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“Well, this is a right goddamn mess,” Harvey Bullock said as he reached into his trenchcoat pocket for his pack of cigarettes. The glare he got from Commissioner James Gordon made him drop his arm with a huff. “What? Not like he’ll mind any,” he said, motioning to the dead man lying faceup in a pile of dirt and garbage.

Refraining from rolling his eyes, Gordon shook his head. “Yeah, but I do. Don’t need you tainting what little evidence there is. Save it for your coffee break.”

Carefully stepping around the established perimeter, Gordon took in the scene in front of him. He'd only arrived thirty minutes ago, the body having been discovered in the last two hours, and the crime scene techs had already put up the large canopy tents to try and save anything that might be left for them to find; the steady downpour making the underlying stench of Gotham rise to permeate the air and sweeping the traces away that would tell them how the dead man had come to this particular alley to die. Blood pooled and mixed with the water, swirling in growing puddles between cracks in the concrete, and Gordon involuntarily winced at the sight of the ripped-off fingernail lying a few inches away from the hand it once belonged to. From what the techs had informed him, the victim had been dead for over twelve hours. How he wasn’t discovered earlier was a mystery but not a surprise. With the way Gotham had devolved over the last year, seeing men unconscious, dead, or nearly there wasn’t uncommon. The tunnel-vision Gotham had honed over decades reached new points of acuity: No one saw anything they didn’t want to.

“Medical Examiner says it looks like he died like the others,” Bullock said, rousing Gordon to look at him. “Mixture of old and new scar tissue, shredded feet, missing eyes, the weird-ass skin deformities, and…” He swallowed quickly before continuing, “Looks like the sonofabitch wanted to have his dinner à la maneater.”

Gordon shot Bullock a glare that would have made a younger man have the decency to look embarrassed. But Bullock wasn’t young: Tall and imposing with a face that looked like it was hewn out of a craggy rock, small, muddy-brown eyes, perpetual five o’clock shadow, and a permanent odour of cigarettes, Bullock had been in law enforcement too long to have a filter. Regretting letting Bullock transfer in from Chicago, Gordon sighed and took off his glasses to wipe off the thick streams of rain.

“That’s one way of putting it.”

What Bullock had meant was that the victim had torn at his own skin—ripped it apart with what had been left of his nails, bitten his arms until the teeth sank in and tore chunks away. This man was naked—a difference from the other two, and his skin looked like hardened scales in one area only to be like milky white molasses in another. And, staring at the man’s face, Gordon could see the victim had also, like the others, succeeded in gouging out his own eyes. Blood trickled out from the victim’s still gaping mouth—tongue half bitten off and teeth splintering—and trailed down from his nose, pooling in his ears. If he was anything else like the other victims, he had likely spent a period crawling before his heart gave out.

“A mess is right,” Gordon said under his breath.

This was the third homicide in as many months, each one stranger than the last. The victims were inconsistent—the first was a woman in her late fifties in a ratty set of pyjamas found on the banks of the Gotham River, her hair ripped out by her own hand and eyes clawed, forearms covered in bites, and her mouth gaped in one last, permanent scream. The second, a small black man in his mid-thirties, was much the same. No real modus operandi to show the work of a serial killer, not in the traditional sense. The only thing to connect the victims was the near-identical expressions of terror and the proclivity for extreme measures of self-harm, and somewhere deep they struck a chord of familiarity in Gordon.

“What do you have?” asked a gravelly voice behind him. Gordon was too tired to swing his pistol around; he knew who it was. But Bullock was new and didn’t share Gordon’s sense of familiarity or restraint. 

“The fuck—?” Bullock started, whipping his sidearm out and cocking it. Batman responded only with a slow blink from his position at the back of the closed-off alley.

