“Or sometimes it’s just… it’s just what they do, and I have no idea why. I mentioned Bandolier? He loves Paramount City. And he really wants to kill the Beacon, but he’s also… he’s a friend and I don’t want to bag on him, but he’s… protective of her. He hates her but doesn’t want to hear shit about her. I know it’s not sexual or romantic or stalker-twisted-things-its-romantic. I just don’t know what it actually is. It’s like… rival baseball teams, only it’s a hero and villain and the villain builds a lot of deathtraps.”
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.’ After several days of interviewing Leather and her henches, learning about what Leather did and how she made her living in the world of supervillainy, how she got there and seeing a glimpse of her original heroic side, Todd Chapman knows that the week is almost up, but that hardly meant his job was over.
It was a particularly busy day. Henchmen – including the Steve and that day player girl he worked with before – were tearing all over the building. Things were being put into cardboard boxes and double taped.
It didn’t take an evil genius to figure out they were packing up.
But it wasn’t like watching people move out of a townhouse even though they lived here. There was a serious inventory control aspect to the process. It was kind of fascinating to watch. Each Henchman had a small handheld computer – about the size of a Temple Slate, but rugged and inside a rubberized case. They had physical keys instead of virtual ones, too. I want to say they were Apostolics, but I can’t swear to it. The henches used those to photograph and inventory items as they went into boxes, and then they slapped a bar coded label on the outside of the box, which they scanned with the handheld. The cardboard boxes were then being put into long plastic shipping containers – when they were full up, they were sealed, locks put on them, and their bar codes were scanned by the hench, which tagged all the boxes and their contents to their containers.
If this were just an office move, that would all make sense, but watching one of the bagmen diligently pack up all the boardgames they had in the rec room, scanning and annotating each one with all the careful precision that Marco used in scanning and packing his tools was just surreal.
I caught up with the Steve as he was wrapping dishes in newspaper and putting them in boxes. “I thought a service was going to do all this,” I asked, salvaging a mug to grab coffee before it was too late.
He plucked the mug out of my hand with mild annoyance, then nodded towards a package of Dixie brand ‘to go’ cups, just like you’d get in a convenience store. “In an emergency bug-out? Sure. But that costs more. And do you have any idea how hard it is to find shit that the emergency service has packed?” He took a last picture of the wrapped dishes in his current box, then closed, taped, and tagged it before moving on to document the next set.
“Is there a lot of breakage?”
“No, nothing’s ever broken. Think about it. Would you risk breaking a crook’s favorite coffee mug? Some of these guys destroy whole towns because they’re pissed off that their bacon was undercooked. But they don’t have time to organize. They never know how quickly the F.B.I. and Justice Wing will break down the door in the name of justice, vengeance, evidence, and the possibility of catching a hot crook in the shower.”
“So you’re packing it all up? When do you leave?”
“Tomorrow morning. We hit the blow-off, and within five minutes of us leaving the lot to do that, the service will come, haul all our shit out, and do the necessary.”
He didn’t answer. He just went to work on the next cabinet of dishes.
I caught up with Marco next. “So the blow-off’s tomorrow? What about tonight?”
“Tonight we’re workin’ quiet,” he said. “Ultra quiet, in fact. I think Big L doesn’t want a repeat of Darkhood butting in.”
“She needs to make the rest of her money?”
“Nah, the electronics heist did that, more or less. This is the prestige job.”
“Sure.” He set down the tool box he had been filling. “Lemme grab coffee.”
“Sure.” I followed him, more than happy to refill my to-go cup.
“See, there’s predictable crimes,” Marco was saying as we walked. “The classics. You want those if you’re going to really work the media angle. Some of those classics are loud, like the jewelry store. Everybody knows villains rob jewelry stores, and everyone knows what to do when it happens. The media knows exactly how to present the theft to maximize their ratings. The corporate owners of the store know exactly how insurance works in situations like that. So on and so on, right?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“And that way, they know you’re in town and you make the news, even if they don’t bring in great cash. And some of those classics are quiet crimes like the Circuit City we hit. We didn’t need to put a lot of time and effort into identifying that target, because it’s like we said that night – everyone wants a bargain, so electronics pay the rent and because it’s quiet and not particularly sexy – not like diamonds or gold or shit – they usually don’t attract cowls. And of course, there’s stuff like tomorrow’s blow off, where we’ll be working really loud but also potentially reaping massive cash for our efforts. If you manage to get away with the loot that can set you up for a year or more, but even if you fail you get massive media coverage straight through to jail. But that’s still…” he shook his head. “I don’t know. Abstract. Bank heists, armored car heists, gold heists – they’re great press but they don’t have staying power. That’s why Leather was happy they used her camera-kiss on the news. Even as a loud crime the jewelry heist would fade into yesterday’s news almost immediately, because it’s so generic. Her camera trick plays well enough to add replay value. But if you’re gonna really make a mark… well, that’s when the prestige crime comes into play.”
“You said that. I still don’t know what it means.”
“It means something that’ll catch attention more than just straight money. Think about it. The jewel heist was all commercial shit. No antiques, nothing rare, nothing with a name. That means right now the highest ticket crime we’ve pulled was the electronics heist, and like I said – what kind of story is that? ‘Evil mastermind steals calculators that will sell well on the black market?’”
