The Apprentice, part 16
Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"
There was a possibility that Du Bois was not operating out of the broom plant. The evidence was sketchy and the string of inferences did not leave Batman convinced he had found Du Bois's hide out. But Batman was tired of waiting for Du Bois to strike again, would not send one of his team as bait to test his theory. No, Batman could take that risk himself.
HomeMaster occupied a strategic position along the winding warehouse district of downtown Gotham. It formed the third point of a roughly equilateral triangle connecting the sites where Robin and Spoiler had been attacked. That in itself could describe a number of buildings, but HomeMaster was also one of the few multi-story warehouses which remained commercially zoned in the aftermath of the quake years earlier. Many manufacturing and warehousing concerns had either replaced their old buildings with more efficient single-story structures or had moved beyond the city limits completely, converting their old buildings to upscale loft apartments. HomeMaster was in fact one of the tallest combined manufacturing and warehousing facilities anywhere along the city docks.
The height of the plant was not insignificant; it made it one of the few buildings from which an observer could, with enough patience and training, map out the various downtown patrol routes traveled by the Bat and his various partners. Throw in the deep footings the building required for its height and there was an easy link into the city sewers, providing entrance and egress below street level.
No, there was nothing guaranteeing that Du Bois was using the HomeMaster Broom Company as his base of operations, but right now it was the best possibility Batman could come up with.
A moment's more observation and Batman had mapped out the best route down to the loading bay doors, a route along which he was unlikely to be observed. He checked that the lower part of his mask was well seated, sealed against any potential gas attack that Du Bois might unleash. Then he traveled 20 feet down the rooftop before launching the jumpline that would carry him into the loading dock.
Seconds later, Batman was in the deep shadows of the loading dock, swiftly bypassing the alarm and picking the lock on the worker entrance at right angles to the truck bay. The lock gave silently, and the door swung open on well-oiled hinges. Batman slipped through as soon as the opening was large enough to admit him and then closed the door behind him and reengaged the alarm.
First things first - he needed to assess each level against the modifications in the blueprints. Old warehouses were notoriously full of "dead" spaces, created by changing technologies that made pneumatic tube communication systems and dumbwaiters obsolete. The wide open floors were also easily reconfigured, and space lost in reconfiguration could be mobilized by an enterprising person with a clever eye. Batman had no doubt of Du Bois's enterprising nature, nor his cleverness.
The shipping and receiving floor of HomeMaster, on a cursory scan, was not such a reconfigured space. Skids full of various shipments, picked and packed and waiting to be shipped, stretched in rows with aisles wide enough to easily navigate forklifts. Batman slid through the shadows to the packing area, starting a circuit that would bring him to the stairwell to the basement level after his initial sweep of the ground level.
He paused in a recess in the wall, taking a moment to key his cowl display with the ground floor blueprint. A rustle sounded to his left, and then there was the odd pinging bounces of wood hitting concrete followed by a feline protest. Batman narrowed his eyes as a black cat dashed just past the ends of his boots, hissing and spitting as it claimed the top of a packed skid.
Barely audible over the cat was the sound of a door falling closed, and Batman withdrew more deeply into the shadows as a flashlight beam sliced through the murk of the loading area. The beam landed on the cat, and a man's voice scolded, "Senja, what did you do?"
The cat answered by bounding away into the darker parts of the warehouse, and the flashlight beam swept perilously close to Batman's hiding place en route to the broom handles the cat had upset. "Damned animal," the man - apparently the night watchman - muttered, crossing to the fallen broom handles. "Martinez is going to be pissed."
The watchman sighed and set his flashlight on a packing table, angling it to illuminate the area where the handles had fallen. He began picking them up and returning them to their original positions, muttering under his breath as he did so.
Batman stayed still, patiently waiting for the watchman to return to his rounds. He allowed his attention to be divided between the watchman and the blueprints presented in his cowl's head's up display, continuing his detective work.
That proved a costly error.
Batman was actually startled when the night watchmen turned suddenly, diving unerringly toward Batman with a broom handle aimed at his midsection. Instinct and muscle memory made up for the split second his mind was surprised; Batman pivoted back to avoid the thrust and closed his hands on the wood thrusting past him. He pivoted again, raising his arms and, by extension, the night watchman's. At least, he started to lift them - but then contrary to most instinctive responses, the night watchman just... let go.
The sudden absence of the watchman's weight forced Batman to catch his balance, giving the watchman enough time to dance back and claim another broom handle. Before the watchman could make another strike, Batman took up space, getting himself out of the corner he had been lurking in. The watchman responded by raising the broomstick into a defensive stance and for a long moment, the two men stood and studied one another.
"You're early," the watchman finally said, and Batman realized suddenly that he was looking at Du Bois. The face no longer matched the mug shot from February, implying plastic surgery. Belatedly Batman realized the night watchman's garb he wore was tailored for easy movement, with extra fabric to disguise Du Bois's actual dimensions and movement.
