The Captain awaited his butler's response, and while he awaited it, he did two things. One was to think about evil. He thought about evil the way a butcher thinks about steak. The other thing he did was to absent-mindedly swing his legs as they dangled over the edge of his swivel chair. He stopped this abruptly, however, upon realising that as well as not looking very villainous, it might undermine the considerable gravitas he had just accrued by swivelling dramatically around.
"It's good, sir. Very good. Your most fiendish work to date, I daresay. But perhaps I might make a suggestion?"
He shifted his weight in the chair and smiled. Milton had never been intimidated by his arch-villain status, but had always been polite enough to pretend. With one hand, he waved the butler on; the other nursed an exquisite brandy glass.
"Well, sir, the part where you have your nemesis restrained, and you victoriously explain the minutiae of your nefarious scheme to him?" The Captain nodded and leaned forward, stroking his goatee. "I thought perhaps you might... withhold a few of the more sensitive details." The Captain's already furrowed brow somehow furrowed in on itself all over again.
"I see. Which details did you have in mind?"
"Well sir, since you ask, I was actually thinking you might withhold almost all of them. Until the plan comes to fruition. Just to be safe, sir."
"Hmmm." The Captain made a concerted effort to unfurl his brow as he spoke. "Milton, you know I respect your opinion like no other. But there are aspects of the work I do that I am afraid you simply cannot understand. An element of pageantry is expected of a man in my position. One has to observe a certain etiquette." Pleased with his answer, he leaned back; placing his large, black boots on his desk and swirling his brandy. Milton nodded sagely.
"Of course, sir. Far be it from me to suppose to comprehend the mysterious ways in which a villain moves. Shall I bring in your elevenses, sir?"
"Thank you Milton, I think that would be best. If it weren't for you, I shouldn't think I'd remember to eat at all." The Captain sighed. "Evil is a demanding mistress."
"That I understand all too well, sir. Having served your family for three generations, one thing I can attest to is the terrible strain a career in villainy can place on a man." As he spoke, Milton crossed the room and pushed a button, calling the dumbwaiter. A few seconds later, he opened the hatch and removed a silver tray, on which was laid cutlery, a small decanter of brandy, and a plate covered by an elegant cloche. "One must keep one's strength up, and enjoy the small pleasures where one can." As he carried the tray over to the desk, the Captain's eyes were drawn to the cloche. He frowned up at Milton, whose face gave nothing away.
The butler remained expressionless.
"I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about, sir."
The Captain snatched the silver cover from the plate to reveal a cake of breathtaking beauty; richly dark, majestically risen and topped with icing smooth as untrodden snow, yet black as obsidian.
"You devil..." he managed under his breath.
"Coffee and walnut, with a dark chocolate ganache" said the butler in reply. "Still your favourite, I hope?" The Captain appeared to be lost for words. "Happy birthday, sir."
Snapping from his reverie, the Captain beamed up at his butler.
"Did you bake it yourself, Milton?" Milton nodded humbly.
"Last night, sir. You were generous enough to give me the evening off, after all."
"Oh, Milton. Where on earth would I be without you? It's magnificent. And to think, you managed to keep it a secret from me all morning! You sly dog, I had no idea."
"Discretion is a man in my line of work's proudest asset, sir." Milton raised an eyebrow. "Besides, a butler hasn't time for talk. He simply devotes himself to the task before him, that his results may speak for themselves." He gestured toward the Captain's glass. "Perhaps sir would care for a top-up?"
"Yes. Yes, I think that would be best." The Captain's reply was sober and measured, and as he watched Milton pour brandy into the glass in front of him, he pondered the butler's words. They had given him much to ponder. But then, that was to be expected. What kind of self-respecting arch-villain would employ a butler who wasn't both shrewd and insightful? He picked up the glass, and raised it. "Here's to you, Milton. You, your boundless wisdom, and your infinite tact." He tipped his head back and drained the glass.
"You do me great honour, sir." Milton smiled. "Now, I really must go and see to the prisoner." The Captain silently nodded, and waited until the butler had closed the door behind him before allowing the acrid brown liquid to pour from his wincing mouth back into the glass.
* * *
"And that, Flying Squirrel, is how you will die."
