The boy crouches outside the bedroom door, a kitchen knife gripped in his clammy hand. Someone has left the door ajar, just a crack, just enough for him to peer through and see his mother sprawled out on the bed senseless.

There is a strange man on top of her but they are not wrestling around the way adults usually do when they are in bed. The man has a broken bottle in his hand and he is grinding its sharp edge into the boy's mother, into the doughy skin of her stomach. There is blood and someone moans, but the boy can not be sure whether the sound comes from his mother or the fat man straddling her bare legs.

The boy pushes through the door and runs at the man, slashing the knife at his chest. The knife grazes flesh, slicing a thin red line across a pasty roll of flesh. The man gives an animal roar and tumbles off the bed.

- Goddamn it! Lousy little son-of-a-bitch!

The strange man stands up, clutching his shirt in his hand. He glowers at the ugly boy with the carrot-orange hair. The boy just stares at the blood trickling down the saggy paunch of the man's gut and onto the waistband of his hitched-up pants.

The man shoves the kid onto the floor with a single swipe of his hand then kicks him once, twice, a third time for good measure. That'll teach the snot-nosed little shit.

The boy curls his body into a tight ball the way he saw maggots do once, coiling up into sticky pearls on a dog's corpse. The kicks don't hurt too bad; the man is only wearing socks.

After the strange man storms out, slamming the door behind him, the boy eases out of his huddle. His mother is motionless on the bed, twisted around like store window mannequin that is being replaced, taken down for spare parts or new clothes.

- Ma?

He prods her waxen face with his hand.

- Sylvia?

The woman's face twitches and her eyes roll open.

- What? Walter, what are you doing?

She grabs the bedsheet and wraps it around her dumpy body. Blood blossoms through the white sheet, a vibrant geranium red.

- I told you to stay out of my room, you little pervert. But you don't listen to nothing, do you? Should have gotten rid of you when I had the chance. But now I'm stuck with ya, huh?

- Yeah. For now.

- Don't talk back to me. Jesus. I need some coffee. Why can't ya learn to make coffee?

His mother rolls out of bed and stumbles out of the bedroom, the bloodied bedsheet draped around her as a makeshift dress.

Walter sits on the floor and watches a silverfish scurry over the carpet and up the wall, before it squirms into a ceiling grate. He makes a decision. The next time Sylvia is in trouble, she's on her own.

Rorschach's journal:

Some whore tried to rent me her body while I was making my nightly rounds. Offer didn't tempt me. Woman looked like a water-logged corpse the carp had been nibbling at. Smelled like wilting flowers.

Cops dragged the Hudson yesterday looking for the little Patterson girl. No luck yet, but they have to keep up appearances, make their badges look shiny. Want to tell them to go look over in Times Square, over in Central Park West, after midnight, when the missing girls go on parade for the pimps, the perverts, the priests, the politicos, the public saints who preen for the cameras and then swill down sludge from the sewers.

Getting sick of living in this stew. The stench of it rises from the gutters and no matter how high the skyscrapers climb, nobody can get above it. I'm just a janitor here. Every night, I take out my pail and mop up the city's vomit.

Everybody gets excited when a new kid comes to the State Home. Suddenly, there's somebody new to beat up, to boss around and play with, to shake down for toys or books or nice shoes. It's easy to trick a new kid. They don't understand how things operate yet, so you can tell them to do just about any stupid thing and they'll try it, because they want make an impression.

When Bobby Cerari shows up at the State Home wearing a Salvation Army jacket and lugging a beat-up old suitcase, the kids know fresh meat when they see it. He's big and heavy for his age, with a round face that's already beginning to get jowly. When anybody bothers to talk to him, he frowns and knits his eyebrows together with a pensive expression, his blue eyes getting soft and watery as if they might start to dribble out tears. Bobby is an easy mark, so they dare him to go knock down the Kovacs kid, the scrawny red-head who lurks around the back fence, keeping to himself.

Bobby takes one look at Walter Kovacs and figures it's safe to shove him around a bit, just enough to give the others a few laughs. The kid is a shrimp, at least a head shorter than him, and so skinny his belt barely holds his drawers up. The kids follow Bobby as he heads towards the back fence, where Kovacs is sitting alone, drawing pictures in the dirt with a stick. However the fight works out, they know it will be a good show, better than anything they can see on the Home's black-and-white TV.

- Hey, Wally... that's your name, right?

- If you say so.

The red-haired kid resumes sketching in the mud. From where Bobby is standing, it looks sort of like a happy face, although he doesn't know what in the hell Wally Kovacs has to be happy about. Bobby rubs out the happy face with his foot.

- Well, I was just wondering something…How much does a guy have to pay to screw your mom?

