Gerry Trannon pulled up to the corner of 32nd and Cherise. The sound of gravel crunching under his tires reminded him of the poor state of the road. The car was a cherry red Cadillac convertible, and some might have said the he was crazy bringing a car like that into the section of Gotham City known as the Cauldron. Still, everyone in the Cauldron knew not to mess with that car. Gerry was a big fish in this neighborhood and had the wheels to prove it.
Gerry was jolted by a scraping sound against his car and hit the brakes. "What the..." Gerry opened the door and pulled his gun. He didn't think there was someone out there, but he always held his gun when he was angry.
A long sharp piece of metal jutted out onto the street and had scraped along the front fender and left side of the car. The metal bar was bent in such a way that the No Parking sign on its end was clearly visible in the car's headlights. Gerry cursed and pointed his gun at the sign, but the sign was not afraid of guns. It continued to mock him. Gotham had already done its worst to the wayward street sign. Gerry could threaten it no more.
It had rained in Gotham the night before. It gave everything a cleaner look and a dirtier smell. It was amazing how little eight months of reconstruction had changed the appearance of the Cauldron. Those who lived there would say that No Man's Land hadn't affected this area at all. Gotham had let the Cauldron fall to hell long before the whole city was abandoned. Drifters, property damage, starvation and violent crime were status quo for the Cauldron, so when it came time for the reconstruction, the Cauldron had already cleaned up its own mess. Buildings were bricked up, drifters had found other places to settle, and the same buildings that were condemned before NML were still condemned. So the engineers moved on to other, more prosperous, sections of Gotham to fix, and those living in the Cauldron were left with the consolation that even if things hadn't gotten better, at least they hadn't gotten worse.
"Hey Gerry, what's with the piece?" A voice came from the corner just a few feet away. "I thought this was just a business chat. I ain't done nothin'." The young black man was dressed in a green button up shirt and black jeans likely looted from some burnt-out JC Penney.
"That motherlovin' sign just scratched up my car!" shouted Gerry, who was still waving his gun as if to make the sign flinch.
"Dude, you gotta be careful around here. The streets are full of all kinds of crap from the quake."
Gerry turned the gun on the young man. "Are you saying this is my fault, Joey? Are you calling me a bad driver?"
"No way, man!" Joey waved off the suggestion.
"I hate this neighborhood! I hate this hellhole and I hate you for making me drive into it!"
Joey looked more than a little worried by the gun, but he protested anyway. "Hey forget that, man! You didn't have to come back here! You left the city during No Man's Land. Why didn't you set up somewhere else?"
Joey didn't expect a clever retort. He didn't expect a pistol whipping either. Joey crumpled to the ground.
"You have a lot of nerve, Joey. You think because I left for a while it means I don't own you any more? Well forget it. I'm back in town, and the boss is picking up where he left off. You're back in -- or I kill you right now." Gerry pulled back the hammer on his gun.
"You are in violation of the laws of this city! Mend your ways now or accept punishment!" a deep voice boomed from above.
A dark figure revealed itself on the rooftop nearby. The dark billowing fabric of his costume gave the impression of wings -- and his shadow fell upon the two thugs, making his silhouette against the moon all the more menacing.
"Holy mother... It's the Bat!" Gerry dropped his gun into the puddle forming at his pant leg. He had heard the stories. He knew he didn't have a chance. "Look, I'm sorry. I'll leave. It's cool. I wasn't going to hurt him. Right, Joey?" Gerry held his hands far away from his body.
"Stay where you are!" The voice was strained and fanatic. "You have three seconds to correct your violation or you will be punished."
Gerry looked to Joey and shouted, "Joey, get your ass outta here!" Joey clambered up off the ground and sprinted down 32nd, leaving Gerry on his own. "It's cool, man! I'll leave him alone!"
"Three, two..." the voice continued, and Gerry's eyes darted around, confused. Why was he still counting?
Gerry tensed himself for an attack from above, but it never came. Instead he felt a strange sensation of flight and heard a shriek of bending metal. Something slammed into his back and through his chest. The vigilante leapt off the building and drifted lightly to the ground, his robes fluttering in the wind.
Gerry was blacking out, but he realised that the dark figure wasn't a bat. It was some old guy in a black robe and a stupid white wig. How embarrassing.
