Batman Quest: Judge & Jury, Issue #2

Damian Wayne, the Boy Wonder, watches as a single muzzle flash brightens the night before all is quiet and still.

“Fa–” He falters, nearly forgetting himself in his concern, “Batman, can you hear me?”

Nothing. No sound, no movement. Breathless, the Robin drops from the rooftop on which he perched, rolling to a crouch much the same way his father did before him, only seconds ago. The lights have all come on in the shipping dock warehouse now, and there are raised voices inside, audible even at this distance.

Soundlessly, quieter than the slight breeze that moves about you, you slink across the open lot and sidle up to the warehouse’s exterior. The voices, an indistinct murmur before, have become sharp and clear.

“What the fuck, Donny? Honestly, what the fuck was the plan here?” Demands one voice, the weight of authority clear in its tones.

“I–He was trying to break in, man!” Answers ‘Donny,’ baffled and terrified.

“Oh yeah? The Batman was trying to break in. The BATMAN, Donny. And you shoot him?”

Donny can only stammer in reply.

“Oh, you don’t? You don’t. Let me explain it to you, kid. This guy, this guy right here? Used to be trouble enough. Had a way of shrugging off shots like what you plugged him with. Had a way of coming back to get you in the end. But now? You think Wayne cutting ties with the Bat’s army meant anything to this freak and his pals? No. Now he’s got friends.” That last word dripping with contempt. “And his friends don’t play so nice.”

Snapping back to attention, you fire your grapnel gun up to the roof and ascend. Batman may lie below in the hands of his captors, but the story of how he got there will be up here.

Above, your eyes quickly find the scene. The maintenance access door to the warehouse below hangs ajar and splintered, its bent hinges creaking slightly in the breeze. Closer, you see the tell-tale streak of blood from a gunshot wound. Powdery indentation in the cement means the bullet went right through.

Searching around on your haunches, you see the second shot. Blood’s smeared, victim was lying down–on his back, it looks like–shot took him in the front, maybe the chest if you’re lucky. Hard to tell the angle without additional equipment and time, neither of which you have right now.

Around you, three methods of entry. Maintenance access, a skylight and the furnace exhaust. Batman has limited time below, even if they haven’t hurt him any more.

In the bright warehouse below, Donny’s unfortunate situation has escalated to the point of him being on his knees before what Robin could only guess was the authoritative voice from before. That second voice had a gun. Donny was crying.

The Dark Knight lay crumpled beneath his cape a mere few paces from the action, the carmine slick of blood spreading slowly from his silhouette.

“Sorry Donny, this is just the way it has to be,” spoke the man with the gun, “Boss is gonna want blood for this. You got no idea the kind of heat this’ll bring down on he–“

Suddenly, the shrieking splinter of glass, followed swiftly by razor-sharp shards falling heavily amongst the crew of enforcers. Then, a flash of red and yellow, flicking back and forth faster than the eye could follow, leaving streamers of blood and sailing teeth in its wake.

Donny’s would-be murderer staggers back, blood gushing from a rent in his forehead.

“You see what you fucking did, Donny?” He screams, alternately clutching at his wounds and wiping blood from his eyes. The pistol shakes in his hand. “You stupid motherfucker–”

The Batman stirs then, stumbling blearily into consciousness. He sees the gang boss, wild with anger and desperation, standing at the edge of the pale light cast down by the broken skylight above. Then, the tiniest glint from the shadows, a green-armored wrist flicking forth from the dark.

“No!” He bellows, his hand reaching out as if to stop time with only his willpower. But its already too late, and Donny’s would-be murderer stumbles in place, slipping to his knees. His hands have forgotten the pistol they held and now clutch desperately at his neck, where a stinking red flower blooms and blooms, its center a dark green Batarang. After what seems an impossibly long time spent gurgling and gasping, the enforcer falls to the ground.

Stepping forth from the shadows, Robin makes to comfort you and check your wounds. You have but a few fleeting moments of consciousness left before the black takes you again.

You lie still and quiet as Robin radios the Cave for assistance, attempting to piece together what happened here in your mind. Part of you is all too ready to blame yourself–for carelessness, for not instructing your son better–but another knows the blame lies on Damian’s shoulders. There was no need for that man to die. Your eyes find his as he presses a field bandage to your torso. He risks a small smile that dies quickly when it is not returned.

“Damian…” You whisper, and the strength of your voice startles him.

“Don’t speak, Batman. Help is on the way.” He answers quietly. Some time passes in silence before you find the strength to speak again.

“You have failed me. You’re–” your breath hitches, a painful spike in your lungs, “–fired.”

Though he grimaces, Robin continues to bandage your wounds.

“Don’t speak.” He repeats.

The next three days pass largely as a blur, the calm of sleep broken by singular, sharply painful moments of waking. By the evening of the fourth, however, your exceptional conditioning allows you to be up and about, if not leaping across rooftops. The sun is dying over the hills as you look out upon the Wayne estate from your study. Damian stands a few feet away, balancing two logs from the trees he cut down yesterday on the flat of his skull. Ever the showoff, the has raised one leg to form a crane-like pose. Unnecessary.

Though you haven’t told him whether you plan on making good the firing from three days ago, he has behaved admirably, submitting himself to grueling training regimes without the need of your telling him so. Still, you must remind yourself, this is no Dick or Tim or even Jason; Damian was born to grueling training regimes. It would not affect him the same as the others.

Upon your waking, Alfred informed you of several pressing business concerns that have arisen over your recovery period. Carmella D’Avotti calls nearly every day, asking in increasingly rude manner when you mean to speak with her next. Frank Gorospe showed up at the door around lunchtime the other day, wanting to speak with you about the Sorelli account. Meanwhile your bookkeepers continue to send anxious e-mails about quarterly reports. This was a delay you could ill afford.

With a sigh and a suppressed wince, you stand from the wicker chair you had occupied for the last few hours. Glancing over at Damian, you catch his inquisitive gaze.

“Don’t get excited,” you say with no small amount of resignation, “I’m not ready to go back out yet, and I haven’t decided if you ever will again.”

His eyes harden at this, but after a moment he closes them and resumes a calm, focused expression.

“I’ll be here.”

He says to your retreating back.

After stopping by the wardrobe for a choice three-piece suit, you contact Alfred over the intercom and have him bring the car around. He meets you out front with a beautiful old machine, pearl with gold trimmings, fairly glimmering in the sunset. Of course the interior has all been overhauled, but you can’t help but have a fondness for the old and nostalgic. Alfred doesn’t seem to mind, either. Once you’ve made yourself comfortable inside and are watching the green hills of Gotham’s outer limits roll by, you make use of the car’s telephone, ringing your head of bookkeeping.

“Hello Mr. Wayne, what can I do for you?” Answers a polite-if-strained woman’s voice after a few rings.

“Carol!” You feign excitement at the familiar voice. “I was just returning your boss’s messages. Is she around?”

“Not at the moment, Mr. Wayne. Would you like to leave a message?”

“Must be busy,” you say smoothly, though you can think of no Wayne Enterprises business that would require her to be away from the office today, “Just let her know I’ve read her messages. Had a bit of a skiing accident, I’m afraid–”

“Another one, Mr. Wayne?” Asks the voice, edging on amusement. You laugh warmly in reply.

“Yes, I’m afraid I’m not very good at it. Hasn’t stopped me yet, though. Anyway, let her know that all is well and that the books will tip by the end of the quarter. Tell her I’m seeing to it personally.”

“Very well, Mr. Wayne. I’ll let her know.”

“Goodbye, Carol.”

You hang the phone up on her farewell, already thinking forward to the next call. This time a few more rings are necessary before a distracted, cross voice answers. Frank Gorospe.

“Gorospe–what do you want?” He demands.

“Frank,” –you say, and you swear you can hear his sharp intake of breath– “Bruce here. I heard you tramped all the way out to the Palisades the other day.” The epitome of casual.

“Bruce!” He rushes, nearly stammering in his haste to make nice, “Yes, yes, I wanted to talk to you about that Sorelli matter. Your butler told me you took a nasty fall. I was sorry to hear that.”

“Nothing a good, stiff drink won’t fix. Speaking of which, Frank, I was hoping you’d join me for one or two–and a little food on the side.” You add conspiratorially. It draws the expected belly laugh.

“Just like your father you are!”

“How about that diner we all used to sit at?”

“What, that dirty old thing? Good a place as any, I suppose.”

“Good. Twenty minutes?”

“I’ll be there. See you soon, Bruce.”

You pass the rest of the ride in quiet contemplation, wearing your “detective face,” as Damian would call it. Though Frank was a fierce combatant in the board room, he rarely pursued his interests with you outside of Wayne Tower. For him to have come unannounced to the manor was completely out of character. Watching the streets roll steadily by, you suddenly realize how close you are to your destination. Little time to plan.

Huntington Eatery. A study in opposites. A fine, strong name for a filthy, rundown diner. As the car pulls up, you can hardly remember enough to superimpose the image of the Eatery as you knew it over the rotting skeleton it is today.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the mission gets results, that it matters. Especially when you see things like this. Relics from the past dragged down into the common mud of the present. You step out of the car–taking care to ensure you don’t walk in any of the many oil-slick puddles–and walk into the diner. It smells of old grease and cleaning products used too frequently and in too great amounts, to no avail. Scanning the booths, you see Frank wave at you from the corner.

“Good to see you outside of that damned board room, kid.” He says as you walk up.

“You too, Frank,” you reply, taking a seat, “you too. How are the grandkids?”

“Sophie’s doing just fine, at that age where she can do no wrong, y’know?” He smiles that knowing smile that grandparents like to. You smirk into your drink in reply.

“Don’t stay there long, do they?” You poke.

“No, they don’t–you certainly didn’t!” Frank laughs.

Your talk goes on like this for a while, circling the important matters, sticking to the comfortable fringes. Food and drink is ordered (beer, to reinforce the image of a simpler time in Frank’s mind) and the sun’s few remaining fingers of light sink past the horizon, leaving only Gotham’s sweaty night outside the windows.

“Alright, Frank,” you declare of a sudden, leaning back in the feigned satisfaction of a good meal, “are you full? Comfortable? Shall we get down to business?”

Frank smiles slyly at you, the twinkle of greed in his eyes. “Ah, yes. The Sorelli account.”

“The Sorelli account.” You echo with mock solemnity.

“I’ll assume you’ve looked at it,” Frank continues, picking at the fries left on his plate, “it’s good for business. Rock solid numbers, steady profit. It’s what the company needs, Bruce.” He says, stressing the word.

“Except Bert doesn’t think so.” You counter, taking another swig of your beer. “Why’s that?”

Frank scowls. “He’s just afraid, living in the past. Used to be the Sorelli name was linked to some unsavory business.”

“Unsavory? Let’s be specific, Frank. It’s just you and me, and dad if he’s watching.” You wink.

The older man waves his hand dismissively. “Some family stuff, back in Gotham’s heyday. Used to run with the Falcones.” He hurries to assuage your worried expression. “Used to, Bruce! Used to. They’ve been out of that for a long time, making a killing in the shipping business overseas.”

“That so? Shipping?” You say, pretending to bite more of the bait than you do.

“Yes!” Frank lights up, sensing his victory to be near. “That’s it, Bruce! I don’t understand why the rest of the board is in such a fit over this. It’s something we could have left to the juniors, for Christ’s sake!”

You rub your chin, pretending to be deep in internal debate.

As if coming to some conclusion, you lean forward with your elbows on your knees.

“Alright Frank. I believe you think this will be good for the company, but I’m not without my reservations. Give me something to sell me, Frank. Something other than the numbers.”

Frank’s look becomes searching for a moment, then he seizes on something. “You know me, right Bruce? Since you were knee-high.”

“Since I was knee-high.” You echo.

“I’ve always done what’s best for this company. You know that.” Which was true enough, if only because the interests of Wayne Enterprises had mirrored his own on so many occasions. “I’m not going to risk sinking the ship your father built.”

“That’s my line.” You say with a boyish grin.

A look of exasperation momentarily crosses Gorospe’s face, then it is smooth and open again. “Well, let’s just say I have a personal stake in the matter. I don’t back losing horses, Bruce. I want you–and Wayne enterprises–on the winning side.”

“The winning side of what, Frank?” You ask with sudden intensity.

He shrinks back from you momentarily. “There’s change coming to Gotham–it’s already started happening–one of those grassroots changes. A rearranging of the rocks we built this burg on. Some people are gonna get caught in the cracks when it all goes down. I don’t want you or your father’s company to be among them.”

He finishes by grasping your shoulder in a reassuring, protective hold, and you are reluctantly impressed by his powers of persuasion. Fortunately for Frank, you had already made up your mind about the Sorelli account before obtaining this last bit of information; Wayne Enterprises will take the offer, because every company needs money.

“Alright Frank, you’ve convinced me.” You declare, standing and fastening the button of your suit. “We’ll take the Sorelli account. Albert will just have to accept that. I know he will, in time.”

“Of course he will.” Frank agrees obsequiously.

“Have the paperwork at the Tower for tomorrow.” You shake the man’s hand warmly, then make for the exit.

“Sure thing, Bruce.” His satisfied–perhaps relieved?–voice follows you out.

You decide to spend your last few hours following up with Carmella D’Avotti. It takes several attempts to get through to her, but finally her personal secretary answers, and after a few pleasantries, Carmella’s smooth Italian accent filters through the phone.

“Bruce,” she says, her tone vaguely pleased, “I was worried we were going to have to give up on you.”

“Carmella, so sorry to have left you in the dark this long.” You respond in a carefully practiced blasé. “Had a bit of an accident up in the Alps, I’m afraid. Can we meet for drinks?”

Forty-five minutes later, you are seated once again in the Iceberg Lounge across from Carmilla, who appears to have been more conscious of her powers of feminine attraction this time out. Instead of the elegant-yet-sober green of before, she wears a vibrant purple (and extraordinarily low cut) gown, and her long hair is drawn back into a silken ponytail.

“Bruce, I’m shocked. It’s almost as if you’ve learned to tell time.” She jokes as you take your seat.

“Miss D’Avotti, you look absolutely stunning.” You say, shrugging off her comment. “I hope you haven’t had too much trouble in my absence these past few days?” You ask, all earnest concern and protectiveness.

“Not too much,” she answers cryptically, “though I have to admit, the foyer at the D’Avotti estate could use some primping.” By which she meant, of course, that she had failed to see the proof of your boasts a few days ago.

“Yes, that,” you said, giving her a winning smile, “it will all be handled in the morning. My accident delayed matters, you understand.”

“Of course, Bruce.” She smiles, though it’s restrained enough to make you think she might not quite believe you. Or perhaps there’s something else tugging the edges of her mouth downward. “Now, am I lucky enough to enjoy your company on a social occasion, or did you have some business you wanted to discuss?” She asks.

“As much as I’d like to while the night away with you, Carmella, there is always business to attend to.” You say in an honestly weary tone. “This business with the Sorelli’s. It seems the time table has been moved forward, and I was hoping for your help.”

“My help? How?”

“I want to schedule a meeting with Juan Sorelli.”

She scoffs. “Bruce, even if you could get a meeting with Juan–and of all the people in the world, you’re one of the few that might be able to–he never comes to Gotham. He hates it here. Always used to call it ‘a city of necessary evil.’”

“I don’t want to meet Sorelli in Gotham, Carm.” You interrupt, using the familiar nickname, which you note causes her pupils to dilate momentarily. “I wouldn’t want to make a business deal somewhere my partner is uncomfortable anyway. Bad juju.” Here bouncing your eyebrows conspiratorially.

“No, Carmella… I was wondering if you might accompany me to Taiwan.”

Batman Quest: Judge & Jury, Issue #1

Gotham is a city bisected. Half of it exists in the gleaming rays of the morning sun, prosperous and bustling, rife with opportunity; but the other half, some say Gotham’s true face, only shows itself by the light of the moon. This half is scarred and bruised, downtrodden and given up on. And yet it is the more precious to you for that. Gotham under the sun is a lie; Gotham by moonlight may be ugly, but at least it is an ugly truth.

You are Bruce Wayne, the Batman. Just now, however, you are not adorned in the cape and cowl of the Dark Knight, but a rather smart tailored suit which you’ve been assured exemplifies the very peak of modern fashion. You are making a rare appearance this morning at one of Wayne Enterprises board meetings, and you are not altogether impressed with the proceedings.

