“I noticed you were… protective of Trey, out there. Wary to save face for her, concerned that she might get in trouble or endure the agony Jack shackled her with far more completely than that wristband?”
“Well… yeah. I guess I am.”
“Mm.” Lady Velvet turned and looked at me. “Mister Chapman? I have to believe you’re far too smart to be this much of an idiot, so I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.”
So. June. June was not good to me. But… here we are. Trey #23. We endure.
One of the first third tier villains I interviewed for Low Society was a woman called Multiplette. As her name implied, Multiplette could subdivide into multiple selves — actually, ‘subdivide’ probably isn’t the right word. She could double herself by powers of two, and she could let half her divided selves go poof at a time. So the one Multiplette could become two, they could become four, those four could become eight, and so on up to sixteen comfortably and thirty-two if she pushed it. She was one of the most successful third tiers on the same kind of touring schedule that Leather was on, in part because Multiplette could be her own henches. She had crosstrained extensively for combat, thievery, support and overwatch, wheel… she used a Steve, but that Steve typically played pinochle with Multiplette back at her temporary lair rather than go out into the field — if the one body Multiplette left at home went ‘poof,’ the Steve would make the call. Otherwise, no matter what happened Multiplette could get away as simply as poofing herself back down to that last body in her lair.
She was interesting, in part, because she kind of had it all. She was absolutely stunning — when she duplicated, all her bodies including her original became energy, and completely without realizing it she ‘nudged’ her appearance until she looked the way she always wanted to look, and even when she poofed back down into flesh those ‘upgrades’ stayed. Beyond that, she was devastatingly intelligent, difficult to catch, difficult to actually hurt (enough damage to hurt Multiplette causes one-half her current bodies to ‘pop’ like soap bubbles), and better coordinated than Seal Team Six because she had one mind running all those bodies at once.
I’d interviewed a few third and fourth tiers before Multiplette reached out to me. Ironically, it was Leather who arranged it on Multiplette’s behalf — ironic because Leather and Multiplette are professional rivals. They knew each other from Anchor’s Marines, back when Leather herself was fourth tier. Of course, Multiplette was furious that Leather was getting all that attention. After all, she’d been in the game a good three or four years longer, and didn’t see how ‘that bloody contortionist’ managed to pass her by.
Still, I enjoyed that interview quite a bit — in part because Multiplette could always keep one of her selves ‘assigned.’ When she was on jobs, her local self kept me and her Steve appraised of how the job was going and otherwise we pretty much hung out. It was kind of nice not getting locked up in whatever cell, holding facility, or bedroom a given crook used for prisoners. Even the ‘slumber party’ I always ended up having with a crook was just a nightly thing because it was easier to have one of her selves crash in my room, lying on a twin bed in front of the door. It was like we were at camp.
One of those nights I asked her if she had any role models. She got thoughtful. “Yeah,” she said. “Lady Velvet.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, really. What, I’m gonna lie?” She grinned.
“I don’t mean that — was this after she crossed the aisle?”
Multiplette giggled. “Chapman, I know Leather talked up her hero days and took you running across rooftops. But believe it or not, some of us went villain on day one. I never had any interest in being a hero, and a few years working as a font designer at a horrible type foundry was enough to sour me on ‘legitimate work.’ The day I hit secondary parahuman expression? It was crime time.” She shook her head, smiling. “And Lady Velvet… she was everything I wanted to be. Sexy, but not hardbodied or pneumatic — she had real curves. You may have noticed — my powers may have let me tweak my body to my liking, but I’m still a size sixteen.” She grinned, a little wickedly. “And when I say you may have noticed… I mean I noticed you noticing.”
“Well, I’m hardly dead,” I said, grinning.
“Yeah, but the night’s still young.” She laughed again. “Obviously I could have been six-two and a match for Freya from back in the day, or I could have Thunder Lass’s figure, or any number of things. But they don’t feel right to me. That’s not who I am. And there’s Lady Velvet, and she was the hottest crook from Emergence to the day everything went to Hell, and she looked like I wanted to look.It gave me… confidence, I guess. I could be attractive being the me I saw in my head. I didn’t have to meet anyone else’s standards. Plus, she was a master villain and her alchemy was amazing. And she was saucy to boot. Back then, before Nightstick lost his damn mind and Greystone was actually getting better — they were the original, archetypical hero/villain OTP. Even if they never did anything, everyone knew the air practically caught fire between them.” She laughed again. “Why wouldn’t I want that? And when I got to have something like it, I went all in.”
Multiplette smiled almost winsomely as she continued. “Silly little junior petite Leather couldn’t be a super hero when she clearly wanted to be, because everyone saw her and thought ‘sidekick.’ And for all I bag on her, she doesn’t deserve that. She’s hot. You know. In a ‘not as hot as I am’ sort of way. Well, the same misogynistic assholes who mocked ‘Dynamo Girl’ would have mocked me too, except on day one there was Lady Velvet, and that was that. Villains got to be curvy. Besides, these days they say Lady Velvet’s a hero, but she’s still the same old Lady Velvet. Think about that for a minute. Who else could pull that off? Beguile? Damn right Lady Velvet’s my idol.”
That started something of a trend. The role model question became one of my standards, and there was an interesting range of responses… but a lot of villains picked Lady Velvet, often for the same reasons Multiplette did. Lady Velvet epitomized living life on her own terms without apologizing for it.
Which, thinking about it, was true of the Buzzard as well.
