Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #2

Your eyes are burning.

It’s the one sensation you can’t get out of your head. No matter what you try, no matter what trivialities you attempt to occupy yourself with, that buzzing exhaustion remains just beneath your every action and address. Every time you take a perp down, diffuse a riot, check an over zealous beat cop, it’s there. You’ve gone roughly a week without sleep now, give or take an hour or two lost in foxholes throughout the city.

Gotham is a demanding mistress.

The problem, as far as you can tell, is that she no longer sleeps. Before, when father was doing all of this, the city would let you rest while the sun was up and her shades were drawn. Lick your wounds, set your bones. Get ready for the next round. Not so, anymore. As she’s aged, the city has grown ever crueler, ever more spiteful. Now she hunches on the lip of the bay like a weathered old crone, muttering curses under her breath, though she knows not who for. Maybe herself. She pokes and prods at the misfortunes of her people, tittering at their misery. How you wish, sometimes, it could be you that puts that final flame to tinder.

Last night, you encountered a new costumed psychopath calling himself “The Instigator.” The man, dressed in bondage leathers, had employed a complicated radio signal device, miniaturized to fit inside a briefcase, that drove all victims within a certain radius to mindless aggression and irrational behavior. You put the amateur down without much trouble, but his apparent ease of access to restricted materials has given you pause. Furthermore, though you left the Instigator unconscious and bound for the police to deal with, you’ve caught no hint of his apprehension via information channels either public or private. That implies that either the Instigator was never picked up, or far worse, he has friends on the inside.

You sit in the Wayne Tower penthouse, Alfred nuzzling your gauntleted hand as it rests on the sleek, brushed steel desktop. O.R.A.C.L.E. is showing the usual crop of unrest with no immediate signs of connection to the Instigator. Time to head out for the night.

You indulge in a few extra minutes spent in the penthouse preparing a cup of tea–chamomile, like Alfred (the real Alfred) used to make on dreary days at the manor. Inhaling the vapors, you allow yourself to stray over the past, over what used to be your world. Days spent in study or playing catch with Titus on the grounds, nights spent punishing the criminal element, keeping Gotham safe.

Safer, anyway.

Your eyelids droop once or twice as you slouch in the recliner facing O.R.A.C.L.E., but you will sleep away. There’s no time for it. Not yet.

Finally, you decide to head back to the scene of last night’s activity. It doesn’t take long to get there from the Tower, and twenty minutes later you’re stooped over the area in which you fought the Instigator, combing it with your eyes. In the end, though, it isn’t a visual queue that gives away the villain’s method of escape: inhaling sharply, you taste the metallic tang of active hydrochloric acid on your tongue. Stirring the debris and soil where the Instigator lay, you see the corrosion that confirms your suspicions. A vial of acid strapped to a wrist. That explains how he got out of the cuffs, but still not how he got away from the authorities. A muted chime rings in your ear, and the cowl brings up a three-dimensional map of the city. Apparently there’s a robbery in progress toward the east of you. Normally that wouldn’t be anything to sneeze at, but the location of this particular heist makes it interesting. A flophouse frequented by Black Mask’s men is currently highlighted on your display with a soft red glow. Probably just turf wars, gangsters killing gangsters, may the world shed a tear.

Upon arrival at the scene of the incident, you can tell this is gang warfare. A weathered sedan straddles the street, blocking off traffic. Hundreds of thumb-sized holes in an SUV adjacent to it confirm what you suspected: the unsubs, likely rival gang members, arrived together in the sedan, announced their presence by destroying the SUV (and whoever was in it). You approach the ruined vehicle slowly, scanning the ground around for further clues, stooping to collect a handful of shell casings. You open the driver side door, and the former driver slumps out and onto the ground, his weapon clattering onto the pavement next to him. A cursory examination of the vehicle reveals a small cache of weapons in the custom interior as well as two additional corpses. The acrid stench of gun smoke and the metallic tang of blood hang heavily. This all happened recently.

You step into the shadowed doorway, noting the splintered wood and shorn hinges. Forced entry. Unsurprising. The smell of gun smoke follows you in from outside… The fighting didn’t stop at the street. Whoever was back here had investments they wanted protected. Hard to tell who won out, in the end.

