Both Bruce Wayne and his mentor Sergi Kravinoff, better known as the legendary Kraven the Hunter, were walking through the knee high brush of the Savanna. Both men carried opposite ends of a large wooden stake. The carcass of a boar swayed gently back and forth from the pole by its feet. They carried the dead pig towards the hut they had called home for the last few months.
"Our time here is ending," Kraven said nonchalantly. "I have taught you almost all that I can teach. You can track, stalk, and hunt masterfully."
"You've been a good teacher, Kraven," Bruce said.
"You have been a good pupil. Not too bad for a rich boy."
Bruce chuckled softly. No compliment from Kraven ever came without some small way to undercut the praise. "I can make arrangements and be on my way by the end of the week."
"Good. Because tonight, we will have our final lesson. One last hunt."
"What will we be after?"
"Tonight," Kraven said with a twinkle in his eyes, "we hunt the most dangerous animal,"
Now Old Gotham 12:05 AM
I shot out a grapnel line into the night and waited for it to catch on the nearby building. The party was barely over, and I was out looking for trouble in a city that had it by the handful. This is where I belonged. Give me the stash houses over the penthouses. And, besides, Billy Russo was in need of a talking to.
Alfred found out rather quickly that Kraven was at the party on Russo's invitation. I normally made it a habit of not inviting mobster trash to my parties, but the people at the foundation were responsible for sending out invites. They would also need a talking to. The line went taught and I swung into the air. I released the line and activated my cape's glide flight function. I flew over the courthouse that I shared a name with and glided over the rooftops of the oldest part of the city like the winged creature some criminals believed I was.
Rifle fire broke the stillness of the night. I grunted in shock as my grapnel line went slack, the rifle's bullet severing the line. I began to free-fall towards the street, tumbling and twirling through the air. I struggled with my belt and pulled out an emergency line. Desperate I wildly aimed at a stone gargoyle on the building above me. The line caught and I jerked with the sudden stop. My body swung to the right and crashing through the office building's window. I fell hard to the floor and rolled to the stop, dazed and in pain.
That's when I heard the footsteps.
"This is what you have become?" A voice said from above. I felt strong powerful hands on my neck. I was picked up and shoved into the face of my former teacher. "You were a great hunter once," Kraven said with a sigh.
"And you used to be sane," I growled as I swung my arm at Kraven's head. He had his hand out and waiting, dropping me to the floor with swift counterstrike. He twisted my arm behind my back until I felt a sharp pain. Kraven growled and kept twisting my arm. I could feel tendons twisting, the arm in danger of popping out of the shoulder socket.
"I could kill you now, it would be easy. For a week, I watch and wait. I see you in action. And I am disgusted by what I see?"
"Someone who can kill, but doesn't?" I gasped.
"No. I see a once great hunter reduced to being a fool in a costume, a fool who relies on toys and not the hunters instincts."
With his free hand Kraven reached down and ripped my utility belt from my waist. "I am going to kill you. I was paid to kill Bat, and I will kill Bat. But not before I shame you to the point where you will be begging for death."
Kraven brought down the butt of his palm on my head, knocking me unconscious in one fluid motion.
I came to groggy and dazed. I ran my hands across the ground and felt gravel. Through my half shut eyes I looked up and saw my bare hands. Kraven had stripped me of my gloves and gauntlets. Standing up, I saw what else he had done. In addition to my belt and gloves, my boots and cape were gone. Just my suit and cowl remained. I was on a rooftop somewhere in the industrial area of town. Factories, plants, and smokestacks cluttered up the skyline.
"Your toys are gone," Kraven's voice said from somewhere close, somewhere I couldn't see. "All there is now is the hunter and the hunted. It is time for you to die, richboy. The hunt begins now."
I ran barefoot across the factory rooftop, gravel biting into the soles of my feet. With my running start I hurled myself into the air over a gap between buildings. I hit the roof of the adjacent building hard and landed with a hard thump. Recovering from my fall, I stayed low to the ground and hugged the shadows. Even in the dark I could feel his eyes upon me. It had been years since he had taught me the hunt, and I had learned well. But laying in the dark, with the a crushing sense of foreboding creeping in, I knew who the real master was. I took a deep breath in an attempt to clear my mind. Kraven was the better hunter. On that fact there was never any doubt. But he didn't know this city like I do. He's the master of the jungle, but the urban jungle is a different story.
Gathering myself, I began to creep across the rooftop. I prepared for an ambush after the crunch of gravel that accompanied each footfall. I made my way to the fire escape and climbed down towards the street. As I started down I heard a sound. A new noise amidst all the sirens, hoking horns, and sounds of industry. A gentle sound. Like rope tearing through the air.
Letting go of the fire escape I fell back towards the ground as a bola struck the ladder and wrapped around the rungs. Falling towards the ground, I straightened my body and dove from two stories up into a trash dumpster. I may have hit trash but it was all glass bottles and plastic trays. Cut, bleeding, and in pain, I climbed out the trash and hurried into the shadows.
"That was my warm-up," Kraven's voice echoed through the alley I was seeking refuge in. Although his voice was close, there was no sign of the man. "So far, so easy. You are predictable, richboy. What will you do, now?"
The courthouse clock four blocks over chimed one in the morning. That's when inspiration hit me like a bolt of lighting. Standing I darted from the shadows and ran down the alley. Kraven chuckled and the sounds of his laughter followed me out the alley. Leaving the alley, I ran across the street to another building's side. Once there I jumped on the building's fire escape and climbed up to the rooftop. A moment later I was running as fast as I could and leaping across the gaps between buildings.
Footsteps crunched behind me, distant at first they were rapidly approaching.
"I have tracked down cheetahs, gazelles," Kraven yelled. "Do you think you can outrun me?!"
"No," I hollered back. I could feel the gentle vibrations getting stronger as I approached the edge of the rooftop. "But I know the 1:05 can outrun you!"
Jumping from the roof I landed on the last car of a passing subway train as it tore past the building. Struggling to find a foothold, I managed to stand up and look back at Kraven as the train carried me off into the distance.
The Bowery 1:35 AM
I jumped off the subway while it was stopped at the station and melted into the shadows. The stunt with the train had bought me some time, but I needed to go on the offensive. A few blocks away I came across a closed hardware store. The doors and windows were barred, but it wasn't entirely impregnable. I kept a running total and I went in and took the items I needed. I made a note to send the money to the store the next morning.
If I lived to see the morning.
Kraven could tell Wayne was nearby. He could smell him. Even through the repugnant stenches of this city, Bruce Wayne had a unique scent. He smelled like silk suits and money, like all people of wealth. Despite the year he spent at Kraven's side, Wayne had showed his true colors at the end. He was not a hunter, just a rich boy playing hunter.
Kraven jumped from a rooftop and landed in an alleyway. Bruce's scent was close now. Creeping, Kraven approached a trashcan. The smell was coming from the can. Looking inside, Kraven saw a pile of dark clothing and mask. On the shirt was the symbol of the Batman.
"Ha!" He scoffed aloud. "This is how richboy beats me? He gets naked and tries to hide his scent? It is a valiant effort, but it will fail!"
To show his rage Kraven kicked over the trashcan. A wire attached to the can's underside snapped. The spring loaded trap underneath the trashcan sprung, shooting a half dozen nails out at Kraven. While most of the nails missed, one lodged into his left shoulder, another nail struck his right forearm with a glancing blow.
"Ah," he grunted, holding his shoulder. "Clever, richboy... very clever. You fooled me. You will not do it again!"
Kraven yanked the nail from his shoulder. Holding it up, he noticed there was a balm slathered on the tip, mingling with his blood. "What..." His knees buckled as an intense burning sensation hit him. His shoulder irradiated in white hot pain. Kraven ground his teeth in pain and roared out into the night.
"DEAD! YOU ARE DEAD!"
Fighting his pain, Kraven saw a fire escape and jumped at the ladder. He grabbed a rung and fell back to the ground. Holding his hands up, he saw the grease covering his palms. The hunter yelled out in frustration again.
From a distance, a figure in work boots, jeans, and a hooded poncho watched Kraven from the shadows. The shoe was now on the other foot. For all his skill and ability in the jungle. Kraven was out of his element. In this concrete jungle, in his domain, Bruce Wayne was the hunter. And now Kraven had become the hunted.
As the clock crept closer to the witching hour, the Oblivion Bar found itself a hub of activity. The small dingy room was alive for the first time in years, with its patrons - demons, monsters, magicians, and fairies, all dressed in an assortment of varying styles of clothing – bunched up towards the bar or sat at scattered tables, laughing away into the night. The light of various candles, or the odd burst of sorcery, illuminated their faces in a range of colours. The barkeep, Jim Rook, was keeping busy; one second he was pouring out glasses of bourbon for a rowdy group of cultists, the next he was laughing away with some visitors from Otherworld.
One thing he kept coming back to was a discussion being held at the very middle of the bar.
Bobo T. Chimpanzee let out a chuckle as his paw moved his drinks towards his mouth. He was wearing his best blazer tonight; perfectly tailored to the primate’s slender body. It was the grand reopening after all.
Opposite him sat someone dressed significantly more worse for wear; Rory Regan, the Ragman. A mass of green draped over his body, made up of a combination of tattered fabrics and patches. A rag for every soul that the suit held.
