“When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept”
MArc Antony, “julius Caesar”
The Devil’s Greatest Trick
“Am I in trouble, Ms. Rose?” Jeremy asked. “Which is to say, have I…done something wrong?”
Jeremy pulled his hat down low on his head.
“Jeremy,” Ms. Rose was firm, assertive. She shook her head and smiled. Jeremy didn’t return the expression, just looked down instead. “No, you’re not in any trouble. Once every other week, the girls and I have something like a tea party. We choose a topic we’re enthusiastic about, specifically economics, or poetry, or literature, or current events, and every time we have our tea, two of us share those topics, like a discussion prompt.”
Jeremy’s brain supplied an embarrassing amount of excitement.
Keep your eyes down you nitwit, Ms. Rose isn’t a woman who takes well to wonderment.
Jeremy didn’t know what his face was doing, and if squintily looking at Ms. Rose was any indication (he was trying not to let her see how wide his eyes wished to be), neither did she.
“This is on a trial basis, mind you. I have a number of men who work for me, but none of them have ever been allowed to join our early tea. This is an extension of trust, Jeremy, so do be mindful. The women here won’t abide foolishness. Before working for me, men told them that their place was in the home, raising a family. They were shooed out of classrooms and workplaces. So always remember: you aren’t required to speak, however you may if you feel as though you have something of great value to add to the discourse.”
Jeremy nodded, looking down at his shoes, and briefly looking into Ms. Rose’s deep green eyes. He wouldn’t disappoint her.
“These women are like my garden, Jeremy, I’ve tended to them, nurtured their growth, and seen them through to being brilliant creatures who will share their radiance with the world. I’ve asked you to join us today, because Harriet and I will be presenting, on some topics that I think might be helpful for you.”
“And,” Jeremy cleared his throat. “Excuse me, and, I’m so sorry if it’s a silly question, but, will this be a proper tea party? With sweets to sample, and, well, tea?”
“Well it wouldn’t be very civil of me to offer an invitation if it weren’t,” Ms. Rose inclined her head just slightly.
Now there’s a woman who know’s her books, old boy! Finally, we’ve spotted a reference, haven’t we?
Jeremy smiled broadly and he allowed the excitement to show in his eyes.
“My hair will want cutting then.”
“Not at all, Jeremy, come as you are.”
Jeremy smiled, or did something like it, and followed Ms. Rose into the main greenhouse. He was led through a labyrinth of plants arranged in rows and pots like chessmen. Out the side door, to a grassy courtyard with seats arranged in a semicircle on overgrown paving stones. Small end tables were nuzzled between each chair, and one of the metal workbenches had been covered in a white sheet to accommodate the tea service. There were suckers and metal spoons covered in a rich glaze of amber that looked almost like honey. Jeremy watched a botanist with jet black hair and glasses serving herself a cup of tea. She squeezed a slice of lemon into the cup, then put the spoon in and stirred.
If he were alone, he would’ve darted forward to ask her about it, but it looked miraculous. Instead, he kept pace with Ms. Rose, determined not to supply the foolishness that might result in the revocation of this honorable invitation.
Jeremy pondered an opportunity for an additional odd job as the dewdrops started to dampen his thick pant leg turn-ups. Maybe she doesn’t have a boy to tend the lawn?
Even outdoors, on the clear, brisk morning, this felt formal, and Jeremy removed his overworked hat, and resolved to only speak if the topic was within his area of expertise.
“That is neroli honey, from our hives, Jeremy. We have a process which maintains the clarity and color of the honey while allowing it to crystallize; we use it instead of sugar,” Ms. Rose went on, “I do hope you aren’t allergic.”
Jeremy shook his head silently at the strange fairytale set in front of him.
“Help yourself, and find a seat,” she instructed, and he complied, mirroring the botanist with the jet black hair, squeezing a lemon into his hot tea, and stirring it with the crystallized honey spoon. His eyes widened in wonder as the honey liquefied almost immediately, streaking the tea with a luminous whirlwind of gossamer before dissolving.
On his plate, he stacked what looked like a roasted apple sandwich served on brown bread toast points and orange slices, and three wrapped sweets, which he would take to Pockets (if he could find the rascal).
He found a seat next to the black haired botanist, and put his plate and saucer down next to hers, spreading a cloth napkin across his lap.
“Jeremy, Jeremy Tetch,” he introduced himself, smiling at her perhaps too widely for just an instant.