“I’m telling you, Albert,” blusters Francis Gorospe, “the Sorelli account is stable and profitable. We would be doing a disservice to the company by not taking it.”

Francis is an old associate of your father’s, one of the less reputable types Thomas Wayne was forced to deal with in the early days of his enterprise. Age has not been kind to Francis; he is round in the middle and red in the face, with only a few lovingly cultivated wisps of hair straddling his crown. Still, he remains an exceptionally fierce participant in these proceedings, often bringing new potential revenue streams to the board’s attention. What he’s brought to the table today, however, has more than a few other members in an uproar.

“I’ve heard your argument. But the Sorelli’s aren’t just stable and profitable; the account is increasing in revenue like clockwork. And from what? A few shipping contracts in Taiwan? Come on, Frank. You can see the writing on the wall here. This is exactly what the Falcone’s tried to do to Thomas in fifty-eight!”

Albert Branaugh is another of the old guard, and Gorospe’s most vocal opponent. Today’s docket has the pair particularly fired.

“Please, Albert. It isn’t the same world out there anymore. The mob isn’t waiting down every alley and backstreet. Gotham’s finest have seen to that.”

“ ‘Gotham’s finest,’ hah! That psycho in the bat costume has had more to do wi–”

You raise a warning hand.

“Thank you Albert.” You interrupt. “And you, Frank. As always, your insights are invaluable to us. However–if you’ll indulge–I think I’ll take the reigns on this one.” You stand, throwing your suit jacket over your shoulders and smoothing your tie.

On one hand, Wayne Enterprises’ financials have been sagging of late, in part due to your off-the-books expenditures, but also as a result of a general decline in Gotham‘s wealth over the past six months. A shot in the arm from a wealthy partner could help revitalize your share prices.

On the other, you’re fairly certain Albert is right. Though you have no hard evidence linking the Sorelli’s to organized crime, their paperwork is a bit too neat and their profits per quarter a bit too steady to be legitimate.

As the board awaits your decision, you scratch at your chin a moment, feigning indecisiveness. Finally, you snap your fingers as if arriving to some unexpected conclusion.

“Frank,” you say, pointing at the portly old stock market hound, “how long have the Sorellis given us to make a decision on the account?”

Frank smiles, apparently thinking you’re favoring his side of the argument. Let him think that. “My contact says the family would be most disappointed if deliberations took longer than a few days.”

“How many is a few? Be specific.”

“Three, Mr. Wayne.”

Three days. Awfully short negotiation window. Doesn’t give you long to get an investigation underway, either. You turn to Pamela Quitely, your head bookkeeper. “Pam, how long can we stall them? Fudge some financials, make it look like we had a sloppy intern last quarter.”

“That will reflect badly on my work ethic, sir.” Squeaks the mousy Quitely.

“Well thank god you’ve got a seat for life here then.” You say dismissively.

Finally, Albert can no longer maintain his silence.

“Sir, I really must object. This is not the kind of activities the Wayne Corporation engages in–”

“Actually Albert, I believe I make that decision. And for the record–” you say, casting a meaningful glance at Frank, whose expression changes from smug satisfaction to resentful disappointment “–I haven’t decided yet. But three days isn’t enough time to gather enough information to properly accept or dismiss the offer. Pamela, make that delay happen. Now, ladies and gentlemen, I must excuse myself–lunch date. Albert, Frank, don’t kill each other while I’m gone.” You finish with a mischievous wink and smile, then turn and stride from the board room.

A bit of a rushed solution, but you think it will work. The Sorelli account may be suspicious, but the truth is that Wayne Enterprises can’t afford to turn anyone away unless you’re absolutely certain. Three days isn’t long enough to get a proper answer, but hopefully your people in bookkeeping will pull through with a delay. That would give you enough wiggle room to determine what exactly the Sorelli’s are into, both in Gotham and, if need be, overseas.

As for the lunch date, that wasn’t entirely a fabrication. It is necessary for you to maintain a proper cover as Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy, and in order to do so you must engage in gaudy social events on a regular basis, as one would expect from a vapid heir wasting his parents’ money. This social event is lunch at the Lounge with Carmella d’Avotti, last surviving member of the d’Avotti family after a vicious turf war with the Falcones. Your suspicion is that the shootout was orchestrated by Carmella as a kind of power grab; the fact that she’s one of the city’s most eligible bachelorettes provided you with a convenient excuse to get close. You extended the invitation to Carmella along with your deepest sympathies and regrets. She took the bait immediately, probably smelling what she thought was a clandestine business deal in the making. Outside Wayne Tower, Alfred awaits with your limo.

“Were the board members chipper as always, sir?” He asks dryly.

“Frank nearly gave Albert a stroke over the Sorelli account, Pam is likely to sabotage our books by year’s end.” You reply in a deadpan. Alfred opens the door and you climb into the back of the car, only to find it already occupied.

“Dick,” you say, “to what do I owe this pleasure?”

“Wanted to know if you knew anything about Yellow Sun. They’ve been making a lot of waves in Chicago of late. Also, you want to get dinner tonight?”

“Yellow Sun…” you repeat, trying to link the name to a memory, “Can’t say that I have. New gang? Dinner might work at the manor. Won‘t have time to get ready for tonight otherwise.”

“More like a cult. Can’t get a line on them yet. Good. Alfred,” he says, tapping the glass between driver’s compartment and passenger’s, “you owe me twenty bucks. Got him to agree to dinner.”

After a moment, the divider slides down. “The deal, master Richard, was that you convince Bruce Wayne to have dinner with you. Not Batman.” With that, the divider slides back up over Alfred’s arched eyebrow.

“He’s a thief. You should cripple him. Let me off at the next block.”

Dick gets out a few blocks down, then you head off to meet with Carmella.

The Iceberg Lounge is as impressive as it ever has been as Alfred pulls up to the valet station. He waves off the red-vested attendant that scurries up to the driver’s window. As far as Pennyworth is concerned, the Wayne vehicles are off-limits to any hands but his. A moment later, he opens the passenger door and you step out to a hundred flashbulbs going off at once. Familiar, but no less aggravating because of it.

“Please folks,” you say affably, throwing your arms up in surrender, “can’t a guy grab some lunch without being followed?”

“Not when he’s Bruce Wayne!” Calls a voice from the crowd. The jeers continue.

“Are you meeting with Carmella today, Bruce?”

“Adding another notch to the bedpost, eh?”

“Wayne Enterprise stocks are the lowest they’ve been in years. What do you have to say to that?”

You ignore the paparazzi and their incessant nattering and head in, letting the host lead you to your table, where Carmella waits.

She is quite the sight. A classic Italian beauty in a clinging green dress. Full lips, sea-green eyes and an expression that both invites and forbids.

“Bruce, so glad you could make it. Was one o’clock too early for you?” She asks coyly.

“Business, Carmella. Forgive me.” You say, taking your seat. You order a bottle of fine wine, then settle in to your conversation with Carmella. For once, you’ve arrived at a situation entirely unsure of how to proceed.

For a few moments, an uneasy quiet presides over the two of you. She breaks it first.

“Well, Bruce?”

“Well what?”

“You invited me here. This is your baby. So…” She says, giving you an expectant look.

“Well I–” You hadn’t expected her to be quite so forward. “I wanted to express my condolences.”

“You already did. My people got word from your people.”

You lean forward, putting your hand on the table just close enough to her to be seen as an invitation.

“Don’t live in that world now, Carmella. We spend our whole lives there. ‘Your people’ and ‘my people,’ it’s all so impersonal. Whatever happened to just me and you?”

She likes what you’re saying. You can tell that by the miniscule dilation of her pupils and the way she adjusts her shawl. But there doesn’t seem to be anything sexual in her attraction to you; at least, not as far as you can tell from body language.

“That’s a good question, Bruce. I don’t think there has ever been a ‘me and you.’ Unless you count me sitting across the ballroom with my father while you live it up with a clutch of supermodels, eh?” She says cattily. “Unless you didn’t mean that kind of ‘me and you.’” She says, her tone heavy with implication and her eyes searching.

You chuckle resignedly, then throw your hands up.

“Alright,” you say, adopting an entirely more wolfish demeanor, “you caught me. Perhaps my financial advisors were too harsh on you for being inexperienced.”

A blatant lie, but effective nonetheless. Her eyebrow jumps and she folds her arms across her chest, back straight as an arrow. Angry.

“Perhaps they were.” She responds coolly. You nod slowly agreement, steeping your hands in front of your face and leaning back, doing everything you know how to give off the image of a predator at rest.

“Alright then, brass tacks.” You say, appearing to come to some conclusion. “Your books don’t look so good, Carmella.”

“Yeah?” She says defiantly. “Says who?”

“Says a handful of extremely well-qualified people whom I pay extraordinary amounts of money to tell me such things.” You reply, narrowing your eyes slightly. It works, and you see her wither slightly; Bruce Wayne’s legend as a bloodthirsty stock market wolf has not waned with the waxing of the Batman’s as nighttime vigilante.

“Fine,” she concedes, looking at her hands folded in her lap, “Perhaps that’s true. My family did just suffer a devastating loss–” you notice she glosses over this entirely too quickly, “–but that doesn’t mean the d’Avotti dynasty is dead. Not with me at its head.”

“Carmella, trust me, I understand where you are right now emotionally more than most. But in truth, with you at its head the d’Avotti dynasty only has an inexperienced leader. You spent too much time under your father’s wing, didn’t you Carmella?”

She stiffens noticeably; you can tell you’ve hit a nerve.

“That isn’t a problem anymore. Was there a point to all this, Wayne, or did you just bring me here to humiliate me?”

You take your time uncorking the wine before replying.

“I’m not inexperienced, Carmella. Not with death, and not with running a company that I did not build. Not with rebuilding a legacy. In fact, you could say I’m an expert.” Her expression softens slightly as the woody red pours into your glass. “I think I could help you,” you continue, filling her glass in turn, “Mentor you, perhaps. If you’d like that.”

Carmella takes her glass with a nod of thanks, then proceeds to stare into the wine. Indecision. “That might not be bad, I suppose. And how exactly would Wayne Enterprises benefit from this?”

“A shrewd question, Carmella. Good. Wayne Enterprises benefits with fifteen per cent of your gross for the next twenty years after I revitalize your company’s efforts with a hefty cash injection, interest-free.”

Now is the crux of it. This moment, right now, when provided with a choice that involves sacrifice in the only way that matters to her, will d’Avotti show her true colors. You resist the urge to lean forward. After an agonizing minute, she responds.

“Very well. It’s a preposterous proposition of course, with you benefiting the greater, but I don’t suppose I’m in much of a position to negotiate.”

You smile behind your hands. “No Carmella, if my people inform me true–and they always do–you most certainly are not. I’ll have the contract written up and sent to your people by the end of the day.”

She smiles stiffly, clearly dissatisfied despite agreeing to the deal. She knows she’s getting played.

“Of course. Now, if you’ll excuse me I really must be goi–” She begins, gathering her things and standing. As she walks past, you catch her arm.

“One last thing, Carmella. Did your father ever do business with a Sorelli family?”

Hesitation flits across her face.

“Yes, as a matter of fact he did. I wasn’t aware the Sorellis had interests in Gotham now.”

“They don’t, but they have approached me with some international shipping contracts. What did your father think of them?”

“We did business all the time. I called Juan Sorelli ‘tio,’ because my father said he liked that. Helped grease the wheels. I think the old creep really just liked me, if you follow.”

You sigh. “I certainly do. Unfortunately I don’t have a pretty face with which to woo them.” You say, thinking more of your investigation than contract negotiations.

Carmella laughs, the sound musical and probably practiced. Couldn’t have socialites braying like donkeys at the ballroom, after all.

“Of course you do, Bruce. You have mine.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to involve you, Carmella, really.”

“It’s no trouble, Bruce!” She says, her mood suddenly improved as she grabs your elbow. “I have you to thank for saving my company, of course. It’s really nothing. Shall we dance?” She asks, a twinkle in her eye as she tugs you toward the dance floor.

“I thought you were on your way out? Pressing business elsewhere?”

She rolls her eyes. “I can cancel. Now get up here.”

Not to seem impolite, you accept her invitation and spend the next several hours drinking and dancing. At around nine o’clock, you break away from a particularly vigorous salsa number, thank her for all of the excitement, then head back to the manor, where the real excitement begins.

“I can’t believe you left me here all day.”

This is what you’re greeted with at the door by Damian, your biological son with Talia Al’Ghul and the current Robin.

“There was nothing you could have helped with. Your presence might have aroused suspicion.” You reply, pushing past him and into the foyer. You’re already unfastening your tie, anxious to be rid of the trappings of the life of luxury you were supposed to have. Titus, Damian’s great dane, follows behind you, licking your fingertips as you walk.

“I ran Wayne Enterprises while you were gone! I bet they’d be relieved to see me. Frank would.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Damian leaned towards Gorospe’s side of things when he stood in for you. Though he would never admit it, you think he might actually have something like respect for Francis.

“I’m done talking about this. Have you completed your workout regime for the day?”

Damian sighs explosively. “Yes, and I’ve walked Titus and I’ve cleaned my room and I’ve reorganized the evidence locker. I. Am. Bored! At least tell me you’re taking me with you on patrol tonight. Please tell me that.”

“You’re coming, but you’ll do as your told. I won’t tolerate another incident like what happened with Nobody. Do you understand? Make one slip-up and you’re fired.”

“You can’t fire your son.”

“I can fire my Robins.”

To that he has no retort, and so simply follows you quietly down to the cave. You enter by the simpler route of the hidden staircase behind the grandfather clock in the study, rather than the usual firepole method. Below it is damp and dark, bats flitting to and fro by the ceiling.

“So this Sorelli thing–here’s your suit–what do you make of it?” Damian asks, handing you a fresh Batsuit. You begin to strip while simultaneously attempting to eat some of the foie gras Alfred has left out for you.

“There’s definitely something going on. I don’t quite know the size of it, but the d’Avotti’s have done business with them.”

Damian whistles, long and low. “Yeah, that’s a pretty scathing indictment. I was listening in when you talked to Grayson–I notice he didn’t bother to come by the house–and I looked into some of this Yellow Sun crap. Seems like a fairly new outfit, not too much power yet, but they’re… enthusiastic.” He muses, taking a huge bite out of his sandwich.

“Dick said they’re a cult. That true?”

Damian nods. “Or a gang posing as one for shock value. Hard to tell without actually getting our hands in the mud over there.”

Finally, you don your cowl and the transformation from Bruce Wayne to the Batman is complete. Damian met you at the door in a bathrobe, which he now removes to reveal his Robin suit underneath.

“I see you didn’t wait for my go ahead to suit up.”

“You need me.”

“Yes. I need you. I need you to stay focused, and I need you to control your impulses. If you can’t do that, I’ll need you to hand over your uniform.”

“… Yes father.”

A few moments later, you roar out of the Cave in the Batmobile, Damian sitting quietly beside you.

You gun the Batmobile’s engine as you hurtle down the backroads of the palisades, then take the route that will bring you closest to Gotham’s harbor.

“Harbor? Stopping on the Sionis family?” Asks Damian.

“No,” you reply, tapping the Batmobile’s main console a few times to bring up the pertinent information, “the Sorelli’s.”

“Thought they didn’t shit where they eat.”

“Watch your language. And they don’t, but they do have a small dock at the shipping yards reserved for the rare occasion when they make a delivery to Metropolis through us.”

“So you’re thinking you’ll find something there? Probably just an empty lot.”

“Probably, but detective work is half intuition and half process of elimination. This is the first target on my list to be eliminated.”

Damian sighs, resting his head on his hand and looking out the window.

“Whatever. Sounds like a waste of time to me. Should hit them where they live, hard and fast. Quickest way to get them to squeal.”

“It may come to that, but not before we’ve exhausted all our options.”

The rest of the drive passes in silence. You leave the Batmobile cloaked in an alley several blocks from the harbor, security measures primed, then take to the rooftops. These moments are the ones you enjoy most with your son; there is something about the way he leaps from building to building, eschewing his grapnel gun or any other kind of safety net whenever possible, relishing the speed and danger, that you love. Perhaps because it reminds you that your son is not you; there is still a love and lust for life in him that was long ago replaced by cold vengeance for you. Naturally, he arrives at the designated vantage point first. He’s already scoping it out with his binoculars when you come up behind him.

