“Jesus – look at this!” She stabbed her finger at the bed. “That quilt cover’s silk. You know how to get bloodstains out of silk? You been reading Hints from Fucking Heloise, Marco?”
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.
Music journalist Todd Chapman had an assignment to interview the third-tier super villain ‘Leather.’ He drove up for an afternoon but found himself a prisoner a the full week. Moving on with the interview, Chapman began to understand the economics of supervillainy… and the process by which a hero could so easily become a villain.
Interviewing Leather (Revised)
The bagmen were the ones to grab me, one to an arm. I had been trying to retreat into Leather’s private bath. They hauled me back hard enough to strain my shoulders and swung me around to face Marco. Marco didn’t waste time. He slammed his fist into my stomach, turning his body as he did it to give his punch more momentum.
It was like a bomb went off in my abdomen. This was a pain like I’d never felt. I was hunched in, and I’d have curled up into a ball if the bagmen weren’t still holding my arms. As it was, I was exposed as he backhanded me across the face. I swear he loosened a tooth and blood went flying. Lip? Nose? I don’t know from where.
“You set us up, motherfucker,” he snarled, hitting me again. “How’d you do it? Huh? How’d you do it?”
I croaked something. I can’t even tell you what. But whatever it was, it didn’t satisfy the henchmen. Marco slapped me around some more, then backed up. I shook my head to try and clear it before I realized the bagmen had let me go. The reason why became obvious – Marco hit me with an uppercut that threatened to snap my head clean off and I flew backwards.
It felt like one of those moments in a boxing movie. Felt like I had gone into slow motion, with my heartbeat overdubbed on the soundtrack as I arced back, eyes going blurry as my body went rubbery and I turned in midair, before crashing onto Leather’s bed. I saw a smear where my face had left a bloody mark on her white bedspread, and I remembered thinking Leather would be pissed before the bagmen hauled me back up for another round of dancing with Marco’s fists.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
Leather looked tired and disheveled in the grey midmorning light of a rainy day in Meridian City. She wore a tank top and those same flannel pants she greeted me with, drinking coffee while she worked in Microsoft Excel. “I hate paperwork,” she muttered to me while plugging numbers into columns. Marco and one of the bagmen from the previous night were busy driving their haul to a relay point where their fence would pick it up. They had already inventoried the haul and gotten an estimate from the fence, so that meant Leather had to crunch numbers.
“Why is it such a rush?” I asked, watching her check manifests and copy and paste numbers from the fence’s estimate.
“Because the henches are going to have to sign receipts and cross-reference the inventory,” Leather said, absently. “They’re going to see the estimate. It won’t surprise them ‘cause I already showed it to them – they need to be ready to dispute the numbers if they don’t match up. But actually doing the drop – it makes it all real, you know? They know how much money I’m getting, and that weighs on their brains. So when they walk through the door, I want to be able to hand them their paystubs for the job. That way they’re happy and don’t have time to resent me for getting more.”
“Why would they resent it?” I asked. “They know their percentage. Marco explained it to me.”
“Yeah, they know their percentage. But we’re criminals, y’know. It’s natural to want a bigger piece of the pie. It’s natural to resent the boss for getting the biggest slab of pie from the tin. And it’s natural to start believing you deserve more because you’re doing all the work, right?” Leather shook her head with a grin, still focusing more on the numbers than on me. “I did all the leaping around, fought security, fought police including a sweet police car takedown, and went overland while they drove off in a different direction, but I promise you both of the bagmen will start muttering about how I have enhanced strength but they did all the pick-up and carry. Handing them a nice chunk of change for one night’s work takes care of that.”
“Was it a nice chunk of change?”
“Eh.” Leather scoffed. “Jewels suck. It’s a perfect loud crime – exactly what you want when you’re giving the full business. But in terms of return on investment, you either want actual antiques and heirlooms or you might as well not bother.”