The duo laughed together, fondly reminiscing over better days. Such a duo would garner frequent stares in most establishments, yet the Oblivion Bar was different. Here everyone was welcome.
Mostly everyone, anyway.
The door to the bar exploded into light as a figure stepped into the room. Eyes all around turned to stare widely at the source of the commotion, as a deep silence swept through the bar’s patrons. Dressed in robes of brilliant blue, the Sorcerer Supreme cast an imposing presence, only amplified by the scarlet cloak that billowed behind him, as if alive with a mind of its own. His stern eyes narrowed as they scanned the room, taking in the scared faces of everyone before him.
It was not that they disliked the man. It was more that his presence here meant something was wrong.
“Doctor Strange!” Jim announced from behind the bar, finally breaking the silence. “Can I… get you a drink?”
The Sorcerer Supreme simply ignored him, turning slightly on his heel, finally spotting what he was after. He marched forwards, his leather boots heavy on the old wooden floorboards beneath him, directly towards the oddly duo sat before the bar.
“Where is she?” His voice was demanding as his eyes pierced the ragged suit of souls before him.
Rory, sweat already forming underneath his mask, tried to hold strong.
“Where’s who?” He asked, if only to delay the inevitable.
“Don’t play dumb with me, you spineless oath.” Strange commanded, anger swelling within him now. As his brow furrowed, his face began to turn a similar shade to his cloak. “You know exactly who I mean.”
Fearing his bar was about to become an arcane battleground, Jim leant towards over the bar towards them slightly.
“Maybe it’s best if you guys dealt with this...” Jim spoke cautiously, as he motioned his head back towards the door, before being cut off as his friend raised a paw in his direction.
The chimp gave a short laugh before adjusting himself in his seat, bringing his glass towards his lips. “No way Jim, I’m not missing this one.”
Ignoring the commotion to his left, Rory began to relent to his interrogation.
“I’ve not seen her in weeks, okay? Not since you forbade her from contacting me.”
Strange simply scoffed, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Ballcrap.” He grew closed as he spoke, a fury in his eyes, and the slight spec of spittle in his teeth. “I know the two have been running around with this half-assed idea to reform Shadowpact and take on the forces of Limbo, but as of right now I'm declaring that that plan is dead”.
Rory sunk into his seat, his eyes moving down to his feet, not wishing to look Strange in the eye at this moment. All he had wanted to do was help.
Sighing, he finally gave in.
"Look, I don't know where she is now, but when I last heard from her, she was looking for answers on what to do next. So, I…” He shuffled nervously as he spoke, finally bringing himself to look back up at the Doctor. “I pointed her towards Madame Xanadu.”
The group around him reacted in unison at those words. While both Strange and Jim let out a large groan, Bobo began to laugh once more.
“That old bag?” Detective Chimp asked, still struggling to keep a straight face. “What on earth for?”
Rory shrugged hesitantly. “Thought she’d tell her something insightful about moving on.”
Doctor Strange simply frowned, running his hand through his salt and peppered hair in annoyance. Taking a deep, he seemed to become calm once again, the red of his face vanishing.
“Well, that’s a start at the very least.” He declared.
With that, he was on the move once more, stretching his arms out before him in irregular positions. He moved his right arm around clockwise, causing the air before him to spark into life as a doorway of energy carved into shape. He was about to step through and disappear before a voice stopped him.
"You know..." Rory was standing now, his confidence having finally grown. "I wasn't actually going to go to Limbo for her. The girl didn't need a war, she needed a friend. Clearly when it came down to it, that wasn't you”.
The air grew cold once more, as Doctor Stephen Strange lowered his head down in shame. Stepping through the doorway in silence, he vanished from sight.
Waves crashed dangerously against the rocks at her feet, as Illyana Rasputin materialised on the stone outlet of the island. Rain fell around her, as the winds immediately began to attack from all directions. Avoiding the splashes of cold salt spray from the sea, she clutched her jacket around her body to shield from the rain. Fighting against the storm, she pushed her way up off the beach and onwards. The land around her as he moved was bleak; barren of any kind of vegetation bar the odd patch of grass or dying tree.
For a while, her only source of light was the odd flash of lightning in the sky above, which temporarily illuminated the greys of the island, before returning it once more to darkness. She had almost given up hope, when her eyes spotted the faint shape of a building in the distance, and a dim orange glow radiating from one of its windows.
Her hand moved to the protective charm around her neck. It was the only reason she had made it this far without began dragged back to the Sanctum. She finally allowed herself to smile, as it finally dawned on her that this trip may not have been made in vain.
The rain grew heavier as she moved onwards towards the building, the light guiding her. It was not long until Ilyana found herself stepping onto a path heading straight towards her destination. The opposite end seemed to slope back down towards the beach, where she imagined a small dock probably lay hidden amongst the rocks. Maybe even more buildings or settlements. She had no idea what to expect from this place. She was so deep in thought that she missed the sounds of movement to her left.
Within seconds it was upon her. Leaping out of the darkness, the great beast snarled rabidly as it tackled her to the ground. She collided hard with the wet gravel, her arm beginning to trickle with specs of blood almost immediately as she scraped against it. She knew immediately that it was some kind of wolf. Yet the more she looked as she found herself trapped beneath it, the more she realised that wasn’t the whole story.
No natural wolf was this large. No natural wolf would look at her as this one did. This had to be a werewolf.
Bruce Wayne stood over the frightened man with a large knife in his hands. The beaten and bruised man was on his knees in the tall grass. Tears rolled down his face and mixed with the blood dripping from his mouth. He sobbed and begged for mercy in Swahili. Kraven stood behind Bruce and watched his protegee with crossed arms.
"Do it," Kraven said. "This is the last lesson, richboy. You have successfully captured your quarry. Now, finish your kill."
"No," Bruce said, looking at his master. "He's a poacher. He needs to be brought to justice."
"You have hunted down this cheater and made him feel like the beasts he hunts. Now like those animals, he will have his throat slit. You want justice? This is justice, richboy. This is not man's law. This is the law of the wild. Fair and cruel, richboy, this is justice."
"No," Bruce said again. He let the knife fall to the ground. "Not like this. We may hunt animals, but we are not animals. I'm sorry, Sergi. I made a mistake."
Bruce turned around and walked through the grasslands while Kraven watched. "YOU THINK YOU ARE BETTER THAN ME?!" He yelled as Bruce walked away. "YOU ARE NOT! NOBODY IS BETTER THAN ME! I AM KRAVEN THE HUNTER! RUN AWAY, RICHBOY! RUN AWAY!"
Now The Bowery 3:00 AM
Kraven the Hunter carefully crept down the alley. Each step was careful and precise. His shoulder was bloody and burning from the trap Wayne had sprung on him earlier. Since then Kraven had made sure not to make any move without carefully weighing the consequences of it. Wayne was trying to make him his prey, but Kraven knew better. He could not be snared and he could not be defeated. He was the best and no one would ever come close to him.
"Run away, richboy," Kraven muttered under his breath as he spotted an object on the ground. "Run away."
Kraven approached the object and squatted down beside it. A metal cable lay on the ground, knotted together like a noose. It was a hastily made snare trap, Kraven observed, but it had been made rather well considering the circumstances. Kraven eyed the trap and found the trigger in the middle of the noose. He stood and walked a safe distance away from the trap. Taking a dart from his belt, Kraven tossed it at the snare and hit the trigger. The noose closed and zipped upwards towards a fire escape ladder.
"You see?" He shouted in joy. "Nobody is better than me! I am Kraven the Hunter. Who are you, compared to me?!"
Kraven watched the cable go up and smiled at his cleverness... but then stopped when he noticed the trap's counterweight, a large tool chest, was falling down to the ground towards him. He rolled to his right just as the heavy box crashed into the ground. The heavy chest exploded in a shower of metal and tools.
Kraven rolled to his right and looked up just as a large steel toed work boot crashed into his face and knocked him hard onto his back. Kraven felt blood in his mouth and at least two teeth rattling around free from the gum. He dribbled out blood and enamel as he looked up.
"Who am I?" Bruce Wayne asked as he stood over Kraven. He was dressed in the clothes he had found at the hardware store. "I'm Batman."
Both Kraven and Bruce crashed through a brick wall as brick dust and concrete power flew through the air. The two men tumbled across the floor of the rundown building. They came to a stop just feet apart from each other. Both men started to pick themselves up. Kraven moved for the large knife on his hip but Bruce's powerful leg swooped in and kicked the knife from Kraven's hand. The blade clattered away and Bruce drove his shoulder into Kraven's body. He picked the Russian up off his feet and slammed him into the wall of the building. The Russian desperately tried to find any opening to get leverage on the other man, but was unable to find any purchase. Bruce punched Kraven hard in the sternum while the hunter wrapped his hands around Wayne's head.
"I will not be defeated," Kraven said through a bloody mouth. He worked his thumbs into Bruce's eye sockets and started to create pressure. "You want to be bat? Now, you will be blind as one."
Bruce yelled in pain as Kraven drove his thumbs into Bruce's eyes. Bruce reached out blindly and slammed the back of Kraven's head into the wall. The attack caused the hunter to pull back from his eye-gouge. With his free hand, Bruce punched Kraven hard in the jaw and jumped back. Kraven fell to the ground as Bruce wiped trickling blood from his tear duct.
"Surrender," Bruce spat.
