After too long, Interviewing Trey returns — and I’ve actually got the next several posts of this serial in various forms of complete along with it. In one sense, #15 ended ‘section one’ of this story, and this starts up ‘section two,’ which is pretty fast paced. This story also contains the often-mentioned band the Cheshire Kittens, who’ve existed both here and in Superguyish type things for over a decade with none of them getting screen time until now. You get to see them in their natural environment, which is vulgarity.
After the article and especially after Low Society, I mostly stopped writing about music. That’s not really surprising — I had written about music for Amplifier, and I didn’t much work for them after the article hit it big. It’s not that I won’t work for a news outlet — I’ve written for Esquire and Fordham’s Quarter since then. And it’s not even that I’d learned my old editor Kyle was a son of a bitch who’d happily let me be kidnapped for a story. That’s par for the course in the publishing industry.
No, I stopped writing about music because generally Amplifer couldn’t afford me any more and other music outlets had their own people. Besides, when you take up the supervillain journalism beat, you don’t have enough time to stay current on music trends. You’d be surprised how easily you fall out of that sort of thing, and when you fall out? You’re a poseur hack who doesn’t understand art, you bastard. Trust me. I’ve been told that before. Usually by a seventeen year old pop singer coming up out of the bastard child of Disney Channel’s management system and a producer who thinks he understands the Japanese Idol system. It’s weirdly adorable.
But sometimes the recording and parahuman worlds collide. About a year and a half ago Amplifier got an exclusive with the Cheshire Kittens — full access kind of thing. Only they’d only sign if I wrote it for them. So their editors got in touch with my agent and they negotiated me an acceptable flat rate, and I flew out to Empire City to sit in with the biggest act currently on tour.
Why did the defining edge of post-punk, meta-punk, and neo-punk want me? Because I interview supervillains. The Cheshire Kittens are all-girl, all-parahuman, all hard-edge, and all business. Their monster hit was “Transparent,” a song about an invisible woman being accused of crimes just by existing — sung by a parahuman rights activist who just happens to be a woman who can turn invisible. What were the odds? They were at the forward edge of the parahuman rights movement. So, an old music hack who also wrote about super powered criminals kind of fit their brand.
I bring this up because the interview happened about six weeks after Esther Jowls quit and burned her bridges with the Cheshire Kittens, so they were in the middle of finding a replacement drummer. I got to sit in on those auditions. It became my article’s hook. And it was just me, lead singer Tabitha Strong — aka G-Listening and the writer and singer of “Transparent” — and guitarist Zephyr Lish. We all sat behind a table watching girl after girl come in to prove they had what it took to be the drummer for the rawest act on tour.
In case you couldn’t guess? They generally didn’t.
“This is going well,” Zephyr Lish muttered. “I’m so glad we’re doing this.”
“Shut up,” ‘call-me-Tabby’ snapped back. “I’m on ibuprofin and prayer.”
“Why’s this going so badly?” I asked. “Why aren’t…”
“Why aren’t A-listers beating down our door?” Tabby asked. She snorted. “Because they don’t qualify. To sit on that drum kit, you start by having to be an expressed parahuman and a woman. After that comes ‘can you actually play the drums,’ and ‘can you actually play our music.’ Somewhere in there we also have to throw in their look, their attitude, and whether or not we hate them on sight.”
“These idiots are being fronted by agencies and labels,” Zephyr added. “Mostly not ringers though we get a couple. The agencies all want that in with us, ‘cause we’re signed with Metal Wing Records and those guys don’t play ball. Maybe — maybe we’ll find someone this way, but it’s way more likely we’ll find someone in a dive bar playing her damn heart out.”
“Yeah. That one earlier this morning? With the purple hair? Good drummer. Which makes sense because she studied percussion at Julliard. Fucking Julliard. Yeah, she’s an expressed parahuman and yeah she can drum — but she absolutely didn’t have any of the feel for neo-punk or our music. She looked like she was playing dressup, and talking to her I didn’t get any sense we could pull real punk rock out of her soul. And she’s the best prospect we’ve seen.”
“Yeah,” Zephyr said. “She was good. But she wasn’t a Cheshire Kitten and nothing was gonna make her a Cheshire Kitten.”
“Because of Julliard?” I asked.
