The lost episode of Interviewing Trey, just in time for new episodes to follow it! In rapid succession, Todd Chapman has found himself at a dead tear, been changed into formal-wear in an elevator, paraded in front of Dispater’s Vault’s villainous investors, met Beguile, re-met supervillain-hanger-on Moriarty James, offended Lady Violet, Decipher, and the other younger Dark Gods of Greystone, and been healed at the direction of the legendary, urbane, and very dangerous Buzzy Denis — aka the Buzzard. Now, fresh off of being pulled aside by the Buzzard for a little chat, Todd Chapman is being brought back into the predators’ den… knowing all too well the Jack O’Knaves will be making his appearance soon…
The hench’s fist slammed into my throat much faster than human normal, clenching and lifting all at once. He was conservatively seven feet in height, wearing biker leathers, sunglasses, a sleeveless jean jacket, and — swear to God — chains. He spun me around and hurled me into the room like a rag doll, slamming me into the carpet like a sack of wet socks. My pajama pants protected my knees from rug burn though the pile wasn’t think enough to protect them from the impact, but since I wasn’t wearing a shirt and more or less landed face and chest first the rest of me didn’t have a lot of fun. Of course, I managed to leave blood on the carpet where I hit, which must be a faux pas.
I remember the toenails on the foot that hooked under my chin and forced me up were painted purple. I remember other things, too, but the simple fact was I was in a lot of trouble. Hearing the door slam and a deadbolt thunk just underscored that fact as I looked up at perhaps the last person I wanted to see right then.
But I may be getting ahead of myself. As I recall, we left off after I talked to the Buzzard, and my impromptu faceplant followed almost logically after that.
In writing Low Society, I had the opportunity to be at ground zero for any number of crimes. After all, I was interviewing criminals, and they were generally plying their trade while I was there. Naturally, I’d be around for some of the crimes they were committing. Generally there was some kind of ‘pacifier’ to make sure I wouldn’t warn the police or the like — like the ‘bomb’ collar that Leather and her henches had put on me in that first interview. The embarrassing moments were those times I had to tell the villain not to bring me if they didn’t have a means of holding onto me or keeping me from shouting out. The heroic and law enforcement communities knew I was performing these interviews and were at least tolerant of them, but once I had knowledge of a villain’s plan I had an obligation to report it, or else it fell into the nebulous realm of ‘aiding and abetting’ or at least ‘criminal negligence’ or some such.
At the same time, I couldn’t very well tell them that outright, or else I’d lose that same protection. And no, I couldn’t lie to the police afterward — what possible point to any of this could there be if I lied about it after the fact? Yeah, not everything I see or hear gets into my printed interviews, but part of the deal of me interviewing a villain is that I’m going to sing my little canary guts out as soon as I was back with the police. So I had to sometimes hint broadly around the subject, like an old school Dungeon Master asking his players “are you absolutely sure you want to attack the dragon with your penknives?”
It can’t be a surprise that I was a nerd in high school.
Regardless, at the end of the day I saw a lot of crimes happen and a lot of plans — dastardly or otherwise — executed where I could see. There were a bunch where the villains were showing off their secret plans, some where they just wanted to look cool, and the obvious climax fights where they fought their arch-nemesis — sometimes winning, but more often losing. And over time? I got relatively good at ‘reading’ the results. Sometimes a loss was a setup for a bigger win. Sometimes a win was a loss. And sometimes it didn’t look like either.
And… maybe it was something that the Buzzard said. Or maybe it was finally beginning to get a feel for the room. Or maybe it was just gut instinct or apophenia. But after the end of the Investor’s Meeting? I didn’t feel like I’d been paraded out into the room as a prize and I didn’t feel like an unwelcome guest.
I felt like I’d seen a crime, and I felt like it had gone off without a hitch.
I haven’t described the last bits of the meeting that I was part of, so I should do that — but really there wasn’t much to say. As the Buzzard had suspected, the same dressers who’d dolled us up in the elevator had a new coat and shirt for me, so that when I walked back out and was rejoined by Trey, I looked good instead of blood soaked. I saw Decipher and Lady Violet watching me come back in the room — they both looked smug. The Buzzard nodded to them, then looked back at me. “I suspect we shan’t speak again, at least in conjunction with this matter, dear boy,” he said in his querulous voice. “Thank you for an enjoyable discussion.”
