As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.Henry hill • goodfellas
To me being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.
Even before I first wandered into the cabstand for an after-school job I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew I belonged.
To me, it meant being somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies. They weren’t like anybody else. They did whatever they wanted.
THE DEVIL YOU DON’T
Rose Botanichemical’s cosmetics division was staffed by overqualified chemists. In a just world, they would be developing pharmaceuticals full-time, but as it stood, their research and development was primarily centered around extracting and synthesizing research chemicals.
Dr. Harriet Isley had provided the tour of the new facilities, which included training facilities, an infirmary, a laboratory greenhouse, on-site office space, a warehouse (“It’s just for storage, and unfortunately, I don’t seem to have the key!”) and a new distillery.
Dr. Lilian Rose, the company’s president and (by way of her father’s death) namesake was unable to be present for the tour, as an urgent matter demanding her specific expertise had arose in Washington D.C. She was confident in Harriet’s competence; the young chemist was earning back Lily’s trust –– even if Dr. Isley’s decision to let some of the ALICE participants domicile on site had been more careless than Lily was strictly comfortable with.
The jaunt to the nation’s capital was a for-fee consultation that would provide a large infusion of cash and potentially establish a partnership with a company looking to explore on some of Rose Botanichemical’s extraction and delivery techniques for human pharmaceutical research.
“Welcome to Cadmus, Doctor Rose,” a tall, olive-complected woman greeted Lily with a handshake and a smile that looked like it was rehearsed. Somehow uncannily natural and artificial at once. “I’m Regina Augustine, I trust your travel was pleasant?”
“A pleasure to meet you Docto ––“
“Just Regina is fine,” the woman corrected. “Please follow me.”
Regina led Lily through a harshly-lit prep room passing and describing work being done on the other side of glass panels. At the end of the corridor, they both donned safety goggles and lab coats, and Lily pulled her bouncy red hair into a bun that wasn’t quite as tight as her host’s, but that would do for all but the most volatile lab work.
“I apologize for the cloak and dagger,” said Regina, escorting Lily into a smaller lab bathed in the blood-red light of a darkroom. “But this project is very ‘hush hush,’ and our client is trying to keep a very tight lid on things.”
“I understand,” Lily said, taking stock of the room and altogether failing to divine what it was that Cadmus was trying to accomplish here.
Mercy Graves (as Regina Augustine) had sixteen test tubes in a wooden rack on her desk, each with a label describing the clear or slightly-yellow liquid within. She invited Lily to sit down, and lowered the lights and closed the blinds before taking her seat. Mercy produced a key from – somewhere – and unlocked a drawer in the desk, removing something like a dull metal cigar box.
Mercy unlocked the box and with the care of a scientist handling extraordinarily dangerous materials, removed a trio of closed Petri dishes which contained minerals – crystals – which glowed an eerie green in the low light of the office.
“This is PU-356, Dr. Rose,” Mercy said. “It’s a semi-crystalline composite with interesting properties which our client – the United States Department of War – believe could be used as a sort of inoculation for our soldiers.”
“Is it safe?” Lily asked, and Mercy knew it was more of a test than a question. The woman was trying to determine Regina’s competence with novel materials.
“‘Safe’ is not a word we use at this stage of research, Doctor Rose. We would describe this as sufficiently stable with benefits that far surpass the risks of moving to the next stage of experimentation. I can tell you that, aside from light, it does not radiation using any device that we use to measure such things, and none of its constituent elements are known to be radioactive.”
“May I?” Dr. Rose inclined a hand toward the dishes, inspecting them carefully before putting them back on the desk. “This one is synthetic?” Lily indicated the sample with the highest clarity.
“I’m afraid I’m not a mineralogist. I’m not completely lost with this stuff, but I have to think that there was someone better than me to consult on this project.”
“We have some of the most experienced and some of the most promising specialists working on this. But we’re at an impasse for delivery. Our human trials can’t even begin in earnest, because we haven’t found a way to maintain PU-356’s properties with any of the methods we’ve tried.”
“And those methods are?”
“Powdering and then dissolving in acids, dissolving in alcohol. Dissolving in alcohol, then distilling into a concentrate, then using a carrier oil to deliver an injection intramuscularly. In nearly all cases, the PU-356 stops glowing as soon as there is less than about one point two five grams of the substance,” Mercy rattled off the list from memory – she hadn’t actually participated in any of this research, and most of it had taken place at S.T.A.R. Labs in the midwest. Cadmus was an ephemeral project, one that could end up as a permanent installation, but not in its current form. It was staffed almost exclusively by criminals. Yes, they were the kinds of criminals who could be conveniently classified as “mad scientists,” but Cadmus was only legitimate on paper. Anything beyond a trivial amount of scrutiny was likely to expose it as a front for something. For the time being, Cadmus was simply a non-integral part of the triage network to “try anything, no matter how impractical.”
