After a rather long way away, as we’ve discussed elsewhere… Interviewing Trey returns — the second of these serials to be revived. As you’ll recall, Todd Chapman’s in a bit of a pickle, and I’m afraid his brining isn’t over just yet.
One aim I have, in the "explaining how villainy works" vein, is the differentiation between a Fourth Tier nobody like Rook at the start of this series, versus Leather as an upper Third Tier established villain, and then contrasting with First and Second Tier villains like Anchor and — of course — the Jack. It’s easy enough to see the service as being able to arrange for lairs based on old, out of the way, or abandoned structures. Someone like the Jack of Knaves is going to need more than they can easily provide.
Regardless? I hope you enjoy.
It had taken me a few tries before I really got the whole ‘finding and interviewing supervillains’ thing down. Sure, my first outing had been with Leather and had worked out way better than I could have hoped — but I hadn’t set all that up. That had been Kyle, my then-editor at Amplifier. I suppose he could have found other leads for me, but since he’d told me that I was going to spend an afternoon interviewing Leather, only for me to be kidnapped — and ultimately thrashed by henchmen — I had decided Kyle wasn’t really working in my best interests. As it was, Low Society had kicked Amplifier a percentage, which pissed me off but what can you do? Supervillains could learn a thing or two from the publishing industry.
My first try had been in Santa Domingo, where a parahuman called Cinderjock was actually relatively easy to find. As it turned out, easy to find, and easy to interview are two entirely different things. We didn’t make it a day before he decided to demonstrate his concrete fists by applying them to my head. I was okay thanks to the Silver Horseman, who had more than a few choice words for me. You haven’t really experienced life to its fullest until a man in silver lame takes you down a few pegs.
After that? I decided to haunt prisons for a bit — to get some contacts and to talk to villains in controlled environments. It was on one of those early trips that a crossed wire had put me in an interview room with someone a little higher tier than I was used to. His name was — and is — Anchor, and he was six foot six of sheer muscle, an aquakinetic of some sort, and a guy who wanted the Ancient Mariner dead. He at least second tier if not first, and was way out of my league and we both knew it, but he was curious about what I was doing. It turned out he’d known Leather at the start of her criminal career, and I think he felt a little big-brotherly towards her.
“Before you spend much more time with members of the fraternity,” he said to me, “you need to get something in your head. No supercrook wants to be told he’s nuts, because deep down he doesn’t think he is. He thinks he’s sane. He may think he’s the only sane person in the world, but it’s still what he thinks. Even someone who wears insanity like a hat believes his core delusions are real. When I tell you the Ancient Mariner is destroying something that should be mine and through me all of humanity’s, and that he actually serves a horror worse than you can imagine… I know that sounds crazy to you. The Mariner saves lives. He protects the innocent. All that crap. All that tells me is that you’re wrong about him. Similarly, Leo Lucas knows for a fact that Paragon’s going to destroy the human spirit. Trying to convince him otherwise is an exercise in pain.
“Hell, even look at Leather. At all her ‘superheroes need us’ bullshit. I know it’s bullshit. You know it’s bullshit. Darkhood knew it was bullshit. But Leather? You will never, ever convince her she’s wrong. And she’s one of the saner crooks I know.”
He leaned closer. “And the thing about that crazy? The crazy I have, Leather has, Leo has, and all the rest have? Sometimes… it’s infectious. Because Leather, deep down, just wants to be rich and famous, her henches are pretty down to Earth. Most of my henches just wanna get paid. The same with Leo. But sometimes, we find those special henches. Think Cordelia Chase, over at Leo’s place. Think how far above and beyond she’ll go when Lucas takes on Paragon. They hear our crazy and it sounds good to them. They’re converts — and converts are always harder core in their beliefs. Always. Ask any ex-smoker lobbying against tobacco.
