Josef woke with a start, his eyes only taking in murky blackness. He took a gasp of air, and immediately regretted it. The air was absolutely putrid, with a smell that seared the inside of his nose with its foulness. Holding his breath and straining his vision, he tried to make out his surroundings as best he could.
Owing only to the very dim light, he could tell that he was in a rounded, cavernous expanse large enough to stand in. He heard dripping water and a low rumble that he recognised as the subway system. To his left he could see a wide stream of murky water running down the length of the corridor-like stretch with a steel mesh bridge crossing over it nearby. He realised, to his horror, he was in the sewer. The sewers. Of Vandal City. Oh no. He started trembling and frantically tried to get up, not caring if his clean and pressed suit rubbed on the walls and floor covered in God knows what, but his hands were bound around a pipe behind him, and his legs were similarly bound together. He was trapped.
He intensified his efforts to break free, straining as hard as he could and yelling for help, but to no avail. After about five minutes of fruitless struggling, he gave up and slumped over. He had heard the rumours about who (or what) lurked down here, but had always brushed them off as wild fantasies. Now, having been spirited away from the surface and stuck down in the gloomy domain of the sewer system, all his fears and thoughts of the horrible things that were speculated to happen down here surfaced all at once, and the rational part of his brain gave in. Scenarios began to play out in his head about what would happen to him in this state, each more horrific than the last.
Then he heard heavy footsteps from a pipe at a right angle to the one he was in. He felt his blood turn to ice. Please let it be rescue, please let it be someone coming to rescue me. I don’t want to die down here, at the hands of...
The figure responsible for the footsteps turned the corner, facing Josef directly. Even in the gloom, he could make make out the figure and saw the claws on his hands and feet. His last ounce of hope left him. It’s him.
The figure slowly walked up to Josef as he tried his best to shrink away from him. Now that he was closer, Josef could make out that it was completely covered in scales from head to toe. The figure’s physique was basically human, if an incredibly muscular one, save for the head, which, for all intents and purposes, resembled that of an alligator; eyes, jaw, teeth and all. The eyes very faintly shone in the darkness, and stared a piercing gaze right into Josef. In his right hand, it was carrying something that kind of looked like a thick L-shaped stick.
The creature-person then, never breaking eye-contact for a second, lifted the object to its jaw and took an audible bite out of it. At the different angle, Josef could make out the vestiges of a bone sticking out one end, and toes sticking out of the other. He felt like he wanted to throw up.
The rumours were true. The mythical vigilante of Vandal City.
Apparently finished with the dismembered leg, the Gatorman tossed it into the stream of fetid water to the side, where it bobbed in the corner of Josef’s peripheral vision. Standing over him, Josef recoiled as it crouched down and grabbed his shoulder with one of its clawed hands. Josef tried to convince himself that it was just a nutjob in a costume, but not only did the idea fail to reassure him any more than the idea that he was genuinely face-to-face with a half-human half-alligator person, but in the gloom of the sewer and his panicked state, he wasn’t even convinced himself that it was a nutjob in a costume.
Suddenly, the Gatorman dug its claws in and violently ripped at his arm, shredding the sleeves of both his jacket and shirt and exposing his skin. Running a claw down the front of his now-bare shoulder, the Gatorman leaned in close, a horrifyingly palpable stench of rotting meat emanating from its muzzle, and said to him in a guttural rasp:
“That’s some good meat you’ve got there.”
Josef began violently trembling and tried to shuffle away from the creature before him, but a clawed hand grabbed him around the throat with a grip like a vice and forced him to face its piercing gaze. “I like eating bad people. Are you a bad person, Josef Henri?”
Unable to form any words, Josef tried to shake his head in desperation. The creature then leaned over and tore away the bindings around his arms, freeing him from the pipe behind him. Seizing the brief window of opportunity, Josef tried to fight back, but the one punch that connected with its face barely seemed to faze it. Undeterred, it grabbed the cord that still bound his legs and hoisted him into the air, hanging upside down, before walking over to the river of sewage running down the channel in the corridor. Josef dangled helplessly, his face mere inches from the disgusting sludge, the smell burning his eyes and searing his throat.
