“I’m impressed,” Beguile said, after a long moment. “I didn’t think it was possible to fuck up so completely. I’m relatively sure you’ve set some kind of record.”
The alternate universe coded ⎇001JW is home to parahuman heroes and villains, but their greatest heroes, the legendary Justice Wing, are facing a crisis of public confidence. This is Justice Wing In Nadir.
Having been recruited by the Archvillain Anchor for Anchor’s Marines, the greenhorn villain Leather finds herself being trained as a parahuman thief. When Anchor’s Marines are contracted to empty out a safe deposit box in a secure facility, Leather is the only one of the group to smell a rat. Despite her misgivings, Anchor’s Marines attempt the job, but Justice Wing is waiting for them, with the arrogant archer Broadhead himself leading them. Between Broadhead and the heroic martial artist Greyfalcon Leather is taken down in short order. Anchor’s Marines are arrested but escape before they reach holding. Now there’s nothing left for Anchor’s Marines but to explain their failure to three of the most dangerous villains on Earth.
Leather’s head was still pounding — the headache was always the last thing to heal. Looking around the briefing room, she realized her head felt the way all of Anchor’s Marine’s looked.
And on the other side of the room, Anchor, Beguile, Miss Appropriation, and Chattergun Calhoun made that look cheerful. Leather could practically feel their anger like a sunburn. Which, for all she knew, wasn’t impossible in Beguile’s case.
“I’m impressed,” Beguile said, after a long moment. “I didn’t think it was possible to fuck up so completely. I’m relatively sure you’ve set some kind of record.”
“We did everything—” Multiplette began to say.
“No, you don’t talk right now,” Anchor snapped. “Your team has my name. So right now, you answer when we ask. And otherwise you keep your mouths shut!” He looked at Malie. “Tell me how this disaster could possibly happen.”
“We hit the vaults by the numbers” the shark-girl rumbled. “Both vaults, hitting hard. Plet and Refraction cracked the upstairs vault. Plet and Leather hit the boxes. We hit the cash and gold. And then Justice Wing hit us!”
“They caught us flat-footed,” Bandolier hissed. “You wanna blame someone for that, chief? I guess you blame me. They hit us from three different sides. Pack of ex-Protectors and Broadhead’s JW team.”
“They hit all three teams simultaneously,” Boatswain muttered. “Both of our squads and the safety deposit box team. We were made before we hit ground.”
“So, you’re saying Bandolier and Incendijoe were made, Refraction and Multiplette were made, or all of them were made,” Anchor said. “So Justice Wing had time to get ready.”
“Or maybe we got ratted,” Refraction snapped. “Why don’t you ask your little fetish bitch, huh?”
“Seriously?” Boatswain sounded disgusted. “You missed Broadhead coming in but you’re blaming Leather?”
“The second he rounded the corner she was like a fucking giggling fangirl!” Refraction shouted. “Next thing you know, she’s in a net while the rest of us—”
“She did a fucking eight story dive into the ground, and still tried to fight!” Boatswain shouted. “Where the fuck were you? No — where the fuck were you? I didn’t hear about anything you did in this whole fucking thing!”
“Jesus Christ,” Chattergun Calhoun snapped. “Pack’a fuckin’ amateurs! No wonder you couldn’t fucking rob a safe deposit box!”
“I have a question,” Leather asked, quietly.
“Oh good,” Refraction snapped. “The Justice Wing Fan Club has a fucking question!”
“If you so much as say another word I will have your fucking tongue cut out and make you eat it on fucking toast,” Calhoun growled. He turned to look at Leather. “You have a question, little girl. I have to admit, I’m fucking curious. What possible question could you possibly have right now?!”
Leather paused for a long moment, then lifted her hand. There was a glint of white metal and crystal in the light, held between her first and index fingers. “Do you still want the ring?”
The silence was deafening.
Chattergun Calhoun’s anger twisted, then fell… his mouth dropping open, his eyes widening. He looked if anything older, and smaller, but through it all the ancient gangster’s expression slowly fell into absolute stunned wonder.
“Because if not, y’know. I’ll have to think of something to do with it.”
“We weren’t there to get the ring,” Refraction muttered. “The job was the SD card.”
“The job was the safety deposit box,” Leather said. “So we’d get the ring.”
“How…” Calhoun swallowed. He was trembling, slightly. “How did you know?”
