Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #5

In Gotham, alarm bells are screaming.

Temperatures have reached a record high this week, which is ironic given that the environmental change summit is slated to take place at Wayne Tower less than a fortnight from now. You lobbied hard as Wayne Enterprise’s chief representative for the summit, mostly because it’s a lightning rod for super activity, and while you’re usually content to monitor its passing in Metropolis from the penthouse, with Kent gone to god-knows-where and this Instigator clown up to god-knows-what, you can’t afford to have your attention split like that.

Health advisories commandeer the airways every five minutes, advising citizens to stay home, close their windows and doors and turn on air conditioners to burn-out levels. Where the citizenry is too poor to afford climate control, they’re sent to disaster relief centers sponsored, through hedge funds, by Wayne Enterprises. Still, every year a handful of the city’s stubborn and foolhardy are found drained and dry on the streets, crisping under the baking heat of a rapidly warming planet. Reactionary graffiti takes a spike this time of year as well, with the most common mantra scrawled on walls, doors and transportation both public and private.

“Hell is a place on earth, and its name is Gotham.”

Observing from the tower’s penthouse, you scowl. As far as you’re concerned, that line applies succinctly to this city at any time of year. Alfred purrs contentedly in your lap. The old cat, perhaps sensing the dire climate outside, has been napping more than usual lately. You lift him off of you and lean forward to re-read the tip you received tonight.

“Things are heating up. Gutter-snipe Gardens, 2300 hours.

-M.S.”

Not many would choose that hellhole as a meeting place, rife as it is with the desperate and destitute. The initials you figured out quickly enough. They belong to Maggie Sawyer, an ex-cop and long-time ally of the Bat, starting with her love affair with Katherine Kane years back and continuing until the day she handed over her badge and gun.

Kane’s death had a lot to do with that.

You sigh, pinch the bridge of your nose between forefinger and thumb, try to figure out where to start tonight. Make no mistake, heat warnings will not keep the crazies in. If anything, the rising temperatures will bring them out in droves.

You program O.R.A.C.L.E. to trawl Gotham’s various infonets for any hints as to the whereabouts or activity of the Instigator, then stand, stretch and head out. These searches usually take a while, and any hits will be patched in directly to your cowl.

As you step up to the penthouse’s sliding glass door and unlatch it, you are immediately buffeted by a wave of stiflingly hot air. Alfred complains loudly and retreats further into the cool sanctuary.

“I know the feeling, old boy.” You comment, watching his tail disappear around the corner that leads to your sleeping area. He’ll no doubt be curled up on the bed when you come home, having spread his fur liberally about him.

Once outside, you are drenched with sweat almost immediately, making you curse your choice of uniform. Still, it is a necessary evil. If the city’s criminals are to fear a masked vigilante, that vigilante must be immediately recognizable. One of the tenets of Batman that father so drilled into your head.

Not interested in grappling your way across the sweat-slick city, you instead activate your cowl and patch into the Ro-Bat uplink, summoning the nearest to you for transport. It arrives within moments, and you relish the rush of air as you latch on to its carriage and the machine takes you up and away over Gotham.

Ten minutes later you’re circling Gutter-snipe Gardens, right on time for your 2300 hour appointment. Sure enough, cowl optics seize on a huddled form sitting on one of the graffiti-laden benches below, conspicuous because of the upturned collar on its trench coat, which in and of itself is an insane choice in attire for a night like this. Only someone who desperately wanted to avoid recognition would don something like that. You descend over the treeline and drop from the Ro-Bat, landing soundlessly amongst the boughs. Peering down, you confirm that the person belonging to that trench coat is in fact Maggie Sawyer. She’s looking worse for wear these days. Took to drinking pretty heavily after Kane passed, hasn’t looked back. Stress and loneliness have done the rest, reducing her to a shadow of her former self. You figure she’s got about a decade left in her if she keeps up this way.

You blink-click through several options on the cowl interface, selecting an infrared scanner and targeting Sawyer. She’s carrying alright, but you wouldn’t expect anything less from someone coming to the Gardens alone. Even during father’s time this place was perilous… Now it’s practically a guarantee you’ll find violence and death here.

Speaking of violence, the Ro-Bat you have circling above has returned several life signs approaching Sawyer’s location. Humanoid, but not human. Likely members of one of Gotham’s many underground mutant gangs. Though they never make the headlines, the deformed and grotesque prowl the city in droves, preying on the weak and careless. Time to make yourself known.