“You’re… welcome,” I said, feeling odd to be thanked in this setting. “Thank you for talking to me.”
“Think nothing of it. I enjoy speaking about interesting subjects.” He walked over to where his consiglieres were waiting for him.
“Are you okay?” Trey asked, quietly.
“Yeah,” I said, as quietly. “He just talked.”
She nodded. She didn’t make a catty remark — not about the Buzzard.
The Jack came in from the far side of the room, dressed in black slacks and a black vest, a red silk shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the collar undone, no tie, and a white Fedora with a black and white band at a jaunty angle. He was flanked by two more beautiful magician’s assistants — one with six heart shaped pips on her spangled evening gown, the other with seven. The seven I knew was ‘Stick’ — Stick being a poker term for sevens because they looked like walking canes. I assumed that Kick was the Six of Hearts, though at the time I didn’t understand why ‘kick’ meant six. Later, I learned that ‘kicks’ referred to a pair of sixes off the old song — “get your kicks on Route 66.” I suspect it was chosen more for the rhyme than the fit.
If I had any doubt that the Jack was being flanked by Kick and Stick, Trey wiped it out quickly enough. I could practically hear her bristle seeing them hang off the Jack. And naturally, the pair just looked smugly at Trey in return.
The Jack himself clearly didn’t care. He walked over with that unnerving grin and casual manner, speaking quietly to the first tier representatives — Beguile, Sharpshooter Smith, Deborah Dare, Malie the Destroyer, Chattergun Calhoun and Hecate all got that treatment — and then giving the second tier a more general greeting. “Well hello!” he said. “Amulet — you’re looking positively ossified. It’s a good look! Coldsnap — is that a new model cold gun thingie? I can never keep up with technology. Ashface — good to see you!” He paused, looking at Moriarty James. “Mm — the neckline’s a little tacky, dear,” he said to her. “You should be better at reading the room.”
“Why Jack,” Moriarty said, cheerfully, seemingly blissfully unaware of any intended insult. “I’m always glad to get your feedback. You are practically a master class in style!”
“I am at that,” he said, tipping his hat to her. He threw me a wink as he turned away from her, then faced the Buzzard. “Mister Denis,” he said, with a slight nod and smile.
“Jack,” the Buzzard answered, essentially with the same. It was… kind of amazing, really. Seeing the Jack O’Knaves and the Buzzard greet each other, with almost no affectation — when the both of them were made of affectation — was almost unnerving. Every last person in this room, from the top tier through the henchmen all the way to me got Jack’s persona. With that one word, you could tell that the Buzzard got Jack, in a way neither I nor Trey nor anyone else here ever would.
Certainly the younger Dark Gods of Greystone didn’t. He greeted them collectively instead of by name, with a slight dismissiveness. “Hope you’re enjoying yourselves,” he said. “Though it’s rude to break another kid’s toys without their permission. Still, that’s behind us and we’ve got so much ahead of us.”
If Decipher or Lady Violet were perturbed by his statement, they didn’t show it.
The Jack then walked over to me. “And hello Mister Chapman,” he said. “My it’s good to see you.” He looked around. “Did everyone get a chance to meet our Mister Chapman? He’s a scrivener of some sort — best known for writing an alchemical treatise on the conversion of synthetic fibers into animal hide. An odd thing to want to do, really, but who am I to judge?”
Lady Violet flushed — and yes, it was slightly purplish — and looked at me with renewed disdain. Of course he’d use alchemy — her specialty — to introduce me. Of course he would.
“Oh, Todd and I are old friends—” Moriarty started to say.
“But! We should head in and discuss business! That’s why you’re all here, right? I’m sure Mister Chapman would be bored to tears by such things and I’m equally sure that most of you wouldn’t be comfortable with a member of the fourth estate hanging around the back of our discussions. That’s a terrible breach of etiquette, after all. I’m all about manners.” He turned back to us. “Trey, my dear — thank you so much for bringing Mister Chapman by. And for taking such good care of him. Keep it up!”
