Frank paced the room. A big smile on his face.
“The Mastermind. I can’t believe it!” Frank said. “The greatest supervillain whoever lived. After all this…it’s my childhood hero who gets to save my beacon.”
“The receptionist will have the special instructions regarding the case,” he said. “Tak’em with ya. Follow’em closely. He’ll be meeting you at a bus stop downtown.”
“A bus stop?”
“Yeah,” Becker said. “I guess retirement isn’t too profitable an occupation. Ha, ah!”
Frank’s excitement faded. His smile wilted.
“I’m…on it,” he said. Frank turned and headed to the elevator.
“Oh, and Frank?” Becker said.
“I really had to step up to bat for you on this one,” Becker said, bunting an imaginary bat. “Some of the board wanted to fire ya. I convinced the right people you were still an asset to the company. So, don’t mess this one up. You do, not even I can protect you. This is sink or swim time. Do or die time. Okay? By the end of this, you’re either in…or you’re out. I’m talking all the way out sonny boy. That is…unless you wanna play it safe. I could always pass this on to Karen.”
“Not on your life.”
Frank’s Lamborghini came to a halt in front of the designated downtown bus stop. A slightly overweight man was sitting on a green bench. He was dressed in a maroon sweater vest, khaki pants, and had on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. His hair was a smooth shade of iron grey. Fifties, just like Becker. Maybe closer to sixty. He looked tired. Like he hadn’t slept for some time. Just sitting there, he didn’t look like much. Like your average middle management drone. The kind who attended PTA meetings and drove minivans. The kind who’s main concerns revolved around how green his lawn was and how well his son’s paper route was doing. He didn’t look like the man who once brought Mr. Impossible to his knees. He certainly didn’t look like the man who single-handedly revolutionized modern villainy. Frank lowered the passenger window and flashed his billion-dollar smile.
“Hey handsome. Need a ride?” He asked.
The man raised his head. Smirked.
“That’s a pretty strange looking bus,” he said.
“They’re new,” Frank said. “Hop in, Mr. Warden.”
Arthur pushed himself up, walked over and opened the door.
“Frances Sonata. Oculux Limited,” Frank said. “It’s an honor meeting you.”
“Yeah. Pleasure,” Arthur said.
Arthur climbed in and closed the door. Frank pulled the shift into drive and took off. Having a closer look at the man, Frank noticed a tinge of discomfort in his eyes as if fighting to hold back some sort of pain.
“Did you bring the things I requested?” Arthur asked.
Frank pulled a black cell phone from his coat pocket. The gold Oculux logo was stamped on the back. He handed it to Arthur.
“I assume it’s a secure line?” He asked.
“Secure and untraceable,” Frank said. “I got you pre-approved for V.I.P. membership. So you’ll even have privacy from the Oculux databanks. The netbook is in the trunk, safe inside a lockbox.”
“Thank you,” Arthur said. “And the other thing?”
He retrieved a small orange bottle filled with pills from his pocket. No label or identification. Arthur took them.
“Was the formula I provided followed exactly?”
“I was told so,” Frank said. “Honestly I’m not much of a chemistry guy, but I’d trust Oculux scientists with my life. And I like my life,” he paused a moment. “Okay, I like it better on some days more than others, but still. It’s a good recommendation.”
Arthur nodded. He popped the cap and tossed a handful of pills into his mouth. Closed his eyes. Swallowed. He let out a sigh of relief and opened his eyes.
“Feel better?” Frank asked.
“For now,” Arthur said.
Frank’s eyes shifted from Arthur to the road and back.
“If…you don’t mind me asking. What are they?”
“You don’t know?” He asked.
“They neglected to tell me,” Frank said.
“I see,” Arthur said, scratching his nose. “These pills are for a certain condition I have. You see…I’m dying.”
A chill ran down Frank’s spine.
“Dying?” He asked.
“That’s right,” Arthur said. “I received the information in the mail yesterday.”
“Do you have a family Mr. Warden?” Frank asked. “If you don’t mind, that is.”
Arthur grinned. Not a polite grin. This one was genuine.
“Yes,” he said. “A wonderful family.”
“By the state of your smile…I’m going to assume they’re still in good health?”
Arthur’s smile faded a touch.
“Oh yes. Quite,” he said.
“Let me guess. A man like you, probably has a beautiful wife.” Frank asked.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Arthur said.
“Real special huh?”
“How many kids?” Frank asked. “I bet you have a ton.”
“I have three,” Arthur said. “A daughter and thre-, eh, two sons.”
Frank peaked a brow. Thought a moment. Then shook his head.
“Mind if I ask one more question?” Frank asked.
