I took a deep breath, deciding to come clean with Marquez. That was the nice thing about always being anxious: I was so used to being nervous that times like these seemed normal. There and then, my face inches away from that of a potential supervillain, I could take a deep breath, deal with the fear I always seemed to deal with, and think clearly.
“My friend works for you,” I said.
“What’s your friend’s name?” Marquez asked.
“Blue,” I said.
She nodded her head in understanding, but didn’t pull back. I could feel her breath on my face. She was trying to intimidate me.
“Do you often spy on your friends?”
“Only when I think they might be working for a supervillainous organization.”
The second I said that, I caught a glance of Cathect’s horror-stricken face. If it terrified him, I had to be doing something right.
Marquez smiled. “Sum Industries no longer engages in illegal activity.”
“Sorry,” I said. “But it’ll take more than you saying it for me to believe it. After everything you guys have done? The Turtle Terrorist Attack in ‘71? Assassinating America’s first superhero governor in ‘86? The incredibly and annoyingly long Clone Battles which took place through like half of the ‘90s? That’s not something I can just up and forget. And that barely scratches the surface of what you guys have done. Almost every major supervillain has held some position or other at Sum Industries. And almost every major superhero has had to go and stop you guys.”
Finally she pulled away. I didn’t let out a sigh of relief, though. Doing that would show weakness, and showing weakness in front of Marquez didn’t strike me as a grade A idea.
“Most people forget about the turtles,” she said. “Despite how formidable they were.” She looked at me, waiting for me to speak. I wondered if she wanted my opinion, or if she just didn’t have anything else to say on the matter.
“They’re up there,” I said. “But they’re definitely not the worst. Things got way worse when Hell opened up and all those demons attacked.” I shot Hellfire a glance. “No offense.”
“None taken,” he said.
“You know your metahuman history,” Marquez said.
“Both my moms are really into metahuman history,” I said. “Both my moms lived close to it.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“What did they do?” she asked.
I wished she hadn’t. Somehow, telling her too much about my life seemed like a bad idea. I don’t know. It’s just that I have a policy about not getting too chummy with supervillains. Like, how could that ever be a good idea? You don’t want to be like, ‘Hey, murderer. This bloody crime scene you just created is pretty gruesome. Wanna grab a cup of coffee later?’ It just didn’t feel right.
“One mom works for Metahuman Affairs. The other worked for the police.” It hurt that I had to say ‘worked’. I felt bad for mom. I hoped she found something good to do, soon.
“Interesting,” she said. “Those two must have had a lot to talk about.”
They did. Metahuman Affairs and the police had a rough relationship, to say the least. MA were the guys who sanctioned superheroes, and superhero groups, and all that. But the police were the guys on the ground, the guys doing the debriefings. MA tended to look down on the police for not being as involved in the metahuman world, while the police tended to think MA was snobbish and flighty. Basically the police thought that MA people were so focused on flashy metahuman crime that they missed a lot of the bigger problems, the deeper issues.
“Yeah,” I said. “They did.”
Marquez glared at me for half a moment, like she had to think, but not for too long.
“You’ve got a lot of courage,” she said. “You know the metahuman world, and you’ve got a lot of courage. You’re spindly and easily breakable, but you definitely interest me.”
Spindly? Why would you call someone spindly?
“Is that a good thing?” I asked. “A bad thing?”
“Depends on your perspective,” Marquez said. “I want you to work for me. All three of you.”
“We work for Metahuman Affairs,” Hellfire said.
“I respect that,” Marquez said. “What I’m talking about here wouldn’t be life-consuming. It would be side work, something you could do in-between whatever government summons you deal with.”
“Would we be working with Blue?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Same work she does?” Hellfire asked.
“Similar work,” she said.
“She puts in a lot of hours,” he said.
“Of her own volition,” Marquez said. “You could do as much or as little side work as you wanted. It would be freelance. I don’t care how you do it, so long as you get the job done.”
I bit my lip. How many reasons were there not to work for a supervillainous corporation?
One, I’m totally not a bad guy. Two, the greatest evil masterminds always kill their henchmen. Three, superheroes are scary. Four, Giant Mutant Bees. Five–
“You wouldn’t have to spy on her, anymore. You could be there, doing what she does. And have I mentioned the financial rewards?” she looked at the three of us, confident she could get us to join her.
