On Stories 1: #notallbillionaires

Anthony Trumpet paced the room, glowering in his tailored suit; his hair hovered above him like a straw-colored halo, down from a previously undiscovered bird of prey. Trumpet liked to glower, practiced even when no one else was in the room. He kept a mirror under his spacious desk specifically for glower practice. It was the only way to be sure.

He checked his watch. He’d kept his appointment waiting for 45 minutes– usually a couple hours was the minimum, but he was feeling impatient, which was unacceptable. Impatience is something that happens to people who have to wait, and Tony Trumpet never had to wait. He jammed his thumb down on the intercom button triumphantly, then made a hissing sound as he realized he’d put too much of his considerable weight onto a single digit.

“You all right, Tony?” Ms. Topps buzzed back at him.

“Fine, fine,” he grumbled, not bothering to press the button again. He threw his chair back and lumbered over to the mini-bar. Best to steady his nerves first. This was the deal that could make the difference, really prove what he was worth. Liquid warmth spread through his chest and he allowed himself a brief smile– he practiced those in the mirror too, but not as often. He enjoyed his glowers and smirks more than he did his smiles.

The technicians, when they came in, were not the small men in glasses and cheap suits he had imagined, which brought out his glower again. He didn’t like it when the world willfully defied his imagination. One was a fit, handsome guy in his 40s– dark hair, a well-groomed mustache and beard. He wore a good grey suit casually, with a loose tie and an air of confidence that made it work, and grinned insolently at Trumpet as he extended his hand. Trumpet found himself talking to the man’s thick, natural head of hair.

Insolence.

“Mister Trumpet? Donny Spark. Thanks for inviting us.” Trumpet stared at his hand for several seconds before half-standing and shaking it, making him wait there, cocky grin frozen on his face, letting him feel just stupid enough. Smart guys. Trumpet knew how to handle smart guys.

“You’re the technicians?” he asked, pushing out his lower lip like a stair on a step-stool. His eyes flicked over to the other man doubtfully– a big good-looking black guy wearing a blue suit with no tie. Built, too, looked like ex-military, steely gaze. Since when were tech geeks so… diverse? It was another ploy to shake him, insolence again. He wouldn’t let it get to him.

“Of course we are,” the other man said, seizing Trumpet’s hand, grip cold and firm. “Terrance Rhoads. It’s a pleasure,” he nodded briskly, “sir. We sent over our dossiers, so I assume you’re familiar with our work?”

Trumpet pushed his lower lip out further. “I never read the dossiers. Waste of time. I know everything I need to when I look a man in the eye.”

“Oh?” Donny’s grin stayed friendly as he leaned in. “Then you know that I’m here as a courtesy, Tony.” Trumpet’s teeth ground at the unearned familiarity, but he let the man continue.“Lonesome and I work in exotic energy sources and high end security–”

“Wait, who?” Trumpet broke in, cutting the air with a karate chop.

“Ah. Must not be written on the eyes. We all call Terry ‘Lonesome Rhoads.’” He shrugged, as the black man grinned for the first time. “It’s from an old movie. You like Andy Griffith?”

Trumpet’s eyes bulged. Must be some kind of script to throw him off his game. Smart.

“Right,” Trumpet said, turning his back on them and pausing to throw off their rhythm. “I suppose you’re wondering why I wanted to meet with you two.” He pivoted on his heel dramatically, thrusting a stubby finger in Spark’s face. “I know your secret. You’re the Iron Mask.”

 

Spark blinked at him; his eyes shifted left and right like he was looking for an invisible audience. “Everyone knows that. I went on national television, there was a press conference, it was a whole thing. Wasn’t it a thing?” He asked Rhoads, who– never breaking eye contact– nodded slowly. “It was a thing.”

He waited for moment, and Trumpet just watched him. The man liked to talk. “It’s really both of us– Lonesome has his own armor, takes the government contracts. He’s made a lot of improvements on my original designs designs.”

“Now when your ass itches you can scratch it,” the black man quipped and Donny nodded then looked quizzical.

“And… don’t you have a telepathic link with a bird?”

Rhoads sighed. “Nah man, that’s the other guy.”

“Okay, cool.”

 

Trumpet silently processed this information. No secrets. Smart again. Secrets are easy to use. Maybe he should have skimmed the research? Not that it mattered– improvising, pressing on regardless of facts, that’s what made him a winner.

