Another week, and… huh. An actual third post in two weeks. Interviewing Trey, actually getting updates. In this case, picking up where we left off, with Chapman being pulled aside by another of Greystone City’s first tier villains… and revealing more about still others… Also? Quentin Crisp references. Because.
Judging a day by ‘from when I woke up to when I fell asleep or was knocked out,’ five days before that moment I’d been in Texarkana. I was eating truck stop food and typing up the notes from my most recent interview. From there it was fifteen or so hours straight up I-15 North, then essentially tacking West on I-94 for a couple hours until I got to Harperton, Minnesota. Because I’m a wuss I actually took two days to make the trip to Harperton, staying in a Motel Six along the way. I crashed that night in Harperton after letting Cobalt Blue know through a prearranged drop that I was in the area, and the following day I’d met up with Rook for what I thought would be a few days in the Gopher state.
Instead, the Jack O’Knaves had changed my itinerary. Two ‘waking ups’ later (with no idea how much time had passed between at least one of them), I was wearing a swank mourning suit accented in my own blood and walking out onto the ‘terrace’ of a literally underground casino alongside one of the most infamous villains who’d ever lived.
He was called the Buzzard, by convention and preference alike. I knew his story — at least, his public story. He had been born Berkeley Denis in South London — born specifically on the fifth of November somewhere close to 1900. I remember seeing him on television when I was younger — he was being interviewed for The National Journal after Nightstick and Cudgel had put him away for like the thousandth time. “It was always particularly amusing to me that my birthday fell upon Guy Fawkes Day,” he had said in that ever-so-clever accented drawl. “After all, it was always ever so extravagant with lots of booms and bangs and pows, and most of the time no one ever remembered why we were doing it a’tall. Plus, for most of my formative years those forced to suffer my presence were always tempted to dress me up and throw me on a bonfire as a kind of living effigy, as though my mere existence were akin to a plot to overthrow George the Fifth and tear down the Houses of Parliament! And honestly, I wouldn’t have blamed them. It certainly would have been a birthday present to remember.”
Berkeley Denis had become Busby Denis early on, and then ‘Buzzy,’ and for most of his life any criminal inclinations seemed to come from his existence rather than sociopathy. Buzzy Denis wasn’t a thief and wasn’t violent, but refused to stop being himself — he dressed foppishly and outlandishly, used makeup and had an affected style, and kept company considered suspect in pre-war England. In short, he was willfully, persistently, and generally unapologetically homosexual and to a degree what we’d now consider trans in a time and country where any of that was considered illegal, immoral, and uncouth. He’d attempted to enlist during the wars, but was rejected for his ‘indecent perversion.’ He was as out as could be accomplished in the same year Alan Turing was chemically castrated by the British government for “gross indecency.”
As you can imagine, Buzzy Denis was beaten rather often, though he seemed to take it in oddly good humor. As it works out, such regular abuse was good training for a later supervillain.
Buzzy had been visiting friends in Empire City when Paragon first appeared. He elected to overstay his visa rather than return to England — he’d spent decades despising his home country and adored America by comparison — and when Nightstick’s first rumored appearances were being whispered in back alleys — Buzzy apparently never having met a back alley he didn’t like — he made his way to Greystone City to see what all the hubbub was about.
So, past the age most people would retire, Buzzy Denis became a fixture not only of Greystone City, but almost immediately of Greystone City’s criminal scene. With Nightstick disrupting the traditional gangs and syndicates, power vacuums were forming. Buzzy slipped into one of those vacuums and filled it with sheer force of personality. As it turned out, he had a brilliance for organized crime especially in the post-expression world. The first time he actually fought Nightstick was in the harsh Michigan winter, and he’d been wearing an ill-fitting fur trimmed frock coat. A photographer caught his clearly delighted face on film when he was leaving the patrol car, and thanks to the exposure or who knows what, it made it look like his moth-eaten head was perched atop an almost wizened neck which itself was surrounded with dark fur. From there, ‘Buzzy’ became ‘the Buzzard’ almost as a matter of course… and the old man had never looked back.
