It looks like the Pocketwatch Character Spotlight Blog Hop might just become a monthly thing. (Hint, hint, guys!) So we’re back again.
Previously, I had a whole diatribe about villains and how my evil overlord conquered everything (including me) to become a hero. This time, I’m taking off my scholarly hat, cracking my knuckles, and digging into something visceral.
I’m mainly a fantasy writer at heart, but some years ago, I was taken by an idea for an alternate-Earth espionage thriller. Shortly thereafter, I was completely consumed by its protagonist, and the Devil’s Own Luck trilogy was born.
Last time around, one of the other members of Pocketwatch who is also a crit partner of mine, mentioned she’d love to see an interview with the main character of Devil’s Own Luck, Agent Gray. Something that got under his skin.
That got me thinking. I knew what could get to Gray, but I had no idea who’d have the gall to approach him like that.
Then, all at once, it came to me. There was only one person I could think of who could go toe-to-toe with him, and would have the brass balls to do a vicious cold read.
And then this little vignette was born.
He Who Fights with Monsters
The room was barren, a stark wasteland. Not white, not anymore. The filth was much a part of it as the drywall, too encrusted after years of grease and corruption to ever hope to be clean again.
And there, at the very heart and balanced on a rickety chair, sat the Agent Gray. Hunched over, eyes fixed on the gaps in the hardwood floor. Fleas disturbed the thick layer of dust between the slats, unseen save their movement.
That splintered and jagged edge of the seat cut into his thighs, but like a good agent, he showed no signs of his discomfort. Exhaustion, yes. But not discomfort.
“You do realize what they’re doing to you—don’t you, Agent?” The voice was smooth. Firm and familiar. He made no move to acknowledge it, but it didn’t matter one way or the other. His silence was only met by a coarse laugh. “You’re more of a liability than you’re worth these days, and you know it.”
Nothing good would come of this. Only a small twitch of his muscles betrayed the clench of his jaw.
“They’re going to put you down like the rabid dog you are. One way, or another.”
There was no avoiding this line of questioning. Today, his silence wouldn’t save him. With a soft breath, he lifted his chin, lips pulled into a tight smirk that threatened to break his composure. “So, what’re ya tellin’ me, chief?” His bark of what should have been a laugh sounded foreign even to his own ears. “I should… what? Defect?”
“Why don’t you?” The pause was palpable, but when no answer was forthcoming: “It’s hardly a secret that you have no love for your country. And why should you? After all they’ve done.”
Playing good cop today, at least for the moment. But Gray didn’t have any patience for the ruse. “Like anywhere else would be any fuckin’ better. You an’ I both know that ain’t true, ya bastard.”
That earned him a chuckle, earnest but cold. “You have me there. Accident of birth.”
“I know.” He ground his teeth. “But didn’t anyone ever tell you thatcha don’t have to act like it?”
“Tough words, coming from you.”
“Whadda you know?”
The instant the words escaped him, he regretted it. Fuck, he knew better than that, but there hadn’t been a snowflake’s chance in hell from the start. Not even when he’d been out-maneuvered from the beginning. And now… now it was too late. In looping coils, the air tightened around him, choking out his bravado.
“Oh, what do I know? More than you care to admit, Agent. Or have you forgotten?” Those words had a sing-song to them, laced with a sneer. “I’m everything you ever wanted to be.”
“I’m all that class and elegance you only knew from story-books. Or,” that laugh was back, “did you really think it wasn’t blatantly obvious?”
“Everything about you screams it, Agent. Just a small-town hick who desperately—so desperately—wanted to be better than he was. So, you put on airs and pretend it can hide the stink of white trash.”
“I fucking said shut up!” The chair skidded backwards, toppling over in a clatter. Impotently, Gray trembled, just for an instant, before falling to his knees. Tired. Too tired.
“… but see. Look how it comes out when you’re mad. Upset. Frazzled. The act doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.”