“It made the news.”
“Sure. It was a lot of money. But think a few moves ahead in the game. Most big money heists get forgotten, unless they’re ridiculously large or somehow novel. We remember the Great Train Robbery ‘cause of the train thing. We remember D.B. Cooper because of how he left the scene. You need something for people to fixate on. I mean, why do you think supervillains steal shit like the Mona Lisa or the Hope DIamond? It’s not like those are easy to fence.”
“You mean they do it….”
“For the publicity factor. Yeah. It adds to their mystique. And that shit? People remember that shit. Even if it gets recovered later, people remember that the villain did it.”
“And that’s tonight?”
“Damn straight. Museum job. Mostly solo. Me, her and the Steve. She’s going in and grabbing the Mountbatten Urn. You ever heard of it?”
“Some archeologist named Mountbatten – not the dead Royal guy, but a cousin or something – found it in the thirties in a dig over in Greece. I guess it’s one of the best preserved Grecian urns ever, and it got a lot of newsplay at the time and gets more attention whenever it goes visiting some other museum. So instead of being an old chunk of clay it has a name and a history and lots of old guys in suits saying it’s important. Something happens to the Mountbatten Urn, and that sticks.” He grinned. “And it just so happens that it’s currently on loan to and on display in the Meridian City Museum of Antiquities as part of their Twentieth Century Archeology exhibit.”
“And Leather’s going to steal it?”
“Damn straight. Get it quietly, liberate it without triggering alarms, back out without breaking it, and cross over to where I’m waiting so we beat feet out of there.” He chuckled. “And because we’re using the Leathermobile for this, we don’t need Transport Services and because we’re not gonna fence the thing tonight it doesn’t need appraisal, so the support services know an absolute minimum. If their leak isn’t as plugged as they claim, Darkhood still probably won’t figure out what’s going on until it’s too late.”
“So you’re going to steal this urn, but you’re not going to appraise or fence it – what are you doing with it?”
Marco shrugged, sipping his coffee as we walked back to his shop. “Shit man, I dunno. If we still have it when we get to the new place we’ll fence it then. Or use it as an ashtray or something, I guess.”
“What do you mean, ‘still have it?’”
Marco chuckled. “Leather’s doing this for the prestige – that’s why we call it that. But there’s also a practical reason. Obviously we expect Darkhood to show up tomorrow. Hell, if we’re really unlucky Vortex will be back in town early. We clearly need a few hidden aces to keep things going Leather’s way. That’s the Mountbatten Urn’s other job. We’ll bring it to the blowoff. That way, bad shit goes down with Darkhood or Vortex, we have insurance.” He paused. “Well, more insurance.”
“What other insurance do you have?”
Marco grinned and clapped me on the shoulder. “You crack me up, man. I’m really gonna miss havin’ you around.”
It still took me a second, but then it fell into place.
“Look, it’s very simple. Just show up at five after ten tomorrow morning. No don’t be here early. No I don’t mean ‘don’t knock yourself out getting here.’ I mean do not, under any circumstances, be here early.” Leather paced. “Because we’ve got a hostage with us. Jesus, is this your first day on dispatch or something? Look, do you want your men getting identified in a police lineup? No– answer me! Do you want your men getting identified in a police lineup? Yes or fucking no? Then you need to be here at five minutes after ten and no sooner. And if you’re late, you might not have time to do the necessary before the– no I’m not going to fucking kill my hostage to make your fucking schedule easier! Look, do I need to talk to your supervisor? Oh, he ain’t in? Gosh, what a shock. I guess I’ll just have to punch the emergency call tonight then, and make it clear to the contact team that you couldn’t settle on a schedule so no I won’t be paying the surcharges but I know someone who will.” There was a louder squak. “Friend… do you honestly think that’s the worst I can do to you? I mean, seriously? Oh, I don’t know who you are?” Leather giggled. “This is your first week, isn’t it. Right. I’ll be seeing you really soon, friend.” She hung up. “God damn I hate the teamsters.”
“You’re going to track down a dispatcher?”
“Hm? No need. Give it two minutes.”
“You know that whole ‘calls recorded to ensure quality’ thing you hear on most customer service lines?”
“This service handles supervillain affairs. You think there’s a chance in Hell they let the dispatcher be the final word in customer care relations? Jesus, the Jack O’Knaves uses this service, and he once killed a waitress for bringing him half and half instead of cream.”
I shook my head. “Does the Jack O’Knaves just hate breakfast or something?”
Leather laughed. “Who knows? The scary thing is it’s not hyperbole. Not with him.”
I shivered but didn’t follow up with that, just then. “So what’s our schedule?”
“Simple. At five minutes before ten we pile into the Leathermobile tomorrow. That includes you, for the record. We pull out at ten on the dot. Five minutes later the service shows up and does the necessary.”
“You guys keep saying that. What’s ‘the necessary?’ Move all your stuff out?”
“To begin with, but that’s kind of the least important thing they need to do. We’ll have everything in the containers and they’ll have both locations and handling instructions for each specific container. That’s part of why we inventory so closely. The rest of their team has the real job – namely, making absolutely sure there’s no clues left behind. Nothing to give the cops or Darkhood or anyone else a lead on me, or a lead on them. That’s kind of a tall order.”
