Author's Note: Two members of the Justice League (DCAU version) will appear in this one, but I couldn't select their names from the local pulldown menus because they're too obscure to be listed therein. Neither superhero ever got a single line of dialogue in any episode of Justice League Unlimited; we merely saw them as "faces in the crowd" from time to time. This story is set a few months after they (and dozens of others) joined the League during the episode "Initiation."
One of the two is Nemesis (Tom Tresser); I prefer to save the other as a surprise. If you already know who Tom Tresser is in DC's comic books, then you can skip the rest of this introductory Note with no harm done. (I'm assuming his origin story and capabilities in the DCAU are virtually identical to what was established when he was the regular backup feature in the comic book series The Brave and the Bold in the early 1980s.) But if you're not familiar with the character, let me give you a quick idea of what to watch for in the actual story.
Nemesis has no true superpowers, but is a superb actor and master of disguise. He is also an inventor who uses some high-tech tricks to "change his face" more effectively than conventional theatrical techniques could ever do. He likes to wear a gun in a shoulder holster, but it is usually loaded with "mercy bullets"—another of his inventions; they are formed of a special chemical compound which knocks people unconscious upon contact without creating bloody gunshot wounds in the process. In his earliest appearances in the early 1980s, Nemesis's specialty was infiltrating criminal organizations so he could tear them down after he had gathered enough inside information. That seems to be approximately what he has in mind in this story, too.
Something Doesn't Smell Right
Chapter One: The Screening Process
The word was out in the city's underworld: Kovacs is hiring henchmen.
Not for himself, of course. Everyone knew he wasn't one of the capes-and-spandex set; not the sort of high-profile self-declared "mastermind" who always got a perverse thrill out of publicly taunting superheroes to try their best to find and capture himself and his flunkies . . . which then happened with depressing frequency.
No, Kovacs preferred to stay back out of the limelight and settle for a broker's commission as he attended to a necessary job that most supervillains had neither the time nor the patience to worry about: Interviewing, appraising, and sometimes hiring greedy men who wanted to be part of a big score and were ready to risk the wrath of a superhero or two along the way.
He'd been making his living this way for several years; his chosen field seemed to be recession-proof. There was always another supervillain around who wanted an "instant gang" to do his bidding, and was prepared to pay good money to jump-start the recruiting process. (A large cash retainer up front, of course—supervillains were poor credit risks.)
The only problem was that when you're a success in your field, your name gets around.
Not just among low-level punks, thugs, hoodlums, grifters, safecrackers, and other useful citizens, but sometimes reaching the ears of such troublesome riffraff as local cops, federal agents, and possibly the occasional superhero! Some of whom might even stoop to such duplicity as disguising themselves as honest criminals and trying to enlist for some shady enterprise or other so that they could learn as much as possible before signaling their friends and rolling up a whole gang with one lightning strike.
This was where Kovacs shone. He had a nose for phonies. Not infallible—precious few things were in this crazy world—but with a success rate way above average. And dozens of supervillains were keenly appreciative of that fact. Kovacs started each round of interviews with the assumption that at least one mole was trying to infiltrate whatever was brewing, and so he always rejected the person who "smelled" the fishiest—and usually brushed off a couple of other applicants, just to be on the safe side.
The "smells" in question were not literal odors—which was a good thing, as it happened, because today he probably wouldn't have noticed them! Several hours ago, Kovacs had woken up with very congested sinuses. Yesterday he'd been aware of a sore throat, but had dared to hope things wouldn't get any worse than that. Today he had to do most of his breathing through his mouth; his nasal passages were too clogged to serve as a source of oxygen.
Otherwise, he felt reasonably strong and alert—certainly in good enough shape to reserve a table at a nightclub and then just sit there for several hours, sipping one drink after another, while other people did all running around—coming in, trying to present themselves in the best possible light, and then being accepted or turned away.
Kovacs didn't always recruit in the same club, nor even the same city. No need to be too predictable. Although there were two cities he'd long since sworn to never visit again. You never quite knew when the Man of Steel might be monitoring the chit-chat in any given building in his beloved Metropolis, and as for Gotham . . . well, it had long been Kovacs's devout belief that anyone who tried to stir up trouble in Batman's burg was a masochist, a lunatic, or both!