Finally, he found his voice again. “Please! J-Just let me go! I’ll do anything!”
“Here’s the thing, Josef. I know you’re a bad person. You’ve done some very bad things. But you also know some other people who are even worse. I want them, Josef. Give them to me, and you might be able to leave with your whole body intact.”
Josef began sobbing in terror, unsure if he could provide what the Gatorman wanted. “Okay! Look, I just did some go-between work for Janus, and, um, er… Questionnaire, that’s it, that’s all! I swear, I don’t know what any of it was for! Please, that’s all I did, I swear! I don’t know where either of them are!”
“Janus and Questionnaire are in the big prison on the hill. I can’t get at either of them there right now. I want Broken Doll. Where is she?”
Josef froze, confused. As far as he was aware, he had never had any dealings with Broken Doll, the most notorious serial killer Vandal City had ever seen. Not that he would ever dream of working with such a sociopathic madwoman. Why would the Gatorman think he was connected to her?
The racking of his brain, however, was interrupted by his sudden awareness that the Gatorman was lowering him closer to the water. “WHERE IS SHE?”
Desperately trying not to throw up, Josef cried out. “I swear to you, I don’t know anything! Please, I swear I’m telli-”
With an angry growl, the Gatorman defiantly dropped Josef down into the water up to his waist.
Josef thrashed around in a blind panic. Water contaminated with the combined waste of an entire metropolitan city flooded every orifice on his face. He tried to resist his body’s natural impulses, but he instinctively gasped for air, resulting in his lungs being flooded by the foul concoction. He began to choke, lights starting to flicker in front of him. He didn’t want to die like this. Not becoming just one of the many victims of the Gatorman to be covered up by the police, forgotten and discarded like the refuse that surrounded him.
However, after what felt like an eternity, when he was on the verge of passing out, he was hoisted back out and dumped on the side, soaked and coughing up sewage. It took a good long while before he felt he could breathe properly again, only to be grabbed from the front and violently lifted into the air by his now-soaking clothes, face-to-face once more with his captor.
“If you don’t start talking soon-”
This time, it was the Gatorman’s turn to be interrupted, as the faint sound of a manhole being lifted and put back could be heard in the distance. Making a noise that sounded like a cross between a frustrated groan and a snarl of anger, it turned back to Josef and launched a scaly fist at the side of his face. Josef was out cold before he hit the floor.
* * *
Gatorman turned from the unconscious body of the man lying in front of him to the direction of the manhole he had heard. “I know it’s you,” he growled in a tone not entirely unremoved from the one he had been using to interrogate Josef a few seconds earlier.
Silently, into the shadows of the sewer pipe, stepped a man who looked more like he fit in there more than Gatorman. He was clad in a stained coat that covered him almost head to toe, and jeans that were fraying around the ankles that were themselves covered by old boots several sizes too big. He wore shabby leather gloves, coke-bottle glasses and a floppy, wide-brimmed hat that obscured most of his remaining facial features not covered up by the scraggly, stringy hair that covered his head and chin. He was, in every sense, the kind of person that everyone notices on the street, but makes every effort to not do so.
“I just wanted to see you again,” the man said in a weirdly accented voice.
“Really? What part of ‘Piss off, and never speak to me again; I never want to see you again for as long as I live’ was not clear to you?”
“I came back to see you because I’m worried about you.” The unkempt man gestured at the unconscious man lying at Gatorman’s feet. “I heard what you were doing. I know you take your act seriously, but this isn’t like you.”
Gatorman visibly bristled. “Oh, sure. Because you’re a goddamn authority on what I’m like, aren’t you?”
“Michel, I just-”
“You are long past the point of being on a first-name basis with me,” Gatorman snapped back. “But since we’ve entered that territory, why are you really here, Cassidé?” The man gave no reaction to the name, not that Gatorman expected any. “For that matter, why did you come here like that?” he asked as he gestured to the man’s apparel.
“I thought it might make it easier for you.”
“Lose it all. Now.”