“I’ll bet. What are we going to be doing, in the meantime?”
Leather grinned. “At 10:25 or thereabouts, we will be in position for a good old fashioned bank robbery. We go in right through their front door. There’ll be lots of shouting, I’ll do some tricks for the crowd, maybe make some balloon animals or shit like that while the bagmen grab all the cash they can. Security in the place gets dropped. Cops show up? Cops get dropped. PATER teams show up, PATER teams get dropped. Lots of people get dropped, really, and while all that happens the boys will collect lots and lots of lovely cash in lovely cloth bags with giant dollar bill signs on them.”
“Absolutely. I bought the bags from the service – they’re durable as Hell, iconic, add a little bit of absurdity to the proceedings which is always a nice touch—”
“Oh, I get it. But… just a straight up bank robbery? That’s what the whole week’s been leading up to?”
“You sound surprised. What, you didn’t think super villains robbed banks?”
“Well, sure. But it seems so… unplanned.” I shrugged. “More chaotic than you usually like.”
Leather giggled. “Oh, it’s planned. I absolutely have goals and intentions for the job beyond all that smelly but useful cash. So let’s have a quick pop quiz! See if you’ve been paying attention all week.” She leaned forward with an impish grin. “What do you think my intention is.”
“Besides all that money?”
Leather gave me a sidelong look. Like she might look at a particularly unintelligent child.
“Right. It’s not about the money.”
“Any money we do get is a bonus.”
“So this is all about Darkhood, isn’t it?”
“Of course. And the cops, but they’re secondary. We need to have a nice, public slugfest right in the open where everyone can see. The city demands it. The form demands it. He needs a shot at me fair and square, just like I need to have a chance to be dirty and sneaky and beat him in front of everyone. It’s the opposite of the quiet job from earlier in the week – we’re trying to be as loud as possible so the hero shows up to save the day.”
“And I’m going to be there?”
“Of course. You’re my hostage. If worse comes to worse I’ll threaten to blow your head off.”
“Blow my – I’m wearing the collar again?”
“Of course.” She giggled. “Why do you think we had it on hand in the first place. But that’s a last resort. The first threat will be to the Urn I’m stealing tonight.” She grinned some more. “So you better hope we succeed. If I need to put him off his game or change things up, I either need to endanger the macguffin or endanger my hostage. I’d rather get through this without threatening to blow your neck open with fashion accessories. I’d much rather get through this without actually blowing your neck open with fashion accessories. The Urn gives me that chance.”
“And any money’s just a bonus? How much are we talking, anyway?”
Leather laughed. “Millions. If Darkhood doesn’t show, I’m pretty certain to walk away with at least seven and maybe eight figures, depending.”
“…why do banks even keep that much cash on hand?”
Leather grinned again. “They don’t! If I just smash into a neighborhood bank branch, I’ll be lucky to get a few thousand total. Most banks just kind of suck – their money’s really a record in their computer or bonds or shit, and even then it’s other branches that’ll hold them. But, Meridian’s banks generally take in a lot more cash than they need for operational use, so they have to get rid of it, which in this case means depositing it into their own bank accounts, which generally means sending all that surplus cash to the Federal Reserve in Grantham.” She looked at her phone. “They’re taking longer than I’d expected. Someone really wants me to get pissed off.”
“How much surplus cash would we even be talking?” I asked. I’d realized I had no idea how much money was kept at a bank. You think of them as… well, banks. I guess I’d always assumed banks had giant Money Bins full of gold coins you could swim around in like Scrooge McDuck, or at least millions upon millions of dollars in ones, fives, tens, twenties, fifties, and hundred dollar bills. But of course they don’t have that kind of cash on hand, because it wouldn’t do them any good. Physical money sitting in a vault literally does nothing but sit in a vault. It’s not even the depositors’ money – they may have handed the money to a teller or stuck it in an ATM, but their balance is recorded electronically – that’s their actual money. The physical bills are just paper in a big metal box.
“So much surplus cash,” Leather said. She was enthusiastic, now. “See, a lot of the major businesses in town do major deposits on Thursday, so that all the money can move around where it has to go on Friday, for payroll or to pay expenses or stuff like that. It’s too much money to just sit in each individual bank, but you don’t want to spend the day sending armored trucks to every branch in the city, then have those trucks each individually haul the cash to Grantham. It’s inefficient. So chain banks and other major banks will have larger branches that act like mini-Reserves for the chain, and then they regularly load up the armored trucks at those banks and ship the cash off to the Fed all at once. I mean, there’s over fifty banks in Meridian all on its own – at least thirty-five of them use this one bank we’re hitting tomorrow as their staging ground to the Fed. Factor in the business—” her cell phone rang. “—hang on.” She flipped it open. “Talk to me. Hm. Well hello, sir. Yes, I do wish to register a complaint. I’ve come to expect a certain level of service from your people—”
I tuned it out, looking around. We had been hanging out up in her room. I’d slept on the cot in the barracks the night before – and just like Leather said, there was no lingering resentments among the Henches. Still, after our Tuesday night sleepover, Leather was more comfortable with me. And, since she liked attention the way most people like oxygen, that meant I got to hang out with her in her study or room, now. Before her phone follies with the service, I’d been watching her drop books and clothes into boxes just like everyone else. She had a few suitcases as well, and several larger and heavier looking metal carriers. I found out later those mostly contained her suits, several of the more exotic tools she’d gotten over time, and things like that. Everything else she could do without in a pinch, but these metal carriers? They were the heart of the operation.