(Kovacs was no fanatic about this, though—he was perfectly willing to recruit warm bodies for a villain who planned to operate in Metropolis or Gotham in the future, as long the masked client would accept a gang of out-of-town imports to supplement any local talent he'd managed to dredge up on his own.)
Tonight should be a typical piece of work. The club was The Grasshopper; the town was Opal City; there was no reason to think any superheroes were active in this area at the moment. It was only a few hours ago that Kovacs had given the word to several people in the local underworld, and they had started circulating it among the sort of people who might like to know that, once again, Kovacs was hiring; sitting all night at a table in The Grasshopper if anyone cared to drop by and apply for a job with an unspecified employer.
Ideally, he'd make his quota before any of the wrong element—the sort of people who join the Justice League, for instance—could hear about it and pop in!
He'd only been here for half an hour, and nobody had tried to wrangle a job yet.
Not that he'd been bored.
A few old acquaintances, well-settled with rackets of their own, were in the club tonight and had swung by his table just to say "hi"— and even before that, some dizzy French dame had tried to strike up an acquaintance right after he strolled in. Not a hustler looking for a john with a fat wallet; he could always spot those. And not a job applicant who wanted to prove she could do as good a job as any man where armed robbery was concerned.
Nah, this had just been a foreign gal with a commendably short skirt showing off a delectable pair of legs; a strawberry blond who was new in town and seemed rather lonely. The French accent added to her appeal, and under other circumstances Kovacs would have been delighted to say sympathetic things, buy her a drink, ask her to dance, and see how it went from there, but tonight he couldn't let himself get distracted from the business at hand. So he'd had to tell her he was going to be awful busy till the wee hours, and she'd finally shrugged philosophically and moved away—but not before asking if he'd be in here again tomorrow night. (He hadn't been planning on it, but had rewritten his plans in the blink of an eye by saying "yes.")
He suddenly realized he hadn't seen her for awhile. Maybe she'd decided no one else in here looked sufficiently handsome and refined for her sophisticated tastes, so she'd moved on to some other hot spot? The idea did not exactly bruise his ego.
She sure wasn't on the dance floor; he was facing in that direction and would've noticed. He was slowly rotating his head, double-checking to see if she might be perched on a barstool or something, when someone stepped up and blocked his view of the bar.
"Yes?" Kovacs looked up. The man staring down at him wore a long checked shirt, well-used blue jeans, and work boots. With that curly black beard and that hawk nose, he was made to order for the part of an extra in a show about lumberjacks—except that the visible portions of his skin didn't have much tan; as if he'd been spending all his time indoors lately. Or working at night and sleeping by day. Or imprisoned?
"I hear you're hiring for someone." The bearded man squeezed his hands together, as if unsure of what else to do with them. "I need the work, Mister Kovacs. I've been in a few tight spots and I don't squeal on nobody if I get caught."
Double negative, Kovacs thought. Strictly speaking, what you just said was that you do squeal on somebody. But I know that wasn't what you meant.
Kovacs asked him a few questions about this and that, and finally decided this guy was no genius, but probably sincere in his desire to make real money a lot faster than he could in any "honest" job. "Okay," Kovacs said finally, passing the applicant a slip of paper. "Tomorrow at seven p.m. you should be at this address. It's a warehouse near the docks. Just ring the bell at the front door and wait for someone to let you in."
It was a bit embarrassing when the man started to thank him effusively instead of just nodding and leaving—but Kovacs finally managed to get rid of the fellow without being too brusque about it.
Another prospect came over a few minutes later. He was wearing a dark green suit that Kovacs's trained eye estimated at two thousand dollars, minimum—probably bought within the last couple of months—and his shoes added at least five hundred more.
Not to mention the Rolex on the left wrist.
Kovacs liked what he saw—you didn't meet many cops who could afford to dude themselves up to that extent. This guy's wardrobe indicated he'd worked on some lucrative capers in the past.
