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.

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