The Buzzard had been old that first day — and that was decades before, right at the start of the parahuman era. Now he looked almost desiccated, wearing ill-fitting and somewhat mismatched formal clothing — the Buzzard only ever wore things he was given, and had no interest in more than cursory matching — and walking with an almost stumbling and broken gait that was as unlike Beguile’s as a dachshund’s gait was unlike a park bench’s. It looked like I could push him over, breaking him on the marble tile of the terrace.
And yet, Beguile and the Buzzard weren’t just in the same business — they were peers, on a level with the Jack, Anchor, Leo Lucas, and others. He was in the rarified first tier — one of the most famous, most successful… and most dangerous criminals alive. It seemed impossible, but it was true.
We were walking out onto that ‘terrace,’ as I said before. Now, Dispater’s Vault is entirely underground, or so I’d been told. So, I was actively surprised to walk out onto a black marble balcony terrace with a wrought iron fence around it, overlooking a similar courtyard below with any number of people crowding around a number of yellow lamp-posts. There was a whiff of cigarette smoke — not notable inside Dispater’s Vault, where smoke hung like a weather front, but out here it was an accent note at most. A cool breeze with a hint of deep water was wafting through, and looking out in the distance I could see a huge full moon, with clouds around and slightly in front of it, illuminated like a shroud and forming a halo in the dark.
“Do you like the view?” the Buzzard asked me, amiably enough. He had his walking stick in front of him, holding it in both hands rather than using it to walk.
“It’s amazing,” I said. “But… I’m surprised. I thought… I didn’t think there was an outside to this place. I mean—“
“I know what you mean, dear boy.” The Buzzard smiled, the left side of his smile a bit higher up his face than the right. “And you are correct. The only egress from this ridiculous palace to greed and excess is up an elevator shaft. What you are seeing is an elaborate illusion — one that fills all your senses.” He gestured to the right, where it seemed like thick trees in the distance blocked the view. “That way leads to a shaft, cleverly concealed. Within that shaft baffles and vents and gentle fans take the wind from without and inject it ever so carefully within. That way, those who want a breath of fresh air can pretend they’re getting it. Similarly, a series of mirrors, and lenses, amplifiers and who knows what else take the night-time scene and replicate it, bouncing it again and again, until you see its fullness out there, as though we were staring out over the night waters.” He chuckled. “But of course it isn’t really there.”
I stared, looking for any sign… any distortion or mark that could break the illusion. I couldn’t see it. “Amazing,” I said again. “And during the day—“
“Oh, don’t be silly, dear boy. There are no ‘days’ in Casinos. Daylight makes a man think he might wish to get something accomplished, and that in turn makes him think he should leave, and leaving means he wouldn’t be losing his money at the tables. No, long before dawn spreads her rosy fingered, nosy little arrows out across the land the mirrors shutter and projectors take their place. It may be noon right now, for all you know. Or midnight. Or anything in between. This may be a live scene, or it may be wholly constructed. And what difference would it possibly make to us, mm?”
“I guess,” I said. “I don’t even know how long I’ve been down here.”
“And you’ll not find out from me. Professional courtesy, don’t you know.” The Buzzard turned his head to look at me, watching me stare at the illusionary vista. “Why are you here, Mister Chapman?”
I chuckled. “I’m here because the Jack kidnapped me.”
“Yes yes. I know how you came to be here, but that is not why you are here. It is not why Jack brought you here, and it is not why you remain. Why are you here?”
I turned to look at the Buzzard. His expression was hard to read — amused, his head cocked slightly, that ridiculously broken down hat perched on his forehead. He’d seem comical — even like a grandfather in his dotage — if he didn’t radiate a kind of intelligence that seemed almost below our perception. There was an oddity to the Buzzard. A sense that there was something he wasn’t saying. Something you didn’t want to know. Something that you would either find out… or wish you had, after it was far too late.
“The Jack wants me to write a book about him,” I said.
This amused the Buzzard. “Or so he has said, at least. And you?”
