The First Night
The Terror Comes
The night seemed very much like any other. The people of Gotham City hurried from one street to another, fearfully skirting the darker districts where they could, but wherever they went, they went with bowed heads and watchful eyes, fearful of what nightmares might suddenly rise out of the darkness. Harsh neon and electric lights gilded the streets, while high above the windows of lighted skyscrapers shone like stars.
Wayne Tower, one of the tallest structures in Gotham, stood still and silent. Its employees were nearly all gone for the night, and few of its rooms were illuminated. Its lower regions were bathed in the streetlights, but its upper floors were wreathed in shadows, save for the great illuminated 'W' on it front
High up on its face, near the summit, one of these shadows slid in through an open window. It landed upon the soft carpet of the office, crouched still for a moment, then slunk along the wall in a noiseless, graceful kind of crawl.
The shadow approached a large, gilt-framed portrait, its subject indistinguishable in the darkness. Light, graceful fingers ran along the rim of the painting, found a catch, and noiselessly swung the painting out upon its hinges to reveal a large wall safe. The shadow's fingers at once began to work at the combination lock with an expert's touch.
Suddenly, the shadow froze. A smile curled at it's lips: full lips in a small, elegant mouth.
"I was beginning to think you didn't care anymore."
Selina Kyle, the Catwoman turned around and pressed her back against the wall. Another shadow stood in the corner of the office: tall, broad, with pointed ears.
"You shouldn't be here, Selina," said Batman.
"It isn't like Wayne would miss anything in there," she said. "He probably bought it for one of his floozies and forgot all about it."
"Regardless," said Batman. "It doesn't belong to you. Step away from the safe."
She sighed, scrambled the combination, and took a few steps forward, swaying her lithe body in a deliberately eye-catching manner. She was dressed from head to toe in a black leather costume that clung to her curves as though painted on. Her eyes and the upper part of her face were hidden in a cowl, but that did little to disguise her beautiful and strongly feminine features.
"So, what happens now?" she asked. "Are you going to punish me for being such a bad kitty?"
"You know you ought to give this up, Selina," he said.
"I have to do something to get your attention," she said with a shrug of her slender shoulders. "A girl can't just pick up a batsignal and call, can she? Not that you seem to pay any attention to little old me these days. Just last week I took the Midas Ruby from the Gotham museum, and you didn't even notice."
She slowly unzipped the top of her costume just enough to show the gleaming red jewel lying upon her chest.
"Such a lovely thing," she sighed, fingering it. "Almost unique."
He could tell she was watching him out of the corner of her eyes, observing his reactions.
"It's supposed to be cursed, you know," she went on. "Legend has it that whoever wears the jewel will find the deepest, most desperate desires of her heart coming true…."
She looked full at him.
"Doesn't seem to be working too well for me, does it? But I wonder what would happen if we gave it to you?"
"You need to put that back," he said.
"You're no fun at all," she said with a pouty expression as she zipped up.
"I meant put it back in the museum," he said.
"But I haven't got my wish yet," she answered. "Anyway, if it's so important, how come you couldn't spare a moment to stop me from stealing it?"
"I was busy," he said.
"Hm, why do men always think that's a good excuse? Let me guess: that affair with the Joker and the Hatter."
A series of strange events involving otherwise respectable people acting completely out of character had led Batman to discover that Jervis Tetch, the Mad Hatter, had been refining his mind control technology in collaboration with the Joker. His new device would allow him to control an almost unlimited number of people and at a distance. Batman had fought his way through a small army of dominated thugs and shut the machine down mere minutes after it had been fully activated. The Hatter – nearly catatonic from the strain of the device – had been taken into custody, but the Joker and Harley Quinn had slipped away in the confusion and remained at large.
"Never mind," he answered.
"So it was that," she said. "Stood me up and the Joker still got away. I'm hurt. Almost makes me want to put the silly thing back after all."
"Do it," he said. "I don't want to have to take you in, Selina."
"I wish you would," she said. "Oh, wait, you meant to jail, didn't you?"
"Still trying to make a respectable woman out of me?" she said, drawing yet closer to him. "You're sweet. Maybe if I had some...motivation…."
Her gloved fingers touched the rippling muscle of his arm.
At that moment, the receiver in Batman's ear crackled.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything, sir," said the voice of Alfred Pennyworth. "Only, I just heard something on the police band that I thought you would want to know."