“Partners, huh. Well that’s what I want to talk about.” He paused for effect. “I want in, gentlemen,” he announced breathlessly. The technicians waited politely, exchanged glances, waited some more. Finally Rhoads started talking.

“You… want to invest in The Iron Mask? That’s interesting but–”

“Not invest in. Be a part of,” Trumpet broke in, happy to finally have the chance to interrupt someone. “I want to be the Iron Mask. Also. Not a replacement.”

The silence that followed was thick like storm clouds rolling in from the ocean. He’d expected anything, even laughter– and Trumpet hated other people’s laughter, always suspected it was aimed at him. This was worse, though. Trumpet did not like the way Spark and Rhoads studied him. They’d seemed genial, he realized, but he may have misjudged them. These were serious men. Again, Trumpet waited for one of them to speak. Finally, Spark obliged.

“How would that work, exactly?” he said, speaking too quickly for Trumpet to get an interruption in. Trumpet frowned.

“It’s self explanatory. You give me an Iron Mask suit, I’m a big hero. We’d have to figure some things out, but it’s pretty simple.” Spark twitched a little. Trumpet got the uncomfortable feeling that the man was suppressing a laugh. He played with his phone for a moment, then nodded.

“Mister Trumpet, you’re 70 years old and not exactly a picture of health–”

Trumpet smacked his own chest with an open palm. “I have the best body. The best!”

Spark pressed on. “The G forces flying the suit at speed would probably kill you. Plus you’re a big guy. I’m not sure our current designs could handle your size.” He squinted phone at his while Trumpet seethed internally. Call me fat? No one calls me fat. When I get my armor I’ll knock your headquarters down, I never forget.

“Donny, those are small technical things. I trust you two geniuses to handle that end. You see, being a hero is just like running a business…”

Spark kept reading whatever was on his phone. “Wait, you were beating up smaller kids when you were 16? You’re six foot two, man. That’s… that’s… well, I guess your hands are kinda small, but still–”

“I didn’t push him out the window, he fell!” Trumpet heard himself blurt. Across his desk both men winced.

“Maybe you don’t have the temperament for weapons of mass destruction, Tony,” Rhoads started in, but Trumpet was having none of it. He snorted once, like a bull, then turned back on the charm.

“Gentlemen, I understand your concerns. I think we should confine our discussion to business matters at this point.”

Rhoads and Spark frowned simultaneously. “We’re not in business, sir.” Rhoads intoned.

“Not yet, but I’m sure you can imagine the prestige having my name on your project could bring. I can be very generous in cases like this, reduce my licensing fees–”

“Hold on,” Rhoads interrupted. Trumpet hated interruptions, so he kept talking but Rhoads raised his voice. “HOLD ON. Are you saying you’d expect us to pay for the privilege of working with you?” Trumpet puffed himself up and felt the seams of his suit strain.

“My name is the best name. Synonymous with success. Business. Class. Of course you’d pay me if you want to use my name–” Both men started to stand up, Rhoads looking sad, Spark with a mean half-smile on his face that dared Trumpet to keep talking.

“We never asked–” Rhoads started, but Trumpet couldn’t resist the interruption. “FINE, I’LL PAY MONEY!” he heard himself say. Both men stared at his face, bulging with veins. “SIT DOWN!” he thundered. Both men remained standing, but they weren’t walking away yet, so he kept talking.

“ALL THE OTHER BILLIONAIRES GET SUPER POWERS. TOM KORD’S THE SKARLET SKAROB, BRANSEN GOT SPACE POWERS FROM GOING INTO SPACE. NIGHTBAT IS BRUCE BAYNE–”

“Nightbat’s actually a famous comic book–” but Trumpet wasn’t going to let Spark get going again. “I AM GOING TO GIVE YOU MONEY AND YOU ARE GOING TO GIVE ME GODLIKE POWER! UNDERSTAND?”

Spark looked at him levelly, sighed. “How much?”

“One billion dollars,” Trumpet’s mouth said, apparently bypassing the part of his brain that knew how to make deals. Of course it didn’t matter– the deal’s never in the spoken words, the deal’s on paper.  Rhoads looked a little shaken by the sheer size of the figure he’d just quoted, but Spark just calmly fiddled with his phone for a moment, then pursed his lips in a low whistle.

“How many bankruptcies?” He looked back over to Trumpet, who started calmly opening his desk’s top drawer. “No offense, Tony, but even if the rest was a good idea, you literally sue people– banks– who ask you to pay them. Even if you have the money… I don’t want you owing me money.” The technicians started to walk away. It was just the excuse Trumpet needed to pull out the gun.