“I don’t really have a choice in the matter.”
The Buzzard rolled his eyes dismissively. “Of course you have a choice, Mister Chapman. The only thing you actually still have is a choice. When I was your age, it was considered great sport to run me down and put the boot in, often with Authority’s assistance. I could have changed my ways and avoided most of those things. I chose not to. No matter how limited your options, you always have a choice.”
I considered the Buzzard’s words. “I’m a reporter,” I said, finally. “I didn’t come looking for this story, but it’s still the story I’ve got. It’s what I do. It’s who I am.”
The Buzzard smiled a bit. “There. Was that so hard?” He looked back out over the vista. “It doesn’t explain why Jack went to the trouble, of course. Obviously he doesn’t care about any book you might write.”
I frowned. “He’s certainly put a lot of effort—“
The Buzzard snorted. “Jack will never do in six moves what he can do in six hundred, but that’s not really the point. He wants you here. He wants you ‘reporting.’ He wants you witnessing and writing. The question remains… why? And why did he want you here, at this meeting? It wasn’t to impress anyone — after all, no one here’s impressed, are they? Obviously he knew your presence would upset some of our young collaborators, and just as obviously it did. But he’s not abandoning those collaborators and he didn’t intend to abandon you either. Not as yet, anyhow. So why?”
I thought about it, moving my shoulder. It was still stiff, even if it had healed up otherwise. “I don’t know,” I admitted.
“Thank you for… well, saving my life.”
“Oh, think nothing of it. I find ill manners quite offensive, and as Jack was not in the room it fell to me to speak up in the name of civility.” The Buzzard looked back out at the moon — real or not, it was captivating. “Attacking a guest and victim of Jack’s, no matter the reason, was uncouth. Decipher should know better. Mister Potipher would have simply laid down clues to unnerve you.” He looked a bit distant for a moment, smiling slightly. “I daresay Mister Potipher would have left deeper scars in the process, but she is yet young and needs seasoning.” He looked back at me. “Further, you being injured would go badly for that woman Jack assigned to you, and I abhor laying such things on the help. I’ve henchmen and servitors who have worked for me for decades. At this point, some are completely worthless to me in any reasonable way, of course — but they have been with me so loyally for so long. Naturally I keep them on some salary and pay into their pension funds. What kind of monster would I be if I did not?”
I frowned a touch. “And yet, you kill people,” I said. “Sometimes for no reason at all.”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, that’s right. I am a monster… the question was what kind of monster would I be if I disregarded loyalty.” He chuckled. “This, then, is irony, dear boy. Jack never kills anyone without a purpose, and yet he is madder than the mad. I am considered the sanest of the Dark Gods of Greystone, and yet I snuff out life with no more care than I’d take in snuffing out some lit cigar I found on the sidewalk.”
“But why? You weren’t always like that, right?”
“We all change, Mister Chapman. When the world changes, so we must change too. Perhaps the most essential rule of living your life in your own way and your own style is recognizing how that style must change with time. Oh, I know some who stubbornly refuse. They will not change no matter what might happen, and in the name of being themselves in the face of all reason, they lose all sight of who they actually are.” He smiled a bit more, turning back to the view. “We are what we are — and as the minutes and days pass and our context evolves, that shows itself in fascinating new ways.” He sighed, though he kept his smile. “Not all of us learned that lesson back in the old days, Mister Chapman. Learn from their mistakes and my success.”
“What do you mean? Who… made those mistakes.”
“Mm. Well, most notably Mister Potipher.” He’d mentioned Clinton Potipher before, of course, but it probably bears some explanation at least for younger readers. Back in the ‘Nightstick and Cudgel’ era of Greystone City, Clinton Potipher was called the Cipher, and he was one of the original ‘Dark Gods of Greystone.’ He’d been a heavy set black man in an Oxford Formal suit the same pale yellow as Decipher’s uniform, with letters and symbols artfully arranged. His schtick — there was always a schtick — was both codebreaking and encoding alike. He left different puzzles for Nightstick and Cudgel to decode. If they managed to work out his clues they could stop his crimes before they started.