“During the briefing. When Fract put the holograms up, everyone was looking at the schematic, or looking at the wireframe of the box, or looking at the SD card in the wireframe of the notebook. But not you, Mister Calhoun.” Leather’s voice was soft. “You were looking at the ring box. The whole time, you were looking at the ring box.” She looked around. “The job had crazy requirements — we had to empty out the whole box, and we had to make it look like a target of opportunity so the guy with the data wouldn’t realize we got it back. There were no other possible solutions given. So I asked what the SD card was, since that was our target. And even though Multiplette flat out said we didn’t need to know what it was, Miss Appropriation told us.” She looked around at the other Marines, at Beguile, at Miss Appropriation, at Anchor, and finally back at Calhoun. “So that couldn’t have been the real target.”
“I assure you, the SD Card is very real,” Miss Appropriation said.
“I believe you. I believe the story. I believe the SD card’s full of incriminating data. I believe that some idiot’s actually trying to extort two of the most dangerous people on Earth. But I think that idiot didn’t realize what else he had. I think he didn’t realize that Mister Calhoun would pay ten times as much or more for the ring. And I think it was vitally important that no one find out — not that idiot, and certainly not the pack of crooks Mister Calhoun was hiring to get it back.”
“And now you know,” Calhoun said, his ruined voice just as soft as Leather’s. “And it’s in your hand, and you know how much it’s worth. So how you playing this, huh?”
Leather looked at Calhoun for a long moment. “Mister Calhoun? I’m a dumbass greenhorn fourth tier nobody. In the fight? I literally couldn’t manage to land a single punch. I get that.” She walked closer. No one tried to stop her. “But I’m nowhere near stupid enough to make you my enemy.” She held the ring out to the old man in the wheelchair. “With compliments of Anchor’s Marines, sir.”
Calhoun stared, and then slowly reached out with a trembling hand. Leather pressed the ring into his palm, and waited a half-second to make sure he had hold of it, before stepping back.
“That’s very touching,” Beguile said. “But as I believe I told you directly, my dear… I was certainly interested in getting the data. And that was still the assignment.”
“I know,” Leather said. She looked at Anchor. “I want to thank you again for this combat suit,” she said. “It’s really amazing. You can barely tell where the metal armor plates are.” She slid her right hand to her left forearm, tracing along a hidden plate, opening a seam in the process. “Or what they might hide.”
She pulled a small white plastic SD card holder out of a shielded pouch under the plate, and walked to the middle of the room. She offered the card to Miss Appropriation. “Feel free to check it,” she said. “I think you’ll find exactly what you were looking for. And if you don’t? It was never in the box in the first place.”
“How the Hell did you pull that off?” Multiplette asked, stunned. “I was right there.”
“I know,” Leather said, looking at Multiplette. She slowly smiled. “And y’know what? You are great chaff, Plet. I mean, top notch. A plus plus plus. Would use again.”
“Wait,” Incendijoe said. “Wait… are… are you telling me we did it? We’re getting paid?!”
“What do you mean we,” Calhoun rasped. “Seems to me Leather did the whole fucking job! Why should I pay the rest of you one fucking cent?!”
“What?!” Multiplette shouted.
“Sir,” Leather said, turning back to Calhoun. “I… am going to regret this, I’m sure, but… I called an audible, but I’d have never been there if it wasn’t for the whole team. This wasn’t just me. The Marines did it, as contracted.”
“The contract was to clean the entire box out,” Miss Appropriation said, coolly, even as she took the SD card from Leather. “You don’t know that there weren’t other factors.”
“More to the point, the contract was to ensure the target didn’t know the data and ring had been recovered,” Beguile said, smoothly.
“I know,” Leather said. “And if the guy goes back to the vault to check the contents of his box… he’ll find a ring box with a platinum and diamond ring in it, and he’ll find an SD Card of the same design taped to the same page of his notebook. He probably won’t have any reason to check the data, but if he did he’d find data corruption, which makes sense given there were explosions in the room. He’ll be in the same position as if he thought random crooks had stolen it, except with less reason to think he was made. And if Justice Wing happens to check it, they’ll get just enough encrypted data to make it look like maybe once there’d been something useful on it. If they take the time to recover what they can… well, apparently Anchor’s fabrication team has dummy loads with enough old data they know’s been compromised to make it convincing. And they’re pretty good at making rings, too. So, y’know. Props to them.”
Beguile arched an eyebrow.
“That still technically wasn’t the objective,” Miss Appropriation said, with the same cool reserve.
