Part thirteen of “Interviewing Leather.” This is, if anything, denouement and epilogue, and a chance for some voices on the other side of the fence to chime in on a few of the points Leather herself made. It also sets up the last part, which should come out next week. God knows what we’ll replace Leather with.
In the end, if there’s one thing that I think has come clear in this series, it’s that Leather isn’t quite as simple as she appears on the surface.
Regardless, when it’s over I’m going to miss Todd, Leather, Marco and the gang. We’ll have to see what comes next.
Inspector Harris sat down, dropping the collar on the table. “Yeah, it’s safe,” he said. “There’s a couple of wires looping through it, but they just lead from a watch battery to a little capacitor. As near as we can tell, it’s designed to give the wearer a tiny jolt when it’s first put on. So they think it’s… I dunno, active.”
I noticed the cap that had what Leather and Marco called the ‘blow jelly’ under it was off. “You found the gel?” I asked. “The one I told you about?”
Harris smiled slightly. “Oh yeah. We found it.”
“So… it wasn’t anything… dangerous?”
“Well, it could certainly have been turned to illegal purpose.”
“Sure.” He grinned more. “See, if you spread it over your favorite newspaper comics, it would capture the image and lift it off. That’s copyright infringement. There’s laws against copyright infringement, Mister Chapman.”
I closed my eyes. “Silly Putty. They put a collar with a watch battery and Silly Putty around my neck. I must look like the biggest idiot you’ve ever seen in here.”
Harris chuckled. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. If it were me, I’d have done the same thing. I mean, how are you going to test a bomb around your neck? Set it off?”
“Yeah, okay.” I took a deep breath. It had been a long afternoon. The police had debriefed me, to make sure I wasn’t working with Leather. It didn’t help my case that apparently Kyle hadn’t told them I had been kidnapped — and why should he? He knew I’d be gone a week. He just didn’t tell me.
But they established that yes indeed, I had been a prisoner of a supervillain for several days. And I spilled my guts on everything I saw there.
And maybe that seems weird to you. I mean, there’s a way in which Leather, Marco, the bagmen — even the Steve had been almost friends. And yeah, there would be things I missed. Not counting the beating, of course. But at the same time, I wasn’t a henchman or a villain. I’m a reporter, and it’s not like I was protecting my sources here. I was interviewing them, and there was nothing from that week off the record. Hell, they knew I was going to write it all down and publish it in a magazine anyway.
So, there was no reason not to spill everything. It would be dumb not to.
They had me checked out at a hospital before the debriefing started. The beating I’d taken had left some marks and some pains, but there was no sign of lasting trauma. Otherwise, I talked to some very nice policemen and I was as forthright as I knew how to be — up to handing my notes over. To be copied, mind. I wasn’t about to lose the story I spent a week being held prisoner to get.
And then we took a ride out to the lair. And it wasn’t just me and several police cars. In fact, I rode in a van, and across from me rode Darkhood himself.
Darkhood is generally serious. He’s a solid looking man with kind of remarkable physical conditioning, and you get the feeling he’s always keeping his eyes open and staring right through you. Having seen the man execute some of his trick shots, I can believe it.
I suppose they left me alone with him so he could glean any information off me I had neglected to tell the cops. But, you know. I’m a journalist, doing a story on a supervillain called Leather. And here I had someone on the other side, who’d just had a knock down drag out fight with her. Like I was going to miss a chance like this.
“You okay?” I asked him.
“Hm?” That piercing gaze flicked to me.
“I saw the fight. That was a pretty brutal kick.”
His lips quirked into a smile. “Body armor took the brunt, and I ragdolled to absorb some of the rest. I’ll be sore for a while, and I thought I’d pull my arms out of their sockets when the line went taut.”
“I was wondering. You know, if it was a bungie thing or–”
“Composite cord,” he said. “Some give but not much. I made the anchor shot and tried my best to turn it into a swing. Which managed to jolt my arms and then hook me under the overpass, smacking me into the underside.” He shrugged. “Not the most fun I’ve ever had.”
