She ducked under my slap and rolled me lightly over her shoulder. I went sprawling, but before I could land on the roof she’d rolled over me, grabbing my shoulders and pulling me into her roll, kicking up with her feet at the top of it. I was catapulted fifteen feet into the air, sprawling, and realized as I was coming down that I was going over the edge of the roof, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
In the alternate universe coded ⎇001JW, super heroes and villains have been around for decades, ever since the hero Paragon first saved the world on national television. After years of adoration, a planetary disaster had turned public opinion against the heroes, with tensions rising between parahumans and their unpowered prosahuman cousins. This is the story of Justice Wing… In Nadir.
Interviewing Leather (Revised)
It was an eight and a half hour drive up to Meridian City from Thamesford, Virginia. Coastal driving. Northbound. There’s a lot of great views of the ocean going that way, if you happen to like staring out at water.
I don’t really like staring out at water.
I was just glad I had a T-Sound Elite. Three thousand songs, with playlists for every occasion. When I’m heading out to an interview, I liked to let their music soak into my brain. Y’know. Listen to their songs. Listen to their albums. Or listen to their genre.
Really, it’s the best part of the job. I sit down in the Amplifier music library and slurp tracks down into a playlist. It’s free rein at the candy store, and it’s all legal.
Okay, I admit I don’t ever get around to deleting the music off my T-Sound Elite – or my laptop for that matter. Less legal? Probably. Do I care? Not really. Over time that let me build up general playlists to supplement the artist’s music – get a sense of how their music fits into their genre. Get a feeling for who influenced them or who they’ve influencd. Cutting edge or retro, I have a music list that I can put on repeat for hours or days before I actually walk into a room with them. It helps me get into my own head. To get ready. To think like they do so when it comes time to interview them I’m already halfway there.
So I’m driving. Heading to an interview. I left well before dawn so I’d arrive in Rhode Island before 10:30. But it’s different, this time. But this time I’m not heading up to interview an alt-rock or hip hop star. This time it was a woman named Leather.
Leather’s a supervillain.
I don’t have a playlist for that.
I didn’t want this gig.
Seriously. I wanted a gig, sure. That’s why I went into the office in the first place. It’s a monthly ritual between me and Kyle. I walk into the Amplifier offices back in Thamesford, hit on Teenee at the front desk, and then go back to see Kyle. Kyle bullshits me for a few and we spar back and forth on the state of rock. He tells me that he hasn’t got anything lined up, and I tell him I need to eat and if he can’t feed me, I’ll go work at Starbucks since they actually pay on time. We go around a few times, and then he’ll pretend like he just thought of some feature or interview he’d like to have done, only he’ll have three weeks worth of prep and research already lined up. We argue about the wordcount and pay rate, but as soon as he suggests it we both know I’m going to take it.
This wasn’t like that. This time, Kyle smiled when I walked through the door. That’s when I knew I was in trouble. Before we could even go through our opening statements he’d pitched it to me, right down the plate.
“She’s a supervillain,” I said. “That’s not very rock and roll.”
“Bullshit.” Kyle leaned back in his chair. “It’s not very bubblegum pop, I’ll give you that. It’s utterly rock and roll. Think of what Tom Wolfe could have done with this in 1966.”
“Was this ‘Leather’s’ mother even alive in 1966?” I snorted. “I think Tom Wolfe would have some trouble.”
“Forest for the trees, Toddy. Forest for the trees.” Kyle liked that phrase. He pulled it out every once in a while. I’m not always sure what he means when he says it. I’m not sure he knows, either.
Besides, ‘missing the forest for the trees’ meant ‘look at the big picture.’ Leather was a supervillain – her big picture involved getting punched in the face, really hard. “Look,” he was saying, “You drive up to her place for an afternoon—”
“I’m getting directions to her lair?”
“That’s a bit melodramatic, isn’t it?”
I arched an eyebrow. “Supervillain, Kyle.”
“Okay, point. Anyway. You go up there. You get a few candid shots. You shoot the shit with her for a few hours. You come home and type it up! No big.”