“Place looks deserted.” He says, the viewfinder whirring as he adjusts its zoom, “No security patrols, no lights on inside.”

“As a seldom-used shipping yard should.” You reply, taking the binoculars. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a dead end.”

You survey the building, seeing several conventional entrances as well as those you might improvise with. Too many.

“One of us is going to have to stay up here to monitor the building.” You say, not taking your eyes off the dock. “Otherwise someone might slip out the back while we’re looking around.”

“If you make me stay up here while you go down and crack skulls, I’m not buying you anything for Father’s Day.” Damian replies moodily.

“You’d just use my money anyway.” You respond. “Now take these,” –you say, passing the binoculars– “And keep watch for me. I need you to tell me if anyone is slipping away or sneaking up on me.”

“Great,” he replies, rolling his eyes and reluctantly accepting the binoculars, “I’ve spent my whole life training for this: lifeguard duty.”

“Focus on the mission.” You caution, then leap from the roof and let your cape billow out and slow your descent. Gliding down and over the dock’s razor wire fence, you tuck and roll to dissipate the impact, coming up in a crouch and looking around.

“Any movement inside?”

“Nothing.”

You cross the lot quickly, staying in a low crouch to minimize your profile. Sticking to the outside wall, you slide up until you find an entrance. Locked, of course. You hand sign for a status report, knowing Robin’s eyes will be on you.

“Still clear. No movement, no lights.”

The door would be the obvious way inside, and for that reason you decide it’s not going to be what you go with. You take a few steps back and ready your grapnel gun, firing and looping it around a runoff pipe. Keying the retraction mechanism, you begin your ascent.

“Heads-up, Batman. We’ve got lights inside.” Comes Robin’s voice in your ear. You handsign an affirmation.

Upon reaching the roof, you quickly unfasten your line and scour around for an entrance. There’s maintenance roof access, a locked door which you assume connects to a staircase on the other side. A sunlight is another method, though it would probably look directly down on the open floor of the dock. Might attract attention. Finally there’s a vent that likely leads down to the furnace where they burn off waste. Not the most attractive option.

Deciding to forego the more exotic methods of entry, you stride over to the maintenance access door, boots crunching on the gravel that covers the rooftop.

“Definitely someone in there, Batman. People moving, and the rabbit ears are picking up sound.”

He’s referring to the less-than-reliable listening device he created in his spare time. You allow him to bring it on patrol as an indulgence rather than out of necessity. You ignore the comment and begin to work the door. You’ve only been at it a few seconds however, when it suddenly flies open, slamming you backward and prone. The guard that had been posted on the other side of the door glares down at you.

“Thought you were supposed to be sneaky?” He says, racking the slide on his automatic. “I heard you the second you started tinkering with your toys.”

You reach for your belt, all the while berating yourself for having been so sloppy. Robin’s voice is in your ear, loud and full of concern, but he can’t help you from where he is now. Just as you’re withdrawing a Batarang, however, your enemy gets the drop on you. A flower of blinding pain explodes in your right shoulder as he fires wild and gets lucky. The shots sound like thunderbolts at close range like this, the muzzle flash all but blinding you. You roll to the side, trying to regain your feet–

And across the street, Robin watches one more muzzle flash before everything goes quiet.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #16

Gotham is drowning.

The old city has been struggling to keep its head above water since yesterday morning, when a relentless heat wave was finally broken by a sudden and lasting deluge. Where only days ago the poor and desperate convened at relief centers around the city on the promise of cool air and refuge from the blazing sun, now they scramble like rats up into the apartment buildings and high-rises, trying to stay above the rising water line. Few succeed.

Downtown, at the iconic Wayne Tower, Gotham’s criminal element refuses to be bowed by extreme weather. An unknown mercenary group has taken the luminaries present at the global environmental summit hostage, claiming to be representatives of the elusive ‘Instigator,’ a new member of the super criminal scene in Gotham who claims he will ‘change the city’ for the better through his actions.

You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor, and you have been chasing the Instigator for the past two weeks. All the half-truths and mind games appear to have led to this night. You are currently perched atop a small-time, rundown bank across the street from the tower that you keep in business through anonymous donation, year-after-year, simply because it provides you with such a tactically indispensable viewpoint. Through the cool blues and hot reds of your cowl’s thermal vision, you perceive the gunmen fanning out as they approach the tower’s entrance, checking their corners and maintaining tight distances. They’re well-trained, more militarized than Scarface would be able to offer. Something to look into when the time is right.

You drop down a few levels as you crisscross Gotham’s tightly-packed architecture. It’s as you’re attempting to stick a particularly tricky landing between a rickety flagpole extending over the street to a freestanding billboard across from it that a chirping in your ear distracts you so thoroughly that the night very nearly ends before it begins. It’s the sound of another rig on the secure net attempting to make contact with you. This is surprising because you haven’t received such a contact request since Grayson passed the mantle on to you.

You’ve never been great at maintaining friendships.

You blink-click through a few cowl options, looking for an ID tag associated with the caller. It returns, simply, ‘M.’

“O.R.A.C.L.E., conduct a scan of Wayne tower, top-to-bottom. I want to know what’s going on in my house.”

“Of course, Batman,” chimes the AI in your earpiece, “conducting sweep now.”

As the machine goes to work, you make use of your cowl’s telescopic vision to get a closer look at the entrance to the tower. Two vans sit astride the street on either side of the building’s approach, blocking traffic. Four men with assault rifles ensure that no driver decides to get ‘creative’ and attempt to bypass their blockade. Two men to each van. Beyond that, three unmarked sedans have mounted the stairs up to the tower’s entrance. They’re abandoned, doors hanging open. Their inhabitants must have already gone inside.

The chirping sounds in your ear again. With a sigh of frustration, you acknowledge the call.

“What?” You bark.

“Do you ignore everyone that calls you?” Comes the masked voice on the other end of the line.

“Nobody calls me. What do you want, Machinist?”

A brief pause.

“How did you know it was–never mind. I called to tell you two things. First, you should understand that the Instigator is committed to his cause, to the very end. He will die for it and he will kill for it. Second, the sweep you’re having O.R.A.C.L.E. conduct will return only false readings.”

Your eyes narrow.

“And you know this because…?”

“I was the one that set up the dummy readings.”

“You’re going to have to give me a really good reason to not come after you once I’m done with the Instigator, ‘Em.’”

“I have one. I can help you, if you let me. I can get you inside without his guards ever being the wiser.”

“Tt. And why should I trust you?”

“Because I’m the one person in this god-forsaken city that thinks it actually needs Batman.”

You weigh your options for a moment, then decide to play along. The way you see it, the worst that could happen is you have a new target at which to direct your fury after the Instigator. The best that might happen is that you discover an ally in the lonely war against crime.

“Alright, Em. Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to leave this channel open as I move down to the street and toward Wayne tower. You keep talking. If I get even the slightest indication that you’re double-crossing me–”

“–Then I’m next. I get it. You really like to earn your reputation, don’t you?”

You can’t help but smirk at the crook’s cheek. With no more need for words, you drop down from the billboard on which you perched, then descend the small bank’s fire escape. Your boots splash heavily onto the sodden alley below. A rat eyes you curiously from its safe haven atop a dumpster, but quickly loses interest. You begin making your way toward the street.

“Alright,” comes the Machinist’s voice, “okay. I have you approaching the Instigator’s guard. Can you see them?”

“I could see them from where I was before.” You growl.

“Good. Then you’ve seen the goggles they’re wearing?”

“Standard industrial-grade night vision.”

“Not quite. I designed those goggles for the Instigator personally. Each set has a small display from which the user can monitor a sister pair of goggles remotely.”

“What one sees, the other does too, then.”

“Precisely. This next part you’re going to really have to trust me on.”

“Hnnh. Why’s that?”

“I want you to calmly, slowly walk up to the tower’s entrance.”

You almost laugh.

“You’re joking, right? You want me to just walk up there, past four goons with assault rifles?”

“They won’t be a problem.”

“Four heavily-armed, well trained men–”

“They WON’T be a problem.” She emphasizes.

You sigh. Might as well follow this insane gambit to its inevitable conclusion.

“Alright. Here goes.”

Stepping out of the cover provided by an abandoned taxi (its operator likely scared off by the goons and guns), you begin your approach to the tower. As you approach what you believe to be the range at which the goons’ vision becomes reliable, your heart rate quickens. What are you doing?

“Slow down, Batman. I can barely keep a fix on you in the rain as it is.”

You force your heart rate to slow alongside your stride. Before you know it, you’re crossing the street between the two black vans. No one has noticed you yet, but they could be busy monitoring other parts of their perimeter for all you know. Maybe you’ve just gotten lucky so far.

Then one looks at you. Directly at you.

For a heart-stopping moment, you are certain he has seen you.

But a moment later, he looks away, casually casting his gaze across the rest of the approach to the tower.

“What did you do?” You hiss into your cowl’s mike.

“Be quiet. I’m electronically masking your presence. I did say I designed those goggles personally. Just pray no one needs to rub their eyes.”

Incredibly, the rest of your approach goes unnoticed, despite your passing within three feet of one of the Instigator’s guards.

Finally, you reach the door unmarked and bullet free. The lock has been forced, so it’s not a problem to get inside, and the deluge masks any sound the door might have made. As it closes behind you and shuts out the rain, the drip-drip-dripping of your suit onto the marble floor becomes deafening. The tower’s lobby is deserted, security slumped over at the desk, a crimson pool forming about their feet. Not much sign of a struggle if you don’t count the bullet holes in the walls. Must have been over quickly. You stride across the lobby floor and make for the hallway that leads to the ballroom where the environmental summit was being held, now the Instigator’s hostage. Pushing open the double-doors, you see that the lushly carpeted hallway is decorated with the cooling corpses of some of the gala’s attendees. Did they resist? Or were they just in the way?

You push the thought out of your head. Time to mourn the dead later. Must think of the living now.

At the other end of the hall is the double-door entrance to the gala. You know of two other entrances. Security has a backdoor built into every area in the tower, accessible from the control room in the lobby. But if the Instigator is monitoring the tower’s systems as the Machinist suggests, he may notice your attempting to access the corridor. Another is a small air duct that opens up over the stage in the room, intended to keep performers happy and cool under the bright stage lights during charity shows.

Your anger is boiling up below the surface, threatening to take control. Something father always warned you about. He was so cold, so calculating when he worked. But you are not him. You deliver a savage kick to the double-doors at the end of the hall, flinging them wide. A sudden silence falls over the ballroom, all eyes turned on you. There are the gala attendees, terrified and corralled onto the dance floor by more faceless goons with automatics. There are the brave men and women of Wayne Security lying lifeless in a heap, stripped of their weapons. And there across the room, standing atop the stage is the Instigator, mid-oration.

“Look out,” you say, looking up at him with a smug grin, “Batman’s here.”

There is a moment of stunned silence as the entire room tries to process just what is happening. The Instigator gets there first.

“Move, you idiots! Stop him!” He cries from atop the stage.

“O.R.A.C.L.E., lights!” You bark as you reach into your utility belt, producing a handful of flash grenades.

“Unable to comply, Batman. My access to the tower’s systems has been restricted.” Responds the AI.

You mutter something foul under your breath, then hurl the grenades outward and temporarily dampen the feed from your cowl so as not to be affected yourself. A great crack and flash later and most of the room drops to their knees, rubbing their eyes or holding their ears. You fire your grapnel gun, aiming for one of the gargoyles father had installed here years ago (honestly, how the world at large has never discovered Batman’s identity is completely beyond you) overlooking the floor. The high-tension cable wraps around the beast’s snout, and the retraction mechanism sends you hurtling through the air toward it. You land with cat-like grace, silent as the night.

Taking a moment to survey the room properly, you count six thugs with guns on the dance floor. They’re recovering quickly, ensuring that none of the gala’s attendees see fit to make good their escape in the confusion. Well trained. The Instigator paces the stage like a caged animal, scratching at his eyes and screaming orders. The innocents on the dance floor are terrified, huddling together, hoping for safety in numbers. Or perhaps just that someone else’s body will stop the bullet destined for them.

Reaching into the specially sealed compartment on your utility belt at the exact opposite end from your standard smoke pellets, you withdraw two paralytic smoke bombs. You’re not fond of using the weapon, as the effects can be brutal and they feel like a crutch besides. Still, sometimes one has to put one’s pride aside in order to get the job done. That done, you reach for a tracer and palm it into your other hand. Then, in one smooth motion, you flit the bombs down toward the dance floor and the tracer at the Instigator’s livid form. In seconds, the room is filled with choking green gas. There are screams from the innocents on the floor, but it’s not long before the agent affects them as well and their cries are cut short. The Instigator is so enraged by the display that he doesn’t even notice the tiny, stylized tracer attach itself to back of his calf.

As the paralytic gas settles to within two feet of the dance floor, you are pleased to see that not one of the Instigator’s agents were able to resist its effects. Neither were any of the gala attendees for that matter, but that’s not important right now. The Instigator has seen that he is suddenly alone as well, and is not pleased.

“Batman!” He screams at nothing. “I know you’re in here somewhere! I won’t let you stop me! Do you understand? This HAS to CHANGE! Gotham must be saved! You’re killing her! You’re… You’re killing her…”

His voice trails off, and suddenly a faraway look passes over his eyes.

“Do you know what was going to be revealed here tonight, Batman? It really was impressive. A machine… a machine to save Gotham. Maybe the world. It released these… machines. Tiny little nano-bots into the air. And they, they would purify it for us. Make it breathable again. Erase our mistakes.”

Father often spoke of the benefits of listening to the twisted reasoning of rogues, of learning from their madness. Now, you force yourself to heed his wisdom, but ready a Batarang in case things get out of hand. The Instigator continues his tirade.

“And the man who built all of this? Do you know why he did it? He just wanted to help, Batman. That’s all he ever wanted. And do you know what the fat cats and big wigs told him when he brought his miracle to them, when he asked that they open their coffers for the good of mankind? They said, ‘where’s the profit?’”

He cackles insanely.

“That’s right! ‘Where’s the profit’ in ensuring mankind’s continued existence. But he couldn’t convince them, Batman. No, he couldn’t. So they turned him away, the thieving, conniving bastards. They sent him out in the cold with hat in hand, and his miracle was never made real. But I’ll make it real, Batman. Just not QUITE how he envisioned it.”

He stops pacing and suddenly goes deadly still.

“I know you’re in here, Batman. And if you don’t come out, I promise that nothing you do will stop me from killing these people tonight.”

Activating cowl optics, you attempt to scan the villain for any obvious electronics, harmful or otherwise. Unfortunately, whatever is jamming O.R.A.C.L.E.’s systems extends to your cowl’s onboard CPU as well. It reveals nothing. But he can’t possibly kill these people quicker than you can put him down. At least, that’s what you tell yourself as you hurl the Batarang from your hidden perch. It whistles through the air, sharp as a razor-blade, and embeds itself in his shoulder. He bellows in pain and rage as you drop down from above and begin sprinting toward him. He sees you as you’re still fifteen feet away and gives you an almost rueful grin. Then he produces what looks like a detonator from one of his suit’s many compartments.

“Don’t say… I didn’t warn you.” He grunts, then triggers the device.

Somewhere behind the stage’s curtain, what sounds like a muffled explosion goes off. But there’s no heat, no fire, no killing concussive wave. You stand there for a moment, baffled. The Instigator is still looking at you, grinning.

With a howl of rage, you send a vicious right hook cracking across the Instigator’s jaw. He flies backward and lands heavily on his back. But he’s laughing. Laughing.

You ignore the madman and pull back the stage curtain. What awaits you there you can’t quite explain. It’s some kind of device, certainly, but not a bomb. No weapon that you recognize, in fact. You stare at it for a moment, then spin on your heel and march back over to the prostrate Instigator.

“What did you do?!” You scream in his face, holding him up by his lapels. But he just keeps laughing. Another crack across his jaw.

“WHAT DID YOU DO?!”

“Ahahaha, oh look at you. A little boy throwing a tantrum, hahaha. You’ve already lost, Batman. You lost a long time ago. When you sacrificed your soul for survival.”

“Speak plainly or so help me god I will end you, psychopath.” You growl.

