Iris and I stood on either side of an island table in the center of the kitchen, coffee mugs in hand, mulling over the possibilities. “Much as I’d like to go with the obvious answer,” I began, “It really doesn’t make much sense. Why would a member of the South side Glass be in the East Side, especially in an abandoned area like the old courthouse? It’s way outside the King’s territory.”
“You don’t think the Kings killed Alvarez?” Iris conjectured in her typical fashion of knowing what was on my mind.
“They couldn’t have.” I reasoned. “The surrounding few blocks are all fenced off for demolition and reconstruction on the City’s part, so neither of them would be anywhere near those areas, plus if it were the Kings, it wouldn’t have been so theatrical, they would’ve stricken close to home, and they would’ve made sure that the Glass knew it was them.”
“I completely agree, it’s clear the Kings aren’t to blame; but if not them, who would’ve done this?” She asked.
Truth be told, I really wasn’t sure where to begin. “I have a vague theory or two. It’s possible that this could’ve been someone who wanted to stoke the fires of the Glass/Kings rivalry, but there’s still the fact that it wasn’t made to look like the Kings are responsible.”
“Makes sense.” She agreed.
“It’s no secret that Alvarez had a long list of people who weren’t exactly his fans.” I continued. “I’m almost certain it’s personal, but the friends and families of every body Blades dropped are too many leads to follow. There’s something else.”
“What makes you so certain it’s revenge?”
“The body was hung with a noose and wrapped in cloth. It’s clear that somebody was trying to send a message.”
“Pretty interesting way to do so.” She responded.
“The other interesting thing is why he was there, where it wasn’t likely anyone would find the body. For someone who’s clearly trying to make a point, why would they do it where he wouldn’t be seen.”
“If a tree falls in the forest.” She nodded.
“They probably weren’t expecting to be discovered this quickly.” She asserted.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s probably more people on our executioner’s list. Alvarez was just the first.”
“That’s a definite possibility.” I agreed.
“There wasn’t anyone in the area?” She inquired.
“Not that I could sense.”
We both leaned against the counters, clutching the coffee mugs in our hands in contemplation.
“I haven’t tipped off the police yet because I was thinking you might want to have a look at it yourself. Maybe there’s more to find at the scene.”
“I’ll mask up.” She smiled.
Iris stepped into the street in brilliant silver and red armor, with long, elegant boots and a chestplate shaped like a heart. She wore a silver and red mask over her eyes, which reflected the now early morning light. I couldn’t help but love how brilliantly the armor suited her, highlighting not only her intensity and sheer power, but her captivating beauty as well.
We approached the chain-link fence that marked the border of the city project with little concern, casually strolling through the street in the dim morning light and talking over what we might find at the scene. Then she stopped me. “There’s someone there, I can feel it.”
Surely enough, I felt the presence of a few of them gathered in the square around Alvarez’s body, with two other dead men hanging from the tree in the center. “Cops, maybe?” I asked.
“If they were cops, they probably would’ve closed the development.” She replied.
“True. Probably best to take a quieter approach and secure the area.” I proposed.
“Sounds good. What’s the plan?”
“You come in through the alley on the southeast corner, I’ll take the rooftops on the far side of the street.”
“And if you engage?” She asked.
“You’ll know when the fight starts.” I smiled.
“Will do.” She winked.
I crossed the street facing the courthouse and used a cable mounted atop my vambrace to grapple to its roof, subsequently moving to the roofs of the neighboring buildings and advancing toward the square in silence. When I was close, I got a view of what had taken place. Surrounding the square stood several walls, about eight to ten feet tall and composed of totaled cars, arbitrary pieces of wood and particle board, and armored on the outside with sheets of corrugated metal. In the center of the front-facing wall, there were two small trailers stacked with barrels and sheets of metal to form a large gate, which had been covered in barbed wire and jagged metal. I was amazed at how quickly something of such magnitude had been constructed in the few hours I was gone, before I laid eyes on the workers. There were five of them standing in front of the walls, talking amongst each other, seemingly unarmed. They looked like largely unremarkable gangsters, clad in brown jackets or hoodies and ratted jeans, the notable exception being the burlap sack masks they wore over their faces.