“So she won?”
“How do you figure?”
“She got away.”
He shrugged again. “Her men were carrying close to seven million dollars in those bags. This is one of BankOne’s central distribution hubs, and they had access to the vault and a lot of packaged hundred dollar bills. They left that money behind. They left the Mountbatten Urn behind. No civilians were hurt, the bank guards were just shaken up, and even the cops didn’t have more than bruises and one broken nose. I’d rather have captured her, but that’s still a good day’s work.”
“But you have to know… I mean, this was the blow-off.”
Darkhood looked at me. How I knew a man in a hood and domino mask had arched his eyebrow was beyond me, but that was clearly the case.
“She was there for publicity. She didn’t really expect to get the money. She was there–”
“To fight me,” Darkhood finished.
I looked away, slightly uncomfortable. “She says that you guys… you heroes need villains.”
He snorted. “I’m sure she did.”
“Seriously. I think she’s a fan more than anything. She says that without villains you guys would look silly. You’d be a joke. She says–”
“Paragon and the Nightwatch both started their careers before there were any costumed villains. The Lieutenant fought commandos and mercenaries long before Blackmask showed up. And you honestly think I’d stop doing what I do just because supervillains stopped showing up?” He shook his head. “Six nights out of seven — no, twenty five days out of thirty I don’t see anyone in a costume. Sometimes more. I see thieves and toughs and gangs and drug pushers.” He half-smiled. “You interview celebrities, right?”
I shrugged. “I work in entertainment journalism.”
“You ever interview a comedian?”
“What did they think of hecklers?”
“Generally? They hate their guts.”
“Because they spent weeks or months or even years refining and fine tuning an act, and some drunk in the back of the room is screwing with it.”
“That’s right.” He leaned back against the van, looking at me. “You talk to a good number of those hecklers, and they think they’re helping. They really do. And because the comedian’s good at what he does, he makes their ‘help’ funny. But that doesn’t mean he likes them, and that doesn’t mean his act depends on them. In the end the hecklers are just deluded. They want to be the center of attention, and they justify crappy, selfish behavior by claiming it helps.”
“Huh.” We rode quietly for about thirty seconds. “So it wouldn’t bother you if all the villains disappeared tomorrow?”
“Bother me? I’d throw a party.”
“Really. I mean, think about it, Mister Chapman. Let’s say that she was right, and that I’d feel… what was it? Silly? Silly showing up in costume if there were no costumed villains.” He looked at me. “So we reduce crime. We protect lives and civilians, and we get metahuman and paranormal criminals out of the equation, and the only price is my embarrassment? You think I wouldn’t take that deal in a second?”
I chuckled. “I guess you would. So, she’s just wrong?”
“Mm.” He leaned back. “She’s wrong headed. In a number of ways, but there’s a specific case in this one. We don’t need villains to be heroes… but some villains — like her? They need us to need them.”
“It’s how she sleeps at night. She wants to go out and steal whatever she likes. But she pretends she has a conscience, and it’s bothered. But if she decides that she’s enabling heroes to be heroic and inspirational, she can put her conscience to rest and steal whatever she likes.”
“So it’s safe to say you don’t like her?”
“What do you think?”
“She likes you.”
He shrugs. “For some value of like that includes aggravated assault and attempted murder.”
I frowned. “I don’t think she meant to kill you with that kick. She got–”
Darkhood laughed. “I don’t care what she meant to do, Mister Chapman. She used lethal force in our fight, and it came damn close to either killing me or crippling me.” He looked at me. “Let me guess. You’ve tagged her as one of the safe ones.”
I looked away. “I got my ass kicked while I was there. And sometimes she scared the Hell out of me.”
“Yeah, but you figure she’s not really hurting anyone, right?”
I paused. “Well, she isn’t, is she? She doesn’t kill anyone. She just steals things.”