“That machine–my invention–has just released a microscopic swarm of nanobots into the air. Oh, forgive me, I haven’t properly introduced myself. You know me as this monster, the ‘Instigator.’ What outlandish rubbish.” He cackles again for a moment, then reaches up to his mask and begins unfastening it. “But I needed something like that to get your attention. Something flashy. And I got it, Batman. My name,” he says, “is Jonathan Albright.” And when the last scraps of leather fall away, you know it to be true.

“My god… why, Albright?”

“Haven’t you been LISTENING? I was going to fix Gotham. Me and the other so-called ‘heroes’ that you just put into a paralytic stupor. But they wouldn’t take the hit. They wouldn’t pay the price of salvation. They’re too attached to their precious pennies. I passed around the hat that bore Gotham’s life on it and it came back EMPTY.”

As he talks, a buzzing begins in your head and grows louder, louder, until you begin to feel it in your fingertips.

“So now… Now they’re going to be a part of Gotham’s violent history. Nothing more. You see, I’ve modified my machine, incorporated elements of the radio signal transmitter you’ve no doubt analyzed since we last met. Yes, that very same signal that takes every primal, violent urge in you and amplifies it tenfold. Oh yes, I’ve modified my machine. Now, instead of acting as tiny little janitors, cleaning up this PUTRID air,” he says, spitting the word, “they’re all tiny little antennas, programmed to receive on signal and one signal alone: insanity.”

“How do I stop it?”

“Stop it? Haha, oh no. It’s far too late for that. The nano-bots have taken flight, the signal is transmitting, and I won’t tell you where from. You see, there’s something wrong with the people of Gotham, and I’m going to make it right. I’m going to cleanse them. Because when all the murderers and thieves and rapists succumb to the signal’s siren song and give in to their basest desires… When the streets have been washed clean by their blood and only the purest of heart remain… Then Gotham will be cured.”

The buzzing is overwhelming now. You can’t believe you’ve failed… Can’t accept it. Why won’t he stop telling you that you’ve failed? There has to be some way to stop it. If only he would stop talking… If only you could make him stop talking.

Before you know it, your hands are at his throat, squeezing.

Rage is clouding your vision, sapping your will to fight, to resist murderous desire.

But that is not Batman.

Desperation is weakening your resolve. Wouldn’t father understand? Shouldn’t this one pay?

But that is not Batman.

The loneliness of these long years weighs heavily on your shoulders, pushing you down into the muck that so many in Gotham drown in.

But that is not Batman.

“NNnNnngh!” You growl, still pressing, slowly crushing the Instigator’s windpipe. He’s not struggling, no. Just smiling through tears. “Rrraagh!” You scream, forcing your fingers to unlock from around his neck.

But it would be so easy… Just finish him here. This is the way it should be done. Father was wrong.

“NO!” You hurl yourself backward, away from the Instigator, away from the destruction of the symbol.

“You see, Batman?” The Instigator whispers hoarsely, propping himself up on one elbow. “I’ve fixed you.”

Striding towards him slowly, focusing every ounce of your will on maintaining control, you stoop low.

“You have accomplished NOTHING.” You whisper before rendering the Instigator… No, Jonathan Albright… unconscious with a single blow. You then cuff him.

Outside, a series of staccato bursts. The signal and its nano-bots must have reached the goons outside. Suddenly, you become aware of a chiming in your ear. The Machinist.

“Go.” You say, blink-clicking the ‘acknowledge’ option.

“Batman? What’s happening? I got a weird wash of static on my sensors a minute or two ago.”

“The Instigator activated his device. I couldn’t stop him.”

There is a long pause.

“Em?”

“I’m sorry. I just… I had hoped… Nevermind. What now?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing. Advanced tech appears to be your department. Can you track down an individual radio signal?”

“In my sleep. Why?”

“No time to explain. I need you to get a fix on the signal that is spreading from Wayne tower and tell me where the hell it’s originating from.”

“I can do that.”

“Then do it fast.”

You stand there for an agonizing ten minutes awaiting the Machinist’s response.

“I’ve got it. Penthouse level, on the bal–”

“That’s impossible.”

“No it isn’t! Now fucking get up there!” She shouts.

Despite your misgivings, you spring into action, rushing out the front door. You can get up there faster with your grapnel gun than with an elevator. As you step out onto the tower’s approach, you see that the signal has indeed passed this way, corrupting the minds of the goons outside, whispering that killing one another would be a great idea until it seemed to be the only thing that made sense. You almost pity them.

You scale buildings faster than you should, dangerously so. Twice, three times you nearly slip and fall to your end. Finally though, you make the last grapnel shot up to the helipad, clambering up the side as quickly as you can. There you see a helicopter waiting, its pilot and co-pilot having killed each other. No doubt Albright’s chosen method of escape, had he gotten this far. Either he didn’t consider what the signal would do to the chopper’s crew, or more likely, he didn’t care.

On the pad itself, having been apparently offloaded by the crew, is a large radio transmitter. The outside paneling is heavily reinforced, the dish encased in bullet-proof glass.

With little time spent on debate, you decide that the best course of action would be to simply get this machine away from Gotham. And you know just the place to take it.

You stride across the helipad and enter the penthouse through the plasti-glass doors. Once inside, you make your way down one level to the tower’s concealed vehicle bay and leap into the Batwing. Minutes later, it roars out of a hidden exit several miles away in a largely abandoned part of Gotham. Banking sharply, you bring the vessel back toward the tower.

“Hurry, Batman,” comes the Machinist’s voice in your ear, “I’m already getting reports of widespread rioting on the police frequencies.”

You kill the audio feed. Can’t afford a distraction right now.

Moments later, you have engaged the ‘Wing’s hover mode over the penthouse helipad. Gingerly, delicately you aim the plane’s tow-cable at the radio transmitter. A squeeze of the trigger and a muffled ‘thunk’ later, you’ve secured the package and the jet’s engines scream as it strains to carry the additional weight off into the night. It manages, and ten minutes later you are soaring over the Palisades, over the Wayne estate. As carefully as possible, you drop the transmitter on the grounds, then reactivate your cowl’s audio.

“–ou there, Batman? Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!”

“Machinist. I’ve disposed of the transmitter. Gotham should be safe now.”

“I hate to be overly optimistic, but I think you’re right. The signal started fading a few minutes ago and hasn’t regained strength.”

“Good.”

“Batman? I–well… Tha–”

You silence audio once more, then lean back in the pilot’s seat and close your eyes, content to leave the Batwing hovering for now.

It’s been a long night.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #15

The sun sets on rain-soaked Gotham city, threatening another long, sodden night. When the rain first appeared in the morning, the city rejoiced in the relief it provided from a long and brutal heat wave. But the storm overstayed its welcome, only growing in ferocity as the sun sank behind blackened clouds. Now storm drains overflow and gush out onto the streets, all but the highest priority of which have become rivers, dark, polluted and deadly quick.

Despite this, the global environmental summit hosted by Wayne Enterprises in their very own downtown tower marches on, undaunted. Jonathan Albright, the summit’s chief luminary and overall coordinator, is milling through the crowds, basking in his flock’s praise, when he sees you standing on the overlooking foyer that your private elevator lets out onto. He calls out to you like an old friend, though you’ve never met in person. You play the part, descending the stairs with an obsequious grin on your face, scanning the room for dangers all the while. So far, nothing has leapt to your attention.

You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor. For the past two weeks you have been in pursuit of an elusive new adversary known as the Instigator. Despite feeling his influence behind several crime scenes since then, you have been unable to come to grips with your foe, always just one step behind. The last shreds of intel you were able to gather were given by Scarface, an old rogue of your father’s. After some coercion earlier, the possessed ventriloquist’s dummy explained that the Instigator had approached him with a deal, an investment of sorts: if Scarface loaned out some of his best enforcers to him on good faith, the Instigator promised a healthy return when the job was done.

What was the job? The Instigator wouldn’t say.

Whatever it was, Scarface was more afraid of it actually succeeding than he would like to have let on, and the psychotic puppet seems to think it has something to do with the environmental summit here, tonight in Wayne tower. You are forced to suppress a grin at the thought of how livid this new masked man would be if he knew he’d planned his master stroke to take place in the lion’s den.

Or in this case, the bat’s cave.

Albright is saying something.

“Hm? I’m sorry, what was that, John?” You ask, pretending to have been too busy admiring the revealing hemline of a young debutante’s skirt to listen.

The man’s face darkens just for a moment, but quickly that oily grin is back, recalling the smell of closely packed plastic or leather. “I was just saying how grateful the organization is to the Waynes for hosting us this year.”

“’Wayne,’ John. There’s just the one now. And as I’ve said before, I’m happy to–”

You trail off as you notice a commotion out of the corner of your eye, across the room by the main entrance. Albright frowns slightly.

“Damian? You seem distracted. I suppose I should expect Wayne Enterprises’ CEO to have a lot on his mind. Should we catch up later?”

You smile graciously at Albright, touching your hand to your forehead in a ‘mea culpa’ gesture.

“Alas, I cannot deny it,” you grin, “A devil’s work is never done. I’m sorry John; we’ll catch up soon. Have your people talk to my people.”

Despite the snub, Albright seems content to let you go. Maybe something worthwhile to that one after all. You push him to the back of your mind and focus on the party. Your contact lens display scans the faces of the revelers and compiles miniature dossiers for your perusal as you cross the floor. The cream of the crop has turned out to Albright’s soiree… Artists, politicians, all the various faces of the press. You’re fairly certain you saw Commissioner Barbara Gordon glowering at you somewhere along the way. You blink-click the noise away and get to the dirt. The Instigator, a moniker meaningless outside of its own context, a villain acting with hidden purpose, recruiting the worst Gotham has to offer, moving always toward some hidden end somewhere here at the gala. Always talking about ‘changing’ Gotham, ‘renewing’ it. Favors a strange kind of radio signal emitter that causes those nearby to become irrationally aggressive, even murderous. Capable in hand-to-hand combat, though far from the best you’ve seen. What it all adds up to remains unclear.

Reaching the bar, you belly up and order a whiskey on rocks. The barman drops what he’s doing and responds immediately, recognizing you as billionaire Damian Wayne and, though separated by several levels of management, his boss. As you watch him scramble, the fruity scent of the tropics announces the sudden presence of what smells like a girl just out of college that is trying much, much too hard.

“Mr. Wayne?” The voice matches your mental image. “Damian Wayne?”

Turning to address the woman, you are somewhat surprised to see that she is not exactly as you expected her to be. Instead of the platinum blonde sheathes that are so common these days, her hair is a wild auburn tangle done up in what might pass for a bun somewhere. Where you expected a stunningly revealing red dress, she’s wearing a simple, strapless green gown. In the place of the expected vacant, thoughtless stare, her brown eyes are purposeful and calculating. Your first thought is ‘paparazzi,’ but the lack of cameraman or visible recording device crosses that off the list.

“Last time I checked.” You respond smoothly. “Do we know each other?”

“Not yet,” says the woman in green, “but we ought to by now. And I really need to talk to you. Privately.”

Alarm bells. Alluring young woman approaches a hapless billionaire at a crowded gala and suddenly wants to find a quiet spot? Sounds like the beginnings of every needless kidnapping case you’ve ever worked. And then there’s still the commotion at the front of the room.

You feign an expression of concern. “Of course, miss…?”

“Em.” She says quietly. “You can call me Em.”

You nod and place a hand on her elbow, leading her gently away from the crowd toward a quiet back room, secured by biometrics. Only the best at Wayne tower. As you go, you notice Albright chatting innocuously with Barbara Gordon at one of the many dinner tables in the hall. Almost before you realize it, Albright is looking right back at you. Directly at you. You grin and give him a wink as you and the young lady disappear into the private room, but he doesn’t return it this time. No, in fact his expression is quite cold.

The door closes with a buzz and click of engaging locking mechanisms and Em crosses the floor to a private dining table set for business transactions. She sits down and rests her head in her hands. You give her a moment, then break the silence.

“Em? I don’t mean to rush you but I actually am quite busy tonight. I came back here because you said you needed to speak with me and I–”

“I do need to speak with you. But not you.” She says, not taking her head from her hands.

You sigh, pretend to look at your watch. “Look, Em, I need to go. If you’re lost and need help I can have a team dispatched to escort y–”

Suddenly, she looks up at you, glaring. “Oh please! They’re not going to be able to help me and neither are you! I don’t need to talk to Damian Wayne, useless billionaire! I need him. I need to talk to… Batman.”

Your eyes go wide as saucers. You can’t help it. How does she know? How could she possibly know?

“Batman?” You scoff, attempting a hasty recovery. “Why would you think I had anything to do with him?”

“Because I’m not an idiot.” Em replies flatly. “And I did my homework. Not that you or your daddy made it easy.”

You suddenly become cold, aloof. She hit a nerve and she knows it.

“Be very careful how you speak of my father, Em. I may not be Batman, but I’m a dangerous man in my own way.”

“I didn’t mean any disrespect,” she replies hastily, “Bruce Wayne made a remarkable effort to conceal his identity as Batman–”

“He wasn’t Batman either.” You persist stubbornly.

“Whatever. Anyway, I have a bit of a nose for information. I’m gifted at connecting things, especially when I think it’s in my best interest to line up the dots. It’s gotten me by in my life, more or less. Once I figured out I needed to talk to Batm–”

“If you say that name one more time I’m going to have a collection of large gentlemen eject you from the premises.”

Em rolls her eyes, bites her tongue.

“Once I figured out I needed to talk to him, it wasn’t such a difficult exercise in reverse engineering to gather data on every known sighting of the current Bat and work backwards from there. You’re not even particularly good at this, you know. Your father was amazing, but you’re only slightly better than Richard Grayson was at keeping your identity quiet.”

You sigh, take a step back and cross your arms. So she knows. How she knows is, at this point, irrelevant. She knows about you, she knows about Grayson and she knows about father. The question is, what did she seek to gain by revealing this information to you? So you ask.

“Your attention.” She replies. “Something I’ve been struggling to get for a while now. I figured hacking into that monster of a mainframe you have stationed here would do it, but you’re stubborn when you get it in your mind to ignore a girl.”

“You hacked into a mainframe? What mainframe?” You can’t help but keep up the oblivious act. She rolls her eyes and jerks a thumb toward the ceiling.

“That thing you have up there in the penthouse. You know, you reached out to me to begin with, the least you could do is return a phone call.”

Suddenly, it all falls into place. The mysterious ‘Em’ possessing the wherewithal to uncover your secret identity, the urgent message…

‘Em.’ The Machinist.

No more games. You lash out quick as a viper and pin the Machinist to the wall, one hand caught behind her back.

“You know a lot about my family,” you grate, “did you ever think you might be finding out more than was healthy?”

She struggles a bit, but knows it’s futile and gives up quickly. The Machinist’s strengths lie in the procuring of information from a remote location, not in fisticuffs.

“You know what? I did, at first. But I couldn’t stop, not once I found out who you were. I had to know who all the rest were, too. It’s a weakness. And once I did find out more, once I uncovered everything? I wasn’t afraid anymore. Because the Batman isn’t a murderer, not a thug. And if you were him, you would never kill me.”

“That remains to be seen. Spit out your message, Machinist. Before my patience is exhausted.”

“The Instigator is here, Batman. He is sitting on your doorstep and you can’t even see it. He’s going to burn the whole thing down and you’ll never know he was here. I can help you, but only if you trust me. There’s not much time, Damian.”

You increase the pressure slightly, just to remind her that she’s at your mercy.

“If you are who you say you are, then you’re a wanted criminal in six countries. You’ve staged electronic heists in cities across the globe, including Gotham. Why would you come anywhere near me?”

She laughs, her breathing restricted by the hold. It sounds awkward, forced.

“Yeah, that was a question I asked myself a lot before I finally caved and responded to your contact request. The only reason you ought to need is that you’re not the only one with stakes in Gotham, even if the rest of us don’t dress up like a Bat and beat people to death to prove it.”

“So?”

“So I’m not ready to watch the old pile of bricks crumble yet, alright? Will you ease up a bit, tough guy?”

Reluctantly, you release her, the smell of the tropics lingering on your suit.

“Talk.” You demand.

“You’re after the Instigator, yeah?” She asks. You say nothing. After a moment, “I will take your stoic silence as an affirmation. Well, let’s just say he came to me for help in this fucking insanity that he’s planning, and I can’t let him go through with it.”

You can’t help slipping into the voice. “Sounds like you know him personally.”

“That’s not on the table.” She responds coldly. “What is on the table is his name and what he’s planning to do. You need to stop him, Damian. For all our sakes’.”

