“Cut either the heroes or the villains out of the equation, and you have one guy in tights showing up to do police work. It’s stupid. It looks ridiculous. But give a hero a villain and it becomes… I dunno. Cultural. It makes sense. If I’m there, and I’m robbing the bank, and I’m wearing bondage gear and making bad puns? Of course it makes sense that Darkhood shows up and shoots epoxy-spraying arrows at me. The absurdity cancels each other out.”
In the alternate universe coded ⎇001JW, super heroes and villains have been around for decades and tensions are rising between parahumans and their unpowered prosahuman cousins. This is Justice Wing In Nadir.
Todd Chapman was a music journalist working for Amplifier magazine. His editor, Kyle Elias, gave him an unusual assignment – drive up the coast and spend an afternoon interviewing a C-list supervillain with an alt-rock chic who called herself ‘Leather.’ Chapman drove up to Meridian City and met Leather, and learned she expected him to stay a full week. Chapman tried to refuse, and had his car wrecked, phone destroyed, and life threatened for his troubles. This interview was clearly just beginning.
Interviewing Leather (Revised)
A few hours after my introduction to super villain hospitality, I had taken a shower and Leather had changed clothes. This particular costume, Leather informed me, was her ‘formal’ wear. It was meant for talking rather than fighting. “Every villain and most heroes have, like, five or six uniforms. Costumes, if you prefer that word. Mostly, we call villain attire ‘suits.’”
“That seems complicated,” I said. “I never really thought about it.”
“It’s not so bad,” she said. “You know how villains always seem to look good in those first few minutes of a fight? That’s because they’ve picked the clothes for the situation. For example? This is my fuck-me suit.” She grinned.
I wouldn’t have used those terms but she was right. It was a black and red shiny PVC leotard and it looked poured onto her, all glossy, with stiletto heels on her boots and vinyl fingerless gloves. She’d teased her hair out and put on one of her masks – a black, batwing affair.
“How do you keep the mask on?” I asked.
“Sticky tabs,” she said. “Like spirit gum, but better.”
“Should I be taking your picture now?”
“S’up to you, but if you’re looking for a cover shot, you’re going to want one of the high end combat suits. I look better in those.”
I blinked. “If you look better in those, why is that your ‘fuck me’ suit?”
She giggled. We were in her ‘study,’ so named because it had a computer and bookshelves along with a couple of nice leather chairs. The henchmen brought us coffee and didn’t interrupt. There had been an almost casual feeling to the morning so far, whether or not she was dangling me off her lair like a ragdoll. Now she was on the clock, and everyone in the building knew it.
I knew it too. Her ‘fuck me’ suit clearly doubled as a ‘don’t fuck with me’ outfit. Her attitude – her whole bearing – was sexy, but dangerous sexy.
“The combat outfits take like a half hour to put on or take off,” she was saying. “They kill the mood. Besides, they’re not all that comfortable – not good for talking in. This is what I’d wear around the tied up super hero as I told him my nefarious plans in a seductive voice. The heavy leather outfits are what I’d wear after he broke free.”
I laughed. “You have this down to a science.”
She giggled. “You have to. Look, I know everyone thinks we get up one day, think ‘I wanna be a supervillain,’ put on a bathing suit and halloween mask and everything falls into place. The simple truth is, it takes work to do things right – same as anything else. You need the right clothes, the right tools, the right connections, the right introductions – and you still actually need to be good at it.”
“So how did you decide to do it?”
She leaned back, stretching. She was inhumanly flexible, which can be distracting when she’s wearing her best ‘fuck me’ suit. “Mine’s a pretty standard story,” she said. “I went through primary parahuman expression in high school, figured my powers out, and decided that I had a destiny.”
“To rob jewelry stores?”
She laughed. “To save the world.”
I blinked. “Huh?”
“Oh yeah. Check any ten super villains, and nine of them started off as super heroes. I started at sixteen years old. Red white and blue leotard with stars and chevrons on it. Pale tights, blue legwarmers and I swear to god red tennis shoes. Cheesy as Hell, since I didn’t have a patriotic thing going, but there’s no good ‘starter kit’ for super heroes out there. You have to grab what you can find at dance supply stores, costume shops and the like.” She laughed. “If I had it to do over? I’d start with, like, motocross gear. At least that’s a little protective.”