There was no time for self-castigation for missing such details. Batman remained balanced on the balls of his feet, the broom handle in his hands held easily in a starting kumijo stance to mirror that adopted by Du Bois. No more words were exchanged as they stood for what felt like an interminable timestudying one another.
Du Bois finally took the initiative, lunging toward Batman's right side. Batman deflected the jab of the broom handle with a turn of his wrists, forcing the attack further right and bringing his own broom handle in to stab at Du Bois's ribs. With startling quickness, Du Bois had his own handle up to block, and the earlier stillness was replaced by a flurry of movement.
Furious jabs and sweeping uppercuts were met on both sides by spins and blocks. Du Bois danced clear of one swipe far enough to raise his broom handle over his head and swing it by its end in one hand, bringing it down in a long arc designed to cut Batman's legs out from under him. Batman avoided the cut, although for a moment his cape entangled Du Bois's staff. Du Bois managed just to bring his second hand back to the broom handle, jerking it free of Batman's cape and bringing it up to block just in time to avoid a blow to his shoulder. Batman felt one of the clasps of his cape loosen in the move.
Du Bois spun away from Batman's block, using his momentum to swing around with a leveling blow toward Batman's head. Batman drew his broom handle vertical to block the strike, and Du Bois's staff shattered.
There was scarcely time to think as Du Bois pulled back, a grim smile playing on his lips as he pulled back his now shortened but sharpened weapon to hurl it, spear-like, toward Batman's chest.
Batman stepped back and deflected the projectile, his mind flashing back almost twenty years as his body operated on pure fighting instinct. He had deflected the exact move before. He had programmed the same attack into the fight simulator in the Batcave. He had taught it to every person he had trained.
He had learned it from David Cain.
In the time of Batman's recognition, Du Bois had claimed a new broom handle.
Once more, they fell into ready stances.
Du Bois had been trained by Cain. He had been trained by Crane. He had been picking off Batman's team one by one.
And he was lunging forward once more, his jab again catching Batman's cape as Batman pivoted out of its path.
Now the clasp at Batman's shoulder tore away, and Du Bois followed up with another sweep of his broom handle, this time aiming behind Batman and again catching the cape. Belatedly, Batman realized Du Bois's attacks had been as much at the cape as at his person, and he dove and rolled to avoid a strike that brought Du Bois in too close to dodge any other way.
The move changed their positions, giving Batman an opportunity to drop the handle weakened by Du Bois's earlier attack and replace it with a new one. He turned and did a reverse pivot, bringing a side swipe down toward Du Bois's ankles. Enough playing.
Du Bois left his feet, rolling back before his flesh took the impact of Batman's strike and resuming his feet in time to block a furious attack. Batman pressed his advantage, images of Spoiler and Robin and the cover flashing through his mind. Du Bois backed away from the assault, forced into pure defense as he was forced into the recessed space Batman had started in. He was frustratingly adept at blocking every blow from Batman, catching the strikes with enough give in each block to avoid losing his weapon to another shattering blow.
Finally, Batman had Du Bois's back against the wall, their broom handles locked together in an "X" pattern between them. "Give up," Batman hissed.
Du Bois grinned and ducked down.
The broom handles slipped, their angles changed and Batman's balance interrupted for a split second.
A split second long enough for Du Bois to twist behind Batman and too late, Batman realized that a broom handle was not the only weapon at Du Bois's disposal.
A searing pain screamed across Batman's shoulder blade on the side where his cape had been pulled away. Cold air swept through sliced kevlar as blood began to slick down inside Batman's armor.
Batman pivoted, forcing back hot rage. He blocked a new blow aimed at his head and managed to get a strike in at Du Bois's wrist, forcing the other man to drop the knife he held.
Du Bois hissed and jumped back, pulling his wrist in toward his body and holding his broom handle awkwardly in front of him. Batman took a menacing step forward and raised his staff...
But his muscles would not respond.
The toxin. Du Bois had laced his knife with toxin.
Du Bois's face regained its smile. "You can feel it now, I see."
Batman could only stare mutely as Du Bois dropped the broom handle in his hands and stepped forward to pry the handle from Batman's fingers.
Du Bois reached out fingers to touch the Bat emblem on Batman's chest. "I knew I couldn't beat you in a fair fight. But I knew I would beat you."
Batman tried to force his body to move, but the effort was wasted. A moment later, Du Bois had stepped between Batman's legs and pulled one of them out from under Batman. Batman fell heavily to the ground.
Du Bois stood over him now, stepping across Batman's chest to stare at his face. "I always finish my contracts," Du Bois said, pulling another knife from a hidden sheath at his ankle. He squatted down over Batman's prone body and raised the knife high in his uninjured hand.