One of the interesting things about writing something like Justice Wing is the kind of story you get to write. It’s hard to convince a publisher to let you write a comic book about this guy who interviews a supervillain for a week, with very little in the way of action scenes, for example. Not if you’re not already Kurt Busiek, Warren Ellis or Garth Ennis.
And, in case you haven’t figured it out, I’m not any of those people. Nor do I have much hope of ever becoming any of them.
But, when you’re writing full on fiction, without pictures… you can write human stories about superhumans. For example, this one.
This story actually predates “Interviewing Leather” in short story form. This is an expansion of said short story, to better fit the mosaic novel style thing I seem to be building. And it follows out of last week’s prologue in ways that should be obvious.
This is a story about supervillains and superculture, sure. But it’s also a story about fans, cons, con culture, and whatever else seemed to fit. It tells a story (I hope) and sets up a few other stories (I hope), and I hope you like it.
*** *** *** ***
May 27, 2005.
Friday – 1:32 pm
Elle was leaning against the hotel’s outside wall. She’d pulled a chair out with her, but hadn’t sat down. It was sunny, and too hot, but the only place you could smoke on this floor of the hotel was in the bar, and that was too far away from the dealer’s room. This was just a five minute break from setup.
Out here, Elle had a cloak on over the ‘show off the goods’ suit. Back in the day, the first few suits had been modified swimsuits. Then, she went with lycra leotards. And after she made a name for herself she’d gotten her costume supplies from Undercrime Mail Support, like everyone else. She was still on their mailing list, though she’d dropped down from VIP to ‘valued customer.’ The price of legitimacy.
Besides, they were being killed by the internet. But then, that was Elle’s bread and butter.
Elle slipped the cigarette out of her mouth, putting on her Convention smile. It was even odds that a congoer would track her down out here — this door was used by vendors to get their goods into the dealer’s room, but there was a parking lot. She turned, and was slightly surprised to recognize the young man who’d seen her. He wore a silver and black bodysuit, festooned with mirrors and lenses along his belt. Early twenties, with short brown hair. His face was pretty, not rugged — really, too pretty to be Bar Sinister. “Yes,” she said, smiling winningly.
“I’m sorry — I didn’t mean to interrupt. But… aren’t you Elle Chemical? Lady Velvet?”
“Charmed… Refraction, isn’t it?” She held her hand, poised to be kissed instead of shaken.
The young man didn’t pick up on it, sliding his hand underneath it and pumping firmly. Children, she thought to herself. This is what they called a super villain these days. “That’s right,” he said. “I’m surprised you’ve heard of me. I mostly worked out of Paramount City. I thought I was more of a regional thing.”
“It pays to keep abreast of one’s peers,” Elle said. She didn’t want to admit to this twenty two year old that the great Lady Velvet spent her days watching the Superwatch channel like some fangirl. “You were one of the Beacon’s rogues, weren’t you? I hadn’t heard you retired.”
Refraction laughed, somewhat uncomfortably. “Yeah, well — I had a change of heart. But still — I mean, you’re Lady Velvet. You’re one of the greats!”
“Maybe, once,” Elle said, sitting in her chair. “But I was never better than second tier. Sometimes lower. I’m sure Nightstick — or, I suppose, the Nightwatch — rued my name a few times. But, by the time I packed it in he considered me a light week. A relief after one of Jack O’Knaves’s rampages.”
“Have you actually met the Jack O’Knaves?”
“Well, of course, dear. I actually worked with him once or twice. Come, surely you’ve met Darklord or Bandolier, fighting the Beacon and all.”
“Well, sure — but the Beacon… I mean, she’s a tough fight, and all, but her rogues are… well, we’re all a little lame. The Nightwatch’s rogues–”
“Are psychotic mass-murderers in greasepaint and top hats?” Elle finished for him, her painted lips quirking in a smile. “Yes. And that’s why I packed it in. Twelve or thirteen years ago, you could be slightly ridiculous and still give Nightstick a run for his money. Today? I’m more comfortable knowing the Nightwatch is stopping some of those twisted freaks.” She smiled, seeing a heavyset older man in the parking lot, wheeling a hand truck with plastic tubs on it. “Clinton!” she shouted. “Daaaaahling!”
