Table of ContentsChapter 1: Bailamos
It was not the weather that seemed to cast a pall of gloom over the city; no, Gotham City never seemed to need the elements' help to achieve that effect. It seemed to have an atmosphere of desolation all its own, come rain or shine. Was it the city's distinct aesthetic — an eclectic blend of old Gothic cathedrals and Art Deco skyscrapers — or was it something more ephemeral? No one could say.
The sun dipped into the evening and the skies burned, a moody red and orange with just a hint of purple. A cold autumn wind was blowing, kicking up the litter that lay strewn on the streets. The streets seemed to empty themselves — and with good reason; it was not safe to walk the streets of Gotham after dark. There were things that went bump in the night.
A black Cadillac DTS limousine pulled off 34th Avenue into an Old Gotham parking lot and came to a halt. The chauffeur came about and opened the car door, bringing his heels together with a click as Oswald Cobblepot emerged from the aft compartment, donning his black silk top hat with a Churchillian scowl. Cobblepot was not a good-looking man; he was short and portly, with thinning black hair that had long-since receded from his forehead, a long aquiline nose and a somewhat peculiar gait that had often been uncharitably described as a waddle. It was with good reason he was known — near universally — as the Penguin.
His black umbrella — as permanent a fixture of his wardrobe as the monocle screwed into his right eye socket — tapped a steady rhythm as he walked toward the door, trailing two bodyguards. Another small group appeared at about the same time, led by a tall man in a striking black and white trenchcoat. Striking, because it was bifurcated down the middle: Black on the left, white on the right. Striking, but not as striking as the man's face, lean, flawless and handsome on the right, and hideously scarred on the left. If there was a good reason for Cobblepot's nom de guerre, there was an even better one for Harvey Dent's.
"Two-Face," the Penguin said, nodding in greeting. There was a peculiar bond among some of the more colorful elements of Gotham's criminal underground; a sort of thrawn camaraderie that united them. Some of them could even be described as friends.
"Gonna be a cold winter," Two-Face said, turning up his coat's collar. Even his leather gloves yielded to his obsession with duality. His black fedora wasn't bichromatic, but it did sport a white silk band, just for good measure.
"All the more reason to feather one's nest," answered the shorter man, drawing a long draught of smoke from the cigarette jutting from the long black holder fixed between his teeth.
Two-Face snorted and flipped the double-headed silver dollar in his right hand. He'd long ago mastered the skill of flipping it even while wearing gloves. A small victory for obsessive-compulsive disorder. He watched its gleaming, glittering flight and descent with rapt attention. What would it be? Virgin, whore? Compassion, cruelty? What face would justice wear? Pristine and merciful? Scarred and draconian? It always fascinated him, how Chance — the most impartial judge of all — could decide between civilization and barbarism. When you got down to it, after all, weren't they just two sides of the same coin?
"On the plains of hesitation lie the blackened bones of countless millions," the Penguin quoted, scowling again, "who at the dawn of victory lay down to rest, and in resting died
Two-Face snorted. "Thank you, Adlai. What, no Shakespeare? 'Screw your courage to the sticking place and we'll not fail' too cliché?"
The Penguin's face seemed made to scowl. The cigarette holder made a soft clicking noise as it shifted from one side of his mouth to the other. He gestured to the door with his umbrella. By mutual agreement the two men moved forward, their bodyguards trailing behind a respectful distance. As he drew nearer to the door, it opened, a thin-mustachioed man in a cheap-looking suit stepping out to greet him. They were the last to arrive.
Inside the guests milled about uncomfortably, the smoke in the air almost as thick as the suspicion. Business in Gotham had settled down okay for the first six months or so after the war, but things were tense again and looking to get worse. The new capo di tutti capi
— he'd actually insisted on using the title — had discovered that his grip on the business wasn't quite as solid as he'd thought. Sure, he'd absorbed the Odessa, the Escabedo Cartel, the Lucky Hand Triad, the Gotham Yakuza, and Scarface's syndicate, but despite what the media reported, that hardly made him the overlord of all
Gotham organized crime. The Arañas (formerly the Latino Unified Gang), the Hill Gang, the Five Families, and the Burnley Town Massive remained outside of his control. And then there were the rather more dangerous outfits like those belonging to the Penguin, the Great White Shark, and Two-Face. Things could get ugly.
That was the purpose of this meeting. The most powerful crime lords still operating in the city had been invited to a conference to reach a settlement. Unlike last time, this one was very clearly arranged. There would be no repeat of the disaster that had brought about the war.
"Gents," said a rough voice in the accent of a 1930s movie gangster, "please follow me."
He was a familiar face to the few bosses who'd survived the war. A timid-looking man with thinning white hair and thick glasses, always dressed conservatively in a dark suit with a black bowtie, always holding a wooden puppet decked out in a blue zoot suit with a white fedora and a miniature Tommy gun. The man's name was Arnold Wesker, but his
name wasn't what was really important. Wesker was a mediocre ventriloquist whose dissociative identity disorder was even more severe than Two-Face's; it was the dummy in his arms that really mattered. Called Scarface for reasons every bit as obvious as Two-Face's and Penguin's monikers — namely, the stylized scar running down the dummy's right cheek — , the Ventriloquist's fetish had long acted as boss of his own outfit. These days he was first lieutenant to the new boss of bosses.
