“This place has gone to hell in a ham sandwich since they eighty-sixed the dress code!”Col. Hunter Gathers
The Invisible Hand Of Fate
A barrage of faster-than-a-blink punches to a heavy bag.
A strand of pearls bouncing across the street and into the gutter.
“You can stay over if you’d like, it’s jus–”
“No, no, Bruce! You’re going through so much. I totally, well I wish there was something else I could do. If you need to talk, will you call me?”
“It’s at least dislocated, maybe worse. Can you move it?”
“If you’re still insisting on not drinking, then you’d better bite down on this.”
“You gotta stop sneaking up on me like that.”
“You called me.”
“That kid – Pockets? I’ve had people looking for weeks. And get this. The orphanage said they didn’t take anyone in in November after Fatal Friday.”
“If he’s in Gotham, I’ll find him.”
“Better be soon, because I gotta tell you, this Tetch thing is looking more open-and-shut, and I’m under a lot of pressure to get this thing closed out. I got the District Attorney breathing down my neck, and he’s not gonna keep taking ‘mysterious orphan’ on fai–
“–I hate when he does that.”
The girl couldn’t have been older than seventeen. She was too noisy, taking heaving breaths while cowering, draped in the darkness of the alley’s shadows.
There was a distant sound of footfalls; recently-soled shoes; too expensive for this part of the city; high quality.
“Ma’am, everything’s going to be alright. We work with the Gotham Police Department. To protect young ladies such as yourself. Now why don’t you let me and Agent Liberatore here walk you to your apartment?”
“– Riiiight, there’s no reason to be afraid, sweetheart, but it ain’t safe for a pretty girl like you to be out here alone.”
Two silhouettes darkened the mouth of the Alley, and the terrified, panting girl stood up. These were the men who’d been watching her. The men who called out to her. The men who’d followed her.
“That’s right doll, come on with…”
The girl’s shadow was flowing, seven feet tall, and impossibly black. It had horns like the devil, and it stood in front of her.
Gunshots turned those shimmering black eyes into tiny fires, and then, in the space of a heartbeat, the Bat was upon them.
One agent writhed on the ground, coughing, while the other clutched at a broken arm. The girl ran and didn’t look back.
“None of the Newsboys has seen Pockets since Tetch got brought in. A couple of them figure he went to Metropolis.”
“He wouldn’t make it. No money for the bus. Too small to walk.”
“I can maybe buy us another week, but even with the delays in the courts, that’s a month’s time since Tetch’s arraignment, and no Peter Pan killings since. And we got the guy’s lawyer yammering about a speedy trial. D.A. already has a case, and I don’t think he still believes that Pockets might be a key witness for the state.”
“They don’t teach this in those Gray Ghost radioplays, but circumstantial evidence is perfectly acceptable when it comes to a court of law. People are champing at the bit to see this guy brought to trial.”
“Thought you should know: Schuler has a broken orbital bone, and he swallowed two of his teeth. Liberatore’s arm was broken in two places, and internal bleeding. Something punctured his pancreas. I don’t suppose you know anything about tha–
“–I’m talking to my goddamn self again, aren’t I?”
“It looks like it just grazed you, but we’ll need to replace your cape before you go out again – there’s a leak in at least one of the CO2 veins.”
A phone rang on the nightstand, and Bruce bolted upright.
“Mr. Warner,” came the woman’s voice from the other end of the line. “This is Mercy Graves with your wake up call. A car will be outside for you in an hour.”
“Thank ya, Mercy. Lookin’ forward to seein’ ya.”
The receiver made a noise like it was dropped, then the line went dead.
Liam Warner turned on the lights in his Metropolis apartment, and headed toward the washroom.
Scratching at his face, he felt the spirit-gummed beard, and noticed that it was filling in with very real stubble.
He didn’t remember coming in last night, and that didn’t concern him, even though he knew it should.
Salvatore Vincent Maroni was convening the Mandatum for the first time in over a decade, and the shipping warehouse of The Iceberg Lounge was the perfect location. The club itself would be crowded enough to make sniffing out their little meeting inconvenient, and Oswald Cobblepot was generous with his accommodations. He’d still need to pay a stake, of course, and who better to invite to join your exclusive club than a millionaire whose dream it was to be seen as influential in the criminal underworld.
