So, cast off the shackles of yesterday!Sister suffragette • mary poppins
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters’ daughters will adore us
And they’ll sing in grateful chorus
“Well done! Well done!
“Well done Sister Suffragette!“
“Yiannis!” Lily nearly shouted at the Gotham City Police Commissioner, who was sitting across the table from her at their favorite table at The Emperor, a jazz club owned by Gotham’s most famous restaurateur, Oswald Cobblepot.
Johnny Gelio’s stupor faded in an instant, and his eyes focused on the beauty who looked as though she were annoyed and worried in equal measure.
“What’s wrong? Is something happening at work? You’re being more…distant than usual.”
The commissioner breathed a sharp sigh, and ran his fingers through his slick, thick hair. “Sorry, Lil’. I got the mayor on my case, and you know how much of a louse he is. I feel like I’m losing some of my most loyal guys because of the whole Henshaw debacle, which is becoming more and more tenuous each week. They haven’t stopped paying the agents, but the Italians have almost all left, to a man, and…this is boring you, isn’t it?”
Lily blinked, then looked away, saying nothing.
“Shucks, Lily, I just –– you were saying something about your program for poor women. And I completely sidetracked you by unloading about my day. Please, continue.”
“It’s alright John. I just worry about you, ya know? If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Why not get out of there? I have friends who I’m sure could get you into something better. Mr. Cobblepot is a funder, and a very wealthy man. All of his nice businesses? I bet he could use a Security Director or something? Or Alfred Pennyworth? He’s a funder on the ALICE project, too. And I bet Bruce would be thrilled to meet you.”
The thoughts flashed like lightning in Johnny’s mind. Oswald Cobblepot had been a petty confidence man in a past life, with some believing that he’d forged the birth certificate and identifying documents that allowed him to inherit the Tucker and Fay Cobblepot’s fortune. Sure, he was a respected businessman, but Johnny suspected that he was involved with the recently-resurrected organized crime rings that were appearing in fits and starts throughout the city. Not that Cobblepot was Johnny’s priority at the moment.
That distinction fell to Wayne, who Johnny believed was covering up an even bigger secret; a scandal which would shake Gotham to its very foundation, and one that would make “Johnny Gelio” a household name, held in the same esteem and respect as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot as world-famous detectives. Only Johnny was real, and not just a character in the pages of a story.
And, importantly, Johnny wasn’t just some bystander who made the police look like hopeless incompetents. Johnny was a police officer. Perhaps one of only one or two cops who took the business of solving mysteries seriously. Along with Gordon, they were the only police in Gotham who were believed to be “above corruption.” To just flush, out of hand, all of the information he’d been gathering on Wayne for a less stressful career?
You don’t become the top cop in the most corrupt city in America and expect it to be a walk in the park, Johnny thought. The visions of Wayne and Cobblepot swirled through Johnny’s imagination with imperceptible speed, and he offered Lily a sincere smile.
“I couldn’t ask you to do that Lily,” he said. “And before you say ‘I don’t have to ask,’ I mean that I knew what I was getting into when I decided to come home. Gotham is important to me, and I want to make sure things are moving in the right direction with a little bit of…momentum before I hand the hat off to Gor––someone else. Seriously. Tell me more about your project.”
“I was saying it’s a bit of a laugh to me,” Lily resumed her earlier train of thought. “I was giving Bruce a tour of the new distillation laboratory –– it’s where many of the, I think we’re calling them ‘laboratory fellows,’ who are participating in the ALICE program start out. Everyone thinks she wants to work with perfume until they get their first headache.”
Johnny chuckles politely.
“In any case, Bruce and I had tea out behind Greenhouse 1, and I asked him a simple question. I wasn’t prodding about getting more funding for the ALICE project or anything like that, I just wanted to see if he would be consistent, because he so often is. I asked Bruce Wayne, the billionaire playboy and some might say crown prince of Gotham––”
“––More like clown prince,” Johnny muttered. “All of his posturing toward helping the poor is phony. You don’t end poverty by making everyone poor. Americans, real Americans, tend to dream bigger. Sorry. Go on.”
“Well it’s funny that you mention that, because that’s exactly what I asked him,” Lily continued. “‘What is the best way to eliminate poverty?’”
“And what did he say?”