The botanist half-returned the smile, nodding slightly.
“Dahlia,” she said softly.
“Ladies, and Jeremy,” came the accented voice of Harriet standing near the center of the semicircle. “Today, our discourse will be on the topic of the working poor. Wayne Enterprises has made great strides in providing financial security to their workers in Gotham, but too many Gothamites have fallen through the cracks, and not every organization in the city is a cooperative, is it?”
Jeremy looked up from a nibble of his sandwich at the mention of the company where he used to work, and a topic he used to research, in a past life.
“Today, Harriet and I will offer a challenge, for the consideration of the group,” Ms. Rose looked around at her congregation and continued, “how do we solve the problem of poverty for the people of Gotham who, if they lost their jobs today, would find themselves with nothing to fall back on?”
“These are the people of Gotham who are the most threatened by the precariousness of our current economy,” Harriet picked up from Ms. Rose’s cue. “Think of what it means to live from paycheck to paycheck, I know some of us have lived through it, personally.”
She looked directly into Jeremy’s eyes for a sympathetic beat.
This is where you are now, Jez, he reflected on his work for the state senator from what seemed like forever ago. Beautiful young botanists presenting you with the decades-old concepts you used to launch a man’s career.
“Today, our errand will be to conceive of ways to provide a backstop for people,” Ms. Rose continued. “The women, and I suppose the men as well, who, if the bus was late to take them to work tomorrow, might never, ever recover. They are asset-limited, because all they have is money to pay for the barest essentials. They don’t have investments or real estate. They can’t afford risks, because they are constrained by their low income, making just enough money to survive. And because they are employed at a time that so many are not, they cannot afford to lose their jobs; they feel restricted to take what is given to them by their employers.”
“These people, the asset-limited, income-constrained, and employed people of Gotham are the people who we will seek to help with our new, ongoing initiative,” Ms. Rose scanned the audience. Twenty and thirty something professional women, in lab coats, and Jeremy, who felt as out of place as anyone could.
“Project ALICE!” Harriet added.
Jeremy nearly dropped his tea.
This couldn’t be a coincidence. Ms. Rose knew who he was.
Falcone’s fist slammed onto the hardwood conference table, rattling the ice in the mayor’s Metropolitan (similar, as Johnny understood it, to a Manhattan, but with brandy instead of rye)
The commissioner thought that having a cocktail to unwind from a stressful day was fine if your constitution was delicate enough that you needed to take the edge off. Having one during an important meeting with a critical donor was reckless and weak. Johnny saw it for the vice it could become, especially in people who were short on wit but long on character, like the mayor.
The heir to The Roman’s Empire had drowned, and the monarchhimself cried.
Havoc! thought the mayor’s dog-of-war.
“Basil, you sonovabitch I have given this goddamn city so much. SO MUCH! Listen to me, both of you,” he wiped the mucous from his nose. The man was a mess.
Compose yourself, then confront us. Johnny tented his fingers, and set his mouth into a hard line. This is not the show of strength you believe it to be.
“This freak threatened me directly. He threatened us at your event, ‘Face!” The Roman sniveled, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiping his whole face with it. “All the money in Gotham at my dinner table, and some asshole in a halloween costume blows a hole in my wall? Grogan didn’t do shit to stop him. And what do we have so far with you Johnny? Squat!”
“Mr. Falcone,” the commissioner sighed gravely, “since day one, the Batman has been my primary focus. Your assistance in this matter has been…invaluable,” Johnny felt a spasm coming on in his left cheek, and looked slightly down at Falcone’s chin. “However, as you know, there are…political obstacles that prevent us from moving at peak efficiency.”
“What are you saying you need, John?” Mayor Karlo interrupted the drama of silence that Johnny had spent so much time crafting, and inside, he raged at the man’s weakness, the way he refused to let discomfort linger, even if it served a greater purpose.
Gotham deserves so much better than you, Basil.
The commissioner straightened the cuffs of his shirt, almost disdainful at the fabric for being out of place – it was performative, yes, but ever since Johnny had been a young greek tragedy, performance had come naturally to him.
Yiannis “Johnny” Gelio, commissioner of the Gotham Police, stood and folded both of his hands across his abdomen. He faced Carmine “The Roman” Falcone, the reformed don of the Falcone Crime Family, at eye level.
“Mr. Mayor, I’m quite sure Mr. Falcone can read between the lines.”
Falcone and Karlo both cocked their heads in puzzlement.