The night before, at two in the morning, her tune had been different. There was laughing and screaming and dancing. They played loud music until late, giggling and all talking about the job at once. Even the Steve got high in a corner. I’d seen the same thing a thousand times at rock concerts – you really nail a gig, and you run off that high half the night.
I just hadn’t thought it applied to grand theft larceny. I watched diamond rings and necklaces spill through her fingers as she laughed and laughed…
But in the grey, rainy morning light, Leather wasn’t laughing. “After seeing the inventory, I got the estimate from the fence. Nine hundred and thirty two thousand retail value. They’re offering ninety one thousand dollars for the lot.”
“I thought you got ten cents on the dollar for jewelry.”
Leather snorted. “I get what they offer. It’s not easy to move jewels. We all know it. That’s okay. I’ll make a Hell of a lot more tonight.”
“Tonight?” I asked, but she was adjusting the spreadsheet.
“Ninety-one thousand. So, eighteen two goes to the Guild, and they’ll pay the henches. Fifteen percent goes to the Service—”
“That’s not the Guild?”
“Nah. Whole different operation. The Guild’s all about the henches. The Service is all about insurance. Most jobs we don’t need them, and they get lots of money for nothing. But when we do need them, there’s top flight attorneys and my personal belongings get dealt with. Eventually, they either arrange a release or a jailbreak, and I’m right back to work.” She tapped a few more keys. “That’s thirteen-thousand, six-fifty to the service. Five thousand for the escape route…”
“Escape route?” I asked.
She just smiled, then continued her breakdown. “Twenty five gallons of gas for the Leathermobile – every trip I swear we’re going to swap it out for a Honda Civic – plus wear and tear from when we went through the front of the store and servicing… call it a hundred and fifty dollars for that. Drive thru food—”
“You did McDonald’s drive thru on your way to rob a jewelry store?”
Leather shrugged. “I was craving fries and Marco likes the double quarter pounders. Anyway. After everything, call my take fifty four thousand dollars for last night’s work.”
“That sounds pretty damn good to me,” I said.
Leather rolled her eyes. “Not hardly. I’m going to owe three quarters of a million dollars for transport services, setup and support of my new lair at the end of the week. I don’t have any intention of cutting into my savings.”
“You mean… you intend to come up with another seven hundred thousand dollars between now and then?”
“I intend to come up with another seven hundred thousand dollars after expenses between now and then,” she answered, grinning impishly.
“Yo, Leather!” It was the Steve – I never did learn his actual name – shouting from downstairs. “C’mere! Got something on the Tivo for you!”
“Right!” she shouted back down, and hopped up, scooping up her now empty coffee mug. “C’mon,” she said. “I think I know what this is.” She looked excited.
The television was paused when we got in. Marco and the Bagmen were in there too – clearly they got back while Leather was working, but she didn’t seem to care. The Steve was grinning and backed up the recording. It was local news at noon, admittedly, but it was still the news.
Naturally, it had been about the robbery. The television station had gotten security camera footage of the Leathermobile as it smashed through the front of the store and took out one of the display cases. The grainy, black and white footage caught the bagmen as they scooped up jewels. It also caught Leather as she danced around encouraging civilians to flee and disarming a security guard. I heard Leather coo with delight as she watched herself spring up a good ten feet, straight for the camera. She kissed the lens right as the feed cut out, no doubt because she had destroyed it.
“Perfect, Leather said, pumping her arm. “That was exactly what we wanted.”
“How do you mean,” I asked.
“That’s good video,” she said. “That’ll play the rest of the week. I give it even odds the cable news channels will pick it up. Maybe even the networks.” She almost bounced in place. “That footage will show up on police video television shows for the next decade.”
“What does that give you?” I asked.
She looked at me, rolled her eyes, and darted out of the room, no doubt to grab more coffee before she went back to paperwork.