“I’m sorry, I find myself a little confused,” Lily said. “What interesting properties has the Department of War observed that suggest this is something worth pursuing in the first place?”
Mercy smiled. “I can’t really be more specific than that Dr. Rose, but I can say that the average person would be completely nonplussed to learn how much money is being spent to pursue experiments like ours in labs across the country. ‘A spectre is haunting Europe,’ after all.”
It was a diversion, but one that Mercy expected to suffice. A growing number of learned people believed that the Federal Government operated wastefully, and in silos. The slogan “your tax dollars at work!” only mollified the least curious of people.
“I have some ideas,” Lily said after a pause. “First and foremost, have you tried aerosolizing it, using a mild solvent and a large crystal?”
Mercy started scribbling. She didn’t know everything that had been tried, but leave it to a perfumer to suggest a spray, and leave it to a stable of men not to have thought of it.
“Or even putting a shard that weighs exactly one point two five grams into a gelatin capsule and having the subjects ingest it?”
Mercy continued writing things down. After almost an hour, she’d filled an entire notebook with Lily’s suggestions, including substances which might assist in the delivery of PU-356 –– Kryptonite –– directly to the bloodstream.
“Regina, I wanted to circle back on something. You said ‘inoculation.’ Against what?”
“Against Death, Doctor Rose.”
Batman threw a grapnel cable down from his vantage point on the roof of the Owlcourt Insurance Company rooftop to the rooftop of the Blackgate Penitentiary, finding purchase and tying the cable off on the roof access door. Using a handheld pulley grip that he aligned and secured to the rope, he zipped down to the prison’s roof, stopping himself by bracing his boots against a ventilation chimney.
Faster than I expected, he thought. The device had a brake of sorts; by squeezing harder the friction would slow down his momentum, but he wasn’t as confident in the cable’s ability to withstand much friction, and this was his first time field testing the gadget. He used another cord to prepare an escape from the rooftop and momentarily reflected on the convenience of Superman’s biological flight.
He reviewed the floor plan of the prison in his mind’s eye, and moved into the correct ventilation shaft (the third in the column), using another rope to descend at speed before putting the braking squeeze to the test and stopping before hitting the “floor” of the shaft. The floor was, in actuality, the register’s vent (which would’ve crashed to the actual floor if the brake hadn’t stopped him). Instead, it was secured by a loop in the cable which was then passed through its slats before being removed, hanging with minimal movement about six inches below where it should be. That could change if the fans came on, but it would do for now. To Batman’s west was the guard’s station; to his east were a collection of general-population cell blocks – and the one he needed was cell block four.
The clock on the wall read 12:06, meaning he had at least twenty-four minutes until another patrol – if the guards were even making the patrols. Graveyard at Blackgate was the shift that corrections officers requested, as things tended to be quiet. He considered laying out a carpet of his fog bombs in the event he needed to make a hassled exit, but that would mean having a mess to clean up if everything went as planned.
Billy Overlea was alone in his cell. He couldn’t sleep, not that sleep had come easy to him since he’d lost Arnold, followed not long after by Etta. He didn’t have anyone left, and so he’d decided to pick up a second job at the Iceberg Lounge. He thought it would lead to opportunities to meet new people, especially people who could keep his bed warm, but his competence and charm drew the attention of the club’s owner instead.
Private Security was how it started. It was more money than he’d ever made working for Wayne, and it was a much easier gig. Mr. Cobblepot was generous, providing Billy with a rent-free apartment on the park in addition to his considerable salary. He’d only had to rough up one guy since taking on the new role; something Billy chalked up to Oswald being paranoid, or narcissistic, or maybe he just liked the social cache that came along with having a bodyguard. Just when things were beginning to feel solid again, the floor gave out.
He’d stopped going to church, but he believed that he knew a devil when he saw one. Billy first saw Black Mask after the latter had demanded repayment of a favor with Oswald. He had trouble reconciling anything about the man – his unnerving calm, the decadent mask of terrifying visage (which, if rumor were to be believed, was made from his own father’s coffin), and the way he kept a silent child with him so frequently, dressing the boy in a matching suit.
Billy didn’t know why he took the first job. Or the second, or the third. Cobblepot had given him the choice, even if he felt like it might not be a real one. By the night of the heist at the Black and White Gala, Billy had worked for Black Mask for almost a dozen jobs.
