“One day?” Marco asked. He paused. “Oh shit, you got a bite.”
“A bite?” the brown haired bagman asked.
Leather beamed. “Yes I did, Marco! Yes I did! That brings me to the next item on the agenda…
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.
Being the Steve
An Interviewing Leather Concurrence
A lot of work went into any successful business, whether that business was as remedial as a paper route, as legal as housecleaning, or as illegal as super-villainy. That could be as complicated as servicing the custom rebuilt Humvee they used on loud jobs, as routine as ordering replacement parts for lockpick sets, or as mundane as doing the dishes. Some crooks were good at managing that side of their business and some weren’t, but every last one of them had quirks and a way they wanted things done, and henches weren’t there to argue.
As crooks went, Leather was pretty cool. Full of herself, but the Steve expected that from a crook. You didn’t go into that line of work if you didn’t have an ego problem in one direction or the other. Leather was classic: a nigh-absolute self-obsession born out of major self-esteem issues. At least, that was the Steve’s take. And he was pretty good at judging people. Admittedly, there was a lot about Leather he didn’t care for, but that was just part of the job.
And to be honest, the Steve actually kind of liked the staff meetings. Most days they were held first thing in the morning and doubled as breakfast. On Saturdays, they were officially ‘brunch’ and took place in the early afternoon. There were usually bagels with lots of cream cheese, fruit, eggs or waffles if one of the henches was assigned to cook, juice, diet soda and omnipresent coffee. Most crooks he’d worked for in the past had either skipped out on meeting snacks or just left a box of donuts in the middle of the table — if they even had a table — and called it good.
The point was, Leather was a better boss than a lot of the Steve’s formerly assigned crooks. The henches slept in a barracks, which was common, but each Hench had an office of his own. Okay, it was just an old brick side-office that was part of the old foghorn and lighthouse station they’d taken over as their lair. It hadn’t been used for decades and the lighthouse itself had been replaced by two much newer lighthouses on Narragansett Bay long before they’d gotten there.
That had left a perfect old building for a lair sitting along the coast, far out enough from the actual city to be private while still being close enough to make shopping convenient. For some crooks, that would have meant room to expand into labs or holding cells or all kinds of things. For Leather, it meant everyone got offices, they had a decent in-building bay for the vehicles, the kitchen was bigger than normal, and even the barracks were relatively large.
And they had a conference room with an old, battered wooden table they were sitting around. There was Marco — he was the wheelman but also the Guild Rep and hench supervisor, so he got to be ‘Marco’ — and two bagmen. There was the Steve himself, and of course there was the lady in cowhide.
Who admittedly wasn’t wearing cowhide at the moment. She was wearing black leggings and a white tank top that showed off her tattoos relatively well, especially since she was perching birdlike on the back of a chair. She liked showing off. “—Marco and I checked out the new place in Oghapogue and it’s pretty cool. Literally — it was, like, retrofitted for geothermal so it stays pretty cool even before HVAC.”
“Which means you don’t want us running A/C,” one of the bagmen — the blonde guy — said. Honestly, the only way to tell the difference between the bagmen was hair color. They’d worked together for years, and over time had come to resemble each other the way you heard married couples sometimes did. “You don’t want us running A/C in New Mexico. In the summer.”
“I fully expect there will be days when the central A/C is going to be pumping merrily along,” Leather said, grinning. “We have concealed venting for it — it’s pretty sweet. That said, there’s lots of days when you won’t need to run it, and before you ask — yes. I will be the one who controls the thermostat.”
There was a general groan around the table.
“What?” Leather said, looking from hench to hench. “No, what?”
“Boss,” Marco said. “You’re awesome. We know this. But you have a terrible sense of ‘comfortable.’”
“I like being comfortable!”
“Sure,” the other bagman — the brown haired one — said. “But you… like, regenerate.”
“More’s the point, you don’t really get hot or cold,” Marco said. “I’ve seen you play in the snow in a bathing suit.”
“I look good in a bathing suit, thank you very much,” Leather said. “And tell you what. We’ll talk about the temperature setting when we get there and we’ll come to a group agreement. And then I will be the one to change it if it needs changing. Is everyone clear on that?”
“It’s not the heat,” the first bagman said. “It’s the humidity.”
“It’s New Mexico,” Leather said, rolling her eyes. “Not exactly the same problem it is in Rhode Island.”