The man promptly doffed his offending articles. The removal of his gloves revealed, instead of fingerprints upon his hands, horizontal ridges more akin to a gecko than a human. Removing the hat, fake beard and wig revealed a head that looked as though it had never seen hair in the entirety of its being, and under the shabby clothes was a sleek, form-fitting costume made of a scaly material with a strange glyph on the chest. Finally, the lack of glasses revealed eyes that looked just a bit off, but in ways that made it hard to place. In some ways, that was true of his whole being. He wasn’t truly a man; he was only a Pseudoman.
“Okay,” said Pseudoman. “Now, please tell me why you were doing all that to that man there.”
Gatorman looked Pseudoman in the eyes, having gotten used to the off-putting effect that he had on people, and took a deep breath. “Fine. If you must know, I’m convinced that he knows where Broken Doll is.”
“I’ve been following his money trail. There were some definite issues with his finances. I checked and found they lined up with some of Broken Doll’s last known whereabouts. There, are you satisfied now? I was in the middle of working him over,” replied Gatorman exasperatedly.
“I heard, and he sounded quite sincere in his denials. Are you sure that he was lying?”
“YES! Of course! Why else-”
“Please, calm down, Michel.” Gatorman started to open his mouth, but Pseudoman interrupted before he could speak. “This is what I was concerned about. It’s been three months since we’ve last seen each other, and you were not like this before. You used to have much higher standards of evidence before bringing them down here and using your cannibal act on them. And now you’re brutalising people on mere suspicion and circumstance.”
“You don’t understand. And why would you? Broken Doll is something else. She’s not like the others.”
“The last four people she’s killed. Giles Abner; steel mill worker. Terri Ostrande, business executive. Remy Morrowick, stay-at-home husband. Alexandra Norwood, owner of an independent liquor store. Don’t you see?”
“Exactly. They don’t have any connections. At all. Except one thing: their initials. G-A-T-O-R-M-A-N. These people were innocent. And yet she killed them for no reason other than to send a message to me. I have to stop her, Cassidé. This is personal. She made it personal. But she always seems to be one step ahead.”
“I understand. You’re obsessed with trying to stop anyone else getting killed. But this...” Pseudoman paused and floated under his own power over to the foot floating in the water and picked it up, flicking the water off it. “This isn’t healthy. You’ve been doing this alone for too long.”
Gatorman rolled his eyes, despite the mask not showing it. “Is this you trying to get back on my good side?”
Shrugging, Pseudoman said, “It doesn’t have to mean me. Have you thought about asking Domesticatrix, or V-Squared?”
Gatorman scoffed. “You know perfectly well that those two don’t do anything they don’t want to do themselves. Admit it. This is just you trying to make up for what you did.”
“Michel, I’ve apologised many times. I don’t want-”
“I don’t care,” interrupted Gatorman, notes of anger having returned to his voice. “You betrayed me. You betrayed my trust. That was personal, too.”
“I understand that. I made a mistake. But I just want you to be happy again.”
“Forget it. I was fine with you working on your little pet project, putting up all those little conspiracy theories about yourself on-lace, going overboard in the process to make the others look stupid.” Gatorman paused and reached into the maw of his mask, pulling out a concealed chunk of rotten meat that gave his breath its characteristic smell. “I get having to deceive people for personal reasons. But when you decided to publish that little piece about the two of us being a couple, that was crossing a line.”
“Look, I didn’t put up any of the stuff we actually did. It was just link-bait. There weren’t any real details.”
“That doesn’t matter. We are finished. Get. Out.” Gatorman replaced the rotting meat, grabbed the foot from him, turned and began to walk away down the sewer.
Pseudoman floated behind him, putting his hand on Gatorman’s shoulder. “Michel, please-”
All of a sudden, a feeling of extraordinary lightness passed through Gatorman’s body. It truly felt like he had no mass. A feeling of pure serenity washed over him in his weightless state. Memories of beds, sheets and ecstasy surfaced in the front of his mind as he instinctively reached between his legs.
Then he realised what was happening and violently shrugged off Pseudoman’s hand. The feeling passed immediately, the weight returning to his body. “Don’t ever touch me again.”