One reason the Lady Velvet hit pop culture so hard and so fast was timing. She was one of the very first full on self-identified supervillains, in part because she’d spent her life preparing to be a villain whether she knew it or not. She didn’t see Paragon, Freya, or Nightstick and want in. She’d been a part of that world for years. Heck, a lot of villains change their civilian names to reflect their super-lifestyle, but Lady Velvet was born ‘Elle Chemical.’ Alchemy had been a family tradition and generations back pun-names had become a tradition as well. Elle Chemical’s father was Albert Chemical. His father was Allen Chemical. his father was Elton Chemical, and going further back you find an Alfred Chemical, an Alicyn Chemical, an Elias Chemical, and you get the point. I don’t know who first changed their name way back when, but at this point this was just who they were.
Not everyone loves the Lady Velvet, of course. There’s a spirited debate over her seductive vamp routine — does it reinforce traditional gender roles and the male gaze, or was it a transgressive means of seizing agency and living her life on her own terms? The Lady Velvet herself declined comment, which is another way of saying she didn’t much care what they — any ‘they’ — said about her.
And these days she had all the right in the world to ignore them. After years and years of building up her reputation, fortune, and organization into one that rivaled the Buzzard’s syndicate, the Jack’s gang, or the Cipher’s lodge, Lady Velvet didn’t hesitate to come to Greystone’s aid when the disaster hit and the Jack O’Knaves began the Apocalypse Agenda a little early.
We’ve talked about the Fall of Greystone, of course. There’s some debate whether the Jack’s night of horrors was a prologue to the Apocalypse Agenda or was its first, tragic manifestation. Either way, it was the Jack O’Knaves’s original masterwork: the construction of a nuclear weapon over the course of years in plain sight in a Greystone park. While he did that, he’d been building the tools to undercut or destroy all the mechanisms of law and order in the city in a single coordinated assault. When he pulled the trigger on his plan — literally, since he brainwashed the original Counterpoint into murdering the Debutante on the steps of the Greystone Police Department while she was shouting warnings about the Jack and begging for police protection — it left a city in chaos, with every emergency service or first responder paralyzed.
When that happened, and it became clear just what a nightmare Greystone had entered, even the Jack’s fellow Dark Gods stepped in to oppose him. The Buzzard’s syndicate took over policing the streets and even fighting fires. The Cipher and his Lodge took up residence in the Police Commissioner’s office, decoding the Jack’s intentions and finding patterns before they broke. And Lady Velvet turned herself and her villainous entourage in, under the explicit condition that they could help set up medical services and turn Lady Velvet’s alchemical mastery to saving lives instead of robbing jewelry stores.
In the end, the Jack was foiled, but at terrible cost — both to the city, and to its protectors. Nightstick’s third protege — the third young Cudgel — died in the final battle against the Jack. Another of Nightstick’s proteges — the bubbly, laughing tech-girl called Shillelagh — was killed when she and her fellow Guardians of Actuality saved the entire multiverse. And when the dust settled, a shell shocked nation offered complete and full pardons to the three Dark Gods who stepped up to save Greystone when the Jack was hell bent on destroying it.
The Cipher took the deal and went into a retirement that didn’t end well, according to the Buzzard at least. The Buzzard himself gleefully thanked the government, but declined ‘on principle,’ disappearing into the underworld… while his syndicate refused to let go of their stranglehold on Greystone’s streets.
And the Lady Velvet? Kept being the Lady Velvet, but at that point she was more a pop culture icon than a villain. It’s like Multiplette and the others said: Clinton Potipher crossed the aisle in an effort to redeem himself, then retired. Elle Chemical? Found there was more success in playing off her reputation and notoriety than committing crimes. Lady Velvet didn’t change. Society did.
All that surged through my brain as I stared at the vision before me. Her hair was that iridescent purple that became one of her trademarks along the way. Her eyes glittered purple as well, behind those stylized purple catseye glasses she wore, which somehow just just made the overall effect stronger. Her lipstick was artfully applied — also purple, but a complimentary shade instead of the same one. Darker, with expert edging along the lip-line. And her head canted to one side, clearly amused, as she stared at me and Trey. “My my my. I heard you were never speechless, dahling.”
I flushed. Just a normal blush, this time, so hopefully whatever Lady Violet’s kiss had done to me had mostly worn off. “…I can’t imagine being flippant right now,” I said. “It’s… it’s an honor to meet you.”
“It really is,” Lady Velvet said with a smirk. She looked at Trey, and her face softened a bit. “Trey. You look magnificent. How are you feeling?”
When she was at her best, Trey was insecure and jealous of other women. I remembered how she reacted to Beguile, and of course she and her fellow Hearts were always at war with each other for the Jack’s attention. I could see the same thing now, but Trey managed to bow slightly, head inclined. “Thank you, la Comtesse Velours. I’m fine. I’m glad to see you again.” It wasn’t quite humility, but it lacked the veiled insults Trey usually used like punctuation.
But it was Lady Velvet that was surprising me. Her concern for Trey seemed genuine. She nodded to the Heart. “Of course it is, Trey. But thank you.” She smiled. “I need to speak to your charge alone, please.”
Trey paused. I glanced at her, and she glanced back. I don’t think either of us knew what the range on her manacle or my transmitter were. Leaving the room might trigger the agony the Jack was using as ‘negative reinforcement.’
I looked back at Lady Velvet. “The Jack made it clear to Trey she had to stay with me and look after me,” I said, carefully. “It’s probably not particularly safe or healthy for me to make that difficult for her.”