The man smiled, waving back. “Please, Mistress Chemical. Not that name. We are on the field, and ’tis appropriate to adopt our sobriquets!”
“Who is that,” Refraction whispered.
“Clinton Potipher. The Cipher. He’s guest of honor this year.”
“Oh,” Refraction said, shaking his head. “Why him and not you? I mean, I remember him and all, but–”
“I was guest of honor at Villify 3. Then last year it was one of Paragon’s lot — Walabyne. You know, the alien with the Australian accent?”
“Yeah, sure. But–”
Elle shrugged. “They treat us the same. They pay us the same — which is to say barely, except for room and board. There’s a few perks for getting your name on the masthead, but for the big fan run cons you wait your turn and smile when your number doesn’t come up.” She stood as the Cipher approached. “Daaaahhhling,” she said again, in the trademarked purr of Lady Velvet. “You look faaaabulous. But you’re incognito.”
“I had no desire to soil mine attire with the sweat of manual labor. While I haul things in to my table, I elected to remain dressed for utilitarian purpose. I’ll be prepared for the opening ceremonies.” He took Elle’s hands, leaning close to kiss both her cheeks.
“You have a table here?” Refraction asked. “In the dealer’s room?’
“Of course, dear,” Elle said. “Cons like this are business. They don’t really pay us, but they give us room and board and sometimes travel expenses, and they let us sell our wares in the dealer’s room. I have a whole line of perfumes and remedies, as well as autographed photos and my CD.”
“A lovely disc, I would add,” the Cipher said. “She brings the standards to new life. I have books of puzzles, and my poetry and short stories, and of course tee shirts and photographs — dear Lady Velvet, are you working your own table this year?”
“On and off — I have a neighbor’s two daughters helping out. They love dressing up in the garb and walking the walk, so they’re willing to do it for food money and Con dealer passes. You?”
“My friend — Thomas? You remember. He sells the science fiction books and toys and the like? He has added my table to his and is handling sales. Mine schedule is too full with guesty activities for me to really stay too long at the table.”
“I can’t believe you two are selling things in the dealer’s room,” Refraction said again. “I mean… you’re… you guys fought the Nightwatch.”
“Once upon a time,” the Cipher said. “Once upon a time. But tales of terror and the warm memories of crossing swords with the the Greystone Guardian do not keep me in sandwiches and cable television. We all must make a living. Elle — I’ll see you at Opening Ceremonies?”
“Of course, dahling. I wouldn’t miss it.” She kissed his cheeks again, and watched him fondly as he pushed his tubs into the dealer’s room.
“He’s… not what I expected,” Refraction said. “I mean, he’s not… well, you. But still….”
“We were peers, really,” Elle said, sitting back down. “I hated him for a while. So pretentious, and he hits on anything in panties. About the ninth time you shoot a man down, you want to use real bullets.” She half-smiled, shaking her head. “But he grows on you. He loves these things so much.”
“Really? I’d think…” Refraction paused, trying to find the right words. “I’d think they’d be… embarrassing for him. Beneath him. Really, beneath both of you.”
Elle chuckled. “Are you kidding? He lives for these weekends. Do you know what he does the rest of the year?” Elle watched Refraction shake his head. “He works at a bookstore. Not even a mystery bookstore — he works for Barnes and Noble. Just another store worker — a fifty year old man and a pack of twenty-two year olds fresh out of college with an English degree they barely stayed awake to get.”
Elle closed her eyes. “But for the next three days, he’s the Cipher, all over again. A brilliant man who decrypted the most sophisticated defenses to commit the most daring crimes, leaving encoded clues that Nightstick and Cudgel themselves were hard pressed to decipher before his master plan went off. He was one of the dark gods of Greystone City, set in inexorable opposition to their greatest champion.” She opened her eyes. “Honestly, how do you begrudge a man his last few seconds of infamy?”
“Huh,” Refraction said. “I guess I never thought about it.” He looked at Elle. “Is that your story, too?”
Elle chuckled again. “Please, dahhhling. This is just business.”
May 27, 2005.
