Two posts in two days. That likely won’t last. Still — if Interviewing Trey #16 was mostly setup, #17 is where things begin to happen.
The language is a little rougher than normal in this one, which came as a surprise to me. This one also begins to fill out the ⎇001JW villain roster, which honestly it’s needed. We also have a limited edition villain pastiche collector’s set rounded out, which is cool. I hope you enjoy it.
There’s also a lot of description in this one. “What are you wearing” is just part of any major event on the social calendar, I guess.
I opened this book saying that the insane profession I’m in — interviewing actual C and D list Supervillains — became ‘just a job’ over time. This is true, as astounding as that continues to seem. Of course, I counterpointed that with the Jack’s arrival in Rook’s parking lot lair — and how the Jack’s arrival had put my well past ‘just a job’ territory.
As the doors to the expansive lounge opened, I realized I had moved just as far past ‘the job’ in those few seconds as I had the moment the Jack stepped out of smoke and killed four people. Still, I tried my best to take it in stride, as difficult as that was.
Trey was on my arm, walking as though I owned her and wasn’t I just the luckiest man in the room as a result? It wasn’t true, of course — if anything she owned me and cursed her own bad luck over it — but her entire profession was illusion. She was in a floor length sequined white gown with the three red hearts down her abdomen in a way that led your eye to the gather between her legs — calculated sex. I say it was a gown but understand — it was slit so high on the hip she was exposing bare side, with a white stocking traveling her highlighted leg to regulation thigh position and an expensive looking stiletto heel on the foot your eyes naturally hit traveling down. The gown wasn’t meant to ever cover that leg, using asymmetry to accentuate what was there. Her arms and back were completely bare, the back of the gown so low that you thought you could see more than you could. Similarly, the neckline plunged, thin straps tied about her neck to hold her glittery cups in place. Her hair was piled up in an apparently expensive, time consuming mess, and she had bits of platinum and ruby and here and there to accent. Trey’s job was to distract when it was time to distract, and never look out of place the rest of the time, and she was doing it to perfection as always.
As for me? I was in a grey mourning suit, more or less, complete with cummerbund and artfully messy ascot with diamond tipped pin. The suit was cut thinner than such suits normally were. My shirt was starched and white, and my cufflinks — I am not lying — were stylized ‘How to Play Poker’ logos. When the Jack does a motif, he commits.
Our entrance attracted attention. I can’t say I liked that, given the people in that room. They were the ‘money men.’ The investors. The people who fronted the cash for and now made profit on the Dispater’s Vault underground casinos world wide.
Who would give money to the Jack? Who else? The first tier of supervillainy. I recognized a large percentage of the room, and there wasn’t a one I wasn’t scared of, even after my time as the Jack’s prisoner. And here I was, with one of the Jack’s top henches on my arm, making an entrance designed to show me off to all of them.
But I should probably back up a bit.
You’ll recall that Trey was hauling me to the Heart Locker Room after getting the call that she — and I — were expected in ‘the boardroom.’ When we hit the room Trey let me go and ran to the far side of the room. I’d noticed before that there wasn’t one set of lockers from 2 to 10 in the room, but two. This time, she was going for the far locker, and she was tearing off her polo shirt while she went.
Let me dispose of one detail. Yes, Trey got naked in front of me. But before you start… I don’t know… hooting or something, let me make something clear. This wasn’t stripping and it wasn’t nudity. This was theater naked. This was backstage naked. And that never, ever counts.
When you see someone on any given stage, performing in any way in any venue as seen by the public, they’re wearing clothes carefully picked out for the performance — no matter how chaotic and careless they seem to be. Naturally, as the performance proceeds, costuming often changes as well, and most of the time the performers seem entirely unconcerned. The process is effortless, and part of the illusion, even if their change happens in what seems like seconds.
When that happens, there’s a freestanding tornado backstage. Sometimes it involves other people. Sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, the person has preset clothing and props and their entire existence at that moment, rehearsed time and again, is to get out of the old clothes and into the new ones in time to hit their next cue. This may involve hair and makeup, too.
