And here we have the Friday dose of Trey Being Interviewed, which is something of a lie. I mean, honestly — have we actually seen Trey interviewed yet? Maybe not. You may have guessed this particular story isn’t a novella like Interviewing Leather was.
For the record, that novella-length is something of a curse. I’d love to send Leather around — see if she’ll play in Peoria, but not many folks are interested in novellas these days. I thought seriously about expanding it into a short novel, but ‘expanding’ would mean close to doubling its length, and I don’t think that would serve the story at all. Clearly, I need to get a book contract or four somewhere, so an agent can decide to sell Interviewing Leather and other stories, because God knows short story anthologies are big business these days.
Regardless, have a new chapter.
*** *** *** ***
“Well now, aren’t you just a breath of fresh air?”
The speaker was an Asian man, dark haired and eyed about five foot eleven. He wore a white sweater vest over a blood red silk shirt, white pants, and a white derby hat. Both his hat and his lapel had a crest of four hearts on it, all in blood red to match the shirt. He was carrying a black umbrella that was apparently streaked with red. He looked disturbingly like Sylvester McCoy and Malcolm McDowell had an Asian child, and it practically looked like he’d teleported in front of me. Which he hadn’t, mind — I’d been looking down at the floor in the Hearts locker room, not looking around. Why? Because I was in a locker room frequented by female psychotics obsessed with a mass murderer — catching one of them nude when they didn’t want me to was less the stuff of goofy sitcoms and more the stuff of horrible death.
Regardless, I was looking up now. “How so?” I asked, looking around despite myself. Trey had gone in for a shower after her workout, which is why I was in there in the first place. I could still hear the water running — it was clearly one of those gymnasium spray types that didn’t so much wash the gunk off as sandblast a layer of skin and call it a day.
The man grinned, sidling over smoothly. Like Trey, his movements were smooth and calculated, only where she was targeting sex appeal, he was going for ‘interesting.’ Photonegative Charlie Chaplin? Some sort of clowning? Maybe. “Trust me — anyone in this room who’s not wearing a heart on their shirt or on their sleeve is refreshing. All the more so when they’re not armed. I mean, seriously — not even carrying a knife from the lounge or a particularly sharp pen? That’s either refreshingly guileless or just plain stupid, and either one of those is a novelty. Howdy, friend!” He held a hand out to me.
“….hi,” I said, smiling a bit despite myself, and reaching up to shake his hand. “Todd Chapman.”
“Oh I know, I know. You’re quite the talk of the town.” He shook firmly. “Sharp Top! Or just Sharp. I’d say I was just the Top but there’s such a thing as tempting fate. My card!” He let go of my hand, leaving a playing card in my hand. I was pretty sure he hadn’t palmed the card into it, but I’ll admit I hadn’t been paying attention to his grip. Which, thinking about it, may be the definition of close magic.
“Sharp Top?” I asked, glancing at the card. A pretty standard looking four of hearts. Turning it over, I saw the Jack O’Knaves’s grinning face in caricature, riding a pennyfarthing bicycle. It was a crisp card — brand new, from the feel. “I don’t get it.”
“Really? Wow — you need to get up to speed, Mister Chapman. Although I figure you’ve had a day so I’ll be charitable.”
“No no, I get it — I mean, I don’t, but I understand. It’s slang for a four of hearts.”
“Well, just a four. Any four. Except I’m not just any old four. Here’s a hint — fours are pointy. And so am I!” He winked. “Though I like to think I’m named for my razor sharp wit.”
“Gotcha. So you’re a heart — so you’re one of his assistants? Like Trey? Or Kick and Stick?”
“Half-right. I’m the Jack’s assistant, but I’m nothing like those painted tarts. Seriously, put any pneumatic showgirl in a tight enough swimsuit and she can misdirect. It takes real talent to do it in this sweater.” He winked. “Still, you’ve gotten some good information, which means you didn’t get it from Trey-gedy back there. But don’t worry — I’m here now, and I’ll make sure you get everything you need moving forward. It’s kind of my speciality!” He bowed, his hat tumbling off down his arm into his hand. He then flicked it up, spinning, stepping forward so it landed on his head, slightly askew.
“Your specialty? Talking to reporters?”
