Interviewing Trey is up. I’m just in from seeing the Rifftrax Live production/riffing of Starship Troopers, and I’m fried as all get out, so I’m just throwing it straight to Chapman. Have a good weekend!
*** *** *** ***
I remember the first day I was backstage at a major concert.
I was never a rocker, no matter how much I might have wanted to be. I can’t sing worth a damn, I can’t play any instruments beyond high school band French Horn, and that never very well, I dance about as well as I float and I have the on-stage charisma of a bored city councilman during a bi-weekly zoning meeting. This is just part of the facts of my life.
But I wanted to rock.
I was a 90’s kid. As the age of 80’s musical ascendence gave way to the age of 90’s musical backlash and cynicism, I was caught with that weird sense that music was important, the ultimate drug, the ultimate cure for society, the ultimate magic. It was where feeling fused into fidelity, and as the excesses and hair metal and spandex were being burned away by grunge, here was always this sense that it was to get back to what was important — the music.
Yeah, writing this in the second decade of the 21st Century, it may seem naive or even alien to some of my readers. Music’s just this thing now to them — the lesser important element of some guy’s Youtube video, or a springboard for some teen’s descent into out of control spectacle for their tragedy and our entertainment. But back then? Back then we believed in music. We believed in rock.
The concert in question was Jo Halloway, post-grunge scene, pre-Lilith Fair ending. I was covering Bumbershoot up in Evergreen City, and I got a press pass. And I loved Jo Halloway. I loved how she made a guitar scream, how she growled into a microphone, how her words got your blood pounding and your mind fired. She was….
And then I was backstage, watching the roadies run things in. Watching the screwups as they tried to keep equipment live and fed. Watched as musicians came off stage and grabbed a drink or a smoke and bitched about the crowd. Watched as Jo Halloway sat in a chair, her forehead being wiped down by her assistant. “Hey, did we get those fucking reservations at Volterra? I swear to God if I don’t have the best fucking meal of my life waiting for me, I’m not even going back out there.” She looked at me. “God I hate my life.”
It was a significant moment for me. No matter how cool it was to be back there, it was… disillusioning isn’t even the right word. It was mundane. The performance happened because people worked their asses off to make the performance happen, and at the end of the day whether they loved or hated it, this was their job. They weren’t creating magic, they weren’t saving the world, and they weren’t somewhere we mortals couldn’t understand. They were just people.
That had been my experience in writing Low Society too. The supervillains of the world were everything from threats to theater, but at the end of the day they were doing pretty mundane jobs. Even powers didn’t change that. When you pull back the curtain, your perspective changes. The Wizard is just this guy working a projector. The monster is a guy in a rubber mask scaring Fred and Daphne away from gold doubloons.
Well, there was nothing masklike about the Jack O’Knaves. He was real through and through — a monster of monsters. But to get everything he did working, he needed his staff. He needed his roadies. His henchmen. His Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades.
Now that Trey had decided I was worth talking to, the curtain was being pulled back. And underneath it all, the place looked a Hell of a lot like the hospitality industry. And Trey? Trey wasn’t finding a replacement henchwoman of deadly skill and experience.
She was booking a new act.
We had commandeered a conference room down on the first staff level of Dispater’s Vault. It looked… well, exactly like you think it looked. Drop ceiling with acoustical tile and fluorescent lights, grey formica conference table complete with modern speakerphone in the middle of the table, slightly beat up black office chairs bought in bulk from Staples. There was a whiteboard which clearly doubled as a screen for the three year old projector on the table, had someone brought a laptop along. There was even the little dongle that you plugged into that laptop to make it work, with “Conf. Rm 3” written on it in Sharpie. Trey had commandeered pretty much the whole table, and had spread resumes and pictures along it. The pictures looked full on theatrical — paired headshot and full body. There were probably three women to each man. I got the feeling Trey wanted another female partner. “This is a waste of time,” she muttered.
“How so?” I asked, looking the pictures over. The group looked… well, generally tough. Low percentage of body fat. The pictures were in color, and generally had that retouched ‘we are trying to give you the best first impression feel.’ I glanced over the resumes as we were talking. All full of previous gigs, only instead of community theater and chorus lines, their experience was with third and fourth tier supervillains. Achievements listed successful bank robberies… ten minutes with these pictures would be Christmas and one’s birthday rolled up together for any given F.B.I. agent.