I’d noticed several of them had flip-open slots on their top. I’d asked Leather about them, and she’d grinned and shown me. To open those containers, you slid the top panel open. Inside was a palm reader. She put her palm down on top of it, and about seven seconds later the container slid open. In this case, the container held her ‘Fuck Me’ outfit, a speed field suit that was full body instead of a leotard, and a flat black catsuit for quiet jobs. Apparently, suits like her heavy combat suit could be so elaborate that they needed a container of their own.
Metal containers with super villain uniforms. Rugged cargo containers holding cardboard boxes and bins with everything from computers to coffee cups. It felt weird. It felt like the end of an era, even though I’d only been there a few days.
I found myself wondering if I should go with them.
Now, there’s no reason they would want me. I’m not a professional henchman or anything, and they’d hardly need a live in freelance reporter. But right at that moment… I really felt weird about saying goodbye. This dysfunctional gang seemed alternately professional and ridiculous, but they also had a real closeness – a feeling of family. I was going to miss that.
And if you’re sitting at home reading this, you’re probably shaking your head in disbelief. These people had beaten me senselesstwo nights before, and now I was wondering if I should go with them when they skipped town. That’s crazy.
What’s more? It’s out of character for me. I mean, it was weird. I’d spent time around stars before. Singers, dancers, actors – whole days or even weekends with their full entourages. I’d eaten with them, had their wine and their liquor, declined their cocaine and their women – yeah, yeah. I know. I’m not Hunter S. Thompson. But at the end of those gigs, I never wanted to go with them. I preferred my mundane life of small apartments and shitty cars and take out Chinese food.
But Leather, Marco, and the Bagmen? Or even the Steve, even though he never really warmed to me? I was going to miss them. They were weirdly honest about things. They knew the score and they were okay with it, and most of the time they did their job. And Leather?
Leather, more than anything else, seemed happy. She liked being around her henches. She liked going out and stealing things and fighting heroes and the police. She liked being a villain. And that perverse joy she took in almost every part of the process was infectious.
And beyond that – there was still so many things I didn’t understand. Like… what happened on holidays? Did they get time and a half if they worked them? Leather led a prayer before each job – were any of the henches actually religious? Marco had alluded to a wife. When did he see her? He seemed to live with Leather, and they sure as Hell weren’t married. One of the bagmen talked a lot about his mother – when did he see her? What about retirement – was there a pension plan? How about health benefits? When a new patient’s admitted to the Emergency Room with bullet or knife wounds, the staff’s obligated to call the police. I had to imagine arrow wounds would be the same – how would they avoid arrest, or do they go somewhere else for medical care?
And what did happen when everything went wrong and everybody went to jail? I know that the Steve makes ‘the call,’ and the Service both does ‘the necessary’ on their lair and also sends lawyers out, takes care of business arrangements, makes sure their pets were fed and stuff like that. But… did the service break them out of prison? Did henches get broken out of prison? Or did they wait out their term in silence and get compensated for it? What about Leather herself? Would they break her out, or did she have to break herself out? And with so many villains seemingly walking out of jail as quickly as they were sent there in the first place, why hadn’t they changed up how they held parahuman prisoners?
So yeah. I admit it. I was going to miss Leather and the henchmen. Apparently my beatdown was water under the bridge, at least as far as my brain was concerned. Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t really feel like the right term for this – I didn’t want to become a criminal. I just didn’t want to say goodbye. I guess Stockholm Syndrome was a problem for villain hostage situations – some villains (or their henches, even) were very charismatic, even to the point of parahumanity. Be it out of love, lust, devotion, or the faith of the newly converted….
But that’s not how I felt. I don’t think, anyway. I didn’t want to follow Leather blindly or settle in as her Moll or anything. I just…
Leather hung up. “It is a pleasure doing business with people scared for their paychecks and their lives,” she said. “Where were we?”
“Right! The blowoff. Did you figure it all out?”
“Yeah.” I looked at her. “This is the climax. The eleven o’clock number. The finale. Either you go to jail, or you barely get away but he stops the bank heist and maybe gets the urn back, or he goes down and you have a huge payday and he’s humiliated.” I shook my head. “All the rest of this was just business. This one’s the real supervillain action.”
“What if he wins?”
“Then I go to jail, the Steve makes the call, maybe the henches get away and maybe they don’t, and we move on. The cops won’t recover any money for the stuff I already fenced, and they sure as Hell won’t have access to my accounts or assets, so I’m not really out anything except some time, so I might be stuck on prison food and overly public toilets for a while.” She shrugged. “It’s happened before. I assume it’ll happen again.”
“But you could leave tonight and not risk it.”
She considered. “Yeah. Yeah, I could.”
“But you won’t.”
“Of course not.”
“And if you beat him? I mean, take him down hard. Even humiliate him? Would you even try to humiliate him?”