A doorway in the back of the building leads down a narrow, hazy hallway to a sheet stapled in a door frame on the other side. You pull it down and step in. The scene is about what you’d expect: a bushel of dead mob bosses all seated around a table, evidence of substance abuse and a poker game scattered across it. Nobody’s holding steel, as far as you can tell. Must have been so confident in their boys outside that they didn’t even go for it. In the back corner of the small room is a dense lead vault, standing open and empty. That explains it. Not simple gang warfare. This hit had a purpose.

You pace the room, combat boots thudding heavily on the warped floorboards. Here and there, a shallow splash as you disturb pools of congealing blood. Examining the gangsters seated at the table, you determine that there aren’t any key players. Once upon a time, those who played in games hosted by Black Mask would be only the biggest movers and shakers Gotham’s underworld had to offer: drug kingpins and whorehouse millionaires. Now you doubt if any of these even got past pushing heroin in the Narrows and peddling tired girls on the salt-caked boardwalks by the harbor.

Something catches your eye. A twitch in a corpse’s thumb turns into an honest-to-god effort to pull his iron. The man’s palm stutters across the slick tabletop for a moment before you place a fist upon it heavily, eliciting a strained groan. Then you lower your face until you’re speaking directly into his ear.

“I can end this quickly for you. Painlessly.” Your voice is barely a whisper, the undertaker come to claim his own. The main grits his teeth, spit’s a wad of blood and mucus onto the tabletop.

“F–fuck you, Bat… You’re not going to get clear of this.”

You press harder. “I can end this quickly for you, or I can leave you to drown in your own blood. It will be a lonely, terrifying way to die.” The man’s eyes pop open. Finally getting through. “I didn’t do this to you,” you continue, “but I’m not sorry it happened. You want revenge? Give me something. Your murderers will be hot on your heels to hell.”

The gangster tries to draw a rattling breath. It catches wetly halfway through, and the coughing fit almost kills him. “Said he was going to fix it… The city.”

“Who? Who’s going to fix Gotham?”

“Gonna… Fix it. City…” The man’s eyes roll back in their sockets. You’re losing him quickly. You slam your fist down on his hand, but pain has no hold on this wretched soul anymore.

“Who?! Who is going to fix Gotham?!”

Then, slowly, with painful clarity, the goon’s eyes meet yours.

“Not you, Batman.”

His lip curls in amusement as the deathwind rattles his ribcage. Then he’s gone.

Beginning at one baseboard and ending at the other, you make a thorough sweep of the room, adhering to the principles father taught you and implementing a few tricks of your own. Still, the destruction is so total, the bloodbath so complete, that there is little of use to find. A dusting of the vault yields no prints, which you expected; today’s criminals are too wary to be caught up by such trivialities. Sighing, you straighten and dust your overcoat off, casting your gaze over the room once more. The only thing you’ve been able to ascertain so far is that the wholesale murder of these suits was completely secondary to the main objective. All visible bullet wounds are in non-vital areas; there are just so many of them as to make it irrelevant. Usually, when a gang hits another, they leave calling cards, or at least make it clear why they were here. This is done either by leaving some tell-tale token behind or by killing their targets execution-style. Single shots to the back of the head is the most common method. There isn’t an entry wound above the armpit on any of these poor bastards.

“Cowl, activate O.R.A.C.L.E. uplink and request response to query: Roman Sionis, activities and associates.”

Your cowl, responding to your voice’s signature wavelengths, activates its connection to Wayne Tower and, beyond that, O.R.A.C.L.E., an observation satellite you had launched several years ago to assist in establishing your steel net of information around Gotham. Data packets begin to flicker past your eyes, most detailing indiscretions long past, some even occurring during father’s time under the cowl. The scroll slows at it approaches more recent events.

As far as you or your intelligence systems can determine, Roman Sionis, better known as the criminal Black Mask, has been busy with only one thing: dying. Like so many of father’s rogues, Black Mask’s evil caught up with him. Several years ago, the mask that fused to Roman’s face in a horrific accident (and completed his ‘transformation’) began seeping toxic chemicals into the crime boss’s bloodstream, weakening him and bringing about crippling delusions and paranoia. Since then he has become less and less active and his sphere of influence has shrunk more and more, until now both he and his organizations are mere shadows of their former selves. Sionis is on his deathbed in his mansion just beyond the Palisades; a beautiful, sturdy tomb of oak and steel. The most he would be capable of these days is seeking an heir. He’d better do so quickly.