“Fuck you,” Zephyr snapped. “I went to Julliard! And I’m sure her agent said it just took a haircut and leather, but it doesn’t. When Aileen Pyre auditioned for keyboards, she was in a fucking sweater and skirt and looked like she just drove over from Sunday School, but the second she hit the keys we knew she got it.” She shook her head. “God I hate fucking Esther.”
“And you wonder why she quit,” Tabby snarked, before calling the next drummer in.
Now, I’m not saying I understood it. A bunch of the drummers we saw looked like they’d fit in with the band from my point of view. But I’m not a Cheshire Kitten either, and I don’t understand what it means to be one. Not really.
All that was running through my head while I drank some of the crappy lounge coffee and watched auditions for ‘Deuce.’ I was sitting behind a long table at one side of a large multipurpose room. Trey was sitting next to me. She was in her white pants and blood red polo shirt with the three white heart logo combo. She had folders and head shots in front of her. She had lists and numbers and notes on 3×5 cards. She had a battered heart shaped ash tray and her blinged out clamshell phone sitting on the table too. It was practically the Cheshire Kittens auditions all over again. One by one women were coming in, talking about themselves and showing us what they had — and since that involved athleticism there were mats on the floor.
And I was beginning to understand what Tabby and Zephyr were talking about back in the day. Because just as Trey had predicted these applicants — all sent over by the Guild — were good, but they clearly weren’t Hearts.
The woman in front of us was a case in point. We’d seen eight or nine before her, but she stuck out because she was the specific head shot that Trey had shown me the day before. The one who ‘looked great on paper because she was well trained in martial arts, knew some dance, and even had some stage magic.’
Watching her go through katas in front of us now… I could see what Trey meant. She clearly wanted to be watched. She clearly wanted the job. She clearly wanted any number of things.
She didn’t look like the kind of person who’d drink the kool-aid. At least, not without some effort. She had too much sense of self. Too much discipline. And how could a professional hench not have discipline? It almost seemed like the people who’d be good enough to be sent by the Guild in the first place would automatically not work out as a Heart.
Trey was being cordial, which was weird in its own way. “Thank you,” she said, as the hench finished. “You say you’ve got some lockpicking?”
“Yeah,” she said. “From my time with the Horologist.”
“Of course. Hm. Take off your shirt.”
That made me blink. She hadn’t asked any of the others to do that.
The hench didn’t blink. She just peeled her shirt off. She had a sports bra on underneath. She was pretty heavily tattooed — I remembered Trey didn’t like tattoos, because they made it harder to rebrand them as a Heart.
She did so.
Trey nodded slightly. “You can put that back on.” She made a couple of notes, and slipped a card out of a box. It was the size of a business card, but had a seven of diamonds printed on one side. “Here,” she said, offering the card to the hench.
The woman walked over, accepting the card. “What is this?” she asked.
“Give that to reception, and tell them Trey said you should talk to Grace.” She smiled more broadly. “And thanks for coming in. We’ll keep you informed.”
The woman smiled, just a bit. “Thank you for seeing me,” she said, nodded to me, and walked out.
“You’re calling her back?” I asked, a little surprised.
“What? Fuck no. She’s no Heart. But Grace asked me to keep an eye out for any prospective Clubs. I wanna say Sax is going on maternity leave? Something like that. Lockpick plus tough with some sense of balance could be a decent Club. Maybe.”
“Oh,” I said. “Grace is the Seven of Diamonds?”
“Yup.” She turned to the door. “Next!” she called.
The next person was ushered in. The two ushers — one male and one female — were wearing black and white outfits, black polo, white pants, with roulette wheels embroidered on them. Staff, in other words, but I didn’t think any of these guys counted as henchmen. Unless they did. If they did, it was at a different level. Honestly, I still had no idea how any of this worked.
This time, it was the woman doing the ushering, and the prospect was a six and a half foot tall man.
“Thank you,” Trey said to the woman, who nodded and withdrew. She turned to face the man. “I’m sorry,” she said. “We’re not looking for men today. Thank you for coming in.”
“You’re looking for me,” he said. “I’m the best person in that room. Hell, I’m the best person in this building.”
“Oh, I’m sure you are, but I think the misdirection you’d cause by wearing the leotard would be off-brand from what we’re going for. Thank you anyway.”
“Then change the act, little girl. If I didn’t make myself clear, I’m the best you’re going to get and that—“
He spasmed as twin wires hit him in the stomach, delivering some five or six figure number of volts through his body. I watched him crumple to the floor.