I was less confident. There were just so many reasons it seemed like a bad idea.
“We’ll do it,” Hellfire said.
“Does he speak for all three of you?” she asked, looking at me and Cathect.
“Yeah,” Cathect said.
“Well…” I thought on it for a moment. “Yeah.” It was too late, anyway. I wasn’t going to abandon my team.
“Alright, then. It’s settled. You start tomorrow.” She didn’t bother to say goodbye. Instead, she swung around, walking straight back to Sum Industries. She jaywalked, but with confidence. Can you imagine that? Jaywalking and not even running? Not even being a little bit worried about getting hit by a car?
I hated to admit it, but she was cool.
“So that was an awful idea, right?” I asked. “We should totally not do it and just dodge her phone calls for the rest of our lives.”
“Keep your friends close,” Hellfire said. “And your enemies–”
“–closer,” Cathect said. “That was boring. If you want to be cool, you can’t just talk in cliches.”
“Dead,” Hellfire said. “I was going to say dead. Being close to your enemies means that you’re more easily able to kill them if they step out of line. Kill them, or bring them close to death.”
“Close to death?” I asked.
“I am Death,” Hellfire said.
Cathect seethed with excitement.
— — —
The next morning, Cathect, Hellfire, and I got ready for work. Blue wasn’t there, though. Had Marquez told her that we were working for Sum Industries now?
Hellfire and I both stood in front of the bathroom mirror.
“What do you think she wants from us?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You don’t think it’s just a good work ethic?”
“No,” he said.
I figured as much. Things couldn’t ever be that simple–especially in today’s economy. It was never, ‘Do your job well, then go home’. It was, ‘Do your job, do three other jobs, deal with minimum wage, and move on with your lives’. In this case, we weren’t working minimum wage. We were trading in all safety and sanity for a halfway decent paycheck. And the ability to get close to Marquez.
“Where’s my red tie?” Cathect shouted from his room. I glanced over at Hellfire, who was struggling to tie a red tie.
He shrugged. “I don’t own a tie.”
“Does Cathect own two?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders, so I asked, “Are you going to tell him you borrowed it?”
“He’ll figure it out,” Hellfire said.
Cathect bounded into the hallway and found the two of us.
“That’s my tie,” he said, pointing at Hellfire.
“Thanks,” Hellfire said.
“That’s my tie!”
“You own more than one?” Hellfire asked.
“Yeah,” Cathect said.
“Wear the other one.”
“You don’t understand,” Cathect said. “The red tie is the perfect tie. It’s cool, but also expresses a degree of professionalism. A man with a red tie is a man you can trust. My only other tie is black. That’s dour. That’s bleak! For the second day of work? Maybe I could wear it. But the first? The first day is all about impressions, and without the right tie I’m sunk!”
“I need this one,” Hellfire said.
“Why do you need that one?” Cathect asked. “Why can’t you just take the black one?”
“Because,” Hellfire said, a smirk on his face. “This one matches my skin tone.”
I laughed. “That’s funny. You’ve actually started making jokes.”
“You two are a bad influence.”
“I can’t say I disagree,” Cathect said.
“Why is Marquez making us dress like this, anyway?” I asked.
“In the email she said to dress formal,” Cathect said.
“Shouldn’t we be in our costumes or something?”
“They’re a corporation,” Cathect said.
“So they want us to look corporate-y?”
“Exactly,” Cathect said.
“What do you think we’ll be doing, anyway?” I asked.
“No clue,” Hellfire said. “Since we’re freelancers, we shouldn’t have to spend too much time at the headquarters.”
“Maybe she’s just going to give us an assignment and then tell us to get out?” I said.
“It’s possible,” Hellfire said.
— — —
Sum Industries Headquarters was massive. The lobby alone was big enough to house like twenty elephants. Not that they would need to house twenty elephants. Not that anyone would need to house twenty elephants, really. What would be the use of–
Right. The point.
The point was that it was super-huge and super-cool.
“Whoa,” Cathect said.
“High ceilings,” Hellfire said. “Like a cathedral.”
“Cathedral to the Church of Capitalism,” he said. “Hellfire’s not on fire, though. So it’s definitely not a religious cathedral.”