Captain Kamikaze had just told the (in his opinion unfortunately named) superhero bound to the chair opposite him his entire master plan. Every detail. He sat back and waited for the elation; for the indulgent satisfaction to engulf him. Instead, he found himself whimsically half-remembering being a small boy, and how one Christmas he had crept, under cover of dusk, from the quiet of his playroom to the towering mantel of the lounge. With trembling hands and many a nervous glance over his shoulder, he had carefully opened every door of his advent calendar. It was the thirtieth of November. He had gorged on the chocolate, each piece more delicious and darkly irresistible than the last, until his face and hands were smeared brown and his belly full. He had felt no joy. The delight he had experienced as he devoured the chocolate had gone along with it, and he was left bilious, guilty, and bereft. His parents had been busy plotting evil in the study, and so it was their young butler who had found him, sticky and ashamed, his legs crossed and his head hung low in the shadow of the fireplace. The man sighed, but said nothing as he took the boy's tacky hand in his own and led him to the washroom, where he drew him a hot bath with bubbles, and then put him to bed. His parents never found out, but he awoke each morning that December feeling regretful. Strange, thought the Captain, that this childhood memory should revisit him in what was supposed to be his moment of glory. Strange, and unfortunate. Still, one had to look on the bright side. The dramatic swivel-around had gone very well.
"You'll never get away with this, Kamikaze" growled the masked man in the other chair. He played his part well, the Captain thought. He knew Flying Squirrel wasn't the most competent hero in the field, but his patter was decent. He knew the steps.
"Au contraire, my mammalian friend." The corner of the Captain's mouth twitched. The fact that he didn't really speak French was of great personal embarrassment to him. "You see, I think you'll find that this time, I've covered all the bases. It's game, set, and match."
"Couple of things right off the bat, Captain." Flying Squirrel delivered his trash talk with practised certainty. "Confused sporting metaphors aside; we're all mammalian. I'm a mammal, you're a mammal, he's a mammal, she's a mammal. We're mammalian." The Captain frowned.
"Well, then I wasn't wrong." he replied; unsure.
"No, just redundant." Flying Squirrel fought to conceal his smugness. Heroes are not smug. The Captain scowled, and rose from his chair to walk languorously over to the floor-to-ceiling windows of the interrogation room. He gazed out as he spoke.
"This is all terribly out of character, Flying Squirrel. I'd expect this kind of pedantry from the Grammar Hammer, or Miss Ellipsis, perhaps. Don't you have some nuts to hide?" He smirked. Among villains, smugness is encouraged. Flying Squirrel fixed him with a steely glare, every inch the hero.
"I have nothing to hide, Kamikaze. Not when I have right on my side."
The boy had done his homework. Whatever else Captain Kamikaze thought of his prisoner, there was no denying that his banter was impeccable. He had really put the hours in. In fact, at times, it sounded almost too rehearsed.
"Save it for tomorrow. Those will make wonderful last words. Goodnight, Flying Squirrel."
* * *
"Milton, you fiend, you've outdone yourself. This icing is evil incarnate!" The Captain reclined in his study with a thick, black slab of birthday cake. He had spent the morning poring meticulously over CCTV footage, and was immensely glad of a break for elevenses.
"You're too kind sir. It's really just a simple ganache." The butler replied from the doorway. "Busy researching, sir?"
The Captain groaned and slumped back in his chair.
"Just come here and look at this. Tell me what you see."
The monitor was displaying looped footage of Flying Squirrel's attempt to break into the Kamikaze estate. The recording showed him adequately negotiating the perimeter fence and entering the grounds, but then fleeing in apparent terror from a relatively modest contingent of guard dogs. Minutes later, security staff arrived to rescue him from the large stone water feature he had climbed to escape the hounds' snapping jaws. In the video, he appeared to put up only a token resistance, his body language expressing more gratitude than anything else as the henchmen cuffed him and bundled him into the back of a van. Quite a departure, mused the Captain, from the fire-eyed, acid-tongued crusader for justice he had faced off with in the interrogation room last night.
"Well?" he enquired of his butler. "What do you see?"
"What I see, sir," Milton sighed; "is a young man very taken with the idea of being a superhero, but who might do well to think about exploring a different avenue of employment entirely."
"Yes." The Captain nodded slowly. "Tragic, isn't it? All that wasted time." The old butler's brow creased in thought.
"Oh, I don't know about that, sir. I come from a long line of butlers. When I was a boy, there was never any doubt as to what would be my profession. To tell the truth, sir, I'm a little envious of those free to make their own mistakes." Milton straightened up, stepping away from the monitor. "No, sir, the real tragedy would be if that young man were to grow old and never find the courage to admit to himself that perhaps he got it wrong." He turned to the Captain, eyebrows raised. "Not much danger of that, though, sir; he'll be dead by the end of the day. You do still mean to execute him, sir?" The Captain was slow in realising he had been asked a question. When he replied, his tone was sombre and detached.
"I... yes. Yes of course, Milton. Later today." Milton frowned.
"If you don't mind me saying so, sir, you don't seem terribly excited about the idea. You could always postpone the plan if you're having second thoughts? Or cancel it entirely, even?" The Captain scowled.