"What is it?" he said, turning away from Catwoman.
"Typical," she sighed. "Married to your work."
"It seems there's been an…incident at the Iceberg Lounge."
"Ah…not exactly, sir. You had best go there as soon as you can."
"I'm on my way."
"So, you'd rather spend time with the Penguin than me?" said Catwoman. "That's downright mean."
Batman was unable to resist sparing her a small half smile.
"Business before pleasure," he said. Then his expression hardened.
"Bruce Wayne had better find everything in his safe tomorrow," he said.
With that, he sprang out of the window, spread his cape and glided out across the city.
Catwoman sighed as she watched him go.
"I'll take what I can get," she said. She then turned a mischievous eye around the office and grinned.
The Iceberg Lounge was one of the tentpoles of the Gotham nightclub scene: a posh establishment offering high-class dining and entertainment for the city's elite. More specifically, for the criminal elite. The Penguin had carved out a powerful niche for himself as one of the keystones of Gotham's underworld, brokering deals between the city's various gangs and crime bosses and providing them a secure place to meet and conduct business. These days he rarely committed open crime himself, preferring to pull the strings safe from his fortress in the center. It was known that he could get anything for anyone for the right price.
It was also known that no one who valued his life should attempt to cut into the Penguin's business. Cobblepot was feared more than any criminal in the city, save for the Joker himself. Otis Flannegan, the Ratcatcher, had once tried to run a parallel business using his rats to smuggle small items to his buyers. He had been last seen being dragged screaming into a sewer by Killer Croc, widely known to be working on Penguin's orders.
Batman, therefore, was unable to believe what Alfred told him until he actually stood in the Penguin's office and saw for himself. Even then it seemed incredible.
The office was ornate, built to resemble the interior of an old sailing ship, with wooden panelling on all surfaces and walls the sloped slightly inwards. Bird cages of Cobblepot's many pets hung from the ceiling or stood on shelves around the walls. These had been broken open, their inhabitants flocking about the room, or else perched on the great claw-footed desk.
Behind this, his feet dangling a foot from the ground, was the Penguin. His misshapen face was slumped over his chest, his eyes wide and faintly bewildered, his famous monocle dangling from its chain like a spider on a web. And in the middle of his once-white waistcoat, the handle of one of his notorious umbrellas was protruding from the folds of his vast stomach.
Oswald Cobblepot was dead. Murdered. Someone, it seemed, had snatched up the Penguin's umbrella and stabbed him with it hard enough to lift him off the ground and pin him to the wall of his office.
The police were on their way. They would be there any second. Batman looked around the room, paying particular attention to the chair where any visitor would have sat. It was tipped over, as though its occupant had sprang up suddenly, but otherwise it held no clues for him.
Someone had come in to see the Penguin. That was ordinary enough. There had been an argument. Also unsurprising. The visitor had sprung at Penguin over the desk, a struggle, he gets hold of Penguin's umbrella and then….
Yes, that fit. But it would have taken tremendous force to lift him and pin him to the wall like that. Possibly even a superhuman degree of strength. Also, Batman thought, it couldn't have just been anyone: the Penguin had been too cunning to be caught napping like that. It would have been someone he knew, someone he thought he had no reason to fear.
The door to the office flew open, and Commissioner Jim Gordon burst inside. He saw Batman, then saw the Penguin.
"God in Heaven," he said. "I never thought I'd see the day."
He turned to his men.
"All right, this is a murder scene. I want the Iceberg Lounge locked down, you understand? No one gets in or out for any reason. Then I want you to tear this place to bits and bring me everything you find. Cobblepot was in with every low-life in the city, and I want to know everything he knew."
His myrmidons set to work as Gordon, accompanied by the hulking form of Detective Bullock, shut the door to the office and turned to Batman.
"So, you want to confess now or go down to headquarters?" asked Bullcok.
"Don't be stupid, Bullock," said Gordon. "If Batman had killed him, he wouldn't have waited around for us to show up. I take it he was like this when you got here?"
"Yeah, well, I wouldn't be so upset if you had," Bullock muttered. "I've wanted to do just that to the little buzzard for a long time now."
"Work fast, Commissioner," said Batman. "Word of his death will get out soon, and certain people will start to panic."
"I'm already on it," he answered.
"Were there any witnesses?"