“If you want to live to publish? Don’t fucking tell me the Ancient Mariner deserves to live. I don’t want to hear it. And if one of my henches believes me and believes in me? Then be doubly careful around them. I’ll get pissed at you and call you an idiot. They’ll think you’re an apostate.” And some crooks? Look for those henches. They recruit for them.” He smiled a bit. “When you’re smack in the middle of a fundamentalist megachurch’s service, and they’re chanting and singing in the aisles, don’t be the idiot who starts shouting about natural selection. You’ll just end up a practical demonstration of the process.”
Anchor’s advice was pretty good. It kept me alive more than once — and when I managed to screw up, like I did that time with Billhook? I came damn close to proving his point at the end of one of hers.
But it’s easy to remember that in theory. It’s harder in practice.
The elevator worked the same way as it did when Mister River brought me up. We got in the brass ‘hotel elevator.’ Just like Mister River, Trey produced a brass key — in her case seemingly by ‘magic’ rather than on a key ring, since none of her outfits had visible pockets — and inserted it in the elevator’s panel. She then selected twenty three, which was not the bottom floor on this upside down elevator, but was two from the bottom so that pretty much counted. She then shifted against the back plate on her side and I did on mine, and the elevator kicked into the same high speed.
How many hours had it been? I had no clue. Just like I didn’t know how long I’d been kept under while they implanted the bomb — not to mention flying us to Greystone from Minnesota. Assuming I was in Greystone. Honestly, I had no idea where Dispater’s Vault even was.
“Why’s the hotel so far away?” I asked.
“It’s not — well, depending.” She sounded bored. “The first ten floors are all beneath the casino levels. The administrative levels we’ve been on are on the first few of those, then there’s a bunch more below that. If you’re on eleven through twenty, minus thirteen ‘cause there isn’t one, you actually end up going in a different horizontal direction and then dropping down. Twenty one and lower’s for the extra special guests, so they have a lot of privacy.”
“So… there aren’t really twenty two stories above the twenty third floor?”
“Twenty-one. No thirteenth. Jesus. Try to keep up.” She moved across the elevator to press against the back wall once we’d gotten up to horizontal speed. I went and did the same. “And individual floors? No. Or I don’t think so. But the floors are as deep as though there were. There’s just a fuck-ton of bedrock between the high rollers and the surface.” She smiled a bit more. “So remember, only modern engineering in perfect balance keeps a skyscraper’s worth of rock from landing on you tonight.”
“How comforting. How did the Jack even make all of this. I don’t think this is something he got through the service.” The service was a catchall term for a variety of support services for supervillains — ranging from arranging transportation, to connecting thieves with fences, to setting up or evacuating personal items from lairs.
Trey rolled her eyes at the mention of the service. “Mundane villains use the service. When you’re at the top of the top lists? They can’t begin to provide what you need. The boss arranged for one of his Spades to get geokinetic powers. She carved all this out — same with the others. Works on retainer these days.” She sniffed. “No staying power. Boss should’a killed her. Or let me kill her. But hey — the day’s not over yet, right?” She grinned.
Any retort I might have had was squeezed out of me by the multi-g deceleration of the elevator, followed by it dropping down into the depths. I watched the numbers go, as always. 3… 4… 5… 6… it was weird to watch them as a descent instead of an ascent, but then weird was part for the course. 11… 12… …14… 15… In the background, a jazzy big band version of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” played.
“You don’t live down here, right?” I asked Trey.
She rolled her eyes. “No. I don’t live down here. I’m not a guest. I live in the barracks with the rest of the Hearts.”
“The barracks? Is that just a name or is it actual… like, army style barracks?”
She half-smiled. “I’ll show you them tomorrow if you like. If you’re asking if we’re all in one giant room together… the answer’s ‘of course not.’” She stretched a bit. “We organize by suits. I wouldn’t sleep in a room with a bunch of Clubs.”
“Wait — really?”
“Well, sure.” She looked at me like I was soft in the head.
