Imagine that you live in a city of villains.
Your city has a billionaire playboy. He lives on top of the hill. You don’t know much about him, other than what you read in the papers about his romantic exploits and elaborate black-tie parties. You had a gig once offloading decorative antique suits of armor at his mansion up on the hill. You wanted to sign up for the gig offloading slabs of marble to be installed in his ballroom, but you hurt your back and got fired.
You met the billionaire playboy once. You grew up in one of his orphanages, after your Pop was killed by a villain and your Ma ran off to make her fortune robbing banks in a souped-up mech suit. The orphanage was nice, nicer than home even, because nobody there was squirreling away your lunch money to pay for mech suit parts. You met the billionaire playboy when he came through the orphanage to inspect the place. There was a woman with a clipboard trailing behind him, and she smiled at you. The billionaire ran his hands across the rows of bedposts and looked into the distance, and you couldn’t catch his eye.
After you hurt your back, your buddy tells you about a job he’s got working in-house security at some guy’s warehouse downtown. You live downtown. It would be nice to work close to where you live—you wouldn’t have to sit on the half-the-time-broke-down trolley that goes from just outside the slums to the canning district, which is your other employment option.
The billionaire playboy owns a lot of real estate in the city. That, you learn through your buddy as you walk together to the security job, is how the billionaire playboy’s family amassed their fortune. They owned all the land before the city became a bustling urban metropolis.
You’re not sure whether he owns the slum where you live. You wonder if your rent money pays for decorative antique suits of armor.
The job is easy. You mostly just stand around, wearing the company uniform and shooting the shit with whoever’s got the same shift as you. Sometimes you help carry parts around the warehouse, long hoses and big sheets of metal that are awkward to lift and remind you of your mother’s basement workshop. It’s you and maybe forty other guys working in the warehouse, some of you security and some of you labor. There’s a few scientists but you don’t talk to them all that much because they only ever want to talk about the boss.
And the boss only ever wants to talk about the vigilante.
You met the vigilante once, after your mom took off. He found you screaming and squalling in the rubble—you were four, not old enough to stop yourself from crying yet. He rolled up on a thing that looked like a tank and a motorcycle smushed together and you remember thinking that he looked just like one of your army men, except painted all black. He had muscles that looked hard as a bullet, and you couldn’t tell if they were real or not, but they were big. He scooped you up and you wailed even louder, and he didn’t tell you where he was taking you. And then you were on the doorstep of Wayne Orphanage, alone.
The second time you meet the vigilante, you’re working. You took a pill for your back—one of your coworkers gave it to you out of his stash. This job doesn’t have insurance. It’s still a good job, though.
Until the vigilante shows up.
He destroys the warehouse, destroys your boss’s work. The papers say later that it was an accident, but all you know is, one minute you’re running alongside the other guys and the next, something blows up and you get knocked aside. He stomps through the rubble near your head and growls some things at your boss. And then your boss is gone, tossed into that awful asylum, and the vigilante is shaking hands on the news with the police commissioner. A few of your coworkers spend the night in jail. One of them goes to prison. The cannery won’t hire him when he gets out, not if he’s been in prison before. He won’t get to vote, either—not for the next mayor, not for the next chief of police, not for city council members, even. But he’ll probably know how to fix broken lamps for pennies an hour, or how to sew underpants for even less.
You wonder if you’ll see him again at your next gig.
You wind up getting work with a housepainting company. It’s honest work, and there’s a union. Your first big job is a repaint of the billionaire playboy’s ballroom. Some villain or other broke in there during the billionaire’s last big party, messed up the walls. You’re painting the room a rich cream color. The butler walks through every so often to check your work. Once, he passes with a tray that’s covered in bloodied gauze.
“What do you think he’s gettin’ up to?” you ask your coworker, who has a long scar across one milky eye. He used to work for that one villain, the one with the acid.
“I don’t give a fuck,” he spits.
You’re taken aback. “Woah there,” you say. “Why so furious?”
“What happens up here ain’t got nothin’ to do with me and youse,” he says, more mildly this time but still stern.
“What do you mean?” You remember the billionaire standing at the end of a row of beds.
Your coworker wipes a droplet of paint onto his white pants. “We live our lives, and he lives his life,” he says. “He throws parties, and we work. He sleeps with whatever new lady catches his fancy, we clean up rubble.” He shrugs, continues cutting in a sharp edge of paint near the ceiling. “He’s never had a job, kid. What he gets up to is nothing that we’ll ever be a part of.”
You think about this conversation a lot over the course of the four days it takes to complete the ballroom. Why is this billionaire playboy still a billionaire? It doesn’t seem right to you. Doesn’t seem fair. He funded your orphanage… but when you think about it, it’s pretty weird that the city needs such a large orphanage. You think about the half-the-time-broke-down trolley. You think about the street gangs that roam the city. You think about the twenty-nine times your cousin Lisette has been mugged. You think about your old coworker, sewing underpants in prison.