Given that Black Mask’s organization has been running silent and he is not long for this world, you feel comfortable in crossing him out as a suspect. Still, that’s only one name on a long list in Gotham. Hardly narrows the field.

Your eyes narrow as frustration sets in. Whatever is here, it’s eluding you somehow, and you hate that. You begin pacing the room again, then stop. Perhaps it’s not what’s here, but what’s missing. The vault… There must have been upwards of $500,000 dollars in there for a game like this. What does someone need half a million for in a rush?

You can think of a lot of things. None of them good.

Then there’s what the player said to you before giving up the ghost for good. Kept going on about someone ‘fixing’ Gotham, but he wasn’t talking about you. You run down a mental checklist of the city’s surviving rogues.

Two-Face-Two, son of Harvey Dent, currently in Arkham. Last you checked his positive persona was still dominant.

Professor Pyg, a psychopath obsessed with transforming the innocents of Gotham into “Dollotrons,” horrific ghouls that go forth and enact his will.

William Cobblepot, son of Oswald Cobblepot. Doing his best to get out of Gotham, last you checked. Metropolis’ criminal pastures must look far more verdant, especially with him gone.

Poison Ivy has given up her life of crime, content to hide away in the ruins of the Gotham city zoo with her plants… So long as none dare intrude.

Selena Kyle is a permanent resident of Arkham these days, driven permanently and irrevocably mad by prolonged exposure to Scarecrow’s most potent fear toxin.

And of course, he’s out there somewhere… Watching, waiting. Grinning silently.

No matter who you think of and how you try to position them, however, none of it fits. None of them feel quite right for this one. Then you remember. Last night you fought a new costumed villain… What did he call himself? The ‘Infiltrator’? He was raving when you took him down, talking about bringing Gotham back, starting with you. Perhaps a new chapter in Gotham’s criminal history has begun.

You leave a Batarang on the tabletop before exiting the building, just to remind Gordon that you’re still faster than her. You get some small satisfaction from imagining just how livid she will be to know that the cursed Batman has contaminated another scene. Once outside, you grapple up to the rooftops and make your way back to the site of your encounter with the Instigator. It is much as you left it: cordoned off with yellow caution tape, dust devils kicking up where the earth was disturbed. A chalkout line where a protester fell for the last time. That same acid smell. Utter quiet, but for the common city noises you’d expect, the metropolis muttering in its sleep.

You begin a wide area search, creating a loose noose of a perimeter and tightening it with each sweep. You let the distance settle over your mind that allows you to pick out fine details, and begin going over the facts of the case. A new masked killer, proficient with technology but not a formidable hand-to-hand combatant. An attack on a strongbox belonging to one of the oldest hats in Gotham. The villain vanishes into thin air whilst surrounded by citizenry and enforcement officers alike. But why? Why cause the riot at all? Was it a cover? The only thing near here worth checking into is an old Falcone flophouse said to be located somewhere in the Narrows, which is rapidly becoming less of a Narrows and more of a Sprawl. The flophouse is supposedly one of the final treasure troves of the Falcone crime family. When GCPD first tried to get in, it became painfully evident that the Falcones planned on protecting their investment even from beyond the grave. The place was infested with booby traps, and after losing a handful of officers in gruesome ways that would inevitably make tomorrow’s headlines, the city declared the area ‘unsuitable for habitation’ and boarded it up. Probably waiting a few more years before making another expedition, giving would-be treasure hunters time to soak up the traps. Going after the place would be rash, desperate… And effective, if successful. If only a fraction of the wealth you suspect is hidden there actually is, whoever comes into possession of it could easily establish a criminal empire of any stripe. But what about the radio transmitter? Would the Instigator really go to all the trouble of inciting a riot just to cover up an attempted robbery that no one was likely to care about anyway? And if so, why is it so important that this amassing of resources go unnoticed?

A coolly pulsing blue light tells you that the sun will soon be up. Though you’re loathe to return now, you’ve made a point of attempting to uphold father’s every quirk as Batman, and that includes going out only at night. With a sigh and a shake of your head, you begin crunching across the gravel toward Wayne Tower, the events of the night weighing heavily on your mind.

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