Mostly they were shakedowns – intimidation and occasional broken fingers to call in debts from Black Mask’s sports books and numbers games. The last handful though, Black Mask had come along. On those jobs, somebody always died. Billy had gotten into some trouble for competing in bareknuckle fights run by the old Mandatum when he was a younger man. He wasn’t sure he’d killed that kid back when they were both nineteen or so, but only because he never looked for an obituary or grave. Never sought out the family, if the kid even had one. Regardless of what happened to that young man, Billy wasn’t a killer. Not by intention or by trade. He didn’t think he was growing numb to the feeling of losing his wife and son, and he always winced when he heard the gunshots (which never seemed to be heralded by anything but maybe a panicked shout).
Flashes of the conversation with Black Mask came through in vivid detail.
“I know it’s none of my business, but I worry about what Luigi is seeing at that age…”
“I appreciate your candor, Billy. I want you to know this is a place where honesty is valued.”
“My son – Arnold – he wasn’t much older when Tetch got to him…”
“One moment, Billy.”
He remembered the way the boy whispered into Scionis’s ear. Something about the way his eyes met Billy’s as Luigi told his secret, made Billy feel like Black Mask was smiling beneath his grim façade.
And now, here he was. In Black Gate. He wasn’t going to be the one to turn canary on Black Mask. He’d been in worse places than here, and cutting a deal would only mean freedom until the Mandatum killed him. It wasn’t loyalty that kept Billy from talking, it was fear.
On clear nights like this, Billy wished he’d had his nip of amaro. Billy Overlea, a man who was built like a granite statue wasn’t feeling at home at all. He wished he had a window that would open, and a crate to sit on. But there was no sound tonight, just a feeling like the 6×8 cell had become a little cooler. As though the moon and starlight had left the sky. Billy looked toward the bars of his cage, and he stood up.
“I told the police I ain’t talkin’,” he spoke to the stale air of the prison.
“I’m not the police, Billy,” the stale air of the prison whispered back. “I can protect you.”
“Can you? Everyone in here is Mandatum. I don’t know who saw you or who’s listening right now.”
“No one saw anything. I can get you into a jobs program. Back into your old house. Or somewhere else. You’ve turned your life around before, you could do it again.”
Billy thought for a while, feeling for the phantom bottle that was calling him from what felt like a lifetime ago.
One day you’ll have to clean up this mess, he thought. Might as well be today.
“A man calling himself ‘Black Mask’ was behind the attempts at the gala,” Batman hissed. “I want to know more about his operation. His ward is always with him, a child. A hostage. Tell me about the boy.”
Billy sat down again, holding his head in his hands.
“Luigi. I’ve been in the same room as him a lot, but I couldn’t tell you much about him. The kid only speaks in whispers, and only to the Black Mask. Sometimes he might point.”
“He dresses just like Black Mask, except he doesn’t cover his face. There’s a scar there, see, a harelip. And he’s small. Real small. Black Mask calls him his son. It doesn’t really seem like a hostage situation. But the kid gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
“Where are they?”
“They split time between the Falcone estate and a penthouse.”
“A penthouse apartment? In what building?”
“That’s right. At The Emperor. Used to be Mr. Cobblepot stayed there, but Black Mask kinda set up shop there. But it’s impossible to get in unless you work for him or Mr. Cobblepot.”
Silence passed between Billy and the Batman. Billy looked away from the darkness, feeling shame. Like he’d let down a ghost. The ghost of Arnold, and of Etta. The ghosts who helped him out of the bad spot he was in as a kid. The ghost of right now behind him.
He looked out his window and into the night.
“How are you gonna get me out of here?”
“Some very influential people owe me some favors.”
“Oh. So not tonight, then…”
Billy turned around, and Batman was gone.
Billy “Brickhouse” Overlea still knew a devil when he saw one, and he knew that weren’t no devil.
A few days later…
It happened faster than anyone could see. They said that Superman could react to lightning before seeing the flash. They said that he could catch the bullets from a dozen guns at once. He was, by any fair accounting, the single fastest thing to have ever been on Earth. The time between when he decided to do it and the time it was already done could have been measured in milliseconds. Later in the day, one lucky photographer would develop a picture of the exact moment that Superman landed his punch, so fast that it was a blur.
One moment Calhoun was taunting Superman, and the next Superman stood with a single fist held straight out in front of him. It was covered in blood. Calhoun’s head was spread out over the crowd, covering the reporters with bone and gore, and Calhoun’s body fell to the ground with a soft thud. Superman lowered his fist and then rose up into the sky, flying away from the shouted questions and the flashes of cameras.
Author’s Note: The last passage (the one which begins with ‘A few days later…’) is from chapter 10 of Alexander Wales’ “The Metropolitan Man,” the inspiration for The Gothamite. You can read that chapter (and the entire work) by clicking here.