“Give me the information. Maybe I can see that something is done with it.”

“The Instigator is going to begin ‘changing’ Gotham right here, tonight. He sees the global climate summit as the best possible starting point for his crusade. I don’t know the specifics of how, only that he wanted me to shut down your security grid. I turned him down, even if it was an easy buck, because of what he wants to do after the grid is–”

Suddenly, the room is pitched into darkness. Outside you hear several startled gasps and cries, then another moment of quiet before a voice, raised to boom throughout the hall, speaks.

“Ladies and gentlemen! This is your host, Jonathan Albright. It appears that the cheery conditions outside–” pause for politely amused applause “–have caused an unfortunate blackout throughout the block. Never fear, however, there are attendants with eco-safe lanterns and ice cold champagne on their way to you now!”

Quick response from Albright. He must have had scarcely more an idea than the rest of them as to what was happening. Odd that the emergency generators haven’t kicked in. In fact, it’s downright bizarre… Em grabs you by the lapels.

“Please tell me the security grid is on an independent power system.”

“It’s never had to be. Our backup generators are infallible.”

She casts an arm around the darkened room.

“Clearly!”

You take hold of the Machinist once more in the dark, pull her close.

“If I were you, ‘Em,’” you say, your voice barely audible, “I would be doing my best to erase any evidence that I was ever anywhere near this place.”

She wrests her arm away from you.

“And if I were you, Batman,” she says, stressing the name, “I would start opening my stupid, arrogant eyes to the fact that my bulletproof identity isn’t so bulletproof!”

With that, she storms out of the room and back into the gala area proper. You head the other way, down one of the many secret access corridors you’ve had installed in the tower, and up a back staircase to the loft. It’s a long climb, but worth it for the secrecy. Ten minutes later, you’re geared up and ready to head back downstairs. Good thing, too. The weather isn’t the only thing on the news anymore. Across the room on one of the panel televisions is a young anchorwoman delivering a breaking news report about what appears to be a hostage situation developing at Wayne tower.

The environmental summit. The Instigator.

Too late.

Accessing O.R.A.CL.E.’s main panel, you call for an update on the building’s current status. Unfortunately, the emergency reserves the database has aboard its main console are only powerful enough to keep valuable information in memory in the case of a complete power blackout such as this one, not perform a full building diagnostic. Whatever awaits you down there, you’ll be going into it blind.

You’re about to step out onto the helipad and cross to the equipment shed you keep there to select a glider from your collection when the torrential downpour outside reminds you that flying a glider in this weather is going to be more than a little challenging. Still, getting down to the vehicle bay and prepping something suitable for transport will take too much time. With a muttered curse you decide to forego any elaborate method of transport in favor of the ever dependable grapnel gun.

You are soaked long before you reach the edge of the helipad, rain sluicing off your suit in rivers that become waterfalls as they plunge off of your body and over the 40th-story ledge. It should feel awful, but it doesn’t. It’s refreshing, a release from the oppressive heat. Almost without thinking, you allow yourself to tumble over the edge and into the open air. Then you’re falling, falling; you’ve let six stories fly by before you decide to do anything about it. Firing your grapnel gun at a target you picked out whilst gazing out over the rooftops, you wait for the line to go taut and swing in toward your objective: the roof of a small, run-down bank that has little by way of security measures. You keep the place open through anonymous donation, year after year, simply because its ill-guarded roof provides such an excellent vantage point.

“Cowl, zoom in and enhance target.” You say, looking pointedly at the ground floor and the commotion surrounding it. As your optics provide you a better look, you’re able to see that five unmarked vehicles have pulled up in front of Wayne tower. Two large cargo vans block either side of the street, and three black sedans are pulled up right onto the building’s steps, vacant but for their drivers, who have kept the motor running.

“Thermals.” You command, and your vision suddenly becomes a Technicolor sea of deep blues, pale yellows, fiery orange and hot reds. As expected, one driver per sedan. A driver and two other signatures in each of the vans. Cold blues mixed in with their hot reds suggest firearms or other weaponry on their persons. Can’t see anything past the front door of the tower, even with thermals. A security measure you recall requesting personally.

It’s going to be a long night.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #14

The rain in Gotham, previously seen as the city’s deliverance from a brutal and unrelenting heat wave, is now inflicting horrors of its own. Beginning in the wee hours of the morning, the torrential downpour has quickly become a severe and persistent thunderstorm. Sewers are overflowing, low-lying streets have become rivers, those that had been forced out of their homes by extreme temperature now seeking shelters in the high-rises of kindly citizens, where such rare beasts are to be found.

On the news–when rare breaks in weather coverage occur–is Jonathan Albright, presiding chairman of the international organization for climate change. Despite the hazardous conditions, Albright has come out as determined to see the summit through, claiming that the message to be given is only more important given Gotham‘s ever more dire circumstances. One part of you admires his courage and conviction; another part of you curses him for inevitably making more work for you.

You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor. For the past few weeks you have been in pursuit of an elusive new adversary known as the Instigator. Despite hearing his name whispered throughout the underworld and feeling his influence lurking behind every crime scene, you have been thus far unable to pin the villain down. You have come to a shady diner in the east end of Gotham in search of answers, answers you hope Scarface, an old rogue of your father’s, will be able to provide.

Sent here to an old diner in the east end often used by the city’s criminals as a money laundering service on information given to you by William Cobblepot, Gotham’s reigning Penguin, you have quickly and efficiently dispatched Scarface’s personal guard.

Given his circumstances, the puppet seems begrudgingly willing to cooperate, sitting as he is a few feet from you on the lap of the most recent weak-willed sap in a long line of low-lifes that he’s taken as thralls. Of course, he has an old fashioned tommy-gun across his lap, lethal as the day it was made, but he knows that one rifle won’t help him. Not really.

“Alright Bats,” Scarface rasps, “you’ve knocked out a bunch of my boys, made a big show of wantin’ ta see me. Well here I am. Whaddya want?”

“I want to know who the Instigator is, Scarface. And I want to know why he hired you.”

The man ‘operating’ Scarface leans down toward the puppet as if listening closely, then straightens and resumes his catatonic posture.

“Alright then. Since I know yous don’t got quite as rosy a rep as your Pops,” says the marionette, gesturing at you with his rifle, “maybe we can work ourselves a deal. Oh, and don’t look so surprised,” he continues, picking up on your shock at him guessing your relation to the previous Batman despite your efforts to conceal it, “Only a boy tryin’ ta impress his old man would do the things you do, kid.”

Taking a step towards him, you slam your fist on the table and lean forward, growling. “It’s been a long time since I was a boy, puppet. The Instigator. Tell me or I burn you to ashes and freeze those ashes in a block of ice.”

With the eerie extra expression that only pseudo-life can provide, Scarface feigns a look of terror. “You might not be like big bad dad, kid. But you wouldn’t kill this innocent fella, now wouldya, Batman? He‘d surely try at protect little ol‘ me if you came callin.’” He smirks, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at his latest thrall.

“Him? After you’ve left him, one way or another, he’ll just be another drooling sack of meat taking up a cell at Arkham. Far as I’m concerned, he’s already a casualty. Which makes me like you even less, puppet.”

There is a moment of tense silence. Finally, Scarface relents.

“Alright then… So,” he says, leaning back in his thrall’s lap and setting aside his rifle, “This, uh, ‘Instigator.’ Whatta stupid name. Yeah he came to see me. Said he knew about the tough times,”

The possessed marionette pauses, searching for a way past his pride. Scarface is talking, of course, about the slow decline his empire has been on for years, his sphere of influence shrinking almost as quickly as Black Mask’s. The underworld is not kind to its luminaries when they fall from grace. The wolves must have been at the door.

“Said he had a way of fixin’ things, but he needed some help, pro bono. Ain’t the way I usually do things, but hey, time’s is hard. Figgur’d there would either be a big pay day at the end a’ dis or at worst I get to bust up some costumed mook real good, work out some frustration, y’know? No offense, of course.”

“Get to the point, Scarface.”

“Right, right. Well, he says to me, he says, ‘Scarface, I needs some boys for a thing tomorrow. I need yer best’ he says. And I asks him what for? And he says he can’t say, but that there was big money in it. Ya gotta understand, this kid has been makin’ serious waves. I keep hearin’ about all these heists, about how you can’t touch him… Sounds like a good bet to me. So I give him some of my best boys and off he goes. Says he’s gotta beat the rain, he’s got a date to keep. Laughin’ like it’s hilarious or something. But it’s what he says at the end that got me spooked. He says ‘thank you, Mr. Scarface. Thank you for changing Gotham.’”

The puppet lets the conversation hang a moment there, readjusting himself nervously.

“Good ol’ boys like me,” he says, checking his tie, “We don’t like change so much.”

You lean forward on the table once more.

“Scarface, if my guesses are even in the ballpark, the Instigator wants to change Gotham so radically that you won’t even recognize her by the time he’s done. Tell me what you know and I will do everything in my power to ensure that he fails.”

The doll looks from you to its weapon several times, as if debating with itself. Finally, it rattles out a sigh of resignation.

“I ain’t a snitch, Batman, and I won’t have you telling it otherwise. But this Instigator punk? There’s something wrong with him. Deeply wrong. And I think he wants to make the rest of us sick like him. I snuck a few of my most loyal in with the boys I loaned the freak, had them feeding me information on where they were, what he had them doin’, all that. Last I heard from ‘em, they were headed downtown to the summit at that old eyesore of a Wayne building. But that was hours ago. They ain’t made a check-in since.”

Blink-clicking through the options in your cowl, you connect to the O.R.A.C.L.E. network and bring up traffic logs to and from Wayne Tower in the last four hours. Several routine check-ins that yielded nothing worth investigating, and a single incident that stands out. Two hours ago a plain, unmarked white minivan was seen within a four block radius of the tower. What makes it remarkable is that, though O.R.A.C.L.E. logged the vehicle’s trespass of its perimeter and all subsequent movement within, it never saw the vehicle leave. It simply vanished.

Switching back to the main newsfeed, you see the steady ticker of severe weather warnings underlining an interview with Jonathan Albright, moments before he is to take the stage at the world environmental summit’s opening statements.

Making it back to the penthouse unseen is a feat. The place is lit up like a Christmas tree for the event, boasting power efficiency that lets the entire building run on less electricity than a common Gotham household. You have to signal the plane out by remote so that it can pick you up in stealth mode and deliver you safely to your modern Cave. As you step in from the helipad, Alfred the cat rubs up against your leg and purrs. His food dish hasn’t been refilled since you were last here. You see to that, then station yourself in front of O.R.A.C.L.E.’s main panel.

Pushing aside your concerns for the summit for a moment, you focus once more on poring over the Instigator’s dossier. His modus operandi, the quirks of his particular brand of psychosis… His message. It keeps coming back to that elusive question… What is the Instigator instigating? Despite O.R.A.C.L.E.’s formidable programming and your own talents for deduction, the answer remains out of reach.

“O.R.A.C.L.E., execute command: tower surveillance sweep. Report on completion.”

“Surveillance sweep in progress, Batman.”

You leave the database to its work and head for the bedroom, stripping off your suit and choosing one out of a wardrobe of tuxedos. Though they’re all tailored, it feels as if it fits poorly. Perhaps you ought to spend more time out of the cape and cowl. Alfred was always harping on father for that. You apply the finishing touches to your alter ego’s brash, boyish persona and head down the executive elevator to the summit below.

At the chime of a bell, the door opens and the small elevator is flooded with music and the sound of merriment. The foyer you step out onto has two spiral staircases leading down to the main floor on either side with Wayne Enterprises security guarding their entrances. A gathering of Gotham’s best and brightest mingles below, all dressed to the nines, making sure to be seen looking good as they champion selflessness and equality. A crowd of hypocrites.

Suddenly, you pick out a single voice from the cacophony. Male, middle-aged, Caucasian… Jonathan Albright.

“Wayne! Damian Wayne! Please, come grace us with your presence.”

He’s pushing through the crowd, his arms outstretched as if receiving an old friend. You’ve never met the man.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #13

In the small hours of the morning, shortly after your return to Wayne Tower, Gotham was finally provided the sweet relief it longed for. The clouds opened up, and rained down salvation upon the burning city. Though things have by no means returned to normal, the downpour, persisting throughout the day, has served to ease the tension bubbling beneath Gotham’s skin. Curfews are still in place and relief centers still open, though much less crowded. High above the streets in Wayne Tower’s penthouse suite, you stand on the balcony and let the cool water wash over you, soaking your bedclothes and coursing in runnels down your face. You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor, and this is your city.

On the news, reports on the global environmental summit, set to take place at Gotham’s downtown convention center tomorrow, have taken over. Jonathan , the event’s coordinator and illustrious presenter besides, is the face being interviewed on nearly every major news network, speaking of his hopes for the summit, saying that Gotham is the ‘perfect place’ for the event and that this hellish summer is the ‘perfect time’ on the basis that he believes the tortuous conditions imposed by the heat will force Gothamites to sit up and take notice of the fact that their city is choking to death on the clouds of pollutants hovering over it, and will help drive home the urgency with which he believes this needs to be changed.

The environmental summit, however, is the least of the Batman’s concerns. No, your interest lies elsewhere, particularly in the illicit activities of a previously unknown super villain calling himself ‘The Instigator.’ You have been pursuing this elusive target for the past two weeks, always only a few crucial steps behind. Now, with your lead from William Cobblepot*, you’ve been able to determine that the Instigator may have already met with Scarface, an old rogue of your father’s… Or, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch them in the act.

At your disposal is O.R.A.C.L.E., a supercomputer and database to assist in your investigations. ‘She’ is the greatest of your assets, but far from the only. The Wayne Tower penthouse has all the comforts of home: state of the art forensics lab, vehicle deployment bays, the hall of armor… and of course, the Beacon. You’ve done your best to replicate the Cave. Something is always missing.

You allow yourself a moment or two longer to enjoy the rain, then come in from the helipad, towel off and don the cowl. Alfred, your aging feline companion, settles into your lap as you sit down and access O.R.A.C.L.E. The supercomputer presents several priority returns, many of them suspicious riots occurring within the last twenty-four hours. How many of his devices might the Instigator have fashioned by now? How many did he have in the first place?

The Machinist still hovers on the periphery, dropping occasional subtle hints on private message boards that they’re still interested. Curious… You were sure you had initiated a blackout a week ago. All evidence of your passing ought to have been erased.

On Gotham’s south end, men in pinstripe suits and fedoras have been conducting hold-ups with old fashioned drum-barrel automatics. Fifties aesthetic? No, earlier. Stupid to extend their vanity to using outdated weaponry, though.

You attempt to find a thread from which to begin tracing the Investigator’s footsteps, but to your frustration can find nothing, save Cobblepot’s tip about Scarface.

After a quick glance over the profile on the so-called “Pinstripe Robberies,” you determine that the members of this gang are nothing more than hapless thugs, routine offenders that have spent more time inside the House than out. How they have managed to get this far without the GCPD bringing them down is beyond you; this should be child’s play for Barbara’s men.

You stand and begin striding toward the helipad, but pause upon seeing the torrential downpour outside the one-way full pane glass. You toss a glance toward the stairwell leading to the vehicle bay.

Deciding against exposing yourself to the elements, you descend the stairwell into the vehicle bay. There you find that three vehicles have been recent cycled into preparatory phase: your familiar cycle, always at the ready, the car, which has recently been upgraded and the plane, outfitted with non-lethal ordnance.

Descending the ramp into the bay, you call the car up to the hydraulic lift that lets out into a tunnel that does not exist on any map of Gotham. The current model idles up to the platform, controlled via remote by O.R.A.C.L.E. It is sleek but powerful, strong lines and inky blacks, the cabin glass tinted crimson. Settling into the cockpit, you listen to the armored roof’s powerful locking mechanisms slam to.

“Welcome back, master Damian,” chimes in a smooth British voice, one that stirs faraway memories in your mind, “it’s been a long time.”

“Thank you, Alfred,” you say, a ghost of a grin on your lips, “manual controls, please.”

“Of course. The wheel is yours.”

Moments later, you roar out of an apparently abandoned warehouse two miles away which, if one cared to look closely enough, just so happened to bear a faded and worn “Wayne Enterprises” logo on its wall.