Which is insane for a career criminal. I mean, utterly insane. But though he stole a lot of things, to my knowledge he’d never killed anyone. When Greystone’s somewhat surreal atmosphere turned dark and Nightstick turned into the Nightwatch, the Cipher had retired almost as a matter of course. A few years back, he died rather tragically — the woman called Decipher was somehow involved, and the incident had broken her mind, leaving her to communicate through Excelsior State Times Crossword Puzzle clues—
“How did the mallard avoid the Maillard?”
“He ducked,” I said, suddenly, hitting my forehead with the palm of my hand. I felt ridiculous even as my recently healed shoulder twinged with the movement. “The duck avoided being pan fried by ducking. It was a warning.”
“Well, of course,” the Buzzard said. “Did you honestly not get that?” He chuckled. “Your friend was right — you’ve no place in Greystone City. But then, that was obvious. Your style of journalism is neither wanted nor needed here.”
I blinked. It’s weird to admit, but that felt… almost offensive. Or disappointing. Or something. Like I was failing to measure up. “I don’t pretend I’ve worked my way up to interviewing someone like you,” I said. “I’m third tier at best—“
“Oh, it’s not that. You’ve no business interviewing any of the Dark Gods of Greystone — even those demigods still just starting out.” He turned to look at me again, and there was something akin to pity on his face, now. “I’ve read your work. It is passable, and sometimes even engaging. I rather liked bits. There’s nothing personal involved, here. But your stock-in-trade is peeling back the metaphorical mask and showing the human being underneath. Your readers read about the contenders, has-beens, also-rans and never-weres you seem to prefer and identify with them. Why-ever would you think someone like me would want that?”
“You don’t want to be identified with? Or sympathized with? Or… understood?”
“Understanding me is simple, and sympathy sounds far too much like sycophancy to my tastes. I despise such sentiment.” He chuckled yet again. “It reminds me a bit of the old days — but I am old and the past is perhaps my favorite past-time. In this case, I’m reminded of Miss Chemical.” ‘Miss Chemical’ was Elle Chemical — the alchemist and former queen of crime in Greystone known as Lady Velvet. Lady Violet — the dragonfly-winged bug-girl who had a hate on for me — had been her protege. “She used to get upset with me. ‘You must consider the impact you are having on the struggle others are facing,’ she would say — and by that she meant the struggle of homosexuals. ‘They will be judged by your actions!’”
He laughed again — a longer, drawn out laugh. “At that point, I had long since left actual sexuality behind me, of course. I was far too old and it was at most too much bother. But I had spent my life identifying as homosexual so I didn’t mind being described as such, any more than I do now. But the idea that my crimes were anything but mine offended me to the core. Why shouldn’t a gay man be a monster? It doesn’t make other gay men monsters. Why should I have any more concern of how my actions impact ‘my kind’ than any other villain? I refuse to be an example, a role model, or somehow noble. I have never conformed to society’s expectations whether that society is normative or transgressive, and I have no intention of ever starting.”
He leaned a bit closer to me, peering at me with those watery blue eyes. “Your stories and essays and interviews peel away the layers that I delight in, Mister Chapman, and when one reads them they think ‘oh, well — perhaps I’ve misjudged these villains. They’re ever so much like me.’ I can think of no worse fate for myself or for my legacy. I say again — look at poor Mister Potipher if you need proof.”
“You said that before. What was his mistake?”
The Buzzard didn’t stop smiling, but his face fell just slightly. He looked older, right then — if that were possible, anyhow. “He tried to walk away. As Greystone City changed, he found he couldn’t stomach it, so he tried to take off his monstrous skin and live as all of you do. But he failed, miserably. Literally miserably.” He looked back at that reflected or projected moon, which had moved a bit across the sky, I noticed. “It wasn’t like that with Miss Chemical. Miss Chemical never stopped being herself. But as the city changed and the markers moved, she found the world moving further into the darkness. They call a parahuman of any stripe changing sides ‘crossing the aisle,’ but in Miss Chemical’s case the aisle moved underneath her until she found herself on the heroic side. Even in her own retirement she remains the Lady Velvet — though in this day and age she’d never consider robbing a bank.” He shook his head, though he was still smiling. “I see her from time to time, of course. She, Jack and I brunch now and again and remember days past.”