You start to hate the billionaire playboy.
Your next job happens pretty organically—you’re painting the inside of a scientist’s sprawling lab, dabbing decorative stonework with white and blue paint to make it look like ice. He likes your work, and he hires you. And just like that, you’re working security again.
This boss has beef with the vigilante, too. They all seem to. The boss is eight kinds of pissed about the way the city is being run—public works projects are continually underfunded, labor unions are regularly busted up. The cops are always calling the vigilante to help them out, even though he doesn’t pay attention to a single damn law or constitutional right.
“Who the hell thinks it’s okay?” the boss is prone to asking you while you stand over his shoulder, guarding him from the zero threats that come through the door. “Why does the mayor let the police commissioner outsource police work to some guy who can’t be held accountable?”
You bring it up with your old coworker over beers one night. He’s still painting, and he scratches beige semigloss off his fingernails as you wonder aloud about the vigilante.
“Well, yeah,” he says. “I mean, hell, have you ever seen the guy?”
“Yeah,” you say, “coupla times.”
“So, you’ve seen the shit he rides around, the guns, the gadgets.”
“The rocket launcher,” you add, nodding. Your companion slaps his palm on the bartop.
“The friggin’ rocket launcher,” he repeats. “You ever been in the service?”
You shake your head. The orphanage had tried to get you to join the army, but you hadn’t wanted to fight anyone.
“I served two tours,” says your companion—your friend, you realize, he’s your friend now. “Once in Afghanistan, once in Iraq. And here’s what I’ll tell ya: that shit he’s got? It costs boo-coo bucks, my friend. Where you think he’s getting all the cash to spend on his fancy gizmos and his every-year-a-new-car?”
You swallow your beer. It’s getting warm. “Dunno,” you say.
“Nowhere good, that’s all I know.” Your friend picks at the paint on his thumb. “That much cash can only come outta blood.”
“How do you figure?”
Your friend draws lines in the condensation on the bartop, connecting ideas. “He’s gotta be rich, right?”
“Sure,” you say. “Rocket launchers don’t grow on trees.”
Your friend doesn’t laugh. “How many people you met wound up getting thrown in prison cause of that guy?”
You count on your fingers. “Lots,” you say.
“You ever heard of the prison industrial complex?” he asks. You shake your head, so he tells you about what happens to the underpants that get sewn for pennies an hour. He tells you about the banks that invest in the prisons that use your old friends for slave labor. He lists off, from memory, the major investment firms that put their money into for-profit prisons. “Do you really think that none of that money finds its way back to his pockets?” he asks you. “Or do you think he’s banking with a local credit union?”
You finish your beer. You don’t have an answer for him.
Your boss tells you to start covering the cameras on your phone and computer with colored-in tape. He tells you the vigilante is watching.
“Do you have a tuxedo?” he asks you one night. You shake your head. He arranges to have you fitted with one. “You’re going to come with me to a party,” he says. “Bring your gun.”
You hesitate, but then he tells you that it’s just a security gig, and he wants you to look like real security instead of a rent-a-cop. You bring your gun. You’ve never had to fire it before.
You find yourself looking up at the cream-colored walls that you painted just a few months before. The billionaire is there, and you hear your friend’s voice echoing in your memory: “That much cash can only come outta blood.”
You wander away from the party, and you aren’t there when the first screams start. You’re in a back hallway, staring at one of the decorative suits of armor you unpacked. The billionaire runs past you, his arms and legs pumping with the steady rhythm of a giant robot stamping out a city. He vanishes down a corridor. A few minutes later, the vigilante is rising outside of the window to your left, his feet firmly planted on a weird hoverboard with jets shooting out of the bottom.
“Gizmos,” you murmur to yourself. From the ballroom, an explosion sounds, and you know that your friend will be working there again soon—once more, the vigilante has ruined what you worked so hard to make nice. Once again, the billionaire’s money will go toward maintaining his mansion, making it presentable for the next party.
You realize you left your bus fare on your nightstand, and you start the long walk home.
You live in a city that keeps being destroyed by battles that don’t concern you.
A billionaire lives on the hill. He owns most of the real estate in the city.
A vigilante serves as muscle for the police. The vigilante has military-grade weapons. He decides who is innocent and who is guilty.
The billionaire throws parties with money that could be used to institute jobs programs, education initiatives, rehabilitation programs.
He’s frequently on the news, shaking the mayor’s hand.
Everyone keeps telling you the hero is the guy who beats up your friends and puts them in jail, just for trying to earn an honest living.
You know that nothing’s going to change, because the billionaire won’t stop being a billionaire, and the vigilante won’t stop being a billionaire, either.
When you get a job offer from a villain, you review your situation, and you know who has your interests at heart.
So you go to work.
© 2017 by Sarah Gailey