Every time I eat at Moghul Palace I see this grumpy old Indian dude. Scowling, he squats on a stool near the restaurant’s cashier area, watching the waiting area like an old buzzard. I get the impression that the Palace is a family-run joint and that he’s the patriarch, but a figurehead type ruler. You know what I mean? He has all the status, but one of his kids probably runs the restaurant. I’ve never seen the guy do a bit of work aside from the occasional finger pointing and haranguing of the young employees. I get the impression that his job is to just silently, balefully watch the Moghul Palace like a tired old vulture, passing judgment on everyone and everything. I think he’s fascinating.
Sure enough, the grumpy old Indian guy is there on his stool when I meet Margo for dinner. He glares at us from under thick, bushy eyebrows as we exchange awkward greetings in the waiting area.
“Hey Mackenzie,” she says, kind of half-punching/half-patting my shoulder.
“Hi Margo,” I say. “You look nice. I like that skirt.” She’s wearing a light floral print skirt and a ¾ length cashmere sweater over a somewhat low-cut blouse. Amber earrings make her brown eyes sparkle. Margo is beautiful – Have I mentioned that? She’s got sort of a young Mary Tyler Moore look, and her nose crinkles when she laughs. Just to reiterate - she’s beautiful.
“Oh, this thing? Thanks.”
Awkward silence. We look at each other for a second. I’m suddenly keenly aware of my breath, and of the grumpy patriarch staring at us from his perch.
Shit! My pulse rate jumps up. Say something, jack-ass!
“Kind of weird, isn’t it?” Margo says. “Seeing each other outside of work?”
“Yeah,” I say, stupidly.
“Hungry?” she says, smiling.
“I’m Hank Marvin,” I say, stupidly.
“Oh, it’s uh, cockney rhyming slang. You know, Hank Marvin rhymes with starvin’ so when you’re hungry, you say you’re Hank Marvin.”
Margo laughs. “You’re a nerd, Mackenzie.”
I laugh too and suddenly don’t feel so self-conscious. I don’t know what I’m so stressed about, it’s not like we’re on an actual date or anything, we’re here to talk about the supervillains that are controlling the company we both work for.
We get a booth in back and Margo lets me order. After making some small talk and eating appetizers we get down to business.
“So,” Margo says quietly. “About this supervillain thing…”
“Yeah. Have you ever wondered about the plants on the Ninth Floor, in the hallway?”
Her eyes widen. Of course she has. “Yes! You picked up on that, too? What are those things? I took pictures of them with my cell phone, I’m going to see if a botanist friend of mine from college can identify them.”
“That would be great. I’ll bet they’re alien.”
“You think?” Margo says.
Her face becomes serious for a second. “Connor, you’re not screwing with me, are you? Because sometimes I can’t tell when you’re being serious or not and this whole thing really freaks me out and I’m going to be really upset if this is like a joke or something to you or you think I’m crazy…” Her eyes glisten and her lower lip quivers slightly – shit, I’ve upset her!
“Hey, no no,” I say. I reach out to touch her hand on the table in what I hope is a reassuring and not creepy move. “I’m sorry, I believe you. I’m sorry. I don’t think you’re crazy. Listen, we’re on the same page on this thing. Those guys – I don’t know if they’re supervillains or not, but I think they’re up to something illegal or dangerous. I’m with you on this, I promise.”
She smiles. “Okay.”
Our food comes; three different types of nan, some tandoori dishes, a succulent fish tikka the size of a John Jakes paperback, and some pilau rice. As we eat, we discuss in greater detail our mutual suspicions about The Company. And as we talk, a plan starts to gel in my mind; a plan that may be the best or the worst idea I’ve ever had since becoming a superhero…
Basically, both Margo and I think that the three executives who run the QuantumWorks project – Ted Bradbury, Aaaron Clarke, and John Quentin – are up to no good. We’ve both been hired to do marketing and project coordination for QuantumWorks, a product we’ve been told very little about. It’s an “omni-search engine” that can find anything that’s ever been on the Internet ever, even if it’s no longer live and available. I have no idea how it works and they won’t tell us. Now I’m not an expert, but I don’t really think something like that is possible unless maybe you’re using alien technology or something, and you know how tightly the feds regulate shit like that. The occasional presence of guys in silver protective suits on the Ninth Floor and a strange bacon aroma do little to reassure me that things are on the level.
Plus – and I can’t tell Margo this part – but I planted a bug in the board room on the Ninth Floor and recorded a conversation between the three executives which led me to believe that they know that I’m the Velvet Marauder. And Ted Bradbury, the big hulking ex-jock redneck dick? Judging by his crushing grip, I’d say he has super-strength.
Margo is talking: “—and then when I asked to be transferred back to Product Development, Clarke just asked me to be patient and gave me a huge raise.”
“Me too!” I say. “I’m making an obscene amount of money, and I don’t do shit.”
“Yes! See, that’s what started me down this whole road; I can’t stand not having a project or something to do, and it just seemed so weird that The Company would waste that much money on a project like this. So I made finding out what was going on my little project.” She tosses up her hands. “And here I am.”
“Here we are,” I say.
“Well, what are we going to do? You have any brilliant ideas, Mackenzie. I don’t have a lot of experience dealing with supervillains and industrial espionage.”
This is it. Should I do this?
“Actually, I do know somebody who has some experience with shit like this,” I say. With each word I’m setting an irreversible course. “Somebody who might be able to help us.”
“We’re not tight or anything, but I know how to get a hold of him.”
I smile. No turning back now.
“The Velvet Marauder.”