I tried to imagine the Jack O’Knaves brunching. Every time I’d heard stories about him eating breakfast they involved him killing the waitstaff for getting his order wrong. “I’m surprised you’re still friends with her,” I said.
“Why shouldn’t I be? Once it was we four, squaring off against Nightstick and that cavalcade of teenagers he threw at us like chaff. That bond never changes. And neither Jack nor myself would ever consider trying to change it. Yes, Mister Potipher attempted to place his light under a bushel and wear the skin of a normal human, and of course the light burnt the bushel and the skin couldn’t contain him and ultimately he came to a tragic ending… but while he lived he was sacrosanct. No criminal of any stripe in Greystone was to touch him, and any who tried hardly needed to wait for the Nightwatch to correct their behavior. And yes, in remaining true to herself Miss Chemical found that what was scandalous and criminal at the beginning gradually became bawdy but heroic and ultimately iconic and eccentric. A happier ending for one such as us, and yes she is just as sacrosanct from our little amusements as Mister Potipher had been before.”
I looked thoughtful. “I noticed something. You always refer to people by their surnames… except the Jack O’Knaves. He’s ‘Jack.’ Is that more of that familiarity?”
The Buzzard snorted. “Hardly. Jack simply has no surname I can use and I shan’t use a definite article to describe him, no matter how much he may wish otherwise. I recognize that I am the Buzzard, but that was because once I was Buzzy and under it all I am still Mister Denis. Absent such in Jack’s case, I shan’t coddle his affectation or insult him with nicknames.”
“But you like him?”
The Buzzard’s smile turned a bit coy, turning to look at me again. “Now, what an interesting question that is, Mister Chapman. What if I did like him? What would that say to you?”
I thought about it for a moment. “Well, for one thing I think you’d be the only one.”
The Buzzard laughed. “What of his Hearts? You seem to spend a good amount of time around Miss Troika. Doesn’t she like him?”
“She loves him. And she reveres him. And maybe worships him. But…” I thought about Trey for a long moment. “I think she’d find liking him to be blasphemous. If that makes sense.”
“It does. You’re perceptive. That’s why I’ve no interest whatsoever in you writing about me, Mister Chapman. I’ve no interest in being humanized, when I have spent so long and so much to be anything other than human or relatable to by humans. I’d much rather someone like Miss Babcock interview me. Preferably with a veneer of antagonism and loathing. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve earned it.”
“I think she goes by Babcock-Ellerbee these days.”
“And I think that imagining the dinosaurs as naked, scaly reptilian destructive forces once ruling the Earth with tooth and claw is wonderful, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were just oversized birds with a good publicist. We are who we are, dear boy.” He smiled more broadly. “Our thesis of the day, it seems.”
I considered. “We’re talking right now. You must know I’m going to write about you.”
“Yes, but I am not your subject. I’m not sure what your subject is yet, or what your audience is supposed to be — however I feel about Jack I do my best to avoid predicting him — but I’m certain he didn’t go to all this effort so you could interview me.”
I rubbed my shoulder absently. My torn jacket and shirt were still wet with my own blood, and the shoulder still complained. “So… of ‘you four’ Dark Gods of Greystone City… the Cipher is dead, Lady Velvet turned hero and then retired, and you and the Jack are still in the business. But… you were at the age most people retire when you first started. Why are you still in the game?”
The Buzzard, despite his earlier denial, seemed all too happy to talk about himself. Which happens more than you might think. “We’ve already discussed poor Mister Potipher and the way that Miss Chemical’s retirement was the natural result of her remaining true to herself. Jack has grown and waxed and shrunk and waned with time, hungering for something he’s never quite found, and pulled the world along with him. Behind us and beneath us the next generation reaches for the brass ring, seeking to rise up into the Dark Gods of Greystone. Which isn’t as simple as it sounds. I may deplore the lack of civility clinging to Thermostat, Lady Violet, the Hyena, or Decipher, but their inclusion here represents an achievement that should not be ignored.”