As with Monday night, Leather and the boys locked me in Leather’s bedroom whenever they went out on a job. Though this was technically a villain’s lair, it didn’t have a dungeon or a prison. Leather had shrugged when I asked her about it. “I’m not a hostages kind of supervillain most of the time. Most of the time I get to strut in the fuck-me outfit? I’m working with other villains. Contract work, say, or an occasional big heist. I do two or three of those a year. My regular group’s Anchor’s Marines, though they only call these days when they need a cat burglar type. None of that gives me a cell or a wall with chains on it, and we have to put you somewhere. Since I can lock my bedroom door from the outside and the only windows are too high and small for you to crawl out, it makes sense.” She’d grinned. “All the cool personal shit’s in my study anyway. But try to resist going through my underwear drawer.”
So I did. Go through her underwear drawer, I mean. Hey, it’s boring to sit in someone else’s bedroom, even with DirecTV and a Tivo. Actually, her bedroom was pretty homey – television, nice stereo, comfortable bed, nice recliner with reading lamp. Bookshelf full of manga, adventure books and paperbacks. Laurel K. Hamilton butted up against Neil Gaiman – and if you didn’t need that mental image, well, neither did I. A couple hours into night two locked in here? Yeah I went through her drawers.
It really wasn’t worth it. Leather’s drawers mostly held clothes – and none of it was supervillain attire. No spare suits or masks or lockpicking tools or small bombs. Just t-shirts, socks, sleep pants, jeans and shorts. Even her underwear drawer was dull: a small selection of black lacy things, a freaking ton of sport lycra and comfortable cotton, and a disturbing lack of leather underwear. If she’s going to name herself Leather, you’d think she’d wear the part.
That wasn’t why the boys were introducing me to unimaginable pain. No, that all stemmed from the evening’s work. See, things had gone wrong. Leather expected things to go wrong when she was working loud, but this was a quiet job. Unless they screwed up and triggered an alarm, quiet jobs weren’t supposed to go off the rails – and when the alarm was on a retail warehouse, the chance that Leather would screw up and set it off was negligible.
And yet, the night had merrily gone off the rails anyway, and the henches were looking for how and why. My face was the first stop on their journey of discovery.
The job in question was a Circuit City, hitting not only the sales floor but the warehouse long after hours. This job wasn’t a smash and grab, with laughter and shootouts with security and kissing cameras. This job was supposed to happen without anyone knowing about it until the morning crew showed up to open the store. Preparation was everything. They had schematics of the building’s alarm systems, and Leather had actually broken in twice on dry runs just to verify their information. The henches had a tractor trailer they’d gotten from transport services. They were literally going to drive it up to the building’s loading dock, head inside, kill the security system (and take out any guards in a less lethal fashion) and load the thing from front to back with high end electronics.
“Laptop computers are best,” Leather explained. “They’re compact and expensive, and that’s a good combination. We’ll clean the place out of laptops if we possibly can. After that, we’re looking at other high end electronics. Small and pricey beats large and affordable. We’ll grab some high def televisions, but they’re so friggin’ big it’s almost not worth it.”
“How is this stuff better than jewelry?” I asked. “Given it’s such a pain in the ass?”
“Street value,” she said, stretching. She was wearing a full body suit, today. It was leather, but flat leather, not shiny, and it hugged her. Her hair was tied back, her mask larger to help cut down on the glare from her face. The henches, on the other hand, wore nondescript clothes. Jumpsuits – the kind a janitor would wear. Marco had on a blue work shirt and jeans. They looked for all the world like a warehouse crew, ready to move stock.
“Street value? You’re telling me you can fence a laptop for more than you can a five thousand dollar diamond necklace?”
“That’s exactly what I’m telling you,” Leather said. “We got over nine hundred thousand in jewels and got paid under one hundred thousand for it. If we steal four hundred thousand in electronics tonight, we’re looking at well over a quarter mil from the fence. Electronics are in demand and everyone wants a bargain.”
