So, Leather’s just wrong?”
“Mm.” He leaned back. “She’s wrong headed. In a number of ways, really, but I’m thinking of a specific kind of thing, here. We don’t need villains to be heroes… but some villains like her? They need us to need them.”
“It’s how she sleeps at night. She wants to steal anything she likes without any consequences for it. She wants a certain standard of living, she wants to make the evening news, and she wants someone else to give it to her whether they like it or not. But… she pretends to have a conscience. Not to you or me, mind. She’s deceiving herself. She knows that she should feel guilty unless she can find some justification. And what better justification than literally making heroes possible? If she decides she’s enabling heros to be heroic, then she can satisfy that fake conscience. Heroes inspire people and save lives but only so long as villains like her make heroes possible in the first place. Having settled that, she can go out and steal anything she wants and still sleep like a baby.” He shook his head. “That ‘help?’ I do not need, did not ask for, and vehemently oppose. Is that unambiguous enough for your purposes, Mister Chapman?”
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 was brought to the ‘blow-off’ — the fight between Leather and the hero Darkhood that the villain had been preparing for the whole week. The two were well matched, but after being electrocuted Leather accidentally kicked Darkhood too hard, endangering the hero’s life. When it looked like Darkhood was going to be okay, Leather and her henches left, leaving the bank money behind and leaving Todd Chapman behind with it.
Leather was long gone before noon. I couldn’t exactly say the same. For one thing, it’s actually pretty hard for a police department to distinguish between a former hostage and a co-conspirator. In my case, the best evidence I had was the collar.
Oh, right. The collar. That deserves an explanation.
It was a couple of hours into my ‘cooperation with the investigation.’ Now, before we’d begun they’d cut the collar off me right at the start, and there had been another electrical jolt but no explosion. We’d moved onto other things until Detective Inspector Harris came back into the room, sat down, and dropped the collar on the table. “Yeah, it’s safe,” he said. “There’s a mike and transmitter, of course. Otherwise, there’s a couple of wires looping around it, but they just lead from a watch battery to a little capacitor. As near as we can tell, it’s designed to give the wearer a tiny jolt when it’s first put on. So they think it’s… I dunno, active.”
I noticed the cap that had what Leather and Marco called the ‘blow jelly’ under it was off. “You found the gel?” I asked. “The one I told you about?”
Harris smiled slightly. “Oh yeah. We found it.”
“So… it wasn’t anything… dangerous?”
“Well, it could certainly have been turned to illegal purpose.”
“Sure.” He grinned more. “See, if you spread it over your favorite newspaper comics, it would capture the image and lift it off. That’s copyright infringement. There’s laws against copyright infringement, Mister Chapman.”
I closed my eyes. “Silly Putty. They put a collar with a watch battery and Silly Putty around my neck. I must look like the biggest idiot you’ve ever seen in here.”
Harris chuckled. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. If it were me, I’d have done the same thing. I mean, how are you going to test a bomb around your neck? Set it off?”
“Yeah, okay.” I took a deep breath. It had been a long afternoon. The police had mostly finished debriefing me and were at least moderately sure I wasn’t working with Leather. It hadn’t helped my case that apparently Kyle hadn’t told them I had been kidnapped — and why should he? He knew I’d be gone a week. He just didn’t tell me.
But they established to their own satisfaction that yes, indeed, I had spent the last several days as a prisoner of a supervillain. And, in the process, I spilled my guts on everything I saw there.
And maybe that seems weird to you. I mean, there’s a way in which Leather, Marco, the bagmen — even the Steve had been almost friends. I admit – there would be things I missed about them, too. Not the beating, of course, but things.
In the end, the beating was kind of the point. I wasn’t a henchman or a villain. I was a reporter, and I didn’t have any sources to protect. I was interviewing them, and the whole week had been on the record. I mean… they knew I was going to write it all down and publish it in a magazine anyway, right?
So, there was no reason not to spill everything I possibly could. It would be dumb to do anything else.
The police had me checked out at a hospital before I was debriefed. My beating had left some marks and some pain, but there was no sign of lasting trauma. It didn’t take long for me to be released to some very nice policemen who asked me some very nice questions and I sang like a bird. I even handed my notes over. Well, technically I gave them a copy of my notes. I wasn’t about to come out of all that empty handed, after all, but they had no problem with that.
Around mid-afternoon they decided to head out to the lair. Harris grinned when he told me. “You want to come along? They’ve already been checking things out but you might have some other insights.”
I shrugged. “Sure. Whatever you need.”
