by Doc Quantum
A dark-haired, lithe Sami girl walked out of the forest and into the snowy valley where this particular tribe had made camp.
A young man on a snowmobile rode up and stopped beside her, waving to her and smiling. “Hello!” he said in the Sami language.
“Hello,” the girl replied in the same language.
“I am Johannes Svonni. Who are you?”
“My name is Annika Mikaelsson,” she said, curtseying politely. “I have come for to see whether the tales of the man who lives comfortably in freezing weather with no furs is true or not.”
Johannes studied the girl for a while, and then replied, “Aye, it’s true, all right. But it’s not supposed to be known to outsiders.”
“I am not an outsider,” Annika said, smiling.
“Mmm. I suppose not,” said Johannes, noting her beauty. “Tell you what — I can bring you to see him personally, although if he doesn’t want to see you, I can’t do much about it.” He motioned for her to sit behind him.
Annika hopped onto the snowmobile and held onto him.
“Are you married?” Johannes shouted over the din of the speedy snowmobile after a couple of minutes.
“Neither am I,” he replied, and said nothing else until they reached their destination — a lonely log cabin built on a steppe.
Johannes jumped off of his snowmobile and walked up to the cabin, motioning for her to stay there. A few minutes later, he came back and called her over.
“He’ll see you,” he said to her, smiling.
She walked up to the cabin, and as she noticed Johannes following her there, she said, “Do… you mind if I see him for myself alone?”
Johannes looked hurt. It was obvious to her that he was barely out of his teens. He nodded silently.
“We can talk more later,” Annika said. Johannes smiled back at her and went back to his snowmobile.
Annika opened the cabin door and stepped inside. The interior somehow looked larger than she’d guessed from the outside.
There were tables full of chemical beakers and shelves filled with many books, and medical equipment lay around everywhere. There were a few electric and electronic devices she recognized, as well as a few she’d never seen before and could only guess at their purpose. She realized that there was probably a generator somewhere behind the cabin powering these devices.
The first thing she noticed was that the temperature inside the cabin was actually colder than outside. Annika kept her traditional Sami fur coat on and walked around the spacious cabin, looking at half-finished experiments and several books opened to certain passages.
The back door opened, and Annika turned to see a somewhat-muscular man with pale, almost blue Caucasian skin who was completely naked, except for a thin pair of shorts. He also wore dark goggles to protect him from becoming snow-blind, and he appeared to be sweating, despite the extremely low temperature both outside and inside.
“Mister Freeze, I presume?” Annika said in perfect American English.
The man stopped in the open doorway and sighed heavily.
Mister Freeze walked over to a closet and grabbed a blue cloak, putting it on. “You’ve caught me at a disadvantage, miss,” he said. “You appear to know my nom-du-crime, and I do not know who you really are. You’re obviously not really a Sami girl, are you?”
Annika Mikaelsson removed her wig and her outer clothing and rubbed the makeup off her face. “I am called the Black Orchid, Mister Freeze, and I’ve come here to bring you back to prison.”
Mister Freeze sighed again and sat down on a wooden chair. “You people never stop hounding me, do you?” he said.
“That’s ironic,” said Black Orchid, smirking, “considering that the last two times you broke out of jail you attempted to freeze Gotham City with a giant ice-cannon and loot it in the process.”
“I had my reasons at the time,” he said, laughing himself. “I wanted to make Gotham City my personal kingdom. After all, it was while I was in Gotham City that I had the accident that changed my cellular structure, dooming me to endure the rest of my life in cold. I thought it ironic if I could make that city — the city of the Batman — into my own personal city-state.”
“You’re completely mad.”
“On the contrary,” Freeze replied, pointing his finger up to make his point. “I merely had some… issues to work out. But I’m feeling much better now.” He grinned wickedly.
“Why are you here?” Black Orchid asked him. “Why surround yourself with the Sami?”
“Kindred spirits, I suppose,” Mr. Freeze said. “Although it’s not the Sami themselves who I feel most at home with, although they are a good source of company — a man could go mad from the loneliness otherwise — no, it is the reindeer that are most akin to me.”
Black Orchid laughed. “You’re not telling me that you’re an animal lover now, are you, Freeze?”
“Animal lover?” he scoffed. “Far from it. As a scientist — amateur scientist, of course — I merely find their physiognomy fascinating. Many years ago, I believed that their ability to not only withstand extremely cold temperatures, but to thrive in them, could be the key for me to discover the secret of my own physiognomy. I dismissed that theory long ago, but they still provide a source of comfort for me. The Sami gave me one for local travel purposes. He’s out back; I call him Blitzen. I’d originally planned on calling him Rudolf, but that would’ve been so passe, don’t you think?”
“There are reindeer in Northern Canada as well, Freeze, and it would’ve been closer for you.”
“Yes, there are, but my grandmother on my mother’s side happens to be from this part of Sweden. And Canada is too close to America and Gotham City for my purposes. Can’t have ol’ Bats decide to make a quick, easy trip up north on the basis of a rumor. If he was going to chase me down, I’d make it a bit harder for him.”
“I think it’s time to take you back to America, Freeze.”
“Please, don’t,” he replied, actually sounding earnest in his plea.
Black Orchid studied his face skeptically.
“I have no plans to continue on in a criminal life any longer, Miss Orchid. I know that in a typical scenario, you and I are supposed to be battling each other as a super-hero and a super-villain ought to do, but must we follow that tiresome cliche? My only goal, now, is to reverse the accident that changed me into what you see before you. I merely wish to become a normal man again.”
“Oh, please. You made the choice to become a criminal. You chose to become Mister Zero long before you were Mister Freeze.”
“True enough, I did so choose at the time. But can a man not see the folly of his ways a little farther down the road? ‘All men are liable to error; and most men are, in many points, by passion or interest, under temptation to it.'”
“You know your quotes,” said Mister Freeze, impressed. “All I ask is that I be given another chance — to start over with a new life. All this equipment you see before you is part of that. I know I’m on the verge of a breakthrough, and if you take me away to see justice, it may be many years again before I’ll ever be this close again.”
“You’ve been changed back to normal before,” said Orchid.
“Yes, and after that happened, I abandoned my criminal career!” Freeze exclaimed.
“But you went back to crime.”
“Only after my body reverted back to the way I am now. And the steam-bath process won’t work a second time. It would only kill me. Have you any idea how hard it is to live on the fringes of society? Unable to live a normal life? Do you really want me to remain this way?”
“This may be hard for you to believe, Freeze, but I do understand what it’s like to live on the fringes of society. And… I am going to give you a second chance. Even though this is really more like a third or fourth chance for you. Don’t make me regret it.”
Mister Freeze smiled and rose from his chair. “You have my undying gratitude, Miss Orchid,” he said sincerely.
“Don’t con me, Freeze,” said Black Orchid, pointing in his face. “I’ll know when you step out of line. And you will, too, because I’ll be right there.”
“You have my word,” he replied.
The Black Orchid turned around and walked out of the cabin through the back door, wondering how much the word of a career criminal like Mister Freeze really meant.
She looked down sadly as she flew away in the high wind and saw Johannes Svonni grooming Blitzen, unaware that his fair Sami girl was gone forever.
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-Caucasian 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.”