“DO NOT WALK AWAY FROM ME YOU SONS OF TURDWHORES–” Trumpet boomed, then screamed in pain as the .45 revolver was wrenched from his hand. It flew silently into the metal glove that had sprung from nowhere around Spark’s hand. The bearded man stared straight at Trumpet as the bullets clattered onto the carpet and then the gun screamed as Spark pinched its barrel closed with armored fingers. After a moment he looked thoughtful.

“What’s a turdwhore?”

Spark moved quickly then, reaching across the desk, grabbing Trumpet’s signature red tie. The big man was pulled across the desk, felt his feet leave the ground.

“You’re used to getting your way, Tony, I get it I really do but Lonesome and I are for real. We make things, we do things. You declare bankruptcies, make promises you don’t intend to keep, sell your name. We’re real, Tony. We never stop being real.” Spark’s voice was even and calm, his strength surreal.

“Now, I’m not going to do anything I’d regret. I’m not going to smash your desk, throw you through a wall, nothing. Not even going to threaten you because I don’t need to. Strong people don’t need to be bullies. But please don’t point guns at my friends.”

Trumpet nodded and the smaller man smiled as he dropped him then whirled away, talking as the two partners walked out the door. “Good talk. My people will be in touch. I love what you’ve done with the office, by the way. Beautiful view of the river.” He never bothered to turn his head, just kept talking, getting louder as both men walked out the door.

Trumpet took deep breaths, steadying himself on his desk. The smile that crept across his face as he watched them leave was a horror, like a spider with human teeth.

Perfect.

The phone was in his curiously small hand in seconds, the customized triple-encrypted landline he’d had installed for in-building communications.

“Did you get everything?”

“Nearly everything, sir,” the voice on the other end buzzed. “He wasn’t wearing a complete version of the suit, but when you got him to activate it, it lit up your office’s sensors like a Christmas tree. I don’t think we can replicate his power source but we’ve been working on stable, portable fusion and–”

“Yeah, yeah,” he grumbled, bored again. “Make sure you share everything with Moscow.” It wouldn’t do to have that revenue stream dry up. He paced again, feeling strong, pulled out his mirror, stuck out his chin and studied his profile. The face of leadership he thought. It was a good day.

The months that followed were more challenging than Trumpet could have imagined. He’d expected to have a working suit of armor in weeks, so he’d immediately Tweeted about it. Donald Spark found out about it somehow, and publicly accused Trumpet of stealing his designs, which gave Trumpet the closest thing to joy he’d felt in decades. Spark was a smart guy, but he was playing in Trumpet’s arena now.

 

The battle was joined. “Dirty Donnie stole Trumpet Industries designs to make the Iron Mask. Sad.” was the first of a flurry of Tweets,  followed by  the “Why won’t Dirty Don release emails?” campaign. In the meantime, he filed a preemptive counter-suit just to keep Spark and Rhoads busy. It had the intended effect– the people who always believed Trumpet believed him; the rest were probably secret Mexicans and their opinions didn’t matter. Spark started his own lawsuit but couldn’t get the court to order Trumpet’s research team to cease and desist, mainly because Trumpet and his team neither confirmed nor denied the existence of powered armor research. Spark took to the Twitterverse, pointing out that there was no company called Trumpet Industries.

Trumpet let that one slide, got bored for a little while and went to Scotland to open a golf course and to wait for Spark’s and Rhoads’ supervillain enemies to distract them. His lawyers advised him to be patient and not actually hire anyone to attack New York City, so he didn’t, even though he knew for a fact that Twister and Livid Laser would work for cheap. The lawyers were right, though– Red Dragon attacked Spark’s industrial headquarters soon enough, and the alleged heroes were suddenly much too busy protecting their loved ones to appear in court. R&D on Project Bottled Daemon continued; Trumpet worked on his glower.

Other people’s work continued, too slowly for Trumpet’s taste. Every time he asked for results, the scientists and engineers complained. “This energy source is too unstable,” “thousands could die,” and “we can’t fit plasma cannons on these tiny gloves.” If he was paying them– he couldn’t really remember– he was paying them for results, not excuses so he fired them all and started again. For some reason, the next crop of science geeks were no faster than the first ones. If he’d had his armor he would have murdered them all, but since they were still building his armor he couldn’t.

Frustrating. The technical details weren’t important. Trumpet saw himself in indestructible armor, saw himself– his family– flying higher than the sun.