“Interesting place for a meet, Sawyer.” You growl. Her flinch is barely perceptible, but it’s there, and that speaks volumes for how far she’s fallen. Detective Sawyer, as you knew her in your youth, was hard-as-nails, second only to Jim (god rest his soul) in her daring and panache. She glances up into the darkened boughs, a practiced expression of indifference painted across her features. You know she can’t see you, but swear she’s looking right at you.

“Had to make sure I wasn’t followed.”

“You failed. Scumsuckers are closing in as we speak. I’ll deal with them, but you’ve got to make it fast.”

“I can hel–”

“No you can’t. Not anymore, and certainly not since you’ve already gotten started with your ‘day.’”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Save it. You reek of gin. Now get to talking.”

Sawyer stiffens at your calling her alcoholism out, but swallows her pride and gets down to business.

“I–I got a tip from inside GCPD.”

“Surprised you still have friends there.”

“A few. Children have been disappearing, Batman.”

There it is, just as you suspected. The love of Sawyer’s life was unquestionably Katherine Kane, but before Kate she loved a man and had a child with him. Young ones have always been her soft spot.

“Nothing new in a city like this. If GCPD is on it, why bring it to me?”

“Because they’re not getting anywhere, and frankly I don’t think those yuppies know what they’re dealing with. I suspect super involvement.”

“Who?”

“Not sure, but I have my suspicions. The abductees’ families are found murdered days after the abduction event, down to a one.”

“Sounds ritual. Theories?”

“Dollmaker.”

You click your tongue, hating to be right.

“I’ll look into it. Got a place I can start?”

“Latest family was butchered downtown, a stock broker and his family of four. Intersection James and Park, highrise apartments. You know the one?”

“I know the one. Now get out of here. Your friends are almost upon us.”

Sawyer rises stiffly and makes her way down the path, hand gripping the piece in her pocket. You command the Ro-Bat above to follow her out of the Gardens and ensure she makes it home safely. Weapons are free in case of an encounter.

Moments later, her pursuers appear. They are, as you suspected, mutants. Carrying hatchets, machetes, switchblades… No firearms. Penalties for carrying have become far too severe in Gotham for the average thug to bother packing heat. They gather beneath the tree in which you perch, confused and frustrated at having lost their mark.

You set a gas pellet to a timer and palm it, activating your cowl’s thermals as you drop down. Your sudden appearance has the desired effect. Mutants are unmanned, weapons are brandished like fetishes to ward you off. It won’t work.

“Good evening, gentlemen.” You smirk, hurling the smoke pellet at the forehead of the nearest, a trick you learned from father. It detonates on impact, leaving the mutant’s nose a bloodied mess, thick, acrid smoke billowing out from the point of detonation.

While he’s still reeling, you crash your armored forehead into the skull of the pellet target. He drops like a stone, unconscious. Hearing his cry, another mutant comes to his defense, swinging his machete in a downward arc, trying to catch a break in the smoke.

You seize the blade in your armored palm and make sure he sees, then wrench it out of his grip and toss it aside, pirouetting and ducking to slash your gauntlet’s spikes across his belly. He falls to his knees, holding the bleeding wound. From there, a rising uppercut puts the hatchet-wielder on his back, minus a few teeth. As the smoke clears, only the mutant with the switchblade remains. His eyes are wide as saucers, darting from his fallen comrades to you and back again. Finally, he decides to give himself a headstart by hurling the knife at you before bolting. You stand perfectly still, let the blade sink into your shoulder, then slowly withdraw it. It’s slick with blood, but the deal you made with the demon all those years ago will see it healed quickly. The psychological effect is worth it.

Before he can get too far, you fire your grappling gun, snaring his legs at the knees and sending him face-first into the dirt. Walking up behind him, you place a knee between his shoulder blades and whisper into his ear.

“Listen up, scum. You go and tell whoever you send your kickbacks to that the Gardens are off limits. You tell him Batman said so. Understand?”

The thug nods vigorously, the movement restricted due to him currently eating a fistful of poisoned soil. After a moment longer, you straighten and let him bolt off into the dark.

You can’t keep the smile off your face.

You patch into the Ro-Bat network, seeing that Sawyer hailed a cab at the edge of the Gardens and is on her way to a relief center. Smart. You send a summons to the same Ro-Bat, then patch into O.R.A.C.L.E., are disappointed to find that its trawling has so far yielded little. Some run-of-the-mill assaults and muggings, but nothing organized and nothing it would be worth following up on at this point. You extend the order to keep the search going through the night. By the time that’s done, the Ro-Bat announces its presence with a subsonic screech, and you extend an arm to catch the carriage, heading downtown.

