As was mentioned yesterday, it’s Interviewing Trey #15. It’s interesting to me how these serials pace out sometimes. We can have several hours or days pass between posts in one area, and have three posts in a row all within a very short timeframe. It’s all about finding the right pacing, or doing one’s level best to do so, anyhow.
Failing pacing, at the very least I try to keep coming up with fabrics.
I hope you enjoy.
If you go all the way back to the beginning — all the way back to the day a second rate music journalist went to an interview for a day and found himself kidnapped by a super villain for a week, you’ll see what some describe as ‘the emotional heart’ of the article. I’m quoting Sakura Trees when I write that. She’s a blogger for one of the big sites and yes, she named herself ‘cherry blossom trees.’ There’s an entire generation of essayists, reviewers, pundits, and straight up reporters who go by their blog-era handles to this day.
But that’s getting off track.
The ‘emotional heart’ of the interview according to these folks was the late night conversation I had with Leather. To set the stage, Leather’s henches had decided I’d ratted them out. I’d been locked in Leather’s bedroom all that time, so that’s where they went to confront me. They beat the tar out of me, bloodied up a pretty nice bedspread, and gotten their own asses metaphorically and in a couple cases physically beaten down by Leather when she got back. Rather than send me to sleep in a room with sullen henches, Leather kept me up there with her and with codeine making things a little hazy we talked late. Leather opened up a bit more than she had before that. It was a good moment. Nice. And it made for good article fodder.
It also meant that every bloody time I interviewed a villain after the article came out they wanted to have a pajama party.
Seriously. Third tier, fourth tier, arguable second tier, it didn’t matter. Somewhere in there they wanted to plonk me down on a day bed — if I was lucky — and sit up talking all night like teenagers on a sleepover. I was surprised the first time it happened. I was a bit annoyed the second through fifth times. Then, I just got used to it. It was part of the process, and you really did get to have a good conversation if the crook in question went at it honestly.
Maybe I should have expected the Jack O’Knaves to follow suit — but the Jack wasn’t exactly known for following the crowd. Still, if you think about it, showing up in my ‘hotel room’ and brushing his teeth until I woke up? That was a new spin. He was sitting in the overstuffed chair in the room now, and had just invited me to ‘get into bed and ask my questions.’
So I got into bed. I didn’t turn on the light — so the only light in the room was spilling out of the bathroom door, which was only open about forty-five degrees angled towards a wall. It meant the Jack was sitting in reflected light, the shadows long on his face and body. He was still dressed for work — white button down shirt, dress slacks, vest — but his sleeves were rolled up, his collar undone, and he was ‘relaxed.’ I put that in quotes because I always assume the Jack’s putting on a show. It’s safer that way.
The Jack was smiling, but then the Jack was almost always smiling.
“All right. Questions.” I rubbed my eyes. “You told me earlier today that you worked loud — blowing up a biodiesel gas station.”
“I did tell you that,” the Jack said, mouth quirking.
“But when you assigned Trey to take care of me, she said you had a gig at the Greystone Exchange. So… which one was the actual job, and which one was the misdirection?”
The Jack laughed. “You do pay attention. I like that. And Trey talks too much sometimes, and I don’t like that — but what can you do. You can hire for a look or hire for a brain, but getting both? Oh, that’s not generally in the cards.” So saying, he took out a deck of cards and began practicing shuffles and cuts. His hands were incredibly dexterous.
“I try. But that doesn’t answer my question.”
“No it doesn’t. And I’d say some other pithy comment and lead you down a different garden path, but I actually asked you to ask me things, so I suppose it’d be polite to answer.” He kept shuffling. Vaguely I realized he was misdirecting again — my eyes had gravitated to the cards, instead of looking at his face. “Honestly? They were both misdirection and they were both the trick, all at the same time. And more importantly, they were setup.”
“A lot of magicians — and criminals, now that I think about it — fail to think things through. Take your buddy Chiffon — it was Chiffon, right? Anyway. She worked out a pretty basic schedule of crime while you were with her. A dumbass jewel heist to let people know she was there, an electronics heist to pay the bills, a prestige heist where she stole an ancient Greek spittoon to add flair to the proceedings, and a bank heist designed to dare a hero into stopping her. Note I’m not counting the first heist — namely, you — or the one she clearly canceled after the heat went on and she decided to play Leotard Lass in the rain.”
“Okay?” I idly wondered how many different textiles he’d manage to call Leather during my captivity.
“All that was fine, for a Double-A scrub ballplayer. When you get into the big leagues, you need to try harder.” His fingers moved faster, cutting the cards, showing an ace. Reshuffling. Recutting to show the same ace. Shuffling, showing the cards fanned out, clearly in order by suit. Reshuffling, and fanning them out, showing them in order by rank. “Every trick needs to stand alone, but they should build on each other. If you do close magic with coins, and one of them’s a Susan B. Anthony dollar, that Susie B should show back up at regular beats. That way, every time she shows up, the crowd’s reaction is bigger and better than the trick alone would produce.” He finished a shuffle and cut again — the same ace. “End on a trick that turns five quarters into Susie B’s and the crowd goes nuts even if the actual trick’s a simple substitution.” He fanned out the cards, which had all turned into aces by suit, over and over again.
“So every trick sets up another trick in sequence.”
“Exactly.” He went back to shuffling. “If Gabardine wanted to really impress people, every one of her heists should have followed a theme. If she had to knock over some dumb discount Kay Jewelers, then she should have stolen a priceless heirloom jewel instead of a clay pot. But she’s a piker — she just wanted the pot so her name would get in the papers and so she had an ace kicker up her sleeve if that Medieval Times reject she was fighting got the better of her. I guess she’s gotten better, but moving up’ll do that to you. You adapt and improve or the sharks eat you.”
