It was raining as Walter Kovacs made his way to work, the sort of rain that bounces straight off the sidewalk and hits you twice. Walter was in a hurry, having overslept (not that he’d ever admit it) after a long patrol and worried that this time his boss would have had enough. So when a man shot out of a rundown apartment block and bulldozed straight into him, he let it go with barely a snarl. The man shoved him away with dirty hands and tattooed knuckles. “Outta my way you little creep!”
Walter stepped back , adjusting his dishevelled coat where unwelcome hands had touched it. Noticing a piece of paper flutter from within the other man’s coat, he bent and picked it up. A now-very-damp blue slip with six numbers printed in a box on one side. “You dropped this” Walter tried to cram as much accusation as he could into the words.
The man, already at the corner of the street, retorted over his shoulder “Fuck off, runt!”
Walter clenched his fists and hovered in the teeming rain, on the point of chasing after the stranger and teaching him some manners. He had been Rorschach every night for over ten years now and it was galling to be insulted on the street when he could so easily take the insulter down. But there was no honour in fighting out of uniform like a street thug so he let the man go, watched him get into an illegally parked car and drive off breaking the speed limit. Walter memorised the licence plate without really meaning to. A good memory was crucial to vigilantism and the ability to commit lists of numbers, rough descriptions, long addresses to memory had become reflex over the years. Later he would scribble the number into his journal in case he and his partner ever had need to investigate the comings and goings at this apartment building on this notorious street.
For now, he was late for work. He shoved the slip of paper into his pocket so as to avoid dirtying a city he spent his nights vainly trying to clean up, and went on his way.
Work was the same as it always was: one long, monotonous exercise in autopilot. Walter’s hands shook slightly as he fed the first whorishly short outline of a dress into his sewing machine. He paused, flexed the tremor out of his fists and resumed, adding a row of lockstitch that sealed the garment’s shape, condemning it to be worn loosely by loose women. In a few years these dresses would be discarded, out of style or worn thin. The fabric was cheap, chosen for its built in obsolescence. Why sell clothes that would last and put off the purchaser’s need for more new clothes? Not pride in a job well done, that was certain. Not in this place.
This was a transient place, fuelled by a workforce that came and went within months. Walter was vaguely aware that everyone thought he was strange for staying so long but he didn’t care. He was used to being thought strange. No-one had ever thought anything else about him. So he ignored the disdainful stares from fleeting co-workers and the puzzled glances from superiors wondering why he hadn’t applied for promotion yet or left to better prospects. He simply turned up every day, completed his pile of garments and clocked off in time to get on with his real job.
And, recently, he tried to ignore the chatter of the two young women who worked on the machines opposite his. They were both foreign, one French and one Mexican, both young, barely twenty, and both – from what their loud and candid conversations revealed – promiscuous. Since they had started three months ago, Walter had spent every shift determinedly not listening to them. He focused on his work and went over evidence from the latest cases in his head to try to block them out. But they were enthusiastic and gleefully expressive whatever the topic and sometimes, much as he tried not to listen, he often couldn’t help hearing.
The time they had shamelessly discussed methods of contraception had been horrific.
Today they were talking about a rollover, whatever that was. He probably didn’t want to know. It sounded filthy.
It was still raining when he left, harder than ever, so that a small crowd of his co-workers were huddled at the exit, reluctant to step outside. Walter had no time for that reluctance; he had only a few hours to sleep before patrol, so he slipped through the knot of people and into the downpour.
It quickly became apparent that waiting a few minutes might have been wise after all. It wasn’t raining so much as bleeding, the water pouring from open wounds in the sky. He was reminded of a nature documentary Daniel had persuaded him to sit through that had featured the Indian monsoon. Soon his pants were sticking to the skin of his legs and rain was running down his face and dripping off his chin and lips and eyebrows.
