“Don’t cry,” he told me. “I’ll let you go as soon as they pay up.”
“I’m not crying,” I replied.
“Oh.” He looked a little disappointed, though it was hard to tell behind the skull mask. “Could you cry a little? They tend to move faster if the hostage cries.”
I shrugged. “I could. Do you have some onion I can rub on my eyes?”
He thought for a moment. “I’ll be right back.”
He disappeared through a pair of heavy steel-plated doors, one of several around the large room. I sat in the steel chair that he tied me to, humming to myself and looking around. It wasn’t a bad place if one could overlook the general “evil lair” vibe. I’d always been a bit into the high-tech look, even if he did go a little overboard on the wall monitors. Were twelve really necessary? I would think any supervillain worth their salt could make do with eight.
He came back with a small onion in one hand and a can of cola in the other. “Is that for me?” I asked.
He hesitated. “Um, sure.”
“Are you going to untie me so I can drink it?”
He looked at me indecisively. I rolled my eyes. “Come on, do you really think I’m going to run? What am I gonna do, plow through your steel walls like a cartoon?”
He untied me. I popped open the can of cola and sipped it while he set up his equipment. He kept looking at me while he worked, as if all five-foot-four, hundred twenty pounds of me was going to try to fight my way past his six-foot-two wrestler’s build. I drink and wait.
“You’re awfully calm,” he commented, pushing buttons that I had no clue the function of.
“Not my first rodeo. You get used to being kidnapped when you choose a banking career in a city like this. I don’t mind that much. Banking’s pretty boring otherwise. You’re my first big league villain though. Most of the others were gun-to-the-head-and-run jobs.” I ran my gaze over him. “I dig the look, by the way. All the black and the skull. Kinda reminds me of the Reaper from Overwatch. You ever play that? Bill’s really into it. You remember Bill. Little dude with glasses. You put his head through the front window on the way out.”
“Right,” he said, and with a few more button pushes the screens flicked on and I saw myself looking back at us from twelve screens.
“Be honest. Do you play video games on these?”
“In between heists, yes. Could you sit back in the chair? It’s not going to look good if you don’t at least pretend to be scared.”
“Yes, yes,” I said, waving him off. “You can tie me back up. And give me that onion.”
He tied me back up — loosely this time — and I did my little act, rubbing onion in my eyes and blubbering a little message about hurry up and save me, then he got on and did his bad guy bit, threatening to separate my soul from my body if he didn’t get the contents of the bank vault within the next twenty-four hours. I untangled myself from the ropes while he sent the message off.
“Now what?” I asked, cleaning tears and onion juice from my face.
“What do you usually do to kill time?”
“Um,” he said. “Usually I keep the hostage locked up in the dungeon.”
“You have a dungeon?”
“Fine, it’s the supply closet in the basement where I keep the robots.”
“So they don’t run away?”
“That. And they tend to really bring down the mood with their sobbing and blubbering. Plus it makes for a good story when they get out if they think they were in a dungeon.”
“Supervillain cred, eh?”
“Yes. Very useful. Streamlines the next event by quite a lot.”
I picked the soda back up and took a long sip. “Well, I’m not sitting in your ‘dungeon’ for a whole day. Where’s your kitchen?”
“You got that onion from somewhere, right? I want to whip up some dinner. Getting kidnapped makes me hungry. You want some? I’m a really good cook.”
I could see him arguing with himself in his head. Breaking bread with the hostage would probably hurt his villain cred. But then again, being a single guy living in a steel-plated lair probably meant a lot of ramen and canned soup.
“Fine,” he said, and skulked after me, long black coat tails trailing behind him.
“Aren’t you going to scream?”
We were sitting across from each other at his tiny kitchen table. His larder was surprisingly well stocked, though most of it was ramen and canned soup like I expected. I was able to whip up grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches and a pretty good ham and potato soup. He watched me a little too closely during the cooking until I finally lost patience and shooed him out of the way, after which he stood aside awkwardly until I told him to stop gawking and set the damn table.
He had to take off his mask to eat, which he loathed to do as very few people had seen his face and lived, but I wasn’t about to carry hot soup to eat anywhere else so he relented. His face was actually kind of handsome in that brooding, stoic way, even if it was split into four or five pieces by an angry red scar that looked like a gnarly starfish burying itself in his skin.
“Usually people scream when they see the scar.”
“Would you like me to scream?”
Again, he seemed disappointed. I’d started to wonder if the inability to solicit fear from others left him insecure.
“How did you get it?” I inquired, gesturing with my soup spoon. He didn’t have hot sauce, which was too bad because the soup would be amazing with hot sauce.
“Same ol’ sob story. Rich absentee father, son of a mistress, his wife found out and cut up my face, he drove my mother and I out of the country to hide the story. Poverty, death, etcetera.”
“It’s not really a sob story if you tell it like that. Have you considered therapy?”
“How’d that turn out?”
“I found it’s more profitable to use my tragic past as a backstory than a reason to sob on some quack’s couch.”
“Fair enough.” I took a bite of my sandwich and gestured at his face as I chewed. “You shouldn’t worry about the scar so much. Some people dig scars.” He gave me a look that said he doubted me. “Well, I dig scars. I mean, you kinda have a Phantom of the Opera thing going on. It’s hot under the right circumstances.”
He looked down and ate in silence.
“Is your superpower really reaping souls?”