“New Mexico still has moisture,” the bagman answered—
“Moving on,” Leather said, leaning down to pick up her coffee mug. The Steve had long since stopped being impressed by her ability to perch on the back of a chair while leaning forward over the table. She was parahuman. They could do stuff like that. It wasn’t a big deal. “I signed the paperwork with the Service and made arrangements. As we’re moving forward with the local tour this week, they’re going to move us on Friday. You need to get all your shit together, labeled, and put in the convenient cargo containers you will be provided.”
“God, I hate the convenient cargo containers,” the blond bagman muttered.
“Get over it. I mean, they’re effectively big storage bins or totes. Though I strongly recommend you pack in boxes and pack those boxes in the containers. Make certain you stick a barcode on the box and scan it before putting it in the container, and make sure you scan the container’s code when you’re done. The more detailed you are with your inventory, the easier you’ll find things on the other end. You know the drill. Fragile should always go on top – they’re usually pretty good about keeping them upright. Anything that needs special handling will be accommodated if you note it on the inventory and won’t be accommodated at all if you don’t, so do. If you have room left over, let me know so we can pack other shit in your container. If you need another container we do have spares. If you need more than two come see me, ‘cause these things aren’t free.”
“Are we packing up the lair all week?” the Steve asked.
“Good question. No. Pack your shit up early but everything else we’re going to pack on Thursday.”
“One day?” Marco asked. He paused. “Oh shit, you got a bite.”
“A bite?” the brown haired bagman asked.
Leather beamed. “Yes I did, Marco! Yes I did! That brings me to the next item on the agenda… I have been in active negotiations with an editor of a major magazine to be the subject of a cover story and interview. It’s a good opportunity for some good press and to raise my profile in and out of the profession. We have come to an equitable arrangement. Therefore, we are going to have a guest next week.”
There was silence. The Steve himself was a bit stunned.
“You’re… going to have a reporter on site for a week? The blond bagman sounded aghast.
“I am, in fact, going to have a reporter on site for a week.”
“…I did not sign up to do publicity,” the other bagman snapped.
“Speaking as the guild foreman for this very local chapter,” Marco said, “the conditions of this interview have been made perfectly clear: no pictures clearly identifying any hench. No names. No significant identifying details. The reporter may ask you questions, but the topic is supposed to be Leather. He may ask about your job — answer vaguely and don’t answer anything that makes you uncomfortable.” Marco shrugged, clearly not as comfortable with all this as he sounded. “He’s a PR Flack, nothing more.”
“You sure?” the brown haired bagman asked. “I mean — we had to sign those waivers about security and TV cameras during jobs—“
“I’m sure,” Marco said. “And the boss signed off on that, so it’s official.”
“Damn right I signed off on it,” Leather said. “I love you guys. I really do. But I don’t want this guy showing up and writing an article about you. Me me me me me me me. All me.” She grinned.
“So why can’t we pack up before Thursday?” the Steve asked. He didn’t speak up a lot at these meetings. Or ever, really. It was part of what made him good at his job.
“Because I want this guy to get a feel for how this place operates,” Leather said. “Job prep. Organization. Daily life. Shit like that. I want America reading this thing and saying ‘gosh, what interesting lives Supervillains lead. Why, they have to deal with the same shit I do. Only they dress better and their jobs are way cooler than mine.’”
“So… you want us… to just go day-by-day like normal?” the first bagman asked.
“Shit, no,” Marco said. “This guy’s gonna be here, so we’re fucking ‘on.’ Banter turned up to nine. Happy fun club. No bitching about the A/C, for Christ’s sake.”
“That sounds like work,” the brown haired bagman said. “And last time I checked—“
“Everyone is going to be paid a daily bonus,” Leather cut in. Twelve hundred a day, in addition to the standard commit and standard cut on jobs.”
“We’re still doing jobs?” the blond bagman asked. “I ask ‘cause we have like nine targets lined up—“
“Fuck yeah we’re doing jobs,” Leather said. “I didn’t do three dry runs on the fucking Mountbatten Urn so I could sit around with my thumb up my ass talking about the Leathermobile.”
“So… um….” The Steve was frowning. “This guy… what’s stopping him from calling the cops? Or showing up with the cops? Or leaving while we’re on jobs?”
Leather smiled a bit more. “Simple. We’re kidnapping him.”
Marco snorted. “We’re what? He’s driving here. How exactly do we kidnap a guy who walks in the front door.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Leather said. “I told his editor we needed him for a week. I also told his editor to tell him to come up for a day. That way, he’ll show up with expectations of leaving after a few hours, not to mention foggy from the road.”