“Is that your philosophy for Henches as well? The Hearts, at least?”
The Jack laughed. “I’m sure it looks that way. Especially the Hearts. Oh, I adore my Hearts. I adore them so much…”
“But you’re going to kill them all, right?”
The Jack arched his eyebrow, looking at me. He swiped cards off the top of the deck and flipped one each onto the bedspread. Ace of clubs, eight of spades, three of hearts, eight of clubs, ace of spades. “I told you, me boyo — death is inevitable.”
“Yeah.” I looked at them. “Trey’s going to die soon, though. Right?”
The Jack smiled more broadly. “Sorry — I only do the Swami prediction con Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“What do you think of Trey? I mean, really think of her?”
He laughed. “She means well. She tries hard. She’s good in the patter and good in the presentation. It makes up for her lack of creative thought, her lack of forethought, and her general lacks too numerous to mention.”
“So if Trey’s got all those problems, why did you hire her in the first place?”
“Why do you think I hired her?”
My head hurt. I closed my eyes and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “My theory’s wrong.”
“Then I really want to hear it.”
“I think you hire flawed people who want to believe they’re perfect, so you can kill them at dramatic moments. I think you hire Clubs to do your work, Diamonds to provide your infrastructure, and Spades for your specialist parahuman work. I think you hire Hearts as set dressing and props, designed to distract the marks from the job and make the biggest impact possible — like flash paper when the mark isn’t expecting it, only what burns is a life.”
The Jack sat, fingers steepled. The deck of cards was gone. He looked… well, legitimately thoughtful.
“Like I said. I’m wrong.”
“Not entirely,” he said, softly. “There’s a kind of truth there. But then every truth is only kind of the truth. Every revelation hides a new secret. Every revealed trick conceals a deeper illusion. Why did I hire Trey? Setting aside the dance, the tits, the look, even her pathetic doglike devotion? She was useful. Her addictions were always just under her skin. I cut them out of her and filled myself into the gap, and now I barely have to talk to her — she reinforces herself to be what I need. Will I kill her? Yes. Of course I will. Will she believe it? No. Does it matter? That depends on the moment. The blowoff. If she plays her part, it’ll be amazing.” He bit his lip. “But is that why? Is that the only why? Of course not.”
“Because of her eyes. Something I saw in them. Something that suggested something. You can look at a resume to hire a Diamond or a Club. The eyes will tell you if someone’s a Heart. We talk like she’s a hopeless mess, and I get why… but she trains constantly. She’s the best dancer in the joint, not counting me. And… here. Here’s a story for you. You like stories, right?”
“I was having a casual stroll through Greystone with my old friend the Nightwatch. Peaceful. Restful. Calming. Small caliber, mostly, and I wasn’t letting him get close enough to crack my skull. And we smashed into Fordhams. You know it? Pricy boutique. Midtown? Whatever. Who cares.”
He leaned forward, eyes on mine. “I was down. Hurt. Good old Watchy had nailed me right across the face with one of those metal clubs. And he was advancing on me with that dark hissing voice. Walking right past the broken and unbroken mannequins.
“And then the mannequins turned and began shooting Kalashnikovs at him. And he whirled, that damn towel he wears making it hard to aim. He’d made them. All but one — and that one hit him with four straight rounds, near as we can figure. Probably right in the body armor, or maybe he’s been undead since before Freya went nuts. Who knows?”
I watched his eyes as he spoke. I couldn’t have turned away if I wanted to. “That was Trey. The only hits we can confirm. The only one who fooled him. She stood there, in heavy makeup to look like plastic, for six hours. She held pose. She didn’t sweat, groan, move around, or duck out for food, pee, or cigarettes. She waited. And she was so total at it that the Nightwatch was fooled. I watched the footage. Every other hench moved. At least a little. She didn’t.”
He leaned back in his chair. “She’s an idiot. She’s spoiled. She’s a junkie and a self-important little brat. She’s none too bright and she’s clearly going to die. But she commits. She commits on a dance stage. She commits in a shop window. If we had turned left instead of right I swear Trey would still be immobile in Fordhams, wearing too much foundation so she’d look like she was made of plastic.” He looked off to one side. “I’ll miss her.”
“Then why kill her?”
“Because missing her’s no excuse for missing. I miss Deuce, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t kill her again. There was a point to Deuce’s death. There’ll be a point to Trey’s too. Make bank on it.”
I felt vaguely sick. “You said there was a point to Deuce’s death. Trey implied you set Deuce up to die.”
“I set up a lot of people to do a lot of things. Preparation, Mister Chapman. Preparation is the key.”
“Was I the point? Did you kill her to make an impression on me?”
The Jack chuckled. “Do you think you’re that important?”
“Not really. Well, not usually. I am now.”
The Jack’s eyebrows went up. “Really, now? And why do you think you’ve earned such a sterling promotion?”
“Because I’m part of the setup, just like Trey and the rest.”
“The setup? For what?”
“I have no idea. All I know is I’m exactly where you want me to be, doing exactly what you want me to do. And that means you have a plan that I’m part of, and when the time is right I’ll be the Susan B. Anthony dollar that appears for the crowd’s delight.” I took a breath. “I don’t know if I’ll be dead or alive for that. I kind of expect I’ll be dead. But I know it’s going to happen either way.”
The Jack’s grin slipped a touch, and he looked at me. Sizing me up. “See?” he said. “I look in your eyes and I can see you believe it. It’s not bravado. It’s not whistling in the dark to work up your courage. It’s just acceptance.” He chuckled. “I won’t say that makes you smart, but I do know one thing.”
“You could never be a Heart.” He stood up, fluidly, and scooped the cards off the bedspread. “Sleep tight, Mister Chapman. Tomorrow comes all too early for us all.”