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Anatomy of a Mask

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Elias rubbed at his temples, trying to ease the sudden migraine. It was his own fault – he’d known that trying to look into the mind of the nervous young woman in front of him wouldn’t tell him anything, and that it would almost certainly hurt. But he couldn’t resist finding out just what would happen. His curiosity would be the death of him someday, if he didn’t manage to pull off making it the death of everything else first.

What it had felt like was being in a pitch dark room for ten minutes and then looking directly into a strobe light. And for somebody who’s spent the past two hundred years honing the sensitivity of his sight it had, on reflection, perhaps not been the optimal course of action.

“So, Miss Sue… why do you want to work for our institute?”

“I am very interested in the research you do here,” the woman in front of him recited as if from a script. “The Magnus Institute represents the cutting edge of supernatural research and I am excited to be on that edge, helping pull back the veil of the unknown and advancing the knowledge of humankind.”

“Are you sure you shouldn’t be applying for a position in our PR department? Never mind,” he added quickly at the flicker of puzzlement that crossed her bland, professional features. “Under normal circumstances, I would tell you that there are currently no archival positions open… however, this is a very impressive resume, and I’m always open to a little expansion in such an important department. Welcome aboard, Miss Sue. Let’s sign the documents and I’ll introduce you to your boss, shall I?”

“Thank you, Mr Bouchard. I look forward to getting to work.”

“Call me Elias, please.” What you look forward to, I suspect, is tracking down whatever secret you’re here to steal from my archives. A small price to pay, I suppose, for the chance that you might try to kill my Archivist. The Institute was well infested with worms already, but it always helped to have a backup. It wasn’t as if Jane Prentiss had ‘dibs’.



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“Jon. Do you have a moment?”

“I’m in the middle of a recording.”

“This won’t take long.”

Out of respect for his boss, or at least the concept of having a boss, Jon kept most of the exasperation from his face as he switched the tape recorder off and turned to face Elias. Standing behind him was a young woman whom Jon might describe as… professionally average. She was of average height, white-skinned but not exceptionally pale, and looked about how he’d expect a professional-looking woman in a navy skirted business suit to look. He was hit with the sudden creeping dread that this woman was here to make a statement. She was within her rights to do so, but there was something draining about listening to people drone on about their vague supernatural encounters, and he was already tired from the statement he’d been trying to record. At least, he consoled himself with the thought, she seemed the type to be sensible about it, and not waste his time with mindless flights of fancy.

Although he didn’t know why he bothered making such judgements any more, even to himself. The laptop’s recording software would tell him whether the statement was genuine or not. He was a bit resentful over that; it felt like cheating, to rely on a software glitch instead of proper research.

Jon, this is Mary,” Elias said. “She’ll be joining the Institute as your assistant next Monday.”

Jon stared. He couldn’t help it. After a few seconds he managed to choke out, “I, ah, wasn’t informed that you were hiring any more archival assistants, Elias.”

“You really do need to check your email more often.”

“Still, I would prefer to be informed in advance, outside of email – ”

“You are. That’s why I’m here now; to inform you a week in advance. Since Mary was already in the building, I felt that introductions were in order.”

“Right. Well.” Jon stood up and offered his hand to Mary. “Welcome aboard then, I suppose.”

Thank you. Jon.” She took his hand and flashed him a smile, and Jon got the impression that she wasn’t really looking at him. Or more, that she was very much looking at him, in the way one might look at a painting or a chair, or a diagram that one was trying to understand. Jon often felt like he was being watched in the archives despite the lack of security cameras, but Mary’s gaze was an alarmingly opposite sensation.

H er handshake, too, was strange. Perfectly performed, a textbook firm handshake, but she gripped his hand with spread fingers like she was trying to envelop it and shifted her grip slightly like she was trying to… what, feel as much of his hand as possible? Jon, whose general handshake proclivities worked in the opposite direction, withdrew his own hand as soon as it was polite and managed to avoid instinctively wiping it on his trousers. He felt like it should be sweaty, but Mary’s hand had been quite dry.

“I suppose I’ll see you Monday, then. Is there anything else, Elias?”

“I don’t believe so. Good day, Jon.”

As soon as they left, Jon checked his email. Elias had indeed sent a notification about the new archival assistant… three minutes before appearing at Jon’s door. Not for the first time, Jon wondered if he did things like this on purpose.

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“Another assistant?” Martin asked, handing Jon his morning cup of tea.

“It seems so.”

“Well, what’s she… what’s she like?”

“Professional.” Jon sipped from his mug. “Thank you for the tea, Martin.”

“No problem. Right. So when does she…?”

“Monday. Do you have work to be getting on with?”

“Yes. Right. I’ll just go and, um… right.”

