Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #18

There is nothing like the rain in Gotham.

Stood atop Wayne Tower’s tallest spire, you turn your face into the deluge, relishing the pellets of refreshing water that batter your face and cowl. It has been years since weather has hampered your patrols or your spirits, and tonight will be no different. Far below you, the din of the city struggles to be heard… Car horns bleating, street cars whistling, pedestrians cursing and cat-calling. Crimes being committed, observed, forgotten. Conspiracies being conceived, birthed, dying on the vine. The city is in a constant state of self-renewal, rotting from the inside out, only to spring up again, rejuvenated by its former flesh made fertilizer. You glance once more at the signal in the sky, then calmly drop from the tower, hurtling ever faster toward the unforgiving pavement below. Before your velocity becomes a problem, you fire your grappling gun onto the roof of an apartment building across the street. You don’t even have to look to know you’ve made your mark, so familiar has Gotham’s architecture become. Scant seconds later the line goes taut, and you with it. Arcing toward the warehouse below the apartments, you depress the grapple’s release button and it whistles back into its case. A simple tuck and roll dissipates most of the impact, and you stand up with the ghost of a smile on your face. You’ll never tire of that.

Being on patrol like this, in your element, feels good. The past few months have taken their toll on you, physically and mentally. It all started when your friend and former ward, Dick Grayson, went missing after pursuing the assassin Deathstroke to France. Then, the madman known as Killer Croc perpetrated a grisly killing spree in the Narrows, fueled by a new mutation of Scarecrow’s fear toxin. After dealing with Croc, you began to investigate Crane’s work in Gotham: he’s been seizing innocent citizens, using half of them as human incubators for his new toxin and the other half as test subjects. The results are varied, but always gruesome. All the while that you spent chasing Scarecrow, someone was framing Jim Gordon for crimes he did not commit… And successfully. Since Jim’s supposed indiscretions were leaked to the press, he has been put on suspension without pay and subjected to humiliating trials that show little more fair-handedness than the witch hunts of old Salem. A puppet commissioner has been brought in from Metropolis to close the gap and has been acting strange, out of character, licking the boots of Gotham’s paparazzi when his Metropolitan reputation painted him as a hard-liner boy scout, interested only in getting the job done.

Somehow, somewhere in all of this, Thomas Elliot’s influence lurks. The insane surgeon now known to the world as Hush has been working in concert with Scarecrow, though what his contribution is to the overall plot has thus far remained murky. You spent several hours in his ‘care,’ before a timely raid on the facility by the DEO gave you a chance to slip away.

The Department of Extranormal Operations has its own skeletons in the closet, with its Director, the man known only as Mr. Bones, cutting deals with Gotham’s underworld to obtain samples of Crane’s toxin, intent on turning it into a weapon his department can use. There has to be more there, for what you know of Bones states clearly that his intentions are never obvious nor simplistic. What that ‘more’ could be you don’t yet know.

After a confrontation at his downtown loft last night, you’ve discovered that Dick has been exposed to Crane’s toxin, and the poison is eating away at him. Unable to find a solution or antidote that is viable at this stage, you’ve placed him under anesthetic and left him in the Cave for Alfred to look after. The old butler’s expression was grim when you brought him in, and has grown no lighter since.

You try to hold onto the clarity that the night offers you, but feel it slipping. It’s time to make a decision before it ebbs away entirely.

You patch into Katherine Kane’s ‘secure’ lines. Her father is a good man and does the best he can, but he’s not a specialist, not a technician. It took Lucius Fox a scant few hours to crack their encryption algorithm. After a moment of silence in which the rain drowns out all else, Batwoman’s hard voice comes over the line.

“At this point, I’ll just assume it’s you, Batman. You should know that you’ve just caused me a significant amount of trouble, cutting into my communications like that. The DEO will want to know what happened.”

“Make something up. You appear to have a talent for lying. So do your employers. You should know that I had an altercation with your Director two nights ago at the Falcone estate. Bones isn’t playing this above board.”

“Thanks, detective. Next you can tell me why the sky’s blue. Of course Bones isn’t playing fair. He never does.”

There’s something more to that statement, something you can’t quite catch. It will bear further examination, but later.

“The attitude’s unnecessary, Katherine. This is obviously something you didn’t know, or I assume you would have brought it to me. Am I wrong in that?”

“Maybe. I don’t work for you, Batman. I’m not part of your initiative. Remember that.”

“So noted.”

You cut the line. Something’s got her tense. She’s angrier than usual. Maybe the DEO is leaning on her, too.

