Welcome back… to Ghost Story. I’m Sebastian Cabot.
Or something like that.
We’re well into Interviewing Trey, and so far folks seem to like it. I’ll admit I was glad to get back to Todd Chapman.
One thing I’m trying to do, for the record, is give some idea of how Chapman isn’t quite the same person he was at the end of Interviewing Leather. He’s done and seen quite a bit along the way. Over time, I’ll try to include some bits and pieces of Chapman’s past — in particular, some of his other dealings with the superheroic or supervillainous communities over time. That’ll also let me flesh out the world of Justice Wing a bit more.
Here’s part three.
*** *** *** ***
I’ve had my life threatened — really threatened — a few times now.
I should clarify that statement. ‘Really threatened’ was from my point of view and my reactions. For example, I count Leather strapping an electronic bomb collar on my neck — one capable, or so I was told, of blowing my throat out, or my head clean off. As it turns out, it was just a nine volt battery and some silly putty and I was never in any danger. It counts because I believed my life was in danger, and that’s a feeling like no other — the sense that at any minute you could just be dead.
On the other hand. Bandolier had threatened to kill me six or seven times, and never once did I believe him. He clearly didn’t even expect me to believe him. So that didn’t count. You see the distinction. My point was — at this stage I was an old hand at being two inches from death.
Or so I would have thought. The bar had been raised.
Probably the most dangerous situation before this was from a woman who called herself Billhook. Billhook had armed herself with several hooked scimitars. They were variations of old medieval farming implements — threshers, I guess. Honestly, I don’t know that much about farming — that had turned into different kinds of hand arms and pole arms during that period of history when anything lying around the house could be adapted into ways to kill peasants. We had been having a perfectly pleasant extended interview — she was a third-tier rogue obsessed with killing a third tier bird themed superhero named Shocktail. Frankly, that hero seemed a little ridiculous to me.
I should mention, before I go on, that I’m not one of those guys who thinks the whole ‘super hero’ shtick is absurd. I think heroes do something important — something noble. I think they inspire us at the same time they protect us. And as fascinated as I am with the villainous lifestyle, I don’t want to become one or lionize them. I think their stories are downright interesting, but they’re more cautionary than laudatory.
Anyway, at the moment I’m thinking of I was talking to one of her bagmen — a specific type of henchman who specializes in grabbing the loot and getting it out while the villain and/or the bodymen engage the police or any heroes — and I asked if he also had a grudge against Shocktail.
“Me?” he asked. “Nah. It’s not my job to have grudges. It’s my job to help fund the boss’s grudges.”
I’d kind of laughed. “Yeah, I can’t imagine vengeance is a good career path.”
“Career path? Career path?!”
I froze. Normally, Billhook’s voice was on the hard edged side — kind of cold mercenary type. This time it was half-shrieked, and up an octave. “Is that what you think I’m doing here?” she demanded, storming over to me. Unlike a lot of villains, she always wore the gear even around her lair, which meant she always had a blade to hand. And one of those was in her hand, and burning with a kind of coruscating yellow and white light. “Just marking time looking for a big score? Maybe looking to get two point four kids and a white picket house?” I think she meant a house with a white picket fence, but right then I didn’t want to interrupt her. She was mad. No, she was furious — the kind of white-hot fury people talked about but you never really saw. And I’m not ashamed to say it scared the Hell out of me.
“I didn’t mean–” I started.
“No no. You meant it.” She was right up in my face now, that machete pulled back for a strike. “You meant it! You people. You live your pathetic lives just marking time between paychecks, and you can’t imagine anyone having a cause — a reason to live! If I had a chance to get Shocktail on his knees where I could strike his accursed head from his shoulders? I’d give everything I had now and live forever destitute on the street to be able to swing! This isn’t some rock gig like you used to write about!”
“You’re sorry? You’re sorry?” She stepped back, sweeping the blade so it missed my nose by less than a few millimeters. The energy surrounding it made me blink and left the tip of my nose red for days. “You are sorry! You’re the sorriest excuse for a man I’ve ever met. I’d be doing the world a favor if I hacked you to chuck and sold you for stew meat!”
“Is that what you do with everyone who offends you?”
“I said ‘is that what you do with people who offend you?’ Chop them up. Package them for a meat market?” I had a cold sweat going down my back, but something about what she said had intrigued me, just a little.
“I don’t kill just anyone who bothers me, you–”
“But you’re going to kill me? Because I made a joke?”
“A joke? A joke?”
“Sure. Who’d seriously believe someone so anxious to kill some guy dressed like Liberace’s bluejay was doing it for the money?”
