One of the most successful stories posted to Banter Latte back in the day was “Interviewing Leather,” a story about Todd Chapman, a young writer for a rock and roll magazine, who finds himself interviewing a young supervillain as her prisoner. I’d go into more detail but why belabor the point?
Well, there are other Justice Wing stories to tell, but we ended with Chapman driving into the sunset in his second hand Prius, and now it’s some years later. It seems to me — and more than a few other people — that it’s time to check up on our friend and see how things are going for him.
Of course… if we’re going to look in on Chapman… they can’t be going that well, right?
You know something interesting? No matter what your job may be… if you do it long enough, it’s just a job. It doesn’t matter how exciting, or how ambitious, or how dangerous, or how cool your job is. You will hit a point where Monday is just Monday. I think it’s a survival mechanism.
My name’s Todd Chapman. I’m a writer. I write about supervillains.
Once upon a time, I had been just another music writer working for Amplifier magazine, covering overproduced pop singers and self important idols. I was on my way up, hitting everything from rap to country, and some people thought I might be the next Kurt Loder.
Well, all right. I thought I might be the next Kurt Loder.
But then, my editor talked me into taking an assignment interviewing Leather — an adorable, cheerful moppet with a mid-2000’s Suicidegirls aesthetic and a mischievous glint in her eye who also just happened to be a third tier supervillain. He told me it would be for an afternoon. Instead, it was a week long kidnapping full of being hauled over rooftops, henchman beatings and the occasional economics lesson. At the end of the week, I had an unintended financial windfall that, due to loopholes, I couldn’t just give back. That had funded a trip around the country, conducting other interviews and researching Low Society, a book about second and third tier supervillains and the heroes they fought.
A note on the tier thing, in case you haven’t read any of that stuff. There are basically four tiers. The first tier are the most infamous — Leonardo Lucas or the Jack O’Knaves. The ones who threatened the planet and got the best press. The second tier were the top of the line mercenaries, assassins, thieves or rogues. The major threats who weren’t world class, but most everyone knew their names. The third tier were the regional villains — small potatoes in one sense. Still a threat, but more likely only well known in a few cities. And then the fourth tier were the pikers — almost-rans and near-nobodies who were just starting out or would never break above the neighborhood level. All caught up? Great.
The article hit big. It was Amplifier’s biggest selling issue ever. I’d become a minor media personality. I got to meet David Letterman as his third guest one night. I’d done the morning shows. They pitched me a reality show, which means I got to put “turned down a reality show” on my resume, which is pretty cool.
The book was a best-seller. If I’d wanted, I could have taken it easy — written some fiction, done the book tour thing, hit up the ex-villain convention circuit… you know. The usual.
Instead, I’d just kept doing what I was doing. Driving around the country, using my notoriety and growing list of contacts to keep finding supervillains, so I could spend time with them, learn their ways and try to crack the hidden code of evil that made them who they are — as well as the heroes they contended with. In particular, I was working on fourth tier villains.
It was fascinating work, really. These guys barely made a living. The different villain support organizations charged them a ton because they had no credit rating — some things never do change. It was ridiculous that they were out there in the first place. And that’s interesting — if you’re not going to rise above being muscle for a local druglord or a glorified mugger, why put on lycra in the first place?
But even if the work was fascinating, there was a certain sameness to it. Like I said above. It just becomes Monday.
This time, the subject was Rook — yeah, like the chess piece. Go figure. Rook was a forty-something career villain who’d been put away a couple of dozen times, almost always by Cobalt Blue, an athletic third tier superhero who worked out of Harperton, Minnesota. I thought it might be an interesting angle — I mean, who expects the titanic battle between hero and villain to take place in the land of Garrison Keillor and the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?
Yeah, well. I’m not always right. Actually, I’m almost never right, but I have pluck and that counts for a lot in the metahuman journalism beat. Rook was in his mid-forties, developing a slight paunch that his thick body armor held in place — at least for now — and a bald spot he diligently covered with a combover out of uniform and a full head cowl. That uniform was brown, with a white diamond on the front that had a brown rook shaped chess piece in it. He wore a ‘power belt’ that gave him ‘dynamic energy,’ which made it sound like he became a supervillain after sending twenty cents for Charles Atlas’s nine step plan to make him a man.
An interesting angle? It was barely an angle, much less interesting.