“He didn’t even have to think about it. I could tell it was something that was etched deeply into his being. Something he’d decided, or been taught, long ago. Bruce Wayne said: ‘Identify the people who are most poor, or the most likely to be poor, and pay them enough so they’re comfortable, not just surviving. Check in on them, be their safety net.’”
“Yeah, right, real genius of a friend ya got, Lil’.” Johnny rolled his eyes. “So I suppose the best way to keep vagrants off the streets is to give them a house? I can see the bums on the west side now, standing in line for a house that they would just end up hocking for another pipe dream.”
“Well, from a utilitarian perspective,” Lily went on, “Wayne is taking the long way round, but he’s not strictly wrong. Let me tell you what I told him next, and see if it changes your mind at all. Did you know that part of Harriet’s research showed that poor children are more than twenty times as likely to grow into poor adults than their middle class counterparts?”
“I didn’t, but that has the ring of truth,” Johnny said.
“So knowing that what do you think is the best way to end poverty?”
Johnny didn’t answer immediately, instead trying to think about the problem instead of just jumping to obvious solutions that took priority in his mind for reasons that might or might not be part of any useful heuristic.
But after almost an entire minute of thinking, it just felt so obvious:
“Take poor children away from their parents. Crack down on the kids playing hooky with more truancy patrols. That’s how you do it. I’d bet that poor kids are much more likely to be truants. People who become successful in life know the value of a good educational foundation.”
“Possibly, but you’re thinking too small. What if we wanted to end poverty?”
“I don’t know Lily, the answers coming to me seem pretty terrifying.”
“Well if you wanted to end poverty, and you weren’t constrained by morality, you might kill everyone below a certain income threshold. But when I think back to how me and my sisters grew up; we’d all be dead if that’d happened.”
Johnny had not thought about Althea or Cassandra in a long time. At least not in the way that he was now. Althea had left him and ma a lifetime ago. Cassandra was gone even longer. His family had been pulled apart like the cluster of seeds in Persephone’s pomegranate. And not a drop of honey to be found. With Ma ready to go any day now (Johnny didn’t know how or why she was hanging on so rigorously), they basically were all dead.
“Nothing as grim as that, John,” Lily shook her head, and her fiery red hair twirled across her shoulders with all the bounce and balance of a ballerina’s tutu. “But what if they stopped having children?”
“I suppose if the poor just stopped having children, it would end poverty inside of a generation. But you want the government to tell people they can or can’t have kids? What are you talking about? Forced sterilization?”
“No. That’s barbaric, John. We shouldn’t be stripping people of their right to have children without their explicit consent. I don’t even think that the Virginia law can be justified; if someone is confined to an institution, they aren’t at a risk of reproducing in the first place. I know an epileptic, and you couldn’t meet a nicer, kinder woman.
“What I’m talking about is incentives, John. Make it attractive for women or men to consentually commit to not having children until they cross a certain barrier. A goal of annual salary that would insulate against their children being poor. That’s the American Dream, in it’s purest sense; paving the way for the downtrodden and unlucky to become successful. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if your boots are falling apart. And for a few years of birth control, we’ll give you new boots whenever you need them.”
“So you pay people to promise not to have children? So what happens when they break that promise? Don’t tell me you’re naive enough to believe that poor people aren’t…” Johnny whispers the next words, “having sex because of some promise. Isn’t that much worse for them if that income goes away when they do have a child? Doesn’t that all but guarantee that the kids end up like the Newsboy Legion? Camping in parks and crowding the boarding houses across the city?”
“You reward them for medical prevention. Temporary sterilization. Birth Control, administered by a physician or a nurse. As long as they come in for their shot every three months, they continue to get paid. And you make it as easy as possible for them to get those shots. Put it at the infirmary in the workplace,” Lily stopped, and a broad smile lit up her face. “It will create a revolution of women in the workplace. Women…starting businesses. Women trading stocks and pursuing higher education. We can pin an incentive to anything.”
“ I thought it was about jobs, Lil’. Is this what the ALICE project is doing?”
“How difficult do you think it is for a pregnant woman to find a job, John? What about keeping a job? Liberal societies have an obligation to encourage wide adoption of policies which increase the health and wealth of the next generation. What could do more to guarantee the enthusiastic participation of the people who are most likely to be anchors around the neck of our country?”