In less than ten you’re on the roof of the apartments in question. Squad cars are still lined up below, investigating the scene. You load up the building’s schematics, looking for an entry point that’s quiet and close. As usual, it’s an air duct. You hate air ducts. Cramped, stuffy and dirty at the best of times, tonight it’s a sauna. You lower yourself six floors to the site of the murders, peering down from a vent in the ceiling. Uniformed officers patrol the hallways, and a strong, authoritative female voice is barking orders from somewhere down the hall.

Too many uniforms, too close. The current administration distrusts and hates Batman, so you don’t have the luxury of walking among them like father or Grayson. The fact that you have no problem killing those who deserve death seems to have a lot to do with it. The GCPD was always so sensitive, so frightened of vigilantes doing what is necessary. No backbone. You scowl and patch into the Ro-Bat network, then browse O.R.A.C.L.E.’s list of vacant buildings in the area. You find one, an ancient, falling down condominium two blocks away, rotted down to the foundations. Satellite confirms the biggest living thing in there are cat-sized rats. You give the command for several Ro-Bats to circle the building, unloading munitions until the girders give way and the structure drops. You listen for the popping, are rewarded five minutes later. Immediately, the hallways become a buzzing hive of activity, uniforms rushing to and fro. That voice is still rattling off orders, and soon the floor becomes much quieter than it was. When you’re sure you won’t be seen, you remove the vent and drop down to the floor.

The click of a pistol’s hammerlock stops you dead in your tracks.

“You. I knew it was you. As soon as they told me where the shots fired were. No one lives in that building. Certainly no one worthy of killing.”

You raise your hands in a gesture of surrender, one that is completely disingenuous.

“Guilty as charged, Gordon.” You say, turning slowly to face Commissioner Barbara Gordon, sitting in her wheelchair, nine millimeter aimed squarely at your chest. “You know that won’t stop me,” you say, nodding to the piece, “You’ve tried before.”

“No,” she says, nodding, “But it will slow you down. Long enough to get my boys back in here, I bet.”

“Willing to take that gamble? Doesn’t sound much like you, Barbara.”

“Don’t! Don’t you EVER call me Barbara, you freak.” She spits the last word with more conviction than some of the biggest crime moguls you’ve taken down over the years. To think, you used to be like family. You incline your head apologetically.

“Of course, commissioner. My apologies. Now… Are you going to point that gun at me until I take it away from you, or are you going to give me a rundown of the situation here?”

She looks like she’s weighing her options for a moment, then finally sighs explosively and lets the weapon drop. “This way.” She barks, turning her chair and heading for a door down the hall and on the right. Despite your many differences, you and Barbara have one important thing in common: an affinity for justice. She won’t let her personal hatred of you get in the way of that.

Inside, the apartment is a den of horrors out of nightmares. Blood splatters on the wall suggest a gleeful, carefree approach to the massacre of its tenants, definitely with a knife. In the living room, a macabre diorama has been set up. The family, father, mother and son are seated on the couch as if about to watch a movie. The father, placed in the middle, holds a bowl of popcorn in his lap, the kernels stained pink with blood. Their faces are gone. Your scowl deepens as you take in the scene.

Shaking your head at the gruesome display, you throw questions at Barbara over your shoulder.

“Theories on the culprit?”

“We thought maybe the Joker, due to the positioning.”

Your hackles rise at the mention of the clown’s name. “You’d better hope not. For all our sakes. Anyway, I don’t think so. It’s not… Funny enough.” You can practically feel Gordon’s eyebrows raising at your assessment.

“Alright… Professor Pyg?”

“No. Too artistic. There’s a ritual to this that Pyg just isn’t interested in.”

“Then I’m fresh out. Suppose you don’t have any dazzling insights to offer?”

You toss a look at her, your eyes narrowed. “Maybe. Give me five minutes alone.”

The commissioner looks as if she’s about to protest.

“Five minutes, Gordon. I can break this case wide open or you can keep floundering in the dark. Your call.”

It takes another minute, but finally she closes her mouth and exits the room without a word. You do a sweep of the room, focusing on the couch and its inhabitants. There’s very little to find, except for blood. The work is meticulous despite the obvious pleasure the unsub took in it. Finally, you rest on your haunches before the family, looking them over, forcing yourself to witness the horror they were subjected to. Your gaze falls once more to the bowl of popcorn, and your head cocks to the side. You get close, close enough for the stench of iron to fill your nostrils, and gingerly extract a long, wiry strand of red hair from amongst the kernels.