Every man at the table would tell you his job title was legitimate businessman, except Oswald, and between his connections and his convenient meeting space, he was the perfect mark. Oswald had a stack of money directly in front of him, like every man at the table. Unlike the others, Oswald drummed his fingers against the table, making great efforts to not look like a newcomer.
Even without the nerves, it would’ve been obvious to Sal.
In front of every man at the table sat a neat stack of a hundred one thousand dollar banknotes.
Sal could easily tell who had come into their fortune recently – Hamilton’s face on your bills meant you’d had them for a while. Cleveland didn’t appear on the note until 1928. There were twelve organizations, or “families” represented in the Mandatum. Six major families with room for a seventh “by mandate” of the others. The remaining minor families had to be bought in and approved by at least four of the Six majors. Together, they acted as a sort of governing commission of the organized crime in Gotham. At least, that was how it worked before the first Roman consolidated powers, a shift that led to often-violent aggravation from the non-Italian organizations that suddenly found themselves on the outside of profitable territories. Assurances would need to be made that this wouldn’t happen again.
A quick accounting confirmed that only four of the twelve organizations who were staked tonight were old money. Men in black ties moved around the table at speed, counting and collecting stakes. Passing the bags to the accounting department. The whir of the bill-counting machines acted as a kind of call to attention, and Sal stood up.
“Bedlam, gentlemen,” Sal said, clearing his throat. “When our families squabble over turf, when our men fight each other? Who benefits?”
“You didn’t call us to quorum, Sally,” muttered Giuliano Gambino, an old money septuagenarian numbers runner who’d made his fortune as a bootlegger, but whose organization had quietly benefited from the Falcones consolidation all those years ago, and the only man here who could call Maroni “Sally” without fear of lead poisoning.
“We’re gonna get the money counted, and then I’ll call quorum, Giule.”
Gambino nodded his affirmation.
Salvatore Vincent Maroni was, like so many men with his upbringing, reformed. Though even cursory scrutiny of his very recent operations would reveal income from sources of ill repute. Not that it mattered. Maroni knew the right palms to grease, and just how greasy they needed to be. He knew he wasn’t an obvious choice to take on the title or responsibility of Consul, but his plan wasn’t to put a crown – a target in this time of turmoil – upon his own head. It was to put himself in position to be the rightful successor, and carve out a choice territory for himself in Gotham.
“The coppers benefit,” Sal continued. “Used to be we could give a couple guys a few sawbucks to look the other way, and as long as we kept our more unsavory activities out of sight. But now, we got countrymen playing dress up. We don’t know who’s running what no more, and it’s chaos.”
Mandatum had been around since early aughts, but the first Roman had consolidated much of the power of this famiglia di famiglie back during the Great War.
“The Mandatum returns tonight, restored to its former glory,” Sal looked at the signal man with the accountants giving a thumbs up. “Having collected the required stakes for blood and for family, and with the Six Seats filled by the organizations of Gambino, Bucalo, McManus, Ramirez, Cobblepot, The Seventh Seat, and Maroni, I call us to quorum.”
Giuliano waved him along with a smile of approval.
“With these stakes we enter into a time of peace. Let that peace remain unbroken. There is so much of Gotham to go around, and we’ll share it amongst ourselves by cutting Gotham into territories that are managed by one, maybe two organizations.”
There was chatter. The table talk was obviously about leadership, and many present turned to face Giuliano, who lifted a meaty hand to bring the room to order.
“The violence and brutality of daily life in Gotham is, well soon, it’ll be beyond our ability to manage.” Giuliano’s voice was like velvet flowing through an icing bag – at once intense and pleasant. “Other cities see what’s become of Gotham and they see an opportunity. We won’t be able to defend from outside if we can’t walk down the street without a shootout happening.In fact, wunna Bugsy’s bodyguard’s, Ricardo, was gravely injured yesterday in a shootout near Crime Alley–“
“–And if Crime Alley ain’t safe,” Bugsy cut in, removing his hat, and the other men removed their own, acknowledging the sentiment without further interrogation.
