Curveball Issue 21: This Mortal Coil

Part Four: Farraday City Bunker

“So,” Jenny says, “you’re a villain.”

Scrapper Jack doesn’t look up from his cards. “I figured the scar gave it away.”

“It is suitably villainous,” Jenny admits. It is—it’s a nasty, jagged thing that travels down the length of his left cheek, and it pushes the left side of his mouth down into a slight frown.

They’ve been playing cards all afternoon. Crossfire and CB are out running errands, and playing cards is better than just sitting around, awkwardly making small talk. It turns out Jack is a lot more amiable than he initially appears, and Jenny has found herself slowly warming up to him.

He’s also not a bad card player, which means Jenny doesn’t feel obliged to pretend she can’t play.

“Ex-villain, though,” Jack says. “I retired.”

“How does that work in the villain world?” Jenny studies her hand carefully, trying to decide whether to play it safe or go for the long shot.

“Tricky,” Jack says. “People show up on your doorstep and remind you about ‘that time when…’ and suddenly you’re back in because you owe them a favor.”

“Like the Godfather,” Jenny says. “Just when you’re out, they find a way to bring you back in.”

Jack laughs. “Yeah. Sorta like that. But most of my career I worked for Overmind, so there wasn’t a whole lot of that, and when there was it wasn’t… it didn’t get ugly. My reputation was a problem though. I was always worried about someone new on the block who figured they’d try to make a name for themselves, track me down, call me out, that kind of thing.”

“Did anyone ever try?”

“Twice,” Jack says.

“Do I want to know what happened?”

Jack glances up at her for a moment, then very deliberately places two cards in the discard pile.

Oh. Jenny slides two new cards across the table, and decides to change the subject a little.

They play two more hands before Jenny works up the courage to ask him about the scar.

“How’d you get it? You’re invulnerable, right? Like Regiment.”

“Regiment?” Jack looks up from his cards, surprised. “Uh. I guess. He’s actually a little higher on the scale than I am.”

“You heal, too,” Jenny says. “So you shouldn’t have any scars at all.”

“It’s complicated,” Jack says. “I got the scar the same time I turned into a Very Special Boy.”

“Do I want to know how that happened?”

“It’s your basic trauma-triggering-metahuman event,” Jack says. “A bunch of guys thought it would be a great idea to push my face into a table saw. As soon as it broke the skin I got real special, real fast. Not sure why the scar didn’t heal.”

Jenny wins two hands in a row.

“Glad we’re not playing for money,” Jack says. “Where’d you learn to play?”

“Cops,” Jenny says. “And CB. Cops and CB.”

“Right. Forrest. You’re Marty Forrest’s kid.”

Jenny stares at Jack in surprise. “You know my dad?”

Jack makes a face. “Not socially. He arrested me a few times.”

That’s a little too awkward, so they play a few more hands. Finally Jenny folds her cards on the table and stares straight at Jack. “I’m sorry, I have to ask this. It’s making me crazy.”

Jack raises an eyebrow and waits silently.

“Look, before I was like this—a metahuman—God, it still feels weird to say that out loud. Before, I didn’t really pay a whole lot of attention to it. I mean, not the big picture. I knew about various heroes, and my family was friends with all the Guardians, and I liked watching the news and reading about them as much as anyone else, but I didn’t really pay attention beyond the big issues.”

“Big issues,” Jack repeats.

“Yeah. Who’s trying to blow up the world, what laws are metahuman-related, that kind of thing.”

Jack nods.

“There was all this other stuff that I sort of noticed, but I didn’t really dwell on, and now that I’m… well… now that I’ve joined the club I’m noticing things that don’t make sense. And there’s a big one that I want to ask you.”

“OK,” Jack says.

“What the hell is the deal with women in this gig?” The question has been building for weeks, and Jenny is dimly aware that she’s shouting when she asks it.

Jack looks surprised. “What are you talking about?”

“Women,” Jenny repeats. “Half of the world’s population. Also—according to science—half of the world’s metahuman population.”

“Sure,” Jack says. “That works out about right, by my experience.”

“Not by mine,” Jenny snarls. “How many women hero metahumans can you think of?”