“Established henches don’t make good Hearts,” she said, looking carefully at a picture of a Latina woman. “Take her. Good face, excellent body. Looks like she’d be flexible. But see the tattoos on her arm? We’d have to cover those. It’s a pain in the ass.”
“Why would you need to cover them?”
“Because we produce their look. Look at me.” She sat up, posing in the chair, back arched for a moment. When she said ‘look at me,’ she meant it. “Even out of work clothes, I’m in a unitard with three hearts, my hair color and skin tone compliment that unitard, my hairstyle accents it, and nothing distracts from it. Too many Henches learn bad habits — they want to stand out, to be distinctive, to not be one of the pack.” She dropped the pose, pointing at the Latina again. “This girl’s great on paper. Knows two martial arts and has some acrobatics. Spent a lot of time with some good names. Did grunt work for Hoarfrost, had a season with Anchor as a bagman. Even did thug for Miss Direction. You’d think ‘hey — great! She’s pretty, has the right body, knows something about stage magic and wouldn’t need much training!’ But everything about her screams ‘I want people to pay attention to me!‘”
“You don’t want people to pay attention to you?” I asked. “No offense, but… well, the evidence—”
“I want people to pay attention to what the Boss wants people to pay attention to. When that needs to be me, I want every eye on me. When that needs to be something else, I want to be fucking invisible. If I look good — and I do look good — it’s because we want that sense of spectacle, of aesthetics, and yeah of ‘gorgeous babe’ to be a part of the Jack O’Knaves brand identity. I don’t matter to that.” She tapped the resume again. “This girl won’t get that. At least not fast enough. None of these people will. They see this as a career.”
“It’s not a career?”
“Working for the Boss is a calling. It would take too long to break these flotsam.”
“So why are you looking at the resumes?”
Trey snorted. “Why else? Fucking guild. When the top tier goes looking for talent, the guild requires we look at their established members, even if we have no intention of hiring any of them. So we’ll do some callbacks, we’ll have five or six of these guys come in under hands-off, we’ll do an interview and maybe a one-on-one audition, and then we won’t hire any of them.”
“What’s ‘under hands-off’ mean?”
Trey looked at me like I was mentally deficient. “Are you sure you’ve interviewed supervillains before?”
I half-smiled. “Pretty sure. But who knows?”
Trey shook her head. “Hands-off means we guarantee their safety. No death, no dismemberment, nothing that’ll leave a mark. The Boss works strong exclusively, and he’s got a rep for expressing his opinions in blood. We have to pay a major bond and sign paperwork that says their candidates will make it back home when we don’t hire them. It’s a pain in the ass.”
“Do they all make it home?”
“Nope. Some of them even know that. This one guy provoked the Boss intentionally. Turned out he had cancer — wanted to provide for his family, so decided to commit suicide by Jack O’Knaves.” She shook her head. “Dumb fuck.”
“The Jack didn’t kill him?”
“The Boss hired him, got him into aggressive cancer treatment, then killed his entire family. The guy’s still alive, a few levels down. He’s on ‘medical leave’ as far as the guild’s concerned.”
“They… must know the truth.”
“Of course they do. They just don’t care.”
I looked at the headshots on the table. “So why are all these people applying for work here? I mean, if they don’t have the ‘calling’ you mentioned — why would they take the risk of something horrible happening to them or their loved ones?”
Trey shrugged. “Money. It’s always money with these people. The Boss is top tier. The Henchmen proper — Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds and Spades — get guarantees of three hundred and sixty five thousand a year, paid out of a pool of thirty percent of any active job. That’s the standard twenty percent, plus ten percent hazard pay and yes-kill.”
“A thousand dollar a day guarantee? I know you said he’s top-tier, but almost every other guild henchman I’ve talked to has a twenty-four or thirty-six thousand dollar guarantee. Why is the Jack’s so high? Especially when we’re talking thirty-six henchmen — that’s a payroll of… what, thirteen million dollars a year and change?”
“Because the Boss isn’t working for profit. He has other plans and other reasons. He wants the absolute best, so he has to pay for the best. Besides, the thirty percent job cut doesn’t count our slice of Dispater’s Vault. The Hench pool gets two percent of the Greystone City Dispater’s Vault, plus a half-percent of Dispater’s Vault worldwide. We divide it up, then pay out our guild fees same as everyone else, but it still comes out to a lot of cash. These guys?” She waved her hand at the resumes on the table. “They want to come up here and work for three or four years, then cash out and retire.”