Friday – 4:14 pm
Bill Wallace had been Con Chair of Vilify as long as there had been a Vilify. A true fan of supervillainry, he had published papers on the sociological impact of super powered criminals and on the psychological necessity of the villain in a society that had superhuman heroes. Elle knew all of that, but seeing him in his tuxedo shirt and pants, and the vest with all the buttons (“Villains Do It Any Way They Want,” “Mad Science Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry,” “I Told Those Fools At The Institute They Would Pay,” and a number of Star Trek based ones) he just screamed fan to Elle. Bill and guys like him were the reason she could make a living selling glamour shots taken when she was eight years younger and perfumes that were overpriced but ‘brewed by the diabolical hands of Lady Velvet.’ They’d show up to these things even if no retired supervillains were on hand.
But they were so happy they were.
“We have over two thousand preregistered guests,” Wallace was saying at the podium. “So, just in preregistrations alone we’ve matched last year’s attendance.” He paused for the applause from the audience. “Thank you. It’s all thanks to you. And we’re looking at the biggest and best Vilify ever. Vilify 5’s theme is “Married to the Mob,” and you’ll see any number of gangster themed panels and events. We’re also pleased that Chattergun Calhoon has been able to be a special guest. He’s not at the opening ceremonies, but you can see him at a special event in the Cedar meeting room on the second floor mezzinine at four-thirty. So you can leave from here and head right up to see a man who took a shot at the Shroud.”
Bill paused for a sip of water, then grinned. “But you’ve probably not come to hear me talk.” He paused again for laughter — Elle had seen it at every fan con. The Con chair made a joke like that and half the audience played along with pantomimed ‘no, reallys?’ There was nothing like it anywhere else. “You’re here to see our very special guests. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to the masters of perfidy… the lords of larceny… the men and women who stand up to gods and do tug on Paragon’s cape… the supervillains!
There were cheers and applause then. Leathertooth, at the end of the head table, pumped his fist in the air. Elle gave her best diabolical smile. It was like performing. She had always put on a good ‘Lady Velvet,’ even when the Nightwatch scared the piss out of her.
Refraction had sat next to her — he clearly didn’t know much about these things, and he looked a little uncomfortable. She leaned close. “Smile,” she whispered. “Or glower. They’ll love you either way.”
There was a hum in her brain, and she heard the mental voice of Madame Hypnos — another old Con vet — whispering to her. “Who’s the preschooler, Elle? He looks good in tights, but still….”
Refraction, she thought back. Years of seeing Medea at cons had lent Elle good practice in projecting her thoughts to the telepath. One of Beacon’s. It’s his first con.
“And staked him out already? Aren’t we robbing the cradle?”
I’m a supervillain, dahling. I have to steal something.
“Why are they cheering?” Refraction whispered. “We’re criminals.”
“To them? We’re celebrities. Just enjoy yourself.”
“On the end,” Bill was saying, “the winged raptor from another age… eternal nemesis of the Azurewing… it’s Leathertooth!”
Leathertooth stood, flaring his wings out, and crouching to give a toothy growl. He couldn’t keep from grinning though. He was good with kids, even giving some supervised swoops around the ballroom when their parents let him. The crowd loved him.
“On his right… you know her as the woman who brought Paragon to his knees…” there was a chuckle at that thought. “The mistress of the mind… Madame Hypnos!”
Elle smiled, watching Medea rise crosslegged into the air, reaching out to life two of the younger audience members telekinetically. There were the appropriate oohs and aws.
“We’re supposed to have a trick?” Refraction hissed to Elle. “No one told me to have a trick.”
“Then just stand and wave, dear. Do you have any of your equipment with you?”
“I… I don’t… well, yes….”
“I’ll swap places. Give you a moment to think.” Medea, she thought towards the mentalist, who was just getting her seat. Tell Bill to introduce me before Refraction.
“You’ve got it,” Medea thought back. “He didn’t come with a trick, did he?”
Ahh, the follies of youth.
“Next… the one archer able to go arrow to arrow with Arrowhead himself… the dead eye deadshot. The ice woman… it’s Fletcher Joan!”