The assembled mob hollers and cheers as Walter leaps forward, tackling Bobby to the grass. A freckled fist slams against Bobby's mouth and then another fist rams its knuckles into his cheek.

Bobby twists his body and kicks his legs, trying to get up, but Walter is sitting on him and the ugly bugger is heavier than he looks.

- That wasn't a polite thing to say. Why don't you tell me how sorry you are?

- Go to hell.

- Maybe we're already there.

The fists pummel him again. Bobby spits out a bloody kernel of tooth, gasping blood and displaying his new gaped smile. Walter pauses, glaring down at him, his ugly mug splotched with freckles the same color as rust.

- Are you getting sorry now?

- Fine. Whatever you want.

- Say it.

- I'm sorry.

Walter chuckles through clenched teeth.

- What are you sorry for?

- For saying that your ma was a whore.

- Isn't what made me mad. Nothing but the truth, right?

- Then what the hell do you want me to say sorry for?

- For being rude. For wrecking my drawing. Not nice at all. I don't like that.

- I'm sorry.

- Good. Now go bleed somewhere else.

Walter lets Bobby get back up and limp away, a jeering crowd of kids chasing after their fallen "champion" who is now just another chump. When the ward supervisor sees the damage, she sends Bobby to the hospital, another cause for commotion at the State Home. When he comes back, he has a black-eye, six stitches in his cheek and a space of bloody exposed gum where one of his front teeth used to be.

Bobby doesn't mess with Walter Kovacs again – in fact, he makes a point of avoiding him and shrinks back whenever the smaller boy walks by. It's funny to watch, but after a while, everybody stops laughing. They feel the same sense of skin-crawling dread whenever they see Kovacs' snub-nosed face, whenever he pins them with that dead-eyed glare.

New kids stop being a source of excitement once they've settled in and figured out the ropes. They're really only fun when the old gang can goad them into doing something stupid like trying to break into the supply cabinet, or talk them into something dangerous like sticking a finger in the light socket.

Only new arrivals try to pick on the Kovacs kid.

Rorschach's Journal:

Breaking fingers again. The satisfying snap of bones and then the whimpering, the crying, the fruitless pleading and denials. Sometimes the truth hurts.

Can't trust anything those hippie communists say, not until they've tasted a little pain. They'd rather spew Marxist-Leninist propaganda and play with their unwashed genitals than give a straight answer.

It's hard to feel sorry for the ones who didn't know anything. There is no such thing as an 'innocent bystander'. Everybody is guilty of something.

Walter snips the seams along the sides of the dress, black shapes undulating over the fabric as the gleaming scissors slice away the white threads holding the garment together.

The dress is boxy, sleeveless, A-line, a style that women used to wear in imitation of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. That was before somebody shot the president in the head, spattering blood and brains all over Jackie's pink pillbox hat. That style isn't in fashion anymore.

Touching women's clothing makes Walter uncomfortable, but he does it with the same grim resolve that got him through the State Home, the state school and all the other sordid facts of his life. He pores over dress patterns and measurements and coaxes thread through the narrow eye of a needle. He stuffs his mouth with pins while he sews, clamping down on them with his lips until he needs them to secure a seam. Working as a tailor has made his small hands nimble and surprisingly sensitive. He's developed a bad habit of squinting and although he stands only 5'4" in his stocking-feet, his hunched shoulders conceal an ape-like strength.

It's the fabric that interests him. The black blobs keep shifting over its white background, islands of darkness emerging from a void, disappearing only to rise again in new, insidious forms. In the fabric, black and white are absolutes, never mingling into the dingy grey of tenement buildings and rain-slick pavement. When Walter looks at the cloth, he sees an idea, something that's been simmering in the back of his brain for a long time now. He's taking the dress apart and making a mask, a better face than the one his mother gave him.

There's a newspaper lying out on his table, next to the Singer sewing machine. It's the New York Times, a liberal paper, one he doesn't usually read because he can't stand listening to the bleeding-hearts begging for hand-outs. He wouldn't have bought it from the vendor if it wasn't for the headline: "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police".

Walter never met the woman named Kitty Genovese. He just saw her name scrawled on an order form and then on a return slip, childish handwriting that sloped to the right. She didn't like the dress. She'd wanted a grey dress, not some bizarre science experiment composed of black and white blobs.

A few nights later, somebody stabbed Kitty Genovese to death while 38 people sat in their apartments, watching TV and trying to ignore the screams. The newspaper shows Kitty's picture in black and white at the top of the page. It quotes one of her neighbours, a man who explains that he delayed calling the cops because he "didn't want to get involved". The paper doesn't report what prevented the other 37 witnesses from intervening as Kitty Genovese bled out her life in the darkened courtyard, what stopped them from picking up a telephone and making the call that would save her or bring her killer to justice.