Pseudoman floated back, his face distinctly crestfallen. “Okay. I’m sorry.” He paused and pointed at the unconscious figure of Josef on the floor. “Do you mind if I take him home?”
Having practically forgotten about Josef in the intervening time, Gatorman dismissively waved. “Sure. Whatever.” After getting Josef’s home address, Pseudoman picked him up along with his discarded clothes, the same lightness now permeating Josef’s body through Pseudoman’s touch. As he was floating away, Gatorman called out to him. “Hey, Cassidé. If you’ve got time, try and scratch a threatening message into his bathroom mirror. Make it look clumsy, like it was done with claws.”
Pseudoman nodded and disappeared up the passage to the manhole, leaving Gatorman all alone in the gloom. He reached up and took his mask off, revealing his face, or, rather, what was left of it. Where there had once been a handsome, rugged visage was now covered from top to bottom in scars and abrasions, the results of countless fights and endless training over the years. His nose was barely perceptible any more, having been broken so many times. His right eye was permanently red and bloodshot, from a trauma it had suffered a few years back. Had he taken off the rest of the costume, the rest of his body would have been revealed to be painted with the same mutilated brush.
Just the kind of face only an alien refugee from another dimension whose biology was crammed into a human facsimile designed by a computer with only a vague idea of what humans look like could love, thought Gatorman as he gazed into the piercing eyes of his mask. The eyes were deliberately designed to look as though they were looking directly at the viewer, regardless of viewing angle. He ran a clawed finger over the scales of the mask. This. This is my face now.
Navigating his way down the labyrinthine sewer system, he came across a locked grate, upon which he produced the key from a concealed pocket of the scaly costume. This part of the sewer was conveniently blocked off to all others, including city workers, whose maps did not include it and who carried no key that fit it. However, unseen to all others, the narrow passageway was laden with high-tech security features the prevented anyone else from getting through. Of course, the surprisingly realistic human skeleton that seemed to be missing some of its limbs nearby and the claw marks on the grate itself were generally deterrent enough for those who would dare venture within.
Turning another corner after passing through, he entered his concealed hideout. It was fairly sparse for what it was; a bed, a chair, exercise equipment, a deceptively high-powered computer, a trunk full of casual clothes for when he needed to go above the surface, some sealed bookcases to shield the contents from the damp and such. Several waterproof lamps were present, aligned in just a fashion so as very little of their light made its way down into the main sewers. Under their light, the simulated nature of his whole enterprise became more readily apparent. The scales on his costume looked faker. The “foot” was just a phony prop. His hardened demeanour gave way to an exhausted sag.
Slumping down on the chair under the lamp, he took out a case from underneath containing his prized notebook. Flipping it open, he turned to the section marked “Broken Doll”. Clipped alongside such details like last known whereabouts, potential new targets and theoretical possibilities as to her true identity were particularly unsettling photos that Gatorman had gotten of the victims of her horrific crimes.
A man with his head caved in so completely, you could barely tell what shape his head was to begin with. A woman with her limbs and head brutally sawn off and haphazardly distributed through an alleyway. A man covered in blood from hundreds of cuts and perforations all over his body, all of which had been clumsily and gorily sewn back together with yarn, and massive sewing needles stabbed through both his eyes. A woman whose internal organs, including her brain, had been removed and replaced with polyester filling. The horrified expressions on the victims’ faces (except for those who now lacked them) had convinced him that all of these people had been perfectly conscious whilst these horrifying and ultimately fatal tortures were inflicted upon them.
She doesn’t care, he thought. She’s not doing this out of some big agenda or because she wants money. She’s doing this because she enjoys it. And now she’s daring me to try and find her.
He shut the notebook and cast his mind to the one time he had gotten close to catching her. Her frilly dress stained with blood. Her creepy white mask, frozen in an unnatural smile marred by a jagged crack down the middle. And her piercing, shrieking laughter, echoing around her.
He stood up, letting the memory drive him, faced a mirror on the wall and replaced his mask.
I will find you, Broken Doll, and you will pay for your crimes. Nothing will stop me from seeing you taken down.
I am the Gatorman.