He looked off to the side — not towards the moon this time. Not in any real direction at all. “But as for me? I have no desire to be something I am not, but what I am is not acceptable to society. I shall never be considered retired or rehabilitated this side of the grave. I shan’t travel the convention circuit or book television programs to pitch my memoirs. Nor shall I need to — if I wish to be seen I will be seen, in any venue I wish. I spent so long waiting… I will cherish every second of my life now that I can finally live it.”
“Waiting? For what?”
“For all of this,” he said, eyes half-hooded, a hint of delight touching his features. “I had been visiting friends in Empire City when Paragon first flew — before then, my life was a meaningless plod towards the grave. I had lived all of it in England, and I despised England then and continue to despise it now. I didn’t know what I wanted or what I needed. I just knew I didn’t have it.
“And then… men and women were flying, and celebrating that fact in spandex and feathers, no less. My mind expanded and my horizons seemed to suddenly grow wide. I overstayed my visa, hungry for news — there were no heroes in England at that point, you understand. It all suddenly seemed so much closer…” He laughed. “And then there was Nightstick.”
“…you were still in Empire City, though?”
“Quite right, dear boy. But the news still reached us — in the midst of gods taking flight, here was a mortal man, dressed as if he were going to war and yet looking as ridiculous as the rest… and I knew — I knew — that I did belong someplace on this planet.” He shook his head. “I am well aware your compatriot — Miss Oswald, or Miss Shapiro, or Miss Leather, as I am certain she would prefer — believes that the champions and heroes need our ilk to exist, and I’m just as aware that most heroes and villains alike think she’s insane. However, there is something else to consider. Something that is ineffably true for me, and may be true for every man, woman, or other who has ever contended with Nightstick or Cudgel or Truncheon or the Nightwatch.”
“My dear boy… I lived on this Earth many unfortunate years ever so unhappy and ever so unsuccessful before Nightstick first buckled on his boiled cuirass and billy clubbed baddies in the name of peace and harmony. It was that man, in his mask and suit and sense of style, that gave me focus. That gave me opportunity. That gave me a chance to be what I am. What I am is a monster, to be certain, but that does not mean I regret it. I am eternally grateful to Nightstick, the plethora of teenagers he recruited to his name, and ultimately the Nightwatch for making me possible. Within his context, the Buzzard may sound ridiculous because I am ridiculous. But I am also known across this planet, and despite all odds and fate, I am happy.” He chuckled. “This is why I reject being humanized. I despised being human — but in the context of the Nightwatch? I am epic, and I am driven, and most of all I am the Buzzard. No wonder Miss Leather wanted you to avoid Greystone. We are her funhouse mirror opposite.”
“…does that drive the Jack, too?”
“I’ve no idea what drives Jack. I do know that he is obsessed with the Nightwatch. He was obsessed with each of them. Nightstick, any given Cudgel, Truncheon, Shillelagh… from the first day he encountered them his life has orbited theirs. But I couldn’t begin to tell you why. I told you that this was the life in which I was happy. I don’t know if Jack has ever been happy.”
I nodded. It was strange how comfortable I was. Perhaps it was that sense of sanity that the Buzzard mentioned. I’m not entirely sure that’s the right word, mind. He’s at the very least a complete sociopath. But as he’d said before — killing me would be ill-mannered at best, and I had no reason to be rude to him. Not at that time, in that place. “You don’t sound as… angry at Leather as some of the others.”