There isn’t time for modesty, and anyone who gets a thrill off of seeing it’s essentially a hopeless rube. I’d been backstage at enough concerts to have that fact drilled into me. All that matters to the performer is that you’re out of the way.
I stayed out of Trey’s way. And no, I didn’t gawk or stare. I’m no rube. Besides, there was always the chance she’d forget herself and kill me.
Sailboat had told Trey she had three minutes. It was less than two before she was running shoeless (in stockinged feet — she’d already put those thigh highs on. If you think that’s easy, please enjoy the cracked bones when you fall trying it) down the hall to the elevator, which was opening like it had been choreographed. Which, honestly, it probably had.
And me? I was running after her, just trying to keep up.
Sailboat had said there would be a dresser in the elevator. Dresser naturally didn’t mean furniture — it meant ‘stagehand who helped with costume changes and prepped actors.’ Only there wasn’t ‘a dresser’ in the elevator. There was a team of four, all wearing blue and white polo shirts with dice logos on them. Two women grabbed me as I got in, a man and a woman bracketed Trey.
The women who’d grabbed me were stripping my clothes off faster than I think I’ve ever been made naked. I was so ancillary to the process I barely noticed it — I lifted feet as they directed, let them spray me with things, brush my hair, run an electric over my face, change everything out — whatever they wanted. I honestly still found myself paying more attention to what the other two were doing to Trey.
That was mostly hair and makeup. I mentioned the ‘time consuming, expensive looking’ hair above? Another illusion. Trey’s hair was cut in such a way that it could be piled exactly as I described and pinned into place with a minimum of effort and a few sprays of something like hairspray only made out of manna from Heaven. The woman was doing the piling, while the man was brushing on makeup, spraying scent, literally smelling Trey and adding deodorant as needed. It was intrusive and disturbing and incredibly efficient.
We made the ten minute deadline. In fact, we waited outside the lounge for thirty seconds so we could enter right on time. As I described above, my two dressers had me decked out in a mourning suit so fast I wasn’t one hundred percent sure I hadn’t put it on that morning. They even transferred my little notebook, but replaced my crappy but reliable pen with a small platinum space pen instead, both tucked in my coat pocket.
Fifteen seconds before we were let in, Trey took my arm. “Confidence,” she hissed. “Think Alec Baldwin at his most smarmy. Think Brad Pitt playing a hotshot gambler. Think Wall Street and Sinatra. And think it now.”
The doors were opened by two doormen — I realized the dressers had never even come out of the elevator — and we were in the lounge, and I was doing my level best to be Jack Nicholson and failing miserably. But be fair — in that room Jack Nicholson would have trouble being Jack Nicholson.
The room was broad and elegant, with a crystal chandelier in the middle. Several women in black cocktail waitress dresses were cycling through, gathering drink orders and being sexual. I realized they were wearing small pins with white Swarovski playing card clubs on them. I noticed a seven of clubs and nine of clubs. So those weren’t just waitresses, they were full fledged elite henches who specifically worked Thug. I also noticed one tall asian woman with fawn, light yellowish brown skin and reddish streaked hair piled up as artfully as Trey’s, wearing a similar dress but with ten black spades sequined on her abdomen — the Ten of Spades, meaning she was one of the super powered henches the Jack had empowered and used.
But all of them — even the Ten of Spades, whatever her actual nickname was — were set dressing. They flowed between small cliques of guests, and that’s who really commanded my attention. I first noticed Beguile — how does one not notice Beguile? — with her glistening gold pixie cut, her rich bronze skin, and that infamous uniform — the one piece with the keyhole so large it was effectively a plunging neckline, diamond-cut from neck to navel, this time in magenta and white, as were her boots. She was lazily talking to Sharpshooter Smith, russet skinned, blue eyed, bald as ever, and wearing a formal suit but still showing his wrist-cannons that had made him the best assassin in the world. Delilah Dare, the so called ‘new Cordelia Chance’, was wearing her usual white mercenary bodysuit — cut the same as Cordelia Chance’s red one had been before the trouble, and next to her stood a grey skinned, sleekly muscled seven foot woman whose hair was more a mass of tendrils and who wore a wetsuit like she always did. She was Malie the Destroyer.
