diner. To either side of it, the street has been cordoned off by yellow caution tape. After observing the scene for just under an hour, you’re reasonably confident that you’ll be able to evade the occasional patrol car that drives by, swinging its spotlight around the rubble. Probably worried that some poor homeless sap will try to make a bed of their crime scene. You drop down from the rooftop, your cape billowing out and cushioning your fall. Once on the ground, you figure you have roughly ten minutes before the next patrol. Activating cowl optics, you step carefully amongst the rubble, careful to not disturb anything. From the analysis on your display you deduce that a series of fairly basic chemical accelerants were used to kickstart the blaze, at which point the arsonist wisely relied on the structure to feed the fire itself. There’s still bits of straw here and there, some burnt, some whole. An obvious calling card of Scarecrow’s. Maybe too obvious.

Unfortunately, there just isn’t much here. Fire is such a popular method of destroying evidence because it’s so effective. Anything that isn’t consumed completely usually becomes so damaged as to be inadmissible. You crouch amongst the building’s remains as the patrol car passes by. Predictable. Any criminal worth their salt could easily salvage whatever they wanted and be gone without Gotham PD ever being the wiser. Jim’s boys and girls are getting lazy in his absence. Hobbes must not be much of a hardliner. Just one more thing that doesn’t add up when set next to his reputation.

It’s time you got serious with Sofia Falcone. She appears to believe that she can just lie to the Batman and get away with it. Nobody gets away with it. You abandon the crime scene, returning to the rooftops, hurling yourself over their gaps until you reach the alley in which you stashed the Batmobile. Seconds later, its turbine roars to life and you hurtle out of the darkness, speeding out to the palisades.

You pull the car into a wooded copse roughly a mile away from the Falcone residence. Get any closer and it will be impossible to avoid tripping one of their many electronic surveillance systems. The Falcones are a paranoid lot, and were that way long before your time. Avoiding the things on foot is challenge enough.

An hour later, with the night approaching its zenith, you’re within sight of the compound. It’s heavily guarded and everyone’s carrying. Some have dogs. You hate dogs.

But you love a challenge.

You ghost toward the first perimeter fence during a small gap in patrols (smaller, you note, than that of the crime scene on the southwest end), rattling it slightly as you scale it. Your gauntlets protect you from the worst of the razor wire, but you lose valuable seconds disentangling yourself. Still, no one happens upon you at a vulnerable moment. So far so good.

Next is a series of motion activated sensors that send a signal to the main compound when tripped. An EMP sends the same signal. Need to mask your presence somehow. You rummage through your utility belt, finding what you’re looking for quickly. A small, compact device designed and built by Fox that, once deployed, broadcasts signals at random intervals that simulate movement. If you can’t slip by quietly, you’ll have to get lost in the crowd. Of course, the alarm will go up immediately, but you’re banking on them chalking it up to technical error, since the device simulates the movement of a large crowd. Three minutes later, you’re scaling the next perimeter fence, this one leaving your fingers and palms shredded and bloody. Desperate to get away from the wire before it does serious damage, you leap without looking and nearly land on top of a patrol passing by the other side. He lets out a terrified yelp and reaches for his weapon.

You curl your hand into a half-fist and go for the nerve cluster at his neck. Have to hand it to him, he was expecting it, and you know that wasn’t due to Falcone training. That essentially consists of recruiting some mother’s son off Gotham’s streets, handing him an automatic and welcoming him to the ‘family,’ then sending his family a measly check and a veiled threat to keep them quiet when Johnny disappears or turns up facedown in the bay. At any rate, he dodges the brunt of your attack and gives up on his rifle, swinging a ham-sized fist at your ribcage. It connects, white hot pain flaring, air leaving your lungs despite your best efforts. You ignore it, grab his arm and heave, throwing him over your shoulder. Now he’s on the ground, looking up at you with terrified eyes.

“Pl-please… Please don’t…”

You don’t see any reason to give this thug any more leniency than the rest of them, but something in the way he asks gives you pause. You toe away the rifle and glare down at him.

He starts panicking as you reach down for him.

“Nononono, please, PLEASE!”

“Shut up.”

You haul him to his feet, throw him against the chainlink.

“I want to know what kind of security Falcone has on the inside, and you’re going to tell me, or you’re going to get a face full of razor wire. Your choice.”

The kid’s big, bigger than you initially surmised in the shadows. He’s used to being in control, used to being the one threatening. Which means he’s out of his element. That’s good. Most people tend to play it safe in those situations. He starts reaching for his waistband, trying to conceal the movement, but he’s scared and not thinking clearly. You break a finger for his trouble, then stifle his cry, grating into his ear.

“One more chance.”

He’s whimpering, crying, mucus running down his face and chin.

“Oh god, my finger… Oh fuck, oh fuck…”

“I’m going to start breaking other things. Talk.” You twist his hand at the wrist for emphasis. He gets the message.

“Okay, okay! You don’t have to do that. I don’t know much anyway, just that Ms. Falcone has a buncha’ her goons in there. Not like the losers out here, either–”

“You mean not like you.”

His eyes narrow for a second before he remembers who he’s talking to and what they’re capable of.

“Y-yeah… Not like me. Haha. They’re trained, y’see? Pulled from private corps, PMCs, shit like that.”

“Hnnh.”

You throw him to the ground, and he raises his mangled hand in supplication.

“Please let me go. Please! I’ll be out of town by sun-up, I swear. Falcone’ll kill me if I’m not.”

“Get out of here. Now. And if I ever see you around the Falcones again, I’ll make sure you don’t eat solid food for the rest of your life.”

The kid nods vigorously, scrambles to his feet, whimpering slightly as he puts too much weight on his mangled hand. He starts moving to recover his weapon.

“No. Leave it.”

“But… I’ll need protection.”

You cross your arms and stare him down, daring him to make a move for it. He doesn’t, turning instead and bolting off into the dark. One more perimeter fence to go, then you’re in. Won’t be long now before the missing patrol is noticed, though. Time is running out.

You move quickly and quietly, your every effort focused on slipping by unseen, unheard and otherwise unnoticed. It pays off, as far as you can tell, and soon you’re beneath a first floor window, creeping up slowly for a view inside. The window looks into a well-lit banquet hall, each place set but no food in sight. The Falcones always were concerned with appearances. It’s an important part of the business. Confident that you won’t be spotted doing so, you fire your grapple hook up onto the roof, then slowly winch your way up, careful to not make any sudden movements that might attract attention. You were relying on the Falcones’ vanity to provide you a method of entry up here, and it paid off. There’s a large skylight overlooking Carmine’s old office. You’ve taken advantage of it several times in the past. Now, warm light spills out into the night, diffusing quickly in the shadows. You creep up to the edge and peer down into the room. Falcone is there, sitting at her desk with her fingers laced in front of her, apparently deep in thought. Two guards stand at attention either side of the door. Professional types, probably ex-military.

And, sitting across the table from Falcone, smoking one of his signature, rancid cigars, is Director Bones of the DEO.

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