Compared to the rest of the lair, his private quarters were rather small and barren. After some convincing, he let me take a shower and clean up in his tiny bathroom. At least he kept it clean, rather impressive for a single guy. He sat on his bed just outside the bathroom door while I showered. The space was so narrow we barely needed to shout to hear each other over the running water.
“Then what’s all the reaper stuff you keep threatening people with?”
“Hard to explain. Think of it as a temporal displacement. I shake the soul loose from its body, but the tether between the two is not so easily broken. Given time, it will eventually return to the body, whether I put it back or not.”
“Doesn’t that mean your ‘victims’ aren’t really in any danger?”
“Not exactly. The natural return can take days or months. The body could rot before then.”
“Well, that’s unpleasant,” I said, stepping into the bathroom doorway. The only towel I could find lying around barely covered me from the top of my breast to the bottom of my hips. I cinched it around myself the best I could and ran a hand through the wet hair clinging to my neck. “Do you have a bigger towel?”
He turned to me, opened his mouth, then closed it.
“Nothing,” he said, tearing his eyes from my bare legs. “I’ll find you another towel.”
“Banking wasn’t what I really wanted to do. No kid says they want to grow up to be a banker. It’s just one of those things you fall into when you realize you’re not good at anything else.” I sat cross-legged on his bed, wearing a T-shirt he lent me. He was sitting in a chair to the side and we were eating ice cream straight from the carton. It was the world’s weirdest slumber party. “It made my parents happy though. A nice, stable career. Of course, after this they might rethink that.” He held out the carton and I took a spoonful of Rocky Road. “What about you? Did you dream about being a supervillain when you were a kid?”
“Not exactly. I mostly dreamed about having a roof over my head and eating something besides garbage.”
“You’re just one big depressing backstory, aren’t you?”
“For the most part.”
“Are all the supervillains like this?”
He thought for a moment. “Not all of us. Some just worship chaos.”
“How about Slimer?”
He shook his head. “She’s a whole other level of crazy.”
I arched a brow. “Really?”
“I should know. I dated her — if a two-day bender that ended with her blowing up the city square counts as dating.”
“Now that sounds like a story I want to hear.” I began reaching for more ice cream then changed my mind. “You don’t have whiskey, do you?”
“They turned over the gold bars?”
“They said they will when I hand you over,” he said, pulling his costume on over his broad chest. I saw him rub his neck absently, and wondered if sleeping on the couch in the screen room had given him sore muscles. I hadn’t asked to sleep in his bed, but he offered. It was a nice gesture.
“Just that easy?”
“Well, not exactly. I will have to rattle you a little so they don’t think I let you off easy.”
I poured coffee for both of us. “What’s that mean?”
“It means I’ll act like I’m handing you over peacefully, then shake your soul loose just enough so it looks like I’d killed you, then escape in the panic that follows. But I’ll be gentle, so you’ll recover in a few hours.”
I plopped down next to him on the couch, careful not to spill my coffee. “You’re out of cream.”
“I’ll put it on the list.”
“Is it going to hurt? The rattling, I mean.”
“Not as much as I tell people it does. More like a pinprick.”
“I can live with that. When’s the handoff?”
“At noon. Three hours from now.”
I looked up at the numerous screens on the wall. “Netflix and chill?”
It turned out to hurt a little more than a pinprick, but a little less than a flu shot. After the media circus died down and the hospital released me from observation, I went back to work. Bill, looking a little worse for wear, gave me a sympathetic nod when I walked in. He probably thought I’d gone through some traumatic ordeal much worse than his head going through the window.
Nothing much happened for several weeks. The news talked occasionally about the losses the city sustained from the Soul Reaper’s most recent exploit, but the mayor used my safety as justification for the cost. Human lives, he extolled, are worth much more than gold.
HR sent me to see a therapist, which was standard for those who have had traumatic encounters with villains, especially super ones. When I didn’t show any signs of trauma, they decided I must be in too much shock and should be transferred to another branch to avoid unnecessary triggers. I took it; the commute was shorter and the new office had a nice view over city square being rebuilt. After getting settled, things were mostly uneventful.
For about a month and a half, then the skull-headed robots burst through the front doors again.
“You must be terrified,” cooed the doting, grandmotherly teller as she buried my face into the shoulder of her floral blouse. “Oh, you poor dear. And you were just done with that nasty man and here he is again. Don’t you worry, he won’t hurt you.”
The other employees nodded in sympathetic agreement. Not returning their pity felt rude so I squeezed out a few tears. It was all very moving until he came over, casting his scary villain’s shadow over the hapless hostages.
“You leave her alone, you bad man!” Soft, wobbly arms tightened around me until I could barely breath. “You get out of here!”
“I need someone to open the safe,” he hissed. He was playing up the supervillain voice, which was kind of sexy. He reached down and yanked me out of the old woman’s arms roughly. “You’ll do.”
I let him drag me to the back of the bank, where I opened the safe without argument. His robots emptied it of its contents, which compared to the main bank were rather meager.
“Kind of a small score for you,” I said. “Don’t you usually fry bigger fish?”
“Yes,” he said, and slipped a piece of paper into my hand as the robots filed out. “Call me.”
“Will you do that breathy bad guy voice when I do?”
“I could.” He cleared his throat. “And you don’t have to arrive in ropes this time.”
“Alright.” I tucked the paper into my pocket. “And you don’t have to sleep on the couch.”