Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #3

There is nothing you hate more than rain in Gotham.

Once upon a time, precipitation in the dark city gave one a brief respite from the smog and cloying heat. It cleaned the streets and washed the filth of yesterday into the sewers, condemning the past to a narrow, rushing gutter. These days, it’s almost like the very clouds above Gotham are dirty, raining toxic sludge down on its citizens. The fact that it’s usually acid rain doesn’t improve your spirits. You’re sitting at your console before O.R.A.C.L.E. now, watching the downpour, the high winds making streamers of the steam put forth by the city’s many smokestacks.

All of this might explain why this year’s international summit on climate change is being held here, at the Iceberg Lounge, specifically. There’s an appropriate irony to the choice in location. Though the summits usually serve as little more than vessels for the egos of pampered billionaire philanthropists, a new ‘super conglomerate’ has promised that this year’s installment will feature ‘the future of climate change and the human race.’ A bold assertion, one you doubt will hold up under the harsh light of scrutiny. Not that there won’t be any self-congratulating or backroom deal-making… It is the Iceberg Lounge, after all, and the place is still run by a Cobblepot.

Since you first encountered him two days ago, you’ve had the Instigator’s strange radio transmitter device in a secure analysis chamber, and today you gleaned what little information you’ll be able to from it. The electronics are sophisticated, far more than your average pawn shop would be able to provide. The build is custom, probably unique, so it cost a pretty penny. and you’re fairly certain that there are only a handful of people in the world with the knowledge to even conceive of such a device, much less enact its creation. You wouldn’t know them personally, but William Cobblepot might.

You’ve reprogrammed your regularly patrolling Ro-Bats to seek out signs of the Instigator’s influence, narrowing their primary search parameters to include only gang warfare and grand theft.

Drumming your fingers on the desktop idly, you attempt to parse out your next move.

After careful consideration, you determine that your first stop of the night will be the Iceberg Lounge. You have questions, and with any luck, William Cobblepot has answers. Whether he’ll surrender them willingly is another story entirely. Before you leave, however, you check the info tracker you placed on the riots where you first encountered the Instigator for updates. There is little of import: authorities still cannot explain the seemingly spontaneous demonstration, nor its sudden halt. A handful of citizens were hospitalized with minor injuries, but none have presented anything that suggests the radio signal has had lasting effects. With a resigned sigh, you lock the terminal and head out.

The rain sizzles as it falls upon the garish neon sign above the Iceberg Lounge. Travel advisories have been going out all night, recommending that citizens stay at home out of the rain. Not that the wealthy have ever had to subscribe to such populist notions as common sense. In their world, every problem is solved with more money, even when money is the problem. So they have come out tonight in droves, heedless of the weather, desperate to be seen at Cobblepot’s exclusive lounge. From the rooftops across the street you glare, listening to the patter and pop of the downpour, the acid rain slowly eating through your overcoat.

It takes a solid half hour to get into the lounge unnoticed. Cobblepot’s exclusive club charges high membership fees, and its members get what they pay for. The place has top-notch security, all ex-PMCs. Patrols are tight, surveillance is constant, tolerance is zero. So naturally, it takes you a little longer than usual to slip by. Once one reaches the inner grounds, however, security loosens up a bit (or at least gives that impression). Though guards do regularly patrol the hallways, these are armed with shortwave radios rather than Berettas and are easily avoided, especially by someone who has committed the building’s blueprints to memory.

You navigate the maze of switchbacks and false ends that lead to Cobblepot’s private party room and put down the complacent guards outside, then kick in the door. A haze of narcotic smoke and a swirl of cheap perfume are the first scents to reach you, sycophantic mood music and forced, coquettish moans the first sounds. William Cobblepot is mostly naked, draped across an opulent leather sofa, two budding-and-barely-dressed debutants hanging off of him. He looks up at you, startled.

“Ah, fuck.” He curses plainly.

You nod at the girls. “Aren’t these ones a bit young, Cobblepot? Blackgate doesn’t take kindly to pedophiles.”

