And now, as could be expected, we Interview Trey. Except, of course, that Trey’s not actually physically in this episode.
On the other hand…
The secret to the in depth, extended interview — no matter how weird or coerced — is note-taking and followup. Trusting your memory is a necessity for any writer, but the longer you wait between the event and the notes, the more your reporting becomes storytelling. Don’t get me wrong — there’s a narrative to any decent journalism. But that narrative should highlight or at least be acquainted with the truth, and that means getting your notes down fast.
It didn’t make it in the article, but that was something Leather and her henchmen loved to mock. I’d spent most nights bunked down with the henches when I was down there, and for a good hour before I’d go to sleep I’d be typing on my much more bricklike computer, getting impressions and notes down. Pre-lights-out they’d take me down several pegs while I wrote. And then there was the one night I’d actually stayed up in Leather’s room — mostly because the henches had beaten the snot out of me the night before — and we’d talked. So I wrote a bunch of stuff down that morning at breakfast… in part hoping it meant I’d avoid too much interaction with the henches. It was understandably weird the morning after they’d beaten me down, after all.
No such luck. “There he goes,” Marco said as I started typing. “When you list out that uppercut, remember my name’s Marco, with a ‘C.’ I may need this for my demo reel.”
“How do you put a magazine article into a demo reel?” one bagman asked.
“Wait, we’re supposed to have demo reels?” the other bagman said, grinning.
“Sorry, boys. Your little tiff probably didn’t even make the cut,” Leather said. “After all our passionate lovemaking and codeine filled revelations, I’m sure he can’t even remember you ruining my fucking bedspread.”
“Oh Jesus Christ,” Marco said, laughing. “I’ll buy you another damn bedspread.”
“No. I will buy me another bedspread. You will just pay for it. I’m not trusting your taste.” That made them laugh, too. Leather had been right. She’d gotten up early and crunched the numbers for the electronics heist the night before, and even though the henches had to pay significant penalties for breaking Leather’s hostage — you know, me — they were in a good mood instead of angry about being dressed down.
I ignored them. That previous night had been full of stuff that ultimately ended up in the article. Not including any passionate lovemaking, if you haven’t read the article. Leather seems to have adopted me as a somewhat slow brother, but that’s pretty much it, there. There was a lot of stuff, so I wanted to get it all down.
Which brings us back to this interview. And in one sense it was similar — namely, I hurt pretty badly. That ‘morning’ — I have no idea what morning and night were any more — I’d been stirred after God knows how long under sedation and surgery to implant a bomb in my neck. I’d been beaten up a couple of times, including recently being taken down hard. I’d been threatened, pushed, insulted, demeaned, and in at least one case made into a power play. I was exhausted. I hurt. I practically wanted to curl up and die.
But whether I’d chosen this or not, I was on the clock. And that meant before I could sleep? I had to take notes.
Fortunately, my laptop was indeed in my closet, just as Mister River had promised before. My ‘working clothes’ — my leather jacket, turtleneck, light-enhancing glasses… all the things Leather had given me years before — were in the closet as well, and there was underwear, undershirts, polos, and all the rest graciously provided by the host.
I’d had another shower, and was now wearing light sweats and a black polo with a snake eyes logo embroidered in the Izod position. Mister River had returned with a pot of tea. “A chamomile blend of my own design,” he said. “I don’t recommend staying up too late. Tomorrow may come sooner than you realize.”
“Late or early, I have to get this down,” I said, booting the machine. The same login prompt. The same password—
The desktop background was now overlaid jacks of all four suits, from a variety of playing cards. Otherwise, everything looked the same.
It… was strange. Seeing that. The Jack had kidnapped me. Stolen my life. Threatened me. Killed to get me and just for the fun of it. Violated my body through surgery. And made it clear I was going to die when he was done with me.
But in that moment? Seeing my computer having been compromised? I felt violated for the first time. My computer was mine. It was where I worked. Where I expressed myself.
It’s stupid, maybe. But it was real. I just stared for a long moment.
“You could change your password,” Mister River said, softly. “But I doubt it would make a difference.”
“I could but I won’t,” I said. “He’s already been in there. I’m not going to pretend he hasn’t been.”
“Will it affect your writing?”
I snorted. “Yes. But everything does. That’s why each new piece is different than the last.” I opened up a text file and began typing. Summarizing. “What happens shapes what’s written. This just shapes it a new way.” I kept typing. “I may spend more time calling him a bastard in the final, of course.”
“That may not be the safest course of action,” Mister River said, lightly — pouring the tea as he spoke.
“Yeah, well…” I kept typing. “Nothing’s the safest course of action, right? There’s no such thing, because there’s no such thing as safety. I’m going to die. I’m going to do what he wants. I’m going to write. So playing it safe does me no good. You said before that I have to be more careful — Trey’s on edge, and may do worse than flip me. But being careful does me no damn good. Even if I figured out the best way to do it, it’d probably piss the Jack off for softballing and he’d kill me for that. Right?”
Mister River paused.
“It’s a fair observation,” he said. “Though there is a difference between playing it safe and being foolhardy.”
“I know.” I kept typing. “But being honest in my writing isn’t foolhardy. It’s the only bit of me I have left. My inability to keep my mouth shut and my driving need to write what I actually saw.”
Mister River considered, then nodded. “I can respect that. Even envy it.”
“Envy?” I looked sidelong at him. “I… kind of got the feeling you were the one person who could full on tell truth to power to ‘Mister Oaknavés.’”
Mister River began cleaning up supplies. “There are limits, Mister Chapman. There are truths I can tell Mister Oaknavés, and truths I can’t ever say. For myself. For my wife. For my daughter.”