“Heh. Just.” He looked away. “She stole nearly a million dollars in jewelry at the beginning of the week. That means the corporation that owned that jewelers has to make a major insurance claim. Someone has to pay for what she took, Mister Chapman. And that means their rates go up and they have to fix their building, and that’s assuming the company doesn’t just close that branch and fire all the workers. You saying that doesn’t hurt?”
I flushed. “Yeah, but–”
“Or even better. She robbed Fry’s Electronics out on 40th. It was a good target, because their warehouse is built into the same building as their sales floor. And she stole over five hundred video game consoles, six days before they actually are scheduled to be released.”
“So?” Darkhood laughed, slightly bitterly. “Mister Chapman, all those consoles were preordered. And sure, some of them were preordered by speculators, and they don’t get to have one now — but even if they get their money refunded they no doubt were counting on the markup they could do on eBay. And some of them weren’t preordered by speculators. They were preordered by people who want those games. Hardcore gamers maybe. Or kids, Mister Chapman. Kids who begged their parents and were so excited because they actually got one of the preorders before they were closed, and now they were guaranteed the newest and greatest game.” He snorted. “Doesn’t hurt anybody. Leather stole an eleven year old’s birthday present — something he’s been excited over for months. You think his father getting their money back will make up for that?”
I didn’t answer. I felt two inches tall.
“In the end, Leather doesn’t care what her crimes do to other people, Mister Chapman. She wants her lifestyle and she’s more than happy to let other people pay for it. No, I don’t like her. I’m glad she tries not to kill people. She’s not brutal like some I’ve faced. But that doesn’t make her nice and that doesn’t mean her line of work doesn’t hurt innocent people.”
“So you fight her,” I said quietly. “And you drive her off. Or you put her in jail. But you know she’s going to get away or break out. You know that. How do you keep doing it?”
He looked at me. “Someone has to,” he said.
It was my turn to snort.
“That’s not an answer. It’s an aphorism. It’s what you say to shut people up. But you don’t have to. Especially not in Meridian City.”
“Meaning this is Transit’s town. She’s a high powered heroine. You’re always going to be in her shadow. Second fiddle.” I thought back to my conversation with Leather on the subject.”No matter how good you get, you’re going to be high school varsity and she’s going to be the major leagues.”
I shrugged. “How do you put up with it? Put up with getting page fourteen instead of page one? Put up with her getting the glory? Put up with–”
“Good Lord, you make it sound so petty,” he said. “I don’t put up with Transit. I thank the Good Lord Jesus she’s here every day, and when she has to be away I bust my ass trying to cover for her. When she’s here, she generally handles the high powered threats, the city-wide dangers, and for that matter I can call her when I get in over my head.” He stared at me. “Do you think just because Transit can teleport a street gang into Meridian Bay, I feel worse about taking them down with stunners and net-arrows?”
I looked at him. “No,” I said. “I guess I don’t think that.”
“Good. You shouldn’t.” He looked to the front of the van. “We’re almost there?”
We rode for a few moments.
“I wish she’d been around today,” he said quietly.
“Because alone I stopped the bank heist. With Transit, we’d have taken them all in.” He chuckled. “Hell, Transit could have taken Leather all by herself, with one hand behind her back. I could have concentrated on taking her henchmen down and safeguarding the cops and civilians.”
“You feel guilty for letting her get away?”
“Not really.” He continued watching the road ahead. “I did what I could. If I hadn’t been there, she’d have gotten seven times the payday than all the rest of her crimes put together, and I got the Mountbatten Urn back. I’m not going to beat myself up because she got away this time.” He looked at me. “But I wish Transit had been here, because then she wouldn’t have gotten away. And next time, Transit or not? She won’t.”
And looking in his eyes, I believed him.
Seeing what was left of Leather’s lair was almost shocking. The Service wasn’t content to strip it clean. They wanted to be sure it wouldn’t contain clues, so they burned it to the ground.
“This whole area is still smoking,” Inspector Harris said. “Do we have the MCFD on their way?”