The robed figure came closer, and Gerry could see the look of crazed glee in his eyes. "Such is the fate of all violators in my city. Scum like you will learn to follow proper municipal ordinances, or you will earn the wrath of... The Justice!" Gerry's head slumped down as consciousness slipped away, and the last thing he saw was the No Parking sign covered in blood, sticking out of his chest.
The Huntress did not often frequent the Cauldron. It was not that the area offered few opportunities for a costumed vigilante such as herself to ply her trade, but merely that it didn't seem to do much good in a place like this. Here, to wear a purple costume and punish evildoers seemed futile, unnecessary. Even the Gotham mobs tended to keep their business in the Cauldron to a minimum. To fight crime in the Cauldron was like putting a band aid on a shotgun wound.
The Huntress looked down on the 33rd street Halston tenement complex and let out a sigh. Nothing ever changed.
Since No Man's Land had officially ended over eight months ago, the Cauldron had not improved, but it had at least been quiet. The gangs had become less prone to open warfare. Crime was once again a private affair, and order had returned. But what was order to a place like this?
Huntress walked across the building. She stood above the corner of 32nd and Cherise where two nights ago a particularly viscous death had occurred. The cops were stumped and the mob was only mildly dismayed. It could have been a gang attack, but Gerry Trannon was no gang member. In fact he was on the Gotham mob's hands off list. He wasn't a family man, so whoever wanted that protection had paid rather handsomely for it. Huntress was at a loss to say who had Trannon worked for.
Gerry Trannon had lived in this neighborhood all his life, but had never paid taxes or held down a steady job. Normally that would be the resume of a professional criminal, but Trannon's rap sheet was clean. The word on the street was that Gerry Trannon had left the city during NML and had only recently returned.
Now he was dead.
Sad to say, but it takes something unusual to make a death stand out in Gotham City, and in this case the cause of death was the focus of interest. "Impaled" doesn't show up on police reports very often, and "Impaled by a No Parking sign" was quite unique. Commissioner Gordon had classified the death as possibly having metahuman involvement. It was not a conclusion the GCPD came to often or lightly. Huntress wished she could ask Gordon why he had come to that conclusion, but she was not on good terms with the GCPD at the moment.
The police had had the good taste to remove the No Parking sign from the corner of 32nd and Cherise, and the police tape was probably the only thing preventing people from parking there now. The police had withdrawn, but in their wake they had left a rather large piece of evidence: a cherry red Cadillac sat abandoned on the street a good twenty-five feet from the corner. Normally a car like that would have found its way to the police impound, but the GCPD had probably considered it not worth the effort, given the fact that the car had been overturned. Its wheels now reached up to the sky like the claws of a wounded animal. The Huntress began to realize why Gordon suspected metahuman activity.
The Huntress moved to the edge of the building and prepared to swing off to patrol. She was not a detective, not like Batman. But she knew about killers. She knew something like this was just the beginning.
Tracy sat by the fire pit and threw another piece of lumber in, hoping to sustain it for another hour. She clutched the red sweater she was wearing -- the outermost of three sweaters -- and tried to think warm thoughts. It was approaching autumn, and the night was cooler than it had been in some time. Carl and Reggie had gone to look for more wood in the debris, anything that might sustain the fire a little longer. Sleeping outside in Robinson Park was not their first choice, but it had come to this often of late. If the weather got any worse, the fire pit would mean life or death.
Tracy, Carl and Reggie had always wanted a home of their own. Such a thing is a dream when you're living on the streets and scrounging where you can. Then NML had come, and the evacuation had created a wonderful surplus of livable crashing space. For most of NML they had lived in an abandoned house. It didn't have running water, working toilets, electricity or heat, but it had been a home.
Tracy still remembered the day the Masters family had returned to find a trio of teenage urchins occupying their beloved house. Tracy shivered as she remembered the screaming and accusations. She still felt Mrs. Masters' hands as they tore at the green dress Tracy had found in the Masters' closet. She had never felt so humiliated before; never had her dreams shattered so quickly. They had not been unreasonable dreams: she had just wanted a home -- a home for her and her adopted family.
Carl returned first, carrying what appeared to be pieces of a two-by-four. He was dressed in a tan winter jacket that had also been liberated from the Masters' house, and old, well-loved blue jeans. There was a trace of sweat below his black curly hair. "Sorry it took us so long, but the hard part was figuring out how to break it up into small enough pieces. I wish we had a saw."
