Dimitri Vicegrip was having a very good day, because other people were not. The tall, slender man struck an intimidating figure, as you’d expect in his line of work. He wore a midnight black suit with a dark grey shirt and pitch black tie. His slicked-back hair was also black, standing out from his pale skin alongside a thin, pointed goatee. Every morning, Dimitri meticulously prepared his appearance, ensuring not a hair was out of place. He could easily employ somebody, even several somebodies, to perform this menial maintenance for him. But Dimitri was a man of appearances, and he couldn’t accept someone seeing him in that position.
He was currently in his private quarters finishing a light dinner, or at least light for him. Dimitri had tasted the finest culinary delicacies from all over the world. He'd come to feel ‘delicacy’ was a word meaning ‘overpriced garbage with good presentation’, but he kept this to himself. Instead, he nonchalantly requested the most expensive foods he could find, pretending to delight in the decadence. It was a lesser fare today, for urgency’s sake mostly cheese and wine. Dimitri grabbed his silk napkin with his good hand and softly dabbed his lips as he rose from his chair.
Earlier this morning, he had sent a message to the United Nations; an explanation of his most ingenious and ambitious operation to date. Here on this hidden island base he had developed an insidious device for manipulating the weather. Today they were poised to send out that device in airborne carriers that would coat the world in a foul black cloud. Humanity teetered on the brink of a new, manmade ice age of Dimitri’s own design. “You have twenty four hours to give into my demands” he had said to the shocked UN representatives. “Gentlemen,” he added just before the transmission ended, “I pray you do not give me the cold shoulder.”
Dimitri paced up the marble steps of his room towards the giant, bowed window that dominated its far side. It was a very thick window, because Dimitri was no fool, but it still offered a lovely view of the island below, peeking out behind the mountainside. Most of his base was hidden belowground, so little could be seen apart from dense forest and calm waters beneath the setting sun. It wouldn’t be long now before they sent someone, Dimitri thought as he placed his hands on the windowsill. His right hand clinked, a reminder of his claim to fame.
When Dimitri had first decided to live a new life, he became a run-of-the-mill mob boss. He wasn’t bad at it, but it never really gave him the satisfaction he was looking for. Of course it made him even wealthier, an impressive feat for the riches he’d been born with. All the same, Dimitri enjoyed giving threats much more than he did executing them. It wasn't a matter of morals, he just felt he shouldn’t need to stoop to murder. There were far more elegant ways to get what he wanted. Dimitri had a lot of...unconventional views for the typical crime lord.
When the man lost his hand in a raid, his response was unusual. It started as you'd expect, screeching, swearing, and screaming orders. But after proper medical assistance had been administered, few other crime lords would lock themselves in a room to immediately design their own prosthetic hand. Doing so one-handed certainly hadn’t made it easier on Dimitri, but he was smiling to himself the whole time.
It was more a gauntlet than a hand, or perhaps a claw. A fine gold trim outlined the joints and borders of the metal glove, which was, of course, jet black. Spiky ridges adorned the knuckles and the tips of the fingers. This actually made it difficult to do delicate work with the hand, as though Dimitri had decidedly deadly fingernails. He could have easily filed those down, but chose not to. The hand also had immense griping strength, an intentional feature that gave Dimitri his namesake. Though hardly practical, he had crushed a number of wine glasses and trinkets in front of his men to great effect.
It would not be long now, Dimitri thought as he looked to the horizon, that an agent would arrive to try and stop him. He expected one agent in particular, and had gone to great lengths to prepare a proper greeting. Should he make it past his men (a likely occurrence, in his experience), Dimitri would greet the agent with a host of remote operated machine guns hidden in his potted plants. Faced with these, Dimitri would show his guest the chess board placed in the center of the room, and present him with a choice. He could be cut to ribbons by gunfire, or he could seat himself in one of the spacious armchairs and play a game. Should the agent win, Dimitri would admit defeat and submit to the authorities...a lie, obviously. Dimitri was keen on the difference between courtesy and idiocy. But he would let his opponent live all the same. He could afford that much.