"Never," Kraven countered. "A hunter never gives up. To give up is to die. For the hunter, there is only the hunt and death. This, you never understood. You could be a great hunter. Instead you would rather dress up like fool and cry for mommy and daddy. You are useless."
"And you're vain," Bruce said with a hint of a smile as he breathed heavily. "That's what made this so easy. For years they've called you the world's greatest hunter. You've believed in your own legend, Kraven. You've become complacent - cocky. I threw you off your game so much tonight it's pathetic."
"Lies! I am the greatest!"
"Really? Look around. You're here in a unfamiliar environment with a foe you underestimated. He's taken the upper hand, stripped you of all your weapons. He did this because he knows you better than you know yourself. Tell me, what's the first rule of the hunt?"
Kraven roared and charged towards Bruce. Wayne crouched, ready for Kraven's strike. The hunter slashed wide from up top a move Bruce was ready for and easily countered. He grabbed Kraven's wrist and twisted it until he heard a loud pop issue from the arm. The twisted wrist hurt, but Kraven fought on. He kicked his leg up, Bruce dropped low and swept his leg at Kraven's one standing leg.
The hunter fell backwards and landed hard against the floor. Bruce pounced and landed on Kraven with a strike. He broke two of Kraven's ribs with one punch, his left collar bone with another. Kraven fought off the pain and tried to throw his pupil off of him. Bruce responded with a punch to Kraven's right kneecap. The knee buckled and made a crunching sound and Kraven screamed in pain.
"You're beaten," Bruce said as he loomed over Kraven with a fist at the ready to inflict more punishment.
"This... cannot be," he said, his voice filled with frustration as well as pain. "I am Sergei Kravinoff, Kraven the Hunter. The world's best."
"There's this saying a man told me once. It's something to say when things don't go your way. It goes, ,'Иногда вы едите медведя, а иногда медведь ест вас.'" he said in perfect Russian.
"'Sometimes, you eat bear,'" Kraven mumbled under his breath, the ghost of a smile on his face.
Bruce reared back for a final knockout blow to the beaten Hunter.
There it is. And there it goes. The deadbolt lock was free. With it gone there was just a single lock on the doorknob that I could have opened with a strong look. I popped it free quicker than a high school boy pops off his girl's bra. And just like the proverbial teen necking in the backseat of a car I was in the promised land.
Through the door and down a dark corridor was Zinkman & Sons Diamond Exchange, one of the top diamond emporiums in Gotham and by extension the entire east coast. I am Ahab and this is my white whale, I am Javert and this is my Jean Valjean, I am the Trix Rabbit and these are my Trix. I'm at the finish line after sixteen months of prep, recon, and manipulation. I bribed bureaucrats at City Hall for copies of the building's blueprints. A hacker I know who owes me more than a few favors broke into the security company's mainframe to pull out their security schematics on the place. I dated Issac Zinkman's youngest daughter for six months just to get a feel for the family and learn any trade secrets. We broke up two weeks ago. Oh, Cinnamon. You had the face of a horse, but the body... of a horse. And now that I think about it, was Cinnamon your real name? I thought it was your nickname... and there was that strange way you laughed at my jokes, like a neigh or something...
Did... did I date a horse for six months?
Before any more thoughts of my potential bestiality could fill my head something hard and firm found itself resting on the back of my neck.
"Don't move," a voice said from beside my ear. "You're coming with me."
"Or what?" I whispered back.
Something sharp and painful coursed through my body. My feet fell out from under me and I slammed to the floor writhing in pain. The electricity was still working its way through me when a black sack was pulled over my head. Just for good measure a sharp kick to the face bloomed more pain through my body and knocked me unconscious.
Gotham Heights 1:12 AM
When the bag came off my face I was relieved to see that I was not in a police station. That relief quickly vanished when I saw where I was. It was a large, open-ended room with high ceilings and ivory furniture that matched the ivory carpet, that matched the ivory walls. Pretty much me in my black burglar outfit now stained with my own blood stood out in the room like a sore thumb. Even the two muscular thugs flanking both my sides were dressed in ivory shirts, slacks, and shoes.
"Did I die and wake up in the 70's?" I mumbled to myself.
"If only kid."
In the middle of the room, in a big chintz chair the color of -- what other color but Ivory -- was Rupert Roth. I didn't know Roth personally -- I wasn't big time enough to -- but I knew him based on the stories I'd heard about his underworld exploits. He looked like an extra from a bad disco movie. He wore an ivory shirt with half of it unbuttoned, a large gold necklace and medallion caught in the steely gray fur on his chest. He had on a pair of ivory pants that would have looked embarrassing on a man half his age, but made Roth look clownish.
Rupert Roth was the last great Jewish gangster in America. Now days most people associate the mob with the Italians, and it is a fair association to make given the sheer numbers involved. But back in the day Jews were the top dogs in the underworld. Guys like Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lanksy handled their business like CEOs and quietly made millions. Murder and violence were involved, sure, but not like it was with the Italians. More importantly, they got out of crime and went legit. Roth had followed that model very well. A gambling empire amassed in the late 60's went major league in the 70's and he removed himself from crime altogether by the time the FBI started hitting the Gotham mobs hard. Now the only organizations Roth belong to were the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club. But there was still that edge. He still had the juice that made him very dangerous, and had me scared shitless to be dragged into his living room in the middle of the night.
"Johnny Lamonica," he said after a moment of silence. "I've heard of you."
"Good things, I hope."
Roth waved his hand in a so-so manner.
"I hear that you're smart, I hear that you're a good thief, I hear that outside of some trouble as a kid, you ain't never been pinched."
"And that I like long walks in the moonlight and a good '62 Bordeaux?"
"I'm questioning your smarts, Johnny," Roth said, ignoring my joke. "First off I've had a tail on you for a solid week and you didn't see him, and then your here with me making stupid jokes."
"Sorry," I said with a shrug. "It's a defense mechanism, I guess. Why have you been following me?"
"Issac Zinkman is a close and personal friend of mine. We go to the same temple, we sit on the same charity boards. He knows who I am and about my past. So, he comes to me asking about this guy dating his little girl Cindy--"
"Cindy," I said with a sigh of relief. "That's right, Cinnamon was her nickname... thank god."
Roth looked at me with contempt and with a slight nod of his head the muscled gorillas on my right slapped me across the face. My face which was already operating at a dull painful throb exploded in pain. My ears rang and I had to bite my tongue to keep from crying out. Roth stared at me long enough to make sure he'd gotten his point across before starting back.
"So Issac has this funny feeling about the guy his little girl is dating, especially after they broke up two weeks ago. So he comes to me and says 'Rothy, this putz made my little girl cry. Find out what he's got to hide and then fucking burn him.' And what do I find out, but the fact that this son of a bitch is an ace burglar, a burglar with a rep across town as reliable and smart, two things that are almost impossible to find when it comes to crooks. Not only is this guy a burglar, but he's planning on robbing my dear friend blind. You, my friend, are in for a world of hurt."
"Unless," I said cautiously, mindful of the two looming thugs on either side of me. "If you were going to hurt me, you would have done it right away with no spiel, or you would have turned me in to the cops. You did neither, so I'm waiting for the part where you give me options."
Something passed across Roth's face. It could have been a smile. It may have been a snarl, or it may have been gas. It was probably something of a mix between the three.
"Smart," he said. "Just like they said. Option 1. I inform Issac that you not only broke his little girl's heart, but also that you were in the middle of stealing his entire life's work when I caught you. Knowing my friend like I do he will kindly ask me to feed your own balls."
"A cannibalistic eunuch. Not the way I wanna go out."
"Option 2. You're a thief. Steal something for me and we will call it quits."
"Steal what, and from where?"
That look again. I was now certain that pained grimace had to be Roth's version of a smile.
"The where is easy. GCPD headquarters. The what? Now, that's gonna take some explaining..."
“There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure.” ― Ross Macdonald
ACCESSING GOLDEN STATE BUREAU OF INVESTIGATIONS (GSBI) CASE FOLDER #050520551321
ACCESSING ADDENDUM FILE #090220550025: AUDIO, VISUAL, AND MEMORY INFORMATION AUDIT (MIA) OF DI KIMBERLY MORGAN GATES, BADGE #1988
WRITTEN TRANSCRIPT FOLLOWS:
ASA Tompkins: It is currently September 2nd, 2055 at 12:25 AM. Speaking is Assistant State's Attorney Paul Tompkins. Present are myself, GSBI SAC Gilberto Hernandez, and our interview subject. Kim, state your full name and rank for the record, please.
DI Gates: Kimberly Morgan Gates, Inspector Detective with the GSBI.
Tompkins: And you affirm you give this statement to us on your own freewill?
Gates: I do.
Tompkins: And you consent to undergo MIA readings concurrent to your statement?
Gates: Do I have a choice?
SAC Hernandez: *clears throat*
*Five seconds of silence follow*
Gates: Guess that answers that. So, yes I consent to undergo MIA readings concurrent to my statement. Furthermore, I swear the following statement I give is the truth as I believe it to be, as any MIA readings will confirm. There. Everyone’s asses are now covered.
Hernandez: I'll fire up the MIA.
Tompkins: Alright, Kim. Just walk us through the whole case from start to finish.