"What makes you think you get to ask questions?" Bullock demanded, but Gordon spoke over him.
"Not to the killing, but a couple beat cops said they saw a blonde young woman running out of the back door. That's what prompted them to investigate, and thank God they did. Gave us a chance to lock the place down before the Penguin's people could clear it out. We're still trying to trace the woman."
There was a beeping sound and Gordon picked up his radio.
"This is Gordon….What? You sure it's him?" he whistled. "I'm starting to think this is my lucky night, but don't tell anyone I said that."
Bullock's eyebrows rose in surprise and Batman eyed the commissioner sharply.
"What is it?"
"Well, he can wait and I don't care who you put on it; this is top priority. Victor Zaasz," he added to the other two. "They just found him a few blocks away with his throat cut."
The body of Victor Zaasz lay on a promenade along the Gotham river, which was really an inlet of the sea. He was on his back, the knife that he had once used so effectively clutched in his hand as though it were a part of him. His jacket was open, revealing that he wore no shirt underneath and that his whole torso was covered in tally marks: scars that he had carved into his own flesh to mark the number of victims he had killed.
Tonight, someone had made the final mark for him: a diagonal gash connecting four tally's on his neck, which had been cut so deep that it had severed his jugular. A pool of blood spread around the dead serial killer like a red halo.
"How long has he been here?" Batman demanded.
The crime scene technician jumped upon finding himself addressed by the Batman.
"A…a half hour, I guess?" he stammered. "Blood's only just begun to dry."
"Did anyone see anything?"
The detective in charge – a rookie not yet trusted enough for Gordon to have brought him to the Iceberg Lounge – shook his head.
"No one we've found yet, sir. Young lady out walking her dog found the body, she's over there."
Batman turned to where a pretty young woman with brown hair and glasses was being plied with steadying tea in a squad car.
The scene reconstructed itself in his mind: Zaasz had been lying in wait, probably for this very girl. But someone had found him here and forced the knife into his own throat.
Again, there was the implication of great strength. Zaasz was lean and wiry, but he was a powerful man nonetheless, his lithe muscles driven by homicidal madness. Judging by the way he gripped the knife, it had never left his possession. It was just possible, of course, that the killer had done the deed with his own blade, and that the blood on Zaasz's weapon would prove to be his. But Batman didn't think so, somehow.
He left the scene. There was nothing more to be done here, and he needed to think.
Two murders, both of notorious criminals, both using their own weapons against them, and both suggesting great strength on the part of the killer. That couldn't be a coincidence.
Was it possible there was another vigilante in town?
Batman's brooding was interrupted when the Bat Signal flashed across the sky. No...that wasn't the Bat Signal. It was an obscene parody of it, the bat flipped over into a wide grinning mouth.
Perfect. Just what I needed tonight.
The Gotham pier was normally a place of fun and relaxation, which of course made it exactly the kind of place the Joker liked to target for his sick games.
Now, mere hours before dawn, nothing was open and the boardwalk was deserted, though the street lamps sill twinkled like ghosts in the mist. Thick grey fog enveloped the pier, making it seem as though it were its own dream-world, cut off from the rest of the city. Out on the midway the dim outlines of idle carnival rides loomed like prehistoric monsters through the mist.
Batman walked amidst this faded grey world, watching for any sign of trouble. The fog muffled sound as well as sight, and the rumble of Gotham traffic less than a quarter mile off was lost. The only sounds apart from Batman's own soft footfalls were the faint rustlings and clinking of the sodden awnings and the constant back-and-forth susurration of the sea beneath.
The parody bat signal was coming from the faux wooden fort that formed the entrance to the midway: a gatehouse flanked by miniature turrets guarding a wide tunnel about ten feet long. Pedestrian gates closed it off at this hour.
As Batman approached the gatehouse he became aware of another sound: a faint bumping noise, as when a buoy rocks against a dock.
He found he was not the first on the scene. A uniformed officer was standing outside the little amphitheater directly across from the gatehouse, his back pressed against the wall, gun out, eyes watchful.
"Batman!" he said. "Thank God you're here! That thing just went up about ten minutes ago. I got here as quick as I could, but...well, I didn't see him."
"What did you see?"
"Nothing. I radioed for backup and just…" he seemed to get a grip on himself. "Nothing to report, sir. Haven't seen anything."