“Not much,” Gordon responded, walking past Bullock who still had his arms raised and ready to fire, staring at Gordon like he had just turned purple. “Similar story, different location. It seems as though they’re coming from somewhere in at least a ten-mile radius, but it’s hard to tell when—”

“What the shit, Gordon? What do ya think you’re doing, this freak ain’t police—”

“That’s Commissioner Gordon to you, Detective,” Gordon interjected, voice low and giving Bullock a glare of warning that was ignored.

“You’re outta your damn mind, Commissioner, if you think we’ve gotta resort to talking to loonies in fuckin’ tights,” Bullock spat. His arms had lowered, but he hadn’t uncocked his gun. Batman responded as he usually did: He said nothing.

“Take a walk, Bullock.” Gordon’s tone meant that it was an order and it was final.

Bullock seemed ready to fight him on it—he had his problems, but Bullock was clean and wanted his cases to stay that way—but his attention was turned to a forensic tech holding an evidence bag with something bloody inside, looking on and pretending she didn’t see Batman. Giving one last withering glare, Bullock edged around the crime scene to the small area where they had collected the evidence. Gordon sighed again, pushing his glasses up and pinching the bridge of his nose hard enough to leave a mark.

I’ll have to deal with him later, he thought. Insubordination should’ve been the last thing on his mind but wrangling his new officers in was a challenge that only worked to raise his blood pressure.

“C’mon, let’s talk over here,” he said, motioning to a darker alcove further into the alley and away from the established crime scene. Finding a brief reprieve from the rain save for the occasional fat drop of rain to drip down the back of his shirt collar, he continued, “You gotta stop showing up like this. They’re already taking issue enough—”

“This is connected to the others,” Batman said. It wasn’t a question, and it was meant to dodge Gordon’s. 

Sometimes, he thought, the man’s like a teenager—selective hearing at its finest.

“Yes,” he said after a moment’s deliberation, eyeing up Batman’s scarred armour. It hadn’t been replaced in a while, and the added nicks and gouges made him look half-mauled. It reminded Gordon of how he felt most days. “I think so. That makes three, which means it’s not a coincidence.”

Batman nodded once and looked over Gordon’s shoulder to the crime scene, taking it in in a few glances. The medical examiner stood over the body, taking photographs and cataloguing the victim’s many injuries. If he was anything like the others, they’d find ligature patterns showing he was consistently restrained, his nutrition would’ve been subpar, and that his lungs would be filled with phlegm. That wouldn’t even include the many injection sites or scarring on the brain they would find. And, like the others, they would likely have a hard time identifying who exactly they had in the city morgue. Every database they had searched showed nothing for the other two—no one had reported them missing and they’d never been processed—not by any system they had access to, anyway. In all his years on the force, Gordon had never seen anything quite like this.

“Besides the first, they’re not being dumped. They ran from… wherever they were being held before their hearts gave out.”

“The same cause of death,” Batman said to himself, head cocked to the side in contemplation. Bullock was shooting Batman and Gordon a glare; they both ignored him. “Did you check his neck?”  

“Check his neck?” Gordon echoed, turning only to find Batman had brushed past him, heading back to the crime scene. “Goddamnit.”

Trailing behind, he waved off the techs giving him disapproving glances. In the aftermath of what the media had called “The Siege”, Batman’s popularity had plummeted when almost every criminal Harvey Dent had put away was released and the public had to deal with the fallout of the murdering mobs, riots, and watching as military-grade drones levelled a hospital. Gordon’s tenure as commissioner had not been an easy one, and Batman was many things, but he wasn’t helpful in bolstering public opinion and trust in the police. And flagrantly interfering with an active crime scene did not help his officers’ opinion of him. Too many remembered the funerals they had attended for those who had died in the Joker’s failed coup. 

“You’re tainting evidence—" Gordon started to call out before he caught himself. It wouldn’t do to look out of control when Bullock and the technicians were already scrutinizing him. And as much as Gordon wanted to believe otherwise, there was no controlling Batman. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered under his breath, catching up to Batman and watching over his shoulder. “Wanna tell me what the hell you’re doing?”