“Might as well,” Arthur said. “Though I reserve the right not to answer.”
“You were the greatest supervillain who ever existed,” Frank said. “Then you disappeared for fifteen years. I assume to start your family. I also assume you were happy during that time. Am I right?”
Arthur looked out the window.
“It started out that way,” he said. “Hasn’t exactly progressed like I’d imagined. You’d think years of immersing myself in ruthless pragmatism would’ve stamped out any notions of nostalgic romance, but I guess no matter what we do…no matter how much we cling to reality…we all still have that one little spec inside us. That one stain of childhood naiveté to keep us going. To keep us chasing that one stupid little dream. To make us believe we can achieve the impossible. Make us believe that after devoting your whole life to fighting men who can fly. Men who can bend space and time to their will. Men who can turn the very forces of nature against you, that you can be forever happy living peacefully in some quiet little suburb, sipping tea on Sundays. But that’s what being super is all about, isn’t it. Dedicating your life to a silly dream that you know deep down will never come true?” Arthur stayed quiet for a time, then looked over to Frank. “I’m sorry…I tend to ramble a lot these days. But you had an inquiry?”
“Oh, uh, yes,” Frank said, clearing his throat. “I’m usually not interested in the why, but I just want to know…the reason you’ve decided to go back into villainy…it’s about your family. Isn’t it?”
“Supervillainy can make you very rich,” he said. “But it can’t make you wealthy. The cape and cowl were everything to me. I never went to school. I certainly never went to college. No, when I gave it all up I spent my ill-gotten gains on insulating myself and my family. For someone like me, getting rid of an old life and buying a new one can be very expensive. In the end, I was left with a new name, new I.D, a beautiful family, enough money for a modest living, and no marketable skills. Believe it or not, but ‘supervillain’ isn’t exactly a much sought after item on a résumé.”
“I see,” he said.
“I suppose you’re worried about your commission?”
“No! Well…yes. I mean, normally, yes,” Frank said. “Not today. Not with you.”
“Is something wrong?” Arthur asked.
He took off his glasses and wiped them on his sweater vest. Frank noticed something odd. There was a faded scar that ran from Arthur’s hairline, all the way down to just beside his left eye.
“No,” Frank said. “But, like it or not, there isn’t much we can do without payment.”
“I realize reputation can only go so far,” Arthur said. “I was hoping we could work out a deal, but going by your reaction…I suppose I’ve wasted my time?”
“Not at all,” Frank said, “I have a solution for your problem, but just the one.”
“Then why the disappointment?”
“Because the solution is something you might not like.”
“How can you be sure?” Arthur asked.
“Because I don’t like it.”
“What do you have in mind?”
Frank turned into the parking lot of the High Brass Hotel. Most of the parking spaces were taken. Whole flurries of high-class cars of every make and model.
“Here we are,” Frank said.
“Where are we?” Arthur asked.
“Oculux went ahead and booked you a hotel,” he said. “If you don’t mind Mr. Warden, I’d like to continue our discussion in your suite.”
“I doubt a hotel will be any safer than right here,” Arthur said. “I’ve been in my share of hotels. They have notoriously thin walls, regardless of how expensive or fancy it may be.”
“That’s the awesome part,” Frank said. “Normally, yeah. This would be a pretty bad place to keep a secret, but each room has been detailed for maximum security and privacy.”
“That’s rather convenient,” Arthur said. “Are you sure the management can be trusted?”
“Oh I think so,” Frank said. “Oculux built the place.”
Frank grabbed the black case from the trunk and lead the way across the parking lot. The double doors were both rectangled panes of glass outlined by a reflective brass border. A thin man in a long grey jacket was standing by the door, hands behind his back.
“Evening Mr. Sonata,” the doorman said, reaching over and opening the door.
“Evening Phil,” Frank said. “Don’t go working too hard huh?”
“I’ll try not to sir.”
The lobby was busy, crowded with guests in tailored suits and designer dresses. Soft classical music played over the hotel speakers. A golden angel stood atop a stone fountain. Water flowed from an urn in her hands. There were two check-in desks. One on the right and another on the left. Both with smiling attendants in forest green blazers. Arthur noticed the guests weren’t the usual assortment of cigar munching elite. He recognized some of the older ones. His eyes widened. Mouth slowly curled into a grin.
“They’re all supervillains,” Arthur said, adjusting his glasses.
“The High Brass Hotel is officially a members-only establishment,” Frank said. “Unofficially, the membership requirement is being an Oculux client. And Oculux clients…”
“Are all supervillains,” Arthur said. “Yes, I understand. Fascinating.”
“I thought you’d like it.”