The guests followed after him, leaving their bodyguards behind as they trailed into the handsomely appointed conference room. Scarface set the example by checking his Tommy gun at the door — miniature though it may be, there was no one present who kidded himself that it wouldn't put ten grams in you if you were on the business end. Two-Face shrugged and handed over both of his custom-made .45 automatics, one gleaming chrome with ivory finish, the other dull black with ebony. Nobody ever accused him of lacking style. The Penguin offered only a scowl when one of the doormen insisted on taking his umbrella. Plenty of men had gotten nasty surprises from the Penguin's favorite accessory.
"Welcome, gentlemen," said their host, Roman Sionis, seated at the head of the conference table. He had his chair pushed back with his feet up on the table, a cigar in his white-gloved hand, ash falling carelessly on the expensive carpet. Despite his wealth and power, he'd never been able to dispel the air of the thug that hung about him almost more stubbornly than the smoke. His suit was well-made, but something about him always made it look cheap, like he'd found it for a hundred dollars off the rack somewhere. He was quite possibly the only man in Gotham who could look at Harvey Dent and say how well he'd kept his looks. Sionis was so horrifically disfigured, so badly scarred and mutilated that most people thought his soubriquet "The Black Mask" referred to his face.
The chair to his right was empty, meant no doubt for Scarface and the Ventriloquist. To his left was seated his second lieutenant, Alexandra Kosov, the former head of the Russians' Odessa Mob; she'd been the first boss to join the Black Mask during the war. Her rank relative to Scarface was a matter of seniority, not a question of ruthlessness or power. She may have been a relative newcomer to the big table, but she'd more than shown in the past year that she was ready and able to play in the big leagues — even if her jeweled false eye and expensive business suit were not quite as exotic as some of Gotham's more colorful criminals.
Seated next to Kosov, hands steepled in front of him and grinning like a Cheshire cat, was Black Mask's chief enforcer, the ill-favored Jervis Tetch, dressed as always in a strangely proportioned top coat and oversized bowtie. From his large teeth thrust forward by his prominent overbite to his broad, beaklike nose, to his sandy, unruly hair, to his black top hat pinned with a large note marked "10/6," Tetch looked every inch the Mad Hatter. The fact that he was both psychotic and the Eastern seaboard's foremost master of mind control did nothing to dispel the air of bizarre menace about him.
Only one bodyguard stood in the room, near the curtained windows, a tall man with a thick mustache.
"Please, please, have a seat," said the Black Mask, his voice like fingernails on a chalk board. The damage to his lips and throat had left him unpleasant to hear as well as to see. "I bet you all know precisely why I've invited you here, so let's cut to the chase, eh? Nobody here wants another war. War is bad for business. Every soldier out fighting is a soldier not attending to business. Loss of revenues. Nasty. But I don't have to tell you boys that, do I?"
He was gloating. Reminding everyone who'd come out the big winner in the last war, reminding everyone of the loss of people, the loss of property, the loss of money. The Black Mask had lost nothing at all in the war, and quite a few of his guests were the third or fourth to take over their outfits since the war had started.
The meeting continued in much the same vein. The host went down each side of the table, reminded each of his guests of his or her vulnerabilities. Nobody wanted a war, after all. He pointed out the advantages of rearranging their affairs. It wasn't so much a meeting as it was a sales pitch, and even that with a certain unstated threat behind it.
The Penguin glanced at his pocket watch and grunted. The Black Mask turned, annoyed. "Am I boring you, Cobblepot?"
"My dear fellow," the Penguin said languidly, pausing to draw a long draught from his cigarette and exhaling leisurely, "your amateurish antics have been boring me since you last reared your ugly head yet again."
"What the hell did you just to me, fat man?" Black Mask's mangled lips drew back into a snarl. "I'll have your guts for garters for that, you old — " He reached under the table to grab for the pistol he'd hidden there —
— and found nothing. "What the hell?"
"A conference," Two-Face snorted. "To iron out our differences. Not another power grab at all."
"My little girl died in the war," said one of the other bosses, the head of the Five Families. "And you really think I'm going to sit here and listen to you threaten me again?"
"Nobody threatens Mr. Scarface and gets away with it," added the supposedly faithful Ventriloquist, a frown on his face. .
The Black Mask was no fool; he knew the look of a plot when he saw one. So Scarface was a traitor, was he? Well, that was fine. The Black Mask knew how to deal with traitors. "So that's how you boys want to play it, eh? Fine by me — " he looked at his enforcer and snapped.
The Mad Hatter grinned at him. "Oh, I've got something special in store for tonight," he said. "I arranged with our friend in Arkham to let our last guest come join the party."
The Black Mask frowned. He hadn't told the Hatter to arrange any deals with the Great White Shark. Nobody was supposed to come out of Arkham; he liked keeping those lunatics in their padded cells where they stayed out of his way. Unless...
... unless the Mad Hatter was a traitor, too.
"Will you, won't you," the Mad Hatter said loudly in a sing-song voice. "Will you, won't you? Will you, won't you — "
Somebody started laughing, a low noise that changed timbre as it grew louder. The bodyguard near the window made a gargling noise and slumped to the ground as the laughter's owner stepped out from behind the curtain. His clothes were clearly tailor-made, cut along classic lines from expensive material but colored in a jarring mishmash of purple, orange, and blue, giving the whole ensemble a kind of bizarre elegance. His skin was chalk white, his hair green, his eyes coal-black and cruel; his ruby lips twisted into a rictus grin as he fixed the Black Mask with a predatory glare.
"— won't you join the dance?"