Leather laughed. “Damn right. Look, from my point of view a good fight that I win is the best case scenario – but sometimes the local hero shows up and it’s just embarrassing. I think I have a responsibility to that hero and to the community to absolutely roast them. Bonus points if I make them cry. I remember a couple times…” She looked thoughtful. “One was… damn, must have been up in Machigonne, Maine. Maybe six months into my solo career after Group and my apprenticeship.”
“Shh! I’m telling an anecdote! Anyway, I was still fourth tier, if right on the edge of third. And this fourth tier regional hero came after me. The Lobstergirl, she called herself. I swear to God. The Lobstergirl. And she had strength and a disturbingly curvy exoskeleton and stuff like that, but she was totally out of her league. I dunno if she’d just never had it tough or what. But… first off, she was late. I mean, I ended up hanging around for twenty minutes, picking off PATER team members and shit like that.” She shook her head, laughing again. “She comes in, frontal attack, shouting something about bringing me to a boil? Something like that.” She chuckled again. “I was stronger than she was. I was dozens of times faster than she was. She had no real combat training – she got by on brute force and armored knuckles and being bulletproof.” She chuckled, remembering. “I beat her silly. Threw her through a couple of sidewalk lobster roll carts. I distinctly remembering dumping a full five liter jug of… mayonnaise? Tarter sauce? I dunno – whatever they grill lobster rolls with. I soaked her down in it, wrapped her up in cables I got from a spool of electrical wire off a truck. Hung her from a streetlamp – I only left when my Steve at the time hit the button ‘cause like six other regional heroes were en route. I’m kinda lucky DETAILS didn’t show up.”
“And… you enjoyed that?”
“In one way, absolutely! And I was kind of riding on the high of it all. And if I went too far and she couldn’t hack it and she punched out, then someone else would cover Machigonne instead and they’d be safer. Or maybe she’d vow to get me back and get her revenge on me, and make me pay, redouble her efforts, step up, and the next time we ran into each other beat me into paste. I hoped that would be the one, but if she just left then it’s still better for everybody, and I sure as Hell had a good time.”
“I’ll bet.” I snorted. “Did you mock her sidekick physique while you were at it?”
Leather’s smile dropped, and her eyes narrowed, and every bit of relaxation I’d been feeling drained out of me as fast as the blood drained out of my face when I realized she did not care for the joke.
But… I didn’t apologize for it, either, or try to take it back. Instead, I just watched her.
“…no,” she said, quietly. “They’d have fallen flat, because Lobstergirl wasn’t flat. She was easily a Double-D or larger, with hips and butt to match and a nice thin waist, assuming any of that was real instead of just the carapace having built in padding. And who the fuck do you think you are?”
I kept looking at Leather. And yeah, I was scared. I was very scared. I had a much better idea of what she was capable of, and I knew she’d planned to shatter my spine when I made fun of her taste in books.
But… and I don’t know why… I still didn’t apologize. Instead, my voice seemed determined to see this through with or without my help. “I think I’m literally a hostage you kidnapped so I could write a story about you,” I said, calmly. “And I think that it’s interesting to hear about the pleasure you took in humiliating a hero when you got such an astronomically raw deal during your own time in togs.”
“And if these were the same situation, I’d get defensive, say something foolish, and go up to the roof and brood while some dumbass TV teen drama’s soundtrack played in the background, but it’s not. Lobstergirl wasn’t there to protect me. She was there to protect that city from me. She didn’t even get there on time. I had to wait for her. And she was clearly stunned when I jumped over her arms when she started blithely flailing her arms around, and more so when I hit her hard enough to hurt her!” She leaned forward. “What if it hadn’t been me, Chapman? Huh? You know who’s a buddy of mine? Malie the Destroyer – you know, the shark who mutated into a girl. You’d like her. She’s into books. Loves fucking Jane Austin. And she eats people, Chapman. What if she’d been there on a rampage, fresh out of the sea, and this idiot goes sauntering up to her? Either Lobstergirl’d be cracked wide open, a bunch of Mainers would be devoured, or both.”
“And you figure you… what, taught her a lesson?”
“You’re damn right I taught her a lesson, Chapman! I beat a lesson into her brain and practically carved it into her shell! And was I mean about it? You’d better fucking believe I was, because she had to do better or she had to get the fuck out. I made her fucking sob, Chapman, and I’m glad I did!”
“Because heroes need villains?”
“Damn straight! Someone needed to convince shell-tits to step the fuck up, and I didn’t have time to take her under my wing, tell her all about the wonderful world of learning how to use claws in battle and maybe invest in a scooter or something because walking it wasn’t working out for her. I had just enough time to fucking rub her nose in her incompetence. And that is exactly what I did.”
“And that’s what you’re going to do tomorrow, if you can? Rub Darkhood’s nose in his loss?”
“If he puts in that kind of piss-poor effort, you’re fucking right I will! But he won’t, Chapman. That much I’m sure about, because he fought me across fifteen blocks of city rooftops and came damn close to beating me, and I’m not that easy to beat. But don’t kid yourself – if I beat him, I will absolutely taunt him over that failure. I will absolutely mock his clothes and his gear and probably his fucking penis. And he will go home afterward, and he’ll rethink his line of work. And if he realizes he can’t hack it, he’ll do something else with his nights and the world will be better off without him.”