Batman ignored him. Holding a small scalpel and pair of tweezers, he turned the victim’s rigid body on his side, exposing the nape of his neck. Gordon was about to say something when Batman made a small incision. He settled for turning away and trying to wish away the headache pulsing behind his eyes, feeling the age-old pang for a cigarette that rose during times of stress despite having quit a decade before. Batman paid them all no mind. Once the incision was complete, Batman carefully pulled something out Gordon never thought he’d see.

“What the hell is that?” he asked.

Batman held aloft a small black mass—a third of the size of a pea with long fibres that pulled away from the muscles they were housed in—and examined it under the erected spotlights illuminating the crime scene. Rising and putting the chip in a small evidence bag he procured from his belt, Batman hid it from view.

“These were overlooked last time,” Batman said, walking past Gordon just as he was about to interject about taking evidence, back to the darkened end of the alley. Batman kept talking even though he didn’t look back, correctly assuming Gordon would follow. “The last two were corrupted, but—”

“Wait—what do you mean? You found more of—no, how the hell did you get into the autopsy room?” Gordon asked, his confusion mounting. In a sudden afterthought, he waved the last question away like he would a persistent fly. “You know what, never mind. I don’t wanna know.”

As much as the public might mistrust Batman, Gordon’s faith in him never faltered. He was tired, yes, but Gordon’s mind worked best when he was on the ground—finding the strings and where they led rather than sitting back and awaiting answers. Even after eighteen months, his new position still brought feelings he wasn’t used to. And it only got harder with Mayor Garcia gone and Arianna Hill taking his place. 

“You’re sure? Of course you’re sure.” Gordon sucked his teeth, thinking hard. He had done a thorough sweep of the GCPD—teaming up with Internal Affairs in an unprecedented crackdown on corruption to clean out the force as best he could.

And it still wasn’t enough, he thought. Gordon checked himself; if he lost his faith in what he had done, then his thoughts would unravel in a way that would cause more harm than good. But there were consequences to his faith before. He tried very hard to not think of Harvey Dent, but he knew Batman already was. Gordon knew that some lessons came harder than others—that he needed to continue to be thorough, that trust was earned rather than assumed, but an unwitting sense of disbelief still gripped him.

“My people would’ve told me —"

“Your coroner also didn’t check the blood of the other two.”

As much as many of Batman’s actions bothered Gordon, he was glad to have him as an ally. He was secretive, but he didn’t lie. He was intrusive, but he did what no one else who worked for him could—was willing to—do. Gordon thought back to their promise as parts of the city burned, the sense of determination in the face of everything that wanted to overwhelm. They wouldn’t repeat the past. Gordon wouldn’t let either of them.

“How could he not have checked that?” he said, asking himself more than Batman. The city coroner—Bill Nielson—was new, but Gordon had vetted him. His certifications checked out, he wasn’t even a Gotham native, and Gordon had no reason to doubt him. 

“No, otherwise he would’ve found the large amounts of psychotropic drugs in their systems.”

Shit, Gordon thought. What exactly happened to these people?

Even after looking at their bodies himself and examining what he thought were accurate reports, trying to find a rational pattern in their injuries, Gordon only had theories. The most prevalent one at the moment being that these people had been held against their will and tortured. But finding the why was what eluded—and bothered—him the most. Any anger or indignation about Batman’s intrusion into the morgue was forgotten. Gordon’s mind worked fast.

“Could the results have been interfered with elsewhere?” Gordon asked, fingers rubbing his stubble-coated chin, noting that he hadn’t shaved in almost a week. “A report falsified or altered?” 

“Possible,” Batman admitted. His eyes shot back to the mouth of the alley, not failing to notice the gathering of the crime scene investigators. From the way his posture was shifting, Gordon could tell he was ready to leave. “Let me handle this, Jim. If I find anything, you’ll be the first to know.”

Gordon never liked this particular part of their arrangement. Batman could find him whenever he wanted, and Gordon was lucky if he responded to the signal on the top of the MCU once a fortnight. He needed more answers, and he searched Batman’s face, trying to determine if there was something he was leaving out.