Trey retracted the wires back into her taser. I hadn’t even seen her draw it. I doubt the hench prospect did either. She flipped open her phone and pushed three buttons. “Clean up detail,” she said. “Advise Bunco. Taser shot on a no-touch, but he didn’t match the criteria published to the Guild.”
“Got it,” I could hear. It was clearly on speaker phone. “Idiot.”
“Tell me about it.” She hung up. “God, this is such a drag.”
“What… was he even trying to do?” I asked. “Bluff his way onto the Hearts?”
She shrugged. “It’s called fronting. Putting up a bluster. Pushing a rep. Trying to dom your way through things. If the idiot had just left then I might have tossed him to Grace, but this guy’s too stupid to be a Club. And if you hadn’t noticed? That’s a pretty low bar.”
“Why would he even want to do this?”
“The money.” She shook her head in disgust. “I bet he’s the kinda guy who does well in smaller groups. Bullying his way to better credit than he deserves. Those guys get used to being able to push their way into things. Most of them know better than to try first or second tier, though. We don’t play ‘bully victim’ very well.”
“Will you get in any trouble for tasing someone here under the Guild’s no-touch?”
“Probably not. If I have to pay fines, I will — but he’s not dead, and by rights he should be, and he didn’t meet requirements to begin with so…” she shrugged again. “It’s Bunco’s problem, not mine.”
“Bunco like… the bunco squad from Dragnet? Investigating con men?”
“In this case ‘Bunco’ meaning ‘guy in charge of swindles.’ Also a lawyer.”
“Oh… he’s a… Diamond?”
Trey snorted. “Look at you, all learning how this works. Gooood reporter. Yeah, Eight’a Diamonds. Oversees the con games, deals with the Guild and the Service, coordinates the Steves. That kind of thing.”
Two burly looking guys in green polos and black pants came in. They had craps dice on their shirts, one showing five-two, the other showing three-four. They each grabbed an arm of the unconscious hench and started dragging him unceremoniously out of the room — though they dragged him to a far door, not the same way the other applicants had gone.
“This is such a waste of time,” Trey muttered while they worked. “I’ve got the actual dance call scheduled. That’ll be worth it. This is just make-work. God, I wish I were upstairs.”
“Yeah. Investors’ Meeting. Mister Oaknavés schmoozing the money men. God, it’s amazing to watch him work. I should be by his side. Instead, Kick and Stick are probably alienating half the room.”
I remembered Madam Bank mentioning that there were other investors in Dispater’s Vault besides the Jack O’Knaves. I wondered what sort of person would bankroll a series of literally underground casinos as run by a madman.
On the other hand… they were clearly raking in a lot more cash than even this place cost. And that would be enough, at least in Greystone City. “How often do they meet?”
“Quarterly.” Trey lit a cigarette, taking a deep drag before knocking its ash into the ash tray. “Though at least two of those meetings a year are all lieutenants. Madam Bank’ll be up there no matter what, but the boss wouldn’t show and neither would the other bosses — just Bank’s opposite numbers. But once or twice a year it’s the real deal. Today it’s the real deal. And I’m down here.” She shook her head. “The world’s fucked up. Next!”
‘Next’ was a woman with long blond hair. Rail thin. Probably a master at her work but wouldn’t fill out the leotard properly, so there was no way she’d get the gig. I suddenly flashed all the way back to my time with Leather. She’d been a hero before she was a villain, but she was too thin and not zaftig enough for the public to latch onto her. They called it ‘sidekick physique.’ One reason Leather liked being a criminal was because sidekick physique didn’t matter to criminals.
Except it clearly did.
The prospect went through her details. People she’d worked with. References. Skills. She showed a few katas and did a fast two-step. Trey was polite. And this one got a seven of diamonds business card before she was sent on her way — though she didn’t ask this prospect to show off her breasts.
This set up the next hour and a half. Almost everyone got a ‘thank you’ and was sent on their way. One other woman got a seven of diamonds and a referral to Grace. And I could tell by the end of it that Trey had been right. It wasn’t simply that none of the henches were to Trey’s tastes. None of them were Hearts.
After the last was gone, Trey lit up another cigarette. “Thank fuck that’s over,” she said. “Losers. If I’d show up with any of them I hope the other Hearts would kill me and be done with it.”
“I believe you.” I chuckled. “It’s almost funny.”
“What’s almost funny?” she asked, a slight edge to her voice.
