Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #1

You are the Batman. Night has fallen over Gotham. During the time you spent sleeping off last night’s activities, Alfred has been monitoring police chatter and local news reports for anything that might warrant your attention. What he does bring to you is surprisingly tame for Gotham: the night saw only three reported rapes, two armed robberies and four assaults, all of those relatively routine, except for the assaults that Alfred has highlighted in yellow. Taking place in the Narrows, each assault occurred within a two block radius of one central point: one of Gotham’s many abandoned factories, this one used to produce soap in the ’40s. The pattern and proximity of these attacks suggest a single perp, and the increasingly battered state of each victim tells of what might have been a robbery-gone-wrong that awoke a hunger for something darker.

The assaults demand to be investigated, no doubt. But there is never a shortage of things to be done in Gotham city. The Bat-signal hangs in the sky, and while Jim doesn’t always expect you to answer, he always has something important to share when he flips that switch. Furthermore, you haven’t spoken to Dick since last week, when he was hot on the trail of Deathstroke, following a failure to prevent the assassin from making his mark: a Gotham big-wig with plans to invest in the Wayne Foundation for Viable Futures. Dick can handle himself, but it never hurts to make certain, and the only way to make certain is to do it yourself.

Alfred appears, finding you deep in thought before the primary computer bank in the Batcave, your cape and cowl draped over one arm.

“Sir? I’ve made the necessary repairs since your most recent encounter with Zsasz, and the stitching shouldn’t affect your ability to glide, but perhaps discussing some form of knife resistant fabric with Mr. Fox would be prudent.”

You grunt. It would be pointless to explain that the heavier threading would only slow you down, and nothing short of bulky body armor would protect you from a determined assailant with a honed blade. After donning your suit, you decide to first head for the Bat-signal.

Twenty minutes later, you’ve made your way in from the palisades and are listening to your heartbeat hammer in your ears as you launch yourself over the narrow gaps in Gotham’s claustrophobic architecture. The route you take is familiar, though you switch it up every night in different and subtle ways so as not to establish a pattern. Despite this, the larger strokes of the trek have left an impression: a powerful and eclectic mix of cooking smells as you make your way through the harbor district, where most of Gotham’s immigrants who don’t make it in the city proper huddle for warmth. The cacophony of horns on the freeway, even at this late hour. The howling of police sirens, both near and far, doing their part to keep Gotham from drowning.

It all feels like home.

Soon you’re on the roof of the MCU, standing behind Gordon. He’s oblivious, as usual, chomping on a cigar that long since smoked its last.

“You called.”

The momentary start, always squashed immediately. Another familiar fixture of your nightlife. You can’t quite suppress a grin, but luckily the glare from the signal keeps Gordon from seeing.

“Yeah… Got a bit of a problem, and I’m not sure I can trust anyone else to fix it for me.”

Gordon rolls the cigar around his mouth, a nervous tic you noticed on your third, or maybe fourth meeting. It’s old hat by now. You wait. There’s more he’ll tell you. He doesn’t want to, but he can’t help himself.

“… I’m worried about a mole in the police force.”

Another grin barely suppressed. Suspecting the Gotham police force of corruption was like suspecting a politician of incompetence: even if you couldn’t prove it, only a sucker would believe it wasn’t true.

“I’m assuming you’re coming to me because you don’t want internal affairs getting involved. And since you don’t want the desk jockeys involved, I’m assuming this has something to do with your unit.”

Gordon shifts back and forth on his feet. You’ve always made him uncomfortable.

“Well, I–that is… Yeah. That about sums it up. I’ve been looking through our equipment logs, ever since we found department gear on those thugs last month, and I’ve found a lot of discrepancies. Somebody has been using a proxy ID to authorize the release of riot gear. Heavy duty stuff. We’re talking tear gas, riot shields–”

“– Flashbangs, shotguns equipped with bean bag rounds and body armor. I’ve familiarized myself with what Gotham PD has available for extreme situations. Frankly, I wasn’t terribly impressed.”

Gordon gives you a strange look, like he’s unsure whether he ought to continue asking for your help, or try to slap you in cuffs right now. After a moment, he continues.

“Right. Listen, I can’t stop you from going in there, but you should understand that I will not save you if you’re caught. Hell, I might sign the paperwork myself.”

“I’ll look into the mole. Anything else?”

“You hear about the Narrows killings?”

“Mm.”

“Not random, are they?”

“No.”

Silence.

“Not telling me anything more?”

“… No.”

“Get off my roof.”

Later, whilst detaching your grappling hook from the gargoyle you are perched upon, you contact Afred via the encrypted frequency given to all members of the Bat family.

“Alfred, I need your help looking into something for Gordon. He says there have been several equipment withdrawals from the department in the last month under proxy ID. I need you to patch into their network and get the ID they’ve been using. I can start my investigation from there.”

