And this is it. The conclusion of “Interviewing Leather.” And I have to admit, I feel pretty good about it.
Todd Chapman, in the story, is writing an article called ‘Interviewing Leather.’ The subject of that article is the so-named supervillain Leather, who he has been hired to interview. But the novella/serial “Interviewing Leather,” by E. A. Burns, is about Todd Chapman, who finds himself stuck in a situation and learns a few things along the way.
In one sense, this is the end of that story. Todd Chapman isn’t the same person who drove up to Meridian City in part one. In another sense, this is the beginning of Chapman’s story, and I suspect somewhere along the line he’s going to show up again.
I like this ending. I like this story. I’m glad it came out the way it did. And I hope you like it too.
I have no idea what I’m going to do next week.
Meridian City is seven hours north, driving along the coast. About halfway there you hit Bay City. I was driving there, northbound. My car was new to me — a Prius, bought used for about fifteen grand. They wanted seventeen but I paid cash and that made all the difference. My old Hyundai had been totaled out, and I had gotten a check for eight hundred and thirty four dollars from my insurance company for my troubles.
The Prius was a good ride. Better A/C. As good or better milage since it was a hybrid. Roomier on the inside. And I had GPS navigation and a CD player in it. My cup runneth over. Not that I used the CD player. I owned an iPod, after all. Who brought their CD collection in their car these days?
I had loaded up a custom playlist. I wasn’t heading to an interview this time. This was a pilgrimage. But it was the same basic theory — music to get my head in the game. Music to get me thinking about my subject and what I’d be doing.
The mix was okay, I thought. Good for the purpose. Some Bad Religion. Some Dropkick Murphys. A little dance techno and trancer music. Liz Phair.
And some other things. Things I figured she’d get a kick out of, even if she hated the music. And I was sure she’d hate some of the songs, even if she loved the sentiment behind choosing them. As I drove north and noticed a storm out over the ocean, one of those songs came on. Bonnie Tyler. Where have all the good men gone and where are all the Gods? Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
My lips quirked into a smile. Despite myself and what little cool image I had left, I sang along. “Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed? Late at night I toss and I turn and I dream of what I need!”
Don’t we all need a hero? I let Bonnie take the Chorus solo, and I sped up a little bit. I was driving north, to Bay City, where once a fourth rate super in red lycra fought low level crime under the improbable name Dynamo Girl.
Oh yeah. I have that playlist all right.
I was more than a little surprised when they actually gave me the cashier’s check, back up in Meridian City. I’d crashed in a hotel for a couple of nights at the City’s expense while they checked it out and followed up on leads. They wanted me in the area in case they had questions. It wasn’t a great hotel, but the rooms were clean and it was down the block from a Denny’s, and really what more do you need?
“You can’t seriously tell me I can have that check,” I said to Inspector Harris. “That’s stolen money.”
“We can’t prove that,” he said, shrugging. “This check was drawn two weeks ago, paid for by cash by this man.” He set a photograph down on the table of a man in glasses. It was black and white — a photo taken from security camera footage. “Was he one of the people you knew worked with Leather?”
I shook my head. “Never seen him before.”
“Wait. Two weeks ago? How’s that possible?””
“As a guess? Leather got a bunch of these cashier’s checks made up. Probably using one of their support services. They’re all squeaky clean. No money trail to speak of, legal tender. And probably endorsed by the purchaser before they gave it to her. All she’d need to do is fill in the name on the check and boom — perfectly legal money for expenses.”
“But you know she gave it to me.”
“No I don’t.”
I blinked at that. “Huh?”
“We suspect she wrote the note on your car seat. That looks like it could have been her handwriting, if we make allowances for the sharpie and the weird angle. But we don’t know she left the check. Her fingerprints aren’t on it. The signature isn’t hers. And we reached the man whose signature it was. He worked for a financial service, and part of his job is getting cashier’s checks made up. We spoke to his supervisors, and each one could refer us up the chain. It’s a chain without end, Mister Chapman. And one we can’t legally tie back to Leather in evidence, even if it seems obvious.” He shrugged. “Since we can’t prove this money is stolen — especially since it was drawn before Leather committed any crimes in the city — we don’t have any right to impound it.”
I shook my head. “That seems insane. Maybe the F.B.I.–”
“We tried to get the Feds interested. They weren’t. Which makes me think supervillains have worked out a method that’s pretty warrant proof right now. Until the laws change or the loopholes get closed, anyway. So legally? That’s your money.”
I looked at it. “I don’t know that I can accept it,” I said.
“Conscience?” he asked.