Sal took stock of the warehouse. The myriad families of this new Mandatum wore expressions ranging from contemplative to skeptical.
“When Carmine was arrested, it became clear that he had been too intertwined with the police; by association, our families were too caught up in this misalignment as well. We see that decisions he has made continue to impact our businesses. The Gotham Police Commissioner is benefactor to resources that we have worked for, collectively. I took decisive action, because in times of tribulation, this is what leaders must do. Now matter how difficult the decision may be.
“However,” Sal’s face darkened, “This was a decision I had to make alone. There was no structure outside of the Falcone organization that could review the decision that I saw as necessary. Many of you here agreed with me, but future actions like this cannot create peace if they are not discussed amongst peers. Peers with something to lose.
“Disentangling the confusion of Carmine’s mistakes and moving us toward peace will take decisive leadership. And while we will not gain peace without bloodshed, the war between our organizations must end tonight,” a beat. “In the spirit of that peace, and with decisive action at the top of all our minds, I have two proposals to bring before this quorum: First, I propose we appoint Consul until such time that he relinquishes the role, or the next scheduled quorum, three years from today.”
The shipping warehouse went nearly silent, the faint notes of “St. James Infirmary Blues” played by the house band could almost be heard in the ballroom, several rooms and twisting corridors beyond the cinderblock walls. Maroni inhaled.
“I nominate Giuliano Gambino, the steady hand we require to navigate us toward peace and prosperity,” the silence that punctuated Sal’s nomination was broken by the squealing of a metal chair dragging across the floor. Giuliano was standing up.
“I am honored to receive your blessing, Sally,” and the mobster’s velvety voice was met with cheers throughout the room. Sal waited for the fanfare to recede, then smiled, extending his arms and embracing Gambino, a kiss on each cheek making the nomination official.
The vote was quick and unanimous, and Salvatore was able to secure the western half of the north island, including Ashburton, Keaton North, Bayview, and Powhatan. Proximity to Giuliano’s (mostly symbolic) Little Italy territory meant Sal had all but ensured his place as heir apparent.
The only objection had been easily dismissed with calm reassurances from Sal: Cobblepot’s territory was small, and not particularly attractive; it included a sliver of the south island – the East End, the docks, and the poor, disinvested islets of The Narrows and Arkham Island. When the pacts were confirmed and the majors were confident in their organizations’ understanding of the territories, the minor families were dismissed, each retreating to the club for a complimentary toast.
“Gentlemen, Consul Giuliano,” Sal started again, the warehouse now much colder with only the major families of The Mandatum present, “as I mentioned, there is a second proposal, and it is one which requires the approval of at least five of our Six families.”
Five of Six could only mean one of two things: a high profile assassination, or the induction of a Seventh family. If the Consul dissented, then it couldn’t happen. Was this the bloodshed Salvatore had mentioned earlier?
The gangster put his hat on the table, in front of the empty seat, and turned and nodded at one of his goons, who exited the room, returning with a man in a fine-tailored suit, with a black cloth sack draped over his face.
“Gentlemen of The Mandatum, submitted for your approval, I move that we fill the Seventh Chair. I present to you,” Salvatore removed the hood from the man’s head, recoiling imperceptibly at what would surely be a severe reaction to the man’s name and his…face. Two white eyes scanned the room from behind a terrible, glistening visage. A visage which was artfully carved into the form of a human skull, inlaid with golden Art Deco adornments, and dazzling white teeth set into the jaw. “Silvio Falcone.”
The eyes behind the skeletal mask moved to Sal, then back to the table. Though the mask was rigid, a careful observer could see that the man wearing it was smiling behind it.
“You are all, of course, well acquainted with the successes and failings of my family,” Silvio’s voice was articulate, barely muffled behind the mask. But it was straining, as if each word was a private suffering. “Although I represent my family’s greatest failure – my brother’s failed attempt to have me killed for matters of the heart – I am also their greatest success, because I alone carry on the bloodline of the most influential family in the history of Gotham’s underworld. ”
“Silvio, where have you been, all these years?” Gambino asked the question that he and four other awestruck leaders had on their minds. “And what is this on your face?”