Los Angeles May 5th, 2055 3:45 AM
The chirping of my terminal woke me up. My eyes fluttered in the darkness and I groaned as I rolled over to the screen resting on my nightstand. The display flashed an incoming call from a number I didn’t recognize and one not in my contacts. The area code was a Simi Valley address. Simi Valley was an LAPD stronghold dating back to the days of Darryl Gates. Back in my time in the LAPD I was among the small minority that actually lived in the city I was sworn to protect. The lateness of the call and the area code gave me enough confidence to accept the call.
“This is Gates,” I mumbled.
“Inspector Gates, this is Detective Rick Jackson with LAPD's OCU.”
I was glad that Jackson didn’t opt for video calling me since I rolled my eyes at the mention of the Organized Crime Unit. At least three of four times a week I received requests for further info from half of the OC squads across Golden State. Everyone knew cybercrime was a huge part of how these guys operated these days, but more often than not their requests were just shots in the dark that often lead to little or no information on the suspected criminals they were chasing. Just another way these guys could use me to make it look like they were doing work.
“You realize cybercrime is really a nine to five type job, yes? No need to call in the middle of the night about someone phishing for credit card---”
“It’s about a murder,” said Jackson. I watched the soundwaves of Jackson's voice flow up and down across the terminal as he spoke. “Gangland style execution tonight in Los Feliz. Biometrics list the victim as one Spencer Duckworth. He’s got a rapsheet a mile long.”
The news took me back. It was a name I hadn’t heard in years. That was the real surprise, not the murder part. I knew eventually I'd get a call from some other cop about Duck's incarceration or untimely demise.
“I know Duckworth,” I said softly. “He is -- was, I guess -- my CI.”
“We know. He also had you listed as his next of kin of all things. I figured with you being a fellow cop I don’t actually have to worry about doing the notification in person. Saves me a trip and--”
“Are you still at the crime scene?” I asked. I was already throwing back the covers and wide awake.
“Yeah, and I see where you’re going but that’s not necessary, Inspector. I’ll send you all the information we get from the scene if you want to take a look.”
“I wanna see it with my own two eyes,” I said. I padded across the carpet of my bedroom towards my closet.
“Murder is LAPD business, Inspector.” I could hear the agitation in Jackson’s voice. I half expected him to call me lady instead of inspector. “If we find something related to your field we’ll ask. Not a lot we can gain by having a Statie computer cop take a look at the crime scene.”
“How about a Statie computer cop who was former Robbery Homicide?” I asked with just a hint of humor in my voice. “Now please send me the address of the crime scene or I may be forced to call Captain Bala at home. I know he also works nine to five, wonder how he’d feel about a Statie calling him in the middle of the night requesting access to his crime scene because his detective wouldn’t allow it?”
I used the commandeer function on my app to get a Ryde from my apartment in Crenshaw up to Los Feliz. My status as non-emergency law enforcement meant I had to abide by Executive Order 28 and use ride shares and public transportation wherever I needed to go. But thankfully the state picked up the tab for me.
The car buzzed up Western Avenue in the light early morning traffic. I sat alone in the backseat and absent-mindedly watched the car pilot itself into the right lane before taking a right turn at the next intersection. The monitor mounted to the backseat ran ads and news updates. The commandeer function meant you get the basic package from Ryde. I could have paid out of pocket to have an ad-free trip, but at this point it was all white noise to me. As was the news. More updates on the ongoing Belt famine, Nevada’s formal request of annexation into the GS, and lighter news on some new content coming to YouSee. Everything had happened, but yet nothing had happened.
My thoughts were on Duck and the last time I saw him. One of my first cases with the GSBI. San Francisco PD needed help tracking down a group of Onionheads working for some human traffickers. We’d met at an 80’s themed diner in Silver Lake for breakfast. He’d given me the information I needed to track their routing and I’d given him one get out of jail free card, good to cash in on anything up to a Class C Felony. We chatted a little after the transaction was done. His birthday was coming up at that point. About to be twenty-two and still living on the wrong side of the law.
“You were just a kid when I first busted you,” I said as I put my handheld against the payment terminal on the table.
“Something like that,” he said with a chuckle. “I knew I’d fucked up when I saw that GSBI badge. It wasn’t some LAPD redneck that had busted my ass.”
“A sixteen year old with enough stolen credit card money to ride around South LA in a custom Model 10? You’re lucky I got you before the LAPD did,” I said with a wry smile. “You’d be in LSP until 2100 if anyone other than me had gotten you.”
“Guess you got an eye for talent,” Duck laughed. "Know a good snitch when you see one."
I took a sip of my coffee. Duck, never a coffee drinker, had a glass of retro New Coke with breakfast.
“You know I have connections with a lot of cybersecurity people,” I said after a short silence. “They’re always on the lookout for someone smart they can make into a white hat. There’s a lot of money to be made doing work for these tech companies. And it’s all legal.”
“Then I wouldn’t be your snitch anymore,” he said. “You’d lose one of your best assets.”
I nodded and shrugged. “It’s a sacrifice I’d be willing to make.”
He smiled and looked down at the table, settling into something like a deep thought. He looked back up at me after a few long moments.
“What they do is legal,” he said, “but I’m not sure how much more moral it is than what I do. At least I’m honest about my shit. Yes, I scam people out of their information, but I’m not using that for anything other than to make my pockets fat. What do they do? They take all that information -- credit card, bio readings, data history -- and make money off of it. We’re both criminals, Detective, the only difference is nobody’s gonna pass legislation making my shit legal.”
“I respect the principal,” I said before adding. “But you know your luck can’t run forever, right? Eventually you’re going to get arrested for something I can’t help with… or worse.”
“Tell you what,” he said with a smirk. “We’ll make a deal. If I make it to thirty without getting arrested or washed, I’ll hang up my black hat and put on my tie and collared shirt for you. I’ll become some corporate motherfucker at a cubicle all day.”
Los Feliz 4:30 AM
I stepped out of the Ryde and completed the transaction on my handheld before the automated car disappeared into the night. The address was the site of a public housing zone. Low-rise apartments that stretched out across the entire five block radius. Everyone living here were either on UBI or some form of GSER. Los Feliz had once been a “bad neighborhood” at the end of the 20th century, but gentrification had turned it into a clean, crime-free, and expensive neighborhood in the early 2000’s. But the cycle had revolved back around so that the affluent, wealthier, and by and large whiter citizens of Los Feliz moved on to the next hotspot twenty years ago. What was left behind here were the people who couldn’t afford to move, or simply didn’t want to.
A trio of LAPD squadcars down the block were parked in a semi-circle in an open space that served as the neighborhoods courtyard. The blue LED lights of the cars cast the entire courtyard in a bright blue glow. A drone with LAPD markings flew overhead, hovering slightly to monitor me before moving on. A uniformed officer keeping watch in front of the cars eyeballed me as I approached. I held my badge up in my right hand, my left hand up in the air for a bioscan.
“Who called the Staties?” He asked as he scanned my palm with a handheld.
“Detective Jackson apparently needs some help.”
I walked past the cop and on to the crime scene. Smaller drones hovered over the area, taking photos and video of the activity onsite. A few crime scene techs were directing the drones with their handhelds. A blue tarp rested over something in the middle of it all. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the tarp. This was far from the first time I’d visited a crime scene where someone I knew was the victim. And like in the past, the body held a strange gravity over me. Maybe it was the old murder cop inside of me yearning to break free?
“You must be Gates,” a gruff voice said from my left.
Rick Jackson looked every bit like the caveman cop I assumed he was. Graying hair with a ruddy face, fat body, and a gun on his hip like the Santos Bill had never existed. He wore a polo shirt with the LAPD logo on the left breast pocket. His khaki pants were too baggy and drooped down around his hips, a side effect of Jackson not realizing his stomach had expanded. He was still buying pants with a smaller waistline, forced to wear them beneath his natural waistline underneath the gut. The heavy gun meant he had to constantly keep pulling up his pants.
“Inspector Gates,” I corrected. “I’d like to see the body.”
Jackson led me towards the tarp. The ground we walked on was muddy. This being LA, I couldn’t remember the last time it had actually rained naturally.
“We think it was a pretty straight forward execution,” said Jackson. “Victim’s listed address was at this apartment complex. Despite his criminal history, he was on UBI.”
“He made his money as a scammer,” I said. “But you can still get UBI with a criminal record. I’m sure people argue they need it more than most.”
Jackson grunted in response, his way of avoiding a political debate in the middle of an active crime scene. He pulled a pair of black vinyl gloves from his back pocket and slipped them on. I stood back and let him pull back the tarp.
Duck’s body was on its stomach, his head turned to the right. I could see the blank, lifeless eyes looking at nothing in particular. Under his left eye was the exit wound, a bloody hole that still had traces of gore and brain matter around the edge. His face was frozen in a look of mild inconvenience, like getting killed was just a bother more than anything.
“Stippling on the entry wound indicates the barrel of the gun was right against his head. We found a .45 casing, but no bullet yet.”
“Check the ground,” I said after looking away from Duck’s body. “The muddy ground? Bullet probably went through Duckworth, into the ground, and nicked an irrigation pipe buried down there.”
Jackson’s face flashed with confusion, until he looked at the mud and something clicked.
“Someone do a scan,” he ordered one of the techs. “Metalurgic, within a ten foot radius of the body and no deeper than two feet.”