“You’re acting like this is some pissant celebrity interview. How’d you even set this up. Did you call her agent? Does she even have an agent?”
Kyle shrugged. “I guess some supervillains do. But no, I met a friend of a friend of one of her ex-henches, and he got her to call me. She thinks it’d be fun.”
“Fun. Fine. You drive up there.”
“That’s not how it works,” Kyle said, leaning forward and folding his arms on his desk. “I’m the editor, you see. I solicit articles and then I edit them after I my writers write them. You’re a writer. You go and you write the articles. I’m surprised no one’s ever explained that to you.”
“Can’t I go bug Ruler Slap for a week or something?”
“What, you think you won’t get shot covering rap?”
I made a face. It wasn’t wrong, but the way Kyle said it made it somehow feel racist. I let it slide – he paid me, after all. “I think getting shot beats getting bitten by radioactive animals. People who visit into the supers’ world end up becoming permanent residents.” Or they end up dead, but I didn’t figure that needed to be mentioned.
“Then next month you can interview yourself! Isn’t that traditional for journalist super heroes?”
“What makes you think I’d be a super hero?”
Kyle snorted. “Anyway. Get a picture of her we can use, and I’ll give you the cover.”
I raised an eyebrow and leaned back. Which was a mistake, because that’s code. That means ‘I want to hear the offer,’ even though I didn’t really want to hear the offer. If I heard the offer, then I knew I’d be doing the gig.
“And a buck and a half a word.”
“Mary gets a buck ninety.”
“You’re not supposed to know what Mary gets.”
“Yeah, but I do. So why aren’t I getting what Mary gets?”
“Because Mary doesn’t suck.”
“So send Mary.”
Kyle shrugged. “Leather wants a guy. She doesn’t like talking to girls. That was part of the deal.”
“So you’re offering me a buck and a half a word and my name on the cover because I have a Y chromosome?”
“And don’t suck as bad as the other guys I have available,” Kyle qualified.
Kyle arched an eyebrow, and then nodded. “Good enough. I’ll call Rob. Have a good one.”
I blinked. Kyle was off script. Kyle never goes off script. “Well, hang on. What else you got for this month?”
Kyle was punching in a phone number. “Nothing.”
Kyle shifted a finger to the hook, looking back at me with narrow eyes. “I have a brief window of opportunity to get an interview with a supervillain who looks and dresses like a alt-fetish model, Todd. Frankly, if you’re not going to write this, the only thing I care about is finding someone who will.”
“Oh, so now we’re playing hardball?”
“No, now I’ve given up on you. Rob’s not as good, but I can pay him one and a quarter. Hell, he might do it for free if I give him the cover.”
“So pay me one sixty five and I’ll do it.”
“No. Good bye, Todd.”
“One-fifty will be fine.”
Kyle hung the phone up.
So now I was doing the gig.
Kyle was right, of course. Supervillains are pretty rock and roll. That doesn’t mean I knew what to listen to on my way up. So instead, I looked at the pictures we had. Leather wore a leather bustier and panties in a bunch of them – or maybe a leather leotard with boning. I couldn’t tell. She had leather bodysuits in others. Some visible tattoos. Stay up stockings that don’t look like they suck, which is actually pretty rare for stay up stockings. Hair that starts blue black but varies in streak colors depending on her mood. Black batwinged domino mask thing – also leather, but I have no idea how it clings to her face. Glue, I guess, which has to suck taking it off. Asskicker boots.
The thing that struck me was she was slender. Graceful, almost. Kyle said she looked like an alt-fetish model and that’s about right. She looked like a Suicidegirl. She didn’t look pneumatic like the big deal super women. Labriet piercing in one picture – probably not the only one, either.
So I started loading up on Liz Phair and Punk Rock Girl, the Cheshire Kittens and other stuff off of Metal Wings – parahuman music. Added in some Dropkick Murphys here and there. I had to leave at an ugly hour – Leather literally wanted me to show up at 10:30 the next morning, but absolutely didn’t want me to rent a car or stay in a motel. Rental cars were trackable. Hotels had records. That meant I had to hit the road around two in the morning, which meant I couldn’t have looked out at the water if I wanted to, most of the way up.