“Do you think this is at all connected with the recent tiff between the Djinn and Free Men? Or even these… new groups making another move?”

Batman backed further into the alley, taking his eyes away from the scene to focus on Gordon. “No. This is the work of… something else. Not a Mob boss.”

Gordon wasn’t so sure of that anymore. Not after finding various small-time gang leaders and lieutenants with their faces carved up and their bodies strung up from light posts starting fifteen months ago. If the Joker wasn’t secured in Arkham Asylum, his worry would’ve taken on a new meaning. Things in Gotham were changing again, and it was never for the better.

“Not even this ‘Red Hood’ character?” Gordon asked, thinking back to the reports informants had been giving his officers. He thought of him as another nut dressing up to make a point—but whether that meant he was a threat at a level the others had remained to be seen.

“No. He’s brutal, but not cruel,” Batman answered, shaking his head. “He has no reason to do this. These people weren’t part of a rival gang.”

Conceding his point, Gordon nodded. If it wasn’t someone already existing on their radar, that meant trouble and a mystery he wished he didn’t have to solve.

“I’ll keep trying to find where they were running from.” He rubbed the back of his neck, resisting the urge to look away lest Batman evaporate, when another thought struck him. “Oh, and before you pull a Houdini on me, you should know something.”

Now Gordon could see apparent physical signs that Batman wanted to leave. His shoulders were tense, and he kept inching away from Gordon further into the dark. Gordon spoke quickly, “Miriam Kane is coming back to Gotham. Did you know that?”

Batman stopped in his tracks, statue-like in every manner except for the occasional movement of his eyes. “Who told you?”

He didn’t really know what he was looking for in bringing it up. A reaction, a glimpse into something personal, perhaps. Gordon didn’t really know, and most days he was content in leaving Batman entirely a mystery, but tonight it wasn’t enough.

“Senator Hawkes. She called it a ‘courtesy call’ and to put her on a watchlist.”

It was a gesture Gordon appreciated. Whatever Batman’s relationship was to her, and no matter how bad Gordon felt about what had happened, he didn’t want her anywhere unsupervised in his city. She had left before Gordon ever sat down with her himself, only gleaning what had happened to her in bits and pieces from other witness reports and suspect interrogations. He didn’t like what he had found, the bad feeling it had left in his stomach and throat. But the Department of Defence and Homeland Security had made sure no one had heard anything from her in over a year. Why that was changing now pulled at Gordon’s gut. He didn’t know the specifics, but he’d be damned if he didn’t rectify that himself.

“Why are you telling me?” Batman asked after a moment of silence, his voice a touch less gruff than usual. It was a reaction Gordon hadn’t seen from him before, and now that he was asked, he wasn’t entirely sure why he brought it up either.

“I don’t know, I thought—” Gordon’s phone rang, loud and echoing off the wet brick. He got paid to answer it, no matter how much it annoyed him. “Yeah? Give me a minute here. I thought that she—” He cut himself off when he saw that the moment he wasn’t looking, Batman had taken the opportunity to disappear.

 Although Batman had never spoken the sentiments aloud, his opinions matched Gordon’s: Trouble was coming, and he felt unprepared for it. That in itself was dangerous; underestimating the enemy and falling into a sense of false bravado and security is what had nearly crushed Gotham for good eighteen months ago.

“Tea, Master Wayne?” Alfred asked from behind Batman’s static figure. He’d been in the Cave so long that he hadn’t realized his gloved fingers had gone numb. “A proper cup, mind you. And some biscuits as well—”

Batman waved him off, resuming his typing at the computer. It was fruitless, he knew, but the other options available were ones he wasn’t ready to accept yet.

“Master Wayne,” Alfred interjected, stepping into Batman’s view so that he couldn’t use the excuse of absorption to continue ignoring him. “You’ve been down here for nine hours. Eating is just sensible.”

