“We’re happy Empyreal City has welcomed us with open arms, and so it was an easy decision to pick up where the Mr. McLanahan and the Heel Cafes left off. Mastermind Cafe will now be sponsoring the school lunch program. I hope you don’t mind that we renamed it, but you know us mischievous rogues, always stealing something and giving it a new name. We’ll still be laying the smack down on hunger with our new Future Hostages Program. Because children are our future…hostages.” I winked and gave the assembled crowd of reporters a chuckle. Considering the hundreds pressed into the back of their press passes, they made sure to take it up and make it clear to everyone watching at home that this was all a little joke.
“Now, I know you all must be brimming with questions. Normally, I would love to stay and open myself up to your interrogations, but I have other matters to see to. Please, allow my associate to answer your questions.” I held out a hand for the talker Genae had sent with me. Since she had the sales experience, I figured she’d have hired people to help do announcements. I figured right. If this fellow is any good at smooth-talking the reporters using the bundle of buzzwords and lies we fed him, I might have to learn his name.
But maybe not. That’s what I have Crash for. Normally, I neglect people because I don’t care enough to remember anything about them. With Crash around, though, I still don’t give a crap, but she remembers stuff for me, so now there are no consequences to me forgetting people.
We had curtailed any challenge from McLanahan’s businesses, even if they only threatened one smaller aspect of our operations. I know, coffeehouses don’t sound like a big deal, but you have to be ruthless in business. Notice how nobody in the company is named Ruth? Because we’re ruthless, baby.
The announcement had a couple other effects. For one, it’s now established Norma Mortenson as the publicly-known head of Double Cross. For another, it also showed that we were playing up villainy as a gimmick. Perhaps a gimmick in bad taste, but a gimmick nonetheless. It’s not that unusual at all with all the influence superheroes and villains have had on the public.
A third odd happening is that Crash, my assistant, ushered me past a few VIPs on my way to the car and I had to kiss some hands and shake some babies. Looking back, I don’t think I lingered longer than usual when I greeted Venus, but who knows? My nemesis holds a special place in my heart that often has unfortunate consequences. Half the time I want to kill her, and the other half I don’t. Really, if any feeling is more unusual for me, it’s the desire to not kill her. It’s certainly the more frustrating desire, especially in light of how much of my own secrets she’s uncovered. Perhaps that’s too generous a term for her asking the right questions while I was under the influence of magical truth serum. Kiddos, just say no to magic wands.
At least Crash got me to the car. I’d barely got in and got settled before asking her how I looked up there. “Friendly, but a little stiff. You had…um..menace, but hidden in there. Inwardly. Hidden. Buried. Latent, that’s the word. Latent menace.”
“Shit, that’s just what I need. Show off to a superhero that I’ve got hidden depths of evil. I bet people feel safe about letting me help their kids now.”
Crash concentrated on her tablet as she told me, “It’s not all bad. It may be I saw it because I’m used to you.”
I get the feeling there are still some hard feelings from making her drive down that subway tunnel and wreck her car to help me escape from a bank heist. “No offense taken, hon. By the way, how’d I look makeup-wise? You looked uneasy before I went on.”
She looked up at me, a hint of fear in her eyes. No, that’s bullshit. Saying that’s an easy way to have someone tell you an emotion without describing how they know it. Seeing as this is rather educational villainy, y’all want to know how I detected a hint of fear? She widened them a little bit. People tend to widen their eyes when startled, often by encountering something they don’t want to encounter. I think it has to do with the body’s process of determining whether a person should fight or fly by doing its best to be able to see the whole situation. In contrast, more hostile reactions involve narrowing the eyes and focusing on the target at the exclusion of everything else around.
I sighed and didn’t bother waiting for an answer. “I’ll just have to practice some more. Did I at least avoid looking like a whore?”
“There are hints of Bozo and Ronald McDonald in the eye shadow.”
“Always the damn eye shadow!” I threw up my hands. “You know how hard it is to find a color that works or just the correct amount of darker shadowing?”
She blinked at me.
“Ok, so I guess you do.”
“Did you used to-?” she started.
“-juggle? Only to pay my way through college,” I finished for her. “It’s safe to say I don’t have any balls on me to demonstrate, though. What about you? You juggle any? It can be tough. Sometimes you miscalculate and they slap you in the face. Whap!”
Crash just shook her head, which is admittedly a normal response to me. Something beeped on her tablet and she punched it up. “Ms. Kilgore still wants to talk with you. She said Mr. Rayman came to her with a problem about the shipping container. I think it’s about the sex slaves they found.”
“Good. Check in on Accounting. Make sure they’re honest. Have Carl the VP help you with that. He’s trustworthy, and he knows some guys who can rough up suits on his own. Security’s getting kinda low on manpower is why I say that. Did they ever say what happened at the labs the other day? I heard there was a bit of a fracas.”
“A fracas?” She raised an eyebrow.
“It’s like a hoedown with a brawl mixed in. Not as extreme as a skirmish, but stronger than a tussle. More like a scuffle or even a scrap with a hint of donnybrook.”