He stuffed his hands into his pockets and headed for his apartment, pausing only as he passed a bus stop and connected the piece of paper under his fingers with a ticket. He pulled it out hoping it might be valid on this route but found that, though bus ticket sized, it wouldn’t allow him to travel warm and dry. It was just the lottery ticket the unpleasant man he’d encountered that morning had dropped. Useless. He glanced around for a trash can but saw none (not that it was easy to see much in this deluge) and put it back in his pocket, resigned himself to walking.
When he finally reached his apartment building his hair was plastered to his head and the hem of his coat was dripping. At his door, Mrs Shairp was waiting to ambush him. “Rent’s due, Kovacs.” She bounced the latest baby on her hip and he realised she’d brought it along to try to make him feel guilty or maybe even to discourage any desperate action on his part. He would never resort to violence over a rent dispute but she didn’t necessarily know that and had brought the child along as a human shield. He didn’t acknowledge her as he stepped past and put his key in the lock. She hovered nearby. “Don’t you ignore me! Where’s my rent?”
“The shower’s broken” he told her.
“How’s that my problem?” She jiggled the baby as it began to snivel.
Walter sighed. “It needs to be fixed.” Rain water was trickling down the back of his neck.
“Oh yeah? And I’m meant to pay for that how exactly?”
Walter turned the key but she sidestepped, knocking into his arm so that he had to let go of the key and drop his hand to his side rather than touch her.
“I can’t pay a plumber unless someone coughs up for living in this shit hole” she snapped. “And your rent’s due. Over due.”
“You’ll get it by end of the week”
“Not at the end of the week – I need it now!”
“I didn’t say at end of the week, I said by end of week”
“Try by the end of the day, or someone else’ll be living here by the end of the week!”
Walter studied her for a moment and decided she was serious. After all, there was another fatherless mouth to feed. He wouldn’t be surprised if she upped her charge next. Reluctantly he nodded and she finally let him open the door.
He stepped quickly inside and shut the door in her face. She swore and hammered her fist against it, provoking a yowl from the baby.
Inside, Walter shrugged off his sopping coat and hung it on a chair by the heater. Then he did a quick search of the pockets of various items of clothing in case they contained any cash he’d somehow forgotten about. He came up empty, but for the lottery ticket. He wondered briefly if she’d accept that in lieu of money. The whore probably believed in gambling.
A particularly loud bang on the door broke the thought. “Kovacs!” Mrs Shairp yelled through the lock, “Don’t you fucking hide in there!”
Grumbling, he tossed the ticket aside and reached under his bed. Here he kept the only four books he owed, all given to him at Charlton. A Bible that they gave to every boy, and three gifts: one for winning a prize for his school work, one for turning sixteen and one as a parting token. Unable to scrape together enough for a minimum bank deposit, he sometimes secreted the odd dollar between the pages in case of emergency. A screaming landlady demanding money wasn’t really an emergency, but homelessness would be. He reluctantly opened The Count of Monte Cristo at page three, The Iliad at page twenty one and The Old Man and the Sea at page fifty (He didn’t keep any money in the Bible because that would be wrong). There was nowhere near enough for rent but it was a start.
After hiding the books again, he stood up and opened the door to Mrs Shairp and the baby, both red faced and noisy by this time.
He stuffed the notes into her fist. She scrutinised them, glancing up to glare at him. “Where’s the rest of it?”
“You’ll get it tomorrow.”
“I’d better, or you’ll be finding out how hospitable Central Park is. And dry yourself up, you smell like a wet dog!”
Back in his room he turned the heater on at last. It rattled into life, the slightly smoky scent of it as unnerving as always, but at least it dispelled some of the damp smell that took root in the walls whenever it rained hard. Walter shed the rest of his wet clothes, towelling himself down and slipping on dry items as he went, so that he wasn’t completely naked at any point. That done he gave his hair a brutal scrub and tossed the towel into the corner. He climbed into bed for a few crucial hours of sleep before patrol.