Fingers stilling, he took a breath and met Alfred’s eyes. “I’ve been thinking…”

“Always a dangerous endeavour, Sir.”

“Finally have a chip that isn’t corrupted, but I can’t seem to get it open,” Batman finished, ignoring the quip. He wiped at his tired eyes, contemplating taking a nap in a corner somewhere.

“Did you try double-clicking on it?”

Batman shot Alfred a look, gauging if he was being serious. The maverick grin on Alfred’s face told him he wasn’t, but it made Batman feel annoyed rather than humorous. Leaning back in his chair, nudging his disregarded cowl and cape on the floor out of the way, he gestured to the large arrangement of screens. Putting down the silver tray of tea and biscuits, Alfred narrowed his eyes.

“What exactly am I looking at, Sir?”

“Nothing, which is the problem.” Now he really wanted that nap. He couldn’t remember the last time he slept—or even touched his bed. “It’s encrypted. Some of the best I’ve seen, but I can’t get in to read the code and figure out what they were meant to do in the first place.”

“And you found this… where?” Alfred sounded afraid to ask.

“Back of the neck. Small fibres were attached to the muscles and I think the spinal cord. I didn’t have enough time to be sure. They were so broken down in the others that it was impossible to tell.”

Batman didn’t like undermining the police, going in and double—sometimes triple—checking their work to ensure nothing was missed or tampered with. Things still slipped through, and he didn’t enjoy adding to the tension that further isolated rather than positioned him into a place where he could be efficient. And things were only getting harder.

“Did you send it to Lucius? He might be of better assistance—”

“Yes, and he’s working on it, just like the others.” He swept a hand through his hair, noticing that it needed a desperate wash and trim. “I have a feeling he’s going to tell me the same thing he did about the last two.”

Alfred snapped his heels together and brought the tray around again, trying to awaken a nonexistent appetite. Keeping it there a moment later to be sure Batman wouldn’t be enticed, Alfred nodded and turned to leave. “Very well, Master Wayne. Ring and I will pull something together for supper.”

Batman didn’t answer, looking out at the cascading waterfall that acted as one of the few background sounds that relaxed him. Wayne Manor was finished by less than half, but it was enough for Bruce and Alfred to move back in—and access the improved space that Batman had seen to rebuild himself. He had everything he needed in that large cavern, but most days it never felt like enough. There was always more to do, dozens of cases worthy of his time and a war he couldn’t see the end of.

There aren’t enough hours in a day.

Just as Alfred moved to head to the elevator, too soon Batman fell away and Bruce Wayne was all who remained. Maybe it was the exhaustion, but he felt compelled to ask, even if he wouldn’t like the answers it brought. “Alfred?”

“Yes, Master Wayne?” Alfred looked eager, like Bruce had signalled more than a simple inquiry.

His chest tightened in a way that hurt his bruised ribs. They always seemed to hurt—the pain never fading, the bruises becoming permanent. “When’s the last time you talked to Miriam?”

The smile faltered for a moment before Alfred recovered. Bruce knew it was an unexpected question. He didn’t bring her up often. When time allowed, and he always made time, he had watched with the reach he had to make sure she was alright. He knew she saw a psychologist regularly, she had started frequenting a boxing gym, that she’d been to a skin clinic twice, and that she otherwise barely left her apartment in Chicago. Those things were easy to determine by accessing CCTV cameras—a feat made possible by some of the very programmes Miriam had helped develop—and from Bruce making a few inquiries. Every other trace was impossible to find unless he investigated Alfred’s emails. He had the ability to do so, but he hadn’t grown desperate enough to break Alfred’s trust. It would be easier to keep tabs on her in the city, even if that in itself brought a fresh batch of trouble.

“I believe this past month, Sir,” Alfred said after some time.

Miriam had chosen not to speak to Bruce, and he hadn’t known what to say, so he had said nothing at all. He regretted it, but the solutions to the problems he created for himself were more difficult to solve than the enigmas in front of him.