Jack frowns. “Well, there was Mental Marvel. She’s crazy now, right? And Desire…”

“Oh, Christ!” Jenny throws her hands in the air, shaking her head. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Two. Watch the news, read the newspapers, you’re lucky to hear about three or four. But on the villain side? Right off the top of my head I can think of Requiem, Nightshade, Earsplitter, Sidestep, Lotus, Darkmoon… I’m not even trying, and that’s just New York State!”

“Oh,” Jack says. “Yeah. Hero-side’s a sausage-fest. That’s true.”

“Why?” Jenny stands and starts to pace. “That’s the part I can’t understand.”

“Easy,” Jack says. “Women are evil.”

Jenny gives him a flat look.

The non-scarred side of Jack’s face twists into a grin. “Sorry. Couldn’t resist.”

“I’m serious,” Jenny says. “It makes no sense.”

“It makes perfect sense,” Jack says. “There’s still a glass ceiling. If you’re a villain, a glass ceiling is just one more thing to break on the way to getting what you want.”

“OK,” Jenny admits, “that does make sense. If you’re a sociopath.”

“That’s got nothing to do with it,” Jack says. “Look, I wasn’t especially open-minded when I was growing up. I didn’t specifically hate blacks, Latinos, women, gays, or anyone else in particular, but I sure as hell looked down on them. It wasn’t personal. Just the way I grew up.”

“And being a villain turned you into the progressive standard-bearer you are today?” Jenny asks, sarcasm oozing from every word.

“Cute. No, but one day I called Lotus ‘honey’ and she broke my damn jaw.”

Jenny’s eyes go wide.

Jack laughs. “Yeah. That got my attention. She was actually trying to do a lot more than that, so I got off pretty easy. I did what came natural, which was to jump in with both fists, and I got my ass handed to me. I was tougher, but she was stronger, and she was a lot better at fighting. I mean, scary good. Eventually I swallowed my pride, apologized, and asked her to teach me. She’s the reason I got so good at fighting speedsters.”

“So the trick to getting ahead in the villain world is to beat up anyone who crosses you,” Jenny says.

Jack shrugs. “That’s sort of how it works, yeah.”

“That’s got to be exhausting,” Jenny says.

“Look,” Jack says, “my perspective is kinda screwed, OK? So take it with a grain of salt… but however tiring you think it might be, it’s a lot more straightforward than how it works on the hero side. Think about Liberty—I got no problem saying he’s one of the good ones. Hell, a lot of us respected him, even if we didn’t particularly like him. He walked the walk. But think about what that meant.”

“What did it mean?” Jenny asks.

“He was standing up for truth, justice, apple pie, puppies and kittens, all the good things America is supposed to be,” Jack says. “In order to do that, he had to be all the good things America is supposed to be, which meant he had to toe the line.”

“He spoke out,” Jenny says defensively. “He admitted when he was wrong. He called out the government when it was wrong. He got put on Nixon’s shit-list because of some of the things he said. It was his duty as a citizen. That’s how he described it.”

“Good for him,” Jack says. “Seriously. He was a stand-up guy. But his duty as a citizen… that’s where it sticks. He was part of the thing. And when the thing went wrong, he couldn’t go outside of it and fix it from there—he had to use the thing to fix the thing. What would happen if he didn’t? He wouldn’t be Liberty any more. He’d be like Crossfire.”

She doesn’t answer.

“Look, I’m not attacking the guy,” Jack says. “Changing something from the inside, I can respect that, if that’s actually what you’re doing. But it’s slow. And what about the people who are around now, getting screwed over? That’s my point. The bad guys have a lot of genuine psychos, sickos, and assholes. But there’s also people who go bad because they don’t see a place at the table anywhere else. They keep getting told to be patient, wait their turn, all that crap, and one day they decide ‘no, fuck that.’ So they go to the other side. And the other side is more than happy to give ’em a shot.”

“Yeah?” Jenny shakes her head. “What about groups like the Reichstaadt?”

Jack makes a sour face. “Yeah, well… yeah. That’s the problem with the bad guys. There’s all kinds of assholes in there.”

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