“So… wait. How long did you fight crime?”
“Around two years. I was ‘Dynamo Girl.’ Well, I started as ‘Dynagirl,’ but it turns out that Sid and Marty Kroft did a TV show with a Dynagirl in the seventies.” She laughed again, shaking her head. “Trademark law, if you can believe it, and everyone takes it seriously. Even the bad guys. One of the weirdly hard things about being a hero or a villain is finding a name no one’s using. I’m still stunned I got ‘Leather.’”
“Gotcha. So… Dynamo Girl. What kind of hero work did you do?”
“Street level stuff, in a small town that really didn’t need a super hero to begin with. I stopped muggings, got cats out of trees, took down a street gang or two – even fought a couple of entry level villains.”
“Huh. That must have been something to see.”
She arched an eyebrow – I was impressed with how expressive she could be with the leather mask on – and smiled naughtily. “Oh, you like the idea of sixteen year olds in star spangled lycra beating down bad guys?”
“You make it sound perverse.”
She laughed. “Nah. It’s par for the course. We all know it. It’s part of the lifestyle. Even if the suits aren’t a sex thing for us – and most of the time, as weird as it seems, it’s not a sex thing – there are whole schools of fetishes the costuming fuels. You get leered at on either side of the aisle.”
“So why’d you give it up?”
“You mean – why’d I go bad?” She grinned. “I wish I had a good story for you – some moment of truth where I fell from grace. But the simple answer is, being a super hero’s hard work.”
“Harder than being a super villain?”
She laughed, as though the question were silly. “Any time you make an effort, you’re trying to receive some kind of reward. That’s human nature. We do the things that benefit us. We work at unrewarding wage slave jobs because they give us money to buy alcohol and cigarettes. We do backbreaking charity work because it gives us warm feelings and assuages our liberal guilt. Being a super villain is, if anything, harder than being a super hero. But the rewards are tangible and immediate and can be spent on computers and slinky black dresses. It’s not like that for heroes.”
“So, you’re saying there’s no such thing as altruism? Of doing the right thing?”
She laughed again, and slipped a cigarette out of a pack on her desk. “Of course there is,” she said, lighting up. “But that’s the reward. That good feeling. That sense you’re making a difference. You have to understand the tier system.”
“Tier system? You sound like tech support.”
She ignored me. “See, you have your first tier heroes. The ones everyone’s heard of. Paragon. The Nightwatch. The Lieutenant.” She snorted. “Ever since Freya died, it’s mostly guys, because of course it is. Anyway – the founders of Justice Wing. The ones who make the national news just by showing up. They get adulation from all quarters, which makes sense because they’re also the ones saving the world.” She chuckled. “Then, you have your second tier. The other guys in Justice Wing. The guys most people have heard of, but who don’t make the national news. Specialists. The Ancient Mariner. Broadhead. Greyfalcon. Even the Beacon – yeah, Justice Wing’s leader is second tier. Doesn’t that just say it all?”
“I guess it really does. And that was you? You were second tier?”
“Hah! Not even close. Below them you have the third tier. The regional heroes. The home town boys. Guys like Darkhood here in Meridian City. Outside their home town, no one’s heard of them, but in their home town they’re hot stuff.” She laughed again. “It’s especially weird in Meridian, because Vortex lives here and she’s second tier, which is also weird because she’s only a reserve member of Justice Wing, but she’s distinctive and she was a big part of the Apocalypse Agenda. And has tits, so…” She paused. “I got off topic. Where was I?”
“The third tier?”
“Right!” She laughed. “And then you have the fourth tier. Everyone else. The neighborhood heroes. Members of second rate superteams. All the guys and girls who own lycra but don’t make the magazines. That was me.” She shook her head, breathing smoke out. “Imagine a really top notch high school quarterback. No matter how good he is, he’s still a high school quarterback.”
“So, you would need to put in the time to move up the rankings?”