“Yes. Oh yes,” Arthur said. “Why…there’s Greg…Dinotron to you. Michael Peeno the Trench Gunner. And is that little Victor Nimha? He grew up handsome. I knew his father, you know. We fought Mr. Impossible together above the Sea of Eternity. He was a good man. Well…as good as a megalomaniac could be.”
“What happened?” Frank asked.
Arthur stopped. Massaged his temples.
“Are you alright?” Frank asked.
“Yes, yes,” Arthur said, digging into his pockets and pulling out his bottle of pills. His hands were shaking. “I just need my…”
“Let me,” Frank said. He took the bottle from Arthur and popped the lid open. “How many?”
Frank poured a few pills into his hand.
“Here,” he said.
Arthur took them. He through the pills into his mouth and swallowed. A sigh of relief followed.
“Take me to the room,” Arthur said. “Please.”
Frank lead Arthur to an elevator. The gold plated doors slid open. They stepped inside. Frank pressed the button. The doors slid open again a few moments later. Frank lead him down the carpeted hall. They stopped in front of a polished mahogany door. Frank took out a white card and swiped the key through the lock. A quick turn of the handle and he pushed open the door.
“Here you go,” Frank said. “Home sweet home…away…from home.”
Arthur walked in. Switched on the lights. It was a good sized room. They entered the living area. Wood floor. A cream colored “U” shaped couch at the center. A long redwood table in the middle. A pair of sliding doors lead out to a balcony. To the right was a fully stocked kitchen. Stove. Island. Counter. Refrigerator. Several cabinets. To the left was the bedroom. Queen sized bed. 66 inch flat screen television on the wall across from the bed. Bathroom located in the bedroom.
“Very nice,” Arthur said. He seemed more relaxed now.
“Glad you approve,” Frank said as he closed the door.
Arthur dropped onto the couch.
“May I please have the netbook?” Arthur asked.
Frank set the lockbox on the table. It had a glowing blue keypad on the side. He typed in the code. The locks snapped open.
“There you are,” Frank said.
“Thank you,” Arthur said. He took the netbook from the case. The computer was black with the golden Oculux logo on the top. Arthur opened it and powered it on. “Now. What were you saying?”
“Saying?” Frank asked.
“About your solution,” Arthur said.
“Oh yes,” Frank said. He walked over and sat across from Arthur. “Oculux is a company that normally sells any required and requested items to our customers. This is normally done through a contract. They provide payment or service in exchange for our professional help.”
“Well…Oculux has recently started a program for minor villains,” Frank said. “A sort of charity thing. Helps with taxes. Get’s us some positive press, you know?”
Arthur looked Frank in the eyes.
“Charity…” Arthur sighed.
“It’s called the PSA Program,” Frank said.
“PSA. You mean…a public service announcement?” Arthur asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “The Oculux PSA program basically helps approved supervillains get started in their careers. We provide everything they need. Their equipment, gimmicks, henchmen. Varies from package to package.”
“Oculux provides several options,” Frank said. “From basic to platinum. Each provides more options and perks. But the better the package, the more expensive it is. In exchange, you’ll work for us until you’ve paid back your expenses. This usually means playing the flunky throwaway villain in a sponsored PSA product. You know, anti-smoking, anti-drug, stay in school, don’t litter. We even do product placements. We’ll think up some gimmick about you being a villain that can specifically be beaten by office supplies or something. Yeah, you’ll have to play the fall guy for some real-life superheroes, but the sponsoring organization usually handles those details. Oculux just provides the villain.”
“A villain?” Arthur asked.
“Not real villains,” Frank said. “Officially they’re just actors. They usually get a new persona when they break into the big time. That’s also why we mainly work with newcomers. No real record.”
“And once the villain has done enough work?” Arthur asked.
“Well once Oculux has been reimbursed, the villain has no more obligation to us,” Frank said.
“And they can just go on their merry way huh?”
“But they don’t. Do they?”
“Nope,” Frank said. “Seventy-five percent end up making real contracts with us within six months.”
“That’s what I thought,” Arthur said. “Must be relatively new. Oculux had no such program when I was active. Did Becker think of it?”
“No,” Frank said. “I did.”
“You did?” Arthur asked.
“Well…my team did,” Frank said. “And technically we didn’t actually think of the idea. See, Oculux had been making those kinds of deals for decades. Ever since the great depression. But they were on a small time basis. Contract by contract. Friends helping out other friends. That sort of thing. My team and I constructed the program. One standard contract that could be tweaked to suit each customer.”
“Impressive,” Arthur said.
“Yeah! Uh, thanks,” Frank said. “Glad you think so.”
“Still…you were right,” Arthur said. “It doesn’t seem like a very dignified position.”
