by Doc Quantum
Five girls now. Five girls from the Gotham City slums had been murdered, and nobody was doing a damned thing about it.
In a city that had in recent months seen the red skies of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, the release of all of Batman’s rogues gallery as well as much of the criminal population, and finally the rampage of the wood elemental known as the Swamp Thing, who overran it with encroaching vegetation, a few girls who were known to be prostitutes getting murdered wasn’t much of a big deal.
That’s how complacent this city had become, Ragman realized grimly, that they could barely send out a police car to investigate the brutal slaying of the killer’s latest victim. By the time the boys in blue had finally arrived, Ragman had already talked to the somewhat-spooked witnesses and left. He knew now that his prey was at hand.
Ragman leaped from one rooftop to the other. Before this Vietnam veteran had donned the rags that made up his costume, he could never have accomplished such a feat of athleticism with such ease of movement. However, he found that after he had attempted to save his father and his father’s three friends from electrocution at the hands of criminals, Rory Regan had somehow also gained the abilities of those three men who had died with his father — strength as well as acrobatic and boxing skills. (*) Rory had been the only survivor of the group of five, and he took his responsibility to his community very seriously. There were bad men in the world — bad men who preyed upon those not strong enough to fight back. It was his job to protect them. That’s how simple it was to Rory Regan.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Origin of the Tatterdemalion,” Ragman #1 (August-September, 1976).]
He saw these murdered girls no differently than if they had been old ladies or children. They were innocent victims and did not deserve to be killed. Nobody deserved that, least of all the poorest of the poor, who lived in his slum neighborhood.
On the advice of his girlfriend, freelance photojournalist Bette Berg, Rory followed one particular lead left by an anonymous caller, which seemed more promising than the others.
He staked out one particular street, watching the shadows carefully, while also keeping himself out of view of the streetlights. He would need to be able to see another figure like himself — one who could blend into the darkness — and yet not be seen by that other figure.
It took two days and several hours — as well as several would-be muggers — before he finally saw something that perked up his attention.
It was Rebecca, the young, half-native, half-white girl, with pale white skin and dark raven hair, who lived in his neighborhood and often frequented Rags ‘n’ Tatters. Ragman sighed as he realized that she was forced once more to work the streets. And it was far more dangerous now than it had ever been.
The sight of Rebecca wasn’t what had perked up his attention, however. It was the sight of a man dressed completely in black who was creeping through the adjacent alleyway. Rory was surprised that he had even caught a glimpse of him; he barely noticed some movement out of the corner of his eye as he was watching Rebecca. He’d turned and looked into the alleyway where he’d seen the movement and had seen nothing. However, as he continued to peer into the utter darkness, he saw some movement again and finally saw the figure himself.
Rebecca became spooked. Whether it was the slight sound of the man in the alley or a sixth sense, she suddenly feared for her life and began walking home very quickly.
Rory lost sight of the man in the shadows, and he realized that he couldn’t keep an eye on that alley as well as watch Rebecca. Cursing to himself, he chose to follow the girl for her own safety, still keeping out of sight. Luckily for him, the would-be-moonlit sky was overcast with clouds and fairly dark.
At Rebecca’s building, Ragman watched as the girl fumbled for the keys to her ramshackle apartment. Her boyfriend was obviously not home. Her cat, Mr. Muffins, greeted her at the door by rubbing her leg.
She hurriedly picked up the cat and shut her door, bolting it immediately. A light briefly flickered on but went off after a split-second.
Ragman heard a bone-chilling scream a few seconds later.
It took a matter of only a few moments for Ragman to cross the distance between his perch and the girl’s apartment, but time was already critical.
Ragman burst into Rebecca’s darkened apartment and tried to see as best he could. A shadow moving in the corner of his eye was a split-second’s warning for him, and he dodged as a knife came down, its owner intent on murder. A sharp pain in his side told Rory that he’d been cut.
His foe had conditioned himself to see in the dark and thus had an immediate advantage over Ragman. He knew he had to tip the scales as quickly as possible, or this could very well be the end.
The rags that made up his costume had a somewhat mystical allure to them. Rory had never been able to quite figure it out, but somehow when he wore them, his deceased father and three friends seemed to come alive in him once more. They weren’t about to let Rory join them in death just yet.
Ragman closed his eyes and let himself go. And as he did, his instincts guided him in the dark. He leaped up, both hands on opposite counters, and landed a hard kick into the jaw of his enemy.
He followed up with a roundhouse kick at his opponent’s hand, disarming him of the knife he carried. However, his enemy recoiled and drove himself hard into Rory’s stomach, grabbing him and knocking him down.
Ragman once again let himself go and found the strength to flip his legs up off the ground, flinging his opponent over him and into the refrigerator door.
Before his enemy could get up and turn around, Ragman had him in a choke-hold.