And with that — before Trey could even acknowledge what he’d said — he turned and walked for a set of double doors which were being opened. There was a long conference table with opulent high backed chairs in there. Clearly, that was where the meeting would take place.
Kick and Stick flowed to either side of him once more, and Trey bristled once more. The villains and their entourages followed the Jack. The Buzzard glanced over to me, with a slight look of delight on his face, and then turned away as he followed the rest.
And then… we were alone in the lounge. Even the waitstaff were gone, as though they’d never been there.
“Come on,” Trey said. “Let’s go get out of these.” She sounded angry. She sounded spurned.
“Whatever you say,” I said. It seemed the safest possible response.
So we took the elevator like usual. I figured we’d go down to the Hearts’ locker room, but instead she produced the key that sent the elevator sideways and then down into the hotel. Back to my room, in other words.
The whole trip down, Trey was quiet. And that’s saying something. Sometimes Trey didn’t talk, but even when she wasn’t talking she was usually loud about it. Stomping. Snorts. Side-eyes that shouted without shouting. Not this time. This time she was just… quiet. It was unnerving.
I should have recognized the calm before the storm.
“Did you see those two parading around like they owned him?” she fairly screamed at me as the door to my room shut. She wasn’t looking at me — she was unhooking the gown she was wearing, clearly not caring if I was watching or not.
“They did look smug,” I admitted, turning away as I slipped out of my own suit coat.
“Cats look smug. They looked arrogant! It was presumptuous is what it was! They know that my place is by his side during important events! They’re the B team at best! God damn Kick and Stick. And God damn Deuce for stepping on the Boss’s lines and getting herself killed in the first place! That bitch knew this would happen!”
“I don’t think she wanted to get killed just to piss you off,” I said, unbuttoning a couple of buttons of my shirt and sitting down at the small work table I had my laptop on. I opened it up, brought up my notes file and began typing — getting things down as quickly as I could, while it was fresh. In particular, I wanted to get the Buzzard’s words down as accurately as possible. I didn’t think he’d take too much offense at a misquote, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t want to take chances.
“That shows what you know. Obviously she was going to die, so why not do it at the worst possible moment for me? Christ knows she hated me enough.” She peeled off her stockings, having tossed her clothes onto the bed. I gradually became aware of her nudity, which I acknowledged by focusing on my laptop’s screen.
“She hated you, and you hated her,” I said, still typing. “But you also relied on each other?”
“Of course. We were a duo. That’s how we were set up. That’s why she’d have to get herself killed to screw me over — she couldn’t fuck up a routine, after all. I’m going to take a shower.”
“Enjoy,” I murmured, still typing. I admit I glanced up as she walked into the bathroom. But then, I realized she was doing the ‘distraction walk’ as she did it. Which was a warning sign, but I didn’t know it at the time.
She left the bathroom door open. I looked back at the screen and kept typing. Shaping nuance and checking what notes I’d managed to scribble here or there. I have a really good memory for speech and dialogue, which is essential for my line of work, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to double check things as I go along. And — as I’ve said before — misquoting a supervillain is never a good idea, even when they’re a lot saner than the crowd I’d ended up with this time. In the background, I heard the shower start.
There were three knocks, and then the door was unlocked and opened.Mister River pushed a room service cart in. “Good evening, Mister Chapman,” he said in his mild, genial, and oh so British way. Noticing the bathroom door was open, he leaned over to it. “I’ve brought dinner, Trey,” he said, raising his voice slightly but not shouting.
“Whatever!” Trey shouted back.
Mister River pulled the door shut, with a satisfying click. “Is your shoulder all right, Mister Chapman?”
I glanced at that shoulder. “A bit stiff,” I said, “but manageable. Whatever Lady Violet puts in those—“
“Best not to speculate,” he said. “Come. Get undressed so I can get the suit laundered.” He moved to the bureau and slid it open, taking out a pair of grey satin pajamas — embroidered, I noticed, with the ‘How to Play Poker’ logo on the lapel — and laying them out for me.