Joan was wearing the good leather outfit — the bondage outfit. Elle was jealous — Elle had made her name by showing skin, and that meant she couldn’t easily cover it up now that she was pushing forty. Joan covered head to toe in imperfection-concealing leather still made the fanboys pant. She fluidly drew and fired four target arrows into the ballroom’s rafters, where she’d strung up the targets before. The targets exploded harmlessly into sound and light, thrilling the crowd as always.
Elle took her own deep breaths while Titan James and the Hook did their routines. She should have been the last one called before the Cipher — she was certainly one of the star attractions — but this would work out too. After all, either he’d pull through and dazzle the crowd with something new, or he’d fall on his face and make her look better.
“And now… the First Lady of Felony… the Seductive Siren of Scams… the bane of Nightwatch himself… Miss Elle Chemical, the Sensual Lady Velvet!”
The crowd fairly exploded — especially the men. Elle gave her famous red lipped smile, rising and posing, squeezing her hands tight and cracking the vials she held in her protective gloves. Columns of multicolored smoke swept into the air, with glistening motes of light flaring, the scent of jasmine filling the room, forming a frame while Elle tried to project pure sex in her bearing.
It worked, of course. The applause turned to hoots and whistles. “Daaaaaahlings,” she crooned, loud enough to need no PA. “Prepare yourselves for a sinfully good weekend.”
Elle slid back down as the smoke cleared. She glanced at Refraction, who had two of his small prisms in his hands. He glanced up, and hissed “when you see the flash of bright light, get up and pose again!” to her.
Elle blinked, about to ask what he intended, when Bill’s voice came back over the PA. “And finally, a newcomer to Vilify this year. A talented and dangerous villain who has contended with the Beacon on her own terms and even faced Paragon himself down. The Lord of Light… give a warm Vilify welcome to Refraction!”
Refraction stood, clearly nervous, and lifted his hands. He brought them down, slapping the prisms together, and a burst of white light filled the room to startled shouts and gasps. Elle, having expected it, pushed to her feet and struck her pose, even though her own vision needed to clear….
As it did, she realized there was a hologram over the audience — a hologram of her in the pose she was holding. She threw her best wicked smile back on her face, and held it. I’ve finally finished my transition, she thought. From super villain seeking to rule Greystone City to scantily clad magician’s assistant.
The crowd, their own eyes recovering, began to applaud anew. The same guys who’d hooted and whistled for Elle did so again, and the people who’d seen Lady Velvet’s act before applauded for this new, larger than life wrinkle.
“Nice,” she murmured as she and Refraction sat back down.
“They already love you,” he whispered back. “Seemed ridiculous to try and compete with that.”
“And we couldn’t have you being ridiculous, now could we?” Elle smiled more, sliding a hand along Refraction’s arm. The young man blushed slightly. She still had it.
“And now,” Bill said, as the applause died out. “Vilify 5 is proud to present… the connoisseur of conundrums. The exemplar of enigmas. A man who on no less than nine occasions stopped the Greystone City Police Department dead citywide. The Grand Master of Greed… our Guest of Honor, and one of the few men to truly challenge the Nightwatch on his own terms and at his own level… he is… the Cipher.”
There was a tremble as bass heavy music began to play. A thick black smoke began to swarm and weave — Elle couldn’t see how the trick was done. The lights seemed to dim, and then as the black clouds parted the Cipher stood where Bill had been. He wore his grey three piece suit and bowler hat, like he was an evil butler, and held his trick cane. Numbers and letters covered his suit, of course, a panorama of codes and symbols, and he laughed that spooky laugh of his. Most years the Cipher didn’t get to go all out with his entrance, but Elle had to admit he understood the theatrics involved.
“Greetings, fellow scions of the dark society. Greetings, brothers of the fraternity most sinister. Welcome once again to the lodge where justice holds no sway and darkness rules the night. Welcome to Vilify… may you survive to leave!” And he laughed once more, lifting his arms and causing another cloud of smoke to wend around him.
The audience went nuts. They ate the Cipher’s act up with a spoon.
Refraction watched the Cipher gesture, drinking in the crowd’s applause. And Elle watched Refraction. She saw him frown, ever so slightly.
Smiling a touch, she squeezed his arm. He blinked and looked back at her. “Don’t worry about him,” she murmured. “There must be better things to talk about.”