William laughs a nasally, mucous-laden laugh. It is his father’s. “Blackgate? Please. Even if Gordon could get charges to stick, I’d never spend a day in there. I’d get sent to Arkham, no questions asked, on account of dear old dad.” Now his grin vanishes. “What do you want, Batman?”

You stand there silently for a moment, then growl at the women. “You two, put your clothes on and get out.” While they both comply, one is brazen enough to run a hand across your chest as she passes by. Cobblepot watches them go wistfully, then fixes a hard glare on you.

“There. Now that you’ve properly spoiled my fun, what do you want?”

“I need information.”

Cobblepot rolls his eyes. “This doesn’t surprise me. What, search engines not working in the Cave?”

“This isn’t the kind of information one can just find. It requires particular connections.”

Now William nods sanctimoniously, like a cat helping itself to a saucer of milk. “Of course it does. My particular connections. But why should I help you? What’s in it for the Cobblepots?”

You get the feeling he already knows what you’ve come to ask him about tonight. Maddening, how you’re forced to play his games. You growl, take a step forward.

“Roughly twelve fewer bones broken. I need to know about a extremely sophisticated electronic device, capable of broadcasting a radio signal that interferes with the human psyche.”

Cobblepot sits up, a twinkle in his depraved eyes. You’ve got his attention. “Interesting, interesting… Can’t say I’ve come across such a device in my years as an… ‘auctioneer,’ but I don’t find the concept totally implausible.”

“It’s not implausible at all. The device is in my care as we speak.”

That really gets him. If there’s one thing a Penguin can’t resist, it’s the call of a unique trinket not yet hoarded. As of right now, that transmitter is the paramount object of William’s affections, and will be until he either gets his hands on it or is distracted by another pretty bauble.

“Very, veeery interesting, Batman. Had I known you would bring such fascinating tales with you, I would have prepared a meal for us. But I’m afraid I still don’t see what this device has to do with me.”

“I need to know who could make such a thing from scratch.”

“Why?”

“It’s part of a case I’m working. Do you have names or don’t you?”

“Of course I have names, Batman.” He spits. “Unfortunately, most of them belong to dead men. Victor Fries and Edward Nigma, specifically. But they’re long gone.” He strokes his pencil-thin beard thoughtfully. “In the modern age, it’s hard to say… Though I’ve heard rumors of a new black marketeer in business. Not much, but all positive.”

“Name.”

“Don’t know, but his alias is ‘the Machinist.’ That’s what he keeps spreading around, anyway. Honestly, do we need another masked psychopath in Gotham? You’re enough to deal with as it is.”

You ignore the bait, try to think of what other information you should get out of the Penguin’s heir.

“The Machinist…” You muse. Two new costumed villains in three days is bad news no matter how you slice it. “Who are his friends? Who knows him?”

Cobblepot rolls his eyes, sighs. “Honestly Batman, I am growing bored now. And you know how I tend to summon hapless goons when I’m bored. Like I said, I don’t KNOW much about him. Only rumors. One of those is that he was doing work for Dent’s son, trying to fix his… ‘Little problem.’”

Two-Face-Two, the son of Gotham’s demented former DA, Harvey Dent. Born with the remains of a twin brother latched parasitically onto his face, complete with its own deranged personality. Dent and the brother constantly vie for control, and you know for a fact how desperately he wishes to be rid of this duality. Cobblepot is staring at you, grinning wickedly.

“You hit the silent alarm, didn’t you William?”

The man begins to chuckle. “Didn’t think I’d let you out of here without a fight, did you?”

Seconds later, armed thugs burst into the pleasure room. You put yourself between them and Cobblepot, forcing them to forego the use of their firearms.

“Come on, boys! Show uncle Billy what you’ve got!” The Penguin taunts.