“Maybe. But it could also be payola, you know? I take fifty G’s from the subject of my interview, and that compromises the interview’s integrity, you know?”
He half-smiles. “An honest man. Well, I’m not keeping the check either way. What you do with it is up to you.”
So I took the check. And I walked out the door, feeling really weird.
“You look puzzled, Mister Chapman.”
I froze, and turned.
Darkhood was leaning against a police car.
“Do you just hang out in front of police stations?” I asked him.
“Only if I figure I’m going to see something interesting.”
“Since when am I interesting?”
“Well for one thing, you’re fifty thousand dollars richer than you were twenty minutes ago. That’s interesting.”
I chuckled. “And you think it means I was working with Leather?”
He quirked a smile. “Actually, no. I overheard your talk with Inspector Harris. I think you’re a little soft in the head, but you’re basically honest.”
I started walking. He followed. “Is eavesdropping on police business legal?”
“Just as legal as vigilante justice.”
“Vigilante justice isn’t legal.”
“Well there you go. So what are you going to do with the check?”
I sighed. “I have no idea,” I said. “I can’t keep it. You know I can’t keep it.”
“Actually, I’m pretty sure you can.”
“I’m a journalist. Accepting money from my interviewee is the fine line between writing up an article on a subject and a subject writing an article ‘as told to Todd Chapman.'” I shrugged. “That’s not kosher.”
“Undoubtedly. At least from one point of view.”
I stopped, turning and looking at him. “Hey what is with you?” I asked. “This is some of that money plucked from little childrens’ Christmas presents and shutting down small business, remember? It’s dirty!”
“Yes it is.” He smiled. It was an insufferable smile.
“Why do you want me to take it?”
He shrugged. “I don’t really care if you do or you don’t. But I want you to consider all the possibilities, Mister Chapman. For example — you lost your car. Are you going to write that off as a learning experience?”
“I figured I was.”
“I submit that it would not be damaging to your article’s integrity to replace the car you had trashed.”
“Even if I buy a Lexus?”
“Are you going to buy a Lexus?”
I paused. “No.”
“Then I’d say it’s not germane.”
“So I get another second hand car. Fine. That still leaves most of the money.”
He shrugged. “Donate it to a children’s fund. Or to Habitat for Humanity. Or….”
He looked sidelong at me. “Where do you go from here, Mister Chapman?”
“Back home. I file my report, and I get my next assignment.”
“So, from a week as Leather’s prisoner to a week with Kanye West?”
I opened my mouth, paused, and closed it, looking away.
“Not so appealing?”
“That’s the job,” I said. “I write slightly sycophantic articles about entertainers. I’m actually pretty good at it.”
“Is that the article you’re going to write about Leather? Slightly sycophantic?”
I pursed my lips. “Because this article’s important.”
“Because….” I looked off, down the street. “Because we live with you. Your kind. The heroes and the villains. We live with you and we thrill with you and sometimes we’re entertained by you and sometimes we’re terrified by you, but we don’t understand you. Not always.” I put my hands in my pockets. “Barbara Babcock’s a better reporter than I’ll ever be, but that’s just it. She reports on what Paragon and the rest of you do. Not on who you are. This… this is a chance to write about who you are.” I shrugged. “That’s too important to blow on a puff piece drooling over Leather in a PVC leotard.”
He nodded. “So that’s it? You understand us now? One week with one supervillain and you’re done?”
I snorted. “I haven’t even started. Even Leather told me that. She wanted me to go talk to rogues.”
“You know. The villains who make a career out of one superhero?”
“Oh.” He smiled a bit. “Rogues. I kind of like that.”
“Do you have one?”
“I have a few who seem a little fixated on me, yeah. There’s this one girl with a sword and a whip? Calls herself O Gato Cinzento. The first couple of times I thought it was coincidence, but after nine fights, all against me….”
“Why does she do it?”
“I have no idea.”
He smiled a bit. “So are you going to dig deeper. Unearth more of the secrets and the motivations? Uncover the villainous heart? And maybe find a few things about people like me while you’re at it?”
I shrugged. “It’s not that simple. I’m doing this on assignment. My editor wanted a supervillain who looked like a fetish model on the cover. Once is a novelty, but we’re a music magazine.”
“Yeah. Damn shame, but you need to pay the bills, right?” He started walking away. “It’s not like you have the money to take six or eight months off and really research the question.”