Lady Velvet smiled broadly then — I admit, that smile made my pulse quicken a bit. “In other words, Dear Old Jack strapped a Star Trek agonizer to her wrist and it’s set to go off if the signal gets blocked or you get too far away from her.” She laughed. “Oh yes, I know about that. That’s why we’re meeting here.” She nodded back behind her, over her shoulder — this was a piano practice room, and behind her was a glass soundproof booth with an upright piano in it. I hadn’t noticed because did I mention Lady Velvet was in the room? “We’re going to step in there. You can have a seat out here, Trey — well within range of Mister Chapman’s transmitter.”
Trey looked at Lady Velvet for a long moment. She looked relieved and angry simultaneously, but she still nodded and bowed the same way as she’d done before. “Thank you for your consideration, la Comtesse Velours.”
“Of course, of course. Mister Chapman?” Lady Velvet offered her arm for me to take, which is kind of ridiculous giving that we were going to walk maybe eight feet? But… there’s something about Lady Velvet. When she makes a move like that, she makes it seem like the only civilized thing to do.
So I took her arm and escorted her into the soundproof booth. Up close, I could smell her… perfume? Is that even the word? I remember thinking how different it was from the Lady Violet’s. Less musky and intense. More subtle and suggestive. It’s not that it had less of an effect on me — as near as I could tell, anyhow — but whatever effect it had was far less overt. With the Lady Velvet, her alchemical scents clearly worked gentle and subliminally. With the Lady Violet, they were like a sledgehammer to the senses.
Lady Velvet smiled coyly. “The door, if you wouldn’t mind?”
“Of course,” I murmured, turning back and shutting the door. Through the glass I could see Trey, pointedly sitting back-to us. That surprised me a little, since normally she’d be watching me like a hawk.
But then… Lady Velvet was one of the first of the Jack’s associates to actually treat her like a person. If Trey were almost anyone else, I’d think she’d appreciate that — maybe even feel charitably towards the alchemical siren.
But Trey? For all I knew she was offended to her core. Honestly, at this point I was certain I didn’t really know or understand her at all.
“Excellent,” the Lady Velvet said. “Now, dahling? Do step back away from the door, if you would be so kind?”
I blinked and took five or six paces back.
The Lady Velvet slipped out two capsules, which she struck together before throwing her hands up in the air, creating tendrils of purple smoke and golden light which snaked out like those old black snake fireworks pellets you could buy — the ones you’d set on fire and watch as a snakelike ash spread out, curling and twisting as it went.
In her case, the purple ‘snakes’ spread out over the glass wall and door, then seemed to spread out, before shimmering and filling in like a layer over the glass, until finally a slightly shimmering purple wall was all that was left.
It was an impressive trick, but I had to wonder how Trey would react to finding out she couldn’t see us any more than she could hear us.
Still, I was impressed, even by what had to be one of her simpler tricks.“…whoa,” I murmured.
She looked over her shoulder. “One does like to maintain a certain level of privacy, dahling… and of course before you got here I took a few minutes to ensure there were no listening devices or kinetic microphones sitting where they might ruin what I hope will be a lovely conversation.”
“…sure,” I murmured, before looking at the alchemist. “I suppose one of the first things you had to learn was some means of keeping the Jack O’Knaves from listening in on your private conversations?”
Lady Velvet chuckled — a warm, and ever so sensual chuckle at that. “Oh, my. No, Mister Chapman, I’ve never needed that. I’m quite confident Jack won’t eavesdrop on our little chat, any more than he eavesdropped on you and dear Buzzy. Whatever our past and whatever disagreements we may occasionally have, Jack respects my privacy and I respect his.”
I stared. “But… I mean, you…”
She chuckled again. “Crossed the aisle? Saw the light? Confessed my ever-so-scandalously-sinful sins and was shriven by Nightstick, Truncheon, and the Lieutenant? Jack couldn’t possibly care less about that, dahling. Oh, he expressed his opinion, and certainly he felt that I was making a terrible mistake, but he was more than happy to let me make it. And I daresay he found my version of redemption and ultimate retirement to be ever so more palatable than poor Clinton’s.” She looked back at the shimmering purple wall. Illusion? Some kind of coating? I really wasn’t sure. “I noticed you were… protective of Trey, out there. Wary to save face for her, concerned that she might get in trouble or endure the agony Jack shackled her with far more completely than that wristband?”
“Well… yeah. I guess I am.”
“Mm.” Lady Velvet turned and looked at me. “Mister Chapman? I have to believe you’re far too smart to be this much of an idiot, so I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.”
I blinked. “I…”
“She has flat out attacked you at least twice. The last time, she threw you out of your cell. And let us not pretend, my dear Mister Chapman — that moderately comfortable room with the lovely shower is no more and no less than your prison cell. And that means that depending on what guard happened to check the monitors first, you could very easily have been shot or worse just for being in that hallway unchaperoned. Whether or not she remembered it in the moment? She does know that. So let us be clear. Trey was either trying to get you killed or didn’t care if you were killed. That’s why the Jack… disciplined her so comprehensively — she could have ruined significant preparations, all because you refused her advances.” She leaned forward, with no sign of her earlier amusement remaining. “She is not your friend, Mister Chapman. She is not the ‘one person you can rely on,’ or ‘that one person you’ve begun to build a real relationship with in this place.’ Almost no one else in this building — whether Hearts or not — particularly cares if you live or die. But Trey? Mister Chapman — right now… today… she is more dangerous to your continued existence than Jack is himself. Jack has a reason to want you alive right now. Trey? Has any number of admittedly short-sighted or downright delusionary reasons to want to kill you.” She cocked her head as she kept looking at me. “So why are you trying to protect her?”