“I assume his brain was too shredded for a MIA reading?” I asked Jackson as he stepped away.
“Even if it wasn’t we were too late,” said Jackson. “Patrol didn’t arrive until forty-five minutes after the call. The brain was long dead at that point.”
Jackson continued on about the chain of events after the discovery, the process of how patrol calls the Hollywood Homicide and how homicide, seeing Duck was a figure with organized crime ties, gladly called OCU and their one man on-call tonight, Jackson to handle the case. LAPD is at its most efficient when it comes to passing the buck. While Jackson went on about this, I was barely listening. Instead my eyes looked around the courtyard for some sign of a camera. There were very few places you could go in Golden State that weren’t being surveilled. Something or someone was always watching. “No cameras?” I asked Jackson.
“Used to be,” he said. “Entire courtyard was wired up by the security company who protects the place. But someone cut the cords about four months ago and the company never fixed them. According to them the courtyard was a low-risk environment. Not worth the extra money to fix it up.”
“Everyone has handhelds, Detective,” I said. “It’s the law. Someone somewhere in the apartment complex has to have some sort of video around the time of the shooting.”
Jackson bristled and hitched his sagging pants up. “Are you telling me how to do my job?”
“No,” I said. “Just suggesting it.”
Jackson whistled at the patrol officer keeping guard at the front of the crime scene.
“Start knocking on doors,” he said. “Get everyone’s device and see what you find. You take the apartments on the top floor, I'll take the ones on the ground.”
I looked back at Duck’s body and thought back to our last conversation a few years ago and his promise to get out by thirty. I knew then it was probably the closest Duck would ever come to retiring from the life voluntarily, and even then it was some half-assed measure to placate me. I’d know plenty of criminals like Duck over the years. Be it hackers, stick-up men, or drug dealers. They never get out of the criminal life until they’re forced.
“Twenty-seven,” I said softly to myself. “You almost made it.”
His voice was tired, his throat dry and sore. He had not been given a drink for several days, forced to lick rainwater from the ground to survive for the two weeks he had been in prison. His hair was a mess, the ginger bangs falling over his face. He was tired. His lips were cracked, his skin was bruised and he had small cuts and wounds all over his body, his bare torso had the barely healing marks from blades and whips. He had been tortured, a lot. He was tied to the iron pipes of the chair, the wooden seat pained his backside and if he could speak, he would've. He would've told them he could taste the chair with his ass. And he wanted to speak to the manager. But given how the six men in the room were all strapped with Kevlar vests, C4 strapped to the vest, balaclavas on their head and decked out in tactical gear while armed with AK-47's, it didn't seem like the kind of 5-star resort Harper had expected. They were serving the local Warlord, Al-Muhalim of Qurac. Al-Muhalim wasn't a fan of Harper...
My name is Roy Harper... The, uh, first. Yeah. That makes sense. See, it's not that I have a son who's also got my name, no, that'd be far too believable. Let's just say that while I was born 1989, I am not breaching my thirties. Not really. I missed seven years of my life while someone else took my place. It's a hard thing to get a grip on. But during my abs cense it seems the Quraqi warlords have gotten a lot tougher on Americans... Which leads me to why I am in this situation to begin with...
That was what Harper wanted to say, but, well, his throat wouldn't let him get out anything but dry gasps. The man standing in front of him was Al-Muhalim's right-hand man, and the only one not wearing a face mask. His face had been hit with a chemical attack, the left side covered in chemical scar-tissue. He was really, really, ugly. He said something in Arabic that Roy couldn't understand. Then he said it again, this time far more angrily. Roy still couldn't understand him. His head pounded and it was hard to focus.
The man hit Roy with the back of his hand, making the chair tip over. One of the goons lifted the chair back up, the leader dusted his hand off, blood seeping from Roy's newly re-burst lip. He groaned in pain, while the interrogator rolled up his sleeves. "I know who you are, Mister Harper. Red Arrow they call you, huh. I thought you were taller. And had two arms." The man spoke and Roy groaned. It wasn't his fault that they had cut off his arm 9 years ago, and that his prosthetic arm had been destroyed when his former teammates betrayed him. His throat groaned as he tried to speak again, begging for water. The boss nodded to one of his guys to bring out a jug of clear, clean spring water. Holding it above Roy's face, the man smirked. "Talk and I will let you drink your fill, boy."
"Be.... Be..." Roy got out, but couldn't form words beyond that. The man rolled his eyes. "Fine, a sip, then." And poured half a cup of water into Roy's mouth who greedily drank it, letting out a satisfied groan as he did, to him, that was the greatest taste he had ever felt. Well, he probably would've rather it had been a sip of whiskey.
After he collected himself, his tormenter grabbed his chin. "Now, tell me. What are you doing in my Qurac?"
"Beh... Behind you." Roy told him, smirking as the leader raised an eyebrow, only for Roy to be met with a spray of warm blood from the Quraci's face bursting open, a bullet from a sniper rifle up above him on the roof of the building, looking in through the makeshift skylight. The body fell limp beside Roy as the thugs all aimed their guns and fired at where the sniper was perched. Tried to warn you.
See. I am a man who's thrown just about everything away. And what I didn't willingly give up, the world took from me. I don't get along with people, I'm uh, not exactly a people person. But that man up there? The one who's currently kicking the asses of these goons? I can recognize his patterns anywhere. His vantage points and his choice of weaponry. That was a .50 cal hollow point with a diamond tip. Only the Russian Bratva has access to those bullets in this hemisphere. And Oliver Queen doesn't use sniper rifles. That leaves only one guy who would have the means to get these. The unprodigal son of Gotham.
Explosives detonated around the room, filling the room with smoke as their guns ran out of ammo, while they were reloading, a shape landed, armed with a curved short sword, a kukri and a .45 he domed and sliced every last one of the goons he could get his hands on, the only thing Roy could see was the blasting of gunfire lighting up the room in the smoke and the brief reflection of the ruby quartz material making up is would be saviors helm.
See. He was murdered and came back from the dead. He made death his bride and then kicked her out of the bed and onto the curb. He's got the stuff of heroes - true heroes in him if he wanted to. He's the Red Hood, the most dangerous man in the world. And he hates to admit it even more than I do, but he's my best friend and maybe the only person in the world who gets me. He knows what it’s like to disappear and to have someone else carry on your name in your place, the world not knowing who you are.
Roy’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a rocket launcher getting readied behind him, trained on the Red Hood in front of him. Roy yelped out a ‘oh shit’ and ‘watch out’ at once, combined with his still sore and dry throat, all he let out was a “Which shiii” as he nudged his chair onto the floor, dodging the rocket being sent. Red Hood had rolled to the other side, the rocket careening through the room, destroying one of the pillars in the far end, rumbling the already damaged roof. Jason let out a bullet and the man who carried the launcher was laying in a pool of his own blood.
Jason grabbed the chair and with one hand pulled Roy back up, producing a knife from his boot and slicing Roy free from his bondage.
People say Jason’s many things. A murderer, a criminal, a maniac. Lately, people have been calling him a mercenary, but he’s more than that. He’s not a mercenary- His internal monologuing was interrupted by Jason handing him a handgun and speaking through the voice distortion in his helmet.
“Get up, Harper. Cover my ass. I need your help for a job. Big payout.”
All right. So maybe he’s a little bit of a mercenary.
Roy checked the gun in his hand, while being disarmed like this a handgun was honestly kind of a sick joke – he could barely reload the gun. The two former sidekicks fought their way out of the compound, watching eachother’s backs. Jason was doing most of the fighting, Roy mostly watching the flanks as he was in no shape to really be fighting paramilitary separatists today. He had had a very long week.
One of the soldiers snuck up on them and had Jason dead to rights, but a swift bullet from Roy’s gun into his neck countered any plans he had of ending the reign of the Red Hood. Finally, they reached the last roadblock before they were out. But, much to their dismay, the Quracis had setup a 50-caliber machinegun on the barricade in front of the door. Jason pulled Roy to the floor and they both slid behind cover as the gunfire. Each shooting to their own flank, keeping the enemies from getting around them till Roy’s pistol made the sound no gunman ever wants to hear. Out of bullets.
He let out an aggressive ‘HMM’ to Jason, able to produce a single word “GUN”
Jason firing off a salvo looked at Roy and swiftly pulled a new mag from his jacket, sliding it across the floor to Roy. “Yeah yeah, quit bitchin’.” He groaned at his friend. Whom let out another angry sound. Gesturing to his left arm, ending shortly after his shoulder.
“Hey man, you’re the genius inventor. Get inventive, stumpy.” Roy rolled his eyes and produced a sound that was the closest he could get to a ‘fuck you’. Nudging the mag with the grip of his pistol, he made the mag stand up, he swiftly ejected the old clip and slammed the gun down onto the new one, pulling the slider back with his teeth. A shard of glass on his side from a shot-to-pieces mirror revealed that the machinegunner was focusing on Jason’s side, as Roy had stopped firing for a few seconds. He rolled out of cover and Jason shouted at him to get back here but had to return to shooting on his flank. Roy stood hunched, fired one bullet, and then rolled back behind the pillar on the other side of the cover. His sole bullet careened through a small opened in the barricade and swiftly embedded itself in the skull of the man firing the machinegun.