"Don't be ridiculous, Milton, of course I couldn't. Flying Squirrel will be executed today. What kind of a villain would explain his scheme to his nemesis, and then change his mind? Why, no kind of villain at all!"
The butler apologised and went to prepare luncheon. The Captain's words hung in the air long after he had gone.
* * *
Flying Squirrel's head turned with a stiffness symptomatic of a night spent tied to a chair. He winced as he watched the Captain pace around the room. The Captain failed to notice this and continued to pace, oblivious to the very mild torture he was inflicting on his charge.
"Cut to the chase, Kamikaze. You villains are so indulgent."
"You surprise me, Flying Squirrel. Are you so eager to die?" The Captain smiled. "A victory like this is to be savoured, like a fine brandy." He lifted his glass as though to take a sip, but thought better of it at the last moment and opted instead to hold it under his nose and inhale the noxious fumes with a self-satisfied expression on his face. "Mmm. A glorious bouquet." He turned and gazed out of the window, his back to the prisoner. In truth, he hadn't been savouring his victory in the slightest. He knew he should be, but he couldn't seem to focus on the task in hand.
"Spare me the showboating, Captain. Consider it a last request."
The young hero spoke like a man unafraid of death, but the Captain knew that if he turned to look at him he would see sweat-drenched hair, or a knitted brow, or trembling hands; tell-tale signs of fear. Perhaps, he reasoned, that would help him get into the spirit of things. Plus, if he whirled around quickly enough, his cape might do that sweeping thing he liked. Mustering all the malevolent grandeur at his disposal, he spun around to face his nemesis.
His eyes came to rest on Flying Squirrel just in time to catch him absent-mindedly swinging his legs as they dangled over the edge of his seat.
Of course, he stopped rather sheepishly as soon as he realised his captor could see what he was doing. The Captain sighed. He walked slowly across the room, and sat down heavily in the seat opposite the hero. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.
"Why do you do it?"
Flying Squirrel looked blankly at him.
"This. All of it. Why?"
"Why?" The young hero was perplexed. "Well, obviously I needed to gain access to your estate if I was to stand any chance of foiling your..."
"Nefarious scheme, yes, I know." the Captain interrupted. "I meant the whole thing. Heroism. Why?"
"I... to... it falls to me to, to stand up for what's right..." Flying Squirrel faltered, his resolve shaken. The Captain had gone off-script. "People like me, we have to stand up. With great power, comes great..."
"Yes, yes, I know." The Captain interrupted him for a second time. "It's just... would you say you had 'great power'? I mean, honestly?" Flying Squirrel's mouth fell open. "I don't mean to be rude." the villain added, worried he had hurt the young man's feelings.
"That's not for me to say." came the solemn reply. "Heroes don't brag."
"How convenient." The Captain sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. "I just mean... don't you ever wonder if you wouldn't be better off doing something else?"
Flying Squirrel pursed his lips tightly, and a vein on his forehead began to stand out.
"You can't get inside my head, Kamikaze. Fighting evil is my destiny."
The Captain met his gaze, and saw in his defiant young eyes the burden of struggles past, and of struggles to come, and a familiar exhaustion. Grudgingly, he smiled.
"If you say so." He stood again, crossing the room to stand behind his captive. "You talk a jolly good game, Flying Squirrel, I'll give you that." The hero sat, dumbstruck, as the Captain began to unfasten his restraints. "Now, talk is all well and good, and I wouldn't presume to know the first thing about superheroism. But, I will tell you something that a man who is very, very good at what he does once told me."
* * *
"I must say, sir, this comes as quite the surprise. Are you not concerned that Flying Squirrel will foil your plans; knowing, as he now does, the fiendish intricacies of your design?"
The Captain and Milton stood side by side at the study window, through which they could see the bewildered superhero effecting his escape across the grounds. The Captain watched him perform an unnecessary combat roll on the lawn, and then step on his own cape as he stood up, causing him to tumble over backwards.
"No, not really, Milton." He turned from the window and sat down behind his desk. "Besides, I'm not so sure I'll be going ahead with my nefarious scheme after all." He looked up at his elderly butler's familiar face.
"I see, sir. And what will you do instead?"
"I haven't decided yet." The Captain leaned back, his hands behind his head. Milton raised his eyebrows.
"Well, how terribly exciting. I daresay this calls for a celebration, sir. Shall I fetch you a drink?"
"A splendid idea, Milton, that would be marvellous." The Captain watched his butler reach across the desk and pick up the brandy decanter. "I think perhaps a nice glass of orange juice. That is, if you wouldn't mind checking the pantry." Milton placed the decanter back down on the desk and smiled.