Moving through the streets on silent running, you navigate via the infrared built in to the Batmobile’s windshield, it’s classified Wayne tech not only throwing the nighttime city into stark contrast, but also providing a heads-up-display with objective settings, distance markers and system status readouts. Making use of the secret ways you’ve come to familiarize yourself with in the city, getting to the south end doesn’t take all that long, and you almost enjoyed the drive. You pull quietly into a darkened alley that you favor in this part of the city, then take to the rooftops and begin moving on foot. For the first twenty minutes, you find nothing.

You find yourself somewhere dark, quiet and out of the rain to work, then patch into the database.

“O.R.A.C.L.E., give me the files on the Pinstripe case and your extrapolations again, please.”

Instantly, a number of text documents open one on top of the other, each with accompanying image indices and glossaries. You’ve gone over them before… Your basic enforcer types holding up banks way beyond their capabilities in archaic, matching outfits. There must be some driving force… A leader.

Scarface?

As soon as the name crosses your mind, the pieces line up together and fall into place, the seal airtight. The Pinstripe Gang isn’t hitting commercial properties or banks, it’s all clandestine. They’re targeting mobs, known associates of super villains, all the people you wouldn’t normally want to cross. Unless you were making your grand return to the underworld and wanted a little breathing room.

Unfortunately, that leaves you no closer to finding him or his gang right now.

Gerry Degauss is a small-time pimp and former pusher in Gotham’s south end. Confined on either side by gang territory, Gerry’s business doesn’t have a lot of place to grow. That makes him resentful of the rest of the city’s criminal element, which leaves him pliable to questioning, if you know what buttons to push. His positioning, while unlucky for poor Gerry, puts him conveniently in the underworld information thoroughfare. Just big enough to hear things, just small enough to go unnoticed, he’s been a reliable informant in the past, so you seek him out at the flophouse he frequents most. Sure enough, he’s there, having locked off part of the house to enjoy with his ‘girls,’ according to the terrified crackhead you interrogated on the way in.

The door to Gerry’s part of the house is at the far end of a dark hallway. You can hear the grating, scraping sounds of what passes for music these days coming from the room beyond. Light and show dance about the crack between the door and the warped floorboards.

Choosing to move to the other end of the hallway, you enter a room that has no door handle, pushing lightly on the cheap, swollen wood, its hinges rusted from years of water damage and neglect. The thing creaks loudly, and in the room beyond, the drugged up occupant groans. In the span of a second, you’re there with the startled druggie in a sleeper hold. He struggles feebly for a brief moment, then lies still in your arms. You release the pressure and check his breathing; regular and unobstructed. If this junkie dies tonight, it won’t be on your hands.

You remain crouched there silently for another few minutes, straining to hear any response to the brief scuffle from another room. There is nothing.

You exit out the junkie’s window and use your grapnel gun to ascend to the roof. From there, you creepy quietly across the gravel and secure your line on the other side, then rappel down the face of the building, stopping at Gerry’s window. He’s in there, passed out on a mattress with two much younger women draped across him, snoring fitfully. Their makeshift bed is surrounded by the evidence of a hard night’s partying. Pills, coke, a syringe or two, enough alcohol to poison an elephant… And vomit.

Silent as a specter, you ease the rotting wood frame of the window up, then slip into the room. Immediately, the reek of it hits you. Old sweat, alcohol, sex and vomit all at once. Your lip curls and you activate your cowl’s filtration system.

Sometimes you wonder if Gotham’s people are worth saving at all.

You move quietly to the foot of the mattress, standing there with rain sluicing off you for a moment before speaking.

“Gerry.” You growl. Degauss’s eyebrows furrow and his snoring stops momentarily, but otherwise he seems to pay no mind.

“Degauss!” You bark, kicking the mattress.

That wakes him and his two friends. They both gasp and start looking for clothes. Degauss’s hand starts to slip under his pillow.

“Don’t be stupid.” You sneer. “I want information Degauss, and you haven’t paid for your freedom lately.”

“I…” He starts defiantly, then withers. He knows that you have him cold if you want him. He’s in your pocket. “I’m sorry. What do you need to know, Bats?”

“Everything you know about the Pinstripe gang.”

Degauss sighs heavily and falls back onto the bed, responding whilst staring at the ceiling.

“Was afraid it was gonna be about them.”

“Who do they work for?”

“Who do you think?”

“Scarface.”

There’s a pause.

“Sounds like a pretty good bet, Bats.”

“Where are they gathering?”

Degauss rolls off the bed, starts pulling on stained pants.

“If I had to guess, it’d be ‘La Vittoria,’ one of the old Falcone fronts the creepy doll there took a liking to when the old families went under.”

“I know the one. Smart move Degauss, giving up the information willingly.”

“Oh yeah, and what do I get out of it?”

“You get to go back to bed.”

Degauss props himself up on his elbows for some vicious retort, but finds himself looking at only a dark and empty room.

“Fuckin’ capes.” He complains impotently to the darkness.

Two minutes later, you’re back on the roof. La Vittoria is an American-Italian restaurant eight blocks from here. The food is praised by critics, but it was never the cuisine that kept La Vittoria in business. Rather it was the mob money flowing through it, being laundered, changing hands. La Vittoria remained a neutral trading ground through two criminal empires before a deal gone bad and bloody within its very walls soured the front’s reputation.

You swing over the side of the building with your grapnel gun, then release at five stories, letting the exoskeleton in your suit take the impact. From there, you climb into the Batmobile and key the ignition, engaging silent running. The car’s electronically sensitive paint job goes dull and seems to absorb light, and the engine seals itself off from the outside world in a soundproof compartment, running at minimal power to avoid overheating. It takes a little longer to navigate the back alleys to La Vittoria in this fashion, but it’s safer and smarter. Something Grayson might have done. Father would likely have gone on foot. He always did spurn outside assistance when given the choice; there was part of him that needed to hear the wind over the rooftops and feel the rain making the ground slick and treacherous beneath his feet. As far as you’re concerned, no advantage can be turned away in this endless crusade.

In minutes, you are slowly rolling by La Vittoria. Sure enough, the lights are on and the restaurant is busy, filled to bursting with slab-jawed men in pinstripe suits and fedoras, attended to by women in extravagant, revealing dresses. The place has been fixed up, restored to look as it did when it shined the brightest in the underworld, just before its fall. There are what are obviously guards posted outside, four of them, each with the tell-tale bulge of a firearm under their jackets. None of them so much as blink as the Batmobile passes silently, invisibly by.

You continue on to the end of the block, then make a u-turn in the abandoned intersection, slowly approaching La Vittoria once more, but this time at an angle. Once you’re satisfied with the vehicle’s positioning, you pop the hatch and vault over its side and onto the street. Fading off to the left, you crouch in an alley and hug the wall of the building next to the restaurant.

“Batmobile,” you say, blink-clicking through options on your cowl until you get to bright light adjustments, then set it to automatic, “Lights.”

On the street, the vehicle’s horn chirps. Confused by the sound and unable to see its source, the four guards begin to gather together, straining to see in the dark. Just then, the Batmobile’s powerful floodlights snap to life, blinding everyone in and outside the restaurant with searing white light. La Vittoria’s cadre of guards have already produced firearms, but none of them dare squeeze off a shot while their vision is so impaired.

You move quickly, though not as quickly as you’ve come to expect of yourself. Stepping out from cover and toward your prey before they’re done cursing and rubbing their eyes, you put two down with rapid strikes to the temple or kidneys. The third is trigger-happy and fires before he knows exactly what he’s aiming at. The slug hits the fourth guard in the chest and he goes down, whimpering and pawing at the entry wound. You break the gunman’s arm at the elbow, then disassemble his weapon and toss it aside. That done, you open La Vittoria’s heavy oak door and step inside. There, you are greeted with cold stares by the cream of the low-life crop. Strongmen, hackers, planners, psychopaths and spies all inhabit the various booths and tables here. No one’s eating. No one’s drinking. It’s all business once you get past the front door. Or at least it is until La Vittoria’s patrons get a look at you. Then, a tense silence falls over the room and all eyes turn to you.

“I’m looking for Scarface.” You announce simply. In response, a meaty and none-too-bright enforcer goes for the piece in his shoulder holster. Instead, he gets his hand pinned to his ribs by a razor-sharp piece of steel known as a Batarang. He howls and falls out of his chair, tugging at his bleeding hand.

I. Am. Looking. For. Scarface.” You repeat emphatically. A well-dressed (even for this place) man in the back of the restaurant surrounded by a dozen of what must be bodyguards stands up and clears his throat.

“I will take you to see Mr. Scarface.” He says. His bodyguards look at him in astonishment, but he waves away their concerned expressions.

You are led to a back room by the man in the suit, his muscle crowding you on every side. Once there, the man sits behind a mahogany desk littered with papers. The room itself is a cluttered office; there’s more logistics to a life of crime than most would like to think. The main in the suit produces a small wooden box not unlike a child’s coffin from behind the desk, lays it on the table and unfastens its clasps. Inside lies the puppet known as Scarface. Slipping his hand into the doll’s back and taking hold of its controls, the man shudders and undergoes a terrible transformation. His expression darkens and his eyes become hard, and his voice, previously even and smooth, rasps from too many years’ worth of heavy smoking.

“Scarface.” You say, watching the doll’s eyes take on that unnatural, eerie light of life.

“Alright, Bats,” says the raspy voice, “you’ve knocked out a bunch of my boys, made a big show of wanting to see me. Here I am. Whaddya want?”

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #12

Gotham’s fever has not yet broken as the light of a new day stretches blazing fingers over its streets. Her people suffer as commercial air conditioners fail under the strain and homes become inhospitable, condensation streaking the walls, young and old suffering dehydration and heatstroke as they lie in their beds. Almost all labor, private and governmental, has ceased. Curfews are being imposed in an attempt to keep people out of the streets during the day.

Some whisper that the dark city’s reckoning has come at last.

And still, despite all of this, there are those who would take advantage of Her. Vampires, leeches hoping to sap the city of its last, hoping to grow fat upon its corpse. William Cobblepot is one of Gotham’s monsters. Son of the Penguin and twice as mercenary, he has been charging extortionate entry fees to his Iceberg Lounge, even as the city declared it a disaster relief center and thus lawfully open and free to the public. You have a feeling his willingness to push Gotham’s people over the edge has something to do with his planned move to Metropolis, where he hopes to set up a new empire. Since Kal-El’s departure from earth, that shining city has been on a steady slide. You and the few other remaining vigilantes have done the best you could, but without a force like the Superman, Metropolis’s own cadre of psychopaths and horrors have begun to overwhelm it. It’s a thought that plagues you often. Father would have known what to do.

You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor, and you are presently standing on the thirdfloor, inward-facing balcony of the Iceberg Lounge. Moments ago, you unwittingly triggered a safety mechanism on the door to Cobblepot’s secure office.

You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor, and you are presently standing on the thirdfloor, inward-facing balcony of the Iceberg Lounge. Moments ago, you unwittingly triggered a safety mechanism on the door to Cobblepot’s secure office. The club has been cleared of all but the reigning Penguin’s personal guard, gathered on the dance floor below you. Looking over the rail, you quickly scan each of the five men. They are monsters all; either on a Venom-derivative or some other extremely potent mass booster.

Blading your body to conceal the action, you reach into your utility belt and palm three smoke pellets. Then, not a word uttered, you hurl the pellets down onto the dance floor, vault over the railing and come to a rolling stop amongst the massive bodyguards as gunmetal grey smoke swallows the room. To their credit, they spring into action quickly, but you know they’re affected. You see it in their eyes as they sink into the murky clouds and your infrared activates. The nearest makes a clumsy, blind attack, swinging a massive fist in a downward arc where he hopes you’ll be.

The fist whistles past you, slamming powerfully into the ground where you once stood. You plant your foot between his legs and throw your weight into a shoulder charge to throw him off balance. It works, and the hulking form yelps as it crashes to the ground. Two others are closing in on the source of the sound, fighting their way through the smoke, choking and gagging. Regardless of its efficacy, however, the clouds from your pellets can only persist so long before dissipating.

You duck low, beneath the thickest part of the swirling smoke and come up behind the one on the left, tapping him on the shoulder, then quickly ducking away. He responds as you had expected, swinging wildly in the direction you point him. Getting in close to his ear, you whisper.

“Boo.”

Again he whirls, and again you duck away. This time, however, his friend takes the brunt of it, growling as he staggers back into the smoke. Blindly, he charges the source of his pain and with that, they’re both locked in a struggle of the sightless.

Two more left. Smoke’s all but gone.

The thug on the left reaches for something at his waist. Whatever it is, it’s bound to be unfriendly. You hurl a Batarang at him and it embeds itself into his arm, a stream of blood jetting through the air. His partner staggers back in surprise as the stream splashes across his cheek.

“Fuck!” He screams. “Marney! Alright, alright! Go easy!” The man says, dropping to his knees and putting his hands behind his head.

You advance towards the man, kick him over with an armored boot, then rest your knee on his chest, leaning in close.

“Where’s the Penguin?” You growl.

“Can’t… Tell–hrrk!” The man winces as a rib cracks. “He’ll kill me.”

“That so?” You say, pulling out a Batarang and pressing its razor-sharp edge into the flesh of his neck, right where his central aorta should be. “And what do you think I’ll do to you?”

The ploy works, or at least seems to. The man’s gaze flickers nervously between you, the piece of metal and the office on the third floor.

“Tt. As I suspected. You have an access card on you.”

He starts to shake his head.

“That wasn’t a question. Give it to me or I’ll take it and the front row of your teeth.”

Slowly, reluctantly, he begins to withdraw a passcard from his suit jacket. Before he finishes, though, a crimson flower blooms on his temple accompanied by the crack of a high-powered rifle. Reacting instantly, tracing the trajectory of the shot, you whirl around to look up at the third floor balcony.

“Cobblepot.”

The slimy, stocky successor to Gotham’s infamous Penguin looks down his nose at your aristocratically.

“Poor Samuel. He was such a good pair of hands. Too bad he couldn’t keep his discretion.”

You shrug your cape over your shoulders, letting it enshroud your body, leaving your hands free and out of Cobblepot’s sight.

“Why, William? Like a vulture, you’d feast on Gotham’s carcass. Dozens dead already and you still place value on coin over human life.”

“I’m as businessman, Batman.” He grins past his cigar. “And businessmen don’t pass up opportunities, especially when they’ve been informed in advance.”

Your eyes narrow. He knew that the city would descend into chaos? How could he know what the temperatures would be like, what they would do to Gotham?

“So you knew,” you say, fishing for answers, “you knew all along.”

The Penguin cackles. “WAUK-WAUK-WAUK! Of course I knew! The Cobblepots know everything that has, is or will be happening in Gotham! I knew about your little friend in the bondage suit before you did.”

Jackpot. Not the temperatures. The Instigator.

“He approached you too, then? And I assume your morals didn’t stop you from making a deal.”

“My morals? No.” Cobblepot says, screwing up his face. “But my business sense did. What the crackpot wants has no monetary value attached. He’s an idealist, and there’s no room for them left in the world. Not anymore.”

“So you turned him down. Hnh.”

“I did. Because what wealth can be harvested from a cinder?”

“Yet you chose to exploit Gotham at its weakest. From where I’m standing, there’s not much difference between the two of you after all.”

“Gotham is dying, Batman,” he says, stressing the word, “There’s nothing you or I can do about that. She’s poisoned. It’s too late. That’s why I’m getting out. I won’t catch what She’s got.”

“And what, you think you’ll be safe in Metropolis? You think the sickness won’t spread there, too? You think it hasn’t ALREADY?”

A brief moment of doubt crosses his face, but then it’s gone.

“I’ll not have you doubting my word, whelp,” he says, his chest puffing out, “You are nothing to the Cobblepot empire! Gotham is NOTHING. And I will feel NOTHING as I kill y–RAAAUK!”

The Batarang that you threw faster than the eye could follow buries itself in his shooting hand and knocks his father’s umbrella-gun over the railing. He groans and curses, spitting venom. While he recovers, you fire your grapnel gun and it secures itself on the third floor railing. You flick the retraction switch and seconds later your boots hit the floor beside the Penguin.

“Enough… Enough…” He says, holding out his good hand as if to ward you away. “I’ll give you whatever you want…”

“Information. On the Instigator. Now.”

“I can give you the name of the next in line on his recruitment circuit.”

“‘Circuit’? How many of you was he looking to get on his side?”