“Great. There’s someone you should meet, anyway.”
And that’s how I ended up sitting in the back of a police van directly opposite Darkhood himself.
Darkhood is generally serious. He’s a solid looking man though he clearly wears a certain amount of body armor – it has a kind of ‘medieval doublet’ look in dark grays and blacks including heavy hooded cloak as you might imagine. That it ends up looking bulky but maneuverable probably underscores just how modern it probably was. His face is completely covered by some kind of armored mask with dark fabric over it. The glowing yellow eyes set into the mask aren’t meant to look particularly happy, and lenses or not and you get the feeling he’s always keeping his eyes open and staring right through you. At the same time, he seems to notice everything. Which, I suppose, just makes sense.
I suppose they left me alone with him so he could glean any information off me I had neglected to tell the cops. But, you know… I’m a journalist, doing a story on a supervillain called Leather. And here I had someone on the other side, who’d just had a knock down drag out fight with her. Like I was going to miss a chance like this.
“You okay?” I asked him.
“Hm?” That piercing gaze flicked to me.
“I saw the fight. That was a pretty brutal kick.”
I heard him chuckle – he had a voice distorter like I thought, but it was really good at keeping his speech clear even when he was being quiet. “Body armor took the brunt. I ragdolled to absorb some of the rest. I’ll be sore for a while, and I thought my arms would pull out of their sockets when the line went taut.”
“I was wondering about the line. You know, if it was a bungie thing or—”
“Composite cord,” he said. “Some give but not much. I made the anchor shot and tried my best to turn it into a swing. It didn’t quite work out. Instead I hit the bottom of the overpass and got hooked up and slammed into the underside. Hell of a jolt on my arms and a pretty hard smack, but nowhere near as bad as hitting the tarmac would have been. As it was, I was lucky. If I’d gotten the shot off a half-second later I’d have hit the ground on the initial swing.” He shrugged. “Not the most fun I’ve ever had.”
I nodded, feeling a little tired. “So Leather won?”
“How do you figure?”
“She got away.”
He shrugged again. “Her men were carrying close to seven million dollars in those bags. This is one of BankOne’s central distribution hubs, so her goons had access to the vault and a lot of packaged hundred dollar bills. They left all that money behind. They left the Mountbatten Urn behind. No civilians were hurt, the bank guards were thankfully just shaken up, and even the cops didn’t have more than bruises and one broken nose. The worst they had to deal with in the long run was tipping the PATER van back on its wheels, and the thing’s so top-heavy by now they’re used to that.” He leaned back. “Would I have rather captured her? Yes. But whether I did or not it was still a good day’s work.”
I nodded. “I get all that. I mean, I really do. But… you have to know… I mean, this was the blow-off.”
Darkhead peered at me. Somehow, I knew he’d arched an eyebrow. How he managed that through the mask is beyond me. Still, he didn’t say anything. He just waited.
I flushed a bit, feeling weird. “She was there for publicity. She didn’t really expect to get the money. I mean, she was going to take it, but the real reason she was there—”
“She was there to fight me,” Darkhood finished for me. “Publicly. Ending out her tour with the big slugfest.”
I looked away, slightly uncomfortable. “She says that you guys… you heroes need villains.”
He snorted. “I’m sure she does.”
“Seriously. I think she’s a fan more than anything. She says that without villains you guys would look silly. You’d be a joke. She says—”
“Paragon and the Nightwatch both started their careers before there were any costumed villains. The Lieutenant had been fighting gangsters, commandos, and mercenaries for months before meeting Blackmask. And as for me?” He shook his head. “Six nights out of seven — no, twenty nine days out of thirty I don’t see anyone in a costume. Sometimes more. I see thieves and toughs and gangs and drug pushers. And you honestly think I’d stop doing what I do just because villains stopped showing up?” He snorted again. “You interview celebrities, right?”
I shrugged. “I work in entertainment journalism.”
“You ever interview a comedian?”
“What did they think of hecklers?”
“Generally? They hate their guts.”
“Because comedians spend weeks, months or even years refining and fine tuning an act, only some drunk in the back of the room screws with it.”
“That’s right.” He leaned back against the van jump-seat, looking at me. “You talk to a good number of those hecklers? They think they’re helping. They really do. And because the comedian’s good at what he does he makes their ‘help’ funny. But that doesn’t mean he likes them, and that doesn’t mean his act depends on them. In the end the hecklers are just deluded. They want to be the center of attention, and they justify crappy, selfish behavior by claiming it helps.”