Two first tier villains, Leonardo Lucas’s current right hand, and Anchor’s lieutenant — Lucas and Anchor both being in prison last I knew. All of them were best known for fighting Paragon, though Malie’s master Anchor was more the Ancient Mariner’s nemesis. Nearby were men and women in suits, looking nondescript — their henchmen, no doubt.
A second group had formed in the middle of the room — most notably including the olive skinned goddess Hecate, looking bold in a golden gown. Veiled Medusa was by her side as so often happened. Behind the sheer protective fabric over her face Veiled Medusa was clearly bored, despite talking to Coldsnap. Coldsnap was from Paramount City, wearing grey and white arctic camo combat gear as she most often did. Bandolier was probably the most famous of the Beacon’s rogues, but Coldsnap was arguably the most successful — certainly she was the most likely to have the money to invest in a place like this. Chattergun Calhoun — infirm in a wheelchair but still wearing his pinstripe black and white suit and white hat — was with them, as was Amulet, the turncoat Junior Justice Winger I’d actually interviewed for Low Society when she was still in the third tier. Amulet wore the same red bodysuit she’d worn when she was Paragirl and Shillelagh’s best friend.
Freya’s old arch enemy, a solid Freya nemesis and Freya’s treasonous former sidekick all together, along with a Beacon foe and a man who’d bedeviled the Lieutenant long before Paragon first flew publicly.
Just behind them stood Ashface, the solid grey gangster who’d gotten some fame for uniting several syndicates. He wanted to look like he belonged, and he was clearly trying not to get caught leering at Hecate or Beguile. Honestly, he didn’t succeed at either of those He wasn’t really a first tier villain but he did have a lot of cash, so it wasn’t surprising he was here.
It also wasn’t surprising that he wasn’t alone — specially given who his arm-candy hench of the night turned out to be. She was a woman in leather opera gloves nearly to her shoulders, brownish hair, a corseted red and black PVC dress that looked better suited to an alternative club night than this group, and her trademark silver eyes with no visible irises. Her name was Moriarty James, and despite my awe over the rest of the room I had to suppress a groan when I saw her. Like a lot of people, I had a history with her. Still, I wasn’t surprised she was here. If there was any chance she could latch onto a gathering like this — not unlike a remora — she’d take it.
I distracted myself with the other major clique in the room. The ones in the far corner. The ones who didn’t have far to go. The Dark Gods of Greystone. The Jack’s closest confederates. Not all of them were first tier, but in Greystone City they owned everything, and if the Jack let them survive to establish a rep they were a part of his circle and no doubt got in if they wanted. I could see the monstrous beast-man called the Hyena next to Thermostat, the murderous master of temperature. Lady Violet — the increasingly insectile alchemist and traitorous protege of Lady Velvet herself — was next to the pale-yellow-and-black clad Decipher. And behind them all…
He looked wizened and ancient, a bit of rouge standing out on his face. He wore a black coat over grey pants and a white shirt with a splash of paisley around his neck, a slightly floppy, well oversized black fedora-like hat at an angle — wide brimmed almost like a sunhat, really. Old, watery blue eyes looked around the room and a a walking stick nestled in his hand. And of course, there was thick brown and black fur fluffed up on his coat’s lapels. It was the only actual allusion to his name — a name that had meant crime of all kinds in Greystone for decades upon decades.
He was the Buzzard. And he was the only other original Dark God besides the Jack still in the game. He looked shrunken and old and inoffensive, and it was entirely a lie. He was just as dangerous as the Jack, only in completely different ways. Some people assumed he wasn’t as bad because unlike the Jack he was almost frighteningly sane. Other people believed that made him worse.