“I’ll never understand these kids.” I remarked snidely to myself, producing a black, serrated sword from the top of my vambrace and pointing it toward the unsuspecting gangsters from the roof. “Iris would call me old for saying that.” With only the force of my will, the sword flew straight from my hand like an arrow, piercing the street to the right of the group before an enormous plume of smoke exploded from the hilt and obscured the group. I ran to the corner of the roof and jumped from it, striking one of them in the face with my landing.
The first punch was thrown by a man behind me, who promptly was thrown to my side, knelt to the ground by his twisting shoulder, and whose skull was then knocked into the pavement by my knee. I scowled and grit my teeth as the other one quickly stumbled toward me through the smoke, before bending beneath his arm, recoiling and launching him headfirst over my shoulder. I looked over it to see Iris in the fight, the brightness of her power exploding in flashes of brilliant red and blue through the smokescreen. The one I’d thrown out of the smokescreen faced me, fists at the ready to face the violent blackness of the hooded figure before him.
The scythes projected from the underside of my vambraces, extending to combat-ready length in my palms, the four-point sigil on their heads sparking to life with electricity. He responded by drawing a pistol from his pocket, unloading two shots at me. I dodged the first and the second ricocheted off the plate on my vambrace before I wrenched the pistol from his head with an electrical shock to his jaw. I threw him forward and turn to face him, unloading the pistol and removing the magazine.
He threw forward with an over-the-shoulder punch, met with a concussive shock to his abdomen before my foot swung up from behind his back and crashed against the base of his skull, causing him to fall onto the street. I rolled forward on one shoulder and landed on one knee next to him, jamming the pulsating blunt weapons into his spine, rendering him unconscious.
I readjusted my balance as my wife threw one of them at my feet, the other four all unconscious at our feet. I retracted the scythes from my hands and picked the gangster up by his collar, hurling him from the cloud of smoke. Within a mere moment I was upon him, pushing his neck against the wall behind him with my left arm. He pulled a knife with his right hand, and I promptly reversed it and drove it into his leg. He recoiled in pain.
“Alright, alright, take it easy!” He squirmed.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“My name’s Tyler! I’m with the Kings!”
“Did the Kings kill Blades?”
“What? No!” He insisted.
“Then who did?” I spat.
“I don’t know!”
“Try again.” I demanded, twisting the blade in his leg and driving it just a little deeper.
“I seriously don’t know!” He yelped. “He wears a hood… and a mask-”
“How many has he killed?”
“Three – including Blades.”
“Who are they?” I pushed harder.
“I don’t know! They’re all Glass.” He twitched beneath my force. “That guy.” He indicated the unconscious man who pulled the gun. “He’s with the Glass. If anybody knew who they were, he would.”
“And what about you?”
“I swear that’s all I know, just let me go!” He cried.
I grit my teeth. “Pray you never see me again.” I threatened, driving an electrified scythe into his chest and rendering him unconscious. I turned to Iris and gestured toward him. “Patch up his leg, I don’t want him bleeding too much. I’ll take care of our other informant over there.”
“Will do.” She responded, aiding the stab wound of my previous victim.
I flipped the unconscious glass member over and struck his chest with a scythe, shocking him awake. He gasped as I pushed my knee into his chest.
“Who are the victims?” I demanded.
“Wha?” He asked, still trying to get his bearings from the abrupt awakening.
“The victims. Who are they?” I repeated more forcefully.
“Blades Alvarez was the first, then there’s Antonio Taylor and, I think it’s Michael Salvo.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, pretty sure.”
“Who killed them?”
“Nobody knows who he is. He wears a hood like you. Called himself the Hangman.”
“He is nothing like me.” I returned, shocking him back out.
I stood up and faced Iris. “I think we have all we need for now. Whoever this Hangman is, he’s nowhere around here, and none of these guys know who he is.”