“Huh.” We rode quietly for about thirty seconds. “So it wouldn’t bother you if all the villains disappeared tomorrow?”
“Bother me? I’d throw a party.”
“Really. I mean, think about it, Mister Chapman. Let’s say that she was right, and that I’d feel… what was it? Silly? Silly showing up in costume if there were no costumed villains.” He looked at me. “So we reduce crime. We protect lives and civilians, and we get parahuman criminals out of the equation. And the only price is my embarrassment? You think I wouldn’t take that deal in a second?”
I chuckled a little ruefully. “I guess you would. So, Leather’s just wrong?”
“Mm.” He leaned back. “She’s wrong headed. In a number of ways, really, but I’m thinking of a specific kind of thing, here. We don’t need villains to be heroes… but some villains like her? They need us to need them.”
“It’s how she sleeps at night. She wants to steal anything she likes without any consequences for it. She wants a certain standard of living. She wants to make the evening news, and she wants someone else to pay for it whether they like it or not. But… she pretends to have a conscience. She’s not trying to fool you or me, mind. She’s deceiving herself. She knows that she should feel guilty unless she can find some justification. And what better justification than literally making heroes possible? If she decides she’s enabling heros to be heroic, then she can satisfy her fake conscience. Heroes inspire people and save lives but only so long as villains like her make heroes possible in the first place. Having settled that, she can go out and steal anything she wants and still sleep like a baby.” He shook his head. “That ‘help?’ I do not need, did not ask for, and vehemently oppose. Is that unambiguous enough for your purposes, Mister Chapman?”
I nodded slowly. “Seems like it.” I took another breath. “So it’s safe to say you don’t like her?”
“What do you think?”
“She likes you.”
He shrugged. “Her brand of ‘like’ includes aggravated assault and attempted murder.”
I frowned. “I don’t think she meant to injure or kill you with that kick. She got—”
Darkhood laughed. “I don’t care what she meant to do, Mister Chapman. She used lethal force in our fight, and it came damn close to either crippling or killing me. And no matter how carefully she took the police or bank guards down, accidents happen all the time, and an accident that involves getting hit by someone who can throw a motorcycle at a truck means someone’s going to die.” He looked at me. “Let me guess. You tagged her as one of the safe ones.”
I looked away. “I got my ass kicked while I was there. And sometimes she scared the Hell out of me. I don’t think she’s safe at all.”
“All right. Let me rephrase. Villain or not, you figure she doesn’t actually want to really hurt anybody, right?”
I paused, thinking about it. “Obviously she subdues any guards or police she runs into, not to mention heroes like you, but… as far as civilians or the public goes… she isn’t really hurting anybody, is she? She doesn’t kill. She doesn’t attack bystanders. She just… steals things.”
“Heh. Just.” Darkhood looked away. “She stole nearly a million dollars in jewelry at the beginning of the week. That means the corporation that owned that store has to make a major insurance claim. Someone still has to pay for what she took, Mister Chapman. And that means their rates go up even before they fix their building. That’s a different insurance claim. Of course, even that assumes the company bothers to rebuild. They might just wash their hands of it and close the location, firing all the workers in the process. You saying that doesn’t hurt?”
I flushed. “Yeah, but—”
“Or even better – she robbed First Electronics out on 40th. It was a good target, because their warehouse is built into the same building as their sales floor and they have four satellite stores elsewhere in Rhode Island getting fed out of that same warehouse. And even if we ignore all the computers or televisions or T-Sound players they stole, she stole over five hundred video game consoles eleven days before their actual street date.”
“So? How’s that worse than stealing laptops.”
“So? So?” Darkhood laughed, slightly bitterly. “Mister Chapman, all those consoles were preordered by individual people – limit one to a customer. Some of those people? They were speculators. They put together the money and lucked out on the preorder, so when release day comes and the consoles sell out across the country they can flip them for three or four times their worth. That’s significant cash for a lot of people, Chapman – cash they counted on that they’re not going to get. And that’s just the beginning!”
“I – I understand that–”
“Another big block of those consoles? Preordered by honest to God hardcore gamers. Gamers who have reputations to uphold or who just love to play that much. They’ve wanted this thing since the day it was announced, and they were going to get to be some of the very first in the world! But not now. So sorry. And worse than that?” Darkhood leaned forward, yellow glowing eyes burning right into my soul. “Some of those were preordered by kids, Mister Chapman. Kids who begged their parents. Kids who were so excited to get an actual preorder locked in, meaning they were guaranteed one of those things on launch day.” He snorted. “Doesn’t hurt anybody. Leather stole who knows how many eleven year old kids’ birthday presents, Chapman! Kids have been excited over this for months and months and she yanked them right out of their hands. Do you think store refunds or a promise to get one of the second wave when it comes out in a month or two will make any difference at all to those kids? What makes up for that?”