I looked at the Lady Velvet for a long moment. It was a fair question, after all.
I shrugged. “Ma’am— Lady… um… what do I call you? Respectfully?”
She smiled just a touch. “Well, for now let’s go with Elle. I’ll let you know if I revoke that privilege.”
“All right… Elle.” I took a deep breath. “She’s in danger. The Jack’s going to kill her. I mean, he’s obviously going to kill her, and everyone knows it except her.” I shook my head. “I clearly can’t stop her from hating me or threatening me. I can’t stop her from attacking me or even killing me. But I can do my best to save her, so I’m going to do that.” I sighed, looking at the floor. “Besides… and yes, I know she’d hate this… I feel sorry for her, okay?”
“Sorry for her? She kicked you across at least two rooms.”
“Yeah, she did. But before that, she had her whole life fall apart how many times? Elle, whether she kills me or not, she’s a victim,just like I am. And to be absolutely blunt? I’d rather die at her hands then let the Jack rack up another kill over some stupid magic act.”
Lady Velvet smiled, just a little bit. It was a sad smile. “I rather thought it was something like that. I’m pleased you don’t seem to be overly infatuated with her. That would make all of this worse.” She sighed, looking at the shimmering purple barrier. “You have to let that go, Mister Chapman. Because he’s going to kill her. At this point, it’s inevitable. The only reason she’s still alive right now is because he needs her for his grand design of the week — one that almost certainly involves you, whether you’re meant to survive it or not.”
“You sound like you know Trey.”
“Off and on for some time now. While there are medical personnel on staff both here in Dispater’s Vault and in Jack’s overall organization… they tend to be specialists. When something more significant comes along, Jack asks me to come in.”
I arched an eyebrow. “I’m a little surprised. He’s made it pretty clear he’s got nothing but contempt for magic or anything like it. Why are you the exception?”
She smiled, turning back towards me. It was the kind of smile that warmed you from the inside out, like hot cocoa on a cold day. “Two reasons, really. I’m not usually brought in for some rube on the casino floor or any of the henches who aren’t wearing a playing card symbol of some sort. I assume you’ve noticed there are others?”
I nodded. “Dice, or roulette wheels. Stuff like that.”
“If Jack’s the star of the show — and oh let me make it perfectly clear… Jack is the star of the show — then the suited henches? Hearths, Spades, Clubs, Diamonds, Pink Hearts, Yellow Moons, Green Clovers—“ she laughed “—they’re the chorus. On stage, out where people can see them and interact with them. Those other henches? They’re the roadies and tech crew. If one of them gets their nose crushed with a vigilante-wielded billy club, he’ll see they get medical care unless he has some reason not to. But the suited henches? Anyone who’s part of the show or otherwise…” she giggled. “Customer-facing?’ They don’t just have to look good — they have to look the same night after night, encounter after encounter. So if Trey or Virgin get riddled with bullets as part of a job, it’s not enough to remove the bullets and let them recover. He needs them to look pristine. No one wants a scarred showgirl or magician’s assistant when they go see a show.”
“And that’s where you come in?”
“That’s where I come in.” She smiled a bit, looking off to the side, perhaps a bit wistfully. “And of course, Jack and I have ever so much history, dahling. He’s generally willing to make certain exceptions from his anti-parahuman and particularly anti-magical and anti-divine stances when it comes to me and my alchemy. Back when the Dark Gods of Greystone really meant we four and no more, he would even occasionally deign to let me ply my alchemical arts on him directly.” She chuckled. “But those days are long past in at least two ways.”
“Two ways? Is one of them because you crossed the aisle?”
She laughed yet again. “Oh my, no. Like I said, he thought I was making a mistake but he certainly didn’t care. No, the first reason’s simple. He’s no longer willing to let anyone use parahuman abilities on his direct behalf. Oh, he’ll employ or even empower parahumans for specific purposes, though for the most part they’d never be Hearts. Are you familiar with how the suits break down in his organization?”
I nodded. “Hearts are the performers and the true believers, Diamonds are the infrastructure and the ones concerned about practical matters like cashflow, Clubs — including some parahumans — are the thugs, enforcers, and muscle, and Spades are his ‘special talents,’ and are at least usually parahuman themselves.”
“Oh, very good. It’s always good when a reporter pays at least a little attention, don’t you think?”
“It certainly makes my job easier.” I paused. “Okay, sometimes it almost gets me killed, but still—“
“The world is full of things that almost kill us, Mister Chapman.”
I nodded again, then cocked my head. I felt… a touch… not dizzy, but that ‘out-of-sorts’ feeling again, and when I blinked the world looked like a sepia colored film only more red than brown. A second blink cleared my eyes even as I looked away from Lady Velvet. “How long have I been down here?” I asked.
Lady Velvet paused. “Why would you think I’d know the answer to that?”
“Because the Jack calls you when something significant happens. He called you after Lady Violet roofied me. It stands to reason he’d call you when I first arrived, especially if he had to keep me unconscious. I mean, I was still and in pain when I woke up, but it wasn’t ‘six weeks of coma’ stiff which either means it wasn’t six weeks or—“
“Jack hardly needs arcane or alchemical unguents to accomplish that,” Lady Velvet said. “There are so many ways to encourage people to forget things…” She sounded wistful again.
“…so it could have been months and I just don’t remember it?”