“Foggy from the road?” the blond bagman asked. “How far’s he driving?”
“He’s coming up from Virginia,” Leather said. “And not being given enough time to make hotel plans on the way, so he’ll have to drive straight through to arrive here Monday morning. So yeah he’ll be nice and tired and cranky.”
“Why wouldn’t he fly?” the Steve asked.
“Oh, that’s a condition of the interview,” Leather said. “He has to drive himself here, and rental cars have GPS trackers, so he can’t rent a car. So he has to drive his own car instead.”
“We could deal with a rental pretty easily,” Marco said.
“Yeah we could. What’s your point?” Leather gulped down her coffee.
The brown haired bagman started laughing. “So he gets here. He says he’s here for the day, you say he’s here for the week. You then… what? Lock him up?”
“Trash his phone, wreck his car, make sure he doesn’t have internet access, scare the fuck out of him…” Leather grinned. “Good old fashioned kidnapping except we don’t actually have to do any of the work.”
“He… this interview might not be charitable towards you as a result,” the Steve said.
Leather shrugged. “Either he buys the sweetheart me or the scary me. Preferably both. Either way, it’ll move issues which’ll make his editor happy and it’ll get my name out there which’ll make me happy. Regardless, this is happening. Any useful comment?”
“Where’s he sleep?”
“Cot in the barracks.”
There was another groan.
“Guys — it’s either a cot in the barracks or we need rotating guard duty. What’ll you guys prefer?”
There was a bit of a pause.
“You know, those cots are pretty comfortable,” the blond bagmen said.
“Why did the editor agree to all that? And why wouldn’t he call the cops?” Marco asked.
“Oh, that’s simple,” Leather said. “The editor’s a dick. I mean, dick. And if he dicks us over? We will be unkind. And he knows that.”
That got a laugh. “Right!” Leather said. “Moving on! We need to talk out the crime wave. Something loud, something quiet, something fast, the Mountbatten Urn heist and the blowoff. On loud — I’m thinking the classics. I don’t want to do bank, because a bank’s the blowoff. We have three candidates. Art gallery, jewelry store, diamond exchange. Thoughts?”
“The Peterson gallery’s mostly low end commercial crap,” Marco said. “Some Winslow Homers but—“
“It’s too close to grabbing the Mountbatten Urn,” the blond bagman said.
“That’s at the Meridian Museum of Antiquities and Art,” Marco said. “Not a gallery.”
“Yeah, but ask Jack, Joe, and Jane Schmo what the difference is and they won’t see one.”
“Diamonds do better than actual jewels on the resale,” the other bagman threw in. “Twenty or thirty cents on the dollar better, really.”
Leather looked thoughtful. “That’s true. And diamond heist screams super villain.”
“I… maybe it’s none of my business…”
The henches and Leather all looked at the Steve.
“Well… it depends on what you want this article to show. Do you want to come across as super-competent? Or as relatable and human?”
“Why does that have to be either/or?” Leather asked.
The Steve shrugged. “It’s kinda my whole business,” he said. “Remarkable isn’t relatable. That’s why you hired me. I’m unremarkable. When I’m downtown on the clock, everyone can relate to me and no one can remember me. You want to be remarkable, sure — but you’re already a super villain. Don’t go to jail and make a profit by the end of the week and you’ll be remarkable. If you also want the reader to relate to you, you need problems.”
“I have problems.”
“Problems the reader can understand. Things that take your world and make them sound like their world, just a little. Like risk versus reward. Or intentions. A jewel heist’s always kinda weak on the return on investment, but it’s a great loud crime, right?”
“Sure. Jewels make the paper. People can picture necklaces and rings and shit.” Leather looked thoughtful.
“So there’s your angle. Jewel heist is the perfect loud crime… but it means you’re taking a hit on the return. You’ll still make more money than most people see in a year, but you get to be kinda disgusted because it was a lot of work for not much cash — but that’s the cost of doing business if you want a good loud crime.” The Steve shrugged. “It’s relatable.”
Leather slowly smiled. “It is.”
“You realize this means we get paid less, right?” the brown haired bagman snapped, looking at the Steve.
The Steve shrugged. “We’re already getting an extra six grand just for getting out of bed.”
“Oh… yeah,” the bagman said. “Point.”
Leather’s grin broadened. “Right. Nice one. Okay. Let’s talk the quiet job…” ––
Everything about the base was ramshackle, of course. Distressed brick and old timbers. It had been secured and shored up when the Service had taken possession, and was certified in a dozen different ways before Leather moved in. She’d bought it from the Service, of course, and then paid them maintenance fees so they’d take care of any problems.