Leather rolled her eyes. “C’mon man, you’re killing me here.”
“And you’re sure you want the contract paid,” Calhoun rasped. “Honor among thieves and all that shit? Even though that means you just get a fucking half-share?”
Leather snorted. “Still my best fucking payday ever. Er, sir.”
“Which will still barely pay off your combat suit,” Anchor said. “I’m not recommending you try to cheat me out of my money, but think this through, kid.”
“Wait.” Refraction said. “I don’t fucking buy it. Why didn’t they find the ring or the card when they searched us, after they took us in?”
“Wow,” Boatswain said. “You managed to get the magnifying glass off yourself and there you are, jumping right back under.”
“Fuck you. How the Hell—”
Leather looked at Refraction, then giggled, flushing. “Wait — I know… I’m sure I saw… oh my God, you’re — seriously, you’re Refraction, right? Like, you fought the Beacon? And almost took her out? Oh my God I’m such a fan! I mean — I’m sorry. I really am, I’m just not used to being around someone so… so…” She dropped the affect. “So stupid. You’re a known threat, Fract! Of course they searched you. All of the rest of you got in solid hits. Even Incendijoe was literally throwing around bombs. But me? I giggled at Broadhead’s jokes and gushed and got taken down without landing a single punch. They didn’t look at me and think ‘threat.’ They looked at me and thought ‘poser fangirl in over her head.’ They barely searched me. They sure as fuck didn’t look for secret pockets under the metal plates of the suit they didn’t even bother to confiscate!” She smiled again, a bit more savagely. “But please. Tell everyone how I almost blew Broadhead right there on the floor again and how gosh darn useless I am because of it. I’m a fucking thief, you idiot. This is what I do.”
Refraction stared. Next to him, Boatswain cracked up laughing. Bandolier grinned too, clapping Leather on the shoulder. Serrate was still glowering, but didn’t seem quite so pissed.
Multiplette, of course, did look pissed. But… despite that, the corner of her lip quirked up. “I still don’t like you,” she murmured.
“Fine by me,” Leather tossed back. “Wanna not like me over a bottle of Kristal later?”
“It’s a fucking date,” she said, lifting her fist. Leather bumped knuckles.
“Assuming that means our business is in fact concluded,” Bandolier said. “Is it?”
Miss Appropriation glanced at Beguile, then Calhoun. Calhoun nodded very slightly, and the woman turned back. “It is. Congratulations.”
Anchor’s Marines broke, screaming with glee.
“All right,” Anchor shouted, though he had a slight smile. “Get the fuck out of here — Bandolier! Hang back. You too, Leather!”
Leather watched the others go. The grins, the thumbs’ ups… it was a very different feel than the last few weeks had been.
Of course, she hadn’t been dismissed yet.
As the door shut, Bandolier turned, still grinning. “Right! Ready to get a new one torn, Boss.”
“No tearing needed,” Anchor said, dropping a bit of his attitude. “Tell me about Incendijoe.”
Bandolier snorted. “Unstable. Likes his work too much. Serrate wasn’t kidding when she said he nearly blew her up in the fight. He’s gonna need a lotta polish or we can’t use him in fights, and when you’re a support specialist who blows shit up, you kinda need to be in the fights.”
“Yeah. We’ll work on that. So. How’d you get made? Joe?”
“Not with the thieves getting hit, too. Working theory’s Refraction fucked up. Triggered an alarm, panicked and didn’t admit it, then had his drones taken down at the same time Multiplette’s guard-bodies got detonated by Broadhead. He was desperate to deflect attention even when we weren’t paying any attention to him. Jesus, why’d you think he kept trying to slut-shame Leather?”
“I tend to agree,” Anchor said. “He’s about to get a two million dollar payday. Is he going to take it and run for Paramount City?”
“Then we cut our losses and just never use him again. How about you? You on your way back to Paramount?”
“Not for a few more months, if you’re still up for me hangin’ around. I could use the nestegg.”
“Yeah, well — I don’t think I’ll tell Malie to eat you. Not today.” He grinned. “Get outta here. We gotta talk to the kid.”
“Sure thing.” He winked to Leather. “Welcome to the grownups’ table, Leather. It’s pretty fucking rad, assuming you live through it.”
“I’m having fun so far,” Leather said, grinning. She watched him go.
“So,” Calhoun said. “Why the fuck didn’t you take the money? I get why you didn’t want to piss me off, but that many tens of millions?”