He flicked on the lights.
His first concern was Rebecca, and he dragged his enemy in black around the apartment, looking for her. “Where is she?” he demanded, tightening his hold.
“Tooo laaate,” the Night-Slayer croaked. “Nocturna’s deeead. I finally killed that bitch. Killed her again and again and again and again and again and again–”
Ragman choked Night-Slayer more tightly until he completely passed out. There was no time to lose.
He ran through the apartment and finally broke open the bathroom door. The door was blocked by something heavy on the floor, and as he flicked on the light, he saw a flash of red sprayed against the wall.
“No… please, Lord, no…”
Ragman forced the door open and knelt down beside Rebecca’s body. Blood was bursting from her throat.
“No, no, no, nooo…” Rory sobbed.
Rebecca’s eyes opened, and she coughed as she tried to speak. She was still alive.
“Just hold on, Rebecca, hold on,” Rory said as he quickly removed his gloves and placed his fingers on the severed carotid artery in her neck, taking a second to activate a belt communicator he wore.
“Call an ambulance!” Ragman shouted, giving her the address of Rebecca’s apartment. “This girl needs a doctor fast!”
Forty-five minutes later, Rory washed the dry blood off his hands and checked his own wound.
“I think you’ll live,” said the elderly Leslie Thompkins as she entered the room. She was a retired social worker who had spent most of her adult life helping the people of Gotham City’s slums, after having come from a well-to-do middle-class family. After her retirement, she had made a major push to set up a free clinic with a minimal staff and a few volunteers, which she ran. But since Leslie did not practice medicine herself, she’d had to recruit doctors and nurses for her non-profit clinic. She’d gone through several physicians over the years, the latest one being a dark-haired man with an eyepatch and a surly manner, whose patients often made pirate jokes behind his back. Nevertheless, he had remained there for a full five years now, despite threatening to quit a few times each week. Any number of medical students volunteering as interns had come and gone during that time.
“How’s Rebecca?” Rory asked her.
“It’s much too early to say, but our doctor thinks she’s going to be all right. You gave her a chance to live.”
“Thank you, Ms. Thompkins,” said Rory.
Leslie Thompkins looked at Rory and said, “I’ve never understood the need for you costumed types to do what it is that you do, but today, I’m glad that you were there for that young girl.”
“Like you, Ms. Thompkins, I care about the people of the slums.”
“Please. Call me Leslie.”
“Only if you’ll call me Rory.”
Leslie Thompkins smiled and nodded as she began to leave the room once more to check on Rebecca’s progress. She suddenly stopped and grinned as a thought came to her. “Rory, I do believe this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
In the darkened cabin of Captain Stingaree’s ship, presently sailing the high seas, Karl Courtney paced the floor several times before making his decision. He’d had his men search the ship three times now, and they had found nothing. Yet his pirate sense told him that something was wrong. This last job had just been too easy, somehow. So much for getting away from the problems of Gotham for a while, he thought grimly. He’d heard of his fellow escapees being tracked down one by one back home, and he was feeling edgy.
Stingaree stopped pacing and walked over to an antique cabinet. Opening it, he pulled out the microphone for the two-way radio inside, turning it to a specific frequency.
“Troy Tempest to Chilly Willy. Over. Troy Tempest to Chilly Willy. Over.”
After several moments, a voice answered over the crackling radio, “Chilly Willy here.”
“I’m calling your debt, Chilly Willy. Over.”
“I didn’t get that, Troy Tempest. Please repeat.”
“I need your help, you old bozo! Over.”
“Look, this really isn’t the best time. I’m very busy with my work! Over.”
“Listen, you owe me, you old bloodsucker! You know where to find me. Troy Tempest out!”
Captain Stingaree flipped the radio switch to the off position and slammed the microphone down.
Many miles away on land, an enraged figure began smashing everything in sight: Test tubes, beakers, computer equipment, books, and all.
“Dammit!” screamed Mister Freeze in an uncharacteristic display of fiery anger. “I was so close! So… close…”
The pale-skinned figure fell down on his knees, finally, amidst the shattered glass and smoking ruins of his equipment, and began to weep. But as he put his hands to his face, he knew that he would never shed a tear ever again and stood back up again, grim and resolute as ever.
Mister Freeze calmly walked toward his doorway and opened it up, casually picking up a box of matches from the shelf. Lighting it, he threw it inside the log cabin and watched as the flammable chemicals spilled all over the carpeted floor ignited the entire cabin. He watched impassionately as his every dream went up in flames — all because he had made an unbreakable pact to make up for a wrong that he had once done to his fellow criminal or suffer the consequences. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “All My Enemies Against Me,” Detective Comics #526 (May, 1983).]
The villain walked away from the burning cabin and down the mountain, never once looking back.