I’m enjoying writing Interviewing Trey. In the end, the driver for these stories, in my own brain, is working out the why of certain types of supervillain or supervillainous organization. In the case of Leather, back in the last story, that why shaped Leather’s little gang and her modus operandi.
But this time?
What is the why of the Jack O’Knaves?
That won’t get answered here, today. But it’ll get batted around a bit. I hope you like it.
*** *** *** ***
The coffee, as it turned out, was service pack coffee, kept in a pretty standard break room, complete with formica tables, plastic chairs, a couple of naugahyde couches. The furniture was mostly in white and red, or beige. They didn’t look like they were going for a ‘theme’ as much, but there was still some sense of decor going on.
White and red were the semi-default colors for a reason, too. The floor might have been standard linoleum and the walls kind of light beige, but there was still a sense that red was supposed to be the overriding sense of the room. As it turns out, this lounge was specifically for diamonds and hearts. Trey came in here for coffee because she was the three of hearts. When we went in, there was a slightly matronly woman, dark skinned, wearing a conservative business suit in maroon and cream. She had a stick-pin with a series of white diamonds on her lapel, clustered like on Mister River’s uniform. I didn’t get much of a chance to count, but I estimated she had nine or ten, which meant she had ten, since Mister River had nine and I got the feeling someone who wore a playing card crest was by definition one of a kind. She was talking to a woman I recognized as Nickel, who had on her white limo driver’s outfit, sans hat, but with her red five diamonds pin. Nickel glanced over at me, then glanced away. The older woman glanced my way as well, and frowned slightly. She looked too much like Nickel to be coincidence — I pegged her as the young woman’s mother.
Was working for the Jack O’Knaves really that much of a family business?
“So… clubs and spades have a different break room?” I asked Trey, looking around.
“You’re so smart — you should be a reporter,” Trey said, pouring a cup of coffee into a styrofoam cup. “Are we out of creamer again?”
“There’s milk in the fridge,” the ten-diamond woman said, a touch sternly. She had an accent — British? Maybe. If so, it was largely assimilated.
“Milk doesn’t taste right in coffee,” Trey answered. “I need chemicals.”
I nodded to the two other women. “Hey there, I’m Todd Chapman. You may remember me from being kidnapped in Minnesota.”
“My memory is excellent, Mister Chapman,” Nickel said. She had a hint of British in her tone too. “I’m glad to see you’re up and around.”
“Thanks. How long was I out, anyhow?”
“Some reporters shouldn’t ask so many questions,” Trey said, still poking around. She was in a full body unitard, tank-top style. It was blood red with her three white diamonds across her abdomen. Rehearsal-wear, in other words, almost exactly like what a dancer would wear, though it looked like heeled shoes were built into the bottoms. I’d seen it before, of course. A lot of supers had tights that seemed to just blend into boots.
“Some assistants shouldn’t second guess Mister Oaknavés,” the ten-diamond woman said curtly. “He wants Mister Chapman asking questions, and expects us to answer. Didn’t you get the notice?”
Trey didn’t deign to answer, opening the fridge and pulling out a milk jug, which she sniffed dubiously.
“She’s having a bit of a day,” I said.
“I’m well aware. I wonder if she’s aware how easily it could be her last, with this attitude.” The woman turned back to me. “I am Madam Bank, Mister Chapman. I’d offer you a warm welcome but quite frankly, I’m not that good a liar. I’m on break at the moment, so I’d be glad to answer any of your questions.”
“I appreciate that, but I don’t want to interrupt any–”
“I was just leaving,” Nickel said, the last word thrown in Trey’s direction. “Mister Oaknavés needs the car.”
Trey froze, anger flashing across her face, though she was still angled away from Nickel. “Have fun!” she said with false cheer.
“We will.” Nickel nodded towards me, and then towards Madam Bank. She then walked out.
“Well, she’s nice,” I said, lightly.
“No one here is nice, Mister Chapman,” Madam Bank said. “Some of us strive to be kind, but that’s in no way the same thing. I understand you met my husband, Mister River.”
“Husb– so the three of you–”
“Husband, wife and daughter, yes. Mister Oaknavés pulled off quite a trick with that one. If you don’t mind, I’m not in the mood to go through it.”
“All right — so… you’re ‘Madam Bank,’ not some kind of… card term?”