I sighed, saving my document and getting up. I peeled out of the shirt and pants in fast order, letting Mister River help me into the pajamas. He looked at the ‘d’ shaped scar on my shoulder with a critical eye. “Nothing nasty lurking in there, I don’t think,” he said, finally. “Button up.” He turned and began folding clothes.
“Why did the Jack want me at the Investor’s meeting?” I asked. “Especially since I wasn’t actually present for the Investor’s meeting?”
“I’ve no idea,” Mister River said, setting the dinner dishes on my suite’s table and putting my folded clothing onto the rolling cart in their place. “I’ve found it counterproductive to try and divine Mister Oaknavés’s motives.” He glanced at the closed bathroom door. “How is Trey handling it all?”
“Like Trey,” I said, sitting back down in front of my laptop. “Wound too tight. Sulky. Angry. Smug. Every time I think I have a handle on her personality I step on a landmine. I’ll be honest, Mister River… it’s pretty exhausting.”
“Yes,” Mister River said. “I suspect it would be. Interesting, don’t you think, that Mister Oaknavés chose her to be your guide and bodyguard?”
I snorted. “Like you said — trying to figure out the Jack’s motives doesn’t get you very far.”
“Correct,” Mister River said. “It doesn’t get me very far.”
I paused. “Meaning what?”
“Who said I had any meaning other than what I said? Enjoy your dinner, Mister Chapman. And… do be careful. Landmines are never where you expect them, are they?”
I watched him go, then shook my head and went back to typing.
The bathroom door opened, and a very damp Trey came out, her hair bound up in a white towel, her body wrapped in a second. Barely wrapped, that is — it was as much advertising as covering and couldn’t possibly be helping her get dry. “Mmm, remind me to come down here to shower more often,” she said. “I forget how good the guests have it.”
“Even the involuntary ones?” I asked.
“Especially the involuntary ones. A comped room is always better than one you pay for — that’s how you make sure people want the comped rooms. And since most of them only get comps after spending or losing a lot of money…”
“Right.” I finished typing, then closed my laptop. “There’s dinner.”
“I heard.” She smirked, running a fingertip along one of the aluminum plate covers. “I noticed Mister River didn’t dally this time.”
“He doesn’t usually stick around.”
“Smart of him. Especially tonight.” She smiled a bit more, looking at me with her head cocked, an eyebrow raised.
“What’s happening tonight?” I asked. And before you figure I’m stupid… of course I knew she was flirting. That happened a lot with interviewees — especially villains. It gives them a sense of power and control, which they need when they’re opening up to an interviewer. Most of the time, I simply ‘missed the cues.’ You don’t sleep with an interviewee — and I’m pretty sure sleeping with any Heart is unhealthy at best.
Or at least, I was pretty sure about that.
“Oh, never ask how the show’s going to end, Mister Chapman. You must be the kind of boy who reads the last chapter of a mystery first.” She looked me up and down. “Get up and take off your shirt. I want to check how well that harpy’s gunk worked on your wound.”
“Heh. You and Mister River,” I said, standing up and unbuttoning a couple of buttons on my pajama shirt, which I then peeled off over my head. My shoulder was still stiff enough to complain at that move, but after everything else that evening I didn’t feel like letting it have the last word.
“You know, Chapman… if you’re trying to keep a girl happy…” she leaned over, looking at the line scar, letting her tongue trail along her upper lip as she did so. “…maybe don’t compare her to an old man.” She looked up at me, still leaning forward. Smirking. And I was even more impressed with the structural integrity of that towel wrap job, since it was staying firmly in place, while giving the distinct impression that it was on the verge of catastrophic failure.
I do not pretend I didn’t notice. And I know she knew it. “I’m actually pretty terrible at keeping girls happy,” I said. “I think my last relationship was…” I paused to consider. “Jesus Christ. Eleven years ago?”
“Mmm. So pent up.” She stood back upright, sliding into a pose as careful as any she used with the Jack… and with absolutely no doubt as to her intentions.
