The Big Man sits in a small and simple room, off from the side of his office.
He's all alone in that room, sitting behind a desk that costs more than most people see in their lifetimes. On the desk are six photographs: four women, two men. All of them are reasonably attractive, but each possess one small flaw that makes them memorable -- more desirable, somehow.
There's another room, beyond that small one. There's no door between them, but the wall has been specially made so that he can hear almost everything that goes on in it. Every creak, every footfall, every slap, every groan.
The six people he has photos of are in that other room, and they're !@#$ each other. He can't see them, but he can hear everything. And as he sits there, with his eyes closed, he imagines everything they're doing to each other. Who's doing what to whom, and with what, and from what angle.
It's one of the few things he does that really gets him off, these days. Once he was quite the connoisseur of flesh, and the fun, complex things one can do with it, but now he's really feeling his age -- at least, when it comes to that one little thing.
In terms of everything else, age hasn't slowed him down. He may appear thin and wrinkled where he was once stout and strong, but the weathering is all surface. Below the sallow, baggy skin he's as lithe and spry as he ever was.
But below the waist, something has withered and will not bloom without massive help, no matter how much top-grade pharmaceutical help his doctors give it.
This ritual is part of that help. There's a video camera in the room, and later that night he'll watch it. He'll see how close he was to imagining what really happened -- especially when his special actor chooses to reveal himself -- and the delicious difference between imagination and reality will fuel his lust enough to make his manhood stand up proudly for itself, once again.
And if he's lucky, he'll be able to time his release with the last, energetic act of that special actor...
There's a knock at the door. He scowls, but, knowing his factotum would only interrupt this ritual if it was extremely important, he presses the button on the desk that unlocks the door. He does not, however, open his eyes as the whip-thin man approaches.
"Sir, you asked to be informed if the SPYGOD situation deviated from how you anticipated."
"Has it, really?" The Big Man asks. His voice sounds as cracked and lined as his face, but it's still full and forceful enough to make the so-called powerful men of the world fear hearing it.
"His Agents are making certain inquiries. We think they might be going after the current roster--"
"Let them. Anyone they know about it is as expendable as the people we dealt with. Second rate losers and unnecessary risks, all of them."
"Yes, but they may be going after The Magician."
That gets The Big Man's attention. He opens his eyes and turns them on his servant, who shudders to see them so angry.
"How did they find out about him?"
"I don't know sir. We don't know. But word's come that his people are looking for the man who handles the retirements, and that's him."
"That's disturbing," The Big Man says, closing his eyes: "Tell his security details to expect my son. Tell my son to go get The Magician. Tell him I want him relocated as soon as possible."
"Well, sir, your son's in France," the factotum says, praying that doesn't become his epitaph. Fortunately, the old man's eyes don't open, and his hands don't leap up to choke him.
"Then tell the security detail to expect a relocation team. Have him removed as soon as possible. Take him to The Skull. I'll figure out what to do with him tomorrow."
"Yes sir. Is there anything else, sir?"
The Big Man shakes his head and gestures to the door. The factotum leaves quickly, carefully, and silently, hoping he hasn't ruined his master's ritual.
The timing couldn't be better. The actor The Big Man had the talk with, earlier tonight, is starting his special part of the show. Someone's asking what he's doing with that, which is how it usually starts.
But however it starts, it always ends in screams, which seems to be what he needs, these days.
Zachary Leighton is a magician. He always tells people that. If they cock and eyebrow and say "oh really," he makes a quarter fall out of their nose or pulls an endless handkerchief out of their pocket, depending on what he's got up his sleeve.
He doesn't make them smack their significant other or walk into traffic. Not anymore. He could, but he doesn't.
He's retired, you see.
But there was a time, years and years ago, when making someone engage in some spousal battery was the least of what he could do, and did do.
They said he was the greatest natural hypnotist of his time, but that was bull!@#$. He was not a hypnotist. Hypnosis doesn't make you do something you wouldn't normally do, or would find morally repugnant. You can hypnotize people into acting like a chicken on stage or spilling somewhat embarrassing secrets, but you can't talk them into lying, stealing, murder, or killing themselves.