“What now?” She asked.
“We get these guys to the station then head back home to see what we can dig up.”
Iris placed the computer on the counter and opened it up. “Let’s see what we have.” She began. I stood at the edge of the kitchen in contemplation, gazing at the front door through the foyer before she brought back my attention. “You know, we really should make donuts a priority for morning investigations.” She remarked.
I pulled the laptop toward my side of the island and began the search for our victims.“Maybe next time, sweetheart.”
“You’d better make good on that.” She smiled. “So what do we have?”
“Not as much as I’d like.”
“Well, it looks as though the Hangman already has the Kings and the Glass working together with him, even with the few followers he seems to have, and it certainly doesn’t sound like their interests are in his ideals.” She considered.
“That can’t be coincidental.” I responded.
“There are two ways I see it. Either the Hangman has members of both their gangs on his hit list and they’re serving him for immunity, or the Glass is serving for immunity and the Kings are only in his ranks because he’s crossing the Glass off.” She conjectured.
“Gorgeous and smart.” I winked.
She smiled. “Do you have any ideas?”
“My primary interest is in Alvarez.” I began. “There has to be a good reason he was the first. My other interest is his exclusively targeting the Glass when he’s working with both sides.”
“Maybe he’s a King?” She asked.
“Could be.” I agreed. “It’s clear that he began with Alvarez for personal reasons, he doesn’t play a significant enough role in the Glass’s organization to be a priority target for the first blood.” I theorized.
“It could be revenge, like you said earlier.”
“But that’s still too many leads to follow with all the people Alvarez has killed, plus we don’t even have records of some of them given lack of charge.”
“The new victims should help narrow that down.” She suggested.
“Precisely.” I agreed. “These records indicate that Alvarez, Taylor, and Salvo all have a sizable list of charges, and that each of them played defense in each other’s cases. The Glass have a pretty good track record for keeping their boys out of the clink, and these three are no exception. Perjury, no doubt, but it doesn’t really tell us much.”
“What about the location of the gallows tree? Maybe the courthouse has something to do with it.”
“Gallows tree?” I asked.
“It’s a tree where a guy named the Hangman leaves all his victims. Seems like a pretty good name to me.” She explained.
“You’re probably right.” I replied. She stared up at me in an odd form of anticipation. “About the location being important.” I clarified. She looked mildly downtrodden for a moment. “But I do like ‘the gallows tree’.” I agreed. She laughed as I smiled and shook my head, double checking the relevance of the “gallows tree”. “The courthouse in the square is the Oliver C. Octavian Court of Law. It’s hosted a number of trials relevant to the Glass, including a few for our men of the hour.” I read.
“Then it looks like our Hangman is someone involved in one of those cases, and I’d be willing to bet it’s the losing side.” She smiled.
“There’s too many people who fit that description between all the cases in here, but we’re off to a great start. I’ll analyze what we have and see if I can get one of my inside men in the Glass to get me some intel. I’ll do some recon this evening and see what else I can get, and we’ll get to turning in what we have to the cops.”
“Sounds good.” She smiled as I closed up the computer and began to exit the room.
“But next time you wake me up this early for this stuff I get donuts.”
My evening reconnaissance ended almost as quickly as it began. I approached with site with an appropriate amount of caution, moving between and over the surrounding buildings with the greatest possible discretion and stealth, until I reached the street leading up to the courthouse. The entire square was lit up, evidently by fire. I was oddly surprised to behold six men in front of the enclosure surrounding the square, whose borders had now expanded a few hundred yards beyond where they had been only that morning, the walls now twice as high, strong, and weaponized as they had been. The six men stood before the gate, three on either side of the street leading up to the open entrance, as if they were waiting for someone. Above the gate was a large sheet of corrugated metal, bearing a familiar circular symbol, with four outward points.
I was the one they were waiting for.