“And if he can hack it?”
“Then he’s the real deal, and he’ll be stronger next time, and when our paths next cross it’ll be glorious.”
“Like Lobstergirl? Have you ever seen her again?”
Leather paused, eyes on mine, before she very, very slowly relaxed, a small smile touching her lips. “As a matter of fact, yes. About a year and a half later.”
“And was it glorious?”
“Pretty glorious, yeah. She bent one of my full combat suit’s plates. That fucking hurt. They had to cut me out of it at the police station just to book me, because the releases got fouled.” Her smile grew a bit more. “And she got in some sick fucking burns.” She lifted her chin again. “So tell me. Am I a hypocritical monster who mocks heroes just trying to do their best, or maybe, just maybe do I know what I’m talking about and what I’m doing?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said. “It sounds like you gave Lobstergirl exactly what she needed, but is that always the way it happens?”
Leather looked at me for a long moment, then looked away. “No,” she said. “Guy in the midwest… I… you know what, not gonna tell you his name. No good reason to. Same kind of deal. Outclassed, wasn’t taking any of this seriously. And I made him understand just how wrong he was.”
“And… the next time you saw him?”
“I’ve never seen him since. Nor am I likely to. Last I knew he was serving triple-life in the Sepulcher.”
“Oh…” Leather waved her hand, slightly. “The Thomas Banting Parahuman Prison blah blah. It’s the place they send us when normal parahuman prisons can’t hold us. We call it the Sepulcher.”
“What did he do to end up there?”
Leather didn’t say anything.
“If we need to discuss something else—”
“It wasn’t just me,” Leather said, a bit defensively. “I found it out later. I was like the… fourth? Fourth third-or-fourth tier crook to hand him his teeth and steal his lunch money. He was… usually I’m better at figuring out when they’re delusional. I mean, really delusional. In a business where you deal with a lot of truly sick, truly insane psychotic people? Seeing someone like that who’s convinced they’re a hero – that’s a red flag. You get the fuck out. If necessary, you accept that you’ll probably be arrested and you help the cops take them down and take them in.” She looked up at the ceiling, leaning back in her chair. “My understanding is… he was… committing… let’s just go with atrocities, so that the city would turn to him as their hero and he’d protect them, and then claim that he drove off the menace…” She lifted her head, looking at me. “I wasn’t the first one to beat him like that and I wasn’t the last.”
“But you were one of them.”
“Yeah.” She shook her head. “Why the fuck didn’t DETAILS or someone in Justice Wing figure out… nope, not going to try to work it through. That rabbit hole I don’t need.”
“And you’re not scared that’ll happen again?”
“I learned a few things from that, and a few others since then. How better to recognize. But when someone’s that legitimately insane and he’s running around as a hero… I mean, Jesus. If… eight, I want to say… if eight villains beat someone into kimchee and get away with big scores, and no one else on the hero side or from DETAILS figures out that they need to pay attention when that happens, then yeah. Bad things will happen. Even then, in the long run… after all that there were some changes in how they track incidents like that. Tighten up procedures.” She snorted again. “I’m a fucking thief. A cat burglar. A grandstanding villain with sauciness and a good butt wiggle. A villain. It’s not my job to protect the world from heroes. It is my job to push those heroes as hard as I fucking can. I kept up my part. That’s all I can do. And that’s all I’m supposed to do.”
I nodded. “But you don’t think Darkhood’s going to snap like that?”
She chuckled. “No, I don’t think Darkhood’s going to snap. Look, most people who pull on the togs aren’t going to live up to it. It’s hard to be a hero. Most of the ones who can’t manage being a hero also can’t hack being a villain. There’s a lot more direct benefit to being a villain, but it’s still hard work. Darkhood – he’s nothing like either of those cases. I’m pretty sure he’s sane, if you discount his willingness to wear Clannad-era Robin of Sherwood cosplay into battle and think it looks good on him. And I know he takes this seriously. And that’s the thing, too. Even if I take him down hard and fast and end up having a little fun at his expense, I’m not going to give him the full treatment Lobstergirl got, because I know he does take this seriously. But someone just waltzing in and doing the bare minimum…” She took a deep breath. “You know something?”
“I’m… not actually pissed off at you.” She sounded a bit surprised.
My eyebrows went up, and I felt a bit of a chill. “Well, I’m glad to hear that.”
“A lot of villains would be, mind. Depending on the next situation you find yourself in? Maybe don’t go quite that far. But you got me thinking… and I appreciate that. There’s something to be said over being called on your bullshit.” She snorted. “Seems to be a week for that.”
I nodded. “Well, I’m relieved.” I paused. “So… your worst case scenario is ‘make more money than you have all the rest of the week.’ What’s your best case scenario?”
“My best case? We have a truly epic battle and I just barely manage to get away with some or all of the loot, giving him plenty of reason to want the rematch. But getting away with no loot but not captured is almost as good. And even going to jail will be good, so long as we put on a good show first. I’m pretty sure I can take him, and if I can’t I’m pretty sure I’ll give him a run for his money. Or my money, as the case may be.” She grinned, fully relaxing again. “C’mon, man. By now you understand how this works.”