She stared at me, then snickered. “He really does look like an idiot, doesn’t he?”
“He really does.”
She sort of nodded, and walked off, putting the hardware away. I slowly turned to look at the bagman.
“No,” he said, casually. “I can’t say I have that kind of grudge against Shocktail, no. Anything else?”
That had been pretty harrowing. I won’t pretend my underwear had been the driest it ever had been after that. At the same time, as batshit insane as Billhook had been — or so she seemed at the time — I could at least understand the logic behind her rage. I had offended her mission and offended her. Did her mission make sense to me? No. It still didn’t. I never got a clear answer as to why she wanted Shocktail dead in the first place. But, she yearned to kill him — that was real.
This time, down in the parking garage of a dead man and his two dead henchmen? This was the first time when my life was directly threatened just by being there. The Jack O’Knaves and his goon had just killed four people in front of me — one of them one of the Jack’s own henchmen — and they hadn’t been there ten minutes. It’s clear they would kill me without breaking stride whether they had a reason or not, and it was equally clear the Jack was insane in a way Billhook couldn’t even aspire to.
And here I was, less than five feet from the Jack O’Knaves himself, with Trey having moved somewhere behind me, and Four — I guess he was Four — off to one side.
“I have to admit, you’re not what I’d expect,” Jack said, circling around me. “Don’t get me wrong — you look about tall enough, and kind of lanky. You have that whole ‘lone dark dressed journalist’ thing going on. And I saw you on Letterman, so I knew what your face looked like… but still. There’s kind of je ne sais quoi you don’t have. Maybe I’m too picky. Hard to say.”
I tried my best not to look completely scared shitless. I doubt I succeeded, because I was, in fact, completely scared shitless. However, I didn’t want to look like I was — mostly because it didn’t seem healthy. If I flinched, he might kill me.
Of course, if I seemed too flippant he might kill me. It was hard to figure out where the line was.
“You came a long way to find me,” I said, as calmly as possible. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Jack four-laughed again. “You see?” he said to Trey. “You see? I told you he had guts.” He kept slowly circling me. “But you asked me a question. The first of many, if your reputation does you justice. And it’s a fair one.” He leaned closer to me, coming in from the side — practically whispering in my ear. “I wanted to ask where the Hell you get off.”
I blinked. “What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? What do I mean?” Jack slammed the tip of his cane on the floor. There was a small explosion that cracked the concrete. “You go all over the country, talking to nobodies and losers! People like this idiot!” He stabbed his cane at Rook’s corpse. “That catgirl with the whip who hates Darkhood! Ridiculous posers like Bandolier! Not to mention that half-naked pantied lowlife — what’s her name, Satin? But did you ever, ever talk to me? Huh?!”
“No,” I said, as evenly as possible. “I never talked to you.” If that seems insane to you, dear reader, remember — I just watched the Jack O’Knaves torment and kill the Rook largely because he didn’t answer rhetorical questions quickly enough. It’s nigh impossible to predict what a madman would do, admittedly, but I figured it was better to try to stay alive.
“That’s all? Just ‘no?’ Why not? Huh? Why not?!” He was right in front of me now, leaning close — his face not three inches from mine. He had turned red. He wasn’t acting — he was livid. He made Billhook’s anger look like mild annoyance, and I’d still said less than twenty words to him.
“You’re out of my league,” I said, fighting to keep my voice from cracking. “Inside Edition may do a bang up job interviewing Kim Kardashian, but they’ll never get within twenty feet of Robert DeNiro. You’re too big for me, and I’m not in the habit of wasting an interview subject’s time.”
He stared at me for a long moment, and snickered. “Cute.” He stood back up, and straightened his lapels. “All right. All right. I can reward a cute answer. You get a chance. You get one chance. Ask me one question. Just one question. If it’s the right question, then I’ll call you up to the majors. If you get it wrong, I’ll bust you back to double-A ball.” He half-smiled. “One question. Go.”
I took a deep breath. I knew a hundred opening questions, but clearly he didn’t want anything facile. Try a safe one? I got the feeling the Jack O’Knaves despised people who played it safe. Risk offending him? Actually try to ask something insightful?
Of course, while my mind churned through all this, my voice decided to strike out on his own. “Why ‘the Jack O’Knaves?’ I mean, jacks and knaves are the same thing, right? It’s like calling yourself the six of sixes.”
Jack stared at me. To the side, ‘Four’ stared at me. I have to imagine Trey was staring at me too.