Cobblepot steadies himself on the railing, then looks up at you gravely.

“All of us.”

Ambitious. The entirety of Gotham’s villains?

Even the Joker?

“Name. Now.”

“Immunity!” He cries, desperate to wring something out of the deal for himself.

“Your life.” You counter, your voice gravel. Then you place a palm on the Batarang protruding from his shooting hand, start pressing down. Hard. He yowls.

“Alright! Alright! It was Scarface! He’s after the puppet next!”

You release your hold, let him collapse onto the ground.

Scarface. A ventriloquism dummy supposedly fashioned from the wood of an old Blackgate gallows. Somehow it took on a life of its own, pulling the weak of will into its service, the dummy/ventriloquist relationship reversed.

New evidence to consider, and the sun is already up. Long past time the Bat returned to his Cave. You put Cobblepot in cuffs, then toss him over the guard rail to join his unconscious goons. He lands with a squawk and a curse. By the time he has regained his composure enough to begin insulting your heritage, you’re already gone.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #11-11.5

The existence of Gotham’s financial quarter has always fascinated you. In a city devoid of hope or ambition, a place known the world over for its tendency to devour its children and leave their bones strewn across its streets, the business district is surely an oddity. Like a tiny patch of pristine flesh surrounded by countless lacerations, swollen and infected, oozing corruption and death. This area of the city is out of place; or so it would appear at first. Upon closer inspection, however, one quickly discovers that the financial sector is the way it is not through some implicit merit or virtue, but through the vanity and sheer force of will of its inhabitants. When put under the harsh light of scrutiny, these moneyed streets are just as filthy as the rest of Gotham. They’re just less honest about it.

You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor. Bruce Wayne met his inevitable end when you were just fourteen. Dick Grayson assumed the mantle while you grew into the man you had to be, but his heart was never in it. Perhaps the problem for Dick was that he had a heart at all. He willingly passed your father’s burden on to you when he felt you were ready. Thinking of those days too long brings up emotions that the Batman simply does not trade in. You push them aside, focus on the task at hand. You’ve just brought down Max Roboto, who was draining the city of its resources, exploiting the massive heat wave that continues to pummel Gotham. He is secured and awaiting pickup by the thinly-stretched GCPD in front of his final target, Gotham National. As the sun breaks over the horizon, signaling the start of a new day, several things weigh heavily on your mind.

First, there is still the issue of William Cobblepot, Oswald’s son. The current Penguin is charging exorbitant entry fees to his Iceberg Lounge, which was declared by the city to be a relief zone and thus open to the public. Tension between Cobblepot’s not inconsiderable security and the angry, poor and desperate gathering outside is building to a pitch.

Then, the Instigator. You are concerned not because you have a lead, but because of the alarming lack of them. Despite hearing his name everywhere, you have no concrete impression of his next move.

Finally, the Machinist, a possible former associate of the Instigator’s has been attempting to contact you. So far, you’ve kept them at a distance, your attention turned elsewhere. That hasn’t stopped them trying.

You stand atop Gotham National, pondering your next move.

Gotham never sleeps, and neither do its criminal superpowers. That means you can’t afford to, either. Despite having gone almost twelve hours already, the problem with Cobblepot will not wait one more day. It has to be dealt with now and with finality. You signal in a Ro-Bat to pick you up from the Gotham National’s rooftop, then wait, watching the blazing fingers of sunlight creeping across Gotham‘s streets and over its buildings. Tiny tendrils of fire, preparing a blaze.

In under ten minutes, your transport arrives and scoops you up and away toward the upper-class nightclub.

Upon arrival, you see the situation to be even worse than you expected. There are the picketers and protesters chanting mantras, of course, but there is also a markedly more violent element radiating from somewhere in the crowd, assaulting Cobblepot’s security and trying to force their way over impromptu barricades. The police are nowhere to be found.

You drop down from the adjacent rooftop on which you perched, then wade into the crowd, startling most into submission simply with your sudden appearance and putting down those who offer meager their resistance. As you approach the heart of the disturbance, however, the fights grow lengthier and more fierce. More driven than you expect from simple rioters. As you put another down, the crowd suddenly draws back as one, and three particularly large specimens emerge.

Like a hivemind.

You strike out at the nearest man, delivering a punishing body blow. Or what should have been one. Unbelievably, he shakes it off and rushes you, his attack unnaturally swift.

“You can’t stop me now, Batman. No one can!” Screams the maddened citizen, spittle flying from his mouth. But you’ve already recovered, already recalculated, learned from your mistake. His swings are powerful but erratic. You gradually step backwards, slapping away the strikes you can’t dodge outright. He’s tiring himself out, giving you an opening. Behind him, the other two thugs loom.

The crazed protester gets slower and slower, working himself up into some kind of fever. He goes for a misjudged high kick that you catch in your armored palm. You then toss the foot aside and spin forward, delivering a spike-gloved fist to his temple.

His head rocks back, blood streaming from his nose and lacerations from your glove. You’re set to press the fight when he suddenly wretches bile and doubles over, foaming at the mouth. In seconds, he is taken by a grueling seizure and lies quietly groaning. His brothers-in-arms push onward.

(Commence issue #11.5 -Ed.)

On Gotham’s upper side, in front of the nightclub known the world over as the Iceberg Lounge, a great storm is brewing. The club’s owner, William Cobblepot, son of the erstwhile Penguin, has been charging exorbitant entry fees to the exclusive hideaway. Normally this would all be routine, except that due to the hellish temperatures currently gripping the city, the council has declared the Lounge to be a relief center and thus free to public access. Cobblepot’s not playing by the rules. You’ve shown up to put things right.

You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor, and your patience with these rioters is growing thin. Dropping down from your rooftop perch roughly ten minutes ago, you waded into the crowd and began neutralizing points of conflict. You’ve made your way closer to the heart of it, but were stopped by three brutes whom the crowd pulled away from like some kind of unified organism. You took one down toe-to-toe, but frankly it took more out of you than you’d care to admit, and you’re not looking to repeat the experience. Fingers darting into your utility belt, you produce a single smoke pellet and hurl it at the two remaining thugs. It thuds dully against the closest man’s chest, then detonates, thick clouds of choking green-grey smoke billowing outward.

The one against whom it impacted is caught completely off guard and inhales a great lungful of the stuff, dropping to his knees, hacking and wretching, tears flowing freely. The other is a bit quicker in reacting, and dances away from the poisonous gas, holding his breath. He then bears down on his haunches and launches toward you, fists upraised.

You watch the man close, feeling the tremors his footfalls cause. As the arc of his swing reaches its highest point, just before he brings his fists down on you in a crushing hammer blow, you dart under his guard, gathering your legs under you and coiling like a spring. Then you lace your hands together and push off against the ground with all the strength you can muster, hitting the goon squarely in the stomach. The hit is hard enough to lift the man off his feet for a brief moment, and when he comes down, he comes down crashing. He retches and gasps, scrambling about on the ground as his body attempts to deal with the trauma and his mind tries to get him clear of the smoke. In the end, the body wins out and he collapses to the ground, unconscious.

Just beyond him is a thin man in a trench coat and hat, its brim pulled down to obscure his features. His coat bulges unnaturally, a box-like protrusion on his back making him look like some kind of geometrical hunchback. He is facing away from you, unmoving.

Withdrawing it from your utility belt, you flick the switch on your tazer and feel it hum to life in your hand. That done, you begin to close on the mysterious, misshapen individual. You get within five feet, as close as you dare, before you decide you’ll not get any closer without doing something drastic. In the back of your mind, you can’t help but wonder whether your treatment of the Instigator’s suspected former accomplice was not a mistake.

Your whole body tenses as you force yourself to make the decision father would have. It’s against both nature and experience for you, the League of Assassins having taught you to strike first, and the horrors of Gotham teaching you to strike hard enough that you only have to do so once. But that’s not the way. That’s not Batman.

“Turn around,” you growl, “Slowly.”

The figure starts a bit, as if it had been unaware of its surroundings. Then, slowly, it begins to turn in place, its feet dragging across the pavement as it does so. You see it to be a young man just out of his teens, cheeks gaunt and sallow. He’s malnourished, that much is clear. From the quality and state of his clothes, you guess he’s not from uptown. Maybe came up this way looking for a way out of his life.

Or because he was promised one.

“B–Baaa… Batman? I d–” He stops mid-sentence, eyes glazed and staring off into the distance, “I don’t feel good. What’d he… What’d he do to me?’

The man has clearly been drugged. His speech is slurred, he’s distracted, can’t focus on anything.

“What’s your name?” You ask.

“Harrr… Harlon.” He has to work at it, really work at saying his own name.

“What’s on your back, Harlon?” You ask, jerking your chin at the space over his shoulder. His gaze follows the movement, then slowly settles back on you.

“Dunno.” Harlon answers simply.

You watch Harlon struggle a while longer, trying to get a better understanding of his psychological state. It doesn’t help much; whatever drug he’s been given, it’s powerful. His facial expression is constantly shifting, as if he’s never quite sure what he’s feeling. His pupils are dilated, unfocused. A thin sheen of sweat covers his brow.

“Harlon,” you say, keeping your voice even, clear and reassuring, “I can help you get out of this, but I can’t do it alone. I need to ask you some questions. Can you focus for me?”

The man’s head sways back and forth, a low moaning issuing from his throat. “I don’t feel good Batma–Batm–Bat–HURKKK!” He spills his guts on the ground in front of him, groaning and shivering. As he stands there recovering from his nausea, you notice nylon shoulder-straps encircling his arms under the coat. You’re almost surprised that the method used to attach Harlon to whatever is under that trench coat was not more sinister. Still, it will be more than enough if Harlon isn’t seen by a doctor, and soon.

“Harlon,” you say forcefully, trying to get his attention, “two things: first, take your coat off. I can’t help you if I can’t see the problem. Second, tell me who did this to you. You can help make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

The man wipes his mouth on the back of his sleeve, flecks of vomit and bile staining it. He speaks through chapped lips. “A… A man. All in black. One of the crazies… He said he could help me. Help me get out. Stupid, Harlon. Really stupid…” He says, drifting into self-punishment. After a minute, he begins to shrug off his coat.

“Focus, Harlon!” You urge, taking a step forward. “I need to know more. His name. Did the man tell you his name?”

“He said… He said he was the Instigator.”

Harlon replies, his coat falling away, exposing the radio signal transmission device strapped to his back, so similar to the one you found in the Instigator’s hands over a week ago. Even better, a brick of C4 with a countdown timer attached to it is fastened snugly beneath the device. Harlon has less than three minutes before it detonates.

You weigh your options in the span of a second, then leap into action. Defusing it would take too much time and has too small a margin for error. Letting it detonate anywhere nearby is out of the question, as is leaving it on Harlon. You pull out a small canister of aerosolized nitrogen and quickly coat the plastic explosive in it. When you see the timer stop, you wrench the bomb off of the bottom of the transmitter and call in a Ro-Bat for immediate pick-up. It takes another twenty seconds for the automated glider to make its descent, but that should still leave enough time. You hurl the explosive upward into the Ro-Bat’s waiting claws and watch as it makes a steep ascent, thrusters screaming as they’re pushed past the red. Uncertain of yourself, you reach out and throw Harlon to the ground, covering his body with yours, hoping to shield him against the blast.

Seconds later, the nitrogen’s effect wears off and the C4’s anti-tampering measures kick in, causing it to detonate high over Gotham. The shockwave buffets you, stealing your wind and causing you to grit your teeth as you’re pressed into the ground. After a moment it passes, and you roll off of Harlon’s body. He’s still alive, but unconscious, breathing steadily. He will hold until the GCPD can get him help.

Standing and looking around, you walk over to Harlon’s discarded burden, the signal transmitter, and crush it beneath an armored heel. Results are seen almost immediately. The struggles between police and protester ebb, slow and then stop, their participants slumping to the ground, utterly spent.

The way is clear into the Iceberge Lounge.

With the sudden increase in confused citizens milling about while equally confused police officers try to maintain some semblance of order, you figure you have a good chance of infiltrating the Lounge undetected. Making use of a low-hanging fire escape, you manage to scale your way up to the second floor. You know from familiarity with the club that this second floor is in fact only a single walkway running along the circular walls of the ballroom, overlooking the dance floor below. A minute or two spent with your glass cutter gets you into a window. No perimeter breach alarm… Security systems must not be tied to the back-up generators. Or they’ve burnt out. Slipping into the cool and the dark, you hear the sounds of mirth and music coming from the brightly lit first floor. You hug the wall and stay low in hopes that the spinning lights won’t cause you to cast a shadow.

Below you, mob bosses and businessmen rub elbows or twirl endlessly with their much younger dance partners, the mask of merriment concealing deadly serious business deals being negotiated in dark, smoky backrooms.

One room overlooks it all, the sole occupant of the vaunted third floor. William Cobblepot’s office, formerly that of his father. Heavily fortified, heavily guarded, well secured by electronic bio-scan systems. A fortress on a dance floor. Peeking over the railing, you easily pick out several of Cobblepot’s goons milling through the crowds. You are expected.

You ghost along the outside wall in a crouch, painting yourself as closely as you can to the inkiest blacks. It pays off; neither patron nor watchdog sense your presence as you slip by them, quiet as a lion in the rushes. Finally you arrive in front of the heavy, stainless-steel entranceway to Cobblepot’s office. You sidle up to the access panel on the side. There are three methods of entry: palm-print scan, voice recognition and a keypad. Just like Cobblepot: he spends all that money in that armor up front just to install a the proverbial flimsy wooden door in the back. Employing the toolkit you carry with you in your belt, you remove the panel on the keypad and go to work.

Seconds later, the main lights go out, replaced by a red emergency glow and a piercing klaxon rips through the air. Almost immediately, Cobblepot’s dance floor clears of everyone not wearing a plain black suit and weighing in at three-hundred plus.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #10

Gotham is on fire.

Due to record-breaking temperatures, flash-fires have begun to erupt spontaneously throughout the metropolis. The city’s fortunate have fled to relief shelters, those left outside the overcrowded facilities facing near certain death by exposure.

The fall of night has brought little relief. Gotham’s sickness, its madmen that eat at it like a cancer, have struck it at its weakest. Seemingly in concert, they’ve all attacked on this night, the eve before the environmental summit. Behind it all lurks a mysterious, hereto unknown adversary: the “Instigator.” His name has come up far too often to be ignored.

Father would be ashamed.

You are Damian Wayne, son of the Bat and his successor. When Bruce Wayne met his inevitable end, the charge was laid upon you by both his ghost and the tacit endorsement of Richard Grayson to take his place. You have done all you can in his stead; and yet, Gotham burns.

You are currently in a downtown office tower in pursuit of the criminal known as Max Roboto. Roboto has been taking advantage of the murderous climate, sacking the financial quarters of its riches by using his cybernetic augmentations to directly interface with the security systems. From there, hacking it is as easy as breathing for him.

Roboto currently has you trapped on the 37th floor of an office tower, and he’s turning up the heat. Your cowl calculates five minutes until temperatures become unsustainable. You’ve placed Semtex on the otherwise unbreakable glass panel that runs along the outside wall of the building.

Behind you, a phone is ringing on a desk.

You pick up the receiver, toss it on the table and have your cowl patch in wirelessly.

“What do you want, Max? We need to end this.”

You’re buying time. Roboto is insane, always has been. You’ll never give him what he wants.

“I want you to leave me alone. I want to walk away from thi–”

“That’s not an option, Max. You’re going down for this one.”

There’s a prolonged silence, during which you crouch down behind a cubicle wall and ready the detonator, then command O.R.A.C.L.E. to override the audio frequencies of this floor and prepare for a sonic burst.

“Then, Batman,” replies Robot, his voice building into a scream, “I want you to die!”

O.R.A.C.L.E. triggers the audio burst and everything goes silent as your cowl shuts out everything outside. You key the detonator and feel the thump as the reinforced glass shatters in great sheets. Running toward the opening, you launch yourself outward and audio comes back online. Roboto is still screaming.

“That’s not an option, either.”

Throwing your weight forward in the air, you reach for your grapnel gun and aim for what you hope to be the thirty-third floor.

In all of a second, the grapnel gun fires and breaks the target window, burying itself in the floor beyond. You trigger the retraction mechanism and it nearly pulls your arm out of its socket. The next thing you feel is your shoulder slamming into the carpet of the thirty-third floor. You do your best to roll out of it, but it’s awkward. A moment is spared to extract some shards of glass from your arm and shoulders, then you stand and consider your next move. You have a minute at best before Roboto knows exactly where you are.