He brought this on himself. Couldn’t even argue it. Struggling to regain his breath, Gray swayed on his knees. In, and out. In, and out. Focused on the feel of the way the air bit at his lungs, let the sound fill his ears…
But it didn’t block out the voice. “For a supposed top-level agent, you crack so easily. What, not able to take what you so blithely dole out yourself?”
There was no use in trying to defend himself. Anything he could say would only be a blade twisted back around to his own throat. His mouth was tacky, tongue sticking uncomfortably against his teeth. Dry.
“Hah. Of course not.” For a moment, silence. Then: “Not going for your cigarettes, Agent?”
The thought cut through him, splitting open the wanting held in the back of his mind, letting it pour across him unrestrained. Hazel eyes flicked over to the side table, the white pack brighter than the lamp burning overhead.
No. He wouldn’t let the bastard have the satisfaction.
“Mm. Your choice. … oh. But that does bring to mind, Agent. Such a man of vice. Smoking, cursing, and of course, those pretty young things you like so well.”
“What,” Gray found himself surprised at his own croak, voice thicker than he was expecting, “not going to accuse me of liking little boys? Thirty-two is fond of that one.”
“Oh, heavens no. That dog can only pluck the low-hanging fruit. Too easy. No, no. You just prey on the weak and unfortunate, pretty little sad hookers. You’re sweet on them, when you know that you’re a death sentence. I think the truth of it is its own kind of sickness. … besides.” A self-satisfied little sound. “I didn’t have to say it. You betrayed your own guilt.”
The skin on his knuckles went so tight it was nearly translucent as he gripped the fabric of his unwashed pants. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t like that. He was a lot of things, but god—
“But, as I was saying. A man of vice, yet one who never even so much as indulges in a beer out of his own volition. Dry as a Prohibitionist. Now, that makes a man wonder, wouldn’t you think?”
He didn’t think. Gray just tried to breathe, but the ache in his hands distracted his counting.
“As the so-called top agent of the West, you must know what it looks like. I’d say even a layman would hazard a guess..”
The muscles in his arms were beginning to cramp. No.
“What, did daddy rough you up after too much Jack and you still can’t get over it?”
Gray moved without thinking, the roar of anger warbling in his throat. One moment he was turning, and the next, the chair slammed against the far wall, cracking on impact.
But it didn’t do a damn lick of good.
His outburst was met with a cackle, one that walked the edge of glee and hysteria. “Good show! Prove me wrong! That’ll teach me, yessiree.”
“Fuck you!” The agent spun on his heel, panting, half-blind. “What do you want, goddamnit!?”
“Just one answer.”
Nothing. Then, just as he thought there would be a reprieve, it came, but quietly: “Why do you keep trying?”
He should have guessed. On shaking feet, Agent Gray stumbled to the wall. His shoulder hit first, then his spine as he turned. As he sunk to the floor, his rumpled shirt caught and pulled along the filthy surface. “… you know why.”
“Tell me again.”
As he gasped, the sound shuddered. It made him sick. But… at least he had an answer, for what it was worth. “Long as I’m the biggest fish, there ain’t no room for somethin’ worse.”
For a moment, all was quiet. Then, slowly, Gray lifted his head to look across the empty room. Echoing in his head, the voice asked with that facsimile of his own, the one he used at galleries and high-class debuts: “And how’s that working out for you, Agent?”
His laughter echoed from the pit of his chest—cracking, hysterical, and trimmed with defeat.
Amelia Bishop, who has interviewed her main characters from her book, WaterWitch.
Carmen Miranda is giving us a little more insight into the background of the enigma that is La Shaliyah from her current work.
Jeanne Marcella, talking about the phoenix mythology and how it relates to her work.
Kate Whitaker, with a full write-up of Rick, showing off that nice guys don’t always finish last.
Sarah Moll, giving us a partner to last week’s piece with a short featuring Jude.