“Their lives aren’t mine, and their motives are as always their own. They are themselves, as I say over and over again. Lady Violet and Decipher are perhaps the roughest around the edges of the new generation. The former took the gifts and lessons of her patron and turned them in directions Miss Chemical would never have approved. The latter found her passion, calling, and superiority in the wake of bittersweet tragedy following accepted kindness. Both of them despise your friend Miss Leather deeply, for they feel offended to the core by her opinions, despite the fact that those opinions long predated their respective debuts.” He chuckled. “Mister Roark, Miss Ophilia, Miss Dare, and the like? Are perhaps impressed by the novelty of your presence and have little opinion of Miss Leather — perhaps they like her in an abstract way the way we like other professionals. I’m sure I’ve no idea. As for me? I am indifferent to anything beyond myself, and I myself am nothing — certainly I’ve no quarrel with Miss Leather or with you. But, neither have I any particular need to share existence with any of you.”
“That’s a common enough sentiment. And it’s unlikely you’ll need to for much longer.”
“Oh yes?” He smiled a bit more.
“I’ve been told any number of times that the best I can hope for is death.” I honestly feared the possibility of worse.
“And yet, you report. Hm. This tells me a thing or two.” He looked thoughtful. “As for that… it is perhaps wisest to be prepared for death at Jack’s hands when you are in those hands… but it is unwise to assume that you know what trick he’s pulling off — and though his legend has become ever so broad, it is also unwise to forget that he fails rather often, thanks to the Nightwatch and others of his kind.”
I blinked. The Buzzard’s words had been mild and idle, as so many of his words were, but they hit me like a typhoon. He was right, of course. The Jack O’Knaves killed a lot of people and did a lot of horrible things… but he’d been beaten and jailed by the Nightwatch hundreds of times over the years — and not as some master plan or gambit, either. He’d had plenty of schemes fail before.
It was so easy to forget that down in Dispater’s Pit. He seemed so much like a kind of trickster god of death… how would anyone ever remember that he had a losing record up there in the world?
The Buzzard watched me take that in, smiling a bit more. “No. I don’t assume you will die, Mister Chapman. Indeed, were I a betting sort, I would place my chips on you living through this. But I am not a betting sort — such vices hold no interest for me — and I honestly have no concern if you live or die.”
I blinked, shaking my head and getting my thoughts back in the game. “When did that happen?” I asked. “I mean, when you first moved to Greystone you managed to step into a power vacuum, but it was quite a while before any deaths accrued to your name. If you are who you are… why does the Buzzard kill now, when before he…”
“Picked at the carcass of Greystone City’s criminal past?” He looked amused. “I am not Miss Chemical. In remaining herself, she found that what was criminal became heroic. To be myself I must remain in the darkness. Oh, when it all began, it was grand fun. And I admit, I appreciated having two or three people I could honestly consider friends. Peers, even. Miss Chemical, Mister Potipher, and Jack and I were always a few steps above the other misanthropes and storied trash who blew through Greystone.” He chuckled again. “Back then someone may be hurt or even might die, but that was rarely the point. I’ve heard those days described as avant garde. I’m certain I wouldn’t know.”
“And you were happy, then?”
“Oh yes. Those days were lots of fun, and I miss them in an abstract way, the way I miss bounding up stairs two or three at a time, not that I was much of a bounder.
“But the world changes, Mister Chapman. And change begets change. Children try to outdo one’s legend, as though that were possible. Once or twice a year some foolish child tries to castigate me for my choices. I’m no ‘buzzard,’ they say — I’ve no birds or wings or looming monstrosities. I let them have their fun, and then as needed I make it clear that manners are appreciated and one shouldn’t put on airs before one’s elders and betters. The truth is, I am the Buzzard because I was Buzzy before, and because I like a bit of fur about my neck which creates a certain look, and because the name and I have become intertwined. I need no theme nor calling card beyond my own sense of the appropriate in the moment.” His smile turned a bit wicked…
No. A bit evil.
“To go back to what Miss Leather said about us? As I said, every so often some child tries to take me down or take my name. To be a new, dark Buzzard in this new, dark age. But I am not out of step with the times, Mister Chapman. Why do I kill, now? Because the monsters of Greystone kill now, and I am one of them. I don’t need a gimmick or robots or technology beyond what amuses me. I simply need to be who I am. And if that means people have to die? Well. I was regularly beaten for being who I was back in England. I don’t see how being on the other side of that equation changes anything.”