There were probably other people there too. I may have missed some. I mentioned all the henchmen people brought with them, for example. I did notice Madam Bank — still in her usual skirted suit — talking to someone. But for the most part, my head swam at the sight of so many of the worst the world had ever known, crossing the gamut from thievery to mercenary work to contract murder to mass murder. So if I missed someone who reads this later on? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I was freaking the Hell out at the time.
Confident, Trey had told me. Confident.
Having been paraded out where everyone could see me, most everyone in the room was interested for perhaps two seconds then went back to their own conversations. That’s one of the things about me that’s important to know. Barbara Babcock — Babcock-Ellerbee, sorry — walking in would have been a shock to everyone, because she was at their level. Teddy Porter. Anais Allston. Reporters like that — the epicenter of the first tier.
Me? I made my name humanizing the third tier. In some media circles I was a big deal. But to these guys? Delilah Dare probably wouldn’t even remember I’d been there. She certainly wouldn’t mention it in whatever report she gave to Leo Lucas. To most of these guys? I was a curiosity — less of a big deal than if he’d kidnapped Criss Angel.
Most of those guys. But I didn’t know that then. I knew the Jack wanted me up there, but I couldn’t see why. And that scared me.
Trey actually was as confident as I was supposed to look, of course — and she was skilled at making it look like I was leading her into the room and towards the Greystone City clique, when of course she was leading me. That was her dance training at work. There was always a leader in ballroom dance. The best dancers could lead while making it look like their partner was calling the shots. To Trey, walking with me was just another dance. She smiled and nodded, leaning in closer to me and laughing a hello to one of the henches who apparently knew her.
“Todd! Hel-LO darling!”
I really, honestly tried not to groan. Trey had glided to a stop, of course, and I’d turned to face the incomer.
Moriarty. Of course.
Moriarty James was, in my untrained opinion, completely nuts. That opinion wasn’t unique to me, either. She spent her life staging ill thought out raids with little or no hench support, being defeated by super heroes, and clearly loving every second. The rest of her time she attached herself as a hench, love interest, or arm candy to super villains she perceived as powerful. She affected a British accent that clearly wasn’t close to her native dialect. She was well equipped, well trained, and a completely ridiculous fuckup, all at once. She clearly wanted to be a real, big time supervillain, but the best she could manage was tabloid fodder celebutante on the Superwatch circuit.
And God help me, other than Madam Bank, Trey, and Amulet — and I didn’t think Amulet had much interest in talking to me this time — she was the only person I actually knew in the room.
I ‘interviewed’ Moriarty James when she hijacked a plane I was on. It was a nonstop between Empire City and Las Bendiciones — over five hours of flight. As soon as the seat belt signs went off, she took the plane over, knocked out two air marshals, forced everyone out of first class, brought me up there — I was flying in coach — ordered the pilot to stay on course to Las Bendiciones, and proceeded to answer my questions with contradictory soundbites, aphorisms, and double entendres she clearly didn’t actually feel. She had no other demands, though she threatened to blow the plane up if they tried to land at some other airport. It was the first time in American aviation history that a hijacked plane landed twenty minutes early at its original destination as part of the hijacker’s demands.
When we landed, she made them open the door as normal, walked out, and surrendered to the SWAT team. She knew some of them by name. Totally. Nuts.
The incident was good for a two page ‘chapter’ in Low Society. And let’s be clear — those two pages were neither complimentary nor kind to Moriarty James. The next time I ran into her — and that’s just weird to type — she took the time to gush about our “great interview together.” She loved everything about it, and she had plenty of ideas for followups.
So… in her mind we were friends. “So good to see you,” she said, breathily, sliding in close and glancing contemptuously at Trey in the process. “It’s been so long, dear — oh, look at you, all dressed up… you’re a heartbreaker and that’s no lie.”
“You… look amazing, Moriarty,” I said. Which was true enough, in one or two senses.
“Oh, thank you. Can you believe it? I designed this myself! Well, I had a little help here and there, but still—“
“Miss James, I believe your date is looking lonely.”
