Part 1: Chinatown
A Gotham wind blew that night, picking up a chalky-metal smell off the river that left a taste in your mouth like blood and toothpaste. It crystallized the air too, the traffic noise crackled. The distant sirens, the distant shouts, occasional horn, occasional gunshot. It made your scalp tingle under the hair, made your heart thump and kept your breathing shallow. Around midnight, anything could happen. Any drink with a pal could end in a fight; any fight in the swish of a blade. Women’s eyes would linger on their lovers’ throats and stroke the tang of a kitchen knife like they were petting a cat. Anything could happen.
My name is Malone. Matches Malone. Occupation: Thug. I’m not big into books. Especially the ones with supposed tough guys talking about Gotham, but that in my humble non book-swish opinion is the finest opening in literature. Red Snow by Mr. R. Q. Erchland. A real Gothamite from Hell’s Kitchen, like me. Not one of those posers with their fantasy tough guys doing ludicrously violent things and quipping corny one liners like a 90s action hero. The gaudier the banter the bigger the swish behind it, I always say. “I’m the goddamn Batman.” Heh. You know the guys that buy into that shit make the same fist they did on the playground. Show me a so-called man that thinks Batman drives a tank, I’ll show you a pussy that never took a punch.
I been up against it, you know. Batman. The real one. The fist. You don’t see it coming. He just asks you something and WHAM! the side of your face explodes. Then he asks again.
I’m still here. Lost me the sweetest gig I’ll ever have, but ol’ Matches never really cared for that costume crowd. All that gold leaf and fussiness at the Iceberg Lounge gives me a rash. Thing is, lotsa the right people know I came through a Bat-beating and that’s how I’m getting the money to get reestablished in the neighborhood.
The day began as usual when the combined noise and sunlight coming through the window wore its way through layers of sleep and alcohol, leaving an awareness of dry mouth and dull head-pounding the pussy boys call a hangover and a man calls waking up.
Dream hadn’t quite faded. A dark narrow alley, barely lit by the neon bleeding from the street. Feet running on wet pavement. Mine. I’d got this sweet tip ‘bout a box of Hong Kong Rolexes coming in and the guy supposed to pick it up for the Four Lotus Triad was going to be late. Not sure what he did to piss off King Snake, but he was getting the shit kicked out of him by five or six Ghost Dragons in the alley behind the Iceberg. So I took a little detour to the waterfront. Two guys with their hands full of crates. I picked up the watches without throwing more than six punches. Then there was a whoosh and a boomerang shaped like a flying rat hit the center of my forearm. I ran for six blocks trying to hold on to my score, ‘til I went into a skid outside Big Ed’s diner. Why he decided to empty out a week’s worth of grease on the sidewalk I couldn’t guess, but by the time I figured out the concrete was slick with the remnants of old burgers instead of rain, the box was flying from my hands and there was a second rainfall of very expensive (looking) Rolex knockoffs hitting Big Ed’s kitchen grease. The Cape was still after me, and I had to find a dark place to disappear before he caught up…
I got out of bed and downed two ibuprofen and a Tylenol with a swig from a silver flask, which turned out to be the last of the Jamie. I checked the cabinet to see what I had for a refill—Paddy, Redbreast, Powers, Green Spot—and decide on the last. As always, I thought of Gina when I filled her up. Best way to have a woman in your life: a monogrammed flask to remember the good times.
Coffee was next but I was out, so I threw on a shirt and headed to La Crema. It’s a depressing walk, but not as much as drinking the morning Green Spot straight. If I was some deep R. Q. Erchland thinker, I could build up the walk through the neighborhood into some big symbolic journey about Gotham and all the changes. Time was, Hell’s Kitchen belonged to the Westies and this whole block was run by Riley Doyle and his nephew Shane. They weren’t big shots. Doyle was a leg breaker and Shane did a little bookmaking. Not the kind of bosses who could use Maewyn's Pub or the Downpatrick like an office. They hung out. You could always find one or both on the street at this one spot: down the steps to a tattoo place in the basement, ground level was some kind of psychic. All gone now.
There’s Batman, of course, who is a factor across the board for guys trying to earn a living under the radar. There was the determination of the Latin Kings to introduce a drug trade, which the Westies were surprisingly effective keeping out. So much money though, you know that fight’s never over. Beat ‘em off today, you know they’ll try again down the line. Still, they were holding their own. When the Russians came, that was a different story. The Westies are not pussies by anybody’s definition. If they find a rat, they’ll put a bullet in his head. But the Ruskies? Those guys are brutal on a whole different level. They prefer slicing throats because it makes a gorier crime scene. They don’t stop with the rat. They’ll slice up his whole family. Maybe sell a daughter rather than kill her if she’s the right age. The Westies just aren’t in that league, and for survival, they wound up under Falcone’s thumb. That’s where things were when I came back to town. Downpatrick Crew was run by a guy called Marcuso. Heard when Falcone went down, he went in the river. Last seen exiting with a certain redhead I didn’t have the sense to stop lookin’ for.
So Doyle was caught in the sweeps the night Falcone went pop; doing a nickel in Blackgate. Shane moved to Washington Heights, not ‘cause the neighborhood is too hot now. Because it’s too expensive. Tourists and yups used to bleed in just a block or so from the theatre district into the row of chichi restaurants in the forties. But now? Hipsters and under-forty yups everywhere. Gay bars replacing the dives. Whiskey dens and sake bars replacing the rest. You have to be rich to get drunk here now.