"Thank you, Carl," she said with a smile. She tried to be strong for the boys, but she knew that fuel was getting scarce now that the reconstruction crews were cleaning up. It would be gone by winter.
Carl took one of the pieces of wood and threw it into the fire pit. The flames slowly began to pick up again, but the oils from the pressure-treated lumber turned the smoke thick and black. Reggie would return soon, and they would be together again. That always made Tracy feel safer.
Tracy turned her eyes from the fire to look at Carl, and then noticed that the heat had begun to fade. When she turned back she let out a shrill scream. The wood from the fire was no longer in the pit, but instead spinning through the air. Fire still burned on the logs and threatened to set them and the trees alight. Tracy tried to scramble up and in a flash Carl was beside her.
"Have you no respect for your city, that you burn and burn the flesh from its broken body?" The voice came from the bushes at the other side of the fire pit. The logs were spinning faster now, and one had come dangerously close to Carl's head. "You are in violation of Gotham's fire safety and clean air laws. You have desecrated its structures and violated its public parks with your filthy habitation. You will show me a valid camping permit... or you will suffer the consequences."
When the old man stepped from the bushes, Tracy was surprised by how small he was. But the logs were still spinning.
"Get away from here, you crazy old man!" shouted Carl.
The old man in the black robes and white wig glared at them. "You have no respect for your elders and no respect for the law. I will teach you both. I am The Justice!" Then, like a swarm of insects, the burning pieces of wood stopped their spinning and charged towards Carl. Tracy screamed and tried to push Carl out of the way, but he did the same to her and was far stronger. Tracy hit the ground just as the burning timber crashed into Carl, sending him sprawling into the nearby bush.
Tracy was dizzy for a moment, and when she regained her bearings the old man was almost on top of her. Suddenly, an arrow interposed itself between them.
The intention of the woman who had fired it had been to strike the old man in the leg. But instead the arrow had stopped in mid air, and the old man was now admiring it.
The Huntress emerged from the trees, dragging Carl's unconscious body lest it catch fire as the brush burst ablaze. "Back off, 'Justice!' Or we'll find out how many of these you can stop!" She pointed her crossbow at his heart.
"You are interfering with my verdict! You will be punished!" the old man shouted. The Huntress saw her bowstring snap apart. In an instant she dropped the crossbow and charged the old man. It seemed clear that he could control objects; it was time to see what else he could affect.
Huntress dodged under her first arrow, which came sailing back at her with almost the same speed at which it had left the crossbow moments before. She rolled and with a growl let loose a kick at the man's head. Her blow came three inches away and then it struck something -- something invisible with the give of a trampoline. Her strike got through, but the force was blunted, and the old man simply took a step back.
"You dare... " He said more, but Huntress wasn't listening. She had to figure out what he could do -- fast. Tracy had pulled Carl clear of the fire, but the trees were beginning to ignite.
She tried to sweep out his legs, but he saw her move and met it with the same invisible resistance, forcing her to roll away. The rocks that surrounded the fire pit flew into the air and sailed at the Huntress. Only one connected, and she felt the heat and force of the smoldering rock on her right leg, dropping her to the ground.
Huntress rolled with the impact, refusing to let the pain stop her. If her leg was broken then she could tend to it later. Right now she had to keep fighting. She had to find a weakness fast, or keep him distracted long enough that retreat became an option.
"You distract me from this evening's proceedings. You all do!"
Huntress was again within striking range. She caught a glimpse of his face and could tell that his heart was no longer in this fight. He was going to run. Huntress just might let him, but she had one more gambit to try. She swung her injured leg up in front of the old man's eyes. It was a feint to distract his attention while she tried her damnedest to break his kneecap with her fist.
It didn't work. The fist met the same resistance that her kick had moments before. Apparently he could stop blows even if he didn't see them coming. Some kind of field?
The Justice stumbled slightly from the push to his knee, and an invisible hand sent Huntress hurtling into the flaming bushes. "I have matters of greater importance this evening, or I would teach you a lesson in civic pride!"
With that, the Justice turned and ran away.