The fight is six-to-one, but in a room this size, that seems fair. Just have to avoid putting yourself anywhere someone could get a clean shot off. You’re still calculating possible angles of attack when you block the first blow, catching the butt of a rifle in the palm of your hand and turning it aside. Whirling on your heel, you deliver a bone crushing elbow to your assailant’s temple, followed up by a leaping haymaker. He goes down and doesn’t get up. Next is a group of three, and you marvel at their ability to come at you in formation rather than one-by-one. Elite guards, indeed. You turn the first’s momentum against him, sending him careening into the second with a well-timed toe trip. The third lands two blows on your midsection before you stop him with a vicious uppercut. The previous two have recovered now and are making a second go of it. A backhanded slap puts the first off-balance, then you seize his face in your hand and slam his head into the wall and deliver a jump kick to the other’s sternum. Both fall quietly.

“Four down.” You say, staring down the remaining two guards. “You’d better call for back-up.”

One of the two, it appears, agrees with you and reaches for his radio. A lightning-quick flick of the wrist leaves a Batarang protruding from the back of the man’s hand. The last gives you one terrified look and bolts for the door. You seize the back of his collar with your left hand, hauling him backward and bringing him into contact with your right elbow. There’s a wet crack as his skull gives way. The fighting done, you turn to Cobblepot one last time.

“Hurry your Metropolis plans along, William.” You say, the man’s eyes widening at the revelation that you know of his scheming. “You’re not welcome in Gotham anymore.”

You leave the room and exit the Lounge as a ghost, unseen and unheard. The six unconscious guards in the Penguin’s pleasure suite will only serve to strengthen the place’s hold on Gotham’s criminally wealthy, to solidify the Iceberg Lounge’s already infamous reputation. You hate that you’re helping him, even indirectly. Outside, the rain still pours, leaving a faint mist hovering at ankle height as it fizzles and evaporates.

“Cowl, patch into O.R.A.C.L.E., respond to query: ‘Machinist.’ Apply criminal underworld filters.”

Though the clouds of acid rain hovering above the city play merry hell with the connection, O.R.A.C.L.E. manages to return a barren dossier. It appears the Machinist first raised a red flag in El Salvador two years ago, where he designed a device that could essentially ‘dissolve’ in liquid, then reassemble itself autonomously at a later time and location. The Machinist used said device to assassinate a would-be presidential candidate by dissolving it in his tumbler of rye, only to have it reassemble itself in his intestinal tract and cut its way out an hour later. The murderer released no manifesto, implying that the hit was paid rather than political.

His next ping is one year later in Moscow, where he designed a series of biometrically attuned weapons for the Nu-Bloc. Again, no manifesto, no letter of intent. Another contract. You blink-click several times, attempting to find a point of contact. There isn’t much, but no one’s record is spotless in today’s world. You get a number of hits from a private and studiously encrypted discussion forum which you are only able to break into after assuming father’s old alter ego, ‘Matches Malone.’ The man’s been dead for years of course, but his name still occasionally proves useful. You post a notice saying that you want some discreet tech work done, are only interested in the best and are willing to pay the price. Nothing too specific, nothing that might scare him off. Then you close the link to O.R.A.C.L.E. with a sigh.

You patch your cowl into the Ro-Bat’s data core, speed reading the information that flickers past your eyes. Jackanapes was downtown, harassing the citizenry for no apparent reason. Ro-Bat scared him off. Phosphorus Rex got dangerously close to a timber yard before the Gotham PD actually did their job and stopped him. Other than that, the night has been what you’ve come to expect: full of trouble and turmoil, but nothing above street level crime. Nothing to suggest the involvement of a super.

That done, you head for the approximate location of the Falcone vault. It’s in the Narrows, a dangerous part of Gotham even in its golden days. Lately, its borders have become less defined and its denizens more volatile. Something to do with the Wound, no doubt. Seems everything has something to do with that these days. Winding your way through the spiraling tunnels, you go over the facts in your head, try to make sense of it all. The Instigator has some grand accomplishment in mind, of that much you’re sure. For it, he needs both considerable resources and specialized talent, both of which he appears to be lacking on. That’s why he went to the Machinist for his weapon, and why he paid him with mob money taken from cold, dead hands. So lost in your thoughts, you almost don’t hear them before they hear you. Someone is up ahead around the bend in the corridor, right about where you believe the entrance to the vault to be. Two someones, from the sound of it. Arguing.

“Boss said we should do this quick an’ quiet. You know he’s still out there, right?”