I stared. I admit it. She wanted me to stare and I did. I’ve never liked the phrase ‘tearing my eyes away’ from something but in that moment, forcing myself to close them and look to the side — I got the metaphor. It was almost painful to look away. I can’t tell you why — I knew she was attractive, but that usually isn’t enough for that kind of visceral reaction. Maybe it was the adrenalin from before? Or proximity? Or Stockholm Syndrome? I don’t know.
But I did know that this was still an interview. Kidnapped or not, I was still a reporter. And there are things you don’t do. Your interviewee was at the top of that list. “Look,” I said. “Trey, I—”
“I know I wasn’t at my kindest last night,” she said, giggling. “But remember… Mister Oaknavés told me to satisfy your every need. Are you telling me you don’t need anything right now?”
I took a deep breath, then forced myself to look back at her — specifically at her eyes. I was remembering that interview I had with Salomé — the one I mentioned before. I’d learned that paraexpressed charisma or not, if you could stay focused on her eyes… “Trey… you’re… stunning. But I can’t… I have a job to do, and it…”
“And you never take a break?” she asked — still teasingly, though I saw her eyes set just slightly.
“I can’t take a break. Not and stay objective.”
She paused, then snorted, the pose dropping away even as she broke eye contact, looking off to the side. “Objective.”
“That’s the job.”
“Oh really? Are you sure it’s not just the options?”
“Maybe you’d prefer a doubles act — maybe Kick and Stick should slither down here and shake their asses at you. You’d like that I bet.”
“Trey — it’s got… it’s got nothing to do with—”
“Or is it someone else? You saw Beguile up there. She talked to you. I don’t even know what that whore said to you. No wonder you’re so objective now! Or Amulet — you interviewed her, right? Or are you just holding a fucking torch for Leather!”
“Hey!” I snapped. “Look — I’m sorry, but I don’t fuck on the job. It’s not personal and it’s not—“
“Don’t you fucking tell me it’s not personal!” Trey howled, leaping up into a pirouette that turned into a sidekick that hit me like a gunshot. I was thrown into the bathroom door, bouncing half off it before she drove a fist into my stomach, doubling me over — then snapped her knee up into my chin, cracking me back.
I couldn’t say a word before she’d thrown open the door and snap kicked me one more time — a high kick right into the chest, knocking me bodily into the far wall. ”Leave me alone, you limp dicked creep!” she shrieked, and slammed the door shut.
I slowly slid to the floor. I was really getting tired of being in serious pain. I rubbed my jaw, probing at my teeth with my tongue. No loose teeth, it seemed. I closed my eyes, tasting copper. Bit my lip and my tongue alike. Hell, I was lucky I didn’t bite through it on one of those uppercuts.
It was an oddly long moment before the reality of my situation sunk in.
Trey had thrown me out of my hotel room.
I blinked, forcing myself to my feet. I looked down the hall both ways. It didn’t look like anyone had noticed or gone to check out the noise. Maybe this kind of fight was just normal — or maybe the soundproofing was just that good.
I rubbed my face, then walked back over to my room. ‘2319’ gleamed on the door. I tried the handle, but it didn’t work. So I knocked.
I knocked again. “Trey?” I asked.
Not a thing.
“Trey — come on,” I said. “You can’t… you’re supposed to do—“ I didn’t finish the sentence. Reminding her that she had been told to fulfill my requests right after I’d rejected her advances? Maybe not the smartest idea.
I knocked two or three more times, but it was clear she wasn’t coming to the door. So. I considered my situation.
I was alone, in the hallway, wearing a pair of pajama pants, a hangdog expression, and nothing else. Slightly bloodied. I was absolutely positive I wasn’t supposed to be out there. I was equally positive it would be a bad idea being caught wandering around unsupervised. If a guest saw me, they might complain or freak out and either way that’d piss someone off. If a hench, security, or God help me the Jack saw me…
I briefly considered escape, but there was still the question of the bomb in my head. They didn’t need me locked in a room to keep me prisoner. I thought about getting to a phone — calling someone… that seemed pretty risky too. I couldn’t imagine there was real phone privacy in this place.