I wondered what you asked a girl who robs banks and ties super heroes to bombs for a living. I wondered if she’d go psycho on me.
I wondered if I should have left a will before I drove out there.
Of course, it occurred to me I don’t have anybody to leave my stuff to, so maybe it wasn’t a priority.
Quite honestly, the building was cool. It was an old brick power station along the coastline. It had a foghorn mounted to it but with Beacon Lighthouse just a couple of miles away this one had been abandoned for a couple of decades. So, it had distressed brick going on. I parked my crappy little car and walked up the hill. I wondered briefly if someone’d take a shot at me or scream “state your business” at me.
Instead, when I got to within twenty yards of the door, Leather came out of to meet me.
It was maybe ten thirty in the morning, and in the harsh morning sun she looked like she’d just gotten up. Her clothes bore that out – white tee shirt, plaid flannel pants. No shoes. Hair still wet from the shower. It was that same blue-accented black, and the forward streaks were a dirty yellow right now. I could see a devil’s tail tattoo extending down below her left short sleeve. I counted five rings in her left ear, six in her right, and she had a labret under her mouth.
Which was smiling. “Hey,” she said. “Find the place all right?”
“Yeah. Sure. Almost too easily, really. Won’t the cops find it too?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t send the cops directions. Besides, we’re moving at the end of the week. That’s why I wanted to do this now. You’ll see.” She sipped some coffee out of a Far Side mug. “Gifted Children,” if you know Far Side mugs. “You want coffee?”
“Sure. Sure thing.”
“Cool.” She turned on her heel and strode inside. Well, strode is the wrong word. Every time she moves, there’s this grace to it. I’d read up on her before I came up. I knew she was inhumanly fast and strong, and had an incredible agility going for her. Good traits in a supervillain. She was also cute, and that seemed weird to me.
She had a coffee pod machine – a Keurig. An office model that was plumbed – the kind still you have to put the coffee tubs into, but higher end than a Senso coffee pod machine, any way you look at it. “Rainforest Nut, Hazelnut, Lake and Lodge or French Roast?” she asked. “I don’t have decaf.”
“Hazelnut’s great,” I said. “Pricey machine.”
She looked over her shoulder, pushing the button to dispense my coffee. “I wouldn’t know,” she said, grinning a saucy grin. A naughty grin.
“You steal your kitchen appliances?” I was grinning too. It seemed so out of place – a supervillain staging a daring raid on Bed, Bath and Beyond.
“Only the good ones. Unless I get pissed off. There was this one time I was trying to buy shower curtains at fucking Wal-Mart, and I got nothing but attitude through the whole fucking store. I mean, it’s Wal-Mart. You don’t expect attitude.” She handed me my coffee in a chipped enamel mug. “Milk and cream’s in the fridge. I think we got Splenda if you want. I don’t have sugar. Anyway. I was so angry I went out to the car, changed in the parking lot, went back in and gave them the full on business.”
“Full on business?” I asked, opening the fridge for the cream, but you don’t say things like that to a supervillain. Lots of fats and carbs in her fridge, I noticed. Cream cheese, American cheese, summer sausage, three kinds of bread, plastic tubs of leftover pasta.
“Industry term,” she said, and hopped up onto her table. Just like that. She gave a little hop that cleared four feet and landed, crouching, on her table. She didn’t even spill her coffee. “When you’re making a splash, you’re giving the target ‘the business.’ Monologues, needless destruction, terrorizing the norms. The whole nine yards. Loud instead of quiet. You usually give the business when you want a hero to show up or to send a message. It’s kinda unprofessional to give it just because you’re pissed off at a Wal-Mart assistant manager.”
“But you did it anyway?”
“Oh yeah.” She grinned at the memory, shaking her head and tossing her hair out of her face. “I scooped up one of the cash registers and threw it through intimates – I must have taken out ten racks with one throw. Kicking over shelves, barreling through housewares. Raining down destruction, cleaning out their active registers, scooping the most worthless shit up into a couple of laundry bags I stole. No rhyme or reason. Just breaking shit and stealing shit.” She laughed. “I forgot the shower curtain.”