Leather snorted, turning back with a smile. “Because it’d be hard to spend that money after Serrate cut my throat in the middle of the night.”
“Good answer, kid.” The elderly gangster looked at Miss Appropriation. “Leather? You went above and beyond. And you had a chance to grab me by the balls and you were gracious, instead. That gets a reward.” He turned back to Leather. “You get a favor.”
“Yeah, a favor, dumbass. From me. Meaning from all of us. The elite. One favor. One wish. Whatever it might be, you get. You want an island nation? You get it. You want ten billion dollars? We make it happen. You want someone dead? They die. You want someone protected? No one touches them. This is everyone at my fucking level workin’ together.” He shook his head. “You probably won’t ever get another one, kid — but… this…” He nodded. “I’m assuming you won’t tell anyone shit about this?”
“My lips are sealed,” Leather said.
“Good. If you want to cash in — ask for the blue phone, then tell the operator you want to spend a penny. They’ll verify and you can tell them what you want.”
“What’s the blue phone.”
“Ask your boss. Miss Appropriation? Get me the fuck outta here. I gotta take the biggest shit in the history of shits.”
“It’s always so good to see you,” Beguile said, rolling her eyes.
“Whatever, Tits. Good to meet you, kid. Think carefully before you spend that penny.”
Leather watched the woman wheel Calhoun out. Miss Appropriation glanced back at Leather, perhaps appraisingly, before the door shut.
“…the code phrase is ‘spend a penny?’ Isn’t that… like, slang for taking a piss?” Leather asked.
“Leo Lucas came up with it,” Beguile said, rolling her eyes again. “We just have to live with it. Do be careful using that favor. It really is just as significant as he implied. You quite impressed him.”
“It was a good touch, makin’ sure he knew you understood how much leverage that ring gave you, and then just handing it over. You played him a little, and he knows that, but he’s okay with it. You showed respect, and didn’t make him look weak over his dead daughter’s wedding ring. And just like he said — anyone at the first tier will work together to make that favor happen,” Anchor smiled a bit more. “So if you want to retire, this is a great way.”
“Retire? I just got started.” Leather said, grinning. “This was, like, the best thing ever.”
“Great. I’m glad to hear it.” Anchor looked at Beguile, then looked back. “So stop bullshitting us. When and how did you make that switch? I know what you can do, and as fast as you are? You’re not fast enough to crack the box, swap that shit in, close it, and get back to your side of the vault without Plet noticing.”
Leather paused for a long moment. “I did it at about one in the morning the night before,” she said, finally.
“How?” Beguile asked. “Like Miss-Anthropy said in the briefing — the Caledonia Trust couldn’t stand up to all of you, but any one of you—”
“The HVAC system,” Leather said. “I found a gap on the roof where the cameras don’t pan. I hit that, then got into the ducts. Even inside the vault they have to have ventilation just in case someone gets locked in.”
“The duct in the vault is eight inches by fourteen,” Anchor said. “Even if you can squeeze through that, your combat suit can’t.”
“I know. I was in a flat black bodysuit.” Leather snickered. “It was still leather, of course. I know how to stay on brand.”
“So why didn’t the cameras pick you up in the vault? Your heat signature, if nothing else?” Beguile was smiling that crooked smile.
Leather bit her lip. “I found a vulnerability in their security system.”
“That’s… technically an answer,” Beguile said, amused.
“On every floor they had IDFs and data closets for their switches. All behind locked doors usually with some other shit… except on the sixteenth floor. There’s a womens’ executive washroom on that level, and about half their VoIP phones plug into a switch… in a locked cabinet under the sinks.”
Beguile and Anchor stared at Leather.
“Seriously. Check the floorplans and schematics.”
“They have a switch under the sink in the Ladies’ room?” Anchor asked. “God I hate human beings.”
“That wouldn’t have been connected to the security system,” Beguile said. “Though it’s not the worst I.T. design I’ve ever seen.”
“It wasn’t directly connected, but I was able to reset its console password without restarting the data plane, and like Multiplette told me in training — any given I.T.’s going to balance security with laziness. Because the switch was just for VoIP, they didn’t secure it very well, but because they were in a rush they copied over their VLAN definitions, their Spanning Tree settings — all that shit. That let me find the VLAN the cameras were on. The cameras themselves were managed but they had config modes with default passwords. If I’d shut them off it’d be noticed, but going in and turning the IR filters back on, killing the nightvision? I could do that. And they weren’t miked, so I let them record a pitch black room while I worked with an IR flashlight and goggles. On the way out, I reset things.”