I didn’t answer. I felt two inches tall.
Darkhood pressed on. “In the end, Leather doesn’t care what her crimes do to other people, Mister Chapman. She takes what she wants and she makes other people pay for it. No, I don’t like her. I’m glad she’s not a killer. I’m glad she clearly tries – tries – to protect civilians. But she isn’t nice and none of changes anything. Her line of work intentionally hurts innocent people.”
“So you fight her,” I said, quietly. “And you drive her off. Or maybe you even put her in jail. But you know she’s either going to get away or break out. You know she makes a pretty good living. You know she had already made her financial goals before you even saw her today. You know all of that. So how do you keep doing it?”
He looked at me. “Someone has to,” he said, quietly.
It was my turn to snort.
“That’s not an answer. It’s an aphorism. It’s what you say to shut people up. But you don’t have to. Especially not in Meridian City.”
“Meaning this is Vortex’s town. She’s high powered. Tier two. You’re always going to be in her shadow. Second fiddle at best.” I thought back to my conversation with Leather on the subject. “No matter how good you get, you’re going to be high school varsity and she’s going to be the major leagues.”
“And?” Darkhood didn’t seem surprised or bothered by anything I’d said.
I shrugged. “How do you put up with it? Put up with getting page fourteen instead of page one? Put up with her getting the glory all week? Put up with—”
“Good Lord, you make it sound so petty,” he said. “I don’t put up with Vortex. I thank the Good Lord Jesus she’s here every day she can be, and when she has to be away I bust my butt trying to cover for her. When she’s here, she can handle high powered threats or city-wide dangers as they come up, and that lets me focus on the street crime she wouldn’t have time to cover. For that matter, I can call her when I get in over my head. Why wouldn’t I be grateful.” Darkhood sat back up. “Do you think just because Vortex can warp a street gang into Meridian Bay I feel bad about taking them down with stunners and net-arrows?”
I looked at the hero. “No,” I said. “No, I guess I don’t think that.”
“Good. You shouldn’t.” He looked to the front of the van. “We’re almost there?”
We rode for a few moments.
“I wish she’d been around today,” he said quietly.
“Because alone I stopped the bank heist. With Vortex, we’d have taken them all in.” He chuckled. “Hell, Vortex could have taken Leather all by herself with one hand behind her back. I could have concentrated on taking her henchmen down and safeguarding the cops and civilians.”
“Do you feel guilty for letting Leather get away?”
“Not really.” He continued watching the road ahead. “I did what I could. If I hadn’t been there, she’d have gotten seven times the payday than all the rest of her crimes put together. She didn’t. And beyond all that, I got the Mountbatten Urn back and freed this one hostage she kidnapped earlier this week. I’m not going to beat myself up because she got away this time.” He looked at me. “But I wish Vortex had been here, because then Leather wouldn’t have gotten away. And next time? Vortex or not? She won’t.”
And looking in those yellow eyes? I believed him.
Seeing what was left of Leather’s lair was almost shocking. The Service apparently wasn’t content to strip it clean. They wanted to be sure it wouldn’t contain clues, so they absolutely burned the old lighthouse and station to the ground.
“This whole area is still smoking,” Inspector Harris said, looking around after getting out of his car. There was yellow tape everywhere, a dozen cop cars or more, PATER units off to the side… it was like they were making up for lost time through sheer manpower. “Do we have the MCFD on their way?”
“Yeah!” One of the crime scene investigators called back. “But we need to finish tagging the place before we spray it down! Keep an eye on the edge of the smolder-zone!”
“Good luck with that,” Darkhood muttered.
“You don’t think they’ll find something?”
Darkhood shook his head. “Villains have these agencies they retain for work like this. They’re very good at eliminating evidence. Those guys won’t find anything.”
I looked at the chunks of smoldering brick. “What could do this? A bomb?”
“More likely they lined the roof of this place with thermite or something a lot like it and set it off. Let it burn down through all the floors and scour everything clean. If you’re in that much of a hurry and want to scour a place clean, it’s hard to be more efficient than that.”
“So you know about the Service?”
“Why don’t you shut it down? Or the Henchmens’ Guild. Or Transport Services?”