“I don’t know that I do,” I said. “There’s so much I don’t still understand about supervillains.”
She grinned. “More than you know.” She stood and stretched – taking a long moment and clearly posing a bit, which kind of told me where we were right now. We were… ‘friends?’ That would be stretching it a bit. But while she always showed off and she always enjoyed being appreciated, she wasn’t quite as overt most of the time. In trying to be the full on sex kitten, she was making it clear that we cool, but we weren’t all the way back to normal.
It was wild, slowly figuring out how to judge Leather’s moods. It seemed weird but I was going to miss that, too. “So what’s the biggest thing I don’t understand yet?”
She smirked, dropping the pose and walking over to pack her studio. “All kinds of things. For example – you’ve spent a week hanging with me. I’m a touring villain, thief, and cat burglar. I’m not trying to conquer Gateway City or get revenge on some hero who done me wrong. I’m just making a living and boosting my name and profile. Maybe from here you should spend a week with some Rogues.”
“You repeat me a lot, you know that?”
“Sorry. What are Rogues?”
“Supervillains – but not like me.” She lifted components down into the styrofoam packing molds. “They’re the ones who stick to one city and one superhero. The way Leonardo Lucas always fights Paragon, or the Jack O’Knaves takes on the Nightwatch, or Bandolier and about twenty other dudes fight the Beacon?”
“Oh – sure. They’re different?”
“In some ways, absolutely. Think about it.” She glanced up, grinning. “I tour to other cities so my lair won’t get compromised. Their lairs get compromised six times a year, and every time they need to move to a new one. Everything they do is more expensive. Higher rates from the guild because their henches go to jail more than mine do. Higher rates from the service because they go to jail more than I do. It’s like insurance – the more you use it, the more you pay for it. And they don’t take in nearly as much money as I do, in part because their fences get a bigger cut because it’s way more likely the fences will be outed.”
“Then why do they do it?”
“Good question.” Leather stood, stretching yet again. And despite having had most of a week to get used to her, I still stared. She was just so fluid. “For some it’s revenge. the Jack O’Knaves really wants to kill the Nightwatch. Most of the Nightwatch’s rogues are psycho that way. For others it’s ego. That’s the Leo Lucas thing. He doesn’t just want to rule the world, he wants Paragon to kneel at his feet in defeat and then die for good measure. For some, it’s probably some kind of stalker thing.” She giggled. “Or sometimes it’s just… it’s just what they do, and I have no idea why. I mentioned Bandolier? He loves Paramount City. And he really wants to kill the Beacon, but he’s also… he’s a friend and I don’t want to bag on him, but he’s… protective of her. He hates her but doesn’t want to hear shit about her. I know it’s not sexual or romantic or stalker-twisted-things-its-romantic. I just don’t know what it actually is. It’s like… rival baseball teams, only it’s a hero and villain and the villain builds a lot of deathtraps.”
She shrugged. “There’ve been a few times we’ve hung out. Contract work. Group. I like to change it up with Group every once in a while. It’s a break from touring, a chance to have a salary instead of trying to balance everything, a chance to let the henches take time off or swap out as needed. It’s like a working vacation. But not for him – oh no. He was there because he needed cash something fierce. He couldn’t make a living back home, and he wouldn’t tour to other places because that would mean the Beacon might… die? Live? I don’t know. So he did Group until he could afford a new lair and gang, and then it’d start all over again.”
I shook my head. “Why would he possibly do that if he can’t make a living?”
Leather half-smiled. “See, this is why you need to spend some time with Rogues. If you can figure that out, I’ll be glad to read it in your book.”
“What makes you think I’m going to write a book?”
Leather snorted, and went back to packing.
I looked around. “So where would I even go? Greystone City?”
Leather’s head snapped up. “No. No fucking way. Promise me, Chapman. Promise me you won’t go poking around Greystone City.”
“What?” I blinked. “Why?”
“Because they’re fucking insane. I’m not joking and I’m not being cute. Something… something happened there. Back just before the Apocalypse Agenda, when it was ‘Nightstick and Cudgel’ and shit like that, Greystone… the books make it sound a lot like Monument City after the Lieutenant started breaking the syndicates. Things were on an upswing. And then, just before the Apocalypse Agenda tore apart the fucking planet and nearly killed literally everyone everywhere, the Jack O’Knaves obliterated Greystone, killed a bunch of his fellow ‘Dark Gods of Greystone,’ and was going to set off a fucking nuclear weapon by hand. As art.”
“I… they talk about it, but… there has to have been something else going on—”
“No. There wasn’t. He’s insane, Chapman. And everything up there’s warped into something hideous since then! Jesus Christ, he killed Cudgel – a fucking teen sidekick. Who does that?” She shook her head. “And after that… Nightstick became ‘the Nightwatch’ and you can’t tell me he’s not insane, and all the other Dark Gods either retired, got the Hell out, were killed by insane successors who wanted their names… or adapted to this new Greystone and warped right along with it. Don’t go there, Chapman. Avoid psychos like the plague.”
