4/ Henchman and The Secret

            The Secret came to my house.

Well sort of.  One minute I was sitting in the front of the TV with Dianne on my lap watching some lame reality TV show where contestants competed – it seemed – to find out who could make a bigger dick out of themselves.  The next I was in a completely white space, sitting at a jet black table on a jet black chair.  A figure appeared before me dressed in skin tight lycra patterned like a chess board, with a mask that had no mouth or eye holes.  And what a figure.  The curves on this woman were accentuated by the costume and she looked – well, you know.  Amazing.

            “Hello,” she said.  “Do you know who I am?”
“Sure,” I nodded.  I was amazed at the way her voice was in my ears and inside my head at the same time.  “You’re The Secret.”
“Yes,” She agreed.  The Secret is a fairly big deal.  She’s kind of middle-level as bad guys go, she’s battled some of the bigger name heroes, she’s had a fairly successful career and hasn’t been caught for any significant length of time. Plus, the way she looks makes her a big hit with the media.  There was a rumour, a few years ago, that she had dated The Flag for a while, which made for exciting gossip given that heroes and villains really aren’t supposed to meet in that way.

             “I’m here to offer you a job,” She said, holding a hand up to prevent my protest.  “I know.  You are trying to go straight.  I understand that.”  She was right.  Since my experience with Carnival I’d made a real attempt to stay clear of the Henchman life.  After all, Halfmoon could have killed me.  True, he didn’t generally murder people, but when you beat somebody up that badly they do sometimes die.  It could happen.  I didn’t want it to happen to me. 

So I’d found a job, somehow, working the checkout counter at a grocery store which was more progressive in its attitude to hiring ex-cons.  A generous, kindly policy which most of their staff repaid by robbing them blind.  I wasn’t one of those.  Going straight meant going straight for me.  Well, except for a six-pack of Coke which I had intended to pay them for but just kept forgetting about.  It was crummy work, but it was honest work.  Sometimes I even quite liked it.

“Here’s my pitch,” The Secret said.  “You come highly recommended.”
“I do?” I asked.  “Jose, I guess?”
“I don’t know a Jose,” The Secret told me.  “I’m planning something special and I need a solid crew behind me.  People who have proven they can be trusted to hold the line.  I’m told you are a person of that type.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said.
“Nonetheless, I wish to make you an offer.  It is your daughter’s tenth birthday in November, correct?”  I shivered.  I didn’t much like discussing my family with a powerful super-villain.  But I nodded.  She was a well-known telepath and could clearly just pluck this stuff out of my mind.  “I need you for six months.  I will pay you top dollar.  The sort of money I’d normally pay for powered operatives.  Your time will be spent training and you will have very reputable instructors.  I wish to hone you to the best you can be, within the time available.”
“And then what?” I asked.
“We will pull off an audacious crime the likes of which has rarely been seen and we will all be very, very rich.  You will receive one million dollars, cash, as a bonus payment beyond your regular wages, on successful completion of our adventure.  You will be able to buy your daughter any birthday gift she could ever want.”
“A million dollars?” I gaped.  “You’re shitting me?”
“I can assure you,” she said, and I could hear a smile in her voice even if I could not see her face, “I am absolutely not shitting you.”

As you can probably guess, I took the job.  There were a few more conversations with The Secret in the weird white room – which I later discovered was something called a Psi Space, created entirely in my mind.  Or in hers.  Or something.  To anybody near me while I was meeting The Secret it simply looked like I had fallen asleep.  Sometimes, I snored.  By the end of the week I was brought to the base to meet the others. 

It was a great location.  The Secret had hired the top two floors of the Carlton Francis Hotel, five star luxury in the city center.  The Carlton was used to having rich, strange guests who kept to themselves and handled the entire matter very discretely.  As I’ve said before, money talks.  The Secret was not short of cash.

The gang were very friendly and I quickly felt very much at home with them.  I was assisted, though, by two facts. The first is that news of my face off with Halfmoon had become something of an urban legend amongst our profession.  Apparently, Hank had been partially conscious and could remember my telling the hero where he could stick his threats.  He’d expanded on this story and added his colourful version of the fight which made me sound like I’d lasted far longer than the few seconds reality permitted.  Hank was not on this team, but word had spread.  The other thing was that I had been recommended for this gig by none other than my old team-mate Big Sue.

“Hey,” She grinned as I shook her giant hand.  Big Sue was, if anything, bigger than ever.  She wore an eye patch now, which gave her a rakish look but did nothing to offset her intimidating size.  “I’m glad to see you’re okay,” I said.
“It was nothing,”
“A bullet in your eye was nothing?” I asked, sceptically.
“I have two,” she pointed out, reasonably.
“Thanks for recommending me for the job,” I told her.
“Of course,” She said.  “You were the first one of Leprechaun’s team to hit those Cops and I still remembering you pounding that guy’s shield with your sword.  If there hadn’t been so many of them I think you’d have taken him down with it.”
I wasn’t sure that was true at all, but I smiled anyway.  “I only got there because you were pushing me from behind, despite being shot in the face.”
She pulled me into a bearish hug.  “I’m glad to see you,” She said.

The Secret wasn’t kidding about the training.  All of us were expected to spend our days working with professional instructors that she brought in.  We learn martial arts, boxing, wrestling, demolitions, armed combat with various types of weapon.  Now look, I’m in my Forties and I wasn’t going to become some kind of ninja assassin after a few months training no matter how hard I tried, but as the weeks passed I did feel a change coming over me.  Over all of us.  We got fitter and leaner.  We got faster.  We got more confident.  Most of the stuff I was taught simply drifted out of my head, but the odd bits and pieces stuck.  And the amount that had gotten stuck began to accumulate.