“So why not give us the SD card and ring before the mission?” Beguile asked.
“I wasn’t kidding about Serrate. She really would cut my throat. And really? If we’d managed to pull the job off that’d have been best for everybody. I was just plan B.”
“Without telling anyone.” Anchor sounded dubious.
“Well, sure. If I told people… I couldn’t have a dramatic reveal, be the center of attention, save the mission, and… apparently get a magic wishing penny out of the bargain.” Leather grinning. “I like the cash and I’m thankful for the opportunity, but I am in this business because I’m an attention whore, remember? I never claimed otherwise.”
“I detest that term,” Beguile said. “If you must define yourself, be an inamorata réclamee.”
“And do it somewhere else.” Anchor was grinning. “I had a good feeling about you, Leather. I’m glad it’s panning out. But don’t get cocky. Cocky gets you killed.”
“Sure, Boss.” She grinned. “Excuse me. I have to go meet someone I hate so we can get stinking drunk on expensive booze.”
“Try not to get arrested,” Anchor said. “That would defeat the whole purpose!”
Anchor and Beguile watched her go. “I told you,” Anchor said. “She’s got something.”
“Yes, she does,” Beguile said, quietly, that tiny smile on her face.
“If she sticks with the Marines for a while, she’ll make a pretty good specialist thief. ’Specially with that brain on her shoulders. Six weeks ago, she didn’t know a VLAN from a VCR.” Anchor paused. “Who puts a network switch in a bathroom?”
“Someone who probably had another twelve wired devices added to their network without switch space to accommodate them. The best laid out network design lasts right up until users decide they want a new printer.” Beguile chuckled. “It’s human nature.”
“See, this is why I want to kill all humanity. You do understand that, right?”
“Pretend I do.” Beguile looked thoughtful. “She doesn’t want to be a pretty good specialist thief in group work.”
“No. She wants to be on the front page of a newspaper after a daring crime. I dunno if she legit couldn’t lay a hand on Greyfalcon, but I know she wants to fight super heroes. She wants the whole tour lifestyle. Hitting up regional heroes’ turf, grabbing cash and dumbass art she can barely fence, all to get on the TV.”
“Of course she does. She spent her childhood being told her she was either at the top of a podium or she was worthless. For years after that, people tried to tell her it was a lie, but then when she tried to do something greater, no one cared. Everything about her entire life tells her she’s either being noticed or she doesn’t exist at all.” Beguile sounded… wistful, almost.
Anchor turned, eyes narrowing. “You tracked down her past?”
“I tracked down more than that. You wanted me to assess her — figure out if we should get her into a mentorship? My answer is yes. I nominate myself to be that mentor.”
“Yourself?!” Anchor’s chin went up. “I’ve known you decades, Bea. You’ve never taken on an apprentice — why would you start with a basic agility/strength kid? She doesn’t even fit your profile.”
Beguile chuckled. “She appeals to me. And besides…”
“Revenge isn’t a dish best served cold, my dear boy. Revenge should be warm and comforting and succulent.”
“Reven— who is she, Bea?”
“I’m not going to tell you, Anchor. Nor am I going to tell her.” Beguile’s smile had turned maddeningly enigmatic.
“Bea — I’m serious. I like this kid. If you hurt her—”
“Hurt her? Hurt her? You offend me, Anchor. I will never, ever hurt our dear Miss Leather. No, I will see she gets the best training, the best start, the best opportunities to be the best traveling villain possible.” Beguile leaned forward “I want her to thrive — to hit the third tier running, and work her way up the ladder. Nothing would make me happier than the day I check the news and learn that the greatest villain on this miserable planet was the adorable thief with the cocky grin and the fetishwear affectation. And the day that happens? The day when Leather is among the most malevolent, most amoral, most successful and most infamous of villains to ever square off against Justice Wing and all their ilk? That day will be my greatest victory, and I will savor it the rest of my days.”
Beguile leaned back, folding her arms. “Does that assuage your fears, Anchor?”
Anchor stared at Beguile. “Not even slightly,” he said. “But whatever. I believe you’ll give her a fair shot, and that’s all I care about.”
“I know, Anchor. I know.”
This is the conclusion of Becoming Leather: Greenhorn. For more of Leather’s story,try Interviewing Leather Revised. For more stories set in the Justice Wing universe, check the Justice Wing category or the ⎇001JW tag?