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Batman: No Man’s Land Excerpt

Batman: No Man's Land Cover

Batman: No Man's Land Cover

It had taken them a week of work to get this far, digging out the site only at night, trying to stay safe from watching eyes. The two moved rubble and dug in silence, working mostly by feel. Each of them had more cuts and scrapes on their hands than they could count, and their fingers were numb from the effort and the cold of the air and the bite of the frozen snow.

The elder of the two, Paolo, was only twenty-one. His brother, Nicky, was nineteen. They had arrived in Gotham during the summer, immigrating illegally with their parents, and for a while it had looked good for all of them.

Then the earthquake came, and the tenement they were living in, the room they shared with two other families, was buried under twenty tons of concrete and iron from the building next door. The bodies were never recovered.

When No Man’s Land came, they stayed more out of fear than anything else. There had been soldiers on the bridges, on the roads, in the tunnels. Soldiers with guns, and both Paolo and Nicky had bad memories of soldiers with guns from their childhood in Colombia. As far as they were concerned, the soldiers meant one of two things: either they’d be shot, or they’d be deported. And being deported, that amounted to being shot.

So they stayed.

It had to be past midnight when Nicky heard his brother speak for the first time in hours, the hoarse whisper of excitement.

“I found it,” Paolo hissed in Spanish. “I found a way in, look.”

Nicky moved, checking where his brother pointed. It was a clear night, with half a moon, and in the light and past the shadows he could see where Paolo was indicating, a small opening, just big enough to wriggle through. And inside, the prize, a whole Jiffy Junior convenience store, a mother lode of treasure. Canned goods, batteries, flashlights, aspirin, soda, chips, bread, cigarettes, beer…

“You remember what we do,” Paolo whispered. “You go in, you grab what you can, we cover it up again, then take it to Penguin. He’ll take care of us. But we don’t tell him where we found it, we keep this our secret.”

“I remember,” Nicky snapped. “Of course I remember.”

“Keep your voice down.”

Nicky frowned, then took the flashlight his brother handed him. It was their prized possession, and they had only turned it on once since they’d found it, just to make certain the batteries worked. Now Nicky held it tightly in one hand as he got on his knees, and crawled through the tiny opening.

The stink inside was awful, and almost immediately he wanted to throw up. He told himself it was spoiled milk and meat, and not a body. He told himself it didn’t matter if it was a body, because the dead had it easy right now. He convinced himself to keep going, and managed to work his way out of the hole, dropping down inside the wreckage of the store. His feet splashed in something when he landed, he didn’t know what. It was entirely black inside but for the broken circle of moonlight leaking in from above.

Nicky turned on the flashlight, then turned it off again.

Jiffy Junior stores were open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They never closed. That was their motto, he knew that.

There had been customers inside when the earthquake hit.

From above, he heard his brother’s voice. “Nicky? Are you all right?”

Nicky tried to answer, caught another whiff of the air, and now there was no way to pretend it was anything but death. He felt his stomach buckle, swallowed hard, and managed the words.

“There are bodies,” he told his brother.

“Ignore them,” Paolo hissed. “Hurry, Nicky. We don’t want to be caught.”

“I know that. Shut up, I’m looking.”

Paolo shut up.

Nicky switched on the flashlight again, panning the beam carefully past the corpses, toward the fallen racks. He went for the batteries first, then for the cigarette lighters on the counter. He stuffed his pockets full of all the small things he could find, tiny tins of Imodium and aspirin, bandages, matches, whatever would fit, before switching to the backpack. He was smart about it, he thought, taking another backpack, rolling it up tightly and putting it in the first. Everyone needed a backpack in the No Man’s Land. Everyone had to carry all their possessions with them.

Then he went to the racks, quickly examining the cans, taking only those that were still sealed. Ravioli, soup, beans, tuna, all into the backpack. Two cans of Soder Cola, and another two cans of Brew Beer. He put more and more into the backpack until he was afraid the seams would split, and only then did he stop, zipping the pack as closed as he could make it, then moving back to the hole.

