Kudzu was not a very intimidating figure to look at. He was tall, too thin to be entirely healthy and had cheekbones you could cut titanium with. His black hair was curly, but not very long, his eyes had a kind of wet, blue-green colour, like the water at a shore full of algae. His overall image was not improved by his perfectly ironed white shirt, the professional pocket protector holding several pens and his casual-office-wear-style jeans and white sneakers. And the cheap-looking blue cloth mask he wore, covering his face from his nose and up, did not do him any favours, either.
All in all, the man calling himself Kudzu did not look like the supervillain he professed to be, and he certainly could not be threatening to anyone who wasn’t deathly afraid of clerks.
Not that he minded. He’d built most of his early career on not being taken seriously. When the heroes came after a villain group, they tended to ignore the guy who looked like a clerk and focus on the garishly clothed ones – giving him a good chance to use whatever escape plan he had ready. And Kudzu always had an escape plan ready. Or twenty. Wiggling out (or into) things was kind of his speciality, after all.
Another difference between Kudzu and the average supervillain was that he mostly worked as a consultant, helping other villains along with their crimes – for a price. It was rare indeed that he took point on a venture, such as today.
Unfortunately, the job had been quite urgent and he hadn’t had the time to find a suitable figurehead. Especially since he’d had to hire his minions through the Syndicate, using the cheaper options (always wiggling out of a bad situation unfortunately didn’t include always getting away with the money, not to mention the fact that locked up supervillains were unlikely to pay what he was owed), and had gotten stuck mostly with teenagers. He’d blown most of his reserves on prep work, hiring a true professional to procure some sensitive information necessary for the job itself – there’d been no other way to get it, even for someone with Kudzu’s mind.
Since no one would believe a teenager had been the mastermind behind this action over him, especially not once they figured out what he was actually after, he didn’t even bother, and was taking the helm for this.
He threw a glance over his shoulder, at the three figures that were with him in the central computer and surveillance office. One sat in front of the monitors, working furiously to twist the system to their use. One of the rare teenage gadgeteers out there, and a specialist for surveillance, as well. It was only thanks to his inexperience that Kudzu had been able to afford him. He’d do his job, hopefully.
At least I lucked out on the other one.
Behind the pudgy boy, two girls stood, both, ironically, dressed in cloaks with hoods, but with far different styles.
One wasn’t even really a member of his team. The Syndicate had sent her along to observe – most likely a mastermind in training. He’d been offered a bargain in hiring the other cloaked girl, in exchange for bringing her along and answering any questions she might have. Her cloak was dark blue, and fell over her shoulders to hide her whole body, unless she moved too vigoriously. He didn’t even know her name. And frankly, she’d proven more than a little annoying so far – not due to her questions, they were usually restrained and on the mark, but rather because she had some manner of enhanced perception like him, perhaps even some minor precognition – just being around her made his power have to work overtime, accounting every possible change to his plans that needed to be made simply because of her effect on his calculations.
But she was worth it, as he got a true heavyweight along with her – just in case the peacekeepers realised something was amiss and came in to fight.
He watched the red-handed girl in the dirty, ragged cloak, as she didn’t seem to notice his attention while she watched the computer screens. Her cloak was in bad shape, not due to her style but simply due to lack of care. Ragged, torn, exposing too much flesh to be decent when she moved the wrong way – but she didn’t seem to care, at all. There was even the smell of old alcohol and worse on that cloak, though she was mercifully sober right now (a professional, even in her current state). The other two took care never to take a breath with their noses in her direction. He didn’t know what had happened to her, but whatever it was, she was obviously not dealing well with it. One could almost taste the pent-up need for aggression, for release inside her.
Which meant that, if it came down to violence, she’d be more than willing and able to provide most of it. And that was what he needed her for.
“Leet, anything strange going on?” he asked the young Gadgeteer.
“Nope, Sir,” came the reply. “The mall is locked down – thank God for easily hacked security systems – our people are patrolling the place looking for any stragglers, and I’ve got the surveillance system dancin’ to my tune.”