No, what Zachary had was mind control. It was short term, and required full eye contact and verbal precision, but he could make just about anyone do just about anything for at least ten minutes, maybe more.
Now, with a gift like that, he could have had anything. He could have eked out a quiet life for himself, somewhere, asking for what he needed, and relying on the compliance of kind strangers.
But he discovered the power in his twenties, which was back in the 30's. In those more exciting and trying times, it seemed like just about anyone with a talent was putting on a costume and doing something amazing with them. Some were heroes, some were villains, and some didn't seem to know which they were from week to week.
Zachary? He didn't have a hard time figuring it out. He wanted what he wanted, and felt no need to stop anyone else from taking what they wanted, unless they both wanted the same exact thing. That made him a villain, he guessed, and after years of working and then not working, of having and then not having, but always needing and wanting, he was happy to take whatever name the papers and police wanted to give him.
As long as he could take what he wanted.
He dressed the part, in dapper, black coat tails and tophat, with a white domino mask and wand. He'd walk into banks and persuade the guards, tellers, and patrons to help him take the money out of the safe and put them into his waiting car. He'd walk into upscale stores and empty them of their best wares.
Sometimes he'd take home a comely customer for insurance, or fun. Sometimes he'd just want to enjoy his new things by himself. And he had a lot of things.
He wasn't a killer, at least not then. He actually prided himself on having a zero body count, unless you counted that one guard who had a heart attack after lifting all those heavy sacks of money in Chicago, that one time. His fault for not retiring early, Zachary figured.
He had nemeses. Mostly costumed superheroes, sometimes the occasional villain who was upset that he was getting away with it all too easily. Zachary thought it was all in good fun, and just took it in stride.
Until The Big Man got hold of him, anyway. Then things changed.
Suddenly they were all working for him. Suddenly they were all patriotic Americans, fighting against the Axis in the war that was on its way. Suddenly they were being shipped all over the country, there to be trained, renamed, and remade by the War Department, so they could go overseas and fight for America.
And spy, steal, sabotage, suborn, and slaughter for The Big Man.
The Magician didn't like it. Not one !@#$ bit. He didn't like being told what to do. He didn't like having to kill, either.
But The Big Man had him by the !@#$, and he wasn't letting go. You were either with him or against him, and those against him got rubbed out, one way or another. So Zachary had decided, very early on, that he was going to survive this, even if it !@#$ killed him.
And if it killed someone else, well... that's just how it went.
After the Armistice, most of the others stayed in character, and remained with the Occupation. Not Zachary: he was brought back to the states and put in a special team, doing special errands for The Big Man. He got a new name and some semblance of a new face, and then spent several decades keeping them both far from the light of day.
Most of what he did consisted of putting a word where it needed to go, on those occasions where The Big Man's powers weren't going to work so well. Mobsters, monsters, truly corrupt politicians, and fellow villains needed to be told where to get off and what to do when, which The Big Man couldn't compel, but his personal Magician could.
And then there were the retirements.
After The Left Handed Legion became The Legion, and membership in the fraternity became something of a generational thing, those members who really wanted to sell their franchise and hang it up had to be made to forget everything they'd ever done. This was done so they wouldn't blab when they got old and started losing their minds, or found religion or got remorseful. It was also done to avoid stray thoughts from leaking around telepaths, as well as keep them from being discovered by heroes who just wouldn't quit looking.
He performed the same service, under much duress, for those older, original villains who didn't retire, technically, but had since become Operators: handling the hiring out and recruitment of new blood while masquerading as normal elderly folks. Once they got too far gone, or started showing signs of remorse or regret, he'd step in to make sure they remembered nothing at all.
(It was kinder than killing them, of course, but The Big Man wasn't thinking with his heart. He just didn't want any suspicious deaths coming back to haunt him.)
That was his life for most of the past decades, right there: professional memory-destroyer. A mere hour and a few good scripts and he could have someone believing they'd always been John T. Polka, hairstylist and car salesman from Parma, Ohio. Every so often he'd work in some funny details (usually a taste for weird porn) but he found that The Big Man didn't have much of a sense of humor about that, so he kept it low key after a paycheck dock or two.