The voice was cool — almost a purr, but with a slight hint of steel. Looking made the blood leave my face even as my eyes got wide. It was Beguile. The Psychadelic Siren herself. She was daughter of Doctor Guile — the first known mad scientist, responsible in part for the Lieutenant’s second chance at life, the original Beacon’s powers, and a whole lot more. Beguile had been subject to his experiments for years, before she discovered her own potential for magic. The combination had made Beguile into a melange of ‘quantum arcana’ gone wrong. She was one of the most intensely beautiful women on Earth, in no small part thanks to the knot of spells that were simply part of her existence now, and until I actually saw her I didn’t understand what that really meant.
She was walking over to us the way liars claimed some women could walk. You wouldn’t believe the simple act of moving forward could be so obviously parahuman in nature, but here was the evidence. Her hips, her shoulders, her legs, her feet — everything was beyond sublime, like she were the platonic ideal of an animation walk cycle. Next to me I could feel Trey stiffen. No shock. Trey lived for dance and movement, and she was absolutely the best… until someone looked at Beguile and realized Trey really was ‘just’ a hench in a world of Gods. Given her self-esteem issues, I wondered how she coped with that.
“What?” Moriarty asked, turning to face Beguile at the villain’s statement. “Oh, Ashface? Oh seriously, think about what you’re saying, dear Beguile.” She turned back to me. “He seriously named himself Ashface, Todd. Seriously. He clearly never even thought about the obvious—“
“Miss James… it’s indecorous to abandon a man’s arm.” Beguile was smiling now. It was a cobra’s smile — and just as alluring for all that.
“…ah,” Moriarty said. “Of course.” She dimpled at me. “I’ll see you soon,” she said before retreating to a somewhat sullen looking Ashface.
“Mademoiselle Séduire,” Trey said, smiling a very professional smile as the arch-villain approached. “It’s always so lovely to see you. Are you enjoying the crab puffs? Mister Oaknavés made certain we’d have them just for you.”
“They’re hors d’oeuvres,” Beguile said, clearly unimpressed… well, with anything, right then. “They exist, they don’t offend, they give us a reason to drink wine. Give me a moment with your friend.”
Trey’s chin went very slightly up. “It’s indecorous to abandon a man’s arm,” she said, just slightly snippily.
“Yes,” Beguile said, coolly. “Only trash would do it.” She kept looking at Trey, waiting.
Trey paused, then smiled and flowed back, letting me go and sliding to the wall, before turning to collect wine of her own, betraying absolutely no offense at Beguile’s implications.
“I…” I said, momentarily at a loss for words. Yeah, me. Mister ‘never stops asking questions.’ I’m still human and Beguile does something to your brain just by being close. I’m not exaggerating or being sexist. Thinking is literally harder near her — like static in your head. It’s not that I lacked questions — there was lag between my brain and my mouth, and by the time I could speak she was saying something else.
“Leather was my apprentice,” she said, just as smoothly as before. She was looking at me now, and I realized her irises were literally prisms. I could see them refracting some kind of inner light from her eyes outward. The effect was strange. “That was years ago, but still. I’m partial to her and proud that she’s done well. You were part of that. I wanted to thank you.”
I was a little stunned. There was no one less like Leather than Beguile, as near as I could tell. This was her supervillain mentor? Leather didn’t even like talking to women. A dozen questions flooded my brain, but none of them could work their way down to the talky bits. Instead, I managed to stammer out some facile sounds. “You’re welcome. I… um… and… thank you for… um… suggesting Moriarty—“
“Oh, think nothing of that. Putting Moriarty James in her place is less a chore and more a parlor game.” She looked me up and down. “Regardless… Leather deserves the credit for your story. She came up with the idea and she leveraged it further than most would have believed. But you played your part well, and since I assume we won’t ever see each other again, I wanted to express my appreciation.”
“I was… I was glad to do it,” I said. “And… feel free to say hi for me if you… happen to be talking to her…“
“You mean ‘feel free to tell her the Jack O’Knaves kidnapped you,’” Beguile said, not breaking conversational stride. “No. Even if I cared if you lived or died, I wouldn’t endanger Leather by mentioning any of this to her. Since I don’t care if you live or die, be content with my thanks.” She turned and walked away without another word.