Lady Velvet looked at me. She was still smiling, though it was a sad smile. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t interfere with Jack’s plans or projects, any more than I interfere with Buzzy’s. I only come in for humanitarian reasons and I don’t do more than I’m asked to do.”
“Are you scared of him?”
“Anyone sane is scared of him, Mister Chapman.”
I cocked my head. “That’s not really an answer to my question.”
Lady Velvet laughed. “Are you doubting my sanity?” She smiled coyly. “Good for you. No. I’m not scared of Jack. I’ll never be scared of Jack, even if sometimes I’m scared of the things he does.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Jack performs for an audience. Typically, that audience doesn’t include me. I don’t interfere with his plans, and he doesn’t interfere with me or mine. So while I might be scared by his actions or his designs, they’re not directed toward or against me. And… I’ll never be scared of Jack. Not like that.” She pauses. “Which doesn’t make him safe or mean I can relax my guard.”
I thought for a second. “The Buzzard said something similar. Is it that simple? You three were the originals, for all intents and purposes, so you give each other a bye?”
Lady Velvet smiled a bit more, turning and looking at the nearby upright piano — the reason the soundproof booth existed. This was a practice room. “Simple isn’t the word I’d use. And it was four. We four. Me, Jack, Buzzy, and Clinton. Lady Velvet, the Jack O’Knaves, the Buzzard, and the Cipher. The most nefarious and diabolical of all the Dark Gods of Greystone, contending with Nightstick and his plethora of partners on their own level, dazzling the city and populace, and trying to get filthy, stinking rich in the process — at least, I was. Buzzy got very rich, very fast and started divesting himself of his wealth almost immediately. But then he’s got a thing about actual wealth — he’s only happy when he’s broke, so he makes sure he’s always cash poor and struggling to keep the lights on. It’s his fatal flaw, like my ego, Clinton’s inability to accept that Nightstick was smarter than he was, and Jack’s obsession with the Greystone Guardian. As for Jack? Jack doesn’t care about money except when he needs it for some other plan.” She considered for a moment. “Clinton did indeed steal himself rich — sadly, without obfuscating his tracks enough so when he crossed the aisle he had to make restitution which wiped out his accounts. He ended up working at a big box chain bookstore as a floor worker just to get by.” She sighed. “Same old flaw. He thought he was more clever than he actually was, and it bit him, just like always.”
I cocked my head. “I don’t hear very many villains talk about their weaknesses.”
“I know. I read your book. It’s a significant flaw but the book’s still pretty readable.” She chuckled. “Every crook has their flaws, Mister Chapman. It’s how the heroes manage to stay ahead… most of the time. And yet… we talk about heroes and their weaknesses like it somehow adds to their nobility — Paragon and ‘delta radiance,’ for example. Do you even know what delta radiance is?”
“Radiation — transdimensional, right?”
“Transdimensional or transaltiversal. And radiation? Sure — but it’s not ionizing radiation. It’s the natural energies that lie between universes and dimensional planes. And despite the plethora of crooks who’ve used delta radiance against Paragon, it’s actually very hard to come by. You need a Leo Lucas or a Beguile… but because it’s Paragon’s weakness all of crimedom’s worked to make it available to the masses. For a price, anyway.” She chuckled again. “We talk about heroic weaknesses, but villains? The heroes figure out our flaws but pop culture? Pop culture doesn’t want to know them.”
I frowned. “Why not?”
Lady Velvet laughed outright. “Because it humanizes us, Mister Chapman. That’s why I was surprised to see it left out of your book. For example — we all know that Anchor is susceptible to dehydration, and more than one hero’s managed to exploit that chink in his defenses, but you’ll never hear DETAILS talk about it on the news because…” She looked away.
Lady Velvet looked back. “Because it makes Anchor sound… beatable. Like anyone could beat him, if they just planned ahead. It’s not true, of course, but it’s what people immediately believe. Anchor only makes sense to people if he’s almost unstoppable — if everyday people can’t imagine beating him. And that’s true for all villains. Every last one of us.” She laughed once more. “Dear old Leather believes super heroes need super villains, even though… they don’t. But to the public? Super heroes only make sense if there’s a threat that no one else can handle. Villains that no police officer, no bodyguard, no soldier can possibly stand against. If the general public started to believe — to truly believe — that anyone could beat a super villain? Then the super hero lifestyle would get shut down, hard and fast.” Lady Velvet shook her head. “It almost happened after the Apocalypse Agenda.”
“I remember.” I paused. “What about the Nightwatch?”
Lady Velvet arched her eyebrow. “What about him?”
“You said you four contended with Nightstick. What about the Nightwatch?”
“Ah. Well, the Nightwatch only really became a thing after the Apocalypse Agenda was completely over — and bear in mind we of Greystone missed most of the national and international developments while they were happening. The Unimaginable’s conquest of North America? Alien Invasions in Africa? Freya in Europe? Even Urizen’s final insane plan? Right up to that terrible moment when Urizen turned the Apocalypse Engine on we were so busy recovering after the destruction that Jack left in his wake we barely noticed any of the rest of it.” She shrugged. “The end of the world’s no big deal if your world already ended.”
She turned, scoffing. “So that’s why I called out Nightstick and his battles against the four of us — the Nightwatch is the Guardian of this Greystone City. The post-Agenda Greystone. The Greystone that has no room for fun, cheerful crime.” She shrugged. “I have no interest in being part of all that, and I have no other interest in the Nightwatch.” She smiled that dazzling smile again. “But that’s all right. Jack’s got more than enough interest to make up for it. He is obsessed with the Nightwatch — even more than he had been with Nightstick, any of the Cudgels, Shillelagh… Jack was sucked into Nightstick’s orbit from their very first encounter, but ever since the Agenda Jack lives to fight and bedevil the Nightwatch. Everything else is secondary.”