“Media relations! Talking to reporters, warming up the crowd. Customer care. Presenting the Master’s message — I’m good at it. In fact I’m great at it. So you can see how getting to know me would be to your advantage.” He slid next to me on the bench, butting my hip with his. “C’mon, get up. Let’s blow this place. I’ll take you up to the show floor — get you a steak in the buffet. My treat! Twice over, because just talking to me is a treat for you. How should we start? Oh, wait — I know this script!” He cleared his throat. “I was a poor young man walking the mean streets of Bay City, not ten dollars to my name, with only my brilliance and good looks to get me by. So, when I say I was poor, I mean I was only pulling down six figures, mind.” He leaned closer. “I have expensive tastes.”
“What the Hell are you doing?”
I blinked. Trey had emerged from the now silent shower area, with an oversized towel wrapped around her body and another around her hair. And if you stop to think about it, that suggests just how good Sharp Top was at misdirection. Sharp Top leaned back, sliding an arm around me. “Doing you a solid, honeybunch. My new friend Todd and I were going to get some food. I’d invite you along but I don’t think you know how to use a napkin.”
Trey narrowed her eyes. “I’d move over, Chapman. I’m pretty sure you can catch a disease from even casual contact.”
“Oh come on, babe. You don’t even want to talk to Chapman. Everyone knows it — God knows you have the poker face of a Cocker Spaniel. So I’ll take over. I’ll show him the sights, answer his questions, make him the toast of the underworld. You can go find yourself a new partner — maybe teach this one to keep her fool mouth shut.”
“The Boss told me to take care of Chapman.”
“Yeah, well, you did. You got him into the safe care of someone interesting. Now, your duty’s discharged.”
“Oh, is that what this is?” She leaned back, eyes flinty. “You seriously think you can get me in trouble with the Boss that easily?”
“Once again, someone in the room’s half right. I do seriously think. That’s what separates us. And coincidentally makes me a great interview subject.” He turned to face me. “So. Ask me a question, Todd.”
Now, the smart play would be to look clueless, maybe put my hands up, and say I didn’t want to get in the middle of this. Or go hide in a toilet stall. Naturally, I didn’t do any of that. “Is this really how it is here? Is every conversation an opportunity for insulting and backstabbing, or is this all just part of the show patter?”
“You’re catching us on a light day, Chapman,” Trey said. “But I promise it’s about to get more interesting.”
Sharp Top snorted. “Interesting? You don’t know the meaning of the word. Clearly, since you think it’s synonymous with ‘titillating.'”
“Spoken like a little troll.”
“Hey! I gave up my underbridge apartment, thank you very much!”
“Let me make myself clearer, Shit—”
“That’s Sharp. But you’re close.”
“Get out,” Trey hissed.
“Or what? You’ll attack me?” He snorted. “Not without giving Chapman a free show. You know he’s writing a book, not shooting a centerfold, ri—”
I’ll give Trey this — the woman knows how to tie a towel sarong. Throwing herself into a jumping side kick didn’t make the towel budge. Her foot slammed into the locker behind me, right about where Sharp Top’s head had been. He had done a forward roll right as she attacked, however, popping up with a twist and swinging around with the umbrella. Trey kicked off the locker, having unlimbered her hair towel, which she snapped around, wrapping the umbrella and yanking it to the side. This seemed to put Sharp Top off balance, until I realized he was using his side ‘fall’ to hook her body with his arm, dropping the umbrella and sliding up behind her, trying to bring her down. She twisted to the side, slapping out with her other arm which he absorbed with a block that seemed to knock him to the floor — another feint, since he turned it into what looked like a drunken leg-sweep. That took Trey’s legs out, but she ragdolled on the way down, landing smoothly into a roll away from Sharp Top.
The two rose on opposite sides of the locker room, any pretense gone from their faces. It was clear they loathed each other.
“Nice try,” Trey spat. “I’m not going to fail the Boss on your account.”
“You don’t deserve this assignment,” he hissed back. “The master gives you the world and you bitch about it! This is my job!”
“What the Hell are you—”
“This book is the master’s story!” Sharp Top screamed. “He’s letting the world know who he is and what he wants! The person who guides Todd Chapman through that story becomes the master’s brush, painting the world with his ideas! That guide will become inexorably tied to the master’s legend — burning with the fire of the Jack O’Knaves’s shining star. That’s supposed to be me, you bitch! And you’re too stupid to recognize the master’s gift for what it is!” He produced a knife seemingly from nowhere — blood red. It looked like one of those ceramic chef’s knives that were all the rage in some places.
Trey stared at him, almost agog. “…gift?” she asked.
“Of course! Well, if I kill you now, it won’t matter, will it?”
“So, are all those trinkets just… like, up your sleeve?”
The pair paused. Almost in unison, they looked at me.