There was something about Jon, Martin reflected as he left the office, that always made him feel tongue-tied and awkward. Well, if he were being perfectly honest with himself, that wasn’t completely unusual – Martin often felt tongue-tied and awkward around other people; he had ever since he was a kid, and even in school it had… well, anyway, it was worse with his boss. He suspected things would be a lot easier if he could stop stressing out about trying to get Jon to like him. Jon didn’t seem to care if people liked or were impressed by him; why couldn’t Martin be like that?

But that was something for him and his poetry notebook to figure out later. For now: work.

“Martin!” Tim dashed around a corner, nearly barrelling into him.

“Tim! You’re here early.”

“So are you.”

“I… didn’t leave.”

“Oh. Right.” Tim squished a silver worm under one shoe. “You think the new girl knows about the worms? You got the email about the new girl, right?”

“Yes,” Martin said, reminding himself to actually check his email later. “I was just talking about her with Jon actually, and she seems…”

“Like some kind of corporate spy or something? I agree. So I’m thinking – ”

“Spy? What?”

“Come on, Martin. Her name is Mary Sue. Like, they’re not even trying.”

“I’m not familiar with – ”

“MARY SUE, Martin.”

“Okay, so Sue is an unusual surname, but it’s not – ”

“It’s not a surname at all! It’s… you don’t see anything weird about that?”

Martin shook his head, puzzled. “Tim, what are you talking about?”

“Okay so, you know Star Trek, right? Well, there’s this thing where writers…” Was Tim blushing? “Look, it’s not important! Point is, that’s not her real name. She’s a spy.”

“Why would anyone want to spy on the archives of a not-very-prestigious research institute?”

This seemed to stymie Tim for a moment. After a few seconds of deep thought, he said, “Artifact storage! She’s here to steal artifacts.”

“Then why didn’t she get a job in artifact storage? And why would a spy use a name that’s obviously fake? If it’s obviously fake and immediately pegs her as a spy, it’s more likely that it’s real, right?”

“That’s what she wants us to think, I bet.” But Tim was grinning while he said it.

Martin sighed. “Tim, you’re not going to bother this poor girl about her name, are you?”

“Ha! Bother her about her name? Would I do something like that?”

Martin didn’t dignify that with a reply. “Well, maybe it’s a code name for a super secret supernatural worm exterminator,” he said sarcastically. “Maybe she’s some hypercompetent worm-killing government agent who’s going to sweep in here, solve all of our problems for us, and sort this place out.”

“I know you’re joking, but that actually does fit,” Tim said.

Martin resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “I was about to put the kettle on if – ”

“Martin, you’re literally holding a cup of tea right now.”

“Other people might want some! Oh, hi, Sasha. Why are you here so early?”

“I’m having a slight disagreement with my internet service provider.” Sasha flopped down into her chair. “One thing you can say about the Institute, they have fantastic internet.”

“You know,” Tim said, “there’s this fantastic new service where you can pay your phone company money and they’ll give you as much internet as you want! Right there on your phone!”

“Data plans are a scam.”

“How are you the office hacker and the office dinosaur at the same time? Wait – does this mean you haven’t checked your mail since yesterday?”

“Oh, no – did I miss something important?”

“Yeah. You’re gonna love this – ”

Martin made an escape for the break room before he had to listen to Tim talk about Mary Sue again. He was usually happy to listen to Tim’s joking ‘conspiracy theories’ while he wove some tale about how Rosie’s new shoelaces were a secret rebellion against the dress code that was the first shot in an attempted coup against Elias or something, but somehow he didn’t think “Welcome, Government Spy!” was a great attitude to greet a new coworker with. What if she didn’t get the joke?

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“It… it was just a joke, alright? Don’t…”

“A joke!” The woman’s mouth opened wide in what Derek could only think of as an imitation of a smile. She tipped her head back and started… laughing?… semi-robotically, in heaving gasps interspersed with giggles. He would have backed away, if her hand wasn’t gripped vicelike around his wrist.

She stopped laughing, very suddenly. “But I am looking for a good time,” she said earnestly. “Do you know where I can find one?”

“I um, I thought you were someone else,” Derek mumbled, pulling back, hoping she’d get the hint and let him go. But instead, the motion seemed to remind her that she had a hold of him, and she lifted his hand up into the sunlight, studying it. The hand around his wrist… changed, somehow?… like something was moving about under her skin.

“Who did you think I was?”

“My, um… my friend.”

“Who is your friend?”

“It doesn’t… look, I’m sorry, alright? Let me go!”

And she did. Without protest, and with a vaguely puzzled look, as if she’d been unaware that holding onto him had been a problem.

As he turned and bolted down the street, she shouted after him, “Thank you for the joke!”