“Of course. Are there any other felonies you’d like me to commit while I’m at it, sir? Funnel cash into an offshore account, maybe?”

The butler’s humor is, as usual, dry as a bone in the desert during a sandstorm. It’s never made you laugh, but over the years you’ve come to appreciate it as one of the few constants in your life. It serves as a reminder for why you do all of this: keep them safe. Keep them all safe so they have the leisure of making bad jokes.

Before you know it, you’re in the Narrows.

It’s dark here, and hot. Darker than the rest of the city because the buildings are so closely packed together that not even the little starlight there is over the city pierces the gloom. Hotter because the sheer weight of numbers crammed into only a few city blocks’ worth of inadequate, low-income city housing demands it be so.

There are four sites to investigate in the Narrows besides the abandoned soap factory, one for each murder. The first took place behind a scummy diner. When its owner (the victim was identified via his teeth fillings) took the day’s trash out to the dumpster, he was attacked by what the police were calling a “wild animal” to protect their sanity. The scene was far too gruesome to allow anything else to be possible. The second occurred in a dark alley as one of the city’s homeless rooted through the refuse, trying to find something appropriate to use as a blanket. The old man had just found an unsullied piece of cardboard when whatever it was got him. Wasn’t much left to identify much other than he was human and poor. Another attack occurred on a second floor apartment: a young woman was killed as she entered her home, the building’s outside door having been broken down, the reinforced steel lock shorn like paper. The last occurred in the middle of the street and was reported by some kids playing on the stoop of the store on the corner. They said a man came screaming out of a crackhouse about some kind of monster, and then was borne down on by what the children referred to as “Godzilla.”

The pavement underfoot is slick with the condensation that drips down from air conditioners clinging precariously to the sides of the rundown apartments on either side. It’s not hard to imagine what it might have been like that night, when one of Gotham’s unfortunates ran into his final misfortune. The stench of death in the air, the streamers of blood staining the walls… A quick dive into the utility belt for forensic powder reveals that while Gotham’s finest did a reasonably good clean-up job, they didn’t get everything. The splatter patterns on the wall don’t seem to indicate much of a fight… Whatever caught the man caught him quickly and ended things quicker. In fact, the spatter seems demonstrative of… Feeding.

Your whole body tenses. A scrape in the shadows behind you. A barely perceived growl.

The thing comes hurtling out of the shadows at an unsteady gait. It’s trying to attack you, but the attacks are clumsy, sluggish. You dodge one, then two swipes and catch a third, turning the arm back on itself. The figure bleats a despairing yelp as you roll its shoulder over, laying the man out on his back. It’s a hobo. A hobo just attacked you in the alley.

“What are you doing here? This is a crime scene.” You say, releasing the pressure on his larynx just enough for a response.

“S–sl-sleeping.” The man chokes out. You growl.

“Why did you attack me?”

“I thought… I thought you were that… Thing.” He responds.

“You know what happened here and you’re still willing to try to sleep here?”

You can barely discern the bewilderment in the man’s eyes as he sneers.

“Ain’t like there’s anywhere else.”

With a final growled warning, you let the man go and fire your grappling hook, getting back to the rooftops, where you can find your perspective.

You haven’t spent five minutes on the rooftops before you realize your mistake: you left a potential witness uninterrogated. Sloppy. Clumsy. Stupid.

As you search the alleyway below for the man, you begin to think that you might not have been in error after all. The hobo has returned to what he was doing before you found him, which is anything but sleeping. In fact, he ferrets about the sidestreet for a few minutes more before furtively darting from shadow to shadow, obviously trying to dissuade any would-be followers. Fortunately for you, he’s never had someone like you following him.

Eventually he arrives at his destination, which is a condemned warehouse that vagrants use as a flophouse on rainy nights. He pries up the steel sheets that are haphazardly nailed to the entrance in a feeble attempt to deter the desperate and makes his way inside. You do the same via a smashed-in window two stories up. Bathed in the muddy light of a pair of worn-out kerosene lamps, you see him clutching a bundle of “valuables” which he deposits before a high-backed leather chair (with torn seams and rotting wood) upon which a young girl rests. She pokes through the contents with a long, spindly stick, then finally sneers.

“This is all you’ve brought in offering?”

The hobo, shaking like a leaf now, responds. “It was everything I could find! I brought food, more than I’ll eat in a week, and good silver that any pawnbroker worth his–”

“Silence. I will take it to the Glimmering God, and he will judge it, and your, worth. You are dismissed.”

The man, still shaking, bounds up from his subservient pose and makes for the door with an almost feverish relief, tears still threatening to trail down his filthy cheeks. The girl, sure now that the hobo is gone, empties the bundle he brought and gathers its contents around her, assessing each item’s worth in turn. She separates the objects by a fairly obvious metric: that which is edible and that which is not.

That done, she scoops the inedible valuables into her thin arms and makes for the door.

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