Past that, he was well cared for. Money rolled in whether he did anything or not. Anti-aging drugs kept him looking like he was in his 50's, when he was really much older. A team of security guards lived on either side of him, making sure he didn't get attacked in the middle of the night. He only had to make a phone call to get what he wanted, and it was there in an hour or two.
And if they did come after him, well... he had his powers. One look and a few words and no one would be shooting him.
Which is why he doesn't panic when he becomes aware, after waking up much earlier than usual, that something is wrong. The usual noises from the house on the left, closest to his bedroom, are not coming. They haven't changed watch shifts, which never happens.
He gets up out of bed, puts on a robe, and walks over to the other bedroom. He can't quite tell if they've changed shifts or not, but he just has the feeling something is not right. The car parked in the driveway hasn't moved. The house just seems too still.
He thinks to call and check, but that might give the game away. If whoever's doing this knows that he knows, he may have less time. And if he's wrong, he's wrong, and they can all laugh about it, however quietly.
He goes to his bedroom and quickly dresses in something casual -- something that'll get him through an airport pretty quickly. Then he goes downstairs to his office to grab the emergency suitcase he's been keeping just in case. Change of clothes, change of identity, lots of cash and easily-traded items, guns that don't show up on x-rays or other scans.
He's about to leave when he realizes he isn't alone. They've been here all along, watching, there in the dark. Probably wearing No-Suits, the !@#$.
"Drop your weapons," he says, looking around: "Kneel down on the floor. Pick one among you to come with me to the airport. The rest of you wait two minutes, then kill the other teams with you, then each other. Last person alive go walk into traffic. Tell no one I was here, what you were doing, or--"
"Oh shut up," one of them says, and the No-Suits drop their invisibility field. They're COMPANY Agents, wearing carapace armor and carrying very large, convincing weapons.
Each one has a special helmet. It looks like an old-style stereo speaker, only rounded to fit the contours of the human head.
Echo-location, The Magician realizes. They can't even see his eyes. No wonder they aren't doing what he tells him.
"I really don't like your tailor," he says, putting the now-useless suitcase down. When the taser hits he tries not to scream.
SPYGOD walks down a long hallway, and into a large room. The lights come on the moment he enters, and reveal a treasure trove of amazing and mysterious objects.
Trophies, one and all.
SPYGOD is the only one allowed into the trophy room. If he was anyone else, various things would have leaped into life and killed him in about twenty different ways. Not that he'd have much of a problem dodging them, of course, but then he's him, and that makes it something of a moot point.
He walks down one walkway, then another, and touches the glass on a large case. Behind the glass is a rack with room for five long, bat-shaped objects. One of them is filled with a black and white bat that's tricked out with diesel-punk knobs and wires. The other four are empty.
He reaches into his uniform and pulls out a long, black and white bat. It's the one he took from Columbine, the other day. He puts it next to the other bat, and then closes up the glass.
Three more and he'll have the full collection. This makes him chuckle, but not for long. He's here on other business.
Serious !@#$ business.
He goes to the end of that walkway, past the other glass cases with their strange objects on display, and comes up to a large, black box with a screen, and an old-time movie camera on the top. He runs a hand along the top, appreciatively, and turns it on.
There's a hum, and a burst of static. He runs his hand over the screen, feeling the tingling. Before long the blackness is gone and there's an image: blurry and indistinct, and more than a little flickery, but it's a chair.
"Come on, you old !@#$," SPYGOD shouts: "Your magic black box is on. Notice me."
It takes an hour. He sits the whole time, fuming and occasionally taking a call. But finally some wiry weed of a man comes by, on the other side, and notices the box is on.
"Hi there" SPYGOD says, waving theatrically: "You must be Hargreaves."
"How did you--"
"SPYGOD knows all."
"Shut up. Go get your boss. Tell him if he's here in five minutes I'll actually stick around to tell him what he needs to hear. Otherwise he gets to guess what I wanted."
The Big Man makes it there in less than two. He's clearly not happy, but does his best to disguise the irritation in his voice.
"Well, if isn't (REDACTED)," he says: "Nice to have you calling me. I didn't think this old thing still worked."