“It’s not that simple.” She shook her head. “See, I was a pretty good ‘good girl.’ I saved some lives. I stopped some crime. I fought the good fight. But look at me.” She ran a hand down her stomach, sliding smoothly up out of the chair. I don’t mind saying it was easy to look at Leather, especially in that costume. “I look good. But I don’t look ‘super hero.’ I especially don’t look super heroine. My hips are slender, not broad. And I’m a well shaped B cup, and I can work it well, but I’m still a B cup.” She snickered. “You look at most superheroines who get good press and they’re double D’s. Someone like Thunder Lass or Sprite now or Freya back in the day – those are double F’s. You look at any well known super heroines, and you’re usually seeing mighty tits. The Beacon’s the leader of Justice Wing and helped save the world during the Apocalypse Agenda, and she’s second tier at best and you know it’s because she’s a C cup. Someone like Crosspointe – she’s one of the most professional heroes on the circuit, saved the world and everything, and she’s third tier at best, and gosh, she’s also flat as a board. Go figure. It’s all just stupid.”
“So… because your breast size wasn’t big enough, you got stuck in high school varsity?”
“Exactly. You know what they call it? ‘Sidekick physique.’ In fact, that’s what most thin chicks have to do. They partner up with a solid second or third tier hero and let their first name be “and.” Like ‘Darkhood and Dynamo Girl.’” She shook her head. “Not that I’d partner up with some bow-packing SCA reject.”
“That reject’s probably going to try and stop your jewelry heist.”
Leather snorted. “Yeah, well. Super villains fight super heroes. If you don’t want to fight super heroes find some other way of making a living. That’s one reason I’m going to pull jobs here this week. Vortex is gone all week – she’s in California for some conference. She’s second tier and way out of my league. Darkhood’s third tier. Regional hero, no real national presence. Maybe I can take him and maybe I can’t, but he won’t teleport me into jail the moment he sees me.”
“Anyway. Here I was. Going out and working hard every night. And there this night I took out two super thugs. Red Beast and Shockburn, if you keep up.”
“Wait – Red Beast?”
Leather paused, then began snickering. “I always get that reaction. Yes. Red Beast.”
Red Beast was a monster. Literally. He was like eight feet tall and covered in matted red hair. He was rage personified. I’d seen him on TV, fighting Rodent up in Empire City. He tore apart a city block like it was made out of styrofoam and as near as I could tell he was immune to pain. “How… how did you take out Red Beast?”
“You know, no one ever asks me how I beat Shockburn.”
“Yeah, well. I have no idea who Shockburn is.”
“Well, that would do it.” Leather laughed. “It was… hard. It was a long, hard, painful fight. I was lucky not to be hospitalized. Honestly, I was lucky I wasn’t killed. I was beaten to within an inch of death, had a horrible arm fracture, a skull fracture and TBI, but I did it. I managed to stop them. I saved a park full of hostages, and I got them locked up.” She took a long drag off her cigarette. “I got page eight of the Riverside Chronicle. The police blotter. They didn’t even get my name right.”
“I… I can’t believe that. Did… didn’t anyone say anything?”
“Heh. Nope – well, no. That’s a lie. I made basic cable. There’s this show – Page View Review? They show crappy web videos and make fun of them? Yeah, apparently I’m hysterical because I don’t have big tits. At least they didn’t get my name wrong, probably because they didn’t actually get my name in the first place.”
I kind of shook my head. “And that was that? You went bad? Because you couldn’t get good press, you gave it up?”
She considered, and nodded. “Yeah. See, that’s the acid test. If you realize that no one gives a shit, and you go out and keep trying to save the world? You’re a super hero. A real one. Your reward comes from inside. If you go out, kill yourself, and get upset that no one gives a shit? You’re in the wrong line of work. That was me.”
“How’d you make the transition?”
“It was my next trip out. I nailed a crook who’d robbed a big liquor store. It was a Friday night, so he’d taken like eight thousand bucks in a cloth laundry bag. I took him down. He dropped the money. He took a shot at me and missed. I knocked him into a wall, and he dropped his gun and started running.”