“I don’t set on fire whenever I walk into a cathedral,” Hellfire said. “Mild discomfort. That’s it.”
The three of us bumbled through the lobby and made our way to the reception desk. For a second, I didn’t see anybody there.
“Maybe they went on their–” I was about to say something about a coffee break, but suddenly I saw the receptionist. He was a two-foot tall gargoyle, whose wings flapped. He flew up out of the chair that was way too big for him, getting right in my face.
“Hey! Hi! How do you do?” the receptionist asked. He had an oddly cheerful way about him, but it was still super uncomfortable to have something flapping in my face like that.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t see you.”
“That’s alright,” the gargoyle said. “Most people don’t see me. On account of my being so short and all. Apparently the magician ran out of stone. Haha! You three are the new recruits, right?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“How could you tell?” Hellfire asked.
“You haven’t got your costumes on!” the gargoyle said.
“We were told to come in formal business wear,” I said.
“That’s because we haven’t provided you with your uniforms yet!” the gargoyle said. “Follow me.” And before we could say anything, he flew off. The three of us followed.
“Shouldn’t you stay at the front desk?” I asked.
“Haha! Don’t be silly! The Invisible Raccoon’s got it taken care of!”
Now, I know what you’re thinking. ‘Oh, that’s super interesting. Invisible Raccoon.’ But I’m not going to lie to you. I never saw the Invisible Raccoon. Never touched him, never heard from him. I never had any proof that he existed. I’m not entirely convinced that the Invisible Raccoon wasn’t some made-up thing that the gargoyle had been using to pull our leg. Or maybe I’d misheard him? But how many things sounded like raccoon? Baboon, maybe? But in this context it didn’t really make much of a difference whether it was an Invisible Baboon or an Invisible Raccoon. Both were strange, invisible animals who I didn’t entirely believe in.
“I like the costume I have now,” I said. “It’s a suit. It’s important for battle.
Hellfire spoke up, “I like my costume, too.”
“It’s just a leather jacket,” Cathect said, pleading with the gargoyle. “Please help us. Get him to take it off.”
“Haha!” the gargoyle exclaimed. “You guys are ridiculous.”
“And you’re a twelve-inch gargoyle,” Cathect said.
“I don’t want a new suit,” I said again, feeling like nobody had heard me.
“Twenty-four inch,” the gargoyle said, responding to Cathect and seeming to completely ignore me. “That’s not so weird.”
Cathect let it go at that. And before long, but not after walking through a couple more hallways, the gargoyle stopped in front of a door. He slowed down the flapping of his wings ever so slightly, so that he could become level with the door knob. With a slight struggle, he twisted the knob and pushed the door, letting us in.
We were met by a pretty bad-ass lady, who smiled as we entered. She sat on a swivel chair, in front of a rack of crazy-looking costumes.
“Pleasure to meet you,” she drawled, raising her hand up as if to shake it. She stayed seated, though, so I went over and shook her hand.
“You too,” Cathect said. “We weren’t expecting this, but I bet it’s going to be pretty cool, right? This is gonna be the coolest?”
“Guaranteed to make your superhero career much more interesting, if nothing else,” she replied. “A costume is so important for public perception after all. People thing they can just put on some lycra and fight crime, but doesn’t that look so ridiculous? You don’t want to be the one fighting supervillains in jeans.”
“I think I know what you mean,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “Because I hate repeating myself. Nano, I have something I think you’ll like very much, but since I like saving the best for last, it’ll take me a minute to get to you. First, Cathect.”
“Yes, ma’am?” He stepped forward, and actually looked a little nervous.
‘What’s your opinion on pyramids?”
“Don’t have one.”
“What’s your opinion on Aleister Crowley?”
“Don’t have one.”
“Then I suppose you won’t hate this outfit,” she said. “Bo?” She turned to face the bipedal gorilla, who grabbed a gold and purple outfit from the rack. It was basically a purple jumpsuit, with gold cuffs and a pyramid in the middle.
“That looks awful,” Cathect said. “My eyes already hurt.”
“Check the ass,” the fashion designer said.
The gorilla turned the suit around so that we could see the back. There was a marijuana leaf stamped on the butt.
“I’ll take it,” Cathect said. “Can I have two, in case one gets damaged?”