La Crema is where that psychic used to be, serving up—I kid you not—nutella and strawberry crepes. I’m a local boy, and I don’t mind transplants and tourists in moderation, but waiting in a line of the rich, the young, the fabulous and the transplanted “queuing” for a cronut so I can spend $8.50 for a cuppa joe? It ain’t me.
Except this morning it was me. I took my coffee, made it Irish and decided not to notice one of the yups pointing out my flask to his buddy. Just sipped and… thought.
“Malone? Matches Malone? You look like shit, man.” It’s a standard greeting in a Gotham holding cell after midnight since it’s usually delivered to someone sporting a Bat-shiner and a fat lip. But all I’d suffered was the indignity of being tangled up in a Bat-line and hoisted up to swing by my knees like a gamey pheasant ‘til the donut patrol cut me down. I turned to the half-familiar voice. “It’s Raglan. From the Downpatrick Carpentry Club.”
“Oh shit, Jack Raglan,” I smiled, remembering the name.
“Shit, it is you. Can’t fecking believe it. You still look like something out of those old movies. Blue Dahlia. Postman Comes Knocking. Guys in hats. So whatcha doing here? What’d they get you on?”
“Nothing that’ll stick,” I grinned, choosing to ignore the slur upon my classic Malone style.
“Be careful they don’t try to stick you with anything extra. They’ll try that when they know you’re from The Kitchen,” he told me. “Haven’t seen you since that redhead you were looking for turned up at the Downpatrick. Man she was a RIDE, never seen anything like that in person ‘cept the time I saw the models coming out of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. OW! And they were all blondes. But that red, that is so smoking feek. Tell me that was real, man. Tell me the carpet matches the drapes.”
Not the conversation I expected to be having, but in a Gotham holding cell at three in the morning, Gina O’Malley’s carpeting was as good a way as any to pass the time.
“So whatever happened to her?” Raglan asked finally. “Heard that was a sit-down with the Joker that Marcuso took her to. She make it out?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I told him coldly.
“Damn. So not in touch?”
“Nah. Skipped town that very night. Did a little work for the McCory Brothers out of Metropolis. What’d I miss?”
“Well,” Raglan grinned. “Marcuso never came back that night you saw him take off with your redhead. There’s one story that whole ‘sitdown with the Joker’ was Carmine having him whacked. The Bat showed up and there’s Joker standing over his stiff grinning body. ‘Course sometimes those stories are just cover for disappearing into WITSEC. Not in his case, I think. WITSEC is when you cross your bosses and want to trade them to the Gs for a quick disappear. Didn’t seem the type...”
The first set of yups had finished their crepes and gone, replaced by a new pair also admiring my flask.
My flask is not fabulous and it did not come from the place downstairs. That’s the worst part of this neighborhood-going-hip situation. Something like a good Cuban cigar used to mean old Matches just got back from Miami, probably something to do with that Corderro job. Now it means I slipped something under the counter at one of the nine cigar shops between here and Maewyn's Pub. My flask was a gift from the hottest burning redhead that ever pulled The Fiddle Game, The Bogus Inventor and The Mummy’s Tiara in the same month. It did not come from some hoity-toity flea market that used to be Mick’s tattoos.
Since I wanted to get the hell out of there, I took my coffee and went downstairs to see what kind of stuff cronut-eating hipsters buy to go with designer pencil sharpeners and brass rulers. I’m pleased to say it wasn’t that bad. Guy behind the counter was no yup. He was a transplant—Star City, so bit of a lightweight—but with a little toughening up he could’ve been South Brooklyn or Northeast Queens. Did say something about my jacket being “vintage.” Not sure what that meant, but I figured he probably wanted a sale so I got a watchband. NATO strap 20mm issued from the British Ministry of Defense. $18 retail, $12 for a real HK Mick, son of the neighborhood that knows how to haggle and how to return a favor. Couldn’t make a deal on this sweet horn-handle knife though. $144 and wouldn’t budge a cent. Just ridiculous. Mighty nice weapon though, so I said I might go back after I make my rounds.
First stop was Bolo. The neighborhood might be almost as fab as Chelsea now, but you couldn’t tell by the man-to-gym ratio. There are a few “Health Clubs” with idiotically clean locker rooms and Mediterranean tile around the pool, but places like Bolo are still around for a man that wants to sweat, not find a date. It’s run by a guy called Guillem, who I’ll say right now I do not trust. Seen his name in some shady places, associated with some very shady people, and by shady I mean Latin Kings. But he’s also been a friend to the Westies, and I don’t know for sure he was part of the dirty deals. Could’ve just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. So the jury’s still out on Guillem, and I gave him a bill to put my notice up in the locker room. Simple ad offering “Boxing Lessons” written on an index card, tacked up with a batarang.
Nothing does the talking for you like a batarang.
See, everybody knows I had a good run a while back when Catwoman got herself made Queen of the Underworld. I was her bodyguard and general fixer until she took on Batman and Superman. (Ballsy broad, right?) Walked away clean as can be, and capes can get real pissy about that kind of thing. I wasn’t there at the time. I was flush and spending some time at the track in Yonkers. But from what I hear, Superman came crashing through her wall. She got away clean again. (What a broad, right?) She moved. Nobody wants a hideout with a big Superman-size hole in the side. Batman wanted some payback of his own. Couldn’t find her. Did find me. Wanted to know the location of her new lair and then the side of my face exploded.