Being dismissed like that was chilling, but I still watched her go. People often don’t understand the power of parahuman charisma. It’s potent and it’s subtle, all at once.
Trey rejoined me smoothly — that dancer’s sense once more — handing me a glass of white wine and retaking my arm. She had managed to make her dismissal look planned and intentional. “Nicely done,” she murmured with a smile. “But still — you actually interviewed Moriarty James?” No matter how much respect Trey had to give someone like Beguile, it was clear she didn’t have any respect for the faux brit wannabe.
“No,” I murmured back. “I was commandeered by Moriarty James. It’s sort of like what your Boss did, only your Boss had a plan and has an intention.”
Trey laughed, lightly, even as she ushered me to the Greystone clique. I’m not sure if she was doing that for my protection or because somehow she’d been given instructions.
Of course, if it was for my protection… Trey didn’t always get things quite right.
There was a scent that clung to the small knot of villains. Spiced, but also sepulchral. Lady Violet might have been responsible for both, for all I knew. She had an angled straw-blond bob, styled to give her a bit of an artificial widow’s peak. Her formerly light skin’s pink undertones were now iridescent, as were the jeweled dragonfly wings that emerged from her shoulders. She wore a purple velvet one piece — maybe the only connection she still had to Lady Velvet — and a pair of brass goggles that covered her eyes. The one piece itself was crochet-accent styled, showing her skin through the lace-like patterns in the velvet. On the other hand, it had a high neckline and its bust was clearly built like a sports bra. It was one of her actual uniforms, as were her velvet-covered boots, and the pouched belt that was slung at an angle across her hips. Like Beguile, you were drawn to her instantly — and for much the same reason. In Lady Violet’s case, her enhanced charisma involved pheromones and overt alchemy. Behind her, her burly henchmen were wearing tuxedos that didn’t fit all that well. Though she had become somewhat insect-like since she’d taken up her name, her stare made me feel more like a bug than she looked. “Jesus Christ,” she murmured with undisguised disgust. “It’s true. Todd Chapman.”
“Scrivener seeking stories among Garth Brooksian compadres,” Decipher murmured. No, not murmured. Her voice was always… melodic. Like she were purring or singing as part of her speech, which had the effect of making it actually harder to understand her — which of course was part of the point. “And pelt-preoccupied publicist.” Her umber-brown skin didn’t look enhanced like Lady Violet’s, but she still seemed almost… unnatural, her black hair having edges of yellow in indirect light. As with her near-namesake, her schtick was puzzles and codes. She was a master solving them and everything she did involved them. Unlike the original Cipher, she was also murderous and reputedly amused by the suffering of others. It was said she almost never lost the mysterious smile she was smiling, either. She had two bodyguards with her too, both women, one in her pale yellow, the other in black.
The Buzzard looked at me, his sunken, watery eyes not looking entirely unsympathetic as he took me in. “I shouldn’t have expected Jack would want you,” he said. “But I trust his hospitality has been to your liking?” His voice was high and wavered, like it would become querulous at any moment, even though he wasn’t apparently given to complaint. His guards looked like old school gangsters.
“I… he’s certainly gone to a lot of trouble,” I said.
“Too much trouble,” Lady Violet sniffed. Near her, the Hyena growled a low growl.
“Is there… some problem?” I asked, looking from one to the other.
Thermostat snorted. His own costume was in muted reds and blues, with armored pieces and a full featureless face mask of opaque blue with red reflections. Most of the Dark Gods of Greystone apparently came in their work clothes, even if their henches were in formal attire. Home town advantage, perhaps. Or an unwritten dress code. Even the Buzzard’s somewhat ratty if formal clothing was what he famously wore day to day. Granted, no one would try to dictate style to the Buzzard.
“May I ask?” I asked Thermostat. “If I’m going to have the most dangerous people on Earth angry at me, I’d at least like to know why.”