“But it’s not about revenge, and it’s not about money.”
“Precisely. Oh, I steal — I must steal, after all. I’ve expenses and it’s expected. Indeed, I’ve had a rather embarrassing level of success in my chosen profession. It’s a burden, really.” His smile settled back into its genial form, though it was hard to forget that momentary malevolence. “By nature, inclination, and design I’m impoverished. It is why I only wear clothing that I have found or was given to me. I’ve no vanity to caress or nursemaid. Not for looks, anyhow. I am a ruined shell of a man and I know it. Besides, were I to actually begin spending money on myself I would end up one of those horrible crass people they make into reality television programs.
“That is one reason I keep henches I no longer need on my payroll, to revisit a point from before. If I am to be properly poor I must do something with the cash that refuses to stop coming in — so why shouldn’t that go to people who have always been loyal and nice to me, even when I’ve been in a mood or they’ve ended up incarcerated? I don’t need the dosh now and I certainly won’t after my no-doubt imminent demise. Besides, money is really for hoarding or for giving away, not for spending.”
“If that’s true — and I’m not doubting it is — then… why invest in Dispater’s Vault?” I looked around. “Isn’t its whole point to return more than you put in?”
“It has many points, dear boy. But the question is fair.” He looked thoughtful again. “At first, it was as much to be supportive of Jack as not. He really does need his little projects, and if I’d elected against committing resources to this one, that may have prejudiced other potential investors. Can’t you imagine Mister Lucas or Miss Beguile calling each other. ‘Are you going in on Jack’s little pit casino idea?’ ‘Oh, I should think not — I hear the Buzzard won’t even give him the odd farthing for it.’ I shouldn’t want that on my conscience.”
“What else? Curiosity. I wanted to see where he was going with all this. Spreading out so far into the world. And he was so excited and so passionate about it. Always wanting to expand, to grow, to reach further…” the Buzzard paused, and a look of delight crossed his face — like a cat who just tricked a bird into hitting a window and landing at its feet. “…that is… until now.”
“Until… now? What’s changed?” I was worried even as I spoke — I had sudden deja vu, remembering the first moment I’d laid eyes on the Jack, right at the point when I’d realized what Rook had that no one else did…
The Buzzard didn’t answer directly. “Tell me something,” he said. “What would most men do when they completed a long term project designed to bring in significant profit?”
I took a deep breath. “Most men?” I looked around myself. “Most men would step back, and let the money come in, earmarking some for reinvestment perhaps but mostly reaping the fruits of their hard work.”
“Exactly correct. Now. Consider the ones who wouldn’t do that? How would most of them feel about their successful project?”
I bit my lip. “To a degree… proud. But mostly they’d be bored. That challenge would have been met.”
“Also correct. Now, Mister Chapman — and I do hope you go three for three… what about Jack? What would all this mean to him?”
I felt ice in my veins. “…he’s finished his preparations,” I answered.
“Oh, very, very good, Mister Chapman. And here you are. Witnessing. Reporting. Interviewing. All in a place you have no business plying your trade… except that Jack wants you here. Oh yes. I do believe I know exactly why you’re here, now.” He turned back towards the lounge. “Keep this quiet, but I think that after this meeting, I shall quietly withdraw my support of Dispater’s Vault. I’ll have a word with Jack after the meeting.”
“Won’t he be mad?”
“Mad? He’ll be delighted someone is paying attention. But while I’m as curious as the next person to see what Jack’s next move will be, this is an excellent time to not have any direct ties to it, I should think.” He smiled. “Come. I’m sure they’ve a replacement shirt and coat ready for you, and we wouldn’t want to keep anyone waiting, would we? By now, Miss Troika must be beside herself with concern.”
I watched him walk towards the lounge. After a moment, I followed. He might know ‘exactly’ what the Jack wanted, but I didn’t. All I did know… was that this whole thing was a lot bigger than I expected.