“I’m not in the habit of showing my lair to just anyone,” he was saying to me, showing me around the abandoned underground parking garage he called a lair. It had a hidden elevator from the surface, and the on-ramp had been pretty well disguised. As lairs went, I’d seen worse at least from the outside. But down here, it was kind of a pit. He had a couple of trucks, and there were — I shit you not — cubicle partitions set up on the far end, so Rook and his henchmen, such as they were, could do their work in privacy. Sanitary facilities involved a port-a-potty. Sleeping arrangements were on the other side of the garage level, and I had resigned myself to a couple of days of sleeping in my own sleeping bag on a pad I’d brought with me rather than accept the dirty mattress he would no doubt offer me. I didn’t know where these guys showered. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. “Still, if I’m going to teach you a lesson or two about who I am and where I come from, you’re going to have to see where we live and plan our revenge against Cobalt Blue. And since Leather herself vouches for you….”
“That’s what it’s about?” I asked. “Revenge?” I let the Leather thing slide. Since the Amplifier article hit, Leather’s own villainous star had been on the rise. She’d stopped being a cute regional villain type, and become something of a pop culture touchstone — the start of a kind of villain chic. Her own move up to the second tier, which had worked out for her brilliantly. That was sort of why she’d done the interview in the first place, so I guess we could call that yet another victory for Leather. Of course, it meant the less secure a crook was in his own place in the scheme of things, the more they’d try to tie themselves to Leather’s tanned cowhide coattails.
“Of course.” He leaned towards me. “Think of the power my dynamic turbo-belt represents,” he half-whispered in what I think was supposed to be a croon. “Think of the swath I could cut through this city. Only that boy stands in my way, and I will not stand for it.”
“Tell me some more about that,” I said, a good enough actor not to show how bored I already was. Villains fell into familiar roles. There were thieves, like Leather herself. Criminals who pretty much wanted the good life, maybe with a side order of fame or infamy, so they stole it. There were mercenaries and assassins, like Stick-Jock or the Scythe. Soldiers-of-fortune or spies for hire who were villains pretty much because good guys didn’t hire contract killers outside of pot-boilers and bad television melodramas. There were the megalomaniacs, of course — the crooks who wanted power, be it corporate or political or the old standby, ‘ruling the world.’ And then there were the rogues. Rogues usually started as one of the other types, but then got fixated on a single hero, the way Bandolier fixated on the Beacon, or Fletcher Joan always fought Arrowhead.
In Rook’s case, whatever ambitions he’d once had paled in comparison to his vendetta against Cobalt Blue. He claimed it was revenge, and maybe it was. Or maybe he had some kind of crush — if by crush you meant ‘obsessive stalker.’ Don’t think for one minute my boredom with this chump meant he was harmless or secretly a nice guy.
Not that it matters now. But I’m getting ahead of myself. He was droning on about how ‘that man’ had intentionally ruined his life, apparently by keeping him from breaking the law and conquering this bustling metropolis of twenty one thousand people and dogs. While he spoke — and my digital recorder dutifully made a record of every minute of it — I looked around. Two henchmen, no doubt recruited from the guild that handled such things, and clearly not on the expensive side. They were less the well-oiled professionals and specialist I saw in a lot of villainous lairs, and more general thugs, doing a little bit of whatever. Right now, they mostly tagged along with us.
“Hey,” I broke in. “I thought your gang was more like eleven or twelve guys.”
Rook blinked. “What? Oh! Oh of course it is… usually. I’m only recently out of the joint–” I swear to Christ he called it ‘the joint’ “–and I haven’t really had the chance to gather my forces back together.”
“We’re on retainer,” one of the thugs said, clearly not worried about offending Rook. “The boss always makes good on his bills with the guild and the services, so they provide us in the short term until he can make a quiet score. With the money he gets from that, he can grab a basic gang and start planning bigger stuff.”
Rook flushed — you could see it on the lower bits of his cheeks, just below where the cowl covered. “Quite,” he said, dryly. “It’s always a question of money. And of course, I can’t touch my prodigious resources right now, since that man had my accounts frozen. This is just another sign of the personal war he wages against me–”
There was a loud clanging sound, coming from up the concrete ramp. Rook and the thugs jumped, startled. I won’t pretend I didn’t start, just a little bit, but I don’t think I looked quite as silly. “The Hell was that?” the second thug asked.