I frowned. “He only seems to mention the Nightwatch… I don’t know. Dismissively?”
Lady Velvet laughed — a low, throaty laugh. “Oh my. Oh my dear boy. Magician, remember? Everything he does is for a reason, but every action he takes is also designed to misdirect your attention away from that reason. I assure you. Whatever his plan is? It involves the Nightwatch, whether actively or passively.”
“How could it passively involve the Nightwatch?”
“Any number of ways. For example — maybe Jack wants that book written so the Nightwatch could read it, or maybe he’ll try and get the Nightwatch trapped in a remote location and force him to watch his masterstroke play out far from where he could interfere. In either of those cases, the Nightwatch is the audience, and his role is indeed passive. Of course, Jack may intend something far more active as well.”
I nodded. “That makes sense,” I said. I looked at her. “So… are you an investor in Dispater’s Vault?”
She smirked. “Of course not. This is an illegal casino. I’m a good person now, remember?” She giggled again. “For some value of ‘good.’”
“Do you feel at all… responsible… for Lady Violet?”
A cloud passed over her face, and she pursed her lips. “Responsible? What a word. Am I culpable? In as much as I taught and trained her as my apprentice? Yes. Absolutely. Did I commit or condone her crimes? I certainly did not.” She scoffed. “She’s young, Mister Chapman. And the young make foolish choices. I certainly did when I was her age. I may disavow those acts but I understand why they happen.” She chuckled again. “There is one thing you should understand about Greystone, Mister Chapman — maybe the one thing that truly does set us apart from all the other cities on this sad, sad world of ours.”
“In most cities — cities with super heroes and villains and long standing tropes playing out daily? You might have a hero who feels responsible for what a criminal did because… they failed to stop them. Or they were tricked. Or whatever. Guilt finds a way. But here?” She snorted. “No one in Greystone City feels responsible for anyone else. Not like that. Most Parents take responsibility for their children, sure, but that’s not what we’re talking about and I wouldn’t make bank even on that.” She looked back at the piano. “We don’t make those mistakes. Not any more. If Lady Violet killed you, I would feel badly for her, and badly for you, but I wouldn’t feel guilty and gnash my teeth and declare it all my fault. I have real problems, thank you very much.” She paused. “How’s your neck feeling?”
“My neck?” I frowned, reaching up and touching the back of my neck. I could feel scarring where the bomb was inserted, though it wasn’t tender to the touch any more. “Fine, I guess.”
“Good. And you seem to be stronger. Any other lasting side effects or symptoms?”
“…well, I get these… flashes in my vision, and there’s some head pain when it happens….”
Lady Velvet’s eyebrows rose. “Are you prone to migraines?”
“Not before now.”
“Mm. Still.” She slipped out a phone — a Temple Glass — and started tapping the screen.
“What’re you doing?”
“Sending a fast text to Jack, recommending dark glasses for a few days.”
“…will he listen?”
“I have no idea.” She smiled. “But at least I can try.” She paused. “So. How was your little trip?”
I paused, then looked down. “I honestly don’t know how to answer that. I mean… there were college professors and Gonzo journalists and I was in Hell for a while and then followed the Yellow Brick Road… I saw Hecate. I… sort of got the feeling I was supposed to. And… otherwise…”
“It’s confusing.” She nodded. “Visions usually are, regardless of source or even accuracy. Still, I could tell you weren’t in your body when I was treating you, so whatever Vi’s intentions, her concoction did its job.”
“Right.” I paused. “I saw the Jack. He… said that he hadn’t anticipated Lady Violet’s move—“
“That’s true. He was quite put out.”
“But… he seemed happy that it happened.”
Lady Velvet paused. “Did he?” she asked, lightly. “What exactly did he say? In the vision, I mean.”
I paused again. Something about her demeanor had shifted. “Well… he said I was a witness. No — the witness. The audience’s point of view. But he said I wasn’t ready — that he was getting me ready, actually. And he said that there was one funny thing.”
“I… don’t… generally care for Jack’s sense of humor.”
“I’m not shocked.” I took a breath. “He said that the visionquest wasn’t part of the plan, and that Lady Violet isn’t smart enough to have done that intentionally, but he was clearly glad it happened.”
“He thought that was… funny.”
“Yeah. And Leather agreed with him.” I paused. “In the dream, you understand.”
“That wasn’t a dream. I’m not shocked she was there too. Who else appeared?”
“…well, I said Leather. Hunter S. Thompson only I was him when he was there, and I was somewhere else.”
“Mm. Shamanic initiation without arcana or divine oversight.” She looked thoughtful. “Unusual.”
“…yeah, there was that kind of… feel to it.”
“Hecate, briefly, like I said.” I paused again. “I’m… I got the feeling it was her, and…” I looked around. “You’re sure they don’t have a bug on us?”
“…bug? You sound like a sixties spy movie.” She smiled a bit more. “And no, I’m not. I’m sure I didn’t find one, and I’m very good at such things, and Jack will usually give me certain indulgences the same as he gives to Buzzy — I’m sure whatever surveillance was on you when you met him was disabled. We don’t extend professional courtesy to many, but we do to each other. But no, we can’t ever be one hundred percent sure.”