It doesn’t sound like a good thing, but there are perks afterward. Like, I can walk into any pawn shop with a certain reputation, put a batarang on the counter and get anywhere from $150 to $450 no questions asked. I’ve been to nineteen pawn shops so far. Got a bag of knife blades on eBay that are sort of batwing-shaped, and a pad of decals from this tourist spot in the Square. Stick the one on the other and cha-ching, batarang! All that’s left is finding a pawn shop with the right level of sleaze. But not in The Kitchen. You don't cheat the pawnbrokers or the bail bondsmen in the neighborhood. The only batarang I put in circulation here is the one at Bolo’s offering lessons.
Now, it’s not like I’m the only guy to come through a Bat-attack, but I guess I’m the first one to monetize it. First couple lessons, I took home ninety bucks and paid Guillem ten. Word got around I knew my shit, and now I get a cool three hundred and Guillem gets twenty. For that, a guy gets a little jujitsu, kickboxing, judo. Whatever I feel like working on that day. Today’s student Skate did some wrestling in high school. Little sloppy in a closed guard, but a solid arm bar, fights like there’s something inside him trying to get out. Made for a decent workout. So I skipped the weights, went back to the yup flea market for the knife and swung by the digs for a couple more batarangs. And since I’d be gone for the day, I pulled a hair and slid it into place between the door and the doorframe.
My place is what they call Pre-War. That means it’s not a fucking closet. It was a tenement, sure, but there’s a living room big enough for a couch, chair and table, couple lamps and a big flat screen TV that absolutely did not come from Penguin’s guy Talon. Kitchen’s sort of attached to the living room, but it’s not an eyesore. No rats, tile floor. Fridge, stove, dishwasher, toaster and coffee maker, and a microwave that absolutely did not come from Penguin’s guy Crow. Good size bedroom, the real kind with a bed, not some fold out thing like a Riddler death trap. Full size bed with room to spare for nightstand, dresser, mirror. And again, no rats. There’s a cat that shows up on the fire escape now and then, that might explain the lack of rats. I’m on the top floor. Seventh. Bitch when the elevator craps out, but it doesn’t happen that often. I grabbed my batarangs and headed out.
Absolute worst part of living in The Kitchen is you have to go through Times Square to catch the train. Not the way to hold onto your appetite on the way to lunch, but what can you do? I stopped at the t-shirt place with all the Batman stuff—sign says they’re up to 964 days without a Joker-related incident—and I picked up another pack of decals for next week’s batarangs. Swiped a tourist’s VISA number to put an extra $40 on my MetroCard and catch my train.
On the platform there’s an ad for a TV show, some donut procedural with a big picture of a holding cell. Looks cleaner than the one where I met Raglan but with a lot more graffiti…
“…Eh, the neighborhood’s changed, man. Old Man Finn came outta retirement when the Falcones went down. Zero tolerance is back in force. One of the triads—Four Wo, I think it was—tried a few months back. They had this big shot, call em a ‘Red Pole,’ coming in from Macau. Finn went to meet him at the airport. Had us pick up a Chinese kid from that acting school on 44th. Put him in a chauffeur hat, holds a sign, big shot Red Pole gets in the car and there’s Old Man Finn sitting there, in person. Didn’t have him brought to the pub for a chat. Took him straight down to Chinatown to the address on Mosco where he was supposed to go. On the way, no threats, just had a little talk as they rode. Don’t know what was said, but Finn says the Chinese from over there, even the young punks, they have respect for a man of his years. Two days later, Red Pole flies out and wouldn’t you know it, Finn’s pub gets a delivery containing two of the dealer’s fingers and the meat cleaver that chopped them.”
That’s some serious respect and I said so. Then I asked about the rest of the Downpatrick crew, and Raglan said most of them were gone. Punchy, Dinny, Jimmy-P. Liam and Mitch were still around, both moved up with some kind of dark rivalry brewing between them.
“Guy was always a bollocks. Now it turns out he’s a greedy bollocks. And a scheming bollocks.”
It wasn’t clear which one he meant. All he’d say is he wound up working with Liam the most, on Finn’s orders, but hoped to avoid making an enemy of Mitch. And then he said “The guy you really want to watch out for is—” when the head donut called his name and it was all “looks like my number’s up, looks like I’m outta here,” chirping like a drunken sparrow.
I could’ve asked him who to watch out for, but there was something more important to get in before he skipped.
“So look, Raglan, if you and Liam ever need any help with any of that shit you got going on for Finn…”
“Sure man, look me up when you get out. It’ll be just like old times.”
And just like that, I was in…
The subway is not a place to go to get to know your fellow citizens, apart from their smell which can’t be avoided. It’s not a place to make eye contact, unless there’s a couple homeboys getting ready to start dancing. I gave them a look over the top of my glasses. Guy across the aisle did the same over the top of his Gotham Post. Headline read CATWOMAN: QUEEN OF THE UNDERWORLD. Heh, go figure. That was like a year ago. The homies moved to another car and me and Post-reader glanced at each other. It was a beautiful moment. Who says Gothamites can’t get along?