“Tt.”

Seconds later, you burst out from the apartment. Gordon is waiting outside.

“Well?” She demands.

“Call your boys in. It was Dollmaker. I’m going to use O.R.A.C.L.E. to triangulate his position based on this.” You hold up the barely visible hair.

“I’ll have my men follow you to the location.”

“Nice try, commissioner, but I don’t need the boys in blue breathing down my back. I’ll be gone before they get back into the building.”

“We’ll see about that.” She retorts.

“Yes, we will.” You finish the conversation, hoisting yourself back up into the air ducts. You can hear her giving the order to seal off all duct outlets on the roof, but she knows it’s already too late.

Once on the roof, you scan the hair with your cowl’s biometrics. It possesses a unique blend of chemical signatures that should allow you to trace its point of origin. Sure enough, in five minutes the process is complete, and the cowl’s internal GPS points you to an old meat processing plant on the harbor.

Another call to your Ro-Bats gets you to the harbor well before Gotham’s finest. You send an anonymous tip to the hotline through a scrambled connection, giving the address and description of the building. With any luck, you’ll be done and gone before you can hear the sirens.

Your transport drops you off on the building’s roof. There’s a few methods of entry here, which is good. Gives you options, potential distractions. A large skylight on the right side could be broken in. Maintenance access door on the left. And of course, the ever present ventilation duct outlet. Your lip curls at the thought of that. You’re not entirely sure, but you think you can hear… Music? From below. Classical. Maybe Chopin?

You remove the grate from the ventilation shaft and angle yourself in, shimmying carefully down the steep drop, trying not to make a sound. You succeed, for the most part, though an occasional slip sends a pebble clattering down to the bottom. Once at the bottom, you crawl along the base of the shaft on your stomach toward the vent inlet where rays of dirty light paint stark shadows on the vent’s ceiling. You scan the room below, the meat processing machinery, the hooks on which dead animals are brought into the factory. It reminds you of that night, so long ago, when you and father broke up one of Leviathan’s operations in a butcher’s shop and you decided, once and for all, on vegetarianism.

Suddenly, the vent gives way beneath you. It comes completely unexpectedly, and you plummet to the ground in uncontrolled freefall, slamming down on the hard concrete below. You groan, rolling onto your back.

Looking down on you is the Dollmaker.

“Well, hello there. You’re not as I remember you. But then, it’s been so long… Are you the same little Bat that has so plagued my family and I in the past? I don’t think so, no. How curious. I wonder, will you become one of my dolls? Your predecessors were ever so stubborn.”

Acting on pure instinct, you quick draw your grappling hook and fire straight up. The Dollmaker howls as it pierces his cheek. You use his moment of shock to haul downward, the psychopath’s head slamming into the concrete beside you. You roll over and on top of him, slamming your fists into his face over and over again. There’s not much fight in him, not after taking the grappling hook and several blows from your armored hands. You’re just about to stop, just about to tie the man up and leave him for the GCPD when a screeching banshee slams into your side, knocking you over. Seconds later, you realize that hitting you isn’t the only thing the banshee did. There’s a six-inch blade protruding from your ribs. With a grunt, you withdraw it and turn to face your attacker.

It’s a little girl. The little girl. The one that was abducted and, you now realize, the one that slew her former family as a show of allegiance to her new “father,” the Dollmaker. One of his grotesque masks has been permanently affixed to her face, and from the wild look in her eyes, you can tell his particular brand of indoctrination has taken a strong hold. Got to be delicate about this. The girl’s a murderer, but she’s not in her right mind.

The girl is practically feral, throwing herself at you without care for her own safety, gnashing her teeth, fists opening and closing, fingernails digging into her palms, drawing blood. It’s not hard to fend her off, but it’s getting harder. Blood loss is seeing to that. You slap away her blows, looking for a weak point, waiting for her to tire. She’s not going to slow down until she drops, probably on some kind of combat drug. She skitters across the floor, taking up the knife again. Can’t let her get in another stab. As she rushes in, you grab her wrist, yank forward and stick a foot in her path. She trips, hits the floor, and you put her in as gentle a sleeper as you can. Slowly but surely, her wild thrashing slows and stops. You release her, setting her gently down onto the concrete, then secure her and the Dollmaker.

The wail of sirens can be heard. It’s time to leave.

You look back at the young girl once more before firing your grappling hook onto the roof and vanishing into the night. As you leap the rooftops, you mutter to yourself.

“Yeah… That’s enough for one day.”

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