“I’ve been biding my time, at home in Soriano Nel Cimino, preparing myself and my burgeoning organization for a turning of the tide. When my brother called for us, he didn’t know he was calling for me. As for my face, Giuliano – excuse me – Consul Giuliano, in the six years I spent abroad, I’ve had time to connect to my cultural roots, and have become, let’s say fascinated with the idea of the maschera, the elaborate masquerade balls of the Italian Renaissance. I began carving masks to while away the time. But none like this one. It stands as a tribute to the family who didn’t want me. It is my masterwork, painstakingly carved and polished from the lid of Vincenzo’s ebony casket, which I exhumed and desecrated weeks ago. The teeth were pulled from the very mouth that gave my brother the blessing to have me murdered.”
“Mio Dio, Salvatore, who have you brought to us? Silvio, what have you –”
“Actually, I’ve taken a new name, Consul Giuliano,” the last Falcone shot his cuffs, unfastening the gold and black skull cufflinks on his sleeves, and setting them down next to Sal’s hat. “I’d like you to call me Roman Scionis, or, if you prefer, ‘Black Mask.’”
“What is this?” Oswald objected, his face showing the determination of someone who’d just found the courage to insert himself into the discussion. “Are you another one of these supermen? The Bat tossed one of my guys into a dumpster two nights ago! How is this going to bring us peace?!”
Sal pinched the bridge of his nose. He had hoped that bringing Cobblepot into The Mandatum would ensure his support. And the portly, diminutive man didn’t look exactly normal, either. Leaning into the “Penguin” moniker helped him build his brand in Gotham, but it had obviously began as a pejorative.
“Before anyone gets their noodles twisted, let’s hear him out. As a Falcone – Black Mask is promised a seat at the table if he makes the stake. However, Mr. Scionis has a proposal for us; one that will drive toward the peace we all want to achieve.”
“I’m the last legitimate Falcone, and the only one who can rein in my brother’s operations. The same operations that are financing the Gotham Police. The same operations that have provided their commissioner with three hundred men who are already being paid with my inheritance.”
The newly confirmed Consul put a liver-spotted hand to his chin, stroking it in contemplation, then sighed, and gesticulated with both hands to spur Black Mask’s continued explanation.
“We’re going to compel the mayor to select another commissioner.”
“Gelio is well-connected, well-liked, and thanks to your family,” Cobblepot sounded emboldened, his words spilled out with smarmy agitation, “he’s well-paid. Even if we can cut off his workforce, how are you gonna keep Johnny from finding resources elsewhere, from the Governor, or the President, even?”
Black Mask laid a gold coin in front of his place at the table, with the face of Vittorio Emmanuele II, King of Sardinia, dated 1928. A 100 Lira coin that glittered like it had just been minted.
“I, Roman Scionis, of the Falcone family, major in good standing with The Mandatum,” Black Mask pulled a stiletto from within his coat, the wavy blade springing out like the striking of a viper. He pressed the tip of the blade into his thumb, letting a drop fall onto the coin, covering Vittorio’s face in blood, “hereby request your blessing to dispatch of an impediment to our peaceful coexistence.”
The switchblade was passed, first to Sal, who cut his index finger, dropping a drop of his own blood onto the coin. Then to Gambino, who pierced his middle finger, and around the table until the blade was handed to Cobblepot, whose furrowed brow held a pool of perspiration from his prodigious forehead.
“ You all took the fingers and palm, what am I supposed to cut?” he squawked.
“Your wrist, Oswald” answered Sal, “that is, if you’re voting with us.”
Oswald poked the underside of his wrist, careful to avoid the artery, and winced in pain.
“What am I authorizing with this vote?”
“It’s simple,” said Black Mask, the smile returned to his eyes, but it evaporated into the scowl of the ornate skull mask. He ran his fingers through the errant hairs that had crept over his face, sorting them back into place, “we uh, kill the commissioner.”
A drop of blood fell from Cobblepot’s wrist onto the coin, and the quorum of The Mandatum was adjourned.