What a moron! thought the Huntress as she rolled out of the bush before her cloak caught ablaze. She looked up to see the two children were still safe, and had been joined by a third: a young blond man in an army surplus jacket. They would be fine, and the fire was too far along for Huntress to deal with anyway. She stood up, gave a sidelong glance at her broken crossbow, and took off after the Justice without looking back.
The Turner Street Mall had suffered less damage from looting over the last year than most other shopping plazas in Gotham. Its two-storey, squat structure had made it more quake-resistant. Post-NML, the mall was experiencing a boom that it had not seen since the early seventies, when it had first been built in anticipation of becoming a baby boomer shopping Mecca. In that area of town, such a dream would never come to be, but now the Turner Mall had reaped the benefits of other malls' misfortunes. Who was Aaron Simms to complain?
Still -- even into the night -- Simms slaved away in his office on the second floor. He had been wooing chain stores for over six months, ever since his return to Gotham City. Now his dream was to raise Turner Mall from the ashes of NML and make it the mother of all his prosperity. Most of the income from his other Gotham properties had been invested in this noble enterprise. Simms was happy.
And then he heard the crashing below him. It was past midnight and the only other person in the mall should have been Ernie the security guard. It could have been another vandal, but he had hoped that the days of random vandalism were gone. Those Cauldron kids must have run out of their own windows to break, so they'd moved on to nearby neighborhoods.
Simms hurried to the bottom of the stairs and looked out into the food court where his pride and joy, the central fountain, rested. Down the swan statue and into the faux-marble basin water streamed in all directions, creating a dull roar. Standing on the lip of the fountain was a frail old man wearing black judicial robes and a disheveled white wig. Aaron Simms paled.
"Wallace? Is that you?" Simms gasped at the sight of his old acquaintance.
"You destroy this city with a wave of your hand, Aaron Simms. You are a cancer, whose influence prevents this city from healing itself. The government will not touch you, but you will feel the wrath of The Justice!"
Too late, Simms saw that the tables had been wrenched from the food court floor. They came crashing down from above, but fortunately the Huntress had been paying closer attention. Huntress bolted from behind a pillar and tackled Simms out of the way. The marbleized table struck where the businessman had been standing. She pulled him behind a Royal Bank machine. Simms had the good sense to stay down, mostly because he fainted, and Huntress leapt up to deal with the crazy old man.
"Why are you doing this?" she shouted. The old man liked to talk; maybe it would distract him from figuring out where she had stashed Simms.
"You are a foolish girl! You do not know what he is. He destroys this city and takes away its only means of defense. Without law the city would fall apart!"
"And what you're doing is lawful? Nice try!" Huntress had edged closer, and was now only fifteen feet away, hiding behind a large stone statue of two native Americans shaking hands. She had one more shot, and she had to try it before he left the fountain ledge.
"You vigilantes don't care about this city! You flit about protecting its inhabitants who stab and kill each other, while the city crumbles around you. Well, its inhabitants come and go, but the city lives on! I represent a greater law than you! I represent the part of the law that people turn their backs on! I am the foundation!"
Wow, he can really talk. Huntress was in position and the moment his final exclamation had left his lips, she was in the air. Before he had time to react, the Justice felt the force of Huntress' tackle, square in the stomach. His field caught most of the force, but the rest of it sent his light frame sailing into the fountain. He toppled backwards, and in no time was under the water, splashing and sputtering.
"You stupid..." The Justice sat up from the water and prepared to vent his wrath once again, but the Huntress and Simms were nowhere to be seen.
"Noooo..." he howled.
The Justice hobbled off to find more wrongs to right, leaving a trail of water behind him.
"She may have stopped him this time, but I know Wallace. He's a nasty old coot. He'll be back to finish the job -- unless I finish it first." Simms was agitated and the smoke from his guest's cigarette was making his eyes water. "They said you know how to handle this sort of thing. He's crazy! I don't know how he got those powers of his, but that woman vigilante couldn't stop him, so I doubt the police can, either. Can you do it?"
Simm's guest scratched the skin beneath his black sunglasses. He let the smoke out of his lungs slowly. "I don't know what you did to this guy, Simms, and I don't care. This Justice has been a bad boy, and the price is right. Which means you just hired yourself The Hitman."
They shook hands, and Hitman took his green leather jacket off the chair he had been sitting in.
"I hope you will handle this matter with the greatest discretion, Mr. Monaghan."
Tommy Monaghan smiled. "Probably not."
To be continued...