“Yeah!” One of the crime scene investigators called back. “But we need to tag the place before we spray it down!”
“Good luck with that,” Darkhood murmured.
“You don’t think they’ll find something?”
Darkhood shook his head. “Villains have these support services they spend an incredible amount of money with. They’re very good at eliminating evidence. They won’t find anything.”
I looked at the chunks of smoldering brick. “What could do this? A bomb?”
“More likely they lined the roof of this place with thermite and set it off. Let it burn down through all the floors and scour everything clean.”
“So you know about the Service?”
“Why don’t you shut it down? Or the Henchmens’ Guild. Or Transport Service?”
“Not that easy,” he said. “They work cell style. Every link in the chain at most knows two or three other links. Everyone gets paid really well, so they don’t have a good reason to rat out what they do know. Plus, the penalties for squealing are horrific. It’s as hard or harder than cracking the Mafia, because at least the Mafia’s actively committing crimes. Running drugs or numbers or protection rackets. Yeah, their teamsters service is aiding and abetting, but they look like any other truckers or moving companies, and if you search their trucks, almost all their stuff looks normal at first glance.”
“Sometimes we get lucky. I know the Lieutenant did serious harm to the Mid-Atlantic organization a couple years back. But they always close ranks and get things back running. And sometimes it makes it harder to fight the real criminals when we hurt the businesses.”
“I know one or two heroes who’ve infiltrated their local branch of one of the support services,” Darkhood said. “They get to keep their ear to the ground. Hear when a villain’s touring into their city. Be proactive instead of reactive.” He shrugged.
“Do heroes have anything like them?”
“Not really. There’s a few covert organizations that gather intel and pass it on to us, though it’s hard to be sure they’re really on our side. Justice Wing’s arranged a few things, too. Medical assistance options. I know of one hero who had his identity made, and Justice Wing got him and his wife into something like the witness protection program. Things like that.”
“Not really. They’re for-profit. Of course they need infrastructure. We’re volunteer.”
“Right.” I looked to the side. “Looks like they left my car.”
“Yup. Want to go check it out with me?”
“Shouldn’t we avoid touching it?”
“Probably.” Darkhood walked over to my Hyundai. After a moment, I followed.
It was still in bad shape, of course. The hood was still crushed. The windshield was was still just so much broken glass, and the truck wheel well was still sitting in my front seat area.
“Leather did this?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Heh. Yeah. No victims, right?”
I flushed. “I didn’t count myself.”
“I’d think you’d be the first one counted.” He narrowed his eyes. “You have a letter,” he said.
I blinked, and walked over, next to him.
He was right. Sitting on the driver’s seat, amid glass and mold from the rain that had soaked into the upholstery over the past week, there sat an envelope. My name was on a laser printed label on the front.
“That’s new,” I said. “Should we get the cops over here? Forensics and all that?”
“This isn’t a murder case,” Darkhood said. “They’re investigating, but no one expects to find some hint of where Leather and the others went.”
“Unless that’s a hint?”
“Unless indeed.” He opened the door — at some point it had been unlocked. I suppose it hardly mattered at that point — and picked the envelope up. It wasn’t sealed on the back so he lifted the flap and looked inside.
“What is it?” I asked.
He chuckled. “You don’t know?”
“I have no clue.”
“Interesting. It’s a cashier’s check for fifty thousand dollars. Made out to you.”
I blinked. “What?”
“You heard me.” He glanced at the seat. “There seems to be a message for you, too.
I looked. He was right. It was written in sharpie, and had been covered by the envelope.
“PROMISE ME YOU’LL GET A BETTER CAR NEXT TIME!” it read, with a little heart after it.
“We… need to tell the cops,” I said. “That’s stolen money.”
“Yes we do,” Darkhood agreed. He was smirking.
“…it’s not like that. She probably felt guilty about wrecking my car at the beginning of the week.”
“I’m sure she did, Casanova.” Darkhood said, walking back towards the police. “Come on, let’s get this turned in.”