Dan knew Rorschach would be pissed with him for running late but he wasn’t about to patrol on an empty stomach (unlike some people he could mention). When Rorschach appeared like a menacing apparition in the living room doorway, Dan was still on the couch eating take out pizza and watching TV. Unnecessarily Rorschach pointed out, “You’re late Daniel”
“Sorry man; just one of those days. Come and sit down”
Rorschach just made a fed up noise and stayed where he was. Dan shrugged and went back to eating. Actually he was tempted to take his time deliberately just to try and force it into Rorschach’s stubborn head that it was perfectly normal to want dinner before running around in the cold. He didn’t though, knowing that it would just cause an argument. Between mouthfuls he asked, “Have you eaten?”
Inwardly, Dan berated himself for not specifying a time. Rorschach would have interpreted the question to suit his negligent lifestyle. His yes didn’t even confirm he’d eaten that day. Dan swallowed and clarified, “Have you eaten in the last few hours?”
There was a sulky silence from the doorway.
Dan rolled his eyes. “Look, just come in and have a slice of pizza, can’t you?”
“I’ll eat later. I’m not wasting time now.”
“Well I’m not leaving until I’ve had dinner so you might as well eat while you wait.”
There was a pause during which Dan could sense Rorschach considering just leaving without Dan (it wouldn’t be a first), and then his partner finally came into the room properly, sat down at the other end of the couch and helped himself to pizza. Dan smiled as the mask went up and Rorschach began to devour the food.
For a while they ate in silence. Then Rorschach gestured to the TV. “Why are you watching this?”
“Oh” Dan picked up the remote. “I wasn’t really – it just came on.” He switched from the lottery draw to the evening news on a different station, and then turned the set off. Watching the news with Rorschach was never a wise move.
After a while Rorschach nodded meaningfully at the clock. “We’ll miss their dealer at this rate. You should have been ready earlier.”
“We’ve got hours before they meet up with him. Don’t worry.” Nevertheless Dan ate quickly after that and they left for another long night.
An hour later found them stationed on a rooftop looking out over an empty parking lot. The rain had stopped but it was still miserably wet and Dan was glad for the watertight material of his costume. He felt sorry for Rorschach soaking the fabric of his pants as he knelt behind an air vent, but still couldn’t resist whispering, “I told you we had plenty of time. They’re not going to be here for ages; we could have waited on Archie.”
“They might have come and gone” Rorschach growled back, but Dan shook his head. The guys they were after were basically nocturnal and there was no chance they’d show before near midnight.
He tried, “We could go back to Archie and try to spot them from the air.”
“One car looks much like another from the air.”
“Not to me. My goggles will recognise their licence number from last time.”
“But not their dealer’s.”
“True. I’m just thinking of you, buddy, you’re going to get soaked if we’re up here all night.”
Dan gave up and focused on the concrete landscape below. The world through his goggles was bright and uncluttered. A mere glance told him the temperature of the night sky above or the ground below. When the gang members showed up, all the data they had on them would pop up on the periphery of his vision.
He was right about their timing: it was a little past midnight when they finally showed. The car swung into view and its licence number flashed up briefly in Dan’s left lens before shrinking and labelling the vehicle as its wheels ground slowly to a stop.
Beside Dan, Rorschach was motionless in the way a predatory animal is still before it pounces. Up here they were both birds of prey, waiting to swoop down as soon as the dealer showed up.
The dealer was the one they’d been hungry to catch, a middle man with information about the big time drug smugglers further up the chain. It was information the petty criminals he was meeting tonight simply didn’t have, no matter how much they’d wish they did if Rorschach was the one asking. He also had links to most of the street corner sellers in the city so if they could put him away, the supply of heroin on the streets might be significantly disrupted. That alone would throw up opportunities to catch more dealers. Dan could sense success waiting just a few feet below.
When the second car came into view Rorschach’s fists clenched. Dan reached for his goggles and clicked them into the setting that allowed him to photograph the car and the man getting out of it and approaching the first vehicle. The four men in the first car stepped out to meet him and Dan made sure to get a snap of the moment a large suitcase was handed over. That done, he and Rorschach were ready to leap into their ambush.
Rorschach took the dealer out straight away, smacking him to the ground and moving on to another two thugs. Dan head butted a third and then chased after the man with the suitcase, who’d decided to leave his friends to deal with the newcomers.