She leaned back, her eyes closing. “And there I was. It was pouring rain, and I wasn’t anywhere near all better from that last fight. I wanna say I threw up. It’s hazy.” She shook her head. “And I was all alone, in the dark, watching him run, and wondering why in God’s name I’d run after him. And then… there was a cloth bag chock full of money right next to me, and no one would finger me. Hell, if the cops grabbed the robber – what, he’d say Dynamo Girl mugged him for the money? Who’d believe him, even if they remembered I existed in the first place.” She stubbed out her cigarette. “So I picked up the bag and went home. I was living on my own then, so it was a boon. I paid my rent, paid my bills… bought new clothes.” She shook her head, laughing. “It was the first time in months I was ahead. I was living below the poverty line at best, and all for a city that didn’t give two shits about me.” She chuckled again. Her eyes were open now, looking off in the distance at something I couldn’t see. “It didn’t really sink in for a bit. Hell, it was midway through my next shift at the restaurant that it hit me. I didn’t need to hustle for tips any more. So I walked out the door.”
“I honestly can’t blame you.” I leaned back in my chair, stretching. I was weirdly comfortable, given this girl had threatened my life and effectively kidnapped me, earlier. Interviews did that to me. “So when did ‘Dynamo Girl’ become ‘Leather?’”
“Well, I knew I didn’t want to stay ‘Dynamo Girl.’ I mean, it sounds weird, but… that was the hero thing. I know some villains keep their hero names when they cross the aisle, but that didn’t seem right to me.” She looked out the window, out over the field. “I mean, I did some good, you know? I saved some lives. Leave that part of me there. Besides. ‘Leather’ is a better villain schtick.” She smirked. “Leather is always cool.”
“You sound like you respect super heroes,” I said. “That’s weird. You’re not gnashing or frothing about do-gooders and their paying next time.”
Leather laughed. “I can froth. I’m good at it. But that’s just part of the whole theater thing. Really, not counting the real psychos like the Jack O’Knaves? Most super villains are fans of super heroes. We have to be, really.”
“Because they need us, and we need them.” She walked around to the front of her desk, hopping up and crouching. Which looked better in a PVC leotard than in flannel pants, it’s worth noting. “Cut either the heroes or the villains out of the equation, and you have one guy in tights showing up to do police work. It’s stupid. It looks ridiculous. But give a hero a villain and it becomes… I dunno. Cultural. It makes sense. If I’m there, and I’m robbing the bank, and I’m wearing bondage gear and making bad puns? Of course it makes sense that Darkhood shows up and shoots epoxy-spraying arrows at me. The absurdity cancels each other out.”
“But wouldn’t it be easier to just… how you put it? Work quiet? Go in, steal stuff in civvies, and get out?”
She cocked her head, and bit her lip. It was disturbingly adorable. “You don’t get it,” she said. “This is a lifestyle choice.”
I admit it. I didn’t look impressed.
“Seriously,” she said. “Take the world conquerers. If Leonardo Lucas was just after world domination, he wouldn’t build giant robots and death rays. He’d get an assload of patents, make three billion dollars, and join the fucking Republican party. He wants people to bow down before him. He wants everyone to know he’s conquering the world.” She leaned forward, which I wouldn’t have thought she could do without losing her balance – at least not in that pose, without putting a hand on the table or something.
But then, she didn’t ever lose her balance, did she?
She was still speaking, in the meantime. “And if that means he has to fight and kill Paragon to do get those people bowing, so be it. Hell, that’s a bonus. So sure, I can go out, wear all black, break into jewelry stores after hours and liberate millions every year. But that’s not satisfying. When I was Dynamo Girl, I could barely get the police blotter. Leather makes the front page whether she gets away or goes to jail.”
“How can that be?” I asked. “Seriously. Wouldn’t the heroes just stop dressing up, if that’s all it took to stop the villains?”
She laughed. “They stop villains with their fists and their gadgets. They don’t want to stop villainy no matter how much they claim they do. They need us, even more than we need them. Without them, we’re weird and stupid looking, but we still steal shit and get rich. Without us, they’re just porn stars in capes.”
Marco always smokes a cigar before they go on a job. “Why hench? Why do anything, man? Money.”
“Is the money good?”