This man introduced himself by name—Henry Eckhart. He was cagey. Without quite saying anything that could have been used against him in court, he indicated that he used to be part of a team of four. Sadly enough, the other three fellows were now facing hard time on a bank robbery rap after a run-in with Green Arrow in Star City.
Eckhart didn't say, in so many words, that he'd been part of that bank job and had been lucky enough to get away clean with a good piece of the loot while the Emerald Archer was scuffling with the others, but that thought was definitely hanging in the air. It would certainly explain how he could afford his sartorial style. Not to mention why he'd felt it advisable to relocate to a new city and then start looking for a new gang to run with.
Kovacs probed for details of the man's knowledge of modern security systems, vaults, and so forth, and concluded that the guy really had spent some time in banks after hours. He gave Eckhart the same instructions he'd given the lumberjack type, and Eckhart took the hint and moved away without trying to prolong the conversation.
This man was wearing an ordinary suit, probably bought off the rack in a department store, and not recently. "Thad Spangler," he said distinctly, and then reached up to nervously tug at his collar. The reason for his nervousness became clear a moment later, when he added, "I'm l-l-looking for work."
Looking at Spangler's thin-featured face and defensive manner, Kovacs could believe that any job application process was torture for a man who apparently stuttered when under stress. Fascinated by this, but polite enough not to express curiosity about the stutter per se, Kovacs went ahead with some routine questions about work history, technical skills, and so forth . . . more because of a desire to see and hear how the man answered them, than because of any profound interest in the details of what Spangler actually said.
He quickly decided that if the stutter were a deliberate put-on, it would have been a superb piece of acting. Kovacs couldn't remember ever meeting—nor even hearing of—any undercover cop who would humiliate himself in that particular way for the sake of seeming uncoplike. And there was no feeling that Spangler was hamming it up; no sense of hidden amusement in his eyes, or tone, or body language—he was just self-consciously ignoring his own stutter, and seemed relieved that Kovacs was making an effort to do the same!
In the end, it was an easy decision to make. The current client was not one of the glibbest supervillains who had ever walked the earth—but he rather liked to think he was. Having a henchman who sometimes spoke with a stutter would allow the client to feel vastly superior to the hired help in terms of oratory. And it was all about making the customer happy; especially when you were counting on getting a lot of repeat business!
Kovacs gave Spangler a card and told him to be there at seven o'clock tomorrow evening.
The next prospect was one of those strong silent types—and laying it on thick to make sure nobody missed the point.
A black man with a shaven head, wearing sunglasses he couldn't possibly need at this hour of the night, slid into a chair. Might be in his forties, but his leather jacket was open in front, showing off a tight shirt that made it clear the wearer was a husky fellow with no trace of a beer belly. Probably pumped iron three times a week in a local gym.
Given that Kovacs's current client had been known to complain, after previous capers, about some recruits not having enough wind when it was necessary to run through a tunnel, this athlete just might serve to show that Kovacs was doing his best to meet the client's standards.
It occurred to him that the black man still hadn't introduced himself, nor said anything at all—the first applicant tonight to take that approach. Kovacs gave the guy another minute, then asked in a bored tone, "Something you want?"
"Work." The voice was cold.
Kovacs leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. "Specifically?"
"Enforcement. Collections. Interrogations. Ask Prince Jonah about Delavane."
Prince Jonah was a local big shot in the rackets. Kovacs asked the obvious question: "If working for the Prince is going so well, why are you looking for a new job?"
The black man—called Delavane, evidently—smiled without any humor. "Starting six months vacation. Jonah doesn't mind."
Left unsaid was the idea that even if Prince Jonah were entirely satisfied with his flunky's work, there might be cogent reasons for his wanting Delavane to get out of town for awhile—to avoid forthcoming subpoenas, for instance.
Kovacs didn't care for the way this guy had responded in single-word sentences at first, but hey, it wasn't like they'd have to put up with each other every day from now on. The client might be charmed by this tough-and-terse approach.
On the other hand . . . if it turned out that the client were in the mood to hurt, or even kill, one of his new hires early on, calling it a disciplinary measure and turning the sap into an object lesson for all the other raw recruits, then Delavane with his surly attitude was likely to be first pick!