You wander the cubicles, hoping to get some sense of where you are. But it’s all so non-descript, cubicle after cubicle of mundane office space. O.R.A.C.L.E. is having trouble getting a fix on your location. Figures.

You see an emergency stairwell sign at the far end of the room.

You attempt to splice connections to get a boost and provide O.R.A.C.L.E. with an anchor, but it’s no use. Whether the increase in power just isn’t sufficient or the method of combining lines is simply beyond your expertise, you’re not sure.

You cross the darkened room to the emergency stairwell door, test the crashbar. Surprisingly, it’s open, but locks seconds after you push the door ajar.

Behind you, a cell phone somewhere in the dark stats vibrating.

Odd. A cell phone. Slightly different method of communication.

You click your tongue in frustration.

You find the vibrating cell phone with relative ease, pick it up and thumb the talk button, then toss it back down on the desk. In seconds, your cowl interface picks up the signal and taps in. You say nothing, waiting for the psychopath the make his play.

There is a long moment of silence. Then a strange, altered voice comes over the line.

“Batman? Are you there?”

“What do you want, Roboto?”

You’re already down the stairwell, moving as quickly as you can.

“I’m not Roboto,” answers the mechanical voice, “I’m… It’s M.”

You keep moving down the stairwell, vaulting the steps two at a time.

“I don’t have time for this. Who are you?” You growl.

There’s another long pause, then:

“The Machinist. You were supposed to meet with me and blew me off. Looks like you could make use of my expertise. Question is, why should I make myself available to you?”

“I decided you weren’t worthy then. I still don’t think you are now. You’re a cheap merc with a flair for the philosophical, Machinist. Nothing more.”

You end communications as you arrive at the thirtieth floor. Looking around, you see signs indicating the presence of a security nexus on this floor. You follow them down the virtually indistinguishable, corporate hallways to a heavy steel door with a card reader lock.

This, it would appear, is Max Roboto’s most likely location.

You brace yourself against the wall opposite the door, then launch yourself, planting your foot squarely on the locking mechanism.

It squeals, shatters and gives way. Inside, a small room with a large bank of computers and monitors lining the inside wall. A single occupant, sitting on a cheap desk chair with several wires trailing to and from the mainframe.

Max Roboto.

He turns, startled, then snarls upon recognizing you. The deadly laser in his right eye heats up. You’ve got less than a second before this becomes a full-blown drag-out brawl.

“No.” You growl, your hand darting out, knuckles curled. The normally light blow impacts effectively against Roboto’s Adam’s apple, choking him and giving you a chance to get in a few more chops.

He recovers, then makes an attack of his own, trying a swift right cross as his eye heats up again.

Roboto’s armored fist cracks across your jaw, rocking your head back and setting you seeing stars. You manage to break away and reset for another bout. Roboto’s eye is almost charged up.

You charge Roboto all-out, flurrying him with a brutal series of blows. He howls, doubling in on himself under the assault. The psychopath looks so beaten that you nearly miss his uppercut arcing toward you.

You arc your head backward and away from Roboto’s attack, leaving him open and vulnerable. One last chance to put him down before the eye is charged.

You can almost here father growling over your shoulder as you ponder the possibilities. In the end, you decide to uphold your promise to him. You deliver a savage punch to Roboto’s side, breaking ribs and collapsing a lung.

He’s down, suffering, but definitely still alive. You’ll have to call in the GCPD to ensure he goes to Arkham before anything else happens. There’s still much to do.

And the sun is coming up.

Batman Quest: Bethlehem Rising, Issue #9-9.5

Gotham has a fever that will not break. It is relentless, pervasive and utterly wasting. For the past two weeks, temperatures have been skyrocketing, breaking records left and right. Home and business fires have been on the rise as overtaxed air conditioning units break down and the heat sets electrical circuitry cooking. Those who are without the means to properly cool themselves have been herded into relief centers around the city to avoid heatstroke.

Naturally, it wasn’t long before those relief centers were under siege.

First there was Phosphorus Rex, an insane mutant with pyro-kinetic capabilities. Flourishing in the hellish temperatures, Rex began setting overcrowded relief centers ablaze and ushering those who attempted to escape them along to an even worse death. You are Damian Wayne, the son of the Bat and his successor, and as such could not allow Gotham’s people to be so terrorized. Having taken care of Rex, however, you patched into O.R.A.C.L.E. to find that the night is far from over.

Two-Face-Two has been taking his slice from the relief centers, promising protection from Rex and his ilk in exchange for… Well, everything.

Max Roboto has been cleaning up in the financial districts, attacking unguarded exchange towers and withdrawing funds en masse.

William Cobblepot has been extorting the masses for entry to his Iceberg Lounge, charging exorbitant entry fees despite the city council declaring the club a relief center and as such open to the public, free of charge.

Despite the city’s many other and ongoing woes, you decided Two-Face-Two was the biggest threat and made your way to his location.

The heat is unbearable, the very walls sweating as you approach the last door in a hallway of the relief center that Two-Face-Two has taken hostages in. Behind you, a squad of Gotham city riot cops are standing by to intervene. Can’t let that happen; Dent’s successor will kill those people if he gets so much as a whiff of a badge. Above, Ro-Bats swarm the rooftop, diving and screeching, communicating via binary and monitoring the building top-to-bottom.

Two-Face-Two demanded that you meet him alone here, so it’s a trap. Obviously. The trick is figuring out how to spring it and walk away with the hostages intact.

You reach the door.

You attempt to jerryrig a connection between O.R.A.C.L.E., the Ro-Bats above and your cowl output, put it’s no use. Whether the temperatures are playing merry hell with the signals or the execution is just beyond your expertise, you can’t tell.

You raise a gauntlet to the cheap pressboard door, rap a few times on it. After a moment, a shrill, child-like voice answers. Two-Face-Two’s darker persona.

“I would ask who’s there, but I know it’s you. I can hear you thinking.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. You know it’s me because you’d blow a hole in anyone else who came down this hallway and you made sure good people knew it. People that couldn’t let that rest on their conscience.”

Laughter, again with that child-like quality. But underneath it, the keen edge of madness.

“Why don’t you come in, detective? We have much to discuss.”

“I’ve had enough tricks played on me by Joker to know better than to open a door that one of you is standing on the other side of.”

“Don’t speak the Clown’s name, lest he hear you.” Screeches the little voice. But after a moment, its tone softens. “Yes, perhaps I can have the big one do that. If of course you promise no trickery, sneaky Bat.” There’s a scuffling then, and you hear a series of locks click open. Must have been expecting you to come at him full tilt. You have to admit, it was a tempting prospect.

In the next two seconds, you hear the final tumbler click aside, the door creak open and the click of a handgun’s action. You have a fraction of a second to react. Luckily, there’s already a Batarang in your palm.

Closing your eyes, you will the world around you to slow, to enter a metaphysical state as the League of Assassin’s taught you. You see Two-Face-Two’s human face slack, eyes rolled back, drool dangling from his jaw. The gun, pointing at you from inky blackness, set to fire.

And you throw.

The shard of razor-sharp steel slices through the air and glides gracefully into and through the villain’s flesh. He howls as it does, staggering back. You bash the door in on him to increase the effect.

The thing in control of Two-Face-Two’s body howls like an spoiled brat. You kick him in the ribs to establish the tone. Then you step over his body, lean down, grab him by the collar and growl into his face.

“Little Face never was much for planning, was it?” You mock. It squeals at you, unrepentant. “I want to talk to the man in charge.” You slam your armored cowl into the mutant’s face. It rocks back, then hangs slack in your hands for a moment before the other side takes over.

“Wh…What have I…? Ba–Batman. Of course it’s you…” His eyes slide out of focus for a moment, then come back wild and desperate. “Listen to me, Batman. Father would have wanted me to help you in this. This man, the Instigator, is planning something so terrible that not even the Little Face would participate.”

Commence Issue 9.5 -Ed.

The heat has not yet broken in Gotham city. Despite a slight decline in temperature when the sun passed down behind the towers, the aging metropolis has remained a furnace, threatening its citizens with flash-fires and the inevitable onset of heatstroke. Instead of being out there, where father would be, helping the people, you are forced to remain here, in a dark room at the end of the hall in an abandoned relief center. Interrogating a pale reflection of one of yesteryear’s most infamous.

Two-Face-Two.

You’ve managed to bring about the ‘good’ side of the psychopath through brute force, knocking the hideous mutant perched irremovably on his face unconscious and restoring control to the fair side of the coin. He’s talkative. More than usual.

“I’m sorry, Batman. I can’t control him. If I sleep–” he pauses, shudders, “–I can’t sleep. But if I don’t sleep, I die. What then? What happens when I’m asleep for good? What if he’s not?”

You’ve never given much quarter to your rogues, never listened to their twisted reasoning. Father used to do that… One of the rare quirks you considered a weakness. Criminals are simple: they’re cowards.

“Then I’ll put him down, too.” You growl. “Now talk. What was the play here?”

“You know I don’t know the specifics. It doesn’t work that way. But I have a limited window of consciousness while he’s in control. I nudged his choice of hostages to try and warn you.”

“An old hobo and a six-year-old… Past and present? What kind of warning is that?”

“’Past and present.’ That’s what he said. A man in a black, oiled leather suit. He met with the Little Face… They made some kind of deal–” you lunge forward, pick him up and slam him against the wall.

“What was his name? What was the deal?” You scream.

“He said the girl was Gotham’s past, and the bum was its future!” He stammers. “S–said he was going to make you choose.” The freak’s eyelids begin to droop, so you bash him against the wall again.

But it’s no use. You were too aggressive, brash as always. Two-Face-Two’s eyes roll back in his head as he loses consciousness and Little Face takes control.

“His name,” he says, sliding an undetected weapon out from his right sleeve, “was the Instigator.”

Click.

You bat the weapon aside as the trigger is pulled, its ammunition burying itself in the drywall behind you. Despite your efforts, however, Little Face keeps his hold on the weapon. Staggering backward, he makes ready to fire again.

With a practiced surety, you reach for the third pouch from the buckle on your utility belt and flick a series of razor-sharp Batarangs at Two-Face-Two’s wrist. The first takes his ring finger, the second buries itself in his forearm and the third ricochets off the pistol, sending it spinning through the air, clattering to the floor somewhere in the dark room beyond. He howls and swings at you with his good arm, but the approach is haphazard and you easily deflect and counter, sweeping him off his already unsteady balance and pinning him to the ground.

“I’m not playing with you tonight, Little Face.” You growl, twisting the Batarang in his forearm. “Tell me everything you know about the Instigator.”

“I know you should show him more respect than you do me, dark knight,” the twisted face rasps, “and you’re gonna find out why.”

You wrench the Batarang again, tearing muscle.

“Now you’re bleeding to death. The other guy wondered what would happen to the other if either of you died. Want to find out?”

“Aghhk! I don’t know! He wouldn’t tell any of us the specifics! Ask the Bird, he’s your only hope.”

You straighten, wipe blood off your coat. Little Face looks up with you an expression that could be described as pleading.

“You’re not gonna leave me here… I gave you what you wanted. Get me to the goddamn hospital!”

You know what you should do… What father would have done. Knock him out, tie him up and get him help. But that other side of you, the one you struggle to suppress, says leave him. He made his choice.

If it weren’t an artificial intelligence, you’d be certain O.R.A.C.L.E. was testy at being left to wait for so long. The system has brought back several reports, foremost of which are the Penguin and Max Roboto situations. William Cobblepot, Oswald’s heir, continues to charge exorbitant entry fees to his Iceberg Lounge, which the city has declared to be an emergency relief center and thus free and open to the public. As always, the Cobblepot family grows fat on Gotham’s suffering. Max Roboto has been moving systematically through the city’s downtown financial quarter, draining the abandoned markets of digital currency at an alarming rate. He’s almost reached what you’ve determined to be his end point.

Curiously, the marked statue which you last knew to be in the Instigator’s possession has moved again.

An urgent message blinks on the Malone account from the Machinist’s proxy.

Deciding time will be needed to weigh your options, you key in the distress signal for the GCPD and make yourself scarce. A few minutes later you’ve reached the rooftop and take a moment to find your direction.

You set O.R.A.C.L.E. to triangulating the tracer signal’s new position and gathering as much information on the area as possible, then pull up Max Roboto’s dossier. You already know it by heart, of course. What little there is to know. He appeared suddenly and without explanation a few years ago. You’ve pieced together since then that he may have been the son of an officer Bailey of the GCPD, bu that’s purely conjecture at this point. As for his goals, they’re fairly simple by super villain standards: make as much money as quickly as possible regardless of the legality. This heat wave has been a blessing in disguise for him, allowing him access to untenanted downtown financial towers and all the secrets they hold. His cybernetics would allow him to interface directly with the bank systems. Hacking those systems would be elementary for him, like picking a cheap lock.

In minutes, a Ro-Bat has carried you across the city to Roboto’s last known location. Elliot Financial, an irreplaceable landmark of the financial quarter. Despite the skyline having risen above it long ago, the building’s greatness is little diminished.

You patch into your eavesdrop on GCPD traffic, try and get a fix on where the action is. From the sounds of it, all hands have responded to either the hostage situation with Two-Face-Two or to properly contain Phosphorus Rex. Even without those considerations, the force is stretched thin responding the riots and fires across the city. Sounds like you’re on your own here.

The Ro-Bat drops you off on the building’s helipad (a decadent addition for the time it was constructed in, now long disused), and you scan the roof for entry points. There’s a secure access door that leads into an emergency stairwell, a mechanical shed that might have some kind of entry point inside and a large ventilation shaft, blowing cool air out into the baking night.

The lock on the access door was sophisticated when it was installed, but hasn’t been updated in years. It yields quickly under your ministrations, and the door swings wide. You begin your descent of the switchback staircase, pausing every so often to listen. You hear only the echoes of your footfall. So long does the silence last that you begin to wonder if you have misjudged Roboto, if perhaps he resisted the last big score and is long gone to some obscure hell or other that you’ll have to track him to. But no. After the sixth flight of stairs, the lights snap on and you freeze. Somewhere, an emergency intercom crackles to life.

“It appears we have a rodent in the emergency stairwell…” Coos Roboto through the speaker.

“Where are you Roboto?” You demand, your voice rebounding off the concrete walls. “I don’t have time to play games with you tonight.”

“I think you do. That’s why you showed up, after all. It must be terribly drafty in that stairwell. Why don’t I turn up the heat?”

The intercom clicks off. After a few moments, you resume your descent, only to pause a few flights down.

The central air supply has stopped.

Testing the crashbar of the door to the twenty-first floor, you are surprised to find it unlocked. Part of you fears a trap, as Roboto is not the kind to hack an entire building’s security systems just to leave a stray door ajar. Still, the stairwell is too easily made a coffin under the right circumstances. It’s getting hotter in here.

The twenty-first floor turns out to look much like any other floor in a tower of business: clean, sanitized, painfully dull and with an unmistakable and pervasive air of desperation present even when those who toil in this place are gone.

A phone on a desk starts to ring.

Despite the risk, you connect to the landline via your cowl uplink and answer the call.

“What?”

“Why did you leave, Batman? We were only just getting started. Besides, you can’t run from me. Not here.”

“You’re not very bright, Roboto. I’m not running from you. I’m running toward you.”

“And what makes you think I’ll let you get anywhere near me?” The cyborg hisses over the line. Seconds later, you hear the slam of magnetic locks securing themselves all around you. Then you’re alone in the dark, cut off even from adjoining rooms.

“There, now. Safe and sound in your cool, dark cave…” Crows Roboto. “… Well, dark anyway.” He mocks. It’s true, too: the temperatures in the building have continued to climb, and there’s a mechanical impulse behind it. Not only has Roboto deactivated the air conditioning, but he’s turned on the heater, too.

You throw your shoulder into the floor-length glass walls that look out onto the city, but it’s no use. These things are built to withstand a lot more than you’re prepared to throw at them right now, physically. While the miniaturized glass-cutter you carry with you isn’t powerful enough to punch through a strength-blend like this, you do happen to have four eraser-sized pieces of semtex tucked into the rear pouches of the belt. You begin fixing them to the four corners of a window panel.

As you do, a phone begins to ring.