Walter Kovacs is sewing himself a mask, a new face, out of the rejected dress of a dead girl. When he puts it on, he'll be someone else, not the ugly son of a dead whore, not the frightened boy without a daddy, not the man who stitches frocks for murdered women. With the mask over his head, he'll play enigma, moral authority, night-time avenger. When criminals glimpse his new face, they will see only the product of their diseased minds, the rot and terror inspired by monstrous imaginations that have transformed the city into a slaughterhouse. He devises a name for the city's scum to know him by, a name for them to fear. They will call him Rorschach.

Rorschach's journal:

Made new acquaintance while doing surveillance with Owl. Called himself Captain Carnage and claimed to be a super villain, but was quickly revealed to be a particularly revolting class of sexual pervert. Red latex suit, chains and spiked collar were dead giveaways.

So-called Captain kept demanding that we hurt him, following us down apartment corridors and being a general nuisance. Owl advised to ignore him, said he would go away eventually, but strategy was unsuccessful. Elevator shaft worked much better.

Dan Dreiberg's kitchen is shabbier than one might expect, a bare, colourless room scrubbed spick-and-span but still inexplicably dingy. The table in the center of the room is old-fashioned and wobbles slightly when guests press their elbows upon it. It is no doubt a remnant from Dan's childhood, the place where his mother laid out hearty breakfasts every morning without fail, urging her Danny to eat, to eat, offering up food as the cure for his blechedich paleness, his myopia, his poor posture, his chronic and unhealthy interest in comic books.

Zadie Dreiberg would no doubt be astonished to discover that her boychick transformed himself into the masked adventurer of his childhood daydreams, taking up Hollis Mason's legacy as the second Nightowl. Yet without the benefit of his costume, Dan reverts into the rumpled figure of his youth, dreamy-eyed behind thick glasses, slumping over the kitchen table with a look of anxious bewilderment.

- The Keen Act is the final straw but this decision has been coming for a long time now; I guess I just didn't want to believe that it was all going to have to end someday.

Rorschach offers a grunt in reply and continues wolfing down baked beans out of an open can. He's removed his gloves but wears his mask even when he eats, miraculously managing to spoon the beans into his mouth without getting flecks of tomato paste on the edges of the black-and-white fabric.

Dan picks at a piece of lint on his nubby sweater.

- The truth is that they don't need us any more, not in the way that they once did. Hollis was right when he said that the age of masked adventurers couldn't last forever. The Keen Act just confirms it. You and I, Rorschach, we're being replaced by other heroes. The city will be fine without us.

Rorschach broods on this comment, masticating another mouthful of beans.

- Rapes, muggings, murders. Butchers and pedophiles on every corner. Status quo. Let them drown in their own shit and blood. The city will be fine.

- They'll hire more police officers, good people, the kind who started this sort of crime-fighting in the first place. In the end, we live in a country of laws and I have to be accountable to them, even if I don't always feel happy about it. I'm not to going fight the Keene Act. It's about time for me to move on, stop playing Nite Owl and put some real effort into being Dan Dreiberg, anyway.

- You and Mason can sit around collecting dust and talk about the good old days that never were.

- Don't get me wrong. I'm going to miss it. We've been a good team. We made a difference for a while, however small, and it meant something.

- Yeah. Keep believing that, Dreiberg.

Rorschach's left hand swipes across the serrated edge of the open can, slicing a gash across his palm.

- Damn.

The masked man doesn't start or flinch, just looks down and examines the blood with calm, almost clinical interest.

Dan scrounges through his trouser pocket and hands his former partner a white embroidered handkerchief.

- Here. You have to stop eating out of cans like that.

Rorschach eyes the white scrap of cloth as if it might be doused with something deadly. He finally tugs it out of Dan's hand, giving a disdainful snort at the stitched lettering on the side of the handkerchief which spells out 'Daniel' in syrupy cursive. When Rorschach presses the cloth to his palm, blood seeps through the cotton fibers.

- I'm not going to stop anything. Not cleaning up this town's trash. Not eating out of the can the food comes in. No compromise. Always told you that.

Dan sighs, shaking his bowed head. His dull brown hair already shows a few strands of silver.

- Yes, I know.

Rorschach stands up from the table and puts on his leather gloves, first the right and then the left.

- Time to go. Glad we had this chat.

- So that's it? You don't have anything more to say to me?

- What's left to say? You want me to convince you to keep fighting the tide of filth? I'm not that persuasive. Unless there's broken fingers involved.

- You know, I've been honest with you, but you've never even told me your first name. You still don't trust me enough to take off that mask.

Rorschach slows his step but keeps heading towards the door.

- Rorschach is the only name I've ever had. There's no mask to take off, Dan. This is my face. I take this off and all you're gonna see is skull-bone. Won't tell you anything worth knowing.

Dan picks the bloody handkerchief up off the table.