Dick’s condition is worsening, and with no other options available to you, you make a hard choice. It’s time to visit Dr. Jonathan Crane at Arkham Asylum.

It takes you ten minutes to get to the asylum from Wayne Tower, and another fifteen to slip in through secret ways, undetected by Jeremiah Arkham’s goons. Soon you are in that area of the prison that most staffers would love nothing more than to seal up and forget about forever. Brick up the door, plaster it over, perhaps hang a painting. Forget about the madness inside. But that madness is not to be contained… Not in such concentration. Through hairline fissures and invisible cracks it will seep, until the entire city is drowned by it. Walking down the corridor that traverses the room, your head swings back and forth, observing the cells and their occupants. Here, Victor Fries, his room specially conditioned to allow his continued survival. Next to him, Poison Ivy, her holding cell hermetically sealed so that no element of nature may be placed at her disposal. On the other side of the hall, a sight that still draws pangs of regret: Harvey Dent, wrapped in a straitjacket, staring blankly at his reflection in the one-way mirror. Next to him, the only cell that is not starkly illuminated. Gotham’s deepest darkness resides there, waiting for his chance to prey upon the city once more. Nothing can contain him, not even this place. Not for long.

Finally, you come to Crane’s cell. He is seated on a small stool, the only piece of furniture provided for him. He has somehow escaped his straitjacket and fashioned from it a crude facsimile of his trademark mask. You key the button next to the cell door and dissolve the mirror effect that prevents him from seeing outside. His reaction is immediate: he leans forward, his shoulders hunched aggressively. Eager.

“Ah… The Batman. I was wondering when you’d show up. How is our little bird doing?”

“No one knows I’m here, Crane. No one but you. I could open this cell, break your neck and be gone without anyone ever knowing.”

Scarecrow guffaws, shaking his head.

“You could. But you won’t. We both know that, don’t we? Especially if you want to see your little friend made hale and sound.”

“What did you do to him?”

“I administered the cure. For his fears, you see. Now he’s not afraid of anything. I’m curious… What did he say when you found him? What was Nightwing’s greatest fear?”

You say nothing, unwilling to give him the satisfaction of knowing it was you. After a moment, he leans back, slaps his palms against his knees.

“Not willing to share, eh? Ah well. No matter. You will soon share his fate.”

“What’s your plan here, Crane? Because from where I’m standing, you’ve already lost. Incarcerated, without resources… What threat are you to Gotham here?”

The mad doctor cackles wildly.

“I don’t need to do anything more. Gotham will devour itself, and from that great orgy of death will be born my true devotees. I believe you’ve met some of them already.”

“Those people aren’t your disciples. You forced your toxin on them, addicted them. They’re out of their minds. But I guess that suits you. Who else is in on this?”

“Haha! You really think I’d tell you? Well. I know for a fact that you’ve already encountered poor Tommy. No sense in hiding his involvement. Oh, but I won’t tell you what part he has to play.”

You hitch your shoulder, indicating the dark cell behind you.

“What about him?”

Scarecrow casts his gaze beyond you for a moment, gazing into the perpetual night of that room.

“Him? No… He’s too volatile, you understand. There’s nothing that he WANTS. Well, except for you, of course. No, I haven’t heard a peep from him in months. He took out the lights in his cell two weeks ago. All of the guards have pretended not to notice. None of them want to get close, I suppose. Cowards.”

Inwardly, you breathe a sigh of relief. No matter how horrific Scarecrow’s plans are, no matter how far reaching the consequences, the inclusion of that psychopath would worsen things exponentially.

You re-engage the mirror effect on Scarecrow’s cell, and watch as the enthusiasm drains from him. This encounter, this conversation will likely be the highlight of his stay here. You gave him that. You wish you could take it back. You turn to leave and are halfway down the hall when you stop. Something in the back of your mind, something nagging at you. You need to see him. Need to know he’s here.

Maybe he can help.

You walk back down the hallway and stand before the darkened cell. No sound escapes it, but that’s not surprising. These rooms are densely insulated. You flip the switch by the side of the cell, deactivating the mirror. Still, you see only darkness. There is nothing. No ghastly face observing you from the other side, no evidence of his depravity. Only a small, dark room. You inch your face closer to the glass. Then, in a voice so hushed as to be nearly inaudible, you whisper.

“Joker?”