“How’re the specialists doing?”
Leet tapped an icon on the screen and called up a particular security feed from what seemed to be a vault room. Several men of very impressive strength were tearing up the floor with their bare hands, slowly uncovering a hidden vault door worked into the reinforced concrete of the place. “We’re still true to your schedule, Sir! This ought to be easy wo- huh.”
“‘Huh’?” asked Kudzu. He hated it when people cut a sentence off like that. It usually meant something was not going according to plan. And he loathed it when that happened.
“Um, I lost a camera, down in the employee hallways of the clothing section. And one of the shops,” Leet said, sounding annoyed.
“Can you tell whether they were destroyed, disconnected or just turned off?” the cloaked girl asked the question Kudzu would have asked next.
Well, she’s certianly picking it up fast.
Leet shook his head. “I got nuthin’,” he said, surly. Kudzu was ninety-two percent sure that he had a crush on the girl in the cloak, and would have preferred to impress her.
At least he’s properly motivated. “Call up the security feeds from all the stores and hallways around that shop, now. Which one was it?” he asked.
“SuperWear, a shop for hero and villain costumes and such,” Leet said. “No idea why anyone would want to get into that in such a situation…”
This time, Kudzu got it first. “I can. It’s a great place for a hero who was here in their civilian identity and doesn’t have his or her costume at hand – even if they can’t find a replica of their usual costume, there’s still enough there to conceal their identity.”
“So, we have at least one unidentified metahuman of unknown intention in here,” the cloaked girl. “Depending on his or her abilities, that might be a problem.”
“Maybe. But I did plan for this. Send in team three – they are allowed to use lethal force if necessary, but should try and get him or her alive to us,” he ordered. Leet immediately send out the orders.
“Why take them alive?” the cloaked girl asked, confused. “Wouldn’t it be more prudent to just shoot them?” Despite her words, she didn’t seem to like the idea, though.
“Ah, let me guess, you read that ‘Evil Overlord List’, right?” Kudzu asked. Maybe having a mastermind in training along wasn’t such a bad idea – it gave him something to amuse himself with while waiting for news.
“Good stuff, good stuff… I wrote some of it. It’s mostly rubbish though, you know? We need the drama, and the heroes surviving, because villains who go around killing willy-nilly tend to attract uncomfortable attention,” he explained patiently as he saw, on the screens, how team three – six heavily armed men, trained to fight metahumans – took place outside the store on both ends – the employee entrance and the main entrance.
“What exactly do you mean?”
“Well, why do you think supervillains mostly keep to a certain code when doing their deeds?” he asked. “It’s certainly not because we’re all such nice chaps, you know? It’s because those supervillains who murder without restraint, or take certain… freedoms,” he explained, avoiding the use of the proper word in front of the three teenagers (two of whom were almost certainly minors), “with defeated enemies, or otherwise don’t restrain themselves, invite increasingly escalating response from the United Heroes. All the way up to Quetzalcoatl and, ultimately, Lady Light (and, I guess, Gloom Glimmer – she certainly has the power). Not to mention that, though villains are more numerous and more powerful on average, heroes are far, far better trained and organised. So we play nice and, in return, heroes refrain from killing us and try to bring us in alive.”
He looked straight at the cloaked girl. “Get it? A dangerous villain reads the list and acts accordingly to it. A competent villain knows when to show mercy and be inefficient, in exchange for the insurance of not being attacked with lethal intent.”
“I guess that makes sense,” the cloaked girl replied contemplatively. “I’ve heard people complain about heroes being too soft on villains, about them having to use more force…”
“Which would only lead to escalation. We’d go right back to the early days, before the time of the United Heroes and the Syndicate. The only reason there’s still an America left to make those claims is that there were so much, much fewer metahumans than nowadays, back when there was no code. So we’ll play nice and try to capture whoever is in that shop and see how we can use them to our advantage… while still playing nice.”