“You’re a multi-millionaire but you sleep in a bunk next to eight—“
“Seven, now, with Deuce’s sudden retirement for health reasons.”
I shook my head, trying not to think of Deuce’s dead body in a parking garage. “Seven other Hearts, when half of you want to kill each other?”
“More than half. But not in the barracks. We leave that outside of the Barracks. It’s the rule.”
“Yeah. The long-unnecessary-pause rule. Jesus, for a writer you sure love your little showy verbal tics.”
I shrugged. It was a fair observation. “So… there’s a rule against killing each other in the barracks, so none of you kill each other. Why isn’t there a rule against killing each other anywhere else?”
Trey frowned, looking at me like I was stupid. Which, honestly, was increasingly a default expression. “Because then we couldn’t kill each other. And how are we going to keep our edge if we’re not watching out for the killshot?”
“…I can think of lots of ways, really.”
“Well then. When you’re at the head of a masterpiece like the boss’s? Be sure to use one of them and see how well it works for you.”
The doors dinged and opened. We stepped out into the hotel elevator alcove. Looking around, it still looked like a fairly normal hotel corridor. I wondered what was behind the thick, pulled curtains. Actual windows of rock? Brick? Walls? But I didn’t stop to look. Instead, I followed Trey.
“Does that prepare you for when the Jack tries to kill you? Always being vigilant against your fellow Hearts, I mean.”
Trey paused, looking at me with a cool expression. “He won’t.”
“He killed Deuce.”
“Deuce was an idiot.”
“Are all the Hearts he’s killed idiots?” I was mostly watching her face — looking for reactions. Which is part of the interview process, really. Sometimes it’s not about the questions you ask or the answers they give. It’s about the way they respond non-verbally. That tells you where to follow up.
“No. Sometimes their deaths serve a greater purpose. But that’s the boss’s genius at work. He finds the best of the best for his purposes, and he maneuvers them and manipulates them — setting the conditions up for their moment to shine.” She looked smug. “Take Deuce. She was an idiot — I already told you that. But of course we worked together perfectly. Smoothly. We were a pair for the ages. Closer than sisters — at least, closer than I ever was to my stupid sisters. And she was absolutely perfect at everything she did… right up to the moment that she stepped on the boss’s lines.” She turned, her movements fluid and coy again — the sex appeal turned back up. Full-on Trey. “The boss needed to set up an effect for an audience. For Rook. For you. So he nudged her into the exact place and frame of mind to fail him exactly where he needed her to fail him, and then he killed her. His absolute intention, but still her mistake.” She smiled. “It was beautiful. But you saw it. You were there. He did it all for you.”
She smiled a bit more as the color drained out of my face, turning and shifting and posing even as she produced a key to the door. “And you don’t think he’s doing the same to you?” I finally asked, even as I followed her inside.
She looked over her shoulder, pausing a long moment. It was a good pose. “I know he isn’t. I understand him better than anyone. I know he has amazing things planned for me. And I know they don’t involve me making a stupid mistake. I’m better than that. He made me better than that.”
I looked at her for a long moment. Eye to eye. Over the course of the day Trey had misread the situation she was in a number of times. She’d backtalked. She’d been unwilling to answer the questions Jack had directly ordered her to answer. And yet she was convinced that she didn’t make the mistakes that the Jack used to kill off other henches.
“Oh my God,” I whispered.
She arched her eyebrow. “If you’re sweet-talking me, Goddess will work better. But I’m not a Goddess. A high priestess, maybe.”
“Trey…” I felt a little dizzy. “He’s going to kill you. Don’t you… can’t you see that?”
Trey rolled her eyes. “You’re boring me again, Chapman. Here we are, and I’m under orders to follow your commands, and you’re wasting—“
“Trey…” My heart was pounding. “Trey, I mean it. He’s setting you up the same way he set Deuce up. You have to know that. It’s what he does, right?”