I nodded. And understand, I wasn’t actually going to do this. It’s not like Amplifier was going to turn into Superwatch or The Beat or even Superbabes. I went where Kyle sent me. That’s how I paid my rent. But despite that, I asked the obvious question. “How do I tell the difference. How do I know if someone’s a ‘psycho?’”
“Read a newspaper. If there’s a regular body count? Stay away. And trust me, in Greystone City a body count isn’t even enough to make the front page, they’re so common.”
“Gotcha.” I looked off to one side. “Man. Just when I think I’m beginning to understand this lifestyle….”
“‘Understand this lifestyle.’ Don’t you get it?”
“Clearly not.” I was a little tired of the whole ‘don’t you get it,’ thing, but I’d already pissed her off with some of my questions. I wasn’t about to complain.
“You don’t understand lifestyles. You live them. And if parts of them don’t make sense to outsiders, well – that’s because they’re outsiders.”
“You make it sound like being gay.”
Leather considered. “Not quite. Sexual preference doesn’t automatically mean you fall into a subculture, after all – any more than being parahuman means you have to wear a cape and punch people and being prosahuman means you can’t wear a cape and punch people. The whole LGBTQ-and-beyond spectrum is full of people who come together in communities and full of people who completely don’t join a broader community – and plenty of straight people are into the cultural side and you should know that. People can be gay without being in the gay lifestyle.” She shrugged. “Look. In the end, we’re supervillains. I don’t have anything more I can say that’ll explain it. Maybe the next person you interview can tell you more.”
I realized she meant it. “You know,” I said, “I interview celebrities. Musicians. I listen to Dan Man-Plan wax philosophical for twelve hours then write an article to make them sound deep. This assignment’s not my normal gig.”
Leather snorted. “Yeah. Okay. Sure.”
“What does that mean?” I frowned a bit.
“No, it means something. What?”
Leather shrugged, then smiled. She stepped away from the box full of stereo and walked over to me, ambling a bit. Looking good because of course she was, but without the calculated sensuality that served to insulate her, just a little. She walked up to me and she tapped my nose with her fingertip. “Tell you what,” she said. “I’ll check up on you in a year or so. I don’t mean I’ll crash into your work or anything – I’ll just check on you. And I’ll be very curious to see if you spent that year writing puff pieces about rappers and teen idols, or if you find some other way to spend your time.”
I pursed my lips. “You made it clear I’m no hero before Dynamo Girl went on the town.”
“Yup. I sure did.”
“So what makes you think I’m going to risk my life for more stories?”
She smirked. “You got out of the car.”
I paused. “Well, yes.”
“I mean it. You got out of the car. I told you explicitly to stay in the car, and almost before I landed my first kick there you were, totally getting out of the car.”
“…I couldn’t hear what was—”
“Kurt Loder would have stayed in the car, Chapman.” She grinned even more brightly. “He would have watched, and reported, and written a damn good story. Kurt Loder’s a Hell of a journalist. But he would have stayed in the car. But not you. You didn’t even hesitate.” She half-smiled. “Face it, Chapman. You crossed the threshold. You don’t go back from that.”
“The threshold between normal life and super-adjacent living. Norm or super, and you chose super. Yeah, you’re not hero material or even villain material, but not everyone in this game is. Some people get tied to chairs or bombs. Some people sit in chairs back in lairs and talk intently to heroes over the radio, giving them tactical information. Some people just attract weirdness.” She leaned down, looking right into my eyes. “And some people just never stop asking fucking questions.”
I blinked, and flushed a little. “I…”
She stood back upright. “I expect you to dedicate the fucking book to me, of course. That’s only fair.” She turned and walked back over to the box of stereo.
“So what does that make me? Barbara Babcock?”
She snorted into a full laugh. “What? Jesus fucking Christ. Barbara Babcock is the epitome of the first tier in your field.” She giggled again. “Barbara Babcock. Jesus fucking Christ. Don’t get airs, Chapman.” She looked over her shoulder, and I swear to God the evil smirk she gave me was adorable. “You’re a fourth tier journalist nobody just stepping out into the big, bad world.” Her voice dropped in volume and about half-an-octave, almost into a purr. “Welcome to the lifestyle. Now go pester Marco so I can finish packing my room.”
Interviewing Leather Revised is going to take a short break, but that doesn’t mean Banter Latte or even Todd Chapman, Leather and the Henches are. Starting next week, Interviewing Leather: Being The Steve begins!
You’ve read about Todd Chapman arriving in Meridian City, meeting up with the villain called Leather and getting subsequently kidnapped by her. You’ve met Leather’s henchmen, Marco, the Bagmen… and the Steve. And you’ve seen what Todd Chapman has seen.
But how did all this look from the other side of the lair?
We know that the Steves are trained to blend into their surroundings, watch for trouble, and signal a crook and their henches if necessary. But unknown to the henches or even Leather herself, the Steves have much bigger jobs than that. The Steve assigned to Leather keeps to himself, keeps his eyes open, keeps quiet, and keeps doing his job, come what may. But when Leather, in her continuing quest for the spotlight, invites a reporter to come and interview her for a week, the Steve finds himself caught between a Crook who he actively despises but pays well and the Service he works for and their increasing demands on him, the Steve has to decide where a man whose entire profession involves being nobody actually belongs… and try to survive getting there in the process.