“The Bank is a card term, Mister Chapman. Or Banker, if you prefer. I handle Mister Oaknavé’s financial affairs. I make certain we receive our cut from Dispater’s Vault, funnel ill gotten gains gained elsewhere into appropriate accounts, make certain everyone gets paid… even a madman needs an accountant if he’s going to be a successful madman.”
“You say he’s insane, but….” I looked around.
“Let me guess. You wonder if it’s all an act, because how could a madman have put Dispater’s Vault and this criminal organization together?” Madam Bank’s smile was tight. “It’s easy to think of insanity as a synonym for chaos. Obviously, a delusional or broken mind would be a disorderly mind, incapable of such things. We don’t like to think of our psychotics as being in control. We like to think of them as alien and easily identified.”
Madam Bank looked me in the eye. “Mister Oaknavés is insane, Mister Chapman. He is sociopathic — and like the best sociopaths he is completely in control, charming and engaging. If he wanted to, he could make you like him. If he wanted to, he could make you love him. But he won’t love you. He doesn’t love. He can’t love.” She nodded back towards Trey. “Not that everyone believes it.”
“I’ve heard you say that before, old woman,” Trey said, walking over and carrying two cups. She handed one to me. “Coffee and milk, no sugar. If you want sugar it’s over there. While you two assassinate the boss’s character, I need to get some practice in.” So saying, Trey turned and stomped towards a door on the far side of the breakroom.
“I… um, I’m supposed to–”
“I’ll follow,” Madam Bank said. “No reason for you to break the rules Mister Oaknavés gave you. There’s no reason to hasten your demise.”
“I’m doomed then?” I asked as we started following Trey out the far door.
“We’re all doomed. You are, I am, my husband is, and my daughter is. But then, life is a terminal disease, isn’t it?” She pushed the door for me, and we stepped out into a large gymnasium. There were mats, exercise equipment, mirrors — the works. There were several people in there right now, working out to one degree or another. Several were in red, somewhat fewer were in black. The latter were wearing clubs, though I saw both hearts and diamonds along the red.
Madam Bank made her way to the back of the gym, where there were a number of chairs up against a wall. I followed, sipping the coffee. It was a touch overboiled, but nothing I couldn’t stomach. As we sat down, I watched Trey go to an open area with a hardwood floor in front of a wall sized mirror. There was a wooden rail halfway up the window — it took me a few seconds to realize it was a dance barre.
Trey took what looked like a last gulp of her coffee, and threw it into a wastebasket — a good throw, over ten feet, nothing but net. She then cracked open a bottle of water and took a few swigs — probably getting the immediate coffee taste out of her mouth. And then, to my astonishment, I saw her begin a few opening ballet warmups, one hand on the barre.
“Graceful, isn’t she?” Madam Bank asked.
“Very. She’s not a superhuman then?”
“Trey? No. Most of the Hearts aren’t. Mister Oaknavés wouldn’t like it.”
“How do the suits work, anyway? I mean, I can kind of guess, but—”
“The Hearts are Mister Oaknavés’s assistants. They set up and execute his illusions, work with him on his productions, see that he accomplishes his goals the way he wants. Trey and the late Deuce are one kind — the traditional Magician’s Assistants, with perhaps a few untraditional moves.”
“Yeah — she used one of those to kick me across a locker room.” I watched her move. She really was beautiful, but it mostly came out when she was moving — and these were some pretty good movements. High kicks, spins — pirouettes, I guess you’d call them. She had quickly moved into a faster routine.”
“She’s a dance fighter, Dianic style, initially, but Mister Oaknavés taught her and the others some things of his own. It’s not enough for her to be able to fight — she has to look good while she does it. Her movements must convey purpose, so they can convey his purpose.” She sounded unusually intense as she spoke. “That’s what the Hearts are.” She nodded across the room, where two men and a woman wearing black shirts with a varying number of white clubs on them. “The Clubs, on the other hand, are the enforcers. They execute Mister Oaknavés’s will, working directly. Some of them have paranormal abilities — generally because Mister Oaknavés has made arrangements for them to be so empowered.”
“I met Cater,” I said. “He seemed pretty bloody strong.”
“He is. They don’t all have that kind of direct physicality, but you get the sense of it.”
“Diamonds like myself are infrastructure. They keep things running. Oh, there are plenty of other support staff. Dispater’s Vault has any number of bartenders and the like. But the proper organization has the Diamonds.”
“So you, and your husband and daughter.”