They didn’t take the Leathermobile. The Steve was the Steve, though this time he was taking a twenty year old beater car and a girl – the girl was a “day player” that Steve worked with. Since they were going to be sitting in a parking lot watching an empty warehouse, they needed to look as ‘legitimate’ as possible, which meant a couple of kids making out in a car. Steve told me the girl would angle so he could see the warehouse at all times. I made noises about ‘perks of the job.’
Steve shrugged. “It’s just business,” he said. And it clearly was. The day player – another Steve, though the henches called her the Steph to keep it straight – had the same kind of generic facelessness Leather’s usual Steve had. And, like the Steve, I’m not going to go into more detail than that. I don’t think it would be healthy.
Of course, the Steph’s presence wasn’t healthy to begin with. Back in Thamesford, Virginia, Kyle Elias had told me Leather didn’t like talking to women. That’s why I had this job instead of Mary. Well, as it turned out? Leather didn’t like women, period. “What the Hell is she doing here?” she hissed at the Steve.
“She’s a day player. Vetted through the Service. No extra charge to you.”
“That doesn’t tell me why!” Leather was pissed off. Given that she usually freaked out before jobs, her being pissed off only added to the fun.
“You can’t use the same M.O. over and over again,” the Steve muttered. “It’ll track too easily. So I need different reasons to be in the area. Tonight she’s my reason.”
“I’m sorry, maybe I never explained something to you,” Leather hissed. “You don’t add people to my plan without telling me!”
The Steve turned an interesting color, looking down as he talked. “I have to make absolutely sure you’re covered without drawing attention to your op,” he said.
“You think you won’t be noticed?”
“If we are, no one will look twice at you. We’ll get a warning from the cops. It’s a smokescreen.”
Leather narrowed her eyes, then rounded on Marco. “Tell me the plan!” she demanded.
The Steph heard all this, of course, but she didn’t react to any of it. She stuck to herself, and declined to be interviewed.
Otherwise, it was a lot like the night before. Marco smoked his cigar. The bagmen did their comedy routine. Leather bounced around frenetically. We prayed and Leather kissed everyone – even the Steph. The Steve drove his ‘date’ off in the beater. The rest took a black SUV to get the tractor-trailer. I was locked in Leather’s bedroom. Just another night of supervillany.
Well, it had been just another night of supervillany, right up until the bedroom door had been kicked open by Marco and the boys. I had been watching Leather’s Tivo – she had a thing for game shows, so Let’s Make a Deal had been on – and I nearly lost bowel control when they smashed in.
I admit it. I ran. Look, these guys are scary and they’re all bigger than I am. So I panicked. They retrieved me, and you came in for the first part of the story.
Marco was pissed. Full on pissed, and he wasn’t afraid to show it. Neither were the others, for that matter. I got kicked in the sides, punched again, slammed down onto the hardwood floor, and then picked back up. I’d love to claim I wisecracked through the whole thing but let’s be honest here. I whimpered a lot and got my ass kicked and there was no two ways around it.
Somewhere during all that, I gathered there had been a problem with the night’s entertainment. A problem named Darkhood.
Apparently, things started off well enough. They got in, the one guard went down without too much hassle, the security system was taken out, and they’d set to filling the eighteen wheeler with high-end electronics. That was all fine. It looked like everything was going off without a hitch – they were at the point of Leather rearming the security system and locking things back up when trouble came in the form of an arrow with a tear gas grenade attached to it. The gas bomb hit the loading dock – Darkhood had been trying to eliminate the henches as a concern – but the Steve apparently signaled fast enough for Marco to get clear. The bagmen were down, but while Leather swung out and attacked Darkhood Marco pulled on a gas mask, ran back to the loading dock, dragged the henches by their collars and got them into the cab. They pulled out and got clear while Leather stayed behind to fight the archer.