Dimitri smiled in anticipation of the moment. There was, of course, next to no chance his chosen nemesis could best him in a game of chess. He believed himself one of the finest minds of his generation, and had a self-proclaimed gift for the game. In a long-buried life he ensured no one remembered, Dimitri had been captain of his high school chess team. It had been the sole joy of that miserable institution for him, often the only time he bothered attending. The team hated him, but he couldn’t blame them for being jealous. Dimitri had never dropped a game against anyone, and his team mates weren’t really needed. He briefly wondered if his old enemy had experienced anything similar as a child. He didn’t seem the type to Dimitri, but he was always open to surprises.
As Dimitri was preparing how to greet his rival, there was a beep from the intercom at his door. After a brief pause, a voice rang through: “Excuse me, sir?”
Dimitri knew the voice as Henry Carson, age 28, employed four summers ago while escaping gang trouble in New Jersey. The man was a crack shot with a sidearm, was allergic to shellfish, and complained about the boys in R&D behind their backs ever since one compared him to a bulldog. Dimitri had detailed documents on all his employees and had made a point of reading every page, though he’d never admit this to any of them. Unperturbed by the interruption, he calmly walked over to the intercom.
“I hope you have a good reason for this intrusion, peon”, he said.
“Yes sir! We, uh, have a problem.”
Dimitri smiled. Right on time. “Let me guess, we have an intruder among us. Presumably from The Agency?”
“Um...not exactly”, came the reply. “Sir we, uh...we think they’re just bombing us.”
Jack Grislock was not having a very good day. This was mainly to do with the call he’d just received from his superiors, informing him that the island he was on was about to explode. Jack Grislock had encountered plenty of close proximity detonations in his line of work, an excessive number by almost any standard. But those didn’t upset him as much as this one, because they weren’t caused by his own coworkers.
There was a sort of structure to how these things went. Some insane but well-funded asshole threatened world security and he was called in to take them out. He worked alone, snuck into their horribly impractical doom fortresses, and when he made his daring escape they were either dead or fleeing amidst the shrapnel. This time it seemed the government felt like skipping a few steps and went straight to the demolition, and they didn’t bother deciding this until he was already on the bloody island.
So now Jack was doing an about face and sneaking back through the bowels of the facility. Having already been through these corridors on the way in, he wasn’t too concerned about being spotted. In fact, given the ahead-of-schedule explosives on their way, he realized he should stop by the closet where left a guard bound and gagged, to at least prop the door open. Stopping around a corner for the footsteps of evacuating soldiers, his thoughts turned back to incoming air strike.
It wasn’t even the imminent threat of death that bothered him about it. Granted, that was a pressing concern, but he was reasonably sure he could snag a jet ski and be out there with time to spare. The issue was more the attack on his professional integrity. What these last-minute payloads meant was that they didn’t trust him to do his job. This wasn’t altogether unreasonable, since worldwide chaos probably fell under ‘better safe than sorry’. All the same, Jack’s professional pride stung.
Beyond mere frustration, that call had left a lead weight in his stomach. It hadn’t been cruel, it hadn’t even been impolite. It had been...impersonal. A communications officer back at The Agency had contacted him and informed him they'd reached a decision. As a matter of urgent international security, they had to be absolutely certain, they were terribly sorry of course, surely he would understand, and so on. There was something that hung in the air, in the silence after Jack had hung up. Something that scared him more than any enforcer he’d stared down.
As odd as it seemed, Jack enjoyed these missions. His everyday life consisted of high society parties, constant drinking, gambling, and quite a lot of casual sex. He was as popular you’d expect a young, wealthy, and world famous secret agent to be. His sculpted face and perfectly tousled blonde hair didn’t hurt either. It seemed impossible that such a life could be boring to anyone, but it’s amazing what the human brain can get used to with time. When his fair weather friends and hedonistic lifestyle faded into the background, it was Jack’s work that he really lived for. Jack loved to play the hero, to be exactly the type of epitomized human being he adored in his childhood action movies. He’d also crossed paths with this despot-of-the-month before, and had been looking forward to squaring off against him.
Henry Carson was having an alright day, until the report had come in. He shouldn’t have even been in the communications room, but he’d been bored of endlessly patrolling some nearby hallways. He’d popped in under the pretense of a status update, and exchanged water cooler conversation with the coms employees for a bit. Just some nice, bland, this-conversation-is-going-nowhere-but-the-alternative-is-doing-work talk. Unfortunately it was during this that they’d received word of the drones, leaving Henry the nearest, clearest candidate for informing the boss.