Tossing the case into the car, the man swung round to punch Dan and then jumped in after it. There was a screech of tires as he tried to drive off without troubling to shut the door. Dan gave chase. As the car swerved to leave the parking lot he threw himself onto the hood, causing the vehicle to twist to the side.
With a flick of his wrist, Dan pierced the hood with a hook that popped out of his armour, securing him to the car. He could see the man at the wheel yelling at him but the words were lost in the swell of the engine as the car swerved again, heading straight for the wall of one of the surrounding buildings. Quickly, Dan hauled himself forward, reached for the still-open door flapping at the side of the car and flipped himself in, kicking out at the driver as he did so. Before his opponent could fight back, Dan knocked him out and focused on stopping the car, simultaneously changing its suicidal direction and slamming his foot down hard on the brake.
The vehicle stopped with its side mirror just touching the wall.
Dan let out a shaky sigh, removed the key from the ignition and handcuffed the unconscious criminal to the steering wheel. His heart was hammering and he felt vibrantly alive. After a second to catch his breath he took up the suitcase and hurried back to Rorschach, who was by now standing amongst a scattering of fallen thugs.
As Dan approached he disarmed the last man of a jack knife by the straightforward method of breaking the hand that was holding it and turned to meet his partner, letting the man fall sobbing behind him. “Trying to get yourself killed, Nite Owl?”
Dan ignored the question (like Rorschach hadn’t done worse a hundred times before) and held up the case. Rorschach watched as he placed it on the dealer’s car and opened it to reveal wads of white powder in clear plastic wrappings. Dan gave a low whistle. “I’ll call it in. Are you okay?”
“Fine” Rorschach turned back to the beaten men and began cuffing them, securing them to a parking meter and to each other. When he reached the dealer and pulled a tattooed hand up to expose a grubby wrist, he gave a small grunt of recognition. Dan looked at him questioningly but Rorschach gave no explanation.
Dan headed back to the roof and guided Archie down from there. After climbing aboard and radioing the police he returned to the scene of the foiled crime to find Rorschach pocking some of the drugs money in his absence.
Thankfully Rorschach hadn’t seen him approach so Dan pretended to be very interested in the dealer’s tattooed knuckles until he was sure his partner was done. He didn’t begrudge Rorschach what he was sure was a very necessary act but he knew Rorschach would hate for him to see it. “Do you know this guy?” he asked as Rorschach turned around, just to emphasise how unaware he was of what his partner had just been doing.
“I might know where he’s based. We could go over there now.”
“Sure” Dan led the way back to Archie, still pretending not to know that Rorschach’s pocket was now stuffed with a roll of banknotes.
Re-entering his apartment via the window, Walter froze at a small sound, like a dry leaf crinkling underfoot. In his wired state (it had been a busy night) it took him a second to realise that he had made the sound stepping on something on the floor. He felt around for the light switch and found the dealer’s lottery ticket on his floor, wrinkled and stiffened now that it was dry again.
His little trash can was already overflowing (he made a mental note to empty it the next time he had a day off) so he let the ticket stay where it was, abandoned on the floor just as its owner was abandoned in a cell.
He smiled at the thought as he pulled his newly acquired rent money from his pocket and hid it against page ten of the Iliad.
He was glad Daniel hadn’t seen him take it. The theft was justifiable – he needed to maintain himself to a minimal extent if he was going to be any use to anyone – but its necessity was still humiliating.
He changed and climbed into bed, switching off the light. He had five hours until the start of the morning shift and he planned to spend at least four of them asleep so that he was fit for the following night’s patrol.
The apartment building he had seen the dealer leaving had turned out to be home to the man’s girlfriend. Under her floorboards she had hidden millions of dollars worth of his illicit wears, enough to make this case one of the biggest busts the Nite Owl Rorschach team had ever pulled off. Walter was certain they could find out who else the scum had been dealing to as well, given just an hour or so to look over the woman’s apartment again, and the dealer’s own.
He slept in the blank, mercifully dreamless state that always came with justice well served.