I reached into my jacket and took out a box of matches. Slid the cover open, one-handed, and curled two fingers in to extract a single matchstick and clamped it between my teeth. Across the aisle, Poster Boy seemed to be watching from the corner of his eye. After I put the box away, he kept looking. I figured he liked my jacket. But when I got up to leave, he asked if I was in Jersey Boys.
The first pawn shop of the day was A&N, that’s for Ann & Nino. Kinda place that rubes go to pawn a Rolex when they could go a few blocks north to the Diamond District and get a loan at half the interest. Ann’s a real loser. What they call a self-loathing bottom-feeder. That’s how she got stuck with the place when Nino skipped. Thinks everybody is as smalltime as she is and winds up driving off all the business worth having. Tells ‘em their diamond beveled watch is a fake and they think she’s trying to cheat ‘em. Truth is, she’s can’t recognize anything that’s above her level, which is just about everything. So I don’t mind dumping one of my hardware store batarangs on her. Headed to lunch with a nice roll: $300 from Bolo less 144 for the knife, 310 from A&N and 260 at this joint on 11th that doesn’t seem to have any name besides WE BUY GOLD. That comes to, uh… a nice roll.
I wouldn’t keep it eating close to home though. Like I said, you gotta be rich to get drunk in Hell’s Kitchen now. To get fed, you gotta be richer. So any halfway smart mook like me that wants to keep his roll for more amusing pursuits—and by amusing I mean fast-running ponies—heads to Chinatown. Best cheap eats in Gotham, as I found by accident. Y’see, old Matches likes a little action with his mid-day meal, and there was this waterfront bar on the East End that was my preferred spot for off-track betting. ‘Cept I go there last week and it’s all shiny brass and polished wood now, model boats too. And somethin’ called an “underground whiskey den.” Now that doesn’t sound so bad until you go down the stairs and they hand you a menu that starts off with beef carpaccio and lobster mac & cheese. Pumpkin risotto with aged goat cheese. Duck pappardelle—swear to God, duck pappardelle. I got the hell out of there, I can tell you. Did some poking around to find an alternative OTB and came up with one of the Triad-run clubs in Chinatown. There’s a poker game too, but I only sat down once or twice when the ponies were good to me. Anyway, that’s how I discovered the cheap eats.
Normally I get off near Mosco Street. You can’t go wrong at a place with a sign that says nothing but the one thing they sell, and at “Fried Dumplings” you get five of ‘em for a dollar and the dumpling lady quietly curses you out in Cantonese when you ask for a napkin. Cheap eats and a show. But today, I was starting to think I should update my look with something more than a new watchband. So I got off on Canal Street and hit the knockoffs. Chatted up the guys, like you do. Nigerians. Said a lot of the stuff comes through Hong Kong. Sure enough, I noticed a Ghost Dragons mark on their stall. These boys weren't paying protection to the triads; King Snake was paying for them. Had to be working for him, smuggling junk in the lining of the bags. [NW-G1]
Anyway, I came away with a new pair of Oliver Peoples shades—no one can say old Matches is a throwback now—and a rec for a closer place for lunch. The Nigerians pointed me to a place for “Fried Tiny Buns with Pork.” More like a soup dumpling, $5.25 for an order of eight—can’t beat that—and it took me right past this joint called White Dragon Curios. I remembered this guy from the Iceberg, went by Greg Brady, mentioned that place and so did the Demon guys at Vault. So I decided to look him up, but it was all closed up. Go figure. [NW-G2]
From there, I went to the club. This isn’t the kind of place with a name over the door. You turn into a certain alley between a beauty shop and a place selling used DVDs, past a food truck, past the garbage from Hop Kee and up some stairs that manage to look just as creepy in daylight as they do at night when there’s two triad toughs ready to pat you down instead of one. Again I reached into my pocket, served up a fresh match one-handed and started to chew.
Besides the elevated row of TVs to follow the ponies (and the two on the side for when there’s a ballgame) there are tables for players, the Russian girlfriend types (by-the-month pros, not by-the-hour) and waitresses that look just as good to me, circling with drinks that are only watered if you’re betting light. Black trays are for the poker tables, green for the ponies. Guys shooting pool must take what they can get. I made my way through the gauntlet of red good luck tassels that hung from half the lights, past the bar and a hulking bald Russian who was going to butt shoulders with me as he passed but thought the better of it at the last second.
Jiu Mei, who works the poker tables, spotted me and came over with a glass of Jamie. She’s good at her job, which you can tell by the splatter of chips on the side of her tray. That’s why the girls prefer working the tables. Players tip in chips and, if they want to intimidate the rest of the table, they tip big. Upholding the dignity of the ponies, I threw a large bill on her tray. Could’ve easily lifted one of the black chips to break even, but Jiu Mei’s a nice girl and besides, it’d be bad luck before the race.
A three year old from Wayne Farm called Just Us paid out three to one, and once I was playing with their money I had some fun on the next few races. Overheard some dirt from the Russians at the poker table. Not that I’m a great linguist or anything; trick is to listen for the words they have to say in English. The blonde trophy on the end was Ivana, didn’t say much but she belonged to Vasily, dark hair, ponytail, moustache and Ra’s al Ghul beard. Bare arms, but the tattoos started so low on each bicep that, from a distance, it looked like he was wearing a t-shirt. Vasily’s first turn in Blackgate was courtesy of Harvey Dent so he took a special interest in Two-Face, still missing since the night all hell broke loose in Robinson Park. Speculation was when he surfaced, it’d be in one of the secret bars called “law rooms.”