- Fine. Alright, then. I'll see you, Rorschach.

The masked man doesn't answer, just lifts a gloved hand slightly in a wave or a dismissal – it's hard for Dan to tell – before he slides out the door and merges into the darkened alley.

Dan balls up the handkerchief and shoves it in his pocket. It's only a few days later, when he goes to launder it, that he looks at the pattern of Rorschach's bloodstains and notices that they appear in a singularly odd configuration. Showing stark against the white fabric, there are two cloudy red dots and a long curved smear of blood, and just for a moment, it occurs to Dan that the marks create the crude impression of a smiling face.

He entertains the idea for a few seconds, chuckling under his breath, and then shakes his head as if to clear the absurdity and Rorschach's obstinacy from his mind. With a light flick of his hand, Dan drops the handkerchief into the laundry machine. It floats down amidst the linens, towels and grey-heeled tube socks ready to be washed clean.

Rorschach's journal:

1PM, corner of W. 38th and Broadway. Walk the street faceless, driven along the sidewalk by the steady press of human scum, the predators and their unknowing prey. We scurry around like rats in the concrete maze of this city. I watch everything. Carry my sign as a warning to anyone willing to see it: "The End is Nigh".

Kid comes up to me and asks, "The end of what?" Try to think up a good answer, but don't know how to tell a baby still bloody from the womb that it will die. Am almost grateful when kid's blubbery mother pulls him away by the arm, scolding. It's true: you shouldn't talk to strangers, kid. And everyone is a stranger.

It was a good question. The end is nigh, but don't know what is ending – last vestiges of decency, humanity, this abortion of a world? Have woken up from the American Dream and found the American Nightmare, this grinding horror of everyday life along the treadmill sidewalks. Righteousness has ceased to exist, has been replaced by gluttony, living off the fat of the land – the patriots have died and we wade through their blood.

It could be me that is ending. Walter still creeps out of the shadows, shows his ugly face, no matter how often I beat him down. He is stupid. He is weak. He wants to slow me down and I have work to do.

Can't afford any deadweight. This city hangs its heroes.

The wind is silent now, silent in the knowledge of oblivion. Adrian Veidt has destroyed millions of people, half the population of New York City. For what it is worth, Adrian Veidt may have just saved the world.

Two figures are walking along a cold sheet of ice. One is a small and determined man, shivering under a thin trench coat as he makes his way towards a spherical ship piled with snow. The figure following behind him is large and oddly calm, untroubled by the frigid conditions although he is naked and his skin is a frozen shade of blue.

Dr. Manhattan's voice is the only sound in the white abyss.

- Where are you going?

Rorschach rasps out an answer, although the cold makes it hard to breath, makes each word he speaks even more of a burden.

- Back to the owlship. Back to America. Evil must be punished. People must be told.

There is an ominous pause, a quiet complicity that exists between the superman and the back-alley crusader. Snowflakes flutter to the ground, soft as the wings of moths beating themselves to powder.

- Rorschach, you know I can't let you do that.

The masked man gives a soft groan, raises his hand to his hat as if he has forgotten something, caused himself an inconvenience.

- Of course. Must protect Veidt's new utopia. One more body among the foundations makes little difference. Well? What are you waiting for? Do it!

- Rorschach…

- DO IT!

The execution is mercifully quick, faster than human eye can perceive or human mind can process. One moment Rorschach stands in the snow screaming for death and the next moment, he has disappeared completely, his body replaced by a pulpy red substance and a few shreds of grey cloth.

Dr. Manhattan's handsome blue face betrays a hint of a frown. He believes his action to have been rational and necessary, expedient; he has simply reorganized an arrangement of atoms. It was Rorschach who was being unreasonable, who refused to acknowledge the limitations of his absolutist philosophy. Death came with speed and relatively little pain. Yet there is still a part of Dr. Manhattan that wonders why it all had to be so messy. He is growing weary of the petty entanglements of human lives, impatient with their trivial grievances. As he walks back over the snowbound landscape, having completed this final act of destruction, Dr. Manhattan envisions a voyage through unknown galaxies, the experiments he will undertake in the creation of life under the heat of distant stars.

What remains of Rorschach and what little is left of Walter Kovacs is blood spattered in the snow, meaningless red blots of gore. Yet, when viewed from directly above, the carnage acquires a distinctive pattern. It is what the poet Blake once described as a "fearful symmetry". If one looks carefully at the bloody mess, two red eyes seem to stare up from the snow and an amused mouth curves upward, as if smirking at death.

The bloody face smiles at the grey sky for a minute or two before the snow closes over it and the land is cold, limitless, barren, as pristine and peaceable as Veidt's utopia.

Rorschach's journal:

For my own part, regret nothing. Have lived life, free from compromise…and step into shadow now without complaint.