“I’m a catholic,” Falcone put on a faux convivial affect. “Did you know that, commissioner? The mayor has been to mass with me, haven’t ya, ‘Face? I’m a catholic, but I like to say, I’m not a very good one. I like to think of myself as a man of the old gods.
“You greeks, you’re not far off from us, you know what I mean, Yiannis, it’s like, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic. Zeus, Jupiter. Same pantheon, different dickheads. But we’re cut from the same cloth, commissioner. Same traditions. Same ancient saltwater in our veins. You and me, we’re men of action. Killer Karlo here is a man of reaction – useful, don’t get me wrong, smart – but politicians, you follow me?”
Falcone was pacing now. And Johnny was staring, unblinking, as the man meandered.
“Thing that always bothered me about the Good Book though, and I swear on my mother’s grave, I told her this when I was seven years old, in Soriano Nel Cimino, I says ‘what’s the difference between prophecy and destiny?’ and she says to me, ‘Non lo so, bambino,’ that’s ‘I don’t know, child.’
“I’ve never, for the life of me, been able to find an answer. I’ve talked to priests and nuns, I talked to my cousin – he’s learning theology back home – and I talked to prelates and bishops. Not one of ‘em could ever help me understand the difference.
“So, way I see it, they’re the same, see? It was Jesus’ destiny to die, you see, because it was prophesied that the eventual Messiah would. And that’s the part that bothered me, commissioner. This guy, walks around performing miracles, being the life of the party, and then, the Son of God goes to the desert, and stops eating.
“The Devil comes to him, and the Devil – Satan – he decides to pull a trick on Jesus, to get Him to test God. First, he shows Jesus how to make bread from rocks, but Jesus refuses him. Then he shows Jesus how to be rescued from the desert, by angels, no less – he quotes Psalms, the whole thing. Jesus doesn’t want to be saved like that. Finally, Satan offers Jesus the whole world. All Jesus has to do is bow to the Devil, and He can rule over all of it. Jesus refuses the Devil once again.
“The part they never point out during the sermons though, is that the Devil keeps asking Jesus questions in a very specific way, like ‘If you’re the Son of God, why don’t you prove it?’”
Johnny waited, appreciating the poetry of the way that Falcone told his story. It was sloppy, and it took the most indirect route from point to point, but the art of it was like an unhoned blade made of very fine quality steel. A couple minutes with a whetstone, and the knife would cut clean and deep.
“Now Jesus is, first and foremost, a teacher. In the Bible, they call Him rabbi, which means ‘teacher.’ And He’s no slouch, neither. He studies the Old Testament for His whole life. So Jesus knows everything there is to know about the prophecies that need to be fulfilled for His destiny as the Messiah.
“Which brings us back to the Devil. See, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, they tell us – the readers – that Satan’s trying to tempt Christ with defying God. But Jesus knew that He’d have to refute the devil three times. And the Devil knows it too. But remember, Satan is the Prince of Lies. The truth is, the real truth, is that he’s trying to tempt Jesus into fully becoming the Christ.”
“There’s an old brain teaser that kids do in grade schools back home, I guess they have it here, it goes: If God is all powerful, can God make a stone that God can’t break? It’s an impossible question, it creates like, one of those snakes that swallows its own tail.
“That’s what Satan did to Jesus. He didn’t want Jesus to take him up on the offer. He wanted Jesus to remember the prophecies, and to make a concession to destiny. That’s why Satan is called The Adversary, because he’s a perfect enemy who creates inescapable outcomes.”
“Now Carmine, I’m afraid that the commissioner has –“
Johnny held up a hand, and the mayor furrowed his brow.
“Mr. Commissioner, I don’t believe in prophecy, I believe in profits.” The Roman’s raconteur tone started to fade to something more grim. “I believe that a man, given the choice between the world and his soul, will ‘profit the world’ each and every time. I know this, because I have offered much less than the world to good men, and the most righteous among them barely even negotiates.
The room itself seemed to get cooler.
“We call them supermen, and some people describe them as gods, and I think they might be right. The big blue one in Metropolis? He’s like Hercules, ain’t he? He intervenes here and there, but he doesn’t protect everyone. Not really. How many people does he let die every day? How many orphans we got in Gotham City – you know the number, ‘Face? It’s a lot. A lot.” Falcone shook his head. “But I think this Batman is the Devil, right outta the Bible. Lucifer made flesh. And he’s mad, because he can’t tempt us with nothing, because the people in power in Gotham aren’t beggars in the desert two thousand years ago. We refuse to fall victim to something as mercurial as destiny, and the Devil is heated because without temptation, he doesn’t have any power.