Spark reemerged as an oppositional force, giving lectures and press conferences, hypocritically saying that money could never make a hero. Bransen and Kord joined Spark on Twitter, new detractors breeding online, buzzing around Trumpet’s account like flies. “Built what I have, didn’t buy it or inherit it,” was the quintessential Spark Tweet; “Money doesn’t create heroes, dreams do,” was Bransen’s contribution. Kord joked that, if some machines were a black box that no one knew what made them tick, Trumpet was a golden box; no one knew what he really wanted. Trumpet embraced it; questioned their motives, parentage,ethnicity. A good fight always gave Trumpet strength.

He increased the pressure on his researchers, pulled some strings, threatened a few regulators to split the red tape; his new chief researcher Arnold Anvil implied that some researchers’ families might disappear. Leadership gets results– 8 weeks later, Anvil announced that the prototype would be ready in the morning. Trumpet arrived at the research station at 3am, giving no warning. Anvil was there– a weedy little man with a suit under his white labcoat. He looked like a tech geek should, though his glasses should’ve been thicker. Evidently supervising the final work on the prototype, he hadn’t shaved in days. Someone must have called him when Trumpet arrived– flanked by large men in suits and sunglasses– but he looked half-asleep and surprised to see his boss on-site even as he stepped forward to shake Tony Trumpet’s hand.

“I thought they’d be bigger…” he mumbled.

“What’s that?” Trumpet rumbled, and Anvil straightened his glasses. “They’re, uh… we’ve got a few more hours before the armor will be ready sir. Still putting on the outer plating and running system tests–”

“Where are the other suits?” Trumpet demanded. Anvil stopped in his tracks and stared. After a long moment, Trumpet deigned to offer an explanation. “For my kids. Wife. Whatever. Every Trumpet gets a suit. The best suits. Of course we do.”

Anvil swallowed, worried. Good. “We’ve only been funded for–”

Trumpet stuck a pouty lip out at his underling. “How many suits?” The man continued to blink back at him.

“A single prototype is a standard best prac–” Trumpet cut him off with a gesture. This was nothing he didn’t know, but it was always better to make people seek his approval rather than give it. Still, as he approached the armor, his contrived frown melted away. So beautiful, he almost felt… satisfied.

The Iron Mask armor was 7 feet tall, grey with red highlights. The Golden Trumpet was a full 9 feet tall– bigger!– and of course gleamed with an outer layer of 14K gold– class! The silver and black designs embossed on its surface kept it interesting to look at. And now that he looked closer, he could see and feel its lethality. He’d be like a gun, an atom bomb, a falcon in that armor.

The best armor. His eyes felt wet; he realized Anvil was ruining it by continuing to blather.

“…weapons systems have not been tested for energy tolerances and fusion core is unstable, but should be ready for limited flight and–”

“Get it ready,” the Trumpet announced, “I’m putting it on.” Anvil goggled at him, speechless.

“Sir,” he finally came up with, “the controls are intuitive, but you need training. You could die in–”

“Nonsense,” Trumpet sniffed. “It’s tough decisions made on the fly, just like running a business.”

“Running a powered suit is nothing like–”

“Powered suit. I like it. Describes me to a T.” He shrugged, looked at the much smaller man like he’d just noticed he was there. “How long until I’m wearing it?”

2 hours later, Trumpet and his team were on the roof, facing the rising sun. His faceplate was clear, so the world could see him, could marvel at him– Tony Trumpet, the genius, the hero.

The winner. The best winner.

“Mister Trumpet, I cannot emphasize enough, I advise against this. Please restrict your flight to under 5 minutes, we are still having overheating issues, and please do not activate any weapons systems. The results could be–”

“I understand,” Trumpet rumbled, not really hearing a word but wanting the man to shut up. This was his moment, dammit, and his world. They backed away as he activated the suit’s jets, as he rose up to meet the sun. He could see the targets on the ground, there for the suit’s demonstration. He pointed his hand blissfully, feeling the power flow to his gloves.

MAGNACANNONS ONLINE a voice spoke in his ear, a beautiful sound. Behind it, Anvil’s voice buzzed, a panicked mosquito in his ear. Finally he thought I’m safe from the world.

Satellite cameras caught a second sun rising on the East Coast, Trumpet Towers evaporated along with much of the city– Trumpet, his current wife and all his children, Anvil, Spark. Millions.

In his death Tony Trumpet rejoiced. In his death the world was blinded by his glory.

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