This thought cheered Kovacs considerably, and so it was with real warmth that he beamed at the black man, looking at where the eyes ought to be lurking behind those silly shades, and invited him to be at the front door of a certain warehouse tomorrow evening.
The latest prospect had a pale scar on the right side of his jaw—looked like an old knife wound (or a cut from some other straight edge). He settled into a chair and looked Kovacs straight in the eye. "Name's Farnham. Hear you're hirin'. I've got experience in that line. Love to get some more."
This was the first time tonight that anyone had claimed to have worked with the capes-and-spandex set before. Kovacs obligingly asked the obvious question: "What experience?"
Farnham ran a tanned hand through his thinning hair. "I useta live in Gotham. Ran with Joker's gang for a few big capers. Collected my share of the swag and finally got out while the gettin' was good."
"And moved down to Opal? Why? Afraid of Batman?"
"Not really. All he ever does is knock ya down and hand ya over to the cops. Then a shyster bails ya out, and you're back on the street for awhile. The Bat never shows up in court to testify, so there's a fightin' chance the whole thing gets thrown out 'for lack of evidence' if no civilian witnesses were on the scene. It was my own boss that scared me!"
"Whaddaya mean, go on? Didn't ya ever meet that pasty-faced clown, mac? The guy's crazy."
"You don't say. What did you do before your tenure with Joker?"
"This and that. Hitch with the Army, back in the mid-nineties. Didn't see any real action, but I learned to handle all sorts of weapons. That came in handy later, when I was findin' ways to make ends meet around Gotham 'fore a buddy told me Joker was out of Arkham again and lookin' for talent."
"I see." Kovacs leaned back in his chair and pondered.
Solid military training . . . previous experience at catering to the ego of a 'supervillain' . . . a nice calm contempt for the efficiency of the criminal justice system . . . not likely to panic if a goody-goody two-shoes superhero appeared on the scene in the middle of a heist . . .
On the face of it, this man was the best-qualified recruit he'd seen all night!
Which also summed up the problem, didn't it? Farnham was just too good. He probably had the expertise he claimed, but something about him was annoying Kovacs's sensitive nose (figuratively speaking). Almost as if the fellow were trying really hard to make precisely the right impression. Even if his background were just as he said, there was always the possibility that after he'd left Gotham for greener pastures, he'd run afoul of the law and was now being compelled to wear a wire in exchange for a plea-bargain.
Kovacs pulled out a fresh handkerchief and tried to blow his nose (without much success), then finally pronounced his decision. "Sorry, Farnham, but I don't think you're quite what this client is looking for. Not your fault; that's just the way it is." He shook his head in sorrow at the injustice of this wicked world.
Farnham just sat there, staring across the table in shock.
Kovacs didn't blame the man for being surprised by this rejection; indeed, it was possible that not hiring him was a case of letting a potentially valuable asset slip away . . . but having taken a stand, it was necessary to stick to it instead of getting all wishy-washy. "I'm not playing games, Farnham. This just isn't the right job for you. The next time you hear I'm in town, try me again—I might have something right up your alley, and I'm serious about that!" (He was, too. If he didn't get the bad vibe next time, he might very well end up playing matchmaker for Farnham the second time around.)
The bad news finally sunk in. Farnham heaved himself to his feet, worked his mouth for a moment as if wanting to argue, then recovered his dignity and stalked away, making straight for the exit without a backward glance. Kovacs had to admire the way the man was taking it without a whimper.
Author's Note: When I got the basic idea for the plot, and started writing, I was sure this would be just another cute little one-shot. But the full text turned out to be over six thousand words, and I've never posted anything that long as a "single-chapter story" on this site. No rule against it; just a matter of personal taste. So I've turned it into a two-parter. The obvious place to end Chapter One was right here, when we have just seen the last of Kovacs's point-of-view. (By the way, Mr. Kovacs is my own creation—don't feel bad about not recognizing him from any old episodes.)
As you must have guessed by now, Nemesis has already appeared onstage—disguised, naturally. In Chapter Two, he will resume his normal look and compare notes with the teammate who asked him to approach Mr. Kovacs in the first place. I plan to post that one by the end of this week.