"Have you investigated the Midway?"
The man stared at him as if he were insane.
"You kidding? I feel like I'm gambling my pension just standing here!"
He was right. The man was obviously brave and conscientious, but to ask an ordinary cop, probably with a family, to go hunting for the Joker through a mist-filled midway was too much.
"Wait here," he ordered, and he grappled up to the roof of the gatehouse, expecting an ambush or a trap to spring at every second. But nothing happened. All was quiet except for that strange bumping sound beneath the docks.
Batman switched off the spotlight and tore the grotesque grinning face from the lens. Darkness settled back down over the deserted pier. He stood at the edge of the gatehouse and looked down over the midway. In the center was the bulky, exaggerated form of the funhouse, from which a set of spotlights shone on something small and dark lying on the damp boards.
Still exercising great caution, Batman dropped down and approached the object. It was, he saw, a plush cartoon bat, probably taken from one of the games. The seam on its head had been opened and some of the stuffing had been pulled out. Pinned to the front was a note written in large, garish green writing.
Batsy lost his mind?
Batman frowned over it. It didn't make any sense to him. What was the Joker trying to say?
He turned his face to the funhouse. Not wanting to waste time finding his way through the maze, he shot a grappled to the second story.
Up here was the control room for the ride below, where bank of monitors gave eyes to every part of the house. It was empty now, and there was no one in sight.
The upper story was comprised of a suite of two rooms besides the control room: a lounge with a moth-eaten sofa, TV, mini fridge, and a few other bits of furniture, and a storeroom where spare pieces of equipment were kept: masks, costumes, and several full-length mirrors set up in the corner.
There was no one here. The Joker was gone.
As Batman left the funhouse the way he'd come, he spotting swift movement out of the corner of his eye. Turning sharply, he caught a fleeting glimpse of a shadowy figure darting off among the tents.
At once he gave chase. But the figure had vanished, leaving nothing but the shadows and the damp hangings of tents blowing in the breeze.
Frowning to himself, Batman left the midway perplexed and more unnerved by the clown's non-appearance than he would have been by any actual trap. Everything tonight, he reflected, had been subtly off; not at all the usual Gotham mystery. The sudden deaths of Penguin and Zaasz. The Joker first challenging him, then disappearing with only the seemingly-pointless message of the plush bat. The mysterious figure glimpsed disappearing among the shadows. They didn't seem to add up to any kind of a pattern, and yet Batman was reluctant to believe that they all could happen in one night by sheer coincidence.
At the theater he found the cop had gone. Apparently, he'd considered his job done once Batman had shown up and made tracks. Batman could hardly blame him.
And still there was that noise beneath the boards: bump-bump. Bump-bump. Like a slow heartbeat in time with the waves.
Batman bent down and peered through the slats, shining a light into the water beneath. There was something there; a large, bulky shape caught against the piling. All he could see of it was that it was greenish in color.
Not far from the gatehouse was an access panel to a ladder leading down beneath the boardwalk to allow for maintenance and rescue work. Batman unlocked it and descended beneath the pier. It was high tide, and the water was only about twelve feet or so below the walkway. Clinging to the ladder with one hand, he shone the light over the water, searching for the large green object.
He found it.
Waylon Jones AKA Killer Croc lay face down in the water, his massive form covered with innumerable wounds, all washed clear by the sea. It was hard to tell from this distance, but Batman thought that it looked like something had been eating him.
Batman drew out his grapple and fired a line at the body. Croc didn't move as the grapple caught him, and this more than the wounds convinced Batman that he really was dead.
With great effort, he pulled the monstrous form to the ladder, then climbed out and, with the help of a nearby post to act as a pulley, heaved Jones's huge body up onto the pier.
Waylon Jones had stood nearly seven feet high, his teeth filed to fangs, his scale-like skin – disfigured by a rare birth defect – stretched tight over rippling muscles earned as a circus strongman. But now he looked strangely pathetic, his eyes fixed in an expression of shock, his body torn and empty-looking, like a deflated sack.
He looked, in fact, very much like his own victims often had.
Batman bent over and examined the massive carcass. Croc wore no clothes other than a dirty and much-torn pair of trousers. His wounds were ragged, clearly bite wounds rather than gunshots or stab wounds.
Something – or by the look of it many somethings – had torn Killer Croc to shreds.