The fashion designer let out a bit of a smile. “Sure, we can arrange for that. Now, then. Hellfire.”
“I like the outfit I have.”
“I know,” she said.
“I don’t want you to give me a new outfit.”
“I know,” she said.
“So what are you going to do?”
“Give you a new outfit,” she said. She turned to Bo, who briefly left the room. “Though really,” she continued, “It’s more of the same.”
Bo came back, wheeling the rack into the room. Half the rack was taken up by ripped jeans, and the other half was taken up by leather jackets.
“You can’t wear the same leather jacket over and over again. But so long as you change the thing every once in a while–so long as you’re remotely hygienic–I don’t see any reason to make you change your look.”
“I do,” Cathect said. “He looks ridiculous.”
“Your costume has a weed leaf stamped on your butt,” I said. “You’re really still making fun of the leather jacket?”
“I like to think of the weed leaf as a political statement, not a fashionable one,” Cathect said. “Still, I’ll admit that you have a point.”
Bo stood next to the rack filled with leather jackets, and Hellfire genuinely looked happy. He wasn’t giving a cool guy smirk or a cold elusive stare or even an ‘I’m only happy because I’m in the middle of danger’ sort of half-smile. It was a full, true, genuine puppy dog smile.
“I like it,” he said.
“I knew you would,” the fashion designer said.
“Now you,” she said, swivelling her chair so as to face me. “You were a challenge.”
“Sorry?” I said. “Is it because I don’t wear the same thing over and over again? Sorry I don’t want a weed leaf stamped on my butt.”
“The problem is that there’s nothing that really sets you apart,” she said.
“Um, okay,” I said.
“Your problem is that you don’t have any superpowers. You don’t have any unifying theme. Aesthetically, you’re barren.”
“I’m kind of a lesbian,” I said. “And I know plaid is a stereotype, but I was thinking about it. And maybe being a bit of a stereotype isn’t a bad thing? I feel like, maybe if I wear some plaid, I’ll be more cool with who I am. Like, maybe the stereotype is a way of dealing with how I feel about myself? And anyway, plaid is really comfy.”
“No,” the designer said. “I don’t do plaid. Nor do I do stereotypes. But I was thinking about you–your aesthetic, the things that make you you.”
“Kindness?” I said. “Quick thinking?”
“No,” the designer replied. “You have this je ne sais quoi.”
“I don’t speak French.” I said.
“That’s it!” the designer said.
“Ignorance?” I asked. I mean she was being pretty rude so I was ready for another put-down.
“No,” she said. “You don’t have superpowers. And that makes you different from your teammates. Look at all the most famous non-superpowered heroes: Prometheus, Maya, Patriot Star. They all have personality. Big personality. The sort of personality that takes over a room.”
“Are you saying my superpower is personality?” I asked. Because really, that sounded dumb.
“For the love of Prada, shut up and let me speak,” the designer said. “You don’t have a superpower, but you still go out and fight bad guys who do. That’s insane. It requires spunk. And apparently, it’s a genetic trait.”
“You’re talking about my moms?”
“One of whom doesn’t have any sort of gift, both of whom still go out and fight the good fight. You beat the bad guys by not giving up. You beat the bad guys by outsmarting them. Somehow you’ve beaten The Hound, a telepath, and the sphinx. All without powers.”
“To be fair, it was really easy to beat The Hound.”
“He might not have been powerful, but the other two were,” the designer said. “So I wanted to make you a costume that represented that spunk, that rebellious attitude. But at the same time, I wanted something that could give you an edge–not give you a superpower, necessarily. But something that could give you a leg up.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“A gorilla suit.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. So I just stood there, blinking, wondering if I’d heard wrong. I looked over at Hellfire, who squinted slightly. Cathect held back laughter. Bo the bipedal gorilla didn’t have a facial expression I could decipher, and the designer stood there, smiling.
“Why?” I asked.
The designer broke into hysterical laughter.
“I’m not a gorilla?” I said.
That made the designer laugh even harder. When she started to calm down, she said, “I’m kidding of course. Bo, get the girl her costume.”
He did. It was a black bondage suit that had the words, “Normal Punk” scrawled across the forehead, in white, graffiti-esque font.
“That’s worse,” I said. “That’s so much worse than the gorilla suit.”