Nothing. Silence. No mad cackling, no morbid pun. You spend five minutes in front of that cell, staring into the dark, willing the demon inside to show himself. Five minutes wasted. As you reach for the button to reset the mirror, however, the faintest whisper is heard.

“Darrrrlinnnnngggggggg…”

With a sneer, you jam your thumb on the switch. Foolish to think anything but evil would come from this place.

Feeling that you’ve wasted your visit to Arkham, you make your way back into the city quickly. It is much as you left it: filthy, rife with crime, containing only the faintest spark of hope. But that spark is so beautiful as to have everything around it pale in comparison. So beautiful as to be worth fighting for, despite everything. You begin seeking out criminal acts, looking for the rush of combat to focus your mind. You don’t have to look far. A mugging is in progress in the Narrows, not far from the asylum. The woman looks like a regular, probably in deep with one of the pimps that infest this area of the city. The man? Maybe a John gone wrong, maybe a rival pimp’s thug trying to make a statement. Doesn’t really matter. You drop down, your cape billowing out around you. She screams. He doesn’t. He comes after you with a switchblade.

You reach for your belt, find a Batarang, hurl it. Mistake. The thug uses his victim as a shield, and she takes the shard of razor-sharp steel in the shoulder. Cries out again. He’s got his knife against her throat now. Eyes are wild, pupils dilated, breathing ragged. He’s on something.

“Slow down,” you say, hands extended, palms upward, “this isn’t the way this has to go.”

He says nothing, but drags the knife across the woman’s flesh when you approach. Just enough to draw blood.

You raise your hands in a supplicating gesture. He’s not buying it, not yet. Your reputation precedes you; sometimes that’s a liability.

“Alright. You’ve caught me up. Congratulations.” You say, backing away from the two. The woman’s eyes widen further. You make no motion, no indication that you’re lying. Doing so would be signing her death warrant. She starts sobbing, cursing you, calling you a coward. Why, of all the people you’ve saved, must you abandon her? Her theatrics actually help. The thug starts thinking he’s actually won.

“Yeah… Back up, Batman. I got you fair ‘n’ square, now you gotta let me go. That’s how this works.” He tightens his grip on the woman, making her gasp in fear as the knife drags across her neck again.

“Me an’ this one? We ain’t done. She don’t work for the right people, now she gotta pay fer it, unnerstand?”

You’re fading back into the shadows now, beyond his sight. He’s not picking up on the danger.

“I do.” You reply quietly. Once you’re certain he can no longer make you out in the darkness, you whirl and begin sprinting down the hall in the other direction, navigating the warren of tenements as surely as if you’d been raised there. If you can move quickly enough, and if she gives him enough trouble, you’ll catch them before they pass the next intersection. Once they get there, it’s anybody’s guess where they’ll go. You’ll never find them.

Thirty seconds later, you’re hunched in the piping overlooking the intersection. The thug shows up with the girl; he’s given her some bruises she won’t soon forget. That means she’s a fighter. Good girl. As they near the center of the intersection, she hauls backward and stamps on the man’s toe when he tries to pull her back in line. Her stilettos are obscene; you’d be shocked if they haven’t broken bone. The man howls, reaches for his waistline, stumbling backward from the woman. Unfortunately for him, his retreat puts him right in front of you. He’s pulling the gun out when you snap his wrist and kick in the back of his knee. He folds, dropping to his knees and cranes his head to look back at you.

“Wh–how did you–oh, no.”

You lean down, bring your face within an inch of his.

“Oh yes,” you say, adopting the dialect of the Narrows, “You don’t been workin’ for the right people. Now yous gonna pay. Unnerstand?”

Without giving him time to respond, you bring your elbow down on his forehead and he slumps forward, unconscious.

You stoop down, begin rifling through the thug’s pockets. He groans once or twice, but you hit him hard enough that he shouldn’t be coming around any time soon. You find the basics… The knife, a spare in his pocket, his piece in the waistband, a variety of narcotics. Nothing special.

Until you find the scalpel.

It’s pristine, just out of the packaging. Never been used. A calling card. You turn to the woman.

“Your shoulder. Let me see.”

You approach her. At first, she shies away, flinching any time you get near. Eventually she lets you close enough to check the wound. It’s not deep, thankfully. You pull out compacted field dressings from your belt and fix the wound as best you can, then send out a distress signal to Gotham PD.

“I’m sorry,” you say, “police are on their way. You might want to make yourself scarce.” She nods, then thanks you in a hoarse whisper and flees down one of the many hallways in this warren. You cuff the thug, prop him up against the wall, then make with disappearing.

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