I blinked. “Wait — are you saying–”
He looked over his shoulder. “Me? What makes you think I’m saying anything, Mister Chapman.” He spun, cloak flaring, his bow snapping out in his hand, and he fired a line arrow. It struck somewhere above, the line staying connected to the bow, and a mechanical ascender kicked in, hauling him up into a swing out above the street.
I watched him go, and then turned and kept walking. Breakfast at Denny’s sounded like a better idea all the time.
Loose ends. That’s what it’s all about. I took the second Bay City exit, just like my new GPS told me I should. I knew where I was going. I’d done some research before taking the drive. The web barely knew ‘Dynamo Girl,’ but it confirmed she’d been a Bay City heroine during her brief career, and that led me to articles in the Bay City Chronicle, and that in turn led me to put together some idea of her old stomping grounds. She’d had some good fights, it looked like. But she also first appeared within a couple of years of the battle with the Overking, when Paragirl and the first Freya were killed and Shillelagh was maimed and the whole world got turned upside down. With new heroes popping up every week, some of them with old names, and the world still caught in the sense that the entire planet might be threatened again….
I don’t know. Was it really ‘sidekick physique’ and apathy that had kept Dynamo Girl from getting attention? Or was it a shellshocked nation and giant stories hitting bang bang bang on the public consciousness?
It didn’t matter. It happened, and now I knew where it happened.
So I was on my way up. There were loose ends to tie up.
The Amplifier offices looked… smaller, somehow. Maybe a little more cluttered. It was the same place as always, with pictures of stars on the walls and people running ragged.
I don’t know. Maybe I just saw them differently. I walked through to Kyle’s desk.
He was on the phone. “–her that of course we’ll make all the arrangements,” he was saying. “Yes, of course we’ll take extra care. I know you’re not in the… I know. Yes, I know. The cover? Well, I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Heh. Of course. You too.” He hung up. “Publicists. Hey, Todd. Looking good.”
“Hey, Kyle. You’re a son of a bitch.”
He blinked, and then he laughed. “Look, I didn’t think there was any chance in Hell you’d agree to go up there for a week. At the same time, this was a chance to really connect with her, you know? So is it–”
“They beat the shit out of me, Kyle. They had a superhero almost spoil one of their heists, and they thought I was responsible, so I got curb stomped. I still ache from it.”
Kyle trailed off, and looked uncomfortable. “Well, you know… that’s a risk, right? I mean, you cover rap–”
“The police interrogated me for a good long time, Kyle. They weren’t sure I didn’t work with her. If the wind had blown a little differently, I’d be in jail right now.”
He laughed, nervously, and spread his hands. “I’m sorry. Okay? I’m sorry. So… did you write it?”
“Mostly. I have some loose ends to tie up.”
“Oh yeah. Good ones. She’ll melt the newsstands.”
Kyle grinned. “That’s my boy.”
“I want two-thirty a word.”
Kyle blinked. “What?”
“Two-thirty a word, Kyle.”
“You’re nuts. We’ve never paid a rate that high.”
“I’m happy to be the first then.”
“We have a contract.” He shrugged. “You agreed to it.”
“That was for an afternoon’s work. Not a week’s.”
“You’ll find the contract doesn’t specify time periods.”
I paused, and smiled. “You’re right. It doesn’t.”
“Okay then. Look, if the pictures are as good as you say, we’ll talk bonus, but I–”
“But you should know two things.” I grinned a little more.
“Yeah. First off? The cops wanted to arrest you.”
Kyle blinked. “Me?”
“Conspiracy to kidnap. Aiding and abetting kidnapping. Failure to report a felony kidnapping. Reckless endangerment. Really, you pays your money and you takes your choice.” My smile was broader still.
Kyle had gone pale. “I….”
“Oh, don’t worry. I refused to sign a complaint or press charges. They considered charging you anyway, but I talked them out of it.”
Kyle breathed out sharply. “You’re a friend, Todd,” he said simply. “And… you know, she told me you wouldn’t get hurt–”
“But that leads me to the other thing. The other little factoid you should know.” I looked smug. “See, just because I didn’t press criminal charges doesn’t mean I can’t pursue civil charges.”
“Oh yeah. There’s a ton of civil complaints I could have. I’m told by reputable sources they’d be pretty open and shut, too. So it seems to me we have a choice here, Kyle. I can turn in my story to you, as we contracted, at a buck fifty a word… and I follow that submission with a lawsuit against you, the publisher, the company that owns the publisher, the distributor and anyone else I can make a tenuous connection to all this. A lawsuit that’ll get massive press and that will almost certainly result in a six or seven figure settlement from the company to shut me up and a chance for you to see an unemployment line up close and personal….”
Kyle was silent now.