He watched Alfred’s expression carefully, unsure what he was even looking for. “Did she tell you she was coming back?”

The puzzlement on Alfred’s face was immediate and sincere; he hadn’t known either. The notion was worrying.

I need to follow that more closely. Hawkes could have misunderstood.

Bruce knew that wasn’t the case—why would Gordon bring it up if it wasn’t a certainty?

“No, she did not,” Alfred said, his voice quiet even in the echoing cave that amplified all sound. His shoulders only dropped an inch, but Bruce still noted it and the shift in Alfred’s expression. “Who told—”

“Jim Gordon. The senator told him, apparently.”

But why wouldn’t Miriam tell them? Things were unresolved, but he wouldn’t say that there were ill feelings surrounding her departure. Well, that would be true if there had been a formal departure. Miriam had simply packed a few bags, said goodbye to Alfred, and had left Gotham so quietly that it wasn’t until after two days of damage control that he had thought to ask how Miriam’s bullet wound was mending only to be told she’d left.

Bruce winced at the memory now, considering for the first time that he might have been callous. He had trouble meeting Alfred’s eye. “She’s still talking to you, could you…”

Could you ask her “why?” Why is she coming back—why didn’t she call? How do I fix this?

But Bruce didn’t ask any of those things, unable to summon the words or the will to open the door he had to firmly shut. “Never mind. I’ll be up shortly.”

“Very good, Sir,” Alfred said, giving Bruce one final stare that fell on his back rather than his face.  

Bruce had missed Alfred’s look of disappointment, having turned to the monitors and staring at the encryption codes as if the answer would appear if he thought about them hard enough. His mind wandered back to the crime scene in the alley and the others before it. Even that was the least of his concerns. He had heard rumblings of a budding gang war down on the East End. The Mob heads might have fled or died, but the men who made them rich were still thirsty for bloodshed. The struggle that had warped Gotham in the power vacuum that was the last eighteen months was coming to a head, and Batman wouldn’t let his city descend into chaos. He couldn’t, no matter what.

As Alfred shut the elevator door and ascended, Batman returned and stared intently at a fuzzy picture. The man was tall and broad-shouldered, muscled in a way that showed he had training and was putting it to use. A Jericho 941 was in one hand and what looked like a kris dagger was strapped to his thigh. But more concerning than those things was the modified hockey mask that obscured the lower half of his face. Something else covered his eyes, hiding any discernible detail that would lend to identifying him. A red hood shrouded most of his other visible features in its shadows.

Red Hood.

It was a simple moniker—one given to the man by those that saw what he could do and either ran or joined. This was a more pressing threat, and Batman tried to put everything else to the side as he sat in thought.

Gordon had told Batman about the risk of escalation over two years ago, and he had thought he’d endured the worst of it with the Joker, but now he began to see that he was wrong again. He just didn’t see that this wouldn’t stop: It wouldn’t—not once the avalanche began. They all would have to wait and see what remained in the aftermath, what would survive the desolation and bring about a new beginning.  

 Martin “Marty” Stewart tried and failed to rub the cold out of his fingers. It might’ve been spring on paper in Gotham, but the chill that came after sunset had Marty believing that winter was coming back for another go rather than the month giving way to April in a week. His breath fogged in front of his face as he broke into a jog. He had a deadline to meet—cold or no cold.

“Meet the quota and we’ll see about initiation,” Frank had told him. Despite the freezing wind that he swore was nipping at his balls, the small bags of heroin felt like hot coals in his pocket.

Gettin’ close, he thought.

Frank told him to man a new corner tonight. That itself was a dangerous assignment even a year ago. The Falcones, Maronis, and Dimitrovs all had their established territory; you didn’t cross it if you wanted to keep your head. But most of them were dead, and every street was a new front in No Man’s Land. Fear and exhilaration filled his burning lungs. The faces he passed were unfamiliar, wary and scrutinizing—not like those he knew back in his neighbourhood.