She drained the rest of her coffee and hopped back to the floor, just as fluidly. “I’m gonna grab another cup and we can go talk. Where’s your stuff, anyway?”
I lifted my backpack. It had my computer in it, my tape recorder – everything. “All set,” I said.
“You have your clothes in there?”
“My clothes?” I asked, with a pretty dumb expression on my face.
“Well, you’re not wearing the same clothes all week are you?”
I blinked at her. “No,” I said. “I’m just here for this afternoon. If we need to do followup, we can do it on the phone or I can drive—”
“No,” she said. “I talked to a guy named Kyle Elias and told him I’d need someone up here for a week if we were going to do this. I can’t have you leave before we’re done. Jesus, you might call the cops!”
“I’m not going to call the cops! Why would I call the police?”
“Well, because if you don’t it might be considered aiding and abetting, for one. You’re supposed to stay with us until we move out. And you’re here now…”
I shrugged. “Sorry,” I said.
She paused for a moment, and then nodded. “Whatever. Want I should show you around the place?”
The tour was concise. She was… bubbly, almost. She didn’t seem very evil – she just seemed young and cheerful. And while the building was clearly abandoned and just as clearly falling apart in places, it had a kind of bomb shelter chic to it. Certainly, she had taken the time and effort to make it ‘homey.’
“How long have you been up here?” I asked her.
“A year,” she said. “Though you have to be careful. Mostly, you have to make sure you don’t give people the sense you live in one place or another. So you do touring.”
She nodded. “I do two or three weeks in different towns and cities around the country. Put in my time, make a few heists, stay in hotels. Usually I’ll go quiet for most of the jobs, and then give one or two the business. That keeps me in the public eye and makes it hard for the police to figure out where I actually live.”
“So why are you moving?” I asked. “I mean, it looks like you have all the amenities of home here, plus no one knows you’re here.”
She shrugged. “You get sick of a place after a while. Besides, this place sucks in the winter, and sooner or later someone’s going to notice I’ve stolen power and come looking. Or else someone’s going to want to use the land or the building.” She walked into what looked like the main building plant. It smelled of metal and oil and something burning, with an old wooden stair mounted to one wall that went up to a trap door in the ceiling. There was gear and equipment all over the place in the main section – exercise equipment and the tools of a professional malcontent’s trade. “Hey Marco!” she shouted.
Marco, as it turned out, was a six foot two Hispanic man He was welding plates onto what looked like a Humvee. “Yo?!” he shouted back up.
“This is – hey, who the Hell are you?” Leather said, looking back at me.
“Todd Chapman,” I called over. The name didn’t seem to impress Marco.
“Right,” Leather said. “He’s cool until I say otherwise, right?”
“Right,” Marco said. “I’m gonna need to put this thing up so I can work on the underbody. Fucking transport services fucked up the alignment!”
“Transport services?” I asked Leather quietly.
“Do it!” she called to Marco, then turned back to me. “There’s a bunch of supervillain support agencies out there,” she said. “Transport services are kind of the Black Market side of the Teamsters. That way, I can get my gear out to tours and then get it back so we can fix it.”
“What’s Marco’s story?” I asked. I didn’t ask if he was her boyfriend, though it’d crossed my mind. It’s kind of amazing. She’s a super powered criminal who I’d been scared to meet, but I still kind of wanted to know if she was available. It wouldn’t have mattered, of course. I don’t date, screw, or get high with interview subjects.
“He henches for me. Same as the other guys.”
“Henches for you?”
“Yeah, they have a guild. C’mon. I wanna show you the roof.”
The wooden stairs were bolted to the wall, and didn’t seem in great shape. She bounded up them with abandon, but then if she fell a couple of flights to the concrete floor she’d probably land on her feet and walk it off. Still, they didn’t creak much as we went up, so I figured it was probably okay. And once through a blast door at the top, we were out on a roof with a low brick wall on all sides. There were a couple of standing pools of water where the tar paper had bubbled, but otherwise it was nice enough. I saw she had some plants potted on one side, next to some lawn chairs, and nearby there was a pile of what looked like rims for trucks.