I rappelled to the street below and began to make my way toward the gate, scythes in hand. As I made my approach, I heard the slow rhythm of synchronized percussive banging, like metal stricken against metal. The rhythm increased as I got closer, and the men at the gate quickly noticed the lone figure approaching the citadel. They stared blankly, arms crossed, their eyes trained on me as I reached the light shining through the gate. “He’s been waiting for you.” One of them said.
As I moved through the gate, the rhythmic banging reached a fevered pitch, and the men in the citadel began to cheer. Something indicated that I wasn’t the person they were cheering about.
As I approached the center of the citadel, I beheld everything that it contained. The men inside were living beneath simply improvised hovels constructed of plywood and sheet metal or simple tents, small fires scattered about the revolting shantytown. The smell was putrid, the stench of blood infused with the smell of the putrid flesh of decaying corpses and stagnant water in the gutters, drawing legions of flies that buzzed about the citadel chaotically. I stepped through a form of gate into the center of the square, a morbid sight to behold.
Lining the square was a large circle of scaffolding, upon which stood about fifty or sixty men in sackcloth hoods, all staring down at me. The tree in the center had been pruned of all its leaves, leaving only the hanging corpses adorning it, who now numbered about ten. Built up into the courthouse steps stood the stark figure of a large platform, about ten feet off the street, and hosting a dark oak beam above it. Hanging from the beam appeared a body, the lower half dangling through a trapdoor in the platform, and the neck snapped by the pale yellow rope.
The rope was severed by the swing of a dagger, and the figure holding it suddenly noticed me standing in the gate.
“Well, well, well. Behold, my children. The guest of honor has arrived.” He smiled.
“We’ve been waiting for you, my friend.”
He wore a medieval-style executioner’s hood, the hood extending to cover the upper half of his face down to his nose, hewn with glowing orange eyes stitched haphazardly on. Beneath his fearsome cowl was a makeshift mask of torn up sackcloth lining the lower jaw, with a similar piece covering the upper part of his face, the two parts lashed together sloppily with elastic stitches that stretched with every twisted word he spoke.
His outfit was stitched with similar disregard, a sleeveless zip-up hoodie and baggy brown pants, with makeshift boots of sackcloth and rope, and twisting yellow ropes wrapping his forearms and hands. He scowled for a moment at a group of his followers standing to one side of the gallows and barked at them to take care of the body, before returning his gaze to me, a sinister crooked smile curling beneath the sutures over his terrible maw. He clasped his hands together and performed a slight bow. “Step into my office, won’t you?” He smiled, gesturing toward the doors of the courthouse behind him.
I followed cautiously, the eyes of every man in the square never leaving me as I approached the courthouse door. The Hangman smiled in a courteous yet malicious manner as he held open the courthouse door and indicated my entrance.
Compared to the eclectic amalgam of materials that was the Gallows, the one-room courthouse that served as the Hangman’s sanctuary was nearly a palace. It was lit almost elegantly by a series of small, makeshift sconces hosting sequential fires that lined either side of the large room placed between the ceiling-high windows. The marble floor had been cleared of all the attendee benches, leaving only the separating barrier, the jury box, the judge’s chair, the prosecutor’s table, a broken remnant of the defense’s table, and the witness stand. Hung from the ceiling were a series of nooses, dangling gently from the ceiling like deadly paper snowflakes. “You’ll forgive the décor, but I don’t have the easiest time holding still. Tying knots helps keep me focused.” He explained.
He stood in front of me and marveled at my black hood and silver armor, taking in my appearance as though he was looking at some living wax museum display.
The Hangman bore a disturbingly disarming air, knowing a business-like; a kind of man you felt naturally afraid to stand up to. Even through the soulless glowing holes of his executioner’s hood, his eyes were the shells of his shotgun gaze, piercing in its starkly accusatory intensity. He had a restless set of mannerisms, a body with an erratic addiction to motion standing in sharp contrast with his calculated and inanely methodical spirit. His smile never faded as he spoke to me while I stood posed for action, scythes in hand and prepared to stand up to whatever unpredictability he could enact at any moment. “My word,” he began, “it’s a wonder to finally see you in person.