Pretentious crap. The shtick is, before full Prohibition, there was a law against the sale of alcohol on Sunday, except in hotels. Sunday was the only full day a working man had to himself for drinking at his favorite saloon, so the law and order pinheads thought they were pretty clever. Idiots. Saloons put in a couple of bedrooms upstairs and went on doing their thing. Most rooms were just for show, but the ones that were used, you can guess what they were used for. The new law rooms, it’s just a theme, natch. Speakeasy roleplay for yups: snooty doorman, trying desperately to pose as West Village underground hideaways, overpriced drinks with bitters and lime juice and egg whites. Hard to believe Two-Face would sink that low, but you never know with the theme types. [NW-G3]
The Russians sure seemed interested in them, though. Sasha—another Ra’s beard and dirty blonde, with very short hair receding fast; black short-sleave shirt revealing solid tats on both forearms—said Clayface and Poison Ivy were still missing too, and that was all they talked about through the next race. Every news outlet except the Gotham Post covered the standoff in Robinson Park after they attacked the Queen of the Night show. And everyone with Internet access agreed it was Catwoman’s fault. Judging by the sniggering, the Russians concurred, which left me feeling kinda sorry for my old boss. Ilya—dark brown hair that had to be dyed because his moustache and Ra’s beard were salt and pepper; sleeves rolled up to show a big naval tattoo on his left arm, a dainty mermaid on his right, and heavy Russian characters on every knuckle—was laughing the loudest. Turned out that joke was on Oswald Cobblepot more than Catwoman.
“Once a week I like to go down to that swanky club of his. Have a salmon-flavored vodka with KGBeast. I go last night and Cobblepot’s losing his mind because Gotham Post is saying Catwoman is queen of the underworld.”
“Wasn’t that more than a year ago?” asked Carl, the youngest with maybe two days of stubble (presumably grown to demonstrate he was old enough to shave.)
“Of course, that’s not point,” said Ilya. “Point is when Catwoman took over, she took his club.”
There was a round of the usual banter about what they wouldn’t mind her taking from them. Vasily said how funny it was, the Post running the story now when all the other media was piling on her. He wondered if they were trying to cheer her up.
Now I knew for a fact there was no love lost between Catwoman and the Post. The last thing on that newspaper’s mind is making the Cat-lady happy, so it’s possible I rolled my eyes just a little. But there’s no way they could’ve seen it behind my new Oliver Peoples, so I assume their switch to Westie topics was just a coincidence. I was preoccupied with a trifecta in the seventh race at Belmont so I didn’t hear the transition from Rogue chit-chat to The Kitchen. All I know is after I factored in the updated weather report, the scratch of Flavor of The Month and the jockey change on Finger’s Flame, I looked up from my ticket to find the “smart old coot” they were talking about was none other than Maewyn Finn.
“Practically invented money laundering,” Vasily was saying.
“For his little numbers rackets,” Sasha huffed. “Cargo theft, counterfeiting and little bit of extortion. Some loan sharking. How much can it be? He could never handle the numbers we do.”
“Did,” said Carl.
“Yes, did,” said Ilya. “Fucking ‘Oracle,’ that fucking government AI shut down an awful lot. We’re in worse shape now than before Falcone went down. [NW-G4] How’s that even possible?”
“We were stupid,” Vasily said simply, tossing in his hand. “That’s what I’ve been saying. Everyone but that smart old coot was stupid. Look who we were fighting to fill the vacuum left by the Roman’s drug trade: Mexicans, Colombians, Jamaicans and Triads. Think any of them could have taken over the unions? Those blue collars wouldn’t have accepted anyone but the lily white Irish or us. And we never thought of it. Now Finn’s got all those no-show jobs. It’s like a printing press for W2s.”
Since my Irish luck had held for three of four races, I had a stake to sit down and play for a bit. About half the gossip switched to English. None of it very exciting unless you’re abnormally interested in which sister at Shanayev in Brighton Beach became the mistress of a Forest Hills diamond cutter who barely gives her cab fare and which became the mistress of a big shot banker who put her up in a downtown penthouse. The Russian part wasn’t interesting unless you’re abnormally fluent in the jargon of arms dealing, [NW-G5, B1] cigarette smuggling, [NW-B2] health care fraud, credit card fraud and cybercrime.
After a couple of hours, they cleaned me out. Dinner would have to be as economical as lunch, so I headed for this Malaysian beef jerky shop and got a bundle to take home—when all of a sudden Vasily and Carl were behind me, Carl’s fist tapped ever so lightly where you’d deliver a blood-pisser of a kidney punch while Vasily cranked my arm behind my back and steered me out. He also took my jerky.
In the alley outside, I was unceremoniously shoved into the wall, with Carl’s fist waiting to ram into my gut as I turned. I knew it was coming, could’ve blocked it. But it’d only delay the conversation. Since I walked out a loser and not a winner, this had to be the start of a conversation. I hoped.
“The fuck? You guys already cleaned me out,” I said once I took the hit and doubled over.
“You were listening before you joined the game,” Sasha said, while Carl wound up to strike again. It was going to be a shitty punch. A downward strike since I was still doubled over, into my jaw. I was too slow blocking it and it drove me the rest of the way down to the gravel.
“Spying for old man Finn,” he said.