“Maybe nothing,” Rook said, his eyes narrowing. He reached down and pushed the button on the front of his belt (seriously. Who puts the controls to their power source dead center on their body four inches up from their crotch?). There was a thrum, and a ripple, and then a light orange ripple played over his skin as he looked around. “And maybe our azure friend. Go check it out.” And I’ll admit this much, right at that moment he looked less like a pathetic unemployed salesman and more like an actual villain, capable of actual threat. Maybe not much of a threat, but I want to give the devil — or dork — his due.
One of the thugs grabbed a yellow compact walkie talkie from a charging station on a nearby workbench. He flipped it on, then clipped it to his belt. There was an audio cable already sticking out from underneath his leather jacket — I realized he must have left it threaded all the time — so he plugged it in and pulled a matching earpiece up through the top and slipped it over his ear. “Test,” he said, and it echoed from a speaker nearby.
“Yes, yes,” Rook said. “Go. Go!”
The thug ran up the ramp. The other thug was grabbing one of the other walkie talkies and moving to a point halfway between where Rook and I were standing and the start of that ramp. Rook himself was leaning forward, listening for reports, the energy still rippling over his body. And me?
I was backing up a good twenty feet and hugging the wall on the far side of the truck. I’d spent the last few years riding around the country interviewing costumed villains. Do you think for one minute I’d let my self-preservation instinct grow lax?
“I’m on the first level,” the first thug’s voice came over the speakers. “I’m… Jesus, half the lights are out again. Can you have Bob hit the breakers? This doesn’t help. I’m… I’m not seeing any movement. I’m going over to the gate–” the gate was a series of barricades and garbage set up in front of the entrance, designed to make the thing look as abandoned and closed as possible. I’d thought it was pretty clever when we rode up to it, until I saw the thugs get out of the truck and literally move the trash out of the way by hand, then replace it after we drove in.
“…oh crap. Half the gate’s been knocked open, Boss. Something came in — I don’t know if it’s Cobalt BluAAAAAAAUGH!”
There was a squelch, cutting off the thug’s scream mid-way as whatever hit him took out the walkie talkie.
“Shit!” the Rook shouted. “Bob — hit the panic button! We’re getting the Hell out–”
There was a chime across the room, coming from the elevator. Rook shut up, turning, the same as Bob and I were. I did take the chance to grab a few shots from my camera-phone. Like I said, this wasn’t my first rodeo.
What I didn’t expect was the billow of white smoke that came through the doors — like a massive low pressure front came down from the Northwest by way of the elevator. An incredibly bright light was shining through it as well — a light I’m pretty sure wasn’t in that elevator when I got there. Two figures — female, and not wearing much, according to their silhouettes — swirled to either side… enough smoke cleared so I could see them. One was a beautiful red haired girl in what almost looked like a Las Vegas showgirl outfit — white with a lot of sequins, a tiara of some sort, and glittery high heeled boots, with a white sparkly sleeveless leotard with three glittery hearts going down her front. The other, mirroring her move on the other side, was a dark haired girl dressed exactly the same save she only had two hearts down her front.
The three of hearts and the two of hearts. My heart skipped a beat and I felt the chill that went along with a sudden adrenalin squirt.
“Who dares!” the Rook shouted. “Who dares invade my–”
A third figure was stepping out through the smoke, wearing a dark grey suit — expensive, with white logos on his lapels — a Heart and Club on his left, a Diamond and Spade on his right. His shirt was white. He had a blood red ascot around his neck held with a ruby and obsidian stick-pin. His reddish hair was short and slicked back. And he was smiling. Smiling like the showman he appeared to be. Smiling like the stage magician he once had been, playing up to the crowd. Smiling like a shark that was trolling a swimming pool full of ten year olds.
“Rook… Rook Rook Rook Rook Rook,” he crooned. “Honestly, is that any way to say hello to an old friend? We are old friends, aren’t we? I’m pretty sure we’ve met at one or two of our fraternity’s little get togethers. Haven’t we? Maybe I’m thinking of some Bishop or Pawn. Seriously. Chess motifs? It’s the twenty-first century.”
The Rook didn’t answer, out of shock and terror. The newcomer didn’t introduce himself. But then, he didn’t have to. I knew him. Everyone in the room knew him. He had once killed Nightstick’s sidekick. Hell, he’d once killed the entire waitstaff at a Denny’s for forgetting the sugar free syrup. In a world of scary people, he was terrifying. In a world of the mentally unbalanced, he was the most fucking insane. In a world of second and third tier villains,he was at the very top of the first.
His name was the Jack O’Knaves.
This wasn’t just my job. And I sure as Hell wasn’t bored anymore.