The Steve’s office was an interior office. It smelled musty, thanks to the old, worn wooden floors. He could have had a window if he wanted one. He didn’t. Better no one saw in, particularly where the Steve was concerned.
The rest of the meeting had gone fine. They’d planned out a few things, discussed a few contingencies, told some jokes. The usual. The bagmen had gone to talk to Marco — all part of making sure Leather’s little plan was kosher with the Guild.
The Steve was paid out of the Guild cut, but he didn’t work for the Guild. No Steve did. They worked for the Service instead. The reason why was obvious; if they were going to be responsible for making the call after a job went south, they had to be answerable for it.
Of course, the obvious reason and the correct reason weren’t always the same thing, but then the Steve was used to blending in.
Which was another reason why the Steve liked his interior office, with his office desk facing the door, and his back to the corner. He didn’t want anyone looking over his shoulder at his screen. Not when he had work to do.
The Steve logged into the VPN. It actually used three factor authentication — fingerprint on the sensor, passphrase login, and certificate off a keyfob that looked like a plastic dinosaur. Any two would log someone into a system. All three were needed to log into the system.
The Steve checked his mail, did a few fast work tasks — you had to keep ahead of things, always — and registered their planned crimes. Leather would be doing the same, of course — she had to arrange for the escape routes, the fallback, the scanner, the drop points, the fences and so forth.
But the Steve’s job was to blend in the crowd and stay ignored, with a finger on the panic button and a clear view of the area. He was supposed to get there before the crook or henches showed up, give them the all-clear, signal if the cops or some cape or cowl came running, get away with the rest of the innocent bystanders when it was all over, and make the call if things went pear shaped. ‘The call’ was the call to the Service. They’d get the lawyers out and doing their jobs while an emergency containment team grabbed everything from the lair and shipped it out before reducing the place to ash. For any of that to happen properly, the Service needed to be ready and needed to know what to expect. Leather’s registration covered her needs. The Steve’s registration elaborated on the Service’s needs and their expectations. That’s why the Steve worked for the Service directly, instead of working through the Henches’ Guild like Marco or the bagmen.
Unofficially, the Steve had a lot bigger job to do, especially when things were unusual – and today was already about as unusual as the Steve could handle. He sent off a quiet communique to ‘Pat,’ his superior. Pat wasn’t that person’s name, of course, any more than the Steve was actually named Steve. The Steve didn’t need to know his superior’s name or anything else about him-her-or-other. That was how the Service worked – cell style, working remotely, and working anonymously. That way, even if a Steve turned State’s Evidence they couldn’t spill much. Beyond that, the system knew who the Steve was and which Pat was supposed to get his messages. Nothing else was needed.
A talk request popped up. The Pat. Of course.
The Steve opened the window.
“Azalea,” he typed.
“Formica,” the reply came back. So that cleared.
“What’ve you got?”
“Local has arranged to be interviewed by a national magazine,” the Steve typed.
“Running kidnapping sting, holding for week, paying daily bonus. Guild rep has accepted terms.”
There wasn’t an immediate answer. The Steve glanced over his mail, waiting for the ping of a response.
The ping pinged.
“Seriously?” the Pat wrote back.
“Yup. An inside and in-depth interview with Local. Think Esquire but not so top shelf. PR focused, not journo.”
“Okay, hold on.” The Pat closed connection.
The Steve went back to work. A number of requests had come in from different territories. One of the ways that the Service stayed decentralized was to spread the workload throughout the system. The Steve was the Pat for a number of other Steves around the country. It was even possible his Pat was also one of his Steves. All the Steves were trained to follow up on resource allocation and risk assessment, while forwarding problems up the line. If the Steve ever did get taken in — by the cops or DETAILS or the like — he’d have information on a few Crooks in other parts of the country (generally not even by name) and essentially no idea who any of his coworkers, superiors or subordinates were. Add to that the certain percentage of the workflow that was a blind – false traffic designed to add disinformation if the Steve got blown. He neither knew nor cared how anyone kept it all straight.
A talk request popped up. From ‘M.’
The Steve blinked. That… was new. He didn’t like new. He opened a talk request to the Pat.
The Pat answered almost immediately.
“Azalea,” the Pat sent.
“Formica,” the Steve responded.
“I just got pinged by ‘M.’ Do you know who that is?”
“Answer it. Do whatever they say. Bye.”