The whole city wonders whether or not you exist, and here you are! In front of me! Alive as can be!” He chuckled, bouncing back and forth between his feet and clenching his fists like he was looking at a personal idol. “You needn’t look so defensive” He stated, indicating the weapons in my hand. “I bear no ill will toward you, my friend” he laughed.
“I wouldn’t consider us friends.” I replied, steely in my unfaltering gaze.
“Oh of course, wherever are my manners?” He asked, throwing his arms wide. “We haven’t been properly introduced. I am the Hangman. What is it you go by, my friend? They don’t exactly have a name for you yet.”
“The Angel of Death.” I scowled. “Azrael.”
“Azrael. I like that.” He smiled, twiddling his intertwined fingers. “Powerful, and not so ridiculous like all those silly comic book heroes all the kids are so enamored with, like ‘Blackhawk’, or ‘Metallic Man’, or whatever they’re into these days” He rambled, then starkly pausing and returning his focus to me. “Well it certainly is my pleasure, Azrael.”
He bowed, one hand behind his back, the other extended toward me. He waited for a moment for my reciprocation, and after a confirmation that I wouldn’t grace him with the courtesy, he retracted and brushed it against his chest, looking to the side. “I love the work you do.”
“Spare me the formalities.” I demanded. “What’s your game?”
“Game?” He inquired, gazing at me with a slanted head. “No no no no no, this is so much more than that, my friend. I’m saving this city, just like you.”
“Not like me.” I objected. “I don’t kill people in cold blood.”
“But we both make a difference.” He grinned. “One way or another.”
“I can’t let you keep doing what you’re doing.”
“Oh” He quaked with malice, his fingers pulsating. “I wouldn’t recommend stopping me just yet.”
“And why shouldn’t I?” I threatened.
He folded his hands and smiled as he cast his gaze toward the ceiling, pacing dauntingly.
“You see, I have a plan. I’ve been working on this plan for… a very long time, and I don’t exactly… intend for anything to stop me.” He spoke, an edge in his words representing the thinly veiled threat. “I have a great many followers. Not just the ones that are outside right now, but many outside the walls of this… fortress of mine.”
“I suppose they have something to do with the fact that the police haven’t raided the Gallows already?” I asked.
“The Gallows? Hm. Yes…” He smiled, tilting his head as he stared at me. “The Gallows. I like it. Yes…” He stared forward at his hands, fingers spread wide as he press their tips gently together. “Well. The Gallows will stand strong until my work is done. Until everyone on the list – Everyone. Is dead. And nothing is going to stop me, because of all those followers.” He asserted, unraveling a rope from one of his arms.
“And if someone tries?” I asked.
“I have a second list for that. One hundred people, of varying offices and societal statures, hanged. All at once, and I’m the only one who knows who.” He trailed off, gently tying the rope into a knot. “That’s why the police won’t stop me, and why you won’t either.”
“And how many people die in your plan?”
“As many as I see fit. Those who were involved with him. Those who would stand in the way of my justice…” He mused, gazing at the freshly and expertly-tied noose in his busy hands. “And to the greatest servant goes this.” He threatened, dangling the loop from his outstretched arm.
“We’ll see.” I promised, turning to leave the courthouse.
“Indeed we shall, Angel of Death. Indeed we shall.”
I walked through the bright red door of my house in confusion. He’d put me in a difficult predicament. Not only did I not know who he was, but now the lives of a hundred people hung in the balance.
I stepped into the large, round, dimly lit foyer and removed my hood and mask, sighing deeply and gazing up the long, rounded staircases that skirted either side of the round room. Iris appeared from the office door at the landing on the second floor, gazing down at me over the rail.
“How’d your recon go?” She asked.
“I spoke with him face to face.”
“Really?” She asked, surprised at the prospect.
“He says there’s a hundred people he’ll kill if anyone stops his operation. He’s even got the commissioner staying out of his way.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Utilize my new advantage.”
She smiled in anticipation. “And what advantage would that be?”
“One of the best.” I smiled snidely.