Slowly… Jack began to laugh. Not the affected four-part-laugh, but real laughter. It started soft, then got louder. Behind me, Trey was laughing too. ‘Four’ wasn’t, but I got the feeling he didn’t laugh very often. “See? See? That’s brilliant. Not one guy in a hundred would have the grit to ask me that.” He leaned in, grabbing my head with both his hands and kissing my forehead, hard. I barely noticed that the cane had disappeared. “You win, Todd Chapman! You win! Grab him, Cater. Trey, call the car, then tell Snowman and Dime to light up in ten minutes.”
“Light up?” I asked, even as ‘Four’ — who was apparently ‘Cater’ — grabbed my upper arm with the strength of a vise. Seriously — it felt like he could squeeze his hand and crush bones through my arm muscles.
Trey stepped back into view, slipping out a jeweled clamshell phone — the jewels patterned into three red hearts on a white background — which she opened, pushing buttons. “Explosives on the supports,” she said. “More than you’d expect. They’re going to implode this whole place.” She turned her attention to the phone. “Nickel, honey? We’ve got what we came for. Mister Oaknavė’s ready to leave.” Oak-nav-ehz, for ‘O’Knaves.’ I couldn’t tell if it was security or a joke, if not both.
If she said more, I didn’t hear it. Jack was walking up the car ramp, and Cater was following, hauling me behind him. “My knapsack’s got my computer and stuff in it,” I said. “I’ll need that if I’m going to interview anyone.”
Jack looked back over his shoulder. “Trey? Grab Mister Chapman’s bag, won’t you? We want to be supportive of the arts.”
“Of course,” Trey said. “This one over here, Mister Chapman?”
I looked — in time to watch Trey walking over to where my knapsack was lying. And seriously, what a walk. Every move was calculated, every hip motion almost hypnotic. When she leaned over to pick it up, she did so at the waist, one leg straight, the other slightly bent, arching her back as she reached down.
Cater hauled me forward and I looked away. I started shivering. I had just watched three people murdered in front of me, including a woman just like Trey. And yet, she managed to catch my full attention just walking across the room. That’s the kind of power she had.
When I say power, by the way, I don’t mean super power. I once interviewed Salome in prison. She had been alone inside a bulletproof glass enclosure, wearing one of those orange prison jumpsuits — almost unflattering by design. I had four well armed guards on either side of me — all women. And before I ever walked in the room, I’d popped a couple of Xanax. Benzos would, if anything, make me weaker willed, but they also control anxiety and… related hormonal system issues. Despite all of that, her power was riveting. You could tell that she could bend people to her will, harnessing her supernatural beauty and charisma to meet her ends. If she had seen a reason for it, she could have had me attack one of the guards and if it were at all possible she could have made me free her.
Trey wasn’t like that. Her grace, her movements — they’d all come from practice. From training. And I recognized the kind of training. I kept calling her a showgirl, but she wasn’t. She was a Magician’s Assistant. Her role was to constitute misdirection — not just through her considerable sex appeal, but by making every gesture an affectation, every movement a dance. That was what she did. She controlled the scene to let the Jack O’Knaves do his work. And she was good enough to distract me from a mass murder committed in front of me.
As we reached the surface, it had begun to sink in. I was being kidnapped. I was being kidnapped by a psychotic serial killer. And no one would even know I was gone.
Unless… Cobalt Blue!
I felt a rush. Cobalt Blue knew I’d entered the city. In the horror of the situation, I’d forgotten all about that. As a matter of course, I used the contacts I built up to let the local hero population know I was coming to town — in part because after I interview a villain, I like to talk to the heroes who’ve faced that villain. In another part so no one thought I was aiding and abetting. Part of my standard offer to villains was I’d be sequestered until we were done, and then I’d report everything I saw and heard to both the heroes and police. I wasn’t going to go to jail because I wanted a chance to ask Firehouse Harriet if she’d spent junior high in the Future Arsonists of America. Why did so many take me up on the deal anyway? Call it a testament to the human desire to tell ‘their side of the story.’ Or the equally strong desire to feel important enough to interview in the first place. Ego kept me in business.
So Cobalt Blue was at least aware of me. When the Jack O’Knaves’s thugs blew the parking garage, he’d investigate. When he found the Rook and his henches in the rubble, he’d realize I wasn’t there and had probably been kidnapped. And when he found Deuce, he’d realize it was the Jack O’Knaves who’d taken me, and almost certainly he’d scream to the Nightwatch, to Paragon — to the whole damn Justice Wing if he could. And one of them would find me.
I just had to survive long enough to be found.