“It’s not that easy,” he said. “Those agencies work cell style. Every link in the chain at most knows two or three other links. Word gets passed around so people know where to show up and what they have to do when they get there, but they’re usually not told any specifics and they don’t hear anything about coworkers even on the same job. And because everyone gets paid really well they don’t have a good reason to rat out what they do know.” He knelt, picking up a bit of scorched dirt between his gloved thumb and forefinger. “Besides, the penalties for squealing are nasty. It’s at least as hard as cracking the Mafia. At least the Mafia’s actually committing the crimes, right? Trafficking all kinds of things, running the rackets. The villain agencies don’t look like they’re committing crimes. Yeah, their teamsters are aiding and abetting, but from the outside how do you tell the difference between an eighteen wheeler hauling fruit and an eighteen wheeler hauling some kind of energy ballista? And with everything broken down into boxes or packed up, even a search looks perfectly normal at first glance – and why would anyone take a second glance?”
“I suppose.” I grabbed a couple of pictures of the burn site. It still blew my mind that the lair was just… gone.
“Sometimes we get lucky,” Darkhood was saying. “I know the Lieutenant did serious harm to the Mid-Atlantic organization a couple years back. But they always close ranks and get things back running. And honestly, sometimes having the agencies around helps us out.”
“Sure. I know one or two heroes who’ve infiltrated one of their local branches,” Darkhood said. “That lets them keep their ear to the ground and either report it up the line to others or take steps themselves when they learn a villain’s touring into their city. Be proactive instead of reactive.” He shrugged. “But things are usually more complicated than they appear.”
“Do heroes have anything like those services?”
“Not really. There’s a few covert organizations that gather intel and pass it on to us, though it’s hard to be sure they’re really on our side.” He chuckled. “Okay, DETAILS is usually a safe bet, though I worry about them sometimes. Police are vital to what we do, but not all police are on our side. Not even all PATER units. And sure, Justice Wing’s arranged a few things, and since the Apocalypse Agenda and the big reorganization that’s improved. Medical assistance, for example. Or other stuff – I know of one hero who had his identity made, and Justice Wing got him and his wife into something like the witness protection program. And we all help each other out when we can.” He chuckled again. “But it’s not quite the same, is it?”
“Not really, no. It seems unfair. You should have at least as good a support structure as the villains.”
“We’re talking apples and oranges. They’re for-profit and big business. Of course they need infrastructure. Guys like me? We volunteer. It’s a very different setup.”
“Right.” I looked to the side. “Looks like the service left my car.”
“Yup. Want to go check it out with me?”
“Shouldn’t we avoid touching it?”
“Probably.” Darkhood walked over to my Hyundai. After a moment, I followed.
It was still in bad shape, of course. The hood was still crushed. The windshield was was still just so much broken glass, and the truck wheel well was still sitting in my front seat area.
“Leather did this?” Darkhood asked.
“Heh. Yeah. No victims, right?”
I flushed. “I didn’t… I wasn’t counting that. I mean, counting myself.”
“I’d think you’d be at the top of your personal list,” His glowing yellow eyes seemed to narrow. “You have a letter.”
I blinked. “What?” I walked over and leaned to get a better look.
Darkhood was right. There was a nice, clean envelope sitting on the driver’s seat, amid the broken glass and moldy water that had soaked into the upholstery over the past week. My name was on a laser printed label on the front.
“That’s new,” I said. “Should we get the cops over here? Forensics and all that?”
“This isn’t a murder case,” Darkhood said. “They’re investigating but no one expects to find some hint of where Leather went.”
“Unless that’s a hint?”
“Unless indeed.” He opened the door and picked the envelope up. It wasn’t sealed on the back so he lifted the flap and looked inside.
“What is it?” I asked.
He chuckled. “You don’t know?”
“I have no clue.”
“Interesting. It’s a cashier’s check for fifty thousand dollars. Made out to you.”
I blinked. “What?”
“You heard me.” He glanced at the seat. “There seems to be a message for you, too.
I looked. He was right. It was written in sharpie, and had been covered by the envelope.
“PROMISE ME YOU’LL GET A BETTER CAR NEXT TIME!” it read, with a little heart after it.
“We… need to tell the cops,” I said. “That’s stolen money.”
“Yes we do,” Darkhood agreed. He was smirking. I don’t know how I knew he was smirking in that faceplate of his, but I knew it, all right.
“…it’s not like that. She probably felt guilty about wrecking my car at the beginning of the week.”
“I’m sure she did, Casanova.” Darkhood said, walking back towards the police. “Come on, let’s get this turned in.”