“Could you do that?”
“I wouldn’t. Ever.”
“Yeah, I know — but do you have the money?”
Trey shrugged. “I guess? Last I checked… I dunno. I probably have eight or nine million dollars banked right now? Maybe more? It’s all direct deposit.”
“That’s more than most successful full supervillains. By a long shot.”
She shrugged again. “It doesn’t matter. It’s just money. They pay me because they have to. It’s just sitting in dark side banks. Honestly, it’s just there in case of emergencies.”
“Like what? Medical issues? Family stuff?”
Trey laughed. “Um… no. If the whole organization gets cracked by the Nightwatch or Justice Wing or something, it’s seed capital I can give to the Boss so he can start over. It’s happened a couple of times — not since I came on board, but I’m ready.”
I cocked my head, looking at Trey. “How much of that money’s reserved for….”
“Well, for you?”
She looked a bit stunned — like she’d never considered the question. “Well, if Dispater’s Vault goes down but I get away, I’ll need to get hooked up with an apartment… still, I’d probably find a job or something. I dunno. Seems like a weird question. I’ll get by.”
I nodded slowly. “And you’re looking for someone like that? That’s what it takes to be a henchman?”
She laughed. “That’s what it takes to be a Heart. The other suits just want the cash. But we’re the top suit for a reason.”
“All right. So you’re going to interview these guys but not select any of them. How exactly are you going to find a replacement Deuce, then?”
Trey grinned. “Open auditions.”
I admit it. I stared again.
“You look dubious.”
“Of course I look dubious. Are you saying you take out an ad in the Greystone Sun?”
“Well, not quite. But think about it — do you think every person who works the floor of Dispater’s Vault gets recruited from the Hench’s guild? They don’t get a slice of the gate, you know.”
“What? The bartenders, the janitors, the—”
“Yeah — all those guys. We have to find them somewhere. And we do find them — because we do pay pretty damn well, even at their level, and in case you hadn’t noticed this economy sucks. Well, hand in hand with all of that we also have… no, can you guess?”
“Can you guess what people who work upstairs become the Heart talent pool? C’mon. Show me those journalistic chops. Put two and two together and try to get it within a range of three to five.” Her chin was up, her eyes on me. Since Sharp Top’s stunt, she’d reoriented somewhat — I was less her burden and more her turf now — but she clearly still didn’t like me. Or at least, she didn’t respect me.
I thought about what I’d seen — especially among the Hearts. Thought about Trey, and Deuce, and Sharp Top for that matter. Thought about Trey’s workout and her attitude.
And then it clicked.
“The showgirls,” I said.
“Showgirls, dancers, entertainers — you name it. There are a lot of those up there, because the only time we really get headliner acts is when we kidnap them, and that can draw the wrong kind of attention. Well, not counting when the Boss decides to stage a show for a two week run or something.” She leans forward. “There are a lot more performers out there than there are legitimate jobs for performers. Sometimes they fall on hard times or get blackballed or have problems or just fail. Word spreads — hey, here’s a place that’s hiring, but you’ve got to go underground, and as God is your witness you don’t want to tell anyone. The pay is good though, and it’s a chance to perform. If you’re hungry enough, you go.” She smiled, a bit wickedly. “That kind of person’s willing to adapt, to conform, to figure out what the Boss wants them to be. That kind of person’s looking for something more than a paycheck, even if that paycheck’s pretty good. C’mon, Chapman. You covered music, right? Didn’t you ever want to be a musician yourself? To be part of something amazing? To feel the crowd hanging on every second of the performance?”
“To rock,” I murmured.
“Exactly.” Trey shifted in her seat, coyly. “If you catch someone after their inevitable disillusionment but before they get cynical… before they decide there’s nothing for them… that’s something the Boss can work with.”
“You look for the wannabes before they realize the Wizard’s just a man behind a curtain pulling strings,” I said, softly.
“Not quite.” She leaned forward. “We want the people who’ve seen behind the curtain… but believe anyway. That is a Heart just waiting to be born.” She grinned. “When the Boss is done with them, they’re everything he needs.”
I felt a bit queasy. “Like you?”
She smiled even more broadly. “Exactly like me. Let’s go dump these on HR’s desk so I can get the audition notice drafted.”