Jason threw out a flashbang and while everyone was blinded, Roy including, his helmet protected him from the flash. He ran to Roy, pulled him up and pushed the blinded foes, easily getting past their now neutered defenses and shooting anyone who got too close. Dashing out into the courtyard, they ran past three jeeps that Roy got unamused by, Jason tossing Roy into the backseat of a far shittier looking jeep than the ones in the compound as he got into the drivers’ seat, putting the pedal to the metal. Jason threw a four pack of sunwarm water bottles at Roy from the passenger seat, who immediately tore the cap off one and downed the entire thing and then another one, and then poured the third one onto himself.
“All right, Jason. What the fuck?! I appreciate the water. But why did you take this piece of junk and not those pristine sand racers?!” Roy’s tone got more annoyed as he peered behind them, seeing the jeeps behind, gaining on them. Each jeep packed to the brim with angry gunmen. “See, those jeeps have a disadvantage.” “Oh yeah? What’s that? More weight because they don’t have as many rust holes?!” Jason’s helmet pulled back into it’s collar-mode, his black and white-striped hair blowing in the wind as he turned to Roy and smiled, pulling up a detonator in his hand. “I planted explosives in them.” Pressing the button and the pursuers exploded. Roy’s expression was blank with shock and surprise. Then he cracked into a laugh and after just a few short moments Roy began coughing which was when Jason started laughing.
“Shut your cakehole and drink water. We’ve gotta get over the border. I’ve got a safehouse in Bialya.” Roy was downing another bottle of water and as soon as the bottle was dry, the asymmetrical archer was asleep.
The small room was dark save for the inconsistent lighting of one dim lamp hung directly in the center of the ceiling. The loosely fitted bulb buzzed loudly as it threatened to short at any second. Brief flashes of bright light cut through the darkness illuminating a lone figure in a wolf mask sitting restrained in an old wooden chair. Around the man’s mouth was a tightly pulled gag while a blindfold had been used to restrict his vision. Both the man’s shoes and his socks had been removed which left his bare feet to sitting in the shallow pool of water currently situated beneath his chair.
An unexpected noise echoed through the room as the latch on the door clicked loudly causing the startling the bound man. Struggling against his restraints, the man’s futile efforts were interrupted by the scraping creaks of the door’s hinges as it was swung open. The slapping of several hard heeled shoes against the cement floor echoed from the hallway and into the room. Amidst the sound of the heavy footsteps came the squeaking of four wheels as a heavy cart was pushed into the tight space.
“Right this way, Mr. Tetch,” A deep voice instructed as the first pair of footsteps entered the room. The sound of the cart stopped somewhere in front of the bound man as the footsteps echoed one last time before they too ceased to be heard within the confines of the room.
“Can we get some light in here?” Demanded a strange sounding voice, the identity of the speaker unfamiliar to the man in the chair. There was an accent to the stranger’s words, obnoxious yet melodic, like something out of a children’s cartoon.
“Whatever you need, Mr. Tetch.” Came a smooth baritone reply. The bound Wolf recognized the second voice immediately as his employer.
The Black Mask himself.
“What’d you say?” Black Mask asked, shoving his hands into the pockets of his finely tailored suit.
“It’s Doctor,” Jervis replied, “Not Mister.”
“My apologies then, Doctor.” Black Mask replied, his voice lacking any form of sincerity as a leather gloved hand adjusted the ebony skull-like mask which came to the notorious crime lord his namesake.
“Did you need anything?” He repeated, the voice unhindered nor was it filtered as the mask’s jaw remained hauntingly still while he spoke.
“I just need to ensure my payment is in order, is everything properly arranged?” Tetch asked as the Black Mask reached into the pocket of his pinstripe jacket and held out a square photograph towards the smaller man.
Raising his chin to get a look at the photo, Tetch took it from Black Mask’s hand as his face twitched with a disinterested look.
“She’s older than I requested.” He grumbled as a finger traced the girl’s golden hair before he tucked inside his lapelled jacket. “But she’ll do, I suppose.”
“Good,” Black Mask replied as he approached the Wolf, removing the blindfold and the mask as the Wolf looked towards his employer.
“You cost me a lot of money,” Black Mask stated, his tone full of disdain as he continued.
“Thankfully the sale of your daughter to Mr. Tetch here goes a long way to repaying that debt,” Pulling a cigar from within his jacket, the Black Mask forced it between the teeth of his mask before cutting the end off and lighting it. Taking a long drag on the thick Cuban, he blew a ring of smoke towards the Wolf before speaking.
“And your wife has, well agreed to dance at the Alibi to pay the remainder of the debt.” Black Mask chuckled darkly. “‘Course I did have to give your body to science as part of my deal with Mr. Tetch.”
“Enough monologuing, Mr. Mask” Tetch called as he nodded towards the two burly men who had been flanking him this entire time. “Brothers, if you please, release our friend here.”
“I’ll let you off this time, Tetch” Black Mask growled as he stepped back from the restrained man and took a position against the wall alongside the door. “But if you ever interrupt me again, it’s a bullet.”
“But where would you be without me?” Tetch retorted towards Black Mask before holding up a mask as he carefully examined it.
“On his knees please, Tweeds.” The doctor ordered as the two men picked the wolf up from his chair before pressing a foot against either calf as he was lowered towards the ground, his head now eye level with Tetch himself.
Removing the wolf mask from his victim’s face, Tetch tossed it aside before firmly placing a small silver band atop the man’s brow. His wide eyes protested, but there was nothing he could do as one of the Tweed brothers wrapped a large hand over the base of his skull and held him steady.
And then suddenly, the fear was gone.
Tetch smiled in satisfaction as the man’s body relaxed the moment the mask was activated. Behind him, Black Mask took several steps forward as he peered towards his former employee watching the effects of Tetch’s device.
“Remove his gag, please.” Tetch stated as the other brother ripped it off of the Wolf’s face. Walking over to his cart, Tetch picked up a similar band, placing it atop of his own head before flipping a switch on the equipment in front of him.
“Please state your name.” Tetch ordered as the man replied promptly.
“Richard J. Cunningham.”
“And your wife’s name?” Tetch asked as Black Mask crossed his arms in satisfaction.
“Lori Beth Cunningham.”
“And your daughter’s name please?” Tetch replied.
“Chelsea Alice Cunningham.” Richard stated without any sign of reluctance.
“What happened last night Mr. Cunningham?” Tetch inquired as Black Mask took several steps towards Richard, studying his facial expressions as he replied willingly again.
“The deal went South when the Batman appeared. I hid behind the truck and waited for my opportunity to escape while the others fought back. They lost, and I escaped while the Bat was distracted.”
“So you’re a damn coward!” Black Mask snarled, but Richard didn’t respond causing the crime lord to lash out. Delivering a firm blow to the man’s stomach, Black Mask watched in astonishment as Richard barely reacted, not even audibly acknowledging that he had been struck.
“What’s the limits of your device?” Black Mask inquired as he turned back towards Tetch.
“He’ll do whatever I ask him to.” Tetch stated as Black Mask marched forward and lifted the circlet from the small man’s head before fitting it over his own.
“Pick up those pliers!” The crime lord ordered, pointing Richard towards the nearby tool. Complying, the other man picked up the pliers and held them at the ready as Black Mask spoke again.
“Rip out a tooth.”
Without a moment of hesitation, Richard opened the pliers before using them to take hold of one of his front teeth. Clamping the pliers closed, he tugged them downwards as a subtle wince of pain appeared in the corner of his eyes, blood spilling out over his lips as the tooth fell to the floor.
“This is fuckin’ great, Tetch!” Black Mask exclaimed. Banging on the door to the room, the Crime Lord watched it open as two people wearing masks modelled after his own answered.
“The doctor held up his part of the deal, get him the girl and send him on his merry way.” Black Mask ordered before turning back towards Cunningham.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE LAUNCH PROBE INTO SOUTHSIDE BOXING
After much speculation the Gotham City District Attorney's office announced today that it will be launching a sweeping investigation into the city's boxing and prizefighting scene. Their explicit target: Connections between organized crime and the boxing community. District Attorney Joseph Porter held a press conference for reporters today, laying out the details of the upcoming investigation.
"For far too long the professional fighting scene in this city has been controlled by bookmakers," said Porter. "Fans of the sport, people who pay to see honest and fair fights, are instead often treated to fixed contests that the gamblers control. This inquiry is the first step in a battle to wrestle control of the sport from the criminal elements of this city."
Porter himself will serve as the lead counsel on the investigation. Heading up the team of investigators will be the always colorful GCPD Captain John "Two-Gun Jack" Grogan, commanding officer of the GCPD's Major Case Squad. Captain Grogan's six man task force will provide the brunt of the investigative force as their operational mandate lies within organized crime.
"Ain't nobody [sic] better at policing organized hoods than me and my boys," Grogan said during the press conference. "If there's anything worth finding, we'll find it."
While forthcoming with details of the probe, District Attorney Porter remained mum on his political future. He is among a small handful of candidates who have been rumored to seek the US Senate seat recently opened by the sudden death of long-time senator Charles Henderson. When asked if this is a stepping stone to a possible campaign run, Porter discouraged any such talk and only offered a “no comment” on the subject.
06/19/1946 West Gotham 1:13 AM
Slam Bradley rode shotgun in the car. Captain Grogan sped through the city at "Fuck-Traffic-Laws-I'm-A-Cop" speed. Slam smoked and saw the sights. Winos blasted on cut-rate hooch wagged their wieners at the passing car. Hookers peddled their stuff by the curb. Slam cracked the window and blew smoke.