“What?” Sharp Top asked.
“I know, I know. I’m not supposed to ask how you do the tricks, but seriously — I don’t understand how you can keep a playing card so crisp and keep cutlery up there. I mean, how much else have you gotten hidden away? And how long does it take to assemble everything when you shower?” Honestly, these were dumb questions and I knew it — at the same time, I was pretty sure these two weren’t kidding around. Sharp Top was literally about to kill Trey — or she was about to kill him preventing it. Was I bravely saving her life? Don’t be ridiculous — she didn’t need me. At the same time, if my presence got one or more of the Hearts killed, it was entirely possible the Jack O’Knaves would blame me for it.
“…I’ll show you a few tricks later,” Sharp Top said, smiling again. “The simple answer isn’t actually very simple. But we’ll have lots of time—”
“No,” Trey said, coolly. “You won’t. You’re moving on.”
Sharp Top paused for a moment, and chuckled. “Well, okay. Is it all right if I stay for the show? I mean, you do need to change out of that towel. Unless maybe that’s the new outfit for the Deucy-Tracy duo?”
Trey snorted, opening her locker. I noticed she was careful to not fully turn her back on Sharp Top. She pulled a bundle of clothing out. “You couldn’t afford the cover charge,” she said, faux sweetly. She turned to me. “Mister Chapman — we may have gotten off on the wrong foot. May. Tell you what. I’ll get dressed, and we can grab a sandwich while I start planning my talent search. Who knows — you might even have a good idea or two.” With one last poisonous glare at Sharp Top, she headed back into the shower area to dress.
Sharp Top watched her go, then swiveled on his foot to me, smiling. He bowed slightly. “You owe me one,” he stage-whispered. “Remember that when it comes time to write the book.”
“I… owe you one?” I asked.
“Absolutely. Someone had to point out the opportunity to poor Trey. She’s really not that good at strategic thinking. But give her turf to defend? Now that she can work with.” He winked again. “And now, she’s something you can work with. I’ll be seeing you again, son. Try not to get killed before then. I hate working funerals.”
I watched him slide out with another Chaplinesque waddle. I took a deep breath.
“Seriously,” Trey said, coming out, retoweling her hair. She was wearing a scoop neck sleeveless white leotard with the requisite three hearts on the front, and a pair of red and white short shorts. Her legs glistened a touch, and I realized she was wearing some kind of shimmery hose as well. “There are people in this world who would just be better across the board if they were dead, and he’s one of them.” She walked over to her locker. “I’m honestly unsure how he’s stayed alive until now.”
“You looked like you were trying pretty hard to change that,” I said, getting up slowly.
“Nah. If I were really trying to kill him, I’d have shot him.”
“With what gun?”
Trey looked over her shoulder. She half-smiled — maybe the first sign of actual humor I’d seen from her since she drew this assignment — and bent down. This was one of the straight-legged reaches like when she retrieved my backpack back in Minnesota. I wondered briefly if she always stayed ‘on,’ just in case. She scooped up one end of the towel she’d used to disarm Sharp Top, and snapped it.
A small pistol — derringer sized, but apparently made out of some kind of black and red ceramic, like Sharp Top’s knife, clattered to the floor.
“You think I’d be dumb enough to take a communal shower in this place without a gun?” she asked, retrieving the pistol. She reached behind her head with both hands, tying her hair back, and when she finished, it looked good and there was no sign of the weapon. “We’re not just exchanging playful banter, you know.”
“I… gathered,” I said. “How many weapons are you carrying?”
She considered. “Between the firearms, the knives, the taser…” she shrugged. “Enough. You should see one of the heavily armed henches. Let’s get a sandwich.”
I followed her out. I took a moment to really study her — I know, hard job, right? — and not only didn’t I see where she could possibly carry a gun in that outfit — I wasn’t even sure where she could carry a stamp.
And there was absolutely no sign of the pistol she’d showered with, and looking at her hair, I couldn’t even see where there’d be room for it.
She stopped suddenly, looking back over her shoulder. And again, there was a small smile. “You’re looking in the wrong place,” she said, slightly saucily, and winked before turning and walking again.
Say what you will — Sharp Top was right. Her demeanor had entirely changed. It was clearly good to be her turf.
Of course… so far it hadn’t looked like she was that good at protecting her turf, and I couldn’t help remembering what Trey said in the argument. If something happened to me… Trey would look bad.
“So,” I said, lightly. “Does anyone here not try to kill their coworkers?”
“Sure,” she answered. “They’re called corpses.”