I looked at her, then nodded. “Well, okay then. I got the feeling Hecate had her own agenda… and was directly opposing whatever the Jack’s up to.”
“…really?” Lady Velvet smiled a bit more. “Now that’s a delicious development if ever I heard one. She’s one of Dispater’s Vault’s investors.”
“I know. I saw her at their meeting. She was hanging out with Veiled Medusa and Amulet, mostly.”
“She and Veiled Medusa are often cohorts. Amulet’s… more interesting. Obviously when she was Freya’s sidekick, she and Hecate were enemies. But… that was a long time ago, back before the Apocalypse Agenda.”
I nodded, then cocked my head as I looked at Lady Velvet. “So. You know what ‘being a witness’ is, don’t you? I mean whatever I got from the vision, not—“
“I know what you mean,” Lady Velvet said. “And yes, I know what a witness is in this case.” She looked at me for a long moment. “I have to admit, I’m torn between explaining it to you and keeping out of Jack’s business.”
I considered, then nodded again. “The Buzzard said something similar — not about witnesses, but—“ I paused. “Wait… he said he thought he figured out what the Jack intends to do. If he’s right—“
“He’s undoubtedly right. He wouldn’t say it if he weren’t sure. Not Buzzy. And I assure you he knows what a witness is, too.” She smiled almost wistfully. “He was always a bit faster when it came to figuring Jack out. He and Clinton made a game of it, back before Jack started allegedly killing people over breakfast mistakes.”
“And before me, witnesses were… tall lanky guys with metal irises and bad hair?”
Lady Velvet paused, then chuckled. “So. I guess you saw the Shapiro boys in your vision, then?”
“Shapiro? Surely that name means something to you?”
“I can’t say that it—“
There was a sudden wave of pain and nausea, as my vision went sepia-red again. I pressed a hand to my eyes, staggering back.
“Mister Chapman, are you—“
And then… I heard the Buzzard, as plainly as if I’d recorded him during our conversation:
I am well aware your compatriot — Miss Oswald, or Miss Shapiro, or Miss Leather, as I am certain she would prefer — believes that the champions and heroes need our ilk to exist, and I’m just as aware that most heroes and villains alike think she’s insane.
“—Leather… she’s related to those two, isn’t she?”
Lady Velvet paused. “Whyever would you say that?” she asked, with obviously false lightness.
“The Buzzard called her ‘Miss Shapiro.’ And the professor spoke to her really familiarly in my vision. He had a nickname for her too — a weird one? ‘Levee?’ Like, embankments?”
Lady Velvet looked at me. “How’s your head?” she asked, quietly.
“…right now it hurts. And… everything’s skewed. Vision’s…” I paused. “Okay, now I’m worried about brain damage.”
“You don’t have brain damage,” Lady Velvet said, absently. She took out a compact from one of her pouches, opening it. She glanced at herself in the small mirror. “You do have a new look, though,” she said, and showed me the compact.
I saw myself in the compact’s small circular mirror. Still me. Maybe a few more stress lines.
But my eyes… my irises were a solid red metal, with no pupils at all.
“…what the…” I blinked hard. “…the Professor and Gary — their eyes were like that too…”
“Yes. They were witnesses. And witnesses do that.”
“They’re dead.” She chuckled. “Well, if we needed proof your visionquest wasn’t just a delusion… here it is. For the record? Leather’s name was recently outed on national television as an ‘Eve Shapiro.’ I had wondered if she was any relation to Evan or Gary Shapiro, so I looked into things and yes indeed she was Evan’s daughter. Leather’s parents used to call her ‘Evvie.’ And her father, Evan, was in fact a college professor who taught philosophy.”
“…the… ‘stunt in Grantham.’ A couple people made references to that. What—“
“If the Jack hasn’t told you, I’m not going to tell you. For your own safety, you understand. Suffice it to say Leather’s had a few interesting adventures since the last time you two talked.” She turned away, clearly uncomfortable.
“That’s why you don’t want to tell me what a witness is?”
“Yes.” She sighed. “But there’s a difference between staying out of Jack’s business and leaving my due diligence incomplete. Since I had a hand in your recovery…” She sighed. “Mister Chapman. What do you know about the linear timeline?”
I blinked. “That’s… one of the temporal dimensions, right? The one that matches up with our own universe — our history, more or less?”
“Mostly, though ‘history’ isn’t the right term. All the events that happen in our universe are part of the linear timeline. As time flows along the linear timeline, those events happen —not just once but an infinite number of times, since the flow of time never stops. History, as we know it, refers to our past — the things that happened when the moment of time we live in flowed past those events — but free will exists. There’s almost always some minor changes from one moment passing an event to the next — and those minor changes get wiped out by the next moment in time that comes along.”
I blinked again, my vision clear and the pain subsiding. “…all right?” I asked. “I mean… so it’s like a river. I mean, that’s what we always say, right? If you throw a rock into a river, it makes a splash, but those ripples are washed downstream — they don’t matter to the water that already passed or the water upriver.”
“Mrgh. I hate the river metaphor. But yes, I suppose. Essentially.” She shook her head. “For the event to change — not just that one time through but for every moment of time that passes from that point forward… the changes have to be witnessed. There are a certain number of people — sentient minds of all varieties, really — that are witnesses. If an event’s changed and a witness is there to see it… then the timeline is altered to reflect that change. It doesn’t change anything that’s already happened ‘downstream,’ but all the time ‘upstream’ that passes the event will experience those new changes.”