“What’s that for?” I asked, pointing at the rims. “Storage for your auto body shop?”
“Nah,” she said. “Defense. Lemme show you.” She walked over, and lifted one up. I’d think she wouldn’t weigh enough to easily flip it up the way she did, no matter how strong she was, but either she weighs more than I think or she’s really good at counterbalancing. She flipped it into one hand like it was a trash can lid.
She paused, peering out. “Is that piece of shit Hyundai your car?”
I shrugged. “Such as it is.”
“Cool. I don’t feel so bad then.”
She spun around three times, the truck wheel out like she were throwing the discus. On the third she let go, and I was amazed to see it soar out, spinning like a frisbee almost. Clearly she’d practiced throwing – that’s what she meant by defense. If the cops showed up, she could rain down flying metal on them. I watched arc and angle down…
Straight for my car.
I sputtered as the rim slammed down onto the hood, staving it in and tearing through glass and metal into the body of the car itself. “My car!”
“Yeah,” Leather said, grinning. “You’re probably going to want to call Triple-A. You do have Triple-A, don’t you?”
“You’re insane!” I shouted. “You just wrecked my car!”
“What? You thought the whole supervillain thing was hype?” She was still grinning, perching. “You probably want to get it towed quickly. And if it’s registered in this state there’s a mandatory Powered Nemesis rider on your insurance, so no harm done. Mm. Wait – you’re from Virginia. Well, who knows?”
I pulled out my phone and wallet, absolutely flabbergasted. I’d get Triple-A to come tow me and get the Hell out before—
Leather bounded past me, almost a blur, doing a pirouette as she passed by me and plucking the cell phone out of my hand so delicately I hardly noticed she had done it.
I blinked. “Give me that—” I started to say, following her.
Leather giggled, closing her hand over my phone. Metal and plastic splintered, and she let the shattered remains of my phone fall to the roof.
I was shocked. I kind of snarled, and I sort of lurched towards her. I’m not sure what I thought would happen, but at that point I was pretty upset.
And yeah, you’re thinking that was pretty stupid. I mean, the girl hoisted a truck rim a good two hundred yards with pinpoint accuracy. But I wasn’t thinking clearly and I was pissed.
Leather ducked under my slap and rolled me lightly over her shoulder. I went sprawling, but before I could land on the roof she’d rolled over me, grabbing my shoulders and pulling me into her roll, kicking up with her feet at the top of it. I was catapulted fifteen feet into the air, sprawling, and realized as I was coming down that I was going over the edge of the roof, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
I was pointed down, screaming my head off and looking at the ground a good fifty feet below me when her hand clamped on my ankle, stopping my fall and letting me dangle. The shock was nasty enough, and even though she was careful when she grabbed my ankle, I knew I’d be limping for a couple of hours.
“You want to be careful,” she said brightly. “Remember, you didn’t bring a spare pair of pants with you, so you’re going to want to retain bladder control.”
I didn’t answer coherently. I probably screamed, though I don’t clearly remember.
“Now,” she said. “Let’s go over what you did wrong, shall we?”
I distinctly remember whimpering at this point.
“When a supervillain – one who’s been polite enough to let you come up for an interview, opened her home, and given you fucking coffee – tells you you’re staying for a week, you don’t argue. You adjust your plans. Is that clear?”
Whatever I said in response was hardly coherent.
“Is that clear?” she asked. “If you don’t answer me, I’ll get bored and boredom means my grip will slip.”
“It’s clear! It’s clear!”
“Okay then. You’re going to stay for the week. Do you understand?”
“You have no phone. Your computer won’t be able to access my wireless network. You’re cut off. If you find some way to get out a cry for help, I’ll break every bone in your body. Is that clear?”
“Yes! God, yes!”
She giggled. “Okay!” And she hauled me back on the roof.
I threw up, but was careful not to get any on my shirt.