“You…are those…you know a lot of words.” Crash sounded rather surprised at that. As if I can’t know words. I know words very well. Anyone who has been paying attention to what I do to the English language should be aware that I know them Biblically as well. That is, I cursed them for what their ancient Anglo-Saxon roots did and have been treating them as my meaningless playthings while I think up new ways to destroy them.
Bible gets kinda dark in places. Not a book you’d want to expose children or little old ladies to.
I gave Kilgore a call. She said Rayman said that some guy came and delivered a message, and it said that I’m tired of fucking playing he-said-she-said. The last bit was my frustration. Some fellow calling himself Stang wanted to meet with me and negotiate repayment for our interception of the shipment of his girls. He’d send around a car to the front of Double Cross HQ, and permit me to bring along a bodyguard.
They’d permit me, would they? Well, I hope I have their permission to kick ass and breathe, because both of those come naturally to me.
I called up Ben after that so he’d have a team ready in case I had to push a panic button. “Any squad waiting close enough to be helpful would sour the deal. That’s not me being a downer, that’s just experience my experience with these talks.”
“Keep them around just in case and just send along your most expendable person.”
I met the sacrificial lamb security man five minutes before the car got to Double Cross Tower. “I’m Vasquez, ma’am,” he offered his hand.
I shook it. “Vasquez, huh?”
“Yes ma’am. My father has a proud tradition going back to the Aztecs themselves, he says.”
I looked him over. After a moment, he got the point, “My mother was black. If you have any reservations about me, I can contact Mr. Rayman about a replacement.”
I shook my head. “No, that’s not it. You just have a comfortingly familiar presence to you. Like I’d feel assured going into battle against aliens with you around, or having you take point in an abandoned building late at night.” After all, he’s a black guy named Vasquez. If he pulled out a flask and started trying to hit on me, he’d be guaranteed to attract any attack thrown at me. Shoot at me and the bullets would curve to hit him right in the ass. Ben might as well have sent along someone with a suit that had “Shoot me first” written on the back.
So the car pulls up, and it’s dark. All black, with windows too dark to see through. Even the rims are black. A nice, solid Cadillac car. Nothing that stands out too much aside from the overwhelming blackness. Which, combined with what I had to say about Vasquez, is starting to make me wonder about myself.
The car rested there for a couple of seconds before someone inside pushed the door open. Vasquez went first, poking his head in, then waved me over. I slid into the seat opposite a lone Asian-looking guy in a pinstriped suit and green vest. He smiled and motioned to the seat. “Hello Mrs. Mortenson. I’m Stang, the man behind the Empyreal City’s sex trade post-Spinetingler, aight?” He held his arms out all like “look at me!”
I smacked him in the chest and face with my purse. “Bitch, ain’t anybody ever told you to get out and hold open a motherfucking door? I’m a fucking lady, you wannabe pimp with a name like a wrestler-wannabe.”
He covered up, “Ah, ah! Lady! Stop! Geez!”
After I calmed down and returned to being more normal, delicate little self, Vasquez slid in next to me. “Everything OK in here?”
“Just teaching our host some manners. Stang, is it?”
Stang straightened out his jacket, trying to recollect his cool. “That’s right. You won’t look forward to a sting. It’ll already have happened.”
Who the fuck is this guy and where’d his brain go? This guy doesn’t act like he could be a head of lettuce.
“If you’re not here to talk seriously, we can just leave now,” I told him.
“You want to talk seriously? Fine. You stole my shipment. Worse you got the cops involved. You didn’t lead them to me or my friends, but I had plans for those girls. Now, they were worth a lot of money for me. You’re new in town,” As if you aren’t? “So I’ll take it easy on you. Make recompense. The full value of that container and half again.”
“Or what, you’ll call the cops on me?” I asked.
Stang’s grin disappeared. “I have friends and clients. There’s no reason we can’t make an arrangement and work this out. Wars are bad for business.”
“Yes, they are.” I checked around for connections, cameras, and whatnot. “Let us out here. We’ll be in touch. Perhaps this will work out well for us.” I smiled.
Stang looked confused as Vasquez and I got out. I began walking in the general direction of Double Cross. To Vasquez, I mentioned, “You know, I don’t really have what people would call morals, but there is something particularly unsettling to me about enslaving people and forcing them into prostitution. It’s not so much the prostitution part on its own as the bit where they’re forced into it. People do stuff like that, it reaffirms my stance on people.”
“There hasn’t been a villain or monster yet that wasn’t created by humans.” I stopped. “Here, stand right here.” I had Vasquez stand between me and a lamppost. “Then again, I doubt you deserved this, so it doesn’t make me look too much better.”
The lamp post exploded. Vasquez, the person picked specifically as the most expendable, bravely if inadvertently shielded me from the blast. Though my ears rang and I had a few minor burns, I escaped from this perfidious attempt to assassinate me mostly unharmed to give Rayman a call.
I also promised the best medical treatment for Vasquez, who might pull through just after Stang gets stung.