"Repulsive," said a familiar voice. "But then, he always was."
Batman whipped around, but he was alone on the dock.
"Nygma," he said. "Where are you?"
"You needn't trouble yourself with searching, Batman, I'm not here," said the voice of the Riddler. "Good thing too. I wouldn't want to be on the streets tonight."
"Is it possible he doesn't know? My, my, and they call him the world's greatest detective! What a slur on the profession."
Batman looked hard into the gloomy, mist-filled night. He could just hear a fair whirring sound, like a miniature helicopter.
"If you're talking about Zaasz and Penguin, I know about that already."
"I know you do. I've been watching you, Batman. Watching all around the city, in fact. Penguin and Zaasz were just the beginning, I'd wager. But I wonder how long it will take you to catch up?"
"I suppose you know who's been doing this. If it is just one killer."
"That would be telling," said the Riddler. "It's not how the game is played.
"In other words, you don't know," Batman retorted. "You're bluffing."
"Oh, am I?" snapped the Riddler, and Batman was pleased to find he was rattled. "Then let me ask you this to hopefully set you on the right track:
"Who is he and what does he hold,
That fears not danger, hunger, or gold?
"Think on that, Batman," he concluded, "and see what can you can make out of it. I see that it's almost dawn. What will tomorrow night bring, I wonder?"
Gordon was trying his best to keep Cobblepot's death quiet. He'd successfully muzzled the Iceberg Lounge workers by holding them 'on suspicion' while his men continued to search the building. He'd also put out a discrete notice to be on the look out for the mysterious blonde woman seen fleeing the scene without letting on why she was wanted. He couldn't, however, hide the news about Killer Croc and Zaasz.
All that was allowed to leak out was that the two notorious murderers were both confirmed dead, and that Zaasz was thought to be a suicide. The mysterious and ominous circumstances of Killer Croc's demise were likewise kept quiet, it only being said that he was found floating near the pier.
Gotham, therefore, greeted the news with something approaching jubilation; two of the most feared criminals in the city gone in one night! It was enough, as television host Jack Ryder put it, to make one hope the city might actually turn around.
It wasn't long before they had further good news. A construction company working on a new movie theater had come in to work to find that a large slab of concrete had been poured in the night. More than that, a name had been signed into the cement while it was still wet:
Beneath the name were a set of handprints. Only they weren't impressed upon the cement, but seemed to be reaching out from underneath the stone. The police were summoned, and the slab broken open to reveal the crumbled, dry remains of what had once been the notorious Clayface. His mud-like body had blended with the cement so that it was almost impossible to tell where he ended and it began. But there was no doubt that he too was dead.
"Four deaths in one night," Bruce Wayne mused to himself upon reading the news on his morning drive.
"Indeed, sir," said Alfred from the driver's seat. "One might say someone is taking the direct route to cleaning the city."
"I don't think this is altruistic, Alfred," said Wayne. "The deaths are too brutal for that."
"Someone sending a message, perhaps?"
"Or wanting it to look that way. But I'm worried about what's going to happen if someone gets in his way. And I'd like to know how he judges these things."
"Quite so, sir. Though so far, if I may say so, I have no quarrel with the results."
"I'm not saying the world isn't better off without those four in it," said Wayne. "But this isn't the right way to do it."
"Indeed, sir. Most uncivilized."
Wayne re-read the article on Clayface. He wondered again and again just what means the killer had found to slow that monster down enough to bury him alive.
The idea disturbed him more than he would have cared to admit. Penguin and Zaasz were one thing, but to eliminate the likes of Clayface and Killer Croc with such apparent ease...that suggested a frightening degree of power or cunning or both.
Wayne considered whether he ought to try to get in touch with Dick and Barbara. They were off working a case in Europe, and he hadn't heard from them in weeks. He wasn't worried – they could take care of themselves – but he didn't especially like it either. The two of them had been striking out on their own much more often lately, reaching beyond Gotham, carving out their own role in the world apart from him. From him, but not from each other.
Thinking of those two made him feel strangely old and empty. This must be how parents felt when their children grew up and left the nest. He decided he wouldn't try to call them.
Wayne entered his office, and his thoughts were suddenly diverted. His desk had been picked clean of every single item it had contained, down to the last paperclip. Upon investigation, however, he found that the contents of the safe had been left completely untouched.
"Very funny, Selina…." he muttered.