“You didn’t answer the question.”
“I did. Our ALICE program gives women jobs, regardless of whether they’re pregnant. But we also offer them a bonus, in the form of a monthly stipend, to commit to temporary infertility.”
“Do your funders know that you’re doing this?”
“Of course not. The Comstock laws are very explicit in what is allowed to be mailed or shared publicly. It would be illegal to invite people to join the program under the pretense of birth control,” Lily held out her wrists, letting her hands hang limp. “I’m afraid you won’t be able to arrest me for this, commissioner. Our attorneys assured us this is all within the confines of the law. But the next step does involve lobbying congress to change those laws. It may take years, but each year just means more information, more data that supports giving women the necessary information to make the best decisions for our own lives.”
“And what about the children who are already here? I’m sure the country has Newsboys Legions in every major city. How do we help the little boys who, right now, are on pace to grow up to be thugs for men like Sal Maroni? Or the little girls who end up as street walkers? There ain’t enough gold in Fort Knox to pay for all of them!”
“There’s not an elegant solution in the immediate term. I do believe that we should see to it that the youths are fed, housed, and learned,” Lily sighed. “However, as you are aware, I personally object to children on environmental grounds more than for reasons of eliminating poverty. Setting a good example with the ALICE program is a capital way to encourage other major cities to adopt such a program. And we know it’s something that President Roosevelt is, at least, philosophically aligned with.”
Johnny chewed on his steak, then stabbed a green bean with his fork. He wasn’t actually hungry, but he knew that he needed to eat something. Giving people a choice seemed to him like it was fair, though he was in the position to reserve judgment until he saw the results.
“Excuse me, Lily,” Johnny wiped his mouth with the cloth napkin, masking an unavoidable spasm on the right side of his face. “Need to use the restroom.”
In the lounge area of the men’s room, men in tailed tuxedos attended to the vices of some of Gotham’s most influential elites.
“A cigarette, or a bourbon, perhaps, Commissioner Gelio?”
“No, thank you,” Johnny answered, slipping fifty cents into the man’s gloved hand.
Johnny’s hands tingled, and felt colder than was appropriate for the temperature of the room. He smelled them. Peppermint. Lily probably furnished the soap, now that he was thinking about it.
The maître d’ helped Lily with her jacket, and the doorman opened the door for her and the commissioner. Johnny handed each man a silver dollar coin in turn, almost fumbling the doorman’s tip, and shaking his hands, agitatedly, to scare off the relentless tingle.
“You provide the soaps here? I think you may have gone overboard with the mint, Lil’.”
“Mint?” Lily asked in reply.
The car pulled to an arresting halt on the cobblestones in front of them, and the valet got out of the driver’s side, leaving the car running and the door ajar. Johnny stepped forward to open the passenger door for Lily, but it sprang open seemingly of its own volition.
A man in a black three-piece suit with metallic gold pinstripes that were more tasteful than gaudy emerged from behind the door.
His face was polished ebony with veins of 24 karat gold arranged in hard lines that didn’t follow the structure of his facial “bones,” instead looking like an artist’s depiction of a high rise building. And teeth. Human teeth set in an expressionless skull which conveyed a feeling of emptiness. The black eyes didn’t blink, and looked directly into Johnny’s. Commissioner Gelio reached for his piece, applying more deliberate grip than he usually had to.
“Sorry to disturb you on your night out, Johnny,” said Black Mask, before firing two shots into the Gotham City police commissioner.
Johnny managed to return three slugs, but they only hit the side of his car, his aim impacted by his numb hands and the tears in his eyes.
A second car screeched to a stop, clipping the commissioner’s open driver door as it did, and Black Mask adjusted his cufflinks before getting in and slamming the door.
The car screamed into the night.
Lilian Rose tried to catch Johnny as he collapsed on the low curb, but his unusual dimensions made him unwieldy, and she only managed to slow his fall.
“Call an ambulance!” Lily called out. Johnny’s eyelids were fluttering, and she slapped him in the face to keep him awake and focused on her. “The commissioner has been shot! Call the paramedics, you nitwits!”
The doorman took the initiative, arriving at Lily and Johnny’s side as a chorus of sirens sang in the distance.