She turned to face me, her eyes narrowing, even as she moved forward, slowly and sinuously. Hips moving like a cobra’s hood. “I know that the boss loves me,” she half-whispered. “More than he’s loved anyone else here. He’s told me. He’s promised me. And he keeps his promises, Mister Chapman. I am part of something beautiful. And you are just too stupid to recognize that.”
I shook my head, slightly. “Trey… that’s exactly what the next Deuce will say. Or Kick and Stick or whoever, after he’s killed—”
She spun and roundhouse kicked me, foot blurring past and snapping my head around, my jaw suddenly on fire. She grabbed my shoulders, spinning me around and dropped us to the floor hard, my back screamingas we hit the carpet, even as she rolled over me, posing above me and holding a blood red ceramic knife within an inch of my eye. “You don’t know anything,” she hissed. “You can’t understand his genius so you want to bring me down to your pathetic level!”
There was a cleared throat from the still open door. Trey whirled, moving into a crouch even as she stepped away from me — keeping out of arm’s reach as though I’d had a knife of my own.
Mister River was standing there with a cart and more hotel pans covering food. “It’s dinnertime, Trey,” he said in his mild, British dialect. “And Mister Oaknavés has declared Mister Chapman off limits.”
“He doesn’t get to insult me,” Trey hissed.
Mister River seemed unflapped. “He actually does. He is Mister Oaknavés’s guest, and he is to be treated accordingly. Now, I’ve seen nothing to imply you’ve done anything more than a light performance piece for Mister Chapman, so I have no requirement to report any… indiscretions. Perhaps we should keep it that way?”
Trey stared at him, then looked back at me. She fluidly spun in a dancer’s twirl down to three-point stance, taking my hand and then rising, pulling me up after her. Making it artistic.
Trey smiled, touching my nose with her fingernail. “I almost enjoyed some of today, Mister Chapman. Let’s see about improving that tomorrow — all right?”
“…sure…” I said.
She smiled, and sauntered out of the room and turned to go down the hall, Mister River backing himself and the trolley up to give her room.
Mister River then pushed it inside and closed and locked the door. He turned to face me. “You have to start comporting yourself a bit more intelligently,” he said, softly. “Trey is on a very unstable footing right now. She’s one of a pair, like Kick and Stick, and absent that partner she feels expendable in a way she hasn’t in some time. Do as little to antagonize her as possible.”
I took a deep breath. I hurt, badly. “He’s going to kill her,” I said. “And Sharp Top and probably every one of his Hearts. Am I wrong?”
“You are correct, Mister Chapman. Some Clubs, some Spades, and some Diamonds live to retire from Mister Oaknavés’s service — without rhyme or reason, I would add — but no Heart does. Retirement for them follows their death, be it from each other or their master. And none of them believe it will ever happen. How could it? They are each and every one the chosen one. Mister Oaknavés has told them so. All the rest are just flair for the show. Did she hurt you?”
“I don’t know. Not really,” I said. “I mean… it hurt like Hell but…” I shook my head. “Don’t… don’t we…”
“I thought journalists weren’t supposed to get involved with their stories, Mister Chapman.”
“I’m not that kind of journalist. And… am I really supposed to blithely stand by while Trey and the rest march off the cliff like lemmings? Don’t I have a responsibility to… do something?”
Mister River began lifting the covers off the food. Roast beef and various sides. It looked and smelled excellent. “Yes, of course you do,” he said. “But consider Paragon. He can’t fly around the world and save every person in every kind of danger. He has to pick his moments and do his best. If your work survives, it may prove a cautionary tale that will keep some people from falling into the Jack’s gravity well. But for it to survive… you have to live long enough to write it.”
I looked at Mister River. “Is it… a foregone conclusion I won’t be surviving this assignment?”
Mister River smiled sadly. “We all die, Mister Chapman. The prudent man plans for it. And the foolish one truly believes it will never happen. You have some idea of what Trey believes. Are you going to follow her example?”