“I’m coming up,” he whispered, pushing the backpack into the opening with a shove. Then he turned back, letting the flashlight track one last time through the store. He switched it off, but the image stayed, the crushed bodies still lit in his mind. He whispered a quick prayer, then climbed back into the hole.

It wasn’t Paolo waiting for him when he came out. It was someone else, a big man, bald, and behind him were three others, one of them already going through the backpack, the other two holding Paolo by the arms. In the moonlight, Nicky could see where his brother was bleeding at the mouth, and it made his stomach shrink. Then the big man was pulling him to his feet, and showing him the pointed end of a machete.

“This is Demonz territory,” the man said. “You’ve just been caught stealing. I should cut off your hands, that’s what I should do.”

Nicky fumbled for the words in English and managed, “It’s not stealing.”

The big man laughed and shoved him back with his free hand. “Empty your pockets, let’s see what you brought us.”

Nicky glanced at his brother, saw Paolo’s jaw clenched tight, more rage than fear in his eyes. It crept into Nicky, as well.

“No. It’s ours.”

The man looked at Nicky, surprised at the defiance, then sighed, cutting at the air with the blade. “You just broke Demonz law, kid.”

Nicky realized that he was going to die, and started another prayer, hoping to finish it before the machete came back down. He watched the blade go up, the moonlight catching its edge, watched it start to fall.

Then the blade was gone and the man was holding his hand where it was now bleeding, and there had been a noise, something hard hitting something meat. Nicky heard another sound, turned his head toward it, and saw the shape, and his heart stopped for a second, because he knew what it was.

He had never seen it before, no one he knew had, and some people had even told him it was a lie, made up by the police, to scare the criminals.

But Nicky had always known it was true, and he knew what it was.

So did the big man.

The shape moved, passing Nicky faster than a shadow hit by light, and there was another sound, and the big man made a noise of pain, and fell backward.

The shape spoke.

“Leave them alone.”

And Nicky thought there was something wrong, then, because he’d never imagined the voice would sound like that.

The big man tried to get up, and the shape moved again, and Nicky heard the snap of another kick. The man made more noise, and then the shape had grabbed him by the shirt, was turning, and the big man was stumbling away while the others stood stunned. Even Paolo, Nicky thought, looked stunned.

But Paolo had never believed.

The shape kept moving, another rustle of shadow, and the gang member who had taken the backpack dropped it, spilling the contents all on the ground. The other Street Demonz, who had been holding Paolo, moved forward, trying to attack.

But you cannot attack a shadow, Nicky thought, and as if to prove him right, their blows landed in empty air. There was another rustle, and the shape was behind them, had one of the men by the arm, had hit him twice in the face, then was pitching him sharply away. Another of the gang members was passing Nicky, as if trying to flee, and the shape turned, and Nicky got a good look then, just for an instant, as the shape reached out as if its arm were impossibly long. The man pitched forward into the street with a cry, then stumbled back up and ran.

The shape pivoted, but the last of the Demonz had already fled.

“Batman,” Paolo said.

Nicky tried to find his voice, to say, no, no, not Batman, at least, not like we were told, but the shape was already crouching at the backpack, replacing the spilled cans, then offering the bag to Nicky. When the arms moved, the cape billowed back, and Nicky saw the shape in the shadow, the yellow outline of the bat on the black chest.

A woman’s chest.

Nicky took the bag, staring.

“Are you all right?”

He tried to speak, failed utterly, and simply nodded.

“TriCorner is held by the GCPD. You’ll be safer there,” the woman said, and then she raised an arm and there was a sound, and it was as if the Batwoman were flying away.

Gone. Just like that.

After a time, Nicky looked back to his brother, saw Paolo was still staring up at the sky, where the woman had disappeared. Then Paolo lowered his eyes, and Nicky saw the understanding there, the awe.

Without another word, the boys began heading south, toward TriCorner.

It began to snow.