“How did all that happen, anyway? How did he get the three of you?”
Mister River paused a moment, then continued cleaning. “My daughter chose to come work for him. My wife and I did not agree with this choice. We made the error of attempting to retrieve her. And we made a further error.”
“Competence.” Mister River looked at me, earnestly. “My wife is extremely skilled at her trade. Few CPAs could manage such a diverse portfolio as Mister Oaknavés’s. She is one of them. So using my daughter as leverage he drew us in. It didn’t take much at that point for us to find ourselves on Mister Oaknavés’s payroll and explosive leash. I think he might have killed me to make a point to my wife… but as it turns out I am a very good butler. And he knows very well I won’t betray him.”
Mister River looked surprised. “You can’t figure that out? Mister Oaknavés leaves nothing to chance. He plans every detail of his life. He roots out every contingency. If I were to betray him, one of those contingencies would mean the life of my wife or daughter. Or both.”
“Even though he’ll kill all three of you, eventually?”
“We’re Diamonds,” Mister River said. “Some Diamonds live to retire. Remember? Now, that’s very unlikely to be my wife or I. But it might be my daughter. I do not choose to take unnecessary risks with that possibility.”
“Sure.” I paused. “Mister River… your daughter seems… happy to work for him.”
Mister River looked… old, all of a sudden. “That is because she is happy to work for him. And she is annoyed that my wife and I horned our way in.”
“Why is she annoyed? Because she is young, and that is her right.”
“Why is she happy to work for him?”
Mister River paused for another long moment. “Because he is fun, and cool, and because my daughter is a terrible person who doesn’t care if people live or die. It’s clearly my fault. Mine and my wife. She had been a henchman before she came here. She came through the Guild.”
“Trey said the Guild wasn’t much good for recruiting henches for the Jack.”
“They aren’t good for Hearts. Hearts are not like the rest of us. Diamonds are support staff. Most of those he doesn’t make a project come from the Guild. And she loves this assignment. She loves the prestige, the money, the thrill… and as a Diamond, she’s not generally in the line of fire. She’s only been jailed a few times, really.”
I stared at Mister River. “Even if he’s going to kill the two of you?”
“She doesn’t think he is. Not really. He kills a lot of people, but he won’t kill her parents. She does a good job and so do we. Therefore, he won’t kill us. She thinks that his insanity is an act. She doesn’t understand, and probably doesn’t care.”
I felt pretty low. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I.” He finished cleaning up the dishes, then looked at me. “When we were a family, and she was growing up? I had my work, my wife had hers, and our au pair had a baby to raise. I had a very long time to get close to my daughter, and I chose to do other things with that time instead. If she is a terrible person now, it was because I was a terrible father, and my wife a terrible mother. We know this. We accept it.” He looked at me. “It is the privilege of a father — no matter how terrible — to die that his child may live. So I will serve Mister Oaknavés. I will do my best to be a good butler. I will speak truths in the way he likes, but not the way he does not like. And eventually… to make a point, or because I annoy him, or for no reason I can discern, he will most likely kill me. The same with my wife.” He turned away, and began pushing the cart out. “And if that increases the odds that my daughter will live to retire from his service? Then I accept this without complaint. Good night, sir. I will see you in the morning for breakfast.”
“Good night, Mister River.”
He paused at the door. “Mister Chapman?”
I looked up from my typing. “Yeah?”
“Don’t try to save my daughter, or convince her of the error of her ways. That way lies her death, or my wife’s death, or my death. Please. Don’t.”
I paused, then nodded. He nodded in return, and turned back to the door.
I watched him leave. I thought about what he said. I felt terrible, and scared, and a little horrified that this monster that had all our lives in his hands was allowed to live.
And then, because I’m me, I wrote it up in my notes. You can tell, because it’s in here now.
Somewhere after that, I went to bed. And though I’d have made book it wouldn’t happen, I fell asleep.
Sometime in the middle of the night, I heard a noise and woke up. Despite everything, you tend to be a pretty light sleeper when you make your living by interviewing supervillains. I opened my eyes, and realized there was light in the room — light coming from the bathroom where the door was still a quarter open. I couldn’t see inside.
But I could hear. A rasping sound, regular. Scrubbing.
Teeth being brushed.
I heard a spitting sound, then another round of scrubbing.
Frowning, I got out of bed and walked over. “Trey?” I asked, opening the door.
Trey? No. Not Trey at all.
The Jack O’Knaves was mid-scrub, a red and white toothbrush — not the one I’d been given — in his mouth. He glanced up and lifted a finger.
I nodded and backed up, eyes wide.
He spat again, then rinsed out his mouth. He took a hit off a red mouthwash that hadn’t been in there either. He took thirty seconds to swirl it, then spit that as well. “Cinnamon!” he declared. “Bracing, even right before bed. Evening, sunshine!”
“Hi…” I said. “You’re in my bathroom.”
“Technically my bathroom. I own the joint. But yeah. And hey — as ways of waking up in the middle of the night, it beats some pierced tart saying ‘kegels’ out of nowhere.” He shook his head. “I don’t get her at all. It must have driven you nuts spending your time with — what was it? Linen? Whatever.” He walked out of the bedroom. “Well, get back into bed — it’s the middle of the night. You need your beauty sleep, right?”
“Why are you here?”
“Why am I here? We all have to be somewhere. A lack of being anywhere’s considered the first warning sign of being fictional.” He smiled a bit. “You should get some sleep. But if you aren’t? Well, my days are action packed and fun filled, so we’ve had some trouble hooking up for that interview. So if you’re going to be up anyway… you must have some questions for me by now.” He grinned that damnable grin. “So go ahead. Get into bed, and ask your questions.”
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