He smiled. He felt alive. He felt jazzed. Grogan's squad worked the streets. They ran the streets. They were the landlords out here, and everybody paid their rent. The cost for not paying up was a quick and brutal eviction from this world. Two-Gun Jack was a hick from somewhere out west -- Oklahoma or Texas or something -- and he had that southern twang prairie accent. The hump wore two six-shooters on both hips. The hump wore shit-kicker boots and a white stetson with a goddamn bolo tie. He chewed tobacco and thought he was Jonah Hex reincarnated. He looked like a clown on the surface. Beneath it he was all killer.
Grogan spat tobacco juice in a coffee cup. He wiped his mouth and said, "Samuel, how you been liking these past few months."
Slam beamed. "Fantastic. Anything to get me out of Vice."
Vice straight bored him. It was either hooker rousts or gambling busts. He was too well known around Gotham to work undercover, so it was roust duty. Pop prosties and bust bookies. It was straight shit-work. His brain was wired for the street. He needed to be out here in the thick of it. This was his element. Grogan picked him because he was big and intimidating. The captain promised muscle work and he made good on the promise. Anybody he wanted worked over, Slam worked over. Fist work, brass knuckles work, rubber hose work, followed by dental and surgical work.
Slam flicked his cigarette out a window. The butt hit a passing wino in the forehead. The wino flipped it away and shook his fist at the car. Slam laughed. Gorgan roared.
Grogan wiped his eyes and said, "And what do you make of our current assignment?"
Slam made the jack-off sign. "Prizefighting has been corrupt since the days of gladiators. And now they want to get a hard-on for it?”
Slam knew firsthand how corrupt the shit was. Corruption got him a pass on the war. He threw a fight back in ‘40 and got a judge paid a few grand. Said judge remembered the favor when Slam’s draft number came up. Said judge helped him get a job on the PD and deemed “essential personnel.” No war for Shirker Slam. He parlayed his status as a local celebrity to get plum patrol beats. Southpaw Slam volunteered to box in late-night smokers for the GCPD brass and city hall bigwigs. The fights got him political clout. Smart Slam leverages clout for internal juice in the PD. He went from harness bull to gold shield detective rápidamente.
They had two ex-boxers under lock and key who weren’t as slick as Shrewd Slam. Said pugilists were working with the DA to present testimony to the county grand jury. They were, to wit: heavyweight Robert "Scotty" Lees and light heavyweight Manuel "Goodnight" Garcia. Slam went six rounds with Lees back in ‘38. Even back then he was a fucking stumblebum. Years of too many pops to the dome meant Scotty couldn't remember who he was half the time. Goodnight Garcia played up a faux swish persona, but he had a taste for young stuff. Said taste had gotten him in the jackpot. Testifying would quash a 'stach rape beef.
Grogan said, "The good District Attorney wants his pound of flesh, more so for a launchpad than anything else. So we do our job and give it to him. But I suspect the investigation will be coming to an abrupt end shortly."
They hit county territory. Upper-middle class homes became the main view. Slam chained three cigs while Grogan spat tobacco and the radio squawked Bing Crosby. The radio crackled as Jack Benny pitched toothpaste. Grogan pulled up to a three-story home sprawled over four lots. It ate up half a block. Feature: A bronze R.T. plaque on the mailbox.
They got out. Grogan led, Slam followed. They walked around the house and to the backyard. Floodlights on: A pool, patio, pool house. A fat man with gray hair did laps in the water. Slam checked his watch. Two in the morning. The fat man flopped out the pool. Butt ass naked. He dried his hair on a towel and walked over to them. Still sans clothing.
Grogan shook hands with the man and said, "Congressman."
Grogan looked to Slam. "Congressman, this is Detective Samuel Bradley. Samuel, this is Congressman Rupert Thorne."
They shook hands. Slam kept his eyes from drifting downward. Thorne guided them to the patio. He flopped on a chair. They followed suit. Thorne sprawled and smiled at Slam.
"I need no introduction, Slam,” said Thorne. “I saw you fight Mike Moldando years ago. I think you won that one.”
“TKO, sir,” said Slam.
Thorne smiled. “A win is a win, right? Captain Grogan has been telling me an awful lot about you, son. He says you have potential."
Two-Gun Jack spat juice in his coffee cup. He winked at Slam, "Slam here was originally recruited because he looked every bit the part of the mean sum bitch he actually is. Turns out he's smarter than he looks. I think he's ready."
Thorne reached for a wooden box on the table. He pulled out a fat cigar and lit it. A look passed between the two older men. Grogan nodded. His nod meant GO.
Thorne said, "Slam, do you believe that certain aspects of crime, vices like gambling and prostitution and drugs, are unavoidable and should be allowed to exist in a contained form?"
Slam shrugged. "Yeah. We can't stop people from doing what they want to do. As long as nobody gets hurt, it's fine with me."
Thorne and Two-Gun Jack traded looks. Grogan took off his stetson and placed it on the table. He leaned forward. Slam caught whiffs of tobacco. Grogan's tie was tobacco spritzed. His teeth were brown with tobacco juice.
Grogan said, "The three of us are riding the same wavelength. People like the DA see it like we do, but they're worse. They act like they want to change things but what they really want to do is make just enough change to fuck over the rest of us and get themselves elected to a higher office."
"Crabs in a bucket," said Thorne. "Nobody wins."
Slam picked up brainwaves. He rode a hunch into speculation. DA Porter, "higher office." He implied: The boxing probe. His implication confirmed by the congressman.
Thorne looked straight at Slam and said, "This little fact finding mission Porter is carrying out has the potential to damage a lot of important people who share our common outlook on this city. These people are your gateway to a whole new world, son. If you hitch yourself up to the captain and I, you'll be police commissioner within ten or fifteen years. After that? Who knows. But before that destination can manifest, the journey must begin. If you share our common interest, Slam, then we expect you to step up and see that this investigation ends before it can go before a grand jury. Do this, Slam, and you'll be one of us."
Slam scratched his neck. "How?"
Thorne opened up the wooden box. He laid a stack of bills down on the table. C-notes tied together in two thousand dollar bundles. Ten thousand dollars in cold, hard cash.
Grogan spat tobacco into his cup and said, "Be creative."
06/22/46 The Gotham Arms
Scotty Lees dug into his nose and stared up at the ceiling. He sat on the bed while the radio played late night big band music. Slam sat on the other bed and chained-smoked. Night work, guarding Scotty from anybody who would do him harm. Ten grand stashed in the truck of his car assured he would be the one doing the harm. Thorne laid out the details. Goodnight Garcia would play ball once Scotty was dealt with. He'd spout qué? No hablo inglés to the DA until he was blue in the face. Slam's eyes fell on Scotty. Robert "Scotty" Lees: a pale as fuck heavyweight with bright red hair. The Glasgow Gouger had a record of 22-5-32. He had mush for brains and brayed like a donkey.
A radio commercial featured a talking rabbit shilling cars. Scotty hee-hawed and ate boogers. Slam stubbed his fifth cigarette out and stood. He peaked into the room next door. There's Goodbye Garcia sleeping his ass off. His bodyguard Officer Tommy Burke was ditto. They snored in sync. Slam closed the door softly and turned off the radio.
Lees said, "Aww... why'd you stop it?"
"We need to talk, Scotty. Answer a few questions for me."
"I can try, Slammy."
"What year is it, Scotty?"
Scotty made a face. It looked like somebody asked him to do advanced trig.
"What did you have for dinner tonight?"
"I... I don't remember."
"Who won when you boxed Chili Rodriguez?"
His eyes lit up. He said, "I did. It was by majority decision. Chili had a hell of a left cross, but I got underneath it and managed to go the distance with him. Nobody can beat me when I get my jabs working."
"Quick, Scotty, what's twenty-four times twelve?"
His eyes stayed bright. "Two hundred and eighty-eighty. See, some stuff I don't know good... but I can ‘member names and numbers. It's why I used to run bets for Frankie Momo and Mr. Thorne."
Slam cursed. He shook his head and adjusted his necktie. He sighed and cracked his knuckles.
"Come here, Scotty. I need to show you something."
Scotty stood and walked over. Slam guided him to the window. Sixth story looking down. Slam pushed him hard against the wall. He banged Scotty's forehead into the plaster. His eyes went cross. He went loopy. He babbled incoherently. Slam shoved him hard into the window. Scotty broke glass. He fell out the window screaming. Two seconds and then a loud crash. Slam looked out. Scotty's broken body resting on top of a parked car.
Max polished off a bottle of gin on the way to the crime scene. He swilled Listerine to help cover up the smell. He chewed gum to hide his booze breath. Rolling to the southside of the city in an unmarked. His notebook resting in the passenger seat.
Second straight month working the graveyard shift. Nights tapped him out. The work tapped him out. His career was tapped out at sergeant. Five straight lieutenant's exams, five straight times scoring at the top of the list, five straight times he was passed over. He had a reputation as a lush and someone with a hard-on for the rules. They could handle promoting a drunk to LT, but not a tight ass. So here he was. He worked the midnight to eight shift and paid a sitter to watch Mary while she slept. The late nights meant grief from his ex-wife. She'd left him before the war and never looked back. She was talking through a lawyer conduit, threatening to challenge him for full custody of Mary. Just one more problem on the pile.