He chuckled, shaking his head. He was wearing a biker outfit, more or less. Leather jacket and pants, with chains, over a white tank top. Black wraparound sunglasses. It was the ‘uniform’ the three henchmen wore when they went out – the other two wore t-shirts under their leather jackets, but the effect was the same. “You kidding? S’a good deal. We get 20% of each job, after expenses, with a two grand a month minimum.”
“Twenty four thousand a year’s a good deal? You could get paid that at Starbucks and not risk going to jail, right?”
He laughed full out, this time. “Twenty percent of each job’s a good deal. Take tonight. We’re doin’ a jewelry store. Assuming we don’t get super’d, we’re gonna clean the thing out. That’s about eight fifty – maybe nine hundred thousand in inventory we’ll score. Figure we get ten cents on the dollar after fencing? We’re looking at eighty thousand for one night’s work. Twenty percent of eighty k means sixteen grand, divided by four henches.” He puffed his cigar once more. “Call it four grand, and that’s just for one night’s work. Minus ten percent for the Guild, and I’m takin’ home thirty-five, thirty six hundred. And that’s for a jewel heist – jewels suck, mostly. We do a bank hit? I might bring home ten or fifteen thousand for one job. If it’s a good bank.”
“Four henches?” I looked around. I saw three guys in the Village People outfits, and one guy wearing a windbreaker and jeans off to the side. He looked like a college intern.
“Yeah, he’s on the job tonight too. He’s the Steve.”
“His name’s Steve?”
Marco shook his head. “His job’s Steve. Every job needs a Steve.”
I looked back at the guy. “What does a Steve do?”
“The Steve gets to the area before we do. He sets himself up in the crowd of rubberneckers. If a super shows, he hits the panic button so we don’t get surprised. If the cops take all of us down, or a super takes us out, his job’s to be just some guy watching, then make his way out and make the call.”
Marco nods. “He calls the Service. The Service gets the lawyers out, calls families, does whatever we need. See, we all got jobs. I’m Wheel. I drive, ride shotgun, wait – stuff like that. Those guys are Bag. They’ll be scooping up the jewels and gems into bags and toting to the car. The Steve’s our insurance policy.”
The Steve certainly looked non-descript. I won’t go into too much detail – I get the feeling outing a professional Steve wouldn’t be the healthiest thing I could do. But in general, I can say that I’d never give him a second look at a mall or public walkway. If he went inside the jewelry store, he’d stand out – he didn’t look like he had the money to look at expensive pieces of rock – but wandering around outside, drinking a latte? Oh yeah.
Like Marco, the Steve and the Bagmen had their own pre-job rituals. It reminded me of being backstage just before a band goes on – that same tension, those same little comforting ceremonies and superstitions. The Steve didn’t smoke a cigar before the run, but he was doing stretches and deep breathing and rereading his ID – I’d seen him pull it from random out of a box a couple minutes before. The two bagmen were running through some comedy routine they clearly knew better than by heart. And Leather?
Leather was freaking out.
First off, Leather was right. In her field suit – which is the bustier/merrywidow thing with the leather thigh boots I saw in the picture before I came – she practically smoldered. But bouncing around as they got ready to climb into the Leathermobile – the Humvee-like APC’s unofficial name – she looked like she was somewhere between a nervous breakdown and a meth overdose. She kept darting from one hench to the next, grilling them on the minutia of the plan. That would make sense, but their actual plan could have honestly come out of a playground game of cops and robbers.
Here’s how it would go down. The Steve would get into the area and settle in. He’d then call one of the bagmen on his cell phone. They had a prewritten script that meant “I’m in position, and everything looks clear,” as well as scripts that meant “more cops than usual” or “Paragon just landed on the roof, so abort.” Once he made the call, the bagman would give him an estimated time of arrival.
The arrival itself would come when the Leathermobile drove straight into the storefront. The front of the car was reinforced for ramming like that. Leather would spring out, dazzle the crowd with repartee, take down any security or police who happened to be inside, and get the civilians running out of the building. Once they’d sown chaos and gotten any opposition out, the bagmen would swarm out and start scooping jewelry into their bags. Leather would be in charge of getting access to the good stuff. If all went according to plan, it would take less than five minutes. That would still be enough time for the police to arrive, so Leather would take them on while the bagmen finished up. Anyone who managed to get past her would still have to deal with Marco and his shotgun, though Marco told me this was a ‘no-kill job.’