“No,” Frank said. “Not at all.”
“But…,” Arthur said, smiling. “For my purposes, it will be perfect.”
“Really?” Frank asked. “You mean, you’ll accept the contract?”
“Of course,” Arthur said. “And even if I did disapprove…my current circumstances prevent me from rejecting your proposal.”
“Wonderful,” Frank said. “I’ll have the contract sent to you within a few hours. Look it over. Make your choices and we’ll get to work. Oh, are you going by Mastermind still? Or would you rather go by a new name.”
Arthur thought a moment. He leaned back and stared at the floor.
“No,” he said. “Mastermind will do just fine.”
“Alright,” Frank said. “Do you have any more questions about the program? I’ll be glad to answer them for you .”
“No,” Arthur said. “I think that will conclude our business for tonight. Thank you.”
“Okay great,” Frank said, standing up. “I’ll let you get some rest and-”
“No,” Arthur said.
Frank tilted his head.
“But I thought you said-”
“Our business may be concluded for tonight, but that doesn’t mean I want you to leave quite yet,” Arthur said.
Frank sat back down.
“Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” Arthur said. “But that has nothing to do with why I want you to stay.”
“Okay…what’s on your mind?”
Arthur leaned forward. Elbows on his legs. Fingers interlocked.
“There’s been something on my mind,” he said. “Ever since I saw your face.”
“Yes,” Arthur said. “It’s familiar to me.”
“Believe me. We’ve never met before.” Frank laughed. “I’d remember.”
“No, no,” Arthur said. “Tell me. Do you come from an old Italian family?”
“Well, some records place us originating in Sicily,” Frank said. “But technically, yes.”
“You’re father…,” Arthur said. “He was a professional assassin. Wasn’t he?”
Frank’s eyes darkened. He stood up. Buttoned his suit jacket.
“Excuse me, Mr. Warden,” Frank said. “I have an early day tomorrow.”
He made his way to the door.
“Uccidete il lupo. Risparmiare le pecore,” Arthur said. “Hunt the wolf. Spare the sheep.”
Frank stopped. Half turned toward Arthur.
“How do you know that?” Frank asked.
“Do you have any siblings?”
“Yes,” Frank said. “An older brother. A younger brother and-”
“A twin sister.”
Frank swallowed. Jaw clenched.
“Yeah,” he said.
“She died,” Arthur said. “Didn’t she?”
“Why are you asking these questions?” Frank asked. “How did you know I had a sister? How did you know that phrase?”
“Because I knew your father,” Arthur said. “And he was a professional assassin. Wasn’t he?”
“Yes,” Frank said. “Just like his father and grandfather and so on. Just like he wanted us to be. He was the best money could buy. Made a name for himself in Italy, but…eventually had to flee here to America. It was just him, my older brother, and mom. Mom probably thought that life was over…then he discovered superheroes. He also discovered he was pretty good at killing superheroes.”
“Eventually, he made a name for himself here too, in America. Didn’t he?” Arthur said. “For killing superheroes.”
“That’s right,” he said.
“Which heroes did he fight?”
“I don’t know,” Frank said. “Lot’s. I know he supposedly killed the original Black Hood.”
“Did he ever tell you about facing Mr. Impossible?” Arthur asked.
“No,” Frank said.
“He did, once,” Arthur said.
“How do you know?” Frank asked. “Were you a client of his? He never mentioned working for The Mastermind.”
“You’re right,” Arthur said. “I never worked with him. In fact…he never met The Mastermind. Not face to face.”
“Then how?” Frank asked.
“Because, although he never met the Mastermind. He has met me.”
“What’re you talking about?”
Arthur looked down and removed his glasses.
“It was the name, you know,” Arthur said. “He didn’t go by Sonata back then. But it was close enough. Close enough to get my mind ticking. That, and your face. Like it or not…you share quite a few facial similarities.”
Frank’s eye twitched.
“They changed our family name during the immigration process,” Frank said. “He used the old name for his…business.”
“As I thought,” he said. “You see I didn’t start out my super career as The Mastermind. I started years before that. I know about you, your siblings, your sister’s death, and your country of origin because I had to study your father. His moves. His techniques. Skills.”
“To stay alive,” Arthur said.
“You fought against him?”
“Yes,” Arthur said, picking up his head and looking right at Frank. He pointed to the scar on his face. “In fact, he gave me this scar.”
“Impossible,” Frank said. “Dad only hunted superheroes.”
“Impossible…,” Arthur repeated. “Quite right. You see. Before I was known as The Mastermind. I had another name. Another life. Before I became one of the most dangerous, most powerful, most terrifying villains ever to walk the Earth…I was known…as Mr. Impossible.”