            We found out just how much after a night off took us downtown to a bar called the Black Spot.  I was there with Big Sue, Henry, Madcap and Sebastian, who we all just called Seb.  Although any of the gang could have been there – there was nobody I didn’t like – this was my closest group of friends and we’d decided to spend some time together just hanging out.  We’d had a fair few jars and we were pretty merry.  Henry was looking quite a bit worse for wear and we’d lost Seb completely after he got talking to some chick and vanished somewhere with her.  Madcap, not his real name but one that suited his high energy personality, had just got another round of shots in.

“Hey, Mister,” A girl said to me.  She was tattooed and pierced all over the place, but pretty nonetheless.  She was, maybe, twenty-one.  “You’re too young for him,” Big Sue boomed, clapping me on the shoulder.  “Go find somebody your own age.”
“No,” The girl explained.  “Um.  I just…”
“What’s up?” I asked her.  She was clearly trying to get something out.
“Were you here with that other guy, the good-looking one with the blonde hair?”
“Sebastian?” I asked.   It sounded like she was describing him anyway.
“He’s in trouble out back.  Turner and his boys are giving him a beatdown for hooking up with Sally-Anne.”

We were out of the door in seconds.  Big Sue, despite her enormous size, easily got there first.  Henry, Madcap and I crashed into the street a second or two later. “This way,” Big Sue roared and we followed her along the bar front and around into the alley that led to the rear of the establishment.  It wasn’t a pretty scene.  Seb was on the floor.  There was a lot of blood.  Six big guys were standing around him, armed with sticks and metal bars. 

“You sure there are enough of you to beat one guy?” Henry roared.  The thugs looked up and clearly didn’t know what to make of us.  They found out soon enough.  I swear to God Big Sue could have taken them all by herself.  But she didn’t need to.  We were all there.  Henry crashed into one of the men, grabbed his hair and began smashing the back of his skull against the brick wall side of the bar.  Madcap leapfrogged one guy only to sweep his legs from behind and then throttle him.  For my own part, the training had reminded me of old boxing skills and I think it’s fair to say that I was probably better now than I ever had been.  Despite facing two opponents, it was fairly easy to smash their pig ugly faces while avoiding their poor attempts to strike me.

Big Sue threw one fella into a dumpster.  She literally picked him up above her head, bellowing like a whale, and smashed him down into the trash.  If this seems like a move aimed to pacify rather than harm then you clearly have not appreciated just how large Big Sue is.  We found out the next day that particularly asshole hadn’t survived the impact.  Big Sue had literally put him out with the trash. Forever.  I didn’t shed any tears.  These guys had clearly meant to kill Seb for no reason other than he had been making out with some girl they knew.  So fuck ‘em.

            Sebastian was out for four weeks and upon his return The Secret gave him a generous cash bonus and let him go.  I thought this was unfair.  Sebastian was a good guy and what had happened wasn’t his fault.  So I decided I should speak to the boss lady about it.  When I arrived at the penthouse room that was her private quarters she opened the door before I knocked, which caught me by surprise.  But she often caught me by surprise.  Being a telepath and all.

            “You wanted me?” She asked.
“Yes.  I was hoping to speak to you about Seb,” I explained.
“You think I should have kept him on staff?”
I nodded.  She knew what I was thinking anyway.  “I couldn’t,” She said.  “He had fallen behind in his training and he was not gifted enough to catch up.  I need you all at your peak standard.  We only have two months left.”
“He could have taken extra training,” I said.  “He’s a hard worker.  He’d have made sure he was up to scratch.”
“He was caught off guard by some run-of-the-mill bar toughs and beaten senseless,” She reminded me. 
“That could have happened to anyone!” I protested.
“Could it?” She asked.  And I thought about it.  Really thought about it.  Of course she was right.  Sebastian was careless, he got too easily distracted with girls.  And cars.  And keeping his hair just right.  It was much more likely that it would happen to him.  

But I wasn’t ready to give up yet.  “Okay,” I agreed.  “Maybe he was a more likely target.  But surely that experience would have shaken him enough to make him more careful?  Maybe he’d have grown as a result of it?” 
The Secret reached out and grasped my shoulders.  Her grip was surprisingly strong.  I found myself looking into her featureless mask and wondering what her face was like.
“One of the things I like about you,” She said.  “Is that you are loyal.  To your friends.  To your family.  And, I hope, ultimately you will be loyal to me.”
I nodded.  Of course I would.
“So understand this.  I let Sebastian go for his own good.  The encounter with those men did change him.  But not in a positive way.  He was severely shaken by it.  He could simply not be trusted in a tense situation.  He wouldn’t have been able to handle it and he would have gotten himself, or one of you, killed.  So I let him go.”
“I see,” I said.  And I did.  This woman could see everything that was going on inside a person’s head.  If she said he had a trauma to work through, it was very likely true.
“Very well then ,” She indicated the door.  But before I reached it I felt a force grip me securely and hold me still.  It was like being clamped in a vice.
“I do like you,” I heard her words directly in my mind now, very loud.  Intimidating.  “But I don’t have time to be questioned by you.  I make the decisions here.  The next time you challenge me, you’ll be out.”  And then the pressure was gone and the door was closing behind me.