“Shaddap, ‘he’ has been dead for years. Just some clown trying to fill his shoes these days. Bat-baby ain’t nothing to cry about.”

There’s a brief period of silence, broken only by the sound of someone struggling with some kind of mechanism and a steady stream of soft, vile cursing. Then comes a loud ‘clunk!’ and a self-satisfied whooping.

“Told you I could do it! No lock can stop this man.”

“Shaddap, you only got it open ‘cause of that toy.”

“This? I don’t need no stinkin’ gizmo to work a lock. Close it back up and I’ll show ya.”

“No! We ain’t wastin’ anymore time. Already did enough, letting you talk me into sparking back at the spot.”

You paint yourself against the wall and begin regulating your breathing so as not to make a sound. After a moment, you reach into your utility belt and retrieve an adhesive tracer, flipping it over between index finger and thumb. Let them argue… Might reveal some unexpected clues, though you doubt goons this low on the food chain would know anything of value. After all, if they’re the first wave being sent into the booby-trapped vault, they’re probably not the ones making the decisions.

“Alright then,” says one, “let’s get on with it. Haul ‘er open.”

“You would say that.” Responds the other moodily. Still, he complies with the request, as the sounds of creaking, rusted hinges affirm for you.

“Christ, it reeks!” The first exclaims, and you’re inclined to agree. Even at this distance, the stench of rotting flesh is gagging. “Do we seriously have to go in there?”

“Do you seriously want to find out what happens if we don’t?” Counters the other.

“Fair point. You go in first. I’ve done all the work so far.”

There’s some muttering and general complaining, but the pair move on briskly. After you’re certain you can neither be seen nor heard, you round the corner. The vault’s large, heavy bulkhead stands ajar, and a boxy device has been cast carelessly aside not far away. Stepping into the vault, you immediately see the source of the stench: bodies line either side of the hall, all felled in some gruesome manner by the traps here, some many years old, some as fresh as yesterday.

You thread your way through and around the corpses littering the hallway, careful to stay far enough away from your prey so as not to alert them, but close enough to not lose the trail. You attempt to stay close to those unfortunates that have already made their final misstep, hoping that proximity to previously activated traps will keep you from suffering a similar fate. A faint glow has begun to gather somewhere far ahead in the gloom, casting a brownish hue on the dilapidated walls. Your prey notices it, too.

“Must be getting close now, eh?”

A grunt. Affirmative.

“Think it’s as packed as the boss says? Man could set up a nice life for himself with that kinda’ scrip.”

“I only think two things right now, Marty. I think I want to get out of here alive, and I think you should shut the fuck up.”

Listening to the goons distracts you, and almost costs you your life. As you take another step forward, you feel a pressure plate depress under your foot. Too late to save yourself from them, you attempt to anticipate the trap. Blow darts fire from indentations on the right wall, and you’re not quick enough to get entirely out of reach. A line of the wooden shards stitches up your calf and thigh, and you bite your tongue ‘till it bleeds to keep from crying out. Instead, you let yourself drop to the ground beside an ex-treasure hunter, hoping the silhouette of his body will conceal yours. The goons stop dead in their tracks, and silence falls.

“The fuck was that?”

“I dunno… Sounded like one of them traps going off.”

“Still got all your bits?”

“Yeah… You?”

“Yeah.”

“Well alright then. One less thing to worry about on the way back, right? C’mon.”

Footsteps resume, but you don’t budge. Only one set. Sure enough, a few seconds later:

“You comin’, or you gonna make me carry this all by myself?”

There’s a prolonged silence. You hold your breath.

“Yeah… Shut the fuck up Marty. I’m comin’.”

Once you’re sure they’re gone, you spring up and begin examining your leg. Thankfully, most of the darts were stopped, either by your overcoat or the Kevlar armor beneath it. Still, one or two made it through, and by the bile starting to build in your throat, you can tell they were poisoned. The deal you made with the devil ought to be enough to ward off the real effects, but it’s still unpleasant. Seems that you’re close to the end of this, but a wounded leg and a bloodstream filled with toxins might put you in a difficult place if you have to defend yourself.

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