“…or, I can give you my story and you, out of the goodness of your heart and your recognition of my superior writing and the personal risks I accepted, can pay me two dollars and fifty cents a word instead, and no one involved will ever see a courtroom.”
“You said two-thirty,” he murmured, slightly in shock.
“That was before you said ‘no.'”
He frowned… and then laughed, relaxing. “Shit, Todd. Let’s call it two sixty a word. No reason to be stingy. This story’s going to be huge.”
I grinning. “You know it, Kyle. Pleasure doing business with you.”
“Yeah yeah.” He shook his head. “You had me going there. So what was she like?”
I shrugged. “Sometimes scary as Hell. Sometimes cute as a button. She’s enthusiastic and friendly and fun. And I think she’s really lonely.”
Kyle grinned. “Perfect. We can sell that six ways from Sunday.”
I smiled, a bit weakly. “Yeah, we can.”
Kyle leaned back. “So, going to take some time off, or are you looking for work? I might have something — don’t think for a minute it’ll pay more than a buck thirty a word. I mean, Tom Waits is cool, but he’s not going to bring in–”
Kyle arched an eyebrow. “So, you are going to take some time off, then?”
“Something like that. It’s been a wild few days.”
Kyle chuckled. “I bet. Anything else?”
“Mm. Oh. Yeah. One other thing. I met Darkhood.”
“Who? Oh — right. Meridian’s other superhero. How was that?”
“Pretty cool, actually. And he wanted me to give you a message.”
A window exploded behind the two of us, prompting a shriek from some guy at the photocopier. The broadhead arrow that had shattered it sailed through the room, over my head, and embedded itself in the bricks behind Elias, right in the middle of that picture of Kyle meeting Phil Spector. Given the trial and all, I felt that picture was in poor taste anyway.
Kyle, of course, freaked, spilling his coffee and falling out of his chair.
“He says that if you ever, ever hear about where a Supervillain’s lair is again, and send a freelancer to get himself kidnapped instead of calling the police? You’re going to find out just how bad an idea it is to get on a superhero’s bad side.” I grinned, putting my hands in my pockets. “See you around, Kyle.” I nodded to Don at the reviews desk — he looked like he’d just seen a snake — and I turned and walked out of the office.
I had found her old haunts by inference and legwork. The streets she used to patrol. The diner she almost certainly had worked at. I parked the Prius and did a walking tour. They were somewhat rough neighborhoods, but it was during the day and besides, I’d slept in the same room with worse than these punks. I was wearing the same outfit I wore when I rode with Dynamo Girl — the turtleneck was cool, the leather coat was nice and durable, and I was glad I got to keep it. And the sunglasses? Hey, vision enhancing glasses were the closest I was ever going to come to superpowers.
I saw the street where she took down the Seventh Avenue City Strikers. I found the building that had replaced the one that had burned down. She’d saved seven people from the fire, including one four year old girl. I bought twinkies from the corner store where she’d saved the guy from three armed robbers. I saw, at a distance, the city councilman she’d rescued from an assassination attempt. She’d dived in front of a bullet. She’d taken it in her side. No big deal with her healing as it worked out. Certainly there were no long term effects. But she couldn’t have known that when she threw herself between the gunman and the councilman. She had to know she could die, right there.
Is there an expiration date on good deeds? Does saving lives in one year excuse stealing Christmas from a kid two years later? I don’t know. I’m not a philosopher. I think Darkhood’s right. But I think maybe Leather’s right too. I certainly think she made a difference to this neighborhood. I certainly think that when a crime’s committed here now, they miss her, and they wish she’d come back.
I found one piece of evidence. Direct evidence, that once a brave young woman called Dynamo Girl had run laughing through these streets. It was on a brick wall down on Seventeenth. A mural — graffiti, really. Amid a pile of tags and Obey stencils, covered over in part by some later artist’s work.
It was a girl in a red leotard, painted cartoony, like anime. Wide eyes with a blue mask, doing a cartwheel. In dynamic motion, the biggest grin in the world on her face.
I took a picture of that piece of street art, and I looked at it for a long moment, and then I went back to the Prius and I got out the briefcase I’d bought two hours before I closed on the car.
Most of the money was going to go to living expenses. Keeping the rent up on my apartment. Keeping me in hotel rooms, at least until I had enough of the book written to get an advance for it. And keeping me in travel and cheap food while I met people. Fifteen had gone to the car. It was nice and safe — and as I’d been directed in her note to me, it was better than my Hyundai had been.
But eight thousand, one hundred and nineteen dollars had to go to loose ends.