“Your husband doesn’t really sound like he’s here of his own free will.”
“He’s not. A lot of Diamonds aren’t. I’m not.” Madam Bank looked at me. “Of all the suits, the Diamonds are the ones most likely to have a bomb in their head — whether literal or metaphorical.”
“And the Spades?”
“Are his special talents. His hidden cards. Trey isn’t superhuman, and while some of the Clubs are, they’re only mildly so. The Spades are properly paranormal — they stride the line between henchman and supervillain, to use the vernacular. Any one of them could likely strike out on his or her own, if they so chose. They’re usually deployed on projects of their own.”
“So… the suits are all henchmen, even if the Spades kind of bend the definition? Are you all in the guild?”
“Oh yes. The guild accepts the appropriate contracted pay, and makes certain we all get our appropriate wages.”
“How does that work for you? You’re only here because he could make your head pop off.”
“True… but the guild sees no problem with coerced labor — they just refuse to let their clients coerce that labor into accepting less money. I’m paid quite handsomely for what I do, especially given my specialized skills. Not that I have anywhere at all to spend that money.”
I nodded towards Trey again. Her dance-katas were very intricate now. “I think she thinks of herself as a supervillain.”
“She thinks of herself as the future Mrs. Oaknavés, and expects a certain respect for that. And gets angry when she doesn’t get it, which is often.” Madam Bank lifted her head, her chin up a bit higher now. “All of the Hearts feel that way, really. Every one of them — male or female, cis, trans or asexual. They all adore him, and expect that they’re the one true assistant, the most precious of pearls, the one who truly connects with the Jack O’Knaves himself. That’s why she’s so angry with you.” Madam Bank watched as Trey moved faster still, her movements beautiful and deadly all at once. “She’s with you, and two other Hearts are with Mister Oaknavés.”
I watched her too. “Why would she be so devoted to him?” I asked. “Why would anyone—”
“That’s something each of them will need to tell you. I expect its different for them all. Though that should be a hint to you. We’ve stipulated that Mister Oaknavés is insane. You must understand he is also a genius — as intelligent and skilled as Leonardo Lucas, or the Nightwatch himself.”
“Is that why he needs fifty-two henchmen organized by color and symbol?”
“Fifty-two? Oh no no no. He has thirty-six henchmen. Well, thirty-five with Deuce’s death.”
“Wait — thirty-six?”
“Of course. Each suit has nine henchmen, numbered two through ten.” Madam Bank looked at me. “Mister Oaknavés doesn’t like aces, so he doesn’t employ them.”
“What about… I don’t know. Kings or Queens?”
“Obviously, he doesn’t have any other Jacks, and as obviously he won’t generally have higher cards than he himself is implied to be. Whenever you hear of a King or Queen among his pack, it will generally mean some dupe — someone he intends to kill his a horribly ironic way.”
I sort of laughed. “More than the rest of us?”
“I don’t get it. If he’s got all this money coming in… why is… why does he commit crimes? And why does he kill people?”
Madam Bank’s expression didn’t change. “You’re right. You don’t get it. He’s insane. He kills people because he kills people. His motivations are unknowable by rational minds.”
I looked down, perhaps a bit frustrated. “I don’t… I can’t accept that. Even serial killers have motivations — they may be insane, but they’re there.”
“So… is all this… is Dispater’s Vault just a means to an end?”
Madam Bank chuckled. “Not at all. First off, there are other investors involved — Mister Oaknavés is more the visionary behind it than the manager. Secondly… he feels at home in a world like this, so he created one. He created several, really. Though he could lose it all tomorrow and keep going. He’s done it before.”
“But no one knows why.”
“So he does it for who-knows. Trey there does it for him. You do it because you don’t want to get blown up. Doesn’t anyone here just do it for the money?”
Madam Bank smiled. It was a tight, unhappy smile. “Of course, Mister Chapman. The Clubs and the Spades generally look to get paid — in money or in power. And what some of them are willing to do for that money keeps me up at night, sometimes. It’s one thing to be insane, to have — as you say — some twisted, irrational motivation. It’s quite another to do horrible things purely because someone will pay for it. I’m not sure which frighten me more. Perhaps your book will tell me.”
“Heh. If I ever get to write it.”
“Oh, you’ll write it. Trust me. I’m the Banker. And the house doesn’t bet hunches. In the end, it always comes out ahead.”