“It takes three days for a telegram to get to Soriano Nel Cimino, commissioner. The people who I’ll ask for, they’re not good men. Can’t be a good Italian and come to America anymore. Not since twenty-four. It’ll take another two days for them to get their affairs in order, get the checks deposited. Another day to kiss their wives, their sons.
“Then it’ll be two days to the freight ports in Civitavecchia, and about three weeks to the Port of Gotham on cargo ships. The way I figure it, you’ve got, let’s call it a month.”
Carmine took a deep breath, and stepped closer to Johnny, turning their seats to face each other, and inviting him to sit back down.
“Everything,” Carmine forced the words from his mouth in a huff, putting his hand on Johnny’s knee. “I said that I gave this city ‘so much,’ but I will give it everything I have regardless of whether you give me the justice I am looking for, commissioner. Starting now, if you need something, you tell me directly. Anything. You need more men? You need a woman? Walkin’-around-money? A private car? I don’t give a fuck if you want a new wool suit, Johnny. Anything. And if you bring me the Bat, then you continue to get anything you want, whenever you want it.
“But in a month, these streets live up to their reputation, Johnny. Because I will cover this city in a plague of lead and blood. There will be jackals, and they will tear Gotham apart from the barrens to the boroughs until they find the Bat. And no superman, Bat or Blue is gonna stop them from finding their quarry. I won’t be held responsible for what happens. Once the order’s been given…”
“Then don’t give the order! Carmine, the first debate is in a month. Just wait to send the telegram!” Karlo begged.
“I sent the telegram this morning, ‘Face.”
“We’ll find him, Mr. Falcone,” Johnny stood, extending a hand, and Falcone did the same.
“Gotham City is on notice!” Falcone shouted at the mayor as he left the room, and slammed the door behind him, rattling the ice in the mayor’s Metropolitan.
“In three weeks’ time, your men, or the Henshaw men, or, I don’t care who, you personally if that’s what it takes. You are working the port, and you are inspecting any cargo from Italy or anywhere in the general Mediterranean area. Any passengers without visas get held,” Karlo was reactive, Falcone had been absolutely on the spot about that.
“Of course, Mr. Mayor. We can invoke the Johnson Act,” Johnny said matter-of-factly.
“Until that debate is over, I don’t care if Mussolini himself calls me, we have a very strict detain-suspicious-Italians policy, got it – something funny John?”
Johnny flexed his face into a scowl.
“Sorry, I forget about your, uhh…the lockjaw. Anyway, we’re under a lot of pressure commissioner.” Karlo took a nervous gulp of his cocktail, and produced a flask from his jacket pocket to top the glass off. “Don’t want to waste good ice, heh.”
“Mr. Mayor, I’m going to bring you the Bat. Dead, or alive,” Johnny spoke in a measured, even tone, only inflecting enough to keep from sounding monotonous. But you’ll need to start throwing some of your political weight around, and I–”
“–That I can do. Handshaking is a speciality of mine, after all. What do you need, Johnny?”
“I’d like the Gotham Police department to have a seat on the Board of Estimates.”
“I don’t…I don’t think that’s something that could be done within the time we have, and I don’t really see what it would help.”
“The budget, Mr. Mayor. And I’ve read over the charter. You can add up to two ex officio seats to the Board of Estimates by mayoral fiat, once per term. I want us to be able to whip the votes to get the budget asks we need for equipment and emergency response, even if that means we have to sidestep the council. As you know, good, solid policy work, gets things done. But maybe just as importantly, solid police work to enforce policy is what is going to get this done, not reliance on a superman or a blank check from an anonymous benefactor.”
“Gee, Johnny, giving the brand new commissioner a vote on the Board of Estimates might seem like a strange power grab in an election year.”
“Mr. Mayor, it’s time to get serious. We need to have a public discussion around crime in Gotham. The department has been underfunded for years. I’ve got no money for overtime or hazard pay, and recruits? Forget it. Nobody wants to put their life on the line to protect ungrateful street rats for this level of pay. Why do you think so many of our guys were on the take?
“It’s Gotham City, commissioner. Everyone is on the take. But alright, let me ask my people how to get this done. We’ll get the police their chair on the Board of Estimates. Just get me the goddamnedBatman before he kills another kid.”