“No, no, nothing like that,” I coughed. And that was Carl’s FOOT coming at my face. I’d had enough, grabbed it and forced it up and to the right. He yelped like a bitch as he fell, and Sasha chuckled.
“I could’ve broke that shin,” I told him, standing up slowly.
I saw Sasha had a knife out, but it felt like I had a half-minute before he’d decide to use it.
“It’s true I was there to snoop,” I said quickly, raising my hands. “But not for the Westies. I hang at the Iceberg. Even did some work for Catwoman back when. Other rogues too. And Cobblepot got real squirrely last night when he saw one of your guys come in. Knew I played the ponies here and asked me to poke around.”
They looked at each other.
“I think it was that Ilya at the club. Ilya, right? Fat gold watch and the navy tats that drew the inside straight?”
Carl started to laugh. “Vasily owes me $50,” he announced. “I told him that jacket couldn’t be real.”
Sasha used his knife to cut off a piece of the jerky.
“You really work for the masks?” he asked, and I nodded. “Catwoman?” I nodded. He looked me over appraisingly. Then he snorted and said “Head back towards the club. Two blocks shy, you’ll see Kangxi Imports. Ask for Mr. Liu. Serious fence. Will pay a nice percentage for access to operators like the Cat.”
I said thanks and complimented Carl on his punch. It was a lie, but what the hell. I was tapped out and they were throwing me a bone.
Now, as Vasily had pointed out, Queen of the Underworld was more than a year ago. I had no idea how to contact Catwoman anymore, but this Mr. Liu didn’t have to know that. I was sure there were three or four contacts at the Iceberg who could get a message through. Pay them a C-note tops and collect a big percentage for myself.
Since I’d lost my jerky, I went by way of Mei Lai Wah where they’ve got these rolls made from sweet glazed egg bread like Jewish challah stuffed with pork. 90-cents apiece. Got a sack of those to bring home, and this time while I was paying, I used those big mirrors they have behind the counter to make sure I hadn’t picked up a tail. Then I went on to Kangxi Imports and introduced myself.
He was a fence alright, but surprise, he wasn’t buying. He was selling. Jade. Lots. Some famous collection, Wu or Du or something, that Carmine The Roman pinched ages ago from Sal Maroni. Never sold since they were only taken for spite. Now it looked like Falcone was liquidating, probably for a round of appeals. Even mob lawyers cost money, and between the Rogues picking off all his best assets during the war, the Feds freezing everything they could find after, and the cost of the first trials, he was tapped. Heh. Made my 90-cent pork sandwich taste a lot better, I can tell you.
So Liu was moving all this jade, or trying to, and there’s a pair of Fu Lions—I’m not kidding, I made him repeat it twice, he swore he wasn’t pulling my leg— Fu Lions that he thought Catwoman might be interested in. Seems weird to me. Catwoman is famously interested in these things, sure, but it’s not like she’s famous for buying stuff. I guess maybe Liu figures since it’s some kinda famous stolen collection, maybe she’d like them to make like she took them way back when. Doesn’t seem likely.
I headed back to The Kitchen by way of The Gotham Intercontinental Hotel, an establishment that has not historically been favored with the most honorable and principled individuals in the post of concierge. Tonight Marty is on the desk, and his current teat is Wayne Enterprises. WE has three guests checked in this week and the company left instructions for Marty to reserve a couple seats for a few top shows each night, just in case their guests want to see something at the last minute. Needless to say, Marty is rather liberal in his interpretation of ‘a few shows,’ seeing that WE is picking up the tab and anything that’s not claimed are his to scalp. I went to his desk, waited for him to go for a smoke, and liberated four tickets for The Book of Mormon, Matilda, Pippin, Rock of Ages, Wicked, and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Then I took a slow walk home through the Theatre District and made a lot of tourists very happy. After all, I didn’t mind selling for less than the ticket price. I just wanted a fat roll to go drinking.
Still not sure why they all thought I had tickets to Jersey Boys.
LOVE MAKES THE WORLD GO AROUND… NOT AT ALL…! WHISKEY MAKES IT GO AROUND TWICE AS FAST.
You know you’re in good hands when you look above the bar and see that. Right next to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and above an old wooden sign that declares GUINNESS ONLY is served in this establishment. Not true anymore but the sign is at least a hundred years old. Got a bullet hole, two nicks from a throwing knife and one from a batarang. You know you’re in good hands in a place like Tigh Mallory.
I ordered a pint and dropped Raglan’s name. An hour crawled by like a drunken snail and I just called for a second when he came in—with Liam. Can’t say I liked the look of it, watching the pair of them at the door. The guy’d always been tough as a nickel steak, and it was no surprise he’d be one to make it through all the shit that’s gone down since Marcuso. But something about the way he stood. The way his mouth moved when he talked, the way his eyes looked when he listened. Even his ears gave me a bad feeling. Edgy? Cagey? Not sure what it was, but it was dangerous. Something there could go off without warning and blow a hole through whoever was standing too close.
He looked in my direction. I looked back. He turned and left.
“He’ll meet us at Finn’s later,” Raglan said in response to my what-the-fuck when he finally came over. With his blessing I was given a permanent tab, which we toasted with shots of Jamie before heading out. On the street, I thanked him in advance for the introductions and shared my impression of Liam.
“He’s okay. Just nervous,” Raglan said. “This part of the neighborhood’s his, supposed to be, down to 34th out to the river. Mitch is pushing in.”