Thermostat spoke quietly, his modulated voice a monotone — like he were reading aloud. Maybe a computer display was feeding him text inside his helmet. His words had so little inflection and were so rapid it took me a moment to identify them. “‘So where do I go? Greystone City?’“ he quoted. “‘She snorted. No fucking way. Avoid the psychos like the plague. How do I tell the difference? Read a newspaper. If there’s a body count? Stay away. And no one but no one in Greystone City’s sane. They used to be, back when it was Nightstick and Cudgel instead of the Nightwatch. These days, the sane ones have retired or gotten the Hell out or been killed by psychos who want their names.’”
I flushed. My collar felt like it was tightening. I knew that passage. It was from “Interviewing Leather.” And it was about them.
I’m trying to pass along little tidbits to young writers. Here’s one I learned in that moment. If you write something that’ll offend somebody? It’s a good bet that ‘somebody’ will read it. Offend away if you want, but don’t be surprised when a psychotic Pat Benatar song takes it personally.
“That… was a lot of years ago,” I said. “I’m sure—“
“I’ll bet you’re sure,” Lady Violet said. “Who do you think that fucking little tattooed dick-dartboard was talking about, Dee? Who could that have been?”
Decipher’s answer was throaty and warm, crooned as much to me as it was to Lady Violet. “Posited: claiming certainty of culpability concerning Clinton’s ceasing corporeality either craves clarity concerning the case’s circumstantial cacophany… or confirms cretinous credulity.” Her smile grew slightly. “A stopped clock only avoids such thinking twice daily.”
“Let us not be overly hyperbolic,” the Buzzard said, his voice almost hypnotic, rising and falling in an unrushed cadence, certain no one would dare interrupt. “After all, when this article was published Mister Potipher was still happily among the living, and I believe you were still using swimwear and a smile in selling Miss Chemical’s perfumes at conventions, my dear Lady Violet.”
“Oh, I’ve kept my ear to the ground, Buzzard,” Lady Violet said, her wings twitching as her anger grew. “I know Leather’s opinions haven’t changed, and this cock-drip was more than happy to spread them. About us. Our city. Like she had a reason. Like she had the right.”
“So why’d you become Lady Violet after that?” I asked. “I mean, if you knew the opinion was out there, why take on a legacy mantle in the first place? Especially since I know you didn’t kill Lady Velvet, unless you did it since I was kidnapped.”
Lady Violet stared at me. “Excuse me?”
I shrugged, slightly. “I mean, obviously Leather’s not the only one with that opinion of Greystone City and its villains. So why set up shop here? You could be Lady Violet anywhere. The same with you, Decipher. If you knew that people would conflate Leather’s opinions with your decisions, fair or not, why play into it?” I’d been weirdly missing my suicidal need to ask whatever stupid questions popped into my head. Beguile’s brain fuzz had me off my game for a bit. Now that it was back, I kind of missed Beguile’s influence.
Trey cleared her throat. “Perhaps things are getting a bit heated,” she said—
“Dorothy’s slippers slipped her the answer, Mister Chapman,” Decipher said. Her voice was still low and lulling, though her eyes had narrowed. “How did the mallard avoid the Maillard?”
Decipher had just been standing there, relaxed and without a care. I didn’t see her draw or throw before suddenly my shoulder exploded into pain and fire. I cried out, staggering back and looking at the stylized silver ‘X’ that had embedded itself into my shoulder. Adobe Jenson Pro, I thought, for no good reason at all. Blood had already begun staining my coat and shirt. I wondered if the Jack would make me pay for the dry cleaning—
There was a flurry of movement around me. Trey had a red ceramic pistol out and was pointing it at Decipher. Decipher’s bodyguards both had shotgun pistols pointed at Trey. Lady Violet’s thugs had stepped forward, pointing Uzis at me. The temperature had gone up — Thermostat’s gauntlets were hazing red. Two of the Clubs serving drinks had guns of their own out and I saw that the Eight of Spades was moving closer, and seemed to be almost blurring…
“That’s quite enough,” the Buzzard said as he stepped forward, not quite waddling as he did so. He was stooped and aged, of course, though he’d always at least somewhat looked like this. He walked closer to me, which put him between me and the gunmen.