He supposed it could be worse. Dimitri didn’t take shooting the messenger as literally as others of his profession did. In fact he was easily the least abusive boss Henry had ever worked for, and that included his time in fast food. For a mob boss he was downright supportive. He didn’t get physically violent, kept aloof and composed most of the time, and even when angered focused his vitriol on words rather than executions. His minions even got a surprisingly good benefits package. No, Henry wasn’t wary of his boss because he was dangerous. He was wary because he was strange.
There were all sorts of stories about him, passed around the crew. One of the janitors swore he once heard him rehearsing lines to an invisible intruder in his room one night. Once it was said he ordered a large crate of wine glasses just so he could shatter them at dinner to express his anger. His interior decorating tastes were what you’d expect of an elegant mastermind, until he also requested jet black skulls be inlaid in damn near everything, including the coffee machine. Once, Dimitri had been building an elaborate series of trapdoors that led to a shark tank in his room. Looking to help, someone had suggested that he could instead simply lock his door. They’d been thrown out of the room and severely docked in pay.
When their last operation had gone south, Henry thought he was absolutely screwed. He had been one of the guards patrolling the halls on the way to Dimitri’s room. Someone had slipped past him, evaded Dimitri's traps, and left them fleeing a self-destructing building. When they were finally in a safe house and the guards gathered before Dimitri, Henry expected at least one of them to die. But the boss had acted less blood-crazed psychopath and more disappointed father. The man was angrier when an employee messed up the decorative fountain in his new quarters. Henry had no idea how the weirdo worked, and found that unnerving. Take now for example. In the past, strange though it was, Dimitri seemed to enjoy hearing about people trying to kill him. Henry guessed he liked the challenge or something. But this time, something was different.
“...targeted missile strikes”, Dimitri said flatly, bringing his minion back to the present.
“Yes, sir, as well as a number of drone flybys”, responded Henry, glancing at the floor. Dimitri had a fire in his eyes and murder in his voice.
“Drones?!” Dimitri’s eyes bulged at the notion, lips curling in disgust. “I threaten the world with a new global ice age and you’re telling me they sent drones?!”
“Er, yes sir.”
“How dare they! The nerve, the sheer audacity! These...these crass, puerile imbeciles think they can insult me by sending mere children’s toys?!”
“Well, uh, they’re quite advanced models, I think, sir. Very effective.”
“That’s not the damn point!” Dimitri stomped his foot on the ground. He scowled, gripped his temple with his good hand, and slowly breathed in. He knew there was no point in discussing this further with his underling.
Sometimes Dimitri wished he had someone to vent towards, someone to whom appearances weren’t so important. He heard others in his line of work owned cats, but they just weren't his style. He’d been a dog person since the family Labrador, a sole companion through his teenage years. Dimitri had considered getting one, a deadlier breed of course. But he worried he’d get too attached. Nothing seemed less threatening than an insidious mastermind feeding table scraps to his widdle pet doggy.
“So, anyway sir,” Henry tentatively continued as his boss collected himself, “our spies have confirmed the bombs are coming soon. The collective firepower is too much for us to shoot down. Fortunately we caught word in time. Soon as we found out, we put the facility on alert, so the others should evacuate shortly. I was sent to escort you to the escape vehicles.”
Dimitri gave a low grunt, but lifted his head. “Very well,” he said, gesturing dismissively with his clawed hand. “Let’s go then.”
He continued to fume as they headed to his escape chopper in silence. He couldn’t recall being this angry in a long, long time. His staff was familiar with his minor rages, but they were mostly for show. Something would go wrong in the facility and he would shout, he would gesture wildly, he would break something with his claw. But he would always stay composed underneath. Such things didn’t really get to him.
It was rarely like his younger days, growing up in increasingly malicious fits of rage. Nothing suited him back then. Not his school, not his age, not his social standing or his daily routines. What suited him least of all was living in a huge, dusty old home with nothing but a dog and a narrow-minded disciplinarian of a grandfather. The old man had been hands-off on parenting, but watched him like a hawk. It was all of the punishments, none of the emotional support. Granted, occasionally Dimitri wasn't entirely blameless.