I didn’t react to it. God help me, I was getting a bit inured. That would kill me pretty fast, I figured, but it was hard not to be fatalistic at this point. “Those henches,” I said. “I’ve interviewed a lot of villains, and I’ve met a lot of henches. And I know that almost any villain I’ve met before now would have killed to recruit almost any of those henches. But you’re clearly right. None of them could be Hearts.”
“Oh, now you’re an expert?” She smirked. “You tell me why they’re disqualified.”
“They want the job. If any of them had honestly wanted to work with the Jack, you’d have thought about it at least for a minute. But they wanted the job. So they’re not qualified for it.”
Trey narrowed her eyes, looking at me. “Huh,” she said, finally. “Yeah. I mean, no. That’s not right. But it’s not wrong. That’s… closer than I expected. And it’d work as a rule of thumb, at least.” She turned away, and began collating papers. “That’s probably the most we could hope for, honestly. You couldn’t ever be a Heart, so there’s only so much you could understand — that you can figure that much out’s honestly better than I assumed.”
She smiled, just a tiny bit, then looked at me sidelong. “So let’s test this,” she said, and I felt my heart drop. If you didn’t realize — it’s exhausting to always be balanced on the knife’s edge. Terror can only last so long, but when it’s freshly renewed over and over again, your perceptions numb and your endocrine system begins to give out. And it had only been two days so far. “Why do you think I will be able to find a Heart in the Open Audition?”
I looked at her, then looked away. “Because they’re not looking for this job. They’re looking for a job.”
“So, what. They’re unemployed?” She sounded annoyed and disappointed all at once.
“No. They’re clinging to a dream.” I snorted. “I’ve seen people who believe so hard in a dream that it hurts. People who believe they can rock, or dance, or sing. Fuck, I’m not immune — I had to believe I could write to get into Amplifier in the first place. And at the time I really couldn’t. They’re looking for a job — a job that lets them jump into that dream, that lets them hold onto it for just that much longer. Those people are potential Hearts, because those people have had their dreams stomped on over and over again but they still show up for a casting call or a chorus line audition.”
“Please, spare me your rendition of What I Did for Love,” Trey said, a bit brusquely. But only a bit.
I looked at her, but she was looking down at the resumes.
“Tell me something… and hopefully tell me it without killing me,” I said, softly.
“No promises,” she said with annoyance.
“I know you’re devoted… you’re a Heart, with all it implies. And I seriously am not trying to question that or insult you—“
“Get on with it,” she snapped.
“Do you still have that dream? Dance, I mean.”
She paused for a long moment. “I am dance, now,” she said, softly. “Being just some dancer seems small and petty by comparison. Everything about me is dance, and the world is the stage the Boss has choreographed and directed.” She looked at me. “The people who’ll show up to this audition still have a dream. You’re right about that. But the one who’s a Heart in the making? She’ll have lost sight of it. She’ll have been so broken up that she’s not grabbing this job to keep the dream alive — she’s grabbing it because without it she has no reason to keep breathing.”
The bedazzled phone rang. Trey smoothly flipped it open, still on speaker. “Vous avez atteint Trois,” she said, with at least moderately false cheer.
“Fuck you, bitch!” The voice was male, moderately effeminate, and much more cheerful than it sounded.
“Eat shit, whore,” Trey answered, relaxing more than usual. “What’s up, Sailboat?”
“Nothin’ but the stars and my blood pressure, Titsy. What’re you wearing?”
“Oh, suddenly you’re interested?”
“Heaven forbid — and this is work, assbutt, so make it fast.”
“Away game style polo and slacks.” At a guess, she meant that her shirt was red and her three diamonds patch was white, where a playing card would be the other way around — like a football team playing an away game in a reverse of their color scheme.
“Gotcha. You need to be in Society Formal in three minutes, because you need to be in the Boardroom in ten.”
“You heard me! With Chapman. I’ll have a dresser in the elevator.”
“Jesus—“ she snapped her phone shut and grabbed my arm, hauling me up and running for the door.
“What the—“ I went as best I could, though I almost tripped over my own feet.
“Come on! The Boss wants us!”
“Wants us? Where?”
She ran through the door, past the folding chairs where the prospective henches had been waiting, and straight for the Hearts Locker Room. “The Investors, you idiot!”
The Investors. As in… the Investors behind Dispater’s Vault. The money men.
I had wondered what kind of person would bankroll the Jack O’Knaves. It seemed I wouldn’t have to wonder much longer.