"It didn't, until about a week ago, Gilbert," SPYGOD says, not remotely surprised that The Big Man knows his real name: "We had someone come in and quietly fix your side of things, so we could have this little talk."
"I see. And we're having this conversation because you didn't feel like arresting me, then? Nice try, (REDACTED). The truth is that it's always worked. We built it to last. Your move."
"Queen takes Bishop. Check."
The Big Man raises an eyebrow: "If by Bishop you mean Magician, then we figured as much. Have fun with him. He only knows as much as I allowed him to know."
"Which is quite a lot, Gilbert. All the retirees? Plus all the dirt on The Legion, itself. Including where The Skull is currently parked."
That gets him riled up: "You had better consider that move very carefully, (REDACTED). There's a danger in taking a symbolic victory while the game is in its first moves."
"That's very true. And if I was playing the old game, I'd probably take that advice to heart. But this is a whole new game, now. The truth is that I no longer give a flying backwards !@#$ if it's too soon or too late."
"What do you want?"
"You under arrest. Your organization under arrest."
"That's not on the table."
"Yeah, I figured as much. I'll just settle for dead, then."
"No, I don't think so. Let me tell you what I have on the board. You know about our retirees, and our Operators--"
"All of whom you slaughtered, the other day."
"Not all of them. Just most of them. They'd gotten weak and complacent, anyway."
"That was pretty !@#$ merciless, even for you."
"Actually, I was merciful, (REDACTED). The poison gas went first. It put them to sleep and painlessly killed them long before the sludge gas turned on. I owed them something for their service, after all."
SPYGOD nods like he considered that, which he actually didn't (and is somewhat bothered that he failed to do so).
"So what else do I not know about, Gilbert?" He asks.
"Every so often, I go out in public, and I make a new friend," the old man says: "That one Agent of yours that you did away with the other day is just one. I have many more. A lot of them work in very important places. Nuclear plants, defense industries, the armed forces, intelligence organizations, even the White House, and especially the Secret Service."
"And I've got them on speed dial. And every so often, maybe once a month, or once a week, sometimes once a day, I call up my new friend and say 'don't.' And he or she does not do what I told them they should really do if I didn't tell them to do it. Like, say, cause a chain reaction, or shoot the President's daughters."
"I see," SPYGOD replies: "And you think this is going to stop me from coming after you?"
"I think it should give you pause-"
"I think !@#$ you," he says: "Go ahead, Gilbert. Nuke the !@#$ planet. Bomb the wrong !@#$ country. Sell secrets to the !@#$ Chinese. Shoot the whole First !@#$ Family and their !@#$ dog. All it means is that I'll find you that much faster, and put you down that much harder.
"Your move, !@#$ !@#$."
The old man blinks. Once, then twice. "Are you insane?"
"There's some serious theological debate on that, Gilbert. What isn't up for debate is how this happens. You go down. I do it. Either you come to me with your hands out and accept what's coming, or I come to you with my guns drawn and we see what happens."
"I guess we will," The Big Man says, still visibly shocked: "But-"
"And just so you know, we got to your mole in the White House a full week ago. She's been playing along with you ever since. She'll be calling you in about an hour to tell you to !@#$ off, Gilbert.
With that he stands up, unholsters his gun, and shoots the television. It explodes into black flinders and sets off a dozen alarms. But what can the security devices do?
It's his trophy room, so it's his rules.
"Yeah, get me the interrogation division," he says to his communicator on the way out: "I want our new guest singing like he's on X-Factor as of !@#$ yesterday. Threaten to pull his eyes out of his skull with rusty pliers if you have to. I want everything on The Big Man and I want it now, before we run out of counter-bluffs."
With that, he tries not to grin too widely (so the Legion mole he knows he has won't see) and heads off for the commissary. It's sausage pizza day, and that makes it a good day indeed.
* * *
The Big Man sits in his office, now. He looks at a telephone he bought for one special purpose.
He waits for it to ring. Fifty minutes, now. Soon to be fifty-one.
Is it war, then? Is it war so soon and he wasn't ready, yet? Did he not plan well enough?
Does he have a chance to win?
Fifty-two minutes. Any moment now...