The current call he was on came into the homicide pen twenty minutes earlier. He and Fields played rock paper scissors to decide who went. Max pulled scissors, Fields pulled rock. Max flipped him off and got his gear. He drove at a steady pace and no lights. It was a code 7, probable jumper. No rush on a suicide. He hit the brakes when he saw police lights.
Three prowl cars parked in a semi-circle around the Gotham Arms. Lights and crime scene rope. Max got his notebook and walked towards the tape. He flashed his badge to the uniform on sentry duty and identified himself: Sergeant Eckhardt, Homicide.
Max stepped on the scene and went to work with the layout and details. The DB: sprawled out on top of a car. A broken window six stories up. The body a white man, his pale skin cut up and bloody from the impact with the car. Someone loomed close by. Max turned. A big man with black hair eye-balled him. He had a good five inches on Max.
"You the homicide dick?"
Max said, "Yeah." They shook hands. "Sergeant Max Eckhardt."
"Detective Sam Bradley. I'm with Major Cases."
“I thought you looked familiar. I think--”
Bradley shook his head and looked down at Max.
"I did this..."
Max looked at Bradley and raised an eyebrow. "What's that?"
Bradley's hands shook. He swallowed loudly. "I was supposed to be protecting him and... I... he... just jumped."
Max frowned. He opened his notebook and got out a pencil.
Jameson’s article had come out faster than Peter expected it would, pumped into the heart of the city and then outward to its fringes. “Man-Spider Attacks Bugle Office, Assaults NYPD”. A sterling review of his first real endeavor, and they couldn’t even get his name right. At least paintbrush-head nailed the hyphen. Still, he had to spend the last God knows how many hours swinging through the streets and making double sure people knew what his real name was. If Jameson wouldn’t speak to him, maybe the city would.
Peter swung and released, switching hands and trying to cram the rest of his egg and cheese sandwich into his mouth, tracking it with half-lidded eyes. He tasted the wax of deli paper and hacked out a cough, wrenching a turn around the Manhattan Municipal Building. The tendrils of his mask snaked back around his mouth and he dropped a dozen feet, pulling a saliva-stained strand of paper from his mouth and letting it catch on the New York Wind. Gross. Another webline dragged him back into the sky and he was flying again.
He landed on a rooftop and pushed off of it, sailing clean past the flagpole he aimed for. Nuts. A web shot back out from his wrists and he hung there like a limp fish, listing in the gentle breeze. His sigh turned into a yawn and he pulled himself up, hand over hand, back to the top. Get it together, Parker. You’ve still got all of Harlem to look through. Joy, joy, joy… The neighborhood spread before him in a grey-brown haze, struggling out of the swirling miasma of the cracked streets below. Every building slumped into the next, devoid of any definition but for the inky blackness that swirled between them, crackling and bubbling and...
Peter shook his head and rubbed his temples, willing the sleep out of his system. The hard edges and definition came back to the place, solidifying out of the darkness. He let his breath go and focused on the rhythms of his costume. Tendrils of black fiber interlaced with one another, infinitely dense yet impossibly fine, all prehensile. They stood up all across his body, quivering in the biting wind. Through their vibrations, he began to feel it all coming in. The brickwork of the building behind him, lacing down and outward to the painted concrete a hundred feet below him. This was his web, spreading in and around him as he waited, focused, waiting for anything to trip his Spider-Sense. Somewhere at the edge, he felt the fringe of some grander presence, with a kind of gravity to it, dragging on his fibers, pulling him closer. It felt cool and metal and warm and fleshy all it once. It was legs and arms and a grand throne suspended in some network of webs, and -- Peter’s senses flinched all at once. Two blocks away, due north, brush of gunmetal against elastic waistband. Screams. There.
The twang of the flagpole echoed through the neighborhood as Peter threw himself into the air, firing two webs and slingshotting himself a half block ahead. He was a spider, skittering ahead and squeaking across dirty windows as he closed on his prey. He was silhouetted against the black concrete, a deep blue hoodie pressing a gun into the back of a passerby. He hadn’t heard Spider-Man yet. Good.
The suit sprang across the concrete as he landed, cushioning the fall and sending spikes of force deep into the earth. Before the mugger had time to turn around, Peter was upon him, throwing him into the air and following, dragging him on a webline; higher, higher. Peter put his whole body into it, flinging the crook up ahead and stumbling, but running up the building all the same. Spider-Man was on the edge of the rooftop and the gunman hung in the air, a dark stain against the shining beauty of the moon.
Then he was falling. Peter snatched him from the precipice of death, hand snapping on the man’s collar. The fabric ripped and he fell further inches, and then he dropped again, his scream blasting Peter’s eardrums. Goddamnit. He forced his eyes open and webline snapped to the man’s back.
“Oh God, oh Jesus, I--” The gunman stumbled over his words and pinwheeled in the sky, kicking at nothing.
“Shhhhh.” Peter said, again rubbing his temples. It felt good to close his eyes, just for a moment. “People are sleeping, man.” He pulled the thug up, bit by bit, as he swung and grasped wildly at the hair of webbing between him and death.
“Are-are you that, that...?” He was breathless, straining, eyes locked on the stark ground beneath him.
”Yeah, Amazing Spider-Man, jazz hands, blah blah.” Peter mumbled. He the webline to the edge of the building, crawling down to get a good look at the man. Huge, white, featureless bug eyes met his pair of dull browns and he squirmed, trying to wedge his way further back into the window. His piece had been lost in the climb, now probably shattered somewhere down through a hundred yards of freefall. Peter found himself staring into the cheap fabrics of the man’s coat, mesmerized by the simple patterns of the man’s coat, deeper and deeper and darker and -- his eyes shot open, and he sucked in a breath.
”I probably need to get through a lot of these tonight, so, yeah. Don’t make me, I don’t know, drop you or something. That’s what that Bat-dude from Gotham does, right?” Spider-Man stifled a yawn and tapped the man on his forehead and he jerked back, slamming his head against the glass.
“Don’t kill me!” He screamed. Peter blinked slowly, tuning out the screams and focusing on the weight in his eyelids. A response fought out of his consciousness.
”Just… Just keep your pants on. Guy robs a wrestling tournament a few days ago, shoots an old man on his way out. Don’t worry, it’s nothing serious, I just want to send him a postcard.” Peter groaned.
The robber shook his head back and forth, “No no man! No! That’s Tombstone’s racket, I don’t fuck with that!”
“Tombstone, I keep hearing that name. Spooky. Am I gonna have to fight Boris Karloff in a graveyard or something?”
The man looked at Spider-Man, as if for the first time. His skin was clouded, somehow darker than black, with impossibly long thin lips twisting into a smile that curled beyond the edge of his face and up into the very back of his jaw, rippling open to a mouth of jagged teeth that poked out at every angle. Eyes the color of curdled milk pierced through the lenses of Spider-Man’s mask, staring back at the boy beneath.
“Pe-ter Parr-ker.” Fluid the color of death drained from the man’s mouth and Peter jerked backward, stumbling down the wall, fighting to keep his grip and yet staggering, falling. He slammed a boot through the plate glass as he tried to regain his footing, scraping at the wall with his hands.
The thug flinched and closed his eyes as the sound of breaking glass erupted, trying to hide his head in his chest and throwing up his arms to cover himself. Everything was normal again. The thug was curled into a ball, backed as far against the window as he could be.
The suit vibrated around Peter, gradually coming to a halt as Peter fought to uncurl the balls his fists had wounded themselves into, going back up the sheer glass of the wall. One foot at a time. What was that? He was dimly aware of a buzz against his skin, his phone pressed tight against him in the fabric of his suit.
“I uh… I gotta take this. Take five.” A web sealed the thug’s mouth shut and Peter crossed onto the rooftop from the side, pulling his phone out from a web of cascading fibers. He answered.
”Peter?” May’s voice shook and crackled over the receiver.
“Uh, hey, Aunt May. Sorry I--”
“Oh thank God! Peter Benjamin Parker, where have you been?”
“Just uh… Just catching some air, May, I--”
“I’ve been worried sick!”
“May, it’s just a little--”
“It’s been three days Peter! I’ve been calling Anna Watson and Captain Stacy and I’ve been fighting like hell to get on the phone with Norman Osborn!”
May’s voice faded into the background of his thoughts. Three days? Impossible. He’d only been out… How many criminals had he shaken down? How long had it been since…?
”--and with that Spider-Man character on the loose! You’re coming home this instant, young man! Where have you been!?”
”I -- I’m sorry, I... Uh. It’s uh… It’s a long story, Aunt May, I--”
“No excuses, Peter! And with your Uncle in the hospital, I--” Peter could hear her shaking her head over the line. “We’re going to have a long talk when you get home. Right away.”
“Okay… I’m almost home. I’ll see you soon. I love you.” Peter couldn’t feel the words coming out of his mouth as he ended the call, not waiting for a response. Three days. Three days. It felt like hours. He thought back on it, crawling through the docks, swinging low through Hell’s Kitchen as the sun crested over the horizon. Three days, gone. Three days less for Ben. And nothing to show for it but a name. Tombstone.
Seventy-two hours of Spider-Man… Where does the time go?