I walked onto the liquor store on nineteenth. RIDER LIQUORS the neon sign said. I’d found it by pouring over crime sections of the Bay City Chronicle. They’d never caught the guy. It was a big store, with six cashiers. I could believe that on a Friday night they’d have a lot of money in here. In this section of town? Better believe it.
“Excuse me,” I asked one of the cashiers. “Is the owner in?”
“Yeah.” she said. “Back there.” She nodded to a black man, about fifty two years old. He was putting Scotch on a shelf.
“Thanks.” I walked over to him. “James Rider?”
“Yeah?” he asked, looking me up and down. “What?”
“You owned this store a few years back?”
“I owned this store from the day it opened. Why?” He stood, looking me up and down.
“So you were the owner for the big robbery? You lost eight thousand, one hundred and nineteen dollars on a Friday?”
“Yeah?” he asked.
“Make any changes since then?”
He snorted. “If you’re here to sell me a new security system, don’t bother. We put in drop safes after that. No cashier can get access to more than two hundred dollars at any time, and we have better cameras and–”
“I’m not here to sell you anything, Mister Rider. I’m here to make a delivery.”
He frowned. “A delivery?”
I set the briefcase down on a clear area of shelf, and opened it up. Hundred dollar bills stared back at him.
His eyes widened. Then narrowed. “What is this?”
“I’m just the messenger,” I said. “This is the eight thousand, one hundred and nineteen dollars you lost that night. It’s being returned, no strings attached.”
He stared at the money, and then at me. “You working with the guy who stole it?” he asked.
“Nope. Do you remember Dynamo Girl?”
He blinked. “What?”
“Do you remember Dynamo Girl?”
He laughed. “Of course I do. I saw her fight Red Beast! She was amazing. I thought she was dead or something.”
“Not quite. This is from her.”
He blinked again. “From Dynamo Girl?”
“Yup.” I stepped back, leaving the briefcase. “She got delayed, is all. But it’s all there.”
“You know Dynamo Girl?”
“Where is she?”
“I dunno,” I said.
He looked at me, then at the money. “Dynamo Girl got my money back?”
He chuckled, shaking his head. “Ain’t that a kick in the head,” he said.
“Yeah.” I grinned. We shook hands. “You have a nice day, Mister Rider.”
“You too. And if you see Dynamo Girl again, you tell her thank you. And tell her we miss her.”
“I hope I get the chance,” I said.
That night, I pulled out of Bay City. They don’t have a hero of their own right now. I was going to head west. I’d thought about going to Crown City and try to chase down Paragon or Washington D.C. to find the Lieutenant, or even Greystone City and track down the Nightwatch, even if his rogues were psychotic. But I don’t know. There’s an awful lot of press out there on those guys. But there’s not so much being written about some of the others. Guys like Rubicon, up in Republic City. Or Santa Domingo’s Silver Horseman. Or the Beacon herself, in Paramount. There was a real cheerleader type up in the Puget Sound area — a girl with real ‘sidekick physique,’ that what stories were written were speculating she would be teaming up with some other hero really soon, if she wasn’t already.
And there were the bad guys. Oh, I could probably interview Leonardo Lucas in prison — if he were still in prison — but he’d been interviewed lots of times. I was more interested in Bandolier, or the Red Claw. Maybe track down Lady Velvet, wherever she had retired to, or O Gato Cinzento back in Meridian City.
I didn’t know just then. I had enough money to go for a while, though. And a lot of ground to cover. And I knew I wanted it to be new ground. We all know something about the first and second tier, heroes and villains alike. It was the third and fourth tier that interested me.
I wondered, absently, if I was going to get killed along the way. Well, maybe I was.
I pulled out of Bay City and onto the Interstate. Heading for the middle of the country — the crossroads of America. And from there, we’d see what I could turn up. Who I could talk to. I had the gear, and a new phone, a computer and a camera and a good recorder. And I had quite a few months before hunger might drive me back to writing about Eminem or the latest Lindsey Lohan trainwreck.
I hit play on the iPod. No playlist this time. I wasn’t psyching myself up to see Leather or Dynamo Girl. This was my story now.
The random die was thrown. The opening strains of “Consequence Free” by Great Big Sea came on the speakers. I sped up to seventy as they sang. Wouldn’t it be great if no one ever got offended? Wouldn’t it be great to say what’s really on your mind? I have always said all the rules were made for bending — and if I let my hair down, would that be such a crime?
I grinned. “Time to save the world,” I murmured, and headed down the highway to whatever showed up next.