And maybe you’re reading this and thinking of fifteen or twenty obvious things I could have done, and if that makes you feel superior by all means be my guest, but at the end of the day I wasn’t trying to escape. Not while the story was still here. I’d gone this far and suffered this much — I wasn’t going to throw it all away. Besides, if I did escape the Jack would hunt me down and kill me anyway. Barbara Babcock would have found a way to get out or signal Paragon or something. Me? I just wanted to survive long enough to file the finished story. But then, I’m no Barbara Babcock.
There was no help to be had at the ice bucket, though I did use the ice to wash my face, somewhat, and then sucked on a couple of ice cubes to help keep my lip from swelling. The soda machine wanted money which I didn’t have. The elevators opened when I hit the call button, but if I hit any of the upper floor buttons one of the four keyholes along the bottom of the panel lit up and the elevator went nowhere. I looked for a house phone in all the usual places, but this floor didn’t have any.
So. What now? Huddle outside the door and hope she’d either let me in or Mister River would be the first one to find me? That didn’t seem smart — the Jack didn’t like servile. That much I could tell — the fact that he liked my ‘why the Jack O’Knaves’ question was solid evidence.
So I started going down the hall, looking for an open room that might have a house phone, so I could literally call my kidnappers and tell them I’d been locked out of my cell. Because that’s where we were. But unfortunately, none of the doors were unlocked. There was no door to a stairwell, either — no shock, I suppose. It’s not like they had to make this place to any kind of code.
So what then? Wake someone up? That seemed… unwise.
Walking past 2305, I heard a laugh, which made me pause. Then there was another one. It was on the other side of the door, but that meant there were people awake in that room. Okay, I was half-naked, bruised, and pathetic looking, but right then that looked like my best bet. So I knocked.
The laughter stopped.
I knocked again, swallowing.
“What?” a man’s voice snapped through the door. I figured they were looking at me through the peephole. My room didn’t have a peephole, I realized.
“Hi — I… got locked out of my room. Can I use your phone?”
There was a long pause. I swallowed. “I’m sorry to bother—“ I started to say.
The door opened. A six foot five man, carved of muscle in a denim sleeveless jacket and chains, was standing there, looming down at me with angry eyes. “I’m sorry. What exactly did you say?” he asked. Well, growled.
I swallowed again. “I… got locked out of my room. May I please use your phone to call the front desk? Or would you mind calling them for—“
His fist slammed forward much faster than human normal, his massive hand clenching around my throat and lifting me up off the floor like I were a rag doll. “I’m so sorry to hear that,” he growled. “Hey Vi? How neighborly are we feeling?”
“By all means,” a voice behind the huge thug purred — a purr that seemed to flow right down my spine. “Please invite Mister Chapman in. I’d hate to get a reputation for rudeness.”
The voice registered in my brain even as the thug turned and hurled me into the room, slamming me into the carpet like a sack of wet socks. Which I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, but what I didn’t say then was what was going through my mind.
I knew that voice. Oh God help me I knew that voice.
A demure foot, toenails painted purple, and glittering scales barely visible below the skin, reached over to my face. It lifted, forcing me up into a kneel, so that I could look at its owner.
Her blonde hair was messier than it had been upstairs. She wasn’t wearing her goggles. In fact, what she was wearing was a velvet one-piece unikini that was mostly thin cords and excuses to show off her skin — skin that like her foot had that almost chitinous underlayer. Her eyes were purple but otherwise looked like eyes, though there was a tiny pair of antennae between them, to match the glistening dragonfly wings that had extended behind her back.
Once, a reformed Dark God of Greystone named Elle Chemical — forever known as the Lady Velvet — had taken an apprentice. Lady Velvet taught her the tools of her trade with the best of intentions, but that apprentice had turned her back on her master and struck out on her own, some said insane quest not for riches but for alchemical power.
Behind me, I heard the door close, and the deadbolt thunk. There would be no Buzzard to intercede this time. It was just me, a group of alchemically enhanced henches, and a bug-girl who was staring at me with a blend of glee and disdain. Her name was still the Lady Violet, and she’d already made it clear she hated my fucking guts. And that was before I’d bled on her hotel room’s carpet.
“Mister Chapman, dahhhhhhling,” she said in her characteristic purr, her smile almost feral. “How nice of you to drop by.”