Ignoring the tug at his gut like he always did, Marty stopped moving once he found the corner he was after. Four blocks away from Sheldon Park and three from the newly dubbed “Crime Alley”—its namesake self-explanatory after it was ravaged in the riots twice in the space of a year. The buildings were tall and blocked out any light from the moon, trapping in the smog from the steel mill off the east side of the Gotham Harbour and giving the neon lights of the strip clubs, bars, and pawn shops a brighter hue. Jumping back after getting a shoe full of muddy gutter water, Marty considered his options.

Though the street was lit up, there weren’t many people on the sidewalks. Curtains were closed in the windows exposed to the street, throbbing music could be heard further down the block, and he had an eerie feeling that he was being watched.

“Man up. Don’t be such a pussy,” Frank had told him when Marty questioned the proposed plan. “There ain’t a place in the False Face Society for cowards.”

And Marty wasn’t a coward. He wasn’t. He could do this. Marty could sell the nine baggies of heroin and show Frank that he had it in him. Protection these days was just as important as having a place in the hierarchy. Things were safer that way—and Marty wanted in. He’d lost it when the Chechen bit the dust, and now he was going to get it back.

Adjusting his hoodie and pulling up his jeans that were trying to snake down his hips, Marty strutted forward, eyeing up every doorway like it was going to open up and spill out eager junkies waiting for a fix. Leaning against a cold brick wall, Marty waited, nodding and making purposeful eye contact with everyone who passed. But nobody seemed to be buying.

“Hey, know where the action’s happenin’ tonight?” Marty asked two passing prostitutes at one point. They stared at him, not seeing someone they recognized and quickly moved on. “Fuckin’ bitches,” he muttered after he was alone again.  

His hoodie and an oversized t-shirt underneath weren’t enough to keep him warm, and he started to shiver. Sticking his hands into his armpits to warm them, he considered cutting his losses.

Can’t do nothin’ about nobody wanting to buy.

He’d done what he was told; it wasn’t his fault the corner would take a while to be established. After the 2:00 am mark, his nose running and toes numb, Marty shoved off the wall when something caught his eye. A neon sign above flickered and sputtered, but he swore he saw something big and red at the end of the otherwise empty street—too large to be a fire hydrant and it was moving. When the sign above came back to life, whatever it was he thought he’d seen was gone. The feeling he was being watched only intensified.

“Fuck this,” he mumbled.

Shoulders hiking up to his ears, he turned around and smacked into a wall he swore wasn’t there before. Falling on his ass at the edge of the sidewalk, one hand plunged into an icy puddle, he looked up and nearly bit a chunk out of his tongue.

“You lost?”

It came from the man in front of him—but he didn’t sound like a person. It was deep and artificial, a reverberating grumble that lingered in the air before disappearing. People—normal people—couldn’t make those sounds. Marty almost pissed himself, thinking he’d finally encountered the goddamn Batman, but he couldn’t see this man’s face—anything beyond hints of red metal around where the mouth should’ve been.

Batman doesn’t wear red, right?

Irrationality stirred by fear had almost convinced Marty he was looking at a Terminator. When he finally stepped forward, Marty scrambled back, getting soaked entirely by the water.

“You’d think someone would’ve told you,” the man said, and it was only then that Marty saw he was spinning a handgun around his finger by the trigger. An arm, thick with corded muscle, reached down and pulled out a long dagger—sharpened to a wicked point. Marty shook so hard his teeth rattled. 

“T-Told me what?” Marty asked, trying and failing to sound like he still hadn’t pissed himself. His position in the gutter undermined anything he was attempting.

“This place is closed for business. Red Hood’s in charge now, got it?”

Marty, the hair on his arm rising painfully as the fear choked him, almost threw up when the gun stopped spinning and was pointed at him. He didn’t even have time to beg, to crawl away and tell Frank he quit—the safety flicked off with a click and the hammer pulled back.  

“Spread the word.