I was breathing harder at this point. The burning and pain in my shoulder were getting worse, and I couldn’t seem to move my other arm to get the font-based shuriken out of my shoulder. The rest of me was feeling suddenly cold, and it seemed like there was rather a lot of blood, now, but not even Trey had tried to get me out of the room.
His eyes looked me up and down, even as he seemed to be trembling slightly. I realized he looked disturbingly like the albino love child of an ancient Tom Baker and an Ent. In particular, his sunken, yet almost oversized blue eyes were evocative, looking me up and down and peering at the injury.
“Lady Violet,” he said, turning towards the alchemist. “If you please?”
Lady Violet stared at the Buzzard. “For that shitstain?” she demanded.
“My dear Lady Violet, vulgarity should either be artistic or unspoken.”
“Is there a problem?”
I glanced to the side — I seemed to be having trouble turning my head — and saw that the other investors had begun to move closer.
“Not at all, Miss Dare,” the Buzzard said lightly in his slow, wavering, so-very-British voice. “We are simply entertaining ourselves while our host makes his last preparations.” He kept looking at Lady Violet expectantly.
She glared at him, then rolled her eyes and stomped her foot slightly — looking disturbingly like a five year old who was choosing not to have a tantrum. She scooped her hand into a pouch and threw a vial at the Buzzard. Rather hard.
The Buzzard plucked the oncoming vial out of the air with little trouble, even though his hand seemed to be shaking after he’d done it. He peered at the purple liquid, then let it slide out of his hand and ‘thump’ on the floor. The glass didn’t break, I’d note. “The one that includes the antidote to the applied venom, if you please? Thank you, my good Lady.”
Lady Violet looked petulant, but threw a second vial at the Buzzard, who had no more difficulty in plucking that one out of the air. He turned to me, uncapping it — it seemed to have a spray nozzle, like perfume — and swung the end of his walking stick at the metal X that was still embedded in my shoulder. This tore it out — its end had split out some kind of hook or barb after it had dug in — and it dropped to the floor with a thunk.
The pain was excruciating. I don’t remember if I screamed or whimpered or both, but I’d lay odds on either. I was feeling light headed now. Dizzy, but I still couldn’t seem to move — and it was so cold…
The Buzzard hummed somewhat tunelessly, leaning in and spraying the purple liquid on my wound. That made the burning even worse, even as my now very bloody shoulder seemed to foam up like bubble bath — like hydrogen peroxide but a thousand times more bubbly. He continued, waiting and glancing at my face…
It still hurt like hell, but there was a sudden rush of warmth through my body and my muscles unlocked. I staggered but managed not to fall. He reached up with a cloth I hadn’t noticed he’d been holding, wiping the worst of the gore and foam off my shoulder—
There was no sign of a wound underneath — just perfectly healthy skin, and what looked like an old, old line scar, in the shape of a lower case cursive ‘d.’ Clearly the hook that had deployed had left a more interesting mark.
I stared at it for a long moment. “Thank you,” I half-whispered.
“You are quite welcome, young man,” the Buzzard said. He looked at Trey. “I’m borrowing this one for a few minutes. We shall be on the terrace.”
Trey was still holding her gun. She looked more than a little freaked out. “I… I’m responsible for him,” she said, carefully.
“I’m not going to hurt him, my dear Miss Troika. Come, dear boy.”
The Buzzard started walking with that same shuffled waddle, heading for a different door than we’d come in. His henches started to follow, but he glanced back at them, stopping them without a word.
I looked at Trey for a moment. She seemed… upset, but nodded. And seemed a bit mollified. If nothing else, I had acknowledged she had ‘dibs’ on me. Right then I thought she needed that.
I looked at Decipher. She had the same enigmatic smile she’d been wearing throughout. Lady Violet had stopped looking petulant and instead looked smug.
I did the only thing I could. I followed the Buzzard through the door, wondering if this was going to make things better… or worse.