“Wait – that’s… that’s a consideration?”
“Some places and some crooks? Yeah. Not the boss. All Leather’s jobs are no-kill.” Marco took a few last puffs off his stogie. “She’s a thief. She wants stuff and she wants cameras to catch her stealing that stuff. Other crooks may have other motivations – some of them aren’t looking to kill anyone but they don’t care if it happens. That bumps the henches’ take to thirty percent for additional danger. And still other crooks? They’re into it. Those are ‘sanctioned’ jobs, meaning killing was expected and might be a regular occurence. Assassins have sanctioned jobs. Insane murderers like the Jack O’Knaves or half of Greystone City have sanctioned jobs. Sanctioned jobs take in forty percent. If the crook has a history of killing henches, it goes up to fifty or even sixty percent.”
“You… you’d work for someone who’d up and kill you?”
Marco laughed. “Me? Nuh-uh. I like the boss. She doesn’t kill people. She just wants jingle in her jeans, and she’s happy to make sure I get some too. I don’t touch sanctioned jobs, much less red-risk jobs. Hell, it’s not just the blood. The consequences are worse. You go to jail as a hench. It’s just what happens. You go up for grand theft or aiding and abetting, it’s one thing. Even multiple felony counts ain’t that big a deal. Not for the Guild. But start killing people? Then they care. And God help you, you kill a cop. You get away from a job with dead cops on the ground, you need to cash in and retire and pray no one made you.”
“What about dead super heroes?” I asked.
Marco kind of blinked at me. “Well, it happens,” he said. “Not on any of my jobs, but they go down.”
“Is it trouble?”
He shrugged. “Not really. Not like killing a cop.”
“Used to be,” one of the bagmen – the blond one, as opposed to the brown haired one, which was about the only way I could tell them apart – threw in. “I worked with this one old timer – he said that back before the Apocalypse Agenda… a dead cape was the biggest deal ever, but a dead cop? No one much cared. These days, I think everyone expects heroes to die anyway. Hell, Paragirl died and she was diamond hard, right?”
“Don’t talk about Paragirl,” Leather snapped to the bagman. “Hey! Get over here! Tell me the plan in your own words!”
When it got close to go time on the night’s raid. Leather had everyone come close for a pre-job prayer. It was weirdly like being backstage at a Madonna concert.
“What about him?” the brown haired bagman asked, thumbing at me.
“He’s technically a prisoner,” Leather said.
“You want to risk bad luck?” Marco asked.
Leather made a face. “Yeah,” she said. “You’re right. Chapman – get over here. And be respectful.”
We got in a circle and held hands, heads bowed. “Lord,” she said. “Let us have a good job tonight. Let the police be occupied with more important things, and keep the civilians safe. Let the haul be good and the press get good pictures of me. In your name, Amen.”
“Amen,” the others murmured, and I did too. I felt weird.
For the record, other than at this one ritual? I never got the feeling any of these guys were religious.
The last bit of Leather’s own pre-job ritual was a kiss. She kissed each of her henchmen, firmly. No tongue, but a solid kiss. She kissed me too. It was nice. I noticed she smelled like perfume and the mink oil you used to condition motorcycle leathers.
The Steve scooped up a bookbag, put on a somewhat dorky looking helmet, and climbed on – I swear to God – a Vespa scooter. A good one, actually. Clearly a rebuilt classic. He putted out in a cloud of two-stroke fumes.
“Okay,” Leather said. “C’mon, Chapman. I’m going to lock you up in my bedroom until we get back.”
“What if there’s a fire?” I asked.
Leather blinked. “Then you’ll burn to death,” she said cheerfully.
“Okaaaaay. And what if some super hero captures your whole gang?”
“No worries,” Leather said. “I let the service know you were up here. When the Steve makes the call, they’ll send someone to let you out at the same time they pack my shit up.”
“Oh. Good enough. Good luck robbing the jewelry store,” I said, walking into her personal suite.
Leather grinned, and shut the door. I heard a heavy lock turn shut.
So now I waited.