“Yeah but they both work for Finn, right? We’re all on the same side.”
“Maewyn Finn had four sons. He doesn’t, what do they call it, ‘micromanage.’ He says men settle these things on their own. Don’t worry about it. It’s not like you’re a new face around here. When we get in there, just let me do the talking. Remind ‘em all who you are; you’ll be golden.”
I didn’t feel golden walking into Maewyn’s Pub. The new faces were Roy, Roy’s brother, and Toss. Nobody had a last name, and Roy’s brother didn’t have a first. But now I had a word for that edgy vibe I was getting from Liam. The guy was hunted and Mitch was the guy doing the hunting. Not because he was hungry either; because he could. Toss was the gatekeeper. He was ready to square off the instant I followed Raglan through the door.
“Lay off, man. This is Matches. Matches Malone. I told you—from the Downpatrick, remember?”
“We can’t keep track of your bullshit stories, Raglan. No outsiders.”
“You really are a toss, asshole. He’s no outsider. He’s old Gotham. The Downpatrick. Remember that feek redhead that went off with Marcuso? Matches is the guy that was looking for her.”
He looked me over, looked to Mitch for approval, then let me through.
“I don’t know nothing about a redhead,” Roy said. “But there’s a Malone with a mean hook giving lessons at Bolo. Where’d you get the batarang?”
“Bodyguard for Catwoman when she was queen of the underworld,” Raglan answered before I could.
“Wasn’t that, like, a year ago?” Roy’s brother asked.
“Come on, let’s get you a drink,” Raglan said, ushering me through.
It was a figure of speech. First I was brought to a booth where Liam was holding court under a stuffed deer’s head. A literal introduction wasn’t necessary, we knew each other slightly from my last stint in Gotham. As a getting-to-know-you gesture, he showed me the way he marked up his cash.
“Learned this directly from Old Man Finn,” he boasted, putting his unique checkmark on the top of each bill. “On my first job in the neighborhood, collecting the vig.” Then he broke into an imitation of Maewyn Finn’s gravelly brogue. “Numbers on a screen can be manipulated, boyo. But cash, hard ledgers, numbers you add up yourself and see that they do add up, no one will ever make a fool of you.” With that, he marked the last bill in his roll and called for a pint and a shot, without offering me anything. And that cagey-hunted look returned. “That’s what Finn himself taught me,” he repeated. “Can’t take that away from you.”
I had no idea what he meant. His drink arrived and I was dismissed. I went to the pool table to get reacquainted with Mitch.
“Marcuso was never seen again after he went off with your clancy grifter,” he said without preliminaries.
“She wasn’t my clancy,” I pointed out.
“I guess that’s true enough,” he chuckled. “Hardly would have taken off with another guy if she was. Point is, the man was never seen again once he bit down on that. You think she set him up? Or maybe she was the hitter herself?”
Raglan was right. The guy was always a bollocks.
“Say anything like that again, I’m going to take out your teeth, one punch at a time,” I told him. My Oliver Peoples are as dense as the old shades. Mitch still looked through them like he could see my eyes, and I glared back like he could too. I glared a simple three-word phrase, and I waited for him to breathe. The moment he took a breath, I said it out loud. “I mean it.”
He paused just a second after that, then chalked his cue and went back to his game.
“Things are different than they were under Falcone,” Mitch declared. “The Roman didn’t care what went on as long as he got his cut. And Marcuso, he was one of us: about to get married, liked to hang out. Finn had a son that’d be older than both of us if he was still breathing, rest in peace. He’s not ‘one of the boys.’”
“I heard he didn’t micromanage,” I said.
“He doesn’t, long as you keep the rules. Rule number one: no drugs.” Like Liam, he broke into a gravelly brogue when he started quoting the old man: “Reason one is moral. This is our neighborhood and you don’t shit where you eat. Two is practical. Long non-negotiable sentences incite a man to cut a deal. And those who might become rats cannot be tolerated. You hear me, boyo?”
“Other than that, common sense stuff. My uncle runs our chop shop around the corner. Don’t take anything less than a ‘vette if there’s any chance you’ll have to outrun the Batmobile. Personally I wouldn’t try it in any American car, but Finn doesn’t want me to say that. Always collect in cash. Don’t keep records on your phone or take a lotta pictures. Somehow I don’t think that’s a problem in your case.”
I have no idea what he meant by that.
When I left Finn’s, the night was still young and I thought I might swing by this chop shop we could use like a motor pool, just to see what kind of muscle cars were available. The two pints of Guinness inside me were not enough to dull the famous Malone instincts, and I knew I had a tail before I reached the end of the block. I figured Liam, Toss or Mitch, in that order. I did not expect to be hoisted off my feet by a gloved fist, tangled up in that fucking silk-wrapped tungsten and dropped into an alley where—if I didn’t fucking know how to roll—I coulda broke an arm and dislocated my knee.
I came up swinging—blocked left, blocked right, and shoved the freak back just to get some fucking air.
“Oh look, it’s Batman Lite,” I sneered. “The bridge-and-tunnel cape. Why don’t you go back to Bludhaven. You know the Russians got a massive smuggling operation out of your south shore ‘cause they can’t get away with it here?” [NW-B2]
“Is that so,” Nightwing smirked like he didn’t take me seriously.