The window closed.
The Steve stared for a moment, then opened the window.
“Azalea,” he typed and sent.
“Fuck formica,” the answer came back, the window black with red text.
“We’re well past formica. Who the Hell does she think she is?”
The Steve flushed.
“Local’s plans have generally centered on increasing exposure,” he typed.
“Media and otherwise. It’s not surprising she wants to expand those efforts.”
“Oh yes. Fucking precious Leather and her fucking precious inferiority complex. Let me guess — she’s decided that she needs a Barbara Babcock to call her very own. We’re trying to make fucking money here.”
The Steve took a deep breath.
“Are you calling for Closure?” Closure was Service cant for ‘staking the Crook out for the police, then burning bridges.’ He was increasingly uncomfortable. Generally, people working through the Service’s VPN didn’t actually use villain names or codenames. That this ‘M’ felt not only comfortable doing so but clearly did so all the time suggested they were much, much higher up in the hierarchy of the Service. The Steve didn’t like attracting that kind of attention. No Steve did.
“It’s tempting. It really is. And good on you for bringing it up. A lot wouldn’t have the balls. But I need more before I decide that. This might be brilliant. It might be stupid. She has a few admirers. She did group for Anchor and she apprenticed under Beguile. Both like her. I don’t need Anchor and Beguile on my ass.”
The Steve bit his lip. The Anchor was the best known nemesis of the Ancient Mariner. Beguile was a dangerous sorceress and illusionist best known for fighting Paragon. Both were first tier arch-villains. The namedropping bothered him. It broke all the rules. It broke the routine.
The Steve liked routine. All Steves did, really. It was part of the job. Breaking the routine meant disruption. It meant being noticed. And Steves weren’t Steves because they wanted to be noticed.
There was another ping. M had sent another message. The Steve looked.
“What do ∗you∗ think of Leather?”
The Steve paused. The asterisks looked strange to him. Like there was no place for them in a business message. But there they were.
Was this Leather? Was Leather ‘M,’ and was she somehow—
No. No, he’d had this gig for eighteen months, and Leather was good at following the security protocols she’d been taught by the Service and Support, surfing the web without getting riddled with adware and viruses, and running a spreadsheet. When she needed hacking she contracted out.
What did the Steve think of Leather? Why did it matter?
Slowly, he began typing.
“Local is a moderate to good rainmaker. Medium risk. Pleasant environment. Good with employee relations. Has ambition but not unreasonable. I have no current need to change assignments.”
The Steve pressed return, still frowning. In the background, he heard the bagmen laughing out in the rec room.
“I’m glad to hear you don’t want a different assignment, since I wasn’t offering you one. Do you fancy her?”
The Steve’s mouth dropped open. What in…
The Steve started typing again.
“I don’t ‘fancy’ anyone here.”
“No, I don’t suppose you do. God, it must be nice. All right. I’m looking over her registered work for the week. The second job’s quiet. Let Marco and Leather know you’ll need a secondary that night and put in for it via the Pat.”
The Steve cocked his head. A ‘secondary’ was a day player Steve. The Steve had to keep lookout while blending in. Sometimes you couldn’t do that solo. He’d used them before, of course. Still, night two was a warehouse raid — electronics place they were going to clean out. It was a moneymaker. The Steve’d thought to ape being intoxicated and therefore ‘sleeping it off’ in his car rather than risk drunk driving if anyone asked. He frowned, but began typing anyway.
“All right. What’s the secondary supposed to be?”
The message pinged back quite quickly.
“What else? Female presenting. A couple making out in a parking lot.”
The Steve flushed, frowning.
“That’s not really how I prefer to do these things.” The Steve hit return, then wondered if he should be talking back to someone with this kind of authority… whatever kind of authority this was.
“That’s what I assumed,” the message came back.
“Think it through. You want the reporter to get the gist of what a Steve does while hiding your standard MO. You’re welcome.”
The Steve’s mouth dropped open, a knot in his stomach blending with anger. Who the Hell was this? He clenched his hands—
What was there to be done about this? He couldn’t walk off the job with no notice – that led to a shallow grave at best – and it’s not like he could register a complaint with anyone. Who would he complain to? Who would he complain about? ‘M?’ Who even was that?
“Understood,” he typed, finally.
“Yes. Cooperate with the reporter, but don’t forget your job.”
The Steve took another deep breath, trying to get his anger under control.
“Understood,” he typed again. He never forgot his job. The job Leather had contracted for… and the job he actually got paid to do.