That was apparently standard procedure, by the way. I know, I know, you expect the henchmen to run up like ninjas in a bad 80’s movie, going in one at a time so Our Hero can knock them down. In the real deal, that was specialized work – thug, they called it. Or mook or a few other names, depending on training and experience. Marco and the boys could fight – oh man, was I learning that – but that wasn’t their job. When the police or a superhero showed up… well, that was what Leather was there for. It was the job of the henches to get away, preferably with the night’s haul.
I knew that from before, of course. I only found out Darkhood had hit them during their spirited discussion with me. And it was clear that Leather herself wasn’t with them. Was she in jail? They didn’t know. All they did know was a superhero had shown during a quiet job, and that made them suspect a rat.
And then they’d remembered the nice juicy rodent locked up in their boss’s bedroom.
“How the Hell would I have told Darkhood anything!?” I asked. Well, screamed. In a begging tone. “I’ve been here!”
“You tell us,” Marco snarled, stomping down on me again. I was being curb stomped, sans the curb. “You tell us! How’d you do it, boy? Was this your plan all the long? You a cop all along boy?”
The big man turned, his bearing shifting. I half rolled to look at the door, despite how badly moving hurt.
Leather was standing there. Her suit had tears in it along her abdomen and leg, and another tear along her arm that was obscured with blood. Her hair was a mess. And she looked pissed. “What the fuck?” she demanded.
“Takin’ care of business,” Marco snapped.
Leather stormed in, shoving Marco back hard – he half flew back against the wall with a thud that made my own butt-kicking look weak. “Remind me,” she demanded, looking first at Marco, then at the other two. “Did I? Or did I not? Tell you idiots that Chapman was cool until I said he wasn’t?”
“Little shit ratted us out,” one of the bagmen said. The blond, I think, but I’m not sure. He sounded whiny. They had been hauling me back up onto my feet between the two of them – I’m not sure why. Maybe they thought Leather wanted in on the fun after all, or maybe they were trying to play it off like I wasn’t really hurt, even though I was. “That’s how the cowl—”
“Oh. Right. Chapman blew the gig for us. Right.” Leather glared at the bagman. “Chapman knows our address. If he could call for help, why isn’t this place crawling with cops? Why was he still here to get beat up? And how did he tell Darkhood what Circuit City we’d be at? Especially since we weren’t really at a Circuit City?”
The bagman opened his mouth. He looked at the other bagman. Silently the two let go of me. I sort of slid back down to the floor.
Leather looked at one bagman, then the other, then looked at Marco, who’d gotten back up in the meantime. “Well?” she snapped.
Marco shrugged. “We fucked up,” he said.
“When we got back after the transfer, been so long that when you weren’t here, we thought you’d been taken out. It pissed us off. Points for loyalty, right?”
Leather snorted. “Loyalty? Loyalty is doing what I fucking say and using your fucking head! Jesus – look at this!” She stabbed her finger at the bed. “That quilt cover’s silk. You know how to get bloodstains out of silk? You been reading Hints from Fucking Heloise, Marco?”
Marco shrugged again, looking at the floor.
“You got to the transfer station?”
“Yeah,” Marco said.
Leather looked at one of the bagmen. “You made the transfer?”
“Saw the train leave and everything.”
“You got a manifest?”
The bagman nodded, fishing out a sheaf of paper wadded up in his pocket.
Leather took the papers and smoothed them out, looking them over. “For the record,” she said, “while you were doing this, I was fighting a superhero. When he was done, I had to hit the fallback point and get scanned before I came home. You know this. You know that if I’m covering you guys getting the loot to the fence, it means I’ll be a while getting home. What do you do when that happens?”
None of them spoke.
”What do you do when that happens?!”
“Get in, hit police band radio, listen for a paranorm pickup call, get on the security system and wait.” Marco spoke quickly, remembering the instructions by rote.
“You’re God damned right. Instead, you three broke into my bedroom and started kicking the shit out of Chapman. I half-wish we had been blown so you morons would be going to jail when the SWAT team busted in here and found you guys off your fucking posts.”