I decided to go into detail. Let him know what I overheard that afternoon from the Russians in Chinatown. Let him know just how inept he was policing that city he was so proud of. The smuggling—the tanker loads of wood-grain alcohol being shipped back to Russia to be sold as vodka, dyed blue and labeled Windex to avoid paying taxes. How sad is that? You know what smuggling is in Gotham? Couple Nigerians on Canal Street smuggling a little smack for King Snake in the lining of a fake Gucci bag. Heh. [NW-B3, G1]
And the arms deals. What’s a nothing gun buy under the bridge on Cherry Street—three or four .38s, a .44 and a little bit of ammo—compared to the high ranking Russian General offering his government's arsenal to a couple of Bludhaven wise guys? We're talking long-range missiles, tanks, submarines. If they’ll sell that to Fat Paulie from the Sopranos, I hate to think what they might be selling to terrorists. [NW-B1, G5]
Heh. Sent that snot-nose off with a whole new picture of crime in Gotham vs Bludhaven, I’ll tell you, even if I did have to take a punch or two to pay for it. [NW-G1, G5, B1, B2, B3 cleared; NW-G2, G3, G4 deferred.]
Only thing is, after a run in like that, a guy really doesn’t want to go home to an ice pack from his own freezer. I went back to Mallory’s to wash the taste of cape fist out of my mouth with another Guinness, possibly two. And there was Raglan. I told him how I was overwhelmed with the warmth of my welcome at Finn’s, and he said not to worry.
“Toss was suspicious ‘cause, after I mentioned you, he tried to look you up online but didn’t find shit. Now that he’s seen you, he gets that you’re not the type to be on OKC and Tinder. Or Match.com. Or… Facebook.”
“That’s the fourth or fifth time today someone said something like that. I have Facebook. And a phone. I have Facebook on my phone.”
“Relax, man, it’s just the jacket. Something about it just says ‘I’m not the top stud of the Interwebs.’ And Mitch is paranoid. It’s not you, it’s you showing up right now.”
“What’s so special about now?
“I hear there’s trouble with the construction stuff. The contractors and suppliers, concrete, electric, plumbing. There’s big money in that shit. And it’s more the kinda thing Finn used to use, the old style money laundering. Everybody in the family got a salary, sure, but that was about it for individuals. All the serious cash went through the businesses, so he had high hopes for all the developers and construction shit. Same kinda guys as the unions. Everybody expected it’d be as easy to step into Falcone’s shoes. But I guess it’s not going so smooth.”
“So they think, what, I’m a spy for a buncha real estate goons? Would you mind if I start drinking a lot of whisky right now?”
“Don’t worry about it, Matches. Look, Toss might act like the gatekeeper, but he can’t shut you out and neither can Roy or Liam or Mitch.”
“Oh? And why’s that?”
“Thursday nights. They used to call it the fish fry. It’s really beer and pool, Assassins Creed and some home cooking. It’s nice. And it’s at Finn’s house. So even if they had the balls to shut you out at the pub, you’d have access once a week. And they know that, and that’s why they won’t try to shut you out. It’ll just raise questions.”
“Enough of this shit. Let’s drink,” I said.
With four pints of Guinness inside me, I wandered home through the bleary glow of street lights. Which was odd. The old Hell’s Kitchen, a street light that wasn’t burnt out or broken was so dim it didn’t matter. Now they give off light. And there were still people on the street, not a lot, but like any other part of the city at this time of night. I had to wait for the elevator, it was all the way up on seven, and while I stood there I thought of a few more things I should’ve said to that Nightwing. Then it occurred to me how I got a bit of my own back from that Russian scum who took my money, took my jerky and worked me over, and gave nothing but a lousy fence in return. On the ride up, I started to wonder if there was an angle in that Falcone jade. If the statute of limitations had run out on the original Maroni heist, Falcone taking it from him and somebody taking it from this Mr. Liu wouldn’t count. I could get retail if any of Finn’s people had the contacts. And I could definitely get better than batarang prices from the pawn shops. I opened the door—and the effects of four pints of Guinness vanished.
There was a blood red stiletto on the floor in front of my sofa. Not the kind that’ll slice the nostril of a snooping P.I. The kind that cuts elsewhere. A fuck-me sandal studded with red glass like a chain of dime store rubies. The matching one was on my sofa, strapped like an exquisite instrument of torture around a perfectly shaped foot that turned slowly at the ankle, grinding the scarlet sparklies into the bare foot below, where toes painted redder than a Roman Cardinal’s cassock pushed at the strap until the second shoe dropped to join the first.
Silky, sun-bronzed legs shifted, rubbing against each other like some hungry insect, rustling one of the black pocket handkerchiefs Gotham women wear to nightclubs as a skirt. The top, just as black and half as subtle, plunged a good four inches (a very good four inches) past her breasts. The two halves came back together at the neck, leaving a diamond shaped opening to confirm for the stupefyingly challenged who had any doubt: this is a mammal. To help a man pull his attention from the jaw-dropping display of milk-production capabilities, the lips were a red that whispered Rita Hayworth. The cheek bones (that framed each cheek in a lie that she wasn’t smiling like a hungry cat watching a bird) whispered Ava Gardner. And the sly green eyes that peered up at me as she leaned forward whispered it was the final flop in the poker game of death.
“Hey Handsome, it’s been a while. Got a match?”
To be continued…