Perhaps the garden wasn’t the best place to test his freeze ray, and the neighbor was a bad test subject to drive his experimental jetpack. But the old man should’ve been proud! Your average kid couldn’t build a perfectly serviceable moat and drawbridge around the house in an afternoon. But the man had never recognized Dimitri’s intelligence. The only thing he paid attention to were infractions on the rules. All of which were disciplined with long, loud lectures at best and weeks of solitary confinement at worst. As he grew older, his respect (or more accurately, fear) for his grandfather faded. His schemes grew bolder, his attitude worse and his punishments proportionately so.
Eventually there came a day when Dimitri wouldn’t stand it. Instead of trying to change what he suited he decided to change his world to suit himself. It was this old anger that drove him to ‘appropriate’ family funds and strike out for a new future. It was also this anger that drove him to make the world forget his former life as much as he wished he could daily. He buried that anger with the rest of his past, deeper than anyone could possibly dig.
For all the setbacks, these days were usually better than those. But Dimitri thought of his magnificent base being destroyed from afar. He thought of his clever traps blown to bits, the sprawling structure unseen, and the page of witty one-liners he had in a bedroom drawer unused. When he thought of these things a glimmer of that old anger returned. As Dimitri stewed in frustration he and Henry jogged into a small atrium on the way to the escape chopper. The second they did they were surprised to find someone else passing through. He drew and raised his pistol at the same time as his familiar intruder. Dimitri smiled.
“Aaaaah, Jack Grislock,” he said, “we meet again.”
“Vicegrip,” replied Jack, his arm unmoving, “just the scumbag I came here to see.”
“Come to gloat then?” said Dimitri with a sneer. “Did you want to brag about how you let a bunch of unmanned drones do your job for you?”
“Actually, I came to kill you, same as always”, Jack said nonchalantly. “The bombing run replaced me at the last minute. Were it not for that you’d already be lying at my feet.”
“Ha! Bold words for the man who doesn’t own a vast empire of armed guards.”
“Bold words for a man whose ‘vast empire’ I’ve stopped several times before! I’m beginning to think you have more metal in your brain than your hand.”
“And if it weren’t for your little air strike you’d have more metal in your chest than my hand! Remember, you were the one who could be replaced with mere machines, agent.”
“Ah, but you were the one that could be stopped with ‘mere machines’!”
Henry was severely out of his element. He had pointed his gun at the agent while the two were talking, but wasn’t sure how to proceed. Were they to be so...enthusiastic?
“Uh, boss,” he said nervously, “we should probably get outta here soon.”
Dimitri ignored him. “Keep in mind, Mr. Grislock,” he said, “you’re outnumbered two to one.”
“Not much difference in staring down more than one barrel, Vicegrip.”
“Hmph. Fair enough. It seems we are at an impasse. Alas, your foolish government has given us a rather...urgent meeting to attend. I’ll tell you what, agent. I'm willing to let you go under the circumstances, despite my clear advantage. But when, not if, our paths cross again, I assure you I’ll prove a terminal point. And next time I’ll ensure the world finds no way to interrupt our meeting.”
Jack almost said ‘Good', but stopped himself and merely nodded instead.
The two slowly circled each other, inching towards separate exits to the atrium. As they reached them, Dimitri spoke again. “Don’t you worry, Mr. Grislock. When the day comes that your blood is being cleaned off my floor, so too will the rest of the world learn the mistake of underestimating me.”
Jack shook his head, eyes still on his foe. “You’re one villainous bastard, Vicegrip.”
Dimitri’s grin was wider than ever.
Then they left. Dimitri followed Henry to his private helicopter, barking orders to men he passed on the way. By the time they were airborne, he was already eagerly planning his next facility, his next invention, his next plot. Meanwhile, Jack ran down to the docks and commandeered a jet boat with minimum difficulty. His thoughts, too, were focused on his next encounter with the man flying above. As he rode on, he tried to ignore the explosions behind him and what they might signify for his future. And so the two escaped, one by sky and one by sea, taking different routes in the same direction.