They had no answer for that. “Scanned?” I croaked.
“What?” Leather snapped her head to look at me. She wasn’t terribly happy to be interrupted.
Well, I was in a shitload of pain and I’ve never been bright, so I didn’t look away, even though I was curled up on the floor. “You said you had to get scanned before you came home.”
Leather rolled her eyes. “Darkhood’s a fucking tech,” she said. “Cowls love to ‘let’ you get away with a homing beacon or transmitter or something shoved up your ass so they can come waltzing in when your guard’s down. I have a thing set up – go there, get wanded like at an airport. Make sure when I come home I’m all by myself. Shut up.”
I took a breath and shut up. My heart was pounding and my skin was flushed – like a runner’s high, but with extra pain at no extra charge.
“Right,” Leather said. “You three are going to go and do a sweep of the grounds. Make sure we’re not blown. One of you or the Steve gets on the rig and keeps in contact. One of you goes out of contact, the Steve hits the panic button. Right?”
“You got it,” Marco said, and started to walk out.
“Don’t you fucking move yet. You three broke my orders. And you either broke our hostage or screwed with my guest, and either way I’m pissed.” She looked at each of them in turn. “You understand that under the terms of our agreement I can dock your cut of tonight’s heist up to fifty percent after your Guild fees, right?”
“Fifty—” one of the bagmen – the brown haired guy I think – started to protest.
Leather’s hand shot out, doubling the bagman over. She smoothly lifted him over her head by his stomach. “Alternately, I can fucking kill you under the disobedience and insubordination clause. I might not even have to fucking pay penalties!”
The bagman sort of whimpered.
Leather dropped him. “As it works out, I am a benevolent boss. And therefore I’m electing to go with a warning instead. That warning includes a financial penalty. Because I’m an exceptionally benevolent boss, that’s going to be twenty-five percent instead of fifty. Understood?”
The two uninjured henchmen mumbled assent.
“Understood?” she repeated to the third, as he stood up. He nodded frantically.
“Good. Now. Since this is a warning – let me give you an official warning, which I’ll be certain to send along to the Guild rep too.” She looked at each of them slowly. “If you ever, ever break my orders again… as God as my witness I will devote whatever time I have out of jail to making your lives a living Hell. I will break your knees. I will beat up your wives and kids. I will make fun of your mothers and kill your fucking pets in front of your eyes. My wrath will be as extensive as it will be disproportionate, because I have no. Fucking. Sense. Of perspective. Do you idiots hear me?”
There was a pause.
“We hear you,” Marco said. “We’re sorry, Leather.”
Leather seemed to relax. “Cool. Get the fuck out of my bedroom.”
They shuffled out. Marco looked over his shoulder, at me this time. “Sorry man,” he said. “Nothing personal.”
I sort of nodded. Jesus, what would you do?
Leather watched them go, breathing a bit hard. And I could swear – right in that moment, having just roughed up guys who looked twice her size? She looked as young as she had to really be.
I started to get up myself, but I didn’t get far. “Don’t move,” Leather snapped. “Thanks to the fucking three stooges, you and me need to have a little talk now.” She walked over to the door. “Fuck. They broke my door.”
“A talk?” I asked, wincing.
“Yeah.” She pushed the door more or less shut, then grabbed a chair, wedging it in place under the doorknob, as a makeshift lock. “A talk.” She turned to face me, leaning forward. “Chapman?”
“There’s no way you could have contacted Darkhood. At least, no way I can think of.” She leaned forward. “I find out there was some way I couldn’t think of, and no matter where you are, you’re going to wish you’d changed your name and face and gone to live in Barbados.”
I breathed in, somewhat labored. The adrenalin was wearing off, so if anything I was starting to hurt far worse. “Gotcha,” I said.
She nodded. “Cool,” she said. “Now take off your clothes.”