I looked at her, then snorted. “So witnesses are like the referee in pro-wrestling? If we see it happen, it counts, but if we don’t see it it doesn’t count?”
Lady Velvet giggled. “Yes. Exactly. Thank you. I like that.”
“…so I’m a parahuman.”
Lady Velvet smiled more broadly. “No — well, not necessarily. Witnesses exist wherever sentient thought exists. Every known sentient race in the galaxy has witnesses. But… human witnesses have… a few extra perks. I’ve heard a few theories as to why but they don’t matter. You can… divine truths— no, scratch that. ‘Divine’ muddles the water. You can perceive truths in ways the rest of us can’t.”
My vision skewed sepia-red again, with a fresh pang of pain in one of my temples. I closed my eyes, covering them with a hand. “Perception leads to belief, belief leads to understanding — it’s not just perceiving events… it’s understanding them. Believing them.” I paused, dropping my hand and looking at Lady Velvet. I could… see her age now — not that she looked different, but alchemy had been good to her longevity… but looking at her… I could see her experience, her maturity, her knowledge — everything that made up the woman in front of me. I mean, I don’t mean I read her mind — I couldn’t literally see what she was thinking — but I could see the… potential she had to think, if that makes sense.
Which, admittedly, it probably doesn’t.
“That… is beyond what I know,” Lady Velvet said with a smile. I could see her tension though. She was worried — for me? Maybe.
“But it’s still true. It’s not enough for me to see something. I have to understand what I’m seeing, right? I mean, otherwise, the timeline would get changed every day just because I left the house and got a cup of coffee, right?”
Lady Velvet considered, then nodded.
My vision cleared, and the pain went away with it. I stumbled back a bit. “That’s… getting worse,” I muttered.
“That’s a good sign, not a bad one,” Lady Velvet said. “It may feel like a migraine but it’s actually you using these abilities for the first time. It’s like your muscles. If you lay in bed for a month, when you got up and walked around everything would hurt. You’d have to get back into shape before the aches and pains really went away. You need to exercise your new muscles.”
I thought about that, then nodded. “That makes sense. The Professor said he only believed true things, and Gary said he believed everything.”
Lady Velvet shrugged. “I didn’t actually know them particularly well, but I believe you.”
“Heh. And that’s the point.” I frowned. “The Jack’s keeping me off balance — skewing my sense of time and place. He… that’s so I won’t see the way out, right? If I don’t understand then I won’t… witness something he doesn’t want me to see.”
“And right there? That’s the kind of thing I don’t speculate about,” Lady Velvet said. “Jack’s intentions, Jack’s plans — they’re his business, not mine.”
I paused. “Are you still his friend?”
Lady Velvet seemed surprised by the question. “Of course. Jack and Buzzy alike.”
“But they kill people.”
“Yes, they do.” She looked a bit wistful. “But that’s not all they do, Mister Chapman. Their lives aren’t just crime and death, you know. None of our lives are. You of all people should know that. Isn’t that the revelation you keep having in your interviews? The sudden, shocking realization that supervillains are people?”
“That’s what the Buzzard wants to avoid.”
“He shouldn’t worry. His personality’s too big to be humanized. I say that as a compliment.” She chuckled. “Supervillains. I was there from the start, you know. In fact, I was the first costumed crook to contend with dear Nightstick. Before Cudgel, before Shillelagh, before the Buzzard or Cipher or Jack there was me. Nightstick had been cracking down on organized crime, and then all of a sudden he was in the Diamond district chasing me at high noon. And you wonder. Of course Jack and Buzzy are my friends. We breakfast sometimes. It’s nice.” She paused. “For the record, the Jack is a perfectly charming breakfast companion. I’ve yet to see him kill a waitress for any reason, no matter what the jokes say.”
I nodded, then cocked my head. “You’re not going to tell anyone I’m down here, are you?”
“Of course not.” She smiled, not unkindly. “That would be an interference. The best either of us could hope for in that circumstance is that your death be as painless as possible. He let me treat you. I consider that a kindness. But no, I won’t sound the alarm or call the Nightwatch or even Leather. And let’s be honest — you don’t even want me to.”
I paused at that. “Why would you say that?”
“Because you need to see where this is all going.”
I looked away. “As a witness?”
I wasn’t facing her, but I knew Lady Velvet shrugged. “As Todd Chapman.”
“It’s going to get me killed,” I said, softly.
“We all die, Mister Chapman. Come on. We’d best get you back to Trey before she has a conniption.”
“All right.” I paused. “Thank you.”
“For… talking to me. For actually explaining some of this.”
“Yes, well, I’m not convinced it was the right thing to do, but regardless you’re welcome.” She gestured, and the purple field covering the glass of the booth melted into wisps of purple smoke.
“There is… one thing, though. Just… one thing that sticks out that I should correct.”
Lady Velvet paused. “Yes?” she asked.
“Leather’s name isn’t Eve Shapiro, no matter what her father called her or her birth certificate says. It’s Leather.”
Lady Velvet looked at me for a long moment. “Yes,” she said, finally. “That’s true. That happens sometimes.”
“Why is it so important to you?”
“It’s the truth,” I said, softly. “It’s her truth.”
“And you believe that truth?” Lady Velvet peered at me.
I looked back at her, then turned away — thinking about Leather, about that long ago week we spent changing our lives, about the phone calls out of nowhere that had followed me ever since, about the songs and murals and art installations.
“I believe Leather,” I said, quietly.
Lady Velvet looked at me, then nodded. “I stand corrected. Come. Let’s get you back to Trey before she frets.”